In Western Christianity, Monday February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, commemorating Jesus’ presentation at the temple (see Luke 2:22-40).  This old icon expresses Luke’s account simply and beautifully.

Joseph (portrayed, as is traditional, as a very old man) carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor woman may offer instead of a sheep for her cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth: a defiling act, for mother and child alike (see Leviticus 12:2-8; note that in Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin”).

In the priests’ world view, the life of any being was contained in the blood, meaning that blood belongs exclusively to God.  Childbirth, being a bloody process, rendered mother and child alike ritually unclean.

The period of uncleanness depended on the sex of the child: 7 days of impurity for a male child, 2 weeks of uncleanness if the baby was female.  This was followed by an additional 33 days for a male child, 66 days for a female, during which the mother “must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area” (Lev 12:4).  Although in the icon, little Jesus looks more like a young boy than a baby scarcely over a month old, Luke says that Joseph and Mary, as observant Jews, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem “When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth (which is why the Feast is celebrated in the Christian West on February 2, 40 days after December 25).

Also pictured are Simeon and Anna.  Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26) holds baby Jesus, praises God for him, and prays a beautiful prayer, called (after its opening words in Latin) the Nunc dimittis:

Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
     because my eyes have seen your salvation.
 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and a glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. . . began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).  In Luke’s gospel, then, from the very first, anyone with eyes to see and a heart to believe knows who Jesus is!  His presentation in the temple as a baby marks, in a sense, the beginning of his mission.

This celebration, coming in the dead of winter, is traditionally associated with hope for Spring’s return.  Good weather on this midwinter day is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while bad weather augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery–which is why, in America, February 2 is better known (heaven help us!) as Groundhog Day. We wait to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, of course, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) will see his shadow.

The association of February 2 with light and warmth leads to the other name for this feast day, Candlemas.  In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Old Testament reading for Candlemas every year is Malachi 3:1-4:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi comes at the end of the Book of the Twelve, and in the Christian Bible, at the end of the Old Testament.   The book is set well after the end of the Babylonian exile, when Judah once more has a temple, a priesthood, and a functioning sacrificial liturgy. Yet, according to the prophet, the people are bland, cynical, and indifferent.  Far from being moved to repentance and change by Malachi’s call to reform, the people say, “Anyone doing evil is good in the Lord’s eyes,” or “He delights in those doing evil,” or “Where is the God of justice?”(Mal 2:17).  In other words, Malachi’s community believes that either God does not see what they do, or that God does not care.

Malachi gives assurance that these questions and doubts are about to be addressed, for “suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Mal 3:1).  Those who piously claim to delight in God’s covenant will soon have the opportunity to express their gratitude personally!

Actually, Malachi proclaims not only the advent of the LORD, but also of the LORD’s messenger.  In Hebrew, “my messenger” is  mal’akhi–the same word that appears at the beginning of the book (Mal 1:1), where mal’akhi is the one through whom this message of judgment is communicated.  While we might expect a name like Malachiah (“the LORD’s messenger”), “my messenger” seems an unlikely name for any parent to give a child. Probably, then, the prophet is anonymous, called Mal’akhi  because of Malachi 3:1.

But already within the editing of Malachi, we see further reflections on the identity of this enigmatic figure.  In the conclusion to this book (see Mal 4:5 [3:23 in the Hebrew text]), the prophetic forerunner of the day of the LORD has become Elijah, who was taken alive into the heavens in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11) and so can be called upon for this task.

In Christian Scripture, Jesus is the one who comes to cleanse his people from their sins (Mal 3:2-3), and John the Baptist becomes the “messenger” sent to proclaim Jesus’ coming (see the quotes of Mal 3:1 at Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27), and “Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14; cf. Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12; Luke 1:17).

Perhaps this is why Augustine on the one hand describes John the Baptist the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 (Tra. Ev. Jo. 14.10.1), and on the other relates Malachi 3:1-2 both to Christ’s first coming (reading the Lord coming to “his temple” as a reference to the incarnation; see Matt 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 2:19-21, where the “temple” refers to Jesus’ body) and also to his second coming at the end of time (“Who can endure the day of his coming?,” Mal 3:2; cf. Civ. 18:35; 20:25).

Perhaps as you have been reading this blog, the musical setting of Malachi 3:1-3 from George Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah has been playing in your head–as it has in mine.  Charles Jennens, who composed the libretto for this oratorio, doubtless picked this passage for inclusion because, like Augustine, he regarded it as a reference Christ’s first and second coming.

It is also little wonder that this text should be used for Candlemas, a day celebrating Jesus coming into the temple.  But, as the old name for this feast reminds us, the occasion for Jesus and Mary coming to the temple on this particular day is their cleansing, mother and child, from ritual impurity–an idea also expressed in Mal 4:2-3:

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.

In Malachi, it is the the priesthood (the “sons of Levi,” in Handel’s stirring oratorio) who, after being purified and cleansed by God in the coming trials, will at last present right offerings to the LORD, restoring Judah and Jerusalem to a right relationship with God (Mal 3:4).  A Christian reader may find the idea of ritual purity and uncleanness strange, even meaningless.  Indeed, regarding ritual purity and impurity laws relating to food, Jesus said:

Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer?  But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.  These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).

Although we may see no need for cleansing from ritual impurity, Jesus’ words surely ring true. We know that our own thoughts, words and actions–or the actions and words of others–can make us feel dirty.  Understanding our need for forgiveness of sin, and freedom from guilt, may we, with Malachi, affirm that God can cleanse us from the stain of our sin, today and in days to come.  


February 2 will also be the day of a prayer breakfast, sponsored by Equality Pennsylvania, at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, PA.  Hope that you can come!



 In Western Christianity, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany–a celebration of the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ.  In particular, this day is associated with the light of the star that guided the wise men from the East to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).

There is something particularly wonderful about this part of Matthew’s Christmas story.  Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels–and yet, in his account, the first visitors to the newborn Jesus are not only Gentiles, but foreigners: astrologers from distant Persia.  What better way to underline the grace of God: that the light of God would shine, not only upon me and mine, but particularly upon folks unlike me, from far away?

In the Book of the Twelve, that astonishing grace of God, particularly to foreigners, is the particular theme of the book of Jonah.  In this wonderful prophetic novella, Jonah is sent to deliver warning of God’s judgment to foreign Nineveh, capital city of the oppressive Assyrians.  When he instead flees for Tarshish, God sends a storm to halt the ship in which he is traveling.  In spite of Jonah’s poor example, the foreign sailors on the ship become faithful worshippers of the LORD (Jon 1:16).  Jonah, who had insisted that the sailors throw him overboard to avert God’s wrath,  is saved from drowning when he is swallowed by a giant fish (Jon 1:17)—not what we would normally call a rescue!   Then, when he eventually fulfills God’s command by declaring to the Ninevites, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4), the people of that wicked city repent, extravagantly:  not only does everyone in Nineveh from the king to the lowest beggar fast and mourn in sackcloth and ashes, but their animals fast and sit in sackcloth and ashes, too (Jon 3:7-9)!  As a result, “God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it” (Jon 3:10).

Jonah, who wants God to act according to divine justice rather than divine grace, is furious–but not surprised.  This, he says, is why he had earlier tried to flee from God’s presence:

Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jon 4:2).

Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to back out, leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions do not come true (see Deut 18:21-22)—which is, of course, what happened. No wonder Jonah is so angry!  The prophet quotes here from the divine self-declaration in Exodus 34:6-7,

 The LORD! The LORD!
    a God who is compassionate and merciful,
        very patient,
        full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
         showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
        forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
        yet by no means clearing the guilty,
        punishing for their parents’ sins
        their children and their grandchildren,
        as well as the third and the fourth generation.

This passage is cited throughout Scripture, usually with a decided emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness (for example, Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Neh 9:17; Joel 2:13).  But while Exodus 34:7 describes the LORD as “by no means clearing the guilty,” (Hebrew wenaqqeh lo’ yinaqqeh), Jonah describes God as “willing not to destroy”  (Hebrew wenikham ‘al-hara’ah)–using the Hebrew wenikham (“relent”) here to pun with wenaqqeh (“declare innocent; clear”) in Exodus, and so underlining and reemphasizing God’s gracious choice to preserve Nineveh.

In the New Testament, Matthew refers twice to  “Jonah’s sign” (Matt 12:39-41 and 16:4) as the only sign of the in-breaking kingdom his “evil and unfaithful generation” would receive (the first of these references is paralleled in Luke 11:29-32).  Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly (Jon 1:17 [Hebrew 2:1]) become a sign of Jesus’ resurrection, paralleling his “three days and three nights . . . in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40).  Indeed, many early Christian interpreters read Jonah as a type for Christ.

Tertullian wrote that Jonah “would have been lost, were it not for the fact that what he endured was a type of the Lord’s suffering, by which pagan penitents also would be redeemed” (On Purity 10; cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament XIV: The Twelve Prophets, ed. Albert Ferreiro [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003], 134).

Reformer John Calvin concluded, “Hence Jonah was not a type of Christ, because he was sent away unto the Gentiles, but because he returned to life again, after having for some time exercised his office as a Prophet among the people of Israel” (Commentary on Jonah, Lecture 72, in Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen [Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005 {orig. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society,1847})

Further, foreign Nineveh is lifted up in the Gospels as an example of sincere repentance:

The citizens of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it as guilty, because they changed their hearts and lives in response to Jonah’s preaching. And look, someone greater than Jonah is here (Matt 12:41//Lk 11:32).

Although Jonah is not mentioned, there are also clear parallels between Jonah 1 and the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm (Matt 8:18-27//Mark 4:35-41//Luke 8:22-25).  In each case, there is a “[great] storm.”  Jesus, like Jonah, is asleep in the boat.  In each account, the sailors are delivered, and there is a calm after the storm.  Indeed, the many parallels between these accounts intensify the contrast between the faithful foreign sailors in Jonah, who after their deliverance “worshipped the LORD with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made solemn promises” (Jon 1:16), and the faithless disciples in the Gospels, who ask, “Who then is this?” (Mark 4:41; compare Matt 8:27; Luke 8:25).  In the Gospels, then, Jonah is remembered as a book about God’s gracious deliverance.

In this season after Epiphany, devoted to exploring the implications of God’s gracious revelation in Christ, we would do well to remember Jonah’s message of the hilarious extravagance of God’s grace, lavished upon us.  Particularly today, on the Feast of the Epiphany, may we recall God’s grace to the foreign sailors, to the foreigners of Nineveh, to the foreign wise men–and to outsiders like us, now brought near by the light and love of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.


In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar. By their reckoning, this is Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is Christmas.  So, to all our Orthodox sisters and brothers–Merry Christmas!


O Magnum Mysterium


As Christmas day draws near, I keep thinking of an ancient Latin Christmas hymn:

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

jacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo,

cujus viscera

meruerunt portare

Dominum Christum.


I first sang those words in the Parkersburg South High madrigal troupe (thank you, Mr. Daniel B. Thomas!), to a setting by the 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611).  But as gorgeous as that music is, the version I keep hearing in my head today is the haunting, heart-breakingly lovely setting by 20th century American composer Morten Johannes Lauridsen–sung by the St. Paul’s UMC choir on the fourth Sunday of Advent (thank you, Tom Taylor!).

The English translation of the Latin at Wikipedia reads,

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

Whether because my attention was drawn to the music rather than the words, or because I let the beautiful Latin phrases wash over me without worrying about what they meant, I am ashamed to confess that I only recently realized that this hymn is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ humble birth:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7, KJV).

This ancient hymn expresses the awe and wonder of God come down to us in human flesh and form–not a disguise or a pretense, but an unimaginable condescension.  The Eternal becomes temporal.  The omnipresent becomes localized–and in the tiniest, most humble of locations!  As John puts it,

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us (John 1:14).

This astonishing, impossible miracle, Luke says, was met by rejection–unable to find a roof over their heads in a strange town, Mary and Joseph had to seek refuge where they could find it.  Jesus was born in a barn–his first cradle a feed trough, the only witnesses to his marvelous birth the animals that shared their space with this young, poor family.

On Christmas day, God comes to be with us, tangibly and physically and temporally and actually with us.  And by coming in this place, in this manner, God calls us too to a ministry of presence, among the least and the lost and the lonely.  No wonder our hymn calls Christmas a sacrament.

Merry Christmas, one and all!  May the joy of this day fill your lives, and change your world.



At our faculty meeting yesterday, my Orthodox colleague opened our meeting with a litany and prayer from the Eastern Christian tradition.  The Scripture reading was this passage, from the book 0f Joel:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves.

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.  But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved (Joel 2:28-32).

In contrast to many prophets–and particularly, to Amos and Micah–we know nothing at all about Joel apart from his name: no dates, no historical references, no places, no background.  Reference is made to an agricultural crisis, a locust plague, but we have no clues about which plague, when; further, as the book unfolds, the locusts become a metaphor for invading armies (see Joel 2:1-11), and finally for cosmic destruction (see the passage above).

Yet the book is not about impending doom.  In the face of tragedy, Joel calls upon the community to fast and pray, assuring them that God will respond to their repentance with deliverance.  They have not been abandoned to their fates: the prophet promises that “everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Joel is the prophet of hope.

The passage from Joel with which we began was quoted by Peter (Acts 2:14-21), who found in Joel’s words a way to understand the outpouring of God’s Spirit he and his fellow Christ-followers had just experienced (see Acts 2:1-12).  God’s future had broken into the world in Jesus, but he had been taken from them: first crucified, then miraculously raised from the dead, but finally ascended into divine glory.  The outpouring of God’s Spirit made plain that Jesus was still at work, in and through his church, and that far from being abandoned, they were called, empowered, and sent forth in the confidence that God’s future was still breaking in.

Similarly, Jesus himself alluded to Joel’s vision of the day of the LORD:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken.  Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.  Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven (Mark 13:24-27).

Jesus, like Joel, is no Pollyanna optimist.  Everything is not all right; indeed, times are hard, and will get harder.  But the end is in the hands of God, who will not abandon God’s own.  God’s angels will lead us all home, to share in Christ’s just and joyous reign.  We can therefore live our lives confidently, not in despair, but in hope.

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  I assumed that it had something to do with the veneration of Mary–but, as happens far more often than I care to admit, I was wrong.

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent  is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5:  “Be glad (Greek chairete; the Latin gaudete actually means “rejoice,” which is the reading followed in the KJV and NRSV) in the Lord always.”

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ–is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, like the message of Joel, is hope.  Hold on.


I am very proud of the PTS students who have been standing in the cold and mist along Highland Avenue to call attention to racial injustice, in our nation and in our city.  They have heard the word of the prophets, and responded by standing with the wounded and oppressed.  God bless them.


This past week the Senate at last released its long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in secret prisons in the wake of 9/11.  The report was damning in its detail, spelling out these horrific practices that amount, to use a more honest and straightforward expression, to torture.

The Senate’s investigation revealed something that skilled interrogators, as well as unfortunate victims of torture such as Senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain have always known. As Senator McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor supporting the release of this report,

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.

That is the point.  The argument over whether or not actionable intelligence was gained, or might be gained, through torture is fundamentally wrong-headed.  Torture degrades and debases us.  It is an evil, morally indefensible act.

Jesuit blogger Sam Sawyer  rightly recognizes the source of the impulse to torture: not only in shameful, fearful pursuit of the illusion of safety, but in the colossal arrogance and self-idolatry that makes us think our own ends to be justified whatever the cost to others.  He writes:

We have to reject not only the use of torture, but also the self-worship that led us to think our safety could be paid for with the blood and pain of our enemies. We have to answer for the violence and control that led us to keep torturing people, even when it was clear our security didn’t depend on it.

What is required of us, as a nation and as individuals, is humility.

The book of Micah is all about humility.   Micah was a rough contemporary of Hosea and Amos, prophesying in Judah to the south while they prophesied in Israel to the north.  But he proclaimed his message, not in the urban streets of Jerusalem, but in his own tiny village of Morasheth-Gath, located on the edge of contested Philistine territory–about as far from the big city as you could get.  Perhaps it is this distant perspective that enables the prophet to see through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders,

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,
         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Micah’s vision of right living and right worship cuts through the extravagance and self-aggrandizement of Jerusalem’s temple liturgy as it had come to be practiced:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Micah’s answer to the question “What does the LORD want?” cuts through to the essence of the life of faith.  Indeed, Rabbi Simlai said that in Micah 6:8, the prophet pared the 613 commandments in Torah down to three (Talmud, b. Makkoth 23b-24a [pp. 100-103]): doing justice, embracing God’s committed, steadfast love, and living humbly before God.

Micah’s vision of kingship is also humble. Recalling David’s mean birth in a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own, this prophet declares that if Judah is to survive the onslaught of Assyria, what will be needed is a return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needs, Micah asserts, is another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, he says,

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).

This passage, of course, is quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Herod’s palace looking for a new-born king, Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him and to his guests from the east Micah’s ancient prophecy.  Jesus, like David, was born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.

As the celebration of Christ’s birth draws near, we must not allow ourselves any delusions about who Jesus was, and is, or about what following Jesus means.  Jesus was born among the poor–he was not a man of wealth, power, or influence.  He surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  And at the last, Jesus was tortured–he was not a torturer.  This Advent, we need to decide whose side we are on.





Love sculpture

Recently, my wife read me an anonymous post from the humor site Tickld that several people had shared on Facebook, labeled: “The Entire Bible Explained In One Facebook Post. This Guy Nails It.”

In case you haven’t seen this, it reads:

Holy Bible: the TL;DR version (too long; didnt read)


God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

Satan: You should do the thing.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

God: What happened!?

Adam & Eve: We did the thing.

God: Guys


God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.

People: We won’t do the things.

God: Good.

People: We did the things.

God: Guys


Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don’t do the things anymore.

Healed people: Okay! Thank you!

Other people: We’ve never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.

Jesus: I have never done the things.

Other people: We’re going to put you on trial for doing the things.

Pilate: Did you do the things?

Jesus: No.

Pilate: He didn’t do the things.

Other people: Kill him anyway.

Pilate: Okay.

Jesus: Guys


People: We did the things.

Paul: Jesus still loves you, and because you love Him, you have to stop doing the things.

People: Okay.


People: We did the things again.

Paul: Guys


John: When Jesus comes back, there will be no more people who do the things. In the meantime, stop doing the things.

I laughed, a lot, when I heard this–it is very clever.  But then I discovered that many folks sharing this post actually seem to think that it really is an apt, if humorous, summary of the Scriptures: for example, Right Wing News appreciatively and approvingly copied this post from Young Conservatives, saying “The Bible summed up in about 200 clever words? It has been done, in a hilarious but amazingly accurate description.”

Do we really believe that the Bible consists entirely–or even mostly–of rules?  Do we really believe that right relationship with God consists in following those rules: in “not doing the things,” whatever those things might be?  If so, then no wonder we find the actual Bible so bewildering. No wonder so many people want nothing to do with our churches or our Scriptures, if such a shallow view of life and of faith is all that we have to offer.


By this reading, God must be either the exasperated sitcom Dad this humorous post portrays (“Guys!“)–and hence innocuous and irrelevant–or else a grim punisher of rule infractions, determined to impose the deserved penalty unless someone else takes the penalty for us (the only way that this reading can make sense of Jesus’ incarnation).


Further, if righteousness is rule-following, then justice becomes retribution for rule-breaking.  Our societal obsession with retributive justice has resulted in one of the largest per capita rates of incarceration in the world.  This mass imprisonment, disproportionately aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable, bodes to become a crisis far outstripping any other threat to public health.


As the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and its aftermath tragically demonstrates, retributive justice sets police forces against the communities that they are sworn to protect.  When, as is all too often the case, the divide between police and community is also a racial divide, this hostility and suspicion is heightened all the more.  For example, in my own city of Pittsburgh, “25 percent of city residents are black, but only 12 percent of the police force is, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. The police force is 85 percent white, even though whites make up only 65 percent of the city’s population.”  No wonder the National Bar Association, America’s “oldest and largest national network of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges,” is calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene following the failure of a Missouri grand jury to indict Officer  Darren Wilson.


Could it be that this is all that biblical faith has to offer: regulative righteousness and retributive justice?  I certainly don’t think so.   Within the Book of the Twelve, Hosea offers a very different perspective on God and on our relationship with God.  For this eighth-century Israelite prophet, the relationship between God and humanity is not imagined politically (king-subject) or economically (master-slave), but in homely, familial terms.  For Hosea, the primary metaphor is marriage.


God’s judgment and forgiveness are expressed through a symbolic act: the LORD commands Hosea to wed Gomer, a woman that Hosea knows will be unfaithful (Hosea 1:2-3; the Hebrew word zonah doesn’t necessarily mean “prostitute,” though it does designate a women unlikely to be bound by traditional sexual relationships). Their tortured marriage becomes a lived metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel. Just as Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, so Israel has been unfaithful, turning from the Lord to worship other gods. Certainly, there are legitimate grounds for divorce. Yet God desires reconciliation.


In a graphic, brutal depiction of judgment (Hosea 2:1-13), the LORD declares that because of Israel’s faithlessness,

I will make her like a desert,
        and turn her into a dry land,
        and make her die of thirst (Hosea 2:3).

But then, the message shifts. The image of the wilderness appears again—but this time, as the wilderness through which Israel wandered after the exodus from Egypt (Hosea 2:14-15). Hosea remembers the years in the wilderness as a honeymoon: a time when the love between Israel and the LORD was new, and Israel was totally devoted to God (compare Jer. 2:1-3).

From first to last, the language of intimacy permeates this passage. In Hosea 2:14, the Lord says of Israel,

Therefore, I will charm her,
        and bring her into the desert,
        and speak tenderly to her heart.

The declaration “you will call me, ‘My husband’ [Hebrew ishi], and no longer will you call me, ‘My lord’ [Hebrew ba’li]’” (Hosea 2:16) also speaks to the intimate character of the relationship that God desires.  Both ‘ishi and ba’li mean “my husband” in Hebrew. But the latter term refers to ownership and power, while the former “is the more intimate and personal term” (James Luther Mays, “Introduction and Footnotes to Hosea,” in The HarperCollins Study Bible, 1st edition; ed. Wayne Meeks [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993], 1333).


Baal, of course, was also the name of the Canaanite fertility god, so to say that the LORD is not Baal means rejecting idolatry. However, to say that the LORD is, rather, ishi (“my husband”) means discovering a new relationship with God, grounded not in fear, but in love.

At my Mom and Dad’s fiftieth anniversary, it was my great honor and joy to celebrate with them a worship service renewing their marriage vows.  Hosea 2:16-20 reminds me of that day. Like a couple repeating their vows, the LORD and Israel begin anew:

I will take you for my wife forever;
    I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice,
        in devoted love, and in mercy.

 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;
        and you will know the LORD.

Just as, in the ancient world, a husband paid to the bride’s family a bride price, so the LORD brings to this renewed relationship a gift: not of gold, but of righteousness, justice, devoted love, mercy and faithfulness (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I; New International Bible Commentary [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996], 28-29). Israel, transformed, empowered and enabled by this gift, can at last be the LORD’s steadfast and committed spouse.

There are very good reasons that the scribes of ancient Israel chose to begin the Book of the Twelve not with the zealous and angry Amos, though he was likely the first writing prophet, but with Hosea.  The two have a great deal in common.  Like Amos, Hosea delivers a message of unstinting condemnation and judgment: because of its faithlessness and immorality, the northern kingdom is doomed (compare Hosea 4:1-19 and Amos 2:6-16).  But unlike his near contemporary, Hosea looks beyond that inevitable destruction, to hope and restoration.   Justice in founded in love.


In this Advent season, it is good to be reminded why God came to us as one of us: not in angry retribution or puzzled exasperation, but in love:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

God calls us into a relationship of love that sets our own hearts aflame with love for God and for one another.  That is what the Bible is about.



On August  28, 1963, during the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered  one of the most famous speeches of modern times at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.  One of many high points in this human rights milestone was Dr. King’s powerful rebuttal of his detractors:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The majestic words that conclude this paragraph, engraved into the wall at the Civil Rights Memorial outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, are sometimes attributed to Dr. King.  But of course, he knew that he was quoting from the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

Amos powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Oddly, we often think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos–and indeed, for Jesus–there is no separating the two.

Recently Arnold Abbott, who is 90 years old, was arrested together with Pastor Dwayne Black of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, for feeding the homeless in defiance of a new ordinance in Fort Lauderdale (click here to sign a petition protesting this outrage).  Perhaps some feel that this act of civil disobedience was inappropriate: Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  But Amos would celebrate this act of defiance.  Indeed, Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
     They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7)

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons, Amos’ words have a renewed appropriateness.  Today, when the rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”



Who ARE Those Guys?

In one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Butch and Sundance are being pursued by bounty hunters, led by renowned Native American tracker Sir Lord Baltimore, who follow them unerringly despite every trick the two outlaws attempt to throw them off their trail.  Again and again, Butch asks his partner, “Who are those guys?

Fans of the 1972 Dolphins (who would win the Super Bowl after a perfect season) would chant this line whenever their “No-Name Defense” (so called because of their comparative anonymity, given the team’s stellar offense) took the field: “Who ARE those guys?  Who ARE those guys?”

I have just finished a commentary on the last six books in the Old Testament: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  When I have taught Bible studies on these books, I have sometimes used this phrase as my title: “Who Are Those Guys?”

Sadly, for most Christian readers, this is a good question.  Not only those six books, but all twelve of the short prophetic books usually called the “minor” prophets, form one of the most ignored sections of Christian Scripture.  Very few readings from these books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, and some (Obadiah and Nahum) do not feature at all.  Little wonder that students in my course on the Prophets – seminarians, most of whom have grown up in the church – have often told me that they had never before that class read from, or heard a sermon preached on, the “Minor” Prophets, let alone studied them.


In his City of God (18:29), Augustine writes of  “the book of the twelve prophets, who are called the minor from the brevity of their writings, as compared with those who are called the greater [maiores] prophets because they published larger volumes.”  For Augustine, the distinction of the “Minor” Prophets from the “Major” ones was a matter of length only, not of significance.  Still, in our culture, “minor” commonly means less important, if not insignificant.  For that reason, I prefer the call these books by the name used in the early church and in the synagogue: the Book of the Twelve.

Next term, I am teaching a course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on the Book of the Twelve.  One of my students, Rebecca Dix, asked me on Facebook, “I have a challenge for you that I hope you’ll accept: Give me three (but not four!) reasons to take book of the twelve next term.”  The first reason I gave her was the one given above: the sad avoidance of these books in the church.

A second reason that the Twelve particularly deserve study is their outsized significance for Christian interpretation of Scripture.  The Gospel writers draw heavily upon Zechariah 9-14, particularly in their accounts of Jesus’ last days and Passion. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5; John 12:15; see Zech 9:9), Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15; 27:9-10; see Zech 11:12-13), Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ betrayal (“I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions;” Matt 26:31//Mark 14:27; see Zech 13:7), and the piercing of Jesus’ side on the cross (John 19:37; Rev 1:7; see Zech 12:10) all draw on these chapters of Zechariah (cf. also Matt 9:36//Mark 6:34 which may allude to Zech 10:2).

Finally, the Twelve are particularly significant today, in our day of unparalleled income inequality, for their passionate witness to social justice. It was with good reason that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned to Amos 5:24 to express God’s dream for our world:

But let justice roll down like waters,

        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
With All-Saints Day only a few short days away, it is particularly fitting to reflect upon these Old Testament saints.  The great Jewish sage Jesus ben Sirach said of the Twelve,

May the bones of the twelve prophets

    sprout new life from their
    burial places,
    because they comforted Jacob
    and rescued them
    with hopeful confidence (Sirach 49:10).

For the next several posts, I will be reflecting on the Book of the Twelve.  I look forward to sharing with you what I am learning from these ancient witnesses to the faith.

The day before All-Saints Day–All-Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en–is also the birthday of my father, Bernard Earl Tuell, who turns 80 this weekend.  Dad was my first Bible teacher, and my best–everything I know about the Bible that matters I learned from my father.  God bless you, Daddy–Happy Birthday!

(Mis)reading Prophecy

It was not that long ago that billboards like this one were sprouting all over the Midwest.  Radio preacher Harold Camping had announced that, based upon his interpretations of biblical prophecies contained particularly in Daniel and Revelation, judgment day would come on May 21, 2011, and the world would end that October.  Last time, we discussed the “Left Behind” phenomenon, and specifically, the film starring Nicholas Cage that had premiered on October 3–my birthday.  Evidently, there is something about October that elicits end-time fever.  Mr. Camping had earlier, in 1994, announced that that was the year the world would end.  I remember this clearly, because Armageddon was scheduled for October 3, 1994!

Mr. Camping was far from the first person who believed that he had “cracked the code” of biblical prophecy to unveil future history.  He will certainly not be the last.  We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for this particular way of misreading Scripture.

Let me be very blunt.  Mr. Camping’s predictions were not wrong because his sums were off–so that, while his dates were wrong, his reading of the prophets was still valid.  The problem, not only with this prediction, but with all those who claim to read a future history in the Bible is that the Bible does not present a future history.  Period.

The difference between the prophets of the Bible and modern charlatans who confidently claim to see the future is a difference not of degree, but of kind.  The prophets of Israel were not accurate fortune-tellers.  Rather, they were not fortune-tellers at all.  The prophets were the obedient messengers of God, faithfully passing on to us what God had shown to them.

For example, Jeremiah spoke clearly of Judah’s future: Jerusalem would fall the Babylon.  But he also delivered to his people God’s challenge:

No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly;  if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin,  only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time (Jer 7:5-7).

Although their present course would lead them into exile and destruction, the possibility of a different future lay before them, if they would only claim it (though Jeremiah doubted that they could or would do so; see Jer 13:23).  Rather than presenting an infallible vision of a fixed and unchangeable future, Jeremiah’s predictions are conditional, depending upon whether Jerusalem repents, or not.

This may come as a surprise.  Ask nine out of ten people on the street what a prophet does, and they will say “foretell the future.”  This seems to be the stance of some biblical texts as well.  Deuteronomy 18:22 certainly seems clear: “The prophet who speaks in the LORD’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about—that’s the word the LORD hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.”  Accurate prediction is the sure test of the true prophet.

The prophets themselves, however, seem untroubled by this assessment.  It is not at all difficult to find unfulfilled prophecies in Scripture. For example, the prophet Huldah, the woman Josiah consulted to confirm that the scroll of the Law found in the temple was indeed God’s word (2 Kgs 22:11-17), also promised that because of Josiah’s righteousness and humility, God “will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place and its citizens” (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20).  But Josiah did not go down to his grave in peace!  In fact, he died tragically, in battle against Pharaoh Necho (2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27)–a fact which the authors of Israel’s history surely knew, and yet they let Huldah’s “false” prophecy stand in the text.


In Jonah 3:4, the prophet (after a fishy detour!) at last arrives at Nineveh to deliver the message the Lord has given him: “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  But it does not happen. The people (and animals; Jonah 3:7) of Nineveh repent in sackcloth, and God changes God’s mind (Jonah 3:10).

This is deeply disturbing to Jonah, but not surprising.  To explain his earlier flight from God’s presence, which had resulted in his sojourn in the fish’s belly, the prophet declares:

Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jonah 4:2).

Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to show mercy,  leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions had not come true (as, remember, Deut 18:22 declares) —which was, of course, exactly what had happened. No wonder Jonah is angry!

We might consider as well the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mk 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20), which, taking them at face value, clearly did not come true, either.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen as a sign of God’s grace: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

It is finally Jesus himself who puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  If Jesus does not know, brothers and sisters, then certainly we do not, and cannot, know.  The Bible is not tomorrow’s newspaper.  It is word of God for the people of God, yesterday, today, and forever.


Leaving “Left Behind” Behind


Last Friday saw the premiere of “Left Behind,” a new cinematic adaptation of the best-selling series of novels by Jerry B. Jenkins,  based on the notes of  Tim LeHaye.  Over the weekend, the film opened in 1,825 theaters, and made $6.8 million–not bad, but surely not as good as Cloud Ten Pictures hoped.  Most of those who saw the film were Evangelical Christians who already embraced Jenkins and LeHaye’s grim vision of the future.  The mass audience that the film’s backers had hoped Nicholas Cage’s name would draw mostly stayed away.

It might be assumed that, as a Bible Guy, I would want to see this movie–after all, isn’t it based on the Bible?  But I have not seen it, and do not intend to, because Tim LeHaye’s nightmare vision of the future is not biblical.

Search any concordance for the term “Rapture;”  you will not find it.  Neither Matthew 24:40-41 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the two passages commonly alleged to describe the Rapture, use the term.  In context, Matthew’s statement “One will be taken and the other left” more likely describes sudden death or arrest by Roman officials than a supernatural rescue. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks of Christ’s return, when both the resurrected dead and also “we who are living and still around” (note the present tense; Paul fully expected the end to come in his own lifetime) will meet the Lord as he descends to earth to rule.  This isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party.

The “Left Behind” franchise is based, not on Scripture, but on one particular reading of Scripture: the premillennial ideology of Darbyite Dispensationalism.  Let’s unpack that claim step by step.  Revelation 20:1-15 speaks of a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth–the millennium.  From early on, different Christians understood this in different ways.  While many, such as Tertullian, insisted that John referred to a literal thousand-year earthly reign of Jesus following his return to earth–hence, premillennial (Against Marcion, 3:25), others,  such as Origen, considered John’s visions a metaphor for Christ’s spiritual reign rather than a literal description of future history–hence, amillennial (De Principiis 2.11.2-7).  Augustine advocated a mediating position that for generations dominated Christian interpretation: he read the thousand years as a metaphorical depiction of the age of the church, after which God’s kingdom would be ushered in (City of God 20.7).

In contemporary American Christianity, the  literalism of Tertullian’s premillennial reading dominates.  According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

So how did premillennialism come so thoroughly to win the day?  In the 1830s John Nelson Darby, an Irish preacher in the Plymouth Brethren church, resolved the Bible’s conflicts and contradictions by dividing history into distinct periods called “Dispensations.”  For example, the ritual laws and Sabbath laws of the Old Testament could be discounted as belonging to a previous dispensation, and hence no longer applying to Christians.  This chain of dispensations extended into the future as well, culminating in a period of wrathful divine judgment from which true Christians would be spared by a supernatural rescue operation: the “secret Rapture.”

In the late 17th century, long before Darby, Increase and Cotton Mather had preached that the faithful would be delivered before the day of God’s wrath.  But Darby placed that deliverance into a detailed description of future history, and transformed it into a miraculous, supernatural escape plan: the Rapture.

This idea was broadly disseminated by Cyrus Scofield through the detailed notes and charts in his extremely popular reference Bible, first published in 1909.

But it was Hal Lindsey‘s application of Darby’s ideas in the wake of the Six Day War that led to the cultural phenomenon described in the Pew study, as well as to the Left Behind franchise.  In his 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth, Lindsey gave premillennialism a distinctive, tantalizing twist.   With the re-establishment of the state of Israel, sealed by its “miraculous” victory in the Six-Day War, God’s “prophetic clock” had started ticking.  We are now in the last days.  The countdown to the Rapture has begun.

The damage done by this unbiblical ideology is far reaching.  It has caused us to forsake our God-given responsibility to care for the earth (Genesis 1:26-28) because we are leaving this world anyway.  It has caused us to reject Palestinian cries for justice, despite the Bible’s admonitions (Exod 22:21-24Lev 19:33-34Deut 10:18-19), because Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders so that Jesus can come back.  It has made us ignore the plain teaching of Scripture that Christ’s church is called to be one (John 17:20-23) because the One World Church will be the tool of the Antichrist.  It is long past time for us to get back to the Bible, and to leave “Left Behind” behind.