Category: revised common lectionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Gathered at the Light

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

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

Growing Up in a Temple? – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1C (1 Samuel 2)

Samuel in the Temple – David Wilkie (1839)
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
18 Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home.
***************
                Christmas has come, and in the minds of many, it’s time to move on to the next holiday. The stores will be clearing out extra merchandise, and unwelcome presents will be returned. Next up are the parades and games of New Year’s Day (and a new Dr. Who special). Liturgically, however, the Christmas season is not yet over. There is still time to sing some carols and hear Christmas related messages. The first Sunday after Christmas is usually low attendance, and my preachers (myself included) will be taking the week off. Nevertheless, liturgically we’re still in the midst of the Christmas season. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year C is Luke 2:41-52, which tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple when he was twelve, so we’ve moved well beyond infancy. This is, however, the only reference to Jesus’ childhood to be found in the New Testament. There’s nothing spectacular going on here. Jesus’ doesn’t make clay pigeons fly, or anything like that. He does, however, pay a visit to the Temple, where he engages the religious teachers in deep theological discussions. You might say he’s a rather precocious lad! He also causes his parents a few worries, because he got separated from the family when their caravan headed back to Nazareth. I’ve always liked that story, not just the part about the theological discussions, but the troubles he caused his parents. Whatever moral perfection we grant Jesus, let’s remember he had to grow and mature. That he did!  As the Lukan story concludes we hear: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, he had stuff to learn along the way!
 
                The reading from 1 Samuel 2 offers a parallel of sorts to that of Jesus. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible for this Sunday, we might picture Samuel as a boy of about twelve. He’s ministering in the Temple in Shiloh, as an apprentice to Eli the priest. If we turn back to chapter 1, we will find Samuel’s mother, Hannah, pleading with God to take away the shame of being unable to conceive and bear a child, in the course of her prayers, she promised that if God provided her with a son, she would return the child to the Temple to serve God there. Lo and behold, she conceives and bears a child, whom she names Samuel. As she promised, at the appropriate time, she brought Samuel to the Temple to live with Eli and serve with him in the Temple. We might use this story as an opportunity on what it means to dedicate children to God. Whether we practice infant baptism or infant dedication, the ritual invites parents to commit themselves to raising children in the faith, and congregations pledge to assist. I’m not sure we always do a great job at this, but in both the story of Jesus and Samuel, children are dedicated to the Lord’s service.
In chapter 2 we find Hannah and her husband Elkanah making an annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Each time they make this trip, Hannah brings her son a new robe to wear in service in the Temple. After all, he’s a growing boy and will need new clothes on occasion. It also suggests that Hannah kept in contact with her son. Each time they visited the Temple, Eli would bless the couple, asking that God would bless them with more children.   
 
The lectionary omits verses 21-25, which tells us that Hannah had three more children, while Samuel grew up on the presence of the Lord,as well as about Eli’s own less-than-honorable sons. While it is understandable, the author of the story seemed to want to make the contrast between Samuel and the priest’s sons, all of whom would have been in line to succeed their father. You might even see in Eli’s blessing of Elkanah and Hannah a ruefulness, recognizing that their son was more committed to God than his own sons. In fact, as Melissa Browning notes: “These weren’t just preacher’s kids being mischievous at church; it was far worse. They were stealing the offering, sleeping around, and threatening violence—all within the sacred space of the Temple” (Connections, p. 114). You could understand if Eli didn’t wish that his own sons would be more like Samuel.  
 
The stories of Samuel and Jesus intersect in the Temples, where both demonstrate their faithfulness to God, and their wisdom. Samuel wears a linen ephod, a priestly vestment. Having served as an acolyte in the Episcopal church as a child, I can get a sense of what this might look like. I wore a black cassock with a white surplice. Properly dressed, I could assist the priest in consecrating the eucharistic elements. I would assume that Samuel had a similar responsibility, assisting Eli with the sacrifices, including those brought by his own parents. Jesus didn’t have the same responsibilities. He wasn’t an apprentice priest. Instead, he engaged in theological conversation with religious teachers, astounding his conversation partners with his understanding of deep topics (I wasn’t yet ready to do such things at age 12, believe me!).
There is another connector, and that is the description of their maturation process.  Of Samuel it is said that he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” 1 Sam. 2:26). Witness the similar appellation given to Jesus in Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” What more could any parent desire than to receive report cards like these?
Not all children grow up to be prophets and messiahs. Many children will be more like Eli’s sons than either of these two. Parents love to brag about their kids. Facebook seems to be a common space for doting parents to tell stories of their precocious children, who can do know wrong, and who at age 5 seem to have the wisdom and knowledge of a PhD candidate. Other parents, reading such reports of wondrous children, may feel like Eli, wishing their children could be wiser and looked upon with divine and human favor. It’s easy to feel a bit like a failure as a parent, when you discover that other children are better behaved and smarter than your own.
Whatever our status as parents, we can recognize in these two parallel stories, very special children, who grow up to fulfill important callings. We should celebrate their faithfulness, and call their parents are blessed.  We should also recognize that in both cases the children grew in faith and wisdom. They were not born with the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. They were given the opportunity to develop their faith, either under the guidance of a religious leader in the case of Samuel or, we can presume, under the tutelage of parents (Jesus).
With these stories in mind, may we continue the Christmas journey toward Epiphany, and the full manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus.

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

 

O Little Town of Bethlehem – a lectionary reflection of for Advent 3C (Micah 5)

 
 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
*****
 
                O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
                Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
                Yet in they dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
                The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (Philips Brooks, 1868).
        When we hear the Christmas story, the Gospel of Luke brings us to the little town of Bethlehem, and Matthew gets us out of town, just in the nick of time. In Luke it’s an imperial census that draws the Holy Family to Bethlehem, while in Matthew it is an enraged king who drives them out of town and into exile in Egypt. While Bethlehem is the city of David, the hometown of the young man, whom Samuel called to a new vocation, from shepherd to king of Israel. The prophet Micah speaks to a different age, several centuries after David’s rise to power. The kingdom that David put together no longer exists. It had divided into two parts after the death of his successor, and the northern portion was destroyed by the Assyrians during Micah’s time, leaving Judah as a remnant. While much of Micah’s message is one of judgment upon that kingdom and its leaders, this reading seems to offer hope of something, something better. What that might look like is uncertain, but for Christians this portends the coming of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, who is the one of peace.
           When we who are Christians read a passage from the Hebrew Bible, we need to remember that it has an original audience different from us. Sometimes that audience is difficult to discern, as it is here. Is this the message of an eighth century prophet who hails from the rural regions of Judah or a voice calling out from the exile, hoping for a restoration of what once existed, a kingdom under Davidic rule? Scholars are not of one mind on this. As Christians, however, we read it in light of the Gospels and apply it to the birth of Jesus. Micah may have had a different scenario in mind, but we hear it speaking to our Advent journey, pointing us to the little town of Bethlehem, from whence one will come bringing peace.
            The opening lines of the book of Micah identifies the prophet as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (Micah 1:1). This puts the prophet in the eighth century, around the time of the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. Much of the early chapters of the book fit such a context, but some scholars place chapters four and five during the exilic or post-exilic period. So, while the opening chapters offer words of doom and gloom, chapters four and five offer a word of hope, possibly to a post-exilic people that the throne of David would be restored. Of course, that never occurred. Descendants of the Davidic line did hold some power in post-exilic Judah, but not as king. On the other hand, there is the possibility that this is not a post-exilic piece, but actually comes from the eighth century. Since Micah takes a rather dim view of the monarchy, including Hezekiah, then perhaps what is being suggested is not the post-exilic restoration, but a royal do-over. Remember Micah isn’t an urban prophet, he’s a rural prophet. He sees the devastation out in the villages that took place after the Assyrian invasion, because the authorities pursued war rather than peace. Thus, Micah is seen envisioning a shepherd king, rather than a warrior one. As you can see, the original audience is difficult to pin down.
       While the original audience is difficult to discern, Matthew and Luke found it to be pregnant with possibilities, as they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. While these two Gospels offer two rather different perspectives on Jesus’ birth, both stories center in Bethlehem. Micah may not have been the only influence, but likely influenced this vision. So, now, as Christmas draws near, and we prepare for that moment when we welcome the child born in Bethlehem, whom the angels celebrate, we hear this word of restoration. The word for us is that “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”
          I like the idea that Micah may be envisioning a new beginning, something unlike the historical record. It’s not that he envisions a restoration of the current order. It’s clear he’s not impressed with David’s successors, and maybe not even with David. But Bethlehem might be a better starting place than Jerusalem. It’s not a matter of making Judah great again, but rather living into God’s vision of a realm that is just, where those who rule do so for the good of all, and as Alan Gregory puts it, this person rules for the good “of all who struggle and work for life, who prefers peace to war, and who desires to secure their posterity in the land” [Connections, p. 50]. If as seems possible, Micah speaks from a social location that is rural and has been decimated by war (after all the rural villagers don’t have the benefit of Jerusalem’s walls to protect them, like Hezekiah did), then we can see how this vision might resonate.
Indeed, it may resonate in our day, as many in rural America feel left out and ignored. They many have also contributed their sons and daughters to serve in foreign wars or seen support for their communities sucked up by military budgets. Perhaps they have been left behind by the technological revolution. What is true for those living in rural America is often true of those living in our urban cores. Neither share in the benefits of living in suburban America (my social location), and thus feel a certain anger toward the government, who seems more intent on representing those with the means to contribute to political coffers than those living on the margins. That is, the community to whom Jesus more often than not spoke.
This is the Sunday we light the candle of love. Love is the foundation for peace and justice in the world. It is love that brings nourishment and strength to the people, allowing those gathered by God’s love to live securely. That is because the Good Shepherd is the prince of peace. Peace may have been the theme of the second Sunday of Advent, but the message peace continues to ring out. We long for its promise, even as military budgets eat up much of the governmental budgets here in my country and around the world. Maybe there is a better way, a way of peace. Micah proposes it, and Jesus exemplifies it in his words and deeds. The one who is born in Bethlehem becomes the good shepherd, who takes us on a different path.
O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.
                                                                               —Phillips Brooks

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

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

Zephaniah (18th century Russian icon) 

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

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

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

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

The Coming Refining Fire – Lectionary reflection for Advent 2C (Malachi 3)

Malachi 3:1-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? 
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

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                The message of Advent is clear. Get ready. Get cleaned up. Prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. But, are we ready to bear the burden of purification? Are we ready to be refined by the refiner’s fire? A little water from baptism maybe, but fire?  Sometimes we ask for things to occur, but don’t know the full ramifications. We cry for justice, forgetting that we might get singed along the way.
                Malachi speaks to a people facing a crisis. Exiles have returned home to a ruined Jerusalem, from Babylon and Persia. They have rebuilt the Temple, but maybe they’re not of one mind when it comes to supporting it. The Book of Malachi is best known for its “stewardship theme” of tithing so as not to rob God. Maybe the context of this message was a capital campaign to rebuild the Temple. Maybe people were a bit behind in their pledges (Mal. 3:8-12). Could the prophet of record be a disgruntled priest, who is discouraged by the lack of progress in supporting the Temple or in behavior change for that matter. We aren’t reading that portion of Malachi 3. We’re reading the word that precedes it.
That word follows the word we hear now, a word about a messenger, perhaps an eschatological messenger, who will come suddenly to carry out judgment. The identity of the messenger is uncertain. The name Malachi can be translated as “My Messenger,” which is the task given to the one who is coming. In any case, the word comes to the people from God, and it is God who will do the refining.
                Whoever this prophet is, who likely writes early in the fifth century, BCE, the word we hear, is that the people have lost their way. They want much but seem unwilling to give of themselves for this purpose. They may be experiencing disillusionment. They decry corruption, but perhaps are caught up in it themselves (and can’t see it). So, the prophet calls the people to account on behalf of YHWH Zebaoth (Lord of Hosts), who is coming, with refiner’s fire, to cleanse and renew the community.
                The Gospel reading from Luke 3 that accompanies this reading speaks of another messenger, who is sent to the people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord. That messenger or prophet is John, son of Zechariah, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord—as Isaiah had already revealed (Luke 3:1-6). Malachi’s calling is similar, or better, John’s calling is similar to that of Malachi. Both prophets call for repentance so that sins might be forgiven, and people might be purified.
The age in which we live is an age of division that at times lacks a sense of moral vision. As Reinhold Niebuhr would say, moral man is living in an immoral society. We hear hue and cry about corrupt systems—political, religious, corporate—even we participate and perhaps benefit from those systems. We want change, but we would rather not incur any pain or inconvenience. It is like those who complain about the roads, but demand tax cuts. So, we throw out the bums, and elect new bums in their place. When the new bums fail to fulfill their promise (or fulfill it at our inconvenience), we complain. It seems to be a never-ending cycle. So, perhaps Malachi’s concerns are our concerns.
While we’re not sure about the context, the prophet is concerned about the context at hand. Things are not as they should be, which suggests that God will do something to set things right. People have been calling for God act, but perhaps they need to ready themselves first. The refining fire might prove uncomfortable. So, am I ready? I don’t know. Is the church I serve ready? I don’t know that either.
                As we move quickly toward Christmas, on this the second Sunday of Advent, with only two more Sundays after this one we are faced with the question: are you ready for what is to come? Perhaps we will answer: If only we had more time, or perhaps more resources, then we could fulfill our promise. But will this answer be sufficient? While the promise that the coming messenger will bring refiner’s fire might seem ominous (who wants to undergo judgment), perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps if we submit ourselves to this process, we will be better prepared to bring our offerings to the Temple in righteousness.
                With Malachi’s message in our minds, what is the vision that moves us in this journey toward Bethlehem? What are we hearing from God that speaks to our souls? Are we ready to receive this word of judgment so we can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord?
                Let us remember that the season of Advent points not only to the first Advent, when a child is born in Bethlehem, a child who will grow up to preach good news, bring healing and wholeness, and then face death, but also a second Advent, the eschaton, the time of judgment. While the death of Jesus culminated in the Resurrection, that was the end of the story. We live in the interregnum, the in-between time, before the coming Day of the Lord. We may be experiencing some of that refining fire now, in our time.
                After centuries of Christendom, where in Europe and its colonies, Christianity dominated culturally, that cultural dynamic no longer exists. People find church to be less important. They still claim faith in God but operate outside the usual channels. Our congregations shrink, and along with it, our budgets. The majority of churches in America have less than 100 members. I serve one of those churches. I know the challenges that come as we grow smaller. Thousands of cars pass by our church each day, no one paying attention to that church on the corner. I don’t know the future. I am hopeful, but realistic as well. The future of our congregations, especially smaller ones with older and whiter memberships, is uncertain. The good news is that God is faithful to the covenant, and so the invitation is sent out, inviting us to submit ourselves to the refiner’s fire.
                This passage is intended to be heard on Peace Sunday. The question is, does it bring peace to our souls? Does it inspire us to be peacemakers? Whether we’re able to answer in the affirmative, we can hear the words of Alan Gregory, who writes:
When Christians accept God’s calling, it is good news for the world, because the church, when it is willing to bear God’s refining, represents the glory of humanity as it exists in God’s desire. In the end, of course, what sustains the church, and all human beings touched by God’s grace, lies beyond the words of judgment, in the faithfulness with which God shall complete the loving work of creation.  [Connections, p. 20].
May we present ourselves to God’s messenger so that we might be refined. With that act on God’s part of refining us, we find ourselves brought to wholeness, to completeness, along with the rest of God’s creation. With  that we can continue the journey toward Christmas.

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