Tuesday, November 30, 2021

December 12, 2021 - 3rd Sunday of Advent

                   Biblical Words                                                        [746]

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Advent means the mother city pregnant with hope, and reforming prophets preparing for a Lord of peace. 

Zephaniah 3:14-20.  

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures are concerned with the Mother City Zion and her humble and scattered children.  

The prophetic reading is the last passage of the book of Zephaniah.  The earlier parts of this book are famous passages about the Day of Wrath (1:15, dies irae, Latin for "day of wrath").   The final word of the book, however, is an exultant summons to the city to rejoice because of the coming forgiveness and restoration. 

The good news to the city is that God “is in your midst” (“your” is feminine singular in Hebrew). 

The king of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst;

      you shall fear disaster no more…. 

Yahweh, your God, is in your midst,

      a warrior who gives victory;

he will rejoice over you with gladness,

      he will renew you in his love; …”

                        (Verses 15 and 17, NRSV modified) 

The mother city is being purged of shame and reproach and will become pregnant with God. 

There is then a transition to the children.  Because Yahweh has renewed his love for the mother, her children will be rescued: 

And I will save the lame

      and gather the outcast [the dispersed one],

and I will change their shame into praise

      and renown in all the earth (verse 19). 

Finally, God speaks directly to these previously lost children: 

At that time I will bring you [masculine plural] home … says the Lord” (verse 20). 

Isaiah 12:2-6.  

In place of a responding psalm, our readings have another prophetic passage. 

This Isaiah reading is a liturgy, with different voices complementing each other in a thanksgiving and hymning of salvation beheld. 

A singular voice speaks first (in the old Jerusalem liturgy this figure is the king): 

            “Surely God is my salvation; / I will trust, and will not be afraid …” (verse 2). 

Then a group is addressed and told that they will draw water from the “wells of salvation” – plentiful water available because of victory.  This group will joyfully call on others to thank God for the victory.  “Give thanks [plural] to the Lord / … make known his deeds among the nations …” (verse 4). 

Finally, the last word of the liturgy is addressed to the mother city (all imperatives and pronouns in this verse are feminine singular): 

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

      for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (verse 6, NRSV). 

God is in the midst of her (Zephaniah 3:15 and Isaiah 12:6). 

This message is a variation on the gospel declaration, Immanu-El, “With-us is God” (Isaiah 7:14).  Such a gospel message provides a fitting climax to the joy of the victorious figure who speaks in verse 2, and to the grateful drawers of victory water who are addressed in verses 3-4.  The whole is a liturgy of the deliverance of the Mother-city Zion. 

Philippians 4:4-7.  

If the prophetic passages rejoice because God is in the mother city, the Epistle reading rejoices because the saved ones are “in Christ Jesus” (verse 7). 

The believers in Philippi are summoned to “Rejoice!” – to rejoice always.  The reason for rejoicing is that they have entered into the peace of God – or this possibility is ever at hand for them. 

We may glimpse more concretely what peace may mean in this church by looking back a couple of verses. 

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion [or, “my faithful Syzygos” – the name means “yoke-fellow”], help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life (4:2-3, NRSV). 

The new life in Christ has created new associations, new support groups, new cells of faithful people devoted to each other’s welfare and flourishing – peace in God.  This new life together requires forbearance, thoughtfulness toward each other, a subordination of self to a common good in which all may experience the peace of God – and rejoice! 

These qualities of yielding and consideration for the other are expressed by the word “gentleness” in verse 5, the basic meaning of which is yielding.  “Let your gentleness [RSV “forbearance”] be known to everyone.  [Because …] the Lord is near” (NRSV). 

When the Lord is near, priorities must be rearranged; petty matters put aside and all united, rejoicing in the peace of God. 

Luke 3:7-18.  

The Gospel reading is the judgment preaching of John the Baptist. 

The passage is in three parts, two vivid announcements of coming judgment, culminating in hell-fire (verses 9 and 17), and, in between, directions for carrying out repentance in the economic realm. 

The first speech insists that judgment is a radical equalizer.  No appeal to heritage or ethnic distinction – children of Abraham – is any use.  In the face of God’s coming, all that matters is confession of the wickedness of our lives in the world.  And only repentance – a strong word that means a reversal of direction – can lead to inclusion in a saved community.  A radical pruning is at hand; only the trees bearing fruit of justice will escape becoming firewood. 

The fruits of repentance are all economic (verses 10-14).  

Ordinary people must equalize the basics of life, clothes and food (verse 11).  The agents of the federal treasury must be rigorously honest – collecting only what has been fairly determined (verse 13).  And the police and the military must not use their prerogative of legal force to extort improper wealth or to exceed their designated budgets (verse 14). 

John is a preacher of reform. His program has three points:  (1) provide welfare and equalize income, (2) administer public finance equitably, and (3) maintain open and honest law enforcement and national defense. 

But reform applies within a limited timeframe (verses 15-18).  Beyond John there is a mightier one whose coming will end the time of labor and testing within which repentance can be made.  The preaching of John anticipates the coming of God’s own self, as the prophecies about the forerunner showed (Isaiah 40:3-5 and Malachi 3:1-2).  There would be a reform period, then God would conclude all in a vast settling of accounts. 

And there is one more wrinkle.  Those who later became followers of Jesus knew that the manner of the judgment was more complex – that the judgment would come upon a Suffering Servant, appointed by God to lead the way into a new life beyond the doom of hell-fire. 

The confessor of Jesus knew that beyond the judgment announced by John there was a salvation that worked in humble and secret ways among Galilean peasants, Judean shepherds, and old faithful folk who hung around the temple. 


Saturday, November 27, 2021

December 5, 2021 - 2nd Sunday of Advent

                                                      Biblical Words                                         [745]

Malachi 3:1-4;  Luke 1:68-79;  Philippians 1:3-11;  Luke 3:1-6.

 Advent knows of Messengers, who appear with world-encompassing warnings. 

Malachi 3:1-4. 

(This is the alternate reading; the primary is Baruch 5:1-9.)

Our prophetic reading for this Sunday is from the book of Malachi. 

The term “malachi” is not a name; it is the phrase “my messenger,” later taken up and used as if it were a proper name.  See Special Note below on Books, Scrolls, and Malachi. 

The Malachi prophecy itself comes from a time when the priestly establishment in Jerusalem was in sad condition (perhaps around 500 to 450 BCE).  Priestly duties were neglected and corrupt; morale was very low.  The anonymous prophet who speaks here announces that a radical change is coming.  God in person is about to come, and is sending a “messenger” to clean house in preparation.   

Messenger.  This word is usually translated, in other contexts, as “angel,” the Greek word for messenger.

The imagery behind the term is the heavenly court of God Most High, who is conceived as the mighty world sovereign presiding over his chief retainers. These retainers are powerful lords in their own right.  (These heavenly lords were later thought of as “angels,” each with a nation or province as his responsibility, as can be seen in Daniel 8-12.)

This emperor is going to make a “VISIT” – a grand assize of one of the provinces.  A member of the heavenly court – himself a powerful lord – will go ahead and put things in spit and polish order for the great royal visit.  This heavenly noble (with deliberate military connotations) is the awesome power announced in this prophecy: 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord [a title, not Yahweh] whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming says the Lord [Yahweh] of hosts.  (Verse 1, NRSV.)

This, of course, is a very awesome thing. 

But who can endure the day of his coming,

and who can stand when he appears? 


For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…

and he will purify the descendants of Levi [the priests] and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord [Yahweh] in righteousness (verses 2-3). 

The early Jesus followers soon recognized that this prophecy had been fulfilled in their own times:  John the Baptizer was in fact this Messenger! 

Luke 1:68-79.  

The psalm reading comes, not from the Psalms Scroll, but from Luke’s cycle of birth stories.  It is the psalm called the Benedictus, after its first word in the Latin translation, and it presents the first ecstatic speech of Zechariah after his nine months of silence.  Zechariah had been struck dumb for doubting that God could give him a son in his old age (1:18-20).  Now John, later to be the Baptist, has been born and named, as the heavenly messenger had instructed, and Zechariah can speak.  The Benedictus is what he says. 

This hymn anticipates a salvation and speaks of a redemption as if it has already happened. 

God is blessed because God has (already) “looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”  A “horn of salvation” has been raised “in the house of his servant David.”  This “horn” cannot be a reference to John, because he was born to the house of Aaron.  The reference is to a Davidic messiah, and by Luke’s time that can only be Jesus, yet to be born and identified. 

This redemption through the house of David, however, will fulfill what was spoken by the “holy prophets” of old, meaning such prophecies as the shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-5).  There a spirit-empowered ruler “with righteousness … shall judge the poor,” and “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth [in the process of delivering wise judgments].”  The fulfillment theme also extends back to the covenant with Abraham, which includes the past salvation (exodus) and the establishing of the people in holiness and righteousness. 

There is a sharp transition in the blessing at verse 76.  Now Zechariah is talking to the newly-born John and declares he will go before the Lord and prepare his ways.  The hymn does not require that “the Lord” here mean Jesus, though Luke’s audience probably understood it that way.  Read strictly in its own terms, this passage can refer to John preparing the way for God’s own coming, in judgment and salvation, as in Isaiah 40:9-11 and Malachi 3:1-5. 

Even in the Gospel as it stands, however, this hymn claims Israel’s inherited promises to David and to Abraham as the basis for John’s place in history as well as Jesus’. 

The Benedictus proclaims this modest priestly birth as a major event in the destiny of Israel. 

Philippians 1:3-11.  

The Epistle reading is almost a re-run of last Sunday’s reading from I Thessalonians, only this time with the church in Philippi.  The passage has the same climax, the confidence that the faithful in Philippi will hold their course of faith and love so that “in the day of Christ,” they will present “the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (verse 10, NRSV). 

The very strong ties of affection between the Apostle and his converts in the Roman colonial city are lifted up:  He can count on them “because you hold me in your heart,” and “God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (verses 7-8). 

These opening thanksgivings of Paul’s letters make it clear that for many, at least, Apostle and people were caught up in a great love affair. 

Luke 3:1-6.  

The appearance of John the Baptist is a traditional feature of Advent, this year given in the Gospel reading from Luke. 

Title:  The Macklin Bible – St. John (John the Baptist)
Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Luke’s presentation is distinctive because he sets John in the full context of world history.  Two verses are given to the names of emperors, governors, minor provinces, and high priests – names often hard to pronounce during readings in services. 

It cannot be emphasized too strongly, however, that these names and titles are very central to Luke’s Gospel.  This is the Gospel that is continued in the book of Acts, which traces the work of the Holy Spirit from John the Baptist to the preaching of the gospel by Paul in Rome.  For Luke above all, the gospel enters into history, and the power and meaning of that gospel are to be unfolded by relating its history. 

Thus the greatest of Roman emperors, Augustus, stands at the head of the chapter telling of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:1).  And the next emperor, Tiberius, stands at the head of the narrative of John’s appearance and preaching.  Besides Tiberius, of course, are Pontius Pilate, a couple of sons of Herod the Great, each ruling his own domain in John’s time, and two high priests, both of whom will appear when Jesus is in Jerusalem. 

John’s appearance is dated by Luke to the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, making it approximately the year 29 of the Christian Era. 

But while the location of John’s appearance in Roman history is important to Luke, even more important is the location of John in relation to prophecy.  That is what the rest of our reading is about.  God spoke to John and sent him to fulfill the great prophecy in Isaiah about the breaking out of good news for Zion: 

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord …
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
(Verses 4-6, NRSV)

John’s preaching work is preparing the way; it is the message of judgment at hand, with repentance urgent now, before the axe falls.  Next Sunday we will hear John’s words of Judgment, which prepare for another more blessing word yet to come. 


Special Note on “Books,” Scrolls, and “Malachi.”

Modern Christians think of Malachi as the last book of the Old Testament, and so it is in printed Christian Bibles. 

In ancient times, however, there was no Bible – no single large “book” containing all, or major parts of, the scriptures.  The Jewish scriptures in Hebrew occupied 22 separate scrolls, and in Greek (known to New Testament writers) they occupied closer to 30 scrolls. 

“The scriptures,” therefore, consisted of one or more large cupboards with pigeonholes for the many scrolls.  The only order of the “books” was by content:  the Exodus narrative followed the Genesis narrative; therefore the Exodus scroll was next to the Genesis scroll.  Books like Psalms, Job, and Proverbs were shelved as the presiding scribe thought fit.  Prophetic books were grouped vaguely by historical period of the prophet mainly involved.  Fixed order of scrolls was established only after the invention of the codex, the “book.”  In Biblical times, there was no order of “books” in documents. 

Christians adopted the codex (quires of pages fastened at the side – our “book”) around 200 CE.  At first it was to put all four Gospels in one big “book.” (Each Gospel had previously been a separate scroll.)  The first complete Bibles, containing both Old and New Testaments in Greek – huge works, very expensive – were made by or for a few wealthy churches in Egypt and Syria in the late 4th century, a generation after Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman empire.  

(Jewish congregations kept using scrolls for their scriptures until sometime in the early Middle Ages – and still use scrolls today for their Torah readings in Synagogue.) 

How We Got Malachi. 

In both Hebrew and Greek there was a separate big scroll called “the Scroll of the Twelve [Prophets].”  This scroll, almost the size of the big Isaiah scroll (known from the Dead Sea Scrolls), contained mostly smaller collections of prophetic oracles from such as Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc., but also included a short story about a prophet – the story of Jonah. 

At the end of this scroll there were three prophetic pamphlets, all beginning, “A burden:  the word of Yahweh to/concerning...”  The Hebrew here uses a technical term massā, translated “burden” in the King James Version.  Other modern translations are “oracle” (RSV, NRSV, ESV), “prophecy” (NIV 2011ed), “message” (NJB), or “pronouncement” (CEV).  The word literally means a load, something lifted, something picked up and carried, thus, metaphorically a message carried to someone else.  The word is so used many times in the scroll of Isaiah. 

These three pamphlets headed “burden” followed the original collection of Zechariah oracles at the end of the Scroll of the Twelve (Zechariah 1-8).  The first two pamphlets (now Zechariah 9-11 and Zechariah 12-14), each headed simply by “Oracle,” came to be treated as continuations of Zechariah, though they are very different in content from Zechariah’s original prophecies.  Modern scholars call these first two pamphlets Deutero-Zechariah, the second “book” of Zechariah. 

The third pamphlet had the heading, “Oracle:  the word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of my messenger” (now Malachi 1:1).  “My messenger” in Hebrew is mal’ākî, which, after going through Greek and Latin, became “Malachi” in Modern English.  The Greek translation of the heading of this pamphlet is, “Burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel by the hand of his angel [Greek angelos means “messenger”].”  (Note that the Greek has his messenger,” thus not quite a correct translation of the Hebrew.) 

The heading of the pamphlet, therefore, does not contain a proper name.  “My messenger” is a title, not a name – until later pious folks needed it to be a name.  It was then decided that this whole pamphlet was a separate prophecy by someone named Malachi.  

This process of turning the title into a name probably happened when it was decided that the big scroll should contain the writings of exactly TWELVE prophets.  The last pamphlet was peeled off to be the twelfth “book” of the scroll.  That would have happened sometime between 350 and 200 BCE.  

Thus the “book” of Malachi is actually an anonymous pamphlet that was added to the other “minor” (that is, “small”) prophetic scrolls to make up the “twelve” someone had decided was the number needed.  This pamphlet has its own character and historical setting (a century or so after the exile), addressing the problem of the degeneration of temple service, plus a couple of social evils (like divorce), before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were carried out around 450 BCE. 


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

November 28, 2021 - First Sunday of Advent

                       Biblical Words                      [744]

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; I Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Advent looks for a leader who, through great adversity, stands for hope and a just world to come. 

The traditional scripture readings during Advent proclaim alternately judgment and hope. 

The great judgment impending over all humans and their worldly enterprises is balanced by a special promise to the humble, poor, and exiled.   A great turning of salvation is already secretly at work for them, and it will soon be revealed to all eyes. 

Jeremiah 33:14-16. 

The prophetic reading is a brief promise to exiled Israel and desolate Jerusalem that a Ruler will appear for them, one called “the Branch of Righteousness.”  That One will execute justice and righteousness in the land. 

The symbolic term “Branch” (Hebrew sémach) is one of several images which use growth, sprouting, or new life from old roots to express the vitality of a new age beginning for an oppressed people.  Isaiah promises that a “shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, / and a branch [netzer] shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1, NRSV). 

The term used in our passage (sémach) is also applied in the post-exilic period to the would-be king Zerubabel and to the high priest Joshua (Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12).  By that time, “Branch” is on its way to becoming a technical term for the messianic heir of David’s throne. 

Our passage occurs in a part of the book of Jeremiah dedicated to hope for the future (chapters 30-33).  This particular oracle represents a down-sizing of the hope that Jeremiah originally held out to the people.  Originally, Jeremiah had expected the reunion of the northern tribes of Israel with the house of Judah, all under the rule of a Davidic king, Josiah.  In those early days Jeremiah had put it this way. 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.  And this is the name by which he will be called:  “The Lord is our righteousness.”  (Jeremiah 23:5-6) 

Thirty to forty years later, after the kingdom of Judah was destroyed in judgment, the same promise runs this way: 

In those days… I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it [“she,” Jerusalem] will be called:  “The Lord is our righteousness.”  (Jeremiah 33:15-16)

In the later (exilic) period it is a large hope just to see a promising future of any kind for the little sub-province of Judah and the ruined city Jerusalem.  The days of large and muscle-flexing kingdoms have gone down the tubes in God’s judgment. 

The oracle of Hope has been redressed to a new time and a new scale. 

Psalm 25:1-10.  

The first ten verses of this originally acrostic psalm can well be understood as the speech of a “Branch.”  The one who speaks is among the remnant of people who wait for signs of divine favor and help. 

First he speaks for himself, if it’s the king, or for herself, if it’s the city:   

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,

      O my God, in you I trust;

do not let me be put to shame; 

      do not let my enemies exult over me (verse 2, NRSV). 

Then he/she speaks of the people who are the followers, and of their foes: 

Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

      let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous (verse 3). 

These latter enemies are probably envious neighbors who do not want the struggling Judean community around Jerusalem to flourish. 

The speaker next prays for guidance as leader of the community: 

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; 

      teach me your paths. 

Lead me in your truth, and teach me,

      for you are the God of my salvation;

      for you I wait all day long (verses 4-5). 

Finally the leader prays for forgiveness of their sins, in harmony with God’s merciful character (verses 6-7). 

The reading portrays a community in need of forgiveness and of restored hope.  But the community has a leader who includes oneself in the prayer for forgiveness and who stands forward to present God’s ways to a humble and waiting world. 

I Thessalonians 3:9-13.  

Another glimpse of a devout – one could say passionate – leader and teacher is presented by the reading from the Epistle.  

In these verses we hear an outpouring of care and love by Paul for his humble but faithful church in Thessalonica.  He hopes desperately that God will make a way for him to visit them in person again, and – here the teacher comes out – restore anything lacking in their faith.  In any case, he prays that God will keep them in the holy way so they will be ready when the Lord Jesus comes with all his saints. 

In his missionary work, Paul created a community of faith, love, and hope (see 1:3).  That community now waits, following the instructions of its leader, for the fulfillment of God’s promise. 

Luke 21:25-36.  

With the beginning of Advent we enter a new year of Gospel readings, those for Year C, the Gospel According to Luke.  We will get reacquainted with this amazing work of Christian witness as the year advances. 

For now, we hear the traditional judgment on the world that stands as the first word of Advent. 

Luke keeps most of the content of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13), given now in Luke 21:5-36.  It is the last climactic paragraphs of this discourse that we hear this Sunday. 

What Luke shares with Mark and Matthew:  All three synoptic Gospels have this discourse on the end time.  Three features of the end-time scenario are common to all of them: 

First, it will be cosmic – or we might say galactic.  There will be signs among the sun, moon, and the stars (verse 25). 

Secondly, all three Synoptic Gospels present the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds as the climax of the apocalyptic drama (verse 27).  This comes straight from the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14), the archetypal Son of Man passage in the Judean scriptures. 

Finally, all three Synoptic Gospels present the “parable” of the fig tree, whose leaves are a sure indicator of summer.  This is accompanied by Jesus’ pronouncement that all these things will come about before the present generation passes away (verses 29-33). 

What only Luke reports.  While Luke presents this common view of the coming Judgment, he also has his own personal touches, especially of heightened emotional coloring. 

·        When talking about the cosmic signs that will come, only Luke adds, “and on the earth [there will be] distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (verse 25, NRSV). 

·        And also, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” (verse 26). 

·        And after the Son of Man appears, Luke leaps forward like a cheerleader:  “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near [!!]” (verse 28). 

Finally, Luke has his own exhortation to conclude the scene, focusing also on the personal and individual elements of the awesome scenes that are forecast: 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down …” – with reveling or over-anxiety about this world.  Do not let “that day” catch you unexpectedly, “like a trap” (verse 34). 

Pray that you will have the strength “to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (verse 36). 

In summary, Luke heightens the personal experience of world chaos and hysterical fears, but keeps his focus on the center of the drama. 

That center is each person standing before the great figure of the judgment, the Son of Man. 


Wednesday, November 10, 2021

November 21, 2021 - Reign of Christ Sunday

         Biblical Words                              [743]

II Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

At year’s end, Christian thoughts turn to words beyond our current trials, to words about the Reign of Christ. 

The last Sunday of the Christian year, the Sunday just before Advent, has been known traditionally as “Christ the King” Sunday, or nowadays, “Reign of Christ” Sunday.  The Church year ends looking toward a sovereignty bestowed by God on Jesus, making him the Messiah, the Christ, heir of King David. 

II Samuel 23:1-7.  

(The alternate reading is Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, the empowering of one like a Son of Man by God on High.) 

The readings for this Sunday from the Prophets and from the Psalm present God’s promise to David of an “everlasting covenant” and a perpetual dynasty. 

The II Samuel reading presents what in Hebrew is a primitive-sounding song, the Last Words of David.  This poem has a good claim to be an actual composition of David the king.  The opening words, “The oracle of David, … oracle of the man whom God exalted,” is an early style, not common in later Israelite verse.  (See, for example, the oracle of Balaam in Numbers 24:3-4.)   

The ecstatic speaker declares what the deity has said to him.  In this case, God has said: 

He whose rule is upright on earth,
who rules in the fear of God,
is like the morning light at sunrise
(on a cloudless morning)
making the grass of the earth sparkle after rain. 
      (New Jerusalem Bible translation)

The one anointed by God rules justly and makes the world glisten with prosperity. 

The rest is David’s commentary, declaring to the world his own status with God, and then contrasting with it the fate of wicked ones. 

Yes, my House stands firm with God: 

he has made an eternal covenant with me,
all in order, well assured;
does he not bring to fruition my every victory and desire? 

But men of Belial he rejects like thorns,
for these are never taken up in the hand: 
no one touches them
except with a pitchfork or spear-shaft,
and then only to burn them to nothing! 
      (Verses 5-7, NJB translation.) 

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18).  

The Psalm reading also refers directly to David and God’s promise to him of a perpetual reign (though here the perpetuity is conditional). 

The Lord swore to David a sure oath
      from which he will not turn back:
“One of the sons of your body
      I will set on your throne. 
If your sons keep my covenant
      and my decrees that I shall teach them,
their sons also, forevermore,
      shall sit on your throne.” 
      (verses 11-12, NRSV)

That divine promise is presented here as God’s response to David’s firm decision to find a true sanctuary, a “dwelling place,” for God.  David’s vow was: 

I will not give sleep to my eyes
      or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the Lord,
      a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.
      (verses 4-5) 

These two oaths, David’s and Yahweh’s, established Jerusalem (religiously known as Zion) as the central sanctuary of the world and David as the founder of the one supreme dynasty which would benefit all the nations of the world (see Psalm 72). 

In this view, Solomon may have built the later famous temple, but David had already made the critical decisions that established Jerusalem as the residence of Yahweh. 

The references to “Ephrathah” and “Jaar” (verse 6) recall the stories of the Ark of Yahweh being brought from the Judean countryside to the sanctuary in Jerusalem (II Samuel 6).  From that, all Israel was to know where Yahweh’s “dwelling place” was located, and therefore where access to the mightiest God could be found – namely, at David’s capital city. 

The optional part of the reading (verses 13-18) clinches this conclusion by repeating God’s own words sanctioning Zion and its religious services: 

For the Lord has chosen Zion;
      he has desired it for his habitation: 
“This is my resting place forever;
      here I will reside, for I have desired it….”
      (verses 13-14)

Revelation 1:4b-8.  

It is appropriate on the last Sunday of the Christian year to have an Epistle reading from the last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation. 

The passage is the beginning of the address to the seven churches.  It has the elevated speech of high liturgy and doxology, virtually a heavenly cantata, of which this book contains several later on. 

The greeting passage proceeds by triads.  It prays for peace from God “who is and who was and who is to come” (verse 4, NRSV).  Note, the third phrase is not “who is to be,” a more Greek ontological turn, but “who is to come,” the active perspective of salvation history. 

Peace is also asked from Jesus Christ, who is also characterized by a triad:  “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (verse 5).  The faithful witness was performed in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the firstborn of the dead is the victory over death signaled by the resurrection, and the rule over the kings of the earth is the assurance of Jesus’ heavenly rule, later to become more dramatically evident in this book. 

The drama continues with an exclamation.  Someone sees it: 

Look!  He is coming with the clouds;  

      every eye will see him,

      even those who pierced him (verse 7). 

The Son of Man, who in heaven received full authority over all powers, now descends to exercise it.  (The empowerment in the heavenly court portrayed in Daniel 7:13-14 is assumed here as the sequel to the resurrection of Jesus on earth.)  And over the scene of the one coming on the clouds the voice of God is heard:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (verse 8). 

This is the assurance that over and above all the struggle into which the Anointed One descended and in which he died, there is a greater ultimate (and kingly) power moving – even if often mysteriously – to bring deliverance and new life to God’s faithful. 

John 18:33-37.  

The Gospel reading is the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus as reported in the Gospel According to John. 

The question at the beginning is whether Jesus is the King of the Jews.  By the end it has become the question of truth about kingdoms that are – and are not – of this world. 

Let us conclude this church year by listening to the reflections on this passage by William Temple (Readings in St. John’s Gospel), written on the eve of the world conflagration initiated by Adolph Hitler (1939, opening of the Second World War). 

The kingdoms which are from this world rest in part upon falsehood – most conspicuously upon the necessary but false, false but necessary, supposition that the State really acts in the interest of the whole community, whereas in fact it always acts primarily in the interest of that section of the community which is able in practice to work its machinery.  It is a pretended community; this is far better than no community at all, which is the only actual alternative until the Kingdom of God is come.  But that Kingdom [God’s] rests on truth – on the real constitution of the universe wherein God the righteous Father is supreme.  To that truth, the real constitution of the universe, Christ came to bear witness; not to beautiful dreams but to bed-rock reality…

The acclamation of a heaven-sent king, bearing truth for God’s people, is an appropriate transition from the old year to a new, in the sacred pilgrimage of followers of Jesus the Christ.