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!

 

Dec
2019

Thoughts About the Solstice.

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We have been taught–and rightly–that God creates the universe out of nothing.  Theologians and philosophers talk about creation in this way because of their high view of God. If God is indeed God, then God is not an object in the world of time and space: certainly, then, God must have called all that is into being. Therefore, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians alike talk about Creatio ex nihilo: that is, God creating the world “out of nothing.”

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But that is not what Genesis 1 is about. The question posed by the beginning of the Bible is not, “Where did the world come from?” Ancient people really did not care how the world began.  What they wanted, and needed, to know was something more immediate and pressing: is there a meaningful order to reality? Can I plant my crops and know that the rain will fall, the sun will rise, the seed will sprout and germinate, and the harvest will come?

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Here in the northern hemisphere, December 21 is the winter solstice, the official beginning of winter.  Ancient people knew all about solstices and equinoxes. Though they did not understand how this happened, they were fully aware that every year, when the autumnal equinox rolls around, the day and the night are of equal length (hence, “equinox:” that is, “equal night”). But every night after that the nights get longer and longer, and every day after that the days get shorter and shorter, until finally we come to the winter solstice: the longest night and shortest day of the year.

Every human culture in the world recognizes the equinoxes and the solstices, and for a very important reason. After all, how can we know that this time around, the nights won’t just keep getting longer and longer and longer until everything is swallowed up in night? How can we know that this time around the air won’t just continue to get colder and colder and colder until everything is swallowed up in an endless winter of darkness and death?

 

Image result for 2012 ice ageCan we be certain that the wheel will turn and that the cycle will continue? In short: does the world make sense?

The opening verses of Genesis record, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form” (Hebrew tohu wabohu; Gen 1:1-2). This “formless void” (the NRSV rendering of the verse) is further described as “the deep sea” (Hebrew tehom) and “the waters” (Hebrew hammayim; Gen 1:2). In Genesis 1:1-2, then, the state of things when God began creating was chaos, without order or pattern, represented as tossing, shifting, formless water.

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Picture yourself floating in the ocean. There is no land in sight. It is night: the sky is overcast, so that there is no moon and no starlight. All you can see, all you can imagine, is the endless rise and fall of the water, the tossing of the waves, and the wind blowing over the deep. That is the way Israel’s ancient priests imagined the beginning of things.

It all begins with shapeless, formless water. But when God speaks God’s creative word–“God said, ‘Let there be light”–God imposes order on that chaos. The implicit question in Genesis 1, then, is not, how did the world begin, but rather, does the world make sense? God establishes order and meaning in place of disorder and meaninglessness.

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It makes eminent sense, then, that early Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth soon after the solstice: to recognize the truth that Christ’s light has shone into our darkness, to bring the promise of new life and hope.  The one who is the Word–the Logos, the Pattern of all reality–has come among us in the person of Jesus (John 1:1-5, 14), to remind us of the world’s meaning.  Merry Christmas, friends!

Dec
2019

What Sweeter Music Can We Bring?

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What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

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Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day,
That sees December turn’d to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn,
Thus on the sudden?

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Come and see
The cause why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre public mirth
To heaven and the under-earth.

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who with His sunshine and His showers
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

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The Darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome Him.

The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.

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Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour who’s our King,
The Lord of all this revelling.

–“A Christmas Carol, Sung To The King In The Presence At Whitehall,” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), 1648.

GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!  MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU AND YOURS!

AFTERWORD: Thanks to our beloved St. Paul’s UMC choirmaster Tom Taylor for selecting this lovely piece, set to music by John Rutter, for our choir.  Prayers for your speedy convalescence, Tom!  Thanks to the estimable Alaine Fink for stepping capably into the breach, and leading us into this celebration of Christ’s birth.

Dec
2019

Remembering Nicholas

 

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FOREWORD: The feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra is December 5/6 in the Western Church and December 19 in Eastern Churches.  We celebrated the saint in chapel at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on December 10, with a service built around the sketch below by senior PTS student Joshua Demi, printed here with his permission.  The liturgist was Dr. Helen Bleier, Santa was portrayed by my first-year advisee Tom Harrison, who is (no wonder!) a professional Santa, and Nicholas was portrayed by me.  The pictures below were taken by another PTS student, Rebecca Young, who gave permission for me to use them.  Thanks to all of you!

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Nicholas was

Bishop of Myra in Lycia; died 6 December, 345 or 352. Though he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

Some of the main points in his legend are as follows: He was born at Parara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor; in his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; shortly after his return he became Bishop of Myra; cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian [284 to 305 CE], he was released after the accession of Constantine [306 to 337 CE], and was present at the Council of Nicaea.

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Note that part of the legend was that Nicholas punched out Arius at the Council of Nicaea for denying the full divinity of Christ!  Legend also connects St. Nicholas to gift-giving at Christmas, and specifically to hanging stockings.

“REMEMBERING NICHOLAS”

LITURGIST: Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, the liturgical traditions celebrate the life and legacy of St. Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of…
(SANTA enters from the wings. He proceeds to hand out treats and do his thing. This section is intentionally left open to give the actor playing Santa some creative freedom.)
(The doors of the worship space slowly swing open and a robed and bearded figure NICHOLAS enters, carrying a large bound Bible [perhaps the Bible from the pulpit which has been mysteriously absent until now?]. As he enters, a hush of silence comes over SANTA. As NICHOLAS passes the font, he genuflects and makes the sign of the cross, staring intently at the cross on the opposite side of the wall. Paying no mind to anyone, he walks to the front row, sits down, and begins to pray silently. SANTA regains his composure and then continues.)

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NICHOLAS: (genuinely confused) Excuse me. What is going on?
SANTA: I’m jolly olde St. Nick. I came all the way from the North Pole to spread some Christmas cheer.
NICHOLAS: Oh my.
SANTA: Well, at least I think I am. I stopped by the mall the other day to buy some tube socks, saw myself, and had a bit of an identity crisis.
NICHOLAS: You are most certainly not Saint Nicholas. Yet, I can see it. You are a symbol, like a half-faded memory of me, the memory of a child, bits of reality filtered through the lens of fantasy and fairytales. But I am so much more than this. I lived at a time of great social upheaval and theological divide. I was imprisoned for worshiping Our Lord, and I saw the great persecution come to an end. I stood against heresy, perhaps a bit too vigorously at times. I didn’t give to spread Christmas cheer; I gave because I saw their need. I gave because I had been given much. I gave everything I had, everything I was, to reflect the love of God back into the world, albeit with whatever a dim and cracked a mirror I could.

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(NICHOLAS approaches the pulpit, and opens his massive Bible)
NICHOLAS: The Gospel of Our Lord According to St. Luke, Chapter 6, verses 17-23:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets [NRSV].

The time is coming, and may have already come, when love will be met with hate, when good will be met with evil, when you will weep with those who weep and everything within you will cry, “Enough! I can take no more of this.” When this time comes, remember, blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh. Let your love be great, for great is The One who loves you. Let your gifts be great, for greatly have you been given. And remember, your Beloved, the one who was, and is, and is to come, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, is with you always, even unto the end of the age.
(NICHOLAS leaves the pulpit, and goes to leave, passing the font, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross, starring intently at the cross as he did before.)

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SANTA: Wait, do you have to go?
NICHOLAS: Yes, for I too am but a memory, albeit a slightly clearer one. I am the feeble attempt of a few modern minds to capture the message of a life long gone to glory. Why don’t you come with me? I would love to hear more about this North Pole of yours. One can learn a great deal from the wisdom of children.
(SANTA exits with NICHOLAS. As they exit, SANTA excitedly tells NICHOLAS about the North Pole. NICHOLAS humors him as a loving parent humors a child.)

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Dec
2019

To Live in Harmony


From 1820 until his death in 1849, the Quaker preacher and American folk artist Edward Hicks painted the same scene over and over again: at least 62 times in all!  Likely you have seen at least one of these paintings; the one depicted above comes from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. In each painting, little children stand solemn, unmenaced, and unafraid among lions, wolves, and bears, accompanied by equally unfazed sheep and cattle. Each face, human and animal, gazes calmly out of the canvas, meeting our eyes in serene invitation. To each painting, Hicks gave the same title: “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

Of course, this imagery is drawn from Isa 11:6-8:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed[a] together,
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.


Often, in the background of these paintings, Hicks depicted William Penn making a treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians in  1682 (see the detail above). But why?  What does this have to do with Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom?  To answer that question, we need to look more closely at Isaiah 11.

This passage seems to be set in the mid-8th century BCE: after the depredations of the Syro-Ephraimite War in Judah, and the fall of Israel and deportation of its people (722 BCE).  In the wake of these tragedies, Isaiah describes his people as a tree chopped down to its roots.  But still, there is life in the stump!

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout from his roots (Isa 11:1).

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Isaiah’s vision of Judah’s resuscitation is also a vision of the renewal of kingship. Jesse was the father of David, ancestor of Judah’s kings (see Ruth 4:17–22).  This passage sets forth the prophet’s hope for just rule: his idealistic vision of what the king should be, and one day would be;

The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist (Isa 11:2–5).

For Isaiah, just government in the social realm reflects divine order in the natural realm (see Psalm 19), and so he dreams of a world in which nature reflects God’s intent for creation perfectly.  The peaceable kingdom of Isa 11:6–9 alludes to the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a, and especially to Gen 1:29–30:

Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.  To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened.

In this account, there are neither predators nor prey in the world as God would have it be–nothing needs to die for something else to live. As Isaiah’s vision has it, “The cow and the bear will graze. . . and a lion will eat straw like an ox.”  Although his vision comes from a time of devastation and despair, for Isaiah despair at God’s punishment always yields to hope, for God’s judgment is always tempered by mercy.

The last verse of this passage looks out to the nations–as the Quaker painter realized:

On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious (Isa 11:10).

That is why Hicks places William Penn and the Lenni Lenape in his depiction of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom.  God’s peace and justice are not the property of any one nation or race, but are given to unite the whole world.  Further, Hicks believed that Isaiah’s vision was more than a dream for someday. He saw the treaty with the Lenni Lenape as evidence that God was already at work in the world, bringing God’s peace and justice to fruition here and now.  Hicks heard that hope in the account of Isaiah’s vision.

 

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Paul heard it, too! For this apostle to the Gentiles, Isaiah’s vision demonstrated that God’s grace extends beyond the borders of Israel.  In Rom 15:12, Paul quotes that same verse (it sounds a bit different, as Paul is quoting from the Greek translation of that passage):

 And again, Isaiah says,

There will be a root of Jesse,
    who will also rise to rule the Gentiles.
        The Gentiles will place their hope in him.

For Paul, of course, the branch from the root of Jesse is Jesus, who has fulfilled Isaiah’s dreams of what a king should be, and who comes, as Isaiah envisioned,  to all peoples.

Romans is an unusual epistle.  Usually, Paul wrote to churches he had established himself or had already visited, responding directly to the circumstances and concerns of each particular community.  But at the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had never been to Rome (see Rom 1:8-15). Why then did he write this letter, to people he had never met?

New Testament scholar Robert Jewett proposes that Paul wrote Romans as an ambassador for Christ, seeking to reconcile the estranged gentile (non-Jewish) and Jewish Christian communities in Rome.  So, Paul begins that letter by asserting his confidence that Jesus has come to and for Jew and Gentile alike: 

I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16)

He returns to this theme toward the end of Romans:

So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory. I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:7-9).

Paul is persuaded that the Gospel is for all people:

May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice (Rom 15:5-6).

The NRSV reads, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.”

 

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In this second week of Advent, our attention is drawn to John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Christ.  John famously baptized all comers, all who repented of their sins.  He reminded the religious leaders, so proud of their distinct heritage, that God could raise children of Abraham from the stones (Matt 3:9)!  The gospel is not the property of any nation, or race, or group, but is given to the whole world.

Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann

Jurgen Moltmann, whose famous theology of hope had its beginnings when he was a German POW in England, warns Christians not to be seduced by nationalism:

The church of Christ is present in all the people on earth and cannot become ‘a national religion’. The church of Christ ecumenically embraces the whole inhabited earth. She is not a tribal religion, nor a Western religion, nor a white religion, but the church of all humanity. The church of Christ is not national, but it is a church of all the nations and humanity.

Moltmann’s warning comes from grim experience: he saw first-hand in Nazi Germany the destructive consequences of the church allied with a state defined by exclusion.  Jewett as well is persuaded that we must heed Paul’s call to reconciliation:

The Pauline hope of unification of all peoples through the gospel of transforming love that produces respect between groups as diverse as the Jews and Gentiles urgently needs to be placed on our agenda (Robert Jewett, “The Law and the Coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in Romans,” Interpretation 39 [1985]: 341).

Although Jewett wrote those words 34 years ago, they could have been penned this morning.  I cannot remember a time in my life when we more needed to hear “the gospel of transforming love that produces respect between [diverse] groups”!  True, the divisions that tear at the church today are not the same as those that Paul addressed, but still, the point remains.  In the Peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah saw, Paul preached, and Hicks painted, predators and prey—natural enemies!—sit peacefully together: and so must we.


In a press conference this past week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked if she hated President Trump.  She responded, “I don’t hate the president. I pray for the president all the time. . . I was raised in a Catholic house. We don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world.”  Many scoffed at those words, but that surely is the point of these Scriptures. We don’t have to agree—we do need to respect one another, to will one another’s good, and to pray for one another–at least, if we want to be a part of what God is doing in our world.  For God is in the business of overcoming our division, and uniting us in God’s love, justice, and peace.  To paraphrase Paul, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.”

Nov
2019

The Psalm That Doesn’t End. . .

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When our guys were small, a favorite television program was “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along,” which always ended with ventriloquist Sheri Lewis, joined by her puppets Lamb Chop, Charley Horse, and Hush Puppy plus a chorus of children, singing “The Song That Doesn’t  End”:

This is the song that doesn’t end, yes it goes on and on, my friend.  Some people started singin’ it, not knowin’ what it was, and they’ll continue singin’ it forever just because it is the song that doesn’t end. . .

Repeat as long as you can stand it–which I warn you for a toddler can be a LONG time!

Which brings us to the Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 119:137-144.  Psalm 119 feels like the Psalm that doesn’t end!  This is the longest chapter in the Bible–indeed, at a whopping 176 verses, it is longer than many biblical books: by comparison, Jonah has only 48 verses, and Ephesians only 155. Those who have attempted to read through the entire psalm may also remember it as the dullest chapter in the Bible!  There is no clear sense of development in the poem from beginning to end–indeed, as Carroll Stuhlmueller observed, “One can start at the end and read the verses backward, and it makes equally good sense”(“Psalms” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1988], 487).

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However, this huge, sprawling text is also tightly structured. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. Unlike the acrostics with which we are familiar in English, where the first letters of successive lines spell out words or phrases, Hebrew acrostics use all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order.  Sometimes this is done in successive lines, as in Psalms 9—10; 25; 34; 111; 112; 145; and Proverbs 31:10-31.  Sometimes, as in Psalm 119, successive sections or stanzas follow this alphabetical pattern (see also Ps 37; Lam 1; 2; 3; 4).

The biblical acrostics may vary a bit from our expected alphabetical order.  The letters ‘ayin and pe switch places in Lam 2; 3; 4 and Ps 10–but that different sequence is also found in some ancient alphabet lists: for example, in the tenth-century BCE Tel Zayit Inscription discovered by my friend and colleague Ron Tappy (Ron Tappy, Marilyn Lundberg, P. Kyle McCarter, and Bruce Zuckerman, “An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century b.c.e. from the Judaean Shephelah.” BASOR 344 [2006]:5-46).  Sometimes, Hebrew poets play creatively with that order: for example, Psalm 34 skips waw and adds an additional pe at the end, so that while the twenty-two lines are preserved, the first, middle, and last letters of the acrostic spell out ‘aleph!   But the point of the acrostic form remains completion. This is apparent even in the partial acrostic in Pss 9-10 (a single psalm in the LXX and the Latin Vulgate).  While the middle of the alphabet is missing, the beginning and end are represented, making it most likely that the original poem was damaged or altered in the course of its editing and transmission–as the division of this poem into two psalms in the Hebrew Bible, reflected in our Old Testament, already may indicate.

In Psalm 119 the acrostic form is fully realized: the psalm consists of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, each stanza consisting of eight verses beginning with that letter.  In Hebrew, each line of Sunday’s Psalm reading begins with the letter tsade:

צ tsade

Lord, you are righteous,
    and your rules are right.
The laws you commanded are righteous,
    completely trustworthy.
Anger consumes me
    because my enemies have forgotten what you’ve said.
Your word has been tried and tested;
    your servant loves your word!
I’m insignificant and unpopular,
    but I don’t forget your precepts.
Your righteousness lasts forever!
    Your Instruction is true!
Stress and strain have caught up with me,
    but your commandments are my joy!
Your laws are righteous forever.
    Help me understand so I can live! (CEB)

 

Patrick Miller describes Psalm 119:137-144 as a hybrid poem, combining “Praise of God’s law and prayer for help against oppression” (see his note on this passage in the HarperCollins Study Bible [New York: Harper Collins, 1993], 832).  Indeed, aspects of nearly every type of psalm can be found in Psalm 119, from hymn to thanksgiving to prayer for help. While some claim that mixing forms in this way showed a lack of fresh insight and creativity on the part of the Psalmist, James Luther Mays argued that the mixture of forms is part of the point the Psalmist wants to make. By deliberately drawing from and referring to a variety of sacred texts, the Psalmist aims to express “a more comprehensive knowledge of God” (James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 129).  Psalms 1 and 19, which like Psalm 119 draw on several poetic forms, also resemble Psalm 119 in theme (compare Psalm 1:2 with Psalm 119:15; Psalm 19:7 with Psalm 119:129-130). All three psalms express a life of piety centered on torah: God’s law or instruction. In these psalms, Mays suggests, the book of Psalms is viewed not simply as a prayer book, but as instruction in the pious life (Mays, The Lord Reigns, 134-135).

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The theme of Psalm 119 is expressed in the blessing pronounced in the first two verses:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy are those who keep his decrees,
    who seek him with their whole heart (NRSV)

The word translated “law” in Psalm 119:1 is, again, the Hebrew torah.  Eight different legal terms are used in Psalm 119, ordinarily one to each verse. In addition to “law,” these terms in the NRSV are “decrees,” “statutes,” “commandments,” “ordinances,” “word,” “precepts,” and “promise.” Most of this legal vocabulary comes from Deuteronomy, where these words describe different aspects of God’s law. However, in Psalm 119 no attempt is made to define any of these technical terms, nor is any distinction made among them. Professor Mays suggests that in Psalm 119, they are all interchangeable with torah: they all represent instruction (Psalms [Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994], 382-383.)

Note, though, that this is the LORD’s instruction. Consistently, all these terms are identified as the property of the LORD: it is “the law of the LORD” (verse 1); “his decrees” (verse two); “your precepts” (verse four); “your statutes” (verse 5). Confirmation of this insight comes even in the apparent exceptions to the rule. In Psalm 119:3, none of the eight torah terms appear. However, the Psalmist speaks of the blessed as those “who do no wrong,/ but walk in his ways” (emphasis mine; see also Psalm 119:15 and 37). Similarly, Psalm 119:90 speaks of “your faithfulness,” evident in the establishment of the created world (see Psalm 19, which also places the LORD’s torah alongside the LORD’s creation as being alike changeless and reliable). Psalm 119:122 does not refer to the LORD’s instruction at all. However, this verse does identify the Psalmist as “your servant,” indicating again an attitude of obedience and submission consistent with the theme of this psalm.

Professor Mays writes,

The word of God is given but never possessed. Because it is God’s instruction, it is not owned apart from the teaching of God.… it must be sought and constantly studied in prayer in order to be taught ( Mays, Psalms, 385).

Psalm 119 does not identify God’s instruction with the written law: an important distinction, for the ideal of obedience to God’s will can all too easily be corrupted into petty legalism. Remember that Jesus’ opponents chastised him for breaking the law, while Jesus rebuked them for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23, NRSV). Unlike those among the religious leadership who opposed Jesus, the Psalmist recognizes that God’s instruction is also God’s gift, which cannot be possessed once for all but must be rediscovered in every time, by every seeker.  In Christian theological terms, we are saved by grace!

Author Frederick Buechner expresses what this means very well:

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too (originally published in Wishful Thinking).

 

The poet who has given us Psalm 119 set for himself a very daunting task. Using a basic theological vocabulary of eight terms meaning “law” or “instruction,” the Psalmist set out to write twenty-two eight-line meditations on the place of God’s teaching in the life of the pious, committed believer–one meditation for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. What is more, the Psalmist attempted to incorporate into this poem the various styles of the texts in which God’s instruction is encountered, including nearly every form of psalm. We may criticize the result as over-long and repetitive, but even so, Psalm 119 is a remarkable achievement.