Category: Ordinary Time

Wondering Where the Lions Are: Advent 1(Narrative Lectionary)

Wondering Where the Lions Are: Advent 1(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 29, 2020

Read: Daniel 6:1-27

Reflection

Between ages 7 and 10, I took swimming lessons at the YWCA and YMCA.  I had a good time in the water and loved to use the paddle boards and make big splashes in the pool.  

But there was one thing that scared me to death…the deep end of the swimming pool. You see, I could touch the end of the pool on the shallow end. However as you moved farther away from the shallow end, it became harder and harder to touch the floor.  You would get to that point where you couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool and you get a bit scared.  Of course, the reason I was in a swimming class is to learn how to swim, even in deep water, even in the places where I couldn’t just touch the bottom. Swimming was suppose to teach me how to handle the deep end, how to manuver in a place that seemed scary.  The swimming instructors were teaching me to trust the skills I’ve learned to tackle the deep end.  Not to get cocky in my skills, but to trust what I’ve learned to prevent me from drowning.

 This is the first day of the new church year, so I guess I should say Happy New Year.  This is the first Sunday of Advent, that season before Christmas where we await the coming of the Savior and also are reminded of why we need to Christ to come and save us and there is no one more deserving of salvation than the character in today’s text.

Daniel and the Lion’s Den is one of the first Bible stories children learn about. Daniel, an Israelite in exile, is a faithful worker in the court of King Darius of Persia.  Daniel does such a good job in his position as a chief administrator that the king is interested in promoting him to be the second in command in the Empire; only the king would be higher than Daniel.

His fellow administrators can’t stand that this foreigner is showing them up, so they devise a plan to trick the King into sending Daniel to the lions where he would meet his end.

When the days comes to send Daniel into the lion’s den. The administrators are joyous because they have this foreigner where they wanted him and soon, their troubles would be gone.  King Darius is nervous; he hates to lose such an able worker and he probably feels this charge is all trumped up. But he can’t do much other than hope Daniel’s God would save him.

The king didn’t sleep all night.  The king races to find Daniel is safe and sound, while Daniel’s rivials and their families face the lions and meeta cruel fate. 

What an odd text to start Advent with!  But maybe it isn’t so weird.  Daniel was facing an unjust punishment.  God comes to the rescue and save him from devastation.

Advent is a time of waiting for Christ, waiting for salvation.  Daniel waited for salvation as well and God did save him.  But the story here is not that God won’t let us face bad times.  The list is long of good people, faithful people who were killed by despots past and present.  The story here is that God will prevail even when it seems that evil will have the last word.  Even if Daniel were swallowed by the lions, this would still be a tale of God winning over evil, because God is bigger than corrupt administrators or a fumbling king.

The thing that scared me about the deep end of the pull is that I would be engulfed by water, that I would drown.  Daniel could have been scared about how the lions would pull him apart and then devour him.  But he has faith in God and is able to face down the lions because God is faithful.  The lions might kill him, but they have no power over him.

As I said before, trusting God doesn’t mean you won’t face trials.  We wait and hope for salvation, but that doesn’t always come in the way we want or expect.  Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Oscar Romero and countless other disciples and followers of Jesus did not come to happy endings and yet they believed in a God that would save them, a God that never allowed evil to have the last word.

We wait in Advent for the coming of Jesus.  Jesus will not take away all the bad things in our lives.  We will still get cancer.  Our loved ones will still die.  We will get laid off.  The lions are always there waiting to have a midnight snack.  But we have hope.  Hope not that things will be okay, but that God is with us and will never ever let evil win. We wait knowing that Jesus is coming to be with us, to be with us in all of the dark times in our lives and to give us the faith to stand up to intolerance because the forces of darkness will never ever have the last word.

By the way, I’m still scared of the deep end of the pool.  But I also trust what I learned in swimming class.  May God give us the same courage in all the deep ends of our lives.

 

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

 

Don’t You Forget About Me: Christ the King Sunday(Narrative Lectionary)

Don’t You Forget About Me: Christ the King Sunday(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 22, 2020

Read: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Reflection

Imagine with me that you wake up one morning and everything seems normal.  You listen to the news on the television and make breakfast and then head to work.  

When you get there, you expect to see your friend Bruce.  You’ve known him for nine years and his personality is such that everyone in the office knows who Bruce is.  You pass his desk and it’s empty.  In fact, it seems like no one had used his cubicle for months.  There is no nameplate or anything that shows he worked at your office. You ask around what happened to Bruce.  Everyone gives you a strange look.  To a person, no one remembers Bruce.  At first you think it’s a joke, but then you realize people are serious.  They act like Bruce never existed.  

You get to work, but you have this odd feeling.  Why can you remember Bruce, but no one else can?  

The day ends and you get back to your home to get ready to have dinner with your brother Nathan and Aunt Sophie.  You get ready and drive to the restaurant.  You see your brother you start catching up on things.  After a while, you ask where is Aunt Sophie.  Nathan gives you a blank look.  He asks who is Sophie.  You tell him that she’s your father’s sister and has two kids: Ben and Olivia.  But those names don’t register either.  Now you start to get nervous.  You finish dinner and get to bed hoping this is just a weird day.  

The next day, you give Nathan a call.  The phone rings and rings, when finally a woman picks up.  You know this is Carol, Nathan’s finance.  You ask to speak to your brother and for a moment, there is silence.  She doesn’t know a Nathan.  You are shocked.  Nathan and Carol had dated for six years.  

You hang up the phone.  You wonder what in the world is going on.

This keeps happening over a few days.  Friends, relatives and significant others just seem to vanish with the people around them having no memory of their existence.  One day, you realize everyone around you has vanished.  You sit in your room, in tears.  You pledge to remember these people, to believe they existed and mattered.  And you hope one day they will return. You hope you won’t be forgotten.

In our text this week, the people of Israel are not in a good place.  This text is being written to a people who have gone through the worst thing possible, at least to them.  Their homeland, Judah or the Southern Kingdom was one of the last places standing during the rise of the Babylonian Empire.  Finally, the Babylonians swept in and invaded.  Jerusalem is destroyed. The temple built by Solomon is brought down. The people were taken far away from their homes to live in Babylon.  They were in a new culture with new gods.  They remember the old days and they also remember how they didn’t follow God. They remember worshipping other gods. They remember treating the poor unjustly.  They know they hurt God. They probably think they deserved this punishment, which of course, they did. They might have wondered if God had forgotten them and moved on.

But then they hear this passage from Jeremiah.  They knew he was the old prophet.  Back in the day he preached that the people repent and no one listened to him.  These days, everyone wished they had.  

People gather around to hear what the old prophet has to say.  He tells the people that one day, they will go back home.  That made people feel good.  Their time in Babylon was more only for a time.  Their memories of a past land that doesn’t exist anymore will no longer be memories.  But there was still more Jeremiah had to say.

He tells them that soon he will make a new covenant with the people.  The old covenant was the one made during their journey from Egypt to the homeland.  After years of a broken relationship, God wants to get back together and start a new.  God will make a new covenant, not one that’s written in stone, but written in the hearts of the people.  God was going to transform the people from the inside out.  

Then Jeremiah says something that just blows everyone’s mind.  God will forget the sins of the people.  God had not forgotten God’s people, but the sins of the people would be liked they never existed.  Even when all has vanished in front of them, God is still there remaining faithful.

The people were smiling.  It would be years, decades before the people could come back, but they knew that God had not forgotten them.  God always wanted a relationship with the people of Israel and they were ready to renew the relationship and start over with God.  

When we look at the Bible, we tend to see two sides of God.  We think the Old Testament is filled with stories of an angry god ready to punish people.  We think the New Testament is about a God of love, a God that gives second chances.  But this passage puts a lie to that thinking.  It is in God’s nature to love passionately and to give second, third and fourth chances. Like an addict that falls off the wagon again and again, God is there to transform us into something wonderful.

This passage is about the covenant God establishes with the people of Israel, so it is not our covenant.  But it is a reminder that we live under a gracious covenant as well.  Because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God doesn’t remember our sins either.  God works at making us followers by working from the inside out.  We remember how good God is to us and God forgets our sin, making it possible to begin anew.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is a king, but he is not like other kings.  If we were following the Revised Common Lectionary, which we have done in recent years, today we would read the passages from the passion, those last few hours before Jesus’ death.  The crucifixion is a reminder of the lengths God will go to prove God’s love for us.  In the form a Jesus, a king is willing to lay aside a crown and die for the sake of others.  This is the God we find here in Jeremiah, the one that is willing to start anew to forgive and forget. To restore and to heal.

Next week, many of us won’t be traveling to see Mom and Dad or any other relative.  We have been urged to not travel to see our loved ones because it could cause the coronavirus to spread.  In a year where we feel cut off, it is easy to feel like we have been forgotten.  But what this passage reminds us is that God doesn’t forget us.  Even when we feel alone, we aren’t alone and in this dark time, it can give a sense of hope.

Decades later, the people make their way back to Judah.  After years of abandonment, the cities would be repopulated.  It is with happiness that they realize God didn’t forget them, but God also forgot their sins.  It was a new day.

Photo by Forest Simon on Unsplash

 

Belonging to the Daylight – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24A (1 Thessalonians 5)

 

 

 

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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                The Day of the Lord, when Christ returns (Parousia), for his people (1 Thess.4:13-18), will come without warning, just like a thief in the night. The analogy Paul uses here of the thief coming in the night is well-known in
certain circles that insist that we are living in the last days. The reference has apocalyptic elements, which were developed for full effect in a movie by that title made back in the 1970s with the title A Thief in the Night that proved rather popular (strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing it).

                Paul uses this image of a thief coming in the night because it catches one’s eye. We understand the implications. If you know when the thief is going to strike, you will be ready. Of course, thieves don’t give warnings. They don’t call ahead to tell us the time and location they intend to make their entry. They also don’t generally come during the day (bank robbers are not in view here), because they could easily be seen. At night, they can wear dark clothing and skulk about in the shadows. When they find a weak spot, they can get in and out without anyone knowing the difference (unless you have a very effective security system that wasn’t available in the first century). At least that’s how it works in the movies! The image, therefore, underscores the unexpected nature of Jesus’ return.

                What we read here is a continuation of the message Paul delivered in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18. In that reading, Paul gives us a few details about what the moment of Christ’s return would look like. On that day, Jesus will return in the clouds and the dead in Christ will rise first, after which the believers who are alive will join them for the grand procession. Paul offered that message as a word of encouragement to a community worried about those who had died before the Day of the Lord. While Jesus might come as a thief in the night, without warning, Paul wants the Thessalonian believers to be ready when that moment comes.

                One must be ready  for the sudden appearance of Jesus, like in the thief in the night, but believers should live in the light as children of the day and not the night. The assumption here is that evil takes place under the cover of darkness when things go bump in the night. Keep in mind that the action in most horror movies under the cover of darkness. There is a clear dualism at work here, with light and darkness, day and night, contrasted. Thus, daylight is when we are awake, but we sleep at night. Here, we’re not supposed to sleep. The night is also the time when people get drunk. Believers, on the other hand, are supposed to be sober,
not drunk.   

                What Paul is doing here is reinforcing the apocalyptic message he had earlier delivered. He has offered them a word of encouragement concerning the dead in Christ (they will rise first). However, Paul is concerned that in the interim, they might grow complacent. If this happens then they could easily fall back into old Gentile habits (living in the night). That concern is revealed in Paul’s reference to those who speak of “peace and security,” a watchword of the Empire, which placed those words on some of its coins. This may be the message of the Empire, but Paul warns against taking it to heart because to do so leads to destruction. Paul uses the metaphor here of a pregnant woman whose labor pains come without warning. When they begin, there is no going back. The same is true of the coming of the Lord. So, don’t get complacent. Be ready!

                All of this is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic though, which offers a dualism of light and darkness, earthly realm versus the heavenly realm. As George Parsenios notes, “the hostility between the two realms is most obvious in Paul’s use of the imagery of armor in verse 8. This armor, though, is also the basis of the Thessalonians escape from judgment because the helmet that arms them is the ‘hope of salvation.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 305]. The reference to armor is similar, but not as developed as that found in Ephesians 6:10-17. It should be noted that this armor is not something we choose, but is something received. In any case, Paul is preparing them for spiritual warfare that includes salvation that is received through Christ who died for us. As we hear this message of spiritual warfare, it’s worth noting that, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write: “Given the fervor for supporting national wars that sometimes uncritically sweeps through Christian communities, it is worth noting that the breastplate and helmet are to protect the wearer and are not instruments of killing” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 101].

                While the Day of the Lord will come, according to Paul, the Thessalonians, if they keep alert and stay in relationship with Jesus, they will receive the gift of salvation. They will not be subject to God’s wrath, God’s judgment. It is good to remember as Allen and Williamson remind us, this apocalyptic message isn’t a “pie in the sky” sentiment. For Apocalyptic theologians, like Paul, the Day of the Lord was understood to be the means by which “God would set things right for people who had been denied blessing in the present evil age—for example, the poor, the enslaved, those who suffered injustice and violence” [Preaching the Letters, p. 101]. We might not embrace a full apocalyptic vision, but we must recognize the need for God to set things right, lest we not take seriously the realities of our age. For those of us who have universalist tendencies, we need to be careful that we don’t deny the possibility of God’s judgment. To do so might lead to the belief that there are no ultimate consequences of our actions.  

                Even as the previous reading from chapter 4 concluded with a call to encourage one another with this message, so does this portion. Paul wants them to encourage one another and build each other up with this message that believers are not destined for wrath but for salvation in Christ who died for us. With that, we can know that whether awake or asleep we will ultimately live with him, for as we learned in chapter 4, Jesus will gather us up. The challenge here, especially for Christians living in the United States, we must be careful not to receive

He’s Coming Back – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23A (1 Thessalonians 4)

 

 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 
New Revised Standard Version

 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

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                Down through the years, debates have raged over when or if Jesus will return to gather up the saints. Among the questions asked is whether Jesus will return before or after the millennium (Rev. 20:4-5). There is a third position on this question, in case you’re wondering. Amillennialists avoid the question of a millennium, treating it simply as a metaphor for the church age. Beyond the question of a millennium, there is the question of the timing of the tribulation. Are you pre? Mid? Or Post? There is a multitude of books that will explain how all of this works if you are interested. Truth be told lots of people are interested.

                As a high schooler, I got extremely interested in these speculations. So, I read Hal Lindsey and other prognosticators who were sure that we were living in the Last Days. I was led to believe that Jesus would return around 1988 (a generation after the founding of the state of Israel, according to Lindsey). I also learned that those bar codes that allow us to scan our goods at the grocery store were the mark of the beast, and that before long they would be imprinted on our foreheads and our hands (and you wonder how conspiracy theories find a ready audience among Christians?). Then there is the rapture, an idea that seems to have its roots here in 1 Thessalonians 4. Many attempts have been made to visualize this event. So, as Christians are caught up in the clouds, cars careen off the road and planes fall from the sky because the drivers or pilots have suddenly disappeared.

                So, are you ready to dive into this passage? Or, like many progressive/liberal Protestants would you rather avoid the passage and others like it as if it were the plague? I understand the sentiment. Talk of Armageddon and the like is often troubling, as is the glee with which tales are told of how people are going to die horrific deaths after the Christians are rescued. However, avoiding passages that have been used to support ideas like this might not be wise. That’s because the kind of images that many find present in texts like this have a certain hold on many people. Since there are numerous apocalyptic passages in Scripture they can’t be avoided and beg for interpretation.  

                In the passage before us, Paul and his companions, offer a word of encouragement to a group of believers who are concerned about where they stand with God. More specifically, in light of certain expectations—that Jesus was going to return in the near future—they were concerned about those who had died in the interim. What is their fate? What does Jesus plan for them? Paul offers this brief word in the closing verses of chapter four of his letter to set their minds and hearts at ease. He tells them that he doesn’t want them to be uninformed, so he will give them some more details as to what the future might entail. Remember that this letter comes very early in the life cycle of the Christian community. The movement is a little more than fifteen to twenty years old. Apparently, they didn’t think that they would be long for this world. That can put people on edge. While it can motivate action it can also hinder it. 

                Paul answers the question of the fate of those who have died by letting the Thessalonians know that they need not grieve as if there is no hope. It’s not they shouldn’t grieve their loss, but the nature of their grief should be different from those who live without hope of the resurrection. That is because they could hold on to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. So, don’t worry, God will bring the dead with Jesus. Thus, they can take solace in the hope of Jesus’ triumphant return. This was not a vision shared by all, as seen in the words of people such as Plutarch and Seneca, who essentially encouraged those who grieved to face their mortality with a stiff upper lip. Not so with Paul. [Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, p. 63]. For him, the promise of the resurrection offers a very different sense of things. As Beverly Gaventa writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event, a single rabbit God pulls out of the hat to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the Christ. The resurrection is directly connected to God’s final triumph and with the lives of all human beings” [First and Second Thessalonians, p. 64].

                To clarify things further, Paul speaks of timing. First, the dead will rise, and then the living, not the other way around. Using very apocalyptic language, Paul writes that the Lord will issue the command and then with the archangel’s call and God’s trumpet sounding, Jesus will descend from heaven and meet the dead in Christ who rise first. The descent from heaven and the sounding of the trumpet are common visions found in apocalyptic texts. When we hear about a trumpet here, think of royal trumpeters letting the people know that the monarch is arriving. As for the references to angels and in this case archangels, these are common in apocalyptic texts (see Daniel and Revelation). Though, in this case, Paul doesn’t identify the archangel.

                Unless you are used to being with people who embrace apocalyptic visions, this language might be unfamiliar and even bewildering. While this isn’t true for me due to my own experiences in contexts where this kind of language was common, I can understand how bewildering this might be to some who don’t have my background. It all might seem like watching a TV show like Grimm.

                As for the living in the Thessalonian church and beyond, at the time of the “coming of the Lord” (Parousia) they will be caught up in the air so they too might be with Jesus forever. This is where the idea of the rapture idea comes into play. The word itself is not present in scripture but the idea surely is. Modern speculation might be somewhat off-center, but you can understand where it comes from. In fact, in the subsequent chapter, things get a bit more specific. Though at the same time Paul warns against getting caught up in trying to figure out when and where this will take place. Know that his return will be similar to the coming of a thief in the night—unexpectedly! (1 Thess. 5:1-2).

                A text like this may seem strange to many in the church. We don’t have the same sense of expectation that the second coming, the Parousia, is close at hand. We’re too far out from these early moments. It’s not that there is no expectation, we’re just not quite as on edge as these believers were. At the same time, it’s understandable that a community under duress, which appears to be true for them, would find a certain comfort in the expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetimes to set things right. Nevertheless, the text does offer a reminder of the strong eschatological dimension to the Christian faith. There is an expectation that is rooted in the message of Jesus and Paul that a day of judgment, a final accounting, will take place. We might not know the times and seasons (1 Thess. 5:1) with any precision, but that’s the expectation. While we’re still a few weeks out from Advent, that is one of the elements of the season. We don’t just observe Advent as preparation for the coming of the baby Jesus. Advent speaks also, and very profoundly, of that second coming spoken of here.

                Perhaps the word we can take from this passage is that death will not have the last word. Whether living or dead at the coming of Christ in triumph, we will experience resurrection. This is a promise to take hold of, not as an escape from reality, but as empowerment to live boldly (though Paul would have us live rather quiet lives, living holy lives and behave properly to those outside the community of faith—1 Thess. 4:11-12). As Paul notes in verse 18, let us encourage each other with these words of hope in the resurrection.

The Crown of Glory – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22A (1 Thessalonians 2)

 

1 Thessalonians 2:9-20  New Revised Standard Version

9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus, they have
constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has
overtaken them at last.

17 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!

 

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                Paul speaks to the Thessalonians as a father speaks to his children (vs. 11). What we are tasked by the Lectionary to read/reflect upon here (vs. 9-13) is a continuation of the reading from the previous week, where Paul revealed that God had entrusted the gospel to them (Paul and companions). Thus, the reading here reinforces the earlier message concerning their mission in Thessalonica and beyond. Paul affirms their being witnesses, along with God, of the diligence with which Paul and his companions proclaimed the Gospel in Thessalonica. As noted in the opening verses of the chapter, Paul reminded them that he and his companions hadn’t proclaimed the gospel with false motives or out of concern for financial gain. They didn’t even take advantage of their rights as apostles (vs. 5-7). In other words, they weren’t hirelings. They were servants of God’s mission in the world.  

                As noted, the Revised Common Lectionary limits the reading for the week to verses 9-13. It’s understandable that verses 14-16 are omitted (there are unfortunate words regarding the Jews), but it seemed to be important to take a look at the remainder of the chapter to better understand Paul’s words here in verses 9-13.

The centerpiece of this week’s reading is the nature of the Gospel proclamation. Paul commends the Thessalonians for receiving their message not as a human word, but as the word of God. In describing their message as a divine rather than human word, Paul isn’t implying that their message was somehow inerrant or infallible (these categories are rather modern and thus not something Paul would have even considered). Rather they were speaking to their belief that God’s word had been made known in Thessalonica through their ministry. In other words, God speaks through human voices and words. There is good news here. The word has been heard and embraced by some (that’s the locus of the selected reading), but there is also opposition (the remainder of the chapter). Both exist and must be addressed. In the end, however, Paul commends them as being his crown when Jesus returns.

                The concept of the “word of God” is problematic. That’s because too often this phrase is applied solely to Scripture, when in fact the phrase is used in multiple ways. First and foremost, the term Word (Gk. Logos) is used in reference to Jesus, who is understood to be the Word (Logos) of God incarnate (Jn.1:1-14). In several places in the Book of Acts, the phrase is used in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel. That is the case here, where Paul has in mind the act of preaching/proclamation. The variety of ways this phrased is used has led me to embrace Karl Barth’s well-known articulation of the principle of the “three-fold Word of God.” As I’ve noted in a book on this question, Barth has proven very helpful in my own theological journey. Barth writes in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics

Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together. [Church Dogmatics, 1:1:52].

Of course, Barth, and I assume Paul would agree, recognizes that not all preaching reflects God’s message. However, both men recognize that God can speak through human messengers, and thus preaching can be a conduit of God’s word.  

                Having made this clear, speaking as a father to his children, Paul urges the readers to live lives worthy of God, “who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (vs. 12). This is a good place to pause and note that while Paul places great emphasis on God’s grace received by faith, he is also concerned about conduct (behavior), which might be understood as works. Therefore, he gives thanks that the Thessalonians received their word as the word of God and that this word is at work in their midst.

                Having taken note of this gracious word on Paul’s part, we now must take note of a most problematic word concerning the Jews. In verses 14-16 Paul commends them for being imitators of the churches in Judea who had suffered persecution from “the Jews,” even as they were suffering similarly.  We need to remember that contextually Paul understands his message being directed at reaching Gentiles. He finds any interference in that work problematic (at the very least). This leads to an unfortunate rebuke of his fellow Jews, who had opposed the Churches in Judea and had done the same in Thessalonica. If we remember that this letter was written several decades before the Book of Acts, we might want to take note of Acts 17, where Luke tells us of Paul and Silas’ visit to Thessalonica. In that passage, Paul is said to go and preach in the synagogue concerning Jesus. While some followed Paul, along with devout Greeks and leading women, “the Jews became jealous,” and along with some ruffians in the community attacked Jason for hosting them. That led Paul to head off to Berea and then Athens. This might be what Paul is referring to, but we can’t be certain.

                Living in a post-Shoah world, where the murder of millions of Jews along with others, has forced the church to be attentive to texts that have been and can be used to justify persecution and even murder of Jews. In a sidebar in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we read this reminder: “These verses present a succinct summary of classical Christian anti-Judaism: the Jews killed Jesus, persecuted his followers, and threw them out of the synagogues; they are xenophobic and sinners, and God has rejected and punished them. The harshness of these words raises questions about Paul’s attitude toward his fellow Jews” [Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 374].

There have been suggestions among scholars that this sounds less like Paul and more like a later Gentile scribal insertion. While that makes some sense, especially since it doesn’t fit well with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, where he affirms that God has not rejected the Jewish people. The problem with this suggestion is that there is no textual support for such a conclusion. In any case, whether these are Paul’s words or not, unfortunately, the damage has been done and the passage can be and has been used to justify anti-Jewish views and behavior. It would seem that Paul is trying to encourage his spiritual children to persevere in the face of
opposition and even persecution. Contextually, this might be understandable when one is in a minority position. However, in a different context, when Jews are the minority voice, this can be dangerous.

                Having commended them for hearing and embracing their message as God’s word to them, and having encouraged them as they experience persecution, the chapter closes with Paul letting the community know that he wants to visit them. Unfortunately, Satan had blocked their way time and again. The reference to Satan’s interference reminds us that Paul viewed the world in supernaturalist/apocalyptic terms.  As John Byron notes: “Although Paul does not explain what Satan did to hinder him, he has an acute sense that his freedom of movement was curtailed, and viewing the situation on a supernatural level, determined that Satan was interfering with the seen world.” [Benjamin E. Reynolds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (p. 249). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition]. Despite the supernatural interference (however that transpired), Paul celebrates their faith. They are his hope and joy, and the “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming.” That is, when Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, Paul can stand before Jesus and point to them as being his crown of glory and joy!  

When God Builds A House…: Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

When God Builds A House…: Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 25, 2020

Read: 2 Samuel 7:1-16

Reflection

I’ve always had an interest in design.  I love looking at buildings and seeing who made them and what style of architecture it belongs to.  Where I live in Twin Cities is probably one the best places to see both old and new architecture. The IDS Center in Minneapolis was designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson and that building exemplifies a postmodern style and his use of glass in many of his buildings like the IDS or the Glass House, which was his residence. The Wells Fargo Center was built as the Norwest Center in 1988.  It is built  in a modern art deco style the preferred style of architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed the Central Library in Minneapolis.

Then there is the Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Frank Gehry designed this building and Gehry is known for his radical design and if you have seen the Weisman, you know it is a bold design with curves and straight lines in places where they shouldn’t be.

Architecture and design can capture a certain mood or feeling.  The buildings designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer for the planned capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, showed a nation looking towards the future.  The Greek and Roman style of many of the buildings in Washington, DC tries to tie America to the proto-democracies of Greece and the Roman Republic.  A more negative example is the work of German architect Albert Speer, who design buildings during the Third Reich.  He and Hitler came up with plans to rebuild Berlin with wide avenues and very large buildings, one planned stadium was supposed to accommodate 400,000 people.  The plan was to make buildings that could aesthetically pleasing ruins that would be a testament to the greatness of Nazi Germany.  

Great architects tend to make buildings that make some kind of statement.  It might be a message they want to make or to reflect the community’s wishes.  They can talk about the future or harken back to the past.

David is now king of Israel.   The nation is united and at peace.  Not having to lead an army or worry about getting killed, he had some time on his hands to think.  He tells Nathan, the prophet that he is bothered that he is living in this stunning palace made of cedar, while the ark of God sits in a tent.  

Nathan didn’t need to hear anymore to understand.  He realized that David wanted to build a temple that could house the ark of God.  He then gives David permission to build.  That night Nathan has a dream where God is speaking about David. God tells Nathan to tell David that God doesn’t need a house. God reminds David that God never, ever asked for a temple.  

We know that David wanted to build a temple.  We know he wasn’t happy that the ark of God was in a tent.  But why does David really wants to build a temple.  Is God building this out of gratitude for what God has done?  Is it a way to get on God’s good side?  Does he think this is some sort of spiritual quid pro quo, if he does something for God, God will do something for him? We aren’t sure why David wants to build a temple. What we do know is that David wanted to do something for God, and God thought David didn’t understand what grace was all about.  

David wanted to do something for God.  David had big plans to make a beautiful temple that would honor God.  But God has to remind David that God is the one that calls the shots, not David.  We aren’t any different, we have big plans to serve God.  But in thinking we can pursue these grand plans, we forget that this is God’s story, not ours.  God is the one in control, not us. God didn’t want David to start to think he was all that because he built this big temple for God.  He wanted David to be a man who saw that God was the one that helped him, not the other way around.  In short, God wanted David to learn about grace and gratitude.

God then turns the table around.  Instead of David building a house for God, God was going to build a house for David. God tells David that a dynasty would be established.  His son would rise up succeed him as king and the House of David would rule forever.

God then turns the table around.  Instead of David building a house for God, God was going to build a house for David. God tells David that a dynasty would be established.  His son would rise up succeed him as king and the House of David would rule forever.

That was important for people hearing this story. 2 Samuel was written probably a century after these events happened.  It was written when Israel was in exile and the king Zedekiah a descendant of David, was deposed by the Babylonians.  So, this was a passage talking about the eternal dynasty of David written after the last of the dynasty ruled Israel. 

God’s faithfulness doesn’t always come in the way we expect.  David probably thought the kingdom and the dynasty would last forever and it would, just not in the way he expected.  For the people living in exile, this passage was a reminder that God has always been with them and is with them now even if it seems that king and kingdom are no more.  For Christians, we know that this point forward to another king, a descendant of David. Jesus would be the king that would allow the House of David to rule forever.

As a community of faith that is called by God, we are called to be thankful.  Being thankful means that we understand that this is God’s Story and not our own.  It means learning to remember what God has done and be thankful.  David’s son Solomon would end up building the temple, but it would be on God’s terms not the king’s.  Being thankful was a way of realizing who was in charge, who was the king.  

Jesus was the king that rule forever, allowing the dynasty to continue and that would have implications down the road.  In the New Testament, Israel is under the control of the Roman Empire.  It was not unknown for people to worship the Emperor as a god.  When people said that Jesus was Lord, they were challenging who was the leader, which meant challenging the Empire.  For the nascent church, it was important to respect the government, but at the end of the day, Jesus was Lord (or king) and Caesar was not.

This is an important thing to remember in this election year.  As we do our civic duty and vote for our leaders, including president, we who are followers of the great king are called to thankful and faithful and remind ourselves that no matter who we support, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the king, the king established long ago by God.  God is building a house, but it isn’t a house of stone or wood, but a house of people, a kingdom that is not of this world.  For that we give thanks. 

Photo by João Marcelo Martins on Unsplash

 





 

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

Finals Week – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21A (Matthew 22)

Matthew22:34-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they
gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
 
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 
 
42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 
 
44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 
 

45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
 
***************
            If you’ve been to college, or even experienced high school, you likely know the meaning of the words “Final’s Week.”  That’s the dreaded week that papers are due and major tests are given. If you’re lucky your professor won’t give a comprehensive test, but only one that covers the material presented since the last test. Looking back to the tests I gave as a professor, I didn’t put greater wait on the final that the other tests.  I did, however, require students to take and pass the final in order to pass the class. 
 
As Matthew’s story nears its end the tension has risen. Jesus is now teaching in Jerusalem, and his opponents are close at hand. In other words, it’s “Final’s Week” and lots of tests are being given.  Interestingly enough, while his political and religious opponents are putting him to the test, Jesus turns the tables on them and gives them tests as well.  You might say this has become a “test of wills.”  As the stories pile up, it seems that Jesus is coming out better in his tests than his opponents in theirs. 
 
            The passage for the week begins with  an acknowledgment that the Sadducees had failed in their attempt to flunk Jesus. Now it was the Pharisees’ turn. They send a lawyer to Jesus, and the lawyer asks him to name the greatest commandment. Which commandment is the most important?  You would think that the lawyer would come up with a more difficult question because every Jew knew the answer, and so as a good Jew Jesus would have to know the answer.  The answer is found in the Shema, which declares that there is only one God (a declaration omitted in Matthew) and that one should love God with one’s heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus was fast with his answer – though in Matthew might is replaced by mind, following the Septuagint.    
 
Then he adds a second commandment – one that had not traditionally been linked to the Shema – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This second commandment draws from Leviticus 19:18.  Jesus declares that upon these two laws, which he raises to near equal status, are the basis for everything else found in the Law (Torah) and the Prophets. In other words, this is the essential message of Judaism as Jesus understood it:  You should love God with your entire being, and your neighbor as yourself.  There is both the vertical and the horizontal axis upon which faith is founded. Thus, Jesus heard the question and answered appropriately, passing his final. 
 
            Digging deeper it is appropriate to ponder the relationship between the two commands.  It seems clear that the two commands organize the Ten Words or Commandments.  The first table focuses on the relationship with God and the second table the relationship within the community.  Whatever we read in the Ten simply expand what we read in the Two.  You might even call them commentary.   But then this wasn’t really a new insight.  Jesus was simply showing he understood the Torah!  If he understands the message, what about you and me?
 
            I have long seen the two commandments as being two dimensions of the Gospel message.  As noted above there is the vertical — the relationship one has with God – and the horizontal – the relationship one has first with the church and then with the larger world.  Both dimensions are needed – the vertical and the horizontal.  They provide balance.  Focusing on only the vertical makes us “so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” Focusing on the horizontal, our relationships with one another, cuts us off from the power source that allows us to go deeper into the relationship and expand outward into the community.  To fully be a follower of Jesus we need both. 
 
            Having answered their question, Jesus has a question of his own for his inquisitors.  This question is a tough one. It requires significant theological reflection to answer.
 
Remember how Jesus had been hailed as Son of David as he entered the city (Palm Sunday)?  Not everyone was pleased. In fact, that event led his opponents to up their opposition, lest Jesus bring the wrath of their Roman overlords down on them. It was clear that Jesus was a threat to the status quo. To hail him as Son of David or Messiah had political implications. The people were calling for him to take over the country – to reinstate the Davidic kingdom that had come to an end with the exile centuries before.  But is this how Jesus understood his mission?
 
            In posing question, Jesus asks the questioners to define the true identity of the Messiah?  In other words, whose son is he really?  Is there a one to one connection between the Messiah, the one whose coming many awaited, and David?  What Jesus was doing was asking them to consider what kind of person the Messiah would be?  If the Son of David, would he be a warrior king who would drive out the Romans and set up an earthy kingdom?  It’s clear that many hoped that Jesus was that one, but his message didn’t fit that scenario.  In posing his question, Jesus sets the stage by quoting from the Psalmist and noting that the Psalmist, who is presumed to be David, calls the Messiah Lord.  If, therefore, the Messiah is Lord of David, how can he be David’s son (Psalm110:1)?  It’s just not logical.  It’s not the way things are done. So maybe the Messiah is David’s son, but someone else’s?
 
It is important to remember that Matthew starts the Gospel with the statement that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham.  Is Matthew contradicting himself, but having Jesus set aside the relationship to David?  Or is he expanding the notion of Messiah by looking further back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1)?  How would the mission change if Jesus understands himself to be the son of Abraham?  As the son of David, the nature of his messianic realm is that of an earthly kingdom composed of Jews, but as the son of Abraham he is the bearer of blessings to the nations – that is, he brings hope not just to Jews but to Gentiles as well (Genesis 12:1-3)?  In posing his question Jesus is expanding their understanding of the Messiah, by demilitarizing it.  Many messianic pretenders took up arms against Rome. They would all fail – and in the end – Jerusalem itself would be destroyed as a result. But Jesus’ realm transcends these attempts to simply restore an earthly kingdom.  That doesn’t depoliticize it; it simply changes the nature of politics. It’s not about gaining political power over one’s enemies, but rather learning to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
 

So there is for us a final test question.  It has to do with our own sense of vision of God’s realm. How narrow or how expansive do we envision it to be?  Is it simply about gaining power?  Or is it about bringing the blessings of God – that is reconciliation – to all?  It is important to keep in mind that Jesus achieves his mission, not by staging a military coup but by going to the cross and in doing so conquers the very powers of death that are arrayed against us all.

 
 
Wooden Love Sign, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57756 [retrieved October 6, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mastababa/2398441001/.

Entrusted with the Gospel — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21A (1 Thessalonians 2)

Apostle Paul – Rembrandt

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 New Revised Standard Version

2 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

***********

                Having commended the Thessalonians for their receipt of the message of Jesus, as brought to them by Paul and his companions, in chapter one, now Paul speaks of his role in this process in chapter two. He is thankful that the time spent in Thessalonica wasn’t in vain. Even though they had been mistreated at Philippi before they arrived in Thessalonica (see Acts 16 for the report of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas), Paul and his companions courageously (boldly) proclaimed the Gospel in Thessalonica despite great opposition (See Acts 17). Paul makes clear that he and his companions were not deterred by opposition from their task of proclamation.

In this chapter, Paul addresses the question of motives. It’s not clear whether there were questions about his motives, but in any case, he wanted to make it clear that he and his companions hadn’t come to Thessalonica with impure motives or made their appeal for the Gospel through deceit or trickery. Whether or not they had been accused of something, with all the religious/spiritual options that were before the people, surely at least a few of the purveyors of these spiritualities were less than upfront about their motives. Thus, Paul simply wanted to be transparent about who he was and what he and his companions were doing. Thus, Paul wasn’t engaged in people-pleasing religious trickery. He had answered the call of God and was making known the message entrusted to him and his companions by God.

Religion then and now can be a business proposition. Religious organizations offer certain goods in exchange for some form of compensation (after all we take offerings each week and engage in stewardship campaigns). When it comes to compensation provided to religious professionals, I’m not suggesting that we are doing something unethical by receiving salaries or honorariums. Paul himself affirmed the principle in his first Corinthian letter. He might have chosen not to receive financial support from the churches, he noted that the Lord had “commanded that that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel (1 Cor. 9:12-14).  Whatever Paul’s reasons for not making use of his rights, the larger point is that money shouldn’t be the motive for ministry.

As we meditate on this passage it might be that what Paul is claiming here is a recognition that he and his companions had been called to act as stewards of the Gospel. They didn’t invent it nor did they possess it. They were simply tasked with making the message of Jesus known to those who were prepared to listen. With this calling in mind, Paul could speak of being apostles. When Paul speaks here of being apostles, he’s not thinking so much in terms of office by in terms of missionary calling. While Paul does at certain points make it clear that he is an apostle in the formal sense, having been visited and called by Jesus (Gal. 1:11-24), that isn’t what he has in mind here. For not only is he given an apostolic calling, but so have Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy.

                Getting back to motives, Paul notes that in engaging in this work, he wasn’t acting out of greed. This wasn’t a financially lucrative career he had undertaken. He and his companions probably traveled on foot. They faced opposition and even imprisonment. He didn’t own a Lear jet or a massive motor home so he and his crew could travel in comfort. As far as I know, this missionary group didn’t live in mansions either. Most of us who have accepted the call to serve in vocational ministry haven’t done this for the money. Now, I will admit to living a decent middle-class life, but like most of my colleagues, I don’t make the big bucks! That was true for Paul as well.

As for methodology in proclaiming the message, Paul notes that he didn’t use flattery. He was straightforward in his messaging. His preaching came with boldness, in large part because he wasn’t seeking human praise. The only audience he sought approval from was God. Thus, his boldness was rooted in his trust in God.

                While Paul claimed to proclaim the message with boldness; when it came to his relationship to the Thessalonian congregation, he spoke to them with gentleness. It should be noted that some manuscripts suggested that the “were infants among you.” That would suggest not just gentleness, but great vulnerability. As noted by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, the “Greek words for ‘infants’ (Gr. nēipoi) and ‘gentle’ (Gr. ēipoi) consists of a single letter so that a scribe might easily confuse the two words” (Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, pp. 26-27). While the scholars are not of one mind, and there are arguments on both sides, for my purposes both possibilities offer a sense of Paul’s softer side. We see this in the following statement, where Paul suggests that they tenderly cared for them as a nurse for her children. Here again, there is an intriguing concept. As Gaventa notes, in that era of ancient history it was quite common for wet nurses to be used—not only for the wealthy but even by slaves (so that they wouldn’t be sidelined from their duties). Whatever the case, wet nurses were both common and beloved in that world. With this in mind, Paul’s use of the concept suggests an “image of loving concern.” But note, Paul refers to a nurse “caring for her own children.” While wet nurses might be beloved figures in the ancient world, the relationship between a nursing mother and her own children was even greater. Thus, “verse 8 serves to unpack what is implicit in the nurse metaphor: the apostles regard the Thessalonians as so dear that they share with them their very selves” [Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, pp. 27-28].

                The lectionary reading ends with this maternal image, which Paul uses to describe his own relationship to the community. This was unusual for the era, though not without precedent. The use of this maternal imagery is helpful in understanding Paul’s vision of ministry. His view of ministry isn’t rooted in seeking personal fame or fortune. Rather it is one expressed in deep love and care for the community, which in this case, he birthed. After all, this is his congregation, one he founded. Of course, ultimately, Paul knows that they, as children of God, are dependent not on him, but God alone.  

  Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved October 18, 2020]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.

Anxious Days: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Anxious Days: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 18, 2020

Read: I Samuel 1:4-20 and 2:1-10

Reflection

I’ve dealt with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder for years.  It’s not as bad is once was thanks to medication.  Actually,  discovered that I had OCD when I was treated for depression.  OCD is something that makes you do thinkings repeatedly because of the fear something is undone.  Or it can be unwanted thoughts that can frighten you.  I can remember when I was in my late 20s trying to get some sleep during the evening and how hard that could be.  I would either wash my hands several times or, more often than not, I would get up and check to see if the dish towel that hung on the door handle was too close to the stove.  I would keep getting up over and over.  I knew this was silly, but there was this anxiety that tells you that you might be making a mistake.  You might have put that dishtowel on the stovetop. 

As I said, my OCD is under control now mostly because of medication, and also because I’ve learned to trust that things are not so out of control as I fear they are.  But you still have the anxiety that something somewhere is going to get you or that you forgot something that will hurt others or even yourself.

But you don’t have to have OCD to be anxious.  We live in an anxious times. We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic which sparked a recession that has shed millions of jobs.  We are in a contentious race for President. Racial and ethnic animosities are being stirred up bring about ugly results.  These are anxious days.

Our text this week opens with a man named Elkanah who has two wives: Pennianah and Hannah. Penninah gives Elkanah several children, including sons.  Hannah is not able to have children.  Elkanah loved Hannah more than Penninah, so he tries to do the right things.  He gives her a double portion for her to sacrifice.  He even tries to cheer her up.  “I’m more worth more than 10 sons!” he said.  But those words didn’t make Hannah better.  She wanted a child and it was important that she have a child. You have to understand that in ancient Israel, the value of a woman was measured in how many children she had especially boys.  Also, children were an insurance policy for the future.  They were the ones who took care of an elderly parent or made sure the woman didn’t end up on the street.  Because Hannah had no sons, she was in big trouble.  If Elkanah were to die at the point, the inheritance would go Penninah’s sons who would then decide if they wanted to support Hannah.  Since Penninah was a bully to Hannah, she was sure that Penninah would persuade her sons to send Hannah packing. 

So, Hannah was anxious.  She had every reason to be.  She decides to deal with her anxiety by praying to God.  She asks God to give her a child and after Eli, the priest, who thought she was drunk initially , tells her he prays God will give what she asked.

We know she has a child, but it’s interesting in her prayer that she didn’t just ask for a child- she wants to give the child back to God.  Her anxiety gave way to urgency- she knows any gift from God is a gift and she wants to treat it care.  

That sense of urgency, that sense that God is at work is the basis of Hannah’s song in chapter 2.  She is able to sing outloud about the goodness of God, the one who is her rock, the one that remembered her.  She sings of the God who shatters the bows of warriors, a reminder that no earthly power can stack up to God.

Hannah’s song echoes another woman who will start singing about the mighty being brought down and the lowly lifted up.  Mary sings a song which is now called the Magnificat, about an urgent God that rules over all creation and no one could challenge God’s power.

 We live in anxious times.  But God calls us out of anxiety into urgency. The God we serve is one that is at work in the world and is working to set the world to rights.  Our anxieties can block our God-given sense of urgency.  Hannah understood that God was at work in the world, so her prayer was not just about having a son, but about devoting her son to be about God’s work.  The son she had was named Samuel, who became the last Judge of Israel.  Judges were temporary leaders that were called to lead the people in times of crisis.  Samuel would become one of these Judges who would later annoint a young boy in Bethlehem named David to be king over Israel.  Hannah knew if this prayer was granted it was because of God and it made sense to give her gift back to God to bring salvation to the world.

God is still a God of urgency. God wants to share the gospel with others, to feed the hungry, to welcome the outcast.  We are called to join God in this urgency, but too often we are trapped in anxiety; how will the church pay its bills?  How will we pay the pastor?  Will we be around in 10 years or so?

But we also need to be a people or urgency.  Yes, we have challenges.  But like the person with OCD, we have to get out of being frozen and move forward in faith.  Hannah had no idea what would become of Samuel, but she was willing to trust God and so do we.

We will always be anxious, that’s just part of being human.  But we can stop going in circles.  We can’t stop being frozen.  We can know that we can carry our anxieties to God, who will help give us a sense of urgency to help a hurting world.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

 





 

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

Turning from Idols to Serve God – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A (1 Thessalonians 1)

 

Statue of Jupiter-Germanicus’ Tomb – Ashmolean

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the
Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

 

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                The ancient Greco-Roman World offered many religious options. Gods were plentiful, and the people indulged in serving them. Jews were a peculiar people since they only worshiped one God, considering all others to be mere idols. The Jesus movement, which was rooted in Judaism, embraced the same view of the many religious options present in their world. That made them rather peculiar as well. The difference between the two was the Jesus Movement was more assertive in its outreach to their Gentile neighbors. Over time that would cause problems for them. When we open Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, we’re taken back to the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. It is the consensus view that this is Paul’s earliest letter, making it the earliest book in the New Testament. If, as is likely, it was written from Corinth around 50 or 51 CE, we are within two decades of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem and subsequent birth of the church on Pentecost. As we know, Paul made Gentiles the focus of his ministry. He might go first to the synagogue, but he was more interested in spreading the gospel to those outside the Jewish community. That of course, led to some conflict between those who embraced the message of Jesus and those who didn’t.

                In these opening lines of Paul’s letter, we hear a word of commendation and encouragement to people who have embraced the message of Jesus as delivered by Paul. They have even become known for their commitment to this message. As for the letter itself, it is written by Paul, together with his companions Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy. The mention made here of Silas is a clue that this was written after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) when Silas replaced Barnabas as Paul’s companion.  As he often does, Paul writes that he always gives thanks for them in his prayers. These are his people, and he cares about them. Paul also records that they had received a Gospel message that came not only in words but also in the power of the Holy Spirit. He also notes that their reception of the Gospel was due to have been chosen by God. For Paul, conversion always begins with God’s initiative. That doesn’t require some form of predestination, only God’s initiative. Regarding the role of the Spirit, what he has in mind here isn’t clear but suggests that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. 

                The church to whom the letter was written inhabited a major Roman city situated in the province of Macedonia. Thessalonica served as the capital of the province and was a port city, making it not only a governmental center but also a commercial center. Thus, like Corinth, Thessalonica was quite cosmopolitan, drawing residents from across the empire and beyond. It was also a city that was known for its many religious options, including the imperial cult (it was a Roman colony after all), along with Egyptian gods, as well as the cult of Cabrius. This figure supposedly had died and had risen from the dead, which sounds a lot like Jesus. Thus, as William Brosend notes, “when Paul praises the addresses for ‘how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess. 1:9), he knew that they had made a choice with many alternatives” [Preacher’sBible Handbook, p. 302]. That reality may explain much that goes on in our reading.

                Paul commends them for their steadfastness in faith and for imitating him, as well as his companions, along with the Lord. He speaks of them joyfully receiving the message as inspired by the Holy Spirit so that the “word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia,” as well as every place their faith had been made known. This despite facing persecution. Though the persecution they were facing probably wasn’t legal or violent but entailed resistance to the message. What is clear from the letter as a whole, that it has an overtly eschatological feel. It’s not as prominent here in this first chapter, but as one moves into the letter it gets stronger. He writes with the presumption that Christ should be returning at any moment, and because they had received the word of God, Jesus would rescue them from the “wrath to come.”

                Getting back to their reception of the Gospel message, it seems apparent that the audience of Paul’s letter was a community largely made up of Gentile Christians. Although Paul had begun his ministry in Thessalonica in the synagogue (Acts 17:1-9), it appears from Acts that Paul didn’t get a very positive reception there. Evidence that the community was largely Gentile Christians is revealed in verse nine, where Paul commends them for having “turned to God from idols.” This isn’t something that Paul would have said to Jewish Christians but would make sense when applied to converts from a pagan context. As noted above, Thessalonica offered many religious options for them to choose from. As for them, they had chosen to “serve the true and living God.” Now, they await the coming of the Son of the true and living God, who is coming from heaven (the eschatological dimension), and whom the true and living God raised from the dead. This Jesus rescues the believer from the wrath to come (judgment day). As Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring note, this message represents the “traditional Jewish missionary message of the one God over against pagan idols, the God whose ethical seriousness is manifest in that he will bring all human beings to a final judgment.” They also note that the Jewish monotheistic message attractive to many in the Hellenistic world. As for the Christian proclamation, rooted in this Jewish message, “the living God is the one definitively manifest in Jesus, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the one through whom God saves at the final judgment.” [People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 639]. While in the modern era, the idea of judgment along with the wrath of God is not well received, this message does make clear the power of an ethical message that insists humans will be held accountable. 

                While the reading ends with the word wrath, the message is one of joy because God has provided a new way of living that is rooted in Jesus rather than dead idols. He commends them for the way they have embodied the message of Jesus so that all of Macedonia and Achaea has heard the message. 

                As we attend to this word from Paul, what is its message for us? If we hear in this a call to turn from idols to God, what idols might we contend with? What is it that we worship instead of God? How does serving these idols affect our relationships with one another and with creation itself? To whom or to what do I give my allegiance? Is it my whiteness? My economic situation? Is it a particular politician or political party (this is election season after all)? What about my being a citizen of the United States? In asking that question, I’m glad I am a citizen of the United States, but does it have the ultimate claim on my life? I wrote a book on the Lord’s Prayer that I titled Ultimate Allegiance because I believe that this prayer repeated by Christians around the globe is itself a pledge of allegiance to God and God’s realm. Whatever I give allegiance to rather than to God and God’s realm, then that becomes my idol. May we join with the Thessalonian believers and turn from our idols and serve the true and living God.