scripture / word of God

the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

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Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

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So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

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When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


remove your veil

I want to begin with a story about Ayn Rand, or rather, my time as an avid reader of her books.  This was mainly when I was a freshman in college.

First of all, let me give you an idea of who she was.  Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and moved to America as a young woman.  She died in 1982.

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She wrote books of fiction primarily.  She believed selfishness is a noble virtue.  We are not each other’s keeper.  It’s true only to the extent it serves our own self-interest.  The same can be said of charity.  Those receiving charity should be worthy of it.

Government should be as small as possible, for example, there should be no oversight for worker safety, protection of the environment, etc.  That is to be left solely in private hands, to business.  Also, reason alone gives direction for life.  No faith, no poetic insight, no feelings should be used.  To say she was no fan of the church is putting it mildly.

That is an admittedly very quick and, no doubt at some points, imprecise picture of her.  Having said that, as a semi-disciple of hers, I often found myself thinking, “What would Ayn Rand do?”  I was channeling my thoughts along paths she laid out.  I had fenced myself in.

To show how ridiculous I had become, one day I was with some friends, eating lunch in the cafeteria.  I had my copy of Atlas Shrugged, one of her best-known books.  Pushing the book over to one of my companions, I only half-jokingly asked him to “read us some scripture.”

I really wasn’t ascribing some divine origin to Rand’s work (which actually would have driven her nuts), but it does show how straitjacketed my thinking had turned out to be.  In a sense, I fell prey to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).  He is referring specifically to the law of Moses (at least, how it was often interpreted), but it can also apply to any rigid, freedom-restricting rules to live by.

(By the way, my infatuation with the writing of Ayn Rand began to fade about a year later.  My conscience started bothering me!)

Regarding our scripture text, it’s known that Paul wrote several letters to the church in Corinth.  In 1 Corinthians, he mentions a letter he wrote previously (5:9).  Then we have the letter we call 1 Corinthians.  In 2 Corinthians, he speaks of a painful letter (2:3-4, 9, 7:8, 12).  He wanted to address some troublesome issues in the church.  The letter had a severe tone; he said he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4).  And now, we have the letter known to us as 2 Corinthians.

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We pick up Paul’s discussion right after he refers to the parade of “peddlers of God’s word” (2:17), preachers and teachers who have been performing with their dog and pony shows.  He asks if the folks in Corinth want him and his companions to present letters of recommendation.  Do they need someone to vouch for them?  They should have checked out those other characters.

Paul says, “I’ll tell you who vouches for us: the Spirit of God.”  He denies that they are “competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (3:5).  He says they can’t take credit for anything.  Everything is only due to God.

The apostle sets the stage with the glowing face of Moses, who had gone up the mountain to meet the Lord.  This was when Moses received the big ten, which were literally engraved in stone.  Being in the presence of God had an illuminating effect on Moses.  He was beaming!

I’ll wager none of us have had that experience.  We speak of someone lighting up a room when they enter.  This might be taking it too far.

The people would agree with that.  When Moses came down from the mountain, tablets in hand, he could tell by the reaction, the looks on people’s faces, that they were totally freaked out.  Moses still didn’t know why.  Was there something on his clothes?  Did he smell bad?

Eventually, he figured it out.  After he finished laying down the law, Moses took a veil and covered his face.  When he would go inside his tent, he would remove the veil.  If he had a message from the Lord, he would go outside and deliver it, and then to reduce the level of freaking out, he would replace the veil.  He would cover up his shining face.

Today is the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Jesus also made a trip up the mountain, and his entire body glowed.  Maybe we can see how this story of Moses is the Old Testament scripture for today.  Still, Paul speaks of the shining face of Moses as a glory, to be sure, but a glory that is fading.

Scott Hoezee, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, speaks to that point of a glory fading away.  “Great though the reception of the Law had been,” he says, “and wonderful though it was that Israel really was now a nation (in fulfillment of what God had promised in Genesis 12 to Abram), the fact is this was not the end of the line. This was not the end-all and be-all of God’s ultimate plans for this fallen creation.”[1]

Paul makes a rather stark statement about the law of Moses.  He labels it “the ministry of death” (v. 7).  It’s not that he hates the law.  It’s not like he’s saying to avoid it, or it will kill you.  In another place, he speaks glowingly of it.  He says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Ro 7:12).

In fact, the word translated as “law” (תּוֺרׇה, torah) could be easily rendered as “direction” or “instruction.”  That fits right in with Paul’s description in Galatians as the law being a tutor or a schoolmaster, guiding us to Christ (Ga 3:24).

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He’s exaggerating to point out that the law is powerless to make us righteous.  It’s true: the people of Israel couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face because it was so glorious.  Yet, the apostle asks, “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (v. 8).

If the term “ministry of death” was stark, we can see Paul apparently piling it on in the next few verses.  His analysis, his perspective, of the people of Israel is “their minds were hardened.  Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside” (v. 14).  He goes even farther.  “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (vv. 15-16).

It sounds like there is a Christian triumphalism going on.  Those poor foolish Jews—no, those bad Jews—need to be taken in hand.  Certainly, that’s one way this has been interpreted.  And when the Jewish people have been taken in hand, it has rarely been a tender hand!  So, I would be delinquent if I didn’t address how this passage has been misused through the centuries.

A veil lies over our minds if we fall into an anti-Jewish reading of the text.  It’s not unlike the veil I placed on my mind by blindly following the nonsense of Ayn Rand.  (With apologies to Ayn Rand fans!)

Back to Paul’s point in bringing this up, he had the perfect example of removing the veil, of having one’s eyes opened—himself!  On the road to Damascus, he literally saw the light.  His startling and dramatic language (some might say overly dramatic) is meant to highlight the awesomely dramatic difference between the law and Christ.

Our friend Scott Hoezee applies this to us.  “The only reason you keep looking to the Law as the source of your salvation is because your heart still has a veil over it—you’re not seeing clearly.”  Can we see how we allow Law to govern us?  We follow a method.  We have some strict and inflexible guidelines as we run through the maze of life, like rats in a lab.

God wants to unlock us.

We are reminded that “far from having to then turn back to our own sorry reflections in the mirror only to be reminded how far short we fall of the glory of God in our own lives—the glory of Christ is contagious!”  I want that contagion to infect me.  I don’t want my immune system to protect me from that contagious glory.

The apostle encourages us, saying, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 18).

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“From one degree of glory to another.”  To experience ever-increasing glory: only unlocked and unveiled children of God can enjoy that privilege.  Only they can enjoy that grace.

A few moments ago, I said how I would be delinquent if I didn’t acknowledge the ways in which our scripture has been twisted to stir up hostility toward the Jewish people.  As I’ve sometimes noted, events happen that just can’t be ignored.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine with its sadness and horror is one of those events.

Paul has spoken of minds being veiled, minds being hardened.  He has spoken of the ministry of death.  I dare say those have been on vivid and terrifying display these past days.

Ultimately, however, what we have seen is a demonstration of cowardice.  Vladimir Putin’s choices are not an exhibition of strength of spirit, but rather a weakness of character.

Clearly, he isn’t alone on the world stage in choosing to follow a Law that enslaves, a letter that kills.  He isn’t alone in that among the entire human race.  I know none of us is plotting the invasion of another country!  Still, at some level, as said before, God wants to unlock us.  We are in need of that holy contagion; we need to be infected with the glory of Christ.  The Lord gives us the ability to be of service to each other, not of laying down oppressive rules, but of turning to Christ, who sets the captives free.

We can take heart, knowing that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (v. 17).

 

[1] cepreaching.org/commentary/2016-02-01/2-corinthians-312-42/


confident despair

Right after mini-sabbatical, I am not going to begin with the calming waters of the Gulf and the sunshine, but rather, with a visit to King Jehoshaphat of Judah.  How about that?  Does that have you jumping with joy?  In 2 Chronicles 18, he was Jumping Jehoshaphat, as in jumping into Ahab’s ill-fated war.  In chapter 20, war is being forced upon him and his kingdom.  Moabites, Ammonites, and “some of the Meunites” are on the way.

Understanding that a multitude is approaching, one with bad intent, Jehoshaphat is rightly concerned.  No, he is rightly terrified.  He summons leaders from throughout the land and he lays it all out before them.

They look around.  They are few, but their enemies are many.  They don’t have the strength to stand against them.  What are they to do?

The king sees but one option.  Military might won’t save them.  The power of horse and sword will not avail.  Jehoshaphat calls the people to prayer.  As we’re told, “he set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (v. 3).

1 chWhat would happen if our political and military leaders resorted to spiritual methods of resolving differences?  What would nonbelievers say?  I suppose most would be grateful that a nonviolent way was followed.  Some might go along with “spiritual but not religious.”  What would certain fundamentalists say?  There might be those who would protest if their particular faith of whatever stripe weren’t named and promoted.

Still, many would say, “You’re dreaming.  How do you know the powers-that-be would agree if a spiritual or some other kind of conflict resolution were pursued?  And besides, we wouldn’t have a chance to try out our nifty new weapons.”

Fortunately, Jehoshaphat realizes something when he asks, “O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven?  Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations?  In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you” (v. 6).  We can’t even infect you with the latest virus!

He acknowledges how God has protected them in the past.  A sanctuary was built to honor the Lord.

He continues his prayer, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save” (v. 9).

In time, their admiration of the temple turned into idolatry.  It was believed that no harm could come to them, because it was the place where sacrifice was made to the Lord.  It was the dwelling place of their God.  The prophet Jeremiah tried to warn them when the Babylonians became a threat, but to say his message fell on deaf ears would be putting it mildly.

Still, that’s over two centuries in the future.

He ends his prayer by admitting their futility, “we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v. 12).

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We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

In his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas tells us, “In May 1932, a few months before Hitler came to power,” Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using that verse as his scripture reading.[1]  “This text was on his mind a long time before and a long time since.”

Bonhoeffer came from a family that was well-to-do, one that was cultured.  His family held to the best of German tradition.  However, the emergence of the Nazis was seen by them as a disaster and as a disgrace for the nation.  They viewed the whole thing with disgust.

As time went by, and as the atrocities of Hitler became more blatant, Bonhoeffer began to wonder, if no other course were possible to remove this madman (all other avenues having failed), would violence be acceptable?  With much struggle and with much soul searching, he believed he received his answer from the Lord.  When confronting this level of evil, violent resistance was acceptable.  It might even be necessary.

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

So back to Jehoshaphat.  What happens next?  How is his prayer answered?  A fellow named Jahaziel steps forward with a word from God.  He relays this message: the Lord says not to be afraid of this great horde.  “The battle is not yours but God’s” (v. 15).  With that, they are all led in blessing and celebration.

The next morning, King Jehoshaphat appoints singers to march before the army and sing praises.  We have a military formation with worship leaders serving as the vanguard, leading the troops.  Singers and musicians going into battle isn’t strange, in and of itself.  Throughout the centuries, music has been used to stir up a fighting spirit.  In this case, it is the worship of the Lord, not an anthem to king and country.  (Or queen and country.)

Apparently, the strategy works.  They have employed some divinely inspired tactics!  We know that because their enemies all turn on each other.  This is the very definition of “friendly fire.”  And they give a brilliant performance of firing friendly, because not a single one of them survives!

When the people come to survey the situation, they see all the dead soldiers, but they also see plunder aplenty.  Livestock abounds, with items of all sorts, clothing of all array, and they come upon some really pricey stuff.  It is truly an embarrassment of riches.  Think of it as the world’s largest estate sale.  They’re hauling it off for the next three days.

After all that, they got together, and they “had church.”  They got to blessing the Lord so much that they changed the name of the place.  They called it the Valley of Beracah, that is, the Valley of Blessing!  They were talking about that worship service for a long time.

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It appears word got out about the fate of those Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites, because we’re told, “The fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.  And the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around” (vv. 29-30).

It seems that everyone got the memo: lay off Judah for a while, that is, unless you want to find yourself going after your neighbors—and your neighbors coming for you!

The Scottish minister Alexander MacLaren was born in 1826.  (Remember that date.  You’ll understand why shortly.)  He commented on Jehoshaphat’s prayer, saying it demonstrated “the confidence of despair” of he and his people.[2]  The confidence of despair—what a delightfully counter-intuitive insight!

They all know they are up against it, but “the very depth of despair sets them to climb to the height of trust.”  We know not what to do, but our eyes are upon you.  “Blessed is the desperation which catches at God’s hand; firm is the trust which leaps from despair!”

That blessed desperation formed much of church history in this part of the country.  In the early and mid-1800s, central and western New York experienced numerous revivals of faith.  The evangelist Charles Finney is credited with giving the region the name, “The Burned Over District.”  That is, burned over with the fire of the Spirit.

In 1826, Finney came to Auburn, New York.  This place was in the midst of a powerful revival.  He visited First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor was Rev. Dirck Lansing.  Finney tells this story:[3]

“Rev. Mr. Lansing had a large congregation, and a very intelligent one.  The revival soon took effect among the people and became powerful.  It was at that time that Dr. Steel of Auburn, who still resides there, was so greatly blessed in his soul as to become quite another man.  Dr. Steel was an elder in the Presbyterian church when I arrived there.  He was a very timid and doubting kind of Christian and had but little Christian efficiency because he had but very little faith.”  No doubt many of us can often identify with that, to one extent or another.

Finney continues, “He soon, however, became deeply convicted of sin, and descended into the depths of humiliation and distress, almost to despair.  He continued in this state for weeks, until one night in a prayer meeting he was quite overcome with feelings, and sunk down helpless on the floor.  Then God opened his eyes to the reality of his salvation in Christ…”

A few weeks later, Brother Steel came to Finney and spoke with enthusiastic emphasis, “‘Brother Finney, they have buried the Savior, but Christ is risen.’  He received such a wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost, that he has been the rejoicing and the wonder of God’s people who have known him ever since.”

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There’s some of that confidence of despair!

We might be reminded of what John the Baptist said to the crowds who sought him out.  They asked, “What then should we do?”

There was a movie in 1982, The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt.  Hunt won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan.  She was the first person to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite sex.

“The year of living dangerously” refers to the Indonesia of 1965.  President Sukarno is threatened by General Suharto during an attempted coup.  Mass killings are launched.  During the mayhem, Billy asks the question, “What then must we do?  We must give with love to whoever God has placed in our path.”

Adding a bit of levity, a saying might come to mind, a saying which goes back centuries, “Bloom where you are planted.”  It has been made popular today by the noted philosopher Mary Engelbreit.

Here’s one more note from our friend Rev. MacLaren, who speaks in poetic fashion.  “When the valley is filled with mist and swathed in evening gloom, it is the time to lift our gaze to the peaks that glow in perpetual sunshine.  Wise and happy shall we be if the sense of helplessness begets in us the energy of a desperate faith.”

Have any of us ever experienced that strange reality of confident despair?  I’m not talking about despair the way we usually think of it.  I’m not suggesting a situation when life seems to have lost all meaning.  I’m not referring to when we feel all hope is gone.  Our hope is found in the unshaking power and love of Jesus Christ.

I’m speaking of the confident despair Brother Steel passed through to find salvation and life in the Lord.  He displayed his own desperate faith.  I’m speaking of the confident despair of Billy Kwan during the mayhem and murder of his beloved Indonesia.

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[Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)]

MacLaren adds, “We are most likely to conquer if we lift up the voice of thanks for victory in advance, and go into the battle expecting to triumph, because we trust in God.”

When Jahaziel brought the word of God to Jehoshaphat, he had a decision.  He could have simply plunged his army into a useless battle and suffered a devastating defeat.  He could have surrendered.  Or he could do as he did—trust that the Lord was with them.  Trust that this was his answer to prayer.  Trust and see what the Lord will do.

The same is true with us.  Do we plunge headlong, come hell or high water?  Do we simply surrender?  Or do we give thanks, relying on the grace of God to see us through?  Are we willing to look despair in the face and say, “You will not defeat me”?

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 538.

[2] biblehub.com/commentaries/2_chronicles/20-12.htm

[3] www.gospeltruth.net/memoirsrestored/memrest15.htm


400 to 1

It can be easy to think you’re hearing from God.  I suppose there are those who don’t believe they make much of an effort to do so.  However, I would contend that even the most hard-hearted, seemingly oblivious person still has within them the spark, the hidden desire, to make that connection.  It’s how we’re built.  We all are created in the image of God.

Now, as for those of us who have at least some interest in hearing a word from the Lord, as I suggested, it can be a tricky thing.  That divine voice, spoken in silence through the scriptures, through prayer, through each other, through life itself, is not always apparent.

Those who hear audible voices in their head might need to get some therapeutic help!

We can see the difficulty in 2 Chronicles 18.  We begin with King Jehoshaphat of Judah and King Ahab of Israel.  Quick note: after Solomon’s death, there was a division of kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  It’s enough to make you say, “Jumping Jehoshaphat!”

(We should note Jehoshaphat was not known for his program of calisthenics.  He was not hawking videos of “Sweatin’ with Jehoshaphat.”  “Jumping Jehoshaphat!” is just a nice way to swear.)

Jehoshaphat is considered one of the “good” kings in the Bible.  He had a few flaws—the events of this chapter testify to one—but basically, he was a faithful leader.  He was concerned with following the ways of Yahweh, the Lord.  In chapter 20, the enemies of Judah are planning war against them.  Jehoshaphat calls the people to a time of fasting.  Their enemies get confused and they turn on each other, and Judah is saved.

But that’s in the future.  Right now, he has been blessed with wealth and honor.  Unfortunately, he enters into a marriage alliance with Ahab, who the scriptures describe as a rather notorious fellow.  He is one of the “bad” kings.  Jehoshaphat’s son is wedded to Ahab’s daughter—not exactly a match made in heaven.

Ahab has a proposal for Jehoshaphat.  This time, it has nothing to do with marriage!  He wants to reclaim Ramoth-gilead, which had long been part of Israel, but had been taken by the Arameans (later known as Syrians).  On the face of it, he would seem to be justified.  He invites Jehoshaphat to join him in the fight.  He accepts the invitation, but then thinks, “Maybe I’m being too hasty.  We need to seek the Lord on this.”

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Ahab gathers together four hundred prophets, and they give him the green light.  “Go up; for God will give it into the hand of the king” (v. 5).  Well, that settles that!  However, Jehoshaphat still has his doubts.  Apparently, four hundred prophets all saying the same thing—agreeing with Ahab’s plan—arouse his suspicion.  Isn’t there someone else to consult?  There are always two sides to every story, often more than two.

Oh yes, there’s the prophet Micaiah.  But Ahab adds, “I hate the guy.  He never says what I want to hear.”  In any event, he sends someone to retrieve the prophet, who explains to Micaiah the king’s policy and who warns the prophet against dissenting, that is, if he wants to stay healthy.

“Okay, that’s fine.  As long as the Lord gives the thumbs-up, we’re cool.”  In the meantime, the two kings have arrayed themselves with pomp and circumstance.  Micaiah shows up and says, “Reporting as ordered.”  Ahab puts the question to him, and he reports as ordered.  He mindlessly repeats the party line.

The king knows he isn’t being truthful, and he chastises him.  Then Micaiah lets everyone know why Ahab hates him.  “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains,” the prophet declares, “like sheep without a shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace’” (v. 16).  In other words, if you pursue this fool’s errand, you won’t escape with your life.  Your troops will have no leader.

Ahab turns to Jehoshaphat and says, “See what I mean?  I told you so!”

Here’s where we get back to Jehoshaphat having reservations.  He surely knows the prophet is speaking the word of the Lord.  Doesn’t he?  Is it possible he has convinced himself he’s doing the right thing?  Has he been swayed by all the other prophets?

How often do we go against our better judgment?  Something is telling us, “Don’t do this.  You will regret it.”  But we go ahead anyway!  On the flip side, we might sense that we should do something, but we stand aside and don’t get involved.

Meanwhile, Micaiah has some explaining to do.  He speaks of a vision of being in the throne room of God, who wonders how Ahab can be lured into pursuing this disastrous course of action.  A spirit (an angel?) steps forward and says, “I will trick him.”  Micaiah says all the prophets are following a lie, not the Lord.

This brings up a problem that appears on occasion in the Bible.  Does God force people to do the wrong thing?  We see it famously portrayed in Exodus when the Pharaoh hardens his heart and won’t allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt.  Still, there are two sides to that coin.  We see times when it is in fact God who is doing the hardening of his heart (Ex 9:12, 10:20, 27).  What’s that all about?

There isn’t any one easy answer, but we can imagine someone whose mind and heart are completely closed, like an iron gate slammed shut—one who is dead set on their intention.  It is conceivable to picture God honoring that decision, so to speak.  The person will get a nudge in that direction.  Still, repentance is always possible.

2 chphoto by Denny Müller at Unsplash

Whatever the case, for his trouble in delivering the message, Micaiah gets smacked in the face.  And then things really go south.

The prophet is treated like an enemy of the state.  The king orders him to be taken into custody and thrown in jail.  There’s a prison cell with his name on it.  He is to be fed what amounts to little more than a starvation diet.  He winds up defying the king’s orders, speaking against the state.  Ahab decrees that Micaiah is to remain under lock and key until he returns safe and sound.

He has one last word for the king.  If Ahab does return in one piece, then Micaiah will admit he hasn’t heard from the Lord.  He wants everyone to understand.  “Hear, you peoples, all of you!” (v. 27).  And that’s it for him.  We don’t know what becomes of Micaiah.  Unfortunately for Ahab, we do know what becomes of him.  Quickly, here is the conclusion.

He’s not quite ready to meet the grim reaper, so he goes undercover.  Ahab dresses like an ordinary soldier; he’s not wearing his kingly garb.  He doesn’t want to draw any attention.  He doesn’t want someone zeroing in on him.  However, as fate would have it, Ahab is struck by a random arrow which finds a gap in his armor, and he bleeds out.

It turned out Micaiah had listened to the Lord.  He had heard the divine word.

I began by noting it can be easy to think you’re hearing from God.  At the very least, it can be easy to believe what we’re doing has been blessed by God.  A degree of humility is called for.

When the four hundred prophets are proclaiming their message, it can seem like they’re speaking with the very voice of God.  Who would dare disregard it?  When the whole society is saying one thing, it might take bravery—or bravado—to go your own way.

Listening to God involves listening with the ear of the heart.  The ear of our heart can be seen as the most vital thing about us.  If we never listen to it, then our entire life becomes tone deaf.

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When our lives are tone deaf, we don’t listen.  Like King Ahab and the four hundred prophets, we don’t listen to the word of God.  Because we don’t listen to God, we don’t listen to each other.  And with all of that “not listening,” one day we arrive at the point in which we cannot listen.  Well, maybe we still do listen—we just listen to lies.

By not listening to the word of God, by not dreaming new beginnings, we make ourselves slaves to a past gone by; we hamstring our future with limited possibilities.

A big part of hearing, a big part of listening, is allowing questions.  When we mindlessly quote the authorities, when we do not make room for questions, we indeed harden our hearts.  We don’t listen with them.  We ignore that still, small voice within.

What good would Micaiah be today?  Would we hate him?  Would he say stuff we don’t want to hear?

Here’s a good question.  Who is he today?  Is there a Micaiah among us?  Is there a Micaiah who speaks to us?

We have to be careful, lest the church follow a growing trend in which questions are suppressed—when we’re chastised for asking.  Actually, I think we can agree that the church is often the worst of all when it comes to shaming and erecting walls.  Following Jesus means asking questions.  He surely puts questions to us!  When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus then asked, “Who was a neighbor to the man left for dead?”  The answer: the one who showed mercy.  He asks tough questions.

One of my mom’s many sayings when I was a kid was, “You and God make a majority.”  When we encounter situations in which the score is 400 to 1, may we humbly hold on to the truth that’s been shown us.  Without question.


subversive joy

Rarely does a scripture reading in a worship service last longer than a couple of minutes.  When it’s completed, we usually say something along the lines of, “This is the word of the Lord.”  The response is something like, “Thanks be to God.”

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How about a scripture reading that goes on for six hours?  We see that in Nehemiah 8.  And then when it’s finished, could we have our proclamation, “This is the word of the Lord”?  And how should the people respond?”  “Thanks be to God?”  Well, they don’t; they are crying their eyes out!

(Hold that thought.  We’ll get into it in a few moments.)

For many people, Nehemiah may not be one of the better-known figures in the Bible.  He and Ezra (who might be a tad better known than Nehemiah) were contemporaries.  Both lived as exiles in the 400s B.C.  They both made the trip back to Jerusalem about a century after the first group the Babylonians forced into exile.  Nehemiah came from east of Babylon, from Persia.  He was a political figure, serving as a governor.  Ezra was a scribe, so he was a spiritual / religious figure.

Very quickly, they heard of the sorry state of the Jews who had returned in previous years.  The walls around Jerusalem lay in ruins.

Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, despite the opposition of many enemies of other nationalities.  They didn’t like the idea of these Jews moving into the neighborhood and setting up shop.  It’s like when you have company, and they just keep hanging around.  It’s ten o’clock, then eleven o’clock.  You’re yawning and saying, “Well, it’s getting late.”  Midnight is approaching, and they still haven’t left.  Finally, you say, “Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but I need to go to bed.”

The enemies of the Jews were much more than rude.  They launched a campaign of intimidation—and some of it was violent.  However, their efforts failed.  Long story short, skipping a lot of events: the temple had been rebuilt a few decades earlier, though it seemed a pale shadow of the original one.  And yes, the walls also were rebuilt.

Some people see this chapter as the beginning of the faith we now call Judaism.  When the people were sent into exile, they couldn’t worship the way they had done for centuries.  There was no temple; they could no longer conduct temple worship.  What could they do?  They began to focus on the scriptures, the word of God.  Synagogues were formed, and they’re still around!  Gathering around the word in the synagogue was a forerunner to believers in Christ gathering in the church.  Christians would gather around the word, both written and living—and we’re still doing it today!

I mentioned listening to this six-hour scripture reading, but how about the ones doing the reading?  We skipped over the liturgists, folks like Mattithiah and Shema, and our old friends Bani and Akkub and all the rest of the boys!  They serve as translators from the Hebrew text to the Aramaic language, which everyone spoke.  (Aramaic lasted for centuries.  It was the language of Jesus.)  They also explain the meaning, so that everyone can see how it applies to them.

I also mentioned the people’s reaction.

Anathea E. Portier-Young has said, “Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture as such, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted.”[1]  I wonder what our reaction would be?

2 ne She continues, “When they hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people weep because they hear their sins spoken out loud and they know they are not innocent, but guilty.”  They know they have fallen short.  When they hear the word applied to their lives, no one feels like celebrating.  No one is shouting, “Glory hallelujah!”  They are not delighted; they are dejected.

I wonder, have I done my job if my sermon reduces everyone here to tears?  (I suppose there could be more than one reason for that!)

So there’s a dark cloud of gloom.  These people have been beaten down, and it looks like it’s their own fault.

What do their leaders say to them?  It’s something they weren’t expecting.  “This day is holy to the Lord your God.”  Okay, it is holy, but we’re not sure what that means.  Where are you going with this?  Are we in trouble?  Is God about to lower the boom on us?  Then comes the rest: “do not mourn or weep” (v. 9).

We don’t understand.  We thought this would be a call for wailing and fasting, a time of deep lamentation.

But the good news is just getting started.  “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).  That’s a lot to take in.  I wonder if they’re not like the psalmist, who sang to the heavens, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Ps 126:1).  We were like those who dream.  There might be those who are still crying, but now, these are tears of joy—tears of euphoria.  Far from being commanded to fast, the command is to have a party!

This is how they are to respond to the word that has been spoken—to the word that has been preached.  In our churches, we have our own response to the word, which could include reciting an affirmation of faith, receiving an offering, celebrating the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even making a public renewal of faith or a request for healing.

Likewise, the people in our text are also given actions in response: go, eat, drink, send portions to those in need.  Why should they do this?  Here we go again.  “[F]or this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Dan Clendenin tells us, “As the Scriptures often do, the story…offers a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and subversive piece of advice: do not yield to the spirit of despair.  Do not default to gloom and doom.  Instead, choose the radical option of genuine joy.  Yes, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine.”[2]

I like the way he describes our default setting: gloom and doom.  As a nation, we are too often expected, we are too often told, to adopt that as our baseline.  That’s our starting point, our initial frame of reference.  Our news networks (I say “news” tongue-in-cheek) enjoy pointing at each other, almost like mirror images.  We are bombarded with “breaking news” and ordered to cry out, “Where is the outrage?”  The pundits angrily, childishly, and self-righteously assert that the other side won’t be happy until America is a smoking pile of rubbish.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

In the face of all that, how can we have the audacity to be joyful?  As Clendenin says, “The opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but anxiety.”  We are an anxious people.  We stir each other up, and we seek answers in a variety of ways.

I understand medicine has its place.  I myself take anti-seizure medication.  Still, we go way overboard, and we spend a lot of money.  (Quick side point: some pharmaceutical companies have raked in billions of dollars during this past year and a half.)  Too often, we rely on drugs to give us an artificial sense of joy.  Maybe we can relate to the 1970s punk rock group the Ramones, who sang, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

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[During a visit to Austin, Texas in April 1983, my friend Rich met the Ramones at a record store. When he asked Joey Ramone if he could pose with them for a photo, he replied, "I dunno."]

Joy is subversive.

Take the example of Jesus.  During his earthly life, his joy was something that could not be stripped from him.  He chose to not let it be taken.  Consider his exchange with Pontius Pilate, who told Jesus that his life was in his hands.  Jesus said in return that any power Pilate had was granted by his heavenly Father.  (See John 19:9-11.)

Those are not the words of an anxious man.

We see in the letter to the Hebrews that the cross, a method of execution reserved for the lowest of the low, was a sign of shame.  Jesus refused to wear the shame.  He disregarded it; he rejected it.  Even that horrific treatment could not tear away his joy.

How much less does it take for our joy to be snatched away?  The secret is found in the message to the people that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

When I was in the Assemblies of God, we sometimes sang the worship chorus, “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength.”  There are many stanzas; each has one line sung three times and followed with “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”  You can just come up with your own lines.  One I remember in particular was, “If you want joy, you must ask for it,” or the more exuberant, “If you want joy, you must shout for it.”  Or, “If you want joy, clap your hands for it.”

I guess I don’t have to say we could sing about joy in ways a little less informal!

The point is, the joy of the Lord is very much a lifeline, a power source, a fountain of rejuvenating water.  But it’s more than something to request.

Portier-Young says, “The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs.  This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for ‘the joy of the Lord’ can [truly] mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart.”

In other words, joy belongs to God’s very essence, aside from any request we might make for it.  The joy of the Lord as our strength is what gives us life.  We become immersed in joy.  We live in joy.

4 ne[photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash]

As suggested, there is much in our world today which desires to plunge us into anxiety, into dread, into constant nagging fears.  There are forces which employ shame and bullying.  Nonetheless, as he so frequently does in the scriptures, Jesus tells us, “Fear not.”

Likewise, when the congregation in Nehemiah hears the word of God, they are encouraged—they are ordered—to reject the shame, to reject the spirit of despair.  Their enemies are mighty.  There’s no question about that.  Still, they are to embrace a subversive joy.  We also are to do the same.  There is no room for the Holy Spirit and for the spirits of despair and anxiety to co-exist.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-nehemiah-81-3-5-6-8-10-2

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070115JJ.shtml


calming the chaos

It was the evening of New Year’s Day.  There was a pitter patter of shower outside.  I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to hear what the rain would say to me.  Upon stepping outside, I realized the droplets were being outvoted by pellets.  A slushy crust was coalescing beneath my feet.  That’s okay, since the ice is making its voice heard, I’ll lend an ear.  So off I went into the night.

Actually, I did not lend an ear.  I was too busy thinking about my determination to listen to whatever precepts the precipitation presented.  Is there a word for me to receive?  It’s difficult to be aware if you’re trying to be aware that you are aware.  You wind up only hearing yourself.

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

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It seems fitting that we would have that kind of weather on the evening of the first day of the year.  I say it seems fitting, in that our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, the Baptism of the Lord, is from Genesis—the first five verses of the book.  (You know: “In the beginning,” water, baptism, even if it’s a baptism of sleet.)

At his baptism, as the water flowed down his body, Jesus did hear a voice.  It was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  The “macro” story is in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the creation of the world.  The “micro” story is the rest of chapter 2, focusing on the creation of the human race.  We’re in the “macro” story and looking at the first day of creation.

With each of the days of creation, we have the repeated statement, “God said.”  God speaks, and something appears, something happens.  God speaks the word in creating.  Over and again, we are told God saw that it was good.  It is the word pervading all of creation, permeating all of the cosmos.

The gospel of John borrows from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Summing up each day of creation is the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second day, and the third day, and so on (v. 5).

I want to include a side note.  I imagine you’ve heard it said the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook, or words to that effect.  If we read these words as though they were lab notes from a science experiment, we will miss the wonderful and beautiful truth these words really convey.

2 gnFor example, on the third day of creation, plants appear.  It’s not until the fourth day that the sun, moon, and stars appear.  To force these images into that system of logic is completely alien to how the ancients perceived it.  Obviously, they knew plants could not precede the sun!  Actually, to force these images into that system of logic is alien to how we ourselves use art and poetry.

Today being the Baptism of the Lord, I would like to focus on the first two verses, which are the reason this text was assigned to this day in the first place.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The earth was a formless void.  The Hebrew word for “formless” (תֹּהוּ, tohu) also means “confusion” or “chaos.”  It was a nothingness of chaos.  The word for “void” (בֹּהוּ, bohu) also means “emptiness.”  It was an emptiness without form—an emptiness without shape.  The earth was a real “fixer upper.”

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

What we see is God bringing order to what is the ultimate picture of disorder.  (If it’s possible to have a picture of disorder.)  God is setting boundaries.  “God [separates] the light from the darkness” (v. 4).  In the days following, we see other things being separated, being distinguished.

Sometimes my dear wife Banu will prepare a dish with ingredients carefully portioned into distinct layers.  She often shows me how to eat it, sometimes using a fork to demonstrate.  I am reminded to not mix them together, so as not to deprive, or to diminish, the individual flavor of each element.  I am not to mess up the texture of the various components.  I am forbidden to bring disorder to order.

(Please understand: I’ve never been one to take a utensil and clumsily stir the contents of my plate around until I’m left with a blob-like specimen with the consistency of thick paste.  Furthermore, I’ve never been one to then say, “Hey, it’s all going to the same place anyway.”)

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Perhaps my favorite of the prophets is Jeremiah.  The Bible tells us more about him as a person than any of the other prophets.  And he has quite a story.  I mention him because, in a startling passage, he uses the word bohu (4:23-26).

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  The earth is again described as “void.”  He continues.

“I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, [he’s doing a lot of looking!] and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Walter Brueggemann comments on Jeremiah’s looking.[1]

“The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos…  [E]ach time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Gen. 1:2…”  God’s covenant with Israel “held to the [astonishing] notion that human conduct matters for the well-being of creation.  Working from that notion, the picture of this poem is grim.  Since there has been no obedience, there will be no viable creation.  Disobedience finally leads to chaos for the entire creation.”

Lest we think that’s an exaggeration, our own disobedience in tending the garden is leading to a twenty-first century version of chaos for creation.  We too often ignore God’s covenant, now expressed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, in our dealings with each other.  We foment disorder in each other’s lives.

As I’ve said before, sometimes events happen during the week that simply must be addressed.  The horror at the Capitol building on Wednesday is definitely in that category.  We witnessed a mob storm the building in an effort to disrupt the proceedings of a joint session of Congress.  For a while, the rioters had their way.  Officers were attacked, weapons were carried, windows were smashed, offices were ransacked, and worst of all, there was loss of life: four protesters and one police officer.  To use the Hebrew word, it was tohu.  It was disorder.  It was chaos.  It was an obscenity.

I posted something on Facebook that evening.  This was it: “This morning, aware that today is the Epiphany of the Lord, I wrote in my journal, ‘May the Lord shine today!’  No darkness, no violence, no thuggery can withstand that glory.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”

Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ shining to all the Gentiles, to all the nations.  The visit of the Magi illustrates it.  When they asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem were terrified.  They feared the light shining into their darkness.

We are called to work for justice.  Jesus was all about that.  What happened on Wednesday had nothing to do with justice.  We didn’t see a Spirit-led struggle for justice.  Those folks were not guided by the Holy Spirit, and neither were the ones who urged them on, who planted the idea.

Our “God is a God not of disorder [not of chaos] but of peace” (1 Co 14:33).

I’ve been talking about creation as a process of setting boundaries, of bringing order to disorder.  Light is separated from darkness.  The sky is separated from the ocean.  The land is separated from the sea.

Are there broken boundaries in need of restoration?  Does order need to be brought to disorder?  Are there any things that need to be separated?

It’s important to take notice of something.  When God sets boundaries, it is indeed a creative act.  It isn’t a destructive one.  The boundaries are healthy boundaries.  They are boundaries that protect.  They are not boundaries that harmfully isolate.

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So, back to the beginning.  We are nine days removed from New Year’s Day.  Moving into 2021, what word is there for us?  “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The fresh breeze of the Spirit brings order to chaos; it brings harmony to havoc.

As for me, the story of my nocturnal walk reinforces a lesson I need to heed over and over.  I could do with some restoration of boundaries, so that I can rightly discern the Word from the many words bubbling up in my mind.

So again, do you have any boundaries that need to be restored?  Is there any chaos that needs to be calmed, that needs to be set in order?

Thanks be to God, who speaks the word that creates, and who speaks the word into our lives to calm the storm.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.


freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

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(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

4 ga
How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

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I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

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In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

3 ps

Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

4 ps

Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


presence among us

I want to begin with a confession.  I think I might be improving in this particular regard, but I still have a long way to go.  I too often feel like I need to air my opinions, especially on controversial subjects.  I fear I am far from alone in that.  Go to Facebook or scroll down through the comments on almost any article, and you’ll see what I mean.  Watch what passes for news in our country.

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

And it’s in the church—sometimes it feels like the church has turned fighting into a fine art.  We ask, “How can you be a Christian and think that?  How can you be a Christian and support him or her?”

1 mt

When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. (Not that their being Episcopal Churches had anything to do with it.  I love the Episcopal Church!)  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it, perhaps plotting some ever so slight retribution!

I’m trying to give an example of what Jesus references in Matthew 18 when he speaks of the offenses, the sins, that go on in the church.  When I mentioned this before, I jokingly said some might consider this to be a matter of life and death.  Due to this coronavirus craziness, that has taken on a nature which is quite disconcerting, bordering on the truth!

Jesus starts this off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (v. 15).  (The NRSV has “member of the church” instead of “brother” or “sister.”)

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

That’s a good example of being unwilling to “own” your complaint, a refusal to accept responsibility.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.  If we meet with them alone, there’s less chance of an automatic defense reaction—especially if the person doesn’t want to lose face in front of his or her crowd.  Actually, that could wind up being dangerous, depending on how prone to violence the crowd might be!

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

2 mtI want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is never a wise course of action.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is likely a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to…”  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Confidentiality honors and builds respect; secrecy dishonors and destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[2]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

On a related issue, sometimes we need to check our sense of humor.  Understand, I’m not talking about a really serious matter.  Still, being able to laugh at oneself can take the sting out of an intended slight.  It takes away all the fun of insulting someone if they don’t get offended!  (I know, I know—I remember how I started the sermon.)

Back to the main point.  What if a meeting with one or two others present doesn’t work?  What if there is no peaceful resolution?

Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  It can take many forms, some helpful and some absolutely horrific.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

It’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

It’s the duty of every church member prayerfully and seriously!  That’s a high bar.

However, what’s the deal with considering someone to be like “a Gentile and a tax collector”?  That seems a bit harsh.  Some have tried to soften the blow by focusing on Jesus’ commandment to love, and not indulging in such offensive behavior.  It’s been pointed out that what is meant is such a person should “be regarded as outside the community.”[3]  It’s a decision made by the person themself.

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Having said that, we should be careful about watering down Jesus’ words.  Sometimes they should hit us in the face like a bucket of cold…water!

Then he gets into the subject of binding and loosing.  There have been all kinds of meanings attached to this.  Some traditions speak of “binding the devil” or “binding Satan.”  One day in class at the Assemblies of God college I attended, a fellow student said that very thing—we can bind the devil.  Our professor stopped and said, “Then do it.  Bind the devil.”  There was an embarrassing silence.  I guess he wanted us to figure out what binding the devil actually meant.

Binding and loosing really refers to a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it didn’t apply.

The passage ends with verse 20, with the well-known words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The verse is almost always used in the contexts of worship and prayer, and it is appropriate for that.  However, that is not how it is used here.  The “two or three gathered in my name” appears in the context of discipline.  The presence among us is about confronting or challenging.

They are words of wisdom, based on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing….  Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (v. 15).  The concern is to avoid relying on a false witness.

When Jesus says, “I am there among them,” he’s drawing on a rabbinic principle, which holds “two that sit together and are [studying] words of Torah have the Shekinah [the glory of God] among them.”[4]  Jesus is the glory of God.  Jesus is the presence, the glory of God among us when we gather in his name—when we gather in his authority.

As already said about correction by the church, considering the presence of Jesus in discipline can be tricky.  And understand, “discipline” is far more than simply enforcing rules.  It is about training, getting into shape.  Discipline can be intimidating.

Karen Chamis, who is our presbytery’s Resource Presbyter, notes the fear that would hinder us from helping each other on the path.[5]

“Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be,” she says, “and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.”  She speaks of those who thrive on intimidation.  “It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm.  Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

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[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

“And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations.  We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle.  We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution…  We forget who we are.  We forget Whose we are…because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.”

That presence among us is present in worship.  It is present in prayer.  It is present in discipline.  And today we are reminded that the presence of Christ is present in sacrament.  It is present where love is unleashed, and to borrow a word from Chamis, it is “fierce.”  Maybe that’s why love itself, in its unbridled power, can be very intimidating!

“Where two or three are gathered…”  The presence in worship, in prayer, in discipline, in sacrament—the presence of Christ means fear has been defeated by love.  We are given the courage and grace to help each other walk the path, even if means correcting each other—in love.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 6.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 220.

[4] sacred-texts.com/jud/sjf/sjf05.htm

[5] cayugasyracuse.org/index.php/blog/e-newsletter-presbytery-matters-september-3-2020/


invisible light

“It is universally agreed that the Emmaus story is a gem of literary art.”[1]  That’s a quote from Bogdan Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”  (He teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.)

I think I would tend to agree with that.  Actually, the gospel of Luke itself is filled with gems of literary art.  There’s the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, in chapter 1 (vv. 46-55).  We have the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (10:29-37 and 15:11-32).  We could come up with some other gemstones.

A couple of weeks ago on Easter Sunday, I said the celebration of it this year is muted.  This is certainly an Easter like none other.  Is it possible to miss some of the majesty?  The thing about majesty is sometimes it sneaks up right behind you.  The two disciples on their way to Emmaus find that out—though they don’t realize the majesty at first.

1 lk

{"The Walk to Emmaus" by Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte}

About that couple, they’re usually portrayed as two men.  Not everyone sees it that way.  Apparently, they live in the same house; it seems just as likely we’re dealing with a husband and wife.  In fact, in his gospel, John says “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas [also spelled as Cleopas], and Mary Magdalene” (19:25).

Maybe I’m mistaken.  Seriously, there’s no way someone’s wife would be written out of the story!  Perish the thought!

If it’s possible for us to miss the majesty, to not glimpse the glory, the same is true of our couple.  The scripture says, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16).  There’s more on this point of not being able to recognize, not being able to see, but we’ll look at that in a moment.

The two of them are downcast, and Jesus wants to know why.  They’re surprised he hasn’t heard the bad news.  Cleopas says they’re dismayed because Jesus has been crucified.  They had such high expectations.  “But,” as verse 21 says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped he would set Israel free.  We had hoped.

Jesus chides them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (v. 25).  We’re told, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

That word for “interpreted” (διερμηνευω, diermēneuō) means more than to simply explain.  What Jesus does is to reframe, to re-imagine.  He takes the scriptures and pulls out deeper meanings.

An example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Someone asks Jesus how to achieve eternal life.  Jesus speaks of loving God and loving neighbor.  “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (10:29).  Thus, we have the parable.  A poor fellow is robbed and beaten and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite see him and pass right by.  When the Samaritan sees him, he goes out of his way to care for him.  Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36).

Jesus reframes, he re-imagines, the word “neighbor.”  A neighbor isn’t just a certain person.  You can make anyone a neighbor.  It’s a way of treating someone.

Returning to the idea of recognition, of perception, I imagine we’ve all failed to see something right in front of us.  When I was a kid and looking for a certain item that was hidden in plain sight, my mom would often say to me, “If it was a snake, it woulda bit you!”

2 lkIt’s hard to blame this couple for not seeing what (or who) is right in front of them.  Remember, the Bible says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).  There are all kinds of theories as to what that means.  Was there divine interference?  Were they not ready to see that level of glory, that level of (to use the word again) majesty?

Our friend Bogdan (who I mentioned at the beginning) says something like that about them.  As long as they think of Jesus as a prophet who failed to liberate Israel, “they remain unable to bear the brilliance of his glory.”[2]  They still need a transformation by the Spirit.  It’s the glory of the Lord that prevents them from seeing the glory of the Lord!  They are, in effect, blinded by the light.

Still, we can’t ignore what was going on within them.  This isn’t a walk in the park.  Their world has collapsed.  The bottom has dropped out.  Despair is threatening to overwhelm them.  Sadness has dulled their vision.

Maybe we can relate.  When we feel depressed, when it feels like the walls are closing in, our senses can become dulled.  It can be hard to see beauty.  It becomes difficult to have creative vision.  It might even be the case that smells aren’t as pleasant.  Maybe food doesn’t taste as good.

That can be true of us in this time.  Being cooped up in our houses, not being able to sit down in a restaurant, having to wear masks at the grocery store, the kids not attending school—it can be enough to drive anyone up the wall.  It can be enough to leave us dispirited.

So maybe we can relate to our friends on the road to Emmaus.

As they draw near their destination, Jesus is continuing on.  The day is nearly done, so they invite him to stay with them.  They offer him their hospitality.  “Please, come and join us for dinner.  We want you to spend the night.  You can continue your journey in the morning.”

He agrees.  And what happens at mealtime?  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30).  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The only thing missing is, “This is my body, broken for you.”

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What happens next is truly amazing and baffling.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).  Their eyes are opened.  They recognize him.  Then he disappears.  That’s quite a miraculous act!  It’s in the breaking of the bread when the lights come on.  They realize who is dining with them.  They understand that they’re sitting at the table with their Lord.

That might be a tad difficult to understand, but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming up.  He vanished from their sight.  Wait.  What?

There are those who say Jesus was agile and quick enough to slip out without being noticed.  It seems that a resurrection body is quite athletic.  Maybe he diverted the disciples’ attention: something like, “Hey, what’s that over there?”  He points, then takes off.

He didn’t even ask to be excused from the dinner table!

The word for “vanished” or “disappeared” is an interesting one.[3]  Its root meaning is “made invisible.”  William Loader picks up on this when he speaks of the “surreality of the invisible man.”[4]  And we go back to the title of Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”

So, after Jesus’ disappearing act, the pair engage in reflection.  Here’s another place where Luke displays his use of powerful, poetic language.  “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (v. 32).  Were not our hearts burning within us?  The Revised English Bible reads, “Were not our hearts on fire?”

What an awesome experience.

Cleopas (and possibly Mary?) decide to make an evening journey back to Jerusalem.  They go to see the other disciples, who are already overjoyed, since they also know that the Lord has risen from the dead.  “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).

From ancient times, the breaking of bread has been a time of welcoming, an act of hospitality.  It is a sign of community.  On the flip side, the refusal to share a meal with someone is seen as an insult.  It is inhospitable; it is a rejection of community.

Earlier, I suggested Jesus’ breaking of the bread is reminiscent of what we do in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  It also is an act of welcoming, of hospitality; it is a sign of community.  This fits with our understanding of the sacrament.  Our Book of Order says this about it: “When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.  We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God” (W-3.0409).

We are united.  We are joined.  It truly is a holy communion.

As it was with those early disciples, so it is today.  In the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, Jesus is made known.  There is that invisible light, that invisible energy, that Spirit of love who unites us.

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Sometimes we miss the majesty, the glory.  We need the scriptures to be opened.  We need our minds to be opened.  We need our hearts to burn.  We need them to be on fire.  We need the Lord to be revealed to us—to be revealed to us again and again.

May the invisible light of Christ guide us on our resurrection journey.

 

[1] Bogdan Bucur, “Blinded by Invisible Light: Revisiting the Emmaus Story (Luke 13:13-35)” Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses, 90:4 (Dec 2014) 685.

[2] Bucur, 694.

[3] αφαντος, aphantos

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEaster3.htm