Saturday, November 28, 2020

December 13, 2020 - 3rd Sunday in Advent

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [690]

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Those who mourn shall be comforted—by the coming of the Anointed One.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. 

In the Prophetic reading God’s Anointed One speaks. 

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
      because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
      to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
      and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
      and the day of vengeance of our God;
      to comfort all who mourn; …  (verses 1-2, NRSV)

This amazing announcement is the most compelling expression in the Old Covenant of the mission taken up by Jesus the Christ, the mission of the One Anointed by the Holy Spirit.  For early Jesus followers who heard this prophetic passage, the speaker can only be Jesus himself, and so it is affirmed in Luke 4:16-21. 

The Anointed One (in Hebrew “the Messiah”; in Greek “the Christ”), empowered by God’s Spirit, proclaims to the oppressed poor a time of great change, a healing, a “release” (with echoes of Jubilee), most of all a comforting to the mourners.  (The beatitudes in Matt. 5:3-5 are about these people.) 

Our reading is the central portion of a block of prophecy, chapters 60-62, that ecstatically proclaims the restoration of Zion as the glorified center of the nations.  The City of God and the Anointed One of God are the dual foci of the transcendent reality that will be the reign of God among the nations.

The NRSV translation includes “the day of vengeance of our God” (verse 2).  Vengeance” has the wrong associations.  (The TANAK version is, “a day of vindication by our God.”)  God is not getting even; God is setting things right!  This is a time when the falsely or unjustly accused are vindicated by God’s judgment!  The Anointed One comes as God’s vindication of the wrongfully oppressed, of those suffering unjustly from the ways of the world. 

The vindicated people, however, are not only comforted, they will become active.  The recovered people will restore the devastated places:  “they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (verse 4). 

The newly liberated and comforted people are the means of transforming the habitations of humankind. 

And as the passage moves toward its conclusion, the Anointed One anticipates a time of his own glorification as a blessing to the nations: 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

      my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with garments of salvation,
      he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
      and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
      to spring up before all the nations.  (verses 10-11)

Into the dark world in which so many people were mourning came the proclamation of the Anointed One who would bring comfort – and rejoicing. 

Psalm 126.  

The Psalm reading takes us ahead, to the time when in vision the prophecy was fulfilled: 

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion

… then our mouth was filled with laughter,
      and our tongue with shouts of joy” (verses 1-2, NRSV). 

The liberated and comforted people exult in their new blessing: 

The Lord has done great things for us,

      and we rejoiced.  (Verse 3.)   

However, the restored world still exists in the cycle of the seasons, the alternations between anxiety and joy.  In the dry time of the year, anxiety sets in about whether the grain crops will be sufficient for the coming year. 

A prayer for abundant grain harvests parallels the great change of fortunes for Zion. 

The dry land of late autumn, when the sowing time approaches, is like Zion’s old condition.  The fruitful land of early spring, when the harvest is brought in “with shouts of joy,” is like Zion’s new joyful time. 

The emotional tension of the harvest expressed in the Hebrew poetry is caught particularly well by the New Jerusalem Bible translation of verse 6:  

He went off, went off weeping,

      carrying the seed.
He comes back, comes back singing,
      bringing in his sheaves. 

I Thessalonians 5:16-24.  

The selection from the Epistle also regards the time of mourning as past.  The new believers now live in a condition in which there is only the imperative,

“Rejoice always …” 

This is one of a chain of short commands, given as a pastoral closing to the epistle, calling on the new believers in Thessalonica to show in their lives the effects of the great change brought about by faith in Jesus the Christ. 

These people have just recently experienced the beginning of the Great Transformation that the prophetic and psalm passages describe, for the gospel came to them “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5, NRSV). 

As a consequence they should be empowered to

·        live joyfully,

·        prayerfully,
·        thankfully,
·        open to the Spirit and the words of prophecy,
·        advocating the good, and avoiding the evil,

all of which things the apostle urges upon them in quasi-commands (verses16-22). 

Paul then pronounces a benediction on them, emphasizing that the sanctification from God transforms the whole person (spirit, soul, and body) and prepares for the coming (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

But the mini-series of commandments begins with:  Rejoice always! 

John 1:6-8, 19-28.  

The Old Covenant declared that the mourners would be comforted by the coming of the Anointed One.  The Gospel reading speaks about who that Anointed One is—and is not! 

Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and in year B the lectionary uses John’s Gospel to supplement and complement the readings from Mark.  Thus here the Gospel selection re-tells the witness of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Anointed One, now as given in the Fourth Gospel. 

A man named John was sent from God.  He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light.  He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. (Verses 6-8, Common English Bible translation.) 

John the Baptist is here introduced in a larger theological context than in Mark (last week’s reading):  his mission here is “to testify concerning the light,” that aspect of the divine being which was the first word and act of creation (Genesis 1:3).  That first-creation-light will assume a bodily form and become the light of the world.  (That is, of course, simply another way of expressing the Incarnation – God became human, the Logos became flesh.) 

John’s mission is to “testify” to that light.  Here John testifies to the religious authorities who are sanctioned from the holy city itself. 

In the long dialog with the authorities (verses 19-28) a certain delight is taken in drawing out the questions about just who this John is.  A series of possible identities is posed and each one denied.  The most important identity is addressed first:  “He confessed... ‘I am not the Christ [Anointed One]’.”  Not only is he not the Anointed One, he is not Elijah returned, nor is he “the prophet” (the prophet like Moses in Deut. 18:15). 

This increasing suspense about John’s identity leads to his testimony that he is a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the imminent coming of the Lord.  John affirms that he is that “voice.” 

In this version of John’s testimony, there is great emphasis on the imminence of the Coming One:  “Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize” (verse 26, CEB).  The bearer of the divine light is still unrecognized, still secret, but very close at hand. 

In their midst!  The light of the world, the comforter of those who mourn, was present but not yet disclosed so peoples’ lives could be turned around. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

December 6, 2020 - 2nd Sunday in Advent

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [689] 

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8.

Out of judgment there comes a voice, which prepares the Way.  

The readings for this Sunday have this message:  Out of judgment there emerges a Way.  This way needs to be prepared—built up, leveled out, paved, and posted with proper signage.  This Way leads to a God-given relief from sin and past disaster, to a place of comfort, where righteousness is at home. 

Isaiah 40:1-11.  

The four parts of this famous prophetic text—evoking for most of us the yearning-joyful sounds of Georg Friedrich Händel’s music—emphasize the announcement of comfort, though not without a darker reminder of the transitoriness of human affairs. 

The basic message is good news for Zion-Jerusalem.  Her sins have been paid for—the punishment has even been double what was deserved.  The story behind the proclamation is in earlier passages in Isaiah. 

How the faithful city has become a whore!

      She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her— 
      but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
      your wine is mixed with water. 
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)

And the fate of such a corrupt one had already been revealed: 

And daughter Zion is left

      like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
      like a besieged city. 
If the Lord of hosts
      had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
      and become like Gomorrah.  (Isaiah 1:8-9) 

(A much longer and bawdier version of Jerusalem’s story is given in Ezekiel 16.) 

The unfaithful wife was punished with conquest by enemies, devastation of the city, and depopulation of the surrounding land.  It has lain thus desolate as a moral lesson to the nations for a long time, twice as long as its wickedness deserved. 

It is this disgraced and desolate widow to whom a sudden and surprising announcement is to be given. 

The servants in the heavenly court are commanded to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  Tell her “she has served her term,… her penalty is paid” (verse 2). 

The proof of the awesome turn in her fortune is that her former husband is returning to her.  The command is going out as we speak to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  A spectacular construction program is being carried out creating a super highway (a festival procession route) leading to the site of the city from the east (the direction of the “desert” and the direction taken by God when Jerusalem was previously abandoned, Ezekiel 10:18-19 and 11:22-23.) 

On this grand triumphant Way will come God, the good shepherd, who brings as the reward and “recompense” recovered from the nations the flock who will repopulate the city and show the glory of God’s new creation—a faithful people. 

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13.  

The Psalm reading responds to the prophetic announcement as an accomplished fact. 

Lord , you were favorable to your land;

         you restored the fortunes of Jacob. 
         …you pardoned all their sin (verses 1-2, NRSV). 

This restoration of the welfare of the (now) faithful people will be God’s own glory.  This all happens so that God’s “glory may dwell in our land” (verse 9).  

The poet is carried away as the imagined characters cavort and act out in this drama.  Here Steadfast-Love passes along and “meets” Faithfulness.  Righteousness and Peace are so intimate that they “kiss.”  Faithfulness takes the role of new crops and “springs up from the ground” while Righteousness plays the part of the vivifying rain that comes from the heavens to make the crops abundant (verses 10-11). 

God’s restoration of the repentant and recovered people is climaxed by a procession led by Righteousness.  “Righteousness will go before him [God], / and will make a path for his steps” (verse 13). 

The sign-post on the Way prepared for the Lord is “to Righteousness.”  

II Peter 3:8-15a.  

The Epistle reading has its word of comfort also, but it is more subdued, because there is still a great judgment to come. 

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day....  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done in it will be exposed. 

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?  You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God.  Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames.  But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.  (Verses 8-13, CEB translation.) 

The writer is certain of this coming judgment by fire (verse 10), even though one also knows that some folks scoff at it (see II Peter 3:4).  Nevertheless, the faithful are those who live their lives under the expectation of an ultimate cataclysm for the earth.  That cataclysm will reveal everyone’s deeds and character—“the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (verse 10, NRSV). 

But meantime, the faithful are participating in preparing the way toward the day of reckoning and salvation.  Their main tool in preparing the Way is Patience.  Patience is learned from God.  “The Lord … is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (verse 9 NRSV).  Thus it is Patience that is exercised by “those who wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (verse 13). 

The faithful wait patiently for a new reality, a reality where “righteousness is at home”! 

Mark 1:1-8.  

We heard the prophecy of the final coming of the Son of Man (the Human One) last week from the Gospel According to Mark.  That was the first reading for Year B of the Lectionary, during which the Gospel selections will be mainly from Mark. 

Having heard the judgment that is the first word of Advent, we now begin to hear of the promise contained within the judgment.  The Gospel reading now goes to the beginning of the Gospel, the words about preparing the Way. 

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ”—that good news begins with a quotation from the prophets. 

That is, the good news begins in the old order.  This new news was testified to before hand by God’s prophets, from Moses on down.  (The opening clause of the prophetic quotation is taken from Exodus 23:21, addressed to Moses:  “I’m about to send a messenger in front of you...”, CEB translation.) 

As Mark presents it, the beginning of the gospel is God speaking to God’s own son.  “Look, I am sending my messenger before you.  He will prepare your way…” (verse 2). 

John the Baptist.  The “messenger” whom the prophecies said would prepare the way for Jesus is John the Baptist.  Our reading, after we get past the prophecy, concerns only John. 

The first thing we hear is that he called for people to be baptized, and that lots of people from Judea and Jerusalem came out to hear him.  They were convinced by John’s preaching and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (verse 5).  Then we get a little background on John.  He is dressed as Elijah-returned and, like Elijah, he confines his diet to the natural if austere foods of the wilderness.

John’s Judgment movement was the actual historical background—and probably the preparation ground—for Jesus’ later calling and ministry.  John had his own disciples who followed his way of life instead of the way of Jesus and his disciples (see Mark 2:18).  John’s movement went right on after the deaths of both John and Jesus.  His disciples appear in Asia Minor in the 50s of the Christian Era (Acts 19:1-7).  And apparently the sophisticated scripture scholar from Alexandria, Apollos, had originally been a member of John’s movement before he was converted to the gospel about Jesus (Acts 18:24-26).  Thus, in a real historical sense John the Baptist prepared the Way for Jesus—baptizing him and proclaiming the imminence of the reign of God, which Jesus would carry on in his own way. 

John understood himself in terms of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1-2 and 4:5.  He proclaimed that he was preparing the way for God to come in judgment.  When John said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (verses 7-8), he thought the prophecy referred to the Lord God of Moses and all the prophets, coming to the holy place in judgment.  The disciples of the early Jesus movement discovered what John had really meant.  

The disciples understood that John had prepared the Way for the “beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (verse 1).  

Friday, November 20, 2020

November 29, 2020 - 1st Sunday in Advent (Year B)

                                                         Biblical Words                                          [688] 

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

The suffering ones cry out, How long O Lord?  Advent begins with God’s judgment on a world of violence, greed, and oppression.    

With the first Sunday in Advent, a new year now begins.  Unlike the secular New Year on January 1st, however, it is not an exuberant celebration of new beginnings. 

Advent begins with a world-sweeping view of the suffering, oppression, and sinfulness that dominate the human condition.  But it also gives voice to the desperate, agonized cry for God to bring peace and justice in place of violence and oppression.  In the midst of this hurting and yearning, it also glimpses a world-shaking divine intervention by the Son of Man. 

Isaiah 64:1-9.  

The last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) are a mixed bag of amazing visions of hope, of agonized pleas for relief from suffering, and of confessions of sin.  This confused mix is probably a fair representation of the ups and downs of early post-exilic life in Yehud (Judah), at least in prophetic circles. 

Judah was then a poor and marginal sub-province of the Persian empire when that empire was at the peak of its power, 520 to 460 BCE.  (This was the time of the Persian wars with Greece [499-479 BCE], famously memorialized by Herodotus’ Histories.)    

Our reading is a desperate prayer for God’s intervention, a prayer from a people of rather low self-esteem:  

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (verse 1, NRSV; verse 63:19b in the Hebrew text). 

This is an appropriate opening cry for Advent.  The suffering and oppressed—perhaps even outcasts (see 63:16)—raise their distress to a cosmic level.  God should rip open the old canopy of the created world—that is, God should initiate a return to chaos—in order to be rid of the disastrous mess that the human world has become!  Such is the speaker’s desperate outburst. 

The speaker knows God has done wonderful things in the past—referred to in verses 3 to 4—but the present is truly abysmal. 

            We have become like one who is unclean,
                  and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
            We all fade like a leaf,
                  and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  (Verse 6, NRSV.)  

As is often the case in the psalms of lament, God is indirectly blamed for allowing this miserable condition.  “But you were angry, and we sinned; / because you hid yourself we transgressed” (verse 5). 

Advent begins with a cry for deliverance.  The deliverance called for so desperately is partly from external enemies—God should come down “so that the nations might tremble” (verse 1)—but it is mostly the confusion, transgressions, and iniquities of the community itself that require divine relief. 

They need the forgiveness of sins, and the external signs that wholeness and peace have been restored. 

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19. 

The Psalm reading voices another plea to God to take notice of the suffering of people who were favored by God in the past but now suffer oppression and humiliation. 

The people speaking are the tribes of the old northern kingdom—Joseph, divided into his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and his brother tribe Benjamin (all mentioned in verses 1-2).  These are now praying to the God of Zion (“enthroned upon the cherubim,” verse 1) to save them. 

There has been a period of alienation between these now humble peoples and God—“how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (verse 4).  They have long suffered with “the bread of tears”; their neighbors hold them in scorn, and their enemies laugh at them (verses 5-6).  Each stanza of the psalm ends with its fundamental message, the urgent plea:  “Restore us, O God (of Hosts); / let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, and 19). 

Near its end, the psalm hints at a human deliverer.  Their real hope is for a king who will recover their old glory and make the nations hold the Israelite tribes in respect and awe again (as in the days of David). 

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
      the one whom you made strong for yourself.  (Verse 17.)  

There is a yearning for a new figure, a king, who will arise and save Israel. 

I Corinthians 1:3-9.  

The prophecy and the psalm plead for God’s saving intervention, but the Epistle reading gives thanks that it has come. 

It has come to the people of the assembly of God in Corinth, the major commercial city of Greece.  The thanks is given by their founding apostle Paul.  From Paul’s letters, we have more information about the inner life of this earliest of Christian communities in the non-Judean world than any other such community. 

One of the things these well-heeled citizens of a merchant city prided themselves on was their education and their learning.  Paul goes with this.  “I give thanks…for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verses 5 and 7, NRSV). 

We are still in a world that is waiting for the final divine intervention for the righteous, but the agony and uncertainty of the old prophecy and psalm are gone.  Now joy and a sense of confidence in the salvation are in process.  The waiting is now easy, and the apostle is confident that the elect ones will be found “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 8). 

Mark 13:24-37.  

The ultimate Christian version of the answer to the Advent prayer—“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”—is Jesus’ vision of the final cataclysm accompanying the coming of the Son of Man (the Human One, in the CEB translation). 

Mark 13 is Jesus’ instructions to an inner circle of disciples about the last things.  Jesus emphasizes that there will be much turmoil in the world before the real end comes.  There will also be false messiahs (christs) popping up here and there (13:6).  The really real ending, however, will be unmistakable! 

When the real time comes the cosmos will come unraveled (as the Advent prayer, Isaiah 64:1, requested):  the sun and moon will go dark, stars will fall, casting all horoscopes and astrological charts into chaos. 

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken (verses 24-25, Common English Bible translation.) 

These images come from prophesies of doom on the day of the Lord.  For example, when Babylon would finally fall, the whole world would be involved, as prophesied in Isaiah 13. 

See, the day of the Lord comes,
      cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation,
      and to destroy its sinners from it. 
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
      will not give their light; 
the sun will be dark at its rising,
      and the moon will not shed its light. 
I will punish the world for its evil [God speaking],
      and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,
      and lay low the insolence of tyrants.  (Isaiah 13:9-11, NRSV.)

The final wrath is God’s judgment upon all the forces of evil, to reestablish a cosmic balance of justice for the wicked and the righteous. 

When that cataclysm has occurred, Jesus, in our reading, tells us that the ancient prophecy of Daniel will be fulfilled.  This is the prophecy of the heavenly Son of Man (“the Human One,” as opposed to the four “beasts” of Dan. 7:1-8) who will bring in a new world dominion to save and vindicate the suffering righteous. 

Daniel’s vision was of God setting up the heavenly judgment, and then of transferring to the Son of Man dominion over all the earth.  

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,
      and an Ancient One took his throne, …
The court sat in judgment, 
      and the books were opened. ... (Daniel 7:9-10, NRSV.)

[After the judgment of the world beasts, representing the progressively more violent old empires described earlier in the vision, Daniel continues,]

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being [a son of man]
      coming with the clouds of heaven. 
And he came to the Ancient One
      and was presented before him. 
To him was given dominion
      and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
      should serve him. 
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
      that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
      that shall never be destroyed.  (Daniel 7:13-14.)

This was the old prophecy that guided the major expectation among Jesus’ early followers.  Mark puts it directly on Jesus’ lips.  “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26, NRSV). 

In his own or in later teaching, Jesus was identified as this Son of Man, this Human One.  It was he who was expected to reappear finally and set all things well with—if not the whole world—at least those who waited and “watched” faithfully, as the rest of the Mark reading instructs the hearers to do (verses 28-37). 

Advent, as presented by the readings, is not good news.  It knows that even for the righteous there are continuing hardships and suffering.  It knows that for the present the arrogant, the oppressors, the workers of evil, prevail in an agonized world.  The opening message of Advent is that there definitely IS a judgment.  There is a world-shaking assize near at hand. 

As Advent goes forward, we will gradually hear more and more about what there is BESIDES that judgment!  


Sunday, November 8, 2020

November 22, 2020 - Reign of Christ Sunday

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [687]

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

God’s special care is for the lost sheep, “the least of these,” to whom God sends the good shepherd, Christ the King. 

This Sunday, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, is the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  This day is traditionally called the festival of the Reign of  Christ (formerly the festival of Christ the King).  It caps the year by acclaiming the royal figure through whom God’s care and justice are exercised. 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 

The last fifteen chapters of the book of Ezekiel are devoted to prophecies of Israel’s future restoration – after thirty-three chapters of judgment and doom on Jerusalem and its enemies.  Our first reading this Sunday is the beginning of this restoration prophecy. 

The whole prophecy, all of chapter 34, concerns Israel’s kings, spoken of as the “shepherds of Israel” (34:2).  (Overall Ezekiel did not care for kings very much; he was a man of the temple, a priest.  He did, however, grudgingly admit the “prince” into his vision of the future glory of the restored Temple, Ezekiel 44:3.) 

God first indicts and judges the past kings for their exploitation and abuse of the people (34:1-10).  The shepherds had turned into predators.  This part of the chapter is worth noting, even though it is not in the Lectionary, because it is a direct parallel to today’s Gospel reading about the judgment of the nations. 

Ah [Woe to], you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!  Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  … You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.  … my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:2-4 and 6, NRSV). 

After these false and corrupt shepherds have been eliminated, what is to happen?  The prophecy announces that God, in person, will become the shepherd of the people. 

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  … I will bring them into their own land; …and I will feed them with good pasture.  …I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice (verses 11, 13-14, 16). 

Even among restored flocks there are innocent ones and there are trouble-makers. 

Therefore…I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock… (verses 20-22). 

God’s own judgment, however, needs some specific implementation.  That is where God’s representative comes in, a renewed Davidic king. 

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:  he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them (verses 23-24). 

God’s appointed representative, continuing the good shepherding work of the great king David, will shepherd—and maintain justice among—God’s restored sheep, the people of God’s hand. 

Psalm 100.  

The psalm is an exuberant summons to praise and worship, appropriate to folks about to celebrate a (social distancing) Thanksgiving.  The psalm is a series of imperatives: 

“Make a joyful noise…”

Hey, wake up!  Time to raise the holy howl and prostrate yourself before Yahweh!

“Know that Yahweh is God… “

Get straight in your head:  God is God – and our Lord!

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving…”

Join the procession!  You are those privileged to access the really holy precincts!!

Acclaim with all:  “His steadfast love endures forever!”

Ephesians 1:15-23.  

In the Epistle reading the speaker is engrossed in a long, convoluted thanksgiving (actually a report of what he prays concerning the Ephesians).  This thanksgiving first includes the faith, love, and hope of the Ephesians’ new life (faith and love in verse 15, hope in verse 18). 

The thought of the glories of what Christians have to hope for carries him on to an ecstatic vision of God’s great power working through Christ. 

This power of God, the source and means of salvation for all humans, has established Jesus Christ as the kingly ruler over all powers—cosmic, demonic, human—that can threaten or in any way determine the lives of the elect who are gathered in the church. 

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come.  (Verses 20-21, NRSV.) 

This whole passage is probably guided by early Christian use of Psalm 8 in their liturgies, where the “son of man” (= Son of God) exercised such rule over the created realm. 

…what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?
[Yet] You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet…

(Psalm 8:4-6, NIV; the NRSV translation loses the reference to the son of man.) 

The closing words of our Ephesians reading pick up this Psalm’s theme:  “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church” (verse 22). 

This is the celebration of the Reign of Christ in the apostolic church. 

Matthew 25:31-46.  

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the last of the eschatological teachings reported by Matthew in Jesus’ final discourse to the disciples. 

Though often thought of as a “parable,” technically it is not one.  It does not begin, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (25:1), or “For it is as if a man…” (25:14).  Here Jesus tells the disciples what will take place in that transcendent time when the final judgment has in fact come and there will be a final settlement of God with “all the nations.” 

The scene could be modeled on Ezekiel’s indictment of the wicked kings and their replacement by the Davidic king as the good shepherd (see the prophetic reading above).  Here, however, it is the chosen king who carries out the judgment on the nations.  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (verse 31, NRSV).  And a little later, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand…” (verse 34). 

All the nations are judged according to how they treated the needy ones, “the least of these.”  (In the Greek text at verse 40 they are, literally, “to my brothers, the least ones,” which the NRSV gives as “the least of these who are members of my family.”  At verse 45, they are simply “the least of these.”). 

The interpretation of this vision turns decisively on the anonymity of “the least of these.”  If the needy LOOKED LIKE they would be important in the last days, folks would care for them and run after them eagerly.  If those who ministered to the anonymous needy did so because of some great reward in it, they would have disqualified themselves as true servants.  It is precisely the improbability, the cast off and unimportant nature of these neglected ones of the nations that makes them so important to God and God’s royal representative.  (The Ruling Lord is ruled by compassion!) 

The least of these are precisely those ignored by the “important people” of the world! 

[The following is now ancient history, but I let it stand in memory of good things done!] 

This Biblical passage was a kind of charter text for Protestants for the Common Good (now carried on in Community Renewal Society’s Policy work).  From its organization in 1996, PCG held its mission to be rousing awareness of and advocating for “the least of these.”  We understood “the least of these” to be the neglected, invisible, poor and excluded ones hidden within our abundant society—those so often lost in the systems of this world.  We understood the Biblical message to be that these are the special concern of God and God’s representative, Christ the King.