St. John

crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

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The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

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We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

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As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


love conquers, fear abandons

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  That’s a question addressed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century book, The Prince.  He deals with other issues, but that’s the one which is considered to be the most intriguing, the one which is the most discussed.  According to Machiavelli, if a political leader is able to be both loved and feared, that is best, but the two don’t easily go together, if at all.

1 1 jnThe problem with being loved is that people will eventually take advantage of you.  Perhaps Machiavelli is sadly accurate in his assessment of human nature when he says if a leader shows too much compassion, the people will want more and more.  They will begin to throw off restraint.  Thus, the need for a firm hand.  Being feared is safer.  If people know they better toe the line or else face, let’s say, unpleasant consequences, it’s an effective way to maintain order and to eliminate dissent.  It’s the rather cynical, “you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet” approach to life.

On the other hand, it’s important to not take it too far.  Excessive fear can turn into hatred, which can lead to open rebellion.  For one in authority, that spells danger.  Actually, that spells danger for those not in government.  It’s not good for those in business, in the school system, in the church!

Unfortunately, I think we know what rebellion in the church can look like!

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  Some might say the opposite of love is hate.  We’re told love and hate cannot co-exist.  However, I might respond with the reality of a love-hate relationship.  Love and hate, as emotions, are powerful and passionate.  However, there is a thin line between them.

The epistle reading in 1 John suggests the opposite of love is fear.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

Let me expand on my original question, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”  I would say those who want to be feared are filled with fear themselves.  They sense an insecurity within, an inner dread, perhaps a feeling of worthlessness, and they feel the solution is to command respect, twisted though it may be, which is produced—which is created—by the fear from others.  Is it out of line to suggest that all the weapons we invent, especially the really powerful ones, demonstrate not how strong we are, but how scared we are?

Let me quickly add I’m not saying everyone who is filled with fear demands to be feared.  That is not at all the case.  In one way or another, we all deal with fear.  At the same time, those who desire to be feared are at heart seeking love; they seek affirmation.  We have been created for love by the one who is love.  As we read in verse 16, “God is love.”

If God is love, then why are we so fearful?  Here’s an interesting example.  Whenever angels appear in the scriptures, they are not the cute, warm, and fuzzy creatures we like to imagine.  They are fierce, and yet they often say something along the lines of, “Fear not.”  In fact, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite lines.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17).  Love has been perfected.  The Greek word (τελειοω, teleioō) has the meaning of “has been completed,” “has been accomplished.”

Fear has to do with punishment.  We might want to avoid punishment, or at least lessen it, if we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

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With that in mind, I have a little story from when I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old.  If I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done, on occasion I would rat myself out to my mother.  I would confess my crime.  I figured if I came forward before my misdeed had been discovered, I would gain leniency.  And it always worked!

There were times, though, when my transgression went undetected.  I got away with it, or so I thought.

One day when we were living in California, the door to our garage was locked.  I didn’t have the key, so I came up with the idea of getting a stick and pushing it into the lock.  I imagined the wood molding itself to the inside of the doorknob, thus becoming its own key.  When I turned the stick, it broke loose, leaving the lock filled with wood.

I don’t remember if it was my mom or dad who later wanted to get into the garage.  Lo and behold, something was blocking the key!  Upon interrogation, I decided to pin it on my sister.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she received an undeserved spanking.

I don’t recall if it was months or years later, I finally admitted she had not committed the crime.  By then, the statute of limitations had expired.  I was spared punishment.  (For many years after that, my mom would remind me of my false testimony.  Of course, my sister had known the truth all along.)

Fear has to do with punishment.  Dare we say we have a guilty conscience?  But if love is perfected, we have boldness on the day of judgment.

4 1 jn Rudolf Bultmann, one of the noted German theologians of the twentieth century, said of the human race, “the eschatological hour is first of all an hour of dismay.”[1]  The word “eschatological” refers to the end times, the end of the world as we know it.  When the bell tolls, so to speak, it is an hour of dismay.  It is a time of alarm.  The reason for that is because we know we haven’t been perfected; our love isn’t complete.  We have fallen short.  Love is perfected because of Christ.

Chapter 4 ends by telling us we can’t claim to love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters—indeed, if we actually hate them.  By framing my sister, I was not showing hatred, but I certainly was not showing love either!

Fear is suspicious.  Fear keeps us from opening our hearts to each other.  Fear keeps us stuck in the way things are.  It robs us of creativity, to imagine other possibilities.

We can sense that in the ways John uses the word “world.”  In Greek, it is the word κοσμος (kosmos), where we get our word “cosmos.”  One way he uses “world” is by speaking of God’s good creation, our material planet and everything that praises the Lord.

However, “world” can have a sinister meaning.  It’s the world as under the sway of “the evil one” (5:19).  Michael Rhodes says, “John tells us all is not well in God’s good world…  The kosmos has become a battlefield, and all humanity is caught up in the conflict.”[2]  It’s the place where fear reigns over love.

I’m reminded of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface, when his character, Tony Montana is asked by his partner what he expects: “The world, chico, and everything in it.”  In designing a cheesy statue that fits a wannabe dictator’s dreams, he takes inspiration from a blimp he happens to see that says, “The world is yours.”[3]

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Do I need to say, he wasn’t a guy noted for spreading the love around?

Fortunately for us, God isn’t content with leaving the world as it is.  Rhodes tells us, “For John, the world is finally and fully the world that God so loved that he sent his only Son as a ‘Savior of the kosmos’ (4:14).  In Jesus, the Creator has returned to reclaim what is his—a rescue operation that has required him to ‘destroy the works of the devil.’”  He envisions an action movie!

“To be a disciple, then, is to find oneself transferred from the kosmos under the control of the devil and into the realm of the God who is Light.”[4]

If one is under control of the devil, it is difficult, to put it lightly, to be a disciple of the Lord.  Now it has become “a glorious possibility for us as those born again by the Spirit of God.”

He tells us something I think we’re all going to love.  As the church, “because every child of God began life in enmity to God under the influence of the demonic, such a community is also always intrinsically missional.  The doors of the church are always open to any and all of the devil’s children who are willing to come in and be reborn.”[5]

Again I ask, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”

The word “world” (kosmos) has another meaning, which is “system.”  As before, it can have a positive connotation, but John is here using it in a negative sense.  It is the system as trapping us, working against the Spirit of God.  It is the system as robbing us of our freedom, quenching the liberating Spirit.

Bultmann says this: “Again and again the world seems to conquer, and again and again the disciple wavers and seeks refuge in his native haunts, in the world, leaving Jesus alone…  In fact he is not abandoning [Jesus] to the world, but by imagining him to be so abandoned and by despairing of him he is rather abandoning himself.”[6]

Let’s ask ourselves: how often do we abandon ourselves?  How often are we conquered by the world?

6 1 jnStill, all is not lost, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4).  On a side note, you already know the Greek word that “conquer” and “victory” come from: νικη (nikē), which we pronounce like the shoe, Nike.

The conquering—the overcoming—goes on, because “in [Jesus] the Father is at work, the Father with whom he is one, and therefore…in his apparent defeat he is in fact the conqueror.”[7]  One of my favorite scriptures in the entire Bible comes in the gospel of John, when Jesus is about to leave the upper room and go into the dark, to face betrayal and arrest.  He tells the disciples, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  His defeat sure doesn’t look like victory.

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[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

So we have the joyful question, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5).  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God means many things.  Jesus as Son of God brings freedom, not compulsion.  Jesus as Son of God means clarity, not confusion.  Jesus as Son of God is indeed courage facing persecution.  Jesus as Son of God is light in the dark.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 592.

[2] Michael J. Rhodes, “(Becoming) Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Discipleship as Gift and Task in 1 John,” Word & World 41:1 (Winter 2021), 24.

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlTJ8gPJ3M

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


in the system, but not of the system

We tend to be more comfortable with priests than with prophets.

Some might quickly say that their church (or other religious tradition) has no priests.  Being a Presbyterian, I would be one of those folks to make that claim.  I’m not necessarily speaking of a man (or woman) who has been ordained to that office.  I’m thinking of a priestly function or priestly posture.  Likewise, I’m not necessarily thinking of a person identified as a prophet.  Again, it’s more of a prophetic function or posture.

Given the way I’m using the words right now, I can even imagine priests and prophets existing outside of any faith or spiritual context.

This is admittedly a crude oversimplification, but I’m thinking of a priest as one who serves the system—who keeps the system running.  I’m thinking of a prophet as one who questions or critiques the system.  The prophet doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  That approach might better fit the profile of revolutionary.  If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, as I often say, hold that thought.  Stay tuned.

Before I go any further, I need to address an unfortunate way John’s use of the word “Jew” has too often been misunderstood.  The Greek word is ΄Ιουδαιος (’Ioudaios), which does mean “Jews,” but when it appears in the gospel of John, it’s mainly used for the enemies of Jesus.  The word can also mean “Judeans,” a word which has not led to the persecution of Jews through the centuries, especially by Christians.  It has led to a history of anti-Semitism.

A Judean was from Judea, just as a Samaritan was from Samaria.  If we feel like we can’t use the word “Judean,” we must recognize that “Jew” (as portraying an enemy of Jesus) only speaks of a tiny minority of Jews and/or Jewish leaders.  After all, it should be remembered that Jesus himself was a Jew.  Amazing!  Not only that, he was a faithful, observant Jew.

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The second half of John 2 describes what’s been called the cleansing of the temple.  Notice how it starts: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13).  Passover is one of the high holy days.  Jesus, as a faithful Jew, goes to celebrate.

Everything’s going fine; he’s with the crowds of worshippers who have come from parts near and far.  When Jesus enters the temple, his mood suddenly changes.  He sees the moneychangers at work.  They’re taking the peoples’ ordinary currency, with its images of Roman emperors and Greek gods (which would be idolatrous for purchasing animals for sacrifice) and exchanging it for Judean shekels.  And also, is it possible they’re ripping people off?  Of course, we also have to deal with the animals, producing their smells and solids.

Jesus goes ballistic.  He does his best impression of a bull in a china shop.  He takes off, flipping over tables, scattering coins, shouting at the merchants, and brandishing a whip.  Does he actually flog those fellows?  St. Augustine thought so.  He said Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, and with it lashed the unruly, who were making merchandise of God’s temple.”[1]  When the smoke clears, the place looks like the scene of an action movie.

On the matter of Jesus wielding that whip, some have said it justifies the use of violence, even to the point of punishing heretics and waging war.  “If Jesus was violent,” it’s been reasoned, “what’s to stop us?”

Others have a more nuanced perspective.  After all, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that animals were being sold for sacrifice.  There was no need for Jesus to throw a “temple tantrum.”  James McGrath has noted, “The sale of animals was essential for the temple’s main function as a place for the offering of animal sacrifices…  Both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions.”[2]

Maybe Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle.  This all might have been premeditated.  Maybe it was to make a point.  That would seem to be more in fitting with Jesus’ character.  And about Jesus being violent, there’s a long tradition holding that he was being nonviolent.  No one could have weapons of any kind in the temple area.  The Romans had their own security measures.

As you walk in, they scan you with the metal detector and ask, “Do you have any items to declare?”

That whip Jesus had could only be made with material on hand—stuff like strips of animal bedding.  (A lethal weapon, it was not.)  Not only did Jesus refrain from beating the people, as Andy Alexis-Baker says, we don’t see “Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.  The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals.”[3]

He has no doubt watched too many of those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the sad doggies.

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Is Jesus protesting worship which consists of the sacrifice of animals?  In chapter 4, we see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well.

He says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv. 22-24).

To worship God means to worship in spirit and truth.  There isn’t much there about killing animals.  Maybe Jesus is trying to open our minds to a higher understanding, a more open awareness.  God doesn’t require us to slay our fellow creatures.

We hear Jesus saying, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v. 16).  Our Old Testament reading has the final words in the book of Zechariah.  It’s part of a longer section on the day of the Lord.  The Lord will return to bless Israel and to defeat their enemies.  On that day, ordinary objects in the temple will be considered sacred.  What’s more, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (14:21).

Perhaps we see a promise of the day when exchanging of goods will no longer be necessary?  The slaughter of animals will be a thing of the past?

Whatever the case, we’re dealing with something grander in scope.  Whatever the case, we’re dealing with a challenge to the system.  In return, Jesus is demanded to explain himself.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18).  The word “sign” (σημειον, semeion), apart from the ordinary understanding, can also be a miracle or wonder by which God authenticates someone.  It shows that God is behind this.

They want to know why he’s there, messing up the program.

The first half of chapter 2 is about the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.  We’re told this is “the first of his signs” (v. 11).  His second sign doesn’t come until chapter 4, when he heals the son of a nobleman (vv. 46-54).  So in case you were wondering, Jesus doesn’t give these guys a sign.

Instead, as he so often does, he reframes the question.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19).  Aha!  One of his interrogators slips away to grab a security guard.  He points Jesus out, saying, “You better search this guy again.  He’s threatening to blow up the temple!”  Of course, they misunderstand him.  He’s referring to the temple that is his body.  This is John’s way of pointing to the resurrection.

3 jn["Rage, the Flower Thrower" by Banksy]

I hope we realize that we all are temples.  As temples of the Holy Spirit, we in a sense, house God.  That’s what temples have always been for—to in some way, house a deity.  In our case, true deity, true divinity, dwells within us.

The chapter ends by saying, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (vv. 24-25).  Jesus doesn’t put his faith in others, but he isn’t ridiculing his fellow humans.  It’s simply a recognition that, for all their efforts, they aren’t God.  People fail.  People fail us, and we fail them.  It’s just reality.  Jesus puts his faith in God.

On a side note, we so often disappoint each other because we want what only God can provide.  We subconsciously want each other to be God.  Our love falls short.

On the matter of love, I need to ask, “How does the cleansing of the temple demonstrate love?”  It might not seem like it all the time, but Jesus always acts with love.  He chooses to follow the path of love, not that of sin.

Jesus knows the opposition he would face in challenging the system.  He goes in with eyes open.  It’s not that he hates the system.  He wants it to operate in a loving and compassionate way.  He longs to show those in the system that it can be better—that they can be better.  Jesus wants them to risk being more.  He dares them to be more.  He dares them to be more human, which really is a high bar.

Here’s where we return to my opening statements about priests and prophets, or more precisely, their postures or functions.  The priestly function or spirit desires normalcy, a sane and orderly running of the system.  That in itself is a very good thing.  Systems are good.

Nothing could work—nothing could live—without say, the water system.  Take away H2O with its liquid, gas, and solid states, and see what happens.  We have the body’s digestive system, which is obviously necessary.  We have the political system, which is simply the way we structure our society.  It dates back to when protohumans lived in groups.

Too often, though, systems we create deviate from the beneficial, just, and even holy treatment we owe each other.  They become harmful and not helpful.

That’s when the prophetic spirit is required.  It challenges; it seeks to go deeper.  As I said earlier, the prophetic spirit doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  However, it does point to qualities that have long outlived their usefulness—that is, if they were ever useful for anything but cruelty and tyranny and ungodliness.

The true prophet is in the system, but not of the system.  What I mean by that is similar to what Richard Rohr says about being “on the edge of the inside.”  Prophets “cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either…  Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.”

Think of it.  Are you more likely to listen to someone who respects you and speaks your language (so to speak!), or to someone who disrespects you and thinks you’re an idiot?

Being in the system means having learned how it operates.  Being of the system means not being able to imagine anything outside of it.  It means not being able to visualize something new, something different.  Think of the times when Jesus apparently broke the Sabbath.  He healed people on the Sabbath.  He was working!  Yet, he was showing the deeper, more faithful meaning of Sabbath.

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May I suggest that many people who are accused of hating America really do not?  There are some, of course, who do hate America; I’m not talking about that.  I’m speaking of those who simply want America to be a kinder and more decent place, a more virtuous place.  There is indeed a prophetic spirit which calls us to be our best selves, to heed our better angels.

If we can see how the cleansing of the temple demonstrates love, we also should ask, “What does love require of us?”  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking!  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking me, and truth be told, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.  Love exacts a high price.  Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some of those in the temple that day behaved in such a defensive manner because they understood that.

What is it about our temples that need cleansing?

Are we carrying on with business as usual?  Are we welcoming the unexpected and unwanted visitor—maybe one who’s cracking the whip and upsetting our plans?  All of that is part of the work of God.  All of that is part of the sacrifice, not of animals slain, but of love spent.

May we welcome, may we receive, the Lord who resurrects the ruined temples of our lives.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.xi.html

[2] www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers

[3] Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15, Biblical Interpretation, 20:1, 2 (2012), 91.


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

5 dt

This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re little kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms, at least I did.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and in my opinion, rather cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize it’s not simply a question of black and white, but shades of gray.

To be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  Life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were small.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

It seems like we fall back into a childish view in every election season.  I love the way commercials are designed.  (That is, love in a sad way!)

1 3 jn

Here’s a template on how to make your opponent look like a jerk.  First of all, portray them in black and white images, or maybe use muted colors.  An ominous sound effect is a nice touch.  Make sure they are speaking in slow motion.  That really looks sinister.  Equally effective is taking their words out of context, so it seems like they’re agreeing to something terrible.

Also helpful is a voiceover going along the lines of, “If So-and-So is elected, this is what you can expect.”  In the background show a car engulfed in flames.  Perhaps use a distraught family who can’t pay their medical bills.

If your commercial includes the candidate you’re promoting, change to bright, shining colors.  Include happy and triumphant music, people smiling and hopeful.

I think that’s a sufficiently cartoonish way to produce a commercial.  It is also depressingly cynical.  Clearly, there will be policy differences, but if you could speak to the person alone—with no cameras, no listening, in complete confidence—I think you’d find no one honestly believes their opponent favors the horror show we’ve just seen.

Why begin with these stark portrayals?  Hold that thought.

The author of the Third Letter of John calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is very likely someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, we could also call him the “Presbyterian.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

2 3 jn

[This fellow with the dreamy green eyes wants to know.]

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First, he wants to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become, let’s say, “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

Here’s a question. “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  There was a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escaped me at the time, decided I would be a good person with whom to, let’s call it, display unfriendly behavior.  He never challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive responses.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

In retrospect, I understood he fit the profile of someone who was bullied at home, maybe by an older brother or a father.

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

Although, we’re told “bully” originally had a very different definition.  “‘If you called someone a bully in the sixteenth century, you were crushing hard on them.  The word bully was initially a term of endearment.  Bully comes from Dutch boel “lover” and evolved to mean sweetheart.  But it came to mean “blusterer” or “harasser of the weak” by the seventeenth century.’  So next time you get trolled, just tell your bully sweetheart that you love them too.”[1]

3 3 jn

In any event, John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[2]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

“Are you going to do what I say and tell these people to hit the road?  If not, you might find yourself hitting the road!”

We need to see this in context.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  The church is becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.[3]

It’s likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.[4]

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise.

Now, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first,” to shove people out of the way.  He spreads “false charges,” and keeps others from making friends with those he doesn’t like (vv. 9-10).  He actually is the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates to support our sisters and brothers who want to work with the truth (see v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond our walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[5]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

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“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

So we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

 

[1] medium.com/exploring-history/10-shocking-origins-of-some-common-words-489c0b987a76

[2] Revised English Bible

[3] Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 262.

[4] Strecker, 262.

[5] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

3 gn
I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

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Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!


shining in the dark

The introduction to the gospel of John is no mundane matter.  Every verse is packed (maybe we could say over-packed) with meaning.  Notice how it starts: “In the beginning was the Word.”  We’re off on a cosmic adventure.  There are all kinds of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing stuff.

Gail O’Day talks about the “cosmic, transtemporal dimension of the Prologue.”[1]  It goes beyond time itself!

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{Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com/@alex_andrews}

“All things came into being through him [that is, the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).

As the Christmas season gives way to the Epiphany of the Lord, it does so bathed in, and in preparation for, light.  Light is powerful, and there are those who say it must be infused with even more power.

Thomas Hoffman feels that way.  He offers comments in Caryll Houselander’s book, A Child in Winter.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[2]  A Child in Winter is a book of her devotionals covering Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Hoffman speaks of light as coming “pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us.”  We have ready access to light, thanks to the power grid, batteries, cell phones, and so on.

He says, “We have grown accustomed to [this] being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this…a season of fire.  Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within.  Let it burn in you.  Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you.”[3]  It truly is a cosmic adventure!

2 jnI really like verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Hang on to that thought; I’ll be coming back to it.

Very quickly, here are some other highlights in John’s introduction.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6).  He came as a witness to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (v. 8).

“The true light, which enlightens everyone…was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (vv. 9-10).

Then there’s the grand statement of incarnation: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14).  It’s the over-arching meaning of Christmas.  In the human being called Jesus, “we have seen [the Word’s] glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (vv. 14, 16).  Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “one gift replacing another.”

We can see incarnation as something that transcends even Jesus; we can see it including the whole universe.  Without the Word not one thing came into being.

Let’s go back to verse 5.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What is that all about?  The word for “overcome” in Greek (καταλαμβάνω, katalambanō) has a variety of connotations.  It can mean “to grasp,” “to seize by force.”  Were darkness and light in a wrestling match, and darkness went down for the count?

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It can also mean “to comprehend” or “to understand.”  We use our English word “grasp” in both physical and mental ways.

The darkness wasn’t able to grab the light.  The darkness wasn’t able to understand it.  I wonder, “What does it mean to not grasp the light, to not grasp the Word?”  “What does it mean to not comprehend it?”

I have a little story, though it’s not the most dramatic of stories.  It deals with something from my childhood.

For a couple of years when my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom took us to church.  (Long story short: this was an independent church, similar to a Baptist church.  Our attendance started to get a bit spotty, gradually moving to once a month, then not at all.  Years later, however, we did return to church!)

Anyway, back to my original thought.  There were times during the worship services when I would watch the pastor closely while he was preaching.  I was fascinated.  I couldn’t understand where he was getting all this stuff.  Was he reading the same Bible I was?  I read the same words…and nothing.  I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t grasp it.  I’m not trying to equate myself with “darkness,” although it’s safe to say I was in the dark.

As I said before, this might not seem like a dramatic or remarkable story, and maybe we could just write it off because I was young, but it left a vivid impression on me.  And in some small way, there was a sense in me that I would be called to do what he was doing—preaching the Word.  I wanted no part of that, thank you very much!  But God has a way of taking our saying “no” and turning it into “yes.”  So maybe there was a hint of darkness not being able to defeat, to grasp, to comprehend the light.

We have a thought similar to darkness not overcoming the light in verse 10.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

4 jnMusa Dube, a theologian from Botswana, offers her thoughts.  “Those who fail to believe or recognise the Word have missed a chance to know and associate with forces of power, forces of creation.”[4]  She doesn’t pull any punches.  The unbelieving “deny themselves grace and the knowledge of God, which can only be received from the Word.  In sum, those who do not believe or recognise the Word, identify with death, failure, powerlessness and ignorance.”

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we are reminded of the visit of the wise men.  They came, following the light.  Too often, we end the story with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The sandman visits them and tells them to take a detour on the way home.  (I wonder, did they have a collective dream, or did one have the dream and tell the others about it?)

Herod wanted them to come back and let him know the address of this young king of the Jews.  After all, he insisted, he wanted to pay his respects.

When Herod hears the wise men took off, he’s furious and sends his goons to commit mass murder.  However, Joseph and Mary make a night-time escape and flee to Egypt.  The word used for “flee” is φευγω (pheugō), to take refuge.  It’s where we get our word “refugee.”

The Holy Family flees darkness.  Through Herod, darkness attacks light.  Darkness would overcome light.  However, light is shining in the dark.

And the story continues; it continues with us.  How comfortable are we knowing and associating with, as Dube says, forces of power and forces of creation?  (Don’t answer too quickly!)  How often do we identify with—how often do we relate to—death, failure, powerlessness, and ignorance?

I know I have my work to do.

We can take a clue from Thomas Hoffman.  Be consumed by the energy that’s growing within.  Let it burn.  Let’s let God use fire to purify the cosmos through us, to purify everything and everyone around us.  That fire is the fire of the Spirit.  We can’t really welcome the Word in our own strength.  We can mentally agree with a doctrine of the Word—we can mentally assent—but that alone won’t purify or revolutionize us.  To unleash the Word in us is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, I know I have my work to do!

5 jnFrom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, one gift replacing another.  Don’t be satisfied with gifts received in the past; yearn and pursue even greater gifts from God.  Let us remind ourselves, as I do, God yearns to complete our deepest joy—and give even deeper joy, a joy of shining in the dark.

How is that for a promise as we enter this new year—this new decade? 

 

{Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com/@timumphreys}

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Luke/John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)

[2] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[3] Houselander, 61.

[4] Musa W. Dube, “Batswaka: Which Traveler are You (John 1:1-18)?”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000), 81.


all the welkin rings

Psalm 148 is a song of praise, and it is an expansive one.  It’s about as expansive as you can get.  It includes the entire cosmos!  Verse 1 says, “Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”  The psalmist surveys everything within his understanding of the universe; the poet calls everything to praise the Lord.  (Special note: there could be other universes.)

1 psThere’s an interesting note about Charles Wesley, the hymn-writing younger brother of John Wesley.  We’re told that “the Christmas carol, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was originally written by Charles Wesley to read ‘Hark how all the welkin rings’…  The entire ‘welkin,’ the entire sky and heavens, ring with the chorus of praise that embraces all creatures in their joy that the Creator has entered into creaturehood with them, for the salvation of all.”[1]

There are some scientists who are beginning to take notice of this kind of stuff, though they wouldn’t use the poetic phrases of a Christmas carol.  In his book, Cosmic Jackpot, theoretical physicist Paul Davies deals with one of the biggest questions of all:  why is our universe able to support life—why is it friendly to life?[2]  In his terminology, there’s no guarantee that, after the big bang, the universe would expand in a way that would allow stars to form, with planets orbiting around them.  He goes into variations of what’s known as the anthropic principle.[3]

However for me, anyway, scientific ideas like that cast Christian ideas, like the second advent of Christ, and Christ as Alpha and Omega, in a new light.  They provide insights into psalms like the one we have today.

As I suggested, Psalm 148 is an all-encompassing psalm.  It begins with what is the most distant (“the heavens,” “the heights”), and gradually moves closer to home—to what is more familiar.  We eventually get to earth, where the forces of nature are called upon to praise the Lord.  Then a little closer, the mountains and trees—and animals, both wild and tame—hear the summons to praise.

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Finally, we get to the human race.  The high and the mighty, as well as the low and the humble are addressed.  Last of all, in verse 14, the “faithful,” “the people of Israel who are close to him” hear the call: “Praise the Lord!”

Something that got my attention is verse 7: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps.”  There’s a real sense of dread at what lies down below the surface of the sea.  In his translation, Gary Chamberlain uses the rather colorful phrase, “Ocean deeps and dragons.”[4]  This taps into the visceral fear of what dwells in the depths.

If we can call upon the heights to praise, that which we glory in, then we must also turn our attention to the depths, that which we fear and loathe.  That which dwells in the shadows—the darkness that we avoid—is called to come into the light to join in the work and privilege of praising God.

3 psWhat does it mean for all these to praise the Lord?  We can understand the call to humans.  What does it mean for the sun and moon?  What does it mean for fire and hail?  What does it mean for mountains and all hills?  What does it mean for little critters and flying birds?  What does it mean for our cats and dogs?  Are they able to praise the Lord?  Or is all of this a bunch of whimsical nonsense?

In some way, at some level, praising the Lord is bound up with understanding our place in the universe.  And more than understanding it—celebrating it, not working against it.  It seems that it is only we humans who are able to act against our own nature.  Rocks and rivers don’t have that ability.  Neither, it seems, do maples nor mice.

How do we find and celebrate our place in the universe?  How do we join in the cosmic dance of praise?  How do we take part as all the welkin rings?

A key aspect of that is stewardship.  We humans have the privilege and responsibility of being stewards of creation.  Sadly, for much of creation, our role as stewards has been a curse.  With our cruelty, pollution, and violence, it continues to be a curse.  If we humans were to suddenly disappear, I don’t think planet Earth and everything within it would miss us very much!

Stewardship is another of those expansive terms.  It encompasses a whole lot of stuff!  Too often in the church, the word is relegated to so-called “stewardship drives.”  (And on that point in particular, we often think of it as what we “have” to give, as opposed to what we “get” to give!)  In Genesis 2, God puts humans in charge of the garden.  It’s something we address throughout all of life.

Praising the Lord, joining in as all the welkin rings, is not about a mentality of scarcity.  It is very much a mentality of abundance.  Our Lord, who the psalmist calls all of creation to praise, is a Lord of abundance—even lavish abundance.  Our Lord is a Lord of mysterious abundance.

The scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, once made a comment I believe illustrates this, even though that was not his intention.  He said due to a glorious accident, we have become “the stewards of life’s continuity on earth.”  He agreed we are stewards of creation, although he didn’t use the word “creation.”[5]

It is a very good thing that we continue to learn, but at times I’m reminded of God’s responses to Job, after he has questioned the ways of God.  Job is asked things like, “Which is the way to the home of the Light, and where does darkness live?” (38:19, New Jerusalem Bible).  Or this: “Will lightning flashes come at your command and answer, ‘Here we are’?” (38:35).  There are always mysteries, things to discover!

One of the most wonderful discoveries is, as the psalmist says, how God “has raised up a horn for his people,” that is, raised up strength for the faithful (v. 14).  As we find our place in the universe, as we joyfully accept our call to be stewards, we receive strength from God and pass it to all those around.

Rachel Wheeler wrote an article titled, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life.”  In it, she reminds us, “Everything…is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it.  But where is ‘away’?  Of course, ‘away’ does not really exist.”[6]

She has an interesting take on Jesus’ feeding the multitude as it’s presented in John’s gospel.  “What do we make of Jesus feeding the five thousand when he is reported as instructing his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”[7] (Jn. 6:12, NRSV)?  Other translations use the language of waste: ‘Let nothing be wasted,’[8] the implication being Jesus and his disciples gathered up what was left over, not just to indicate the generous nature of the miracle, providing more than enough for those gathered, but also to set an example for others.”[9]

My mom used to tell me, “Waste not; want not.”  What we throw away, we leave for others to deal with.

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Does all of this sound like it only has a tenuous connection for this Christ the King Sunday?  That might be true if we were dealing with just any king.  But this is a king—and a kingdom—like none other.  It’s a kingdom that is based, not on power, at least not power the way we usually envision it.  It is a peaceable kingdom, as envisioned in Isaiah 11.  The good news, the gospel, of that kingdom is good news for all of creation.  It is an expansive, all-encompassing gospel.  The Hebrew term shalom doesn’t simply refer to our ordinary word “peace.”  It is an expansive, all-encompassing peace.  It points to heaven on earth.  “For God so loved the world…”

A moment ago, I mentioned how Jesus desires that nothing go to waste.  Well, maybe there is one thing it’s good to waste—which is, to waste time.  I’m not talking about wasting time the way we typically think of it, as Pink Floyd once sang, “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.”  No, this is wasting time with God.  Many would say, “Wasting time with God is not very ‘useful’; it’s not very ‘practical.’”  Still, I would say, “Do waste time with God.”  “Do pray.”  Do sit in silence.

As we truly praise the Lord, we draw closer to the King.  We show ourselves to be citizens of that realm.

“Hark how all the welkin rings / Glory to the newborn king.”  We discover our place as all the welkin rings.

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[1] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2007-12-30/1st-sunday-after-christmas

[2] Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

[3] www.anthropic-principle.com

[4] Gary Chamberlain, The Psalms: A New Translation for Prayer and Worship (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1984), 181.

[5] Wim Kayzer, A Glorious Accident (New York: Freeman, 1997), 92.

[6] Rachel Wheeler, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 19:1 (Spring 2019), 95.

[7] Greek word for “lost” (απολλυμι, apollumi) means “destroy” or “perish”

[8] Revised English Bible: “so that nothing is wasted”

[9] Wheeler, 97.


crossing the bridge from anger to elation

There’s a cartoon which has been on the air since 1989, The Simpsons.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  If not (I guess it’s somehow possible), here’s a quick look at the Simpson family.  The father is Homer, an overweight, bald, not-very-intelligent fellow who just happens to be a safety inspector at the nuclear power plant.  He loves beer and donuts, and his signature expression of alarm is “D’oh!”

His wife is Marge, a stay-at-home mom noted for a beehive style of blue hair.  Their son is Bart, a ten-year-old whose name, it’s been observed, is a fitting anagram for “brat.”  Lisa, their older daughter, is a socially conscious eight-year-old dreamer, artist, and saxophone player.  Then there’s little Maggie, who never speaks and usually has a pacifier stuck in her mouth.

There’s one episode in particular I want to mention, “Homer the Heretic.”  In Mark Pinksy’s book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, this is one of the episodes he focuses on.

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On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, while the Simpsons are getting ready for church, Homer splits his pants and decides to stay at home.  So while the rest of the family deals with ice and snow, Homer takes a long, hot shower.  As it turns out, the church furnace is broken, so the congregation is shivering while the pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, preaches about the fires of hell, an image that brings a smile to Bart’s face.

By the time the service is over, the doors to the church have frozen shut.  So while Marge and the kids are stuck in a frigid building, Homer’s in a warm house, dancing in his underwear, watching a football game, and using the waffle iron to cook his own fattening recipes.

Finally, when the family gets home, icy and irritated, Homer concludes that he’s possibly had the best day of his life, so it must be a sign that he should never go to church again.  Homer defends his reasoning to Marge by saying, “What if we picked the wrong religion?  Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”[1]  In the end, Homer does return to church, assuming his usual posture on the front row, snoring during Rev. Lovejoy’s sermon.

I picked that episode because, aside from its being hilarious, was Homer’s conclusion regarding God’s mounting anger.  There is the feeling that God can get really ticked off.

I want to include this theme as part of the sermon because the lectionary reading of Isaiah 12 omits verse 1.  (I again trot out my usual complaint about, let’s say, uncomfortable verses being left out.  We can see them—they’re right there—so why not deal with them?)

Here’s what is considered uncomfortable or troublesome: “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”  Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away.

Here’s what might be considered an uncomfortable or troublesome question.  Has anyone ever felt like God was mad at you?  Or maybe at least irritated?  Or maybe at least disappointed?  Perhaps anything we might think of as negative?

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I will confess a bias in not believing that a God who is the definition of love itself could feel anger at us, even the desire to destroy us, the “very good” creation, as Genesis describes us (1:31).  I can accept God feeling sadness, feeling urgency, relentlessly pursuing us as “the hound of heaven.”  Still, I will admit it is a bit difficult to explain away terms like “the wrath of God,” which appears in both the Old and New Testaments.

I’m going to hurl some stuff out, which is a probably a combination of reasons and excuses.  I know there will be some of that stuff you do not agree with, to a greater or lesser extent.  (Frankly, I would be a bit disappointed—actually, more than a bit—if all of you agreed with everything I say.  Still, I don’t think we’re in danger of that!  And by the way, I find it quite distasteful when people tell you what to think.)

I want to say that belief in the anger, the wrath, of God is one point along a spectrum of a growing awareness in human development, in human consciousness.

I want to say we should be mindful of ages past when we felt like we needed to offer sacrifices to a deity that was mad at us—or at least one we had to appease to guarantee a fruitful harvest or peace from our enemies.

I want to say that we have projected parts of our internal makeup that we hate, fear, or are embarrassed about.  Some people call it our “shadow side.”  It’s almost like a God we create in our own image.

3 isI want to say that we are evolving past that, and acknowledging that, is still a faithful way of reading the Bible.

I want to say that, and more, but I also hear what Richard Nysse says about “the dark side of God.”[2]  And he’s hardly alone in warning about the danger in too easily dismissing or explaining away the qualities of God that give us trouble.  To be honest, I would be lying if I said I don’t feel conflicted about the positions I just outlined.  (Are we evolving or de-evolving?)

Nysse says Isaiah and the other prophets “were able to let the hard questions linger in the air until God answered.  ‘Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?’  Quickly shutting down that question is likely to provide little more than cheap grace.”[3]  He goes further, saying we must “tremble a bit when [we] speak the gospel.”

Maybe that’s the point.  I want to say that God’s wrath is not like our wrath.  When God withdraws, when God turns away, we experience that as pain almost too much to bear.  As the psalmist says, “By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed” (30:7).

So Isaiah trembles, but he is saved from his trembling: “though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”  “You comforted me.”  That serves as a bridge to the rest of the psalm.  This actually is a psalm, even though it’s not in the book of Psalms.  Another one is Habakkuk 3.

The word for “comfort” (נׇחַם, nacham) has the root meaning of “sigh” or “breathe strongly.”  So it follows that “one allows a person who has a severe spiritual or external burden to breathe again, thus removing what has caused him [or her] distress.”[4]  The prophet has felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest, but now… …he can breathe.  (I just called it a bridge, but it’s hard to move on from anything if you can’t catch your breath!)

Okay, we’re crossing the bridge, but what’s on the other side?  Verse 2: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  That seems fitting for a guy named Isaiah, whose name means “Yahweh is salvation,” or “Yahweh has saved.”[5]  That’s not a bad name to have!

From where does this salvation come?  How can it be found?  Verse 3 is the heart of the psalm.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  I’ll come back to this, but what are the people to do in response?  Are they supposed to come together and say, “Let’s keep quiet about this.  There’s not enough to go around!”?  No, they’re called to shout it out, to go tell it on the mountain.

Verses 4 to 6 call them to “Give thanks to the Lord…  make known his deeds…  proclaim…  Sing praises to the Lord…  let this be known in all the earth…  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  They can’t sit on this—and neither can we.

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There was a festival among the Jews, the Water-Drawing Festival, which pointed to verse 3.  Very briefly, here’s what would happen: “The priests would go down to the pool of Siloam in the City of David (just south of where the Western Wall is today) and they would fill a golden vessel with the water there.  They would go up to the temple, through the Water Gate, accompanied by the sound of the shofar, and then they would pour the water so that it flowed over the altar, along with wine from another bowl.  This would begin the prayers for rain in earnest, and there was much rejoicing at this ceremony.”[6]

It was said, “Anyone who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing.”  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  It must have been quite a party!

And it seems appropriate.  “With joy you will draw water,” not because you have to in order to stay alive.  You’re not drawing water because someone has commanded you to do so.  You’re definitely not drawing water so that you can sell it and make money off it!

This is a rich image—drawing water from a life-giving well.  Here are just a couple of examples elsewhere in the scriptures.  In Jeremiah 2, the prophet says that “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (v. 13).

In the New Testament, in the gospel of John, we see more about it.  In chapter 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  He says to her about the well, “‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’” (vv. 13-14).

In John 7, something happens at the Water-Drawing Festival we just looked at: something unexpected, something offensive that has some people wanting to arrest Jesus.  “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (vv. 37-38).

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into it to say drinking water from those wells can be seen as drinking in the Spirit—or as breathing in the Spirit, to go back to the words of the prophet.

I mentioned my reluctance, my unwillingness, to believe in a God of anger, in a God of hatred, even though we see it splashed like blood throughout much of the Bible.  Again, you need not feel the way I do.  But perhaps we can at least acknowledge times of torment, of suffering, of grief.  “God, why are you punishing me?  What did I do wrong?”  I’ve actually heard the question uttered, “God, why do you hate me?”

At the intellectual level, we might say, “I really don’t believe that.”  But it can be there deep within our psyche, rumbling around like a monster in the basement!

5 isStill, the awesome, wonderful news is there is a well from which we draw the water of life.  The monster is slain.

Yahweh is indeed salvation.  In the eyes of his foes, he becomes the monster to be slain on the cross.  His risen life fills us now and satisfies our thirst.  As the priests poured the water on the altar, so we pour out ourselves, so that the river of the Spirit continues to flow.

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.

 

[1] Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 18.

[2] Richard Nysse, “The Dark Side of God: Considerations for Preaching and Teaching,” Word and World 17:4 (Fall 1997)

[3] Nysse, 442.

[4] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 271.

[5] יְשַׁעְיׇה, yesha`yah

[6] www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/yeshua-and-the-sukkot-water-drawing-festival


blow away the vapor

Last Tuesday Banu and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  On a similar occasion when we were in Jamestown over a decade ago, I commented in front of some parishioners, referring to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they could be taken in more than one way!  Trust me—it was not a lament; it was not a statement of regret!

1 jr{Dr. Horace Russell sees a shoe lace that needs attention}

But yes, I don’t know what I did to deserve her.  I’m not always sure what I continue to do to deserve her.  You notice I said, “not always sure.”  There are times when I’m pretty confident (probably arrogant) in that regard!  Having said that, let’s turn our attention to a story in which there is no doubt whatsoever.

That story appears in Jeremiah 2.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of a lover spurned.  It is a story of an unfaithful spouse.

The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me [that is, Jeremiah], saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember   the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (vv. 1-2).  The Lord is grieved at the straying of a beloved bride—one who followed, even in the wilderness.  This is the bride who on the wedding day, heard the words, “for richer, for poorer,” and held onto that bit about “for poorer”: but only for a little while!

This is indeed a story about abandonment.  It’s a story about abandoning one’s source of joy, be it a devoted loving partner, a devoted loving spouse.  More fundamentally, it’s a story about abandoning the source of joy that is one’s God.  That’s the unfortunate word the prophet brings.

(As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest messages of Jeremiah.  But its being in chapter 2 doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The book isn’t exactly in chronological order.  It’s almost like someone arranged it by taking the pages, tossing them up in the air, and then waiting for them to fall.)

Jeremiah addresses the whole country.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (v. 4).  This is the basic complaint: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (v. 5).  That is the essence of the matter.  We become what we worship!

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The Lord asks, “Why did you go far from me?”  Why did you reject me?  The word for “reject” (רׇחַקוּ, raaq) can mean “become distant,” “remote,” “walk away”—pretend like you have cooties!

Remember, this is also a description of a loved one: becoming distant, becoming remote, becoming absent.

What happened when they became distant, when they walked away?  As we saw, they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  That word “worthless” (הֶבֶל, hebel) is an interesting one.  For example, it appears numerous times in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Here’s how it starts.)  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  The word has many nuances: vanity, futility, nothingness.  The primary meaning is “vapor” or “breath.”  “They went after vapor and became vapor themselves.”

Here’s how the New English Bible puts verse 5.  “What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty.”  I like that: pursuing empty phantoms.

(Last month, while talking about the “elemental spirits,” I noted that St. Paul calls them “only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17).  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  They’re only a shadow.  You know—don’t be scared of your shadow!)

In the same way, don’t go after those empty phantoms.  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  What are you—scared of ghosts?

The people have abandoned their one true love for something which doesn’t satisfy.  They’ve been seduced by someone who will not and cannot satisfy.  If this sounds insane to you, you’re probably right.  But then, there is much insanity within us, within all of us.

3 jr Bungishabaku Katho, a professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, goes into how this could come about.  Referring to Jeremiah’s audience, he says, “Judah had grown accustomed to God: they were so at ease that God was taken for granted and ignored.  Yahweh was no longer the center of Judah’s life, and he was not called upon during the time of danger.  Instead, people chose to go after idols, which are ironically implied to be more helpful than Yahweh.”[1]

In her book From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven.  Idols help to make up for that deficiency.  Life is outrageous.  Idols help us know how to proceed.  So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes.  Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”[2]

Our idols aren’t so very different from those of Jeremiah’s era.  We have our own loves and devotions, things seemingly much more realistic and useful than God, things that just make more sense.  Of course, there are things to do to make sure stuff gets done!  But how often do we wander from the source of our life and light and love?  How often do we trust in vapor?

The prophet speaks of the people being “brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  However, the land has been “defiled” and made “an abomination” (v. 7).  There are symbolic and spiritual ramifications—how idolatry has led the people astray.  It also has quite visible consequences—the destruction of the environment, the invasion of habitats, the eradication of species of animals and plants.  It includes how we have fared in being the stewards of God’s good creation.

(The devastation of the Amazon rain forest is a case in point of land being defiled and made an abomination.  Thinking of defiling, we have hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste in storage or buried underground: one more unwelcome gift our descendants will inherit from us!)

Jeremiah points in particular to those who should know better.  The priests, those who handle the law (the teachers), the rulers, and the prophets have all failed in their call to be faithful.

Our leaders often fail in their call to faithfulness.  We who are leaders, in whatever context, often fail in our call to faithfulness.  That being said, how much blame do we bear in perhaps allowing ourselves to be led astray?  How often do we follow with blind faith?  How often do we fail to actually investigate what our leaders tell us?  I understand very well there are things beyond our knowledge.  Ask me to describe abatement cost, generic securities, and tax-free spinoff, and I promise you will get a far from coherent answer.

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Verse 11 speaks of something that might hamper anyone.  “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  There’s the insanity again about exchanging the one true love, the one holy love, for a deception, for a counterfeit.

It can happen before we know it.  Am I so sure I have never changed my God for other gods?  We can be baptized into waters that become stagnant.  Our society has much to offer; it makes many promises.  Does a fish swimming in water know that it is wet?

Joan Chittister reflects, “No one lives in a tax-free world.  Life costs.  The values and kitsch and superficiality of it takes its toll on all of us.  No one walks through life unscathed.  It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls.  It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands.  Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us.”[3]

We become what we worship.

How do we see God?  Remember Debbie Blue’s comment: “Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”  I’ve often said our concepts of God can become idols.

Do we see God as punitive?  Do we see God as petty?  Do we see God as a bully?  If so, then our God is an idol.  That is not the God of Jesus Christ.  If our God is a vengeful tyrant, then borrowing Jeremiah’s language about love and marriage, such a God is an abusive spouse.

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Our passage ends on an especially poignant note.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (vv. 12-13).

The heartbroken Lord reveals two crimes of which the people are guilty.  First, as we’ve seen, they have said no to the covenant, the bond of love.  Living water is fresh, running water.  It is not stagnant.  It doesn’t become the breeding ground of mosquitoes!  Algae doesn’t grow in it!  It doesn’t stink!  That cool, clear water doesn’t appeal to them.

Next, they have dug cisterns; they have dug wells.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with digging cisterns.  We are dependent on falling rain to feed the streams and rivers.  We are dependent on ground water.  We can’t live without water!

However, that’s not the picture here.  The Lord is a never-failing fountain of running water.  God is an everlasting source of that precious liquid.  In this image, there’s no need to rely on the rain or the ground.  There’s no need to rely on the work of our own hands, but that’s what Jeremiah’s audience has chosen.

What’s worse, the cisterns are cracked.  They have become broken; the water is seeping out of them.

We might ask, “What’s the big deal about this living water, this running water, anyway?”  Jesus speaks of this in John’s gospel.  He says, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’  Now he said this about the Spirit” (Jn 7:37-39).

The living water is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can’t be held—not in a cistern, and certainly not in a cracked cistern!  It’s like trying the gather the wind with your hands.

Earlier I posed the question to myself about how often I exchange my God for those worthless gods, those idols.  How often do I trust in vapor, and then become vapor myself?  Well, I suppose the prophet would pose this question to me also.  How often do I try to grab, to hold onto the Spirit?  How often do I become content with past revelations, past experiences, of the Spirit—to the point I reject the living water and settle for stagnant water?  My guess is I might not be the only one who needs to hear that question.

Summer is nearing its end; fall is approaching.  I half-jokingly suggested to Banu we should take as a theme another scripture from Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  She didn’t agree.  Still, that might not be altogether out of place.  We may feel lost, but the promise of God remains.

6 jr
Forget about building those cisterns!  Allow the Spirit to blow away the vapor.  Let’s allow ourselves to regain and reaffirm our first and true love.

 

[1] Bungishabaku Katho, “Idolatry and the Peril of the Nation: Reading Jeremiah 2 in an African Context” Anglican Theological Review, 99:4 (Fall 2017), 722.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 172.

[The painting is Jeremiah the Prophet by Marc Chagall.]