Category: Lectionary

Obedience to Whom? A Lectionary reflection for Easter 2C (Acts 5)

Acts 5:27-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

 

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

 

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                I woke up Easter morning to news that churches and hotels in Sri Lanka had been bombed with hundreds reported dead or injured. It wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to hear as I prepared to help lead the congregation in worship on Easter Sunday. My sermon offered hope of a new creation emerging from the resurrection. It was a good plan, but how do you celebrate life when the news reports suggest that death has once again claimed victory? Then again, Easter is rooted in a prior act of violence, the crucifixion of Jesus. It is with these competing images of violent death and God’s victory over death in the resurrection that we began our Easter season. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we respond?  

 

The Gospel reading from John 20 invites us to receive the Holy Spirit and believe the good news even if, like Thomas, we don’t have physical evidence. The first reading for the week, as laid out by the Revised Common Lectionary, points us to the Book of Acts, rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is the case through most of the year. Since my focus in this cycle of lectionary reflections is on these first readings, during the Easter season I will be taking up the witness of the Book of Acts. So, we find ourselves in Acts 5. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, in Year C, comes from Acts 5.

This reading from Acts 5 begins in the middle of a story. The Apostles have been arrested and imprisoned, but somehow, they have escaped, though the doors were locked, and the guards were at their post. To the surprise of the authorities, the apostles had gone back to the Temple and had started up preaching once again, just like before their arrest. Having been sent to look for the Apostles, the Temple guards took the apostles back into custody (without violence) and brought them before the council to be questioned (Acts 5:17-26). This is where the lectionary selection picks up the story.

The goal here, at least in the minds of the religious authorities, is to put an end to this nascent movement of Jesus followers, before it led to trouble with the Roman government. If the death of Jesus failed to suppress the movement, what would do the trick? Thus, we have before us what you might call a power encounter. Two forces are on a collision course. On the one hand there is the religious establishment and on the other there is this emergent religious sect that is flouting the rules and undermining the status quo.  The religious authorities demand that the apostles give up their preaching, while Peter and Apostles insist on preaching. As Peter puts it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It’s one of those “Here I stand, I can do no other” moments. Something has to give, and Peter shows no signs he’s ready to give in.

                Peter and the apostles turn this appearance before the religious authorities into an opportunity to share their basic message, as if the authorities hadn’t already heard it!  To begin with, the religious authorities were frustrated that the Apostles were placing the blood of Jesus on them. That is, the Apostles were blaming the authorities for the death of Jesus, and they didn’t appreciate it. Afterall, they were just doing their job of keeping the peace when they tried to shut down Jesus. They figured that if they dealt a deadly blow to the leader of the group, it would dissipate. So far, that tactic hadn’t worked, but they still didn’t want to be blamed.  

 

When Peter and his cohorts get up to offer their defense, they reaffirm this charge. Yes, the authorities were responsible for Jesus’ death, but they had failed in their mission to deal a deadly blow on the movement, because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Not only had God raised Jesus from the dead, but God exalted him to his right hand, making him “Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” They stood before the community as witnesses to this message and did so through the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to those who obey God. Remember the question—who should we obey?

If we read between the lines, we will understand why the religious leaders were concerned about the activities of this upstart sect. The religious leaders were essentially in the employ of the Roman authorities, who charged them with keeping the peace. They were supposed to be the buffer between the empire and the people (who weren’t all that keen on being part of the empire). As for the Apostles, they were doing anything but keeping the peace. They were stirring up trouble with their preaching and their miracles, all of which occurred in the Temple precincts. This was an area of the city under the control of the religious authorities, and they didn’t appreciate the activity that cast them in a bad light.  

When we read a passage like this, we must be cognizant of the danger posed by a passage like this, which has been used to target Jews. We can criticize the religious leaders without blaming the Jews as a people. It is important that we remember that the Apostles were themselves Jews. This was in reality a contest for the hearts of the people—the institutionalists or the outsiders. As an institutionalist by profession, I find myself uncomfortable at this point in the story. Where would I be in this story?   

Peter stakes out the grounds for debate with the declaration that they must obey God rather than human authority. The opposition position is given voice by the chief priest, who in this story is representative of alliances made for political expediency. So, what we see here is a common occurrence through history, especially in the age of Christendom that extended from the time of Constantine to the present. It may seem like we’re in a post-Christendom era, but not everyone has gotten the message. Thus, we continue to see such corrupting alliances emerge to this day, with religious leaders lining up to support the reigning political authorities. In the current context, we’ve seen religious leaders bow before the President, embracing his immoral behavior, all in the name of gaining access to power. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Billy Graham discovered to his chagrin that he had been compromised by his friendship with Richard Nixon. And, consider how the religious authorities in Germany got into bed with Adolph Hitler, and in doing so compromised their beliefs and abetted Hitler’s demonic program.

You don’t need a Hitler to be corrupted. We entangle ourselves because we may believe it will benefit us or we might even believe we can steer the authorities in the right direction. As one who is engaged with political leaders, at least on the local and state level, I have to be watchful about my loyalties. It is easy to get corrupted, and it’s good to remember that whatever benefits we accrue from these alliances are often short term in nature. If we look at the history of first century Palestine, the alliance between the religious authorities and the Romans did not prevent the destruction of the Temple. It pays, then to be watchful, no matter what the politics of the governing authorities might be.

So, we come back the declaration of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is not a call for disengagement. It is a call to be wary of corrupting alliances. The Apostles rejected the demands of the authorities, and as the verses follow note, the authorities exacting some pain and suffering on them, having them flogged. They might have done more, but Gamaliel suggested that they might want to wait and see if this movement fell apart now that its leader was gone, as had been true with earlier movements. On the other hand, if its from God, you can’t defeat it. My sense is that Gamaliel figured that the movement would eventually collapse under its own weight. Why create more martyrs?  Of course, the movement did survive, so does that mean it is of God? What then will our witness be?

               

                 

 

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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.
 
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                “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].

 

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?
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                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.

 

Settling in the Promised Land – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4C (Joshua 5)

Underground Railroad Monument – Windsor Ontario
 

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

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                On the day the people of Israel left Egypt for the freedom that would come when they reached the Promised Land, they observed Passover (Exodus 12). It is revealed to Moses, that “you shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a day of perpetual ordinance” (Ex. 12:17). After the many years of wandering in the wilderness, and a passing of the baton of leadership from Moses to Joshua, Israel finally arrives in the Promised Land. Moses led them through the sea, across Sinai, and on to the river. That is where Moses’ season of leadership ended. Moses wouldn’t cross the river, for he represented the old. In his place, Joshua led the people across the Jordan and into a new future. The promise YHWH made to Joshua was: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1: 9). With that command preparations began for the move into the Promised Land.   
 
                The book of Joshua presents us with many problems, with the idea of conquest standing at the very center. Israel might be a wandering people, just like their ancestor Abraham, looking for a place to put down roots, but the land which they were about to enter was already inhabited. It should not surprise us that the inhabitants of the land wouldn’t be thrilled about welcoming this new people into their land. Such has been the feeling down the ages as people migrate from one place to another, often pushing the original inhabitants off their land, even as they a place to settle in and make a home.  Migration often means displacement for those who dwell in the land. It has happened before and continues to happen. Such is the narrative here. The people of Israel fled slavery only to invade the lands inhabited by others. Their invasion seems to be blessed by God, but you can understand that not everyone viewed this invasion in the same way.
Joshua rarely makes an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary, this reading from Joshua 5, as brief as it is, is one of those appearances. The problematic nature of the Conquest makes Joshua a book easily omitted, and yet here in this passage we see the culmination of the exodus from Egypt. At the same time, we must not forget that this invasion led to displacement and death for those who resided in the land God is said to give to the people of Israel.  Again, we are reminded that Scripture, though Sacred and normative for our faith journey, requires careful discernment so that we might a word from God from its pages.
Keeping in mind the challenges posed by the Book of Joshua, we can attend to this brief excerpt from the story concerning the arrival of the people in a land where they could finally stop wandering and put down roots. I think we can understand why this might be desirable. Consider the refugees of our age. The Palestinian people for one, but they are not alone. Those who have been migrating north from the violence of Central America also come hoping to find a place to put down their roots.
In the verses we read just prior to this passage, we’re reminded that a new generation has arisen, the people who left Egypt forty years earlier having now passed on, along with Moses and Aaron and Miriam. Those who left Egypt had been circumcised before their departure, but according to the text, no circumcisions occurred during the journey. Joshua rectified that situation, marking the people (men) as members of the covenant people through circumcision. With this act, we’re told, the “disgrace of Egypt” was removed. As a result, Joshua named this place where the men of Israel were circumcised was called was Gilgal (Josh 5:2-9). While the reference to the disgrace of Egypt, which has been rolled away by God, is somewhat ambiguous. It is possible that with the crossing of the river into the Promised Land and the act of circumcision, the last vestiges of slavery were removed. Now, having arrived in the Land, they could finally breathe easily. The time of wandering was over. They could settle in and plant themselves.
Egypt was removed, sets the stage for the next act in the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Even as the journey out of Egypt began with the celebration of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so the celebration of arrival in the Promised Land involves the celebration of Passover, which was to be kept in perpetuity. So, while encamped at Gilgal, before the conquest of Jericho, the people celebrated Passover (on the fourteenth day of the month). It is said that the day after Passover, “they ate the produce of the land.” Now it doesn’t say that they planted crops and then harvested them. They hadn’t been in the Land long enough to plant crops and grow them, so they must have taken them from their new neighbors. The meal apparently involved unleavened bread and parched grain. Nothing is said of lambs or any other meat. When we think of Passover, we should probably not think in terms of the modern form that some of us have experienced. That form came much later, though it is rooted in ancient practices. With the celebration of Passover, however, the story comes full circle. The people have experienced deliverance and liberation and are free to make a new life in a new land.   
 
There is another important element in this story, which reminds us that the time of wandering has ended. Now that they have crossed the river, they can now begin to provide for themselves. So, God brings an end to the provision of manna, the bread of heaven. As John Wesley puts it:

The manna ceased – Which God now withheld, to shew that Manna was not an ordinary production of nature, but an extraordinary and special gift of God to supply their necessity. And because God would not be prodigal of his favours, by working miracles where ordinary means were sufficient. The morrow – That is, on the seventeenth day.  [Wesley’s Notes].

Now that they were in the Land, a reality marked by the celebration of Passover, the extraordinary gave way to the ordinary.  Such is the way in which we live, with the ordinary being sufficient. With this provision of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, we can give thanks to God.
                With Fred Pratt Green, we can sing
In the just reward of labor, God’s will is done;
in the help we give our neighbor, God’s will is done;
in our worldwide task of caring for the hungry and despairing,
in the harvests we are sharing, God’s will is done.   
[“For the Fruit of All Creation,” Chalice Hymnal, 714].
Amen

 

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.    
               

 

Trust in the Lord and Live Abundantly – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 6C (Jeremiah 17)

Jeremiah 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
10 I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
**************
 
                Having encountered the calls of first Jeremiah and then Isaiah to their respective prophetic ministries, we now turn to the word of the Lord, given to us through the prophet Jeremiah. He calls on us to our trust in God and not in our own strength. Trust is the key word. In whom or in what do you put your trust? Is it God? Or is it someone or something else? By trust we do not mean belief but commitment. To whom will you commit yourself? There are consequences attached to our choices.
Jeremiah’s message was one the kings of Judah found difficult to hear and abide. The same was true of the general populace. As for the kings, perhaps it takes a bit of hubris to be a leader, especially a national leader. As such, there is a human tendency to trust in one’s own strength. However, this can prove disastrous, as the kings of Judah discovered. The invitation is to put our trust in God, but you don’t have to be a king to find this to be difficult. It can be difficult even for devout people of faith. I will admit this being true for me, as a pastor of a church. Don’t worry, I’ve got this!  But remember, choices have consequences.
Putting your trust in God sounds good, but is it practical?  In answer to that question, we raise armies and build walls. We do this, hoping to protect ourselves, because how can really trust a God whom you cannot see? As it turned out, when it came to Judah, Jeremiah was correct. Disaster would come Judah’s way. Jerusalem would be destroyed and with it the Temple. The leading citizens would be carted off to Babylon, where they would live in exile for a couple of generations. Yes, the heart is devious, but what takes place in the mind and the heart can’t be hidden from the Lord. Maybe we know this (I think we do), but we ignore the fact!
 So, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Their fate will be difficult. They will be like a shrub in the desert. I’ve watched enough nature programs to know that there is life in the desert, but it is not an easy life. You have to be hardy to survive. This past summer, my son and I drove across a couple of deserts in our trek west. This wasn’t my first desert crossing, but it’s the most recent. The vision of small shrubs and scrub brush covering the desert floor is fresh in my mind. These bushes hug the ground hoping to find sufficient moisture in the ground to survive. In Jeremiah’s vision those who trust in human strength are like that desert shrub, which holds for dear life.  
 
Jeremiah offers a contrasting vision to the desert shrub. This second simile speaks of a tree planted by the waters. The tree has a steady source of nourishment, so it doesn’t fear the possibility of drought. When a drought comes, it has the ability to draw moisture through its deep root structure. The result isn’t just survival, but the ability to continue producing fruit. Again, I’ve watched plenty of nature programs, so I know that when trees have access to water they flourish. Water is the essence of life. It is the key to abundant life.
Such is the case for us when we put our trust in God.  That is, when we put our roots down into soil that is able to draw from the waters. When I hear these words of Jeremiah concerning to tree planted by the water, I think of Jesus offering living water to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:10-16). If we draw upon this water, we will never thirst again. Now, we needn’t wait for Jesus to offer us living water. Jeremiah also speaks of living water. All we need to do is move down a few verses in chapter 17. Then we will hear Jeremiah declare on behalf of God: “O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord” (Jer. 17:13). With that declaration concerning the fountain of living water, Jeremiah prays: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my praise” (Jer. 17:14).
This is the good news. Put your trust in God. Put down roots so you can tap into the living water. Then, as Jesus reminds the woman at the well, you will never thirst again. It is the reason why, people came to Jesus seeking healing (Luke 6:17-19). 
 
Unfortunately, the heart is devious, or as James Howell translates it, the heart is “fickle” [Feasting on the Word, p. 341]. Yes, we are a fickle lot, and so we find it difficult to stay true to the path set before us. We think we know the way to the water, and yet we find ourselves wandering in the desert, with no water in sight. If only we would put our trust in the Lord and sink our roots down by the riverside, so that we might find nourishment, then we will thrive. That is, we will bear fruit, even when drought comes our way. But we have to let go, and that’s not easy.  
 
The passage seems to hold out a vision of divine retribution – curses are pronounced – but perhaps it would better to understand this as a recognition that choices have consequences. When we put our trust in ourselves, we find ourselves in the desert, with no nourishment available to us. One of the consequences that emerges with this choice is fear. Yes, is given a chance to take hold of our lives. We see this in this time of our lives. As a result, we find ourselves putting up walls—some of which are literal in nature, but many more are metaphorical. It’s the latter that we need to recognize, and tear down, because there is no safety to be found in these walls. So, allow yourself to be planted by the waters, so you can flourish and bear fruit.
The question then is: in whom will we put our trust? Living as we do in an increasingly secular age, where traditional understandings of reality are set aside, this is not an easy question to answer. Yet, it is the one that Jeremiah poses to us. With the question posed, may we put our trust in the Lord, so that we might drink of the living water, and thus live abundantly and bear much fruit.

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.

Prophetic Callings — Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C (Jeremiah 1)

Jeremiah (South Portal, Moiaasic Abbey, France)
Jeremiah 1:4-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
 
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
 
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.
 
********************
                The prophet Jeremiah was born into the priestly caste. That he would a priest was a given. On the other hand, nothing about his birth suggested God would call him to be a prophet. Yet, that would be his calling. When the moment came for him to receive his prophetic calling, like other prophets, Jeremiah asks of God “Who? Me? Are you sure you got the right person?” That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but I think it captures Jeremiah’s initial response. He had no problem with the priestly calling, he was born to it. But the prophetic one was very different. It wasn’t something he expected, and if we read this literally, he was rather young when the call came. I’m not given to theologies that assume God predestines our lives in unchangeable ways, though I do believe the Spirit gifts us for ministry, perhaps from the womb. I do believe that even prophets, like Jeremiah, have the freedom to say no to God. On the other hand, it’s not easy saying no to God, especially when God says to you, this is what I created you for.  In the end, Jeremiah says yes to the call, though as is revealed in the book of Jeremiah his message didn’t make him popular with the governing authorities or the people. His counsel challenged the arrogance of the leadership. Indeed, just a few verses following this statement of call, the word of the Lord came to him, and he declared that “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”  God tells Jeremiah that the people will fight against him, but they will not prevail (Jeremiah 1:14-19).
                As we continue the journey through Epiphany, reflecting on the ways in which God is made manifest in the world, shedding light into darkness, it is appropriate to take notice of a prophetic call. According to what we read here Jeremiah the call came to Jeremiah when he was only a child. He would be called upon to speak words of judgment on his own people, though he would also offer them words of hope. While called to speak to own nation, his ministry would have a wider berth. He would speak to the nations as well as Judah. His calling comes at a time when reform was underway in the land of Judah. This was the time of Josiah’s reign. Josiah was one of the righteous kings of Judah. They were few in number, but they arose from time to time. Things were looking up, at least for a while (2 Kings 23:1-27). Unfortunately for Judah, Josiah died in battle, fighting against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:28-30). Things went from bad to worse after Josiah died. His son, Jehoahaz succeeded him, and as is often declared in these books of the Kings, the new king “did evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done” (2 Kings 23:32). From there one son of Josiah took the throne until Nebuchadnezzar stepped in, leading to captivity.
The time frame for Jeremiah’s ministry is noted in the opening frame (verses 1-3), which tells us the Word of the Lord came to the prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) and would continue until the time of the exile that took place when Zedekiah was king (587 BCE). Jeremiah didn’t accompany the exiles to Babylon. Instead he was taken to Egypt, where we assume he died.  
 
                Taking just the text before us, what we have is a word concerning prophetic (and perhaps ministerial) callings. In light of the season of Epiphany, this calling would be a manifestation of God’s presence. Jeremiah is called and consecrated to this ministry from his conception—when God formed him in the womb. We often take note of the word concerning God forming Jeremiah and knowing him before birth, while neglecting the reference to his consecration. Prophets generally were not consecrated. They were called and empowered, but consecration was something that applied to priests (and kings). It has to do with anointing, and in Israel’s case heredity. Jeremiah didn’t choose to be a priest, he was born a priest. Apparently, he descended from the line that goes back to Abiathar, David’s priest, and from Abiathar back to Eli, mentor to Samuel who consecrated David as king. That Jeremiah comes from the town of Anathoth is important for understanding his prophetic ministry, which takes a rather anti-monarchical position. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that his priestly line was itself in exile. Abiathar, who had been priest during David’s reign was sent away by Solomon, who backed Zadok (who unlike Abiathar had backed Solomon’s claim over that of Adonijah – see 1 Kings 2:26).
                Even if Jeremiah’s family didn’t serve in the Temple, we can expect that he understood what it meant to be a priest. He was born to that. His father would have informed him early on. He might have heard stories of Samuel, who as a boy apprenticed in the Temple during the priesthood of their ancestor Eli. He would have also been taught the story of his people, going back to the Exodus. He understood the covenant God made with Israel. That background would have informed his ability to speak for God in times of crisis. Having that background informed his prophetic calling, but the prophetic call is different than the priestly one. You’re not generally born to it. It requires a separate, unique call. A priest can be a prophet, but you needn’t be a priest to be a prophet. I wonder how that reality might be understood today. What might it mean to be prophetic in our context? Nevertheless, as we move forward, it would seem that Jeremiah operates not as a priest, but as a prophet.
                God has a specific word for him to share with the world: 
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
(Jer. 1:9-10).
Jeremiah was appointed by God with authority over the nations. He will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. That is, he will pronounce God’s judgement on the nations. However, he will also build and plant. This is Jeremiah’s message, throughout the book, which is often universal in scope. Yes, he will speak to Judah—rather strongly—but the message is much broader than simply the fate of Judah. This gives us a reminder that the God who speaks to and through Jeremiah is not a parochial god. This God is not limited by borders. After all, Jeremiah will end up in Egypt, while much of Israel’s elite will find themselves living in Babylon. In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, probably written from Egypt, he encourages them to settle down and make a life there, praying for the communities in which they find themselves. After all, they’re going to be there for a while (Jeremiah 29:1ff).
God may care a great deal about the covenant people, but God is also the God of the nations. God will deal with both as is appropriate. Jeremiah brings words of judgment, but also words of hope. After all there will be a new covenant, one written on the heart rather than stone (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is this promise of a new covenant that Jesus takes up in his ministry. While Jeremiah likely has the aftermath of the exile in mind here, it found echoes in the ministry of Jesus, whose own calling is celebrated during this season of Epiphany. We see this calling of Jesus, one that spoke not only to Israel, but to the nations, in the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-11) and in his baptism (Lk. 3:21-22). In the reading from the Gospel of Luke designated for this, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus speaks of his own calling in terms of an anointing of the Spirit. While Jesus draws from Isaiah rather than Jeremiah, there is a similarity in their visions.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Lk 4:18-19).
And the Word of the Lord goes forth!
                As we hear this word, we who live millennia later might ask the question: to what is God calling us? What message do we have to share? The reading from 1Corinthians 13 invites us to inhabit the love God. Is this not our calling, at this moment in time?  Jeremiah doesn’t mention the love of God often, but this word is worth hearing as we consider Jeremiah’s calling and that of our own:

23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24).

Picture attribution: Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55363 [retrieved January 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moissac,_Jeremiah.JPG.

Celebrating the Word of the Lord – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3C (Nehemiah 8)

Nehemiah 8:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
**************

                The Nineteenth Psalm declares: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps. 19:7). On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, the first reading from Scripture comes to us from the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah describes life in post-exilic Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a child of those members of the Jewish community who chose not to return to Jerusalem after Cyrus ended the exile in the sixth century BCE. Now, years later, we lean that Nehemiah was serving as a cup-bearer in the court of Artaxerxes (r. 465-525). While in this capacity, he learned of the situation of Jews living in Jerusalem and Judah. Things were looking bad, and Nehemiah grieved over this situation. Then, he asked his patron if he could go to Jerusalem and address the difficulties facing the people (Nehemiah 1-2). In other words, he was asking permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, including restoring its walls and gates. The exile had ended nearly a century earlier. A Temple had already been rebuilt, but the city was still largely in ruins. Nehemiah believed he could do something about the situation, and he received permission from the king. In fact, he was sent home with the title of governor.

                The first reading for this third Sunday of Epiphany speaks of a ceremony in which the people gather to renew the covenant between the people and God. It occurs after the walls have been rebuilt. As the people gathered at the Water Gate, the people asked that Ezra, the priest, who according to the Book of Ezra had also received permission from Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7), read from the Book of the Law of Moses. So, the gathered people— “men and women and all who could hear with understanding”—listened intently as Ezra read from the “book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.” It is this law of the Lord that the Psalmist declares to be perfect. Therefore, on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra read from the book of the law. He began reading early in the morning and continued until midday. According to the story before us, “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” For hours upon hours, the people listened attentively to the reading of the Word of the LORD.

                The lectionary leaves out verse 4, which includes a listing of all those who stood with Ezra as he read the Word of the LORD to the people. This group of people served as witnesses to the message. For continuity sake, I have included the omitted verses, but have italicized them.

                In verse 5 we have what looks like a repeat of what has already come to pass. Ezra is standing on the platform when he opens the book in front of the people. When he opens the Book of the Law, which is probably in the form of scrolls, everyone rises to their feet. There is a tradition in some churches to rise for the reading of Scripture. It is deemed to be a sign of respect and honor to the Word of God. I believe that at least some faith communities with this practice point to this event in the life of the people of Judah as precedent. This is again a reminder that what is taking place at the gate of the city is an act of worship, even as the people are engaged in renewing the covenant God had made with Moses. We’re told that when Ezra blessed the Lord, the people answered him by declaring “Amen, Amen” as they lifted their hands, bowed their heads, and worshipped God with their faces toward the ground. Yes, hearing the Word of the Lord read in community is an act of worship. It involved their voices and their bodies. As we hear this word, we might turn again to Psalm 19 where the Psalmist, declares that “the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps. 19:8).

                Following this section of the story we encounter an omitted verse. Verse 7 of Nehemiah 8, like verse 4, includes a list of names. For readers of the Scripture these omissions are likely helpful. However, this omitted verse provides important information. We’re told that this group of people assisted Ezra in explaining the meaning of the Law. This is a good reminder that Scripture is not always self-interpreting nor is it so clear that anyone using common sense can read and understand what is being said. No, this verse reminds us of the importance of teachers of Scripture. This is reinforced by verse 8, which tells us that this group of assistants “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” We might want to use our imagination here to envision the assistants going out into the crowd and gathering smaller groups so that interpretation can be given. With this word, the section beginning in verse 5 comes to a close.

                The final section of the reading begins in verse 9. To this point, Ezra is the lead actor. He’s the own who reads the Law and offers initial instruction. Here in verse 9, Nehemiah, the governor, appears in the story for the first time. He joins Ezra and the Levites on the platform and adds his blessing to the event. Reading between the lines, it appears that as the people had begun to weep as the listened to the reading from the Law. Maybe they had begun to realize that they may have forgotten the core foundations of their faith. Now, perhaps for the first time, they are learning what the covenant entails. You might say that they felt convicted by the message.

It’s at this point that Nehemiah stepped up and began to speak. He told the people: “This day is holy to the LORD your God, do not mourn or weep.” This is not a time for sack cloth and ashes. This isn’t Ash Wednesday. This is Easter Sunday! So instead of weeping and mourning, go home and celebrate. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine. Have a party. If you have more than enough for yourself, share with your neighbor who is lacking in resources so they too can celebrate.

Nehemiah’s word to the people is a good reminder that holy days needn’t be somber. Some holy days might be somber—consider Ash Wednesday—but not all holy days require such an attitude. Some holy days require celebration. That is because “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”  As we face difficult times—as did the people of Jerusalem living in the 5th century—may we find our joy in the LORD, who is our strength! Amen!


Picture Attribution: Nehemiah in the Liturgy from a book of hours, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55356 [retrieved January 20, 2019]. Original source:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boise_State_MSS_122_2_crop.jpeg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert 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.”
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                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.

 

A Joyous Homecoming – Lectionary reflection for Advent 3C (Zephaniah 3)

Zephaniah (18th century Russian icon) 

Zephaniah 3:14-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

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When you read this Psalm you almost get the sense that Zephaniah has Judah’s return from exile in Babylon, but Zephaniah’s ministry dates to the time of Josiah in the seventh century BCE, just prior to the exile in Babylon. While it’s possible that this song dates from the post-exilic period and was added to the earlier words of Zephaniah, it fits the earlier period just as well. Whether a celebration of a return from exile or national revival, it invites us to rejoice that God’s judgments have been removed and God is ready to renew the people in love. So, let us rejoice and be glad in the Lord our God!
We hear these words from Zephaniah as we continue our journey through Advent to the revealing of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. The opening season of the Christian year, Advent serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the promises made. Thus, as we gather for Advent worship, we take hold of those promises that inspire and encourage us along the way. Advent is, of course, an eschatological season. It looks forward to the ways in which God will act on behalf of the people—thus the warrior imagery here.
For a nation like Judah, which stood on the road connecting the powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, it often “hosted” armies seeking to expand their domains at Israel’s expense. Thus, they must entrust themselves to God’s care. There is a word here in verse 19 that declares that God the liberator will deal with oppressors, save the lame, and gather the outcast. Those on the margins will “change their shame into praise.” Of course, it should be noted that much of the book of Zephaniah is a rebuke to Judah, but not here. At least, here Zephaniah, looking forward, perhaps with Joshua’s reforms in mind, envisions a different, purified nation, that will celebrate God’s presence. In the verses just prior to the song, we hear the prophet speak of the remnant of Israel that will seek refuge in the name of the Lord and will “do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid” (Zeph. 3:12-13).
Taken by itself, upon reading this song of joy, you would never know that Zephaniah had pronounced judgment on Judah. There is the reference to judgments rescinded, but the nature of the crimes isn’t laid out. More likely we take hold of the opening lines, which invites us to sing the Lord, with songs of joy and exultation. Perhaps the song celebrates a new reality, in which Judah has heeded the call of the prophet and reformed its ways. Thus, it would appear, that Judah has taken steps to change their ways. They’ve heard the pronouncements and have reformed their ways. Thus, we can see the connection to the reforms of Josiah that returned appropriate forms of worship and decorum to the Temple, and proper behavior among the people. This leads naturally to a call to rejoice in the Lord. Even as we see signs that behavior changed, there is also the recognition that God is acting on behalf of the people. Again, it is good to remember that Judah was a small nation that sat between dueling empires, thus this little kingdom was a valued vassal, not for its treasures, but for its strategic location. The nation was constantly needing to shift loyalties, but for Zephaniah, there is only one loyalty to be considered, that is the loyalty to God, the protector, the warrior.
Placing this song into the season of Advent, we can see how it connects with the day of joy. So, Zephaniah joins Paul with a song of joy, as Paul invites the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). Though in Luke, John the Baptist is warning the crowds to be baptized, so maybe he is where Zephaniah was before the song was written! (Luke 3:7-18). There is, therefore, a connection in the season of Advent between the call for repentance and change and the invitation to rejoice in God’s presence.
So, what does Zephaniah have to say to us? How might we move into a position of joy? It would seem that this would require accepting God’s judgment, if we are to move into God’s new vision. If we fail to heed those calls to change our behavior, we will make the call to rejoice rather shallow. So, we might want to hear this reading with the caravan at the border in mind. Why, we would be wise to ask, have thousands of Central Americans lined up at the border seeking asylum? What might be the cause of the disruptions of life in Honduras and Nicaragua. How might situations on the northern side of the border, have contributed to the frustrations and distress, where parents fear the power of gangs that originated in the United States. Perhaps, we can start, as Seth Moland-Kovash suggests, by praying “in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world who do experience the world in ways much more like the experience of Zephaniah’s hearers. We pray for an end to all disasters and conflicts, and we trust in God’s promise for restoration” [Feasting on the Word, p. 55]. When we pray in solidarity, then it’s possible for us, whose situation is very different, to experience God’s restoration in our own situations. At the same time, it’s important to remember that this word of judgment is issued within a broader offer of mercy. Remember that Zephaniah sings that God has taken away the judgments placed on Judah. The same would be true for us.
When we are burdened with guilt, feeling that we must clean ourselves up first, before we come to God, will leave us in the dust. Yes, John called out the “the brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy, he also offered them an opportunity to start afresh in baptism. It is God’s offer of forgiveness that leads to joy. As Alan Gregory notes, “though God has not taken back a word of the condemnation, God’s grace exceeds the condemnation in the healing powers of renewal” [Connections, p. 36]. This encounter, both now and in the future, will not leave us unchanged, but instead will allow us to move forward in God’s grace into a new reality, one of renewal, and thus a joyous homecoming. So “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph. 3:14b).

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.