Category: Lectionary

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.

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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.”
********************
                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.

God’s Righteousness Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1C – Jeremiah 33

Jeremiah 33:14-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

 
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                It is the First Sunday of Advent and a new liturgical year begins. This first Sunday in the Christian year is designated “Hope Sunday,” which is a good place to begin a journey. Advent has an eschatological dimension to it, in that it invites us to look forward to God acting on our behalf not only in the present but in the future. It invites us to put our trust in the God who makes and fulfills covenant promises. Many congregations, including my own, begin the journey singing the medieval hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” While the hymn references the exile of Israel, it also invites us to look longingly toward the coming of the Christ child.  But it doesn’t end with the coming of the Christ child. That is a past event, and Advent continues to point us forward into the future. So, with this first Sunday we begin a journey that will takes us from anticipation to fulfillment in the coming of the Christ child, and then from there through the ministry of Jesus, his death, resurrection, on to the planting of a church that will bear the message of Jesus until that time when Christ reigns all in all.
                The word of the Lord as recorded in the first testament comes to us from the prophet Jeremiah. We can assume that this word is addressed to exiles living in Babylon. Although this word is addressed to both the people of Israel and Judah, Israel had long since disappeared from history, having been rooted out by the Assyrians in the eighth century. Jeremiah offers words of encouragement, reminding the people that God fulfills God’s promises, and the promise that is put before us concerns the time when “a righteous Branch” will “spring up for David.” As one might expect among a community of exiles who have watched as their nation has lost everything, including its leadership, there is the hope that life will return to normal. That things will go back to the way things were when the nation was at least theoretically independent. The only way for that to occur would be to see a member of the royal family restored to the throne of Judah. That is, there is an expectation that a member of the Davidic line will emerge, take the throne, and in that role will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This would be good news!
                The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent in Year C is taken from Luke 21. In this reading we hear Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms of the day God’s reign will be fully revealed. In this reading Jesus calls on the hearer to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Lk. 21:34-35). The message of Advent is always one of being prepared and being alert for the day of the Lord is ever at hand. That was Jesus’ message, and it was Jeremiah’s. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah offer a timetable, only a promise that the realm will come, and with it will come justice.  
 
                As we read Jeremiah today, in what some call a post-Christian age, when the church’s cultural dominance is diminished, what word do we hear? There are some who seek to “make the church great again,” by reclaiming cultural dominance. We see this in practice during this Advent/Christmas season by the demand made that retailers great customers with “Merry Christmas,” as well as demands that city halls place creche scenes on their front lawns. During other months of the year, we hear calls for restoring prayer and bible reading in schools. Some even want to make the McGuffey Reader of the 19th century the standard educational curriculum. Is this what Jeremiah has in mind for us? Is this the day when the Lord will be our righteousness? While, it’s true that the exiles desired to return to life as it was before exile, is this God’s vision? When we read books like Ezra and Nehemiah, we see attempts made in the post-exilic period to return to normal, by rebuilding Temple and city walls, while attempts are made to keep the community pure (Ezra’s call to put aside foreign wives—Ezra 9). While Zerubbabel was a Davidic descendant and the center of hopes of David restoration, he served only as a governor appointed by a Persian king (Haggai1). I’m not sure that either Zerubbabel or any other governor fulfilled the promise, but the promise remained.
The Christian community has taken it up, affirming that Jesus is the true son of David, and thus the righteous branch, who will bring justice and righteousness to the land. This is the vision that drives the Christian message. Jeremiah likely had a return to the land of the ancestors in mind, when he spoke these words. Jesus, on the other hand, at least in Christian theology, has a larger frame of reference that a return to the land of the ancestors. For Jesus the vision of the future involves the revelation and inauguration of the realm of God. This eschatological realm is marked by God’s justice and righteousness. As we gather for worship in Advent, we are confronted by this larger vision of God’s realm. Out of that vision comes the question of how we, the people of God, called together in the name of Jesus, can embody the justice and righteousness of God. This embodiment can take a variety of forms, but all reflect God’s love for all creation. This might involve both those first responses, taking care of immediate needs, like providing food and shelter, but ultimately it involves pursuing systemic change, so that the vision might be fulfilled.
With this invitation in mind, we begin the journey of Advent, moving toward the celebration of the birth of a child who was, at least temporarily, a homeless refugee.    

Picture attribution: Tree of Jesse, a Bavarian ivory panel., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=27238 [retrieved November 26, 2018]. Original source: Wikimedia.

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 Soul Poured Out -Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 26B (1 Samuel 1)

1 Samuel 1:4-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” 
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

 

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

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                The Revised Common Lectionary takes us from the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who would be ancestor to King David (and by Christian extension ancestor of Jesus) to the story of Samuel, who would anoint Saul and then David as kings of Israel, after serving a lifetime as priest and judge in Israel. One story line that runs through Scripture is that God has a special concern for the one who is for whatever reason marginalized. That includes women who are unable to conceive in cultures that prize a woman’s ability to bear children. To be barren was considered cursed, or at very least a subject of shame. We see this with Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Moving into the New Testament there is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In each of these stories, God intervenes, and takes away a woman’s “shame” as a child is born who will be used by God to further the biblical story.  But what about those women who do not share in this relief?
                Here in 1 Samuel 1, we encounter Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah (remember that there is no one biblical marriage pattern and that polygamy was common), who is beloved of her husband, but who suffers the ignominy of experiencing the reality that in the words of Scripture, “the Lord closed her womb.” Despite her husband providing her a double portion of his Temple offerings during their annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh, because he loved her, that doesn’t seem enough. This is due in part to the fact that Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, would constantly provoke her, causing Hannah great irritation, and no doubt deep pain, reminding her of her shame as one who was considered barren. While Hannah’s story might differ from many modern versions of infertility, it might resonate with those who struggle with difficulties conceiving. As Rich Voelz notes in his book Tending the Tree of Life, a book on preaching emerging out of the struggles he and his wife had at conceiving a child, the church often struggles to provide words of comfort and encouragement in the face of infertility and reproductive loss. In his book he seeks to break up “the silences and unhelpful practices that make people like me feel as if we are the shadows of faith communities, and to begin moving individuals, families, and communities of faith toward better understanding, healing, wholeness, and faithfulness” [Voelz, p. 8.].  
 
                In our day, a couple might go to stead of going to a fertility specialist, but Hannah goes to the Temple at Shiloh to pray. We’re told that “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” Note that she not only cried out to God in prayer, but her prayers were accompanied by bitterness. There is frustration inherent in this prayer. There is a feeling of injustice. She wants vindication. That vindication, in her mind, involves conceiving and bearing a son who would redeem her in the eyes of her rival and perhaps her husband (even though he professes his deepest love, she is not ready to accept this reassurance). Here is her prayer:

“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam. 1:11).

If God will remember her, she will offer her son up to God as a nazirite; as one who is wholly committed to God. He will not drink intoxicating beverages and he won’t cut his hair. Paul once took a vow like this, but only for a time, not for a life. Hannah promises that her son would take such a vow over a lifetime. I know parents like to live out their dreams through their children, but this might be taking things a bit too far, but her prayers are heard and affirmed.
                As she prays in the temple, Eli the priest overhears her prayers, but he thinks she’s drunk. Remember she’s crying out to God bitterly. So, what’s he to do with this hysterical woman. But she’s not hysterical, she’s in the midst of negotiating with God. She wants to make a deal with God. If God will answer her prayer, she’ll bring her son to the temple to be raised (I expect she made this promise before checking with Eli). It is a great sacrifice on her part, but in her mind her shame would be removed. As we see, her prayer is answered. Eli assures her, once he understands the situation, that she has been heard and that she will receive what she has asked for. The narrator tells us: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Yes, she went home, had a party with her husband, and she moved from sadness and bitterness to joy.
Once she returns home, we’re told that Elkanah knew his wife, which means they had sex. One thing leads to another, and she conceives. Why? Because God remembered. Yes, God kept God’s side of the bargain. As for Hannah, she names her child Samuel, which means “I have asked him of the Lord.”  The lectionary reading ends there, but the lectionary writers have assumed that we know that if God kept God’s side of the bargain, Hannah would do the same, and she does.  
 
As to what happens next, Rich Voelz notes:

The relationship between Hannah, Samuel, and Eli might be called a type of “open adoption.” Hannah is never fully out of contact with Samuel, bringing him a handmade robe every year when she returned to Shiloh to offer her yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 2: 19). Samuel becomes the one who is the mouthpiece of God for Israel and the one who oversees the establishment of Israel’s monarchy.  [Richard Voelz, Tending the Tree of Life, p. 80.]

Samuel will prove to be an important figure in the life of the people of Israel, thus the prayer of Hannah was fortuitous. While this birth will prove to be a blessing to Israel, we should not forget the challenge in life faced by Hannah, whose infertility placed a stigma on her. Having that stigma removed was important.
                As we ponder this passage, it is worth noting that the stigma can still be present in our day.  How might we as church break the hold of silence, so that persons, couples, families, who face infertility or reproductive loss know that God hears and responds? Eli was insensitive at first, and might not have been the greatest parent, but he does ultimately provide true pastoral care for Hannah.

Picture attribution: Malnazar and Aghap’ir. Hannah before Eli the High Priest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56672 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malnazar_-_Hannah_before_Eli_the_High_Priest_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg. 

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.

 

Who Do You Think You Are? – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

Who Do You Think You Are? – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

“The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind,” William Blake
Job 38:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
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                As we learned in chapter 2 of Job, the central character in this story (Job) is the victim of a wager made by God with Satan regarding the nature of Job’s righteousness. Despite being tortured, Job refuses to curse God, though it might have been the best thing for both him and his wife had he done so. As Jonathan Walton points out Job isn’t the only one suffering here. His wife had to watch as ten of her children died, the family fortune disappeared, and now she is left to care for her husband’s deteriorating body and spirit. He concludes: “When we look at the situation through her eyes, we might have more sympathy for this woman who looked upon her dying husband’s body and declared, “Please, honey. Just curse God and die” [Walton, A Lens of Love, p. 74].
The reading for this week from the Hebrew Bible is the third of four excerpts from Job. The first reading was the aforementioned excerpt from chapter 2. In the reading for last Sunday (Job 23), we find Job complaining bitterly about his situation. He doesn’t curse God, who appears to be the cause of his afflictions, but he does complain that God has chosen to be absent. This response on Job’s part followed a less than satisfying set of conversations with three friends who are also frustrated, though for them it’s Job who is the problem. If only Job would confess his unrighteousness things would get better. For his part, Job won’t give in. This will lead to another set of conversations with the friends, which leads to an angry response from a younger observer named Elihu, who is angry with Job for not admitting his guilt and with the three friends for not finding an answer. Elihu has his own set of defenses of God’s righteousness that extends from Job 32 through Job 38, where God jumps in and seemingly piles on.
 
                You must feel sorry for Job (and as noted, his wife as well). Not only is he the victim of this wager between God and Satan, but he must endure the critiques of his so-called friends as well. The reading from Job 38 brings God back into the picture. In fact, this is the first time God is going to speak since the early chapters. Throughout all this discussion between Job and his friends, he has been silent. In fact, Job bitterly complains of God’s absence (Job 23). Now God appears in the form of a whirlwind and seemingly demands to know why Job has the temerity to raise questions with God without having adequate knowledge. Before we get to God’s engagement with Job, I should take note of the reference to the whirlwind, which is a form of a theophany. It is a way of depicting God’s power and authority—storms always pack a lot of power!
Appearing in the whirlwind, God seemingly taunts Job: “Gird up your loins like a man.” If you think you know so much about life, let me ask you a few questions! Thus, begins the inquisition of Job. The lectionary spares us a bit by suggesting we read just the first seven verses of chapter 38. You can, if you wish, drop down to verse 34 and read from there to verse 41. I’m not sure it adds much to the conversation. Seven verses might be enough. Of course, God doesn’t bring this inquiry to a close in verse 41. No, the questioning goes on until in verse 2 of chapter 40, God asks Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Job meekly responds: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5).  With that response by Job, God picks things up and continues on until the end of chapter 41. Next week we get to hear Job’s answer, brief though it might be, in chapter 42.
 
                In the meantime, we have before us God’s questioning of Job. The questions start at the very beginning of the biblical story: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4a). Were you there when the creation of the earth commenced? If not, then you can’t know the full story of reality. Much of chapter 38 focuses on God’s act of creation, as well as God’s provision. It’s a bit unfair of God, don’t you think? What is Job to say in response? Of course, Job wasn’t there. Of course, Job can’t issue “an order to the clouds so their abundant waters cover you?” (vs. 34 CEB). And on it goes. Job isn’t suggesting he’s God. He’s just claiming to be righteous and faithful. I don’t know about you, but I think God “doth protest too much!” Or, maybe, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, it’s possible that God’s rhetoric is not angry but ironic. Drawing from their former colleague Gerald Janzen, they suggest that what God does here is “prompt Job to realize that God approves of Job’s questions.” At the same time, they note that Carol Newson suggests that God’s speech is a reminder that we “should honor the boundaries of our own knowledge and figure out how to live creatively within them.” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 159]. Thus, what looks like God shutting down the conversation is simply a redirection of it. Keep asking questions, even if there are no final answers to be found.
 
                Tone is always difficult to discern. It seems as if God is ignoring Jobs complaints and shutting things down, when God might be doing something else. Perhaps God is suggesting that the entire discussion of retributive justice that marked the prior thirty-five chapters or so might not be the correct conversation piece. Perhaps God is really rebuking the friends and not Job. As for Job, perhaps the answer is that somethings are simply unknowable. So, we must come to life’s situations with humility, asking questions, knowing that answers might not be forthcoming.
 
                We might not have been there “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” but it is good to know that there was joy at the beginning (vs. 7). J.S. Randolph Harris notes that in this response to Job and his “friends” God reminds Job and us that this “is God’s world, and not ours. Sometimes we need to hear that word.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 173]. But, even so, despite the vastness of the cosmos, all of which belong to God, Job 38 reminds us that God chose to speak to Job. Harris writes: “For all of our seeming inconsequence, we are the ones to whom God has spoken, the ones to whom God holds out the promise of conversation about the design of creation.” God doesn’t dismiss Job, but simply reorients his vision. [Feasting on the Word, p. 175]. This is valuable knowledge. Job might not have been there at the beginning, but he is part of that divine creation.

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He 10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nholds 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.

Saving Our Skins? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Saving Our Skins? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Job & his wife – La Tour
1:1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
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                Job was a righteous man from the land of Uz (wherever that is), whom Satan dared God to torment, to test his faith. God agreed to the wager, and as a result Job’s children were killed by raiding parties and his property destroyed. It was a sad day for Job, but he remained firm in his righteousness. He grieved but didn’t curse God. That’s the essence of chapter one of Job, though the lectionary includes only the introductory verse in the selection for Pentecost 20B. That’s because the focus is on chapter two and a second wager, this time involving Job’s own body. Will Job remain faithful with this twist in the story.
                As in chapter one, in chapter two of Job, the heavenly council gathers with Yahweh presiding. Satan appears once again before Yahweh, who once again asks Satan what he’s been up to. The answer is, “I’ve been traveling around the earth, checking things out, seeing what people are doing.” Once again, Yahweh asks Satan, what he thinks of Job. After all, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Did you notice God’s response? Job remained blameless and upright, even though Satan had “incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” God is rather proud of this man, whom God had allowed to be tested.
                I have always been intrigued by the story of Job. It invites us to think through our understanding of God, including God’s relationship to the world. In my theology, God is love, and a God who is love doesn’t go around messing people’s lives. Yet, that is the story, which should cause us to pause before embracing a literalist interpretation. In this picture of God, God is rather petty. God play games with a man’s life, by letting his children be murdered and his property destroyed, just to see if Job will stay firm in his faith. Job does, despite everything that is thrown at him. Job is righteous, but what about God? Is God so thin-skinned that God can be manipulated by Satan? It’s a question we must face, if we’re to hear this story.
                If we’re to read Job in a way that informs us theologically, we need to affirm at the very beginning that this fiction. The first clue ought to be Job’s homeland. Where is Uz? It could be Edom, but who knows. The picture of the heavenly court is also a clue, though it gives evidence of its rootedness in a pre-monotheist Israel. Whatever its origins, the book raises questions about our understanding of God, the nature of faith, and the challenge posed to that faith by human suffering. With that is our opening point, we need to also address this important character who appears in the early chapters, and that is the person of Satan. The character of Satan as depicted here is not the devil of human imagination. This is no figure with red skin, horns, and a pitchfork. This figure is more an informant, sent out by God, as would a king, to keep watch for rebellious activities. In this set of exchanges, Satan raises questions about Job’s piety. Is it based on living the good life, and if that good life is taken away, the piety would go away as well? It’s a good question, and whether we like the way the question is set up, it does speak to our own realities.
                In chapter two, when God asks Satan what he thinks of Job’s response to misfortune, Satan responds that this is to be expected. It’s one thing to lose your family and property. It’s another thing to have your own body afflicted. Isn’t it human nature to do whatever we can to save our own skins, even at the expense of those closest to us? That’s just the way things are. Jesus knew that. In the Gospel of John, we hear him say: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus will do that for his friends, but what about us? When push comes to shove, won’t we save our own skins? That’s the wager. So, God goes along with the wager, allowing Job to be afflicted, but not killed. Pushed to the limit, will he curse God?  That’s the question.
                Satan went and cursed Job, causing sores to appear on his body running from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. In other words, the totality of his body was covered with “loathsome sores.” He was miserable. He probably wished to die. But he remained firm in his faith. He did so, even when his wife suggested that he curse God, so he might die. Curse God and get it over with. That was her advice. But he refused. He remained firm in his faith, despite everything.
                Satan was wrong. Job didn’t save his own skin by cursing God, though Job’s wife encouraged him to do so. He told his wife that one should expect both the good and the bad from the hand of God. That isn’t a comforting word on Job’s part. It doesn’t fit with my own theology. It’s not that I plan on cursing God, but I am troubled by the idea that God would authorize the bad. God might allow something bad to occur, or maybe, just maybe, there are things God simply cannot do. Through it all, however, Job remains firm in his faith.
This response on Job’s part, his decision to accept his fate and not curse God sets up the next phase of the story, his encounter with his “friends,” who at first seek to comfort him and then as time passes, and Job won’t confess his sins, raise questions about Job’s righteousness. After all, isn’t suffering the result of wrong doing? So far, however, Job does nothing to warrant his suffering, if suffering results from wrongdoing. His suffering comes from a divine directive.
                The questions raised by the Book of Job are important ones. In some ways the Book challenges another strain of Wisdom Literature that presumes that blessing is a sing of righteousness and suffering is a sign of unrighteousness. It also invites us to consider the we view the divine-human relationship. Marvin Sweeney, a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible (and my son’s professor) at a Protestant seminary, offers these words of insight:

The book of Job deliberately presents the model of a righteous man who suffers with no apparent moral justification in an effort to force critical reflection on the issue. The arguments posed by Job’s friends concerning the meaning of human suffering and their assertions of divine righteousness even in the face of evil and Job’s responses to each of them are in fact the key issues of the book. The book of Job is intended to question the standard theological premises of the Torah and the Prophets, viz., is it really the case that observance of the divine will leads to success and peace in life? Is it really the case that the wicked suffer— and not the righteous? Is it really the case that G-d is just? Indeed, the final episode in which G-d affirms Job’s demands for an explanation for his suffering— even though G-d never provides such explanation— indicates that such a critical agenda is in fact the purpose of the book. In the end, the book of Job affirms divine presence and it appears to affirm divine righteousness, but the book also affirms the right and obligation of human beings to ask such questions of G-d. In this respect, Job points to and affirms a model of a human being in critical dialog with G-d.  [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11439-11447). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

                The door is open. Are willing to walk through? Are willing to enter a critical dialog with God, as Sweeney proposes? The lectionary moves quickly, jumping from chapter two to chapter twenty-three. We don’t get to see the dialog with the friends, but we do experience Job’s complaint, which is set up by this attack on Job’s skin.

Picture attribution: La Tour, Georges du Mesnil de, 1593-1652. Job and his Wife, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46621 [retrieved October 1, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

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.

Dancing before the Lord – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (2 Samuel 6)

Dancing before the Lord – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (2 Samuel 6)

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart 4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 
12b So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. 
17 They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
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                If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know that you must handle it with great care. Terrible things happen when you don’t show proper reverence, or you handle it with malevolent purposes (as in Raiders). It’s possible that Stephen Spielberg was inspired by reading from this passage of 2 Samuel 6. The “scary” part of the passage, of course, has been excised by the lectionary creators. It’s not very worshipful to hear how God got peeved with Uzzah, when Uzzah reached out to try and steady the ark. He meant well, but God didn’t take kindly to the help, and struck him dead. Apparently, David got a bit skittish about bringing the Ark any further. While he wanted to bring the Ark, which represented the presence of God, into the city, cementing his role as king over the entirety of Israel, he decided to leave the Ark at the home of Obed-Edom. There it sat until David got enough courage to bring it the rest of the way to Jerusalem, so he could set it up in its new home—the Tabernacle. It’s always good to remember that Solomon, not David, gets to build the Temple, so during David’s reign it sat in a tent.
                The reading from 2 Samuel is divided into two sections. Section one is the initial attempt to retrieve the Ark, so it can be set in the city. The Ark had been lost during a battle with the Philistines during the reign of Saul.  Apparently, the Philistines decided that the Ark caused more trouble than it was worth, so they let Israel have it back. Now, it could be placed in an appropriate place in David’s capital. At least that’s what David hoped would happen, when he went out with 30,000 soldiers to retrieve and transport the Ark to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, as noted above, the first attempt went badly—cue Raiders.
 
The second section tells the story of David’s decision to go and retrieve the Ark from the home of Obed-Edom. After all, during this intervening period when the Ark rested at there, Obed-Edom and his family were being blessed (that part is excised as well). When David hears this news, he decides he needed he bring the Ark in the city, so he could be blessed. This time David took more precautions so that nothing could go wrong during the transport of the Ark. There would be no ox-cart this time. Instead it would be carried to the city. The procession would include sacrifices, dancing, trumpets, and shouts of praise. David not only accompanied the Ark, it appears he the dances as the train of people made their way to the city. And all went well. David and the Ark arrived in the city. They safely placed the Ark in its new home—a tent that David erected. Everyone went home. Now blessings could flow David’s way.
                Everyone in the city seemed to be excited. Restoring national treasures is something to celebrate. David was happy. He had his Ark. Perhaps God was happy. But when he returned home, he discovered that not everyone was happy with the recent events. David was met at the door by his wife Michal, who was the daughter of Saul. She was scandalized by David’s dancing, believing he had revealed to much of himself before his “servant’s maids.” The thought is that the linen ephod, which was similar to what the priests wore, that David was wearing left very little to the imagination. Again, the lectionary selection ends before we get the full story.  and that he may have exposed himself to the populace. That embarrassed his wife, who was also daughter of Saul. Once they were in love, but time had passed. David had added to has harem. Michal was put off to the side. She gets a bad rap. After all, David was simply dancing before the Lord. But maybe we’ve been too harsh. Maybe Michal has a right to be concerned. The story goes on beyond what is set for this Sunday’s reading. Perhaps Michal needs our support. After all, her family is gone. She has been largely abandoned by her husband, whom she loved, but perhaps with an unrequited love. We usually give David a pass on his behavior. Yes, he could be a bit boorish, but he was close to God. Unfortunately, too many of those close to him, including Michal, suffered.
                The reason this passage is chosen for inclusion in the lectionary is that it celebrates God’s presence among the people. The Ark symbolizes this presence, which brings blessing to homes and cities. David had reason to be exuberant in his joy, but perhaps he didn’t consider the feelings of everyone involved. To David, the Ark had been placed in its appropriate spot. It gave him legitimacy and the city legitimacy. It was a sign of unification of a loosely connected community. David had religious motives, but political ones as well. As we ponder the text it might be worth considering which of these two motives held the greatest sway in his life. Granted in the ancient world church and state were more thoroughly integrated than today, but still, was David more influenced by his relationship with God or by his search for power. That question then gets posed to us. Are we Christians first or Americans first?
                As we ponder this passage, we might think about the symbols that speak to us. Which symbols do we consider sacred? The Communion Table and its elements are possible signs of God’s presence in Jesus. The cross can be a sign. The question is, when push comes to shove do we put greater emphasis on these sacred signs or on alternative signs like the American flag?
One further note, it might be worth noting that while the creators of the lectionary have omitted the section detailing how Uzzah gets zapped by God, we would be wise to make clear that such a vision of God is not healthy. If, as at least some of us Christians proclaim, God is love, then surely this act is not representative of God. That is not to say that we need to so soften God’s image that anger and wrath are no longer part of God’s personality is wise, it’s just that we need to be careful in how we depict God, because such depictions can influence our own actions.
Passages like this seem so distant from our lives. Yet, they are expressions of human experience. David was happy. His people were happy. They celebrated the presence of God. The question as always comes down to motive. We might rather explore a passage from the Gospels, but let us not forget that even passages like this can speak. It might even serve as an invitation to dance before the Lord (with all due modesty taken into consideration).
 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.

Picture attribution: Salviati, Francesco, 1510-1563. David with Ark of the Covenant, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47899 [retrieved July 9, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.