The Evil Eye

In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.

Matthew 20:1-16

The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew.  One traditional interpretation of this parable has been to focus on the very last verse where it says “the last will be first…,” and insist on understanding the parable as a statement about the gift of eternal life as the ultimate equalizer, that will be granted to all “laborers in the vineyard.”  But there may be a more practical application that might require a different title.

From our contemporary context, this parable brings to mind issues of immigration and daily laborers. What is “fair” for those who work among us as migrant workers or labor in the various service industries which supporting our highly educated professional class and our technologically-driven economic complex? And, what is it to us if the minimum wage rises to assist those workers on the lowest end of our economic system?

It is fascinating that even after two thousand years this parable in Matthew 20 still arouses indignation in some people.

20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

To cut to the chase Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like this very responsible landowner.  More than anyone else he is critically aware that he can’t make wine from grapes on the vine.  He knows that he is in business.  He negotiates a usual days wage and sends those who were available out into his vineyard. He goes to the labor pool at nine but this time he doesn’t  negotiate with them he simply says “I’ll pay you what’s right!” He is desperate for more hands and he needs them now.  He does the same at noon and three.  Too much sun, to much rain, too little sun, too little rain and too long ripe on the vines cuts into his income.  He hires. He hires every available pair of hands to pick his grapes.  We shouldn’t miss the reality that his is not the only vineyard in the valley that needs pickers at the same time.  At this point he is in competition with the other wine producers who need the same help at the same time.  He is desperate. He goes out at five, with only a hour left to work.  I also think he may be thinking ahead, planning the work that’s needed the next day.  He needs all the hands he can get. But beyond that this vineyard owner is part of the fabric of the Jewish society in which Jesus lives and teaches.  Derived from the written and oral Torah there is a standard covenant of employer/employee relations from which Conservative Jews and Conservative Jewish institutions operate.  It is a commitment to treat their workers with dignity and respect; pay their employees a living wage and not knowingly put them at risk of injury or death. Employees, in turn, are expected to do their best work and treat their employers with the same dignity and respect due them.  This is a special relationship in which both employers and employees feel that their work in ‘sacred’ and they are involved in a partnership with God in the work of creation.In Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Torah specifies that one must pay a worker on the day that he completes his work. In Jesus’ parable the manager is sent out to pay the daily laborers – not for the hours they worked but a day’s wages.  The underlying principle is that a day worker needs a day’s wage to meet his family’s needs.  Paying less than that leaves the worker and his family destitute.   The Torah recognizes that often a worker is in urgent need of his wages; he needs to feed himself and/or his family. To postpone paying him may cause him distress and, in some cases, death.   In addition, by keeping this patter we train ourselves to be compassionate and kind. This, in turn, prepares us to accept God’s goodness to us.

This is a hard concept for us.  Jesus’ parable holds up for all to see a responsible business person. We are expected to live our values in the ways in which we care for members of our communities, in our choices about how to spend time and money, and in other aspects of our communal lives.  Conservative Jews do that because they believe that their commitments to individuals within their communities, their children, and to the principles of their system are not theoretical constructs. Low-wage workers are members of our communities.  If we are to live our values in our business practices, we will be considerate in determining how much to pay these employees and how to treat them.

Did you catch that last Sunday evening on Downtown Abbey when the Jewish family was asked whether it was hard for them, being Jewish, to get good employees?  The response was, “We are Jews and we pay well.”

That’s a pretty high bar.  Jesus started his story saying that the landowner and vineyard operator was like the Kingdom of God. In that, he meets his obligations and provides a model for others in the community.  Every worker gets a daily wage, not based on the hours worked but based on their need.

Then there are the grumblers.  Speaking of those who were paid a day’s wage but had worked fewer hours they said to the landowner “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And yes, that is exactly what he had done.  He paid each and everyone a living wage.

Rhetorically the landowner pleads: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? And of course in our culture the answer to that,  is ‘no’.  You can’t open a pot store next to an elementary school.  You can’t have topless baristas serving coffee in some neighbourhoods.  The owner’s property does not belong to him; it belongs to the community. Ask the people in Nebraska who are in court over pipeline proponents and their claims of imminent domain. Here, everyone gets only what is just. No room for generosity is allowed. All ownership that would allow for generosity is unjust.

In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.  Is it true that there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance. We can lose the Kingdom of Heaven if we are just but begrudge generosity to others. Must God in dealing with us be only just? Must we blame God if God is more than just? Must we be more than just?

In the divine owner’s contract with us, we must accept one condition, namely, His generosity. Many a just man refuses it.

The last question was for the workers and us : Or are you envious because I am generous?  How do you respond to that?  The literal Greek is “Is your eye evil because I am good?”   Reference to the “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets our eye. As Jesus taught in the 6th chapter “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness”. In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity.  In both Islamic and Jewish cultures the ‘evil eye’ is taken quite seriously.  It’s about regretting the good fortune of another.  It’s about jealousy, greed and  stinginess.
So our  parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard.” In fact, this is not even a story about the productivity of the vineyard. We hear the complaints of those who have toiled all day long, but the story was really not about them either.  Rather, Jesus’ parable highlights the generosity of God.  God, the ultimate “landowner,” will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all, even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes. In Jesus words in the fifth chapter God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust. The landowner’s question in the parable is Jesus’ punchline: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

 

 

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Being the Called Out Ones

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Our text from Matthew 18 is bracketed by parables and teaching on how we are to see ourselves in relation to others. Preceding the passage we read that Jesus responded to the question of who’s the greatest in the Kingdom by calling a child into the gathering. It was a clear call to humility and self deprecation and a warning about placing “a stumbling block” in the way of someone less prominent. Next comes the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to restore a wayward lamb. The story emphasizes the value of every person. No one is expendable.

In the narrative immediately following our text Jesus tells Peter that the requirement of seeking reconciliation is beyond calculation. And added to that we hear the scathing story of the unforgiving servant which makes the point that God, from whom we have received grace, expects us to extend that grace to others. It’s more than mere forgiveness. We can actually take pride in how forgiving we’ve been. It can give us the notion that we are a step above another in righteousness. Forgiveness must come from the heart. Which takes us to our text. I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version. It is an update of the American Standard Version.

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Some versions of Matthew have shown their King James heritage and have been less than helpful in getting to the heart of the intended message. Several other translations put new light on this passage.

First of all we need to note that this version translates the word for the “called out” as “the church”. According to the chronology of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is instructing the diverse group of persons who were accepted by him as disciples. At best the “called out” consists of the diverse gathering of those who have been following Rabbi Jesus. He calls them, “the called out”, that’s the literal translation of the word eclessia that has been translated as the assembly or ‘the church’. There was no such thing as ‘the church’ at that time.

The character of the ‘twelve’ was quite diverse. Tradition tells us that the core of this movement to reveal the new activity of God consisted of the twelve men. What adds to our confusion is that different lists in the New Testament included different persons. Some would suggest that the number was significant as a symbol of the new Israel and not to be taken in its numerically literal sense. We know that, though not listed among the males, women were part of this core. The first evangelists were, in fact, women. Those who followed Jesus represent the whole of the economic and social levels of the day. The group included journeymen, zealots, and Roman collaborators. What could possibly hold just a diverse group together?

We all have different ideas about what is a sin. Modern versions of the New Testament translate the Greek word ‘hamartia’ as “sin”. In Classic Greek it means to err. The word has migrated into English to describe a fatal flaw, an inherent defect or shortcoming, in the hero of a tragedy. We’ve often noted that the Greek word means ‘missing the mark’ as in shooting an arrow toward a target. It simply means ‘missing’.
Modern versions substitute the phrase “another member of the church” for the Greek which says that the person in question is your brother or sister. This substitution obscures from us the familial relationship Jesus intends to exist among the ‘called out’ ones. This person isn’t just some other person, it’s your sister or your brother.

Next, modern versions further confuse things when it adds ‘against you’ to the Greek. It’s not there. If we include “against you” the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense. If we follow the best Greek manuscripts the focus is on what the other person did to offend.

So. Let’s try the first verse this way: “If a brother or sister among the called out is missing, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

“…go and show him his shortcoming and maybe how it effects you. The goal is to restore the relationship with your brother or sister. It’s a very private intervention aimed at reconciliation. I’d suggest it requires substantial prayer and thoughtful preparation. This is the most discreet and least threatening possible intervention. It protects them against unnecessary embarrassment, permitting reconciliation before the issue becomes general knowledge.

So, the text suggests step two if the first step failed. The first step was to confront the Christian brother or sister individually. Step two is to take witnesses for one more face-to-face confrontation. “But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you.” The requirement for two or three witnesses comes from Torah law (Deuteronomy 19:15. This protects people against unfair accusations. The church is to be deliberate, careful, and fair in its discipline. If the conflict cannot be resolved during this second intervention, the “one or two others” will serve as witnesses before the church. Their testimony will help the church to understand the problem and to establish a remedy.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ‘called out.’ If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”

On the one hand, the phrase “let him be to you” is singular not “you-all.” The fact that “you” is singular in verses 15-17 and plural in verses 18-20 suggests that the advice to treat the offender as “a Gentile and a tax collector” is given as guidance for the person who began this intervention without resolution rather than the whole church. Of course, I couldn’t help wonder how Matthew himself would have received this word. In this view followers of Rabbi Jesus who can’t resolve a conflict with a brother or sister should just avoid each other.

From a corporate perspective the object is to restore an erring brother or sister to the fellowship, faith and practice of the group. Failing that, the advice is to relate to the person as an outsider –– a person of no faith –– spiritually dead. While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed him/herself outside its circle. Should the body of the faithful ceases to be a marked by forgiveness, grace, and mercy you well could say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion.

The last three verses of this passage are scary in their implications. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus says ‘listen up’. Jesus warns us that we dare not thumb our nose at the church. He says the body of the faithful have the authority that he previously gave to Peter. “Bind” and “loose” have to do with forbidden or permitted activities. They also have to do with who is and is not part of the body of Christ. When he saysthat if two of you will agree…For where two or three are gathered together in my name” he is referring to Jewish worship practices which require the presence of at least ten adult Jewish males to hold a public worship. The Mishnah says, “But if two sit together and words of the law are gathered between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Aboth 3:2). Jesus chooses this latter standard of two persons, but makes no mention of adult males. Two or three! A person can pray alone, as Jesus demonstrated, but coming together in Jesus’ name multiplies the power. This minimal requirement should be an encouragement to us. And here’s the good part. Jesus says “there I am in their midst” (v. 20). In the beginning chapter this Gospel says, “They shall call his name Immanuel, which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’ ” (1:23). The Gospel will conclude with Jesus’ promise to be with us always (28:20). Here Jesus promises to be with every group of two or more who gather in his name.

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Because, for Jesus, there isn’t another way.

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How So?

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is the greatest text for Valentine’s Day. Its ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere—from lips of little children to signs in football stadiums—distinguishes it as the most well-known passage in Scripture; rightfully so, for John 3:16 succinctly summarizes the central message of the Bible.  It is the gospel in a nutshell.

In a real sense, if you edited down the Bible to this one verse, you would still have enough gospel to save the world. John 3:16 declares what every human heart—whether we admit it or not– knows—wants to hear and needs to hear: God loves you! In fact, as Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love.

John 3:16 plainly makes one of the most awesome claims of the New Testament: God loves the whole world. This statement is remarkable for several reasons.

God is a lover. Jesus said so. This goes against the prevailing notions of God. Many people think God is angry. We see God as a God of wrath, but we misinterpret that wrath in terms of our humanness rather than God’s holiness. Thus, we view God as a tyrant, a cosmic killjoy, an angry parent sitting in the heavenly throne room belt in hand waiting for the disobedient sinner to come through the door. Others view God as indifferent. They think God does not and cannot care about the world or anyone in it.

Others view God as temperamental. They spend their lives trying to earn it. This produces a legalism, which results in either despondency or pride, but never reveals the true love of God. John 3:16 stands against all these misinterpretations of God’s attitude toward us and declares God loves us. 1st John 4:8 says, “God is love.” God personifies love. If fact, if it has to do with God, it has to do with love.
Mercy is God’s forgiving love.
Grace is God’s undeserved love.
Peace is God’s comforting love.
The will of God is God’s unerring love.
Providence is God’s caring love.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s proven love.
Sanctification is God’s nurturing love.
Heaven is God’s rewarding love.
Eternity is God’s unending love.
The Universal Scope of the Love
It had to have been mind blowing for Nicodemus to hear that God loves the world.  He had grown up believing that God only loved Israel.  But the verse claims God does not love just certain groups, races or nations. God loves everybody. God doesn’t exclusively love Christians. God loves the world. What a truth!

And just as amazing the breadth of this simple verse forces us to look not just beyond our own race but beyond our species and even broader at this planet we call home and the universe in which it spins.

The fundamental point of John 3:16 is that God loves the world. If the point of the most famous verse in the Bible is that God loves you, why is it that so many people live as if there is no God? At the same time, many who call themselves followers of Christ often question God’s love for them. In spite of all the publicity that John 3:16 gives to this truth, how is it that so many of us do not really know the true love of God?

In his book The Five Love Languages Gary Chapman argues that people communicate love differently. Each person has a natural and distinct way in which he or she gives and/or receives love. Physical affection, verbal expression, acts of service, providing, giving gifts, opening opportunities, and spending time are some of the common love languages.

There are couples who obviously love one another but each feels unloved. They haven’t understood the others’ love language. He, in his way, demonstrates  his love by slaving at a job he hates. She receives love by how much time he spends with her. So, he feels unloved because she doesn’t appreciate his bread winning efforts. She feels unloved because he doesn’t spend more quality time with her. They love one another, but they are not speaking the same love language. Could this be why we do not understand the love of God?

The truth of God’s love is hidden with the nature of God’s love. We hear about the fact of God’s love in the words of John 3:16 but the verse speaks to us about the manner of God’s love.  You can live under a dark cloud of divine abandonment while the light of John 3:16 shines the light of God’s love in your face if you do not know how God communicates His love for you.

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is about how God says, “I love you.” What’s the answer? Here it is: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son.” John 3:16 does not teach that God loves us so much that He would do anything for us. Rather, it teaches us that God loved us by doing something specific for us: He gave! You cannot know the love of God without embracing it in terms of the gift He gave to communicate His love for us.  John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

All human beings are God’s children through creation. but our New Testament writers insist  that Jesus  is God’s Son uniquely because He is the only begotten Son of the Father.  In other words, there is nobody like Jesus. Nobody was born like Jesus. Nobody lived like Jesus. When John 3:16 says God loved us by giving His only begotten Son.  Theologians have argued for the last two thousand years what that means.  It may best be said by the author of II Corinthians “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!”

For most people there are three characteristics about God that seem essential to us.  First, God is holy. It means God is not like us. God is set apart, completely unique, totally different, morally excellent and without any speck of darkness whatsoever.  That is un-doubtably our needing that in God. Second, we want to believe God to be just. That is, God judges on the basis of a righteous standard. God judges by the standard of His own holy character. Holding these two attributes of God are big trouble to us. God is holy. We are not. It fits our persuasive purposes to believe that some day, you will have to answer to God for how you have lived your life.

Here is the best news: God is love. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Recently one of the leaders of one of the largest churches in America stirred the pot when she said  “when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. “So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”  Promoters of the prosperity gospel tell us that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy and happy.

I wonder how that works for Christians in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and North Korea today.  2014 saw twice as many Christians martyred than the year before.

To believe in someone one or something is to have faith in it or them, to follow them.  Early in Jesus’ ministry he told his disciples that if they would follow him, their rabbi, they would have to take up their own cross – note that this occurred about two and a half years before the leaders of the popular religion saw Jesus’ message as such a threat that they used the powers of the civil authorities to kill him.  Our cross and his cross are not the same but they come from the same source, a willingness to follow Rabbi Jesus and live in a way that challenges the world.

With that in mind we can put away our images of some imagined court room or theories of ransom paid to a personification of evil.  or  you are a criminal. The closing portion of John 3:16 states “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The benefits of God’s gift are only received through faith. Jesus made this point with his references to Numbers 21. The story of Moses, the children of Israel and the bronzed serpent. It is a story of the children of Israel’s rebellion against God. It is a story of judgment as the Lord sent fiery serpents into the camp. It is a story of grace as God provided an undeserved way of salvation, but it is also a story of faith as those who obeyed the word and looked to the uplifted serpent were saved.  Words like faith and belief are based in a concept of trust.  Despite our acts of disobedience, rebellion and rejection God never stops loving us.

We can all see ourselves in that story.  It’s easy to believe that due to the consequences of poor judgment or our outright nastiness God’s judgment already has bitten us.  Not so.  Jesus himself said “he makes his sun rise on both evil and good people, and he lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  But the fact that you too will inevitably die, like every other living entity in the world that God created will die, is not punishment.  It is part of our humanity for which we are grateful.  You eventually, inevitably. will die. It’s no curse.  And there is no divine inoculation from natural death.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we need to be born from above, that is we need to raise our sights from the things of this world, taking our cue from Jesus who early on told his disciples that to follow him they must take up their own cross, a willingness to find their life in trusting God and loving what God loves. That’s what following Jesus meant throughout Jesus ministry. Life eternal, living life in God’s kingdom begins the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ. It introduces you to a new quality of life. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  This life isn’t a test we have to pass.  It is this moment .  The greatest love song is the world goes:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

 

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Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals

Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals.

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples,

and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is such a familiar story that it’s hard to hear anything new in it.  Even so, while for the most part these are not ‘original’ thoughts on this story, these are what come to mind today…

When Jesus said ‘go and make disciples’ he was addressing people, like himself, who were Jews communicating in a Semitic dialect.  They fully understood what the word disciple meant.  For us, our struggle is that that over a couple thousand years and through translations into various languages and dialects what the disciples of Jesus day understood has changed.  What did the word disciple mean to the followers of Jesus in that day and time?  The story plainly shows that there was a great difference between the disciples and the thousands of men, women and children who had pursued Jesus to that remote sea shore.

Today, we have board certified surgeons, licensed electricians, biochemists. psychologists and psychiatrists, school teachers and college professors. Common to each profession are long periods of study, training, mentoring, on the job training and continuing education.  In each case the person has placed themselves under the oversight of another or others who have established proficiency in an area of interest.

In Jesus day it was the Rabbi who was person with established proficiency in the area of how by doing the right things one would honor God.  Scrupulous behavior was the standard for being a ‘righteous person’ not the condition of one’s heart.  The Rabbi was the authority to interpret the oral and written law for the living of a righteous life – defining what behavior did or did not please God.

A person allowed to become ‘a disciple’ of a Rabbi agreed to totally submit to the rabbi’s authority in all ares of interpreting the Torah for his life.  This was something all observant Jewish young mem wanted to do.  As a result, each disciple came to a rabbinic relationship with a desire and willingness to surrender to the authority of the whole law as interpreted by his Rabbi.

The group of students would discuss in depth their Rabbi’s view of the meaning of Torah on a particular aspect of life.   The oral tradition was needed to accompany the written Law, because the Torah alone, with its 613 commandments, was an insufficent guide to Jewish life.  They would memorize most of the written Torah and learn from the Talmud and Mishna about how those words were interpreted.

Here’s an example why that was the case. Exodus 20:8, the fourth commandment says “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy.” That makes it clear that the Sabbath is an important holy day.  Yet when you look for specifics in the written scriptures that regulate how to observe the day all you find are injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from your dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing or harvesting. Would merely refraining from these specific activities fulfill the commandment to make the Sabbath holy?  Jewish Sabbath rituals, including reciting the kiddush and reading of the weekly Torah portion are not found in written scripture but in the oral law.   Studying their rabbi’s view of the written and oral law to comprehend God’s way for the conduct of their life was the main task of a disciple. The issue was not what specific words were found in the scroll but rather what did it mean and how was it to be lived out.

In this intimate relationship the rabbi would ask questions of the disciple as he closely observed the their daily life, or the disciple would initiate a discussion by raising an issue or asking a question based on some aspect of his daily life.   A disciple would expect the rabbi’s consistent and persistent question, “Why did you do that?” The emphasis was always on behavior, not just the imparting of wisdom and related interpretive information. In this interactive manner, the rabbis functioned to clear up gray areas of understanding and difficult areas of textual interpretation for their disciples.

Real life questions were the fodder for these sessions. A real-life question regarding marriage might be, “Can I divorce my wife if…” Another regarding tax collectors would be, “If I know my taxes are going to oppress our people, should I pay them?” The rabbi would authoritatively address such daily practical concerns around righteous living as defined and interpreted by the rabbi.  As part of this how-should-we-live interactive process, the disciples would debate various rabbinic interpretations of a real life issue. This might involve weeks of dialogue and debate. However, when the rabbi ultimately declared his authoritative interpretation on an issue, all further debate ceased. His declared interpretation was now binding on his disciples’ lives for the rest of their days. As such, the rabbi was the lens through which every life issue was viewed.

By always asking questions, the rabbis were concentrating on developing discernment in the mind of the disciple, not the imparting of “how to” formulas. Notions of three principles of prayer or four steps to prosperity would be abhorrent to a first-century rabbi.

Disciples had a deep desire to emulate their rabbi. This often included imitating how and what their rabbi ate, how he observed the Sabbath, what he liked and disliked, as well as his mannerisms, prejudices and preferences. A story is told of one disciple who so wanted to emulate his rabbi that he hid in the rabbi’s bedchamber. That way he would be better able to emulate with his own future wife how the rabbi was intimate with his wife.

The first-century disciple willingly submitted to his rabbi’s interpretive authority regarding what pleased God in every area of his life. Thus, to say you were a disciple in the name of Gamaliel, meant that you totally surrendered your life to Gamaliel’s way of interpreting the whole law. As a result, you conformed all of your life’s behavior to his interpretations.  There was a passion together with zeal to give up any and all of their preconceived notions of how to live one’s life and then to embrace the behavior that their rabbi deemed best to honor God. It was a radical, willing, and totally conforming submission to the interpretive authority of their rabbi.

I can’t imagine a more practical question than Jesus’ disciples raised with him that evening by the remote lake shore.  They weren’t telling Jesus anything he didn’t know when they said that it was late and the people were growing hungry.  It was a way to raise the real question. Rabbi, these people have needs that need to be met.  “What would please God?” they wanted to know. Their best solution they had come up with was to send them to villages in the area so they could find food to eat.

“No”, Rabbi Jesus said. “You give them something to eat”.

This is where this passage gets uncomfortable for us.   I know what it feels like to be told, “You give them something to eat…” and to feel as though there is so little to give, it’s hardly worth starting to prepare the meal.

Of course this story in Matthew’s telling occurs right after Jesus hears about the gruesome and pointless death of his cousin, John the Baptist.  It would make perfect sense that, in response to this horrific news, Jesus was trying to escape the crowds to mourn. I can’t imagine a more appropriate moment to seek such solitude. But it wasn’t going to happen.  The word was out. Jesus has something to offer that can’t be found anywhere else.  The crowds with their sick and suffering in tow catch up with him.  And then they don’t leave.  Like unexpected guests with no manners, they don’t leave.  And a handful of disciples are left to carry out the ministry of hospitality which Jesus personifies.

And there it is.  Opportunities to be about the work to which Jesus calls us don’t necessarily come at convenient times.  Matter of fact they are most likely to come when we are most tired or sad or fearful for the future.  More times than not all there is to do is just start doing that to which Jesus calls us.  Most times we are unable to see the ending — in fact most of the time we surely can’t — but if we don’t at least start, we will certainly never get there.  For the disciples in this story, the only logical thing to do was to send that hungry crowd away.  They could not, at first, have fathomed the possibility that all those growling stomachs could be satisfied with what began as five loaves and two fish. But they trusted Jesus enough to hand what they had to him and pretty soon it was a party.

This really is a story about scarcity and abundance.  I live in a time and place where it is seldom that I worry about a scarcity of food. That is not true, of course, for all of my neighbors — but it is true for most of the people I interact with much of the time.  I can’t remember where I read it recently but it was a quotation from a woman who said “I can’t think of anything else until I know from where my next meal is coming.”

And what about the guy at the back of the crowd. The one who hardly knows why he is there. There is no big screen projection to give him a sense of what is going on down front.    He only hears what’s going on because the one in front of him is telling him.  In fact, he may never fully comprehend or appreciate the actual source of the meal he is enjoying. He may never realize it is actually a gift from God’s own hand.  But that doesn’t make it any less so. Indeed, I wonder how many moments in how many days I am like that.  A lot, I would expect.  I need to remember that and give thanks even when I can’t quite put it all together.

And there is this, too.  How does one end up with more than that with which one started? Twelve baskets full.  How does that happen?

 

 

 

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Temptations

Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

According to Matthew the confrontation he reports between Jesus and Satan didn’t just happened. He is very clear, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” It was intentional. Was it a “Boot Camp” experience, designed to train Jesus or to test his metal against the wiles of Satan? How you answer that question says a lot about who you see Jesus to be.

Matthew tells us is that Jesus’ temptation came at breakfast, literally. This is a direct contradiction of how Luke tells his story. With Luke, the temptations lasted for forty days. We are going to throw in our lot with Matthew and say that Jesus wasn’t tempted for forty days and forty nights. The temptations came at the conclusion of his fast, when he was famished, at a point of extreme vulnerability.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus’ fast. There is the rare and inadequately supported report of a victim of torture actually surviving forty days without food. Putting Jesus in that category of robust humanity isn’t a struggle for many. For others, Jesus is super human anyway and it isn’t an issue. But for many of us the fact of Jesus’ humanity is in question. It’s known that Ghandi survived twenty one days of living without food but he consumed water. But a good place for us to begin is to consider what was going on with Jesus and his intentional fast. It’s not a stretch. Most religions in the world recommend fasting.

There are impassioned prose writers who say that the number forty signifies God’s judgment of one sort or another somehow implying that Jesus’ was being judged by his temptations. Others simply shrug their shoulders and say that nothing is clear about the biblical use of the number forty other than it is what it is, a period of time other than another way of saying a long time. Some neuro-scientists get excited about the Gamma frequency of 40 Hz and its relationship to the human brains’ operating frequency which is also the frequency of middle ‘c’ on the piano key board.

There is no numerical figure in scripture as pervasive as that of the number ‘forty’, especially ‘forty days and forty nights’. For quite a few years now I’ve wanted to host a retreat starting with the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluding with Easter sunrise, a forty hour retreat. Of course the rains in Noah’s day fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel ate Manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was with God in the mount, 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses was again with God 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28). Moses led Israel from Egypt at age 80 (2 times 40), and after 40 years in the wilderness, died at 120 (3 times 40; Deuteronomy 34:7). The spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25). God made Israel wander for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34). 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3). Three different times reported in Judges God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14). Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16). Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21). Saul’s son was 40 when he began reign (2 Samuel 2:10). David reigned over Israel for 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11). Solomon reigned same length as his father; 40 years (1 Kings 11:42). Jehoash (Joash) reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1). The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17). The size of lavers in Temple were forty baths (1 Kings 7:38). God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4). The sockets of silver are in groups of 40 (Exodus 26:19 & 21). Elijah had one meal that gave him strength 40 days (1 Kings 19:8). Ezekiel bore the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6). Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12). Ezekiel’s (symbolic) temple is 40 cubits long (Ezekiel 41:2). The courts in Ezekiel’s temple were 40 cubits long (Ezra 46:22). Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13). Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3). And then there is the relationship between the times of Jewish festivals and the 40 week period of human pregnancy.  So, “forty days and nights…”

Traditionally we have understood that there were three temptations:

  1. If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
  2. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
  3. the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

The first challenge is about Jesus simply employing the power, prestige and privileges that are his as ‘the Son of God’ to meet his own needs. Recently we read the passage where John the Baptist lashed out at the privileged Pharisees and Sadducees saying that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” So why is this act of feeding oneself considered a temptation, a temptation from which Jesus turned away? I want to suggest that the issue is Jesus’ humanity and how he identifies himself. Is he able to survive without drawing upon divine resources? If God is able to raise up children for Abraham from stones, why not raising up loaves of bread from stones to meet the needs of a fleshly body?

Jesus’ reply was: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Our life is dependent on ‘every word’ that comes from the mouth of God including the creative word that brought stones into being. Even the stones have an intrinsic integrity. There is a huge environmental message in that. Far to easily can we fool ourselves into thinking that we can meet our most basic and simple needs and in the acquisition of which no one else is hurt, no one else is deprived, no one else is effected. In how we meet our needs, much less our wants, we are in a set of living relationships with all creation.  Were we to only eat fruit that falls of its own accord to the ground, our action interrupts the cycle of planting, germination, maturity and fruition.

So next, from the top of Herod’s Temple, Satan again challenges Jesus’ sense of identity. “Are you really who you think you are?” Satan asks. He quotes the Ninety First Psalm reminding Jesus again of his exceptionalness.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Do you believe that Jesus? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus replies with a word of scripture of his own: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” The response is from Deuteronomy 6. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses teaches the people what God had told him on the Mountain. It is a recitation of the Ten Commandments. Then, recorded at the first of Chapter 6 is Moses’ statement of the Shema “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

There is a brief recounting of Israel’s salvation history and then, in the sixteenth verse we find “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

As I was thinking about how Jesus handled this intense confrontation I wondered how equipped I am. Do I have an adequate command of the assurances offered in our scriptures to give me the necessary back bone to survive such an attack?

The third temptation puzzles us all. Making bread seemed relevant. The spectacular stunt we can understand. But after deflecting the first two challenges the last seems so glaringly obvious that Jesus would reject it.

Jesus is given a view of all the kingdoms of the world and Satan offers to give them to him on the one condition that Jesus worship him. Jesus doesn’t challenge Satan’s power to make the world such a gift. All the evidence in the gospels suggests that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in political power. In John 6, when it was offered to him he literally ran for the hills. So how can Satan’s offer be a temptation, be something attractive to Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t want political power, but this whole experience is preparing him for his ministry and he is considering various ways of approaching his task. He wants to influence people, he has a message that he wants people to hear. Perhaps here is where the devil’s suggestion becomes a little more plausible. He’s trying to get Jesus to keep his eyes fixed on all the kingdoms of the world. He’s trying to make him desire and go after as many followers as possible. He’s trying to get him to play the ratings game; to be guided, if you like, by opinion polls. He’s trying to make him desire success above all things. And it sounds so good and holy. What could be better than for Jesus to be THE influence, the guiding force over everyone on earth?

John Hemer, a British Catholic, asks, “But if Jesus does that how will he cope with his opposition? How will he cope when the Pharisees tell him he’s wrong, or when some of his own disciples tell him that his words are intolerable and leave him? (John 6: 66) Well, if he eyes are fixed on getting (and keeping) as many followers as possible might he tailor his message to suit his audience? He won’t do a complete about turn, he won’t deny anything he’s said or done so far, but would he make subtle changes in order to make his message more palatable? The Pharisees, after all, are hugely influential, there’s no point in alienating them when they can be such useful allies. So rather than heal on the Sabbath and court controversy, Jesus can heal on other days, he’s still healing after all. Rather than lose all those followers at Capernaum, he can call them back and explain his ministry in terms that are less offensive, more acceptable. No major changes, just tweaking the message here and there to make sure it hits its target audience.

If Jesus makes these little changes here and there, he will end up preaching not God’s truth but what his audience want God’s truth to be. What will be guiding him will not be the voice of God but the voice of sinful human beings, the values of sinful human institutions. Without even realizing it he will no longer be worshiping God, but the devil. And by worship we mean more than just an isolated religious act. The thing we worship is the thing which guides our lives, the thing that motivates us. If Jesus allows himself to be motivated by the desire for success, it will always be fallen human concerns which guide him. The Truth will then be whatever his listeners want to hear and that is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

All through Jesus’ public life we see the consequences of his coming unscathed through Satan’s challenges as he refuses to be swayed by public opinion or by threats or violence. Worshipping Satan isn’t necessarily a huge act of rebellion, but a series of small acts of accommodation. It is a constant temptation for us as Christians and the only sure antidote is the one Jesus gives: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

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Another Way…

Matthew 2:13-23

Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler who was wily enough to switch allegiances at the drop of a hat and, when politics demanded, pragmatic enough to execute his own children. He was a descendant of Esau, an Idumean, rather than an ethnic Jew, but according to the Roman Senate he was the uneqivocable “King of the Jews.”
Once he had eliminated all challenges to his claim on the throne Herod settled down to the business of governing. He built cities and fortresses, improved Jerusalem’s water supply, and, most famously, rebuilt and expanded Zerubable’s Temple, the Temple of Jesus’ youth. He was known for his “progressive agenda”. Yet today, because of Matthew’s story, we remember him mostly as the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents, a plot which, Matthew says, the infant Jesus barely escaped by the flight to Egypt.

W. H. Auden, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, describes Herod as worried that a nacent King of the Jews, believed by some to be God Incarnate, threatened to destroy the reason, idealism and justice his progressive agenda had labored to advance. He has Herod say, “Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? Oh dear, why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.”

What Herod couldn’t grasp was to him no god worthy of the name would be so disrespectful of his progressive agenda, nor so foolish as to become human, and therefore vulnerable. Auden again speaking for Herod: “…for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy God’s self. I refuse to be taken in. God could not play such a practical joke. Why should God dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare God allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

I suspect all of us, in our own way, have trouble with an incarnate, vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow God to an uncertain end. We’ve all worked so hard, meant so well, sacrificed so much to trade away what we have coming for something so flimsy as faith. We all know Herod’s motivation, if not his power, from the inside.

So here’s a first question for us: Now that Christmas is past and the New Year is upon us, how will you live in light of the vulnerable Incarnation? How much of your agenda will you part with to follow “Jesus the Savior…come for to die?”

In her book Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris tells us that everything Herod does, he does out of fear. Fear can be a useful defense mechanism, but when a person is always on the defensive, like Herod, it becomes debilitating and self-defeating. Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people leave in their wake, where they have exercised their power in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation. A young mother carries a handgun for self protection and her two year old squeezes the trigger. A Sheriff takes his wife’s life “I didn’t kown the gun was loaded…” A freightened police officer iin a struggle with a mentally ill person shoots them in the back. Stories flood our news from Florida, Arizona, Idaho and even here at home.

The tradition of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”, offers an account of the tragic consequences of such defensive, self preserving fear. This brand of insecurity never leads to anything good. Herod is a case study that documents to truth of the first half of Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.” It’s reflected in the flood of guns over sales counters.

In the process of fearing others, sadly, the one who fears seeks to douse the light of other lives and often succeeds. We could make a long list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who in the past and today, on personal and international scales, are both powerful and paranoid. We hold to the faith that such fear cannot douse the light of the world we celebrate at Christmas. This passage forces us to stay real—paranoid insecurity is a persistent force.

Norris tells of preaching on Herod on Epiphany Sunday in a small country church in a poor area of an island in Hawaii from which tourists are warned to avoid, an area where those who served the tourist industry as maids and tour bus drivers could afford to live. That church had much to fear: alcoholism, drug addiction, rising property costs, and crime. The residents came to church for hope.

Norris pointed out that the sages who traveled so far to find Jesus were drawn to him as a sign of hope. This church, she told the congregation, is a sign of hope for the community. Its programs, its thrift store have become important community centers, signs of hope. The church represented “a lessening of fear’s shadowy power, an increase in the available light.” She continued to say that that’s what Christ’s coming celebrates: Christ’s light shed abroad into our lives. She ended her sermon by encouraging the congregation, like the ancient wise men, not return to Herod but to find another way. “leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, all alone with his fear.” This is our second question, can we find another way?

James E. Lamkin wrote of what he called “The New Normal.” Over that last few weeks we’ve rehearshed one more time the ancient Christmas story with its’ awkward pregnancy and government mandated relocation. Then this couple become a nuclear family with the birth of a child followed by a series of holiday parties including farm animals, shepherds, angels and a mysterious delegation of astrologists. I’m guessing that it wasn’t too long before the Holy Family had had enough of Christmas. They must have been ready for things to get back to normal–whatever that is. But, as we all learn, they would never see normal again. This infant inaugurated a new normal.

Some say that it was after the Oklahoma City bombing, when we discovered what domestic terrorism could mean, that the phrase “new normal” first entered our language. It’s how we express our anxiety over global and local economic concerns, political and international disputes and technological uncertainties each accompanied by it’s own bitter residue of latent fear. And it is so personally threatening: a neighbor who was going to retire only to discover that the company took what was there’s into bankruptcy; the friend who was let go when the company downsized; the premature shot from an anxious police officer’s side arm; shrinking church attendance, budgets and staff.

We may prefer a different topic today… a different text on this second Sunday of Christmas and first on a new calendar . But the terrain of life changes quickly. Glory to God in the highest can nose dive to a new low in less than a human heartbeat. Even the Holy Family was not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long. No. An evil tyrant was on the loose going door-to-door looking for babies to kill. So flee!

If joy has felt illusive for you this holiday season, you are in good company. And yet we contend God’s power to save is greater than evil’s power to destroy. With any “new normal”—from prolonged family crises to financial fears to a haunting sense of uncertainty–grief and loss is a real reality even during Christmas.

But there’s this truth that wherever we find ourselves God has been there before us. Even in the land of the loss, even in far away Egypt, even in the “new normal,” it is not new to God. God has been there before us. Fascinating, isn’t it…that right off the bat, God’s own Son becomes a transient, homeless, migrant, alien. Within a few pages the baby will be all grown-up and we’ll hear him say, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Wherever we go God is nearby to fill full our often empty lives. So we ask of the evangelist: Matthew, tell the story when Jesus calmed the waters…we need it because it feels like we are about to drown. Matthew, tell us the story of Jesus bringing food to the wilderness…we need it because it feels like we are marooned and are lacking sustaining nourishment. Matthew, tell us the story of the fatigued fishermen who do their all-night-long-best and still catch nothing…we need it because we too have grown weary in well-doing and we have little to show for it.”

Wherever we go, whatever we feel, faithful people have found that God faithfully has been there, done that, and meets us there. The old prophet Isaiah (63:9) knew it to be true. He sang of God: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Even the testy times of life can be handled faithfully because of Christ. The writer of Hebrews (20:18) says, “Because he [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Kathlene Norris says that like the suffocating fear of Herod and there is another kind of fear, a life giving fear of the Lord, exemplified by Mary and Joseph which, as we are promised, is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Pr. 1:7). When we open the doors of our life, even just a crack, to allow the fear of the Lord to enter in, we have taken the first step in a lifelong process of exchanging the fear of Herod for the faith of Mary and Joseph.

The fear of the Lord is the Bible’s code word for a very different kind of fear. It is a full-bodied faith that includes trembling before the mystery of a transcendent God and trusting in the tenderness and faithfulness of an imminent God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of our being able to say, with Mary, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). It is the source of Joseph’s wordless obedience (Mt 1:24) and Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The fear of the Lord opens us to the comfort and stamina God offers even in times of undeserved and profound suffering. The fear of the Lord is the impulse that shuts our self-righteous lips when we look upon the suffering or mistakes of others. It impels us, rather than to retreat in cold judgment, to reach out with comforting, capable hearts and hands.

When we put aside our paranoid, self-centered fears and embrace the fear of the Lord, we face the reality of an unknown future with the goods news that we are accompanied by a God who never abandons us. The shadows of fear are illuminated by the light—Immanuel, God with us!

So, here we sit with a New Year waiting to be explored and in our hearts we hold a Christmas story. A bizarre Christmas story – with foreign tyrants and heavy taxes and bloody swords and innocent suffering and homeless refugees. And, remarkably, prayerfully, God somehow uses this collage of odd images to fulfill a commitment to us. It can be stated so simply, it almost is embarrassing to say; but here it is: With our anxiety, loss and grief in one hand, and our gratitude in the other, we bask in God’s big promise to never leave us or forsake us.

Whatever this new year’s “new normal” brings our way–the good news is it is not new to God. And that is part of Christmas that should not stored away ’til next year but kept out in a prominent place in our lives. All-loving God, for your grace that hath brought us safe thus far, and for your grace that will lead us on, we say, “Thank You.” In Christ’s Name, Amen.

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Small Things

Matthew 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod.

 

The rumor mill in International Relations always runs on high, making montains out of very small mole hills. I doubt it was much different in Palestine two thousand years ago in the era of Roman control. I recall during Richard Nixon’s presidency when Richard Post, an inveterate Cuba watcher, came storming into the office on Capitol Hill absolutely elated to report an apparent positive development in relations between Washington and Havana. After over a dozen years of recalitrance the Cuban Government’s newspaper Granma printed Nixon’s name with an X rather than a swastika. People who follow international relations live by Zechariah 4:10 “For who hath despised the day of small things?

That something big was happening that could make for enormous changes in the control of the trade routes around the eastern end of the Mediterranean hadn’t been lost on those who kept track of these things. Our English fails to give us insight into many great concepts especially when we’ve learned our geography from an North American perspective. Take how we’ve come to think of the Mediterranian, that small pond that holds Europe and Africa apart. It’s hard for us to remember that Med means the middle, terra is the whole earth. In the day our scriptures were written this body of water was the very middle of the earth and it was of great importance whatever power controlled the trade routes that carried goods from Egypt to Syria on the eastern end of the ocean.

For those who followed such things, it somehow became known that a Prince of the Davidic monarchy had taken as wife a princess of the same lineage and that an heir was in the offing. It was one of those small things that peaked great interest. A new star was rising. From Egypt to Damascus – all the people of the levant understood the potential for being shed of the boot of Rome and sent a delegation to win favor.

Representatives of the Roman Empire were Romans and they believed the Roman theology. Rome was the eternal city and was expected to rule forever. They had the power in their military might that was very carefully spread to the ends of its reach. Being posted to Jerusalem was a social death sentence, it was to be banished from the courts of prestige and power. And no one in Rome paid any attention to what happened in the outlands.

Not so with those who were dependent on eastern mediterranean trade.

Typically emissaries would come to Palestine from the west, through Rome, and Roman officials would be alerted to their coming well in advance. So it came as a surprise to Herod to learn that a delegation from countries to the east, beyond the Empire’s control had boots on the ground in his territory. Since 1857 we’ve sung John Henry Hopkins lyrics of the three kings from the orient. It may have given us some wrong ideas. Every place to the east was called the orient. The Orient Express got it’s name from its destination, Istanbul which we understand as the beginning of the east or the orient. That’s not really the case. The text reads: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

It wasn’t surprise that rose in Herod’s heart. It was fright! “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. Scholarship suggests that Herod Antipas ruled Palestine later than the time of Jesus birth, it was his brother Archelaus. He was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea and Idumea at the time of the Census of Quirinius. The whole story is rife with intra jewish prejudice and rivalry, ethnic and dynastic cleansing and palace intrigue. It’s helpful to understand that this particular Herod was on the throne when the whole of the Hasmonean dynasty was slaughtered by the Romans and in another incident over three thousand Jews were massacred. And this is the guy who the text says was frightened by the announcement of the three eastern dignitaries.

The passage of Matthew’s birth narrative tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. With litle warning Joseph is told to make a 600 mile trip to get the infant Jesus out of the reaches of Herod Archelaus. Most of us came to the conclusion that that is what became of the tribute provided by the visitors from the east. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Regardless it certainly helps us understand the weight that Herod gave to the dynastic threat the birth of Jesus posed to his position and the hold Rome had over the territory.

Is there a lesson for us, about how we react to preceived threats to the loss of our privilege and position? How far do we go to maintain our sense of control over our world?

 

 

With the overthrow by Fidel Castro of the U.S. supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar in 1959, with the exception of Kennedy’s ill planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA bombing of the plane returning the Cuban fencing team home from Venezuela and the Cuban’s shooting down a plane intent on rescuing a family seeking to flee the brutality of the Castro regime, relations between our two countries has been more of a comedic than substantial nature. It was two years after Castro threw the gambling and prostitution out of Havana and after the ill fated Bay of Pigs attempt to restore democracy and economic stablity to the island that Las Vegas became home to America’s appetite for decadence. Baseball has been one area in which the fifty year long embargo has not been enforced.

 

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Fear Not Joseph

Fear Not All You Josephs

It’s interesting that the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Matthew focuses more on Joseph than on Mary. The person who wrote this particular Gospel which was directed to Christians of Jewish descent wanted to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets and comes through the line of David.

I’m guessing that as would any Jew Joseph was rather proud of the fact that he was a direct descendent of David. There are those who make the argument that Joseph wasn’t the simple carpenter presented to us by our bible stories. Ancestry records which have more recently come to light suggest that Joseph’s family of origin was wrapped up in great intrigue. Joseph the Carpenter was the son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem who was the fifth wife of Herod. She was the posthumously born daughter of Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra who the records indicate was ‘given to a foreign Prince’. According to these records Joseph was about twenty two years of age when we was told by the temple authorities that a young Davidian princess, Mary, was eligible for betrothal and marriage. But the upshot of all this ancestral posturing is that as a prince of the royal line of David, living in the time of Herod the Great was inherently dangerous. From this perspective Joseph knew fear from being part of a family many members of which were killed off because they were precieved as being challenges to the throne.

Thus the angel, acknowledging Joseph’s true lineage says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife into your home.”

Do not be afraid. These words occur over and over in scripture seemingly whenever a human has an encounter with the Divine. The angel Gabriel first appeared in Daniel 10 and told Daniel not to be afraid. Gabriel is found in the Gospel of Luke telling the priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, not to be afraid. Those were also the Angel’s words to Mary. The shepherds were told by angels not to be afraid. Jesus told Simon Peter and his fishing mates not to be afraid after they almost broke their fishing nets when they listened to Jesus’ instructions. The three disciples were told not to be afraid when they heard the voice of God during the Transfiguration. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were told not to be afraid when they came upon the empty tomb. So, in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is told “Do not be afraid.”

Joseph was told in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. What was he afraid of? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly had to do with Mary’s pregnancy. Those legends about Joseph’s ancestry where sibling rivals to positions of power and authority were ended with brutal murder might give him pause about taking a bride and who was expecting a child.

Then maybe Joseph was fearful of what other’s would say when a full term baby was born four or five months after the couple began their marriage. Perhaps Joseph was worried over what kind of woman this Mary was really like. After all, she was a young girl and, as far as Joseph initially knew, she was pregnant by someone else. Did he really want to risk the heartbreak she would inevitably bring upon him?

Or perhaps, Joseph’s fear was provoked by the religious authorities. What if he got caught protecting Mary and was accused of joining her in violating the Law of Moses? Wouldn’t he also be punished for protecting an abomination to God’s law and thus co-operating with the sin?

And maybe there was another reason why Joseph was afraid. Maybe he was afraid that he could not love this child as every child has a right to be loved. How could he love the child as a father. We hear this reading about Joseph’s concerns over and over, but we forget that on the human level, Joseph must have thought, “What a mess this is. And what a greater mess it will be if I complete this marriage and take Mary as my wife.”

But the angel said to Joseph in the dream, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph heard, “Trust God, for the child is special. And so is his mother. Do not be afraid. Trust God.” And Joseph put his complete trust in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, how to deal with the Law of Moses, how to deal with Joseph’s concerns for the child. God would give him the ability to love the child as a father.

It was a matter of tradition that the father is responsible for giving the child a name. The meaning behind that practice was caught up in how Jews of the day thought about eternal life. And Joseph named the child Jesus. With the name, Joseph gives his own spirit and all he is to the child. At once, the child, Jesus, is son of God and son of Mary, but also, through the naming of the child by Joseph, he is the son of Joseph and, to top it all off, he is the son of David.

Fear is not the characteristic of a follower of Christ. At the heart of Christianity is trust. Confidence that God is at work. Like Mary and Joseph we live in a world that is a fearful place. Our whole lives must consist in efforts to love more and more as Jesus loved. To do this we need a gift from God. That gift is trust. We need to trust God to work things out. We have to trust the Lord to remove the fear that prevents us from taking risks and living in obedience. We have to trust that the will bring healing when in the act of obedience we take a step outside of ourselves and a step into love. So many of us are afraid, afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to risk. We need to trust God so we can make His Presence real for others.

Behold is the theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. God is working in our lives. When we are aware of this, when we behold His Presence, we can then bring his presence to others.

Christmas is not a time for fear. It is a time for love. We have to trust God to protect and develop our love. Can we love others as they deserve to be loved? Will we be hurt in return? These are the questions that Joseph asked himself as he stirred in his sleep. He heard an angel say, “Do not be afraid.” When Joseph took the step from fear to trust, the world beheld its Savior.

Perhaps, this Thursday, Christmas, or throughout this season, some of us will have to associate with someone we have had words with during the last year. This could be a neighbor, a relative or even a member of the inner circle of our family. We might worry, “If I am kind to that person, will I once more be spat upon? Will I be hurt again?” Sometimes we may have real reasons to fear. We only have to trust God and to love. For the one who calls us to love has given us the Gift of Love on Christmas Day.

We have been called to love. God will show us how to do it. Now, like Joseph, we need to name the child. We need to make Jesus an intimate part of our lives so that all that He is and all that we are may be one.

And behold! Behold the wonders that God’s love can work in our lives.

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Lessons for Esther

            Only once in about 157 Sundays are we encouraged to take a look at the Old Testament Book of Esther. Interpreting the book has been a constant theological and cultural battle ground. It is the only book in the whole Bible in which God is not mentioned. Which, by the way carries an important lesson in itself. Just because we fail to acknowledge God’s presence and activity doesn’t mean that God is not a work.

            The Book comes from a pivotal moment in the future shape of Judaism.   The three books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther come out of the same period of Israel’s history, just as those who had been carried off into Babylonian captivity are freed to return to their homeland. Ezra and Nehemiah are written for those who return to Jerusalem to rebuild their homes, their businesses and finally, under much urging and despite conditions under which they lived, they began to rebuild the temple and re-establish Temple service. Esther, on the other hand, was written for those who chose to stay in Persia. In the book of Esther there is no mention of Jerusalem.

            Because to the Judaism of ‘the Holy Land’ is integral our Christian heritage it’s easy for us to overlook the reality that many more Jews stayed in the places to which they had been dispersed than those who returned to Palestine. For Judaism this makes for an enormous foundational shift. The Judaism of the Diaspora adopted the Oral Torah and the rabbinic interpretation of the commandments, as their law. Thus when exilic Jews had a legal decision, they didn’t go to Exodus or Leviticus for guidance, they turned to the vast body of rabbinic scholarship. That’s important to us. The religious tradition that was normative to Jesus was solidly grounded in the Pentateuch despite the ongoing battle between the  temple Priests, the legalistic Pharisees and the wealthy and scholarly Sadducees.  The Apostle Paul was schooled in Rabbinic Judaism. His form of Judaism argued that the Law was only a school master.

            Contemporary Jews celebrate the festival of Purim based on the book Esther. It is the only Jewish holiday not authorized in the Pentateuch, a clear example of this shift in religious authority. Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.

            As they tell it, Esther, an extraordinarily beautiful young Jewish woman, adopted by her cousin Mordecai, was living in the capital city of the Persian Empire. As part of a year long pageant to select the next Queen, Esther, along with handpicked maidens from around the Empire, was taken to the house of the King. Not knowing she was a Jew, the King chose her over the other maidens and made her his queen.

            An arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king, Haman, hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to him. He hatched a plot to exterminate all the Jews in all the provinces of the Persian Empire. In a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Hamen told the king, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people’s, and they do not observe the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.” Convinced, the weak minded king put the fate of the Jewish people in Haman’s hands.

            Learning of the genocidal plan Mordecai persuades Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. All the Jews fasted for three days before she went into the king. He welcomed her. She told the King of Haman’s plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman and his ten sons were hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai.

            For simplicity’s sake there is a great deal they choose to leave out. It is a much richer story and delightfully written. The first of the book tells of the Queen Vashti, queen before Esther, who was deposed for refusing to obey the King’s command. All the men knew that such disobedience had to be stopped in it’s tracks because if the King’s Queen could get away with not following orders, women would stop obeying their husbands. She was barred from the king’s presence. It was after four years without a Queen that the beauty contest was won hands down by the young and beautiful Jewess, Esther.

            The end of the book tells of how the Jews retaliated against those who were planning on exterminating them. It is a gruesome bit of vengeance. I went looking how Rabbis read the Book of Esther, given they’ve had it about six hundred years longer than have we. One said that there two lessons to be learned from the little book: “Obey your rabbinic authority and kill the enemy.”

            Jewish women have redeemed the story somewhat, arguing that Esther went into hiding to avoid being forcibly enlisted in the King’s beauty contest, once taken against her will to the King’s house she refuses the cosmetic preparations for the King’s harem. To be wife to a Jew hating non-Jew beyond her imagining and yet, this is what happened. She keeps Kosher yet conceals her identity.

            There are many important lessons in the book for us. One is that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck. The name of the Festival, Purim is actually from the word Pur which is a word for casting lots.

            The question of Esther’s ethnicity posed the question of an alternative loyalty to the King. We already know the result of Vashti’s decision to value her personal dignity over compliance. It was Esther’s cousin who counseled silence about her racial identity. He hoped that conflict between the two loyalties could be avoided. The author of this wonderful story tells us that loyalty need not conflict with good citizenship. An example from the story is Mordecai, on learning that two henchmen and Vashti were planning on murdering the King, he tells Esther who tells the King who deals with the threat. This puts Mordecai in good standing with the King. Being a Jew in the Empire does not imply subversive intentions. This was of particular importance for Jews learning to live as Jews in foreign countries. It is a call to being good citizens. The lesson is important to Christians as well. People who live with convictions can do so until an irresolvable conflict arises. The biblical basis is the instruction the Jeremiah gave to people living in exile “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” (Jer.29:7).

            Of course, step two in that dance of citizenship requires of us, as it did of Mordecai, to stand up for our convictions when they are challenged. We need to go back to the fateful four point sentence of the evil man Hamen: First he says: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm.   That was true. Then he says “Their laws are different from those of every other people’s” and, of course, that was true as far as it went actually the Jews kept to a much more ethical set of laws than those of the Empire but his accusation does serve to raise suspicions. Next he says: “and they do not observe the king’s laws; which was an outright lie. The story teller told us of how Mordecai acted in the interest of the welfare of the nation and of the king. The king doesn’t put the pieces together and the lie gains plausibility. Hamen’s summation was that “therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.”   Every minority community every where can fall victim to this kind of persecution by lies and innuendo. We hear it every day. We, too, need to take the lesson from the Book of Esther and be seen and counted for what and who we are, and when necessary be prepared to take the consequences.

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How Timely, Habakkuk….

            In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The military censors banned the newspaper because they viewed this text as a critique of the Nazi regime of the time.

            Habakkuk also served as an important source of resistance’s history. Allan Boesak in the tumultuous 1980s in South Africa preached a sermon against apartheid in which he drew upon on Habakkuk 2, imploring God: “Lord, how long must we wait before you help?”

            John Calvin wrote the following commentary on Habakkuk 2:6: “Tyrants and their cruelty cannot endure without great weariness and sorrow … Hence almost the whole world sounds forth these words, How long, How long? When anyone disturbs the whole world by his ambition and avarice, or everywhere commits plunders, or oppresses miserable nations, when he distresses the innocent, all cry out, How long? And this cry, proceeding as it does from the feeling of nature and the dictate of justice, is at length heard by the Lord … This confusion of order and justice is not to be endured.”

            The little Old Testament book of Habakkuk has been deemed in the past to be a dangerous book. Funny, isn’t it. That such an insignificant writing can get it so very right. Maybe that’s the case because it begins and ends as a prayer but not a thanksgiving prayer. Baffled by the contradictions between his beliefs about God and his experience he pray the prayer of an inquisitor, a prosecutor daring to ask God why things were as they were. Perplexed by God’s silence the prophet questions whether God answers prayer. Then he questions whether God can actually control human evil.

            The book Habakkuk comes out of an exceedingly traumatic time in Israel’s history. Not long before the prophet enters the stage the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after the other, brutally killing people. And we know that not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar would three times besiege and attack Jerusalem, taking its leaders and skilled citizens who survived the atrocities into exile, and in 587 BCE, destroyed the city and decimated the temple. For those living in the time of Habakkuk, indeed, violence was all around.

            There was no question about it. God’s chosen people were evil. They had broken covenant, ignore the statutes and injustice was the standard. And, as a result, they were being severely punished by a people even more evil then themselves. How could God employ an evil nation to punish a less evil nation? Where’s the justice in that? The answer Habakkuk got wasn’t all that satisfying – the eviler nation would be punished after it had fulfilled its purpose. And where’s the justice in that? But isn’t that just like the ethical questions we raise today? Neither the prophet nor God offers any simple answers to these apparent contradictions. What he does offers is some advice on how to hang on through tough trials.

            God doesn’t work through magic whether for good or ill – God works through people. Flawed people maybe but people. God still claims sovereignty over people and nations. Maintaining a steadfast faith in the God who acts will carry us through the darkness of not understanding to clarity. And, what makes this possible is our belief that God is a moral God and things move toward human deliverance the consequences of which is the worship of God.  

            In Habakkuk1:1-4 we see how the prophet looked around and is overwhelmed by all the violence. In v 3, he asks God why God is tolerating all these evil deeds, and why he has to see all the injustice, the oppression, the strife and terror around him. And in v 4, the prophet laments that the wicked are overpowering the righteous, and that justice is perverted or literally raped.

            Within in this context of violence, we hear Habakkuk’s lament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” In the midst of this nightmare, the only thing the prophet can do is to help his people voice their pain, to cry over the anguish they are experiencing. Echoing the Psalms of lament as well as the book of Lamentations, we hear how the prophet cries out to God: “Lord, how long? Lord, help me … ”

            Habakkuk’s lament join laments from all around the world in which people have found the words to name the situations of violence and injustice in their lives as the only way to resist whatever is threatening their well-being and happiness.

            It is important to note that the violence and terror would continue for a long time. The good news in the prophetic voice is that violence and injustice do not have the last word.

            The prophet’s words are as contemporary as this week’s news. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

            Does that sound like the news out of Missouri?

            In Habakkuk 2:1-4, we are told that the prophet is standing on the watch tower, waiting for the Lord to answer. 2I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

            And then comes God’s answer. However, God’s answer is not what we would ever want to hear. It says, “Wait. Be patient. Deliverance is coming but you will have to wait.” This divine response challenges all the easy answers or quick fixes that we can concoct. In Israel’s history, the prophet’s message would be followed by many more years of violence and injustice. Things would get much worse before they were to become better. However, amidst the most dire of circumstances, we see how the prophet clings to God’s faithfulness and love.

            “Moreover” God says, “wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own. 6Shall not everyone taunt such people and, with mocking riddles, say about them, “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!” How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge? 7Will not your own creditors suddenly rise, and those who make you tremble wake up? Then you will be booty for them. 8Because you have plundered many nations, all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you— because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them. 9“Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm!” 10You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. 12“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” 13Is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor only to feed the flames, and nations weary themselves for nothing? 14But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

            Is that not a broad side aimed at corporate America? But listen – it gets even more contemporary and sounds like the Cosby scandal to me. 15“Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!” 16You will be sated with contempt instead of glory. Drink, you yourself, and stagger! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory!

In Habakkuk 3:1, we read the prayer of the prophet that is to be sung on the melody of a lament:

3A prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth. 2O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy.

            17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.

            Habakkuk reminds us centuries later how important it is to continue trusting in a God that will bring deliverance. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to bring an end to violence is precisely the reason why the book Habakkuk was banned in Nazi Germany — the idea that God will end unjust power considered too dangerous to be tolerated.

            God hears the cries of those who are suffering under the yoke of unjust systems and will bring an end to their violence. Good news for those who are being oppressed. Not so much for those who are abusing their power.

            However, the examples from Apartheid South Africa or the Nazi regime show us that situations of violence can last many years and even decades. Also in our personal lives, we may find ourselves in a situation of pain and suffering without end. Even the beautiful confession of faith with which Habakkuk ends acknowledges that the situation of violence and suffering is long not over. The fig tree does not blossom. There are no fruit on the vines. There are no livestock in the stalls. And yet the wonderful thing about Habakkuk’s confession is that we, along with the prophet we can still say, I believe in a God that gives me strength. Amidst the violence. Amidst the depravity. And this conviction is what causes us to not only go on, but to tread upon the heights like a deer.

 

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