Wednesday, January 5, 2022

January 16, 2022 - 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Biblical Words                                     [753]

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

The joy of Epiphany season is that of extravagant weddings!    

Isaiah 62:1-5.  

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 36:5-10.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Corinthians 12:1-11.  

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

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

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

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

John 2:1-11.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Note on Zion the Holy City

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

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

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

The Older Language about the Unfaithful City

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

How the faithful city

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

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

O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness

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

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

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

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

The Lord is in the right,

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

The Language of the City Restored

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

I will turn my hand against you;

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

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

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

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

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

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,

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

Zion as the World Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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