Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 3: Apocalypse

 

 

In these blogs, we have been reflecting on what the Bible says about the end of the world.  Our study has been prompted specifically by the concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is a biblical sign of the end-times.  So, does the Bible have something to say about our times?

The answer, actually, has a great deal to do with what question we are really asking.  If the question is, does the Bible speak to our times, the answer is emphatically yes!  Certainly, the Bible has plenty to say about God’s presence with us in times like ours.  Father James Martin in particular has a faithful, encouraging, and biblical word for these days:

In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things. But those who are not Christian can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the ‘other,’ not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was ‘moved with pity.’ He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity. . . . I don’t understand why people are dying, but I can follow the person who gives me a pattern for life.  

However, if the question is, does the Bible speak of our times–that is, does the Bible predict what is happening to us today, or what will happen to us tomorrow–then the answer is no.  The Bible is not a horoscope, Tarot deck, Ouija board, or crystal ball.  The Bible gives us hope, not by revealing to us what will happen tomorrow, but by assuring us that no matter what happens tomorrow, God is, and will be, with us.

The picture at the top of this post shows the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as painted by Russian artist Victor Vasnetov.  The image comes from Revelation 6:1-8:

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”  So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.  When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”  Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.  When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion [a day’s pay for a laborer], and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”  When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.

John’s four horsemen are drawn from the prophecies of Zechariah (see Zech 1:7-17; 6:1-8).   While Zechariah’s horsemen were messengers of peace and deliverance, however, John’s represent war: from the “glory” of heroism, through the depredations wrought by violence, scarcity with attendant profiteering, and of course, disease and death.  But, what does that word “apocalypse” mean?

In everyday English, “the Apocalypse” is a civilization-ending cataclysm.  The entire genre of “post-apocalyptic” fiction, from the “Mad Max” movies to the “zombie apocalypse” and its aftermath (especially in Robert Kirkman’s comic-book series “The Walking Dead” and the AMC television production based on it) builds on this popular understanding of the word.

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Yet at its source, “apocalypse” is a surprisingly gentle word.  The Greek apocalupsis does not mean doom and destruction.  It means “uncovering,” “unveiling,” or “a revelation.” This is the first word in the last book of the New Testament, which is accordingly called “Revelation” by Protestant Christians, and the “Apocalypse of John” in Roman Catholic circles.

In biblical studies and related disciplines, the term “apocalypse” is applied not only to the last book of Christian Scripture, but also to a number of other texts, both biblical and extra-biblical, that bear a family resemblance to that strange, visionary book. Daniel, the latest-dated book in the Hebrew Bible (likely from around 164 BCE) is called an apocalypse, as it is more like Revelation than it is like any other book in the Hebrew Bible—just as Revelation is more like Daniel than it is like any other book in the New Testament!  Other passages on the left-hand side of the Bible commonly identified as apocalypses (or sometimes, as apocalyptic prophecy) include Isaiah 24—27, Ezekiel 38—39; Joel 2:28–32 (3:1–5 in Hebrew); and Zechariah 14.  In the New Testament, Mark 13 with its parallels in Matthew 24:1–44 (considered in our last post) and Luke 21:5–33 is commonly called the “Synoptic Apocalypse.” In Jewish literature from the first few centuries before and after the Common Era, we can identify as apocalypses such books as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and the Assumption of Moses.

Of course, “family resemblance,” while evocative, is too subjective and imprecise to be useful. Most scholars today agree on the definition of “apocalypse” as a literary genre developed in 1979 by the Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project (John Collins, “Towards the Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 [1979]: 9):

‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

The essential features of an apocalypse, then, are the revelation of another world to a human seer by a heavenly being.  Sometimes, that other world is the heavenly (or infernal) world (as in 1 Enoch 1—36, called the Book of the Watchers); sometimes, it is the future world (as in Dan 9:20—12:4); sometimes, it is a little of  both (as in Rev 5—6).

We might wonder from this definition how apocalypse is any different than prophecy.  After all, Israel’s prophets do have visions of the divine world (for example, in Isa 6:1-8), and do make predictions about future events (as in Jer 7:1-20).  Indeed, Revelation identifies itself as prophecy (Rev 1:3), and while the Hebrew Bible places Daniel among the Writings (or Kethubim) rather than the Prophets (Nebi’im), our Old Testament follows the Greek Septuagint in placing Daniel between Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve: squarely among the prophetic books.  

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But apocalypses assume a great gulf between the world of the revelation and our human world.  The supernatural worlds of apocalypses are inaccessible from our world–hence the need for supernatural go-betweens to reveal the vision.  The opening verses of Revelation illustrate this well, with a succession of intermediaries (numerals added):

A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God [1] gave him [that is, Jesus, 2] to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel [3] to his servant John [4],  who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw (Rev 1:1-2).

It sounds a bit like a trick football play: God [1] hikes to Jesus [2], who hands off to his angel [3], who laterals to John [4]!

Similarly, the future envisioned in apocalypses is infinitely removed from anything that our own efforts can accomplish.  By contrast, the prophet’s message about the future is intended to influence actions in the present.  As a result, as we have seen, prophetic predictions are conditional (to the consternation of Jonah)!  Prophecy speaks the word of the LORD into a particular context–which is why, in the Hebrew Bible, the “historical books” of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are included among the Nebi’im, or Prophets.  But regarding the future, God remains supremely free to do as God chooses.

Since the point of prophetic proclamation is a call to action in the here and now, the prophets were commanded to proclaim the word of the Lord (see Amos 7:14-15; Jer 1:7-8; Ezek 3:17-21).  The prophet must speak: indeed, Jeremiah laments,

I thought, I’ll forget him;
    I’ll no longer speak in his name.
But there’s an intense fire in my heart,
    trapped in my bones.
    I’m drained trying to contain it;
        I’m unable to do it (Jer 20:9).

In sharp contrast, Daniel is told, “But you, Daniel, must keep these words secret! Seal the scroll until the end time!” (Dan 12:4; compare Dan 8:26; Rev 10:4). Since Daniel is set in the time of the exile and its immediate aftermath, the “future” it describes is indeed distant (although for the persecuted community actually addressed by this book, that time had come).  But the point is that there is no reason for Daniel to announce his revelation of the future to the world, as it can make no difference: “Many will purify, cleanse, and refine themselves, but the wicked will act wickedly. None of the wicked will understand, but those skilled in wisdom will understand” (Dan 12:10). Intriguingly, Revelation reverses this instruction, although like Daniel, it still holds that the fate it describes is unalterable:

Then he said to me, “Don’t seal up the words of the prophecy contained in this scroll, because the time is near.  Let those who do wrong keep doing what is wrong. Let the filthy still be filthy. Let those who are righteous keep doing what is right. Let those who are holy still be holy (Rev 22:10-11).

This notion of a fixed, inevitable, and unchangeable future is distinctly “unprophetic”—and plainly apocalyptic.  Apocalypses are inherently pessimistic about this world, its future, and the capabilities of human action to bring real change.  So, in apocalypses, the future is unfailingly grim: social order and natural order alike will collapse, so that with this world’s end, a new world may begin.

As Paul Hanson observes, “This world-weariness has been the mark of every apocalyptic movement” (“Old Testament Apocalyptic Reexamined,” Interpretation 25 [1971]: 479). Whether resulting from an experience of exclusion (like the marginalized community responsible for Isaiah 25–27), from self-exile (like the Qumran community that treasured 1 Enoch and preserved the Dead Sea scrolls), from persecution (like Daniel’s community) or from the threat of persecution (like the community of John in Revelation), “world-weariness” is a common feature of the apocalyptic mindset.

Indeed, the same can be said for communities that find particular meaning in apocalypses.  It is no surprise that the threats posed by this pandemic, with its attendant economic struggles and social isolation, have turned the minds of many to this literature.  But an apocalyptic turn of mind does not require actual suffering: the perception of exclusion is enough.  A 2017 poll about discrimination in American society conducted by Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones found that white Evangelicals–who recall are also the group most inclined to believe in the imminence of the Rapture and the Second Coming–are “the only major religious group in which a majority say Christians face a lot of discrimination” in American society. 

As strange as it may seem, given the often bizarre and violent imagery in Revelation and Daniel in particular, these books are meant to be reassuring!  No matter how bad things now appear, or how bad they may become, the future remains securely in God’s hands–which sets us free from crushing concern and despair about what will happen.  As Paul says to the Thessalonians, we are to “encourage each other [the KJV has “comfort one another”] with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).  This is the message of apocalypse–and particularly of our biblical apocalypses. When instead these texts become a source of anxiety, or an excuse for hostility to one another, they have lost their purpose–as have we.

 

Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 2: The Rapture

In the midst of this pandemic, many are afraid–and rightly so.  Already in February, over a month ago now,

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemic experts from universities around the world conferred. . . about what might happen if the new coronavirus gained a foothold in the United States. How many people might die? How many would be infected and need hospitalization?

Their worst-case scenario, based on the evidence of the disease’s progress elsewhere in the world, was grim:

Between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could be infected over the course of the epidemic . . . As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die. 

In the face of those numbers, a healthy fear is a rational response.  What is irrational is the blithe refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease, and so to increase the likelihood of infection:

First Baptist Church of Dallas, where . . . Robert Jeffress is senior pastor, announced on Friday (March 13) that it would still hold Sunday School and services this weekend.

The church, whose weekly in-person worship attendance hovers around 3,150, said it does plan to implement policies to comply with a recent ban on large gatherings of 500 people or more in Dallas County.

Paula White, a Pentecostal pastor from Florida who heads up the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is scheduled to headline an evangelical conference that will take place in Phoenix, Arizona, April 9-12. Organizers of the “Passover 2020: Decade of Awakening” conference told potential attendees not to fear the coronavirus because the “Word of God promises us protection from these very things.”

Still, healthy fear is not panic, or despair.  In these blogs, I am speaking to the fear that this pandemic is a biblical sign of the end-times: that the Rapture of true Christians, the punishment of the world through the Tribulation, the final condemnation of the wicked to the Lake of Fire, and the coming of God’s kingdom may be at hand.  However, as the first blog in this series stated, I do not argue that the end-time the Bible predicts is not yet imminent.  Instead, I propose that the Bible does not enable us to predict the future at all.  I have not always thought that way.  But today, as a Bible Guy and professional exegete, my lifelong study of Scripture has persuaded me that God’s future is in God’s hands, not ours, and is for God to know, not us.

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Nearly fifty years ago now, when I was fifteen, I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at a prayer meeting in my family’s living room.  I have no doubt about the reality of that experience, or of its profound effect on my life.  Although I had grown up in the church, I now felt an increased zeal for the Lord.  I always wore (as in this picture) a cross around my neck.  I carried my Bible–for which I had a renewed and passionate hunger–with me everywhere, and was always careful that it was on top of my pile of schoolbooks.  I told everyone about Jesus: in study hall, in the lunch line, on the school bus–whether they wanted to hear or not.  I covered my notebook with Christian slogans: “One Way,” “PTL” (Praise the Lord), and of course, “In case of Rapture, this notebook will be abandoned.”

Image result for rapture will look likeOne of the cornerstones of my young, passionate faith was the certainty that I would one day, very soon, be taken up out of the world to be with the Lord–just before the world was stricken with disaster upon disaster through the seven years of the Great Tribulation.

Certainly, I was not alone in that belief!  Many believers regard Christianity as a means of escape from a world of trouble.  Indeed, John Wesley had “only one condition previously required” for those who sought to join the Methodist societies: “a desire to flee the wrath to come” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler; Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 178).  Many who understand salvation in these terms hope, as I did, that they will soon be taken out of this world together with other true believers in the Rapture, and go up into heaven to live with God.

A whole Christian industry has grown up around this idea, manifest most visibly in the best-selling Left Behind novels by Jerry B. Jenkins, based on the notes of  Timothy LeHaye.   Often, I have seen these books proudly displayed in church libraries and Sunday School classrooms, right beside the Bible.  The Left Behind series has been made into comic books, films, television shows, video games–even, in 2014, a big budget motion picture starring Nicholas Cage.

The idea of an imminent Rapture has been extremely influential.  Remember: 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%.

Curiously, for all my love for Scripture and my passionate study of God’s Word, I never realized that the Rapture was not in the Bible.  If you search any Bible concordance for the term “Rapture,” you will not find it (for a little about where the notion of the Rapture originated, see my previous blog). Neither Matthew 24:40-41 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the two passages commonly alleged to describe the Rapture, use the term.  Matt 24:40-41 reads,

At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 

For many readers, the one “taken” is Raptured, taken up to glory; the one left is, as Timothy LaHaye’s series title has it, “Left Behind,” to suffer the torments and tortures of Tribulation.  But I am not persuaded that this is the best reading of that verse.  The bulk of Matthew 24 offers warnings of coming persecution and trial, not instruction on how to escape them.  Indeed, Jesus tells his followers, “They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name” (Matt 24:9).

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Jesus compares those days to “the time of Noah,” when devastation came suddenly upon a people unprepared:

In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away (Matt 24:37-39).

Likely, then, the “one taken” is not saved, but lost: perhaps metaphorically taken by death or disaster, or perhaps quite literally taken–arrested by the Roman authorities, and hauled away in chains.

Matthew 24 is not after all about us “going up.”  It is rather about Jesus “coming down”! The coming of Jesus, the Human One (literally “Son of Man”), will also be unexpected, and unpredictable:  “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matt 24:36; emphasis mine).  Jesus himself does not know when this will be!  He compares himself to a thief:

But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house.  Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know (Matt 24:43-44).

The point, then, is to be ready–whenever his coming might be–so that we will not be taken unawares.

1 Thessalonians is Paul’s first letter, and the oldest book (dating to around 50 CE) in the New Testament.  Paul writes to offer reassurance to a struggling church: the first he had established in Europe (see Acts 17:1-10).  The Christians of Thessalonica are concerned because some of their members have died: perhaps from persecution, but perhaps too from illness or old age (1 Thes 4:13-14).  Believing, as Paul had taught them, that Christ’s coming is imminent, they fear that these faithful dead will have no share in Christ’s kingdom.  Paul, however, assures them that, far from being left behind, those believers who have died will have the inside track in the world to come:

What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died.  This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise.  Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.  So encourage each other with these words (1 Thes 4:15-18)

Note that Paul does not describe an escape from this world prior to Christ’s return. Rather, “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet,” and as he does so, 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) rise to meet him in the air.  Jesus is not taking the church out: he is descending to the earth, to rule.  So this isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party!

Isaiah 2:1-5, which also speaks of God’s future, was the inspiration for the monument outside the UN building.

 

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Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war  (Isa 2:4).

Isaiah’s vision of peace is realized in a transformed world, in which Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem was built and atop which the Temple stood, has become “the highest of the mountains” (Isa 2:2)!  Still, the future world of which Isaiah dreams remains our world: it includes not only Israel, but also the foreign nations. Far from being “left behind,” those nations are drawn to Zion by the truth, justice, and peace God establishes there.  As Zion is “lifted above the hills,”

peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations (Isa 2:2-4).

To be sure, this is the LORD’s doing—but God does it, not in some other world, but in this world!  Like Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, this vision is not about our going up, but about the LORD coming down.

What difference does this make?  If we believe that we are going to be “Raptured out” of this world, we will be far more concerned with being certain that our ticket is punched, and that we don’t miss our flight, than we will be with trying to solve this world’s problems.  After all, if this world is doomed anyway, why should its problems matter to us?  What motivation do we have to care for the world, or for its people?

The damage done by this unbiblical ideology is far reaching. It has made us ignore the plain teaching of Scripture in favor of a fantasy.  Belief in the Rapture 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.  So called “Bible prophecy”  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.  Although the Bible plainly states that Christ’s church is called to be one (John 17:20-23), this manufactured future history has made us suspicious of ecumenism, because the One World Church will be the tool of the Antichrist.

But what if salvation is not about escape from this world, but about God’s transformation of this world?  Then, we will seek to be a part of what God is doing, here and now, to bring in God’s kingdom.  We will want to be found at our Lord’s coming doing those things that Jesus did among us: feeding people, healing people, freeing people, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.

For example, we can do something about this pandemic.  The grim numbers in the CDC’s worst case scenario are not inevitable: by practicing social distancing, by avoiding large crowds, by cancellations and closures, we can slow the spread of COVID-19:

“When people change their behavior,” said Lauren Gardner, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering who models epidemics, “those model parameters are no longer applicable . . . There is a lot of room for improvement if we act appropriately.”

The task before us is immense; our problems–not just this pandemic, but climate change, institutional racism, hunger, poverty–are seemingly unsolvable.  Yet whether we seem to be successful or not, we will not despair, because we know that, in the end, God’s kingdom remains God’s, and that God will bring it into fruition in God’s good time: when our Lord Jesus “comes down” in glory.

Friends, it is time for us to get back to the Bible, and leave “Left Behind” behind.

Mar
2020

The Blessing of St. Patrick’s Day

FOREWORD:  Before launching into my promised series on the end-times in Scripture, I am meeting my obligations as the World’s Biggest Leprechaun by reposting this edited blog entry in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

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Today, March 17, is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

Patrick embraces a joyful spirituality of nature, wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.

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This St. Patrick’s Day, when fear and the isolation forced on us by this pandemic may prompt us to turn selfishly inward, may we seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times

First of all–please know that there is no reason to downplay the seriousness of this outbreak.  The World Health Organization does not use the term “pandemic” lightly.  Already, as I write this, there are 155,423 cases world wide, and 5,802 people have died–including, to bring this closer to home, 37 in the US.  By the time you read this, those numbers will only have climbed.  The decision of my school, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, to cancel events at least through May and in-person classes for the remainder of the term, was a measured and responsible decision.  However, there is no need for panic or despair.  We need to keep praying, to keep trusting in the Lord, and to keep on ministering to one another–particularly to those most threatened.

One of my students asked that I consider a question in this blog:

Specifically, is this the end of days? I have heard a number of students joke and comment about this, and I think the jokes and comments about the apocalypse do indicate a small underlying fear. Between the wildfires in Australia, the tornados in the south, the locusts in Eastern Africa currently, and now this virus … I can definitely see where they are coming from!

After I received that email, I saw that this question was being considered by many on line.  Some sources reply to this question cautiously.  Dr. Michael Brown, with the Evangelical Christian Post, writes:

My own understanding is that there will be massive upheaval before the end of the world, in the midst of which there will also be a mighty spiritual outpouring.  But either way, what is clear to me is that we should not view the coronavirus as a prophesied, end-time plague.

But others are less cautious.  In The Trumpet, Gerald Flurry writes:

Where is this leading? We are already experiencing the preliminary stages of what the Bible terms “great tribulation,” in which one third of the populations in America and other Israelitish nations will die—before being directly attacked by foreign enemies!

These horsemen of Revelation and the horses of Zechariah 6 are going to stampede over the Earth! God is already beginning to send a number of globe-rattling events our way! The Wuhan coronavirus and the other diseases breaking out today are only the beginning. He is going to let the world see where its evil ways are leading.

There is nothing new about this.  When I was a young Christian in my teens, I never expected that I would ever grow up and marry, that I would ever have children, or a career.  I knew–I knew–that the world was going to end very soon.  I pored over the books of Revelation and Daniel,  guided by M. R. deHaan and Hal Lindsey.  However, it was Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth that most captured my young imagination.

Mr. Lindsey’s end-time vision was a twentieth century American application of premillennial Darbyite Dispensationalism–which is a mouthful!  To unpack that phrase step by step: “premillenial” refers to a particular interpretation of  Revelation 20:1-15, which speaks of a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth. From early on, Christians read this in different ways.  Some, such as Tertullian, insisted that John referred to a literal future thousand-year 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 depicting of the age of the church, after which God’s kingdom would be ushered in: that is, postmillenial (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%.

What about “Darbyite Dispensationalism”?  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.  Long before Darby, in the late 17th century, the American Puritan leaders 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 he called the “secret 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.

Image result for endtime chart scolfieldBut it was Hal Lindsey’s application of Darby’s ideas in the wake of Israel’s Six Day War that led to the cultural phenomenon described in the Pew study.  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, officially, in the last days.  The countdown to the Rapture has begun.

Hal Lindsey is still on the airwaves.  To my knowledge, he has not weighed in on the coronavirus, but I fear it is only a matter of time.  Strangely, neither Lindsey nor, to my knowledge, any of his followers have ever acknowledged that he was wrong about the end of the world, which he expected to come within a generation (say, 40 years) of the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  Even if we start the prophetic clock with the Six-Day War in 1967, we are well past the date Lindsey and his followers predicted.

Not that long ago, billboards like this one were sprouting all over the Midwest, after radio preacher Harold Camping 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.  Earlier, in 1994, Mr. Camping had announced that that was the year the world would end.  I remember this clearly, because Armageddon was scheduled for October 3, 1994–my birthday!

Mr. Flurry, Mr. Lindsey, and Mr. Camping are far from the first people to believe that they have “cracked the code” of biblical prophecy to unveil future history. They will certainly not be the last.  We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for this particular way of reading Scripture.  Please note that, while Dr. Brown disagrees with Mr. Flurry about the end-time significance of COVID-19, they agree that Scripture does present a future history, which read correctly will enable us to know when and how the world will end.

Let me be very blunt, friends: I do not agree with this approach to the Bible.  Neither Mr. Camping’s precise predictions, nor Mr. Lindsey’s more vague, but no less wrong, predictions, were in error because their sums were off–so that, as Dr. Brown seems to suggest, while their dates were wrong, their reading of Scripture was still valid.  The problem, not only with these predictions, but with all of 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 ancient Israel were not better fortune-tellers than Lindsey, or Camping, or (as time will doubtless prove) Flurry.  Rather, the prophets were not fortune-tellers at all, but obedient messengers of God, faithfully passing on to us what God had shown to them.

This may come as a surprise.  Ask nine out of ten people on the street what a prophet does, and they will say “predict 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, it seems, 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.

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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!

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Jeremiah spoke clearly, and it seems accurately, about Judah’s future: Jerusalem would fall to 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 were conditional, involving alternate futures, depending upon whether Jerusalem repented, or not.

We must 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.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen not as a problem, but 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).

Image result for christ pantocratorJesus himself 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, 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.

In my next few blogs, I will look at several texts in both testaments, typically read as predicting the destruction of God’s enemies and the end of the world, and suggest another way of reading them–more true, I would argue, to what the texts themselves actually say.  But for now, hear Jesus’ words:

Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31-34).

We need not worry about the future, friends, not because we know what the future holds, but because we know who holds the future.

Feb
2020

What Color is Lent?

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FOREWORD: For Ash Wednesday, I am reposting my very first blog entry, from February 21, 2013.  Thank you to my church history colleague (now, my Dean) Heather Vacek, and to our social media guru Melissa Logan, for pushing me to try this new thing, and to David Middleton for setting it up for me–God bless you!   I hope these blogs have been half as fun for you all to read as they have been for me to write.  Certainly, I intend to continue posting as the Bible Guy well into the foreseeable future!

 

This has, thankfully, been a mild winter in Pittsburgh (the picture above comes from 2010). Still, this year as every year, Lent began while winter still held sway. Indeed, even now, with February at long last over and done (how strange that, according to the calendar, February is the shortest month of the year!), the official first day of spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

All of which may seem appropriate. Lent certainly seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving. The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and lugubrious shade. But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter shades: the penitential black of clerical garb, the gray of Ash Wednesday’s daubs on hands or foreheads, the off-white of sackcloth.

Yet, curiously, the term “Lent” has nothing to do with winter, or darkness, or fasting, or penitence. Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin, all of which mean “Spring”!

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Likely we will have difficulty wrapping our heads around this concept. Lent as springtime? Our springtime associations wrap about Easter (a name which, by the way, derives from the Saxon goddess of fertility and the dawn!)—the feast of Christ’s resurrection, acclaimed by John of Damascus (6th century) as “the Spring of souls.” Even in the secular world, Easter is celebrated with signs and symbols of newness and life: eggs, brightly dyed in the shades of spring flowers; bunnies (famous for their fecundity!); and new clothes.

By contrast, these forty days of preparation are appropriately penitential, marked by self-examination, prayer and fasting. Likely, we would prefer to skip the preparation and jump directly into the celebration! But the Lenten disciplines are not optional. Mark reminds us that, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Jesus could not avoid this time of trial, and neither can we. But this Lenten season need not be grim and colorless. Lent is a green season—a time of growth. Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are. Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit. It is then a season of new life—a springtime for our souls!

God grant you, sisters and brothers, a green, growing, God-filled Lent!

Feb
2020

Transfigured!

Sometimes, I remember something I have said in a classroom or a pulpit, and I wince.  This week of Transfiguration Sunday, I can remember saying, at least once, that on that mountaintop Peter, James, and John saw Jesus “as he really was.”  Reading John 1:1-18 this week with my Creation class, I realized once again how very wrong that statement is!

The prologue to the Fourth Gospel affirms,

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

We Christians confess that Jesus was fully God AND fully human.  He was not God sometimes (say, on the Mount of Transfiguration) and human sometimes (say, in the manger–or on the cross).  Certainly, Jesus was not God pretending to be human–God in a people mask.  Nor was he a charlatan–a human pretending to be a god.  Jesus was, always and everywhere, himself.  So, yes: the Jesus they saw every day–laughing, crying, hungry, angry, dusty and weary from the road, Jesus in all his fleshiness–was indeed the real Jesus.

What happened on that mountain is related in the second half of that pivotal verse:

We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth (John 1:14b).

That blinding glory was not always apparent–thankfully, for Jesus’ family and friends!  Indeed, had it been, Jesus could scarcely have been fully human.  But just this once, the “fully God” side of the incarnation equation was fully evident.  As the tradition passed down from Peter proclaims,

We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18).

So, what exactly happened “on the holy mountain”?  In the old King James Bible, Sunday’s gospel declares, “And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” (Matthew 17:2).  The Greek word rendered “transfigured” here is metamorphoo, source of our English word “metamorphosis”–which certainly sounds as though what happened to Jesus on the mountain was a transformation, rather than a revelation.

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The verb metamorphoo is not used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture), and in our New Testament, it appears only four times.  Two of those are the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew and Mark (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2).  The other two are in Paul’s letters.  In 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Paul compares the glory of God’s revelation on Sinai (see Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Exod 24:12-18), which made Moses’ face shine (see Exod 34:29-35), with the glory of the freedom revealed in Christ (by the way, in Hebrew the word for the rays shining from Moses’ face is related to the word for horns, so Moses is sometimes depicted as horned!).

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Paul says that the glory beaming from Moses’ face was after all only temporary–the result of the revelation he had received.   However, gazing upon Christ works a permanent transformation:

All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed [metamorphoo] into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

Therefore, in Romans 12:2, Paul famously challenges his readers:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed  [metamorphoo] by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

The change Peter, James, and John witnessed on the mountain did not mean that Jesus had changed–only that they saw him more clearly.  On the other hand, gazing on Jesus, who is not only truly God but truly human, prompts us to change. Jesus shows us what being human–created in God’s image (Gen 1:27)–really means.  The International Theological Commission of the Vatican (2004) puts it very well:

Thus, what it means to be created in the imago Dei is only fully revealed to us in the imago Christi. In him, we find the total receptivity to the Father which should characterize our own existence, the openness to the other in an attitude of service which should characterize our relations with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the mercy and love for others which Christ, as the image of the Father, displays for us (Communion and Stewardship, paragraph 53).

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In his hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Charles Wesley takes up Paul’s language from 2 Corinthians, and joyfully invites us into prayer for a transfiguration of our own:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Sisters and brothers, friends and siblings in Christ, so may it be for us!

AFTERWORD:

This prayer for Transfiguration Sunday comes from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts (Augsburg Fortress):

Holy God, mighty and immortal,
you are beyond our knowing,
yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion illumines the world.
Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ,
who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity,
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jan
2020

Groundhog Day

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In the United States and Canada, February 2 is known as Groundhog Day. We wait to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, of course, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) will see his shadow.  It is, let’s face it, a very weird and silly holiday–but it has some very deep folk roots.  The Celts called this festival of the quarter-year (midwinter, as Hallowe’en is midautumn) Imbolc.  Imbolc was associated with ewes beginning to give milk, in preparation for spring lambing.  Indeed, according to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, February 2 was a holiday for shepherds in Roman times as well

This day, in the dead of winter, is associated with hope for the return of warmer weather–but not too soon.  A “false spring” after all may be followed by a killing frost, wiping out trees that have budded too soon, and threatening lambs born out of season.  Therefore, sunny weather on this midwinter day is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while cold and cloudy weather appropriate to the season augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery.

In the Western Christian calendar, February 2 is often called Candlemas, as this was traditionally when the candles used in the coming year were blessed.  In addition to its association with ancient traditions, this day also has a biblical justification, coming forty days after the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25.

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In the world view of ancient Israel’s priests, the life of any being was contained in the blood.  Since life is given by God alone, so too blood belongs exclusively to God; contact with blood makes human  beings ritually unclean. Childbirth, being a bloody process, rendered mother and child alike ritually defiled.  Leviticus 12:2-8 stipulates the rites of purification for cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth.  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).

Luke 2:22-40 records that Joseph and Mary, as observant first-century Jews, made the pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple with their son Jesus “[w]hen the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth.  In Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was accordingly called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin;” today it is known as “the Presentation of the Lord.”

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]

This tapestry depicting Luke’s scene is from the Abbey Church of St. Walpurga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.  The order of the nuns of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  They fled to the United States in 1935 to escape the Nazis, and settled in the Colorado mountains. The walls of their church are lined with tapestries like this one, inspired by biblical texts.

Joseph (in the slouch hat) carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor family may offer instead of a sheep as a sacrifice (see Luke 2:24).  Also pictured is Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).  Simeon 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).

The Latin inscription on the St. Walpurga abbey tapestry refers to this prayer: Lux ad revelationem Gentium means “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Simeon’s prayer in turn alludes to several passages in Isaiah (see Isa 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3), but particularly to Isaiah 49:5-6, from the second Servant Song:

And now the Lord has decided—
    the one who formed me from the womb as his servant—
    to restore Jacob to God,
    so that Israel might return to him.
    Moreover, I’m honored in the Lord’s eyes;
    my God has become my strength.
He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant,
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
    Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
    so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

The salvation offered through Jesus is for everyone.

After this prayer of thanksgiving, Simeon gives to Mary a much more somber word:

This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Luke 2:34-35).

Although Jesus has come for everyone, not everyone will receive him: he will be “a sign that generates opposition.”  In Luke 12:51 , Jesus declares,“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division” (Greek diamerismon).  In Matthew’s more forceful parallel to this passage (Matt 10:34), Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”

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In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin.  Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families.  For the sword of the Lord revealing “the inner thoughts of many,” see Hebrews 4:12:

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.

Finally, Simeon’s words to Mary prefigure her days of sorrow to come: “And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:35).  Jesus’ way leads to the light, but it passes through the darkness of the cross.  Simeon offers no illusions that God’s salvation comes easily, without opposition or conflict.

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]

The fifth person pictured in this scene is Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2:37).  Luke does not quote her words, as he does Simeon’s.  But he does tell us that her words are directed, not just privately to the family, but publicly, to everyone in earshot:  “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In Luke’s gospel, 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.

Many readers will find the idea of ritual purity and uncleanness back of Jesus’ presentation in the temple 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 affirm on this day of Candlemas and on every day that Jesus cleanses us from the stain of our sin, and leads us in the way of “[God’s] salvation . . . a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

Jan
2020

Ugly Ducklings

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When our boys were small, a neighbor gave us a picture book, accompanied by a recording, of the story of the Ugly Duckling. The guys loved the present—so much so that over the succeeding weeks, through many, many listenings, I had the opportunity as never before to immerse myself in this old, familiar tale!

We all know the story: an odd, outsized egg in a mother duck’s nest hatches out an odd, outsized duckling, gray and ungainly. Because of his ugliness, the duckling is rejected by everyone in the farmyard. Only when he has grown does he discover the truth about himself: he is not a duck, but a beautiful, graceful swan! Indeed, he had always been a swan, with all that beauty and grace locked inside; but he did not know it, and no one else could see it.

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I don’t know that Fred Rogers ever told this story. But in a real sense, it was the point of every single story he every told. Every week, he sang to every child watching, “You are my friend, you are special. You are my friend, you are special to me. . . . There’s only one in this wonderful world. You are special.”

In the second Servant Song (Isa 49:1-7), the Servant of the LORD is born with a great destiny:

Listen to me, coastlands;
    pay attention, peoples far away.
The Lord called me before my birth,
    called my name when I was in my mother’s womb (Isa 49:1).

The language is strongly reminiscent of God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah:

Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I made you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).

Later, the apostle Paul would express the confidence that he, too, had been called before he was born, appointed from the first to proclaim Jesus among the Gentiles (Gal 1:15-16). The Servant’s prophetic role, announced on a world stage, is shown as well in the power of his words: the LORD “made my mouth like a sharp sword” (Isa 49:2; compare Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21, where this image is used for the word of the risen Christ).

But the Servant’s true destiny–like that of the ugly duckling–is hidden from the world. Having made the Servant’s mouth “like a sharp sword,” the LORD hid him away “in the shadow of [God’s] hand” (49:2). Though the LORD had fashioned him “like a sharpened arrow,” a beautiful, potent expression of God’s intent, the Servant found himself unused, apparently forgotten, hidden away like an arrow in God’s quiver (49:2).

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Indeed, not only was the Servant’s destiny hidden from the world, it seemed to be hidden even from the Servant himself! Despairing, the Servant cried, “I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing” (49:4). Those words of despair and frustration call to mind the cry of Jesus from the cross, in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matt 27:46//Mk 15:34). The way of the Servant is hard—as it must be. How, otherwise, could the Servant truly understand the suffering of others, who feel themselves abandoned, forgotten, God-forsaken?

Yet, God declares, the Servant will become the means, not only of Israel’s redemption, but of the world’s transformation:

It is not enough, since you are my servant,
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
    Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
    so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (49:6).

The audience that first heard these words knew all too well what it was to feel abandoned and forgotten. Through fifty years of exile, they had struggled to preserve their identity in the midst of an alien culture. They were tired, unable to summon the energy to hope for deliverance (see 40:28-31; 43:22-24; 47:12-15; 49:4). No wonder this exilic prophecy begins with a word of encouragement: “Comfort, comfort my people” (40:1).

But the message of Second Isaiah is not Pollyanna optimism: all is not well. The pain of the people cuts deep. Their despair is real, and realistic: experience has taught them not to hope for too much. Yet, God declares, not only will Israel be restored, but in their restoration, the world will be made new. The way of the Servant leads through sorrow into joy, through darkness into light, through death into life.

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In 1 Corinthians, Paul invites his readers to look around: “By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class” (1 Cor 1:26). You are not the best and the brightest, not the most beautiful or the smartest or the strongest–you are just folks!  Yet, Paul says,

God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.  So no human being can brag in God’s presence (1 Cor 1:28-29).

The message of the cross is that God has come to be present in the midst of suffering, hopelessness, and despair, to reveal the true glory of God’s love, life and goodness in the lives of plain, ordinary, desperate people–ugly ducklings, like you and me.

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We cannot know, and the world cannot see, what God dreams for us. We are like a grain of wheat, which contains hidden within it all the potential for the stalk of grain it can become (Jn 12:24). But every day, by God’s grace, ugly ducklings are transformed into beautiful, graceful swans!

AFTERWORD:

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Monday, January 20, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The hatred and violence of our times may lead us–like the Servant!–to despair that the life and death of Dr. King, and of so many others, was in vain.  But no, friends.  The way of the Servant that Jesus walked, that Dr. King walked in his footsteps and that we too are called to follow, may go through dark places–but it leads into the light.  May the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker, quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speak for us as well:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice (Theodore Parker, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” in The Collected Works of Theodore Parker 2, 37-57 [London: Trubner, 1879], 48).

Jan
2020

The Magi

FOREWORD: I am reposting this from 2018.  Happy Epiphany, friends!

For millions of Western Christians, today–January 6–is the Feast of the Epiphany: a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  Tradition says that there were three Magi, that they were kings from three continents and three races, and that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  Of course, that is the way it is in our Christmas pageants and in our creches.  But none of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

 

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story: Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

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; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one of us there in Bethlehem.

Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the entire world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into all our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!  May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”

AFTERWORD

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!

Jan
2020

The Holy Name

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Today, of course, is New Year’s Day–a day for rededication and new beginnings.  But it is also the eighth day of Christmas , and so according to Luke 2:21, the day when Jesus was circumcized (see Lev 12:3) and named.  Therefore in many traditions, this day is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Before reflecting on what the name is, it is important first to note what the name is not.  “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name–he was not the son of Joseph and Mary Christ!  Rather, Christ is a titleand a rather odd one.  In Greek, christos means “smeared” (the Greek geographer Diodorus Siculus, for example, refers to newly plastered constructions as neochristos –that is, “freshly smeared”)!  However, in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture called the Septuagint, christos is used 49 times to translate the Hebrew word meshiach, or messiah (for example, Lev 21:10, 12; 1 Sam 2:10; Ps 2:2; Isa 45:1).  This word also means “smeared”–smeared with oil, or anointed.  Anointing was used to designate people and objects set aside for a special purpose–but of course, in time, the term “Messiah” came to be used as a title for the King who was to come.  “Jesus Christ,” then, is not a name, but a confession: “Jesus IS the Christ,” the King who was to come.  But his name is “Jesus.”

Matthew 1:18-24, which tells the story of Jesus’ naming, also provides the background for a Child ballad (no. 54) still sung in Appalachia, a Christmas carol called “The Cherry Tree.”   This strange little story never makes it into the Christmas pageants–probably because of its mature language and themes!

Mary, Joseph’s fiancee, is pregnant.  Joseph reaches the obvious, natural conclusion: Mary must have been unfaithful to him.  Certainly, the engagement was off, but in that culture, at that time, more could have–indeed many would have thought, should have–happened.  Mary’s actions had brought shame upon Joseph, as well as upon her own family.  At the least, she should have been exposed to public shame.  At the worst, with the evidence of her pregnancy to confirm her faithlessness, Mary could have been stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:13-28, especially 20-21 and 23-27). Sadly, in much of the world–and even in America!–such “honor killings” still occur today.

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But Joseph wanted nothing to do with any of this:

Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly (Matt 1:19).

Before Joseph could act on his decision, however, an angel appeared in a dream, to assure him of Mary’s faithfulness.  Her pregnancy was a miracle; her child “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20)!  Further, the angel gave Joseph instructions concerning this child: “you will call him Jesus” (Matt 1:21).

 

The name Jesus (Greek Iesous; Aramaic Yeshua) is a form of the name “Joshua,” derived like that name from the Semitic word for “salvation,” yeshuah.  He is to be named this because of his life’s work: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

A second name is also given to the child, however–not by Joseph, but by the writer of this gospel, for the eyes and ears of its readers and hearers (Matt 1:22-23):

Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

One characteristic feature of Matthew’s gospel is the quotation of Scriptures that foreshadow Jesus’ life and ministry.  Here, he is quoting from Isaiah 7:10-16.

In Matthew’s gospel, then, two names are applied to the Christ before he is even born: Jesus and Emmanuel.  Both names figure prominently in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.

With many students of Scripture, I believe that the best explanation of both the similarities and the differences among the first three gospels (commonly called the Synoptic Gospels due to their parallel structures) is that Mark was the earliest gospel, and was used as a source in both Matthew and Luke.  This makes the differences between Mark and Matthew’s versions particularly significant for understanding Matthew’s particular emphases.

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In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus eats a Passover meal with his disciples, breaking the bread and sharing the cup.  Mark 14:22-25 reads,

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.”

Matthew’s version follows Mark’s, but with one important addition.

He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven(Matt 26:27-28).

That last phrase, only Matthew has.  Remember that the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or “Savior”], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  But, how?  Only now do we begin to see.  Somehow, in his death, Jesus takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin.

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Now we come to the cross.  In Matthew, the death of Jesus is described in more detail than in Mark’s gospel.  In particular, Matthew has a sequence of three groups of people who mock Jesus as he is hanging on the cross.  Their words are important (look particularly at the words in italics).  First there were the passers-by (27:39-40), who said,  “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself!”  (Remember his name–Yeshua, “the Savior”)  “If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”  (Remember his name–Immanuel, “God with us”).

Next the religious leaders, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders mock him, too:  “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son’” (27:42-43).

Finally, the bandits crucified on either side of Jesus “insulted him in the same way” (27:44).  Of course, the powerful irony is  that he is on the cross because he is Yeshua.  He will not save himself because he is the savior,  enduring in full the ugliness of human evil and sin.  “Come down from the cross if you are the son of God?”  It is because he is the son of God that he remains on the cross.  That is why he, Immanuel, is here.  He is God with us–God with us even here, even at death’s door, even in the depths of human ugliness and depravity.

As in Mark, so in Matthew, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?” (27:46)–combined Hebrew and Aramaic for “My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?” (Psalm 22:1).  But the mocking crowd misunderstands him (Matt 27:47-49).  Someone says, “He’s calling Elijah;” someone else says  “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.”  But no one will save him, because he is determined to save everyone.  It is by his death that he brings salvation.

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Matthew has one more scene to set before us. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus addresses the disciples one last time:

I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age  (Matt 28:18-20).

From the very beginning of his life, Jesus is the son of God, born of a virgin and given the name Immanuel:  God with us.  Jesus is the obedient son of his Father in all things.  In Matthew’s gospel, the cross is the ultimate act of Christ’s obedience.   At the cross, Jesus is still Immanuel, God with us, the obedient son of God.  Yet in Matthew, the cross is also the means of our salvation; at the cross, he is Yeshua, Jesus, Savior.  Somehow, his death and resurrection takes up our death and our disobedience, and does away with it.

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The apostle Paul puts it this way:

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God (Romans 5:6-11).

In Christ’s death, the gap between humanity and divinity is bridged: we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are given the hope and the promise of our own deliverance from death.  By entering into our life, and even into our death, Jesus draws God near to us, and us near to God.  He brings God’s divinity down to where we are, and lifts our humanity up to where God is.

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus expressed this idea quite well: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved” (to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton ho de henotai totheu, touto kai sozetai).  By his life, the Son as Immanuel brings God to us and us to God.  By his death, the Son as Yeshua enters our death and evil and abolishes its power forever.  By his resurrection and ascension, he completes the meaning of both his names.  He is Jesus, our Savior, who destroys our death.  He is Emmanuel, God with us, who makes us fully “at one” with God: which is what “atonement” means.

A Merry Eighth Day of Christmas, friends, and a joyous New Year 2020!

AFTERWORD:

I owe the insight into the names in Matthew’s gospel that I have shared here to my colleague John Blumenstein, who completed his Ph. D. in New Testament while I was working on mine in Hebrew Bible.  The Blumensteins were our neighbors in campus housing, and our dear friends–in fact, it was John who prompted me to apply for my first teaching job, and started me down this trajectory that my ministry has followed for 30 years.  Wherever you are today, John, and whatever you are up to–thank you!