Sunday, January 23, 2022

January 30, 2022 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                         Biblical Words                                             [755]

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

God calls prophets to deliver news both bad and good, but even good news can be a threat to privileged home folks. 

Jeremiah 1:4-10.  

The prophetic reading is the report, in the first person, of Jeremiah’s appointment as a prophet.  The readings of the lectionary for this period are still concerned with beginnings, beginning assignments for God’s work in both judgment and salvation. 

Jeremiah experienced God’s call as something he was fated to before he was even a glint in the priest Hilkiah’s eye (see 1:1).  The language is impressive: 

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (verse 5, NRSV). 

The mystery of his own personal being – which Jeremiah will discover God treats as his own property, whatever Jeremiah may want – is part of a larger plan that is working out the destinies of peoples and nations. 

Thus, Jeremiah has been consecrated, set aside for a holy use, before he even appeared on the human scene.  Which, translated into career terms, means Jeremiah has been appointed “a prophet to the nations” (verse 5). 

His – as it turns out – very long career of delivering hard messages and living through the consequences has to do with the nations.  That is, it has to do with world history, the great powers on the horizon as well as the pesky and competing small-power neighbors all around the kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah’s mission is for the nations – what in Latin will be called the Gentiles. 

As Jeremiah recalled his experience by hindsight, he had tried hard to avoid that call.  “I’m a mere adolescent,” he pleaded!  In his memory, there was also some concrete act (probably an induction ritual of some kind) by which God transmitted the power of speech to him (verse 9).  This power would tyrannize over, as well as empower, Jeremiah.  (He complains of the tyranny in 20:7-10.)  Jeremiah is also repeatedly assured that he should not fear, because God will be with him – and that will be enough. 

So what is all this for?  What is the prophetic office to do? 

God provides a prophet and repeatedly gives oracles because the looming disaster and doom is not meaningless – it is not random and senseless destruction and disaster.  It is the judgment of God, with a will and even a compassion behind it. 

These things, both the judgment and the compassion, are pointed to by the statement of Jeremiah’s assignment: 

Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,

to pluck up and to pull down,

to destroy and to overthrow,

to build and to plant (verse 10). 

Four out of six verbs refer to coming destruction; two – the last two – refer to restoration and renewal.  The heavy message is up front, but there is some hope for those who survive the deluge.  

Psalm 71:1-6.  

This Psalm reading looks to many commentators like something Jeremiah would have composed. 

The speaker prays for protection from adversaries.  Part of the appeal for help is based on the speaker’s attachment to the Lord since before birth – through pre-natal dedication, as in the case of Hannah’s consecration of Samuel (I Samuel 1)?  Both the language and the thoughts of this reading recur often in the book of Jeremiah, for example, in Jeremiah 11:18-20 and 17:14-18. 

This reading, echoing Jeremiah, shows that God’s call may lead to opposition, to dangerous adversaries.  God’s servant prays for deliverance, though knowing that suffering and trouble come with the job – sometimes even unto death. 

I Corinthians 13:1-13.  

The Epistle reading continues the discussion of charismatic gifts and the Body of Christ. 

The previous discussion has included prominently the gift of prophecy, but there is something greater than prophecy. This passage, which treats this “more excellent way” in the loftiest and most eloquent language, is devoted to the supreme gift of the Spirit, agape, translated in older times as “charity,” in more modern idiom as “love.” 

This is the gift of the Spirit that makes possible the harmony of all the other functions and offices within the Body of Christ.  (See especially verses 4-7.)  This amazing poem to love is nested between long discussions of prophetic powers and speaking in tongues, but it is itself the simplest and most profound statement of the secret of life in Christ. 

Luke 4:21-30.  

The Gospel reading continues Luke’s story of Jesus inaugurating his mission in Nazareth.  The people have heard the reading from the prophetic scroll and Jesus’ declaration that the prophecy about the Anointed One is “today” fulfilled before them.   Jesus now goes on with the sermon, based on Isaiah’s prophetic text. 

Quickly the reaction sets in.  These folks in the Nazareth synagogue do not act as if they are in great distress themselves; their response is not joy at the healing and relief for themselves, which the prophetic reading suggests.  Rather, their thought seems to be more status-conscious than oppression-conscious. 

Their considered response is, Who is this?  And they think they know the answer:  it is Joseph’s son, the familiar young man about their town who recently went off and got too large a dose of religion from that wild man on the Jordan River in Judah.  If they believe that God has a messianic program in store for Israel, they certainly do not think it can start in their town!  Or in any case, that Jesus could be such an Anointed One. 

Actually most of the people’s response is learned from what Jesus says about it.  “You will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” (verse 23).  He tells them that they will expect him to do miracles like those rumored in other towns, and in general he points out to them that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (verse 24, NRSV). 

The most far-reaching criticism contained in Jesus’ sermon, however, has to do with the nations.  Jesus cites from the scriptures cases of God’s mercy shown to foreigners rather than self-righteous Israelites.  “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, … but Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” (verse 25).  Further, there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s time, but only Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.  These examples make clear that God’s new dispensation, through the Anointed One, is not confined to Israel. 

The reaction of the people of Nazareth is taken by Jesus to stand for the whole rejection of his message by Israel.  Israel will be left waiting while unlikely people like Sidonian widows and Syrian generals are taken into God’s realm. 

This denial of Israelite privilege and status precipitates a riot.  The mob drags Jesus out to a cliff – Nazareth has rather steep hills around it.  It looks like lynch time is at hand, but Luke presents us with a mysterious conclusion.  “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (verse 30). 

Since my adolescent Bible reading I have been intrigued with this statement.  It has such simplicity and, on consideration, is so appropriate to conclude the scene.  The violence has come to the surface, it has brimmed over, but the Anointed One passes through and gets on with his prophetic mission to the poor and the oppressed.  

 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

January 23, 2022 - 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

                                                        Biblical Words                                             [754]

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

The reading of the scriptures gathers God’s people – and sometimes they are read by an Anointed One. 

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.  

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures for the next few Sundays will lift up the calls and messages of Israel’s prophets.  (In the same period the Gospel readings present the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee.) 

However, before the Prophets there was the Torah (the Law), and the first of these readings from the Hebrew scriptures presents the reading of the Torah – an act creating the Assembly of God’s people. 

The work of Ezra and Nehemiah was to re-create a community of Israel after the great watershed of the Exile.  (It is the time of the Persian Empire, the fifth century before the Christian Era.) 

For hundreds of years, the Israelite people had experienced prosperity and disaster while they lived as kingdoms among the nations, and finally, through their failure to heed the prophetic demands, their independent political life was ended and they were called to carry “a light to the nations” in other than political forms.  Finding new forms for this mission in service of the One God of all peoples was the challenge of the age of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

In the passage from Nehemiah 8, we behold the emergence of the Great Synagogue, the gathering of the worshipping community founded by the hearing of God’s word, the Torah (Law) and the Prophets. 

In our reading the people have the initiative:  “All the people” assembled in the city and called upon Ezra the scribe to read to them from the scroll of the Torah of Moses.  

For a gathering reported in the Hebrew scriptures, this is a very inclusive group:  “both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” (verse 2, NRSV), probably meaning that young people were included who had reached the age of discretion, later known as the time of their bar mitzvah or bath mitzvah (son or daughter of the Commandment). 

The reading is a solemn affair:  “Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up” (verse 5, New Jewish Publication Society Version, to avoid the term “book” used in the NRSV).  And as in all subsequent worship services in Judaism and Christianity, the service begins by blessing the Lord.  “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ with hands upraised” (verse 6, NJPS version).   

The passage emphasizes that care was taken that the people understand the scripture reading.  “They read from the scroll of the Teaching [Torah] of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading” (verse 8).  And after the reading, the leaders proclaimed, “This day is holy to the Lord your God… Do not be sad [remembering old days of glory], for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (verses 9-10). 

The essentials of later worship in synagogues and churches are presented here.  The people are gathered around the scriptures. 

And to be noted here:  the service of the word is conducted by people meeting out in one of the city plazas rather than at the place of sacrifices in the Temple.  Though the service of the Word is here predominant, the service of the sacrifices and the altar would continue:  in Judaism as long as the Temple existed, in Christianity in the Mass and holy communion.  

Psalm 19.  

Psalm 19 comes up quite often in the lectionary cycles.  It is a striking combination of heavenly breadth and soul probing.  It presents an awesome sweep from the glory of God proclaimed in the heavens, and especially in the sees-all sun, through a poetic clustering of terms praising God’s torah, on to the depths of the human self which are vulnerable to error and alienation from God. 

It is the praise of God’s law or instruction (torah) that makes this psalm an appropriate response to the previous reading.  The psalm presents (verses 7-10) six synonymous terms or phrases to describe God’s guidance.  In the terminology of the NRSV, these are the law, the decrees, the precepts, the commandments, the fear (read “reverence”), and the ordinances, all modified by the phrase “of the Lord.” 

When the psalm was composed these terms may not have referred to a specific set of writings, of the kind read by Ezra to the people.  There were sources of God’s instruction down through the ages besides the written Torah of Moses – from judges, sages, and prophets and prophetesses.  However, our psalm is on its way toward Psalm 1, where the righteous person lives day and night by meditating on a written Torah – which meditation in later generations was heard on Sabbaths in the synagogues. 

I Corinthians 12:12-31a.  

The Epistle reading continues selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.  

(The Corinthian correspondence is read on the Sundays after Epiphany in all three years of the lectionary cycle.  In Year C, I Corinthians 12-15 are read during the Epiphany season.) 

This passage is one of the great meditations in Christian history on unity and diversity in the Body of Christ.  Paul applies his model to the church, which lives by the variety of its charismatic gifts (verses 4-11).  The basic model of one body with many members, all of which are functionally differentiated but sensitive to each other, is profound, though capable of many varieties of application. 

In the context of this Sunday’s readings, the emphasis may be on the unity of the people of God produced by the gift of one Spirit and the hearing of God’s word.  The unity of the church has its source in the Spirit’s confession that Jesus is Lord (12:3); its diversified work is tested by whether it builds up the common good (12:7). 

Not all can be apostles, not all can be prophets, not all can be teachers or healers (verses 28-29).  But SOME functions are essential.  In Paul’s context this probably includes that of apostles (see 15:1-2); in a larger context, also essential would be the hearing and responding to the scriptures, which contain “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4, NRSV). 

In some respects, Paul tends to speak of the Holy Spirit as if it provides all the instruction believers need, thus replacing the Torah.  In the broader view, however, the Spirit works by gathering the people around the scriptures – to hear Jesus as well as the psalms, prophets, and Moses. 

Luke 4:14-21

Hearing Jesus through the scriptures brings us to the Gospel reading, which is Luke’s view of Jesus’ first proclamation of the gospel 

This beginning of Jesus’ ministry is so loaded with implications that it is spread over two Sunday readings.  The first big impact of his announcement at Nazareth is today’s portion; the reaction of the home folks to this novelty is next week’s prophetic conclusion. 

Luke tells the story of Jesus’ return to Nazareth almost immediately after his encounter with the lures of agri-technology, international mover and shaker, and world-class superhero (the temptations).  The placement of the return to Nazareth story is uniquely Luke’s own.  In Mark and Matthew the Nazareth visit comes much later.  

And Luke presents Jesus here as fulfilling all righteousness, as it were:  he goes to synagogue on Sabbath, “as was his custom,” and is sufficiently esteemed by the prominent people that he is given the place of second reader in the service.  (The first reading was from the Torah; Jesus will do the reading from the Prophets.) 

What prophet Jesus will read from is determined for him:  the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him.  The passage within that scroll was apparently up to him.  He unrolled the scroll to near the end – a long process for a scroll perhaps thirty feet long.  However, as Luke presents it, Jesus had his passage in mind.  It is what we call Isaiah 61:1-2, though the quotation given by Luke does not agree exactly with either the Hebrew or the Greek versions of the passage.  It is closest to the Greek, which includes the reference to restoring sight to the blind. 

The main point, however, is in the first verse, which is the same in Hebrew, Greek, and Luke: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
      because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
      (Verse 18, NRSV). 

Most of all, the people are hearing about one anointed with the Spirit.  (The Hebrew verb for anoint is māšach, from which comes “messiah”; the Greek verb is chrisein, from which comes “christ”.)  This anointing makes him the Anointed One, and the Anointed One comes to restore God’s intended way among the people. 

The rest of the quoted scripture spells out what is that way of God – to be realized in “the year of the Lord’s favor” (verse 19).  It is release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind (spiritually as well as physically), and freedom for the oppressed.  To proclaim these things is to proclaim jubilee, the restoration of the original rightness of the human community (the language is from Leviticus 25, see especially verses 8-12). 

Having read this passage as his text, Jesus continued:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). 

Undoubtedly an astonishing message!  

And – if the folks of Nazareth believe this, they are probably candidates for some South Florida (or southern Dead Sea) real estate deals.  Luke is fully aware of this – and will relate the sequel in next week’s reading. 

For now, the gospel has been proclaimed from the scriptures; Jesus’ identity as Anointed One has been declared; and (!) the people have the opportunity to unite around a new reading of the Law and the Prophets. 

  

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

January 16, 2022 - 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Biblical Words                                     [753]

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; I Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11.

The joy of Epiphany season is that of extravagant weddings!    

Isaiah 62:1-5.  

The reading from the Prophets continues the visions of Zion’s restoration that began in Isaiah 60, the reading for Epiphany.  Today’s reading provides a climax for the dawning light on Zion that the previous passage proclaimed (Isaiah 60:1-6).  Our passage essentially summarizes the gospel of light for Zion, but proceeds to play on new names to correspond to the new realities that are projected for Zion. 

After God’s judgment, the devastated city was known as Azubah, “Forsaken”; and its surrounding suburbs as Shemamah, “Desolate.”  But Zion’s “vindication” has been announced in verse 1, and that vindication will include the return of lost and dispersed populations.  Those peoples who will be brought back by the nations and their kings (see 60:1-5) will fill up the “forsaken” places and restore prosperity to the “desolate” places. 

The new names that will be given to Zion by people who marvel at her change in fortune ring with the sounds of weddings.  The bride-city’s new name will be Hephzi-bah, “My Delight Is In Her” – a declaration by a thoroughly pleased groom!  Her “land” – that is, the suburbs of the metropolis –  will be called be‘ulah, “Married” (perhaps more literally, “husband-ed”).  Both names, Hephzibah and Beulah, have rung down through the centuries in Christian hymns. 

The prophecy declares that the names will be appropriate, because Yahweh now delights in wife Zion, and Beulah-land will indeed be productive of Yahweh’s blessings.  For “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you” (verse 5, NRSV). 

See below for a Special Note on Zion the Holy City. 

Psalm 36:5-10.  

The Psalm reading is the “good” part of a psalm that is a mixture of indictment of the wicked and praise of God’s hesed, “steadfast love,” or “loyalty.” 

Our reading opens with a set of God’s qualities paired up with parts of the universe: 

God’s “steadfast love” with the “heavens”;

God’s “faithfulness” with the “clouds”;
God’s “righteousness” with “mighty mountains”;
God’s “judgments” with “the great deep.” 

All of these terms have connotations of prosperity, of well-being from nature.  Thus, the single conclusion that flows from these connotations:  “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (verse 6, NRSV). 

The rest of the reading elaborates the blessings that flow from this steadfast love of God.  Because of it, “all people” can find safety “in the shadow of your wings” (verse 7).  People can “feast” and “drink” from the cosmic depths of God’s house (verse 8), “for with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (verse 9). 

The last thought (of our reading, not of the psalm) is a prayer that such blessings from God may continue. 

I Corinthians 12:1-11.  

The divine gifts of grace, hesed, praised in the psalm, become, in the Epistle reading, the charismatic gifts that sustain the community of faith. 

The gifts referred to here are the powers bestowed by the Spirit of God; they consist of the list given in verses 8 through 10:  wisdom speech, knowledge speech, faith (enacted more than spoken), healing gifts, power to work miracles, ability to prophesy, discerners of spirits (who provide some check on the prophecies), the gift of tongues, and the gift of interpreting the tongues. 

The strong emphasis throughout the passage is on the harmony of all these gifts for the good of the community, guaranteed by the fact that it is one and the same Spirit of God that works through all these gifts.  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (verse 7, NRSV).  (The “common good” translates sympheron, what is [commonly] profitable or beneficial.) 

The test for determining the authentic work of the Spirit is given at the beginning of the passage:  “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (verse 3).  There is an affirmation in this passage of the diversity of gifts and ministries, but an insistence upon a confessional unity that consists at least of kurios iēsus, “Jesus is Lord.” 

John 2:1-11.  

To match the new bride-hood of Zion and the general marriage associations of the prophetic readings, the Gospel reading is the wedding in Cana.  This is a rich passage with many facets that could be pursued, but let’s confine our focus to the joyousness of a wedding feast that is, at least for the moment, in the house of the Lord. 

There is a delightful exchange between Jesus and his mother, when she tells him – why does she do this? – that they are out of wine.  Her statement is obviously not just a piece of information; it carries some appeal in it, namely, won’t you do something about it?  So understanding the statement, Jesus replies somewhat grumpily, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come” (verse 4, NRSV). 

His mother seems to think the hour has come, and ignores his complaint.  She goes to the maitre d’ of the banquet and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”  This is an adroit way of handling the issue of Jesus’ authority:  just take it for granted and act on that basis. 

The next highlight, after the details of the water jars are seen to, is the steward’s response to tasting this newly provided wine:  All smart hosts serve the best wine first, because as people get more and more tipsy the quality is less important.  Here, however, this Jesus has kept the best wine to the last.  After shortages and deficiencies, the best is yet to come!  And the Gospel tells us that this was the first of the signs that Jesus did.  (In John, as usually counted, he will do seven signs.)

The Gospel According to John is unique in beginning Jesus’ ministry with a feast.  It is certainly intended to pick up all the images and models of marriages and feasts from the Judean scriptures, which are also carried on in many of the Synoptic parables.  The message is that Jesus’ coming is good news, is joyful news fit to be feasted and toasted in a grand manner. 

Even at celebrations in high society there is good news, as well as among the needy of Galilee – and perhaps especially in those more distant suburbs that used to be called “Desolate” (Isaiah 62: 4). 

Special Note on Zion the Holy City

Isaiah 60-62 is a remarkable expression of a much older city tradition.  Zion is often called a “mountain” in scripture, but its real importance is as a city – a metropolis, a “mother” city. 

Great cities of the ancient Near East were complex sacred entities upon which the fates of their regions were concentrated by the actions of their gods.  The Zion tradition, as reflected in the psalms and Jerusalem prophets, is a remarkable survival of such older holy-city mythologies. 

The city is personified as the wife of the high god and mother of its population.  The fate of its realm is acted out as events in the lives of the deities.  The Zion tradition contains a major theme about the city being unfaithful to its first spouse.  The bride turns to other lovers – that is, to other gods – from whom it expects the benefits of nature to flow abundantly.  (That the lovers are expected to provide abundance is seen clearest in Hosea 2:5 [Hebrew 2:7].  This passage is, indeed, not about Zion, but the same traditional language is used about the great Israelite city of Jezreel, see Hosea 2:21-22 [Heb. 23-24]. 

The Older Language about the Unfaithful City

(In the following texts, the 2nd person verbs and pronouns are feminine singular in Hebrew, addressed to a woman.) 

How the faithful city

      has become a whore! 
      She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her –
      but now murderers! …
Your princes are rebels
      and companions of thieves. 
Everyone loves a bribe
      and runs after gifts. 
They do not defend the orphan,
      and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
            (Isaiah 1:21-23, NRSV) 

Jeremiah used this conventional language to speak of God’s judgment on the city in the last decades of the monarchy. 

O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness

      so that you may be saved. 
How long shall your evil schemes
      lodge within you? 
For a voice declares from Dan
      and proclaims disaster from Mount Ephraim. 
Tell the nations, “Here [she is]!”
      Proclaim against Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
      they shout against the cities of Judah. 
They have closed in around her like watchers of a field,
      because she has rebelled against me,” says the Lord. 

Your ways and your doings
      have brought this upon you. 
This is your doom; how bitter it is! 
      It has reached your very heart.   
            (Jeremiah 4:14-18, NRSV) 

The city as the unfaithful spouse is elaborated at great length by the prophet Ezekiel, applied only to Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16, and to both Jerusalem and her older sister Samaria – equally adulterous – in Ezekiel 23.  In his harangues Ezekiel presses the language of illicit sexuality to the verge of obscenity. 

And after the punishment, the desolate city confesses her own guilt and deserved punishment. 

The Lord is in the right,

      for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
      and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men
      have gone into captivity. 
            (Lamentations 1:18) 

The Language of the City Restored

Right from the earlier versions of this city language, the tradition projected a return from punishment to restoration.  (“You” and “your” are feminine singulars.)

I will turn my hand against you;

      I will smelt away your dross as with lye
      and remove all your alloy. 
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
      and your counselors as at the beginning. 
Afterwards you shall be called the city of righteousness,
      the faithful city. 
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
      and those in her who repent, by righteousness. 
            (Isaiah 1:25-27, NRSV) 

For thus says the Lord: 
Your hurt is incurable,
      your wound is grievous. 
There is no one to uphold your cause,
      no medicine for your wound,
      no healing for you. 
All your lovers have forgotten you;
      they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
      the punishment of a merciless foe …

[But now her fate will be reversed.] 
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
      and all your foes, everyone of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
      and all who prey on you I will make a prey. 
For I will restore health to you,
      and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord… 
            (Jeremiah 30:12-17)

And the most spectacular versions of the city beloved again and restored in wealth and population are given in the later chapters of Isaiah, the exilic and post-exilic proclaimers of a new gospel.  

The famous opening words of the Second Isaiah’s message, “Comfort, O comfort my people, … speak tenderly to Jerusalem… that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:1-2) set the theme, but fuller statements come later, such as this: 

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,

      my Lord has forgotten me.” 
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
      or show no compassion for the child of her womb? 
Even these may forget,
      yet I will not forget you. 
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
      your walls are continually before me. …
Lift up your eyes all around and see;
      they [her children] all gather, they come to you. 
As I live, says the Lord,
      you shall put all of them on like an ornament,
      and like a bride you shall bind them on. 
            (Isaiah 49:14-18) 

Zion as the World Sanctuary

And the fullest expectation of the glory of Zion’s restoration comes in the great texts of the Epiphany season, Isaiah 60 to 62. 

Here there is repeated (from the ancient liturgies of the old city tradition) a vision of Zion as the World’s primary Holy Place, as the main place in the world of the nations at which the glory, wisdom, and righteous judgment of the only True God can be found (see Isaiah 2:2-4). 

The peoples of the nations will recognize that something of incomparable value is now radiating from Zion, and they will come to revere and serve the God whose benefits for all peoples flow from Jerusalem. 

The newly-restored population of Jerusalem will benefit from all this, for they will be the intermediaries, the go-betweens, at this great sanctuary of the True God.  They will be the “priests” and “ministers.” 

Strangers shall stand and feed your [masc. plural] flocks,

      foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
      you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
      and in their riches you shall glory.
            (Isaiah 61:5-6.)

[The assumption is that the nations will bring their wealth
      as tithes and offerings to the sanctuary and the people
      will live off them as the priests do at all sanctuaries.] 

Historically the great sanctuary city was tied closely to the great king.  The sanctuary of Yahweh was in the City of David – and all the nations would be ruled by Yahweh’s anointed from there, to their own benefit.  (This is the view reflected in Psalms 2, 20, and 72 among others.) 

In the post-Exilic time, however, the little province of Yehud was not allowed even a dependent king, much less one with serious royal ambitions.  Therefore, the royal theme is muted, in the great Isaiah visions of the coming glory of Zion.  

Muted, but not entirely absent.  The “anointed” one of Isaiah 61:1-3, which Jesus cites as his own authorization (Luke 4:21), is a royal figure, one who can “proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (61:1).  In the old traditions of the great City of God, city and king were bound up together; their destinies fell and rose in the same divinely directed judgments and salvations. 

Later Developments

In Persian times, the great Sanctuary city gradually went its own way.  

The Persians allowed Nehemiah to refortify Jerusalem (perhaps as a buffer between Persian governors and tribes to the south and east), but the effect was to greatly enhance the reputation of the city that was becoming increasingly famous as the single sanctuary (place of sacrifice) to the God of the Judeans. 

The sanctuary city would thus become great without the entanglements of independent political power – without a king!  This is clearly the accommodation assumed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in another way behind the stories and visions of the book of Daniel.  The vision of a great deliverer king did not disappear; it only went underground, to reappear from time to time in messianic movements. 

The great vision of Lady Zion restored in wealth and population had grown into the charter for a world-famous sanctuary city.  This sanctuary achieved its last earthly glory in the restored temple that Herod the Great built beginning in 20 BCE.  That Jerusalem temple was the largest and most gloriously ornamented temple complex in the whole Greek and Roman world.  It was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE, requiring the Judeans in all subsequent centuries to live without animal sacrifice. 

In much later times, the vision of the restored Zion became a prophecy of the new Jerusalem of the end times.  Interpreters of “Bible Prophecy” have come to see in the Zion of Isaiah’s visions the events that will lead up to the Millennium.  After the “rapture” of Christians out of the violence of the “Tribulation,” Israel (Zion) will be restored to great power and the people of the nations will be attracted to it.  Then will follow the final battle of Armageddon.   (For one among hundreds of such readings, see Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible, AMG Publishers, 2000, comments and chart at Isaiah 61, page 746.)

The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 gave great reinforcement to this way of reading Bible prophecy, which is often called “Christian Zionism.”  The political consequences of such readings have been very large.  (See Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon:  How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, Baker Academic, 2004.) 


Monday, December 27, 2021

January 9, 2022 - Baptism of the Lord.

                                                      Biblical Words                                      [752]

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. 

 The Spirit and Voice of God prepare a Servant for God’s people. 

The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord. 

In all the Gospels, the baptism of Jesus is the time when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Anointed One with power.  This event inaugurates Jesus’ mission of preaching, healing, and bringing hope to God’s elect people,  the poor and neglected. 

Isaiah 43:1-7. 

The prophetic reading presents a gospel in miniature for Israel.  It is this story of Israel that Jesus will re-enact in the Gospel.  

The oracle begins with Jacob/Israel in exile – exile (in Babylon) viewed as a repeat of Israel in captivity in Egypt.  The oracle insists that hopeless, defeated, abandoned Jacob/Israel is still a people.  They still have an identity, and are not just an abandoned mob.  They have an identity because God has “called them by name” – “you are mine” (verse 1, NRSV). 

This “gospel” sees the people passing “through the waters” (verse 2), valued even more highly than other nations (verses 3-4), and being gathered from all points of the compass (verses 5-6) to appear as God’s own created people. 

The reassembled, special people of God are the objects of this new divine movement in history.   

Psalm 29. 

This Psalm is used several times in the Christian year, but it is always read on the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord, right after Epiphany. 

As the psalm of Jesus’ baptism, its most direct link to the Gospel narratives is the Voice of the Lord.  In the Gospel reading in Luke (below), the voice of the Lord comes quietly to Jesus in prayer.  Here the scripture gives – not the hidden, secret meaning, but – the spectacular heavenly significance of that Voice. 

“The voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh) occurs seven times in verses 3 through 9.  

In so far as this phrase has one meaning, it is the sound of thunder, and the psalm portrays it as wondrous, violent, and astonishing in its power over many grandiose and lofty things in the world.  However, the wild sweep of roaring and flashing across the Syrian heavens culminates in a reverent and liturgical response from the assembled people in the temple – “and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV).  The worshiping community thus speaks its awed Amen! as the conclusion of the earthly sweep of God’s Voice. 

With this psalm Christian believers affirm that the mighty sweep of the heavenly powers has also spoken quietly through the dove that brings the Spirit to Jesus. 

Acts 8:14-17. 

The book of Acts, Luke’s sequel to the Gospel, often speaks of baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In this passage there is a particular relation between baptism and the charismatic Spirit. 

The Evangelist Philip had preached to some Samaritans and many of them were baptized.  Now Peter and John (“Apostles,” not just Evangelists) come down from Jerusalem to inspect this work.  They discover that the Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit along with their baptism.  Therefore, they pray and lay their hands on the Samaritans and, behold, the new believers receive the Holy Spirit. 

This episode suggests that the laying on of apostolic hands was required for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Such a view is supported by Paul’s laying on of his hands for the re-baptized disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7).  However, Acts has exceptions to this rule.  The original Pentecost has no reference to baptism – only to the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).  Cornelius’s household received the Holy Spirit first and only then were baptized (10:44-48). 

The patent fact is that the Spirit comes at the opportune moment.  Behind this literary device is a theological conviction:  the wind blows where it wills.  No institution or person can manipulate the Spirit of God...  (Richard Pervo, Acts, Hermeneia, 2009, p. 213.) 

For Luke, certainly, the Spirit that came upon Jesus was the same Spirit that moved and inspired the churches from Jerusalem to Rome. 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. 

Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus has some distinctive features. 

First, it was apparently important to Luke to round off the story of the Baptist before even mentioning the baptism of Jesus.  We first hear John’s testimony that a mightier One is coming after him who will judge (“baptize”) with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 

Then our reading skips Luke's conclusion of the John story (verses 18-20), where John is imprisoned for criticizing the morality of Herod Antipas, ruler of that region.  This imprisonment could have happened, of course, only after John had baptized Jesus.  Luke, however, wants to get the John story out of the way before beginning the REAL story of Jesus – which begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Voice giving Jesus his true heavenly identity. 

Secondly, Luke’s event happens after “all the people were baptized,” after Jesus has gone apart and begun to pray.  Then – “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (verses 21-22).  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will usually go apart and pray before any especially important action.  He is a model for later Christian leadership. 

But the main event is that the Holy Spirit – the spirit of the Lord from creation through the whole history of Israel – enters the action and will be directing the mission of Jesus the Anointed (baptized) One from here on.  And with the Spirit came the Voice:  “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (verse 22; compare Luke 1:32). 

Luke’s Gospel marks the importance of this turning point by inserting a great Pause here! 

Immediately after God’s Voice from heaven, we hear recited a long genealogy – 77 mostly unfamiliar and unimportant names (Luke 3:23-38).  That will certainly slow down the pace of a dramatic reading!!  It further shows that with the Temptation in chapter 4 a whole new stage of sacred history begins.  Thus, by discrete arrangement of his materials, Luke casts his own particular perspective on the saving activities of Jesus of Nazareth!