Monday, February 26, 2024

March 3, 2024 -- 3rd Sunday in Lent

                                              Biblical Words                                                            [870]

Exodus 20:1-17Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25John 2:13-22

Preparation for the Lord’s passion includes hearing God’s Commandments—also, revisiting God’s Temple. 

Today’s readings present God’s requirements of God’s people, first in the revelation at Sinai (Ten Commandments), then in hymnic praise (Psalm) and as opposed to human wisdom (Epistle). 

The readings climax by transferring what God requires from a temple establishment to a suffering but exalted Lord. 

Exodus 20:1-17.  

In the sequence of covenants during this Lenten season, the Torah reading presents the supreme moment of Jewish faith, the covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai.  Included here is the heart of the Sinai covenant, the Ten Commandments.  Only God’s direct statement of the Commandments is given; the context is left for another reading.

Concerning a many-faceted text, we offer only a few key observations. 

·        The Ten Commandments are addressed to each person individually.  Every one of the “you” and “your” pronouns in the Hebrew and the Greek are singular.  God says, “I brought you (personally) out of Egypt… You (personally) will have no other gods…”  The ten requirements are the individual responsibility of every person who ever stands within the Sinai Covenant.  (In the ancient setting, the persons addressed were presumed to be substantial heads of households.) 

·        The wording of each requirement is not in the form of ordinary commands.  The imperative form is not used.  It does not say, “Do not murder”; it says “You will not murder.”  The statements are in the indicative mode (indicated in Hebrew by the type of negative used with the verb).  Grammarians long ago created a special “solemn” type of usage to account for these “commandments” in the indicative mode, but in a normal context they would read simply as statements of fact, not strictly commands.  You were brought out of slavery; you will not have other gods…  The ethos (and rhetoric) of the Ten Commandments is that of an elect people:  (Being who we are,) we do not murder, we do not steal, etc.  The conduct of an elect people can simply be stated; it does not need exhortation.  (The two positive commands, Keep the Sabbath [verse 8] and Honor parents [verse 12], are also not in the imperative mode.  They use what grammarians call the infinitive absolute, a kind of verbal noun, giving something like, “[There will be] keeping of the Sabbath…”) 

·        In some earlier form, the Decalogue probably consisted of ten simple statements, which could be ticked off on one’s fingers.  With the passage of time and shifts in emphasis, certain requirements needed reinforcement and elaboration.  The requirements so elaborated are the second, you will make no idol, three verses long (verses 4-6); the fourth, you will keep the Sabbath, four verses long (verses 8-11); and the tenth, you will not covet your neighbor’s household, one longish verse (17).  Brief motive clauses—reasons for observing the rule—also expand the requirements concerning the use of God’s name (verse 7) and honoring the parents (verse 12).  In later centuries, the two requirements with the fullest elaboration, avoiding Idolatry and Sabbath observance, became the most critical public touchstones for being faithful to the God of Israel.  For those two commandments, Judean people often suffered persecution and even death. 

Psalm 19.  

The Psalm reading includes at its center a strong praise of God’s torah, the content of the Sinai covenant. 

The whole psalm begins with a marvelous praise of God manifested on the visible heavenly vault.  The sights of the heavens are acclaimed as speaking praise of God.  Special delight is taken in the sun, who runs his daily course, observing all on the earth. 

                                                            Hammurabi receives law from the sun-god Shamash. 

                                                     (Photo from Stanford [University] History Education Group.)

Old Babylonian tradition, centuries before Israelite times, associated the sun god with the giving of law (for example, in the graphic at the top of Hammurabi’s famous stele).  This psalm makes a similar transition from the sun, from whom nothing is hid, to an elaborate praise of the torah of the Lord.  The middle section of the psalm (verses 7-10) uses six synonyms for law or torah, each of which is praised in terms of its life-enhancing qualities, a remarkable hymn to torah-devotion. 

But the psalm moves on to a third section (verses 11-14), in which a deeper mystery of personal existence is acknowledged.  Keeping the law is good, but who can fathom the real depths of the self, its “errors,” its “hidden faults”?  The conclusion leads the psalmist to a fervent prayer that God will deliver the speaker from such deep powers, so that one may be blameless and innocent.  May the speaker’s words and meditations be acceptable in God’s sight! 

This single psalm has an astonishing sweep:  from God’s glory sung in the heavens, through the richness and life of God’s law, to the human depths where transcendent powers threaten. 

It is a blessing to receive the law, yet dangerous to fall guilty under it! 

I Corinthians 1:18-25.  

The Epistle reading is concerned with God’s wisdom rather than the covenantal law directly, but it carries the dilemma of human inadequacy before God’s requirement, before God’s Command, to its final extreme.  Because of the utterly incurable failure of humans before God’s requirement, God, in God’s own wisdom, has provided an astonishing means of deliverance and acceptance. 

Paul insists that human wisdom is not only inadequate, it is wrong-headed.  It is utterly misdirected.  What looks like wisdom to humans is foolishness, at least when what we need is salvation from sin.  God’s true wisdom, brought to humans in the crucifixion of Jesus, looks like a scandal to Judeans and foolishness to Greeks. 

The real meaning of Jesus’ Passion is simply not sensible, not reasonable, not intelligible to folks of any education.  Thus Paul finds that he must preach Christ only, and that means Christ crucified (see 2:1-2).

John 2:13-22.  

For several weeks in Lent and during Holy Week, the Gospel readings are taken from the Gospel according to John.  This Sunday’s reading presents an episode that in the other Gospels occurs in the last week of Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple. 

Besides the Ten Commandments, at Sinai God gave Israel instructions for special sanctuary that would enshrine God’s presence among the covenant people.  In the wilderness that sanctuary was the Tabernacle (described in Exodus 25-31); in the settled land it was the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 6-8; II Chronicles 2-7). 

How was God’s sanctuary doing, since Sinai? 

Not well at all, according to the account in John’s Gospel.  John’s account of the action, with Jesus making a whip, overturning the money tables, and chasing out the bird dealers, is more graphic than is this episode in the other Gospels.  There is emphasis on Jesus’ prophetic zeal, the messenger of God’s will driven to violence by the scandalous conditions in the holy house.  The prophetic reformer is breaking forth at the center of the religious establishment! 

Reform, however, the passage recognizes, will not effect a lasting solution.  “Zeal for your house will consume me,” the disciples later remembered from one of the psalms (Psalm 69:9, quoted here in verse 17, NRSV).  The quote that they remembered does not refer to reforming the temple worship, but to the death that the reformer’s work brought on him.  Caring for God’s true presence among people will cost Jesus his life.  (Psalm 69, quoted here, is, like Psalm 22, a passion psalm.) 

The passage carries further, in an astonishing way, the ramifications of Jesus’ role in God’s salvation.  Being challenged by the officials, Jesus declares, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (verse 19).  This opens up, of course, a post-resurrection perspective.  Jesus has switched from talking about the physical temple built by Herod the Great (destroyed in 70 CE, before this Gospel was written) to talking of his own body as the temple of God.  That is what will be raised up in three days, and after that event, the disciples will understand what these conflicts were all about.   

The body of Jesus will become the true temple by which God is present.   To this temple may come those who continue to need the release from sin that the temple used to provide. 

For this Gospel, the requirements of God have been simplified to this:  one is called to believe in Jesus and let the Spirit lead each one into a corporate life that is the new Tabernacle of God.  This will prove to be a spontaneous and charismatic life (the spirit moves like the wind, John 3:8!), filled with statements of fact rather than imperatives.  

Thursday, February 22, 2024

February 25, 2024 -- 2nd Sunday in Lent

                                       Biblical Words                                           [869] 

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16Psalm 22:23-31Romans 4:13-25Mark 8:31-38. 

The preparation for the Lord’s passion continues for some included in Abraham’s covenant. 

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.  

The Torah reading takes us to the second covenant tradition of the Lenten season, the covenant with Abraham.  The prescribed reading is confined to the promise that Abraham (formerly Abram) and his wife Sarah (formerly Sarai) will be the parents of many offspring, nations, and kings.  It connects new names for both Abraham and Sarah with this promise. 

Who were the heirs of this promise to Abraham and Sarah? 

In Israelite tradition, they were the twelve tribes of Jacob, who produced the kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon—in whom the promise may once have been seen as fulfilled.  But the promise to Abraham, taken simply on its own terms, must also have included, for example, the Edomites, descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother and a grandson of Abraham, who also produced numerous kings (Genesis 36).  King Herod the Great, in Roman times, was descended from Esau.  (The Edomites were then called Idumeans.) 

By confining the covenant promise to Sarah’s offspring, this reading omits other descendants of Abraham.  It excludes those of Ishmael, father of the Arabian tribes, whose mother received her own promise in Genesis 16:10.  It also it excludes those descendants of Abraham’s later wife Keturah, who included Midianites, Dedanites, and other southern neighbors of Israel (Genesis 25:1-6). 

In the Abraham covenant, the families descended from Noah (last week’s covenant reading) begin to be separated into the chosen and the non-chosen. 

It is well to bear in mind, though the reading does not include it, that the sign of this covenant was circumcision.  This cultural practice is rather rigorously required of Abraham and his descendants (including Ishmael) in verses 10-14.  This sign would in time separate Judean people from most of their neighbors, including many non-Judean  Christians in the churches founded by Paul (discussed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians). 

So the vicissitudes of history made Abraham’s covenant a division among peoples instead of a blessing for all—at least as some read that covenant. 

Psalm 22:23-31.  

The Psalm reading is the concluding section of a marvelously complex piece.  The earlier parts portray the speaker’s suffering and appeal for deliverance, but the concluding section (our reading) speaks of joy for peoples far beyond the families of Abraham. 

The speaker is not an ordinary, everyday worshipper—someone barely escaping pursuing bill-collectors.  This is a world-class figure whose triumph is an occasion of international celebration and of renewal of faith on the part of the nations. 

“All the ends of the earth shall remember

      and turn to the Lord;
all the families of the nations
      shall worship” because of this speaker’s salvation (verse 27, NRSV). 

The concluding section (verses 29-31) has translation problems, but it seems clear that in some way, the triumph that has recently happened is very important to (1) past generations, that is, the dead “who sleep in the earth,” and (2) future generations, “a people yet unborn.”  The deliverance of this speaker is an event for the ages (time backward and forward) as well as for the nations (peoples far and wide). 

In the psalm as a whole, this salvation and its resulting gifts and celebrations for the nations is the final outcome of what began in great agony.  These are the ecstatic words of thanksgiving from one who began by crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 1) – the last articulate utterance from the cross in Mark’s Passion narrative (Mark 15:34). 

Romans 4:13-25.  

The Epistle reading is one of the more famous passages in Paul’s letters.  It too is about the Abraham covenant and its heirs.  Inheriting the promise to Abraham through faith is contrasted with inheriting it through law. 

The decisive issue is whether people from the nations (“Gentiles”) who become believers in Jesus have to observe Judean law to be fully accepted in Christ’s salvation. 

Paul is treading a narrow plank.  He must (1) allow full observance of the law as proper to native Judean believers, like himself, but somehow (2) assure that non-Judean believers are not assigned to a second-class citizenship among the saved. 

To pull off this ecumenical act, he takes the position that all believers are heirs of Abraham, that their faith makes them descendants of the one whose faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (verse 22, NRSV).  This justification granted to Abraham was “not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (verse 23).  Those imitating Abraham’s faith are also heirs of his covenant. 

In this passage, Paul emphasizes that Abraham’s great act of faith was to believe that he could have a son by Sarah after they were nearly a hundred years old.  To believe this, and to plan his life on it (always the acid test of faith), was Abraham’s faith. 

This was already a resurrection faith, Paul argues (verse 24), and those basing their lives on Jesus’ resurrection and lordship are imitators of Abraham’s faith!  

Mark 8:31-38.  

The Gospel reading takes up Mark’s story of Jesus at its greatest turning point.  Peter has just declared Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One, the Messiah (8:27-30).  Peter is the first ordinary human to recognize what angels and demons have known all along, and Jesus warns the disciples sternly not to tell anyone else. 

But immediately following this confession, Jesus began to teach the disciples, “The Human One [Son of Man] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (verse 31, CEB [Common English Bible]).  This is the first introduction of the Passion, and it hangs in the background of all the action that follows. 

The rest of the story is told as if the disciples do not hear what is said, particularly the part about rising from the dead. 

Peter hears the part about suffering and argues for a different course, which requires Jesus, with an eye on the other disciples, to put him down very firmly (“Get behind me, Satan!” verses 32-33).  The true costs of what it will take for the Reign of God to begin among the chosen people have begun to be revealed. 

And the costs of bringing in God’s Reign are not Jesus’ only; they are also those of his true followers.  Those who want to follow him must bring along their crosses (verse 34).  Those who want to save their lives—and who is not included in this?—will lose them. 

That is a devastating barrier to entry!  Those who will follow Jesus must give up their lives—or shall we temper it some and say, be prepared to lose their lives?  The words here pronounced by Jesus anticipate later times when followers will be required to deny Jesus’ name or be put to shame (which means flogged, imprisoned, or executed, Mark 13:9-13). 

Still, as for the speaker in Psalm 22, beyond the affliction there is hope for those who trust wholly in God, those who have Abraham’s kind of faith.  Those who endure through this “adulterous and sinful generation” (verse 38, NRSV) will be justified by their faith.  They will not be put to shame when the Human One returns to welcome the faithful heirs of Abraham’s covenant.  

The Passion is part of the divine drama in which the exclusions of old covenants are cancelled.  The new divine action includes those who have Abraham’s faith, not only his circumcision.  The costs of this new inclusiveness begin with a cross—and they continue with many giving their lives for the sake of the one who died there. 


Thursday, February 15, 2024

February 18, 2024 -- 1st Sunday in Lent

                                Biblical Words                                                              [868] 

Genesis 9:8-17Psalm 25:1-10; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15. 

The preparation for the Lord’s passion begins with Noah—and baptism through the flood. 

The lectionary readings from the Law and the Prophets during Lent mostly deal with covenant traditions.  Each covenant tradition is a complex of inclusiveness (who is in?) and expectations (what must they do?), that is, those included in the promises and what their way of life should be. 

Genesis 9:8-17.  

The Torah reading presents God’s covenant with Noah and his sons, who represent all subsequent humanity.  The central point of this passage is God’s promise not to destroy the world again by flood. 

The repetitions within the passage emphasize these points: 

(1)   that every living creature is included in this covenant,

(2)   that all those living at the time of the covenant had passed through the flood and thus are veterans of Noah’s ark; and

(3)   that the rainbow, seen in the clouds at rainy season, is the sign of this covenant between God and “all flesh that is on the earth.” 

There is an almost homey touch to the way God anticipates the rainbow functioning as a disaster alert:  “When [in the normal course of things] I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant … and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” 

The covenant of Noah places humankind at the dawn of a new world.  A horrendous past has been blotted out—washed away, as it were—and the human community has a chance for a new start.  The following chapters of Genesis unfold a story of diversity among the descendants of Noah’s three sons, and tragic separations soon result from language differences. 

But when the covenant of the rainbow was pronounced, the world was open for the best and finest that humans could be.  This is the moment to dream – “I have a dream…”

Psalm 25:1-10.  

The Psalm reading is a kind of combination prayer and affirmation of faith in the covenant God.  

An individual speaks at the beginning about the strong trust she or he places in God, and at the end refers to the benefits for “those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees” (verse 10, NRSV).  Those benefits are God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” (ḥesed we’emeth), primary qualities of a covenant partner. 

In between there is strong emphasis on coming to know God’s ways, on learning and being-guided-to God’s paths.  Make me know your ways…teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me,…” (verses 4-5).  God “instructs sinners in the way.  God leads the humble…and teaches the humble God’s way.  All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness…” (verses 8-10). 

Where the psalmist lives, learning the “paths” of the Lord is both urgent and possible.  Those who so learn the Lord’s ways, and trust completely in the covenant God, may not be embarrassed by disappointment before unbelievers (verses 2-3). 

I Peter 3:18-22.  

The Epistle reading directly links the Torah reading with the Gospel reading:  those saved from the flood by Noah’s ark foreshadow those now being baptized in the name of the resurrected Jesus Christ. 

The passage touches briefly on some large topics.  Jesus suffered for sins, the sins of the unrighteous—potentially of all unrighteous, if they repent.  The suffering involved death “in the flesh,” but resurrection was “in the spirit” (verse 19). 

The writer emphasizes how comprehensive the message of the gospel is:  it extends even to the spirits of those long dead.  While “in the spirit,” Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” 

Who were these spirits?  We may think of them as the souls of those who did not repent before the flood, and perished after God had waited patiently “in the days of Noah” (verse 20, NRSV). 

The writer assumes familiarity with some ideas that are obscure to us. 

For example, speculations about the age of the great world flood were endlessly intriguing to religious people in this era.  Such speculations are found in the book of I Enoch and reflected elsewhere in New Testament writings.  For example, the main scenario for the fallen angels who rule in hell is in I Enoch, chapters 6 and 10-15 (composed in the third century BCE).  This writing was familiar to at least one New Testament writer, Jude, who quotes Enoch in verses 14-15 of his letter.  See also Ephesians 4:8-10, where Jesus descends “into the lower parts of the earth.” 

Eventually, the idea that Christ “descended into hell” to preach to those lost souls (such as the wicked generation of Noah?) was incorporated into the Apostle’s Creed, which served as the basis for instruction of candidates for baptism, preparing to pass through their own flood to new life. 

Mark 1:9-15.  

The Gospel reading presents Jesus passing through the flood by baptism, thereby receiving the Spirit of God, then being tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days.  Only then does he proclaim the arrival of God’s reign as Good News.  (People who knew well the old Israelite story could recognize here baptism as exodus, temptation as Israel’s trials in the wilderness, and Jesus’ proclamation as the word of God from Sinai.) 

In the early centuries of the church, candidates for baptism at Easter were expected to fast for the preceding forty days, not counting Sundays.  The fast thus began on Ash Wednesday.  (The actual fasting was later restricted to abstinence from certain foods, such as meat, eggs, and some milk products.)  Thus, Lent was an imitation of the days of Jesus’ trial and endurance before he began his Galilean ministry. 

The description in Mark of Jesus being tempted does not mention fasting explicitly.  However, the reference to the angels waiting on him is most likely an allusion to the Elijah story in I Kings 19:3-8.  (The quote from Malachi at the beginning of this Gospel associates John the Baptist with Elijah, Mark 1:2 quoting Malachi 3:1.) 

The Elijah story.  Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, went into the wilderness and despaired of his life.  He asked God to let him die (tempted to abandon his mission?).  What he got, instead of permission to die, was a heavenly messenger (“angel”) who gave him a loaf of fresh bread and some water.  This happened again a second day, after which “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (I Kings 19:8, NRSV).  The reference to the angels, then, may imply that Jesus was similarly aided in moving toward the divine mission set for him. 

Jesus’ proclamation in Galilee (verse 15) applies to all that will unfold in the rest of the Gospel:  Jesus’ healings and teachings in Galilee, and the encounters on the way to and in Jerusalem for the final act of God’s work.  All of this is the arriving of God’s kingdom!  And all of it constitutes the summons to Jesus’ disciples (as well as the later followers) to repent of their old lives and believe the Good News (the gospel). 

(For the catechumens, this coming of the Spirit-work will mean being baptized, being confirmed into new life with the Lord—and eating eggs again at Easter!)  

Sunday, February 11, 2024

February 14, 2024 -- Ash Wednesday

                               Biblical Words                           [867]

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17Psalm 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 penance are the acceptable sacrifices to God. 

The second great cycle of holy days in the Christian year (Lent to Pentecost) begins with Ash Wednesday, which opens the season of Lent. 

Lent is a 40-day period of self-examination – by communities as well as persons – of contrition for sin, and of repentance, all leading up to the supreme act of divine self-giving which is the focus of Passion week. 

Lent can be understood as an imitation of Jesus’ fasting for forty days in preparation for the proclamation of the Reign of God in Galilee (Mark 1:12-13).  As such, Lent is a time of facing temptation, of struggling with the evils that lure away from the call of God, a time of solitude in the wilderness stripped of indulgences, distractions, and misdirections of the crowded, busy world.  A solitude, however, in which angels may “wait upon” the servant-in-preparation. 

If we take its meaning from the readings offered by the Lectionary, here is what Ash Wednesday does: 

·        It awakens us to a darkness that looms over a self-contented world, a threat to an existence alienated from the realm of the Holy One (Prophetic reading). 

·        It calls forth the most profound recognition of sin in the depths of the human soul – but also of the nature of forgiveness (Psalm). 

·        It builds on the human need for reconciliation to God (Epistle),

·        It envisions an authentic devotional life that has its end in God rather than human vanities (Gospel). 

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. 

The prophetic reading presents a great crisis that has come upon 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 envisions a terribly severe locust plague, the oracles seem deliberately vague and ominous.  The horror impending is not entirely natural.  It has overtones of eschatological warfare. 

Like blackness spread upon the mountains

      a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
      nor will be again after them
      in ages to come (verse 2). 

The psychological and spiritual tone is of ultimate doom.  All personal and communal reality is under this shadow.  Nothing else matters. 

The appropriate human response is repentance. 

Yet even now, says the Lord,

      return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
      rend your hearts and not your clothing (verses 12-13). 

Fasting here is an act showing sorrow, sorrow for alienation from God.  Only a return to God can lead to relief, a return by all the social body caught in the doom of separation from the source of holiness. 

Fasting, not eating for a day, is an external sign of emptiness, of the absence of God from the depths of the soul, communal and personal. 

Psalm 51:1-17. 

This psalm selection is the quintessential text for Ash Wednesday.  It is the most profound personal confession of sin in the psalms.  [On “Lament” psalms in general, see the Special Note below.] 

The power and profundity of Psalm 51 stand on their own.  Read it, carefully and thoughtfully, preferably in more than one translation.  Only a few features of the reading will be noticed here. 

The language of sin and forgiveness.  The psalm speaks of “transgressions,” “iniquity,” and “sin” (singular) and uses verbs “to sin” and “to do evil.”  For purposes of this psalm, these are all synonyms.  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned…” (verse 4).  The personal relation to God has been alienated by the sin, transgressions, and iniquity. 

The speaker affirms that sin is a kind of power that threatens one’s whole existence.  It extends back to conception and birth.  “I was born guilty, / a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5, NRSV.  The Tanak [NJPS] version translates, “I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.”).  This does not refer to sexuality as somehow sinful, of course, but to the inevitability of sinning as humans live in the real world. 

A variety of images is used for God’s forgiving sin.  “Blot out transgressions” views sins as tracks in the sand where the sinner has violated a boundary (transgressed / trespassed), and forgiveness means that these tracks are erased – removing evidence that one stepped over the line.  “Wash me from my iniquity” is scrubbing off dirt and filth from one’s body and garments.  

“Cleanse me from my sin” is a ritual expression, meaning to purify someone or something that has become “unclean” and thus is denied access to sacred precincts, to the holy place, even to the divine presence.  An extension of this last image is, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (verse 7).  Hyssop was the branch of a shrub that was used as a brush to sprinkle holy water or blood in ritual settings (Leviticus 14:4 and Exodus 12:22). 

Expressing a more personal action by God are “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow,” “hide your face from my sins,” and, “let the bones that you have crushed rejoice,” that is, let there be a wholly new recovery of my health and wholeness before you! 

The climax of praying for forgiveness, however, is the plea for full personal transformation. 

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

      and put a new and right spirit within me….
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
      and sustain in me a willing spirit (verses 10 and 12). 

A final argument for why God should forgive and renew this person is the witness it will create among others.  “O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Then, the speaker declares, a true offering will be made to God. 

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

      a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
            (Verses 15 and 17; compare Isaiah 57:15.) 

That final declaration is the essential message of Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent. 

II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. 

The epistle reading begins, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (NRSV). 

Reconciliation to God is the long-range goal of self-examination, of sorrow for sins, of confession of emptiness apart from God, and of trust in the promise of forgiveness. 

There follows a remarkable statement of the divine action in Christ.  The statement is a little clumsy but is the more striking for that reason.  Very literally it reads, “The one knowing no sin [Christ], … he [God] made sin, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (verse 21). 

The expression “Christ was made sin” probably plays on the double meaning of the Hebrew word for sin (hattā’t).  This same Hebrew word means both a sinful condition and a sin-offering that removes that condition. 

Sinners bring a sin-offering to the altar which the priest sacrifices for them and they are freed of their sinful condition.  That is how the ritual cult worked.  Paul is saying that Christ went to the altar (read “cross”) as a sin-offering on our behalf.  Therefore, as long as we are “in him” (included in the effect of his sacrifice) we live in the benefit of that sin-offering and are reconciled to God. 

In the remainder of the passage Paul elaborates on the roles of the apostles as “ambassadors” of Christ (5:20a), ambassadors who bring to sinners the message that reconciliation is available.  He emphasizes the great hardships and acts of self-denial that the ambassadors of Christ go through in this work for God (6:4-10), an emphasis that we will leave for another day’s discussion.  (The Lectionary dwells on these trials of the apostle in the early Pentecost season of year B.) 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. 

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is subordinate to the prayer of confession in the psalm. 

This selection from the Sermon on the Mount warns against conspicuous consumption in religion – against public displays when one practices charity (verses 2-4), prays in public (verses 5-6), and when one fasts (verses 16-18).  Such religiousness for public consumption is its own reward.  It leaves the relation of God and sinner unaltered (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 neighbors’ gossip, not just accumulating earthly credits (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:  The Lament Psalms.

The “lament” psalms are all arguments for the defense, arguments by the accused. 

The speakers are in trouble of some kind, in a cultural world in which troubles are seen as accusations of wrong doing.  (The conclusion argued by Job’s “friends.”)  The speakers in the lament psalms are pleading before the high judge to deliver them from this trouble. 

The arguments and rhetorical strategies developed in a particular lament psalm depend on the source of the trouble.  What has caused the ruin and agony that make the speaker groan and moan before God?  Whose fault is it? 

There are three possibilities. 

(1) Most commonly, the trouble is caused by enemies, that is, by others.  These are the prayers of the falsely accused righteous ones, and the prayer asks God to deliver one from the enemies (and sometimes damn those enemies pretty thoroughly).  Psalm 7 is a striking example. 

(2) Less commonly, the trouble is caused by oneself.  The speaker is the cause of his or her own trouble, which in some way or another is sin.  It is especially sin against God, but may include sin against others.  These are the “penitential” psalms, confessing sin and begging for forgiveness, rather than calling for the destruction of one’s enemies, though accusations against enemies are sometimes thrown in for good measure.  Christian tradition has identified seven such “penitentials”:   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 delicate problem for the speaker of a lament.  (It is necessary to indict the judge!) 

In this situation, 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. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

February 11, 2024 -- Transfiguration Sunday

                                Biblical Words                          [867]

II Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9. 

At times of transition in leadership or mission, God grants forecasts of coming glory. 

The readings for Transfiguration Sunday are about revelations of power and meaning that ordinary people do not normally see.  These include the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus. 

II Kings 2:1-12.  

The prophetic reading presents the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha. 

For the age of the kings in Israel, Elijah is as massive a founding figure as Moses is for the Sinai age.  When Moses was taken by God (Deuteronomy 34), all the provisions had been made for Israel’s life in the promised land, but the work of occupation was yet to be done.  It was Joshua who was to complete the work (Deuteronomy 31:14-15, 23). 

The same was true of Elijah.  He had been the model of zeal for the Lord:  he had defeated a host of Baal prophets on Mount Carmel and he had received the new revelation on the holy mountain authorizing him to overthrow the royal houses of Damascus and Israel.  What was left undone at Elijah’s departure was to be completed by Elisha.  Elijah was a new Moses for the northern kingdom and Elisha was his Joshua.  (All this is in I Kings 17-19 and II Kings 2; Elisha carries out the revolution in II Kings 8-10.) 

Both Moses and Elijah were taken away to God (in approximately the same geographical location!), and both were taken away before the completion of their work. 

The enigmatic but clever story of Elisha hanging on to Elijah to the last second shows that Elisha was worthy of Elijah’s mantle (which he actually picks up in verse 13, just after our reading). 

As the story is presented, Elijah, on his way to his rendezvous with God, keeps trying to put off Elisha, telling him there is no need for him to go further.  But Elisha knows better.  The several speeches to Elisha by the local companies of prophets are like the chorus of a Greek tragedy:  he is leaving you, you know!  Elisha hangs on, and is rewarded by being present when God’s fiery horses and chariot whisk Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind. 

While this story is about Elisha, Elijah is the major figure standing as a colossus in Israelite prophecy.  Elijah was such a favored one of God that, like Enoch before him (Genesis 5:21-24), he was taken to God without seeing death.   Having gone to heaven without dying, Elijah was available to return when God had special work on earth at a later time (see Deuteronomy 18:15-18Malachi 4:1 [3:23 in Hebrew], and Mark 9:11-13). 

Psalm 50:1-6.  

The Psalm reading is the opening section of a covenant liturgy in which God appears before the hosts in fiery and stormy presence to bring judgment.  The later parts of the psalm address the question of what constitutes appropriate sacrifice (verses 7-15) and delivers an indictment of covenant-breakers (verses 16-23). 

The opening of the psalm is a theophany.  God comes in earth-spanning majesty to muster the covenant ranks.  The rigor and discipline of this awesome parousia is presented very effectively in the New Jerusalem Bible translation: 

The God of gods, Yahweh, is speaking,
from east to west he summons the earth.
From Zion, perfection of beauty, he shines forth;
he is coming, our God, and will not be silent.
Devouring fire ahead of him,
raging tempest around him,
he summons the heavens from on high,
and the earth to judge his people. 

“Gather to me my faithful,

who sealed my covenant by sacrifice.” 
The heavens proclaim his saving justice,
“God himself is judge.” 

II Corinthians 4:3-6.  

The Epistle selection presents the radiance of the new covenant against the background of the old. 

Paul has just been talking about the old covenant brought by Moses (II Corinthians 3:7-16).  There was a glory to that covenant written in stone, a glory that was reflected on Moses’ face after he had been talking with God.  Moses put a veil over his face to protect the Israelites from its radiance—or as Paul suggests (3:13) to conceal the fact that the glory was fading.  This veil on Moses’ face symbolizes the concealing of God’s revelation and glory from the elect people.  “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (3:15-16, NRSV). 

In our passage, Paul says there are powers (“the god of this world”) that keep the power of the gospel veiled from some people.  Nevertheless, when the gift of faith is given, the original first-created light of God shines in the hearts of the believers, and they behold the glory of God’s own self in the face of Jesus Christ. 

The real “transfiguration” brought by the gospel is that unveiling from inner blindness, that showing forth of the image of God (verse 4), that is seen in the radiant face of Jesus Christ. 

Mark 9:2-9.  

The Gospel reading is the “transfiguration” of Jesus before the three disciples of the inner circle. 

This is a surprising narrative.  If you are reading along through Mark, it leaps out from the surrounding narratives, because it is a heavenly intervention down into the human scene, like nothing else since Jesus’ baptism.  In detail, the three disciples see Jesus brilliantly shining in heavenly clothes, as heavenly beings usually do in visions (Daniel 10:5-6) or as messengers (“angels”) do in special moments (Matthew 28:2-3).  Talking with this heavenly Jesus are—Elijah and Moses. 

The disciples suddenly behold Jesus in his real heavenly status, a figure especially beloved by God.  The Voice declares that he is God’s own Son, the Beloved One. 

Before the Voice speaks, however, Peter is inspired (or misled) to propose erecting three tents (“booths,” as at the Jewish festival of Sukkoth in the autumn) to memorialize these three heavenly lords.  The narrator indicates that there is something wrong with Peter’s proposal (“He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” verse 6).  The Voice dismisses Peter’s proposal by declaring, “This is my Son.  Listen to him.” 

What is wrong with Peter’s suggestion?  The answer, almost certainly, is shown by where this narrative comes in Mark’s Gospel.  It comes shortly after Jesus has first revealed that “the Son of Man” (Jesus) must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die, and that those who are his followers must lose their lives rather than save them (8:31-38).  Peter has violently rejected this declaration by Jesus, and shortly afterward Jesus takes him with James and John up the mountain for the revelation. 

Though Jesus has a primary place in the heavenly glory, the way of the gospel is not the way of glory, but the way of suffering and death at the hands of the tenants of the vineyard.  “The glorious vision may be what Peter and many others want to see, but it is the message of suffering that all must hear” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel).  And the Voice says, Listen to him! 

The Feast of the Transfiguration was long observed in the Eastern Christian churches before it was observed in the West, but its date in both traditions was August 6th (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., “Transfiguration”).  Why does Transfiguration Sunday now appear at the end of the season of Epiphany, just before Lent begins? 

Surely for the same reason it appears where it does in the Gospel According to Mark:  The epiphany of the Lord in power and good works (Mark 1:14-8:30) has reached a climax, sealed by this moment of glory.  But what the disciples need to hear from here on (for the season of Lent) is that ahead lies the real cost of Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). 


Special Note:  Transfiguration as Resurrection Appearance

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some New Testament scholars have seen Mark’s transfiguration narrative as his (only) report of a resurrection appearance. 

The early versions of this theory thought of a piece of writing that got more or less mechanically transferred to the mid-point of the ministry in Galilee.  Other scholars have said, “Oh this can’t be a resurrection appearance because it’s not at the end of the Gospel.” 

This misses the point, of course.  This is not a misplaced appearance of Jesus after the resurrection; it is a vision – a preview – of the real heavenly Jesus, the one who will return on the clouds as the Son of Man. 

In this Gospel the Transfiguration is one of only two times when GOD declares who Jesus really is.  (The other is at Jesus’ baptism.)  But this declaration is not for Jesus only (as the baptism voice apparently is); this is for eyewitnesses, who are here given divine certification that the one who is about to suffer for “many” is really a glorious heavenly lord! 

The End of Mark’s Gospel.  It is striking that Mark does NOT have any appearances of the resurrected Jesus at the end of the Gospel.  The revelation to the women at the tomb (16:1-8) has two main points:  Jesus has risen, he is not here (at the tomb); and, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).  However, the women do not tell anyone, but run away in fear.  So, Mark’s Gospel ends in what must seem confusion and disarray.

(This was a great embarrassment to Christians in the second century, and they felt compelled to add Mark 16:9-20, which gathers snippets from the other Gospels to round out Mark’s narrative.  A couple of other shorter “endings of Mark” also appeared.) 

Obviously, the Gospel has some resolutions built into it before the last paragraph.  For example, in the midst of the Passion narrative Jesus says to the disciples, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, / and the sheep will be scattered.’  But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:27-28, NRSV). 

Mark is very much a Galilee-centered Gospel.  In its overview, Jerusalem is a place of betrayal and death, not the place where the post-resurrection community had its beginning.  It is Galilee that is the place of healing and life—the place where the announcement was first made, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (1:15).  In Mark, the risen Jesus leaves Jerusalem and goes back to Galilee before he appears to any of his followers.  It is in Galilee that the heavenly Jesus has already been seen in glory by three disciples. 

This is also how Matthew’s community understood Mark a decade or two after Mark was written.  Matthew retains Mark’s references to Galilee in the Passion and the Tomb narratives, and locates Jesus’ final commissioning revelation in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).