Sunday, July 25th John 18:1-27
Emotions are bodily experiences. Actual chemical processes are taking place in our bodies when we are angry, scared, happy, aroused, anxious, depressed. Emotions are different from thoughts, which are more or less coherently verbal events, expressed or otherwise. One way of understanding virtue is through what’s called prudence, one of the cardinal virtues. Plato considered it the most important of the virtues. It can be thought of in terms of restraint, or the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, or moderation. That Greek word sophrosune, is used in the New Testament and often translated sober, of sound mind, discreet, temperate.
It is essentially the opposite of the modern move toward emotional expressionism, absence of self-restraint, the psychological doctrine since the days of Freud of venting, not holding back on what’s inside the so-called boiler room of the individual. Letting off some steam, saying what you feel, letting it all hang out.
These two ways of relating to the world are found distributed amongst all human groups, just as all personality traits are. Some infants and toddlers even present more sober and cautious than others. Jordan Peterson and other psychologists group personalities into these five factors:
Openness to experience: inventiveness, curiosity, appreciation for art, adventure.
Conscientiousness: organized, diligent, self-disciplined.
Extraversion: outgoing, energetic, assertive
Agreeableness: friendly, compassionate, cooperative
Neuroticism: sensitive, emotional, excitable, dynamic. (Note that “neuroticism” is not the same as “neurotic.”)
People are not one thing or the other, but these traits, or factors are balanced in different ways in each person. You can usually see your tendencies in one or more of these, and the relative absence in the others.
Over the years I’ve developed the ability to think about my emotions before expressing them, usually, which has advantages and disadvantages, of course. I have been experiencing some feelings about my upcoming retirement, and as you might imagine, they’re complicated and complex. There is a sense of either/or, a sense of no going back, an impression of an approaching change in life that is very large, and which can be deferred, delayed, or avoided, for only so long. As Bob Dylan says, I feel a change coming on, And the fourth part of the day is already gone.
It occurred to me that one could attempt to delay retirement, only to have the decision taken out of one’s own hands, either by one’s employer, or by God himself.
I’ve read stories of preachers collapsing and dying in their pulpit, during or at the end of a sermon, and while there’s a certain romantic grandeur to that thought, it’s a bit traumatic for everyone else involved, and not one I would wish on you or my family.
I got to thinking about this when I read our lesson for today in John 18, and pondered the curious mixture of feeling and prudence evident in Jesus’ reactions to the soldiers, and Peter’s reactions to a maid, a young servant woman, and to another servant, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”
Fear drives a lot of things in life. We’re all subject to fear, and it can be hard to manage. Peter went through a lot of fear, loss, grief and despair in a short amount of time that weekend long ago. And yet, within a matter of hours, he would have spoken like the Psalmist in Ps 126: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” It was a time of extreme swings for Peter and the other disciples, a time of emotional buffeting from every direction.
By contrast, Jesus seems ready for the appearance of the soldiers, prepared for the questions of the Sanhedrin. At least part of that thoughtful response we see there, is that he prepared himself. He thought about what was coming, what he was called for and called to, how he should act. He spoke to his disciples about his task and what awaited him, and them, because of the call of God.
In the passion of Christ as we read it in the Fourth Gospel, John gives us a different perspective than the first three gospels. In John we don’t read of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemani, there is no kiss of betrayal by Judas. The passion narrative goes in one direction in all four gospels, but John, in a parable of inspiration, showing us how God speaks truth through different voices, John emphasizes Jesus’ role, he emphasizes Jesus’ control. “I, when I am lifted up, WILL DRAW all men to me…. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.”
Even more strikingly, perhaps, is Jesus’ action when confronted by the Roman soldiers in the night, in the darkness. Confronted with the lanterns and torches and weapons of world, the Light of the World says, Whom do you seek?
Even at this moment, he’s mercifully knocking at the door. Whom do you seek? One can answer with identical words and mean two very different things. “Jesus of Nazareth,” says the weary, sin-sick soul, crying out for forgiveness. “Jesus of Nazareth,” say those whose power and authority is only in the threat of violence. They are ironically searching in the darkness with the artificial light of their torches for the Light of the World, the Light of God which burns their sin-full souls, seeking that light only to try to extinguish it, only to destroy that which reveals their unrepentant sin.
But the most important point to take away from this passage today is the simple answer Jesus gives twice, and which John repeats three times. And that kind of three is likely not accidental or happenstance.
And as we examine his answer, there’s an editing, or translation to be aware of. If you grew up in a time when the King James Bible was still widely used, as I did, you may have puzzled, like I did, at all the places in the Bible where words are italicized.
As I got older, I started to think that maybe these were words to be emphasized. Maybe say it louder! But in trying that out that didn’t make much sense, as the italicized words seemed more often to be the ones you would not emphasize. I eventually learned from others that in the KJV, and other translations that follow the same protocol, the italicized words are the words that are not actually in the underlying Hebrew or Greek texts that the translators used. They are words that help the sentence make sense that it otherwise would not, without them. In these cases, the translators were being scrupulously careful to signify to the reader what was or was not actually a part of the original text.
Our New Revised Standard version doesn’t italicize the word I’m focused on, but in the version I was reading it does give a footnote. The reference is to Jesus’ answer to the soldiers. Whom do you seek? Jesus of Nazareth. And then, in most though not all translations, we read his response, “I am he.”
Now I think, and other translators do as well, that Jesus’ answer should hew more closely to the form of the Greek when it simply says, “I am,” without any predicate nominative. The predicate nominative, I had to look this up, I have a good memory, but not that good, is the little word “he.” The “am” ties the two words, “I” and “he” together as equivalents.
Except this is slightly misleading, for there really is no “he” in that phrase in our text. It’s a word that should be italicized, as many do, but it’s still misleading. There are a number of reasons why. One is the use found in the other gospels. Jesus is walking on the water and comes to the disciples in the storm. They’re frightened and he speaks to them and says, “Fear not, it is I,” or something like that. But in each of these events, in Matthew 14, in Mark 6 and John 6, he actually only says “I am.” Ego eimi, are the Greek words. It’s bad English, but Jesus is communicating something vital to his hearers.
It happens again in John 8. A chapter of controversies with his questioners about his identity, three times Jesus says “ego eimi,” or I Am. The first time is in verse 24: I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” Then again in verse 28, “So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me.” And finally in verse 58, followed by their decision to kill him. “Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.”
And of course, there are the three times in our reading from today. Now there are many places where Jesus does use the predicate nominative, some of them having to do with his identify. He says it repeatedly, “Ego eimi….I Am…..the bread of life, the light of the world, the door of the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way the truth and the life, I am the vine.” Those are the Seven I Am statements around which some say the whole Gospel of John is organized.
But it’s the same vocabulary every time. Ego eimi. So when the predicate nominative is deliberately left off, it’s clear to me that it’s intentional, and Jesus’ hearers, as in John 8:58, heard his claim, Before Abraham was, I Am. “So they took up stones.” For what Jesus is saying is Blasphemy, if he is not “I am.”
In the old Sci-fi movie Dune, when the Messiah like character that Kyle McLachlan speaks his prophetic name, the people on the planet Arrakis are taught by him to use their name for him “Mouadid,” a Messiah like figure, as a weapon against their enemies. When spoken correctly the enemies collapse before that word of power.
That is the image that came to my mind reading John 18. John describes for us an otherwise ridiculous situation, when these Roman soldiers who are no strangers to killing and violence fall backwards upon the mere utterance of two words. I am. The fact that John makes sure it’s written three times in this text clues us in that words of power have been spoken. Performative words.
“Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord,[b] the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
Whom do you seek? Jesus of Nazareth. I Am. Most of us catch on to the notion that Jesus is making a claim of identity here. But let’s take it further. Over and over again, and not just in the gospel of John, Jesus in a variety of ways ties his identity not to some amorphous deity that everybody can agree on. The Romans and Greeks, in spite of their various superstitions, were already thinking and operating in terms of what they considered to be the various expressions of a single monotheist god who might be addressed as Zeus, or Jupiter, or Isis, or Ahura Mazda.
They were syncretists, the Romans were, universalists. The shrinking of the world through the conquests of Alexander in the 4th century, and the later spread of Roman power had a broadening effect on their religious attitudes. Except, as we later learn, for those whose intolerance they could not tolerate. The Christian could not, would not say, “Caesar is Lord.”
Jesus says clearly and powerfully, in a variety of ways and places, I am the incarnation of the God who spoke to Abraham, who spoke to Moses. The God who said to Pharoah, Let my people go. The God who told the people to stay back from the mountain, and gave Moses the law, which would define who the people of Jacob’s tribes were and whose they were.
Jesus has no truck with the syncretism of the Romans. I am who I am. In asserting this identity Jesus reminds us that the Old Testament is not just some sort of appendix, a supplement to help us understand what’s really important. Jesus is a Jew, born of the tribe of Judah, of the family of David. He comes to the Jews. He reminds them of what Moses said. He urges them to follow what the Pharisees teach, if not what they do. The authoritative word of God for Jesus is the Torah. This is why he has such a royal freedom, a possessive attitude, with the scriptures. They are essentially his Word.
We have been so conditioned to thinking that all that law and all those rules and regulations don’t matter anymore, all we have to do is love everybody. God loves us, and that’s what counts. God loves and forgives us because we’re only human, after all. Leave aside the oft overlooked fact that the command to Love God and Love your Neighbor as yourself are direct quotes from the Torah. Asserting that Love is Love, and God loves everybody conveniently ignores the question, “Then why did Jesus die?” As he said, I lay down my life, that I may take it again.
If God loves everybody and always has, for God is not changeable, then what was the crucifixion even for? In the past 2,000 years the church has at times looked at the question of atonement, in a variety of ways, asking how does the crucifixion of Christ save, highlighting a variety of scriptural passages to explain it. In whatever way we theorize about the atonement, Jesus as a ransom, Jesus as a scapegoat, Jesus as a substitution, Jesus as victor over death, and there are more, we still must never forget that Jesus died. For us.
This need not negate our gratitude for God’s love, but we must never take lightly that the death of another means life for the world. And that “other” who died for you and me claimed to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That one who died, only ever quoted from one ancient book. That one who died and rose again, who lay down his life and took it up again, admonished his hearers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, that to enter the kingdom of heaven we must be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Jesus is a Jewish as Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. As Jewish as Shylock or Albert Einstein. Jesus lived, in his life, the life of the history of his people, and invites us, the other, the goyim, the forgotten children of Ham and Japheth, to also be the Children of God, and brothers and sisters of Jacob and his children.
Whom do you seek? Jesus Nazareth. I Am.
Sunday, July 18th James 4:1-10
Preachers from 2 and 3 hundred years ago commonly would choose a scripture text to preach on that seems quite curtailed to us today. In simply looking at the first four sermons in a little book I picked up in a used bookstore years ago, we see Lyman Beecher preaching on “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” William Ellery Channing preaching on “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” Thomas Chalmers preaching on “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,” and our own Alexander Campbell preaching on Proverbs 11:30, half of the verse, really, “he that winneth souls is wise.”
We may leave aside various historical reasons for this practice, but I want to emphasize that what they are doing is not just similar but essentially the same practice as a writer like the apostle James in our lesson for today.
My text today is 10 verses, and I would like to call your attention to the 6 verses in chapter 3 which precede our lesson for today! I like to have the longer passage read before the sermon for we do not have in our heads, our memories, the context in which a key passage is found, which is germane for these old preachers, and germane for someone like James.
I will get to those verses from chapter 3, but first I want you to see how this works, and why Bible memorization is important, and a practice of piety for every believer, as the Psalmist says in 119, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Or, as I learned it, “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”
Dana Gioia, who was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts for six years, wrote in a letter to the Editor of First Things in response to an article by Dan Hitchens, “Many years ago I interviewed Anthony Burgess. At one point, I asked him what the ideal literary education was. He replied, “Memorizing as many poems as possible.”
Memorizing poetry may not be on your to-do-list, but memorizing Scripture certainly should be. If you have not already, I recommend starting with the Closing Litanies we commonly use in worship, such as the Beatitudes, the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 1, and the Ten Commandments.
There are many other multiverse sections that can be memorized that you already know somewhat, like I Corinthians 13, “Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love,” or Psalm 19, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork,” or Ecclesiastes 3 “ For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” or Ecclesiastes 12, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.”
These are all words that focus the heart on God, rather than various commercial jingles and sitcom songs. I can still sing you the entire opening song for Green Acres, though I will spare you, and the musical radio advertisement for Brown’s Pharmacy in Tallahassee from 1966! And there’s a lot of rubbish like that rattling around in my head as I’m sure there is in yours as well.
But what did Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount? What did Isaiah say when the Lord announced the return of Judah in Isaiah 40? I couldn’t pass that test beyond a few opening words. But I could win any number of prizes for the opening lines from songs by the Monkees, or the Beatles, or the Eagles, or, well on and on. I know a man in this church that could sing you “The Ballad of Thunder Road” from the Robert Mitchum movie released in 1958.
Nothing wrong with The Ballad of Thunder Road. But as a people we don’t seem to have an ecology of God’s Word surrounding us and pervading our souls the way so much of popular culture does.
And so when we hear a passage from James 4 read, we don’t hear Proverbs 3 as we might, if we knew it well. And some can’t even find it in the Bible, without looking at the table of Contents!
In Mark 12, the Saducees try their games with Jesus to trip him up on a question about the Resurrection. Bit of an old chestnut even in the first century, they want to know who the woman who married 7 brothers in a row after each one died, will be married to when she dies. Levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25, “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”
The Sadducees extrapolate this to ridiculous lengths in order to trip up Jesus, not knowing who they were messing with. Mark 12 gives us the beginning of his answer: “Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?” Which is quite an accusation against the whole class of religious leadership.
The Scriptures and the power of God go together. James 4 calls us to repentance, calls us to receive and acknowledge his accusatory language, “you adulteresses!” he says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask evilly,” “friendship with the world is enmity with God!” And by so doing one can gain a realization of what the wisdom of God means, how it forms, informs, and transforms us. When we see the strong language of indictment found in James 4 in the light of the last part of James 3, it’s a whole different story.
James 3:13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Is this not what we seek? Is this not what God seeks for us and from us? A Good Life. Deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom.
Because Martin Luther was such a strong and vehement character, and he wrote so many books and sermons, I’ve sometimes found myself in disagreement with many of his assertions. But one thing I agree with that he asserted often, was that the Christian needs to repent daily. In the 1520s, when Luther and his allies were visiting the churches all across what we now call Germany, they ran into lamentable conditions in the churches, which they had assumed they had delivered from a Babylonian Captivity to the Roman Catholic church, which Luther characterized as the Great Whore of Babylon.
Unfortunately, though Luther might have been expected to know better, what the Catholic church had struggled with for 1,000 years was still an issue in Reformed Saxony in 16th century. Human sin and willful ignorance. In the preface to his 1529 Catechism, ten years into the Reformation, Luther begins this way: “The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.”
I find it an instructive irony that the pastor and doctor of the faith Martin Luther, who called the book of James the “epistle of straw,” began to learn that there is more to faith than faith. There is more to the Christian faith than just getting the isolated doctrine of salvation correct.
I tremble to contemplate criticizing a man so much greater than myself in the annals of the church’s history, but I do so to plant in your mind the necessity of wisdom. Shooting from the hip is not wise. Elevating one’s own opinion about a book in the Bible over that of those who agreed with the whole and unanimous opinion of the church for 1500 years is not wisdom.
The church has always made a distinction between the 27 books of the New Testament and the Deutero-canonicals, or the Apocrypha. If one man, Martin Luther or John Calvin or anybody says “this does not belong in the Bible,” he is setting himself up over the Word of God, and that’s not a place one wants to be.
But I bring Luther into this discussion because he was solid and helpful on repentance. As is James. We mentioned the context of Proverbs, which seems to be the water James swims in daily, along with the Psalms.
In our reading, James 4:6 quotes Proverbs, “God resists the arrogant, but he gives a gift to the lowly.” First, remember that we can read this in the context of Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, the younger over the elder, the poor over the rich, the weak over the strong, the last shall be first. As John the Revelator said, “Here is wisdom.”
Our world today, in social media, in politics, the academy, entertainment, sports, music, is all about conflict. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions[a] are at war within you?[b] 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”
That sounds pretty accurate to me. We’re in a world where our government is renaming the Asian Carp as “invasive carp,” because, you know, racism. This is merely a small example of the kind of craziness and conflict that is being foisted on us these days. Did you know that the millionaires that play children’s games for a living at the NFL, NBA, MLB etc. are against racism and against inequality, and against the hateful heritage the American flag represents, as well as the National Anthem of the country that, in many cases, paid their college tuition so they could be millionaires?
Of course you did, you’ve probably heard nothing else for years now on TV etc. Did you know that you can march in the streets to protest the hateful police in our country safely with no fear of getting COVID, but if you’re a Cuban protesting Communism you need to be reminded about the dangers of COVID? If you didn’t Reuters News will explain it to you.
Did you know that if you’re prolife, but you like to go hunting, you’re a hypocrite? Did you know that it’s OK to spend $70K of government money for a private security detail if you’re a Congresswoman, but cities should defund their police departments? Yeah, you probably knew that too. Everything is racist, everything is sexist. However we got to this place, Here is wisdom.
Friendship with the world is enmity with God. Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Therefore, Proverbs 3:34 says, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.
To perceive the inanities of the world doesn’t mean you have to hate anyone, other than sin and the devil. To understand the devilish ideologies that say a man can be a woman and a woman can be a man, and a baby in the womb is just a blob of tissue and if you’re white you’re automatically a racist, and if you’re a man you’re a sexist, and if you believe the Bible you’re an intolerant bigot, to understand all of that and see it for the Big Lie that it is doesn’t mean you have to storm the Capitol. You don’t have to start an “insurrection.” It doesn’t mean you have to shout back at whoever’s reading the news. It doesn’t mean you have to hate politicians and woke professors and race baiters.
Here is wisdom. Tell no lies. Live not by lies. Participate in no lies. We’re not in charge of the world, you and me. We’re not going to change the opinions or behavior of Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. Surely it’s not news to you that none of them really care what you think? Or what you think they should think or say or do?
Jesus Christ is the Lord of lords, but he was under no illusion about who was the “prince of this world.” “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” He said this when the voice from heaven spoke, in Jerusalem, and glorified him. Then he continued: “And I, when I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”
There is one judge, and one savior of the world, and surprise, surprise, you and I are neither. Judgment and Salvation began when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt the foal of a donkey. In God’s patience and mercy, the denouement, the cataclysm, the end of all things, is not yet here, but in that time and on that day, Judgment and Salvation will be fulfilled and completed.
Whose face is on the coin, Jesus asked. Well then, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. The authorities will answer to the Judge of the World, who is coming. Whether they know it or not, to whom much is given, much is required. We are not all judged in the same way, for God knows the heart and he holds Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar accountable to a more stringent standard.
“The time came when the beggar Lazarus died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
What comes after our lesson for today? What follows James 4? James 5. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and howl because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.”
You and I are not called to be judges in this life. Not even of ourselves, as Paul said in I Corinthians 4: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.”
We are called to speak truth, which is the good news, for Judgment has come, Salvation has come, and all may be saved, that is, all who call on the name of the Lord.
James reminds us that we must speak that truth to ourselves daily. We must recite that truth, we must stamp it on our hearts like the face of Caesar on his coins: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Sunday, July 11th Genesis 27:30-40
Remember those popsicles with two popsicle stick handles? It’s only lately that I’ve asked myself, why would my mother buy those, knowing what her two oldest children, me and my brother, were like?
Anytime there are two siblings close in age, there will be competition. Popsicles. Cake, Pie, an uneven number of cookies. But Mom had rules. I guess money was so tight, we couldn’t EACH have our own popsicle. “Whoever breaks apart the two halves, the other one gets to choose which half is his.”
If you don’t think this will make you anxious, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be 5 years old. Neither of us wanted to break the popsicle apart, that’s a loser proposition, we figured that out, so Mom had another rule. I don’t want to break the popsicle. “It’s your turn to break the popsicle,” she would say. But I had to cut the cake slice last time!
Cause it wasn’t just popsicles. If there was one slice of cake left, one cut, and the other got to choose which piece to eat. One of us would get down and eyeball that slice like Tiger Woods lining up a put on the 18th hole. If I’d had calipers, I would have used them, cause my brother Chuck was tricky.
Take a simple triangular slice of cake. You’d think it was obvious which was bigger, right. But it’s not just about the back angle, where you start your cut, the leading edge, the point of the knife can also change the size, as well as make it harder to determine which is bigger. And there’s also a way to get more icing to stick to the knife, which would not have occurred to me in a world without an older brother.
If it was his turn to break the last cookie in half, he would break it over his plate, and hope that nobody noticed the extra crumbs that fell. I eventually caught on to that one.
Now the writer of Genesis is acutely aware of family dynamics. Most of us raised with siblings learn about family dynamics through experience. The Gospel of Luke understands the story of Esau and Jacob well, in a way that goes beyond just the immediate family involved, for Jesus, in Luke’s telling, has a particular emphasis on those traditionally left out, left behind, ignored, forgotten. Hear these words first as we remember the story of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob.
Ch. 5 of Luke: And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Ch.14: But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Ch. 15: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Primogeniture is the background of our story in Genesis and much else in the Bible. Primogeniture was the social practice of favoring the oldest son with the inheritance. It was a way of picking winners and losers. It’s prominent in agricultural societies, because in a couple of generations the family farm has been divided up so often it’s more of a small garden plot than a real farm. Primogeniture has continued for centuries in other societies, though it is repeatedly undermined in the scriptures.
For example, who is the first murderer in the Bible? The older brother Cain. And the subtle undermining continues with the story of Abraham, along with the odd focus on barrenness in the mothers of the promise.
Abraham marries Sarah, who we learn is barren, as the Bible describes this inability to conceive. The oldest son of Abraham, Ishmael, is born to Sarah’s servant, Hagar. By the power of God, Sarah is later able to conceive Abraham’s younger son, Isaac.
Younger son Isaac marries Rebekah, who is barren, according to Genesis 25:21, until the Lord answers Isaac’s prayer, and Esau is born, along with his twin, and younger brother, by a few minutes probably, Jacob.
Jacob chooses the younger sister, Rachel, over her older sister Leah, though he must also marry Leah as the price of receiving the wife that he wants. Rachel too, is barren, until, as it says, the Lord remembered Rachel, who was the mother of Joseph the 11th son, who saved his people from famine and brought them to Egypt. Rachel also bore Benjamin, the twelfth and youngest son and smallest of the twelve tribes, but the ancestor of the first King, Saul, and the last apostle, Saul, called Paul, as he says of himself, “as one untimely born.”
The Bible critiques primogeniture repeatedly, telling the story of Judah’s sons by his daughter-in-law Tamar, Perez and Zerah. In that story the whole notion of determining who is born first is undermined with the very odd description of their birth, for the midwife is standing by to make sure first born and second born twins aren’t confused. When Zerah puts his hand out of the birth canal first the midwife ties a scarlet thread around his wrist, but he changes his mind as it were, backs up and lets his brother Perez go first. After you, Alphonse.
The Bible doesn’t actually call Perez, the Firstborn, only saying “Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his wrist.” Zerah was first to be at least partially outside womb. Perez the first completely outside. The inclusion of the story seems to have no purpose, except to remind us of the issue of primogeniture and to draw attention to its questionable legitimacy.
The story of Jacob and Esau, and Isaac and Rebekah, is told with consummate skill. Subtly but deliberately saying that blessing is not really under our control. Blessing works in spite of human character and quality; in spite of those who work against God and his plan for the world.
Jacob and Rebekah, cheating, lying and scheming, are repellent to our sensibilities and morals, but this is not a spiritual meditation on morality. The blessing of God has its way. God’s sovereignty accomplishes his will, sometimes whether we cooperate or not, and often using those who actively work against him.
The story is about the power of blessing in the service of God’s purpose. God is inverting the world. This is one way to describe the whole Bible. Mary says this, when she goes to visit Elizabeth: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, 52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
This is Mary’s song to the Deplorables. This is her channeling the song of Samuel’s mother Hannah, praising the Lord for his attention the poor and powerless, the unnoticed and unregarded.
Back before Jacob and Esau were born, we read in Genesis 25, The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is thus, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
24 When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came forth red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came forth, and his hand had taken hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob.
We get another picture of this in the story of the Mess of Pottage, as it’s been called, in Genesis 25. In verse 29, the hunter, Esau, shows up hungry and the homebody, Jacob is cooking lentils over the fire. Jacob refuses to share with his brother until he sells him his birthright, and Esau is so hungry, and it must be said, so impulsive, he does. Bad move.
Of course, “who could enforce such a silly agreement,” was probably what Esau was thinking. But he didn’t count on his own mother selling him out, for that’s what happened. It seems Rebekah had a favorite, and Isaac had a favorite. Or we think he did. For Isaac’s role in this unusual story is somewhat muddy.
Rebekah, having overheard Isaac say he was ready to bless Esau, the elder, once Esau returned from hunting with some nice stew for his old Dad, Rebekah convinces Jacob to put on the leather garments Esau normally wore and take some Goat stew which was Isaac’s favorite, into his tent. And thus Jacob could receive the blessing instead of Esau. She’s looking out for her favorite.
The story is told in a way that makes you suspicious of Isaac. Jacob enters the tent and says, “My Father.” Isaac responds, “Who are you, my Son?” Already it’s clear that something’s wrong. “I am Esau your first-born.” Nothing suspicious in calling yourself the firstborn. “I brought you some stew made with the game I killed at your request.” “So soon? How?” asks Isaac. Uhh, the Lord helped me.
Then, it gets worse. Isaac knows something. “Come here, let me feel your hands.” His hands, covered in fur, feel hairy, but to Isaac, he sounds like Jacob.
Oh well, I guess I’ll bless him. Whoever he is. It’s a weird setup, and strangely seems to involve Isaac in the deception without actually accusing him of deception. But we’re all best at deceiving ourselves, are we not
The oddest of all the oddities is our difficulty with understanding the idea of blessing. What’s the big deal? We don’t see blessing the way the Bible does. We are fixated on simply the spiritualistic notion of blessing, which can make it a bit of a will-of-the-wisp. A nice idea, but not something you can or should fight over. But this story proceeds like an Indiana Jones movie when he lost the Crystal Skull or the Holy Grail. It’s as if it’s gone for good!
“Bless me, even me also, O my father!” But Isaac says, “Your brother deceived me, and he has taken away your blessing.” He has taken it away. How? Did he put it in his pocket? Are the papers already signed? What did he take away, like stolen treasure?
Words, gestures, symbols. That’s all. The world of the Bible is a strange world, which we think is not our world, but it’s only our beliefs and perceptions and prejudices that are at fault and lacking. There is one Lord, and he made one world.
In the modern world, having been misled by our preachers and professors for centuries, we are preoccupied by the visible, by what we can measure. But the words of Isaac, spoken in the midst of deception, and perhaps in cooperation with deception, transform the world. They transform your world and my world, even to this day, this very minute. Here we are, talking about Jacob and Esau. Bless me, O my Father, bless me also!
The heart wrenching pathos of the moment is disturbing. But so is the fact that Jesus’ ancestor is born of the illicit sexual union of Judah and his daughter in law who poses as a prostitute to get pregnant by her father-in-law so she will have a child, the Perez and Zerah mentioned earlier.
And so is the additional fact that Jesus is the descendant of Solomon, the son of David, the David who fornicated with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, who was serving David in the army, murdered, to hide what he David, had done.
Who are these people? Well, who are we? For to read the Bible is to look into the truest and clearest mirror, clearer than any made by man. How did things come to such a pass? Why is the Bible full of such people? In order to redeem humanity, God works in the human world, blessing Jacob, elevating Joseph, guiding Tamar. He blesses the human world by guiding it for his purpose, but also by entering this world. By becoming one of us.
A well-written fairy tale would have Jesus of Nazareth speaking like an ancient god, wondering if these disgusting people are worth saving, wondering, what have I gotten myself into, thinking, maybe I’ll just find the best of this sorry lot and rescue them out of this sorry world into a world of sweetness and light that has nothing to do with this rotten old planet earth.
But it’s not a fairy tale. It’s as real as a problem pregnancy. It’s as real as an old man who says he’s blind and favors one son, until he blesses the other son because, well, who knows, because he wants to keep his wife happy?
It’s not a fairy tale. It’s an upside-down world. Upside down to the values we’ve created in our flight from God. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, 52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
The proud and the mighty of our day, the zillionaires and their all too willing servants in government, the media and the universities, think that they’re different. They think Mary, if they ever even read the Magnificat, is just a silly deplorable teenager who counts for nothing. Maybe I’m superstitious, but I think a woman chosen by God to be the Mother of our Lord deserves at the very least, attention, deference and respect.
Rebekah, Rahab, Bathsheba, Tamar. The elder shall serve the younger. Those of low degree are exalted. It is God at work. This is why the elder serves the younger, why the poor and the meek and the mourning and those hungry for righteousness are Blessed. It is God at work.
Five chapters later in the Book of Genesis, we learn that Esau is approaching Jacob and his family at the ford of the Jabbok River. And in ch. 33, unable to run and unable to fight, verse 3 tells us, “Jacob himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5 And Jacob said, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me.”
Sunday, July 4th Nehemiah 4:1-23
I promise you, I really intended and wanted to focus today on something other than figural interpretation, the figures found in the Bible’s text. Surely Nehemiah will give me a different emphasis than looking at the figures, I told myself when I chose this text a couple of months ago. I was working my way through the Letters to the Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation when I announced my retirement, and when that was finished, I chose a variety of texts from the Lectionary to emphasize different parts and styles of the Bible as my final two months of sermons for you. I picked books like Genesis, Isaiah, two readings from Nehemiah, the gospel of John, Romans, James, and 2 Peter. We’re halfway through that list, and the figures, the “types,” keep popping up no matter what I do.
Now, of course, after I bought my red VW Jetta eight years ago, I suddenly learned Murfreesboro was full of Red Jettas! So there’s that, which perhaps is a form of confirmation bias. And maybe it’s a matter of seeing what you try not to see, like seeing a star in a dark sky by trying NOT to look at it.
And of course, there’s a lot of other material to take on board in Nehemiah ch. 4, that I want to highlight for you, but we’ll come to the figures eventually, for it would be irresponsible to ignore what is not just a hobbyhorse for me, but what is a part of a long term trend of turning away from tearing the Bible apart in a sort of would-be failed reverse engineering and what I consider to be an inspired turn toward hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches, part of which is that the Bible is not simply ancient literature that calls for a lot of historical spadework to uncover the original intended meaning “behind” the façade of the text as we have it.
For that is simply a dead end, a blind alley, essentially the fruit of a poisoned tree. Rational inquiry into any field of study must accept the legitimacy of the object as a first step. Otherwise, why do it? And that legitimacy comes from the way an object of study presents itself. In a variety of ways and places, the Bible’s self-description is the word of the Lord, the revelation of God, the oracles, the songs, the story of the living God.
If we can’t at least begin that way there is no real reason to focus so intently on these literary remains of a small unimportant people from a small unimportant place from long ago. I’d rather read Agatha Christie.
Strikingly, Robert Jenson says, in regard to secular deconstruction of the Bible, “outside the church, no such entity as the Christian bible has any reason to exist.” That sounds odd to our ears, but Jenson, reminding us that the Bible was not let down from heaven on some golden string, or dug up on golden tablets to be read with magical spectacles, knows that the books of the Old and the New Testament were, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, accepted, received, generated, from within, from the people of God already existing, created and put in place by God himself as the people of Israel, and the called-out followers of Christ on the day of Pentecost.
Jenson emphasizes that the Bible is a collection of documents gathered by and for the church to aid in preserving and proclaiming the church’s message. Therefore, he says, “the question, after all, is not whether churchly reading (as he calls what I’m doing) of Scripture is justified; the question is, what could possible justify any other?”
The last forty years of Biblical scholarship has been a battle to reclaim the Bible for the church and its original purpose. An effort to essentially snatch the Bible out of the professors’ hands, who have turned study of the scriptures into a jobs program at secular universities and colleges, and read it anew with eyes of faith, ears of obedience.
So what you’ve been hearing from me for a long time, is a putting into practice of the centuries old and time-honored practice of preaching the text of the WHOLE Bible as the Word of God spoken for the people of God. And one, of the many, ways we do that is to see and perceive the unity of the scriptures pictured for us in the figures that tie it together from beginning to end.
Our first way into the lesson of this 4th chapter of Nehemiah is to discern the narrative direction of what he’s telling us about the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Biblical passages can sometimes be looked at via concentric circles, going deeper at each re-hearing, or in a spiral, moving upward with each re-telling. Or simply moving forward, towards a promise of God, which Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem are doing in this chapter, re-building the walls and gates of Jerusalem, the city of God.
The chapter begins with the ranting of Sanballat and the response of his toady, Tobiah the Ammonite. Sanballat, Nehemiah’s avowed enemy, fulminates against Nehemiah and the returned Jews, the tribe of Judah, by saying, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burned ones at that?”
That’s five questions in one verse. And then Tobiah jumps in with his insult, “if a fox jumped up on the wall it would all fall down!” The resolute Nehemiah and his cohort report that the wall is built nonetheless, to at least half of its needed height, with this memorable explanation that has animated many a sermon when a church is beginning a new building program: “for the people had a mind to work.”
We then learn Nehemiah’s method and strategy, which is realistic and proactive. Knowing the hatred of his opponents and their willingness to wreak violence on those who stand in their way, Nehemiah organizes the builders and instructs them to be ready to fight even while building: “each with one hand, labored on the work and with the other held his weapon.”
Nehemiah, knowing how spread out they were in building the wall all around the city, instructed them to respond in the direction of the trumpet call, which stayed near Nehemiah so they would know from which direction the attack might come.
Nehemiah had everyone sleep within the walls to be ready for an attack, and they all slept with their shoes on and their weapons “in their hand.”
We need no figural interpretation to see the enacted parable, as it were, in a united people protecting themselves and their people from attack while working on the common good simultaneously. The project of Nehemiah is essentially a political project, with modern political overtones, that is nonetheless easily applied to the task of the church, often thought of as the call to build the city, build the kingdom. One of our Sunday School classes in Texas was even called, “The Kingdom Builders.” The church, because it’s an organization of people, can be described as a political institution even at the local level because all human institutions are subject to the understanding of how people organize and work together, or fail to work together.
There are two statements in this narrative that illustrate the need for the church to always perceive how the grace of God enlivens us as well as, and at the same time, understanding the need to always remember the work of the church is in this world and requires effort and expense. We cannot merely and only sit in a circle around the campfire, hold hands and sing kum ba yah. Somebody has to build that fire and somebody better be getting supper ready. The church is not anti-spiritual, but it is the Anti-Gnostic group and keeps its head in the heavens while its feet are in the mud.
Verse 9 is Nehemiah’s description of what their response was to all the rumors of the plots by Sanballat and the Arabs and Ammonites and Ashdodites to fight against Jerusalem. He says, “And we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.”
Do you see how that works? What’s the most important word? AND. We prayed and we set a guard. Is that faithless? Is it lack of trust? No, it’s the same dynamic as at the Red Sea when the Egyptians were behind them. Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out the rod THAT I GAVE YOU and tell the people to go forward.” They’re standing at the water’s edge, but they have to take that first step. God’s not going to fly them all across like sparrows!
Tell the people to go forward! We prayed and we set a guard. The same thing is seen in Nehemiah’s words in verse 14 to the fearful people: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
Remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your kin. And as he says in verse 20, “Our God will fight for us.”
On the one hand, We prayed. Remember the Lord. Our God will fight for us. On the other, We set a guard, Fight for your kin and your homes.
This is the theological dynamic of Nehemiah 4. We have a task, others will oppose us, they are dangerous, but God’s work is our work to which we have been called. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, is another way of putting it. For the church, as Paul says, “is not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
The other way to read Nehemiah 4 is to understand the same way of seeing and apply it to the inter-connections of the Bible in terms of the images given to us in this chapter and elsewhere. The retired Dean of Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays, who taught my first Greek class when he was in grad school and I was in seminary, says that “the NT insistently cites and alludes to the OT, argues for a narrative continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus, and interprets this continuity through discerning figural correspondences between the two….The NT’s stories of Jesus, when understood as mysterious fulfillments of long-ago promises, assume a depth beyond their literal sense as reports of the recent past. Texts have multiple layers of meaning that are disclosed by the Holy Spirit to faithful and patient readers.”
William Blake understood figures when he wrote a poem in the preface to his larger poem, Milton. “Bring me my Bow of burning gold Bring me my arrows of desire Bring me my Spear O clouds unfold Bring me my Chariot of fire I will not cease from Mental Fight Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In Englands green pleasant Land.
The figures that stand out in Nehemiah 4 are the Wall, the stone, and the Day. As famously in John 11, when Caiaphas says it’s better for one man to die than the nation to be destroyed, and when Gamaliel spoke to the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts about the apostles, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Sanballat speaks of truth without knowing it.
Pharoah worked the will of God even when he resisted. Sanballat, a gnat in the way of the storm of God’s anger, bleats out, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”
Can they bring the stones to life? The profundity of these mysteries is revealed to us only later, for the wall of Jerusalem is the wall the Vineyard owner built around his vineyard, it is the fence around Mt. Sinai the Lord told Moses to build. It is part of identity, these are within, these are without. The central image in the Bible of the new Creation is found in Revelation 21, the new Jerusalem. Six times the wall is mentioned in ch. 21, the walls of the city, for even Heaven has walls, as it were, “a great high wall,” and “the wall of the city had twelve foundations,” and John measured the wall, “which was built of Jasper.”
The wall, as a figure, is a definitional figure. Like names, from last week, a name is either in the Book of Life or it is not. One is either within the walls of the city, or, as 22:15 says, “outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone loves and practices falsehood.”
A murderer may be redeemed, but he then ceases to be a murderer, or an idolater, or a fornicator, and becomes a member of the body of Christ, his robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb, a new name is given to him. A name known only to the giver.
Sanballat scoffs at the stones, at the burned stones from the heaps of rubbish, with his taunting words of ridicule reminding us that yes, the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone. And the burned stones, how were they burned? It takes a powerful conflagration to burn down a stone wall and turn it into rubbish. But the suffering of the people of God, from the time of Pharoah to the nail bombs of suicidal Muslims of today, the suffering of the Jews, the apple of God’s eye, his bride, his chosen servant, is the suffering relived and given purpose by Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone.
Even the hardened sinner like Sanballat cannot speak without evoking the praise of the Lord. For even a liar calls to mind the truth by those who know it, by those who recognize the truth and power of God. For without the truth there is no lie. God dwells in the light, and the darkness is dispelled.
Sanballat would have done well to listen more closely when Ezra read the Torah in the presence of the people, for we should remember the Lord’s word to Abraham. “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
Sunday, June 27th Romans 16:17-27
The figure and the ground, is a way of talking about objects that describes how we perceive things visually. The single cloud is the figure, the sky is the ground. There are sometimes confusing examples, that approach optical illusion, with the white vase, or lamp figure on a black background, or vice versa, that pictures two face profiles looking toward the center. Sometimes the reversal of colors affects which is perceived first, the vase, or the faces. You’ve probably seen that before.
William Hill published a drawing in Puck magazine in 1915 that was captioned, “My Wife and my Mother-in-Law. They’re both in this picture—Find them.” You’ve likely seen versions of this with a young woman facing away and to the right, but the outline of her chin and her neck can look like a caricature of an elderly woman with a prominent nose and chin, the black ribbon around the young woman’s neck forming the line of the older woman’s mouth. Depending on how you look at it.
The figure and the ground. For years I’ve been talking to you about the figures in the Bible. You might consider the Bible as “the ground,” if we were to link this way of interpretation to the Figure/Ground phenomenon. The figures in the Bible are often things like, a tree. The two trees in the Garden of Eden. The Tree planted by streams of water in Psalm 1. The tree in Jesus’ parables and the parables of Ezekiel. The tree of curse in Deuteronomy 21, which Paul links to the cross of Christ, and the tree of life in Revelation 22, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, whose leaves, it is said, are for the healing of the gentiles.
There are many other instances of that particular figure in the Bible, and it is particularly fruitful in the insights it yields. One of the many things a figure does is link realities. A mountain, a river, water itself, animals, weapons, all of these are sometimes used as figures in the scriptures. You can see how our experience of a tree relates to the cross, and not just because of the material or wood of the cross. Often, a tree draws our eyes upwards, reminding us of Jesus’ words, “and I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.” Just as the old hymn says in Beneath the Cross of Jesus, “the shadow of a mighty rock, within a weary land.” It expands the notion of Cross as tree but also as mountain, or mighty rock, a fortress, a protector.
To think is to use words in our mind and to analyze things, concepts, stories. Thinking about words with words is a little like picking yourself up by your own bootstraps, but somehow it seems to work. Thinking about poetry, which, broadly speaking is a category in which we can include the Bible, is even more tricky, but, also more rewarding.
For just as there is a kind of poetry or metaphor at the heart and birth of language itself, so language is one of the gifts divinely bestowed on us that enables us to hear God speak. The Bible is what’s been call true truth, and when we read in John 1, In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, we come to one of those Aha moments that helps us to move forward in our understanding. God tells us, in words, that there is, in a fundamental sense, what can be called speaking, communicating, at the heart and the essence of his nature.
We do not and cannot control him with this knowledge, but we can receive his gracious message as one that is all gift.
Poetry has debased itself in the 20th century because it has forgotten, that is, poets have largely forgotten, the gift, the nature of language, and that without God, where are truth, beauty and goodness? Not only where, but without God why would we even believe in them or seek them?
Poetry at its purest, though, speaks in ways that move us and communicate by the use of deep memories tied to our vision and hearing. The visual relates to our mind’s eye, which can be rich or poor in stored treasure and experience, which correspondingly affects our understanding.
The sound of poetry cannot be easily analyzed for a variety of reasons, but similarities and the webs of words that we’ve heard and don’t consciously remember seize our thoughts and emotions and work their will upon us.
The writers of the Psalms and some of the prophets used the technique of repetition to stamp their meaning within our hearts. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up O ancient doors! That the King of Glory may come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory!”
That is a poetic technique found all through the Bible, but the Bible’s use of techniques is not limited to that method. The use of figures that link thoughts and people through time and space is perhaps the key that unlocks the doors of understanding and removes the opacity of the veil over the scriptures, that we too, as did the apostle John, may see the Heavenly City of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband.
“What would you have me do for you?” And the blind men said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened!” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him.
There in Matthew 21 is the type of the physical blindness that Jesus heals, which speaks directly to our spiritual blindness. These figures, even descriptions of events, are sometimes referred to as types. Typology is a method of interpretation, perceiving the tree of Psalm 1 yielding its fruit, as a type of Christ, who’s then the antitype, or corresponding fulfillment of the type. The word came into use through the description of the way a metal coin had a figure, or type, struck on to it’s face by the form of the die.
The reasons for highlighting this way of interpretation, yet again, are to help us all connect to the whole Bible, rather than just isolated bits and favorite verses. To avoid Thomas Jefferson’s viewpoint and methodology, which was that the Bible was a dung heap through which diamonds were scattered, in other words, a few good parts found in the predominance of dross and dreck you have to dig through to find them.
We also aim to establish a connection with the way the Bible was interpreted by our spiritual ancestors, rather than the misleading effort to discover and isolate the “original meaning” of a text, disassembling the language and historical setting, which is akin to taking apart a living creature with a scalpel and being disappointed that it no longer lives or speaks.
Reading our holy book in a fashion similar to our forebears builds unity through time, and not just through space, the normal way of thinking about ecumenical unity.
Examining the figures of the Bible as a way of interpretation is also faithful to the way the Bible is written, for there are many examples of this way of reading, easily discernible right on the surface of the text, prominently when the apostle Paul in Romans 5 refers to Adam as a “type” of the one who is to come, for individuals can also be read as types and figures. And Jesus implicitly does that in comparing what he says to what Moses has said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Joseph saves his brothers in Egypt. Joshua delivers the people from their enemies; Isaac is taken to the mountain to be sacrificed. Humanity is delivered from the flood in Noah’s Ark, and Jonah is delivered after three days from the belly of the whale. All of them, realities in and of themselves, for figural interpretation does not wipe out the original reality; but they are also types for future antitypes, which may be the person of Jesus or events and actions. The presence of individuals in scripture, as types, and figures, opens our way to look at the power and direction of the use of names in the scriptures, as to what message is given by that use.
One phrase that is common is “the name of the Lord.” The “name of the Lord” is assumed to carry a certain power, an aura, if you will, for invoking the name of the Lord is invoking the Lord.
Name is a common word, but also a link between the common noun and the proper noun. When we meet someone, we share names with one another. A name remembered is a name valued. We attempt to preserve a memory, or honor a life, when we name a child with another’s name. When our daughter Clare was born, we gave her my mother’s mother’s maiden name for her middle name; Hillis. When our son was born, he was named Peter, for my father-in-law, and given a middle name, Archibald, for an Odom grandfather, a soldier in the Revolutionary War.
As much as I hate to disagree with William Shakespeare, he’s wrong when he said, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Big Jim Hogg was the governor of Texas and his brother wrote a poem in which there was a character named Ima, and that was the name he gave his daughter, Ima Hogg. The urban legend was that her sister was named Ura, but there was no sister, only brothers.
Names matter. Some names are quite unfortunate. The fact that Paul greets people by name is significant for our understanding of the gospel. The Bible begins with the man, named Adam, which means, “the man,” and Eve, his wife, which means, “life” or “the living.”
Here in this last chapter of Paul’s rather studied attempt to introduce his understanding of the whole gospel, as he is taking his leave of this church in the capital city of the Empire, he says, “I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetite; and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.”
Notice that the dissensions and difficulties, not ordinary difficulties, but those that are introduced, are in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught. That doctrine is the gospel. Those that intentionally introduce conflict into the church are opposed to the gospel, the good news for which Jesus Christ, and many others since, died. They are standing in the way of God. They wouldn’t put it that way but Paul does.
Paul admonishes and encourages them: “For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; 20 then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
The introduced and induced conflict and dissension is not just an ordinary friction that all institutions and churches face. No, Paul is talking about an evil. He puts this kind of introduced conflict in the context of the crushing of Satan, a “figure” which goes all the way back to Genesis 3, one of the earliest typological messianic references in verse 15, “The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
If the reference is to Jesus, crushing the head of Satan, Paul includes the Romans in that victorious promise, because why? They are the body of Christ. And then, in what we can, interpret, if we insist, as just the standard practice of letter writing in the first century, Paul conveys the greetings of those with him to those reading the letter. You see how I did that? I included everybody and nobody got left out. He conveyed greetings.
But that’s not the way Paul did it, and that’s not the message of the gospel. The message of the gospel is to Timothy, and to Phoebe, and to Lucius, and Epaenetus and Andronicus, and Bo and Gunther and Nancy and Michael and, etc. etc.
The gospel is not just for a mass of people. It is for names. Do you remember the old British TV Show, the Prisoner? Patrick McGoohan, who’s called Number Six, says to his interrogator, Number 2, “I will not make any deals with you. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I am not a number. I am a free man.”
We are linked to Tertius and all these others. “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” This is more than “Tertius says hey.” This is linked to Adam, and Eve. I, Tertius. This is linked to the “the name of the Lord.” That name is powerful because of who it is. We are given a name because God has a name. And a name is visited upon a unique individual. The hairs of your head are numbered by God.
Your church is made up of names. Many can no longer be seen, for they are now a part of the church triumphant. There are 62 names on that list of Charter members on the wall at the back. There are 22 names of the ministers in the parlor who served here before me. There are over a thousand names in the Bible. I’ve buried over 40 names since I’ve been pastor here. Trene, Marjorie, Robert, Bubba, Elmer, Brad, Gladys, Joan, Floyd. It’s a long list.
Gaius and Erastus, Tryphosa and Persis are in this letter. They’re in the book. But there’s another book where I want my name to be found. The Lamb’s book of life. The name is important. “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.’” I long to know my new name.
The very next chapter in Revelation says, “He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”
God knows your name. Remember that. You are a unique, unrepeatable child of God, treasured, and valued and named. Nobody else can be who you are, nobody else can do what God called you to do.
Sunday June 20th Isaiah 65:1-16
Most of us have known someone we try to live up to. We look up to them, we follow their example. I have tried for years to live up to the example of the minister I worked under at my first church in suburban Chicago, Doug Runnels. Doug was a fascinating guy, raised by a father who, for the first 20 years of Doug's life, was a professional card shark. Literally leaving some towns in the middle of the night with his wife and son. Before college, Doug never attended the same school two years in a row.
But what I most appreciated about Doug was that his sermons always held my interest to the end. I've tried to make that my example over the years, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
“Interesting” would seem to be an important aspect of any sermon, though certainly not the only aspect and perhaps not the most important. I can think of several qualities more important in a sermon. Truthful is certainly near the top. Biblical. Pertinent. Faithful. Challenging. But interesting can't be the most important descriptor for an address that's given by the same person, at the same time, to the same people on the same book every week. That expectation is just not realistic.
Also, the responsibility of a Christian people themselves to contribute to the experience of a sermon by their own attentiveness can create a virtuous circle, whereby the preacher himself develops a greater interest in preaching to a people that decide to find his sermons interesting, one way or another. So there's that.
Fortunately, though every sermon should be able to be described as “biblical” in some sense, the Bible is a very big and diverse book, and if the preacher will venture out of the Gospel of John and the Book of Romans every now and then, he'll sometimes find himself in a garden of strange delights, for himself and his listeners.
Isaiah gives us an example of the strange places you can find yourself when you go strolling through the pages of the Bible. By the time we come to ch. 65 of Isaiah, if we read 1-64, we've passed through a couple of centuries of Jewish history. We've been through warnings of disaster, promises of restoration and reconciliation, the renewal of faith, the re-establishment of covenants and renewed warnings against idolatry and apostasy, and the abandonment of faith and loyalty.
In the first half of 65, which Bo read for us today, the Lord explains why punishment and destruction awaits some of his people. He was ready to be sought, but his people did not seek him. He was ready to be found, but they did not search for him. He wanted to hear from them, but their prayers had long ago dried up.
Instead, they preferred what they considered a higher spirituality, keeping up with the trends of their society, seeking the spirits of the dead, burning incense and sacrificing to strange gods in beautiful gardens, eating distinctively un-kosher diets.
Now, we could go into great detail about all this, for the prophets thoroughly describe these developments. I could run on like this for hours, as my children know so well. I once answered a question from my son Peter as we drove across the width of Texas, which is a big state. I was driving, and when I eventually stopped talking and asked if that answered his question, there was a long, embarrassed pause from the back seat before he said, “I'm sorry, were you still talking about that?” It's like a dropped cell phone conversation when you lose the connection and you keep on talking and talking and there's nobody on the other end!
So, I'm not boring you on purpose, well, not completely on purpose, because sometime it is necessary to bore you. Everything can't be loud music and explosions and car crashes, not all the time. Matter of fact the important things usually aren't.
But let's get to the main point. The Bible should puzzle us sometimes. The Bible should puzzle us sometimes. If you've read the whole thing cover to cover, you've gone from a history of a chosen people with their laws and beliefs and songs and practices, and suddenly, with the New Testament, moved into the story of one man, what he said and did, and what was said and done to him, and what can at first glance look like a repudiation of the people, the Jews, (“woe to you Pharisees!”) that the first part, the OT, was written by and about.
The second century church, as it became less Jewish and more gentile struggled with this, but came to an understanding that has been ignored in the last 200 years, and forgotten by too many since then.
So, I want to tie three things together for you today, things vastly different in many ways, but which the Bible sees as similar, almost identical. First, in order of time—comes the people of Israel, in the Bible and today, the children of Abraham—descendants of the twelve tribes of Jacob.
To them is made the promise, “To you and your offspring,” the Lord says to Abraham. You did not choose me, I chose you, and not because you were great, or mighty, or populous. I will bless you, with land, with children, with abundance, and I will bless those who bless you. You will live by my word, my law.
This is the covenant God made with Abraham, Moses, David, Josiah, and, after exile and restoration, Zerubbabel and Ezra, over and over again. God called his people back to him from their moral and religious falsity and wanderings.
He punished them for their disobedience, he took their land, he sent other nations to defeat them in battle, to lead them far away into exile from their homeland, their promised land. God will not be deterred or distracted from his purpose to redeem the world. The OT story of the Jews is the story of a crucified people. As the Lord made clear, they were to serve the rest of his creation, they were God's servant, to be a light, a beacon to the world.
Jeremiah and Isaiah began to dimly see and prophesy the meaning of Israel as a servant of God on behalf of the world, whose suffering becomes redemptive for others.... “surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows....he was wounded for our transgressions....and by his stripes we are healed. “
I believe, and I'm certainly not the first, that just because Jesus, the child of the people of Israel, the son of David became the incarnate Word of God, the son of the Father, he does not thereby eliminate the Jews as God's children. Their suffering, their rejection, their woundedness is, as seen in the deep structures of the history of the world, an early picture, a pre-figuring of that Jew on the cross that we worship. He was not the first crucified Jew, nor was he the last by any stretch.
But Jesus is the embodiment of the people Israel. He is fulfillment of the purpose of the people. He is the anti-type, for which their broken and suffering history is the type.
David, leaving Jerusalem in tears under threat from Absalom and his soldiers, is Jesus walking to Gethsemane from the Upper Room. Zedekiah the last king of Judah, blind and imprisoned in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar is Jesus in the tomb, dead and buried.
Now here is what's happening in Isaiah 65. Understanding the identity of Israel and Christ helps us to read the big picture. Judgment is being executed in Isaiah 65. God has brought his people back from exile in Babylon and in a generation, they are back to their old ways. They are demonstrating all over again that as Jeremiah said, God needs to write his law on their hearts, not on stone. What is needed is not to be returned to their land, not another chance, but a new creation. The promise of judgment is the promise of salvation for the world. Because God is a God of holiness and righteousness, we can rely on his promise to “make all things new.”
This is what happens in Christ on the cross. Jesus said, “A grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die before it can bear much fruit.” The son of Man must go to Jerusalem and die before he can be raised into new life, and bring new life for the world. The resurrection is a beginning, a promissory note of God's intentions for the world.
Now I said I wanted to tie three things together. The third thing. You are the third thing. Jesus Christ died, on the cross in the body. His body ceased to function. He gave up the ghost. The integrity of his existence was sundered. He could not survive the abuse he took from the techniques of the Romans. And what have we heard so many times and read so often, in the New Testament? You, we, the church, is the body of Christ. As Paul says in I Cor 12, “You are the body of Christ and individually members thereof.”
We incarnate today the body of Christ, the people of Israel. The servant of God, chosen to suffer for the salvation of the world. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven.
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its savor, how shall its saltness be restored?
How do we understand our role as the body of Christ today? Are we a weak and helpless baby, only cared for by our parents, fed, clothed and diapered? Where are WE in the story of Christ? Where do we imagine ourselves in the times and points in his life? How do we see ourselves? Are we a suffering Christ, dying on a cross for the sins of the world? Are we a dead Christ, lying in a cold tomb, while the world sleeps its way through yet more horrors it perpetrates with a hand that cannot stop itself? Are we the risen Christ, resplendent and glorious, shining in power, victorious over all, king of kings and Lord of Lords?
I have a hard time seeing that last example, yet. The church, this church, the greater church, seems sometimes like a Christ on a cross, sometimes seems like a Christ feeding a hungry world, or healing the sick, but also sometimes seems like a Christ in a cold, cold tomb, broken and dead. Still the body of Christ. But waiting, waiting, for the power of resurrection. We are the body of Christ and our life is hid with Christ in God. How might you change the picture, the figure of Christ as he lives, or dies, in the world today?
Three things tied together. All one. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Amen
Sunday, June 13th 2 Peter 1:1-15
To some, probably most Americans and Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Korean individuals are relatively indistinguishable from one another. Not individuals, but as groups. If you don’t spend time in that part of the world, you just don’t have the experience needed. This is sometimes taken as an insult to a Japanese person to be mistaken for a Chinese person, and vice versa, etc.
But, of course, if you were born to American or European parents, in Japan, or China, or Korea, and you grew up there all your life, this would not be the case at all. Who is who, would be entirely clear to you. You have the experience. Every day, all day, you have looked into the Japanese face, such as it is, and when you first see a Korean or Chinese face, the difference to you is obvious.
So our ignorant inability as Westerners is not somehow innate, but because of lack of experience.
If I were to read the whole book of 2 Peter to you some would be able to hear its place, hear its unusual features and vocabulary. Some would just hear “Bible,” but if you were familiar enough with Paul and John and others, even 1 Peter, you would hear something, different. Many people whose first language is Hungarian, or French, or Japanese, or Mandarin, speak better English than you or I do. Non-native speakers try harder, study harder to get it right, because it’s not what they grew up with.
But depending on how early in life they began speaking English, it’s often just not possible to entirely eradicate the original accent with which English is spoken. If you were raised on a farm in Readyville and never watched television or listened to the radio, and only heard and grew up speaking, “Middle Tennessee” let’s call our language, you would be an expert at detecting “Outlanders.” You would be able to spot someone from Memphis, or Maryville, or Louisville, in a few moments. You might not be able to say this one’s from Memphis and that one’s from Lousiville, but you’d immediately know, “you’re not from round here, are you?”
And if I happened to be an American Missionary child born and raised in Tokyo and never spoke English till I was in my twenties, you would know I’m not from round here, either. We’re all good at spotting people that are “not like us,” not “one of us.” We know our “group,” and we know when someone’s from the “other side of the mountain.” This is a type of “tribalism,” and it can be deadly, or it can just be a way of life, a pleasant part of knowing one’s place and people and enjoying the varieties of human life.
I’m saying all this because 2 Peter’s “not from round here.” By that I mean, the letter of 2 Peter can be described as a “minority report.” If you know John and Paul and Luke well, 2 Peter is like the long-lost cousin from the other side of the mountain. I met a long-lost cousin of mine one time. My uncle George married his first wife, and early in her first pregnancy, he had to go to Illinois for his State Farm training for six months. Back then, it wasn’t so simple to go back and forth. While George was gone, his mother-in-law engineered a divorce, so we in the family have been told, and his wife and infant son moved out of state and Uncle George never saw that son for nearly 50 years.
Lo and behold, one day long-lost cousin shows up at family reunion! His mother and stepfather had died, and in going through all the paperwork, he discovered his biological father was not who he thought he was.
The strangest thing was he looked a lot, I mean a lot, like my older brother, who strongly resembles my mother’s side of the family. But as similar as he was in looks, when he opened his mouth to speak, “you’re not from round here, are you?” Growing up in Kansas and moving to California when he began work makes you sound different from a whole tribe of North Florida crackers.
Did you know that 2 Peter does not mention the crucifixion or resurrection of Jesus? He does focus on the Transfiguration. Right after our reading for today, in vss. 16-18. Peter says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Five times 2 Peter calls Jesus the Savior, which is fully 20% of the uses of that word in the entire New Testament. It’s as if 2 Peter is from Readyville, and the rest of the New Testament is from Atlanta. OK, they’re southerners, but….
So, I stress this difference because it’s not always audible to all, if you’re not looking for it. I’m not critiquing 2 Peter. I’m not asserting, like Ernst Kasemann back in the sixties, that we shouldn’t listen to 2 Peter. Kasemann was so hyper-Protestant, such a dyed in the wool modern Lutheran that he literally couldn’t understand 2 Peter.
The Area Minister of Northeast Texas for much of my time there was a man born and raised on the southwest coast of India. People from Texas who met him for the first time could hardly understand a word he spoke. Some didn’t like him, because he was, well, not from round here. He was actually one of the nicest, friendliest guys I’ve ever known or had the privilege to work with.
Hyper-Protestant Ernst Kasemann said of 2 Peter that it was “from beginning to end expressing an early Catholic viewpoint….perhaps the most dubious writing in the canon.” Now let’s forget for the moment that if various self-appointed religious gatekeepers get to decide what in the canon should be heeded and what should not, then in reality you don’t have a canon. This is almost like the first real heresy of the church, when Marcion in the 2nd century decided he would be the judge, of what should be in the Bible and what should not. For Marcion anything by Paul was A-OK, but Matthew and James and Mark not so much. And don’t even mention Revelation.
A canon is a Greek word meaning “rule” and if you take the rule apart you no longer have a rule. It’s like having a yard stick of 33 inches. Sooner or later that’s gonna be a problem.
Let’s look at this lesson for today specifically. Though outlining a passage is relatively subjective, I see these 15 verses as comprising 3 sections: 1-4 focus on gift: “his divine power has granted to us.” 5-11 can be thought of as “transformation.” This can be seen in the move from faith to the other states of personal character. Too often we western Christians see it as all and only about faith. Faith gets transmogrified in the modern world since 1700 as the ability to convince oneself to believe what is essentially unbelievable. Everybody knows, in the scientism worldview, that matter and energy are all there are in the world, and fairy stories don’t help anybody.
But of course, some people have this mysterious, mystical thing called faith, and well, you do your thing and I’ll do mine. That used to be the attitude, until recently, when certain aspects of the moral content of faith are now considered intolerant bigotry.
But 2 Peter only begins his catalog with faith! In this “transformation” section we move to virtue, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love. It’s possible to make too much of rhetorical devices when interpreting an ancient document, but, however we hear this list, it’s at least significant, if not absolutely dispositive, that he ends, he concludes, with love. And it’s significant because of the role that love plays in other New Testament passages, like John 13, I Corinthians 13, and I John 4.
It’s probably too much to say love is greater, or more important than mutual affection to the same degree that mutual affection is more important than godliness, and etc etc, on back to faith. But love is his direction. Love is the conclusion of his list. Love is his destination.
The third section vss. 12-15 can he heard as “promise.” It’s an unusual promise, to be sure. Peter says “I intend always to remind you of these things.” Then it occurs to him that always is a long time, and “I know that the putting off of my body will be soon,” so he expands the promise to “I will see to it.” That’s the RSV. What we hear in the reading is from the NRSV, “I will make every effort.”
See to it, sounds different from, make every effort. Make every effort feels weaker. Make every effort sounds like, “I’ll try.” We’ve all said that. “I want you to mow the lawn today, son!” “I’ll try, Dad.” “I want you to get that old piano out of the house this week, son!” “I’ll try, Dad.”
But I think the NRSV has the best approach on this occasion. “See to it,” is a little too absolute. See to it might be beyond even Peter’s ability. But anyone can “make every effort,” if they only will. Peter urges his readers, twice, to make every effort, using the same verb he uses for himself in verse 15.
In verse 5, the RSV has him say, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.” And again, in verse 10 the same Greek verb is used, and this time the RSV gives us “be the more zealous to confirm your call and election.” Or, as the NRSV has it, “be all the more eager.”
So, though it’s perhaps too much to vow, “I will see to it,” Peter does make every effort, as seen in this letter that is now a part of the canon, by and with which we can now at any time recall “these things,” by simply reading the letter. And the letter is full or promises and warnings and reminders, as Peter indicated.
But as I said, one of the “tells” that 2 Peter is giving us a needed alternate emphasis in our understanding of the gospel, is the Transfiguration, which we find in vss. 16-18. Though he doesn’t, of course, use the word, transfiguration, this is clearly the episode to which he’s referring. “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty, we heard this voice borne from heaven, we were with him on the holy mountain.”
All well and good, but how do we monetize this, as YouTube might ask? How do we take it to the bank? What role does the Transfiguration play in our understanding of our call by Jesus Christ to “be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect?” Or as 2 Peter says, “Make every effort to supplement your faith,” or, “be all the more zealous to confirm your call and election.”
Well, the beginning of understanding is right there. “Supplement your faith.” It’s not exactly like taking vitamin supplements, but the essential point is clear. If you don’t eat right, you need to supplement with vitamins: and some doctors say it’s not possible to eat enough Vitamin D and C.
But 2 Peter says “supplement your faith.” Twenty years ago, Gordon Smith wrote a book “Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation.” It was addressed to the broadly revivalist/evangelistic wing of Protestant Christianity that focused on the conversion of adults to the faith. The beginning point was conceived to be complete absence of faith followed by an encounter with Jesus Christ through the message of the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit. Once that happened, you were “saved.” You invited Jesus into your heart. You were good to go. You’ve covered all the bases. You’ve ticked all the boxes.
But like the teenage girl that came forward at the Invitation hymn every third or fourth Sunday, in my home church in Tallahassee, many people struggle even after conversion. Very little structure, roadmap, or guidance was available from the thinking and the institutions of the church to help the convert move forward. Preachers would say, “read your Bible,” “pray every day.” “Love your neighbor.”
Nothing wrong with that, but when someone’s starving to death you don’t say “have a peanut.” They need more. They need careful guidance. They need to supplement their faith. 2 Peter gives us a type of roadmap and an event from the life of Christ to which to aspire, to hold up for emulation. The Transfiguration. That itself is not a method; but it is a promise. A hope. For the end, the destination is what forms the method and the journey.
The other day I wanted to get to Dallas, so I booked a flight to Moscow. Now I suppose that might eventually work, but why? Why fly east? Find a road and head west. The joy, the emotion, the experience, of being saved is so wonderful that we, without instruction or guidance, do the only thing we know to do. Again.
Smith looks at the conversions and conversion language in the gospels, in the book of Acts, in John and in Paul, and puts together a broader picture of belief in Christ, repentance, trust in Christ, transfer of allegiance, baptism, reception of gift of the Spirit, and incorporation into congregational life. Smith talks about the internal actions of the convert as intellectual, penitential, Affective, and volitional. There are things the believer does, and chooses, and feels in the process of “supplementing the faith” as 2 Peter puts it. But Smith also mentions the sacramental, which unites spirit and flesh, the charismatic, God’s continued strengthening of the believer through the Holy Spirit, and the communal, whereby one learns and changes from, through and with, interaction with other believers here and around the world, and now and in the past.
Smith gives us a broad view, as 2 Peter outlined for us the process long ago, being transformed by way of the efforts we make. Making efforts to love, and all those other things, makes Protestants nervous sometimes, because we’re so allergic to “works-righteousness,” as an inheritance of Martin Luther’s and other reformers’ struggle with the medieval church at the time of the Reformation.
But we can’t ignore or leave out of the picture the journey on which the Holy Spirit summons us when he tells us through Peter to add all those things to our faith. The very first supplement is enough of a clue to help us see how this works.
The NRSV translates it as “goodness” which I think is more of a problem, than the older translation which is virtue. The underlying Greek word is Arete, which is always related to the ancient world’s concept of virtue. If “goodness” was meant here he could have used agathos, or agathosune, which was common for good or goodness.
The reason virtue is important is partly because this is how one begins the supplemental journey, and partly because of what everyone held in common in the ancient world, regarding virtue.
For them virtue was the result of practice and habit. In a strictly revivalist/evangelistic worldview, habit is seen as a feature of a type of dead formalism. But when Peter talks about virtue, he is referring to the person one becomes by practicing, to start with, practicing the Ten Commandments. Most Christians don’t have to debate with themselves about whether or not they should murder or steal or commit adultery. They have habituated themselves into the habit of virtue.
To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to never forget that one lives and moves in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by the gift of the forgiveness earned for each of us not by ourselves but the discipline of Jesus Christ in obeying his father all the way to the Cross.
But it is also to realize that one doesn’t stop there. Life, new life, eternal life, abundant life, is not just forgiveness. Forgiveness is for a purpose. As 2 Peter says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.”
It’s about more than the negative goal of avoiding hell. As preachers used to say the gospel is not fire insurance. As 2 Peter says right after the catalog of virtue, godliness etc., “For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall.”
Those who lack the supplements that lead to love have forgotten their mercy and forgiveness from God. Spiritual amnesia leads to exile, as Jeremiah could tell us.
This is why 2 Peter directly turns to the Transfiguration of Jesus which he witnessed on the mountain. He is teaching us about our own need to be transfigured, our need to, through discipline and taking up our cross and following the faithful Savior, our need to become one with him, and partakers of the divine nature.
Sunday, June 6th Nehemiah 2:1-20
Perry Miller was a 20th century historian of Early America, notably the days of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England. One of his well-known books, from 1956, was “Errand Into the Wilderness,” analyzing the aims of those first English settlers in in the first half of the 1600s.
The phrase came into my mind when I began reading Nehemiah 2 last week and it is relevant to Nehemiah’s Errand because it gives a twist to Nehemiah’s story, to the story of the Pilgrims, the story of the Hebrew Children under Moses and the words of Jesus about John the Baptist when he asked his hearers, “What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A Reed shaken by the wind?”
The editorial page editor of the New York Post, Sohrab Ahmari, has a new book titled “The Unbroken Thread,” which is a good metaphor to frame our hearing of Nehemiah 2. There is a thread we can follow when we think about that Errand, the reasons for the wilderness, and the way into and out of it.
For Perry Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness was not just a, witting or unwitting, allusion to Jesus’ words, it was a direct quote of the title of a sermon preached by Samuel Danforth in Boston on March 11, 1670. The Election Sermon was a tradition in New England, which lasted into the late 19th century in Massachusetts. The event was attended by all the current and newly elected state wide elected officials to hear a sermon by a local minister addressed to the leaders of the commonwealth.
There were a lot of these kinds of occasions in first 200 years of the settlement of America. There was the artillery sermon, an annual event held on the founding day of "The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company" in Massachusetts, which dealt with civic and military matters. There was the Thursday or Fifth-day Lecture, often combined with Market Day. Convention sermons also were political in nature and grew out of election-day ceremonies. There was the annual observation of January 30 as the execution day of the king-turned-tyrant, Charles I. Century sermons were preached on November 5, to mark the Glorious Revolution's centenary in 1788, the anniversary of William III's landing in England to secure it from popery and tyranny and to preserve traditional British liberties. There were days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving sermons, proclaimed for particular occasions throughout the eighteenth century and earlier. Such times were nationally proclaimed at least sixteen times by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War; and virtually the entire American populace repaired to their various churches on such days of fasting, prayer, and humiliation to repent of sins, seek forgiveness, and implore God to lift the affliction of their suffering from them. Eighteen Days of thanksgiving were likewise proclaimed when divine favor was experienced. The Fourth of July regularly occasioned political sermons as well as orations. The death of Washington evoked a universal grief and countless sermons extolling the character of the American “Joseph”. The Boston Massacre sermons commemorated the events of March 5, 1770, and the "Patriots' Day" observances, as they are now called, marked the battles of Lexington and Concord in New England each year on April 19. Not only was such preaching widely attended, repeated, and published as tracts, but the sermons were often reprinted in the newspaper as well.
The Rev. Samuel Danforth said on March 11, 1670, “Of solemn and serious Enquiry to us all in this general Assembly is, Whether we have not in a great measure forgotten our Errand into the Wilderness. You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers’ houses, and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without human Mixtures and Impositions. Now let us sadly consider whether our ancient and primitive affections to the Lord Jesus, his glorious Gospel, his pure and Spiritual Worship and the Order of his House, remain, abide and continue firm, constant, entire and inviolate. Our Saviour’s reiteration of this Question, “What went ye out into the Wilderness to see?” is no idle repetition, but a sad conviction of our dulness and backwardness to this great duty, and a clear demonstration of the weight and necessity thereof. Wherefore, let us call to remembrance the former days, and consider whether it was not then better with us, than it is now.”
The wilderness is a powerful figure in the Bible and our own histories. Recall that, though the frame of a Holy Land and a Holy People is the frame that tells the overall Biblical story, very near the beginning the Holy People, Adam and Eve, are cast out of the Holy Land, the Garden of Eden, into The Wilderness, where thorns and thistles infest the ground.
Cain, the killer of his brother Abel, was driven further east of Eden, Genesis 4 says, a wanderer on the earth. What was there for Noah to find, when he came out of his Ark and the waters had receded, but a dystopian wilderness beyond Hollywood’s imaginings. Abraham, called to leave his home and his father’s house, wandered his way through the wilderness to Canaan. Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, wandered in the wilderness of exile from his family.
Moses, already in his own wilderness of exile, called back to Egypt by God to deliver the Hebrew people from Pharoah, only to wander with them for forty years in the wilderness, blocked by their sins from entering the Promised, the Holy Land, until all who left Egypt had died, excepting only the faithful Joshua and Caleb.
Samuel Danforth reminds his hearers of their Errand into the Wilderness, the purpose of which was to find the Holy Land, the Promised Land of “Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel.” But Danforth wants to know if they have abandoned the Promise to return to the Wilderness.
The Wilderness, and its centrality in the Bible, holds up an ambivalent picture as a place of danger, but somehow a necessary danger. Jesus, coming out of the waters of baptism at the Jordan River, is “driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness,” Mark tells us. There he was tempted by the devil, quoting scripture to mislead Jesus, who responded to every temptation with another scripture quote.
The devil is in the wilderness, but so is salvation, for Jesus is present, just as the Rock followed the Hebrew people through the wilderness. This is the way Jordan Peterson characterizes Order and Chaos. His first book, “Twelves Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” is the road out of the wilderness, the search for order, pattern, meaning and accomplishment. His latest book, “Beyond Order: Twelve More Rules for Life,” teaches one how to deal with the chaos that invades every life, the random events, the chance happenings, the inexplicable challenges that require the previous strengths and abilities generated by the orderly life and mind.
In the Bible, Jesus goes into the wilderness, driven by the Holy Spirit, where at his weakest point after 40 days of fasting, the reverse of the Israelites 40 years of wandering, fed on Manna from Heaven, Jesus is tempted by the devil when he is without strength of his own, but not without a heart filled with the Word of God. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that precedes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus goes into the wilderness, confronts evil head on, and comes out stronger. When John the Baptist is born, his father, Zechariah, has his speech restored, says his name shall be John, and prophecies:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the dayspring shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, and came forth out of the wilderness to speak the truth to his people, and to Herod.
The wilderness was a place the 4th century monks sought out, that they might find the devil and resist his temptations, conquering him by the power of the cross and the word of God, extending the Kingdom, extending the Holy Land from the city into the surrounding wilderness.
After Adam and Eve are cast out, and the people of the land are scattered at the Tower of Babel, God makes a covenant with Abraham: he will be the father of a renewed Holy People, in a renewed Holy Land in which the people will dwell with God, which God promises to Abraham’s descendants.
Further, in the covenant at Mt. Sinai, God gives them the law through Moses, to teach them the paths of holiness in the life with God, and he instructs Moses in the construction of the tabernacle, where God will dwell with his holy covenant people. In like fashion, God promises an eternal Kingship to David to establish his people in justice, and a Temple where he will dwell permanently with his people.
Law and Kingship have to do with becoming just, a Holy People, and tabernacle and temple have to do with God’s indwelling wherein they share God’s holiness, the Holy Land.
The books of Samuel and Kings tell the story of how the people’s failure of righteousness and dearth of justice led to their exile, and the kingship of David’s descendants ends, and they lose the land and the temple. This is the essence of the Hebrew people’s relationship with the Lord, and they are returned to the wilderness, undone by their unfaithfulness.
But as Paul knows, in Romans 11:29, the gifts and call of God are irrevocable. God promised land and descendants to Abraham, and an eternal kingdom to David. We enter that story, that eternal promise today with the grief of Nehemiah.
The Babylonian captivity is over. The Jews were allowed to leave Babylon and return home. But to what? They returned to a wilderness, a devastated homeland. Though the massacre of Greenwood in Tulsa 100 years ago has been politicized, as virtually everything is nowadays, it was a true massacre. One of the wealthiest black communities in the country was invaded and burned to the ground by some of the white folk of Tulsa. More than 80 blacks were murdered. The entire district of Greenwood in Tulsa, homes and businesses, was burned to the ground, and there was nothing left to go home to. Those who survived the killings were driven from their homeland.
Around 445 BC, Nehemiah is still in Exile, living in the palace of Artaxerxes, the Persian King, grandson of Darius the Great, who was great-grandson of Cyrus the Great, victor over the Babylonians.
The people are delivered, but Nehemiah, 100 years later, is still in Persia, in a high and powerful and trusted position, as Cup-Bearer to the King, but nonetheless still in a foreign land, as John Keats said of Ruth, “the sad heart of Ruth when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”
This begins Nehemiah’s journey, not only through the wilderness, but to the wilderness, for he is called to the wilderness of home, to restore peace, to build up the ruins, to establish a joy and a place for a grateful and holy people. The poet John Holmes wrote a hymn which I’ve quoted to you before, very biblical in its figures:
Peace is the mind’s old wilderness cut down –
A wider nation than the founders dreamed.
Peace is the main street in a country town;
Our children named; our parents’ lives redeemed.
Not scholar’s calm, nor gift of church or state,
Nor everlasting date of death’s release;
But careless noon, the houses lighted late,
Harvest and holiday: the people’s peace.
The peace not past our understanding falls
Like light upon the soft white tablecloth
At winter supper warm between four walls,
A thing too simple to be tried as truth.
Days into years, the doorways worn at sill, Years into lives, the plans for long increase Come true at last for those of God’s good will:
These are the things we mean by saying, Peace.
Holmes says this peace is not the gift of church or state. He says this peace is “not past our understanding.” But what the poet does, willy-nilly, is incarnate the promise that Nehemiah knows, and grasps and seeks. Our children named. Light upon the soft white tablecloth. Winter supper warm between four walls.
These are not the gifts of wandering. These are not the fruit of chaos. Days into years, the doorways worn at sill; this is not the weary tread of Sarah following Abraham back and forth to Egypt and Canaan. There is no peace living in a tent.
Days into years, Years into lives, the plans for long increase
Come true at last for those of God’s good will. The poet speaks of the fruit of inculcated virtues, inherited as a gift of the grace of peace, peace which begins with the call of God. Peace which is a life lived in righteousness, sometimes far from peace, for the fruit and goal can sometimes only be glimpsed in the far-off hills.
Nehemiah could only see the walls of Jerusalem, the gates, the doors, the windows, the accompanying necessities of peaceful lives where children and grandparents are secure, Nehemiah could only see the light, in the darkness. He had to view the sadness to find the joy. He went out in the night, as Jesus and his disciples went out in the night after their last supper, Nehemiah went out and found his task, took hold of his call to build, to rebuild the walls of the City of God, Jerusalem, the City of Peace, the city of Melchizedek, priest and King of Salem.
Nehemiah entered the chaos of wilderness to find, rather, to establish peace by building, by preserving, by re-establishing the order of the city of peace.
The order of life itself is given by God to each person, for there is evening and there is morning, and one follows the other, seedtime and harvest. The order of life is an inherent pattern, and finding, strengthening and building upon that pattern, gift and giving, brings fruitfulness to life.
Are you entering or coming out from the wilderness? Is there too much or not enough chaos, unpredictability, creativity in your life? God leads in both directions, every life is different, every plant needs its own unique sustenance.
There are always those like Sanballat who desire only disorder and destructive chaos for their own purposes. What is there for you to rebuild in your life, in your family, in your church or community?
Nehemiah could see clearly for he had confessed his sins, as we read in ch. 1, he had prayed for mercy, and asked God to be attentive to the prayers of God’s servants who delight in revering his name.
Once Nehemiah knew what had to be done, he said to his allies in Jerusalem, “Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.
Twenty years before Nehemiah, Ezra the scribe had strengthened their faith and restored the Torah to the people. Under Ezra the people had returned to Judah, renewed the sacrifices, restored Passover and rebuilt the Temple.
But to maintain the peace and viability of the city the walls must be restored. The Wall is an essential part of the city, even as se see in the book of Revelation: The new holy city of Jerusalem had 12 gates with the name of the 12 Tribes and the wall of the city had 12 Foundations, on them being the names of the 12 apostles.
The wall of the city is its essence, its identity, where it begins and ends. What is our city? Our city is the city Simeon and Reuben and Zebulon and Naphtali, Peter and Andrew and James and John.
We are a people who are named, we are this and not that, for to be this is and shall always be also not that. We follow, and are disciples of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and not the lords of Washington, DC. We are faithful to our spouses, kind to our neighbors, protective of our children and the children of all. We are pilgrims, travelers, passing through the wilderness.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
Sunday, May 30th Revelation 4:1-11
The Sense of an Ending. That phrase popped into my head when I began looking at Revelation 4 as the close of my series on the Letters to the Churches in Asia in Revelation 2 and 3. It was yet another example, this popping up, of the way that wide but careful reading and study furnishes later life with a basis for understanding and insight. I had read an interview with CS Forester in The Hornblower Companion back in college days, and he described the process as analogous to an old rotten log. There were lots of Hornblower novels in the various Readers Digest Condensed books I found on my parents’ bookshelves in high school days, and at some point I bought this book called the Hornblower Companion for myself, probably at a Walden Books at the local mall.
Like some rich duke laying down expensive wines in his cellars for his grandchildren, Forester analogizes the way things come back to one’s mind, like a wooden log sunk to the bottom of a marsh for years when it became waterlogged, one day bubbles up to the surface again due to the gases within the log, of decomposition. A vivid though not pretty metaphor, it has stayed with me, as an incentive to ponder other thinkers and other types of thinkers. To read widely. To lay down lots of logs.
The Sense of an Ending. I learned recently that the phrase is the name of a novel by Julian Barnes, though I jave never read that novel. It’s only five years old or so, and the phrase felt older than that. I eventually found that it’s also the name of a book by Canadian critic Frank Kermode. It’s a 1967 book about the way in which humanity’s need for a sense of story in our lives, drives and creates the process by which we write and tell stories to ourselves.
We yearn to place ourselves within the context of a narrative that has a beginning, middle and an end. It seems to be an inherent human trait that we seek out “meaning” within the year to year unfolding of our story, which can also be compared to a journey, which conveniently also normally has a beginning, middle and end, for a journey without a destination is merely a ramble, a meander, a stroll.
God created the world. Adam and Eve fell from grace. Jesus Christ died on the cross to redeem the world, and rose from the dead to begin all anew. He ascended into heaven, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
After the seven letters to Asia in Revelation 2 and 3, we read in ch. 4 “After this I looked, and behold, in heaven an open door!” Revelation could be called a timeless document, because it moves forward and backward, it moves without a limiting reference to time or order of events. Is ch. 4 now, or eternity? Is ch. 4 a foresight of what is yet to be, or is it a vision of what always is?
Two things in ch. 4 tell us that in this particular case, we are being given a glimpse of what could be called a spiritual time, a divine hiatus open and available to every person, in likeness to the previous verses where Jesus says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” He doesn’t say, “I will stand.” He doesn’t say, “I stood.” He says, “Behold, I stand.” Present tense. This brief statement is given to us as a description of the present moment, and fits, for now, the vision of ch. 4, “In heaven an open door.”
The way we know that ch. 4 is not entirely a vision of eternity, not a picture of a timeless state, is first, that open door. We know that doors open and shut, and without that active function, a door is merely an opening in a wall. Or rather, there is no door. But here we have a door. First, Jesus is knocking on that door. And second, we’re shown the Open Door, a door that has opened for you and for me. A door like this is the kind of door that opens from within. In the words of Jesus to the church in Philadelphia: “These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
A door controls movement and access. A door protects and welcomes. The Roman God Janus, for whom January was named, looking forward and backward, Janus was associated with doors, specifically the threshold of the door, which determined whether one was inside or out. There are very ancient superstitions associated with thresholds, as I Samuel 5 shows us.
But an Open door, as in verse 1, will eventually be closed. Speaking with the assumptions about the nature and physics of the world prevalent in the first century, 2 Peter 3 says this: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
Many have, in the 20th century, compared this verse to an atomic explosion of the earth in some horrible war making attack gone wrong, when every atomic weapon is launched at once and the whole earth explodes. This was the stuff of fear and nightmares 40 years ago at the height of the cold war. But Peter does not indicate that the earth of God’s creation is vanished in destruction.
But, as with all the language of last judgment, the final assize, the Day of the Lord, found in the Old and New Testaments, there is a punctuated aspect to all this; the Open Door, the Throne, the Elders and the Living Creatures. Punctuated, with a period. Things stop. As Herbert Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The period points to an end. Our own lives teach us this. Time, in so far as it is a measure of life as we have known it on this side of the door, shall cease.
Time is a gift from God to each person to turn, to repent, to come to one’s creator. This is why time is sometimes short. “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses,” Jesus said of the prophet Jezebel in Revelation 2. The essence of time is not what is measured by the clock or the calendar, for that practice is like the child aimlessly counting his blocks over and over again. No doubt, there were 60 seconds in the minute just past. And, you would likely agree, there will be in the minute just ahead of us as well. How do we know that? Because we’ve decided that’s how you divide up a minute. There is nothing innated about it. Someone invented the second, the minute and the hour.
So that’s not really time. No, time, time, is the patience of the Lord. That’s what time is. The patience of the Lord, constitutes time, like juice constitutes a grape. “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
So, the Open door is one way we know that Revelation 4 is more of a present vision rather than of the future eternity, because for a door to be a door at all, it must one day close. So, a change is yet to come. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” When time shall be no more, the outside is forever outside. In the ancient world, inside the walls of a carefully guarded city with the gates barred, was the only protection from the enemy outside the walls. The picture language of Revelation, intended to reassure and edify its readers at the time, aims not to solve our metaphysical conundrums, but instead speaks to the human heart, standing on the threshold of, truly, the only door that matters.
There’s another way that the glorious vision of Revelation 4 reveals its location within the story still being lived and told. If this is the first time you’ve heard this chapter read, for some people avoid Revelation like a scary movie, much of the figurative language used here comes from the prophets, especially Ezekiel and Isaiah. From the prophets, as well as Exodus, come the gems, the white robes, the thunders and lightnings, the four living creatures, with all the wings, and eyes. Worse than my grandmother, who only had four eyes, two in the back of her head. Whoever the 24 elders represent, they’re present in this chapter, to point to the glory, before whom they cast their crowns in worship and sing their songs of praise.
But as has been said many times; it’s so easy to overlook the small things, or the things we don’t recognize or understand, or think are important. I understand that. We think when we can’t figure out one thing, and another, and yet another, that we’ll never figure it out. But the way Bible interpretation works, you read it anyway, regularly. Until it becomes familiar enough to trigger you, in a good sense, and you think, hey, I’ve seen this before. I’ve read something like this. It doesn’t happen all at once, or quickly, or easily.
As my Chaucer professor said long ago, quoting Boccaccio: “You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark.”
God gives his wisdom to those who desire wisdom and search it out. As Job says,
“People assault the flinty rock with their hands and lay bare the roots of the mountains. They tunnel through the rock; their eyes see all its treasures.
11 They search the sources of the rivers and bring hidden things to light.
12 But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? It cannot be bought with the finest gold, nor can its price be weighed out in silver. It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir, with precious onyx or lapis lazuli. The price of wisdom is beyond rubies. Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell? God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. And he said to the human race, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”
Others have pointed the way, others long dead and forgotten, and to understand this passage about the throne room of God we must listen to those who knew not Isaac Newton or Galileo or Copernicus. Who never dreamed of electricity or steam power. People who searched out the wisdom of God, and were given his Spirit to speak his Word in and into the world, for in Revelation 4, we learn that the story is not yet over that John is telling because, as verse 6 says, “before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.”
Two things to notice here, to understand what we read. The location and the quality. The sea is “before the throne,” and it is a “sea of glass, like crystal.” Smooth, clear. Not the normal condition of the sea. Now, ask yourself this, if the sea were made of crystal, you could probably, walk on it, couldn’t you?
IN the gospel stories, Jesus demonstrates, not a party trick, but that he is the Lord God, as it says in Job 9, “He is wise in heart and mighty in strength… who alone stretched out the heavens, and trampled the waves of the sea.” And it goes on in verse 11 of Job 9: “Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him.”
This is the one who says to the disciples in the boat, “It is I, be not afraid,” in the same way the Lord uses that exact language in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah, “I am who I am,” translated in the old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible with Jesus’ Greek words, “Ego eimi.”
The Sea’s presence before the throne is like that of a defeated enemy. A losing King or General was often required to prostrate himself before the victorious King. Sometimes, they would literally serve as the King’s footstool. The Roman Emperor Valerian, defeated by the Persians in 360 AD, was the Persian King’s mounting stool for his horse, and eventually he was skinned and stuffed to become the King’s permanent footstool. Or so go the Roman legends.
The sea is all that is bad, not just in the Bible, but amongst all the desert peoples in the Bronze Age, the time right before King Saul. The sea is where the dragon of evil dwells, at the roots of the mountains; the sea swallows up all who venture, “down to the sea in ships,” as Ps. 107 says, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits' end.[b]
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
29 He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad that the waters[c] were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.”
The sea, in the mythologies of all the ancient desert peoples was most to be feared as the place of all evil. Clearly this is the presupposition of the story of Noah and the Flood. This can be seen in any number of the Psalms.
But for us, getting back to the here and now nature of Revelation 4, we know that the description of the “sea was like glass, like crystal,” is a report on the process of God’s deliverance of his creation from evil because of what we read later in Revelation.
Chs. 21 and 22 are the finale of the book of Revelation and the Bible as a whole. The beast, the false prophet, all that is arrayed against God, have been cast into the lake of fire in ch. 19. And in ch. 20, the devil, that ancient serpent is cast into the lake of fire.
Ch. 21 begins this way: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea, was no more.” You hear that? Not as smooth as glass and clear as crystal. Gone. This is the beginning of the climax of the story. There are two more chapters to describe the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.
In our end is our beginning. But we begin the end, with three things. New Heaven, New Earth, no sea. The sense of an ending gives us a place in the story. A goal. A destiny. This is yours. The tree of life. The healing leaves. The Lamb of God whose light shines forever. No more night.
“Behold,” the Lamb says, “I am coming soon. Blessed is he who keeps the words of this book.”
Sunday, May 23rd Revelation 3:14-22
I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who said parents have to be careful about taking their children to church every week because they might actually listen to what’s being said. And then no telling what might happen. That happened to me. We went to church every week from the time I was about 10 years old, 2 or 3 times some weeks. It was the same preacher from my youth up until I got married and moved away in 1977.
I’ve told you before how Ahab and Jezebel were characters in my imagination from an early age. Korah, Dathan and Abiram, Hophni, Phinehas and Ichabod were as familiar to me as my grade school teachers. Elijah and Mt. Carmel, and the city of Laodicea, were as well known to me as the streets of my neighborhood, or which houses had bad dogs that would chase kids on bicycles.
Our preacher clearly had some favorite texts to which he returned repeatedly, and I grew up hearing about these awful Laodiceans over and over again. Even though we typically used the King James bible in church, the preacher said there’s a better word for what’s said in Revelation 3:16. That the warning of Jesus was not so much that those who were lukewarm would be spewed from his mouth, but that Jesus would, as our preacher seemed to love reminding us, vomit us forth from his mouth. Our preacher was no whiz bang of a Greek scholar, but I did learn much later that he was in Greek class at Johnson Bible College with two guys who sorta were. David Eubanks, who went on to serve as the President of Johnson for 38 years, and Fred Craddock, who taught New Testament at our own Philips Bible Seminary and later at Emory where I went to seminary, and who told me about being in school with my preacher.
So I think it’s fair to say that a translation of verse 16 that has Jesus vomiting up the lukewarm church is reasonably accurate. After all, the word in question is “emesai” related to the familiar English word, “Emetic.” For mothers of small children, syrup of ipecac comes to mind. In any case, this last of these seven letters to the churches of Asia, all given as spoken in the voice of Jesus, is severe, challenging, and daunting in its condemnation of the church that is neither hot nor cold. Lukewarm.
Now as with everything in the Bible, a text must be interpreted by the grace and favor of the Holy Spirit, read, heard, understood and used as intended.
Breece Pancake was a writer from my generation who killed himself in 1979. From West Virginia, he had always said that Revelation 3:15-16 was his favorite verse in the Bible. “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” The cause of suicide is always complicated by mysteries available to no one but the dead. Though some do, it makes no good sense to say that the daunting nature of a verse with Jesus Christ vomiting out of himself the lukewarm sinner is the cause of this man’s or anyone else’s suicide.
But. But. It’s still necessary and appropriate to take the opportunity to read and place this shocking verse in its context and thus open ourselves to the transformational power of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. The beginning and ending and middle of the letter are, unsurprisingly, important to hear in order to know what it means and what it purports for us as hearers and followers of Jesus.
Who is speaking? “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and the beginning of God’s creation.” Who is speaking here? He has introduced himself in many ways in these letters, but here we’re reminded of the way Resurrection ties to creation. For a resurrected crucified one is only possible because he is vindicated by the God of Creation. What does Paul say? If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The words of the beginning of God’s creation. He is the faithful witness. Faithful all the way, to the cross, through the cross. He is the true witness, speaking and living God’s truth to Pilate and Caiaphas and all the Sanhedrin. Truly, truly I say to you. That’s the way Jesus begins many of his sayings, but since we brought up translations of Bible words, you might know that this is quite often found in the Gospel of John, 27 times in fact. Amen, Amen, lego humin. Verily, verily. Truly, truly, I say to you. The Amen of God is the True witness.
This is one reason why lying is such a deadly business. It is a practice, a characteristic behavior of evil, of nothingness, of all that hates what is human and what is God’s. “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
To lie is to reject reality, to reject that which is, to reject one’s own self and existence. Jesus is the Amen, the true and faithful witness, who speaks to the Laodiceans in ways they can understand. Laodicea was well known for a couple of things. It was near a town called Hierapolis, which was the site of a hot springs, and already well known as a Spa town. But, famously, by the time the hot water reached Laodicea it was tepid. Lukewarm.
Laodicea was also known, not for its impregnable fortress position, like Sardis, not for its ability to resist a siege in a time of war, like Smyrna, but for its wealth. It was strategically well situated for commerce, and rose to prominence under the protection of the Roman Pax, mentioned last week. Cicero mentioned it in his letters as a center of banking, and it was also famous for a unique type of woolen material, which when woven into textiles, was black and glossy.
The medical school in Laodicea was mentioned by the ancient medical writer Galen because it was noted for what was called “Phrygian powder” an unknown substance used to make eye salve.
The people of Laodicea are comfortable. They are well off, proud, independent. Why otherwise does Jesus characterize them as thinking they are “rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.”? If not luxury, they are certainly in the lap of comfort. They, unusually enough, had turned FEMA down when they had an earthquake in 60 AD. I say FEMA, Rome had offered imperial aid in the wake of the disaster, but Laodicea was rich, and they were municipally proud of being wealthy enough not to need a bailout from the Empire.
It is the idolatry of wealth, a slippery, dangerous attraction for all people, religious and otherwise, that is at issue here. Money is not the root of all evil, the love of money is the root of all evil, Paul says. Idolatry is not bowing and scraping before a marble statue, it is living in loyalty to anything before God. Life is all about competing interests, and varying loyalties. Hopefully we can negotiate our pilgrimage without any one of our important loyalties, to home, heritage, family, spouse, child, country, coming between us and our devotion to God.
There are lesser gods all around us though. We can make a voracious, demanding, consuming god out of any actual good in the world, for where do we think the demons came from? They didn’t create themselves. They were angels, fallen like we are, as Shakespeare said in Sonnet 94, “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
It is not the worst in the world that often tempts the Christian, but the best. Sex and food, and the beauties of nature, even the strength given by God to protect the innocent. We were pointlessly worried, as it turns out, all last year about catching the virus from touching things, but the touch of fallen humanity, and by touch I mean the misuse, the mal-use let’s say, of God’s created goodness, can turn the lowliest creature into an idol of destruction.
The story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness was about resisting the temptations of idolatry. Idolatry changes from age to age, of course. Can one fall to the idolatry of simply being known, or recognized by millions? The idolatry of fame? Being an influencer, in the current jargon? Having more Twitter followers than one’s friends or colleagues? Or the idolatry of wealth, thinking it will solve all our problems?
We suffer no contagion from what we touch. It’s the other way round. Too often the contagion comes from us, and we turn the fairest creature into the foulest idol.
Jesus says to the Laodiceans, “you are poor, you are naked, you are blind, you are deserving of pity.” You are the sick beggar on the corner. You have nothing while, and because, you think you have everything. But you have let go the one thing needful.
The solution Jesus suggests is odd to our ears, that the Laodiceans should buy from him gold refined in the fire that they might be rich. If you’re poor how can you buy gold? But unlike the character in the book of James who theoretically says to the poor man, “Be warmed, be filled,” Jesus does not leave us hopeless.
In just the previous letter, the Key of David was referenced, describing Jesus with an allusion to Isaiah 22, the only other place in the Bible that phrase is used. You’ve probably heard the verse in Isaiah 55 that says, “he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” This makes as much sense as “Come buy gold from me refined in the fire.” That is, until we see those last two words, “without price.”
I have nothing with which to buy what I need from Jesus. Neither do the Laodiceans, of course. Unless, perhaps, they give up to Jesus that which they have and mistakenly think is valuable. But we come to Jesus to be refined. When gold is refined it is burned, heated till it is molten and all the impurities can be removed, skimmed from the surface leaving behind only that which is pure, and purified. What does Jesus give us when we buy that refined gold? He gives us himself, the purified, that we may be made pure. Psalm 19 says the law of the Lord is perfect, and the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold. Fine gold means, refined gold, 24 karat.
A purity that only comes from suffering. It’s clear the price is repentance. A change of life, and a simple willingness to just open the door.
I’ve noticed through the years that women have an advanced sense of smell. Most married men could testify to this. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just me, but I think women smell things that are beyond the senses of a man. On the other hand, men, some men, hear things, even when they’re asleep, that women don’t hear. When our children were little, I quite often heard a noise, a something, a bump in the night. I was immediately on my feet and out of bed, checking to make the sure the doors were locked.
And sometimes it would happen, and it used to happen even before I was married, that I would have a sudden terror, that as I was approaching the door to lock it, or check it, something, something else was approaching the door from the other side. And I would rush to lock the door. There never was anything, of course, but the door was important, a vital border, between me, and the dark, the unknown.
Opening the door as Jesus calls the Laodiceans, calls you, to do, is opening the door not to the dark, but to the light. Not to the something, but to the one thing, the one thing needful. I wish I could say it’s not opening the door to danger, but that’s not my promise to make. Jesus says, I’m knocking. I stand at the door knocking.
Back in the thirties the Knock Knock joke craze took England and America by storm. A man named Wee Georgie told a number of Knock Knock on the radio in 1936, and they just took off from there, as they were easy to make up from the basic format. The Knock Knock joke had a rather chilling ancestry, likely coming from the Porter scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the porter, grumbling about having to get up from his warm fire to let in MacDuff and Lennox, makes a number of bad jokes about the variety of sinners knocking at the gates of hell to be let in; liars, traitors, thieves.
But could these knockings have been comments, reflections on the original caller, this iconic caller, later painted by Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, the one who knocks at every person’s door, sooner or later, in whatever means of fashion. God calls all. Not all open the door. God plants the seeds. Not all grow or survive.
Behold I stand at the door and knock. And what will happen if we open the door? Jesus will come in, and sup with us. Come buy food and drink without money, Isaiah says. Those two blessed disciples on the road to Emmaus: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,”
He spreadeth a table before me. The simple act, the choice, to open the door, which clearly seems to mean “to repent,” leads us to the Banquet table of God, and if that weren’t enough, this letter really piles it on.
The Laodiceans are the most chastened and condemned of all the cities of Asia in this series, but notice that none of the prior six are invited to sit on the throne of Jesus with his father. All of the promises are wonderful; I will confess his name, I will give him the morning star, the crown of life; but this has a different, more intense feel to it. “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
Why such contrast? I will vomit you out of my mouth! And, I will grant you to sit with me on my throne. This is simply hammered into the nature of reality. There is no escape from discipline and chastening. Do you wish to be unloved and ignored? “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.” Be zealous. The opposite of lukewarm, is it not?
Isaiah Berlin talked about the crooked timber of humanity, the name of a book, his reflection on the sad, sorry stories of the human tale. But God is building a house on the rock. He is building a temple, and the lumber must be straightened, one way or another.
The saving, straightening moment was at Calvary, for all of our sin was placed on him that day. But as he is our pioneer, the author and perfecter of our salvation, we must walk in his steps. “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord.”
Sunday, May 16th Revelation 3:7-13
In our Sunday night class on Why Liberalism Failed, a book by Patrick Deneen, we’re learning about a deeper view of Liberalism as a movement and historical concept. You have to leave behind your partisan view of the word to understand the point of the book, for historically “liberal” is associated with freedom, with liberty, you can see the etymological connection there, and connected with the intended improvements that came from philosophical movements that centered on the individual as opposed to the group, learning as opposed to tradition and the human over the rest of nature, focused on the division between the two.
In my memory, the 1988 presidential election was when the word “liberal” became somewhat weaponized by VP Bush’s campaign chair, Lee Atwater, as a stick to beat Gov. Dukakis with. Prior to the post Kennedy era of politics, Liberal wasn’t as useful in categorizing political positions, and there were many liberal national Republicans, and conservative national Democrats.
A lot of money can be made in politics, and you don’t always have to win elections to do so. Think of all the political consultants, advisors, advertisers, media analysts, sign printers, internet consultants, etc. that are paid to run and stage campaigns from President down to City Councilman. Everybody gets a little grease. There’s always at least one loser in a campaign, but everybody else wins, and I’m not talking about participation trophies.
For all the rest who don’t get paid, that is to say, voters, you and me, motivational incentives must be developed, which is usually fear of, or anger at the other guy, the other party, the other people. While all the above mentioned are making money, what is the product that is sold? Well, you are. The voter. And the ginned-up voter, a phrase that likely came from the practice of passing out gin to one’s partisan supporters on election day back in the 1700s, the scared voter, the angry voter, is the voter who can be counted on, relied on, the voter who is the foundation of the base, as politicians call their most reliable supporters.
If you’ve thought about it a few minutes, you know all this. This is nothing new, really. What’s new to me is the history of liberalism, whether it’s the state or the free market that over time degrades and deconstructs traditional communities, families, customs and practices of long standing. Many Americans, ourselves included, have lived isolated from these ill effects, to some degree, but the slow development of enlightenment liberalism that is part of both sides of our partisan divide, has slowly and often irrepably eaten through the structures of civilization like an acid that dissolves the strongest material.
But I don’t come to scare or anger you today. I bring up our boogie men to pull back the curtain on the Wizard. I name the powers and principalities so we can know our adversary. Our letter to Philadelphia from Revelation 3 is heard today in a vastly different situation than that which faced those original readers. Now known as Alasehir in Turkey, Philadelphia was likely the first of many cities to receive that name, in this case named for King Attalus Philadelphos, King of Pergamum in 189 BC.
The book of Revelation was written in a time of relative peace and prosperity. And sometimes those are the most dangerous times in which a Christian may live. If we agree with the scholars, Revelation was written right around the end of the first century AD. 100 AD, give or take 10 years, which would put it slap dab in the middle of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. It was written during the time of the Five Good Emperors, as they’re unironically called by historians, a time extending from Nerva, in 96 AD, through Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and ending with Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. The son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, was considered the end of the Pax Romana because of the many conflicts of his 12-year rule, and his rule was followed by the Year of Five Emperors, all bad, though Septimius, the last of the five, restored a period of relative tranquility.
But this Pax Romana is counter-intuitive to our imagination of the setting of the Book of Revelation because we read about the bowls of wrath and the beasts and dragons and it sounds terrible. The Pax is considered to have lasted from the accession of Augustus in 27 BC to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. Roughly two centuries. But just because historians refer to an era as peaceful doesn’t mean everyone had a comfortable seat under their own vine and their own fig tree. It doesn’t mean there was a chicken in every pot, or 40 acres and a mule for everybody.
2000 years from now who will remember the Tutsis and the Hutus, and their reciprocal slaughter in Rwanda? Who will remember the Rohingya of Burma, or the Karen tribe of Thailand, or the Uyghurs of China? Who will remember five abandoned little girls under the age of 7, at the border in Eagle Pass, TX, left to live or die in 100-degree heat?
While we have been building our careers and raising our children, and enjoying our grandchildren, and funding our retirement, Chinese mothers have had their second child forcibly aborted or taken from them after birth. Venezuela has been circling the drain for years, but 30 years ago it was the richest most stable country in Latin America. Our era feels one way to us but another to the less fortunate.
In addition to geographic disparities, one can live in the wealthiest, safest time and place of all, and still suffer. There was a lot of pushback recently about multimillionaire Michelle Obama’s perceived whining on national television about her low-grade depression. It does seem incongruous, but I guess rich people can feel pain and depression as much as anybody. But they should probably not complain about it on TV.
Assume you were born with a Trust fund that would never run out, would always provide you a million dollars income a year. And it went up with inflation. But you got married a started a family, and your first child was kidnapped and murdered, your second child ran away and never speaks to you and your third child got into drugs and lives under a bridge somewhere. You’d be in a lot of pain. You’d be mad at God, mad at the world, mad at everybody. No amount of money could make that better. You are under the spell of the beast. There are people of all kinds who can’t get past the pain, rich and poor.
All around the world back in 100 AD, children died of dysentery, and slaves died from abuse, the rich and the poor died from contagions and warfare. But it was the time of the peace of Rome.
Jesus says to the church of Philadelphia: “I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may deprive you of your crown.” One elementary principle of interpretation is to assume that the original readers of a document would have understood it, or at least that the writer would have wanted them to understand, would have assumed they could understand what he was sending them. The hour of ordeal, explicitly referenced only in this letter, among the seven letters, is nonetheless the overall topic of the rest of the book of Revelation. What is to come. The trial, the tribulation, the test.
Build your house on the rock, for the floods are coming. However they are characterized. Hold fast to what you have. You will testify before many, do not fear them, the Holy Spirit will tell you what to say. Those who confess me before the world, I will confess before my father. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world.”
There is some indication of a trial, a coming difficulty that the Philadelphian, the Ephesians, and all the recipients of these letters will have to endure. Though not explicitly mentioned in the other letters, all seven letters are a part of the revelation, the opening of the mystery of the ages found in the rest of the book, which is not so much a sequel as a retelling of the gospel story, in a different mode.
Revelation is a word of hope, of confidence, of encouragement to its first readers. Who ever talks to you about your crown? Did you know you have one? Or, will have one? Revelation sometimes feels too good to be true, mainly because we are obsessively focused on this world to the point where we remain almost ignorant of the next. Remember the glimmer of panic that struck some when gas stations were showing up on the news last week with no gas? Remember the fear last year of possibly having to live without toilet paper? Remember the outrage of people in Texas in February with no power or heat in their homes?
Somehow the world managed for centuries without all those things. Of course, our expectations have changed, and most of us can’t go out and jump on our horse when we run out of gas, or build a bigger fire when the electricity fails. But a different world is not the end of the world. It’s just the end of the world as we know it.
I’m hoping not to have to enter any kind of hall in heaven with an introduction: “Welcome to Steve Odom, from 21st century America. Coddled, cosseted, and overfed, he thought Texas was too hot and Tennessee too cold, and complained all the time that his feet hurt.” That’s my nightmare. I fear standing next to people who had nothing, nothing, except their faith in Jesus Christ and loyalty to him when faced with a bonfire, a cross, or an arena with lions.
Of course, you and I are merely the beneficiaries, not the creators of the wealth and largesse of our own American empire. We grow accustomed to what we think we possess. Fear and anxiety and worry are individual and relative for every person. But the follower of Jesus has a lodestar unlike any other. We have a promise. We have a trustworthy guide, a pioneer that will not leave us comfortless or courseless. No matter what happens, he is still our Lord, our Savior, our advocate.
The Philadelphians, like the church in Smyrna, receive the “well done thou good and faithful servant” acclamation from their Lord in this letter. There is no, “I have this against you,” in this letter. “I know your works; I know that you have kept my word and not denied my name. You have kept my word of patient endurance.”
The promises of this holy one, this true one, who has the key of David, are tender words of a nurse to a suffering patient. Endure. Hold on. Look what’s coming to you. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, and my own new name.
These are strange mystical words that stir something within, even when we can’t identify what it is. I see people with all kinds of things written on their bodies, slogans, teams, names of pop stars, cuss words. I don’t understand most of what I see, and I don’t think vs. 12 is a reference to some kind of divine tattoo, but it is a message of identity, a promise. If you conquer, I will write on you, the name of my God.
Conquering, in the book of Revelation, is not what is normally meant by that word. In Revelation, to conquer is to hold fast. Hold fast to what’s already given to us. It’s almost a negative accomplishment. It describes those who do not give fealty to Caesar, those who do not curse the name of Christ, those who do not sacrifice to Roma, or Venus, or Mars. These are those who conquer. The pressure to conform in our world is more subtle and sometimes more insidious, for it is not couched with threats of death by torture. We are coaxed, we are nudged, and persuaded that this is the way everyone lives, this is what everyone does, this is what everyone believes. Why should I be different, why should I stand out? We all know that the nail that sticks up gets hammered.
Facebook sells its customers’ data to advertisers as a product, after collecting it from all those posts and photos and memes we put on there. The big Tech social media companies have more data on each of us than would have been thought possible 20 years ago. And the more you know about someone, the easier it is to persuade them, economically or politically. Especially if the equation is unbalanced, and the skill levels are unequal.
By the time of the fifth century AD, the Roman Empire was fraying around the edges, and the most literate of the society, especially in Gaul, what we now know as France, began to notice the loss of the literate culture among the general population. We can see it even in the language and literary capabilities of the poets of 5th and 6th century, and near the end of that time, writers are more focused on preserving what they have, than on writing new material. And what they do write is almost like literary replicas of classical works, as if John Grisham wrote in the language and idiom of Samuel Johnson. Experts can tell the difference between Hepplewhite or Sheraton furniture and later replicas, or reproductions.
This is the time of the development of the first encyclopedias. People like Cassiodorus and Isidore began thinking about how to hand on what was already accomplished, because they’re looking across the river of the future and see the end of an era. This is the time of monastic “copyshops” where monks write out copies not just of Scripture, but of Plato and Cicero, Aristotle and even Ovid.
Our own deteriorating grasp of what prior generations connected with, tells me we are in or approaching a similar time. The world may get richer, and safer, and more peaceful, and healthier in all kinds of ways, but if we lose the word, how will we hear The Word. If the word, whether inspired or otherwise no longer speaks to the heart, if there are no more ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, only endless choruses sung to three repetitive chords, only political alignments and disalignments and realignments, for or against a man who holds a Bible for a picture, for or against this president or that president, only admiration for the past but no engagement in the present, the church will change in ways that can only be retrograde, not positive for the hope of the soul that knows not Christ.
Jesus never promises progress. Have you noticed that? 1914 sure didn’t feel like progress, nor 1917, nor 1929, or 1941 or 1951. 1989 looked better, but it was followed by 2001, and 2008 and now 2020.
Progress is in the hands of God. Providence is the way that God works in the world through the virtue, patience, faithfulness of the servants of God. The mystery of God’s holding back his hand in the world, of sending salvation through the weakness of a man born of a woman, is the same providence that saves, that generates the true glory of a man or woman, who understands that to conquer is sometimes to speak and sometimes to be silent, sometimes to act, and sometimes to hold back from acting. There is a time, and a season, in the providence of God for the duties and call of every person, each of us made by God for his purposes.
Let all hear what the spirit says to the churches.
Sunday, May 9th Revelation 3:1-6
We’re all familiar with the way different people can experience the same event, and yet perceive and understand that same event in vastly different ways. There are ongoing investigations from a forensic standpoint into the ways eyewitness testimony can under certain situations be less than 100% accurate.
There are other sources of differing perceptions of course, one of the most common and obvious to us all being that each of us is different and brings different skills and experiences of life to our interpretations of all that we perceive.
Were we to isolate ourselves from outside influence, and ask the question, “What is the central theme, or most important aspect, of this reading from Revelation 3,” there would undoubtedly be many different answers. The more variability you introduce into your subject group, age, sex, religion, wealth, first language, etc., the more the response would differ.
Missionaries to pre-modern tribal societies have long noticed this, as well as the fact that the many Old Testament stories that carry little intrinsic interest for us, become central to the interests and curiosity of tribes completely removed from Western cultures and history.
For example, tribal groups in India who are neither Aryan or Dravidian in origin hear the Bible from a standpoint that is often closer to the experience of the original Hebrews addressed in the Old Testament. These Dalits and Adivasi, as they are called, thought to be indigenous 3,000 years ago, are neither Hindu nor Muslim, they don’t look like most Indians, they are mostly below the poverty line, which is pretty low in India, and they are generally alienated from everything about national Indian culture.
There is a recognition when they hear certain Bible verses. The resonance is different when they hear Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Or this from Deuteronomy 24: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”
Their connection, by means of similar life-situation, to the recipients of these Old Testament texts from 3,000 years ago, enables a more direct link of situation to interpretation. The hearer experiences the real-life compassion of the Lord. They hear their own feeling and experience already described in the holy book. To hear this is know that God sees, God hears. Hope is sometimes born from mere recognition. Most don’t know this, but 88% of the population of Nagaland, a State in India, is Christian. Two other states, Meghalaya and Mizoram, are also majority Christian.
These are just examples of what I want you to experience when we see a few things about our own reception of this letter to Sardis, but also of your reception of a sermon on the letter to Sardis after you have learned that the preacher is leaving, retiring. You’re hearing today a sermon that will be one of the last 13 sermons I will deliver here.
If you heard last week’s sermon today, exactly as I wrote it, you would hear it differently than you did a week ago. This has to do with the ethos of the preacher, the situation, which now has changed from a week ago. My words, though not as extreme as a dying man’s last words, are nonetheless similar in that there is now a predictable endpoint. Every preacher has some earned capital that must be sometimes spent. Just like in retirement itself, I will now be spending capital, and will try to bear that in mind the next few weeks.
But more important in the long term for each of us, is our attention to all the details that God gives us in the texts we read from scripture. It’s hard for us to imagine that perhaps 15% of Americans have no memory at all of the events of 9/11. Anyone younger than 25 or so will have little real memory of that day of the attack. In a fashion similar to the fact that I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, the day that will live in infamy, whereas those 90 and older can recall the visceral feeling when the news came over the radio that Sunday morning in December of 1941.
The experience changes you. The experience of 9/11 changed the Fire Department of New York city and its family members in ways that you and I were not changed.
And so sometimes it’s helpful to be aware of the situation in life of the Bible’s original hearers, readers and recipients.
Most of us know nothing about the city of Sardis. We’ve never been there. The ancient city is in ruins, like so many. Before today we perhaps knew it had a vague biblical sound to it. By now, if you’ve heard the previous four weeks sermons on these letters in Revelation, you could guess that Sardis is located in Turkey, known then as the province of Asia, already a part of the Roman Empire by John’s time.
But we wouldn’t know, and I certainly did not know, that Sardis was a capital city. It was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. The name Lydia is familiar to Bible readers from Acts 16, where it is the name of a businesswoman who comes to faith in Christ through the apostle Paul. She was from Thyatira, our city from last week, and Thyatira, like all seven cities from this group in Revelation 2 and 3, was located in Lydia, which was essentially the western half of present-day Turkey. Being named Lydia would be like naming your child America or Tennessee.
Why do we need to know anything about Sardis and Lydia to understand this text? Why does it matter that Sardis is capital of Lydia? Isn’t the Bible the same for everybody? Doesn’t the Bible speak to all of us, all of humanity, for all time?
In a word, no. But also yes. The Bible does speak to all of us. The Bible is the same, however well or poorly it is sometimes translated. But of course, what is different is you, and me. And the Dalit tribesman in India, as well as the merchant or farmer in Sardis 2,000 years ago. We are different from each other, and so we hear differently. We experience things differently.
For example, regardless of what you think of the British Royal family, you would experience having breakfast with Prince Charles differently than his sister Princess Anne would. You would remember it. “This is actually the heir to the throne of Great Britain that I’m sitting across the table from,” you would say to yourself, while watching him try to figure out what grits are. Anne would be less impressed with her older brother than you or I would. Anne, after all, has competed in the Olympics, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Charles has not.
Your background makes a difference. To live in Sardis 2,000 years ago was to be aware that you lived in the capital of the former empire of Lydia, which was home to the King who was so wealthy, his very name turned into a synonym for wealth. Until our current crop of zillionaires came along, one wasn’t as rich as Bill Gates of Warren Buffet, but as “rich as Croesus.” The wealth of King Croesus was renowned, but even his wealth couldn’t protect him, and may have led him into foolish decisions.
For Croesus, in 546 BC, attacked the Persians and was soundly defeated by Cyrus the Great, and his capitol city Sardis was conquered. The acropolis of Sardis, the indomitable fortress built at the pinnacle of the city would have remained indomitable but for a thief in the night. For Sardis had never been captured by force, and it wasn’t even in 546, because invaders of Persia entered the city by stealth under cover of night because a traitor opened the gates, when its defenders were not expecting it.
A similar event happened in 218 BC. Sardis had surrendered to the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 334 BC, but in 218, in the series of small wars that ensued between Alexander’s Ptolemaic and Seleucid successors, Sardis was again conquered when another traitor opened the gates in the night.
I’m guessing the church in Sardis heard the word of Jesus promising to come like a thief in the night with a particular resonance. They seem to have taken the warnings of Jesus to heart, for the city remained Christian up to and even beyond the conquest by Islam in 716 AD for some time.
Bible language can be particularly challenging in an age of rationalism. We read here that this text is the message of the one who holds the seven Spirits of God. How does one HOLD a Spirit. And how SEVEN?
This one who holds the Spirits says, “you have the name of being alive, and you are dead.” What does dead mean here? How does one speak to the dead? And why would one? Speaking to the dead church he says, “Awake and strengthen what remains and is almost dead.” Then he says, “I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.” And we want to say, “Who’s perfect? We’re only human!”
What’s going on here? What’s happening is that the same one is speaking as said, Take the log out of your own eye! to those who could only see the speck in their neighbor’s eye. It’s better to cut off your own right hand if it causes you to stumble than for your whole body to go to hell. You just need faith the size of a mustard seed and you can cast that mountain into the sea.
That’s not my way of thinking or speaking. I specialize in the specific, the pedantic, even. My words are “Well yes, but…” I hedge, I qualify, I balance. Jesus says to the dead, “Wake up!” He said it to the daughter of the synagogue ruler, he said it to the son of the widow of Nain. Wake up, get up! She’s only sleeping, he said, as the crowd laughed at him scornfully.
What’s happening there? The power of Jesus Christ, the power simply of his words, is greater than the always feared King Death. Jesus speaks and it is the Word of God giving life. He exaggerates to tell the truth, for death in the face of Jesus Christ is merely a short sleep. But why should this surprise us? After all, what gave life to the world was the Word of God. Let there be light. Let the earth bring forth every living creature. And let us make man in our own image.
We persist in not seeing the power of the Word of God, and the consequent power of words in particular and in general. Plato understood so clearly the power of words that the first few chapters of The Republic are about what kind of literature is appropriate for children. Plato was not an advocate of free speech, but argued that poets are the most powerful threat to any ordered society.
The Word operates within this sphere and with the assurance given to us that God’s Word never comes back to him having not accomplished its purpose.
Warnings come to us out of God’s love. Remember the traditions you received and heard; keep that, and repent. This is revelatory in a sense we don’t often think about, that the one who has the seven spirits says “Repent.” We hear that word Repent, and think of old fellows with long beards and sandals holding a sign that says Repent! We’ve been given this narrative that encompasses the meaning of Repent by New Yorker Cartoonists and others who think that Repent is some kind of pre-internet meme, some kind of clown language, something to laugh at. We’ve had the word stolen from us.
But if there was ever an unfunny word, it’s Repent, coming from the mouth of the crucified one. You see that? He knows what’s ahead. He knows how the universe works for he made it with the words of his mouth. Repent is all kinds of things.
Turn around and go in a different direction is central, of course. But repent; repent is get off the broad and easy path that leads to destruction. Repent is give up on anger and hatred and slandering others. Repent is open your eyes, for the Lord can see everything you have stolen from others. Repent can be “close your mouth,” for the Lord continually hears every lie that is spoken.
The church in Sardis is not necessarily small and struggling. That’s merely the human viewpoint. We’re bigger than the first church, which had only eleven. The largest most successful church, in the eyes of the world, may be “have the name of being alive, and yet be dead.” The life that Jesus speaks of here is the animating life of the Spirit. He holds the Seven Spirits of God. As he said in the Gospel of John 7, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Repenting is beginning. To Repent is to turn. Cease from lying and stealing, and begin to send living water out of one’s heart. Be a fount of goodness. Bear good fruit from the good tree. Make the small corner of the world you inhabit a place of beauty and goodness. The promises of the crucified one not only change our hearts, they are an objective change to the world as it exists today. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
“He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
Sunday, May 2nd Revelation 2:18-29
So, it turns out that what’s called the law of non-contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle, are essentially the same thing. The first law says, the two propositions, "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive, and the second law says “for every proposition, either this proposition or its negation is true.” Sounds reasonable. We go around all day with these laws as our “operating system,” as it were. The traffic light up ahead is green, which means it’s not red. There’s two feet of snow on the ground, which means it’s not warm outside today.
But we also develop reasoning skills with a great deal of finesse, over time, that guide us in dealing with lived reality, which is not the same as, although informed by, formal rules of logic, like the two mentioned above.
The traffic light is green, which means it is not red. Ah, but the experienced driver knows that the green light can become a red light at any moment, and if it does at the wrong moment it might cost you $50.00! And arguments with the court would likely be pointless.
And though Tennesseans don’t have a lot of experience with two feet of snow on the ground, warm and cold are sometimes very relative expressions. When I lived in Wisconsin in the early eighties, a sunny day with a high of 20 degrees was experienced as “warm,” following 30 days straight of below zero temperatures day and night. Up there 20 degrees and sunny is a good excuse for a picnic! Nobody said, “let’s go swimming!” but there were a lot people on the sidewalks in their shirtsleeves with maybe a light sweater on. While temperature can be measured precisely, we experience it relatively, subjectively.
When Soren Kierkegaard said “Truth is subjectivity” he was reminding us partly of the truth of my examples of illogical living, but also of the bedrock reality that God is subjective; to speak grammatically, God is the subject. What does the subject of a sentence do? It acts. So Kierkegaard is asserting that we should be extremely careful with wild assertions about truth, for truth is an attribute of God. In any relation in which we find ourselves with God, he is not the object, that is, he is not and will not allow himself to be the passive object of our investigation, but turns the table on us. We must structure our understanding of God with this non-intuitive guidepost, “Truth is subjectivity.” God is the subject.
It all begins with the subject acting, the subject creating, the subject seeking and saving that which is lost. Truth can only and therefore must be found in the experience of that relation, created, formed and given by the subject, God.
I talked last week in the sermon on the letter to the church of Pergamum on the importance and centrality of apocalyptic literature for an apocalyptic time. We think of apocalyptic times as those periods in which anxiety dominates, for things have changed and become unpredictable, perhaps unreliable. When changes follow upon one another too rapidly, we start to wonder and obsess over the question, “what’s going to happen next?”
Today, we’re told the southern border crisis is not a crisis but a challenge. We’re accused of racism if we think border and immigration laws should be enforced. But of course, as Karl Marx correctly taught, virtually everything political can be understood in terms of wealth and its attendant power.
The wealthy aren’t concerned about illegal immigration because no immigrant will every replace them in their position as named professor of Economics at Harvard, or the senior partner at their law firm, or CEO of the latest technology start-up, etc., etc.
But if you’re competing for a job at Walmart or McDonalds or Dollar General, or trying to start a business mowing lawns, supply and demand in the labor market is a very real thing that affects how many groceries you can buy. There can be good effects and bad effects of immigration, but there are always measurable effects.
And we all live by, and within various borders and boundaries of life anyway, whether we’re rich or poor or in between. Some poor folks learned the hard way there’s a border at the doors to the US Capitol building back in January. Is there a border at the door to Publix? Well, it’s their property and they get to decide who to admit. When I was growing up, the sign used to say No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. Virtually no one argued with that.
Life is full of borders. I have an invisible border around my yard. If I find you camping out in my front yard some morning, I’m going to assert my border control authority, to the degree I’m able. If the visible border at my front door is breached, I will assert additional border control. There’s a border at the Governor’s mansion, there’s a wide border at the White House, and a border up in the air for miles around in the airspace, there’s a border in my back pocket, and if someone’s hand crosses that border in the vicinity of my wallet, well, I’ll know there’s a lawyer somewhere nearby, as my lawyer father used to say.
The border crisis, or “challenge” is just one aspect of the fast-changing world we live in. The health crisis of the past year is another. The economic and possibly military crisis of confronting a newly assertive Communist China is another.
These kinds of crises lead us into apocalyptic thinking and sometime living. There’s an Atlas Missile Silo built in Kansas in the early sixties which is now the location for underground condos for sale. The Condo's layout spreads across 15 floors, and extends 200 feet underground. At the top, above ground and set into the hill outside, a dome houses the communal facilities including a pet park, arcade, swimming pool and climbing wall. Underneath are the mechanical level, medical bay and food stores, with luxury living quarters spread across the next seven floors. At the bottom, four floors house a classroom and library, cinema and bar and a gym.
The first sentence in the article about this condo on its website says, “You may think you'd have to ride out the apocalypse in a shack in the woods. But in this Kansas bunker, protecting yourself doesn't mean sacrificing comfort.”
I find it funny that they think “Apocalypse” is something you can “ride out,” in comfort or otherwise. In the famous remark of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
For every garden I plant I tear up the soil in which I plan to plant it. More often even, I dig up and throw away the soil and replace it with the kind of soil most suited for that which I plan to plant. For some of the bugs and worms in the soil I throw away, this feels like a very apocalyptic event. “The time of change has fallen upon us. The blade of destruction wielded by the gardener has sliced downward.” But life ensues, life continues. Very little that is desirable grows best in compacted, oxygen starved, infertile, red clay dirt. The more “alive” garden soil is, the more the flowers and vegetables planted therein thrive.
The one with eyes like a flaming fire says in our lesson today, “But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”
Just as the law of non-contradiction works more accurately in some situations than others, in the same fashion we must discern the meaning of each biblical passage as, and in the time, it’s presented to us. God is the subject, and the subject acts. And Speaks. Twice in the book of Revelation we read the language, “This calls for wisdom.” With regard to the number of the beast, and then with regard to the seven heads of the beast that is ridden by the great whore of Babylon. This Calls for Wisdom.
Wisdom is needed whenever we read and seek to perceive, and not be like those who see and do not see, and hear and do not hear. It is fair to say, as the poet Ellen Hutchinson opined,
“So wags the good old world away/
Forever and a day.” The sun rises, the earth spins, the child is born and the old man dies. The roads crumble, and the roads are repaired. The tree falls, and the grass grows. Ecclesiastes speaks to this reality: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”
Truth is subjectivity. Isaiah says in ch. 46,
“remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done.”
But in Isaiah 43, God had said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
This too calls for wisdom. In one place he says Remember! In another, Do not Remember! The apocalypse is a revealing, and not necessarily an end. But it is a preparation for an end, the end, the end to all the things that Ecclesiastes said were not new and would always be here.
And so, the letter to Thyatira calls that church to remember that the toleration of falsehood and idolatry is not a virtue of the Kingdom of Christ, for he searches each mind and heart, to reward each as our works deserve. The issue in Thyatira is idolatry, not fornication. Jezebel is never described in I Kings as sexually profligate, but idolatrous. This letter to Thyatira calls for single minded loyalty and devotion to the one who knows your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works have exceeded even that of the time of your first love.
The one with eyes like flames of fire calls the church to not tolerate false teaching, lest the church also be thrown into great tribulation with the unrepentant that follow Jezebel, that icon of unfaithfulness, and paragon of misinterpretation of the Words of the Son of God, who gave this prophet a chance to repent and she would not.
Are we living in apocalyptic times? Yes and No. I assert my right to violate the law of the excluded middle. The spirit of Ecclesiastes is true for all time, until it is not, until time is no more.
And when will that be? Don’t you wish you knew? As do I. As Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” But what would you do, if you knew that Jesus was coming September 25, 2022, what would you do that you cannot already do today? Looking busy, as the famous Bumper Sticker recommends, won’t help. For when Jesus comes, you won’t need a bunker like the poor fools in the Atlas Missile Condos. You won’t need MREs or ammunition or gas masks. There is no hiding. Psalm 96 says, “then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.”
Then we must be like the faithful virgins who were ready with oil in their lamps. When the bridegroom came, they were admitted to the wedding feast for they were ready. As Jesus said at the end of that parable, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man comes.” As he also said in Luke 18, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
But the truth of the Apocalypse, the meaning of the Eschaton, the Subjectivity of the Judgment Seat of Christ, as Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians, is also true and pressing for this very moment in time. There is a “this moment, this worldly” aspect to some of Jesus’ teaching that reinforces the notion that now is the moment, now is the crisis, not the future. The good news of God in Jesus Christ is unveiled for today in verses like John 5:24, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
There is a sense of possession of what God has promised. This now of God’s reconciling judgment is a now that applies to you and me today, and it is a now that was real in the life of every person who has heard the good news and been summoned to respond.
To hear God’s word is to be tried, judged, sentenced and saved in one moment. As long as one truly hears and sees, and is not like the Governor Felix who presided over Paul’s trial in Acts 24. “Some days later when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak concerning faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.”
“When I have an opportunity.” Sometimes there is only one opportunity. Apocalyptic times call for apocalyptic measures, one could say. And those measures could most accurately be described as a willingness to see what is revealed and not turn away, and hear what is spoken, and not resist the judgment, the transformation, and the call to new life. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
Sunday, April 25th Revelation 2:12-17
When “apocalyptic” is used as an adjective, it normally is in time of heightened fear and anxiety. Maybe the earliest apocalyptic book in the Bible is Ezekiel, written around the time of the Babylonian invasion and subsequent exile of the people of Judah around the 6th century BC. From Ezekiel 37: The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley;[a] it was full of bones. 2 And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley;[b] and lo, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, thou knowest.”
Ezekiel is full of mysterious visions, extravagant language, bold allegories, and symbolic actions. But in its prophetic sections, speaking of the punishment that was approaching in the army of Babylon, it spoke of things with which its readers were familiar. War and bloodshed.
Warfare was more personal in those days, hand to hand combat with swords and spears being the standard method, and therefore much of the awareness on the part of the public was from direct exposure. Battles were witnessed, often from the tops of the city walls. Nobody watched it on TV. Crops were burned, houses burned, women and children raped and killed, cities looted and pillaged.
All around them the Jews of that day could see their world collapsing with little hope for deliverance and restoration. Imagine being a woman forced to walk nearly 700 miles from Jerusalem to what’s today called Iraq, in the area of Baghdad, after your husband and children and parents have been killed by your captors. Grief and despair dominate your thoughts.
This scenario is repeated over the centuries. The two centuries long Persian period of relative peace is interrupted by the fresh depredations of the Greek invasions under Alexander and his successors, and when they are then overthrown by the Maccabees, a century later the overly thorough Romans take charge in the time of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar in the first century BC.
Fear and disappointment seem endemic from the 6th century forward. Where is God? the Jews repeatedly ask. What will happen next? When will it happen? Why is this happening? Why doesn’t God deliver us from our oppressors? Even after the crucifixion, after the resurrection and the 40 days Jesus spent with his disciples before his ascension, one of the disciples asked him this, from Acts 1:6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Will you get rid of these Romans, wipe them out, and put us back in charge? The extreme effects upon all the Jews of those several centuries of oppression engendered the extremities of the literature prevalent in that period: apocalyptic literature.
Jesus said in Luke 21: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
These words toward the end of his ministry are a good example of the flavor of apocalyptic literature, which is found biblical books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, the gospels, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter and Jude, and of course, the book of Revelation. Revelation, like its name from the Greek word apocalypse, means an uncovering, a revealing. What is uncovered, what is revealed, are God’s intentions and plans, given in an idiom intended to inspire hope and confidence for those in the midst of trials and tribulations.
In our lifetimes, and for most of the last 300 years, the relative success of the modern nation-state system and the increase of wealth, comfort, health and longevity have led to conditions under which the average western Christian has come to read what was intended to strengthen and encourage, with a growing sense of puzzlement and confusion. This growing misunderstanding sometimes has ironically led to the kind of fear and anxiety that apocalyptic literature was originally intended to assuage.
The presumed conditions into which apocalyptic literature speaks with hope and reassurance have been absent for long enough to cloud our ability to understand the purposes and methods of this kind of writing.
If I’m the famously typical American of decades back with 2.5 children, a dog, a two car garage, a mortgage and a pension plan, then reading parts of the Bible about a dragon that sweeps 1/3 of the stars from the heavens with its tail, or language similar to Jesus words in Luke 21 is more alarming than calming, more confusing than comforting.
We tend to forget that all literature is simply another form of one person speaking to another. Why did you read bedtime stories to your children? Because they liked it, certainly. Because you thought it helped them to learn to read. But also because it gives the child routine, certainty, reassurance, a sense of an orderly predictable world.
Why does the sun rise and set every day, and the moon come and go at predictable times? Why do the stars move in a pattern over the space of a year? Why do we assume that summer follows spring, and there will be seedtime and harvest?
It’s an impossible experiment, but if you were able to convince yourself that you had no idea, none whatsoever, of what will likely happen in the next few minutes, next hour, this evening, tomorrow, next week, and so on, you would be faced with so much terror you would likely lose your mind.
You know that this sermon will end in a few minutes, and worship will end toward noon, give or take. It’s predictable. You already have this afternoon and evening planned out, and plans for the rest of the week.
A little spontaneity is fun, in differing amounts for different people, different age groups, perhaps; but the source of spontaneity itself is routine and predictability. Otherwise, it’s not spontaneity, it’s merely chaos. For those who are married, what if your spouse had a wildly different personality every day? What if you could not predict anything? What if you never knew what to expect? Then spontaneity becomes a killing horror. We must, we must know at least a small portion of the future, in order to be simply human.
This is partly why we like what we think are unpredictable movies and TV shows and novels. It’s fun, it’s exciting, who knows what’s coming next! But we don’t want to live in a world of constant explosions and inexplicably monstrous occurrences. The excitement of the entertainment is anchored in the predictability of daily life. No one wants to actually live on a roller coaster that never stops.
I’m going to have a nap this afternoon. Now, of course, that might not take place. Something else could happen. But I usually do have that nap. I mean, I like exciting unpredictability. Sometimes. But not on Sunday afternoons. I like unfathomable mysteries, but I also like it when Miss Marple or Philip Marlowe or Hercule Poirot figures out the mystery, and the world is rebalanced.
Our world is currently in a spasm of trying to get rebalanced. Different people react in different ways. As we’ve learned, a societal regime that tries to keep people inside their homes for weeks, months on end, is simply not a sustainable plan, not a workable solution to the threat of a virus that is not dangerous for the vast majority of the population.
We’re seeing what happens when you step on something hard and long enough and then let go. It springs back with a vengeance. After the initial lockdowns of a year ago, crime belched forth as if from the door of a blast furnace suddenly opened.
The 30% surge in murder rates nationwide in 2020, 30%, has no modern equivalent. Never happened before, from one year to the next. It has changed so drastically. There are areas of relative peace in this country, but they’re offset by places like Chicago, Atlanta, and NYC, whose murder rates went up by 58%, 56% and 44%, year over year. So far in 2021, in Chicago, murders are up 33% in the first three months of the year compared to 2020, in New York City murders jumped by nearly 14% through March 28, and in Los Angeles, they have increased nearly 36% this year over last year.
So far, Louisiana still holds the record for the highest murder rate per capita, but for rate of increase, you can’t beat poor Portland, Oregon, where the murder rate the first 3 months of this year compared to the same period last year is up 1,900%.
It can’t all be blamed on the pandemic and lockdowns, of course. Criminals watch the news just like the rest of us, and while defunding the police, pulling back the police, replacing the police with social workers may sound like a bad idea to you, to the average criminal it sounds like school’s out forever. Free Disneyworld for everybody. Time to settle some scores and make some money!
And there’s a strange racial and sexual component to our new world as well, where suddenly virtually every problem is caused by white people, white supremacy. The riots of last summer attributed to anger over the death of George Floyd were described as a public health issue, never mind the lockdowns. So that’s OK. Climate change is now blamed on racism. And the question of sex and gender is suddenly at the forefront of every issue as well. If a man says he’s a woman, or a woman says she’s a man, people can get fired or worse for not playing along, for instead preferring the truths of biological science that we thought we had leaned in 8th grade biology.
Now, even Planned Parenthood, responsible for many millions of premature deaths of children in the womb, is finally admitting the racist teachings of it’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who wrote in 1932, "The main objects of the Population Congress would be to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring; to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization."
All of these things unbalance people’s normal perception of the world. I feel a genuine sorrow for young people who think that they want to marry and have a family. The perennial mating dance of the human species is nerve-wracking enough, without constantly changing the rules, from week to week almost, it seems.
So, even though I’ve banned the phrase “new normal” from my personal vocabulary, the world, our world, is very different than it was in 2019, and not for the better, I don’t think. The church has been bullied in different countries, and in different states in our own country over the right to worship in person. Governments and businesses are floating the idea of a two class society; vaccinated and unvaccinated. One can travel, one cannot. One can enter office buildings, one cannot. One can fly on the airlines, one cannot. You may be one, or the other, but the creation of a class of untouchables does not bode well for freedom of any sort.
All of this is why perhaps apocalyptic is no longer so foreign to the Christian imagination in our time. When someone is killed by the police these days, whether justly or unjustly, we’re told to say his or her name. I can relate to that. No one wants to vanish under that anonymous waves of time. I think it should be applied a little more evenhandedly, though, in a time when we’ve seen a relentless attack on the history and culture of particular places in the form of statues and monuments. At first it was just Southerners who were on the putative wrong side in the Civil war, but then it was George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, Fr. Junipero Serra.
But we have a name in our reading from Revelation chapter 2, Antipas. The author of Revelation gives his own name, John, at the beginning, but Antipas is the only disciple named in the whole book. “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me[a] even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.”
I can’t think of a better monument to someone. His name is in the book.The resurrected Jesus Christ, whom John calls ‘the faithful witness” in 1:5, calls him “Antipas my witness, my faithful one.” I wonder how many others named in the New Testament died at the hands of the state or the mob. We know about Peter, and Paul, and Stephen, and James. Antipas’ name means “against all.” He stood against the world.
Antipas’ name lives on in eternity. Just as the one who has the two-edge sword says, “Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
The one who has the two edged sword, by which, as Hebrews says, the Word of God “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” he calls the faithful of Pergamum to discern and judge the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. The Nicolaitans are mentioned again, still somewhat cryptically, but at least in the context of what’s called the teachings of Balaam, from the book of Numbers. Here he’s linked with the teachings that led the church in Pergamum to acquiesce too easily in the practices surrounding what John calls the dwelling of Satan. That’s pretty damning language.
Pergamum was a religious center. It was where the first temple to the imperial cult had been built in 29 BC, in honor of Roma and Augustus Caesar. It was also the center of the cult of Asclepios, the Greek serpent-god of healing, the source of the image of the caduceus, and it was also the location of the huge altar to Zeus-Soter, soter meaning Savior in Greek. That temple was partially moved and partially replicated in a museum in Berlin in the 19th century.
The question of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a problem in Corinth, as well, that Paul discussed, because most animals were not totally burned up in the sacrifices to the gods, but butchered and sold in markets to support the pagan temples.
One didn’t always know the “provenance” of that chuck roast one bought at the local butcher, which complicated the problem. Revelation seems to take a different approach than Paul, but the circumstances were likely different, and likely 50 years later. But in Pergamum, the issue was the pressure on the Christian to conform to the surrounding world.
Even outside of the Olympian gods that permeated all of the ancient society, the various Caesars that followed Augustus considered themselves “divine,” they were referred to on inscriptions and elsewhere as “kyrios,” which is translated for us in the New Testament as Lord. And, as we’ve seen, Zeus was referred to as Soter, or Saviour.
Separation of church and state? No such thing back then. Merely a matter of semantics? Well, ask Antipas, or all the other Christians who died for just a word, a name. To him who conquers, I will give a new name, I will give some of the hidden manna.
The eating of food sacrificed to idols was a participation in their worship. The refusal to acclaim the name of Augustus as Lord and Savior cost Antipas his life, but he gained his soul, the hidden manna and a new name on the white stone. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Sunday, April 11th Revelation 2:8-11
Kingdoms of this world have a hard time with Jesus Christ and his church. And it’s hard for us to imagine a political regime that never had to struggle with the unusual presence it its midst of a people with dual and sometimes conflicting loyalties. The Roman Republic, which ended 30 years before the birth of Christ, ancient Parthia, the city States of Greece, Athens, Sparta, Thebes, etc., the divine rule of Pharoah, all of them ruled by a regime that was essentially united with the divine, or had a controlling relationship, with government authority mediating and channeling all aspects of religion.
So, for example, Augustus, whom we now refer to as the first Roman “Emperor,” was actually the bridge from the Republic to the Empire. He of course was a member of the Senate, but in the early days of the Principate, as historians refer to the Empire after the end of the Republic, though he had a great deal of unofficial power, his only actual office held was Pontifex Maximus, Chief Priest of Rome.
For those of us who don’t know how to think of the unities of political authority in a pre-Christendom world, this is puzzling. We tend to think in terms of popes and other religious leaders specifically as excluded from political, governmental power, but in ancient Rome there was simply one thing, authority, and it had none of these conceptual divisions that are familiar to us. Power was unitary, a seamless garment, if you will.
This misleads us in two ways: first, in our understanding of how early Christians were perceived and also perceived themselves, as threats to the ruling order. Secondly, it makes us tend to move the modern so-called Separation of Church and State into a theological category, an ultimate good that cannot, or certainly should not be questioned. We see it as obviously right, proper and to always be defended.
But that political and constitutional innovation should instead be understood as somewhat akin to the insulation we put on electric wiring. Electricity is powerful and dangerous and must be kept apart and separate, insulated, from that which can be set aflame by electricity. A faulty analogy, of course, but revealing, as well. The Founders liked and built upon most aspects of the Roman and Greek Republics, but they inherited, in 1776, a plurality of religious denominations, let’s call them, mainly Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and a few Lutherans and Baptists. The founder’s main goal was to keep federal government, Congress, as stipulated in the First Amendment, out of the affairs of the church. Whether restricting or promoting. They wanted the churches insulated.
At the time, few, if any, saw the unintended consequences of this program. Which was, in effect, the dominance of secular government, and the gradual emptying out of the possibility of a common good in the metaphorical “public square.”
Our lesson today, the letter to Smyrna, in Asia, not Tennessee, is all about politics: death, persecution, prison, tribulation. These are some of the powers of the state, any state, really. A monopoly of licit violence is a description of the modern state, but it was always sought after by any government, modern or ancient.
We also need to acknowledge what sounds like a slap at Jews in this letter to Smyrna, but is in all likelihood more of a backhanded compliment. The text says “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not.” Many have read this as an attack on the legitimacy of anyone being a Jew who rejects the Jewish messiah, Jesus Christ.
But there were already situations, as early as Galatians, from the late forties or early fifties of the first century, in which many non-Christian gentiles, and some Christians who rejected Paul’s understanding of the Law, claimed Jewishness, claimed an adherence, a devotion, to the ancient law of Moses. And these may have been the group that is spoken of here in this lesson. There were what we might call “intra-mural” conflicts within and on the edges of Christianity very early, as can be seen in Galatians and the Corinthian letters. Those “who say they are Jews and are not,” may have been an appeal to the patina of age with which Judaism was already viewed at that time.
And an ancient pedigree carried a great deal of weight in that world, which contributed to Moses being revered among certain Roman and Greek philosophers after the time of Alexander and the subsequent dispersion of Jews around the Mediterranean. Any sort of “new” religion, as the followers of Jesus were thought to adhere to, to the degree that they were thought about at all, was despised and ridiculed. On the whole, Christians were considered to be, in these early days, as pestilential as the crazy Bacchanalians of the 2nd century BC who were banned by the Roman Senate because of their immoralities.
Wikipedia purports to describe the Roman ban on the Bacchanalia as a “moral panic,” or an example of practical politics, a lesson to possible enemies of the state, but at the time, the Bacchanalian revels were described to the Senate in this way: "There was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was committed by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim. To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the sum total of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies.”
Wikipedia’s confusion is of a piece with our modern insistence on keeping the categories of religion and politics separate, whereas the ancients saw religion as the foundation and guarantor of politics that pleased the gods, and ensured the success of society and the political realm.
A very traditional society, such as Rome still was in the days of John of Patmos, considered an upstart religion such as Christianity to be merely yet another cult, to use our modern term. Yet another import from the strange cultures in the eastern part of the empire.
This is part of why these seven letters are tied together with the tagline common to all seven, “to everyone who conquers”, “to the one who conquers” “whoever conquers,” followed by a promise such as “I will give you a place with me on my throne, or, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God, or, as in the letter to Smyrna, “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”
The letter to Smyrna tends to highlight death and suffering because that is what awaited these Christians. Jesus’ words of introduction begin, “These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead…” he says, who WAS dead, and came to life. And the closing is “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” In between, after telling the church that they will be tested, thrown in to prison, with Ten Days of affliction, akin to the Ten Horns of the Beast, as ch. 17 tells us, which are Ten Kings. This is followed by “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
I’m unclear about the grammatical meaning of “crown of life,” whether it’s life itself that is a crown, or there is something more that crowns life, something that is greater in the same category as life, but higher in degree. I think it’s probably the latter, a crown, an event, a possession given to those who conquer, for those who conquer are not only not conquered by the Second Death, but not even harmed, as he says.
Death is no one’s favorite topic, especially in the modern world which is haunted by the idea and reality. So-called titans of tech for a while have been talking about “uploading their information,” their personal “data” to an eternal “cloud” from whence they may one day be reincarnated, which is as Frankensteinian of a concept as I’ve heard in a long while; until I heard, just last week, that now the richest class are drinking the blood of teenagers to regain their youthfulness and freedom from age related disease.
I don’t think this is the crown of Life Jesus is talking about here. San Francisco tech billionaire Peter Thiel has started a company, Ambrosia, which will sell you two liters of plasma collected from healthy young people under the age of 25 for only $8,000. Such a deal. Even the website singularityhub.com says some think the practice is “ethically dicey.” Which makes me think of “mainly peaceful protests.”
Death is the Banquo of life, the uninvited, unwanted guest at the feast. We moderns tend to think that anyone before us had a morbid attitude toward death. We have antibiotics, and angioplasty, and chemotherapy. We tell ourselves, without actually coming out and saying it, that we’ve conquered death, when all we’ve done is delay its arrival, for some, at least.
There was no delay for the 80 million killed in WWII, 3% of the entire world’s population, and 40 million in WWI, 2.2% of the world in 1914. But we like to think that we aren’t morbid like the Victorians, and the Medieval world. Two months before he himself died, Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, was published, which asserted that civilization is an “elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality.”
The fear of death haunts us all in a variety of ways. I knew a Christian man years ago who was afraid to enter a Nursing Home even to eat a meal with otherwise healthy individuals. The fear of death takes many forms. Even in the ancient world, entirely familiar with death’s frequent visits, efforts were made to undermine his power.
Epicurus, from the 4th century BC, constructed a clever negation to calm the frenzy of fear: “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
Shakespeare of course knew the answer to Epicurus’ clever logic trap. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, the vacillating son who wanted to avenge his Father’s own death, but also considered suicide:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?
To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to,
’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d.
To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.”
The ultra-modern person of today doesn’t even give death the due given by Epicurus, for even Epicurus and his ilk pondered death, considered death. Tried to conquer their fear of death.
For our world, as long as entertainment and the carnival midway of modern life can keep us diverted, we tend to avoid it. When it’s unavoidable we react with rage and outrage against those who perpetrate unjust death, and those who stand in the way of some sort of ghoulish afterlife in a computer on some server farm in Seattle far in the future. Betting on an unending supply of electric power is not my idea of “eternal security,” for even solar panels have to have someone to perform the maintenance.
Our rulers have through a combination of carelessness, ruthlessness, and fear managed to shuffle off many more thousands this past year than might have died otherwise, for if life is merely a pleasant series of neurons firing in a meat puppet, death, the death of someone else that is, is merely the freeing up of precious resources of which they’ve had the use of for long enough.
The fear of death takes many forms. But the conquest of death is singular. Death is conquered by the one man who accepted his own death on behalf of others. This is why we revere mothers, who always risk their own life by giving life. We revere the soldier, who falls on the grenade for his team that he’d never even met 12 months ago. We revere all the occupations who are paid to, if the moment comes, risk, and sometimes give their life that another might live.
How does this work? How does one man dying save the world from the eternal effect of death? Well, it’s important to remember that it is not just his death which accomplishes this. In his death, he destroys the power of death, as we see in his conquest of death. Resurrection is life as we have not yet known it.
It is seen in the promise: Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life. It is unfortunate that this past year, so many churches who worship the first and the last, the one who was dead and came to life, when faced with the possibility of death, turned to St. Anthony Fauci for guidance, instead of him who holds the keys of hell and death, the one who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open, him who walks among the seven lampstands and holds the sharp two-edged sword, the Amen, the true and faithful witness.
Who is our God? Unending life itself? Whom do we worship?
Of course, earthly life is precious because it’s a gift of a good God, but that is forgotten when the cheapness of “Other People’s” lives dominates the thinking of the ruling class, and you get events like the Holocaust in Germany and the Holodomor when the Soviets starved millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, and, not to be outdone, when Mao deliberately starved 40-50 million Chinese in the late 1950s.
So life should not be carelessly handled or treated cavalierly. We all need the instincts of the old fellow sitting on the back pew at church when the preacher got a little wound up and said, “Everybody that’s ready to go to heaven, STAND UP!” The congregation jumped to their feet except one older gentleman at the back, who remained seated, looking around himself. The preacher looked at him and asked, “What’s the matter, Brother Jones, don’t you want to go to heaven?” Oh sure, “Preacher, but it sounded to me like you was setting up a trip to head out right away!”
There’s no reason not to live with care for what we’ve been given. A people who believe in Resurrection can wear seatbelts, take vitamins, drive the speed limit, get an annual physical, stop smoking, and drink only in moderation, and not be charged with lack of belief. I’m not talking about people with the high-risk factors that we gradually learned about.
But I’m talking about people who are perfectly healthy, and when the time came to confess Jesus Christ before men they were nowhere to be found. The world is watching. A pastor in Canada spent the last month in jail simply because he and his congregation worshiped God inside their church. We have lived in fear too long.
Thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians are in jail in China just for being Christian. N. Korea doesn’t bother with jails much, and Christians just disappear. Did the devil throw us into prison? Has the last year been our 10 days of testing? How do we understand the Conquest of Death? Be faithful, and I will give you the crown of Life.
It seems to me that Being Faithful can be turned into a question that can be useful for each of us. Based on what I could be expected to know about Jesus Christ and the life he’s called me to, Am I being Faithful? Can the way I speak, the way I use the resources he’s given me, the way I treat other people be described as the life of a faithful witness?
He who has an ear to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Easter Sunday, April 4th Isaiah 26:1-19
Well, it’s been a long two weeks since March of 2020, but I think we’ve finally flattened the curve. The Tent hospitals of Samaritan’s Purse and the Navy Hospital ship in NY harbor turned out not to be needed and were dismantled and sent home.
It’s been disappointing to read that there are still churches today that have not allowed members to attend in person. Last fall Andy Stanley, pastor of a megachurch in Atlanta said they were not reopening, at that time, because, as he said, they “could not guarantee your safety.”
Let that sink in. That was a new concept to me. It never occurred to me that I could guarantee anyone’s safety. At church, or going to or from church. I offer no guarantees. Now, a few years ago, nobody wanted to sit on that back row over there after part of the ceiling let go and fell on the pew, but no one was hurt. Happened during the week.
Talk among Christians, Christian leaders, about guaranteed safety feels extremely odd to me, when you think about who it is we worship, and especially in the context of the Easter season. I wonder if Peter knew how irresponsible he was being with people’s safety when he preached that sermon on Pentecost Sunday. And anyway, Jesus was never safe. He wasn’t safe, nor did he offer any safety. He offered crucifixion, persecution, (blessed are those who are persecuted), he offered loss of family, he offered trial and imprisonment.
On this Sunday, we especially remember the story of Jesus’ resurrection, but have we forgotten how he got to Easter? What door did he pass through first, before arriving at Easter, as we call it today?
And of course, the very reason we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week is because of that resurrection, that conquest of the limit that death had placed on the whole world.
Many have noted that it was extremely unusual that a small group of Jews, in contradiction of all that they knew and believed and FELT deep within their bones, would give up the Sabbth, the 7th day of the week to worship their Lord on the first day of the week. That just makes no sense. Unless. Unless there was some sort of tectonic disruption that took place around that time.
For 1,000 years and more Jews had observed Sabbath. Almost all Jews today, of all kinds, would unite on the necessity, the centrality of Sabbath. What happened? The late Martin Hengel, NT Professor at Tubingen, considered that this simple, unexplained, taken-for-granted change is one of the strongest arguments for the resurrection of Jesus that there is. It would take a cataclysm of that magnitude, he argued, to shift the disciples from Sabbath, to Lord’s Day, the First Day of the Week.
It’s not as if Jesus campaigned on that issue. He didn’t promise an end to the Sabbath day, and “when I’m in office we’ll switch to the First Day of the week, and it will be beautiful!” Why would he? No one wanted to. Sabbath, qua Sabbath, was uncontroversial, and any switch was unplanned and unexpected.
Jews back then, of course, had different perspectives on how to observe Sabbath, what might be allowed on Sabbath, just like today. But there was no vote, no Council, no hearings, no discussion, at least not in the Scriptures. What is in the Scriptures?
Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
And finally, from Acts 20, On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead led them to this, this sea change in religious practice that wars, that exiles, and persecutions, and executions had not accomplished.
This is why they gathered, on the first day of the week, to break bread, Luke tells us in Luke 24, with the resurrected Jesus at the end of their journey to Emmaus. In Acts 20, Luke doesn’t even explain. When we were gathered together to break bread. And that’s it. What happened there?
He met them in the breaking of the bread. You know the story, you’ve seen the famous painting, the Road to Emmaus. “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Jesus was given back to his disciples on the first day of the week because he was alive. Death no longer had dominion. Death was transformed from horror, the antithesis of all that was good, to a pause, a hiatus. Why otherwise did Paul and other early Christians talk about dying as “falling asleep” in Christ? They weren’t hiding from the boogeyman. They weren’t repressing their fears, afraid to speak openly of some taboo subject that can never be named. No. Death became a reality that need no longer be feared. Paul said in I Corinthians, talking about the Resurrection of Christ; “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”
The breaking of the bread. Jesus was given back to his disciples when they gathered, and shared in the meal, on the First Day of the Week. The conquest of death stamped that day with an indelible stamp. For every American over 30 years old, September 11 will always be known as 9/11. No explanation needed. As indelible as long as memory persists.
Jesus’ resurrection was enough to drive the change that would have been impossible if anyone had suggested it prior to the events of Easter. But the discussion just doesn’t seem to have come up, which is somehow more explanatory than anything else.
“Why do you meet on the First Day of the week?” “To meet our Lord.” “But why that day?” I don’t know what an ancient Christian might have said in response, except; “That’s when he met us. That’s when he came back to us.”
This little earthquake is a good analogy for all the ways that the Resurrection of Jesus is not just a fulfillment of promise, though it is that, as we hear dimly in the words of Isaiah from centuries before: “Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall.”
But it’s also the slow continental drift in social and political changes over the next 2,000 years. Around the turn of this century various intellectuals decided that there was no God, yet again, and as has become almost customary among Atheists, they were extremely angry with him because of that. Because of his non-existence. You’d think if someone would just ask themselves why that is, they might learn something of some benefit.
The American population, always somewhat behind the curve, is slowly drifting away from belief in Jesus Christ, as was recently trumpeted, cheered, really; that under 50% of Americans belong to a church, all the while I’m perceiving a slow turn to Christ among previous sceptics. I’ve watched Jordan Peterson, according to David Brooks of the NY Times, the “most influential public intellectual in the Western World,” say things like this while talking about Jesus Christ and his heretofore lack of belief:
"It becomes something with a power that transcends your ability to resist it." and
"I probably believe that. And I am amazed at my own belief and I don't understand it."
"In some sense I believe it's undeniable." and
"The narrative and the objective world touch. And the ultimate example of that is supposed to be Christ. And that seems to be oddly plausible."
"I still don't know what to make of it, partly because it's too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don't even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it."
The roller coaster ride that is the woke American culture and politics seems to have finally arrived at the tippy top of the big drop and people are finding the accelerating pace of the freefall terrifying. People are told in college and the woke media constantly that there is no truth, there are only narratives, which are inherently discourses of power wielded on behalf of white supremacists to enslave the whole world.
The problem is that if all discourse is entirely a discourse of power, and there is no truth, then that diagnosis of despair applies to the heretofore described discourse that describes all discourse as discourse of power. To say, in a global, absolute sense, there is no truth is to betray oneself from one’s own lips as either a monstrous devil seeking whom he may devour, or as someone who hasn’t thought very clearly about the implications of what one is saying.
If the statement, “there is no truth,” is true, then it’s a lie. You see that? You told me There Is NO Truth. So that must be a lie, right? And then what do we do?
The church is becoming the little boy in the old Danish folktale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. I certainly pray that it is and will. But when the whole world lives by lies, a recovery is not simple or easy or pleasant.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a challenging thinker who had his problems, of a variety of kinds. As a philosophical atheist, he went down some unpleasant roads, perhaps reflected in his most famous quote: “And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Not a position that anyone should want to be in.
But no one is beyond hope in this life. We need to understand how the religious world tried to prove things to sceptics in the past, and by utilizing the weapons of disbelief, were rendered unbelievable. For the seizure of power over nature that has driven the modern western project has tempted the church into thinking it could control faith and belief. If we can just prove things, we won’t have to trust. And all the world will flock to our door and we’ll be popular, and powerful, again.
This is fighting on the wrong side of the battle. This is what they call an own goal in soccer, kicking the ball into your own net. The reintegration of the bookish class back into a reasoned trust in Christ and the scriptures and traditions of the church is the call of the church today, and one reason we read Isaiah 26 for our text today.
The Resurrection of Christ is the power of God in the world, not just with Jesus, but in Genesis 1 and all through the scriptures. It’s not a plan B because something went wrong. It is and always has been God’s goal to redeem the world from evil. I can’t explain evil and no longer try to. But I know what it is not.
When a believer in Christ is living life as if there’s a Resurrection in his or her future, then the Kingdom of God has come near to you. Some of you sat here in this empty sanctuary Friday night, for nothing! What are you, chumps? Nobody paid you, nobody rewarded you, you get nothing. In this world.
To be in the presence of God for an uninterrupted hour or more, what is that worth? A pearl of Great Price? A buried Treasure? What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
When the world, the sceptic, can see and experience a believer freely and ungrudgingly spend his limited hours and years on the objects of God’s love, then the Kingdom of God is moving in the world.
Why do we break bread? Because we know that Jesus is the Bread of life. Which means that without that bread, there is no life, as Jesus talks about life. It’s not an after-life, as we’re accustomed to saying. It’s instead that we are now in a before-life. What’s yet to come? Life.
Isaiah, who was familiar with the desert, talked about the dew. In the desert, not much dew falls, but when it does, life springs up. “For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shadow thou will let it fall.” We know that without light, there is no life, but God has given us the dew of light.
The bread of the Lord’s supper is spoken of as breaking bread, because the bread of life must be shared. That is an essential component of the church, it breaks and shares. And of course, this carries a deeper meaning, for our Bread of Life was broken on the cross. Which is why we break bread every first day of the week.
I had a lady in my Texas church remind me one Sunday that Jesus had no bones broken, as we read in the gospel of John, for he had already died when the Roman soldier came along to break the legs of the other crucified that they might die from asphyxiation, for soldiers ain’t got all day for this.
But I later thought to myself, anyone who had been at the aftermath, with Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the crucifixion, taking Jesus’ dead body down from that engine of torture, would not have quibbled at describing his body, as a broken body.
“Be known to us in breaking bread, but do not then depart; Savior, abide with us, and spread your table in our heart. 2 Here share with us, in love divine, your body and your blood, that living bread, that heavenly wine be our immortal food.”
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Palm Sunday, March 28th Revelation 2:1-17
I’m inclined to think that the techniques of Hollywood, lighting, special effects, etc., are necessary for us to properly grasp the profundities of a text like the book of Revelation. It is, as we say nowadays, very cinematic! But as I think about it, that inclination is probably just an awareness of my own inadequacy at being able to convey to you this message from the book of Revelation. So we’ll stay with the spoken word, for now.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that the long history of misinterpretation
of this book means first of all that when we hear just the very word, Revelation, our mind goes to all the wrong places—timelines, schedules, dragons, Mark of the Beast, 666, end times. Misunderstanding of the purpose and proper utilization of the book has confused the interpreter’s ability to read and understand the text and hear it as the Word of God.
Let’s say you were given a front-page newspaper article about proposals for a new Corporate Income Tax rate, but you had been told by someone you thought was in the know, that the real purpose of that article, the proper way to read the article, was to decode the message by pulling out the 1st, 3rd, and 5th letter of every eight letter or longer word in the article, to find the secret message to lead you to the buried treasure of diamonds and jewels. Your interpretive scheme is thus a failure to understand the article, which was actually about describing Corporate Tax rates.
That failure is like much of the history of interpretation of the book of Revelation. Of course, if that 1st, 3rd, and 5th letter scheme actually did spell out direction and you actually did find buried treasure, it would be one thing. But in the interpretive history of the book of Revelation, and the various schemes to map out everything in there and figure out a schedule, so we can make plans, or build bunkers, or stock up on ammunition, water and freeze-dried beef jerky, it has never happened.
Plenty of people have done those things, but the world’s end did not arrive on schedule.
All the schemes and schedules that persist in assuming that the book is intended to give us a timeline as to what will happen when to who, have failed; repeatedly, sometimes disastrously.
Historically, these forms of mapping out what will happen when, have given rise through the centuries, and more often lately, to various sects and cults borrowing that puzzle-piece, secret decoder ring method of interpretation to create fear and generate a narrative that takes advantage of people one way or another. Bad people gonna do bad things anyway, but to allow them the gloss, the cover of Biblical language is an unforced error that need not happen.
Back in the early 1840’s, William Miller, a Baptist preacher from Massachusetts, predicted: “Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.”
You all know the result of that overconfident prediction. After some hurried recalculations, the date was bumped up to April 18, 1844. Still disappointing. Another Millerite preacher recalculated, pointing out what the original thinking had left out, and said they’d finally figured it out and the date really should be October 22, 1844.
When October 23 dawned and they were still here, of the 100,000 or more followers of Miller around the country, most gave up their faith entirely, a few hundred started the Adventist Christian Church, even more joined the Shakers, and a few dozen eventually founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Shakers made some nice furniture, but there aren’t many of them around, and the other two groups are still around, the Seventh Day group pretty large. Both surviving denominations gave up the notion of predicting dates of Christ’s return.
But at the time, of what’s called by historians, “The Great Disappointment,” many had sold all their possessions and given everything away, looking forward to that great, getting’ up morning, and they were bereft of all recourse. Some, in Toronto, were tarred and feathered, which can be fatal, and is always painful, by angry townspeople. A Millerite church in New York was burned down. All because some preachers unnecessarily ignored the very words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
The damage to churches in general was significant, because it was actual news: “Jesus Christ Still not Returned.” Lots of mockery ensued, lots of laughter at Christians generally, mocked for their gullibility, even those who had nothing to do with Miller and his tribe.
When the focus is on these kinds of shenanigans, the actual word of Jesus to real churches, as we read in Revelation 2-3, is ignored, forgotten, passed over.
But we’re going to look at this first letter, of seven, significant in it’s place as first, to the church in Ephesus, and after Easter we’ll look at the six others in chs. 2-3, to Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
But we begin with Ephesus, where Paul spent almost 3 years teaching and preaching, founding the church there. Ephesus was a very old city, thought to have been founded by Greek colonists around the time of King David. Abandoned over 500 years ago, it now consists of many important ruins from the early Christian era and before. It was a seaport on the western edge of Turkey, what was called in Paul’s day Asia Minor, and was the home of the Temple of Artemis, the so-called Queen of Heaven, and referred to as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
There are several things in these seven short verses that speak to us, but one thing for now will have to remain unexplained, and that is the precise identity and content of the Nicolaitans, and their works and teachings. Revelation ch. 2 is the only source for any information we have on them, and that tells us very little other than that they were in Pergamum and Ephesus, and that Jesus hated their works, ad did the church in Ephesus. I don’t know any more than that, and so anything else is just speculation. There was a Nicolas, in Acts 6, one of the first deacons, but there’s no reason to associate him with these bad Nicolaitans, other than the name, and there were plenty of people with that name. Makes as much sense to associate them with another Nicolas we know of, the patron saint of Toy Stores, the much-loved St. Nicholas.
But the rest of the passage has much to recommend it. The assumption is that Jesus directs his servant John, the writer of the book of Revelation, to write to the angel of the church in Ephesus. And then the rest are the words of Jesus directed to that Angel, curiously sounding like they are spoken to the whole church.
It is important to hear the ambivalence at the beginning, mainly an ambivalence on our part. For we have to ask; do churches have angels? Are churches, in fact, angels, themselves? Because, significantly, the word angel means “messenger”; it’s where we get evangelism, made from two Greek words, the prefix “eu” meaning good, and “angelism,” meaning message. Evangelism. Good News. And the church, any and every church, is intended to bear a message, and be a messenger. “Make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The message is our reason for being.
To the angel of the church in Ephesus. In the language Jesus uses to John, there seems, though, to be some kind of differentiation between the angel and the church. Is it the preacher, or the priest, or the bishop? This seems unlikely in light of the verse right before ch 2.
In 1:12, John tells us the first thing he saw in this admitted vision. He was, as he says, in the Spirit on the Lord’s day on the isle of Patmos, “and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches,” and he lists the seven.
Then John says, “I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me.” Here is one, though certainly not the first clue, that human language struggles, to bear, to carry the truth of heavenly things. He turned to see the voice. That tells us something about the nature of this second person of the Trinity, for “voice” is certainly related to Word, as we’ve read him described in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. I turned to see the voice.
And what did he see? Remember this is the first thing we’re told that John has seen in this book, for the voice like a trumpet was behind him. He turns and he sees, “seven golden lampstands.” The seven golden lampstands are not the origin of the voice, but that source of the voice was “in the midst” of the lampstands, one like unto a Son of Man, language straight out of the book of Daniel 7, where it says, “to him was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
And then in that last verse of ch. 1, Jesus says to John, yet again, “Write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter. As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
Jesus walks among the Lampstands, and the stars are the angels of the churches. Not identical, but almost a distinction without a difference. We should surely look even further back, to verse 4, where it says: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”
Do you see how John operates? Always moving, speaking in circles, in spirals, never forgetting what has been, and using that to show us what is to come and how.
And what is to come? Well, the church is a creaturely character. The church is a reality thickly located in time, history and culture. What do we have in common with the church of Ephesus? There are differences of many kinds, but we are called by the same one like unto a Son of Man. John references the seven spirits before the throne of God. He does his theology with pictures, as often as not. Similar to Luke in the book of Acts 2, “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
The same Spirit; but distributed, separated, and uniting them in utterance of the truth. This is heard in the Apostles’ Creed we sometimes recite, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic church, the Communion of Saints. The church embraces, as Joseph Mangina says, a “genuine Spirit-created particularity within a common love and devotion to Jesus Christ.” Churches are neither all the same, nor merely different, but joined in the communion of saints.
The book of Revelation is simply not a book for the overly literal minded. It speaks to the heart in ways we cannot always delineate, but must experience.
I don’t know who the angel of the church in Ephesus is, but I know that what is said to that angel is: “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” That’s worth knowing. That’s something to bear in mind, for clearly, while overhearing this message to another church whose city is in ruins, we should be heeding his instructions, his warnings, his encouragement and his promises.
“I know your works.” H e says. What could be better than that? I see those of you sitting here today, who never miss an opportunity to praise God in the sanctuary. Do you think he does not know that? I know your works. I know those of you who take the finite hours of your life, and give them away to the service of this particular lampstand at the corner of Main and Maney. I know your works, you who give and serve while no one is watching. You who give for the joy of giving to God. I know your works.
What better word could there be? Jesus knows. He sees. Your works are your love. He only chides the Ephesians for falling from the “love you had at first.”
What must they do? Have stronger feelings? Find their passion? Have a heart for God? Or any other trendy, Christian-talk? No. “Remember from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.”
John has no confusion over faith and works, for to him they are just one thing. At this point the Pauline controversies with Jewish law seem to be in the past. We love by doing the works of love. As the first letter of John says, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
Not really complicated. I know your works. What else does Jesus know? I know your toil, I know your patient endurance, I know you cannot bear evil men, I know you test those who claim to be sent by me, I know you are enduring patiently, I know you are bearing up for My Name, I know you have not grown weary!
He knows! A clear conscience is glad to be known. I used to look at my grandmother when my brother and I came home on our bicycles after a hard day’s work of terrorizing the neighborhood and wonder “how much does she know? That old lady was smart and cunning. She had raised 8 kids, at least four of them more than a handful of trouble. I knew all those aunts and uncles. Trouble. I wasn’t sure I liked her knowing what I was doing, because I knew we weren’t supposed to be doing everything we were doing.
But the word to the Lampstand is, “I know your works.” This is the same Jesus who knowing what would happen to him, nonetheless mounted the colt, the foal of an ass, and in conscious enactment of Zechariah’s messianic prophecy, rode into the City of David on what we know call Palm Sunday, the city ruled by servants of the prince of this world, rode into the city ruled by those who would without hardly a moment’s thought, whisk you up on a cross so you could die in front of those who needed an example of what happened to those who trifle with the rulers of the world.
John is going to remind us of that. But though the book of Revelation rejoices at the fall of Babylon, the great whore, in chapter 18, it is not Babylon, or Rome, that is the threat to the Lampstand in Ephesus, but their failure to do the works of love. They have maintained their fealty to the truth, they know the wrong road taken by the Nicolaitans, whatever that is. Misdeeds are generated by false teaching.
Down through the centuries, churches have sometimes taught that the color of one’s skin means a person is lesser in God’s eyes because of that, and can be abused or taken advantage of, bought and sold even, as a type of livestock. Some churches today are beginning to teach that again, that a white person must, metaphorically take a back seat because of the color of his skin, or should be treated differently by the government or an employer. And churches have taught, misleadingly, in a long ugly history, that God does not love the children of Israel, in express contradiction of God’s word in Romans 9-11, and all though the Bible. God’s firstborn child, the apple of his eye.
Some churches teach that a baby in the womb does not have the same rights as any other human outside the womb does. Certainly a right to life should be the primary right. False teaching leads to wicked deeds.
Jesus says to his Lampstand: Remember! Remember from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.
Sunday, March 21st John 4:1-15
“Like the Woman at the Well, I was seeking….for things that could not satisfy….”
The Woman at the Well. This is how we remember this passage made well known by that old familiar hymn, “Fill My Cup Lord.” Not that old actually, younger than me, even younger than my sister. Seeking, thirsting, craving, hungers. These are all prominent themes from the hymn that guides our presumptions when we do read the John 4 passage. But I draw your attention to them in order to draw your attention away. Unspoken mistakes and misinterpretations retain their power until and unless they are seen clearly and placed up alongside other ways of reading and hearing, which I want to do today.
I do like the allusive way the hymn lyrics are written, even if the music doesn’t appeal to me. The hymn begins with a simile: “Like” the woman at the well, I was seeking. That’s good. That aims the text at the personal life of each of us. It also refers directly to the biblical character and alludes to the relevant biblical figures, or metaphors: a well that never runs dry, the bread of heaven, Thirst.
But the picture it paints of the Samaritan Woman reinforces our ingrained image of a loose woman, sexually promiscuous, voraciously immoral. Even though there are a multitude of things we don’t know about her or about any and all Biblical persons.
Now you know me. If I ran for political office I would hardly be classified as the soft-on-crime type, like old Mayor John Lindsay back in the sixties, or even Mayor DeBlasio from today’s New York. I think soft on crime is just the equivalent of hard on crime victims, for they are the ones who pay the price of other’s political ambitions.
But I do want to turn around your perhaps unreflexive assumptions about the woman at the well. We need a way of looking at the story that we perhaps never had a reason to pursue.
For I must confess, I always assumed the worst about this woman. Seeking for things that could not satisfy. An ancient Elizabeth Taylor perhaps; husband after husband after husband. I always figured Taylor led the list of most divorced celebrities, like Mickey Rooney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Larry King, but I looked it up and it’s really Lana Turner that leads the pack with 8 divorces; kind of the Barry Bonds at marriage failure. You have to ask at what point are they just not taking it seriously anymore. #4? #5. I don’t know.
But the woman at the well. In the course of her conversation with this prophet, with this Messiah, the Savior of the World, Jesus suggests that she go get her husband and come back to talk some more with him.
I have no husband, she says. That’s right, says Jesus, for you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband. This interchange has led preachers and readers to place her in the in the Elizabeth Taylor/Lana Turner category, but this seriously overstates what we can actually know about her situation and understates what we know about marriage laws in the first century.
When you look at the way the laws on divorce are stated in the OT, the language Jesus uses in the gospels, and the Rabbinic regulations of the time, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of divorces were initiated by men. Scholars have sometimes taken this language which is always couched in terms of what reason a man might have to initiate divorce and how he must go about it, as evidence of an anti-woman bias, but again, this is reading a modern attitude into an ancient situation. The likely reason women rarely initiated divorce in those days was the unanswerable question; then what? What would she do? Get a job? The iron laws of economics prevented them from any recourse once they were a single adult female with no options other than prostitution.
Jesus’ teaching about divorce was to protect women, protect them from being simply cast off by an unhappy husband, thrown out of the house with no ability to remarry, without a certificate of divorce; today it’s referred to as “the Get” by modern day observant Jews. A Get allows you to remarry. Without it you are committing adultery.
So it’s nearly impossible that the Woman at the Well was a frivolous serial divorcee. It’s economically implausible that one woman would initiate five divorces.
There are a couple of other scenarios with much more plausibility. First, she may have been herself divorced by five previous husbands. The common reason for divorce in those days was infertility, for a large family was the primary reason for marriage.
The Samaritans had their differences with Jews of the day, but they still held in common the Torah, the books of Moses, which hold the bulk of the written law. Therefore, the second scenario is also a possibility because of their familiarity with Moses’ Law.
It’s now called a Levirate marriage, and was practiced in many ancient societies. We read about it in Genesis 38, when Judah’s oldest son dies without children and his second son is required to marry his older brother’s widow and father children in his dead brother’s name. He then dies and she, Tamar, has to wait for the 3rd brother to grow up. And the story gets complicated after that. I’ll let you read the rest of it.
In a similar fashion, in Matthew 22, the Sadducees try to trick Jesus with regard to Resurrection, saying if a woman is married by seven brothers in succession, who all die in their turn before she does, “in the Resurrection, to which of the seven will she be wife?”
So perhaps this woman at the well had been married to 5 brothers in succession, who all died, and this last guy was a little hesitant about popping the question! Maybe a little superstitious.
There are many possible reasons, we’re just not told what they are. The point to remember is the progress and conclusion of John’s narrative. We only heard the first 15 verses today, but the story goes to verse 42.
There are several themes highlighted for us in the arc of the story. The Samaritan/Jew conflict, the living water, the worship of God in spirit and in truth, Jesus’ identity as Messiah, and the harvest that awaits the reapers.
When we presume to know the woman’s life and past, we distance ourselves from her and from our understanding of the text, for it’s not just about a poor confused woman finding Jesus, though it may include that. Too much focus on her can cause the reader to avoid the probing words of Jesus. After all, most of us haven’t had five husbands or five wives. We too often tend to place ourselves outside of the conversation looking in, glad that this poor woman finally got HER life turned around. And we go about our business. Nothing to see here. Move along.
But the entire dynamic of the chapter is not about her but about Jesus. My food is to do the will of my Father. Drink the water I give you and you’ll never be thirsty again. The fields are ready for the harvest, and for the laborers to bring it in.
I wrote a column the other week talking about the power of metaphor. When you say the Oak tree is the King of the forest, you’re intentionally helping your hearer see something new about the Oak Tree. Also, you’re adding to the way in which a king might be perceived as well. All metaphor functions this way.
If you knew who I am, you would have asked me and I would have given you Living water. My food, is to accomplish my father’s work. Food and water. Essentials of life. A description, actually, of what is needed for life.
Man, that’s my meat and drink, we way. Deer Hunting, Water Skiing, Painting Watercolors, flipping houses. Put in whatever you consider essential to your life as you. That’s my Meat and Drink. Jesus had his own take on that. The gift of life, the will of God, and the call to bring in the harvest.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it, it says in Genesis 2. To care for the garden. The metaphor of the garden and the harvest Jesus speaks of ties together the whole duty of humanity. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows that the work never stops. With row crops, pasture, grains or livestock farming, sometimes all of them together, there’s always something to do every day, and when it’s time to plant, or time to harvest, everything else has to be laid aside, because it’s time.
Jesus’ saying about the sowers and the reapers comes from an observation of life, first observed perhaps when a farmer sows the grain one spring, dies that summer, and his son, the heir, reaps the harvest. One sows, another reaps. Can be applied to all kinds of settings.
The soldier sows his life, and the next generation reaps the peace. Think, on a smaller scale, of those who planted this community, sowed good will and hard work, and you come along and reap the benefit of a beautiful, safe place to work and live.
“He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
It works in reverse, or perhaps inverse, fashion as well, one generation sowed World War I, and their children reaped Stalinism, Depression, and Nazism. In good literary fashion our story ends with the Greek word, kosmou, like cosmos, the world, “we have heard for ourselves,” say the other Samaritans to the woman, “and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” That’s a big statement.
Interestingly, we don’t know exactly the woman’s disposition, how does she end up in relation to Jesus? There’s only a statement of incredulity, “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did,” and then the question, “Can this be the Messiah?” But we do read, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.”
Because of the woman’s testimony. As with many Biblical episodes, this whole story points forward. The Samaritans were descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, sons of Joseph, most of whom disappeared into exiled by the Assyrians in 721 BC and never returned. This is the source of the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which fascinated many Christians and then Mormons in the 19th century as the Middle East opened up to travelers upon the decline of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
The members of the northern tribes left behind, intermarried with the settlers the Assyrians sent to occupy the land. Rejected by the Jews, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin who returned from the later Babylonian Exile in 540 BC, the two groups had been rivals and in conflict ever since, over who was the true people of God. Who were the true heirs of the Covenant, the true Children of Abraham?
Jesus then, tells the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor to the Jew that was beaten, robbed and left for dead. Jesus healed the ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan Luke tells us, returned to thank Jesus, which Jesus commented on.
The salvation of Samaritans is a figure of the New Jerusalem. That is what is forward pointing about this episode. It is eschatological, in that it points us toward the eschaton, the last things. In this story we’re given a preview of the Peaceable Kingdom. No longer at this mountain, in Samaria, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father, Jesus says. In this story a Jewish rabbi asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. That doesn’t happen in Jesus’ day. Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of the least of these? Jesus places himself in a reverse position from the normal. “May I have a drink?” he says to the woman he’s supposed to despise. And then he and his Jewish disciples, stay two days in this Samaritan town teaching these believing Samaritans.
Sleeping in their houses? Eating at their tables? This is why John includes this story. John emphasizes a type of realized eschatology, already here, though still to come. Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Is Jesus here?
Jews and Samaritans at a sort of Family Reunion/Homecoming celebration is not normal, it is unexpected, it is not the way life tended to happen in the first century. And yet when Jesus is there, the kingdom is among you, and it is coming.
You shall be my witnesses, he says to the disciples, tell what you have seen, in Acts ch. 1, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Samaria? Samaria is God’s child just as Judea. No one has a monopoly on God’s grace. All sinners, all who know they are sinners, are invited to the New Jerusalem. The book of Acts was about widening the doors to the kingdom of God. The apostles heard Peter’s story of the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and the other Romans in Joppa, and it says: “When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”
Whatever the situation of the Woman at the Well, Jesus speaks only the truth to her and it initiates something good and glorious. We must always and only be truth-tellers, and do the same. “I have other sheep,” Jesus said, “that are not of this fold.”
“So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Sunday, March 14th I Kings 3:16-28
I remember this story from Sunday School days, perhaps most vividly the artwork from the David C. Cook Sunday School leaflets we received in class each week. The quite dramatic illustration of a soldier holding a sword in one hand and a baby by the leg in the other was memorable to say the least. Those SS leaflets were much looked forward to, by me at least. If I had to miss a Sunday, which was rare, I asked for last week’s leaflet.
I wonder how many 11-year boys there are who go to Sunday School these days, and who receive a Sunday School leaflet to take home with them. It helped us get through the sermon later that morning at church. I wonder how many nowadays would even read it. Something printed on real paper, you can’t swipe it, it has no like button.
You could take a pew pencil and work on its Bible crossword puzzle, but we had to be careful about glancing down in our lap at the puzzle or the preacher would know we weren’t listening. Of course, I now realize he knew anyway, because he could clearly see what was going on.
On the surface this is a wonderfully succinct story of a preternaturally wise judge. How does he know what to do? What if neither mother objected? What would have happened? But nonetheless, simple, clear, and impressive, with that little twist in the story.
Ah, but this is the Bible. It always pays to look more closely and when we do that, we notice something. In this discrete unit of material, the king is not ever named. The women, the prostitutes, are not named. English translations fudge a little bit so we can understand it, but in the Hebrew, the women are neither named nor differentiated. The RSV has “the one woman,” or “the other woman.” But that’s just an editorial assist. In Hebrew, it’s just “the woman.” The king, in vs. 23, doesn’t really say, “the one says” and, “the other says,” he merely states, in the Hebrew of the original story, “this one” in referring to both women.
All three play archetypal roles, a common feature in folk tales and parables, in addition to the exciting surprise ending where the hero receives the vindication. Solomon is the new, young king, inheriting David’s throne in place of his older brother, Adonijah, the oldest of David’s surviving sons, since Amnon and Absalom are dead.
David was old, on his last legs, and Adonijah stole a march on Solomon, until when David heard of it, and at Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba’s request, he had Solomon proclaimed as his rightful successor. This all happens in ch. 1, and in ch. 2 Solomon kills off his remaining enemies, including his older brother, and in ch. 3 he prays to the Lord for wisdom, or, for understanding really.
One might observe that that seems a little too convenient, and it’s fair to say, that the writer of I Kings seems to see this as well, for after the last enemy, Shimei, is struck down, at the end of ch. 2, it says, “So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.”
And the very next verse, 3:1, says, “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and took Pharaoh’s daughter.” Egypt? He cut a deal with Egypt? This seems quite ambivalent, to say the least. For Egypt is essentially the first and definitional enemy of Israel, it’s the land they struggled to get away from at the Exodus. To desire what is evil is spoken of as wanting to “go back to Egypt.” And the name Egypt still carries a bad smell, a high level of symbolic significance, like the name, or title really, of Pharaoh.
So the writer is giving us a complex picture of a complex man. For right after this, before the temple is constructed, Solomon goes to make an offering at the great high place of Gibeah, and the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream that night, and said, “I will grant you three wishes.”
No, wait, wrong story. But it’s kind of set up like that, isn’t it? It’s intriguing to note that the story of Aladdin’s Lamp and other similar stories do trace back to the Middle East, Aladdin being brought to Europe by a storyteller from Aleppo in Syria.
Solomon, known as Suleiman in Arabic, was a great figure in Islamic traditions, honored as a wise king and prophet. The other similarity with this story of Solomon is the actual absence of wisdom in any of the subsequent folktales’ characters that are granted their three wishes, for those stories always turn out badly.
Solomon has outmaneuvered older and more experience political enemies even before he prays for understanding and God grants him a wise and discerning mind.
Folk tales don’t often reveal character’s motivations. Oddly enough, on the surface Solomon is merely acting as a judge who rules by the law in a narrow, technical sense. We’re not told he’s shrewd and knows what will happen. Even more strange, even after the real mother gives up her rights to the child to save its life, the other mother, says, “NO! What’s fair is fair! Cut it in half.” Exodus 21:35 says, “If anyone’s bull injures someone else’s bull and it dies, the two parties are to sell the live one and divide both the money and the dead animal equally.”
We don’t know what Solomon had in mind, but it may be yet another example of the wisdom of the Law of God that brings about true justice. What we do know is, in the passage immediately prior to the story, the Lord says “Ask what I shall give you.”
This is the first sign of wisdom, for Solomon, who’s already proven to be pretty shrewd at staying alive when several want him dead, he’s no innocent weakling, nonetheless confesses that he knows nothing, he’s but a little child who can’t find his way out of a paper bag, so to speak. He asks for “an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil.”
But the response of the Lord to this one request is like that to Moses’ request back in Exodus, a book of the Law. Moses asks “I pray thee, show my thy glory.” And the Lord said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” Are those different things? They’re certainly different words. With Moses God gave what was not requested.
Solomon wants an understanding mind, and the Lord grants him a “wise and discerning mind.” These are two different things, though both good. But Solomon does not ask to be wise, neither does he ask for wisdom. He wants understanding, knowledge essentially.
This is a case of not being wise enough to know the importance of asking for wisdom. As Solomon himself said about himself, he is “but a child.” And here again, the grace of God is manifest in the giving to Solomon not what he asked for, understanding, but Wisdom, as well as the other things for which he did not ask, riches and honor.
Have you ever been disappointed in the way God answers your prayer? We ask for yesterday’s leftover pinto beans and God gives us Rib-eye steak. We ask for Pabst Blue Ribbon and God gives us 100-year-old Port. We ask for a 93 Ford Fairlane and God gives us a Maserati. We always aim too low.
We often can’t see the gifts God gives, or understand and appreciate them, for if you do like Pabst Blue Ribbon you probably won’t appreciate 100-year-old Port. You can give your dog a bath, you can grant him a clean, fresh, nice smelling coat of fur, and what’s the first thing he’ll look for when he gets outside? That’s right. Something smelly to roll in. Roadkill is best. Perhaps a five day old dead squirrel. Our dog’s ways are not our ways, and our ways are not God’s ways.
We don’t know how to pray as we ought. We don’t know what to ask for, because we don’t have the wisdom to desire wisdom. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. That’s a gift. The wisdom of God comes only from God. Every good and perfect gift comes from above.
In Isaiah, the Lord says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Those repetitive lines remind us that wisdom and cleverness are synonymous in this instance, similar to understanding, in contrast to the wisdom of God. As Paul goes on to say in I Corinthians 1, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
“For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; 27 but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
Without wisdom it’s hard to recognize wisdom, but we who have been enlightened by the Spirit can at least say, it’s not what the world thinks it is. God’s wisdom often looks and sounds like folly to the worldly wise.
It’s as if God said to himself: “I need to save the world, which I created with loving care, and now it’s all going to hell in a handbasket. I know what I’ll do. I’ll go among them in disguise and let them kill me.”
You gotta admit, not the way you or I would have gone about it. Our ways are not God’s ways. Doesn’t sound like plan A to me, or even B or C. Not really a plan at all, but from the beginning, when we look back, we see that plan all through the Old Testament. We see that Abel died for Cain. God was merciful to the killer, even put a “mark” on Cain to protect him. We didn’t do Ash Wednesday, but if that’s not the mark of Cain I don’t know what it is. “You have heard that it was said, You shall not Kill. But I say unto you….”
God’s wisdom may not be grasped, or taken, or stolen like gold from the dragon’s hoard. God’s wisdom cannot be attained by study alone. God’s wisdom cannot be calculated, or discovered buried in Upstate New York on gold tablets, it may not be created, developed, or discovered. Only received.
Wisdom is a gift, whose prerequisites are also gifts, usually gifts of which we are unaware, until the full panoply of wisdom has descended upon us. I looked for wisdom in the beatitudes and could not find it; for it seems that those are some of those prerequisites to receiving wisdom. A pure heart, and a hunger for righteousness, and the spirit of mercy.
And perhaps most ironic and instructive of all, the wise do not recognize their own wisdom, do not perceive how wise they are, just as the saintly only know their own sinfulness. Wisdom grows with, by and through humility. It grows in the absence of what we would expect. Though it may grow in the presence of education and learning, those are not the prerequisites.
This is because wisdom is divine. Surely you’ve heard this before: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.”
The absence, the opposite of wisdom, is folly. This would seem to be the precondition of the verse above, “If any of you lack wisdom.” He who lacks wisdom, must be foolish right? How then would we be moved to ask for wisdom, if we are fools?
Again, the grace of God. As Paul said last week to Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.” It pleased God. I like the sound of that. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
Wisdom is a gift, and reaches its fulfillment in the cross of Christ. “God chose what is low and despised in the world... He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
One woman sacrifices her right to her child, her reason for living, to save the life of her child. The son of David speaks with the wisdom of God. Abraham gives up his only beloved son, whom God spares, in the wisdom of the folly of God. Paul tells us of the two women, Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, women who represent the figures of Zion, the hill of Golgotha, where the sinful are saved, and Sinai, the Mountain of the Law where the law kills the sinful.
One mother, in sacrifice, brings life, to her child, and receives her child back from the arms of Wisdom; the other woman, following the law in despite of the death it would bring, offers the child to the sword.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off. He who trusts in his own mind is a fool; but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
Sunday February 7th, John 3:16-21
Was it only last week we listened to John ch. 1, Behold the Lamb of God? That we talked about Red Letter bibles? You may remember the uncertainty that printing Jesus’ words in red highlights for the reader. Part of it is that one eventually gets around to wondering, How? How do they know?
The simple fact is that there are no quotation marks in the early Greek manuscripts of the NT, not even periods or question marks. As a matter of fact, in most of those early manuscripts, there is simply a block of text written in all capital letters. No paragraphs, no periods, nothing to tell you where one sentence ends or begins.
To the untrained eye the page looks like those puzzles you sometimes see, a WordSearch game, just a block of English alphabet where you’re supposed to find the words, horizontally, vertically, diagonally, backwards. Our printed Greek New Testaments make things much easier, but again, those are editorial decisions, just like deciding to print a sentence in one of the gospels in red or black ink.
Coming back to John this week, I decided to see if I could find any Red-Letter Bibles, and the first place I looked, the glass door cabinet in the parlor, had three Red letter Bibles. Interestingly, looking at our chapter for today, one of them a RSV from 1972, given to Donald Bachler by this church in 1976, considered that Jesus was speaking from 3:10-21. The NewKJV I found in the same cabinet had the same verses in red, but another RSV also from 1972, given to Bill, by Dad, only had vss. 3:10-15 in Red, leaving out our particular passage from today, 3:16-21.
Now I call attention to this AGAIN, for serious reasons. I’ve got nothing against “Helps” as Bible Editors and Marketers used to refer to Maps, cross References, Footnotes, Explanatory notes, etc. There’s a 1952 edition of the RSV Bible in the parlor that has that on the spine: Holy Bible. And right underneath, “Helps.” Remarkably enough, that particular edition has actually very little in the way of helps, to my mind, certainly not at the level of today’s Study Bibles, and Men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, Teen Bibles, Soldier’s Bibles, Recovery Bibles and on and on.
As has happened with the Mishna and the Talmud, the Holy Scriptures don’t grow in volume, but our thoughts and comments and interpretations certainly do.
But one of the problems with helps is that too much help can harm. It’s like never taking the training wheels off your bike. I see some local bikers who park in our lot outside my office window a couple of times a week, David Becker among them. All skinny people. Does riding bikes make you skinny, or does being skinny make you want to ride a bike? Regardless, they’ve got all the gear, the helmets, the shoes, the gloves, the tight lycra shorts, the windproof jackets, the gloves, the little backpacks with a tube you can drink from while still pedaling. I imagine that’s half the fun, going shopping for all the stuff! You gotta really love biking to buy all that gear and be willing to be seen in public looking like an entry in the Tour de France.
But none of those folks’ bikes have training wheels. They pedal out to Lascassas or Milton and back and they seem to know what they’re doing. They’ve done it often, they love doing it. Don’t need the training wheels they first had long ago.
Helps, are good, when they’re right, and when they don’t mislead us. But John 3 is a good example of how this gospel works overall, and bolsters our understanding of why the Bible is the Bible.
In regard to the initial question, when is Jesus speaking and when isn’t he speaking, the context is, as always, important. When we come to “For God so Loved the World,” no matter what I say about who’s speaking, how we’re intended to view who’s speaking, who did the author of the Gospel intend for us to think is speaking, “For God so loved the World,” is still the Word of God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s not the only verse in the Bible you should know. It’s not the only verse to give us a succinct summary of the gospel. But it is succinct, and it is a summary, and it is memorable. It’s so well known you used to see it on billboards, signs nailed to tree, fences and in the stands at televised NFL games.
Odd story: All those signs at sporting events started with a guy named Rollen Stewart. Hair dyed like a rainbow. His first major appearance was at the 1977 NBA Finals; by the time of the 1979 MLB All-Star Game, broadcasters actively tried to avoid showing him. Kind of a Where’s Waldo sort of guy, and except the camera man tried not to find him. He appeared behind NFL goal posts, near Olympic medal stands, and even at the Augusta National Golf Club. At the 1982 Indianapolis 500, he was behind the pits of race winner Gordon Johncock. He made no money from all this and was homeless for a period. Stewart's fame led to a Budweiser beer commercial and a Saturday Night Live parody sketch.
He was briefly jailed by Moscow police at the 1980 Summer Olympics. In the late 1980s, he began a string of stink bomb attacks. Targets included Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, the Orange County Register, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a Christian bookstore.
In 1992 he was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and hostage taking on eight felony counts and was sentenced to consecutive sentences, and had parole denied seven times since 2002. He reportedly considered the rapture was due six days after his initial arrest. A sad, mixed-up fellow, with a very disjointed childhood and life. He definitely would have been in the front of the line to get in the Capitol last month. But he doesn’t deserve life in prison, having harmed no one.
On the other hand: In college sports, Tim Tebow, eleven years ago had John 3:16 written on the eye black on his cheeks during a football game his last year with the Florida Gators, at a university located in Gainesville Florida, where Steve Odom briefly lived 25 years before Tebow was born, and where Bill Hollingsworth attended college 35 years before Tebow was born. The Gators were already contenders for the BCS at the time, and after the game 94 million people googled “John 3:16,” I guess to find out what it meant. That’s a lot of people reading at least a verse, in the Bible. I for one didn’t notice a mass rush for the churches that next year, nor did stores sell out of Bibles. But I hope it helped some.
The more interesting story is that in the Broncos/Steelers playoff game in 2012, Tebow threw for 316 yards, and completion average was 31.6 yards per throw. There were some other 316 numbers that I couldn’t confirm, such as his rushing yards, the TV ratings that night and the time of possession of the ball. Makes you think.
Before the season that Tebow was to begin with the NFL, the organization banned messaging with eye black or any kind of printed message on the helmet, socks, shoes or jerseys. No messages allowed. I don’t know if you noticed, but somehow that got overlooked last fall, with various political messages approved for the end zones and on helmets.
However, I’m getting distracted by politics again. I blame my early exposure to Squirrel hunting, where you pretty much shot anything up in the tree that moved.
The good thing about Tim Tebow type messaging is that people read the Bible. The bad thing about Tim Tebow type messaging is that people read the Bible. Now, there’s more to that than just my normal snarkiness. Think about it: the form of the messaging controls the message. It gives people the idea that one verse has it all. One verse can solve all your problems. “JUST READ THIS VERSE!”
Like those Princeton seminary boys from 100 years ago who wanted to be evangelistic and wrote Bible verses around rocks and threw through the closed windows of the local brothel and got arrested. I’ve told you their story. When their Bible professor had to go downtown and go bail for them, he chewed them out saying, “Boys, boys, I know Paul says we’re Fools for Christ, but he didn’t mean for you to be damn fools!”
You see, when you read the verse then what? Where do you go from there? What do you with that? There’s more than one response, you know. God loves me? Well, and so he should. Or, God loves me? Of course he does. God loves me? What God? Which God?
There’s a sense in which the format of the messaging is not congruent with the inner sense of the gospel. This is illustrated by the story that sets up our passage today, when Nicodemus meets Jesus after dark.
Nicodemus starts off with a lot of blahblah. He’s being nice, he’s being diplomatic. What are his motives? Hard to say, really. Wants to know how to be saved? Unlikely for a religious leader. Wants to see if he can find a way to accommodate Jesus within the Pharisee movement? Possible. Wants to see if Jesus can be coopted or neutralized? Also possible. Not trying to be unfair to Nicodemus. At least he was willing to listen for a time, and ask questions.
Unless you’re born from above you can’t even see the kingdom of God, Jesus says in response to the small talk chit-chat. Nicodemus seems to think, Ah, religious controversy! I can do this with one hand tied behind my back.
Still being polite, of course, but how does one get born when one is already old? Haha, you can’t go back in the womb, can you old boy? Got you there!
“Truly I say to you, unless you’re born of the water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
This religious debate taking place at night alerts us to the mystery of the discussion, the impossibility of trying to reveal things of the Spirit to a man without the Spirit. After verse 6, we’ve likely moved to a section of the story that was generated from the Jesus/Nicodemus back and forth and then later expanded to apply to the debate that we assume was relevant to the John’s first readers: perhaps those still in controversies with Judean synagogues, which may be why the conversation with Nicodemus was reported in the first place.
At verse 7 (and also vss. 11 and 12) the pronouns become you plural and we, perhaps you Jews and we Christians, which would anachronistic in Jesus’ day. We also see the reference to the Ascension in v. 13, which is of course after the resurrection. Not a kind of proof, but certainly relevant if we want to know where the explanatory sermonic material of the gospel writer begins.
You can helpfully read John 3:16 through the lens of the opening and closing of the gospel. It’s Incarnational, not cruciform. By that I mean that in John’s programmatic statements, he focusses on the fact that Jesus came to us as one of us. Jesus is the incarnation of God himself, God’s enfleshment. John 1, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.” John 20:31 “now these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
Not: these things are written that you may understand the crucifixion, or be washed in his blood, or understand the atonement by justification, or however it might be put. Not that John is off the reservation in some way. When he says “we beheld his glory,” it’s the crucifixion he’s referring to. “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
John doesn’t see things just the way Paul does, for example. For John the glory of God is most clearly seen at the nadir of human history and existence, when innocence was stomped into the dirt, when beauty, love and hope, were crucified on the cross of a criminal.
“Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” … Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[e] to myself.”
“I, when I am lifted up.”
Clearly, the Spirit reveals. It’s not by accident, that right before the apostle Thomas the last of his disciples to be “converted,” Jesus, after the resurrection, says to the gathered disciples “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he breathes on them. Hardly a better illustration of the Incarnation anywhere, for there we have tied together the underlying meaning of the word Spirit, breath, or wind, with the physical body of the Word of God, breathing his Co2 into the faces and lungs of his disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Can’t do that with a mask on.
We are faced with a fundamental mystery in this text. This is the problem with eye black evangelism, or stones through the windows the theologically less fortunate. It’s a fortune inside a cookie.
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
That doesn’t have the same zing that verse 16 does all by itself, does it? Hard to market that one. Too many Christians run from the Bible, hide the Bible, bury the Bible except for maybe 4 or 5 favorite verses. But then that’s not the Bible, it’s just you and your favorites filter.
Sometimes it feels like taking the girlfriend you think you want to marry to your family reunion and she meets the crazy uncle that you look a lot alike. Hmmm. It’s embarrassing.
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” Umm, could I just go back to verse 16? NO. No you can’t. No cherry picking allowed. That’s how the text can go from “God so loved the world, to, people loved darkness in less than a minute.
You see we’re not dealing with a formula. We have no pat answer for every problem. There is no bumper sticker that can be accurate. Because when you open the Bible you’re not faced with a problem to solve, you’re not confronted with a challenge to overcome, you’re not even given a test to pass.
You’ve come to the throne of the living God. You… have to… face… God. Now. Or later. And now’s easier. “Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Nicodemus had no idea where he was, who he was talking to, or what would happen. Something, somehow, clearly does happen, for at the end of the gospel of John, Nicodemus is found with Joseph of Arimathea helping to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Judas spends more time listening and being with Jesus than Nicodemus, but he somehow still loved the darkness. “Condemned already, because they have not believed.”
I can’t explain all the mysteries to you. I exhort you not to turn away in frustration, not to grow accustomed to the mysterious, using that as an excuse for spiritual laziness. In times like today, when Christians struggle to understand and come to terms with the social upheavals of our world, I give you the unjust judge of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18. “‘because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,’ And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”’
The parable is about the need to pray and not lose heart, Luke says. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes,” said Jesus, “will he find faith on earth?”
Sunday, January 31st John 1:29-42
To come to the simple language of John after grappling with the unfamiliarity of Jude should make our understanding of this text simple and easy. This is more familiar territory, John the Baptist, Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael. No more Enochs or Balaams, fruitless trees or waterless clouds.
And partly this familiarity is because of repetition. John is certainly the most popular of the 4 gospels in modern times, easier to read and not feel entirely lost. Our understanding of the gospel is more akin to John’s than Matthew’s, for just that reason. And John is written to have a wider applicability. John tells us, near the end of the book, his reasons for writing, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jude writes to a specific congregation or maybe group of congregations, because of the conflict they’re going through. And nobody likes conflict. Jude says “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” Not more conflict. But he doesn’t dodge it either; instead he calls them to “Contend for the faith,” which seems to consist of, for Jude, as vs. 20 says, building up your faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping yourself in the love of God, and waiting for Christ’s mercy.
As well as, regarding the interlopers he refers to, convince some, save some and have mercy on some. So it’s not really a “storm the citadel” kind of message, but, after the description of those wandering stars, a carefully thought-out response that matches actions with the essences of the Christian faith; mercy, peace, and love.
Our gospel today proceeds by describing events, but from a particular perspective, with a particular purpose in mind; “that you may believe.” So one thing to notice in this part of ch. 1 is names and titles.
We call the man who says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist, but John the gospel writer never gives him that name. What does he say?
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” This comes at the beginning, in verse 5 of the prologue. This John is important and it’s likely he had his own disciples, as vs. 35 says, “standing with two of his disciples.” And even after the Resurrection there were still disciples of the Baptist, as we read in Acts 19. The Baptist, though he says he’s not THE PROPHET mentioned back in vs. 21, is nonetheless a prophet of God, and perhaps a couple of decades later even, Paul runs into John’s disciples in Ephesus, way over in Western Turkey. John’s movement was powerful, deep and long-lasting.
He’s an important witness, and it is in this role as Witness, perhaps more important than his role as Baptizer, that our Gospel today highlights his words.
Priests and Levites, officials from Jerusalem in Judea, had come across the Jordan to where John was, to ask him who he was in those ten verses prior to our lesson for today, if he was Elijah, or THE Prophet, or the Christ.
When John the next day sees Jesus, he bears witness, he does what he was born to do. John was born to point to Jesus. “Behold the Lamb of God.” We hear this and another “Behold,” loud and clear in these verses, but perhaps because it’s less forthright, the language is less striking, and we’re not clear as to its purpose, we pay less attention to the other twice repeated statement by John: “I myself did not know him.”
Vs 31 says, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And then again in verse 33: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
Perhaps because books were scarce in the ancient world, and paper was expensive, writers chose their words carefully. They aimed their expressions. Like old machinists, they handcrafted every part to fit exactly and carefully. Partly this is because they thought and wrote in the only idioms they heard and read, which were of their time.
You see this not just in the Bible, but I do think especially in the Bible, though maybe I just think that because it’s what I know best. No matter.
What is clear is that this writer takes what he knows of the Baptizer and puts in a repetitive phrase where it doesn’t fit well, where it sticks out a bit. “I myself did not know him, twice, is a type of clumsiness even writers today try to avoid. They typically describe those kinds of series in groups of three.
I myself did not know him, but…
I myself had not met him, but….
I myself would not have recognized him, but….
That’s how it normally works. You say the same thing three different ways to give pleasure to the reader and avoid sounding incapable of expanding on what you mean, or unqualified to develop rounder viewpoint, or unable to build up a more complete understanding. Like that. In threes.
But this writer is not an ordinary rhetorician. Just as the gospel events break and crack open the standard view of the world itself, the best is crucified, the greatest is the lowest, the first is the last, so John stops at two. I myself did not know him. I myself did not know him.
But for this I came to baptize with water, that he might be revealed to Israel. But he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and abide, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
The halt at one repetition of “I myself….” Focuses our attention on what is then said: “I came that he might be revealed. And….He who sent me said to me, he on whom you see….”
HE…..said to ME…This is language of the prophet. HE said to me.
It’s an interesting way to describe Jesus: He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit fell on Saul in I Samuel, and they said, “Is Saul among the prophets?” In Numbers 11 the Spirit rested on Eldad and Medad (love those names. Got to be twins, right? Eldad and Medad. Reminds me of Pete and Repeat). Eldad and Medad had not gone out to the Tent of Meeting to receive the Spirit like the 70 elders, and when Joshua said Moses should forbid them from prophesying, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
The Spirit is from God, and John bears witness to what was revealed to him, that this man, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John testifies, this one, on whom the Spirit descended and abides, is also the giver of the Holy Spirit. And that complicated description is fleshed out in several ways in ch. 1, which we’ll go through.
But right after this we have these beautiful encounters that follow, when Jesus sees there are already two of John’s disciples following him and says, “What are you seeking?” They respond, “Rabbi, which means teacher John tells us, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and See.”
One of those two, Andrew, then goes and tells his brother, Simon, We have found the Messiah (which means Christ, John tells us). He brought him to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter.”
Now, as we roll through the narrative it’s easy to miss a couple of things. First, notice this odd translating that’s going on. Why do we learn here that Rabbi means Teacher, and Messiah Christ, and even Cephas Peter? Well, we think, maybe John’s writing to all Greek speakers. Maybe it’s late in the century, maybe most of the church where he finds himself is Greek and they don’t know these Aramaic words.
But if that’s the case, why not just use Greek? The rest of it is in Greek. After all Simon is called Peter back in vs 40 before the translation of Cephas is explained in vs 42. Fred Craddock says that for the church to hold on to the old words without even knowing what they mean is a little too close to magic. Like some Holy Power Word, Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus!
But they’re not simply dropped, nor are they elevated. They’re kept, but translated. To have lost the words, to have only a translation would have been cut off from the past, orphaned.
John’s handling of the words connects Jerusalem with Rome, and London, and Prague and Murfreesboro and Beijing. Jesus is a Jew who spoke Aramaic. He lived in a particular place and time. But he also came for people of all sorts and times and places. These words are witnesses, not sacred vessels that cannot be handled and used. The Bible is the church’s book, and the church is the body of Christ. We, speaking his word, testify to him. He is ours, he is for us, and we are for him.
Last thing not to miss. Lots of titles. Did you hear that in the reading? It’s a very important aspect of revelation. When we read the gospels, our first impression is of what Jesus says and does. That’s how we know him. He heals the sick. He preaches the good news of God’s kingdom. He’s obedient to his Father. The three of those comprise the gospel story.
But there’s a type of agnosticism of the literalists, that say, “I’m a Red-letter Christian! I just go by what Jesus said! All the rest of that is just opinion, just interpretation!” This is an ancient and grave heresy reborn, like they all are from time to time.
First of all, it’s silly to think John wrote in two kinds of ink. Right? Who put those words in red ink? Some editor. Maybe it’s helpful, maybe it’s accurate, maybe not. But leaving ink color aside, it’s a simplistic error to think there’s some sort of gradation between what John says Jesus said, and what John says about Jesus. John says it all. Matthew, Mark, Luke, they are the authors of the whole gospels they write. The church is built, the Bible says, upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. The church had no New Testament for a century at least; it was the apostolic testimony to which they clung. Handed down from one trusted teacher to another. And Romans, Hebrews, and I Peter and the rest of it are not some sort of second-class scripture, subordinate to what someone thinks they can demonstrate that Jesus said. The various scriptures are witnesses to God’s Word.
We know Jesus from the narrative of the gospels, but not just the narrative. The rereading, the things we stumble over, puzzle over, notice for the first time. All of this is not accidental.
Ch. 1 starts us off with John’s testimony, the hearing of that testimony to Jesus by his own disciples, who then become disciples of Jesus, as he’s pointed out by John. Jesus invites Andrew, Andrew invites Peter, Jesus finds Philip and Philip finds Nathanael.
Ch. 1 is very programmatic. Disciples are evangelists in training. Evangelism is not an optional aspect of who they/we are. That’s the thrust of the narrative direction of vss 19-51.
But as we go along, we see some descriptions by John and some by Jesus of who he is. From verse 1, In the beginning was the Word of God. The rest of the prologue expands upon that to tell us in v. 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
But just in ch. 1, no accident, for this is the beginning of John’s story, we have six additional titles for Jesus. That’s a lot for one chapter. Son of God is first referenced in the prologue and then the Baptist says “I have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” As does Nathanael who says ecstatically, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”
IN that encounter are a couple of repeats, for it’s Andrew who first asked him, Rabbi, where are you staying, and Son of God is John’s initial witness.
Of course, John’s heralding in the hearing of Andrew and others, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” is central to this gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus, for nowhere else in the NT is this phrase used. Clearly a reference to the Passover Lamb, whose blood protects the Hebrews in Egypt from the destroyer, and a reference to Isaiah; “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter”
But Nathanael brings in a whole new political aspect when he says You are the King of Israel! This is getting dangerous, just as Andrew also skates close to the edge of sedition when he says to Simon, We have found the Messiah, the Christ.
And I would argue it’s no accident that this first episode, a discrete unit before the Wedding in Cana, ends with Jesus’ words to Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Here are the figures of Jacob’s ladder with the angels ascending and descending, and that of the Son of Man, which is from Daniel 7. This ties us to the promise to Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes, and to the Son of Man in Daniel, where it says: and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
The content of the revelation is the movement of Jesus’ actions, the accomplishment of his words, and the titles that place him in the center of God’s redemptive work through the covenant with Abraham. None of the titles are of any sense without the content delivered by the scriptures of the day, Genesis through Malachi.
To be a disciple is not only to follow, and lead others to follow, but to know whom we are following, for we cannot tell others who he is if we do not know him and have not encountered him in his true identity presented to us in the books of all the witnesses.
We’re here to know Jesus Christ, and make him known to others.
Sunday, January 24th- The Letter of Jude
We used to hear a story in seminary from a professor who said, ‘All young preachers need to keep in mind that your congregation never wakes up on Sunday morning wondering what ever happened to the Jebusites?” Jebusites being the ancient obscure tribe of Canaanites that once occupied Jerusalem before the time of David.
And so, I don’t imagine Jude has been living in your head all week, but he has been in mine. In reading up on Jude, one of my suppositions has been confirmed when a commentary writer said “I have never heard a sermon preached on the letter of Jude.” And D.J. Rowster’s article on Jude from 1974 was titled, “The Most Neglected Book in the New Testament.” Which is certainly applicable to the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary, who left Jude out entirely. No place in three years of Sundays for even a mention of Jude.
Which is too bad, for Jude is a likable, remarkable, edifying letter. Its pleasant to walk into a room not knowing whom or what to expect and recognizing a number of people. In Jude, in addition to Jesus right at the beginning, there’s Moses, and Enoch, who went to be with God without dying, there’s Adam and Cain. Familiar names, characters well known to Bible readers.
A little less well known are names like Balaam, who’s better remembered for his talking jackass, Korah, the rebel against Moses’ authority, the angel Michael, who’s mentioned in Daniel and Revelation, and of course those two brothers, Jude and James.
Those last two are familiar names, perhaps too familiar because there are several of them in the New Testament. Two of the apostles were named Jude, or Judas, and Mark tells us Jesus had a brother named Jude, and there was a prophet by that name in Acts 15. And at least three James’ as well, one a brother of Jesus and likely the author of the letter by that name.
Jude’s place in the New Testament is a good argument for his being Jesus’ brother, since he tells us he’s the brother of James, a likely roundabout way of telling us who else is his brother.
But at the start of the letter he refers to his brother Jesus as Master and Lord. He tells us about his promised return in v. 14 with “Ten thousand of his holy ones to execute judgment.” That daunting promise is perhaps balanced by the exhortation in vs. 21 “to look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” At the beginning and end of the letter, Jesus keeps us safe and secure from falling. Apostles of Christ are mentioned in v. 17 and the cross and resurrection are implied by the promise of his Second Coming.
But of course 25 verses can’t contain everything. A letter from your sister in Oregon with a recipe for Pumpkin Pie says much more to you than just how to make a pie. It says more to you than it would to me. Timing, history, relationship, appropriateness count for a lot. If she says, “make sure to use condensed milk,” and, ‘I hope Aunt Susie likes it.” That’s a lot more appropriate than of course, “grind up the rat poison finely,” or, “bake three hours at 475”. You’d know something was wrong.
Those to whom Jude’s letter was sent certainly heard more than we do today. But we can still hear a lot. And the way we hear that is through tradition. The tradition of the ancient hand-copied manuscripts, the tradition of the translators, the tradition of the commentators, of the preachers. No one comes to a Bible passage in an unmediated fashion. We did not discover this book for the first time. Others have studied it before us. We rely on, and live within, the communion of saints. Just as the dead Abel’s blood cried out to God for vengeance, so the life blood that Jerome and so many others poured into their work of handing down the scriptures continues to speak. It is the assistance, guidance and care of the rest of the Body of Christ through time that enables us to hear, to read and to understand.
All of the above categories, scholars of various kinds, have their own rules of operation, and standards of judgment which have not been invented or discovered by them, but received, handed down, passed on, improved upon, with a wealth, a treasure of understandings and practices.
Jude assumes, in vs. 5, that his readers have been instructed “in the faith;” that they, and we, are fully informed. He then says, in a remarkable statement, that Jesus once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt.
Now, we didn’t actually hear that in our lesson because many modern translations are a bit uncomfortable with the identification of Jesus with the Lord of the Exodus out of Egypt. The modern Greek version of the New Testament favors the word “Lord” over the word “Jesus.” But sometimes tradition uses part of the tradition to challenge another part. Bruce Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek NT, mentions that one prime rule of settling a textual issue is going with the more difficult, less likely version when there’s a disagreement. The reasoning is that the reading “Jesus saved a people out of the land of Egypt” in v. 5, rather than “the Lord saved a people out of Egypt,” is most likely because early copyists would not have been likely to change Lord to Jesus in that verse, but rather the reverse. Plus, the reading of Jesus in verse 5 has the oldest, best and most manuscript support.
So Jesus, Jude’s brother, is the acting agent in what Jude proffers as the upcoming solution to these intruders, these interlopers disturbing the church, these waterless clouds and wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.
All through this letter, the character and attributes of God are predicated of Jesus. Jude calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ, the very one who is spoken of in the prophets as the servant of the God, the embodiment of Israel, an entire people chosen, out of all other peoples, to serve the living God.
In verse 2, we read of Jude’s desire, having addressed those who are kept safe by Jesus Christ, that mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to his readers, and thus also to us. In passing let’s note that the brother of Jesus Christ prays for us, that the three most desirable things in this life might be MULTIPLIED to us. Mercy. Peace. Love. If you have those you have God. For truly they can be given only by God.
Vs. 4 also indicates that Jude, who had originally planned to write a different letter, as we see in v. 3, now speaks of those who have somehow gained admission to the fellowship of the church, the ungodly persons who pervert the grace of God into licentiousness and deny our ONLY Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Again, Jesus is described in these godly opposites from those who pervert God’s grace. This ascription of divine character to Jesus amplified by vs. 5, when he “saved a people out of Egypt,” is expanded in vs. 23 when mercy is ascribed to Jesus. “Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
And Jude closes with a doxology in the last verse, “to the only God our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, mighty, dominion and authority, before all time, and now, and forever. Amen”
We see that Jude, like the other New Testament books, speaks in the same tradition as Deuteronomy; “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. “Glory to God our savior,” he says, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In Jude’s day, they haven’t worked out all the theological formulas of the Trinity yet, but they know who God is. God is he who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. God is our Savior. We know him, and praise him, in our doxologies, through the Lord, Jesus Christ. Jude and James, and Peter and Paul and John, are part of the kingdom of righteousness preached by Moses and Isaiah and Malachi. They are not upstarts of some new religion, but servants of the living God, who made the world and all that is in it.
The word of Jude also speaks powerfully to our situation today as Americans living in a time of division and uncertainty. Each successive presidential election alarms one group of Christians or another, cheers one set and depresses another. Too often we believe that everything hangs on who’s in office, who holds power, who is President, who controls the government.
“Tho' the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Tho' her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.”
There may be an obelisk to George Washington at the center of our Capitol city, taller than any church in that city, graven images of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln may repose in what appear to be Temples on the National Mall, but in spite of our politics, for the sake of the limited good which can be accomplished through politics, and some good can always be accomplished, we need to focus on these words:
“before all time, and now, and forever.”
The United States was and hopefully still is, a haven of hope because it allowed any and all to worship and serve him who is before all time. And though we’ve seen some states closing churches and synagogues, and though we’ve seen the growing injustice in the shape of the law and court system, is not the Christian still free? Free in the way Christians have always been free.
Were Christians not free under Nero, or Hadrian, or Diocletian? Did God not hear the prayer of Christians under Emperor Frederick, or Henry the VIII, or Louis the XIV?
The blessings of liberty, political liberty, are substantial and real, but they can also be dangerous and misleading when we mistake liberty for license, and freedom for endless choice. True freedom is only given through that man constrained by death on a cross, for freedom is an attribute of God given to man made in the image of God and, when freed from slavery to sin, free to be truly human.
It is those who die in and with Jesus Christ who live in freedom, for what can man do to us who live in and under the hands of God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”
Who more free than Paul, living in danger and privation, constrained to preach the gospel right up to the point of his execution? Or Peter, crucified upside down? Or 22-year-old Perpetua, separated from her infant child husband and torn to pieces by wild beasts in celebration of the birthday of Emperor Septimius Severus, all because she wouldn’t say, “I renounce Jesus Christ.”
Freedom is NOT just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is not just endless consumer choice with the riches of the world piled at our feet. Freedom is forgiving an enemy, and loving those who hate us. Freedom is praying for those who mistreat us and spitefully misuse us. Freedom is the ability to do what’s right, when all around are doing what is wrong. Freedom is hearing the call and obeying, to enter by strait gate and the narrow door.
In the last days there will be ungodly scoffers, “but you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; 21 keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
Sunday, January 17th I Corinthians 10:1-14
Well, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks, hasn’t it? While the country was mesmerized by the Buffalo headdress-wearing Shaman guy presiding at the Podium of the Senate, and by the way, he may have gotten as much accomplished in his 15 minutes in office as many previous Senate Majority leaders have.
But while all this was going on, and the craziness turned ugly and violent very quickly, which is what craziness does best, while this is all happening and I’m trying to read about it all on my phone, I’ve got a very energetic toddler constantly trying to climb into my lap so I can read,
“This old man, he played one, he played Knick Knack on my thumb, with a Knick knack paddywack, give the dog a bone, this old man came rolling home.” And two, and three, and so on. And this old man finally did roll home Friday night on Southwest Airlines, just in time to learn that the mayors of New York City, and Chicago, have called for an end to lockdowns because the cure is worse than the disease! What consummate timing! I mistakenly thought it would all be over after the election, but turns out it’s actually the inauguration. And where have I heard that cure is worse than the disease before? And why was the mayor of LA left off the email distribution list? They’re still in their bunkers as far as I can tell. And then, good old Newsweek reports, and this is the genuine headline from their “magazine:” COVID Lockdowns May Have No Clear Benefit vs Other Voluntary Measures, International Study Shows. Where would we be without “studies?”
I’m grateful for the two weeks’ vacation to get my daughter settled back into her house and begin the process of visitations, etc. that go along with a divorce. And thank you to Mike and Nicole Martin and Roger Osborne who filled in the pulpit while I was out.
During our two weeks in Dallas, my daughter had doctor visits, worked at her part time job for Central Christian Church in Dallas, and sent out lots of resumes. I have come home with a renewed admiration for mothers of toddlers and mothers of two, three, four and more young children.
I’m getting to the age where I look forward to my Sunday afternoon nap, but never have I looked forward to a nap as much as I have looked forward to my granddaughter’s naps this last couple of weeks. Of course, toddlers are delightful to be around, most of the time, and they grow up fast. But I had forgotten over the last 30 years just how much work is involved in doing all the things that have to be done. And really, I was just the back-up.
The political craziness on both sides of the aisle, over the last few weeks, seems like the appropriate icing on the cake of the year 2020, does it not? It was not a good year for most people, unless you were a governor or mayor who had always wanted to be a dictator, or maybe if you were a tech billionaire, or owned a lot of stock in Clorox and gained 70% over the year. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates. A lot of folks are really cleaning up, so to speak.
Most people, though, have had a rough year. There are plenty of people who don’t have any “back-up” when they get laid off. Some have the privilege of working from home, but how do you frame up a house, from home? How do you load up a semi, from home? How do you guard a prison, or process meat, or wait tables, from home? I know it’s not 1956 anymore, I’d still be in diapers if it was, but I still blame the Communist Party of China for much of the chaos recently.
Of course, if we are to understand I Corinthians 10, we need to become more aware of the idolatrous tendencies of most Americans, many Christians included, for we are all convinced of the blessings of wealth, and not as wary of its dangers as we should be. And of course, the blessings are obvious, and the dangers less so, hidden, delayed.
Idolatry, in myriad forms, is certainly the problem for the church in Corinth, that we heard about in our reading today. Idolatry, to be most effective, needs no statue of wood or stone or precious metal to infect the human hear and turn it toward evil. It merely needs a focus, an object of desire and a short-term reward.
Power is an idol, and one of the most enticing. This is one reason why George Washington really was a great man, and a great political leader, with a greatness nearly incomprehensible to most politicians.
For all intents and purposes, the War with Great Britain had ended at Yorktown in 1781. The Treaty of Paris, formally ending hostilities, was signed in September of 1783, and on December 23 of that year, Washington resigned his Commission from Congress, such as it was at that stage. His remarks were: Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.…
I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.
Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
— George Washington
Having defeated the greatest military power in the world, most at home and abroad assumed Washington would be the leader of the country, whether King or Prince or what have you. Virtually nothing stood in his way. His officers would certainly have backed him. In 1783 the American-born painter Benjamin West was in England painting the portrait of King George III. When the King asked what General Washington planned to do now that he had won the war West replied: "They say he will return to his farm." King George paused, and said: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
Power is hard to resist. It is intoxicating and alluring. Think of all the good you could do! Certainly that thought and many others had crossed Washington’s mind. He went home for five years, to his farm, and when the country pleaded with him to allow himself to be a candidate for the Constitutionally new office of President, he received 100% of the votes of the electoral college of that day, as well as at his reelection in 1792.
There are those who saw the hand of God in these and other events surrounding the founding of this country. Certainly the designers of the Great Seal, with its motto, Annuit Coeptis, He has favored our undertakings, did.
Power is dangerous, though most of us don’t experience the idolatrous intoxication of “Great” power, and so are spared that particular danger. But Shakespeare recognized that power can have its effect on any of us, when Hamlet references the “insolence of office” in his famous soliloquy.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of that, whether it’s simply a government clerk, a bank officer, an unjust school official, whoever it may be. Even the pettiest of powers clung to with a tight grasp, can lead us astray. We’re all vulnerable to the temptation. Almost all, anyway. There were, still are, people like George Washington.
But there are also people like Tom Cruise, who recently deployed two walking robots to stalk around his movie set for Mission Impossible monitoring and surveilling all the crew and actors to make sure they’re not violating his covid-19 orders about regarding masks and distancing.
The irony is thick here, and there’s nothing at all creepy about this, but at least Tom won’t have to keep going on five-minute profanity laced rants at people who don’t follow his simple rules.
Now I Corinthians 10 has a great deal to say about temptation to idolatry and other sins, and chapters 6, and 8 and 9 are taken up with the dangers of eating food offered to idols in the pagan temples or at home, so the temptations of idolatry are the overall context when we get to ch. 10.
It is an astonishing passage for many reasons, not the least of which is that in this letter to a mostly if not entirely Gentile audience, Paul says, right there in verse 1, “I want you know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud.” Of course, as we learn when we keep reading, the cloud is the cloud that went before Israelites at night on their journey from Mt. Sinai through the wilderness, as did the pillar of fire at night. Or, as one Sunday School child delightfully remembered his mixed-up Bible stories, “Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire by night.”
But where does this “our fathers” come from. In any context but this one that is just nonsense. No gentile Greek or Roman would have considered Moses and the Israelites to be his forefathers. “Jews here. Everybody else, over there!”
Paul’s casual assertion, all more powerful for being casual and assumed, is that those now in the body of Christ are children of God, members of the covenant of God’s grace, that began with Abraham’s faith. For just as the Exodus began with Liberation before there was Law, so the call of Abraham began in Faith, before he was circumcised, as Paul points out elsewhere.
What must this mean? Many things. Our Bible is the Jews’ Bible. It was theirs first, and once it’s author, the son of God, taught the apostles how to read it, it becomes the testimony that points to him, like a literary John the Baptist. Matthew is a gospel because Isaiah is the oracle of God. Mark is a gospel because Malachi heard and heeded the Word of God.
Our Fathers. Our fathers were all under the cloud. Not their fathers. Ours. We’re adopted, adopted by our creator, into his family, no longer wandering, no longer spiritually homeless.
This also means we take the Law and the Prophets and the Writings seriously. The covenant of Law is not our covenant, it was a preparation of a specific people and culture to understand and receive and live with God’s holiness. To be a light to the nations, and a servant to the world, being the physical people from whom our physical redemption and resurrection originates, through the Jew, once dead and now alive, Jesus Christ.
The political nation of Israel itself, once dead, nothing, nowhere, now a beacon of peace and prosperity, is a figure of that Jew, a figure of its servant and savior, dead, and then raised from the kingdom of darkness into the new creation, into which we shall also follow.
God did not give up on his first plan and send Jesus as plan B. Our fathers were under the cloud. Same family. I honor and claim all the fathers and mothers I can learn about, simply because they’re mine. We all come from a multitude of families. Odoms and Caves and Baileys and Hillises, and Edges and Godbees, and Jacksons and Clinches, those are some of my names.
But I’ve been adopted, simply out of love, by grace, into a new family. And my fathers were under the cloud. They passed through the Red Sea, they were “baptized into Moses” in the sea, they ate and drank the sacraments of wilderness wandering, manna gathered six days a week, and water that came from the Rock, and the Rock was Christ.
All of this should be the foundation for all Christian Biblical Interpretation. The book of Numbers says nothing about this Rock from which the water flowed being Christ. It says nothing about the Rock following them through the desert. Paul says they drank from the supernatural Rock, the spiritual Rock, the pneumatikos petros is his original language. Pneuma for Sprit.
Paul is bridging time, almost erasing time with the starkness of his figurative language. He doesn’t say it was like Christ. He doesn’t say being under the cloud, or going through the Red Sea, and following Moses was like being baptize. He says “They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
The immediacy of his language, no connecting terms, but copulative terms, “The Rock was Christ,” place his readers, the Corinthians, and by powerful analogy, you and I.
And he gives them and us warnings which we therefore must heed diligently.
First, he says, referring to vss 6-11, that “with most of them,” those baptized and those who ate drank from Christ, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
He immediately tells us and the Corinthians, “These things are warnings, not to desire evil as they did.” This is a categorization he uses to describe all the next four things he references that happened in the wilderness, and by connection with his context, the temptations the Corinthians and we ourselves face. Do not desire evil.
There are four episodes he then brings up. First: the episode of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Our RSV, which says “dance” and NRSV tiptoe a bit here. “They sat down to drink and rose up to play.” This was not catch football after a Thanksgiving Dinner. This was only “play” in the sense of the “play” in old Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansions. They sat down to drink and then had an orgy would be a more accurate translation. Max Zerwick translates “paidzo” as “amuse themselves,” which is very genteel.
The second episode referred to is in Numbers 25, in which God visited a plague upon his people for their fornication with the people of Moab. “We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and 23,000 fell in a single day.”
The third episode, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.” Some of them, complaining about the food on this hiking trip, in Numbers 21, “put Christ to the test.” 21:5 says, “the people spoke against God and against Moses, “For there is no food and not water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Clearly there was food, they just didn’t like it. In complaining against God and Moses, they put Christ to the test. Very intriguing timeline. But the incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ is eternal. Not a creature of time, though born in time. The second person of the Trinity. Who is he? If not Jesus the Christ, he is nobody. There is no other Christ, no alternate Christ. Revelation refers to the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the world.” Not limited to 33 AD. They put Christ to the test, and it’s happening now, today, in too many churches and Christian hearts.
The Fourth Episode, most likely from Numbers 14, is when the people grumbled, or murmured, against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. “And all the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why does the Lord bring us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.”
I’m not certain to which episode Paul refers here, but Numbers 14 fits, except it does not have a “destroyer,” which is only found in Exodus 12, the time of Passover, which is not about grumbling. But again, none of the Old Testament has a Rock that followed them through the wilderness. Paul exercises his apostolic freedom of the Spirit to explain his warnings.
He softens his language a bit, only a bit, when he says these things happed to them as a warning, and were written down for our instruction. There’s a fine line there, that many cross, though I don’t recommend it.
He concludes with written admonishing his readers not to be proud and think because he’s currently “standing” he can’t also fall. And you needn’t fear temptation, for God gives the strength to resist temptation to those who desire it. A way to escape.
As Martin Luther so pointedly remarked, “I can’t stop the bird from flying over my head, but I don’t have to let it build a nest in my hair.”
And he closes with the re-establishment of his context. Flee the worship of idols. Shun the worship of idols. Don’t put Christ to the test in these pagan temples, don’t let the birds build nests in your hair.
Idolatry is a reality in our world today. It’s never been stronger. It is all around us. Identify it, isolate it, and drive it from your life and your heart. For these verses are not just instruction, verse11, they’re also warnings for us, vs. 6.
A warning is an act of kindness. An extension of grace. A helping hand. Do not despise the word that is spoken so long ago, and again today.
December 27th, Isaiah 62:1-12
Because we follow and worship a Jew, we have to read stuff like this 62nd chapter of Isaiah in our gatherings. We are a community of believers, and our tradition of gathering began on the first day of that week when the disciples were huddled together in an upper room, not knowing what might happen next. Jesus had been crucified that Friday and now they were hearing all kinds of crazy rumors.
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.””
We’re here today because they were there that day. Tradition means that which is handed on, and Jesus handed on to his disciples these books. That is to say, he himself passed on the tradition of reading and believing Deuteronomy, and Psalms, and Isaiah and the rest of the scriptures. Twice, we read in Luke, Jesus’ guidance for the disciples on how to read the Bible: In 24:25, he said: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” And again, in the same chapter, also after the resurrection, in verse 44, “Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
This is our book because it’s Jesus’ book, even if we can’t always figure out what it means at first glance. You and I live in the world Ernest Hemingway. Known for his simple, straightforward writing style, we’ve come to expect that initial, immediate simplicity and clarity. We’re not used to struggling to understand what we read, unless it’s perhaps a Physics textbook, or the instructions for assembling a new toy with translated instructions.
Here’s the first line of Hemingway’s short story “A Way You’ll Never Be.”
“The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farmhouses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river.” That’s pretty clear.
Here’s his The Old Man and the Sea: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. What do you say about something like that? Simple declarative sentence. Describes a person and what he does and what had happened to him.
And then there’s Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.”
Who’s speaking? Who’s Zion? Not keep silent about what? Is Jerusalem the same as Zion? How does not resting accomplish the speaker’s purpose? What exactly is the speaker doing, that he should not rest until whatever this vindication is goes forth as brightness? How does an abstraction go forth, and how is salvation, whatever that might be in this context, relate to a burning torch? And why does he seem to say everything twice, in a different manner?
So many questions. So much pondering and wondering. You can see why many people prefer Hemingway, or John Grisham, or Danielle Steele, or insert favorite writer here. Even when we read a mystery, there are many cues throughout the book that the writer will reveal the simple answer to the question that’s posed at the beginning. The killer will be caught. Justice will be served. Order will be restored.
Isaiah, and much else in the Bible, especially the prophets, puzzles us because it’s not our time, not our world, not our context. And yet it is our tradition, for now, so long as Western Civilization survives. There may come a time in the West when Isaiah is no more known than the I Ching or the Bardo Thodol. Of course, it will no longer then be “The West” as it’s been known. But virtually every literary artefact and foundational concept for now is indebted to Isaiah, to the Law, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the cross of Christ and the rich treasury of the scriptures.
On a visual level even our automobile logos point to our history. The Cadillac and Buick logos partake of the heraldry of Christian Europe. The Statue of Liberty, which speaks in the terminology of Jesus’ first sermon, proclaiming liberty, holds aloft a burning torch, which illuminates perhaps how the salvation shall go forth from Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s words.
We live in the bright light of the Bible, but as a society we’re almost totally blind as to where that bright light originates. You’re walking through the grocery store and in addition to your grocery list you pick up some beans and rice and canned soup to donate! To an organization! That gives it away! To a person you’ve never met! And you’ll likely never meet them. Why would you do that? Who are they to you? They’re poor! Are they your relatives? Do you know them? In the non-biblical world, they’d never be noticed. Literally no one would care. But you’ve been traditioned. You’ve been conditioned by words you’ve heard all your life. You know where they come from even if others don’t. Love your neighbor. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
The Bible talks about the poor constantly. Because they’re everywhere in that agricultural world that’s dominated by Kings and Rulers and the violence that sits on the thrones of all nations. But your book, the book we read from every Sunday, says that you can be God’s banker, simply by sharing your beans and rice at the Food Bank. Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.”
Apparently, according to the Bible, God pays his debts. He pays what he owes, and the poor are his children and if you help look after them, he pays you back. God forgets nothing. Except the sin crucified on the cross of Christ.
Because we live in a society, as greedy and moneygrubbing as it may be, that nonetheless sees the poor, feeds the poor like some of you will do today and tomorrow, a society, and not just our country, a society that, in essence, takes from the rich and gives to the poor,….as corrupt as the governmental programs may be, it’s still rare to witness in our world, scenes like in the parable Jesus tells about the poor man Lazarus, he has a name, which is remarkable in that day and time, Lazarus lies in the dirt at the gate to the rich man’s home, and he’s so poor and sick and helpless, the dogs lick the sores on his body while he lies there, dying.
In the pre-biblical world, the non-biblical world, the poor are hardly people, more like impediments in the way of others. We can read the history books and try to understand this, but we can’t take ourselves out of our tradition, our context, in which a person is the crown of God’s creation, made in the image of God, of the same flesh and blood as the baby Jesus born in a barn, with cowpats and horseflies and who knows what all.
No sanitary facilities for Mary, in that cowbarn, bleeding after giving birth, breasts aching and leaking, the child goes to his mother for sustenance. That’s the world Jesus is born into. That’s the world Jesus changes, by, well, how does he change it?
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent. Jesus lifts up his voice in the synagogue in Capernaum as he reads from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty for the captives
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Upon your walls, Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night, they shall never be silent” Isaiah says. You know, don’t you, that there’s someone reading the Word of God, somewhere in the world, 24 hours a day, as the earth spins and whirls around the sun. Certainly all day Sunday, the gospel story is told and sung and heard as the sun moves across the sky. The Word shall never be silent.
Go through the gates, Isaiah says, and Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem, and rode that donkey, and then walked to Golgotha knowing what awaited.
How did Jesus change the world? “Behold your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”
In John 13, we read in John’s characteristic style, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus called and founded “a Holy people,” as Isaiah says, “the redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought out, a city not forsaken.”
Jesus founded a city with his blood. A city on a hill, that cannot be hidden. A city on the mountain of the Lord, on Mt. Zion, to which all the nations of the world shall go, saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 62 is addressed to a people whose hopes are fading, and their energy is declining. They’ve been restored to their promised land, but they’re still in the world of finitude and the world of growing old, and losing vision, and poverty, and hunger, and anger, and dishonesty.
“We thought it would be better than this. Our parents said the Lord would restore our fortunes in Zion.”
This chapter is filled with the figures of God’s Word. The burning torch, the new name, the mouth of the Lord, the right hand of the Lord, the mighty arm of the Lord, the grain and the wine, the gates, the highway, the stones of the ground, the daughter of Zion, the city, now named Not forsaken. And more. It’s packed full of treasure, harking back to the burning torch of the Lord that passes through Abraham’s offering and all the way to the new city of God in Revelation 22.
Isaiah has nothing new to tell us, and yet everything is new. “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” We are God’s love. You Hepzibah, are delightful, for the Lord delights in you. You, Beulah, are the bride of the Lord. Not forgotten, but rejoiced over.
This is your heritage. This is your vindication. This is your glory. For all the morning stars sing together and all the angels shout for joy!
December 20th, Isaiah 42:1-17
If I am sitting at my desk at this time of the year early in the morning, the sun comes in the window from the south and shines through the limbs of the leafless Maple tree and casts shadows on papers taped up on the side of the filing cabinet to my left.
On the shadows of the limbs that I see from where I sit, there often appears another shadow, a moving shadow that jumps and creeps along, which I identify as a squirrel. I don’t actually see the squirrel, just its shadow. Strangely enough this gives me pleasure and holds my attention more than a real squirrel in my backyard would, of which I have a plethora.
I can’t see the squirrel, and the squirrel can’t see me, but I watch nonetheless. The small evanescent shadow of a small creature on the cabinet in the office of a small church of an unimportant preacher.
A small thing. ““It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The scriptures speak of small things but often with a loud voice. One could argue that the Bible is just full of small things. By smallness I mean that which is often nowadays thought of as insignificant, forgotten, unimportant. Words like truth and justice feel on initial glance like large words, powerful ideas, but a look at the events of the past year seem to bely that notion.
Jack Nicholson’s immortal words, “You can’t handle the truth,” seem appropriate to our times. Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave us our reminder in his essay, “Live Not by Lies.” It was 46 years ago, the day before he was arrested by the KGB and exiled from the USSR, that his essay was written. That phrase has been borrowed now by Rod Dreher in his new book, “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”
Truth is often forgotten in our society. Justice is ignored. The way the coronavirus story, the death of George Floyd, the ensuing marches, riots and burning of cities, were reported, the way the presidential campaign was covered by the major media, if you need convincing that Truth is forgotten and Justice ignored in our world you need not look far. But of course, lies that are large enough and loud enough will often be believed, by some at least.
It’s a confusing time. I’m often confused, as well. We often don’t know who to believe. A dog that is repeatedly beaten will cower away from the kindest hand. What happens when lies dominates one’s life? What happens to those whose entire life is a life of being lied to? Who do you trust?
Isaiah 42:6 says, ““I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.”
Isaiah teaches us to look in the lonely, ignored, unimportant corners of the world, if we would truly see, and see truly. In the Roman world of 2,000 years ago, what more forgotten place than a village in Judah? What more ignored hope than the unlikely hope of Jews for justice and righteousness in their world, dominated by a Roman client, King Herod, whose hands must have ached from holding on to power so tightly that he would liquidate a generation of boys from that small, unimportant village? Like Herod’s spiritual descendant Pontius Pilate, what did he care about justice or truth?
Small things. But small things can be powerful. How large is a virus? How large is an atom of plutonium?
We sometimes hear of the figures and events from the past, and as if looking at an object far, far away, or through a reverse telescope, they all appear small. For after all, what can be as important as me, myself and I, the center of the emotional universe? We all have a chronological snobbery. What is now is of most importance.
Space and distance minimize our visual capabilities. And they remind us as well, of what time can do to your perceptions of the relative importance of what we remember, or don’t remember.
Part of the world’s problem is that it doesn’t know, what it doesn’t know. Truly a human condition. We all need a good word. A helpful, a hopeful word. Some perhaps remember Donald Rumsfeld, who, in the context of a press briefing in 2002, said, “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
If one doesn’t know that Truth is often kicked to the curb, if one doesn’t operate with a sense that there is an overarching truth that can be trusted, that can be loved, even, one is likely not to know or certainly not to understand that there was a man who claimed to actually be truth, “the way, the truth, and the life.”
The way to the desire of all the ages, the truth at the foundation of the real world, and the life without which there is no hope for the future.
Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord, is the unknown unknown for many, for just as our eyes flit over the correct object of our search when we are actually searching for the wrong thing, and isn’t that another good description of the human condition, “searching for the wrong thing;” the Truth may be alive and well, but unknown to most, for many consider this truth a legend, a discredited figure, a myth, a tool of the wicked to fool the credulous, an old fairy tale, a nursery rhyme for adults, a means to sell one’s goods in December.
Alaric was King of the Visigoths, and sacked Rome in 410 AD. He bestrode the world for awhile like a colossus, until a fever, perhaps caused by a virus, brought him down from his high perch. Alaric is buried, along with his plundered wealth, under a riverbed somewhere in the southern Italian town of Cosenza. Gone and forgotten, by most. It was a long time ago.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the First, dominated the 12th century with his longevity, organizational skills, battlefield acumen and political acuity. While leading the Third Crusade, Barbarossa, Red Beard in English, crossed a river in Southern Turkey on horseback and when the horse stumbled, he fell off and the weight of his suit of armor drowned him in the river.
His bones, his flesh, and his heart were buried in three different locations in Antioch, Tyre and Tarsus. The course of history shifted drastically with the actions and deaths of both of these two men, and of course that of many others. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte.
But in our world today I would wager that more people know Hunter Biden’s name than King Alaric. More people certainly worship Taylor Swift than ever shed a tear for old Frederick Barbarossa.
But, to those alive in that day, these were world-shaking men and moments. Some mourned and some rejoiced. Naturally, all kind of events loom large in our own lives, varying by individual circumstance. Sometimes the pace of change is hard to keep up with. Of course, the death of a parent or spouse assumes much more importance to the person who survives than any number of news stories and scandals that pre-occupy the rest of us and the producers of News Shows.
I’m told the phrase “This too, shall pass” is of Persian origin, but it sounds a lot like the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s hard to believe now, but this virus will fade in our memories in the face of new events, new crises. Schoolchildren will struggle to remember the names of Fauci and Birx, fail their American history quizzes. “That was a long time ago,” they will think.
For most it will be remembered as a small thing. How well do you remember ABSCAM? Remember the Keating Five? Remember Robert McFarlane? John Poindexter? How about Herbert Kalmbach? Maurice Stans? John Ehrlichman, or HR Haldeman? Now it’s coming back. Scandals of the seventies and eighties. Many of those names went to prison.
Isaiah is now a small thing to most of the world. Isaiah? Is that the basketball player? It’s like one of those “Man in the Street” ambush interviews on camera. Can you name the Vice-President? Can you name the Chief Justice? Can you name the Governor? Most of the ones you see are hilariously inept at answering, I assume, I hope, because all the accurate answers are left out. I hope.
What does the name Isaiah make you think of? Would most people nowadays say, “The Bible?” Or basketball? Isaiah Thomas, Isaiah Joe, Isaiah Roby. Popular name these days.
A small thing. It’s not the big things that change the world. What is the cause of the 90 million casualties of WWI and WWII? Was it not a small thing? One man killed another man, with a very small pistol.
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
The Lord declares his servant in Isaiah 42, as he was declared at the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
The Servant, in verse 1 of our lesson: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
The commentators pore over this text and others like it: Who is the servant? Isaiah, Eliakim? David? Israel as a whole? He’s all of those, and more. The Word of the Lord accomplishes its purpose at the time and in the manner of his providence, his guidance.
Isaiah tells us of the difficulties for all involved in this accomplishment. “For a long time, I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant. I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.”
A good reminder that the Lord works in the real world. The small child drives the salvation of the great world. But his mother struggles, she gasps and pants, and cries out. Jesus is born in blood, like all children. Other children also die for the salvation of the world, for had Jesus not been born, Herod would not have slaughtered the infants. Someone else paid a price for us, though they were not asked. Would you pay that price, for someone far away, and 2,000 years from now?
Some small things seem not so small. Those children were not forgotten by their parents. What did those mothers think when they later heard of the son of David, King of the Jews, native of Bethlehem, crucified by the Romans? Did they remember? Did it all come back to them?
What more hopeful word could there be than verse 16? “And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.”
Do you know, do you remember what it feels like to be lost? There is a hidden promise in being lost, for to be lost is defined as “to be unable to find one’s way.” That which one cannot find by oneself, is nevertheless present, by virtue of its absence. Otherwise the absence is not remarked upon. To lose one’s way is at least to have had a way, a direction. To think of a human person as having a direction, a purpose, a goal, is to have a view of the human that is more than commentator’s just a sparrow that falls in the dust. To have lost a way is to know, at the heart’s deepest core, that it may, be found again. Because once it was not lost.
Edmund Spenser wrote:
What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth? it is no more at all:
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought:
For whatsoever from one place doth fall
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may not be found, if sought.
Though it couldn’t be said that to be lost is to be found, certainly one may not be found if one is not lost. And to know that one is lost, to experience “lostness” prepares one to be found, readies the heart for the discovery of one’s soul by another, by the one who has never lost one of his little ones.
“These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.”
December 13, 2020 Zechariah 14:1-11
We cannot seize hold of time. We cannot restrain it or constrain it in any way. Can’t make it slow down or speed it up. This is part of our fundamental humanness, our finitude. We are finite, in relation to the in-finite, or infinite. It’s not the same as sinful, not necessarily a weakness or failing. It’s just who we are.
Time is the experience of change. Time is also an indication of blessing. Being in goodness is to be alive; which is to be blessed. Were there no being, no “things” to change, the movement of the stars without us, and the cells and chemicals within us, there would be no time, because no change.
In the created world, there is space, which can be thought of as the distance between things, there is matter, that of which things are made, and there is time, because all things change, either growing or decaying. There is also the mystery of energy, heat and light, which has been winding down since God first spoke light into existence.
So, in the world there is always time, because there is always change. Therefore, the absence of time, of which there is none, would simply be absence, or nothingness itself. When God spoke, Let there be light, time began as the photons moved through the universe and measurement became possible.
We are riding the wave of time as we await another Christmas, another day on which to mark the birth of our savior, to whom Zechariah points, the birth of him who is Lord not only of life and death, but of time as well, for “in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16
The word of the Lord in Zechariah 14 is about time and its approach and what it brings. “A day of the Lord is coming.” Vs. 1 tells us. “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives.” “Then the Lord your God will come and all his holy ones with him.” “On that day there shall be neither cold nor frost.” “On that day living water shall flow out from Jerusalem.”
This passage, spoken to us in our time past, though we’re hearing it in our own present, was spoken by Zechariah in his own present, about his and our future. Zechariah is an apocalyptic prophet. His words are performative through time. Jesus brings, in Zechariah’s unusual usage, ‘A’ Day of the Lord. Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives, before he hangs from the tree of the cross, the recipient of the full wrath of God, becoming sin for our sakes. For the prophets originally saw the Day of the Lord as a day of deliverance over their enemies, and later, with the words of Amos, as a day of God’s wrath on the sins of his people. Jesus brings these two views of the Day of the Lord together.
Zechariah’s words in verse 5 point to the one who sat on the Mt. of Olives, who stood on the Mt. of Olives, who went to the Mt. of Olives after the Last Supper, to pray in Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mt. of Olives.
This is the one who stood and will stand on the Mt. of Olives, who promised in John 7 “He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” The river of living water from Zechariah 14:8, is the water of life that Jesus offers, as also the River of the water of Life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb in Revelation 22.
Ezekiel said in ch. 47, “Then he led me back along the bank of the river. 7 As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. 8 And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh… 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
At the center of the picture Zechariah gives us is the kingdom of God, spoken of as Jerusalem, on its mountain, and the Lord. This is the general theme of the major and minor prophets, whose focus is the promises of the Lord to his people and through them to the world, and the approach of these promises in time.
A day is coming. The Lord is coming. On that day. This repeated theme is the reason Zechariah is read at Advent, though not in the Common Lectionary, which uses only one passage from Zechariah during the whole three-year cycle, the word in ch. 9 read for Palm Sunday in Year A of the cycle: Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.
But like most OT prophets, Zechariah and his visions makes listeners a little uneasy. We don’t know what to do with them. We don’t know how to assert the truth of Zechariah in a culture of objectivity. Most religious discourse today is shunted aside as lacking in objectivity. Not scientific. No proof. Just somebody’s opinion.
Scientific assertions, on the other hand, are said to be objective, true regardless of who the “subject” may be, perceiving or measuring the object. The point of a scientific truth for a given object or phenomenon is to be the same for every perceiver, every observer, every subject. Thus it is said to be objectively true. The truth is said to inhere in the object. Thus the scientific method is intended to give us a truth independent of whoever observes the object or phenomenon. This is the general goal of the experimental method, so-called.
Today, we’ve so thoroughly forgotten how to read the scriptures, because no one has taught us, we’ve mostly abandoned them. When there’s some disagreement on a relevant biblical text or topic, we say “That’s just your interpretation,” as if there were no reality to which the scripture links or connects beyond the individual opinion of each and every person. “That’s how you read it, but not how I read it.” QED. Argument over. We claim a personal, not necessarily communicable individual truth that need not be the truth of any other for it nonetheless to be a truth. “This is true for me,” we’ve claimed or heard claimed, endlessly.
When we move into that mode of claim and counter-claim, anything less than science, so-called, seems to fall short of real, objective truth. When we’re repeatedly told, by non-scientists, to “listen to the science,” on whatever topic, you can be sure you’ve left science behind and migrated to a culture of authority, not experiment.
Though we can’t hear this easily, perhaps we don’t have ears to hear, objective truth is not the only generalizable truth. The Danish writer Kierkegaard said in a phrase that has puzzled readers for decades, that “Truth is subjectivity.”
A dense claim on its surface, but in actuality he simply means that a truth’s significance lies in a subject’s engagement with it. Does it matter? This kind of truth does not lack objectivity, for if it did it would be merely a collection of impressions, and not a question of truth at all.
That with which humanity engages most deeply and strongly, most constantly, can be said to be the truth to which the subject, the observer, the learner, is most connected. We all know the boiling point of water can be determined, depending on the altitude. Is that more or less true than life is a gift of God for which each of us is responsible?
This is not an argument for Sheilaism, which I mentioned last week, where Sheila has her own little church of one. Truth is multi-faceted, and can be simple and complex. The problem with the modern methods reducing our reading and hearing of the scriptures to what can be demonstrated to be actually, factually, video-camera level true, is to once again focus on that which has a lower level of truth, than the words, “the Lord is coming.”
Now, I know, we all have the rebuttal of this kind of talk in the back of our minds. I do as well. We are programmed by our education and culture to doubt. This is how the modern world got its start, with Descartes, the French thinker of the 17th century.
He considered nothing was knowable, except that fact, that he doubted everything. Dubito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I am. The rest of the road for the next four centuries was everything has to be proven, demonstrable, replicable.
The church’s centuries old traditional way of reading scripture was gradually left behind and generally invalidated in the eyes of the academy, as the historical-critical method so-called essentially canonized the present as over against the past. The problem with this is that there is no accessible present. In a sense the present doesn’t exist. The moment you think about the present, it’s already past, and you’ve moved into the future, though it keeps receding, as the moving present chases it. We live in the past, the period of Zechariah and Jesus, and though the past of last week, last year, last century takes effort and intentional deciphering, so does the ever-shifting present.
Think of the difficulties of two people understanding one another. Even when they speak the same language, are the same age, live in the same country, confusion reigns. Explain your political views to someone of the opposite persuasion. How well do you think that would go? Explain why you prefer to read biographies to histories. Explain why you’d rather watch Netflix than the NFL. Nothing is simple, and effort must be expended to arrive at a modicum of perception.
When you listen to someone with the goal of understanding them, there are all kinds of steps we take that we aren’t even aware of, for they’re just habit. Patience, acuity, sympathy, perception, many other things help in the process.
Reading the Bible requires desire and practice along with much else, especially a humble prayer to have one’s own heart opened to the Spirit of God.
The Lord is coming. Jerusalem is the mountain of the Lord. The holiness and righteousness of God, associated with his strength and protection, is what Jerusalem means. The righteousness that God bestows on and requires of us in acknowledgment of who he is, is what describes and characterizes the protection supplied by the fortress of Jerusalem. The Mountain of the Lord is the strength he gives to his people to be and remain faithful.
The living water that flows from Jerusalem is not only the song of David, but the blood of Jesus Christ, for his shed blood, accepted by the humble and contrite heart, is like the body of Elisha. After Elisha was laid in his tomb in Israel, the next year when a dead man was being buried nearby, the burial party saw that an invading party of Moabites was coming over the hill. Dropping their shovels, they bundled the dead man into the nearest tomb, above ground, and when he came into contact with the bones of Elisha, he was resuscitated.
Not the bones, but the blood of Christ flows from the throne of God and gives life to many. This is what Zechariah is pointing to. He has a specific vision, it’s in Jerusalem, it’s the Lord, who speaks in the context of righteousness, he brings his holy ones, it says in verse 5, for the Lord sanctifies all who come to him. The message of Zechariah is not just be kind and acknowledge whatever God you believe in.
Zechariah, sharing our past with us, reminds us that the Lord remembers, for this is what his name, Zechariah, means. The Lord remembers, and never forgets. The day has arrived. The day is coming. You and I live in the past and the future. And our past continues to build our foundation, and our future is always drawing us toward the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
December 6th, 2 John 1-13
The season of Advent developed because of the church’s sense of holiness. What does that mean? It means that in a way similar to Moses being enjoined to keep his distance when he turned aside to see the Burning Bush, the church also considered it inappropriate to simply move from everyday life right into the celebration of the Incarnation in the blink of an eye.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.” 5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Do not come near. This is a holiness of space and distance. There is a holiness of use or matter present in the story as well, when Moses is told to take off his sandals. His sandals have been just everywhere and anywhere, and now he is not just anywhere but in a limited space. Holy Ground.
All the earth is the Lord’s. Everything that is, is made by him and therefore partakes of an existential goodness by virtue of being. But goodness is not the same as holiness. The vessels in the tabernacle were holy. The vessels at every Jew’s table were not. Paul speaks in a similar fashion in 2 Timothy: “In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble.”
In Moses’ story, holiness is a liminal state. On the borderline. Liminal comes from the Latin word meaning threshold. That which divides, which marks the difference, in the normal case, between in an out.
Moses, Moses. Do not come near. Take off your sandals, for this is Holy Ground. To move into the holy is to cross a line, when it’s the issue of holiness of place. With a holiness of use, it’s a need to give something up or take something on, some new burden or command.
When it is a holiness of time, there’s a different experience. The Holiness of time affects one’s outlook. One’s behavior reflects the case that time is being experienced, that life is being lived, differently, for a different purpose.
Many of the laws of the Torah were given to inculcate an understanding of holiness within the heart and culture of the Jewish people. Do this, not that. Eat this, not that. Work now, not then.
The Sabbath is the greatest and most common example of this holiness, the hallowing of time. “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.”
The idea of Advent is that the church hallowed Christmas with this season of preparation. Advent as a liturgical season was not common till the development of the practice of holding Baptisms on Epiphany, the holiday remembering the visit of the Magi, and this pushed the preparation period back 40 days to the middle of November. This was eventually shortened as Advent took on more of the purpose of preparation for Christmas rather than baptism on Epiphany. And December 25 was not chosen by the church to match up with some popular pagan Roman holiday, but because the relatively easy to discern date of Christ’s death was thought coincide with the date of his conception 9 months earlier, as was commonly believed about the Hebrew Patriarchs. The typical date for when Christ was thought to have died was March 25, the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, and 9 months later brings you to December 25.
The scripture lessons for Advent Sundays are chosen based on themes consonant with preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Some of those themes are his first coming, of course, the Second Coming, the persons of John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother, Mary, the prophecies of his coming and their fulfillment and holiness.
It’s fair to say that the last-mentioned theme is not often listed or specified for Advent and one reason for that is the limited nature of the lectionary, being designed to operate in a 3-year cycle. By adding a fourth year, I opened up more Sundays for scriptures not anywhere used in the 3-year cycle.
2 John is one of those scriptures. Clifton Black, a commentator, calls 2 John a neglected step child in Biblical interpretation. Not used anywhere in any lectionary, if you only get your Bible from what’s read on Sunday mornings, you may never come across 2 John. Most folks stumble across it on their way to finding the book of Revelation.
If it weren’t for 3 John, 2 John would be the shortest book in the New Testament. It reiterates some themes found in I John, but few scriptures this short have as much to say to the church as 2 John does.
One reason to give it our attention is that 2 John’s insistence on a kind of relational holiness makes preachers and listeners extremely uncomfortable, not to mention the writers of commentaries. When I read stuff like the following, I just can’t resist seeing what’s got them so worked up.
JL Houlden, in speaking of verses 7-11, which could be considered the center of the book’s message, that, “this passage has, on any showing, an ugly look.” And on closer inspection “it is even more drastic and unfortunate.” It puzzles the heck out of me how a scholar can spend a lifetime interpreting the Bible and then conclude that he could have done a better job than John. An ugly look! Drastic and unfortunate!
Judith Lieu considers it an “enigmatic irony” that 2 John “found a way to acceptance by the wider church within its canon of scripture.” I guess Professor Lieu thinks it’s too bad she wasn’t in charge of choosing the books to go in the Bible.
One more. D. Moody Smith, born here in Murfreesboro, was a NT professor at Duke for 36 years said, “Perhaps the unique feature of this letter is best left unheeded. There is a sufficiency of bigotry and intolerance about, so that we do not need the Second Epistle to encourage it.”
What on earth are Bible scholars doing deprecating and canceling the message of a book in the Bible? Is the Bible part of the basket of deplorables now? I think what some don’t like about 2 John is that he’s drawing lines, defining what’s acceptable and what’s not in the central theme of the Gospel.
Most of us have a hard time of figuring out a way to take 2 John’s message to heart and at the same time be entirely nice and polite and civil and liberal minded. For 2 John is a violation everything our betters would inculcate in us regarding what we should believe about Jesus Christ and how the church and its members should interact with those who reject the gospel message. Live and let live is the American way, and we’re taught that every day in every way. Get along. Why argue. Freedom of religion. At the highest levels of American authority, we were told by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy 20 years ago, “"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
Few of us would disagree with that and other statements like it, so when we stumble on 2 John we’re a mite bewildered. It’s clear from the prior letter, I John, that there has been a breach in the unity of their part of the church, probably around the city of Ephesus, because from John’s warnings it’s clear that some have rejected the reality of God coming to earth in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. As I John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.”
Here we are, on the Second Sunday of Advent, preparing for the coming of the Christ Child, the birth of the baby. But if it’s no God who comes at that moment, who cares? Just another baby. Babies are wonderful, every baby is wonderful, but nobody shuts down business and government and schools for my birthday, or yours. Well, actually, my birthday is July 4, so I guess they do, but you know what I mean. Why Christmas if God has not come to us? The trees, the lights, the presents, the food, the travel, the money, and it’s just another baby? If the theological opponents of 2 John are right, there’s simply no point in it all.
These Christians at the end of the 1st century are being told by the writer to shun their fellow church members who reject the notion of the birth of God in Bethlehem. To neither greet them, nor welcome them into their homes.
Pretty harsh by today’s standards. Judge not that ye be not judged, pops into the heads of most of us, even the Pope, apparently. Who am I to judge? he famously said. And many Catholics said, Well, we thought you were the Pope, but never mind.
No, when this obscure little epistle counsels a type of theological holiness, a fellowship holiness we can call it, most of us typically read it as just going too far. Like Smith and Houlden and Lieu, we want nothing to do with religious bigotry and hatred. In his book “Habits of the Heart” about religion in America, Robert Bellah quotes a Sheila Larsen, not her real name, who says, “I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice ... It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”
The columnist Don Kahle concluded that Sheila "has a code of ethics, but it's no longer connected to a sacred text or an observing deity. It's personal – and unpublished. Sheila abides by Sheilaism. Sheilaism is good for Sheila, but it doesn't build community. Nobody but Sheila knows what are the codes of Sheilaism. Often Sheila doesn't know herself until something 'doesn't feel right.’”
The relevant point about 2 John is that he’s focused on belief, on theology, not behavior or morals. It’s relevant because we’ve heard all our lives, and correctly, that Jesus loved the sinner, welcomed the unrighteous, as in Luke 5 and many other places: “but the Pharisees and their scribes complained to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”…
You can see the difference. When we conflate these topics we get tripped up. There may be an unbreakable connection between theology and ethical behavior, but the New Testament seems to extend that connection with a very generous line.
It’s true, Jesus did eat and drink with sinners, a violation of how the Pharisees understood the strictures of the law. He did fraternize with the unrighteous and society’s most despised members. But he called these non-believers to repentance, he came to bring healing to the sick. The scribes and Pharisees rejected him and his message and Matthew 23 is perhaps more exclusionary than even 2 John is.
From the beginning the beginning the church did practice exclusion even when it wasn’t theological, but more of an ethical question. Ananias and Sapphira cheated the church and lied about what they had contributed financially, and God struck them dead, in Acts 5.
Paul counselled the church in Corinth to cast out the man who was sleeping with his “father’s wife,” as it says, assumed to be his stepmother. And the letter to Titus advises him “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,”
But as Paul clarifies in I Corinthians 5, the New Testament is more stringent with Christians than non- Christians, and often more stringent doctrinally than ethically. He says, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.”
The broader picture helps us understand the context, but the notion that one nonchalantly reject the doctrine of Christ, the message that God, in his fullness of Glory was born of a woman and crucified on a cross and still receive the welcome and greeting of the church as if we all may pick and choose what we believe about Jesus “cafeteria style” in certainly rejected here in 2 John.
Why am I telling you this? Am I suggesting we need some heresy trials? A Theological Inquisition into the faith of everyone in the church? Am I calling for a culling, a weeding out of the church of those who don’t measure up to what 2 John calls, “the doctrine of Christ?”
Look around you. If that’s my plan, we’re running low on people to investigate. Now more than ever, it’s clear that it’s the Holy Spirit that brings you to church to worship God with others, even when the media and the government are trying to scare you out of it.
No, what I want to call your attention to is the conjunction of the Season of Advent and Christmas with the Holiness of the message. The church attempts to hallow the time of the birth of Christ with this holy season of preparation, as well as by the reading and hearing of this Second letter of John, with its stringent guidelines given to its first readers who were in a theological and ecclesiological crisis. My goal is for us to be strengthened in our faith in the midst of an unwelcoming and unbelieving world.
The coming of God in the birth of Jesus Christ was to redeem God’s wayward creation, you and me, but not to delete the reality of righteousness and justice in the world. We live in a time when right and wrong are often rejected when they don’t fit the interests of the sinner, and Christ died harshly and in great suffering on a cross, not because everything’s OK and, as Sheila would say, I need to love myself, and be gentle with myself, not because we all go to heaven no matter how much hell we cause on earth, but because the holiness of God is a gift that extends to each of us just as, in the name of God born as a baby, Jesus Christ, you extend a gift to a loved one around the Christmas tree.
It’s what is done with that gift that makes the difference for each of us. And they called his name Emmanuel. God. With. Us.
November 29th, Micah 4:1-7
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
John Donne’s wonderful poem is inspiring and beautiful and rightly revered in English literature, but it is somewhat misleading in what we are told about the island. For there is a sense, is there not, in which even the island is not an island, but merely a mountain surrounded by water, rather than surrounded by the valleys of dry land.
The roots of the island, reach down to the same roots as the mountain, all of them connected to the crust, the mantle of the earth. So Donne’s initial point about the connectedness of every person is perhaps even more strongly affirmed.
This all came to my mind in reading Micah 4 and reflecting on the fact that we too often treat biblical passages like islands. We too often think of them as unconnected to one another, perhaps through the inherently uncontexual practice of only hearing scripture read in worship, in bits and pieces, which perforce disconnects it from its roots in the whole Word of God.
For Micah 4 is a passage that is a joined to the rest of the Word of God by its metaphors as any thread in a tapestry is connected to the whole. And in like fashion, the tapestry cannot be seen by examining only the individual threads, but by standing back so one can see the whole picture that the Tapestry presents.
The relatively modern science of ecology is a good analogy, for it helps us to see the health of the forest in the health of the bird population in the health of the insect population in the health of the soil. Likewise, we’ve learned that the absence of apex predators like wolves causes problems all the way down.
In similar fashion, the Salt Cedar tree, or Tamarisk, native to central Asia was brought here 150 years ago, but is now seen as invasive and destructive because it monopolizes the soil, water and sunlight along streams and riverbanks all through the West and Southwest US. Ecology illuminates the connections.
Analogies fail when they’re pushed too hard, but when Jesus said, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” we can certainly connect that to our inability to see, not the forest for the trees, but the Tree for the forest, or the mountain for the hills.
And here in Micah 4 we have the mountain and the tree: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.”
And in verse 4 the tree raises its hand from the back of the room, not to be forgotten or ignored, like an ancient Bristlecone Pine tree clinging to the edge of the cliff of the mountain. In Micah we hear of the fig tree, almost as prominent in the Bible as the Olive tree, each providing nutrition. “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
To sit under one’s own vine, and under one’s own fig tree is a common trope in the Old Testament for normal life, for peace in the valley, for children grown and healthy and the family fed, and fear of violence banished. “Every man under his own vine and fig tree.” Sit on the porch and watch the sun go down, how did your day go, a time to catch up. As someone said in the Sunday night class, sitting under one’s own fig tree is like a chicken in every pot, or a Mule and 40 acres.
Alan Jacobs at his website GospeloftheTrees.net, says, “The Bible is a story about trees. It begins with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.”
It’s important to perceive the multi-faceted use and purpose of metaphor when we read the Bible. Language itself is very close to a literal metaphor, not least because a high proportion of daily speech consists of the comparisons we call metaphor. It’s easy to think of all the metaphorical uses of common words for parts of the body, The head of company, the crown worn by the queen, eye of the camera, nose of the wine, the mouth of the cave, the teeth in the contract, the neck of the bottle, the heart of the army, the hand of the clock, etc etc.
Owen Barfield even asserts that when we look at the linguistic history of language, the further back we go, the more figurative, metaphorical, it becomes. From his perspective, the majority of our everyday speech is hidden, forgotten, metaphor.
In its simplest form, metaphor is the transfer of a name from its original to a secondary object or process. But the reason metaphor is powerful, is that this is normally accompanied by the transfer of feeling or attitude, especially when we’re not aware of that effect.
The kingdom of God is like a mountain. What in the ancient world more solid than a mountain? What can be safer than to be in the fortress at the top of the mountain looking down on one’s “enemies?” A mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
The language of warfare in the Bible moves from “The Lord is a mighty man of war,” in Exodus 15 to Ephesians 6, “ Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
You know the rest, how we’re admonished to put on the “armor” of God, belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Paul is not admonishing us to carry real swords or shields here. And it’s so taken for granted now that we need not explain it.
In Micah we hear the prophet’s word of promise that God’s righteousness is not just about getting saved and “going to heaven.” The mountain of the house of the Lord, in the latter days, which is the eschaton, the new creation, shall be established as the highest of the mountains. Peoples shall flow to this mountain, many nations shall come and say “let us go up to the mountain of the house of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”
It’s not any mountain, and it’s not any house. It’s that of the God of Jacob. We know his ways and his paths. Righteousness is the way of God and obedience is his path. This is seen where the ark of Noah comes to rest on the mountain. This is seen on the mountain where Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed. God calls Moses from the burning bush at the mountain of God, Mt. Horeb, to which he returns with the children of Israel to receive the law, now called Mt. Sinai.
Balaam blesses the Israelites from Mt. Pisgah, and Moses views the promised land from Mt. Nebo. Joshua rereads the law and the covenant to the people at Mt. Ebal. David establishes the city of Judah in the old city of Salem, built around Mt. Zion, now Jerusalem. Elijah wins a victory for the Lord on Mt. Carmel, and flees to Mt Horeb, where he hears the Lord, not in the thunder, or the wind or the earthquake, but in the still, small voice on the mountain of God.
And the mountain of God reappears in many of the prophets as the destination of all the nations, that they may be taught his ways, and learn to walk in his paths.
We continue to find mountains in the NT, centrally when Jesus gives the sermon on the Mount, where he famously repeats, “you have heard that it was said, but I say unto you,” deliberately contrasting his own teaching with that of Moses. And in the three synoptic gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray, where he is “transfigured” as it says, in the presence of Moses and Elijah, two familiar mountaintop figures.
But of course, the final important mountain is Mt. Calvary. I had never wondered why we call it Calvary, when all the gospels talk about Jesus being crucified on Golgotha, the “place of the skull, as Matthew and Mark and John say. The Greek word for skull used there is related to the cranium, kranion or kraniou in Greek, and naturally, translated into Latin this becomes Calvarios, from which we get Calvary, so confusing to me as a child, trying to remember the difference between Calvary and Cavalry. Hard to remember and hard to say when you’re eight years old.
As Alan Jacobs reminds us the Tree is at the beginning, middle and end of the Bible, and not fortuitously. But as in Micah, the tree carries a lot of meaning elsewhere in the scriptures, such as Psalm 1, The blessed man is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, unlike the fig tree cursed by Jesus in Matthew 21.
In the prophet Joel, he speaks of the in Greek results of the failure of obedience by saying, “The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree— all the trees of the field—are dried up. Surely the people’s joy is withered away.”
The tall trees of Ezekiel 15, 17, and 31 are the figure for Judah and other nations, and their fall is the figure of the Exile of Judah to Babylon: “All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. “‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’”
The tree structures the Bible just as the mountain does and their conjunction in Micah 4 is appropriate for the season of Advent when we remember the time of preparation for the coming of Christ. For Christ came to Jerusalem and he climbed that tree of the curse, the cross that was lifted up on the hill of Golgotha, Mt. Calvary.
The mountain figures the power and protection of the divine, it is immovable, solid, seemingly eternal. Nothing can change it or move the mountain of God. Except, perhaps the tree. The tree is the mercy of God, the blessing that falls upon the just and the unjust, like the fig and the olive and the apple. The tree yields its fruit in its season. The tree stands up and stretches out its arms, and in human fashion bears fruit in the appropriate season.
The beauty and power of the conflation of mountain and tree found in Micah 4 and on Mt. Calvary is the Lord, the Word of God, has come to earth to be one of us, no longer just the power and strength of the mountain, but the life and fruit of the tree is sent among us.
It is the man who hung upon the tree, who said “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
The one who hung upon the tree is showing us that the mountain may be moved. Moved with pity and compassion and mercy, the God of Moses, as spoken on Mt. Sinai, we witness the mountain of the Law which cannot save, but can only condemn, removed and thrown into the sea when the Lord says to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
November 22nd, Deuteronomy 30:11-20
To me it is something of a puzzle. If modern literature scholars functioned in the way Biblical scholars often do, no one would ever identify the author of the Wasteland,
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
No one would ever identify the author of the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.”
No one would ever identify the author of, “The Four Quartets,”
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.”
No one would believe that that writer of those 20th century icons of literary modernism inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to write, “Memory, all alone in the moonlight…” that’s a famous song from Cats, the longest-running Broadway musical in history, until The Phantom of the Opera came along. Cats, which came from a collection of poems also written, so they say, by TS Eliot, the author of The Wasteland. Here’s the opening of his first poem in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. You be the judge.
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn't just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter, When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”
And of course, to get us back on track, for this is a sermon and not a musical review, there’s the same TS Eliot’s poem, “Old Deuteronomy,” from that same collection: the opening lines of which go:
“Old Deuteronomy's lived a long time;
He's a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme,
A long while before Queen Victoria's accession.
Old Deuteronomy's buried nine wives
And more—I am tempted to say, ninety-nine;
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
And the village is proud of him in his decline.”
There’s more, lots more, which you can find for yourself all over the internet.
But Bible scholars notice a change in tone, a difference is timbre, a transition in quality, between Romans and I Timothy or I Corinthians and Titus, and the little wheels in their over-large brains start spinning in overtime. And they say, Paul couldn’t have written this and that. They’re too different. But two poems more different in tone and outlook and vocabulary cannot be found than The Wasteland and Old Deuteronomy.
The Bible Scholars are misled by their insistence upon the Bible being of no different material than any other texts they might come across in history, but not being real literary scholars, they don’t see things like the wild diversity between The Wasteland and Old Deuteronomy, written by the same poet.
Of course, in keeping with my method of telling you more than you think you want to know, this overexertion with regard to the historical details of the Bible and the amnesia regarding the 1,500 years of how the Bible was read and interpreted before that, began a long time before our lifetimes. Michael Legaspi opens his book, “The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,” with a bang.
His first sentence is: “Scripture died a quiet death in Western Christendom in the sixteenth century. The death of scripture was attended by two ironies. First, those who brought the scriptural Bible to its death counted themselves among its defenders. Second, the power to revivify a moribund scriptural inheritance arose not from the churches but from the state. The first development was the Reformation, and the second was the rise, two hundred years later, of modern biblical scholarship.”
Now what Legaspi is doing, is trying to tell a long a complicated story of how we got from Martin Luther’s ability to preach a sermon on an uncomplicated text of Romans, “The just shall live by faith,” to an epigone preacher like myself having to wade with you backwards through the swamps and the undergrowth of 300 years of religious confusion to demonstrate my bona fides as interpreter of scripture.
Legaspi’s point is that the religious and exegetical conflict between Protestant and Catholic on the meaning of different scripture passages led to a self-inflicted double suicide, insofar as both groups destroyed their interpretive credibility with the growing class of scholars of all kinds in Europe and later in America. In the 16th and 17th centuries one could almost pick any scripture passage and receive diametrically opposed interpretations from Protestant and Catholic leaders. I exaggerate, of course, but this is certainly the truth with regard to passages about salvation, and justification and the role of the church and its leaders.
The inability of these religious authority figures contributed to the growing opacity of the scriptures to the everyday reader. You couldn’t get a straight answer to the meaning of important texts, and though it took decades to arrive, the end game in this scenario can be described with a line from Romeo and Juliet, ‘A pox on both your houses.’
It was the Germans in the late 17th century, who along with most of northern Europe, were Protestant, who drove the process of re-imagining the contents of the Bible as a type of literature similar to classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans, in order to give them a new purchase on what they thought was the proper, and hopefully, demonstrable way to settle the religious controversies with an appeal to the historical, literary, classical methods of interpreting texts as they are written in their contexts.
So they began examining the similarities of the Psalms to other poetry, like Vergil, Homer and Horace, the stories of Saul and David and Solomon to the great historical sagas of Agamemnon or Achilles, and the wisdom of Proverbs to the thoughts of Plutarch and Seneca. There seemed to these 18th century Germans to be more sustainability to reading the Bible as Literary Texts, rather than as sacred scriptures, leading to what became known, in the universities, as Biblical Studies.
To look at and read the Bible simply as an ancient text rather than a Word from the Divine creator of the world, or, even more so, a Word OF the Divine creator of the world, was the solution of the Enlightenment era state run German and British universities, for in that time the religious health and strength of a society was paramount to the success of the state and its princes and kings.
But if a text is not simply scripture, scripture meaning a sacred writing that possesses its own authority that does not rely on outside demonstration, does not require separate and unrelated authentication, if what we read is not already experienced as an oracle from the mouth of the Lord to be heard and obeyed and meditated upon as one would chew the wax of the honeycomb, then, without that prior understanding, which John Calvin understood dimly, though much better than other Reformers and Counter-Reformers, without this agreed upon status of the Holy Writ, one finds oneself in an intellectual wrestling match, a seminar room, a dissertation defense, rather than in the presence of the Spirit of the Living God.
To be fair, once the battle was a battle amongst Reformers and Counter-Reformers, the old way of reading was forgotten and left behind as having no usefulness in an arena where its efficacy was recognized by neither side. Everyone rushed and hurried down the broad avenue of contention to the dead end that awaited.
We are now, some 500 years later, finding ourselves in a place where rather than having to turn our “guns” on one another, we’ve become surrounded by the true enemy and some are learning to turn their backs on former enemies and find the true source of the attack from without. When you’re surrounded you fight back to back. But a miserable history of failure has had to lead us to this place, where we recognize one another within the churches as brothers and sisters who are called to maintain and proclaim the gospel to a hostile world.
One of the values of Deuteronomy is the way that when it’s spoken, it comes to us as the Word of God spoken through Moses. The commandment I give you is not too hard, not too far off. You need not send someone to heaven to fetch it, or across the seas to find it. The Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.
The simplicity is part of the appeal. Understood spiritually, specifically as scripture, the Bible delivers to us the method of interpretation. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. There is a strong sense that the doing of scripture can overcome the attempts to control scripture by locking down a particular doctrinal interpretive scheme. Scripture is to be lived, not just argued about.
It seems clear to me that history has delivered to us an understanding of why the Apostles’ Creed and later even more complex creeds focused on our faith and belief in the Father Son and Holy Spirit, rather than any theory of atonement, any spelled out, laid out, straightforward plan of salvation that applies to each and every sinner. For that is what so many of the arguments were about.
It is clear that the Bible, and the NT especially, gives more than one answer to the question of how must I be saved. And they’re not contradictory answers, they’re evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit in speaking through the written scriptures to provide an answer to every searching sinner, every seeking, wandering, lost child of God who can’t discern the difference between the answers given by Lutherans, Calvinists, Franciscans, Jesuits or even God save us, the Disciples of Christ.
This is not to say we preach the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. This is not a free for all, get your salvation candy right here, come one come all, no questions asked!
No, we clearly have the scriptures as God’s precious gift. They are written, they are stable, they are translatable. “The commandment I give you is not too hard, not too far off. You need not send someone to heaven to fetch it, or across the seas to find it. The Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.”
St. Augustine from the 5th century was no stranger to controversy, as the church was still settling down on some very broad issues in their controversies with the Donatists and the Pelagians, Augustine’s main interlocutors. But he left a very useful quote, even though quotes can easily be taken out of context and abused. Once again the spirit of the interpreter must be enlivened and illuminated by the Holy Spirit of God, otherwise the best rules and guidelines in the world will fail us. For it is God’s Word, and his face that we must seek.
Augustine famously said, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
It doesn’t work as well in reverse as an interpretive guide, for we get love tangled up in sentimentality and think that if our heart melts at a poignant TV news segment on a homeless family we are fulfilling the first and second great commandments. We are not. Actions motivated by sentimentality are for ourselves. How many times have I read the statement of some do-gooder, as my father-in-law, who was a Social Worker, called them, when they’ve said, for attribution, “When I help out the homeless,” and it’s usually on Thanksgiving or Christmas, “I feel good about myself.”
Well isn’t that special. Sentimentality uses the other as a burnishing tool for our own self-inflated opinion of ourself. If I could convince the world to simply and effectively love their family and their immediate neighbor, we wouldn’t have to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.
But family can’t be loved at a distance. The problem with family is often not distance, but lack of distance. They talk back. They insult you. They won’t hold still for you to love them the way YOU think you should. They have their own ideas of what love is.It’s like trying to put the socks on a one year old. Hold still!
Love is complicated, and always suspect, always suspect as a public policy. When I hear people say we need more love in politics and public life, I think of the love that the Ayatollahs called for when they needed unarmed Iranian teenagers to place themselves on the front lines of the battles with the Iraqis back in the 80s. They should have had a disclaimer on the documentaries made on that little dust-up: No Ayatollahs were harmed in the making of this war.
But when used as Augustine intended, his quote is very helpful. In your understanding of the scripture, any particular scripture, does it contribute to the building up of the love of God and the love of neighbor? It’s a test of how one puts into practice what one has learned and believes about the Word of God.
Hear Moses’ words at the end of our lesson for today: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.”
November 15th, Luke 10:1-24
Alan Culpepper, Bible commentator, says this text about the sending of the 70, contains a concentration of sayings that are embarrassing for the church today and difficult to comprehend and/or put into practice. Carry no purse: well, I’m good with that. I very seldom carry a purse. My granddaughter, though, she might object. I took home the smallest version of all those purses Student Ministry is trying to get rid of, shortened the strap, and now Miss Betsy has to take her purse pretty much everywhere.
Travel light, I guess should be the summary here for that part. But overall, this text from Luke on the appointment of the 70 is strikingly different from church evangelism today, is it not. In this text, there are ten “sayings” of Jesus. Gospel scholars look at the structure of the gospels under categories. There’s the Passion Narrative, which essentially takes the reader from the arrest of Jesus, through the trial and crucifixion and to the Resurrection.
This passion narrative, because it’s common to all four gospels, is thought to be the earliest form of a written gospel or an oral tradition about the story of Jesus. But there are other aspects of the gospels that are easy to see. There is the narrative structure that tells the story, that gets us from start to finish, the nuts and bolts, the seams that sew things together. This gives us movement and location. Many stories make up the larger story: healing stories, exorcism stories, miracle stories of different kinds.
And there are Collections of Sayings, as we see in Matthew 13, which has a string of short parables about the kingdom of heaven. The sayings collections focus more on what Jesus said than on what he did. The Sermon on the Mount is a big collection of sayings which coheres together easily, and is therefore likely to be a spoken sermon, a single discourse. The gospel of John also has many longer discourses like that, usually moments following a healing or other event when Jesus then explains who he is and why he has come.
This text of Luke 10 gives us a combination. We have the narrative of an event, the sending out of the 70 to preach the kingdom of God, and the sayings that comprise Jesus’ instructions to them, along with their reactions upon their return, and Jesus’ continued teaching in response to their reaction.
Luke 10 is a long text and has in essence 10 sayings, which we’ll list and look at.
The first is what Jesus says about the harvest. You’ve heard this before. Winds up in hymns, sometimes. Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve; Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping, We shall come Rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
In this instance there are too few workers for the plentiful harvest, so pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send more workers into the fields, he says. A harvest is time oriented, and apparently the harvest is plentiful, but not enough people to bring it in. It seems there are those in Galilee who need to hear the good news of the kingdom, and they need to hear it now. The harvest is time oriented: it doesn’t last forever.
Now Jesus is speaking metaphorically. We know he’s using metaphor, because harvest is often spoken of in the Bible in this way, in a way that points forward to a certain time, when the harvest must be gathered. When all is lost or won.
The prophet Jeremiah lamented in Jeremiah 8, speaking of the coming destructions by the Babylonians “The harvest is ended, the summer is over, and we are not saved.” Salvation is not coming, the kingdom of God has not arrived.
Harvests have a predictable future. You may not know in June when the corn has to be harvested, but when the time comes, you’ll know it. The Farmers Almanac says they know it. Harvests don’t go on forever. Summer comes to an end. Harvest now or the fruit and the grain rots in the field. John Keats speaks of the harvest of the bees in his poem “To Autumn.”
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
But warm days always do cease. We’ve had one of those Autumns this year. Two weeks from Thanksgiving, and many leaves still on the trees. The Iris are blooming in my front yard, and one of my roses still has buds.
But the earth abides in its path around the sun. John the Baptist used harvest metaphor when he spoke of the coming of the one greater than him in Luke 3:17: His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” After the Harvest, the chaff is burnt up.
In that sayings section in Matthew 13 Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.” The parable known as the Wheat and the Tares. The end of the parable is verse 30: “Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Harvests don’t last forever. In the agricultural world, you plan for an annual harvest. In the way Jesus uses the term, it can be used to describe the Great Assize, the last judgment day, when the wheat and the chaff are separated. But Harvest can also be a metaphor for a time in an individual’s life which is time limited. There are seasons in a person’s life, but there comes a time for every person when there’s a final accounting.
In several places Paul puts the confrontation of the individual with the Word of God, the gospel message, in a context of crisis, a decision, a moment of moving one direction or another. In Romans 13:11-12 he says, “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; 12 the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” You know what hour it is. Sometimes a life is thought of with the image of a single day. The sun goes down eventually.
In Ephesians 5:14-15 he says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
And the classic text is 2 Corinthians 6:2 which has inspired many hymns and says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Everything Jesus says and does is in this context of crisis and decision. A harvest approaches and only the good grain is collected into the barns. To meet Jesus in the gospels, to simply speak with him inherently, unavoidably, meant that one made a decision. One went one way or another. And it’s the same today.
This is the theme, the background of almost everything Jesus says. In the sermon on the Mount, Don’t build your house on the sand, build your house on the rock. Either/or. Don’t take the broad and easy path where the road is easy, but enter by the narrow gate, where the road is hard. The tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Be like the wise virgins and have your lamp filled with oil, ready to meet the bridegroom. The thief in the night does not come on a schedule Be ready. No one can serve two masters.
This, the harvest, is the first of the ten sayings found in this text for today. Some of you are groaning to yourselves, like Robert Graves puts it in his poem Welsh Incident: “Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'”
Here’s why it’s always best if preachers grow up going to church as children. We’ve groaned our way through sermons. Incredibly enough I’ve had people sometimes comment on the length of my sermons, and I want to say, though I normally keep it to myself, “This is nothing. You think this is long? This is nothing.” You had to grow up listening to the sermons I heard from 1965 till I married in 1977 and moved away from home, O Blessed Relief, to know what a long sermon is.
So, I know I mentioned the Ten Sayings from this text, and the Harvest saying is only the first one, but I mentioned the Sermon on the Mount earlier, and I’m reminded of another of Jesus’ sermons, Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall receive mercy, and I’m going to have mercy on you today. I want you to find those ten sayings later, starting with “the harvest is plentiful” and ending with “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it.” Maybe there’s nine, maybe there’s eleven. But it’s a lot.
So I just want to list for you not the sayings, but ramifications for the church today of what we can glean from this story on our calling, our commission, our appointment as workers in the field.
The first assumption is that the world, that which is alienated from God, needs the church, needs the church’s message and mission. There is a harvest and eternal souls are at stake.
And there is more work to do than laborers to do it. It’s like back before the virus. In January 2019 there were 7.5 million job openings in the country unfilled. Employers couldn’t find enough employees.
Second, prayer is one of the commands of Jesus: Therefore, ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out more workers. Does that seem somehow unnecessary? It does to me too, at first glance. But what we fervently pray for we come to love and value and hope for and focus on. Prayer works in both directions.
Third, Jesus’ instructions are given to all the disciples. “Go on your way,” he says. Fourth, he does not pretend there’s no consequences of speaking the truth publicly. The world needs to be saved for it is dangerous and damaging to itself. The church is a flock of sheep which harms no one, going out amidst wolves. Innocence and sincerity are the description of the flock Jesus sends out. For our attachment to the truth always precedes and overrides any success that is given.
Fifth, Jesus calls for single-mindedness. Greet no one on the road. Another odd command, but intended to focus his disciples on what they are called to do. Sixth, that call is to bring peace to your hearers and announce that the kingdom of God has come. Declare the peace that God is accomplishing through Jesus Christ, and live that peace with those you meet.
Seventh, the host, not the guest, sets the context for the witness: Jesus says to eat what is set before you. The disciples don’t set the menu, they don’t impose their own cultural background on others. We are to be like James Spader in that old movie Stargate when he and his crew were given a meal by the people they’d come across whose language they did not know. James Spader was the only one who would try it at first, and then said to the surprised crew, in those immortal lines: “Tastes like chicken!”
The disciple knows the message, and clings tightly to the message as given by Jesus. Those hearing the message hear it in their world and their context.
Eighth, See I told you this wouldn’t take long: Eighth, Jesus recognizes the disciple won’t always succeed: “When they do not welcome you,” he says. He knew we would meet resistance and rejection sometime. The Good News requires a change in the way people live, and not everyone wants that.
Ninth, Jesus nonetheless recommends perseverance: Shake off their dust from your feet. Keep going. Knock on the next door. And tenth: Jesus also reminds the disciples of what has happened, and what they are to clearly leave behind with those who have rejected them: “Know this: The kingdom of God has come near.”
When the kingdom of God has come near, the mercy of God has wafted in range of those who desire it and those who don’t. Mercy must be received, and not only can’t be, but simply is, never forced. Cast not your pearls before swine, give not what is holy to dogs, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.
Maintain reverence for what you are doing and saying, and make no attempt to cajole and dicker with those who want nothing to do with repentance and forgiveness. The mysteries of Godliness are just that. A mystery. God is good. You’ve seen what others have only dreamed of. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
November 8th, Isaiah 66:1-14
One of the difficulties as well as dangers of a “lectionary religion” is what gets left out. Lectionaries are schedules of texts from biblical books for reading in public worship on a sequence of Sabbaths, or Lord’s Days. The synagogue and the church went through a centuries long canonical process, which is when the actual books of the Bible as we now call it, were gradually settled upon. Formal lectionaries came much later.
People sometimes ask how were the books of the Bible settled upon. Which in itself is a misleading question, because rabbis in the 4th and 5th centuries BC did not know they were choosing books for something we now call the Bible. Nor did they have the sense or awareness that they were “choosing” anything.
We’re so focused nowadays on voting and choosing, that it’s hard to get our mind around the process as it actually happened, and the way that Deliverance, Exodus, Settlment, Monarchy, Exile and Restoration drove the process. It’s also hard because in that time between the Exile and the time of Christ, records that might point towards how these events took place are thin and sparse. The OT books themselves give little in the way of an overt description.
But in the community of what came to be called Jews in the period after 540 BC, religious leaders of the day came to terms with the law of Moses as written, the scrolls as preserved, the telling of the story in the history books from the time of Joshua to Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, and the oracles of the prophets from Hosea to Malachi, as well as the liturgical books such as the Psalms and the wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
In that centuries long process, it’s perhaps worth asking, why hang on to Zephaniah? Why preserve Ezra, or Nahum? Why place Isaiah at the head of the line, the order of the prophets? Why have 12 minor prophets, as opposed to 4 major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel? And who let Lamentations squeeze in there after Jeremiah?
All of these and many more, are questions that we can only attempt to answer by looking at the content of the books, by looking to see what they actually say, and asking ourselves, Why was this text valuable to the life and faith of Jews in 5th century Judah? How does this glorify God, or strengthen the understanding of the people, or clarify the law of Moses for that day?
Those kinds of questions are not cut and dried the way, for example, our media presented the political polls to us for the last three months, and which we have learned, yet again, were wrong in many ways. There is no science of “political polling,” as should be obvious by now. And there is no science of the formation of the canon of the Bible, Old or New Testament. Only a smattering of records and a series of deductions and inferences. It is a process. It participates in and illustrates how traditions are formed, which by the nature of the very word, tradition, has to do with more than one generation, the repeated handing on of beliefs, practices, understandings and hopes.
So over a long period, the outlines of the Bible take shape, discernible to a viewer some centuries later. No votes, no ballots, no councils, no recounts, no lawsuits even. The Holy Spirit speaks and is confirmed in the life of the synagogue and the church through centuries of belief and practice.
Isaiah belongs here and is needed. Isaiah tells us the story of the New Israel, born of the ashes of Jerusalem, just as we hear in a broader sense from Isaiah 65: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And in Isaiah 66: “For as the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord;
so shall your descendants and your name remain.”
But that is the Biblical canon. We’re also today dealing with the question of the lectionary, and the new lectionary, formulated 30 years ago, and the old lectionary, from mid-20th century, both leave too much out. Lectionaries are typically formed by committees, led by church bureaucrats sourcing guidance from Bible professors. The most recent, the Revised Common Lectionary, attempted to work with many denominations, and make the scripture lessons that are read every Sunday more representative of the whole Bible and less captive of a particular theological mindset. But they still limited themselves to a three-year cycle, which only gives you roughly 160 opportunities to include all the homiletically suggestive texts in in the 66 books of the Bible, and that’s just not enough room, not enough slots.
I work with a four-year lectionary which I created to address specifically that and other issues of the old 3-year cycle. Isaiah 66 is slighted in the Revised Lectionary and it has unique material the church needs to hear.
We are the people of God and so reading and pondering and puzzling over the scriptures even when, especially when, we may not like or understand them can lead to new insights we would not have otherwise gained. “Enter by the narrow gate”, Jesus says; “for the gate is wide and the way is easy,[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Isaiah 66 is not something we can just blow off through ignorance or impatience. Perhaps, as an old rabbinic tradition would have it, the harder to understand a text the more important it may be for us. Made challenging by the Holy Spirit to catch our attention.
The question of the Canon, why Isaiah is in and Jubilees is out, why Deuteronomy is in and the Testament of the Three Patriarchs is out, is much more opaque than that of the lectionary, for the creation and revision of lectionaries is a modern process, with meetings and minutes, and votes, and trial runs and revisions, etc.
But today we’re going off the reservation. Today we’ve brought into the conversation a text that our “canonizers” God Bless ‘em, held onto, but the committee members on the lectionary, for some reason did not.
You may have heard how odd this sounds when Charley read it this morning: Listen to just verse 3: “He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog’s neck;he who presents a grain offering, like him who offers swine’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like him who blesses an idol.
Shouldn’t this extremely hyperbolic criticism of same old/same old be heard at least once in a while? This is why a lectionary only hearing of the Bible is dangerous to our understanding. It’s like trying to understand the Constitution by reading only the Preamble and last four Articles, and missing the first three.
The book of Isaiah is clearly an edited, traditioned book. It partakes of Biblical history writing. Isaiah 37 and 2 Kings 19 are virtually the same passage. Isaiah ch. 1, and ch. 40, and chapters 65 and 66 are very intertextual, that is there are common words and themes referenced and alluded to, for the 66 chapters are spread out across decades, at least, and somehow maintain a common theological outlook while dealing with different historical contexts, some before the Exile, some during, and some after the return from Exile, like ch. 66 today.
Just verse three is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for its first hearers. In the time of Ezra, a period of refocus on the law, a period of stocktaking, confronting all the ways their ancestors had violated the covenant of Moses and led them to the brink of annihilation as a people, they had focused on the law, focused on all their mistakes, re-strengthened and reinstated strict adherence to temple practices and kosher laws.
The beginning story of Daniel was on the importance of Kosher food laws for the Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah, Zephaniah and Haggai, focused on the re-building of Solomon’s temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed in 587 BC.
Scrupulous obedience to the law had been the hallmark of those who were rebuilding the nation of Judah. They wanted to avoid the nightmares of their ancestors’ experience. When Ezra read the law aloud to the people gathered for that purpose in Jerusalem, the whole community listened, and wept, for they knew how far they were from being obedient.
So, when we hear the hyperbole in Isaiah 66, “A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect,” knowing how much the post-exile community wanted to obey the law makes this a striking passage. And the verses that precede verse 3 help us to understand it beyond the simple hyperbolic effects: “Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? 2 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”
When you hear “Thus says the Lord,” in a passage, it’s a signal, a notification of a significant passage or loaded theological text. For what comes next? The Lord asserts his omnipresence and omnipotence. The heavens are mine, the earth is mine. All things are mine that I have made. And you would make me a house? And you would placate me with sacrifices?
This is the newness we see in much of the prophetic tradition. This is why some in his day began to understand what Jesus was saying and doing. They recognized it. It seems clear from the way Isaiah proceeds in his descriptions that the one who slaughters the ox as sacrifice is not the man of a humble and contrite spirit, which phrase is another example of the intertextuality of Isaiah, for it’s also found in ch. 57, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
As well as Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
Isaiah 66 is teaching what Jeremiah teaches in Jeremiah 31, that the Lord will give us new hearts of flesh and not of stone. He teaches what the Psalmist says in Psalm 34, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
You’ve heard this before: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek. You know who said that.
The character of the human soul which God seeks out and rewards is a soul that can see and perceive reality, for to know oneself, and one’s sins and failings and catastrophes self-wrought, is to be contrite. Contrite comes from the old Latin word, contritus, ground into pieces. Ever felt that way?
It is the opposite of the last phrase of verse 3 and the beginning of verse 4: “They have chosen their own ways,
and they delight in their abominations;
4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, no one listened.”
Brevard Childs says, “The promise of God’s salvation is to all, but it is received by the household of faith.” Some 500 years after Isaiah the church heard the promise of Christ in these words. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit.”
They had seen or heard of the broken heart and spirit of an anointed one, a suffering servant, who hung on a cross, the accursed tree of Deuteronomy 21. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding his fruit in its season. Not fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead and uprooted, as the book of Jude says, but “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
As Isaiah reminds us:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may suck and be satisfied
with her consoling breasts;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from the abundance of her glory.”
12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip,
and dandled upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
This too is the day that the Lord has made, and this is the word of the Lord. Amen.
November 1st, Galatians 3:27-4:20
For me the most striking image of this passage from Galatians today is in the first verse we hear. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The first thing I need to say about that is an apology to the editors of the NRSV, which is the edition in our pews and on the lectern.
Some of their translation decisions have been overly ideological, especially with regard to what they considered to be the necessity of inclusive language. I’ve mentioned this before with regard to the way they mistranslate Psalm 1.
But here they are an improvement on the old RSV in the way they have translated the Greek word, “Enduo,” clothe yourselves. The RSV gave us “put on” Christ, which is not incorrect, per se, just lacking.
This word “enduo,” which gives us the English words endue and the more commonly used endow, takes on, or we could happily say, is endued, with a great deal of content and profundity when it is linked, as it is here, with Christ.
You have endued yourself with Christ. Interesting to see it linked with baptism, which one doesn’t do to oneself, but has done to one. To be baptized is to submit, in the case of immersion, to submit to be lowered under the water. When I have baptized new Christians, I often have to reassure them. Relax….lean back,…I won’t let you go, I won’t drop you.
Baptism in the letters of Paul, as in Romans 6, is sometimes described with the figure of dying, dying and being buried with Christ, and often dying is a process of letting go. Letting of the world, letting go of time, letting go of the life one has had or endured. Many have known parents, or grandparents, who only let go after some beloved family member finally arrives from out of town, and they can let go, they can finally die in peace.
Others have submitted to death after confession, perhaps of a long- concealed sin or secret. Others let go when they reach a landmark in time, an anniversary, a birthday. Not always, but sometimes we are allowed to let go of life, to submit.
Correspondingly, I also have reminded candidates for baptism that I will raise them out of the water, “hold on to my wrist,” I say, but also that they need to bend their knees and get their feet back underneath them in order to stand up again.
This has two happy reminders for us. At the last day, when the trumpets shall sound, our hope of resurrection, to rise from the dead, is in the power of God alone. He is our only hope.
But in this life, even in our new life in Christ—of which baptism is a figure, we co-operate with the Spirit of God, as he breathes new life into our soul. The following of Christ, the discipleship, the learning, the struggle, is not passive. It doesn’t just happen. That’s one reason it’s described as a “walk with Christ.” It’s not a stroller ride, like I’ve given my granddaughter Betsy recently in the neighborhood. It’s a walk, sometimes described a run, a race, a struggle, a fight.
After the Christ-centered “hymn” in Philippians 2 exalting Christ as Lord, Paul exhorts his readers, in the context of obedience, to work out their salvation: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
It’s an interesting balance, that points us toward the resurrection promise. Sir Walter Raleigh saw this, in what may have been the final poem he wrote, we read:
“Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.”
The time will come, fear not, when you will, you must, rely wholly on God, when you must trust him, to raise you up.
So the word itself, “enduo,” clothed yourselves, partakes of the profundities of baptism, that which is done TO one, but in which one also participates. The profundity expands and deepens when we look at the connection to Christ, to him with whom we clothe ourselves.
First, Enduo, in Greek, is the ancestor of the English word endue, as well as the word endow. One might endow a wing of a hospital with an endowment, or a church, or a library, like the old Carnegie Libraries around the country, almost 1,700 of them at one point.
Endue, in English, is a little different. Bishop Joseph Butler used the word in 1736 like this: “We know we are endued with capacities of action, or happiness and misery.” In the grammar of the Greek language as used in the NT, there is an active voice, “I endue you,” there is a passive voice, “I am endued by you,” and there is what’s called a “middle voice:” I endue myself.
This is what we find in Galatians 3:27: “you have clothed yourselves with Christ. It’s in the middle voice, demonstrating the double nature of “putting on Christ,” or, “you have clothed yourselves with Christ,” harking back to the way Baptism works.
So Paul here acknowledges that we may “clothe ourselves with Christ,” in the middle voice, neither active nor passive, but more of a curious mixture of both, for Christ is the AGENT of salvation, and we the participants, not passive subjects, of the action, but participants.
There are implications to this phrase, “clothed yourselves” just as there are to clothed yourselves “with Christ.” You’ve heard the phrase, “clothes make man;” almost a proverb. It goes way back. One relatively recent use is by Mark Twain, who shows some insight into the inherent contradiction in the phrase, for anyone who ponders the phrase a moment knows that nice clothes might make a good first impression, and that one’s own confidence might even improve based on the way one is dressed, just to say that clothes make the man is to acknowledge the inherent problem. The surface incongruity is the tip off. As Twain with his sardonic wit said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Twain overstates the phrase to show its fundamental unseriousness.
Clothing can communicate status and wealth and self-regard. Clothing can change the way people treat you, which can change the way you think about yourself, and perhaps make you more effective and more self-confident.
But it remains the case that clothing is an external that must give way to the deeper truth and more effective aspect of the character of a person which is revealed in one’s actions and practices. Clothes do not make the man. Unless.
Unless one is clothed with Christ. There are several aspects to this. The aesthetic, the personal, the ethical, and the theological, let’s call it.
When one realizes one is clothed with Christ, the world can be seen, in all its features, with different eyes. Is it not a beautiful world in which there is the possibility for every person to be habited in the raiment of the Son of God? Hear the allusion to this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these.”
Jesus makes no reference to himself here, rather this is a reverse figure, in the order of time, for Paul mentions, in passing, that we who have clothed ourselves with Christ are now offspring of Abraham, heirs of the kingdom of the Great and Only King, one in Christ, with all divisions between us removed.
The rich clothing of a king, the beauties of the most beautiful flowers, are only a hint of the beauty with which we are privileged to clothe ourselves.
The personal aspect of this clothing certainly should play a role in my own transformation. For I’m not just wearing a new suit of clothes, I’m clothed in glory, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Part of the ugliness of our day is seen in identity politics. As we’ve increasingly learned, identify politics always divides and sets groups against one another, because that’s its nature, its point and its purpose. All the parts of who we are, are weaponized to divide us from one another.
But your identity is different. You are clothed with Christ. That is now who you are. You are in Him, and being in Him, you are prospectively the object of that hymn I mentioned in Philippians 2: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
You will not only ascribe glory to Jesus Christ, but you will receive it, for this is part of the mystery of the Incarnation, that the God who became one of us calls us to, and enables us to be like him.
The ethical is clear, for now you are a representative of the Son of God, an ambassador of Christ. Good ambassadors take very seriously that they represent, and are considered to speak for, their country and their President or King or Prime Minister. The ambassador carries the message and stands for what his country stands for. He re-presents.
We, because we are in Christ, are not only called now to re-present, we are enabled to represent, to live life like Christ, and to be aware that being clothed with Christ, others take what we say and do as the official message of the one we represent. This is an ethical mandate.
Finally, the theological is another way to think of Salvation. Paul here in Galatians 3 and 4 does not focus on forgiveness of sin, he does not focus on the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, or any other theory of atonement.
Instead, his description of salvation here is Inheritance and deliverance from the evil powers now present in the world. When he gets to 4:1, Paul says, “My point is this.” That’s helpful. The rarity of this kind of clarity from Paul should not be ignored, and we should let it help us in our understanding.
In Christ, when we have clothed ourselves in the sacramental process of Baptism, we are now, because of the power and promise of God, “New Creatures,” and being a new creature is because of the resurrection of Christ which moves forward in time into each of our lives, and general resurrection on the last day, which reaches backward in time to us in the hope of God’s promise.
Life begins as a gift. Each of us receives it from others. And new life is a gift, as Paul says, that the child inherits, because we are now heirs, adopted by the King into his family.
Remember this tomorrow morning when you get dressed, when you clothe yourself. For you are now clothed and habited in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
I Samuel 15:17-19, October 11, 2020
Most Americans have at least tried to read the Bible. There’s a reason scripture is often confusing. As a matter of fact, if you’re not confused at some point, it might be fair to say you’re doing it wrong. Richard White was a professor of Preaching at Lexington Seminary years ago, and used to say the first thing to acknowledge when reading the Bible to prepare a sermon was “I don’t know what this means.”
“I don’t know what happened, how it happened, why it happened, what it means that it happened, what lesson it teaches, what it might address in modern life, why it should be preached on.” White goes on to say, “If I think I know what the content and meaning, etc., of the text are, then I’m proceeding from my knowledge, and not from the text.”
To me this seems to be a healthy, faithful, if difficult and challenging, way of reading the Bible, whether one is writing a sermon or not. The underlying premise of this method is that the Bible really is God’s Word, and not mine. Meaning, his communication, his revelation.
A couple of months ago, in addition to sending out the sermon, my column, and daily devotions to people on our email list, I began sending out a selection of jokes and humor along the lines of the old Readers Digest column, “Laughter’s the Best Medicine” (which comes from Proverbs 17:22, which says, “A Joyful heart is good medicine…” ). I like jokes and wish I was better at telling them. There’s a knack. Telling jokes makes people laugh. If you make people laugh, they’re disarmed for the moment. We like people who make us laugh. I like to be liked. Who doesn’t?
Preaching a sermon is different. A little humor’s OK, but it’s not the point of the sermon. With a sermon, I have a mandate from outside myself. It’s like being a banker or stockbroker and taking someone’s money and having a mandate to protect it from loss and make it grow at the same time. A fiduciary relationship.
The Bible is God’s Word, and the church’s book. It is an inheritance, a legacy, and a deposit of faith. We must hear it, we must read it, we must proclaim it. But we may not, we cannot, control it. Those who attempt that wind up shipwrecked, like Saul, in our lesson today. It may take a while, but God’s timing is not our timing. TO God a day is like a 1000 years, and a 1000 years like one day.
When we interact with God’s Word, we interact with God himself. This is one of the insights we get from the Doctrine of the Trinity. All through the Old Testament, we hear about the Hand of the Lord, the Arm of the Lord, the Word of God. These are instantiations of God himself, though at the same time other than God. They reflect the mystery of Trinity we’re accustomed to hearing about in the sometimes confusing “one is three and three is one formulation.” Which can often feel like a set of Russian dolls one inside the other.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God. His life and work and words, communicate to us who God is and what he wills, in a variety of ways. And he does not just bring religious knowledge. To truly hear the Word of God is to be changed. God speaks and worlds come into being. And even, perhaps especially, when Jesus Christ is silent, dead on the cross, God is shouting to the world, this is who I am!
Jesus Christ is the Word of God as is the word of Samuel to Saul the Word of God, and the word of Nathan to David, and Isaiah to Hezekiah and Moses to Pharaoh, and not only is Samuels’ word to Saul the Word of God, so is this story, this narration embedded in the Annals of Israel, telling us about Samuel’s word to Saul, and what happened, what was supposed to happen, and what did not happen.
Saul is the first King of Israel. The people had been governed since Joshua’s day by charismatic Judges, people like Samuel, the last of the Judges, leaders who would listen to God, who guided the people in godly life that the Lord might protect them from their enemies. As Samuel grew old, his sons Joel and Abijah were appointed to be his successors, but they were corrupt and dishonest. Ch. 8 tells us the story of the rejection of Samuel’s sons, and the people’s desire for a King, as 8:20 says, “But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.””
And so. Samuel prays to the Lord who tells him to anoint a king, and who to anoint, and he tells Samuel that they’re not rejecting Samuel but God, and God tells Samuel to warn them of what a King will be like. And here is a good example of how the Word of God eludes our control and manipulation. The Bible has a variety of good things to say about Kings, about David and Solomon and Josiah and others, their wisdom and success, and Christian Kings since the time of Constantine all the way to George III of England paid a great deal of attention to those passages.
But sometimes the Word of the Lord to the King, or the ruler, or the government, should be Samuel’s words from ch. 8.
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Over a thousand years of western European history can be described as the working out of the relationship between the King and God’s law. One of the ways in which a careful, inspired reception of God’s Word has changed the world is seen in a book by Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, “The Law is King,” published in 1644 in the midst of the English Civil War between King Charles and the Puritan Parliamentarians. Charles stood for the Divine Right of Kings, much favored by his father King James, that essentially placed all political power in the King’s hands in spite of anything parliament might say.
Rutherford asserted that the Word of God placed law – Lex, over King,-- Rex. He asserted the Divine Principle that no ruler or other elected official, is or can be Above the Law, for the law is from God, Divine Law, Natural Law. And if positive law, legislative enactments by parliament or Congress, conflict with Divine or Natural Law, they must be corrected in light of that higher law.
Twenty years after the publication of Lex Rex, Cromwell’s rule was ended, Charles’ son, Charles II, was crowned as King, and Samuel Rutherford was summoned to appear before parliament for High Treason, his book already having been burned in public in Edinburgh and St. Andrews by the Public Hangman.
By this late date, Rutherford was already on his deathbed, and he sent this reply: "I have got a summons already before a superior judge and judicatory, and I am behooved to answer my first summons, and ere your day come I will be where few kings and great folks come."
There was still a long way to go before 1776 and 1787, but the ideas in the Founder’s accusations of King George for violating English Law, flow directly from the writings of Samuel Rutherford and others like him, including the prophet Samuel for whom Rutherford was named.
For us today, there could be some very helpful things to highlight for political purposes, but I’m going to make that the topic of an upcoming Sunday night class when we finish The New Testament In Its world.. I think for now it would be more helpful to focus on Samuel’s words which echo through the scriptures. For we’ll see another way in which God’s Word, living and active corrects our misuses and misunderstandings.
An overeager literalist might try to nail this down, but in the face of the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, he would have to defer to the greater maker. Leviticus 1 jumps right in on the laws of sacrifice and offerings. From verse 3-4, and verse 10.
“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
10 “If his gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish,”
But Samuel says: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.”
Now, is Samuel contradicting Moses? Is the Bible against itself? God forbid! Those who would lay their hands on sacred things for wicked purpose should remember the results for the Philistines in I Samuel ch. 5, who stole the Ark of the Covenant, until they all began to sicken and die. It did not end well for them.
We hear reverberations of Samuel’s redefinition of sacrifice all through the Bible. In Jeremiah 7 we read: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh yourselves. 22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”
Hosea the prophet says: What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
We come to the gospel of Matthew and find this in ch. 9: And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
When Jesus responded to the scribes question about the greatest commandment, the scribe said: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Samuel is the prophet of the Lord, and the Lord says that the purpose of sacrifice and offering is to restore peace and harmony between God and his people, looking forward to the one perfect offering of Jesus Christ, as the book of Hebrews reminds us, and when Saul disobeys God’s explicit command to kill the Amalekites per God’s solemn vow back in the days of Moses in Exodus 17, and pretends that he wishes to observe the law while disobeying the express commands of God, then the kingdom is torn from his hands, as Samuel says. Hypocritical disobedience is a stench in God’s nostrils, as Isaiah 65 says.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of I Samuel 15:22: Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, as he himself explains in John 5, “Truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”
There is no space between the Father’s will and the Son’s obedience. There is no pause for consideration. He not only is the Word of God, he lives the Word of God. It is the engine of his life. Although Saul continues in office as King until the end of the book of I Samuel, in the very next chapter after our reading for today, chapter 16, David is anointed as King by Samuel, and thus begins the series of events that leads to the Son of David fulfilling the promises made to David by God, and our salvation begins.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”… When they came, Samuel looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”…..Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed David in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward..
In Jesus, God takes up the life of David and all his descendants into his very being and nature, as well as all who become one with Jesus Christ. IN ch. 16 we begin to see our own future as we look back to 1000 BC, for God works in God’s way and God’s time.
October 6th, Psalm 42
To know God is to question God. To know God is to weep and mourn. To know God is to question oneself, and to question reality.
All of these statements are theological assertions of a high order. By that, I mean that underlying those initial statements is a truth about God that generates these experiences of questioning and mourning.
In point of fact, the experiences are unavoidable for believers and non-believers, and that fact falls with great weight on the side of the reality and truth of God. These of course are high-level, abstract claims. Let’s drill down a bit to the specifics, first by taking a look at our Psalm.
Perhaps more than others, this Psalm calls out to its hearers. It is at a high level of art and poetry, which some of its English translation have extended for us.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Deep calls to deep, at the thunder of thy cataracts. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love; and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? We’re in the presence, not just of inspiration, but of a kind of genius.
I read that phrase, Deep calls to deep, in a variety of places before I knew it was in the Psalms. It was only going to church with my fiancée and her parents, at an Episcopal church in Gainesville, that I heard much of any of the Psalms other than the 23rd. The deer longs for the flowing streams, his soul longs for God, but the psalmist has nothing to eat or drink but his own tears. The figure of water and its contrasts features prominently in the psalm as well, as is also shown in verse 7.
The psalmist apostrophizes himself, his soul. He places himself within the dialogue. This is common in our own everyday lives. Nowadays we call it self-talk, but we all keep up a running dialogue or commentary that goes on in our mind virtually all the time, mostly silent. At least, I hope I’m not the only one who does this!
Even the mental sickness of hearing “voices in my head” is akin to this, but in that situation, it’s often alien and/or unacceptable voices that are in runaway mode and are unable to be silenced. That’s the particular torment of a type of schizophrenia. No volume control knob.
Here the psalmist, allowing his reader in on his quest for discovery, externalizes the quandary he faces, the quandary between faith and fear, a fear of the loss of faith. The psalmist asks himself why, why are you cast down, O my soul, a puzzling question addressed to himself, which he never overtly seems able to answer in the whole Psalm, though the disquietude is somewhat resolved. Perhaps it’s not answerable in that situation.
The question, “why are you cast down, O my soul” makes little sense without the presumption that, whether or not the cast down state is unusual in terms of frequency, it nonetheless indicates a departure from some sort of norm. To be “cast down,” to be depressed, despondent, despairing, in this way of thinking, is to be away from, outside of, the desirable and expected state of normal human being. It assumes that something is wrong. Otherwise, why would we talk about it that way? It assumes the human soul is somehow deranged, damaged, just off in some way. If to be cast down were normal, we wouldn’t notice it, or react against it. We know something is wrong about this wrongness.
Our experience and the insight generated thereby tells us this. We struggle with ourselves. We rebel against the way things are. We rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the sea of troubles, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Why? Why, if this is the standard state of things? Why, if this is just the way things are? Do trees grieve when their leaves fall? To whom might a rabbit complain when eaten by a hawk? Where are all the depressed squirrels? You see? Why are you cast down, O my soul?
Now I can take no credit for this line of thought. One of the first serious books I read in High School, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, a book which every Christian should read, and I mean that literally, Lewis says this: “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’”
Now this is Lewis’ positive take on the Psalmist’s negative quandary, Why are you cast down, O my Soul?
The existence of the human in all its joys and sorrows and even existential dread points outside, points away from ourselves. There is indeed a question that must be dealt with. Lewis asserts that as satisfaction follows desire, or at least the possibility and credibility of a satisfaction existing for every desire, so an answer must follow a question as night follows the day.
My soul thirsts for the living God. To ask why is to run afoul of the evidentiary objection that lawyers love to bring up, “asked and answered, Your Honor.” The fact that someone, and not just one, but down through recorded history, many, have longed for God, is to answer the question, to at least some degree.
Now, of course, reasoning that our human puzzlement and longing can lead us to a certain reassurance about God, is not revelation. To argue that God must exist, because we desire him, is no form of proof. For the creator of the very concept of proof itself, is beyond all human control. God is beyond all the rational proofs we can offer about isosceles triangles and planetary ellipses. But just as human longing cannot prove the existence of God, neither is a shell casing at a crime scene, proof of a homicide. But what reasonable detective would ignore it and walk away from such a clue? The unseriousness of much modern atheism is an insult to human reason itself.
The answer that the question asks for, the longing that is placed within our hearts because of who made us, prepares us not just to understand but to welcome the revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ.
This is the background of Psalm 42. It’s beautiful simply in its form, is it not? Here we need to acknowledge that we didn’t hear the whole Psalm. Psalm 42 and 43 were at some point in time divided, but if you keep reading, you hear the third stanza of the three, the first two of which we heard in Psalm 42. The writer is despondent, in 42:1-4, and sums up his thought, in the first refrain, let’s call it, of verse 5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.”
Verses 6-10 expand upon his complaint and intensify his disappointment, abandonment, and affliction. This is followed, in the last verse of Ps. 42, vs. 11, with the second use of the same refrain, Why are you cast down, O my soul? And then in vss. 1-4 of Ps. 43, we hear more of a prayer rather than a complaint, though that’s still present in vs. 2, “Why hast thou cast me off?” But the mood, the tone, and the direction lighten and improve in Psalm 43. “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise thee with the harp, O God, my God.”
Sometimes the simplest language carries the most beauty and power, and perhaps those two go together for a reason. “I will praise thee with the harp, O God, my God.”
O God, my God. The claim in that last phrase brings him home, it brings the Psalmist across the finish line so to speak. “O God” is light years away from My God, is it not? In the last two words, “My God,” you can hear the claim, the response, the hope, and the faith. Can one, would one, say My God, if one did not know this God?
My initial assertion, that the truth about God generates our questioning, our mourning, our despondency, is comprised of this: though God has never abandoned his creation, the invasion of the created world of humanity by Jesus Christ is the fullest, most comprehensive, though not the only, example of the promise of God which creates our longing, our desire. Why long, why desire, if one is already full and satisfied? To crest the top of a mountain and see the next afar off, is to long to go to the next mountain, there, off in the distance. There’s more. One hasn’t yet reached the end, the goal.
To know the truth of God in Jesus Christ, a self-emptying and thus self-giving God; a God who makes room for the human in a way that not only defines but transforms the nature of grace, is to be filled with a deeper, more acute longing for that which we don’t yet possess.
I have given you a land full of milk and honey, a promised land, a paradise which is yours because I have chosen you. But we’re not there, yet. Illness, accident, evil is sometimes our lot in life. As Edgar said in King Lear to Gloucester: “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.”
Ripeness is all. There is a time for all things, and our time is in God’s hands. Our dismay at our own emptiness, our own disappointment, is because we know we were made to be filled, we were made to meet that appointment that was made for us the moment God said, Let there be Light. Perhaps before, for who can fathom God’s purposes and plans, or put him to a schedule? Ripeness is all. In God’s time, the harvest will be brought in. But only in his time.
And our desire, our longing for God can sometimes interfere, conflict with our faith in that that promise of God.
Why are you cast down, O my Soul? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him. Send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.
What is this but the promised city of Jerusalem, the holy hill, Mt. Zion, and the throne of God in the holy of holies in the tabernacle, where the cloud of God’s presence descended at the holy moments of sacrifice.
God creates our love from our longing, and gives us emptiness so that there might be room to be filled. Christmas is only Christmas, because we must wait for it. It is the waiting, every year, the longing, that creates the gift.
The grace of God is in the Gift of preparation. The gift of Preparation is God’s Grace. The gift of time. The gift of emptiness, that we might be filled. Emptiness, without which we could not be filled.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
September 27th, Luke 9:43b-62
The burial of the dead is a cultural topic that is found in all periods of accessible human history. Burials of Neanderthals from over 50,000 years ago have been examined very carefully, and specifically noted for the fact that they were not just disposals of the body but were buried in a way to prevent the disturbance of their bodies by scavengers and predators.
Over 30,000 years ago, there is evidence found in what are called Cro-Magnon burials of further, more developed rituals and reverence for the dead, with primitive bracelets and necklaces as well as valuable tools and weapons found buried with the dead.
One of the most shocking aspects of Homer’s Iliad, in an already blood-drenched epic is the death of Hector. After Achilles chases him around the walls of Troy three times, he kills him with a spear, allows the other Greek soldiers to abuse his dead body, and over the next nine days, daily drags the dead body of Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy in full view of Hector’s father and mother and widow, until Zeus intercedes and sends the god Hermes to accompany Hector’s father Priam to the camp of Achilles to beg for his son’s mutilated body so it can be given a burial.
In the mythologies of Ancient Greece Antigone is remembered in Sophocles play from the fifth century BC, for her struggle to give her brother Polynikes a simple burial which had been denied to him because of his politics.
The writer of Genesis tells the story of Abraham, the wandering Aramean, negotiating with the Hittites for the purchase of a small plot of land where he can bury his wife Sarah, for he is a nomad, with a promise, but with no land of his own. The book of Genesis ends with the death of Jacob, Sarah’s grandson, and this exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob’s son, Joseph: “Then Joseph fell on his father's face and wept over him and kissed him….
4 And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” 6 And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.”
In the apocryphal book of Tobit we read Tobit’s words in ch. 1, “In the days of Shalmaneser I performed many acts of charity to my brethren. 17 I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw any one of my people dead and thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him. 18 And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly. For in his anger he put many to death. When the bodies were sought by the king, they were not found. 19 Then one of the men of Nineveh went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. When I learned that I was being searched for, to be put to death, I left home in fear. 20 Then all my property was confiscated and nothing was left to me except my wife Anna and my son Tobias.”
And in the Rabbinic tractate Berakoth, from the Mishnah, we read, “One who is confronted by a dead relative, is freed from reciting the Shema, from the 18 Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah.”
To bury the dead was, and still is, an act of Jewish piety and righteousness. There are doubtless other sources that could be cited from Asian, African and Native American cultures, especially the Navajo, on the necessity of the proper treatment of the dead and the bad things that result from a failure to enact the proper rituals.
One can almost write a history of the development, the progress of human civilization, in how the dead are cared for, attended, placated, sometimes feared. Many, if not most, of the non-Jewish rituals and practices came about specifically to limit the dead from any connection with the living and control any influence or power the dead, or their ghosts, have over the living.
In the Roman world, the dead were always buried outside the sacred precincts of the city walls. The city was hallowed by the gods through the presence of their temples within the city, and no dead body could be buried within the city. The Navajo bury their dead as far away as feasible, and if the deceased has died in their home, the hogan, it is destroyed and burned, along with any possessions. In the Navajo culture, contact with the dead leads to a great deal of misfortune, so as few Navajo family members as possible participate in the funeral. But there are rules, hard and fast, that virtually all traditional societies followed on dealing with deceased family members.
And Jesus says, not to a critic, not to an opponent, but to one whom Jesus has called to follow him, and who just needs a little time to bury his father, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
How to describe such a response? Rude? Uncaring, unfeeling, unsympathetic? Un-everything that most all of us value nowadays? This is known as one, of many, of Jesus’ Hard Sayings, along with cutting off your hand to avoid sin, turning the other cheek, hating one’s family, casting fire on the earth, I don’t come to bring peace but a sword.
There are many like this. They bring us good news, for, as even the temple guards said to the Sanhedrin when they returned after being sent to arrest him in John 7, “Never man spake like this man.”
Ever since then mountebanks and quacks and charlatans have used this kind of rhetoric to bully the crowd, speaking in antinomies, pretending to reveal a truth in incompatibilities.
But this phrase, and much of Jesus’ other teaching fits only into the identity of Jesus himself, as well as the Bad News/Good News structure of the Gospel.
I don’t know if I made up that Bad News/Good News phrase to describe the dynamic of the Gospel or if I got it from someone else. It’s more than just, “Tell me the bad news first.” We’ve all probably heard that, or said it.
No, it has to do with who and what we are, as fallen human beings, as well as how that fallenness shapes our perceptions, mainly about ourselves and our capabilities. With regard to the first aspect, the truly good news/bad news scenario would be that regardless of how bad we are, regardless of our individual wickedness, hatefulness and unrighteousness, we’re going to live forever. As bad as we wanna be.
This is what JRR Tolkien meant by “the First Mercy;” that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden after eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and before they had eaten as well of the Tree of Life, as Genesis 3:22 tells us. An eternal life of wickedness would be a torture from which they, in the First Mercy, were rescued.
The book of Hebrews sees the way this works out by analogy with our human father, in ch. 12, ““My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
The horse developed from a small herd animal in the Middle East to the horse of today, the Clydesdale, the Percheron, the Racehorse, the Quarter Horse, to all the types of horse in today’s world, through its development alongside humanity and human culture, through discipline—breeding and training.
This First Mercy of God left us in a world of gravity, and pain, and heartache and death. Though it was the First Mercy, in order of time the bad news came first, of necessity, and the good news after.
Let’s back up and look at the person, the identity of Jesus. “Never man spake as this man,” said those unlikely hostile witnesses, the temple guards. What does that mean? Well at least one thing it means is that because of who he was, Jesus could say things like “Let the dead bury the dead,” or, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now normally, we would say in response, Who do you think you are? That’s ridiculous, that’s nonsense, that’s sacrilegious! But those who heard him, even those who didn’t agree, were rocked back a bit. Everyone was allowed freedom, and some rejected him, but a man who could say those things, and then lift a dead child alive from the bier before he’s buried, a man who could with a word of rebuke to evil drive him out of a child, demon-possessed, a man who could not only forgive sin, and assert the right to, but also speak healing and make the lame to walk; people listened to him in a new way.
No man ever spake like this man. This man accords to himself the words and deeds and things of God. Moses says, but I say unto you. I say unto you? Jesus came speaking of the kingdom of God, and he spoke as the King. He acted with a royal freedom. He asserted his rule of not just that which is important to every person, not just our burdens, our needs, our sins; he asserted his rule of that which is eternal, his rule of the powers of nature, and a rule of the darkness that plagued the world and the inner darkness of humanity. For Jesus knew the hearts of his hearers.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open. In Luke 9 Jesus is not struggling for a hearing, for acceptance, he is merely placing his finger on the wound of sin. He is laying his hand, where it hurts. Which is our own desire to author our own story, rather than follow his script. We want to be his followers, we want to be on his team, in our own way, our own manner and in our own good time. We want to make the decisions that are not ours to make.
It’s not a matter of preferring Ford to Chevy. It’s not a matter of preferring Jif to Skippy. These Hard Sayings in Luke 9 confront us with that with which we don’t want to be confronted. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
When the Son of Man, to whom every knee shall bow, calls a man, it is not time for excuses and delays. When one says “I will follow you Lord” there are no reservations. There is no clause at the bottom for exceptions, for the initial statement, the initial call, the initial response, cancels out everything that might stand in its way.
You can compare how far it is from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, to how far it is from earth to the sun. It’s a big difference, but it can be measured. 101 miles, versus 93 million miles. Big difference. Now compare how long you’ve been alive on earth to the life of God. You see? How long will we be in heaven? How long is eternity? How big is an elephant? How big is God?
This man spake as no man ever spake. The bad news first. My fallenness means I want to do it myself, I want to save myself, I want to make my own decisions, I want to be what I want to be. This is my life, we say. All of that was vastly expanded and intensified by Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment.
In 1784, as an aspect of the then emerging German Enlightenment, a Prussian official addressed a proposal in the Berlin Monthly, namely, “"Proposal, not to engage the clergy any longer when marriages are conducted." 1784. That was a public policy proposal. Very interesting that this foundational human institution was what they felt should first be addressed.
In response to the question, What is The Enlightenment? asked by Friedrich Zollner, a year earlier, Kant wrote an essay, which begins with this: “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” That’s how he began his essay. And also, by the way, began the process destroying western civilization.
This was all understood as man’s emergence from the tyranny so-called, of religion and the church. This so-called Enlightenment is predicated on the second aspect of our fallenness, as I said earlier, not just our fallenness, our predisposition to sin, but how our fallenness shapes our perceptions. It’s probably not wrong to think wisdom accrues to the older generation, but that may be just a function of having had more time to make more mistakes.
There is a human wisdom that, while valuable, has nothing to do with the wisdom which Proverbs calls the fear of God. And it is this which is necessary to teach us to truly perceive, to truly understand, and to truly worship God. As James says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Every phrase in those two verses from James ch. 3 connect back to the teaching of Jesus and the Wisdom tradition of the OT. Each phrase lands with force on the pretensions of Godless humanity. Kant believed we needed to be liberated from tradition, liberated from faith, liberated from trust in God’s word, trust in the priest or the pastor.
But true wisdom, and the illumination of the spirit, leads the apostle Paul to write to the Romans in ch.6, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
As the hand wrote on the wall to Belshazzar, “Mene, Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.” This is our condition.
Our days are numbered, and we have been found wanting. As Isaiah says, even the princes are but a drop in the bucket. No man ever spake like this man. To understand the Good News, we must believe the Bad News. To give thanks for the Glad Tidings, we take on board who we are within, the cost of our redemption, and the freedom we are offered, which is the only true freedom.
We are called, we are chosen, a decree has gone forth, God’s mercy has condemned us to this world, that we might find his mercy. God’s wrath has fallen on his son, that our sins and their power might be destroyed. As the prayer of Habakkuk began: “O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy.
Sermon, September 6th; Luke 7:36-50
Do you like Pharisees? Think carefully before you answer, because this will be on the text. As I’ve said before, context is vitally important to understanding any text, texts in the scriptures and other texts. But the context to which I’m referring now, is our context today, here, in this room, at this moment. Forget the elections, forget the riots, forget the virus. We have heard the Word of God, this morning, and to it, we must attend.
Our context is partly revealed by reflecting on why we are here, and how we might correctly understand and answer that why. Part of the why is that we are called to be here. When many were abandoning Jesus, even early on, he asked the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well? Just as, later in the Garden, he said, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” We are called, we are summoned.
Jesus even said, many are called, but few are chosen, and not all who were called to be here today have answered that call.
The Word of God is publicly proclaimed around the table of the Lord each Lord’s Day. Our use of that phrase, The Lord’s Day, is a good reminder of how the phrase, The Day of the Lord, was transformed by Jesus’ death on the cross, for Judgment fell on humanity on that day, as Amos and other prophets had promised, but the Day of the Lord on that Good Friday illustrates why we call it Good, and why now, this day of Resurrection has become a Day of the Lord, because it is the Lord’s Day. It partakes of the OT notion of the Sabbath as a day of remembrance, and a day of obligation. Creation is a gift, and the Sabbath is a gift, given, in one sense, so that the gift might not be forgotten. But also, when we say The Lord’s Day, we’re reminded that God has turned judgment into salvation, without in any way undermining or compromising his own righteousness and holiness.
It’s worth noting that the Word of God, while accomplishing his purposes, does many things, and the same text of scripture can be used by the Holy Spirit in different ways for different people. Not the least of the implications of this is that the human interpreter cannot limit or bind or restrict the activities of the Spirit and the intentions of the Word of God.
This gives no license to the reader, but rather a stricter method, and a realization upon every fresh reading whose word we are reading, and who sets the tone and purposes of God’s Word.
What you need to hear today may be different from your pewmates, yet the Word of God is sufficient. That Word which, when uttered, brings light and life into being, is not in any way challenged or hindered by our different needs, for who made our ears and our hearts but the Lord?
Do you need to hear today that Jesus sees your tears, like the tears he felt in Simon’s house? Do you need to know that Jesus hears your sobs of grief and repentance? Do you need to hear that your sins are not too great a mountain for Jesus to climb, nor too great a ditch for Jesus to cross? Do you need to hear that your old sins, long unconfessed, the debt constantly growing, and the weight increasing, are but a drop in the bucket to God’s compassion?
For when those in Simon’s house said among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The question clearly answers itself. They know. No one can forgive someone else’s sins but God himself. In those words that Jesus spoke, directly to the prostitute, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The echoes reverberated down the halls of time: Here is what the dinner guests actually heard when Jesus spoke, and what we should know as well: Moses asked on Mt. Sinai, to see God’s glory, and this is God’s response. ““The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Do you need to hear that Jesus knew, and still knows, even today, at this hour what is in the heart of every person? Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open?
You may have come to worship to feel superior to all the hypocrites, you may come to church to burn it down, though I hope not, you may come to church to destroy a life with gossip, you may come to church just so you can walk out shortly after worship begins, it doesn’t matter why we’ve come to church, the power of the Word of God is sufficient, and will accomplish his purpose. Whatever that may be. And we mustn’t think we always know what that is.
We may talk of the Word of God as an active, personal, divine agent, for that is how the Word is presented to us in the scriptures. One of our callings is to conform our thinking and reasoning and living to the form of speech we find in God’s Word.
And when I speak of God’s Word, I mean that which is living and active, which knows all and sees all and says what each of us needs to hear at any moment. We think we are the agents of knowing. We read the text; we decide what it means. But he says, to all who will hear, in the words of the Psalmist: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.”
To read the text is to be read, by the text, by the Word.
When we come to Luke 7, we appropriately ask, what exactly does “Your sins are forgiven,” mean? Remember, when we come to God’s Word, our first response is to be, I don’t know what this means, in spite of what I think. The message Jesus’ words in Luke 7 carries is so much more….cosmic, let’s say, then what is experienced in the immediate moment by the forgiven sinner.
I shared with my Hebrews class last week about a teenage girl in our church when I was growing up who went forward just about every month or so at the invitation hymn on Sunday night. Some of you remember church three times a week, don’t you, back before Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio and Lamb Chop came along on Sunday evenings. Lamb Chop was a pretty big deal. Still is. Did you know Lamb Chop testified before Congress? Bet you never did that. Did you know Lamb Chop is also a 3-Star General in the US Marine Corps. So there’s that.
Anyway, this young woman hears something. Someone was calling her. She was a baptized believer, but she kept going forward. I don’t exactly know why, I never did. She said she wanted to rededicate her life. Some of us made fun of her among ourselves, and would bet one another on whether or not she would go forward on any given Sunday, because you just never knew.
Never stake anything of importance on the empathy and compassion of a teenage boy, but you probably already know that.
What was she seeking? Why had not she found it, already? What strange confluence of events, causes and influences have me now remembering her and talking about her with you over 50 years later? Her life. She said she wanted to rededicate her life to the Lord.
What is God doing in this passage? We know he is speaking. “Day to day pours forth speech,” the Psalmist tells us.
There is a danger in coming to a text like ours today without preparation, for the unprepared heart is tempted to regard Simon as that which we don’t want to be, never want to be, and thus fall into the trap. It’s like if you ask yourself, Am I humble? Some things it’s best to leave alone.
But our text today makes us look at ourselves. “I entered your house, Simon, yet you gave me no kiss.” I wonder what they’re doing in France these days, with all that kissing? I guess you’d get used to it. Kiss on the right, kiss on the left, kiss on the right. But if we’re not even shaking hands, I imagine they’ve dropped the kissing for awhile.
Apparently, the kiss was an expected part of a standard greeting in Jesus’s day, and his world. And this absence of a kiss is combined with the absence of other normal signs of welcome. In those days you were supposed to wash their feet and oil their hair as well, it appears from Jesus’ statement. “I’m your guest, Simon and you did none of this for me, but this woman with her tears, and her hair, and her ointment, has loved greatly.”
You heard the way this went. Jesus is invited to eat with Simon, a common name, in those days, Simon the Maccabean being one of their well-remembered heroes. Simon is identified for us as a Pharisee, and that’s all we know, except to know that he has a house, which not everyone did.
It’s difficult to picture some of this, until we remember the nature of houses in the Mediterranean world back then, for houses were somewhat open-air, and privacy was not like it is today. Privacy was not a functioning practice. At a meal like this, a leading citizen invites the latest big noise to his house for dinner, there would be a lot of onlookers, kibitzers, standing around, hanging out in the ante-chambers, just to see, just to hear. To see what is the latest dish, how much food there is, maybe listen to the conversation of these important people.
And there was always the chance of some leftovers. No one lived or moved or traveled alone in those days. A Roman grandee had people lined up to see him first thing in the morning. He was their patron, their “Padrone,” everybody needed a little something, and the Roman Senator or member of any of the upper classes would hand out a few coins to anyone he recognized.
In Jesus’ world, there were people around all the time, hanging on his words, hoping to be healed, to be helped in some way. The Jews, even the strictest apparently, had absorbed some of the Greco/Roman cultural practices in spite of their resistance to much of it.
How is this woman of the city, this “sinner,” able to cry on Jesus feet while he’s eating supper? Is she down there scrabbling around under the table? No, apparently the Jews of Jesus’ day had also adopted the symposium-style dinner, where the men, lounged around a horseshoe shaped table, lying on their sides on couches, eating in a relaxed style while laying on pillow and cushions.
It’s not that someone has wandered in to his home that has alarmed Simon, but who, or what, she is. A Sinner. A woman of the city. Simon is already treading a fine line with his Mediterranean dining style, and this woman alarms him because the other part of the upper-class Greco/Roman dining style, was the provision of what were euphemistically called “flute-girls” who provided the soft soothing background music, but who in reality, were paid to provide sexual services to the rich and powerful men present.
It’s hard for us to feature just how drastically different Jewish sexual mores and practices were from the surrounding cultures of the day. Aline Rousselle, studied this world most carefully, and essentially the only person off limits to a Roman man’s sexual depredations was a Roman woman married to a man of his class or higher. All others may as well have been working for Harvey Weinstein.
One commentator said Jesus did not even need to turn around to see the source of the dropping of liquid, tears, on his feet. All he had to do was read the horror on Simon’s face, to know what was happening.
And because he knows the secrets of the heart, he knows what Simon now thinks of him, and is perhaps wishing he had not invited Jesus in the first place.
But in the tradition of the symposium from way back, Jesus begins to question Simon. He tells him a story, a parable and concludes with a question. Notice, in this overall story about forgiveness, Jesus tells a smaller story within the story about a creditor and two debtors, who owe vastly unequal debts to their common creditor. Three characters in the outer story, three characters in the inner story. Two characters owe a debt, which is forgiven by the third character.
The weeping, the sobbing, the cleansing, the sacrifice of an extremely valuable ointment, perhaps even one of the tools of her unfortunate trade, to anoint his feet, this is the context of the story Jesus tells Simon.
Jesus tells the story, and asks Simon who will love his creditor more? Simon says, in virtually every translation I could find, says, “I suppose, the one who was forgiven more.” I suppose! There is Simon’s guilty plea right there, for he knows he doesn’t love like the woman. And Jesus spells that out for him. And then he says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And even while the others are wondering about that, he says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What was it that brought her to the supper, uninvited? What was it that made her think she could weep over the feet of this respected Rabbi, and possibly compromise him in the eyes of the world? What was it that made her think she could touch, the bare feet and legs of this preacher of the kingdom of God, in the home, once again uninvited, of a Pharisee giving a supper for Jesus and other men, men who may have known her more immediately than they would want to admit.
Your faith has saved you. Her faith drove her to that dinner. It drove her to gratitude. Her faith drove her, when she couldn’t speak because her heart was too full of mercy received, to the only language she had, which was too weep uncontrollably, to love in the only way she could, to serve, to respect, to give.
Jesus doesn’t pretend there’s nothing wrong. Jesus doesn’t pretend that sin doesn’t exist, doesn’t distort, divide, control, warp and destroy the lives of all that it touches. Which is everyone. Including Simon.
He only says, because he IS the Word of God, he says, “Let there be light.” It doesn’t sound like that to us, we hear “Your sins are forgiven.” But the word of God always says, “Let there be light.” You see how that works? Light creates, cleanses, restores, protects, reveals. Let there be light. Let the good world exist and go forward. Let the renewing act of God be found on the level of the poor, and the guilty, and the crushed and the lonely and the forgotten. Let their names be known, let men in pulpits speak about them thousands of years in the future.
Let there be light.
Psalm 32, August 30, 2020
What is sin? What is a sin? What does sin do? As I said last week, my grandmother reminded her wicked little grandsons that “your sins will find you out.” You can’t hide from the effects of your sin, was the message I received. Of course, when I was 8 years old, I would have liked to have heard more of Psalm 32 than Numbers 32. Psalm 32 begins “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered.”
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my grandmother, who was a hard-working mother, hard done by in many ways. From 1917 to 1931, she bore eight children, four boys and four girls, and my grandfather, who talked her into leaving Jacksonville and moving to the countryside during the depression, was often gone the entire work week, working for Railway Express, the national Package Delivery service, back when most things went by the railroad.
This is one reason the sheriff gave my mother a driver’s license when she was 12 years old, because neither of her parents knew how to drive a car and during the war my uncles had moved away, three of them in the service, and so my mother had to pick up my grandfather at the bus station when he got off work for the weekend.
I grew up hearing all the funny stories about growing up on the farm, and my mother getting chased around the house by my grandmother, and my grandfather giving my mother a nickel every time he came home which she ran and buried in the back yard, about my mother hitting a cow in the road when she was 14.
But there was sin in my mother’s family, and my father’s, as well as yours, and mine. Sin can be called the “inheritance” that no one ever misses out on. Some say we’ve all got the coronavirus by now. We’ve all got the antibodies. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case we’ve all inherited a sinful nature.
I had an aunt who had a glass eye. She made jokes about it when I was kid, we never to know what to think. The story I heard for years was that it happened in a volleyball game at high school and somebody spiked the ball. It was an accident, was what I heard. My sister says it happened in a softball gave and one of my uncles threw the ball at her when she wasn’t looking, and it hit her in the face. Was that an accident? Good clean fun? He certainly wouldn’t have been intending to blind his sister. But she lost an eye because of it. Her life was irreparably changed because of that day.
But I never heard that talked about when I was growing. Some things you don’t say in front of the children, I guess. She joked about it all the time when we were kids, but I think my mother knew about the real heartache that was a result of that day. My aunt eventually married, but for years she suffered with the imagined stigma of thinking that everybody was staring at her. Wondering which was the real eye.
Sin runs in families, doesn’t it? We pass it along, unwillingly, unknowingly. We can all think of examples of the lasting effects of sin in life. We do things, or say things, we later wish we had not. Things are done or said to us, we wish had not been. But we have to live with them. Not every sin just goes away, when we forgive and forget.
I can’t remember the name of the kid in my sixth-grade class that me and my buddies excluded from our lunch room table. There were three of us, Steve Odom, Steve Strickland, Steve Lewis. We had a club, and well, if your name wasn’t Steve you couldn’t be in our club. No Johns, or Bobs or Howards allowed.
We’re standing together in line in the lunchroom, and boy, wasn’t that fun? Unairconditioned lunches in Florida with 200 other smelly kids who didn’t use deodorant and the fragrance of spoiled milk everywhere. Not really spoiled but just a little, off. Somebody always dropped their little half pint of milk carton, and the garbage dumpster was usually just outside the open windows of the lunchroom, for convenience, I assume. Certainly not for our dining pleasure.
Anyway, there we are and this new kid is acting like he’s gonna sit with us. The nerve!
I said, You’re not in our club. What club? Our club. How do you get in the club? What’s your name? Howard. Sorry. This is a club for Steves. There was this other kid with us, Gary. What about him? he said. His name’s not Steve. He’s honorary. You can’t sit with us.
Now, on the scale of the atrocities of history, that’s a drop in the bucket, but, some buckets are filled a drop at a time. Things build up. They get worse, they boil over.
Sometimes the Bible talks about the “stain” of sin, as in Jeremiah 2:22, “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.” And in the letter of James, 3:6 we read: “ The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature,[a] and set on fire by hell.”
This fits well with the Biblical notion of washing away sin, the washing clean effect of baptism being one of those metaphors that come readily to mind, as in Hebrews 10, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Or in Revelation 7, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We use metaphors all the time and not just in the Bible. Metaphors are intrinsic to our everyday speech. The language we use about “argument” has an effect on the way we think about argument.
I demolished his argument, we say.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
He shot down all my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
Once war, or that is to say, an argument has been declared, we feel the necessity to win the argument. You certainly don’t want to LOSE. You see, metaphors frame our thinking, not just about arguments, but about everything. I couldn’t preach a sermon, or talk about hardly anything without metaphor, whether overt or covert, obvious or subtle.
Some language theorists go so far as to say all language is made of metaphors, that they are the building blocks of all discourse. Most of these metaphors have been lost in the ancient history of language and we’re no longer aware of them.
The way we talk about sin affects the way we think about sin, and not only how we think, but how we conduct ourselves with regard to right and wrong, and in relations with God, and with one another, for Proverbs 23 reminds us, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”
The words, the language, the stories, the metaphors you rehearse within yourself as you go through your day determine who you are. Sometimes, in reflecting upon sin, we speak of accidents, mistakes, misjudgments, even peccadilloes.
We speak of transgressions, misdeeds, errors, misdemeanors, moral lapses, shortcomings, failures, trespasses, debts. Sin, the shortest of such words, makes us sometimes uneasy. It sometimes depends on who we’re talking about. My misjudgment is a failing in my friend, and an obvious sin in my enemy.
But all of them connect to a metaphor somewhere in the history of their use in language. And they’re all sometimes, appropriate in their use for our own or others deeds.
Sin has a history. Certainly in the Bible we can see that. In Leviticus 16 we read that the High Priest places the sins of the people on the head of a goat. This is where the notion of a scape-goat comes from, first translated in that way by William Tyndale in 1530. Leviticus says: 21Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. 22The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Scape goat was short for “Escape Goat.” The sins, in this understanding, are conceived of as a burden, a weight, having an existence that can be transferred, that can be removed from one, or many, and placed on another. This is one way the Bible talks about sin. You can hear it in Psalm 32, in vss. 3 & 4: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer.”
The psalmist has discovered the weight, the burden of unconfessed sin. Back in Texas the church had a full-sized basketball gym, and me and a couple other guys walked round and round the gym in the morning for our health. We were like mall walkers, but we had no mall. I wore this vest that had iron bars in the pockets all over it and if it was full it weighed 40 pounds. You can imagine how good it felt to take that vest off after walking for 45 minutes wearing it.
Though a fictional character, Emma Woodhouse, the eponymous protagonist of Jane Austen’s novel, carried the burden of her sin, of publicly shaming a neighbor, Miss Bates, at a picnic in front of several others. Miss Bates is garrulous, always talking, always gossiping, lonely, and very self-conscious around her “betters,” as they would have said in the early 1800s. Miss Bates is an unmarried middle aged woman living with and looking after her widowed mother, Mrs. Bates, who is stone deaf, and they are on the edge of genteel poverty, while Emma is wealthy in her own right, and at the end of the novel, will be even more so, when she marries Mr. Knightley.
At the picnic, one of the eligible young men, Frank Churchill, suggests that each of the seven members must say to Emma “two things moderately clever-or three things very dull indeed,” to which Miss Bates replies in a self-deprecating way, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth”. Unfortunately, in a vain attempt at humor, Emma says in response, ‘Ah! Ma’am but there may be a difficulty. Parton me – but you will be limited as to number – only three.’”
You can see the verbal dagger go home on Miss Bates face in the filmed version of the novel. Her shame, her pain, is excruciating to watch. And later when Miss Woodhouse is privately reprimanded by Mr. Knightley, you can see her pain at failing the one man whose opinion matters to her. She carries that burden through much of the novel, and even Miss Bates refuses to see her, when she tries to apologize.
But sin as a weight, a burden is not the only way the Bible describes our sin, for even in this Psalm, vs. 5 expands upon the metaphors for that which divides us from God, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Iniquity, transgression, and guilt. Iniquity referring to an inner defect in character, transgression having to do with crossing a line, violating a precept, and guilt, speaking from a legal or courtroom context, the state of being in violation of a law, though we nowadays think of guilt as an inner feeling, feeling guilty, the way we imagine our dogs feel when we come home and they’ve chewed up our shoes.
Psalm 32 uses a variety of ways to talk about sin, but by the time of Jesus’ day, the notion of sin as debt is prominent. Though we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because that’s the way the Lord’s prayer appeared in Tyndale’s English translation and in the first English Book of Common prayer, virtually all translations since that time render Matthew 6 “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors.”
The notion of sin as a debt incurred is used often. In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, the man thrown into debtor’s prison because he owed some huge sum, and, when forgiven, demands from an acquaintance that he pay him the small sum he owes him uses debt to illustrate how sin may be thought of.
Jesus lived after a time when debt had become a much more common metaphor for sin in the prophets and some of the Torah. We have this concept still in our legal system when we talk about financial debt being “forgiven.” IN the sermon on the mount Jesus talks about settling up with anyone who has “something against” us, for if not, our accuser will hand us over to the judge and we will be put in prison and never get out till we’ve paid the last penny.
Is he just talking about lawcourts here? In the very next chapter, ch. 6, Jesus is talking about the giving of alms in verse 4, and forgiving our debtors in verse 12, and in verse 19, he reminds us not to lay up treasures on earth, but to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
Jews in the few centuries before Jesus’ time thought of the good they did, especially the alms they gave to the desperately poor, as treasure, or “credit,” that God would weigh up in the balance sheet against our debt, of sin. This is a commonplace not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in the Apocrypha and in Isaiah 40:2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
Their debt has been paid by the time in exile. In Jeremiah he talks about the Sabbaths that were ignored for so long have been completed while they were in Babylon, and they may return. The debt has been paid.
However we come to the presence of God, Psalm 32 is helpful for us to hear the story of the Psalmist, a fellow sinner: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”
Some years ago, Joe Garrison asked me why we never had any form of confession in our worship service. I had never thought of that, simply because we never had “confession” in church where I grew up. But our congregation has a varied heritage among its members. Some of you have been Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, all of whom normally have a time of confession in worship.
So, thanks to Joe, I started putting a Prayer of Confession in our service before Communion. Now, because some of you, like myself, are not from those traditions, we have times without a Confession, but rather a meditation which I give on the nature of Communion. Psalm 32 makes real clear the importance of confession, to be honest with God about who we are and who we know him to be. Next month we’ll move into the time of Meditation for a while, but Confession will return, and we will, as the Psalmist says, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”
Sermon, 8/23/30, I Kings 21:1-19
The Collect for Purity that begins, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” is found in many Catholic and Protestant prayer books, and appears to be at least 1,000 years old, found in Latin in a prayer book from the town of Fulda, in Germany. There is much that could be said about Fulda and its role in the kingdom of Charlemagne and his predecessors and successors, and also its role in the 20th century Cold War, being located in the militarily significant “Fulda Gap,” the path of an anticipated but never undertaken tank invasion of West Germany by the Soviet Union, but I want to call your attention back to the prayer found in the Fulda Sacramentary: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…and from whom no secrets are hid.”
You can hear the story of Santa Claus in those words, can you not?
“He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”
Our myths around St. Nicholas have taken on some of the attributes of God, unfortunately, in the sense that we use that idea to scare our children into behaving, at least from around October till Christmas. I didn’t worry about Santa Claus because I knew my grandmother already knew everything and saw everything and could read the evil hearts of young boys who had little sisters she had to protect.
This is of course why my brother and I dug a trap for her in the backyard under the clothesline. We were just tired of the old lady ratting us out on every single good idea for mischief we came up with.
My granddaughter Elizabeth was captured on phone video recently by my daughter when she snuck off to the laundry room to yank clothes out of the front-loading dryer and try to climb inside. Never quite made it, of course.
The collect for purity is an acknowledgment in prayer of God’s omniscience, and a prayer for his cleansing, “Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen”