Category: Isaiah

Easter and the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday (Isaiah 65)

The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
*********************
                “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” When “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes, he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign.” [Chalice Hymnal, 224]. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and with his resurrection is born the new creation. The old is past and needs to be forgotten. The past no longer holds sway over our lives. The journey to the cross and then to the tomb has led to this point when something new is born, for out of death comes life, like an acorn that falls from the tree and is reborn as another oak tree.
                The reading from Isaiah speaks not of resurrection but new creation. At first glance it doesn’t read as an Easter text, and yet it serves to deepen our understanding of resurrection. It speaks to the implications of the resurrection, but not directly.
It’s likely that few will preach from this text on Easter morning (I am of those who will place it at the center of my sermon), and yet it might have something important to say to us, even as it spoke to the original recipients. Authorship is attributed to the post-exilic prophet whose words of encouragement and guidance are found in the book called Isaiah. The author is often designated as Third Isaiah, and he speaks to a people living with shattered dreams. Once a nation that at least thought of itself as being independent, the nation of Judah was scattered and sent into exile. The Temple was destroyed, along with the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah had heard words of promise from the one we call Second Isaiah while still in Babylon. Now, with the exile ended, and the people (a new generation that was born in Babylon) having returned to Judah, they still aren’t complete free. They live not in the form of a nation, but as a province of the Persian Empire. They may have come home with high hopes of seeing their nation restored, but things aren’t turning out as expected. This new generation has heard stories of what once was, and what became of their people, as well as prophetic visions of a new beginning, but it still doesn’t feel right. The hoped-for transformation of their lives is not happening, at least not in the way they expected. That new beginning has yet to emerge. So, the prophet tells them to forget the former things. Forget the past. Instead take hold of a new vision. Consider the promise of a new creation. This new vision takes us back to the beginning of creation, to the garden, where all of creation lived in harmony. This is the vision of the new creation that will come upon the people. It is a vision that deepens our understanding of the resurrection.
                To get to the new creation, we need to return to the first day of the week, when in Luke’s account, women came to the tomb to finish preparing the body that was hastily laid in the tomb. Resurrection is a sign of new creation, but they’re not yet ready to experience it. When the women reach the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. It does appear they expected to find Jesus still lying in the grave. Instead, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes (angels?) who tell the women Jesus has been raised from the dead and will speak to the community soon. When they arrive back at the place where the church is gathered, their report is received with disbelief. Jesus may have spoken of resurrection, but this message hadn’t sunk in yet. But Jesus had risen from the dead (Lk 24:1-12). The old had passed away, and the new had emerged in the resurrected Jesus. In his resurrection he embodies the vision of a new creation.  
 
                The Gospel accounts in Luke and John give us the story of Jesus’ resurrection. They remind us that death could hold him. Death had staked its claim, but God proved too powerful, and Jesus, whom the world discarded, was vindicated. Resurrection wasn’t and isn’t a singular event. It’s not just about overcoming death and moving on to the heavenly realm. Resurrection is about new creation, a new vision for the people of God. The word we hear in Isaiah is that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. There will be a new Jerusalem where joy will be abundant. Weeping will be absent. People won’t labor in vain. The “wolf and lion shall feed together, while the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” It’s a vision that strikes us as one of peace. Now, I understand the biology of wolves and lions. They’re carnivores, not herbivores. Nevertheless, the image is striking enough to get our attention. It is the vision of a return to the Garden, where life is lived in harmony. 
 
                For those who gather on Easter morning, this vision offers comfort and perhaps a balm for the soul. It might offer a word of encouragement and empowerment. These are words that seem in short supply these days. For a moment the Easter gathering offers us an opportunity to dwell in the new creation. Our realities might change in an instant. We still must go out on Monday morning to face what is often an unfriendly world, but we go forth with this vision of a new creation as a light to the pathway we take.
                When we gather on Easter Morning, having traveled a path that led through Golgotha, we will have acknowledged that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. Now that it is the third day, we gather to celebrate the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. With his resurrection, the old has passed and the new has emerged from the tomb. This news has cosmic implications. As Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not only a witness to the promise of life after death. It is also a testament to the promise of resurrection grounded in a life given to others against all manifestations of evil.” In this new cosmic order that is initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, “relationships embody the joy of God’s creative power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 358]. These relationships are the ones represented by the Wolf and the Lamb, both are God’s creatures, and in the new creation that live together in harmony. Perhaps the word we hear as we gather to celebrate Easter is that in Christ, God is transforming our relationships with one another and with creation itself into something new.
                Too often Easter becomes little more than an opportunity to show off new clothes and share an Easter basket. There’s nothing wrong with such things, but they are not at the heart of Easter. What is at the heart of Easter, it is the triumph of “the steadfast love of the Lord,” which “endures forever” and evidenced by the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. We may not see it fully revealed at this moment, but as Paul reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of that new realm of God (1 Cor. 15:23).   

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earthy many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. [John M. C. Crum, Chalice Hymnal, 230].

 

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The Vindicator Is Near – Lectionary Reflection for Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50)

The Master on the Way to Calvary – 15th Century – Huntington Library
 
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
**********
                Preachers and congregations who follow the lectionary and the liturgical calendar have a choice to make for the Sunday prior to Easter. On one hand there is the possibility of celebrating the Triumphal Entry. Palm Sunday can be a glorious celebration in itself. We can wave palm fronds and shout praises to the king of kings. On the other there is Passion Sunday, which allows congregations—many of which will not have a Good Friday service (congregational or community service)—to consider the crucifixion of Jesus before gathering for the great celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Skipping from triumph to triumph neglects the reality of suffering, both that endured by Jesus and that endured by humanity and even creation itself. Somewhere in Holy Week we need to lift up the cross and ask what the cross has to say to us about the nature of our faith.
Since I am focusing my lectionary reflections on the First Reading, which is generally taken from the Hebrew Bible, I am left with the reading for Passion Sunday, as there isn’t a Palm Sunday reading from the Hebrew Bible other than the reading from the Psalms. So, with Passion Sunday being the only choice I have, I will focus my attention on this third Servant song of Second Isaiah. While there is no consensus as to the identity of the servant who is referenced here, it is appropriate that we consider the prophet himself to be the servant (the traditional alternative is Judah, but I think the prophet makes more sense, at least in this particular song).  
 
If we begin with the premise that the servant present in this song is the prophet, then how might we interpret this passage in light of Passion Sunday? How might the cross emerge here? The Servant Songs of Isaiah have traditionally been applied to Jesus, to give theological meaning to his sufferings on the cross. This is appropriate as long as we do not discount its original reference point. It is not as if this passage lay unfulfilled until Jesus arrived.
Isaiah begins by identifying the servant as teacher, and Jesus is understood to be, first of all, a teacher. He is addressed on multiple occasions in the Gospels as Teacher or Rabbi. We know him in his teaching role, sharing the news of God’s realm through parables (synoptics) and through sermons (John). As a teacher, Jesus offers a word that sustains and uplifts the weary. Not only does he teach, but Jesus faces opposition and oppression.
The servant, whether Second Isaiah, Jesus, or some other entity has the “tongue of a teacher,” so that he can sustain the weary. This teacher is wakened by God morning by morning, so that he can listen “to those who are taught.” As we meditate on this word, thinking first of the prophet and then of Jesus, might we also think of those called to the teaching/preaching ministry? The “tongue of a teacher” might be seen as a spiritual gift. To be effective, we who are called to such ministry would be well served by listening to those who are taught. That is, if a word is to be shared that will sustain the weary. But, while it is necessary to listen to those who are being taught, let us remember that it is the LORD who opens his ear. Thus, we listen not only to the people, we also listen for the voice of God, for that is where the word will derive. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out:

Those who speak need to be excellent listeners, to God and to those to whom they speak. We need an open ear when we listen to God in our prayers, in our studies, and in our attempts to live out in word and deed the faith that is ours. Too often in prayer all we do is talk. There is a Jewish saying that study is a higher form of worship than prayer, because in studying we listen to God while in prayer, the only thing about us that is open is our mouths. [Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Old Testament, p. 39].

As this is Passion Sunday, the teacher in question is Jesus. He is the one with the open ear, listening to the people and to God, bringing to us a word that sustains the weary. That those called to the preaching/teaching ministry are given the same task, requires of us that we look to Jesus for guidance and as an exemplar.
The teacher (the prophet) listens to the people and to God. He does not turn his back on God, and yet not everyone is ready and willing to hear his teaching. He commits himself to bringing a word that sustains, but instead of this word being received, he is humiliated. His back is struck and his beard his pulled out. It’s understandable, in light of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, why this passage would be chosen for Passion Sunday. Jesus is, after all, a teacher, who listened to the voice of God and shared God’s word with the world, not all of whom were willing to receive it. He was flogged and beaten and humiliated.
The word that is often necessary isn’t a word easily received. Words of judgment and words that call us to account for our actions are difficult to hear. We might resist. Prophets are often rejected and even killed. Elijah fled the authorities and Jeremiah was kidnapped, just to name a couple of possibilities. David Garber invites us to consider what it means to be “woke.” 

To borrow a phrase from the African American community that refers to someone who has become aware of our society’s injustices, the prophet was literally “woke.” If the church is to have the mind of Christ and the spirit of the Servant, it must also awaken to contemporary social injustices, while equipping itself to speak the truth about these injustices effectively. [Green, et al, Connections: 2 (Kindle Locations 3866-3869). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition].

 

If the word that is required will make people uncomfortable it’s no wonder that this calling is accompanied by suffering. While the cross isn’t mentioned here, we can infer it in the case of Jesus. It comes about after Jesus is fully humiliated, due to his teachings of the kingdom, a teaching that did not sit well with those in power.
This suffering is not endured for the sake of suffering. It isn’t sought out. The servant doesn’t have a martyr’s complex, but he is willing to endure the suffering because he believes he will be vindicated. Because the LORD helps him, he won’t be “put to shame.” The servant asks: “who will contend with me?” Where are the prophet’s enemies? The prophet invites them to confront him. He’s not afraid, because God helps him. God will vindicate him. So, who can declare him guilty?
As we approach the passion of Jesus, we will hear the story of Jesus’ humiliation, along with his suffering and his death. This is a central piece of the story that defines our faith. When they lay him in the tomb, all will seem lost. Or is it?  If we would turn to the words of Paul in his Philippian letter, a passage that is designated for the day, we will hear a word about Jesus emptying himself of his prerogatives of being equal with God, taking on the form of a slave, and being obedient to the point of death on the cross. That is the first word, but it is not the final word. Paul on to declare that “God so highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:5-11). Or, as Isaiah proclaims, “it is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (Is. 50:9a). With the promise that  “Vindicator is Near” let us begin the journey that is Holy Week.

 

Come to the Waters of the Lord – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3C (Isaiah 55)

Isaiah 55:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
55 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
*************
                The prophet whom the majority of scholars call Second Isaiah spoke words of hope to a people living in exile. The words of Second Isaiah are found in chapters 40 to 55, which means this reading for the Third Sunday of Lent comes from the closing chapter of that “book” (in the remainder of this reflection I will simply refer to the prophet as Isaiah). To live in exile is to live a life of uncertainty. You don’t have full control over your lives. The land on which you live is not your own. It can be taken from you in a moment’s time, along with sources of food, shelter, and employment. Though not mentioned here, Isaiah’s audience may remember that Jacob went down to Egypt with the promise of refuge from famine, but in the end the people were enslaved. At the same time, exile can be a time of soul-searching and self-discovery. Such is the case with the nation of Judah. In many ways the exile was a moment of refining the nation’s identity and its relationship with its God.
For a people who defined their relationship with God in terms of a covenant, exile proved to be a reminder that YHWH is not a geographically bound deity. God was with them in the land to which they longed to return, but God was also with them in exile. It is this God who calls out to them, inviting all who thirst to come to the waters and be refreshed.  Indeed, the invitation goes out to those who lack resources, inviting them to come and share in God’s abundance. Come and drink and eat and be filled. Indeed, come and drink even if you don’t realize you’re thirsty.  
 
                Lent is usually understood as a season of fasting not feasting, but Isaiah invites us to share in God’s abundance. This bounty Isaiah speaks of is both material and spiritual in nature. In both Jewish and Christian theology, the spiritual and the material are not separate realities. There is a temptation to embrace a spiritualized version of the faith, but the message of the Gospel is that God became incarnate. That is, the Word of God took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The early Christians resisted attempts to spiritualize the faith. They wanted to keep the two together.  
 
Asceticism is often product of an overly spiritualized faith. The body, the material, is considered a hindrance to the spiritual. So we should suppress it. Or course it is not inappropriate to fast. Moses fasted and so did Jesus. But Jesus was also known for sharing table, which means he wasn’t an ascetic. We may choose to spend Lent as a season of fasting, as a way of reflecting more clearly on our relationship with the living God, but as we do so we hear an invitation to join in the feast. Come and drink and eat and enjoy rich food, even if you do not have the means to pay for the meal. Come and join the feast. While you partake of this feast, lend your ear to hear the word of the Lord. Ultimately, it is this word that will be truly filling.
                The word given by the prophet is that God is faithful to God’s covenant. In this case the covenant partner is David, which hearkens back to the monarchy, when Israel dwelt secure in the land. By reflecting on David, we see the hope that exile will give way to the security that the Land provides. But the return to the security that the Land provides, the security that David symbolized, will come only terms set by God. Indeed, any glory that shall come to the nation will come from God. But before we get there, we need to acknowledge that we are thirsty people. Once we do this, we’ll be in a position to seek the LORD while the LORD can be found.
It is also important to remember, as Isaiah reminds us, that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. In other words, we are not God. We cannot control God. We cannot even define God in God’s full nature. We see and hear and experience only what God has revealed. The good news is that God has not left us without a witness. Indeed, Israel itself, even in exile, was a witness to God’s faithfulness.
The message of Isaiah 55 during this Lenten season, with its invitation to come to the waters and drink, is call to find refreshment, in the presence of God. We are physical beings, who require physical sustenance. But as Jesus reminds us, we do not live by bread alone (Lk. 4:4). There is more than one form of thirst, as Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman, with whom he spoke of the living water, that if one drank of, would never thirst. This is the water of eternal life (Jn. 4:7-15). Such things are, of course, beyond our full comprehension. To receive the abundance that is God’s there is need of faith, and faith involves trust. Trust requires a certain level of knowledge. We don’t just trust anyone. We trust those who have demonstrated reason to be trusted. Such is the case for Judah. It is the reason the story of the ancestors continued to be told. Such is true for us. We put our faith in God who is revealed in the person of Jesus, who by his life, death, and resurrection offers us a word off assurance that God is faithful.  So, come to the waters, and drink freely of living water.    
               

 

Called by a New Name – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2C (Isaiah 62)

Gerard David, Miracle at Cana (16th century)
Isaiah 62:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
*******************
                In a word spoken to a post-exilic community seeking to rebuild and create a new identity, the prophet, whom scholars identify as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 55-66), relays God’s message to the city of Zion-Jerusalem. The message is this: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”  In this message that is written using parallelisms we hear of God’s intense interest in the welfare of the covenant people of God who dwell in Jerusalem. The language is that of covenant, and the passage as a whole speaks of this covenant relationship in terms of the intimacy of a marriage relationship (even if it is couched in patriarchal terms).
In this scenario, God is the bridegroom, while Zion-Jerusalem is the bride. As the divine bridegroom, God has made a claim on Zion (and we might, perhaps, the whole people of Israel). It is clear that difficult times had preceded this announcement. Perhaps we could speak in terms of a prior divorce (exile) that involved a city laid waste and its Temple destroyed, while the leading citizens were taken away into exile to the faraway land of Babylon. The exile is now in the past, but it is still part of the people’s memory.  Memories of exile and displacement doesn’t dissipate quickly or easily. Congregations that have moved know this to be true. We might even think of the current age, where religious institutions struggle for survival as being a time of exile. We may wonder if there is hope of restoration. In this passage, Zion has emerged from exile, and has seen the covenant relationship restored. We can imagine hear the people who receive this word celebrating their vindication as seen in the rebuilding of the city (and perhaps the Temple as well).  Not only do the people of Zion witness this reality, but so do the kings of the nations, who bear witness to this vindication. As I pondered this message, I thought of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. While this passage is not one of the lectionary readings for the day, what the prophet describes is a day of new beginnings. The old is passed away, and the new has begun. It’s time to rejoice and be glad. Indeed, it’s time for a wedding feast.
                 This change of status is represented here by a name change, which is in keeping with biblical precedent. Throughout Scripture names get changed to reflect new realities. Such is the case here. Whereas once Jerusalem was known as “Forsaken” and “Desolate,” now the city shall be called “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” We know that some things get lost in translation, and that is in a sense true here. The meaning comes through with the translations, but we lose some of the poetics of the passage in this translation. When we look at the names in Hebrew, we see their rhythmic qualities. Thus, Azubah and Hephzibah become Shemamah and Beulah. Although things have been changing in recent years, when two people get married, it has been tradition for the wife to take the husband’s name. [See discussion by Julie Faith Parker in Connections, p. 181].And, when we name our children, those names often have some significance for us as well. They represent something about who we are. The name might be that of a friend or a relative, or a player of one’s favorite baseball team. I am named after my father. Sometimes we look at baby name books and pick out one that sounds good to the ear. Or, we might just want to break with conformity and choose something out of the ordinary. Whatever we choose reflects on our identity, and unless we change our names, we’re stuck (for good or ill).
Jerusalem got a name change due to the marriage covenant God made with the city. It went from “Forsaken” and “Desolate” to “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” If we understand the context of this word, we understand the power of this name change. It represents the move from exile to return. In marriage terms we could see this as a move from divorce to remarriage. It is a rekindling of a broken relationship. This is represented by the move from the city being abandoned and destroyed to be repopulated and rebuilt after the exile.  With this name change God affirms the reestablishment of a relationship with the people that had been broken, and thus a reaffirmation of the covenant God had made long ago.  
 
When we read passages like this, we will need to address the patriarchal background of the biblical imagery. At least in my circles, there has long been a move from patriarchalism, where the husband rules and the wife submits, to one of equal partnership. The move to mutuality in our interpretation of this passage will need to be done with great care so as not to either reinforce patriarchalism or miss important points of the passage. It is important to recognize the covenant language present here. It’s not the language of an equal partnership. God is the claimant, the protector, and the city is the recipient of this care, for God is like the bridegroom who rejoices over his bride. In this, the city is vindicated. The nations affirm God’s act of vindication.      
   
       
                As we ponder these words, we must acknowledge the patriarchal realities that stand behind these words, even as we seek to hear a word concerning our own relationship with God. We might, for instance, read this through the lens of liberation theology. God is the one who has stepped in and liberated the people from their oppressors. In this case it would have been the Babylonians. This is a hopeful word to those who struggle against injustice and oppression in our day. The covenant language that is present here also reminds us of the intimacy with which we relate to the God who will not remain silent, but who will vindicate God’s people. The word we hear is that we are called by a new name. We have gone from Forsaken to Marriage (Beulah). With that promise of a restored relationship with God our vindicator, we can join the festivities. After all, didn’t Jesus himself bless a wedding party? That is the message of John 2, where Jesus makes wine at the wedding in Cana! With that promise, may we rejoice in God’s protective presence, even as we refrain from embracing the patriarchal vision of marriage that is present in the passage.   


Picture Attribution: David, Gérard, ca. 1460-1523. Miracle at Cana, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46657 [retrieved January 14, 2019].

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Be Not Afraid. You Are Mine – Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Isaiah 43)

Baptism of Jesus – Jacopo Tinteretto (Cleveland Museum of Art)
Isaiah 43:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
********************
                This is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, a day on which we remember that Jesus came to the Jordan, was baptized by John, and in some form or another, heard God speak from the cloud, declaring of him: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased!” (Lk. 3: 21-22). In other words, “I have called you by name, you are mine!” This the word revealed to us by the exilic prophet we call Second Isaiah. The word here in this reading is addressed to exiles, who may be wondering whether God has forgotten them. The answer we hear from the prophet is no, God has not forgotten. Israel is God’s creation. God will redeem. So, be not afraid because you belong to me! 
 
                Other than a reference to passing through the waters, hoping the rivers will not overwhelm them, there is little that ties the text to baptismal waters. It might seem as if this is a reference to the Exodus, which gets connected to baptism on occasion, but there is little evidence here that Isaiah is thinking of the crossing of the sea. Nevertheless, maybe there is more here than meets the eye. Maybe it’s not the reference to water itself that represents baptism, but rather the claim made by God on the people. Consider that on the day of Jesus’ baptism, God made a claim on him. God called Jesus in baptism to fulfill his purpose as God’s son, the beloved. Is not the same true for our baptisms? Do we not receive a new identity as a member of God’s family in Christ?
When it comes to baptism, I’m a “believer’s baptism” adherent. Although I was baptized as an infant, during my teen years I was rebaptized. As I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I wonder whether or not God’s claim was first placed upon me as an infant, when I was baptized at St. Luke’s of the Mountains in LaCrescenta, California. That may well be, but to make sure it took, I redid my baptism in a creek at a summer camp. While I didn’t hear the voice of God speaking to me in either circumstance, I believe that in baptism God makes a claim on us, redeeming us, and making us part of the family. So again, what word does Isaiah have to say to us on this particular Sunday?
Contextually, these verses speak of a change of situation. Judah, otherwise known as Israel, has returned home from exile. The word the people hear as they experience this change of situation is “Do not fear.” That is because God has called them by name, declaring “you are mine.” (vs. 1). This is where the waters come in, along with fire. Both water and fire suggest dangers faced by the people, whether literal or metaphorical. Don’t be afraid when faced with flood and fire, for I am with you. I love you. I will not abandon you. I have ransomed you. This word ransom appears in the Gospel of Mark (Mk. 10:45) in connection with Jesus’ impending death on the cross. Here in Isaiah, the ransom involves Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba. The context is likely the defeat of Egypt by Cyrus the Persian king, that allowed the exiles to return home. In the context of the Gospels, Peter Stuhlmacher suggests that “Jesus was prepared to perform a ‘substitution of existence’ for Israel, or more precisely for the ungodly who were supposed to be handed over for Israel’s salvation in the final judgment” [Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, pp. 148-149]. In whatever we understand the nature of this ransom, it is clear that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a way through the water and fire has been provided, so that we might find a place to reside, and therefore move beyond the life of fear.  
 
If this is the word that emerges from Isaiah today, what is it that causes fear in our lives so that we need a word of assurance? I look around at the world in which I live. There are many challenges facing us. There is political dysfunction in the United States. Authoritarianism is on the rise globally. Climate change is becoming a matter of great worry. Then there is the challenge of migration, often due to violence in the homelands of those who are on the move. There is good reason to be afraid. Yet, in the midst of these challenges, we hear a word from the prophet: “Do not be afraid.” Having said this, the prophet is not saying that there is nothing to be afraid of, only that God has made a claim on us. Hearing this word of assurance doesn’t mean we ignore the challenges of the day. In fact, we should name them. We should get them out in the open, so that they can be addressed.
Returning to our context, which is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we hear this word from Isaiah. So, as we hear these words, we ask how Jesus’ baptism, and with it his call, inform our own self-understanding? How might his baptism support us as we face the fear-producing challenges of the day?  David Schlafer writes:

On this day, it is worth noting that he who went through fire and water for us began his ministry in a baptism of blessing—being named as cherished by the one from whom he came. The Gospel writer employs Isaiah’s words to describe, not the inoculation of Jesus from all possible fears, but the available antidote to them. For those “named as Christ’s own forever” in baptism on this day, in the presence of a faith family all bearing God’s name, this can be a tangible act of being identified and strengthened for going “through” fear.   [Connections, p. 164].

In his baptism, God declared Jesus to be God’s son the beloved. In our baptisms we too are embraced by God, drawn into the family, so that we might walk together, encouraging one another, knowing that Jesus, the beloved Son of God, is the Suffering Servant who has ransomed us through his own death, walks with us through water and fire. We need not fear, for we have been called in the name of Jesus, and therefore, in Christ, having been baptized, we have heard the voice of God say to us: “You are mine!”  Indeed, we have been created for God’s glory.  

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Gathered at the Light

Adoration of the Magi – by Joos van der Beke van Cleve (Detroit Institute of Art) 
Isaiah 60:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
60 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
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                It is the Day of Epiphany. The journey of Christmas, which began with the promise of the coming of Emmanuel, is coming to a close. We have witnessed the birth of the child born in Bethlehem of Judea (Luke 2), and now we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, guiding the nations to the child who reveals the light of God to the world. Yes, it is time to celebrate the truth that God has been manifest to us in the person of Jesus. Even when darkness seems to be closing in, “the star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light” (John H. Hopkins, 1857).
Epiphany, as a liturgical event, is connected to the visit of the magi (wisemen) to the holy family, who in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus are living in Bethlehem. We celebrate this story in the John H. Hopkins famous hymn “We Three Kings,” which tells the story of kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each holds great value and is fit for royalty, but they are brought to a child living not in a palace but in some non-descript home in the village of Bethlehem. In our Christmas pageants and creche scenes, the three kings or magi (as they are named in the Gospel of Matthew), appear at the manger along with shepherds and angels. It’s an easy merger of the stories, but Matthew’s version of the infancy story is rather different from that of Luke. Even Matthew doesn’t give us the number of magi, only the description of the gifts. But historical accuracy isn’t the point.
In Matthew’s telling of the birth story, the Holy Family is living in Bethlehem. It seems as if this is their hometown. Matthew knows nothing a census that draws the family from Nazareth in the north. They’re just there, when the magi (astrologers) show up in the neighborhood, having seen a star in the sky that they interpret as a sign that a new king of the Jews has been born. These Gentile seers go first to Herod, hoping he can give them some further guidance, and Herod learns that the promised messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 2:2-5). When Herod learns from his advisors the messianic prophesy, he sends them on their way, asking that they report back so he too can give homage to the new born king. Of course, after they follow the star to the home of the Holy Family and offer their gifts, they are warned to go home without reporting to Herod. For his part, Herod is infuriated, and orders his troops to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem, making sure that this rival is cut down before he can prove to be trouble. Fortunately, for the Holy Family, but not the other families in Bethlehem, they are warned to flee to Egypt as political refugees, which they do (reversing the Exodus story). That is the Epiphany story in a nutshell (Matthew 2:1-18).
Standing behind this story of the magisterial visit to the home of the Christ child is this vision from Isaiah. In what is most likely a post-exilic message, perhaps coming from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the prophet pictures the glory of the Lord rising and shining into a world that had experienced deep darkness. We see that darkness described in the previous chapter (Isaiah 59), where injustice seems rampant, and the people grope in the darkness, seeking a way forward, and that reality is reaffirmed in verse 2 of chapter 60. That is the context in which the prophet offers a word of hope. In verse three we’re told that the Lord will rise in the midst of the people, revealing God’s glory. Yes, the light that is God breaks through the darkness, as the “glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” The people may have lived in darkness, but God is now present, and with God comes the light that overcomes the darkness. Not only does this light shine into the darkness, but the nations are drawn to it, making their way to the source of light, even as the magi were drawn to the home of Jesus, guided by the star in the sky. 
 
If we’re to see this light, we’ll have to lift up our eyes and look around. That’s not easy when our eyes are attuned to the darkness, having groped around in that darkness. It takes some time and discipline to focus our attention on the light, having become accustomed to the darkness. The light, however, is good. It disperses darkness and reveals God’s vision of hope and healing for Israel and the world. It’s a message of hope and healing. Consider that sons and daughters will return home, perhaps ending the brokenness that existed in the community. For Judah, which had suffered exile, this promise of return is powerful and healing. With them come the nations, bearing gifts, so as to acknowledge the healing presence of God. The gifts, interestingly, include gold and frankincense, even as they come to give praise to God. You can see the connection here between Isaiah and Matthew.
As we contemplate this vision of Isaiah, we might ask what kind of light is shining into the darkness? Is it a powerful bank of lights that blinds us once turned on? Or is it subtler? David Schlafer, suggests that this light is on the subtle side, being “like the imperceptible dawning of the morning sun, like the slowly building brightness of a kindled fire.” He goes on: “As in other poetic oracles (see the text for Christmas Eve, Isa. 9:2-7), the reiteration in cadence of complementary images of darkness and light underscores the felt sense of God’s light rising slowly, imperceptibly, rather than in a burst of clarity coming all at once” (Connections, p. 146). It’s bright enough to be seen by the nations, but not so bright that it overwhelms. It requires, as in the story of the magi, an ability to discern the meaning of the light.
So what is the message of Epiphany for us? The Day of Epiphany rarely falls on a Sunday, and so only the most liturgically oriented traditions, which might meet on a day other than Sunday, will normally celebrate the event. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we held a service called the Feast of Lights, which included a post-service party that featured a cake (which may be why I remember it). In 2019, the calendar allows for the churches to once again observe this holy day in its full glory, celebrating together the word that God’s presence has become fully manifest in the person of Jesus. The story of the magi is often seen as a sign that the gospel will extend to the nations, to the Gentiles, as well as Jews. Isaiah speaks here of the light drawing to itself the nations, the Gentiles, so that all might experience God’s presence. The nations even come bearing gifts.
As we celebrate this festival, affirming the message that God’s presence is fully manifested in Jesus, whom Matthew pictures being born in Bethlehem, and to whom the nations gather bearing gifts, what forms of darkness do we confront? What is the darkness of our times into which this light from God shines? What does it reveal about our lives, our world, and God’s vision for us?  To name one, it might be the ongoing presence of racism in our culture, which influences so much of our social context and issues. As light shines into this reality, might we begin to see things differently? Might we even see ourselves differently. We can add to this list, of course. As we do, may we find hope for the present and the future in the light of God that shines into our darkness, drawing us to it, so that we might find a pathway forward into God’s new reality. In Isaiah’s vision the people will be blessed by material benefits, a sharing of resources, both exotic and basic, even camels. In other words, it’s time for a party!

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

I Saw the Lord – Lectionary Reflection for Trinity Sunday (Isaiah 6)

Marc Chagall

Isaiah 6:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: 
      “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
       the whole earth is full of his glory.” 
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

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As we move from Pentecost Sunday to Trinity Sunday, we find ourselves drawn into the heavenly realm (with the prophet Isaiah). While Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost the outpouring of the Spirit, Trinity Sunday lifts our attention to God in God’s fullness – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother of us All. As to what we are attending to on Trinity Sunday, theologian Joe Jones writes that “the doctrine of the Trinity is simply that set of rules and concepts proposed for understanding of the self-revealing God witnessed to in the Bible” [A Grammar of the Christian Faith, 1:151]. The Trinity, then, is the term we use to speak of the way in which we encounter the one who covenanted with Israel, who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and who empowers the church as it carries out its mission in the world. The idea of the Trinity is related to the Christological question. As Joe Jones puts it: “Everything pivots around the issue of the divinity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is not essential to the identification of who God is, then the doctrine of Trinity is unnecessary” [Grammar, 1:151]. While the first reading from Isaiah 6 does not mention either Jesus or the Holy Spirit, as a Christian I read this passage in light of my affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, the one whom Isaiah claims to see is the one Christians have understood in terms of our confession of the triune nature of God.

So, with that context-setting statement, we are ready to hear the word from Isaiah, the one who was drawn into the presence of God in the year that King Uzziah died (around 740 BCE). In the description of the vision, that prophet finds himself standing before the throne of God. The prophet reported “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.” Note the use of the term temple, which suggests that this is the location at which God is encountered. This is the location at which heaven and earth intersect. To make reference to Dr. Who’s Tardis, it is apparently larger on the inside than on the outside.

There is no explicit reference to the Trinity here, and yet the reading does draw our attention to the God Christians believe was incarnate in Jesus, and thus reveals to humanity the God who is unseen. In this vision, the unseen God is revealed to the prophet in the Temple, where the prophet sees seraphs (six-winged creatures) ministering before the throne of God. One seraph sings out: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” In other words, while the Temple is a meeting place, it’s not just the Temple, but the whole earth that is filled with the glory of God. This is a magnificent sight, for what the prophet experiences is the holy, the sacred. That makes the prophet’s response understandable: “Woe is me!” I too would feel overwhelmed by such a sight.

This is not just a theophany—an appearance of the divine—it is the moment of a prophetic call. The prophet is invited into the presence of God not for voyeuristic reasons, but with a call in mind. It is also moment of transition in the life of Judah. The king is dead, a new king is set to come into power. So, Isaiah will have as his ministry focus, speaking to the new king on behalf of God who covenanted with Israel. It’s a recognition that even the most righteous of kings need some prodding from God’s prophets. With this transition in mind, God calls out from the throne: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Standing there before God’s throne, the Isaiah hears the call and responds. I’m wondering, based on the nature of the story, if Isaiah is not in the Temple at the time of the vision. So, the calls goes out, and Isaiah responds favorably. While this is true, the account also reveals Isaiah’s nature reticence to take up the call. Before even hearing the call, Isaiah has declared that he is unworthy to be in the presence of God. That confession is true for most true prophets.

Isaiah has made the claim that he is unfit for the task: “I am a man of unclean lips.” That may be true, but the problem is taken care of when one of the seraphs attending to the throne of God takes a pair of tongs, lifts a coal from the altar, and presses it against Isaiah’s lips. If it is a live coal, as the text suggests, it would be burning hot. In this case, it serves as a purifier. Having had his lips seared by this coal, he no longer has an excuse. He has been made ready to speak for God (for that is the purpose of a prophet). So, when the call comes, he simply declares “Here am I, send me.”

The call has been issued by God, whom we name using the grammar of the Trinity. Isaiah has answered: “Here am I, send me.” That same call has been issued time after time, and with fear and trepidation persons have answered the call. This June I will celebrate the thirty-third anniversary of my own ordination. I too have felt unworthy of the call, but the call has been issued, and I have answered—though I cannot say that I experienced a vision such as that of Isaiah.

The vision of Isaiah is a reminder that God may be unseen, but God is not unrevealed. Isaiah declares “I saw the Lord.” The doctrine of the Trinity is an expression of what is revealed here. We confess that God has been seen in the incarnate one, in Jesus. So, with the heavenly beings, we can sing “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” We can add the refrain from the hymn: “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Robert Cornwall

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nBob is a  Disciples of Christ pastor, church historian, and author.  He currently serves as Pastor of  Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, along with an M.Div. from Fuller and a B.S. degree from  Northwest Christian University in Eugene, OR.  Bob has authored several books, as well as numerous articles and book reviews.   He currently edits Sharing the Practice(Academy of Parish Clergy) and among the books already published, he has a number of books that have appeared with Energion Publications — Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide, Unfettered Spirit:  Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, Worshiping with Charles Darwin, Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer and Ephesians:  A Participatory Study Guide, and Faith in the Public Square (2012). He’s also the author of Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015). For more on my books, see my Amazon Author Page:  amazon.com/author/robertcornwall.

 

Death Has Been Swallowed Up Forever – Lectionary Reflection for Easter B – Isaiah 25

Isaiah 25:6-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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                Easter celebrates the victory of life over death. We gather on Easter morning to declare in song and prayer: “Christ the Lord is Risen today.” We joyfully sing: “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won, the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!” Easter is a glorious moment in the Christian year, for it celebrates resurrection—God’s victory over death. As Paul reminds us, our resurrection is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. (1 Corinthians15:20)
                The Gospel reading for this cycle of texts comes from either Mark 16 or John 20. Mark 16 gives us a rather abbreviated version of the Easter story. It may leave us wanting more, which is why many will turn instead to John 20, which invites us to encounter the risen Jesus through the witness of Mary Magdalene.

Continue reading “Death Has Been Swallowed Up Forever – Lectionary Reflection for Easter B – Isaiah 25”

God the Vindicator — Reflection for Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50)

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Isaiah 50:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9a It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
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We have reached the penultimate moment in the Lenten journey. Christians, at least in the West, will be observing Palm Sunday, or perhaps Passion Sunday. I have always approached Palm Sunday with a bit of unease. After all, the triumphal nature of the day is fleeting. So, perhaps focusing on the Passion is more appropriate, even if we might regather on Friday to hear again the passion story. The reading from Isaiah 50, which forms the third Servant Song, has been read by Christians, along with the other Servant Songs, down the centuries as descriptions of the suffering Jesus experienced as he went to the cross. While the fourth Servant Song is the most revelatory when it comes to the Servant’s suffering (Isa. 52:13-53:12), this Song offers insight into his experience as one who was struck and bruised, but vindicated. In this reading for Passion Sunday, we hear this promise of vindication, making clear that the attacks on the servant are not the last word.
The prophet declares that God has given him the “tongue of a teacher.” That is his calling, but he is also a teacher who listens to the one who wakens him. The one who speaks is a teachable teacher, and this is important because the audience is not always receptive to the message. Therefore, the prophet tells us: “I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (vs. 5b-6). You can understand why the church has applied this passage, and other similar texts from Isaiah’s servant songs to Jesus. He was a teacher whose message was not well received by everyone. His opponents struck him, pulled at his beard, and faced insult and spitting.”
As we hear this message to the church in preparation for Holy Week, we should go behind the text to the original audience. That audience was likely the Judean exiles. Sometimes Judah itself is the Suffering Servant. In this case, it could be the prophet. The question is, should we focus on the suffering or the vindication? Christopher Seitz notes, following Claus Westermann, that this poem, and it is a poem/song, should not be read as a lament, but rather as a “psalm of confidence.” There is no complaint offered. Suffering is acknowledged, but it leads to a statement of confidence in the God who vindicates [“Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press), 6:436].
The prophet declares with confidence in verse 7: “The Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” The prophet, who has been called to teach the people, and has listened to the voice of God, has faced challenges, but because God is the helper, the prophet will not be disgraced or put to shame. Rather than be disgraced or shamed, the prophet is vindicated by God.
When read within the context of Passion Sunday, the reading from Isaiah is a reminder that despite the suffering that Jesus experienced, God vindicated him through the resurrection. For Israel, despite the suffering it had experienced in the Exile, it would be reconstituted. Israel would be resurrected. Taken together, Israel/Jesus are vindicated by God. Teresa Lockhart Stricklen notes that the while the Servant Community looks weak and defeated, “the power of the unseen God is at work to reconstitute that community and thereby reveal the power and purposes of the God of Israel.” Christians look to “Jesus on the cross, like Israel in exile, appeared to be weak and defeated, but God raised Jesus from the dead, thus again affirming God’s power and life-giving purposes” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, (WJK Press), p. 185]. The resurrection, like the reconstitution of Israel is God’s vindication. So, who can contend with those whom God vindicates and helps? If God helps, then who can declare Israel/the Prophet/Jesus guilty?
We can take this passage a step further. Rather than focus on the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant, we can ask the question of what it means for us to be servants of God, even in the face of resistance and persecution. How might we be the teachers who are awakened by God, so that we might share the God News, knowing that God helps and vindicates? Jon Berquist points us in that direction. He notes that when reading this in our Lenten context, we hear a word concerning our own calling.
Lent has emphasized confession, repentance, humility, submission to God’s will, and the desire to recommit one’s self to the work of God in the world. With these concerns framing our approach to the text, we understand Isaiah’s call to be servants and teachers, to sustain others while realizing that we are still learners ourselves, to live out our own vulnerabilities, to recognize that only God will save us from the persecutions and rejections of the world that will inevitably result from our commitment to God’s purposes, and to know that God’s salvation will come only through our persistence in the work of serving and teaching in the face mounting opposition. [Feasting on the Word, (WJK Press), p. 163].
Jesus faced his own tormenters, putting his face forward like flint. Israel did the same. Shall we follow their lead? The good news here is that we can go forth into Holy Week with confidence, knowing that God is our help. God is our vindicator. No one can stand against God, so let us stand together and move forward with boldness on the path set before us by Jesus.

Through the Fire- Narrative Lectionary, Advent 1

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 3,  2017

Introduction

If you grew up in church you knew two stories from the book of Daniel: Daniel in the Lion’s Den and The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace. You know that in both cases, a king  throws Daniel and his friends in different perils only to see them not the meet the fate that was intended.

As kids, such stories mezmorized us.  How could three men not get burned by the fire?  How could someone like Daniel not become a lion’s lunch?

This is an odd text to begin Advent.  We are waiting for the Christchild and here we get a story of a crazy king that’s mad that he is not getting the proper praise from his subjects. That said, this is a story that in some ways repeats itself in the birth of Christ when another crazy king is jealous that a tiny baby might take his place.  Advent is a time to not just prepare for Jesus, put to prepare for the one who is greater than any earthly ruler, even if that ruler thinks he’s all that.

We now hear a story of three young men who refuse to submit to the king, a king who sees himself as a God and a God that tells everyone including the king who is really in charge.  Let’s hear the story of Shadrach, Mesach and Abendego as the face the Fiery Furnace.

Engaging the Text

If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.

Daniel 3:17

Daniel is written during the exile of the Southern Kingdom.  Large chunks of Jewish society were taken from Judah and ended up in Babylon, ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was written the second century BCE, about 400 years after these events took place.  It was written when Antiochus Epiphanes ruled Israel and had outlawed Judaism in attempt to Hellenize Israel.  His rule lead to the Maccabean Revolt, which overthrew the Seleucid Empire and allowed Israel to be independent for a time.

But the story takes place in the 500s BCE.  Many of the Jews started to settle down, realizing they would be in Babylon for a while.  They started to take part in Babylonian society.  Among them were four young Jews; Daniel and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  All of them took part in the Babylonian government.  The Jews of that time decided for themselves how much of the alien society they would accomodate to.  For example, Daniel is always referred to by his Hebrew name (he did have a Babylonian name; Belteshazzar), but his friends changed their names to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Our text opens with the king deciding to make a statue.  The idea might have come from a dream that Daniel interpreted for him. Found in chapter 2, Nebachanezzar has a dream that he asks his diviners to figure out.  When they couldn’t, Daniel was able to step in.  The king’s dream was about a statue:

You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

-Daniel 2:31-34

Daniel explains what the dream is all about.  This dream should have given the king pause, but instead it might have made him foolhardy (if he wasn’t already). Daniel tells him the head of the statue represents the king himself while the other parts represent other nations:

“This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37 You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, 38 into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold. 39 After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything,[b] it shall crush and shatter all these. 41 As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay. 42 As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage,[c] but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.”

-Daniel 2:39-45

 

Some scholars think that Nebachanezzar only heard what he wanted to hear.  He might have heard that the head of gold represented him and then stopped listening to him.  This might have given the king an idea. The statue itself seems odd; it is about 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide.  It’s seems like more of an obelisk than a statue of the king himself.  That said, the text doesn’t really tell us anything that definitive about the statue.  What we do know is probably why he built the statue.  In this case, Nebuchadnezzar followed the tradition of Babylonian kings erecting statues that represented the king.

The writer of the text likes to use humor to show how absurd the whole mess is.  In verse 3, the writer talks about all of the officials that are called to meet with the king and it is an inclusive list that the writer notes twice.  Later the writer includes talk of the use of various instruments in calling the people to bow down to the statue. In both situations, this shows the diversity of the Babylonian empire.  It is large and diverse, including a number of different cultures.  But the joke is that even in all of this diversity, everyone has to be bow down to the statue.  Diversity is celebrated only in the context of conformity.

As said before, we have no idea if the statue represented himself or a god.  What really matters authority. It is the king’s authority that is at stake and failure to bow down at the sound of, name your musical instrument, carries with it the penalty of death. The issue at hand is who is “Lord,” Nebuchadnezzar or Israel’s God?

When people hear he sound everyone bows down- execept three people: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  The Chaldean diviners see this and point this out to the king.  Was this an act of xenophobia?  Probably, in the book of Esther, Mordecai angers Haman, the villian of the story for not bowing down to him.

Upon hearing that three men didn’t bow to the statue, the king is enraged- something that is considered rather common with Nebuchadnezzar. The king brings the three to meet with him. Nebuchadnezzar gives the three Hebrews an ultimatum: either bow down to the statue or get thrown in a furnace.  He then says something to the three that very well could be directed at God: “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”

Nebuchadnezzar is throwing down the gauntlet: he is the powerful one and no god can challenge him.

This is where we get to the kernel of the text:  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answer the king in a way that tells the king who is in charge (and it’s not him). They answer Nebuchadnezzar by using his name, not his title as everyone else does. They tell the king that their God is able to deliver them from the fire, but even if that doesn’t happen, they will not bow to the statue which they view as an idol. They will remain faithful to God, no matter the cost.  When they say that God might not save them, they are not saying that they doubt God.  They believe in God no matter what is the outcome.

The three men are thrown into the furnace, which so hot that even the executioners that placed the men in the furnace died.  When the king looks into see if the men are being burned up, Nebuchadnezzar sees not three, but four men in the furnace.  We never know if this is God or an angel or something else.  What we do know is that God is present with the three men in the fire. Indeed, fire in the Old Testament is sometimes associated with the presence of God.

The king orders the three men to come out and they do, with no smell of smoke or singed hair. Upon seeing this Nebuchadnezzar adresses the three as “servants of the most high God.” The king realizes, at least in this instance of the sovereignty of God.  Nebuchadnezzar had asked what god could save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He got his answer.

Conclusion

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

-Matthew 2:16

This is not the first time a king challenges God’s authority.  In Matthew, we see the story where a number of Wise Men come from the East to seek the Christchild. They ask King Herod where this king might be located.  This worried the king.  He probably felt this challenged his power and of course it did.  When the Magi learn that the baby Jesus is in Bethlehem, they go to worship him. The Magi refuse to tell the king where Jesus was and in response, he orders every boy under the age of two to be killed.

In a modern story, during the waning days of World War II, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to get the Vatican’s opinion regarding the future of Eastern Europe.  To which Stalin responded: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Stalin understood power. He had tanks and soldiers.  The Pope had none of these and wasn’t important.

In 1989, millions marched peacefully accross Eastern Europe to protest Soviet domination and in favor democracy. Stalin had his answer to what divisions the Pope had.

There are always powers that seek to replace God.  We are always tempted to give allegiance to something other than God. This temptation did not escape the Jews, remember the worship of the Golden Calf.

There is a saying that goes “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.”  Who rules in our lives? If we say God is Lord, how far are we willing to obey?  Would we be able to face our own fiery furnaces?

What we do know is that when we face those trials, God is with us, through the fire.

Christmas has to give an answer to those dealing with pain and unhappiness.  It has to tell everyone that God is here, with us, in the good times and in the bad times.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.