Friday, March 22, 2019

April 7, 2019 - 5th Sunday in Lent

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [598]

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8.  
From oppression to hope – exiles to home, the hungry to harvests, the Law to faith, a rich consecration for death.  
This Sunday in Lent continues to anticipate great NEW things that contrast awesomely with OLD things.  
Isaiah 43:16-21. 
The prophetic reading has the prophet of the exile proclaiming God’s imminent new work that will outdo the exodus as a past marvelous deed of redemption. 
The great Red Sea event of the exodus is alluded to – not recognizable unless you know the old story.  The Song of the Red Sea had exclaimed, 
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army [God] cast into the sea; 
      his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.  
The floods covered them; 
      they went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:4-5, NRSV).  

Here, in the prophet’s time, the Lord speaks of God’s characteristic action: 

      … who makes a way in the sea, 
      a path in the mighty waters, 
who brings out chariot and horse, 
      army and warrior; 
they lie down, they cannot rise, 
      they are extinguished, quenched like a wick… (verses 16-17).  
The message now uttered by this Lord is, “I am about to do a new thing…I will make a way in the wilderness / and rivers in the desert” (verse 19).  
This kind of speech is ecstatic; it speaks of a sublime reality that seems to contrast sharply with the concrete world of second generation migrants (exiles in Babylon).  
The prophet’s audience in Babylon were well-settled people who had long ago accepted their subservient place in this larger world of the nations (the “gentiles”).  Are these people ready to venture forth on a long and parching migration to a land that belonged to their fathers or grandfathers?  The heightened and urgent tone of the prophet’s speeches is aimed at arousing them to take on this challenge – and to expect great things of it.  
The prophet’s hearers are urged to perceive the hand of God in the world movements of their historic moment.  (The Persian Cyrus is about to conquer their overlord Babylon, in 539 BCE.)  They are urged to live at the peak and to know that miracles are indeed possible, because the one mighty Lord of the universe is recruiting them for renewed servanthood.  
They live – the prophet insists – on the verge of the great transition from the old things to the new things.  
Psalm 126.  
The Psalm reading continues the ecstatic speech of the prophet and speaks of the Lord’s great new deed either as an accomplished fact or as a certainty.  
The Lord has acted to restore the fortunes of Zion and there is great joy because of it.  Even surrounding nations will recognize that “the Lord has done great things for them” (verse 2b, NRSV).  The ecstasy of the first part of the psalm is, then, very much in line with the prophetic speech.  
The second part of the psalm (verses 4-6) is more in accord with the hopeful but uncertain situation of the prophet’s audience in Babylon – though the setting here is definitely in the old country of Judah, now awaiting renewal and restoration.  
Here, all hope is focused on the grain crop.  As the wadis (dry ravines with short rain spell) of the southern drylands provide a brief period of rapid growth for barley crops (verse 4), so the farmers look forward to a joyful harvest following the sowing in the rainy season.  
 May those who sow in tears
      reap with shouts of joy.  
Those who go out weeping,
                  bearing the seed for sowing,
            shall come home with shouts of joy,
                  carrying their sheaves (verses 5-6).  
The community’s hope has been restored, and they sing of the impending joy of bringing in these sheaves!  
Philippians 3:4b-14.  
The Epistle reading also presents a contrast between before and after, though the contrast is not in the physical landscape but in the spiritual landscape of the Judean apostle (Paul).  The contrast is between one who was once perfect in the Law but now is justified only by faith.  
This is one of the key autobiographical passages in Paul’s letters.  Here he lists his high-achievement credentials as an upstanding Pharisee in order to contrast that with his status “in Christ.”  Paul was circumcised, one of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (from whom an earlier Saul had come, I Samuel 9:1-2), a native-born Hebrew, a Pharisee in observance of the Torah, so zealous in his Judaism that he was an early persecutor of the Jesus followers, and one justified before God by his observance of the Law.  This was the Before.  
As for the After, all of these outstanding credentials, visible to people, Paul counts as loss, compared to being “in Christ” (verse 7).  
What Paul wants, instead of these honorable credentials in Judaism, is “to gain Christ and be found in him…” (verses 8-9, NRSV).  “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (verse 10).  He wants what is elsewhere called dying with Christ.  “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).  
From a top-achieving religious champion Paul is content to trudge a path to suffering and death because that is the path of his life-transforming Lord, Jesus the Christ.  
John 12:1-8.  
The Gospel reading presents us with a symbolic act sanctifying the transition from one life stage to another – life to death.  
All four Gospels have a story of a woman who anoints Jesus with oil or expensive ointment, a woman whom the bystanders criticize.  In John, as in Mark and Matthew, the anointing is just before the passion narrative and anticipates Jesus’ death.  It is anointing for burial in advance of the event.  (Luke’s story is set in earlier times when Jesus was hosted by a rather uppity Pharisee, Luke 7:36-50.) 
The woman is criticized, in the version attached to the passion, because the ointment is very expensive (costing nearly a year’s salary for a worker, say around $35,000 in our current economy) – and the money should have been spent for the poor! (John 12:5; Mark 14:5; Matt. 26:8-9.) 
In defense of this criticism (from Judas in John, but from others in Mark and Matthew), it can be said that this was indeed an extravagant demonstration.  The only defense would be that an unparalleled occasion was at hand.  This, of course, is the defense Jesus makes for her.  Nothing less than his own death is the occasion.  This is a moment that overrides all other considerations, even the most worthy act of sedakáh, righteousness or charity.  
The John narrative ends with one of the more abused sayings in the Christian tradition.  “You always have the poor with you, but…”  
The passage provokes a serious consideration for us:  How can the urgency of these critical last moments in Jesus’ life be weighed against the continuing needs of the suffering poor?  The question persists in the subsequent life of Jesus’ followers – for about two thousand years – so far.  

It is a matter that must be laid heavily on heart and conscience during the season of refraining and recommitting that Christians call Lent.  

Friday, March 15, 2019

March 31, 2019 - 4th Sunday in Lent

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [597]

Joshua 5:9-12;  Psalm 32;  II Corinthians 5:16-21;  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. 
From Old Ways to New Ways:  Promised Land, Reconciliation to God, a Prodigal Hitting Bottom.  
Transition from the old to the new is the focus of the readings for this Sunday.  The way things were versus the way things have (or can) become – that is this Lenten theme.  
Joshua 5:9-12.  
In the reading from the Prophets (the historical books = the Former Prophets) the transition is from the generation of the wilderness age of testing to the age of self-support in a promised land.  
When the Israelites have miraculously crossed the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership (completed in Joshua 4), they are initiated into the possession of the land they have been so long preparing for.  The initiation consisted first (immediately preceding our reading) of circumcising all the males who had been born in the wilderness, to qualify them for manhood and the status of warriors in the new land (Joshua 5:2-7).  This circumcision is referred to in our reading as “rolling away…the disgrace of Egypt.”  The verb “roll away” is a play on the name Gilgal, literally a “circle,” and the first camp site is given that name (verse 9).  
The second act of initiation was to perform the Passover ritual and eat that sacred meal during the night.  Thus, this night of the Passover is the actual transition between old wilderness world and new settled world.  
The action immediately following the Passover is given a somewhat emphatic dating:  “On the day after the passover, on that very day…” (verse 11, NRSV) the Israelites ate unleavened bread.  During the Passover night, the Israelites ate bread made from the grain of the new land – unleavened bread, since they had no previous dough with which to leaven the new batch.  
Small aside on Unleavened Bread.  It takes seven days to make a batch of leavened dough when you start with grain from a brand new crop.  (Moist flour is left out to absorb yeast from the atmosphere, which is present around the glove, and it takes seven days for the new dough to ferment.)  Therefore, the festival of Unleavened Bread lasts seven days, starting Passover night!  The festival consecrates the new grain crop, which has to be rigorously separated from any dough of the previous year’s crop. 
At the moment that the Israelites ate the new grain from the land, the manna that had sustained them through the wilderness ceased (verse 12).  Their eating habits now reflected the conditions of their new land, and they ate unleavened bread for the seven days of the battle of Jericho, which follows in chapter 6.  
The transition from the wilderness to the promised land brings the Israelites into the fulfillment of the promises made to the ancestors.  
Psalm 32.  
The change between the old way and the new way in the Psalm is the experience of sin and forgiveness, and especially the power and blessing released by confession of sin directly to God.  
What is pretty much standard language for sin in the psalms is presented in the two opening verses:  (1) “transgressions,” which need to be forgiven; (2) “sin,” which needs to be covered; (3) “iniquity,” which needs to be not imputed or “reckoned” to one; and (4) “deceit,” which must be avoided in one’s spirit (or one’s mouth, in the Greek translation).  The first three terms are repeated in the speaker’s report of confession to the Lord in verse 5.  
The primary force of the psalm, however, has to be the apparent personal experience reported.  “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (verse 3, NRSV).  Transgression, sin, and iniquity (sometimes translated “guilt”) are destructive of vitality, spirit, and health.  This speaker finally resolves to confess all to the Lord – acknowledging sin, not hiding iniquity, and confessing transgressions.  The result:  “you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5 NRSV; New Jerusalem Bible, “took away my guilt, forgave my sin”).  
The rest of the psalm is lessons learned from this experience, though perhaps in verses 8-9 it is God speaking rather than the forgiven sinner, warning the unrepentant not to be stubborn as mules who have to be bound and bridled to keep them where they belong.  
II Corinthians 5:16-21.  
The change from a sinful condition to reconciliation with God is the message of the Epistle reading.  The passage is loaded with powerful phrases, but we will concentrate on the statements about sin and reconciliation.  
First, Paul distinguishes between knowing someone “from a human point of view” (literally “according to the flesh”) and knowing someone as “in Christ.”  
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (verse 17, NRSV).  
In this new state, people have been reconciled to God because God is no longer “counting their trespasses against them” (verse 19).  This is possible because “for our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin.”  That is, humans were released from the power of sin because of Christ’s overcoming sin.  Sin is understood to be a transcendent power that grips and controls the wills and abilities of humans, so that they cannot save themselves.  
But “in Christ” this bondage is broken and humans can become new creations, no longer having to live “according to the human point of view,” that is, “according to the flesh.”  Even this new creation is not forced upon people, however, and the apostle must urge his hearers to seize this opportunity, to “be reconciled to God,” as Christ has made that possible (verse 20).  
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.  
The Gospel reading is the parable of the Prodigal Son.  
This parable is the third and major item in the collection of “parables of the lost” in Luke 15.  The collection is introduced by the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes that, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (verse 2, NRSV).  That is, Jesus associates with the “lost ones.”  
We have a superbly told story.  Its emphases, as indicated by where the narrative spends its time, are on the miserable condition the prodigal gets himself into, the surprising joy of the father on the son’s return, and the complaint of the older son who stayed home and supported the family and its tradition.  The story tells itself – up to the point where we want to apply it to something else.  Only a couple of points will be highlighted here.  
This story is about the Lost.  The whole chapter is clearly elevating Jesus’ coming to and seeking out the lost – those lost in the society, lost probably from their own self-esteem, and lost because no one knows where they are.  
These are the tax collectors and sinners (which includes many disadvantaged but not necessarily immoral people), from all of whom the Pharisees require segregation at meals (verses 1-2).  All three parables – the other two are the lost sheep hunted for by the shepherd who neglects the other ninety-nine, and the woman who searches furiously for one lost coin while the other nine lie safely in her cash box – all three parables, I say, give undue (?) attention to the lost ones.  They concentrate too much on the ONE that is lost, to the neglect, we may feel, of what they still have!  In the prodigal son story, this is the apparent injustice to the older son.  
But wait!  The stories are not actually about the Lost; they are about the Found.  And especially are they about the Joy because of the Found.  The shepherd and the woman call in friends; they have a banquet of joy over the recovery of what was lost – as does, of course, the father of the prodigal.  
And especially is the prodigal one that is found.  
At the worst of his depths, the prodigal son “came to himself” (which is literally what the Greek says).  This was the beginning, the finding of – himself, the start of the path to the father’s joy.  
Finding himself – in those circumstances (verses 15-16) – meant a thorough reassessment of his life-style, and a consequent giving up of self-indulgence and pride of status.  It meant a commitment to a new and humbler definition of his life (verses 17-19!).  This is the kind of awakening Jesus followers may find for themselves in this devotional season.  
And what should be said of the elder brother, who stayed at home and carried the burden of the estate to which the prodigal returned?  
Is the elder brother given to us as the particular challenge to those who are still relatively privileged?  To those who have not been nearly starved and have not ended up eating with the pigs?  Surely the point of the parable, as a Lenten reading, is that we are called to rejoice in the good fortune of the needy who have recovered – rejoice, even as if it were our own occasion for celebration. 

So the father of the story hopes his elder son will take the occasion of the prodigal’s recovery and return.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

March 24, 2019 - 3rd Sunday in Lent


                                                            Biblical Words                                               [596]
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9.  
People who are thirsty and hungry seek the nourishment of God’s word – a word about repentance, returning to their covenant.  
Isaiah 55:1-9.  
For the second Sunday in a row we have a Hebrew Scripture reading about covenant.  Remembering covenants involves seeking roots and re-commitments to fundamental grounds, divine and human, in our past.  
Our reading is a rich and complex passage from the Isaiah of the exile, the climax of the prophecies that began in chapter 40 (“in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”).  
The opening passage is an excited play on the theme of Deuteronomy 8:3 – “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (NRSV).  First there is the summons:  
Ho, everyone who thirsts, 
      come to the waters; 
and you that have no money, 
      come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
      without money and without price. 
A great blessing is offered; food and drink for the needy.  Cost is not a consideration; this is the food from God.  In times of scarcity, water and food have very high prices.  But now God’s word is, “Come, buy and eat,” even without money!  The things that are most needed are, in God’s abundance, free.  
But the prophetic word gradually shifts.  
People can be mistaken about what is valuable, about what is really food.  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread …?”  What is really worth having?  “Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, …Incline your ear, and come to me; / listen, so that you may live” (verses 2-3, NRSV).  There is a nourishment of the soul and heart that money can’t buy, though it is worth more than all riches.  
If one heeds the prophetic summons, if one accepts the divine food by listening to the word, what does one hear?  Here it is a word about God’s covenant with David.  “I will make with you [plural] an everlasting covenant, / my steadfast, sure love for David” (verse 3).  
Thus, what we hear is a reminder of messianic promises – echoes of the Covenant with David.  God made David a leader and a symbol (“witness”) for the nations.  We hear God repeating the original promise to David (every “you” here is masculine singular):  
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, 
      and nations that do not know you shall run to you, 
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel
      for he has glorified you (verse 5).  
What is worth having in a needy world is the assurance that God will fulfill the promises to David, and that therefore there will be an international outpouring of support and abundance for those now in humility and need.  That is the gospel of verses 1-5.  
And what is the appropriate response  to this gospel?  Our passage concludes with one of the more profound calls to confession and repentance in all of scripture.  
Seek the Lord while he may be found, 
      call upon him while he is near; 
let the wicked forsake their way, 
      and the unrighteous their thoughts; 
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, 
      and to their God, for he will abundantly pardon (verses 6-7).  
This is God’s word for the covenant people in the early days of Lent.  
Psalm 63:1-8.  
The Psalm reading is an intense and poignant response to the soul’s need for God’s nourishment.  Comments can scarcely enhance this marvelous piece.  Let’s just listen to it again in the New Jerusalem Bible version:  
God, you are my God, I pine for you;
my heart thirsts for you, 
my body longs for you,
as a land parched, dreary and waterless.  
Thus I have gazed on you in the sanctuary, 
seeing your power and your glory.  

Better your faithful love than life itself; 
my lips will praise you.  
Thus I will bless you all my life,
in your name lift up my hands.  
All my longings fulfilled as with fat and rich foods, 
a song of joy on my lips and praise in my mouth.  

On my bed when I think of you, 
I muse on you in the watches of the night, 
for you have always been my help; 
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice;
my heart clings to you, 
your right hand supports me.  
I Corinthians 10:1-13.  
The Epistle reading continues the theme of God’s nourishment and care in the wilderness, applying the experience of the Israelite ancestors even to the new believers in the Greek city of Corinth.  
“Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses … and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (verses 1-4, NRSV).   These are applied in Corinth to the Christian baptism and sacramental food and drink.  
Lent is traditionally a time of preparation for baptism by new Christians, and this passage leads into instruction for such candidates.  Paul says that Christians should learn from the experiences of the ancestors, in particular they should learn about certain gross sins to avoid, which he discusses in order.  
(1)   The most serious sin is idolatry (verse 7), seen in the Israelites making the golden calf while Moses was up on Mount Sinai – quoted here by Paul from Exodus 32:6.  Here again, food and drink are involved, because when the Israelites sinned most seriously, they “sat down to eat and drink [before the golden calf], and they rose up to play” (NRSV).  
(2)   The ancestors’ experience also warns against sexual immorality (verse 8), a sin that brought twenty-three thousand Israelites to a punishment of death, as Paul reads the story in Numbers 25:1-9.  
(3)   Putting the Lord – or Christ, as Paul reads it – to the test (verse 9) was a repeated offense against God committed by the ancestors.  Paul refers to the incident when the people complained about the lack of food and water, and the punishment sent upon them was poisonous snakes.  Moses gave protection from the snakes by use of a bronze serpent – Numbers 21:4-9.  
(4)   A separate sin warned against by the ancestors’ example is “to complain” (verse 10, traditionally “murmur [against]”).  Paul seems to have in mind the incident when the people “rebelled against” Moses and Aaron and a plague broke out sweeping across the camp.  The plague was stopped only by Aaron taking his smoking incense pan and standing between the plague and the people – thereby vindicating his special office on behalf of the people (Numbers 16:41-50; Heb. text 17:6-15).  
In general, Paul says, one must live cautiously, because falling into error happens when you least expect it.  “If you think you are standing (firmly), watch out that you do not fall” (verse 12).  But the final word of faith, supporting those who know they are living through times of testing and trial, is, “God is faithful, and … will not let you be tested beyond your strength” (verse 13).  
In Lent, a repentant people know themselves to be placed in conditions of trial and testing, concerning such heavy-duty sins as Paul here enumerates.  
Luke 13:1-9.  
The Gospel reading, like the prophetic text, is a summons to repent. The emphasis here is strongly on before it’s too late!  This entire passage (Luke 13:1-9) is found in Luke only, though the fig tree parable is similar to a passage in Mark.  
The first part of the passage (verses 1-5) has Jesus refer to two incidents of local history that we know nothing about except from this passage.  Jesus hears about a slaughter of some Galileans while they were at worship in Jerusalem, and also about the death of eighteen people when the walls of a tower fell on them in Jerusalem.  
The Roman governor Pilate was blamed in popular lore for a massacre of Galilean Jews at the Jerusalem temple – graphically expressed here as mingling their blood with their sacrifices.  A shocking and horrible incident, Jesus acknowledges, but – he says – the event should not be read as a punishment for sin.  They did not die in this way because of their sins.  The disaster just caught them – like a falling tower.  
The key question was not, Were they guilty, but Were they ready?  Had they repented?  The implication is, one must repent and change directions in the midst of daily life – because you do not know when the sudden massacre or the collapsing high-rise will come.  
The parable of the unproductive fig tree (verses 6-9) repeats the message of the first part, but with a different twist.  It too is about getting ready for the final judgment, but this time with some advance warning, with a time of preparation allowed.  
The fig tree, planted in the middle of a vineyard, has not produced fruit for three years.  The lord of the vineyard is out of patience and intends to destroy the tree to make room for more vines, which, unlike the fig tree, will produce fruit.  The tree has an advocate, however.  The gardener, who takes care of the vineyard, intercedes and asks for one more year during which he will specially cultivate the fig tree.  If it produces then, well and good, but if not it will be cut down.  
This fig-tree talk is similar to that about the fig tree near Jerusalem, which Jesus curses because it has no fruit.  That fig tree withered and died by the next day (Mark 12:12-14, 20-21; Luke omits this episode).  
In neither of these cases are we really talking about fig trees; we are talking about Israel and its response to God, particularly as Jesus represents God’s word to Israel.  In Mark the fig tree has failed and is condemned to destruction.  In Luke there is a curious opening that remains.  There is one more year during which repentance and turning from wicked ways is possible, so that when the Lord comes the tree will be found fruitful and alive in the vineyard of the Lord. 

There is a time of preparation, of reassessment and changed direction, available to even the wicked, who with others are called upon in this season, to seek the Lord.  

March 17, 2019 - 2nd Sunday in Lent


                                                            Biblical Words                                               [595]
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18;  Psalm 27;  Philippians 3:17-4:1;  Luke 13:31-35. 
God’s covenant sets believing servants on journeys – toward a promised land, or the city of the Passion.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18.  
Lent is a season when Christians return to roots and seek renewal of basic commitments that guide and inform their life’s journey.  The reading from the Torah returns to the ancestor who is celebrated for his faith commitment, Abraham (or Abram, as this passage calls him).  
The story of Abraham in Genesis is divided into four unequal parts, the last three parts opened by the words “After these things…” (15:1; 22:1; 22:20).  
·        The first part (Genesis 12-14) is sprinkled with brief promises that Abram’s descendants will receive the land, but mainly it shows the ancestor acquiring wealth, which is the first step in his being blessed.  
·        After he has become a man of substance, the issue arises of his heir, and the longest section of the story (chapters 15-21) presents various twists and turns about how Abraham will (finally) get a proper heir of his own by his main wife Sarah.  
·        The third part, which is a single episode, tests Abraham’s faithfulness to God by requiring the sacrifice of that heir, just acquired through great difficulties (22:1-19).  
·        And the last part of the Abraham story is about proper duties of an old head-of-family before his death (22:20-25:11).  
Our reading, which is the beginning of part two, has two scenes.  Each scene has the following sequence:  God states a promise, Abraham (as I will call him here) then raises some doubt about the promise, and God makes some dramatic demonstration that reiterates the promise in the most extravagant terms.  
The first scene opens the topic of Abraham’s own son as his heir.  The problem here is that Abraham’s wife is barren, and the best Abraham can expect is that the manager of his estate will be his adopted son and heir.  God’s reply is to insist that “no one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (verse 4, NRSV).  This promise is enhanced by showing Abraham all the stars of the heavens and insisting that as innumerable as they are, so will be Abraham’s offspring.  At this point the narrator makes a deliberate and impressive statement:  “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (verse 6, NRSV).    
The second scene is the most solemn statement in the Hebrew scriptures of the promise of the land to Abraham’s descendants.  The opening words insist that God will give “you (Abram)” this land to possess.  Doubting, Abraham says, How can I be sure of this? 
The divine answer is a formal covenant ritual – a rather awesome and scary procedure.  Sacrificial animals are cut in two and the halves laid opposite each other to form a corridor.  Between these parts the covenant maker walks with the implied commitment, “If I do not fulfill my promise, may I be slaughtered like these animals.”  (The ritual was used by Jerusalem leaders in a promise to free their slaves in the last days of the kingdom, Jeremiah 34:17-20.)  
Here, remarkably, it is God who passes between the animal parts, represented by the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch.  This is an absolute commitment by God, and God only.  Abraham does not pass between the parts.  The solemnity and awesomeness of the whole scene is emphasized by Abraham falling into a “deep sleep” and being surrounded by “a deep and terrifying darkness” (verse 12).  This shields Abraham from a direct face-to-face with God – which later generations knew was forbidden.  
The scene is concluded by the narrator’s simple statement of its significance:  “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land…’” (15:18).  
And with that statement, many ages of faith and struggle for the land were initiated.  
Psalm 27.  
If the Abraham scene was dark and fearsome, the Psalm reading declares that God is the light and salvation of the one who trusts.  
This psalm follows a liturgical sequence:  the first part (verses 1-6) is an emphatic statement of confidence in God’s protection for the speaker (God is Abraham’s “shield,” Gen. 15:1), followed by an intense prayer that God hear, not abandon, and protect the speaker from enemies and false witnesses (verses 7-13).  Before entering the battle and struggle, the speaker makes a remarkable declaration of faith in God (the first part); then, as troubles threaten, the speaker “seeks” God, appeals for help, and expects to be shown a “level path” out of distress and abuse by enemies (the second part).  
The last verse of the psalm is spoken by a presiding voice overseeing the whole scene:  “Wait for the Lord; / be strong, and let your heart take courage; / wait for the Lord!”  
Philippians 3:17-4:1.  
The Epistle reading has an ending very similar to the conclusion of the psalm:  “stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved (ones)” (4:1, NRSV).  And as the psalm sees enemies and false witnesses in the background, Paul reminds the Philippians of others around them who are not of the faith, who, indeed, live with their bellies as their gods and whose shameful conduct is their cause of boasting (their “glory”).  Paul speaks sadly, “even with tears,” of such folks.  Most powerfully of all, he calls such people “enemies of the cross” (verse 18).  
What a striking phrase!  Enemies of the cross.  As the rest of the passage shows, these are not people who are outside and are not affected by the gospel message; they are people who have heard the message, seem to have accepted it, but who have in fact rejected it by their behavior.  There apparently were such immoral Christians around the church in Corinth (see I Corinthians 5:9-13).  
Paul had probably told the Philippians about those Corinthians who claimed to follow Christ but fed their bellies and indulged their lusts under the motto “All things are lawful to me” (I Corinthians 6:12).  Opposed to this, Paul recommends that they “live according to the example you have in us” (verse 17).  That example itself is from the Lord.   Earlier in this letter, Paul had already exhorted them:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … who emptied himself … and became obedient to the point of death …” (Philippians 2:5-8).    
Luke 13:31-35.  
The Gospel reading is from that large middle section of the Gospel According to Luke which represents Jesus as on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:51, where “he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” to 19:44, where he actually enters the city to “occupy” the temple).  Much of this “journey narrative” is about the meaning of going to Jerusalem.    
In our passage, Jerusalem is the center of attention, and a key issue is the right time to go to Jerusalem.  
The passage begins with what seems to be a friendly approach by the Pharisees(!).  They warn Jesus to get away from Herod Antipas (one of the sons of the Great Herod of Jesus’ birth), lest the same thing happen to him that happened to John the Baptist.  Jesus’ answer to Herod, through these concerned Pharisees, is a little curious.  “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (verse 32, NRSV).  
We are not talking here about literal days.  “Today” means the current time, “tomorrow” means a little longer into the future, and “the third day” means some critical time not far ahead when there will be a decisive change.  Again, there is in Luke a sense of a heavenly script that is being followed; the time frame has been scripted, and Jesus enumerates the acts yet to be played out.  The climax of the plot lies not far ahead, but it is not yet at hand.  
But what will happen on “the third day,” when the kairos, the critical moment, arrives?  Reaching Jerusalem, Jesus will go the way of all prophets.  “[T]he next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (verse 33).  That solemn punch-line concludes the interchange with the Pharisees, which is reported only by Luke.  
To this episode Luke adds the powerful lament over Jerusalem that is found also in the Gospel According to Matthew.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (13:34; Matthew 23:37).  Jesus must go to Jerusalem because he is the prophet sent by the Lord to summon Jerusalem to a true and faithful response to God’s call.  But here there is a fateful certainty of the outcome; Jerusalem will persist in its refusal, and the “prophet” will be killed.  
The city will not again see Jesus until they cry, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (verse 35).  This will happen at Palm Sunday (19:36-40), but Luke’s hearers know of a yet later time, when Jerusalem has been destroyed and they will carry the message of his coming far and wide in the Roman empire. 

It is this Lord, who today, tomorrow, and the third day, walks toward Jerusalem – this Lord who is the Christian’s model in Lent.  

Thursday, February 28, 2019

March 10, 2019 - 1st Sunday in Lent

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [594]
Deuteronomy 26:1-11;  Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16;  Romans 10:8b-13;  Luke 4:1-13. 
Folks who trust in the Lord and confess God’s saving deeds are delivered from temptation by God’s Holy Word.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11.  
The reading from the Torah presents the ritual by which the individual Israelite was to offer up the annual first fruits of the promised land.  The ritual included a recital of God’s good deeds for the ancestors and for oneself, good deeds that made this offering possible.  
The passage embodies some typical Deuteronomic emphases.  
  • It affirms that the Israelite possesses the fruitful land only because God has given it. 
  • It insists that these offerings must be brought to the particular place “which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for [God’s] name” (which was Jerusalem, after the time of King Josiah, see II Kings 23:8).  
  • The core of the Israelite’s confession is that what God promised God has performed – that the Israelite lives by faith in God’s promise.  That faith is justified by the goods now being returned to God at the altar. 
  • And finally, a typically Deuteronomic requirement insists that needy groups in the society receive a share in the abundance of the land:  “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens [immigrants] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (verse 11, NRSV).  
This confession of God’s deeds, made by the Israelite at the central sanctuary, has been viewed by many scholars as an early “credo” outlining the original sacred story of Israel.  This particular version only mentions three of the great deeds of God for Israel, (1) the choice and guidance of the ancestor of Israel (the “wandering Aramean”) who went down to Egypt and there became a populous people, (2) the deliverance from slavery in Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” and (3) the giving of the land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  
Missing from this brief confession are two components of the later structure of the Israelite story embodied in the first six books of the Hebrew Bible, the revelation at Sinai and the many trials and tests in the wilderness.  
In this confession, the ancestor is past history, but the exodus and gift of the land are the living present!  God led him, the ancestor, and “he” became a great people; but the Egyptians oppressed “us,” and God brought “us” into this place.  
However long ago that may have been, for the Israelite bringing a first-fruits offering, it is “our” story!  
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16.  
If we hear this Psalm reading as a response to the Torah reading, an astonishing assurance is here given by God to the favored one who brings thanksgiving gifts.  There are many psalms that contain passages of assurance of hearing by God, of deliverance from conspiring enemies, and of security in general, but this psalm is more completely and consistently devoted to assurance of protection and care than any other.  
A main emphasis of this psalm is that troubles will come.  The faithful one who trusts in the Lord does not lead a sheltered and secluded life; there are dangers on every hand – referred to mainly in verses 3-8, not included in the reading.  No, the faithful one is in an active and busy world, but in that world God’s protection from all fatal danger will hold, and God’s heavenly messengers (“angels”) will “guard you in all your ways … bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (verse 11, NRSV).    
Romans 10:8b-13.  
The reading from the Epistle continues from where both the Deuteronomy passage and Psalm 91 left off, providing assurance of the nearness of salvation – only finding that assurance in the confession of Jesus as Lord.  
To follow what Paul is saying, one needs to hear the passage in Deuteronomy that he is applying to the situation of his own time.  
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14, NRSV).  
The apostle explains, “ ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:8-9).  Paul’s emphasis parallels the driving concerns of Deuteronomy – belief in the God who has promised and acted, and confession of that belief – a believing heart and a confessing mouth.  
A consequence of this nearness of God’s word is that it is available to everyone.  “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (verse 12).  This passage does not explain how Jewish observance of the Law would prove to be compatible with Christian confession of Jesus, but Paul here sees the work (and word) of God in Jesus as transforming all human destiny and establishing a new solidarity of the human community.  
Luke 4:1-13.  
Why we have been listening to Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and the Epistle talk about believing and confessing becomes finally clear when we turn to the Gospel reading.  On the first Sunday in Lent the Gospel reading is the Temptation of Jesus, this year according to Luke’s version.  
Let’s pause a moment for the bigger picture, in all three Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus has appeared in the wake of John the Baptist’s preaching, with the explanation that John was “preparing the way of the Lord.”  Jesus was baptized, became possessed by the Holy Spirit, and was divinely declared to be the Son of God.  Now what?  
At this point, all the Gospel versions assume (1) that the devil has been dominant in the world at large, (2) that Jesus’ empowerment launches a warfare between the forces of good and evil, and (3) that the fates of suffering people are at stake in that warfare between the demons and the Spirit of God.  Jesus brings that conflict directly into the daily lives of waiting peoples, even though he is not recognized by anyone except the enemy forces.  That is the overall setting, and the Temptation is the direct head-to-head kick-off of the contest between Jesus and the devil.    
The devil is the challenger and puts forward the propositions.  Two of the temptations begin, “If you are the Son of God …”  Thus, Jesus’ credentials are being tested.  We know, however, that the devil is a tricky dickens, and the real temptation is to do something that would contradict or betray the proper character of the true Son of God.  
The first temptation is to turn stones into bread.  After forty days of no food, Jesus should be very tempted to do this just for himself.  However, the issue is undoubtedly larger:  why not solve humankind’s greatest problem by making food as abundant as rocks?  Why not transform the world of agriculture by employing an alchemist’s art and giving sufficient food at least to all one’s followers?  A better world through technology.  Jesus’ reply is, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  Where is that written?  Why, in Deuteronomy, of course (8:3).  If the human pilgrimage is treated only as a quest for bread, it will dehumanize and materialize the human calling to serve God and enjoy what God provides.  
The second temptation, as Luke gives it, is the temptation to world power at any cost.  The devil shows Jesus all the nations and informs him that he (Satan) has power over all of them.  …which he will give to Jesus, IF Jesus will “worship” him, the devil.  Worship the lord of all the worldly powers!  Think of all the good we could do if we had control of all the centers of power on the globe!  Jesus’ reply is, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  Where is that found?  You guessed it; Deuteronomy – 6:13.  
For the third temptation, the devil shows that he is learning.  To deal with Jesus you have to quote scripture.  This temptation is to become the most spectacular wonder-worker in the world, a possibility opened up by God’s promise of unqualified security to God’s Son.  Standing on the highest point of the Jerusalem temple, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  (The devil has not learned quite enough; he quotes the psalm, a passage from our reading above.  He does not quote Deuteronomy.  The implication is the devil can’t twist Deuteronomy to his purposes.)   
This temptation, put in terms of our world, might be something like becoming an ultimate sports star, movie star, or top rock performer.  What the devil offers here is basically entertainment, rather than a social program or international leadership.  Here you could be the ultimate trend-setter, the model for charities, social causes, and political choices, as well as fashions and styles.  What does Deuteronomy have to say to that?  “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Deut. 6:16).  That is, God’s power is not available for show offs, for those who only make a splash in the world while providing it no humble service and living without whole-hearted trust in the Lord for all of life’s needs and joys!  
All these temptations have to do with foregoing short-sighted, glitzy, and self-centered courses of action -- foregoing such temptations that come from the devils who (seem to) run the world. 

Foregoing, refraining, not indulging – those are the models and the moods that make the temptation narrative appropriate for the beginning of Lent. 

March 6, 2019 - Ash Wednesday


                                                            Biblical Words                                               [593]
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  
In a world darkened by sin, prayers of confession and pleas for forgiveness are the acceptable sacrifices to God.  
In most religions there is a rhythm between feasts and fasts, between celebration with feasting and restraint with abstinence.  Usually, specific times of fasting are a preparation for the feasting to follow.  
In Christianity, Lent is the season of fasting before the feast of Easter.  In the early centuries, the fasting of Lent lasted only two or three days before Easter, but after the fourth century the fasting was gradually extended in the Western Church to the traditional 40 days before Easter, not counting the six Sundays of Lent.  (Sundays, the Lord’s days, are feasts; therefore you do not fast on Sundays.)  
Ash Wednesday, the day on which Lent begins, is a cry of pain at our lostness, and a plea for forgiveness of our destructive sins.  The Lectionary texts for the day reflect moments of such traumas in the life of the community and the self.  
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.  
The prophetic reading presents a great crisis for the community – the very Day of the Lord, “a day of darkness and gloom” (verse 2, NRSV).  The crisis is total; it includes everyone in the community.  
Sanctify the congregation; 
      assemble the aged; 
      gather the children, 
      even infants at the breast… (verse 16).  
Though scholars have long recognized that the prophet refers to a terribly severe locust plague, the oracles seem deliberately vague.  The horror impending is not entirely natural.  It has overtones of eschatological warfare.  
Like blackness spread upon the mountains 
      a great and powerful army comes; 
their like has never been from of old, 
      nor will be again after them 
      in ages to come.  (Verse 2.)  
The psychological and spiritual tone is of ultimate doom.  All personal and communal reality is under this shadow.  Nothing else matters.  
The appropriate human response is repentance.  
Yet even now, says the Lord, 
      return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
      rend your hearts and not your clothing.  (Verses 12-13.)
Fasting here is an act showing sorrow, sorrow for alienation from God.  Only a return to God can lead to relief, a return by all the social body caught in the doom of separation from the source of holiness.  
Fasting – not eating for a day – is an external sign of emptiness, of the absence of God from the depths of the soul, communal and personal.  
Psalm 51:1-17.  
This psalm selection is the quintessential text for Ash Wednesday.  It is the most profound personal confession of sin in the psalms.  
This is a “lament” psalm, the kind that finds the cause of trouble, not in others, but in one’s own condition.  See a Special Note on Laments at the end of these readings.
 The language of sin and forgiveness.  The psalm speaks of “transgressions,” “iniquity,” and “sin” (singular) and uses verbs “to sin” and “to do evil.”  For purposes of this psalm, these are all synonyms.  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned…”  The personal relation to God has been alienated by the sin, transgressions, and iniquity.  
The speaker affirms that sin is a kind of power that threatens one’s whole existence.  It extends back to conception and birth.  “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5, NRSV; verse 7 in Hebrew).  This does not refer to sexuality as somehow sinful, of course, but to the inevitability of sinning.  Sinning is built into the human condition.    
A variety of images are used for God’s forgiving sin.  
  • “Blot out transgressions” views sins as tracks in the sand, where the sinner has violated a boundary (trans-gressed), which tracks are to be erased. 
  • “Wash me from my iniquity” is scrubbing off dirt and filth from one’s body.  
  • “Cleanse me from my sin” is a ritual expression, meaning to purify someone or something that has become ritually “unclean” and thus denied access to sacred precincts. 
  • An extension of this last image is, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (verse 7; 9 in Heb.).  Hyssop was the branch of a shrub that was used as a brush to sprinkle holy water or blood in ritual settings (Leviticus 14:4 and Exodus 12:22). 
  • Expressing a more personal action by God are “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow,” “hide your face from my sins,” and, “let the bones that you have crushed rejoice,” that is, let there be a wholly new recovery of my health and wholeness before you!  
The climax of praying for forgiveness, however, is the plea for full personal transformation.  
Create in me a clean heart, O God, 
      and put a new and right spirit within me….
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, 
      and sustain in me a willing spirit.  (verses 10 and 12)
A final argument for why God should forgive and renew this person is the witness it will create among others.  “O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Then, the speaker declares, a true offering will be made to God.  
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; / a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (verses 15 and 17).  
That final declaration is the essential message of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10.  
The epistle reading begins, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  Reconciliation to God is the long-range goal of self-examination, of sorrow for sins, of confession of emptiness apart from God, and of trust in the promise of forgiveness.  
There follows a remarkable statement of the divine action in Christ.  The statement is a little awkward but is the more striking for that reason.  Very literally it reads, “The one knowing no sin [Christ], … he [God] made sin, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (5:21, my translation).  
The expression “Christ was made sin” probably refers to the double meaning of the Hebrew word for sin (ḥatta’), which means both a sinful condition and a sin-offering which removes that condition.  
Sinners bring an offering (animal) to the altar which the priest sacrifices for them and they are freed of their sinful condition.  That is how the ritual cult worked.  Paul is saying that Christ went to the altar (read “cross”) as a sin-offering on our behalf (“The one knowing no sin he made sin…”).  Therefore, as long as we are “in him,” we live in the benefit of that sin-offering and are reconciled to God.  
In the remainder of the passage Paul expands on the roles of the apostles as “ambassadors” of Christ (5:20a), ambassadors who bring to sinners the message that reconciliation is available.  He goes on to emphasize the great hardships and acts of self-denial that the ambassadors of Christ go through in this work for God (6:4-10), but we will save that for another time.  
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is subordinate to the prayer of confession in the psalm.  This selection from the Sermon on the Mount warns against conspicuous consumption in the practice of religion, against public displays when one practices charity (verses 2-4), prays in public (verses 5-6), and when one fasts (verses 16-18).  Such religiousness for public consumption is its own reward.  It leaves the relation of God and sinner unaltered (though does one ever really know?).  
What must be sought instead is something that makes a difference in heaven, not just in the media or opinion polls, not just accumulating earthly treasures (verses 19-21).  In a word, true religion – “the sacrifice acceptable to God” (Psalm 51:17) – is not about externals, but about the inner being, about “a clean heart” and “a new and right spirit within.”  
One may take ashes on one’s forehead at the Ash Wednesday service, but what counts is the awareness of the darkness in the world and in oneself – the darkness exposed by the proclamation of the Day of the Lord, and illuminated only by the promise of God’s forgiveness.  

Special Note on Lament Psalms
The “lament” psalms are all arguments for the defense.  The speakers are in trouble of some kind and they are pleading before the high judge to deliver them from this trouble.  Though the rhetorical stratagems become diverse and complex, the laments are by their nature arguments for the intervention of the Judge to relieve the speaker’s distress or suffering.  
The argument developed in a particular lament psalm depends on the source of the trouble.  Whose fault is it?  There are three possibilities.  
(1) Most commonly, the trouble is caused by enemies, or by others.  These are the prayers of the falsely accused righteous ones, and the prayer asks God to deliver the speaker from the enemies.  The appeal is to God’s indignation at the arrogance and brutality of the enemies, and to God’s compassion for a suffering servant God has previously cared for.  Psalm 7 is a striking example, though there are more psalms of this type than any other.  
(2) Less commonly, the trouble is caused by oneself.  The speaker is the cause of his or her own trouble, which in some way or another is sin.  It is especially sin against God, but may include sin against others.  These are the “penitential” psalms, confessing sin and begging for forgiveness rather than the destruction of one’s enemies, though accusations against enemies are sometimes thrown in for good measure.  The appeal here is to God’s pity:  the psalmist demonstrates how intensely he or she has suffered already, and the confession of sin justifies those punishments from God that the speaker has already endured.  The traditional penitential psalms in the Christian tradition are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 – but the greatest of these is psalm 51. 

(3) Very occasionally the cause of the speaker’s trouble may be God, which poses a very tricky problem for the speaker of a lament.  The speaker’s misery leads to desperate and daring accusations.  
         I am silent; I do not open my mouth, 
              for it is you who have done it. 
         Remove your stroke from me; 
              I am worn down by the blows of your hand. 
                                  (Psalm 39:9-10, NRSV).  

This complex type of accusation is at least hinted at in psalms 39 and 88, and has its full blown expression, of course, in the book of Job.