Category: Lent

Living in the Spirit – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Romans 8)

Romans 8:6-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

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                As I write this reflection, the world is caught up in a deadly pandemic that threatens to take the lives of perhaps millions of people. It is a moment when fear is rampant, and for good reason. Most faith communities have suspended in-person services and are looking at a wide assortment of alternatives so that they can keep in touch with each other. (Even if faith communities might have exemptions from some of these regulations, it is unwise to flout them!) In this moment in time, how do we speak of flesh and Spirit, death and life? This is especially true for those of us who are called to preach. How do we address Paul’s message about flesh and Spirit, death and life when death and the prospects of death seem to be very real?

                According to Paul, setting the mind on the flesh is death, while setting the mind on the Spirit is life. By flesh, I don’t believe Paul means the body (he’s not a gnostic). Instead, as C.K. Barrett notes, flesh “in this context means a mind from which God is excluded” [Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 158].  When Paul speaks of setting the mind on the flesh, it would probably be best to think in terms of a mindset. In this case, to have a fleshly mindset is to live a life that is focused on pleasing one’s self at the expense of living for God. Might we call this spiritual narcissism? As Sarah Heaner Lancaster suggests this is a question of allegiance. Thus, “there is no neutrality. One either lives for God or not, and by not living for God one displays loyalty to another dominion.” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 134]. In doing so, we settle for lesser things, which ultimately leads to death. Right now, I think we might consider this a warning against taking unwise actions that could lead to our deaths or the deaths of others because we don’t think the warnings about Covid-19 apply to us.

                As we ponder the message of the passage and Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit, it is important to remember that he has a very strong pneumatology. He envisions the church living by the Spirit, making use of the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) in such a way that the body of Christ is built up. We’ve not reached that point in the letter, but in chapter 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts and their use in the community: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:4-6a). Thus, if we are to live by the Spirit, then we will bring into the community the gifts given to us by the Spirit. We do this not to necessarily benefit ourselves, but so that the body of Christ can be built up until we reach the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). This is what it means to live in the Spirit—follow the way of love (1 Cor. 13).

Paul is known to offer dualisms in his presentations of the gospel, as do other New Testament writers (especially John). When we consider this contrast between flesh and Spirit, death and life, we might think in terms of the old and new age, a contrast that is true to Paul’s theology. As he writes in 2 Corinthians 5, the old age has passed away, and the new age has broken through into the world. Like what we have here in Romans 8, Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 5, has an eschatological orientation. Paul is clearly envisioning a major transition point in history that is centered in the cross and resurrection.

                While the lectionary reading begins in verse 6 of Romans 8, we should keep in mind the opening words of the chapter, which opens with the declaration that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:1-2). It is this promise of forgiveness that sets the tone for this word concerning the relationship between flesh and spirit. The Spirit sets us free from the grasp of the flesh.  The path forward has been set, but the choice is ours as to how we engage with it.

                The focus here is, of course, living in the Spirit. To be in Christ is to live in the Spirit. It is to live in a state of transformation marked by the resurrection. The body may be dead, but the Spirit lives. Perhaps this is where we should focus. After all the Resurrection of Jesus is an eschatological event that inaugurates the new age of the Spirit. We may still live an embodied life, but our destiny is defined by the Spirit and not by the flesh. The promise here is that Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us.

                The reality is that death will come to our mortal bodies. That is a given. But there is the promise of the resurrection. We’re not yet at Easter, and right now, as I write, in-person Easter celebrations remain in doubt. Nevertheless, the promise of resurrection is there, giving us hope even in times of distress.

 

Living in the Light – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (Ephesians 5)

Ephesians 5:8-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says,
“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

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                As we continue our Lenten journey our world is being turned upside down by a major viral pandemic. Schools, libraries, restaurants, and congregations are shutting down. Store shelves are empty of everything from bread to toilet paper. People are starting to hunker down because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Fear is rampant. Even for people of faith, times like this can be daunting. We can hold on to the promise that there is no fear in love, but when dark cloud hovers over us, blocking out the sunlight, hope may seem fleeting. You might even say that things are looking somewhat apocalyptic.

 

                Into this moment of darkness, we hear this word from Ephesians 5. It reflects a certain dualism separating darkness from light. In this case, it’s not just that we might live in darkness, but we are darkness. On the other hand, it’s possible that we not only live in the light, but we are light. Yes, “once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Eph. 5:8a).

 

                When I read this passage, I can’t help but view it through a Star Wars lens. I am, after all, a Star Wars fan, going back to my college days when I took in the very first episode (Episode IV). For those who know the Star Wars story, the Force is an energy field that has a dark side and a light side. The dark side is quite powerful and therefore it’s enticing. The dark side of the Force feeds off of fear and anger, which are emotions easily ignited, especially when we feel threatened. I doubt George Lucas was reading Ephesians 5 when he developed the Star Wars saga, but it seems to fit. While Darth Vader (otherwise known as Anakin Skywalker) was once a brave and powerful Jedi Knight, he was seduced by the dark side of the force and became darkness itself. It made him very powerful, but it transformed him into something quite evil. The word we hear in Ephesians 5 is that we were once possessed by darkness, but that’s no longer true. As happened in Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi, Vader had a conversion of sorts and returned to the light.

 

                What we have here in this passage is a conversion text. It speaks of a radical transformation, much like that experienced by Vader. In this experience of transformation from darkness to light, the old self is exchanged for the new. While the question of authorship of Ephesians remains open (see my study guide on the Book of Ephesians for more on that question), there are similarities to this message and what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5. There Paul speaks of becoming a new creation so that the old is now gone, and a new creation comes into existence. The message here is that because of this conversion from darkness to light, one should live accordingly. If we’re to live in the light, this means stepping away from the old life and embracing a new way of living. The word here is: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).

This call to separate oneself from the works of darkness, but rather expose them, is a call to action. Stand up for justice, for what is good and right. But also remember that darkness is powerful. We might want to heed this word of warning from Reinhold Niebuhr: “It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” [Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition].

 

                Niebuhr’s warning about the power of self-interest is apropos at this moment. We should not underestimate its power over our lives as we face the challenges of the moment. At this moment the challenge comes in the form of a world-wide Coronavirus pandemic. How do we care for ourselves, but not put others in danger? We’ve watched as people hoard goods and prices for necessary goods skyrocket. When it comes to health care, who will be considered expendable if the resources need to be rationed? Too often we think about things in abstract terms, but this is reality. What is light and what is darkness? How does self-interest work its way into the conversation?

 As we ponder this question of moving from darkness into light, hearing the call to live as children of light, exposing the deeds of darkness, what is our responsibility? How do we speak truth without exploiting fear? We know it will occur politically. This is, after all, a political season. But, what about faith? It’s easy to exploit fear for religious gain. People are looking for hope amid news that only brings despair. How do we offer hope without manipulating these fears? Times like this can bring out both the worst and the best in us.

Since this is the season of Lent, when confession of sin becomes a significant part of our experience, even in communities (like my own) that generally eschew prayers of confession, we have the opportunity to allow light to be shined into our lives. The darkness that is present will be exposed. Turning back to Star Wars, when Vader became once again Anakin, his son, Luke, said of him, “I knew there was still goodness in you.” There is a view of things that suggests that we are totally depraved, and without any hope outside the grace of God. I wonder, could it be that the image of God, in which we are created, might be clouded over by darkness, but never completely erased? This reading from Ephesians doesn’t answer that question, but I wonder. Might there still be a fragment of light present that can be set free in Christ, so that we might act as light, ever mindful that even as Children of Light there is still the possibility of falling back into darkness?

            The reading closes with this declaration that might be part of an early Christian hymn:

                “Sleeper, awake!
                                Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

May the light that is Christ sine on us, and through us, so that life might be fully embraced. Yes:

                Come, heav’nly brightness, light divine,
and deep within our hearts now shine;
                There light a flame undying!  (O Morning Star, Chalice Hymnal, 105, vs. 2)
               

Image attribution: Hartman, Craig W.. Cathedral of Christ the Light, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54202 [retrieved March 16, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sicarr/3251258111/.

The Blessings of Abraham’s Faith – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2A (Romans 4)

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

4 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

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                 The Revised Common Lectionary started off the Lenten season with a reading from Romans 5:12-19. The focus there was on the contrast between the first Adam, through whom sin and then death entered the world, and the last Adam, Jesus, through whom life was restored. With that word laid before us, we gather for the second week of Lent. This week the Lectionary’s Second Reading asks us to step back to the fourth chapter of Romans. Here Paul speaks not of Adam, nor even of Jesus, but of Abraham, our ancestor in the faith. The message here is that justification comes not through law, which did not exist at the moment of Abraham’s call, but rather through grace. In other words, writing to a new Christian community Paul skips over Moses and goes directly to Abraham, our father in the faith.

                Abraham was the ancestor, according to the flesh, of the Jewish people through Isaac and his descendants. It is to this community of descendants that the Law would eventually be given. This was according to the promise of God, that Abraham would be the ancestor to many nations. Truth be told, Abraham’s family tree spread out not only through Isaac but also through Ishmael (son of Abraham and Hagar). Isaac had two sons. Jacob, known also as Israel, would be the ancestor of the Jewish people, but his brother Esau would be the ancestor of Edom. So, when we hear the promise that through his descendants the nations would be blessed, we might ask which descendants we’re talking about.

                Abraham is an interesting figure, and I think we probably need to go beyond Paul’s descriptions to truly get a sense of his place in the story. Paul wants us to see Abraham as our spiritual ancestor, even if we don’t descend from his lineage according to the flesh. According to Paul, the way this happens is through grace. Paul’s reading of Scripture, more specifically Genesis 15:6 (LXX), tells us that “Abraham believed God and this was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Thus, no works are involved, just belief or trust. However, as CEB Cranfield notes, Rabbinic readings, as well as Philo, read this quite differently [Cranfield, Romans, 1:229]. For them, more than Abraham’s belief or trust in God; it also involved specific actions (Works). These works included circumcision, something Paul didn’t want to impose on Gentile believers. Nevertheless, Paul took on a verse that might prove otherwise and suggested that he had the correct interpretation.  Interestingly, the Common English Bible version of Genesis 15:6, which draws not from the Septuagint but the Masoretic text would seem to go against Paul’s reading: “Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character” (Gen 15:6 CEB). So, who has the correct interpretation? Paul or the Rabbis?

                As we continue our journey into Lent, how might we engage this account of Abraham being our spiritual ancestor? It’s clear that Paul is seeking to expand the definition of what it means to be a descendant of Abraham, extending the definition of being a child of Abraham to those who are not circumcised (even though Abraham circumcised the males in his household as a sign of his faithfulness to the covenant). In Paul’s mind, if Abraham’s call and the promise that goes with it predates the giving of the Law, then something other than adherence to the Law would define one’s position in the family tree. After all, Abraham couldn’t have been justified on the basis of the Law of Moses, which had not been revealed. So, as Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, Abraham “obeyed God, but he did not do so by following the written prescriptions that were to come. In this, too, he is like the Gentiles about which Paul is concerned, who obey by following something unwritten rather than something written. Abraham was in right standing with God because he was faithful in his trust of God, so his faithfulness justified him” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 77]. If this is true for Abraham, might it also be true for Gentile believers who come to God through Christ, but not through the Law? Later, Paul will reveal that Gentile believers have been grafted into the vine that is Abraham’s descendants, but only through faith not by works (Rom 11:17-21).

                The first reading for the week, from Genesis 12:1-4a contains the promise that Paul takes hold of in verse 17 of Romans 4. In that original divine call, Abraham receives the promise that will lead him to pack up the family and head off to a new land, walking simply by faith. This, according to Paul, is the act of faith to which we are to take hold of, and which brings Gentiles into the fold. But remember, this faith goes both ways. God puts faith in Abraham, even as Abraham puts faith in God’s promises.

                All this said, is Paul an antinomian? That is, does he believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong? Does he mean that ethics don’t matter? I don’t think so. But I do believe Paul wants us to keep things in their proper order. Do we start with works or merit or do we start with grace? Might it be that good works are the product of a life of faith? If the latter is true, then we might read James as a not so subtle reminder that sometimes readers of Paul got him wrong. Remember that Paul did say that while all things are lawful, not all things are profitable. (1 Cor. 6:12; 1 Cor. 10:23).

                The Good News for us here is that we are children of Abraham, and to Abraham and his descendants has been given the covenant that involves being a blessing to the nations. While God seems intent on providing an heir to Abraham through his marriage to Sarah (Gen. 17), we should not forget that Abraham had another son, his firstborn, with Hagar. God promised to make a nation of him as well (Gen.21:9-21). So, might we take this as a word to us to be in relationship, as Christians, with all of Abraham’s descendants, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian? Might we then extend that even further to all of God’s children, whether descending from Abraham by the flesh or the Spirit?

               
                 

 

Nature or Nurture? A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1A (Romans 5)

Hans Holbein the Younger – Adam and Eve (Kunst Museum, Basel)
  
Romans 5:12-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

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                Did you follow that? I know that Paul can get a bit tongue-tied as he makes his points. Nevertheless, this is one of the most consequential passages in the New Testament, as it has served as a key foundation to the doctrine of original sin. The question that emerges from the passage is not whether sin exists, but whether human sin stems from a genetic predisposition or from one’s social context. In other words, is it nature or nurture? Augustine would say nature. John Locke would have said nurture (Tabula Rasa—Blank Slate). Whether it’s nature or nurture, what seems clear from reading Romans 5 is that Sin and Death entered the picture through one person’s actions, and that person is Adam. While sin has come into the world via Adam, the solution to the problem comes through grace provided through another man, the man Jesus Christ.

In Romans 5 Sin is accompanied by Death. Both appear to be spiritual forces that have disrupted God’s creation. They have taken on a life of their own. The question we have continually asked is how Sin and Death have come to have dominion over human life. According to Paul, Death spread because of human Sin. This word concerning sin and death stands as the opening message from Paul to us during the season of Lent. Lent is a penitential season, set up to enable us to take stock of our lives and make any necessary changes to our lives. Thus, this is a good season for us to make a confession of sin. But confession of sin is only the beginning, not the end of the process. We needn’t take up any harsh practices such as self-flagellation, but we might make some lasting changes to our lives. The good news is that should we undertake this path, there is grace available to us in Christ.

                Many years ago, during my seminary years, I wrote a paper for my Systematic Theology class on the topic of original sin. In that paper, I made my case for why the doctrine should be rejected, while the doctrine of universal sin should be adopted. One of the central biblical texts I addressed was this one. While St. Augustine has been credited with creating the doctrine, it has much earlier roots, perhaps here in Romans 5. Augustine did offer a description of the means of transmission that has come to dominate in the Christian West, it’s not the only view. The Eastern Churches have taken a more modest view, but then they read the original in Greek, not Latin, the latter of which seems to have led Augustine and others to think in genetic terms (though that’s a bit of an anachronism as Augustine didn’t know about genetics, which is why he linked it to concupiscence). For Augustine, original sin is a genetic predisposition. We sin because we inherit that predilection from Adam. In the Enchiridion he writes that after Adam sinned he was exiled and “bound also his progeny, which y his sin he had damaged within himself as though at its root, by the penalty of death and condemnation.” His offspring born of him and his wife were condemned with him, for they had been “born through the concupiscence of the flesh which was their punishment” [On Christian Belief, p. 289]. In other words, we are tainted with original sin passed on through the sexual relationship. You understand then why celibacy became a path to godliness! Therefore, our only hope is the grace of God that comes to us through Christ. I will confess that I haven’t found that reading convincing, but it has been the dominant interpretation in Western Christianity since at least Augustine.

If we don’t follow Augustine, might we still speak of an “original” sin? Or better, might we speak of universal sin? Instead of embracing a genetic predisposition, might we speak of the universal presence of sin a consequence of living in a sinful environment? Take racism for instance. Are we genetically predisposed, or is this a learned behavior? My view is that it is a learned behavior that is sin. In other words, we might speak of systemic sin.

As top whether it is nature or nurture, Paul doesn’t say. He’s not so interested in the how as the what. He recognizes that this is a universal problem that requires a solution that can come to us only through the grace of God. This grace comes to us through Christ. According to Paul even as Sin and Death made their presence known through the actions of Adam and all who shared in them, the answer to be found in Christ, and all who receive his grace.

This reading from Romans 5 acknowledges the universality of sin, and Adam’s involvement in its spread (notice that Eve is not mentioned by Paul). What is often missing from the conversation is the possibility that salvation is spread to all. If, as I believe we should see Adam as a type, and Jesus has the countertype, might we see this as the foundation for the possibility that all will be restored in Christ? “For as in Adam all die, even in so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22 KJV).

Whether we understand this to be a nature or nurture issue, the reality is that we live an immoral society. There are sins that must be confessed. Too often we focus on minor sins, rather than the big ones, like racism or sexism. Perhaps this is because we rather not face the realities of our participation in that which is sin. But, if grace is to do its work in our society, then confession will be good for the soul and for the world.    

               

 

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.
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                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.    
               

 

Standing On the Promises – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2C (Genesis 15)

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night
Genesis 15:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

 

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                A popular hymn of the church, at least in days gone by, invites to sing boldly:

Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my savior; standing, standing. I’m standing on the promises of God.  [R. Kelso Carter, 1891].

Scripture declares that Abraham stood on the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Whether it is Paul in Romans 4 or the author of Hebrews 11, Abraham is lifted up as an example of a person who stood strong in his faith despite the lack of evidence to support that trust. Abraham simply stands on the promises of God, and in time his faith, his trust, bears fruit.

                The reading from Genesis 15 marks another conversation about covenant. At this point in the story, Abram’s name has yet to be changed. The promise is made, again, that Abram will have many descendants, beyond the ability to count. This is a challenging proposition, as to this point Abram’s only heir is a slave. He has no children of his own, and God makes it clear that the promise will go through Abram’s descendants. God is intending to work through Abram’s biological descendants, who will be as uncountable as the stars in the sky. Despite everything, we’re told that Abram believed God, and this was credited to him as righteousness.

 

Abram will stand on the promises of God, but not without a word of lament. In fact, the chapter begins with God telling Abram not to be afraid, because God has his back. Abram responds, well that’s great, but what have you done for me lately? (my paraphrase). Abram is, after all, still childless and has as his heir a slave (regarding slavery, we should always remember that while widespread in the ancient world and not racially rooted, references to slaves in the Bible were used to defend modern slavery). He’d followed God’s lead from his homeland and still nothing.

 

I appreciated what Rolf Jacobson writes concerning the power of lament that’s present in this passage and in the rest of Scripture.

In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet—at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child.  And after all, the Lord has promised.  

Abram will stand on this promise, but not before making clear that God understood what is involved in a truly covenant relationship.

 

                Having heard Abram’s lament, God says to Abram: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” In response to Abram’s question as to how he will know this to be true, God proposes a ritual to seal the deal. The directions are simple. Abram is told by God: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram does as he’s told, cutting each of the sacrifices in half, with the exception of the two birds. He lays them out as instructed and waits for God to act.

 

                The Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 13 to 16, though it retains verse 12, which seems to introduce verses 13 to 16. In verses 12 to 16, Abram falls asleep and has a bad dream. Though he is told he will die peacefully and have many descendants, he’s also told that his descendants will be forced to live in exile and experience slavery for four hundred years, though in the end, they will be blessed with an abundance of gifts. If verses 13-16 are omitted, it would be probably be best to omit verse 12, as there is some discontinuity between verses 12 and 17. On the other hand, there is a message here that is worth remembering—the covenant will be fulfilled, but not without times of trouble.

               If we choose to omit verses 12-16, we can move from the ritual in verse 11 to the culmination of the conversation about covenant in verse 17, we watch as the sun sets and a torch passes between the sacrificed animals, as a sign of divine acceptance of this offering of Abram. With that God makes the covenant with Abram, promising: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” It is worth noting that God requires nothing of Abram at this point. Normally, covenants involve mutual declarations and actions, but nothing is required of Abram. Abram does do anything to obligate himself. It is YHWH who self-obligates. It’s YHWH who makes the promises.

               Of course, this is not the end of the story. The author of Genesis will revisit this issue. As the story continues, Abram and Sarai will try to fulfill this promise through a surrogate. An heir is produced—Ishmael—and then rejected. Finally, Sarai will give birth in old age to a son, Isaac, who will be the accepted heir (at least in the biblical story, the Quran will hold on to Ishmael). While the promise of an expansive realm is made, Israel’s boundaries never reached the extent promised. Nonetheless, the descendants of Abram can claim that they are the fruit of God’s promise to Abram. They are the covenant people, though the promise isn’t repeated here, Abram’s descendants are to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). What this covenant promise means will be a subject of ongoing interpretation, as we see in the way in which the New Testament writers make use of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant made in Jesus is clearly rooted in the covenant made with Abraham.

 

              The question for us has to do with the nature of our faith. Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our faith journey. In what ways do we resist the promises of God, and in what ways do we cooperate. As the Psalmist implies, there is the possibility of living in fear, especially when enemies assail us. As with the promise made to Abram, we can take comfort in the presence of the Lord. After all, as the Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). With that old hymn, which I took note of at the beginning, we can stand with Abram on the promises of God. 

               

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55396 [retrieved March 11, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

First Fruits of Liberation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C (Deuteronomy 26)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

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          We have begun the Lenten journey. In the reading from the Gospel, Jesus has begun his sojourn in the Wilderness, where he will be tested (Luke 4:1-11). The people of Israel had been a wandering people and they two were tested.
          The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. That is the scriptural message, whether we take it literally or not. As the people of Israel draw near the river that separates them from the Promised Land, they are given instructions by God through Moses. The word we hear in Deuteronomy 26 envisions the people settling in, putting down roots, planting crops, and then harvesting the crops. With this assumption in mind, the call for first fruits is given. When the time comes to beginning harvesting the crops, the people are to take the first fruits of that harvest, put it in a basket and then bring it to the designated place where the priest will receive it. In doing this the people honor the God who liberated them from bondage, the God who was with them throughout the years of wandering and is now with them as they settle into life in the Land.
As we begin the Lenten journey, might we hear this word that comes to us from the Hebrew Bible as a call to worship and a call to stewardship? There is a liturgy involved, which reminds us that stewardship is an act of worship and not merely the means of paying bills. While it is a call to stewardship, it is also a call to share the proceeds of the harvest with others, most specifically the Levites (priestly class) and the “aliens who reside among you,” the bounty that God provides. Stewardship, it seems has something to do with sharing. It’s a concept we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, if not before, but a concept that is easily forgotten. Thus, instructions must be given.
As the offerings are brought to the altar, the people make a declaration of faith. They are called upon to remember from whence they came. Who am I? That is a question that continue to get asked. It’s a question that leads us to do genealogical work and check our DNA. In this confession, the people acknowledge that “A wandering Aramean is my ancestor.” The people of Israel, having finally found a place to settle in, are reminded by this confession that they have been a nomadic people. Their DNA is rooted in the tribes and people of Aram, which is the land of Syria and Southeastern Turkey.
So, who is this ancestor? Is it Abraham and Sarah? Yes. Is it Isaac and Rebecca? Yes. Is it Jacob and his family? Yes. In fact, it’s Jacob and his family who went down to Egypt and settled, only to discover that there was to be no security in that land. The initial benefits of living in Egypt proved fleeting. In time the wandering Aramean and family, though small in number, became a great nation. That led the Egyptians to feel threatened. They feared that a time would come when this tribe could gain enough strength to change the nature of Egyptian society. Does that sound familiar? Could it be a reason why some wish to build walls to keep “those people” from adding to their numbers? Is it a reason why there is a growing resistance to welcoming refugees to our shores? One scholar has even translated the opening declaration as “A wandering Syrian refugee is my ancestor.” So, as we contemplate this reading, could there be something of Egypt in our souls?
The confession remembers that Jacob’s descendants were treated harshly. They were sentenced to hard labor. When the descendants of this wandering Aramean cried out to God, their voices were heard. God saw the people being oppressed, and so God acted to liberate the people, bringing them into the Promised Land. Now, it is time to honor that God by bringing offerings to God as a sign of gratitude.
This reading from Deuteronomy speaks of a land that will be filled with milk and honey, a land of abundance. The confession serves as a reminder that the people of Israel are themselves immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They may have found a home, where they can settle in, put down roots, plant crops, but it is not a land to be possessed. It is a land to be received as a gift of God, to be shared. William Greenway writes of this concern: “by anchoring Israelite identity in an immigrant, a ‘wandering Aramean’; by reminding the Israelites that they were themselves poor, marginalized, oppressed strangers in a strange land; and by urging them to share their bounty ‘together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you’ (so, no ritual or ethnic sectarianism; all attend to the basic needs of and break bread with all).” [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections:A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 1143-1146)].  Do we remember from whence we came? Do we come to the altar bearing expressions of first fruits, or what is left over from our abundance? Are willing to share, and what does that mean?
As you read this confession, you may notice that the person is to speak this confession as if experiencing the whole. This is a community confession that identifies the person with the community, and not just the present community, but the historical community. One’s current identity is rooted in one’s ancestry. What happened to Jacob and his descendants matters. We who are part of the family of Jesus, by adoption, have been brought in to this ancient tribe. We too are called to bring first fruits and acknowledge that our ancestors are wanderers, and thus we too should tread lightly on the land that is not ours but belongs to God. With this reminder that we are in many ways, spiritually, on journeys that involve a lot of wandering. We may have settled in and put down roots, but it is important that we continue to honor the one who liberated us, and we do this by being good stewards of God’s abundance.
                 

 

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

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

Covenant of the Heart – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B

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31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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                Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God will make with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a covenant written on stone. It will be a covenant written on the heart. Christians have embraced Jeremiah’s message of the New Covenant, believing that this promise was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (the earliest version of that institution), we hear Jesus declare: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; see Lk. 22:20).  In the Book of Hebrews, which interprets the ministry of Jesus in the light of Jewish precedent, we see several references to the New Covenant, with the emphasis being on the way in which this new covenant replaces the earlier covenant. So, consider this word: “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.  Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established” (Heb. 9:15-16). It is this reference in 1 Corinthians and the accompanying references in Hebrews that lead to the labeling of the Christian-specific portion of the Bible as the “New Testament.” It is within the pages of the Christian portion of the Bible, that Christians have seen themselves encountering the one who writes the new covenant on hearts rather than stone.

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