Thursday, February 27, 2020

March 15, 2020 - 3rd Sunday in Lent

                                                            Biblical Words                                              [650]

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42. 

Lent is a time of trial and testing, when God provides water and a discipline for new life.  

The readings for the third Sunday of Lent lead us into times of trial and testing, with special reference to water.  (Translations are from The New Jerusalem Bible.)

Exodus 17:1-7. 

The Torah reading is one of the sharpest and most incisive stories of the Israelite “trials” in the wilderness.  The people who have been rescued from bondage have not yet reached the holy mountain, where the law and covenant will be given.  They are still an unruly crowd without discipline and tested faith. 
The wilderness is a place where the common good is threatened.  The stories of Israel’s trials or tests in the wilderness deal with four kinds of threat to the common life.  The people lack water, they lack food, they are attacked by enemies, and they rebel against their own mission and leadership.  
Our story has two statements of the crisis that now impends (verse 2 and verse 3).  First, lacking water, the people expect Moses to provide it.  Moses says why are you blaming me, “why do you put Yahweh to the test?” (verse 2).  Moses shifts the accusation away from himself and insists that an attack on him is in fact an attack on God.  
The second statement of the crisis is even sharper.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt ... only to make us, our children and our livestock, die of thirst?” (verse 3).  In their distress, the people call into question the whole enterprise that started with the exodus.  None of this wandering in the wilderness is God’s doing.  This is only a wicked scheme by Moses, who is really intent on destroying the people in this hostile and deadly environment.  That is the charge for which Moses now stands on trial before the people.  And he turns in desperation to God:  “How am I to deal with this people?”  
God instructs Moses to strike a certain rock at the holy mountain with the stick that worked wonders in Egypt.  Water flows from it – and not only is Moses vindicated as really God’s man and not a charlatan on his own, but the exodus enterprise is sustained as truly the doing of God, even though it leads through many hardships and trials in the country that comes before the promised land.  
Names.   And to be sure that the people remember the lesson here, the place is given names that are to ring down through Israelite tradition.  Massah [accent on the last syllable] means (Place of) Testing, and Meribah [also stressed on the last syllable] means (Place of) Contention or Quarrel.  
Whatever the urgency about water and murmuring, the ultimate issue is clearly revealed in the final statement:  “Is Yahweh with us, or not?” (verse 7).  
In the world of semi-nomadic herdsmen, places with names like Massah and Meribah would have been oases where disputes were settled between tribes, places where tribal justice was dispensed when the clans were gathered in from the grazing lands.  But in Israelite tradition, the greatest Testing, the greatest Contention, was whether Israel would trust the Lord enough to become a truly faithful servant.  

Psalm 95.  

The Psalm reading is, first, an enthusiastic call to worship, a call to worship God as “a king greater than all the gods,” and as the Lord of creation whose chosen ones are “the people of his sheepfold, the flock of his hand” (verse 7). 
The call to worship leads, however, to a direct recall of the Massah story of the people’s rebellion. 
A liturgical leader cries out, “If only you would listen to him today!”  Then the assembled leaders hear God’s own speech, summoning them to learn from the terrible lesson of the past.  
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, 
as at the time of Massah in the desert,
when your ancestors challenged me, 
put me to the test, and saw what I could do!  
... Then in my anger I swore 
they would never enter my place of rest.  
      (Verses 8-11; the NJB follows Greek more than Hebrew here.) 
(The oracle in the psalm refers not only to the rebellion at the watering place, but to the rebellion that was punished by forty years wandering in the wilderness, narrated in Numbers 14.)  
The psalm summons the people to discipline the unruly hearts that tend to rebel in times of stress.  

Romans 5:1-11.  

The Epistle reading continues Paul’s exposition of righteousness as understood from Abraham’s example.  
Paul’s view of Jesus’ saving work includes the understanding that everybody has been at Massah and Meribah.  Everybody has rebelled – actually at God, even though they may think it is only Moses they reject.  Thus, everybody is or has been in trouble and needs a fresh start.  The chance for such a start has been given.  “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of [God’s] Son” (verse 10, NRSV).  
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 1).  
Even having this peace, however, we are still in the wilderness – that is, we still face trials and tests.  Paul speaks of anticipating God’s glory by boasting, that is, celebrating, speaking ecstatically about the good things we have to look forward to.  We have a hope that instills the excitement and delight of common worship and celebration.  
But Paul also says that we should “boast” because of our sufferings or hardships (verse 3).  It is this line of thought that picks up the wilderness testing.  We exult in our sufferings because such discipline is good for us.  It leads us forward into more excellent service of God and humans, knowing that “hardship develops perseverance, and perseverance develops a tested character, something that gives us hope …”  (“Tested character” translates dokimē, which precisely means proven, tested, esteemed character, just the right term to refer to those who survived Massah and Meribah.)  This hope is a sign that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (verse 5).  
We rejoice – exult or boast – in our hardships or sufferings, in our trials endured without rebelliousness, because such sufferings cultivate in us the love of God, which may then flow all around us with hope.  

John 4:5-42.  

The Gospel reading is a long passage continuing the Lenten selections from the Gospel According to John.  This selection describes how a Samaritan woman was tested at the well of ancestor Jacob.  (While the passage is long, it is worth including the whole reading.)  
The story, like the reading from the Torah, begins with thirst and a request for water.  
The Samaritan woman knows the religious rules that would not allow a Judean to drink from a foreigner’s water jug, and she asks Jesus what he is up to.  As with Nicodemus in the previous story, Jesus’ reply seems to come from left field.  He says, in effect, if you knew who I am you would ask me for water instead of me asking you.  We are immediately clear that we are not talking about just a cool sip on a hot day.  
As usual, Jesus’ dialogue partner can’t quite get up to speed.  She says, this well is deep and you don’t even have a bucket!  In reply Jesus gives the first punch line of this dialogue.  
[N]o one who drinks the water that I shall give him will ever be thirsty again:  the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up for eternal life.     (Verse 14, NJB.)  
Then, in what seems a little friendly chatter, Jesus asks the woman to invite her husband to join them.  This leads to some revelations from the all-knowing Jesus about the lady’s private life, and she perceives that he is a prophet.  
She is sufficiently adroit to see an opportunity to escalate this encounter into some socially valuable religious talk.  She asks about the great division between Samaritans and Judeans concerning the proper place of worship.  The Judeans have their temple at Jerusalem; the Samaritans have theirs at Mount Gerizim, near where they are talking.  The two faith communities share the same Torah, though each has its own reading of the book of Deuteronomy (which requires a single place of worship), and the Samaritans have never accepted any of the books of the prophets, which are all oriented to Zion in Jerusalem. 
Jesus responds to her question, as usual, with something she didn’t expect.  
Believe me, woman, the hour is coming 
when you will worship the Father 
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....
But the hour is coming—indeed is already here—
when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth:  
that is the kind of worship 
the Father seeks.  
      (Verses 21 and 23).  
The woman realizes he is talking about the time when the Messiah comes, and Jesus is unusually candid when he replies, “That is who I am, I who speak to you” (verse 26).  
The disciples now enter the picture and converse with Jesus about food, which they have been in town purchasing.  Meanwhile, the woman goes into her town and tells the Samaritans about Jesus.  They then come out to see for themselves, and subsequently say to the woman, “Now we believe no longer because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world” (verse 42).  (The indigenous folk have made the gospel their own!)  
As R.H. Lightfoot observed (St. John’s Gospel, Oxford 1956, p. 125), the significant thing here is that the Samaritan woman develops.  She is inquisitive, even if not too swift.  But unlike Nicodemus in the previous chapter, she makes progress.  She moves on from the water lesson to the sanctuary lesson to the recognition of the Messiah.  Then she goes into town and makes an effective witness.  
The new reality that Jesus brings to people who are already burdened with religious traditions is a new birth and a new growth in the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  The Samaritan woman has met the tests that came to her at the well, and is spreading the witness about the living water that God has provided. 

March 8, 2020 - 2nd Sunday in Lent

                                             Biblical Words                                             [649]

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17. 

Abraham responded to God’s promise with complete faith, but not all can accept such a challenge.  

The Lectionary readings for the second Sunday in Lent each year direct our thoughts to Abraham, the father of faith for the monotheistic religions.  

Genesis 12:1-4a.  

The reading from the Torah presents the beginning of the Abraham story.  God summons him to make a new start, after the various failures and losses of blessing in the generations after Adam and then after Noah. 

This call and promise to Abraham is the beginning of the story of Israel; it will be the sole motivation for God’s actions in all the rest of the sacred histories.

This promise has no prior motivation; it is the divine initiative out of the blue – it is the 100 per cent act of grace.  All subsequent movements of God into the destinies of the selected peoples take place because of this one unqualified divine start.  The fulfillments of these promises are strewn out over the histories of Joshua, David, Nehemiah, the Rabbis, and the Apostles. 

In the context of Lent, the emphasis here is on the new departure, the break with an old and degenerate world.  

The preceding chapter of Genesis has introduced Abraham’s father Terah and his extended family, all of whom live in the ancient city of Ur, in the south of modern Iraq.  From there, after Abraham and his brothers are married, Terah starts everyone on a migration.  They are going “to go to the land of Canaan.  But on arrival in Haran [a city in the north of Iraq], they settled there” (Genesis 11:31, NJB, New Jerusalem Bible, used in this set of readings). 

Terah and the rest of the family made only half of the journey. 

It is Abraham who is called to complete the move, to go all the way from ancient Ur to the promised land of Canaan.  “Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country I will show you” (verse 1).  The promise is that there Abraham will be blessed and will be a blessing to “all clans on earth” (verse 3, NJB). 

The new story of faith begins when we hear that Abraham did as he was told, that he went (verse 4). 

Psalm 121. 

The Psalm reading is a dialogue of faith and assurance appropriate to those descendants of Abraham who continued his journey of faith. 

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains; where is my help to come from?” (verse 1, NJB). 

Canaan, the promised land, is a land of mountains.  This opening question, like a call to worship, is answered by an extended assurance of God’s presence and help.  
He neither sleeps nor slumbers, 
      the guardian of Israel (verse 4).  
The care will persist to the journey’s end.  
Yahweh guards you from all harm, 
... Yahweh guards your comings and goings, 
henceforth and for ever (verse 8, NJB).  

This is an assurance that guides the steps of a pilgrim of the promise! 

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17. 

The Epistle reading is two portions of Paul’s fullest discussion of the faith of Abraham. 

The emphasis here is that Abraham’s faith preceded the law. 

Abraham is viewed as one who based his life on God’s promise.  “Abraham put his faith in God and this was reckoned to him as uprightness” (verse 3, quoting Genesis 15:6).  In Paul’s language, “uprightness” (“righteousness” in the NRSV) is the condition of being OK with God, of being on the right journey or even at the right destination.  How did Abraham reach that state?  By trusting God’s promise rather than by carrying out the requirements of the law, is Paul’s answer.  “For the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he should inherit the world [!] was not through the Law, but through the uprightness of faith” (verse 13, NJB). 

Paul affirms that Abraham is a model for his descendants as to how to get “right” with God.  The priority is not to prove oneself worthy, by doing good works, or works of the law, but to entrust oneself wholly to God, go forward wholly in that faith, and let God direct one to the land of promise with the challenges and trials along the way.  

The faith to make a new start that leaves behind the old securities – the old bonds, and bondages – is what sets one right with God.  That is living by faith; that is being a true descendant of Abraham ⎼ a pilgrim of the promise ⎼ whether one also has the Law or not. 

John 3:1-17. 

In this year of the Lectionary cycle, the Gospel readings for Lent are mostly taken from the Gospel According to John.  John’s Gospel does not have a year of its own in the three-year cycle, but the Lectionary turns to it at certain high points of the year.  Lent in Year A is one of those times, and we will hear Gospel readings from John from now until Palm Sunday.  

This Sunday’s reading is Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, the Judean leader and Pharisee who, like Abraham’s father Terah, starts on the journey but can’t go all the way. 

The paragraph just before our story sets the stage for Nicodemus’ approach.  “During [Jesus’] stay in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he did, but Jesus knew all people and did not trust himself to them…” (John 2:23-24, NJB).  That is, Jesus knew that signs and wonders were not an adequate basis for real faith. 

Nicodemus expresses this traditional Judean position in his opening words.  “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him” (verse 2).   

Before Nicodemus can go any farther – before he can ask the question he came in the night to ask – Jesus makes a provocative statement. 

“In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (verse 3, NJB). 

A word-play.  Translators’ footnotes show that “from above” has a double meaning; it can also mean “again.”  It’s like our expression, “take it from the top,” meaning do it over again.  Capitalizing on such double meanings is a deliberate teaching device often used in this Gospel. 

Nicodemus takes the meaning “again,” and says, How can a grown man reenter the womb and be born again?  Jesus’ reply repeats his original declaration with only a couple of changes.  “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit” (verse 5).  The message is that there must be a rebirth.  The birth is “again,” but it is also “from above,” that is, it is a rebirth through baptism – a rebirth in the water of the sacrament and in the new being of the Holy Spirit. 

Nicodemus remains puzzled through the rest of Jesus’ talk about this rebirth in the Spirit, and finally says, “How is that possible?” (verse 9).  To which Jesus replies, “You are the Teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things!”  If this is the extent of the Pharisee teacher’s resources, someone is in trouble! 

Nicodemus appears again later in John’s Gospel:  at 7:45-52, where he speaks somewhat in Jesus’ favor to his fellow Pharisees, and in 19:39-40, where he joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  Always, Nicodemus is almost there.  In the right place – though maybe at night instead of in the light of day – on hand for the right question, but not completing a life commitment. 

The Nicodemus story in John speaks of “the kingdom of God (verses 3 and 5).  This is the only place in John that that expression is used.  Later in this story and in the rest of the Gospel, Jesus speaks instead of “eternal life” (for the first time at 3:15, and many times after).  

There is a story told in the other three Gospels about a Judean leader who comes to Jesus and asks about – not the kingdom of God, but – eternal life.  “He was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mark 10:17, NJB).  The man in this story is often called “the rich young ruler.”  He is rich in Mark 10:22, young in Matthew 19:20, and a ruler in Luke 18:18. 

This story is the only place in Mark that the phrase “eternal life” is used – instead of “the kingdom of God,” as it is everywhere else in Mark.  And this rich leader is like Nicodemus in only going part of the way.  He has obeyed all the commandments, and asks “what more?”  After Jesus tells him to sell his goods and give to the poor, “his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (Mark 10:22, NJB).  He could not make the complete commitment.  In this case because of his riches, in Nicodemus’ case apparently because of the ties of his fixed tradition. 

Nicodemus, that other keeper of the commandments and seeker after “what more,” could not break away from his old country, he could not give his whole soul to be reborn.  He hung around to the end, assisting with the dead body, but he stands as one who did not make it beyond the half-way station, toward that new and eternal life.  

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

March 1, 2020 - 1st Sunday in Lent

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [648]
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11. 

Humans disobey parents to find a world of hardships and mortality, but the Servant shows a way beyond temptation. 

The season of Lent brings a focus on the brokenness and failure of human efforts to attain righteousness and the good.  

It is a season about our defeats, perhaps especially about our own betrayals of the good we hoped for.  This is the condition of sin, as Christian language and experience has traditionally defined it.  

Lent is the 40 days in which recognition and confession of sin, contrition and repentance, are called for.  It is, therefore, a season of reversing – practicing abstention from – selfishness and worldly living.  It is a season when disciples imitate the suffering Jesus as he made the trek toward Jerusalem and the Via Dolorosa.  

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7.  

The Torah reading is the story of Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit.  This was, in the first instance, a folk story.  It was probably used in its present form as a didactic text for young men who have just reached puberty and are now learning to read and write in wisdom schools.  The texts they have to learn, recite, and discuss with their teacher are about their new stage of life.  

The whole story in Genesis 2:5-3:24 is a paradigm of the loss of the paradise and innocence of childhood.  

The story tells how two youngsters, who had all their desires met in a perfect garden by a super-parent, gradually woke up to the realities of the adult world – sexuality, childbirth, labor in the fields, and the resistance of the earth to the desires of humans.  And most of all, they woke up to the reality of mortality. They came to know that they would die – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, NRSV).  

The critical transition from childhood innocence to adult awareness comes about by eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and bad.  (Hebrew ra‘ , “bad,” doesn’t normally have the weighty overtones of Anglo-Saxon “evil.”)  This is a fruit that gives a knowledge of consequences, knowledge of what will happen if… This is the knowledge possessed by the gods.  It is the chief advantage that gods have over humans.  (“See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil [bad]…” Genesis 3:22.)  Therefore, this is the fruit that the man and the woman must not eat.  They must not become like the gods.  

As it stands, this story is about disobeying the parental authority and in the process becoming mature adults – with all the pains and benefits appertaining thereto – in a real world instead of in the dream world of children.  This story is not about sin; “sin” is not mentioned in Genesis until the story of Cain and Abel (4:7).  

The story of Adam and Eve is never referred to in ancient Israelite times.  No historical, prophetic, or poetic book in the Judean scriptures mentions it, much less quotes it.  The story simply sat in Genesis for many centuries, enjoyed, no doubt, but making no big impression on Israelite writers.  

The earliest reasonably clear reference outside of Genesis to Eve and the forbidden fruit is in the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira (died about 180 BCE).  One of his sayings is, “From a woman sin had its beginning, / and because of her we all die” (Ecclesiasticus [= Sirach] 25:24, NRSV).  Ben Sira was a misogynist, but it is clear that by his time the story of the forbidden fruit had become the story of “original sin.”   This notion of sin that is inherited by all the human race may have first appeared in the Hellenistic age (300 BCE and after), but it had a vast future, especially through the writings of Paul of Tarsus (died about 64 CE) and, for all the Latin-speaking West, through the influence of Augustine, bishop of Hippo (lived 354-430 CE).  

As the story of the origin of sin, the Adam and Eve story is about disobedience.  A command from God’s very own self was clear and explicit.  Do not eat that fruit of knowledge.  They ate it, and the consequence was the corruption of existence as it had been in the days of innocence, including the inheritance of mortality.  All humans thereafter were enslaved by this corruption. 

The drama of human destiny then became whether there was any way out – any way back to innocence and paradise (that is, to “salvation”).  That is the point at which all later Jewish and Christian teachings pick up, insisting that there is a way, a way through obedience now –  of the Torah (two-fold torah in Rabbinic Judaism), or of the Way offered by Jesus, the Anointed One of God. 

Psalm 32.  
The Psalm for this Sunday’s reading has to do with the language and experience of sin and forgiveness, and especially of 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:  “transgressions,” which need to be forgiven; “sin,” which needs to be covered; “iniquity,” which needs to be not imputed or “reckoned” to one; and “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.

Romans 5:12-19. 

The Epistle reading gives us one of the versions of original sin that Paul developed from his Judean training and his own Christian inspiration and scriptural study. 

The passage maintains a polarity between Adam, the first man, and Christ.  Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience changed the human nature of all peoples.  Everybody inherited the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin.  Paul distinguishes between the original sin of Eve and Adam, and all the rest of the sins committed in later ages.  Only Adam’s sin changed human nature; everybody else only had ordinary everyday sins.

The same principle is applied to Christ.  Christ’s obedience to God on the cross was an ontologically potent act; it changed the being of humans who came to be included in it – “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (verse 19, NRSV).  How one gets included in that act of grace is spelled out more fully in the following chapters of this epistle. 

Important for Paul’s overall view is the distinction between the sin everybody is involved in (from Eve and Adam) and the sin that increases because of the Law.  When the Law came with Moses, the requirements of righteousness were spelled out much more fully – a just world pleasing to God was projected, posed as a goal, by the Law.  But, alas, failure to attain righteousness before God only became greater because it was burdened with even more occasions to fail.  “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied…” (verse 20, just past our reading). 

Whether only from Adam and Eve or also through Moses, people right and left were caught in sin and its consequence (death).  Until the dominion of grace came in -- and with it “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 21, also just past our reading). 

Matthew 4:1-11. 

The Gospel reading is the narrative of Jesus’ temptation by the devil.  Sin and temptation have always been understood to go together – thus being tempted to do evil is the way humans get caught in the bondage of sin. 

In the framework shared by all the Gospels, Jesus’ coming is a decisive event in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The temptation of Jesus is the immediate sequel to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him, and that coming sets in motion a conflict between the powers of the Spirit and the powers of Satan.  This conflict is fought out in the human world – which has been pretty exclusively in Satan’s power in recent times.

The temptation of Jesus is to exercise his divine powers improperly, or in the service of the demonic lord instead of the true Lord.  The devil (he is called “Satan” only at the end, verse 10) is trying to seduce Jesus over to his own side. 

The three temptations, like many in ordinary life, are a mixture of good and evil.  Increasing the bread supply from stones is not in itself a bad thing; doing it for the devil is.  If we read the passage correctly, the three temptations, in their positive potential, are in fact fulfilled in the course of Jesus’ later work, as the Gospel According to Matthew presents it. 

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread, because Jesus, who has fasted for forty days, is very hungry.  Jesus refuses by quoting Moses – which Jesus does in response to every temptation – that humans do not live by bread alone but by all that God says (Deuteronomy 8:3).  However, later in the ministry on the Galilean hills, Jesus does multiply loaves of bread and feeds the hungry who have been following him and waiting upon his words (Matthew 14:13-21).

In the second temptation (in Matthew; Luke reverses the order of the last two) the devil takes Jesus to “the holy city” and invites him to throw himself down from a pinnacle to demonstrate to the world that he has divine powers ready to protect him.  This time the devil also quotes scripture, citing a promise that God’s angels will protect the Messiah from all harm (verse 6).  Quoting Moses again, Jesus replies that you should not put the Lord your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). 

The devil begins this temptation, like the first, by saying, “If you are the son of God, …”  At the crisis at the end of Jesus’ mission, others say to him, “If you are the son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40, NRSV).  The temptation was to avoid the cross, to make a great display but only one that would serve the fancies of the world and not the will of God to redeem the peoples.  In his final act, Jesus did indeed cast himself down to death – in God’s way rather than in Satan’s! 

Finally, in the third temptation the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (verse 8).  Now the full force of the devil’s lure comes out.  “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  There is a clear reply in Moses again; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (verse 10, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13). 

But here, too, Matthew’s Gospel finds a truer and more righteous way of achieving the goal to which the temptation referred.  In the final commission, after the resurrection -- also on a mountain in Galilee -- Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)  The ambiguous good of this temptation too has been accomplished in God’s own way. 

Matthew has presented the temptations of Jesus as devious ways by which the devil would achieve his own purposes and defeat those of the Lord.  In his faithfulness, Jesus will fulfill the whole will of God and show his followers the way to go beyond temptation (usually by quoting Deuteronomy). 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

February 26, 2020 - Ash Wednesday

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [647]
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 it is common to have a rhythm between fasting and feasting.  In Christianity, Lent is the season of fasting before the feasting of the Easter season.  
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.  (All Sundays are feasts, so one does not fast on Sundays.)  
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten fasting for Christians.  It is the solemn moment that opens a period of recognizing the sinful condition in which humans find themselves.  It begins a time of contrition for acts and omissions that separate one from God; a time of mourning for what has been lost – from the world and from one’s self.  And communally, it confesses a painful falling short of God’s expectation for justice and compassion from human to human.  
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 and ominous.  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.  
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.  The arguments and rhetorical strategies developed in a particular lament psalm depend on the source of the trouble.  Whose fault is it?  There are three possibilities.  
(1) Most commonly, the trouble is caused by enemies, that is, by others.  These are the prayers of the falsely accused righteous ones, and the prayer asks God to deliver one from the enemies.  Psalm 7 is a striking example.  
(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 seven traditional penitential psalms 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.  (It is necessary to indict the judge!)  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.  
The power and profundity of Psalm 51 stand on their own.  Read it, carefully and thoughtfully, preferably in more than one translation.  Only a few features of the reading will be noticed here.  
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…” (verse 4).  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.  The Tanak [Jewish Publication Society] version translates, “I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.”).  This does not refer to sexuality as somehow  sinful, of course, but to the inevitability of sinning as humans live in the real world.  
A variety of images are used for God’s forgiving sin.  “Blot out transgressions” views sin as illegally crossing a boundary (trans-gress).  Such action leaves tracks in the sand, and forgiveness means that these tracks are erased – removing evidence that one stepped over the line. 
“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 “unclean” and thus is denied access to sacred precincts, to the divine presence.  An extension of this last image is, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (verse 7).  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” (NRSV).  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 clumsy 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” (verse 21).  
The expression “Christ was made sin” probably plays on the double meaning of the Hebrew word for sin (ḥattā’t).  This same Hebrew word means both a sinful condition and a sin-offering that removes that condition.  Sinners bring a sin-offering 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.  Therefore, as long as we are “in him” (included in the effect of his sacrifice) we live in the benefit of that sin-offering and are reconciled to God.  
In the remainder of the passage Paul elaborates the roles of the apostles as “ambassadors” of Christ (5:20a), ambassadors who bring to sinners the message that reconciliation is available.  He emphasizes the great hardships and acts of self-denial that the ambassadors of Christ go through in this work for God (6:4-10).  
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 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.  
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.  

February 23, 2020 - Trasfiguration Sunday

                                                            Biblical Words                                            [646]
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2;  II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9. 
The hidden glory of God’s Servant occasionally shines out for a select few. 

The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday, which emphasizes the Glory of God’s Son. 

Transfiguration, however, is immediately followed by Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent, which emphasize the humility and obedience unto death of that same Servant of God.  Thus, these two Sundays are the peak and the depth of the divine-human presence of God to a waiting and longing humanity.  

Transfiguration is a sharp intrusion of the divine element into the human world.  It is not about ordinary human events or powers.  It is a radical affirmation that beyond human efforts there is a reality that can and will ultimately work a redeeming will of God in spite of all human appearances and expectations to the contrary.  Therefore, the Transfiguration readings are about marvelous, miraculous events.  They are about the “other” that is finally the basis of all faith, hope, and love.  

Exodus 24:12-18.  

The Glory of God at Mount Sinai led to the gift of the Tabernacle.  

The exodus has happened, a first round of testing in the wilderness has passed, and the people have witnessed the awesome and earth-shaking power with which God delivered the first installment of the law required of the covenant people – the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-20).  The people have bound themselves to obey the law, and their representatives have ventured up on the holy mountain to consummate the covenant agreement with a sacred meal in the divine presence (Exodus 24:1-11).  

Thus, God had been directly present to the people – for a moment. 

What remained was to provide a means of God’s continuing presence among the people.  That was the purpose of the Tabernacle.  

“And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:8-9, NRSV).  

It was to receive the instructions for this tabernacle that Moses again went up the mountain, waited six days, and then on the seventh day entered the brilliant cloud to be in God’s presence for forty days and forty nights (verses 15-18).  

Psalm 2.  

The Glory of God at Mount Zion was the Son Anointed to rule the nations. 

While the Torah reading lifts up God’s glory around the servant at the making of the covenant and the giving of the true sanctuary, the Psalm reading features the rule over the worldly powers of God’s Anointed One who has been enthroned upon Mount Zion.  This psalm is a coronation psalm; it presents the ideal picture of the king on Zion as God’s agent for ruling the rebellious powers that would destroy the peace of God’s realm.  

The psalm has four parts, the first three of which are dramatic scenes that conclude with direct speech from the participants.  

In Scene One, a heavenly observer speaks with astonishment about an uprising of the nations against God’s rule.  The speaker describes the scene and allows us to overhear directly the rebellious words:  “The kings of the earth set themselves, … against the Lord and his anointed, saying, / ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, / and cast their cords from us’” (verse 3, NRSV).  

In Scene Two the heavenly observer turns from the earthly rebellion to describe the response in the heavenly throne-room.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs…” (verse 4).  The laughter soon turns to annoyance, however, and God makes a pronouncement intended to shatter the rebellion:  “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (verse 6).  From the heavenly viewpoint, that concludes the matter.  The rebellion against God’s Anointed (Messiah, Christ) is overthrown by the appearance of the (new) king on Zion.  

In Scene Three we hear that king, the Anointed One, speak.  He quotes, for all peoples to hear, what God had said to him when he was enthroned on Zion.  “You are my son; today I have begotten [or “borne”] you” (verse 7).  

And the heavenly declaration continues by promising the Anointed One that his inheritance consists of the nations, and he is given discretionary powers to discipline them (verses 8-9).  

(In verse 9, read “you may break them with a rod of iron, and you may dash them in pieces…”  This is not a prediction – “you shall break them…” – but a granting of discretionary power to the Anointed One over vassal rulers, up to complete destruction.)

In the final Scene, a mini-sermon is delivered (by the heavenly observer) to the rulers of the earth, warning them to serve the Lord with reverence, because the Lord is quick to discipline rebellious outbursts.  The concluding word is that obedience to the Lord is its own reward:  “Happy are all who take refuge in him.”  

At his coronation ceremony on Zion, the Anointed One is proclaimed in a glorious way and is endowed with a mission concerning the nations.  

II Peter 1:16-21 

This reading contains the only New Testament report of the transfiguration event outside the synoptic Gospels.  

II Peter is written as the last testament of Peter – “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (II Peter 1:13-14, NRSV).  Probably written rather later than the time of Peter (many writings had been attributed to Peter by 150 CE), it was accepted as scripture by the later church (third and fourth centuries) because it is not fabulous (as most of the false-Peter writings are) and there was a chance that it was an actual surviving report of apostolic faith.  

The writer is discussing the truth of the teachings about Jesus’ second coming, his return in power at the final judgment.  In the writer’s time this coming had been long delayed, and “scoffers” had arisen who challenged such a belief.  They said, “Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were…” (II Peter 3:4).  Promises, promises, but nothing has changed!

In support of the tradition about Jesus’ coming glory, “Peter” reports what he and the other disciples saw and heard at the transfiguration.  “For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory,” and he quotes the words of God at the transfiguration.  The writer concludes, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (verse 18).  

The appearance of the heavenly Jesus attested by the voice of God – these things of the transfiguration – were foretastes and guarantees that the enthroned Lord will finally come in full force.  

(The consummation this writer expected is given in II Peter 3:10.  “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”)  

Matthew 17:1-9. 

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s version of the transfiguration event.  It follows Mark pretty closely, though with some distinctive Matthean touches.  

The transfiguration narrative – the moment when the veil is lifted and the real Jesus of heavenly glory is revealed, briefly – stands as a twin pillar to the baptism narrative (Matthew 3:13-17).  There too the voice of God testifies to Jesus as Son of God.  The baptism and the transfiguration are the moments in Jesus’ ministry that give heavenly authority for the saving work in Galilee (Baptism) and that then re-direct that saving work toward its culmination at Jerusalem (Transfiguration).  These two pillars of the story bring the power of God into the human world and, in the case of the transfiguration, give divine authorization for the mission of the dying savior on his way to Jerusalem. 

The disciples see Jesus “transformed” (the Greek word is meta-morpheō), which in Jerome’s Latin translation became transfiguratus est, the source of the English “transfiguration.”  Matthew shapes his description of the newly revealed glory in poetic parallelism:  “And his face shown like the sun, / and his clothes became white like the light” (verse 2, more literal than NRSV).  

Along with the heavenly light there appear two ancient worthies who, in their times, had brought in God’s great ages of the covenant in the past – Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets.  The disciples see these holy men of the past conferring with Jesus.  Clearly, another great – the greatest – age is about to begin for Israel and the nations.  

Peter speaks up and proposes to erect three “tents,” one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.  (The word “tent” is the term used in the Greek torah for the “tabernacle.”)  Peter’s proposal implies that Jesus is to stand in the esteem of the people alongside Moses and Elijah, as a third.  It is this proposal that precipitates the interruption of God’s voice.  Peter’s proposal is a foolish one – as both Mark and Luke say explicitly.  Here, “while he was still speaking,” Peter is interrupted and God announces who you are really dealing with.  “This is my Son, the Beloved…  listen to him!” (verse 5). 

The reaction of the disciples to the voice of God, and then Jesus’ response to them are reported only by Matthew.  “They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (verse 6, NRSV).  Jesus then comes to them and “touches” them, instructing them to stand up and not be afraid.  “And when they looked up, they saw no one except him – Jesus only [’Iēsoun monon]” (verse 8, translation conformed to Greek word order).  

In Matthew, the transfiguration concludes with the uniqueness of Jesus (Jesus only). The one who touches and speaks gently – who looks deceptively like only a kind man – is the only Lord for those who have truly recognized him.