Saturday, February 26, 2022

March 2, 2022 - Ash Wednesday

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [760]

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 there is a rhythm between feasts and fasts, between celebration with feasting and restraint with abstinence.  Usually, specific times of fasting are a preparation for the feasting to follow. 

In Christianity, Lent is the season of fasting before the feast of Easter.  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.  (Sundays, the Lord’s days, are feasts; therefore you do not fast on Sundays.) 

Ash Wednesday, the day on which Lent begins, is a cry of pain at our lostness, and a plea for forgiveness of our destructive sins.  The Lectionary texts for the day reflect moments of such traumas in the life of the community and of the self. 

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.  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. 

This is a “lament” psalm, the kind that finds the cause of trouble, not in others, but in one’s own condition.  See a Special Note on Laments at the end of these readings.

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…”  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. 

Sin extends back to conception and birth.  “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5, NRSV; verse 7 in Hebrew).  This does not refer to sexuality as somehow sinful, of course, but to the inevitability of sinning.  Sinning is built into the human condition.   

A variety of images are used for God’s forgiving sin. 

  • “Blot out transgressions” views sins as tracks in the sand, where the sinner has violated a boundary (trans-gressed), which tracks are to be erased. 
  • “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 ritually “unclean” and thus denied access to sacred precincts. 
  • An extension of this last image is, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (verse 7; 9 in Hebrew).  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.”  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 awkward 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” (5:21, my translation). 

The expression “Christ was made sin” probably refers to the double meaning of the Hebrew word for sin (ḥatta’).  This Hebrew word means both a sinful condition and a sin-offering which removes that condition. 

Sinners bring a sin offering (animal) 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 (“The one knowing no sin he made sin…”).  Therefore, as long as we are “in him,” we live in the benefit of that sin-offering and are reconciled to God. 

In the remainder of the passage Paul expands on the roles of the apostles as “ambassadors” of Christ (5:20a), ambassadors who bring to sinners the message that reconciliation is available.  He goes on to emphasize the great hardships and acts of self-denial that the ambassadors of Christ go through in this work for God (6:4-10), but we will save that for another time. 

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 the practice of 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 (though does one ever really know?). 

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. 

Special Note on Lament 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.  Though the rhetorical stratagems become diverse and complex, the laments are by their nature arguments for the intervention of the Judge to relieve the speaker’s distress or suffering. 

The argument developed in a particular lament psalm depends on the source of the trouble.  Whose fault is it? 

There are three possibilities. 

(1) Most commonly, the trouble is caused by enemies, or by others.  These are the prayers of the falsely accused righteous ones, and the prayer asks God to deliver the speaker from the enemies.  The appeal is to God’s indignation at the arrogance and brutality of the enemies, and to God’s compassion for a suffering servant God has previously cared for.  Psalm 7 is a striking example, though there are more psalms of this type than any other. 

(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 appeal here is to God’s pity:  the psalmist demonstrates how intensely he or she has suffered already, and the confession of sin justifies those punishments from God that the speaker has already endured.  The traditional penitential psalms in the Christian tradition 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.  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. 


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

February 27, 2022 - Transfiguration Sunday

                                                      Biblical Words                                            [789]

Exodus 34:29-35;  Psalm 99;  II Corinthians 3:12-4:2;  Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a).

God’s Glory – awesome and elusive, but shining from special Servants. 

The Christian liturgical year alternates between highs and lows, between peaks of glory and valleys of need and penitence. 

At this point in the year we have the extremes of such an alternation:  This week is Transfiguration Sunday, but it is followed in a few days by Ash Wednesday, and then the first Sunday in Lent.  In seven days, the high of Glory and the low of fasting and penitence. 

Exodus 34:29-35.  

The reading from the Torah for this Sunday concerns the special status of Moses – the mediator of the commands of the Lord to the people. 

In the history of tradition in Israel, Moses’ status grew greater and greater.  Increasingly he was seen as the human who linked the people to God and through whom (alone) God delivered instruction (torah) to the people.  In this passage we hear a speculative, almost playful, visualization of such an awesome human role. 

What must it have been like? 

What would have happened when a human being – even a mighty man like Moses – stood with God on repeated occasions to hear God’s instruction? 

Our narrative lifts up one aspect of such near-to-heaven adventures by Moses. 

“Moses did not know that the skin of his face shown because he had been talking with God” (verse 29, NRSV).  The verb translated “shown” comes from the Hebrew noun meaning “horn.”  Moses, it is said, was “en-horned.” 

The image refers to the way horns on cattle may form a larger circle around the animal’s head.  The story is saying that Moses had a halo; his face glowed with reflected light from the divine glory.  (Thousands of years later, Michelangelo would paint Moses with actual horns coming out of his head, because of this passage.)  The Greek translation says Moses’ face was “glorified,” the perfect tense of a verb derived from the noun doxa, glory. 

This midrashic story goes on to elaborate two consequences of Moses’ reflected glory.  First, this heavenly radiation scared people away (verse 30).  Moses was dangerous, or at least belonged to a different realm, not to be approached by ordinary folks.  Moses could not transmit the commands of God to the people if they wouldn’t come near him.  Moses called out to them, so they would recognize that it was really he and not some dangerous superhuman force, and gradually, because they recognized him, they approached – the leaders first, and finally all the ordinary people (verses 31-32).  Then Moses was able to give them “in commandment all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai” (verse 32). 

When the fear was overcome, they could hear the directions for right living. 

The second consequence of Moses’ glory was the veil (verses 33-35).  Moses put a veil over his face when he was not addressing the people, a veil he took off, of course, when he returned to hear God again.  The timing of the veil is significant.  “When he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with” God (verses 34-35). 

When delivering the revelation to the people, the veil was not on his face.  The glowing face was a sign that Moses was speaking as the divine messenger; the veil was a sign that revelation was off, Moses was not acting as the mediator. 

Psalm 99.  

The theme of glory is extended in the psalm reading, though now it is more the holy that is emphasized.  This is one of the greatest of the “Enthronement of the Lord” psalms.  (Others are Psalms 47, 93, 96-98.)  Modern scholars have come to recognize that the kingship of the Lord was not just a reference to an eternal quality of God, but was an event in time, that is, liturgical time. 

The opening words of this psalm may be translated, “Yahweh, He has become king!”  In the sequence of events over a several-day festival, there was a dramatic climax that represented the Enthronement.  Some ritual event occurred, in early times probably involving the appearance of the Ark. 

This ritual action, however done, represented the special moment of the Lord’s triumph over the powers of chaos and the restoration of peace and harmony (shalom).  These enthronement psalms were sung – with much other shouting, horn blowing, and music making – at this climactic moment in God’s relation to the world and its peoples. 

This was also supremely a moment of revelation, revelation to the world and the nations of both the fact of God’s rule and of the character of God’s rule: 

Mighty King, lover of justice,

      you have established equity;

you have executed justice

      and righteousness in Jacob (verse 4, NRSV).   

The supreme acclamation of a just God as sovereign over all of life – that is what these enthronement psalms are really about! 

Among enthronement psalms, only this one refers to specific historic figures, those of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel (verse 6).  The familiar history of Israel’s early leaders is not usually mentioned in such high liturgical psalms.  In this supreme example of such psalms, the old Israelite story and the glory of Zion are closely wedded! 

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2.  

In the Epistle reading Paul is doing his own midrash (homily) on Moses’ veil. 

As Paul reads the Torah passage, the glowing of Moses’ face gradually faded after he had spoken with God.  Thus, says Paul, Moses put the veil on to prevent the Israelites from seeing that the glory had faded away. 

More to the point, Paul relates Moses’ veil to the old law that was written on tablets of stone (mentioned just before, in the Exodus passage).  The challenge of true religion – the “new” covenant – is how to get God’s will written on the hearts of people rather than on cold stone tablets.  The way that happens, says Paul, is through the Spirit. 

In this passage, the Spirit (of God) and the Law are opposites; the Law condemns, the Spirit makes alive.  Also, the face of Moses and the face of Jesus are opposites.  By looking at the glory of God in Jesus’ face, one is taken up by the Spirit of God, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [from the Law]” (verse 17, NRSV). 

The climax is very loaded:  “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord [in Jesus’ face] as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image [of God, in which humans were originally created] from one degree of glory to another…” (verse 18). 

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43).  

As a climax to these Biblical themes of beholding God’s glory, the Gospel reading presents Luke’s version of the Transfiguration. 

Matthew and Mark pretty much agree in how they tell this scene.  Luke, however, has several variations in his way of telling it.  (Even the Gospel According to John has something like the transfiguration, John 12:28-30.) 

The Gospel narratives have in common that this is a special moment – different from the usual presence of Jesus to his disciples.  This is a moment of supreme revelation.  For a moment, the three selected disciples see Jesus in his true heavenly reality, a reality that is veiled from people during his earthly ministry.  In that special moment of revelation Jesus is seen as a companion of Moses and Elijah, the greatest mediators of law and prophecy for the chosen people. 

Such a vision is certainly one of “glory.”  For the change in Jesus, Matthew and Mark use the special word “transfigured,” while Luke keeps it simpler:  “the appearance of his face changed.”  All agree that the robes of the heavenly figures became brilliantly white. 

All three Gospels agree that the transfiguration comes at a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples have just recognized him as the Anointed One (Messiah), and he has just announced that, Special One of God though he is, he now has to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. 

The transfiguration is the moment of revealed glory before the humility and suffering become more intense. 

But our reading also has Luke’s special variations on the common story. 

First, as often, Luke shows Jesus in prayer.  He takes the three disciples up the mountain to pray.  And it was while Jesus was praying that he was transformed, that his heavenly identity became transparent to those who believed in him. 

Secondly, a very distinctive point in Luke, Moses and Elijah not only appear with Jesus, but we hear what they are talking about.  “They … were speaking of his departure [the Greek is exodos], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (verse 31, NRSV). 

More explicitly than others, Luke makes clear that there is a divine script for Jesus’ story.  The script is written in heaven, and the great worthies who have passed on are able to read it.  They can consult with their peer, or leader, about the enormous task he faces in order to carry out, as they did, his commission to labor and suffer for a dull and resistant people.  For a brief moment, the glory is revealed before the Servant moves toward his cross. 

The optional reading (verses 37-43) moves to events after descent from the mountain.  A father brings his only son to be delivered from a demonic possession that seizes him periodically.  The disciples cannot exorcise this demon; Jesus does. 

The Luke version of this episode emphasizes the demonic violence.  The desperate father reports, “Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks.  It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.  I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not” (verses 39-40, NRSV).  Then, when Jesus has asked them to bring the boy, “the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions” (verse 42).  The demonic violence is worse here than in any other exorcism story. 

We may guess that Luke has preserved all this detail about the demonic violence in order to show the reaction of the spirit world to the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain – and the inevitable doom that Jesus’ going to Jerusalem means for the demons!  Only Luke’s version of the Transfiguration includes a direct reference to the passion in Jerusalem, and only Luke’s version of the sequel leaps immediately to the story of the outburst of demonic frenzy among the people who follow Jesus. 

The Jesus of heavenly glory, disguised for now as a humble servant on his way to Jerusalem, is a revelation that drives the demons crazy!   

Thursday, February 10, 2022

February 20, 2022 - 7th Sunday after Epiphany

                                    Biblical Words                                   [758]

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; I Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38.  

God will provide:  food in famine, justice for the righteous, a resurrection body, 
what we need to love our enemies.

It is rare to have a seventh Sunday after Epiphany.  It happens when Easter comes late in the calendar year (so Lent begins long after Epiphany). 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15. 

This reading is the climactic moment of revelation in the story of Joseph and his brothers. 

The scene is described as one of great emotion for Joseph.  He shares with his brothers the great secret of his identity – that he is the younger brother they sold into slavery years ago. 

As the news sinks in, Joseph goes into the theology of what has happened.  “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (verses 7-8, NRSV).  Among these gathered brothers there is only reason to rejoice in the outcome of things that began in malice and treachery. 

Joseph’s speech emphasizes that Israel should migrate down to Egypt.  The brothers should return to Canaan and arrange to bring Jacob (Israel) and all his remaining household down into Egypt to live through the famine in comfort and plenty.  There are still five years of famine to endure, and Joseph recognizes, and tells his brothers, that God sent him to Egypt, raised him to power in that land… 

all in order to provide for the survival of Jacob’s extended family through the hard times ahead. 

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40. 

This psalm treats a theme often found in the Hebrew scriptures.  

“The prosperity of the wicked was one of the enigmas of life which most sorely tried the faith of the godly Israelite.  No light had as yet been cast upon the problem by the revelation of a future state of rewards and punishments.”  (A.F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, “The Cambridge Bible”; Cambridge, 1902, p. 187.)  

There are three psalms, regarded by scholars as “wisdom” psalms, that labor hard over the observed fact that the wicked are not immediately punished for their ungodliness.  Arranged in decreasing order of their confidence in God’s providence,  they are Psalms 37, 73, and 49.  (I remember fondly a paper I wrote on these psalms for Professor Sheldon Blank of Hebrew Union College in 1960.) 

Psalm 37 has little doubt that, sooner or later, the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated for their faith in God’s justice.  (This is, of course, the doctrine of Job’s “friends” who insist that he must be a sinner since God has punished him so severely.  The book of Job does not resolve the issue.) 

Besides having a somewhat doctrinaire teaching, Psalm 37 has a somewhat pedantic (scribal) form:  it is an alphabetic acrostic psalm.  Most of the psalm consists of four-line units, relatively independent of each other.  Each unit begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our reading includes the first six letters of the alphabet plus the last letter. 

The theme is clear:  “Don’t get upset over evildoers…” (verse 1, CEB), repeated in verses 7 and 8. 

You see the bad guys getting ahead – but be patient.  “Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there” (verse 10, NRSV).  In the long run, “the meek will inherit the land” (verse 11). 

So hang in there!  Eventually, God will provide. 

I Corinthians 15:35-38, [42-44,] 47-50. 

The sage who worried over the problem of the prosperous wicked did not know of the coming resurrection – when all accounts would be paid in full by the judgment of God.  The wicked would finally get their deserts – as would, of course, the righteous with blessings and honors. 

The earliest clear statement of this belief is Daniel 12:1-3. 

Among later Judeans, the Pharisees came to believe, a century or two before Jesus, in God’s justice through the resurrection of the individual.  The Sadducees continued the older belief and denied an individual resurrection.  See Luke 20:27-38. 

I Corinthians 15 – the longest chapter in Paul’s letters – is an elaboration of the Christian view of resurrection.  In the last two weeks we have heard about the first witnesses of the risen Christ and of the argument that Christ’s resurrection guarantees the resurrection of his followers. 

In today’s reading Paul turns to a major question people ask about this great mystery that looms ahead for them.  What kind of body will we have after resurrection? 

At first Paul addresses this in rather simple terms.  The dead (buried) body is a seed, and like a seed planted in the field the seed itself is very different from the grown plant.  A grain of wheat has no resemblance to the grown wheat plant.  Just so, the decayed human body will be replaced by a body that does not decay, that has a vivid life of its own. 

I strongly suggest you include verses 42-44 in your reading; it powerfully reinforces the point!  

Beyond your possible comprehension, God will provide a glorious body that retains your identity but is incorruptible, is imperishable!  

Don’t ask; God will provide.  “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (verse 50). 

“God gives [us] a body as he has chosen” (verse 38). 

Luke 6:27-38. 

Early Christians believed that Jesus delivered a major sermon he had preached (often) in Galilee.  They repeated variations of the sermon, probably many times.  We have received different versions of it as Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) and as Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:20-49).  

As observed in last week’s reading, the Sermon began with the “Beatitudes,” as Moses had begun the recitation of the Law with the Ten Commandments. 

Probably the most distinctive feature of Jesus’ Galilee Sermon – as contrasted with Judean tradition – was its emphasis on “Love your enemies” (verse 27 here; in Matthew at 5:44).  Most of our reading is the statement and elaboration of this most challenging requirement of Jesus followers. 

The basic requirement is stated in 6:27 and 6:35 – the opening and closing brackets.  Between, we hear details of how that “loving” will be done: 

  • Do good to those who hate you.
  • Bless those who curse you.
  • Pray for those who abuse you. 
  • Turn the other cheek.
  • If they steal your overcoat, offer your jacket as well.
  • Give to all who beg. 

Then there is an argument that “you” should be distinctive among the population because you do not act as everyone else – selfishly.  You do not do good only to those who will do good to you; you do not lend only expecting to get full return.  You stand out among people at large because you act positively toward those who despise you:  you love your “enemies.” 

And in all this, you but imitate what God has already done:  “for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (verse 35).  God had provided the model for your truly godly way of life! 

As people said, this is what Jesus taught, in Galilee.