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Bishop Michael Rinehart

Advent 4C – December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a – But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

Luke 1:47-55 – Magnificat: And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

OR

Psalm 80:1-7 – Hear O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock: “Restore us!”

Hebrews 10:5-10 – When Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) – Mary and Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.

Mother of God

This coming Sunday is Mary Sunday among churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary. The first Sunday of Advent often focuses on the second coming. The middle of Advent focuses on John the Baptist. The fourth Sunday in Advent often has us walking in the footsteps of the mother of Jesus. Luther holds Mary in very high regard, something that has become a bit lost in Lutheran devotional life.

The reformers used very strong rhetoric to oppose the cult of the saints in the 16th century. The idea that the saints had some treasury of extra works in heaven, that the faithful on earth could access through penance, plenary indulgences and donations to church was an offense to Luther. Still, it is hard to imagine that he would agree with the disappearance of Marian devotions, as well as the eradication of statues, icons and other manifestations of longstanding Christian piety. For Luther, Mary was Theotokos, bearer of God, Mother of God.

For example, Luther said,

She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child…. Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God…. None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.  (LW21:326ff)

You can see how Luther is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation, and Mary’s utterly unique role in this. Nor was this Luther’s piety alone. Listen to these words from the Lutheran Confessions, and their reference to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary:

On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies. He demonstrated his divine majesty even in his mother’s womb in that he was born of a virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration 8:24)

Most Lutherans do not espouse the perpetual virginity of Mary (that she was a virgin her whole life), but, interestingly, Luther did, though Mark’s gospel even talks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. One author, Anne Rice, gets around this in her midrash by having Joseph die, and Mary remarry another man, who had children already. She never has sex with husband two, so she remains a virgin, and Jesus has half-brothers.

Luther can’t seem to decide if Mary is sinless or not. At times he thinks so, but later writes:

Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person.

It is interesting to see the pre-modern theologians trying to work out all the implications of a high christology.

Luther supports praying with Mary, and even to Mary, though this gets thumped out in the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy (1580-1730). Luther and Melanchthon both believed the company of saints prayed for people on earth.

In our communion liturgy we pray, “And so with Mary and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim we praise your name and join their unending hymn…” We embrace the idea of praying with the saints and angels. We are part of the communion of saints. It’s no stretch for the idea of praying with Mary. Praying to Mary is more debated. Luther did. In our Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogues, theologians have pointed out that there is certainly no scriptural prohibition against praying to the saints. The Magnificat is of course Scriptural and can be prayed by Lutherans. Even Peipkorn says Lutherans can and should pray the pre-Reformation first half of the Hail Mary.

The Virgin Mary, for various cultural reasons, has a very high level of importance in various Latino cultures. She is blessed among all women. This is important: She is a person of low degree that God uses in powerful ways. There may be an opportunity here. Having a picture of Mary, or a statue of Mary highlights the day and very well may make people feel welcome. And in embracing these visual symbols of Mary, we might also receive a gift in reviving a sense of her importance. Churches in our tradition won’t hesitate to have a statue of Luther, and sometimes a statue of St. Francis, but put out a statue of Mary, and people start worrying. Does Mary belong only to Catholics? Is she not a central character of Jesus’ birth story for all Christians?

The Virgin of Guadalupe

275px-Virgen_de_guadalupe1One particular expression of Mary is dear to Mexican Lutherans. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s day is December 12 each year. It is interesting to dig into her symbolic importance. Where Latinos go, they bring their Marian piety with them. It is part of their culture, just as Russian Lutherans have a love of St. Nicholas.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe dates back to an apparition of Mary in Mexico, to an Aztec man named Juan Diego in 1531 (coincidentally, the same year Luther composed his 15-stanza Christmas hymn Von Himmel hoch da komm‘ ich her, “From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come.”) She was clothed with the sun and stars as in Revelation 12. Perhaps due to the incredible hardships of Latinos/as, there is tremendous resonance with Mary’s song: “He has lifted up the lowly…”

She speaks on behalf of those of low degree, the poor, broken-hearted, huddled masses, the hungry, the uninsured, the vulnerable, the oppressed. La Virginita shows that God cares about these folks, the forgotten and marginalized people of the world.

Some are embarrassed by the apparition story of Juan Diego. (See a great article in The Lutheran Forum on Mary, apparitions, and skepticism.) Embarrassment aside, the Virgin is approachable. She is human, and, in contrast to so much of our patriarchal society, she is female. Perhaps there is a natural yearning to reclaim the feminine that was drummed out of Christianity after the Great Schism, with an all-male clergy, an all-male Trinity and an all male lay-leadership. Mary has served as a corrective to a men’s club Christianity, bringing the feminine back into play.

As with so much of religious iconography, we must get past the literal to understand the truth that is being symbolically expressed beneath the surface. God is not at work simply in a male-only cast of characters mortal and divine.

God chooses to act decisively in history, not through the rich and powerful, but rather through a very young, very poor, pregnant teenager. (Girls in Mary’s culture were generally betrothed at the age of 12 or 13 according to Culpepper.)

The Virgin of Guadalupe is not only female, she is Mestizo, pejoratively referred to as a half-breed. She is racially mixed, another powerful symbol. She becomes symbolic of the universal. As such she was a welcome face for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and for its new, mixed population. Perhaps she is a sign for our “newly” mixed population in Texas as well. She is La Morenita for a browning America.

Just as a church might have a picture or statue of John the Baptist, it is perfectly appropriate for a church to have a picture or statue of Mary. She is held in reverence, certainly above Luther, as an important part of the story of incarnation, and as a model of a life submitted to God. Like John, she points to Christ.

Perhaps the Virgin is a gift to American Christians. She is a kind and gentle Mary, shining like the sun, and yet a woman of the land, a woman of the people. She is beauty. She is compassion. She touches something deep within us.

Can Protestants celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe? In his book, The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflections of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist (2002), Maxwell E. Johnson says we must embrace her, because she proclaims the gospel – the good news of God who in Christ scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly. She represents what the church should be in the world.

Lutheran musician Mark Mummert, composer of various liturgies and hymns, says the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, is the principal canticle the church needs to learn. It proclaims the Gospel.

In a Christmas Eve sermon Luther said:

This is the great joy, of which the angel speaks, this is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man (if he has this faith) may boast of such treasure as that Mary is his real mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. . . . See to it that you make [Christ’s] birth your own, and that you make an exchange with him, so that you rid yourself of your birth and receive instead, his. This happens if you have this faith. By this token you sit assuredly in the Virgin Mary’s lap and are her dear child.

Jose David Rodriguez (LSTC) says the Virgin of Guadalupe is a dangerous narrative that counters colonial and imperialistic power. Is this not a message we need to hear, in a society that seems terrified at the thought of not being the overwhelmingly dominant force in the world, militarily, economically, or otherwise? Rodriguez says:

This popular expression of Mary’s witness dating from the sixteenth century in Mexico constitutes an important symbol of our tradition of faith to resist the forces that throughout time and space, intend to oppress our people and tear down our human dignity.

So What?

I am ever humbled by Mary’s response to the tectonic events in her life. She responds to the angel: “Here I am, servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” Wow. If only I could respond with such grace. “Let it be…” This is the ultimate act of submission to God, similar to Jesus’ prayer, “Thy will be done…”

Preachers looking for a way to connect by drawing upon the American psyche might consider the lyrics the Beatle’s song Let It Be. The song is the from the album of the same name, released in 1970, one month after the Beatles broke up. It was a number one album in many countries.

As I have lived with this song over the years, I have increasingly appreciated how the song touches upon some of the high points of the story, from Mary’s submission to the broken-hearted peoples of the world. The lyrics capture the sense of Mary’s song, sung on behalf of the lowly and downcast of the world. It begins by describing an appearance of Mary.

When I find myself in times of trouble,

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be

And in my hour of darkness

she is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be

 

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be

Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

 

And when the broken-hearted people

living in the world agree

There will be an answer: Let it be

For though they may be parted,

there is still a chance that they will see

There will be an answer: Let it be

 

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be

There will be an answer, let it be…

The preacher can focus on listening for the voice of God in our lives, and submitting to God’s will in our lives. The humility of Mary is an example to us of faithfulness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Enjoy singing Mary’s song with her this Sunday. There are many settings of this sacred song. Marty Haugen’s Magnificat from his setting of Holden Evening Prayer has become extremely popular in many of our congregations, and is in ELW. Mark Mummert says the version of the Magnificat in the evening prayer on pages 314 and 315 is marvelous. It’s an arrangement by Schultz, in Austin, Texas. There are also arrangements in the hymn section of ELW: 234, 235, 236, 251, 573, 723, and 882. Another hymn that has become extremely popular in our congregations is the Canticle of the Turning, ELW 723, which has the bulk of the song of Mary, along with this provocative phrase “and the world is about to turn.” Mary is no “anemic white waif” as someone goaded me once. Her song is the powerful voice of justice, reminding us that the arc of history bends toward justice.

I hope you enjoy Mary Sunday, and move into it fully, marveling at the magnificent willingness of Mary to be an instrument of God’s grace this world, encouraging us all to do the same.

Advent 3C – December 16, 2018

Zephaniah 3:14-20 – Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.

Isaiah 12:2-6 – First Song of Isaiah: 2Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

Philippians 4:4-7Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!

Luke 3:7-18John the Baptist: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

Thoughts: First Song of Isaiah by Jack Noble White.

The First Song of Isaiah

Let me begin by commending to you the Isaiah passage for the psalm. If you want to love this passage, listen to it. Consider singing in worship:

http://youtu.be/5bcjzhZwOIE

Beautiful text. Singable refrain for the congregation. Parts for the choir. Instantly downloadable: http://www.jwpepper.com/The-First-Song-of-Isaiah/1207315.item#.VlvfrnpOKrU

The First Song of Isaiah

Refrain:

Surely, it is God who saves me;
I will trust and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
and God will be my Savior. 

1 Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing
from the springs of salvation
and on that day you shall say,
“Give thanks to the Lord
and call upon God’s name.” [Refrain] 

2 Make God’s deeds known among the peoples;
see that they remember that the Lord is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord,
for God has done great things
and this is known in all the world. [Refrain]

3 Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion;
ring out your joy,
for the great one in the midst of you
is the Holy One of Israel. [Refrain]

The lectionary begins with verse two, however, the text is best understood with verse one included: “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.” There is a form here. Note that “You will say in that day” appears twice, in verses one and four, both times followed up with a thanksgiving. This is written to be sung.

You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

What strikes me about this passage of hope is how early this passage of hope appears in Isaiah. Isaiah is an 8th century prophet of Judah, the southern kingdom. Israel, to the north, has been crushed by Assyria. Judah must decide whether to play nice with the powerful Assyrian armies to the north or with Egypt, the powerful army to the south. Do we form an alliance?

Chapters 1-39 are Isaiah’s prophecies of judgment against the people of Judah for worshipping foreign gods, and the priests for greed. Hopeful passages don’t come until later in Isaiah, passages like Isaiah 40: Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that her sins are forgiven and her warfare is over. Later, these prophecies from after the fall of Judah, and the Babylonian Captivity, speak a word of hope, promising to rebuild Jerusalem, the temple and the community.

This passage, however, comes from Isaiah 12, early in the book, nestled in the midst of many prophecies of judgment. The message may be here, that even in the midst of judgment there is hope. Judgment is spoken in the context of a future hope.

When a parent grounds a child for doing something wrong, it must always be done with love, from the context of our overarching love for our children. Our sins bring with them consequences, but God’s love is always with us, even when we are mired in the consequences of our sins.

Likewise for us, when we are in the midst of trials and tribulations, we sing songs of praise like Isaiah 12. Surely God saves me. I will trust and not be afraid, for God is my stronghold and sure defense. Cry aloud, sing out your joy.

It occurs to me that learning to sing songs of praise in the midst of tribulation is an important lesson to learn. This only comes with maturity, and possibly with age. Can we see our suffering in the context of the larger blessing of life? Can we see the moment through the eyes of thanksgiving and hope, as did the apostle Paul, who taught the church to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and who was able to rejoice even from a jail cell?

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-6)

Luke 3: John the Baptist

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Our text begins with John calling the crowds snakes (“you brood of vipers”) and then ends with the words, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Sometime between the snakes and the end lies some good news.

Christians too often mistakenly assume Judaism is a religion of works. One rabbi explained to me that Judaism is a religion of atonement. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (October 8-9 in 2019) is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

Accordingly, John begins his tirade with a chastisement, not to flee to their Abrahamic bloodline as a guarantee of salvation, but rather to repentance. He calls them to “bear fruit worth of repentance.” Trees that don’t bear fruit tend to get cut down.

John’s unauthorized forgiveness and salvation is offered not through the costly, priestly Temple system of animal sacrifices in Jerusalem, but rather through simple repentance. It must be quickly noted that repentance is not just saying “I’m sorry.” It is a change of heart. It is a change of mind. It is a change of life direction. This repentance requires humility, not moral arrogance.

This humility and repentance is also taught by Jesus. Consider the story Jesus tells in Luke 18, of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee prays a prayer of moral superiority, “I thank Thee O God, that I am not like others, murderers, thieves, adulterers, or for that matter, like this pathetic tax collector, who has abandoned you and his people by collecting taxes for an occupying army. I fast. I tithe.” The tax collector prays a different kind of prayer altogether. He beats his breast and simply prays, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then Jesus says this man went home justified, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

The tax collector went home justified. This is justification by grace through faith. It is humility and repentance, hoping for God’s forgiveness not because of our righteousness, but because of God’s free grace and mercy.

Then the crowds ask John, “What should we do?” Once you have experienced God’s free grace and mercy, you want to respond. How then shall we live? There are three groups of people who ask him this question: the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers.

Crowds

John’s response to the crowds is relatively simple: share with those in need. This basic act of generosity is a simple but vital spiritual practice. He puts it like this: “Whoever has two coats should share with those who have none.” And then he says to do the same with food. With a little preparation, this might be a good Sunday for a coat drive, or a food drive, or a shoe drive. I dare say, the majority of the members of the congregations I serve have more than one coat, and a pantry full of food. I went to one congregation where they encouraged people to leave their shoes behind. This is something that we can do in December in the South. What an act of humility. Of course, some preparation would be involved, to make sure you have a place to receive the shoes, or a way to distribute them.

Tax collectors

Jesus is not against taxes. He says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. The issue here is the ostracization of tax collectors for colluding with an occupying army, and collecting taxes that must be paid with Roman money, that has a blasphemous graven image of a self-deified emperor on it. Jesus’ has compassion for tax collectors in the Scriptures, even though they are vilified by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Tax collectors made a deal with Rome. They were paid by levying a surcharge on the people for their services. They had the power of soldiers and the full weight of Rome behind them. The temptation to collect over and above their due was strong. The vocation was ripe for corruption.

John turns to them, responding to the question, “What should we do?” What is remarkable is that he doesn’t tell them to stop collecting taxes. He simply addresses the corruption. “Collect no more than the prescribed amount.” Luke may have an agenda to here to let Rome know that this Christian religion is no threat to the Empire, but it may also be that John’s wrath was focused not as much on Rome as on the corrupt religious establishment. To be sure, he was concerned about corruption in both places, as his critique of Herod and his subsequent beheading attest.

Soldiers

Soldiers were generally not Jewish. They were Romans. Gentiles. Pagans. That John addresses them at all is remarkable. There were “God-fearers” who were not Jewish, but interested in Jewish practices, and attracted to monotheism. We must also remember that though this is John speaking, it is Luke writing, in 90 A.D. probably from a major urban center in Western Asia Minor, Turkey today, perhaps Ephesus. He is writing his gospel for “Theophilus,” which means god-lover. He may be writing for a Gentile who is interested in Judaism or Christianity, or perhaps for a community of God-fearers.

Roman soldiers were only men, and they came in two kinds. Legionaries were the elite. Auxiliaries were the rank and file. Legionaries had to be Roman citizens. They signed up for 25 years of service. They would retire in military communities called “colonia.” Auxiliaries were not Roman citizens. They fought on the front lines and guarded things. They made a third of the wage of Legionaries. Both received grain allotments. In general, being a soldier was one of the best ways for an average person to provide for his family in Rome. For more information CLICK HERE.

Again, John does not tell them to give up their vocation. They are not asked to stop being soldiers. They are told to be honest, and kind in their work. They are told to not practice extortion. Power corrupts. They are told not to use their power to lord it over others. No threats. No false accusations. And then finally, be satisfied with your wages.

The people were inspired, and filled with expectation. They wondered if John might be the messiah. John then pointed to Jesus. “I baptize you with water, but one greater than me is coming. He will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.

Many people struggle with their professions. I know some who have left their profession because they felt they were being asked to do unethical things. There is a time for that. Sometimes you have to walk away. I commend those who do, especially when it comes at personal financial risk.

It also true, however, that there is corruption in every profession. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors. There are always opportunities to cheat others, and people who will take them. There are ways to use power inappropriately, for personal gain, in ways that injure others. We cannot change that. If you are a contractor, you will bump into dishonest contractors. If you are a politician, you will bump into dishonest politicians. We need both contractors and politicians. Your call is not always to walk away, but to practice your faith in your profession. Use your gifts to be a blessing to others, not a curse.

There is much good news for us snakes here:

  • A right relationship with God is as close as simple confession and repentance. Humility is the order of the day, not perfection, which is unattainable.
  • God offers us a holy way of living, that involves sharing, being honest with others, and learning the grace of being satisfied with what we have.
  • For some, this will involve a completely new calling, but for most, we are invited to live these values in our current occupations.
  • One has come into our world, to baptize us with Spirit and fire, empowering us to share, serve, and follow our calling in faith.

Advent3C

The Installation of Pastor Kim Little-Brooks at Advent Lutheran Church Houston

Advent I

December 2, 2018

Dean Tracey Breashears Schultz, preaching and installing

ADVENT 2C – December 9, 2018

Baruch 5:1-9 – Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.

OR

Malachi 3:1-4 – See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

Luke 1:68-79 – The Psalm is the Song of Zechariah. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. The Song of Zechariah may be sung, ELW 226, 250, or 552, or the Gospel Canticle from Matins on p. 303.

Philippians 1:3-11 – I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Luke 3:1-6John the Baptist: As written in the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

Malachi: The Messenger

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

I have never quite gotten used to the recent use of “See” for הִנֵּה instead of “Behold.” I get that no one uses “behold” or “lo” anymore. But, “see” lacks the gravitas of a divine pronouncement. What would we say today? Here are some of the ways NASB translates it: after all (1), behold (938), go (1), here (41), how (5), if (18), if he sees (1), if he has indeed (1), indeed (11), lo (16), look (3), now (3), now (1), see (4), surely (2), there (2), unless (1). I suppose in Texas, a divine oracle might say, “Look here, y’all!” or “See here!” but I can’t bring myself to do that, so I’m sticking with “Behold!”

In contrast to Jeremiah’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple a couple of weeks ago on December 18, in today’s text from Malachi, YHWH is now returning to the Temple. This is a post-exilic text. The people have returned from exile and the Temple has been rebuilt. Already there are problems, like before. The people are worshipping foreign gods and the priests are misconducting themselves, again. YHWH is going to come and purify the priests, the sons of Levi.

YHWH is sending a messenger in advance. The word for messenger is malach, מַלְאָך. Malach can be translated “messenger,” “ambassador,” “envoy” or even “angel.” So Malachi, the very title of the book, means messenger. It is likely that the author is referring to himself.

People often pray for God to come, but they don’t know what they are asking for. Do we really want this? We think God will come to give our enemies their comeuppance. It often doesn’t occur to us, that we ourselves might be the object of divine judgment. When God comes, who can stand? Who can endure the day of God’s coming? If we are washed thoroughly with fuller’s soap so that all our dirt is washed away, will any part of us be left? I once had a car that I was afraid to wash, because the rust and dirt seemed to be holding it together.

Zechariah: The Song

As mentioned above, since it is the appointed psalm of the day, the Song of Zechariah may be sung, ELW 226, 250, or 552, or the Gospel Canticle from Matins on p. 303.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke is the story of Elkanah and Hannah from 1 Samuel 1. As Samuel is the last of the judges and the anointer of kings; so John is the last of the prophets and the baptizer of Jesus. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed…” Luke 16:16

 Zechariah in Luke connects the miraculous births with both the promises made to Israel, and the current events of the day. The preacher is challenged to do the same.

John: The Voice

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

In Jesus’ day, the Roman occupation was understood as God’s judgment, and the religious establishment was considered corrupt by many. The prophecies of Malachi rang true, and the people looked for messengers to purify the religious structures of the day.

Luke is the only gospel writer who painstakingly grounds the events of John and Jesus firmly in history.

“In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius…” Tiberius Claudius Nero, the reclusive man who never wanted to be ruler (Pliny the Elder called him “the gloomiest of men’), was the Roman Emperor for 23 years, 14-37 A.D. If Luke has his dates right, the Word of God came to John at around 29 A.D.

“When Pontius Pilate was the Governor of Judea…” Pontius Pilatus was the fifth prefect of the Roman Province called Judea, 26-36 A.D. 29 A.D. falls neatly into that time frame. We know this by a stone known as the Pilate Stone, pictured here, discovered in 1961 at the archeological site Caesarea Maritima, the administrative and military headquarters of the province. Prior to this discovery, scholars had questioned the historicity of this figure in Luke’s gospel. The stone established Pilate’s historicity, and also increased Luke’s credibility as a historian.

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This week, a new find was announced. Pilate’s ring has been identified. It was actually found nearly fifty years ago, but unrecognized. One of thousands of items found at the Herodium, it was recently turned it over to staff that currently works at the site. They cleaned it up and were delighted to discover “Pilato” on it. (The article says “Pilatus,” but readers of Greek will notice it appears to say ΠΙΛΑΤO, reading right to left, clockwise.)

https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium-ring-of-roman-governor-pontius-pilate-who-executed-jesus-found-in-herodion-site-1.6699353

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“and Herod was ruler of Galilee…” This Herod is not Herod the Great, (37 B.C.to 4 A.D.), whom the Roman client king (who Rome called “King of the Jews”), who Matthew mentions nine times in Matthew 2, who tried to manipulate the Magi and who ordered the death of all the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem. This is not the King Herod who began his reign by slaughtering nearly every member of the Sanhedrin, and replacing them with sympathizers. This is not the Herod of whom Caesar Augustus said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

No, this is Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch, the son of the cruel Herod the Great, whom Matthew calls “Herod the ruler” in Matthew 14. When Herod the Great died, Augustus, fed up with all the uprisings, eliminated the position of King of the Jews. He divided the country among Herod’s three sons. Archelaus was given Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Herod Antipas was given Galilee and Peraea. Philip was given Gaulanitis (the Golan Heights today) and the lands northeast of the sea of Galilee. None of them were given the title of king. They were tetrarchs, which denotes someone in charge of a quarter.

This Herod, Herod Antipas, was called “the fox” by Jesus in Luke 13:32, and had John the Baptist beheaded. David Ewart wonders if “weasel” or “rat” would be a closer approximation of what Jesus was trying to say in calling Herod a fox. Herod reigned from 6-39 A.D. He was later convicted by Caligula of conspiring against him, and against Tiberius, stripped of his position and property, and exiled to somewhere in France, according to Josephus.

 “and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,” Philip, son of Herod the great, and brother of Herod Antipas, was sometimes known as Herod Philip II. He ruled from 4 B.C. to 34 A.D.

“and Lysanias ruler of Abilene…” According to the great and powerful Wikipedia, Lysanius was the ruler of a small realm on the western slopes of Mount Hermon, mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, and in coins from c. 40 B.C. He was ruler of a tetrarchy based in Abila. He was put to death by Marc Antony in 33 B.C. Obviously, this is long before our time frame. So, it is likely that the Lysanias in Luke’s gospel is a son or grandson of this first Lysanias.

“during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” This is where Luke may be a bit off. Caiaphas was high priest 18-37 A.D. Annas was high priest 6-15 A.D. We’re good with Caiaphas, but Annas was deposed in 15 A.D. Try as one may, any historian can miss a date or two. If we leave out Annas, and put in all the other dates, we have John around 29 A.D.

Luke’s narrative structure links John and Jesus:

  • 1:1-24 = Annunciation of John
  • 1:25-56 = Annunciation of Jesus
  • 1:57-80 = Birth of John
  • 2:1-52 = Birth of Jesus
  • 3:1-20 = Ministry of John
  • 3:21-34:53 = Ministry of Jesus

John went into the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was unauthorized forgiveness. Forgiveness was the business of the priests in the temple, with animal sacrifices. John was not in Jerusalem, he was out in the wilderness, preaching his unauthorized baptismal forgiveness.

Luke ties John to The Voice in the prophet Isaiah. Prepare the way of the Lord. Level the mountains and valleys, making rough places plain, and the crooked straight. Isaiah was talking about a return from exile in Babylon. Luke’s John the Baptist is talking about a return to the true Israel, from the exile of sin. John’s critique of the religious establishment causes friction. His critique of Herod’s marriage lands him in jail. Both ultimately cost him his life.

If we are to preach a message of repentance and forgiveness in a public place, what will it look like? If we level a critique against the religious establishment, who will it unsettle? If we call out injustice in the world and political corruption in the government, what will be the cost?

For the followers of Jesus, John the Baptist is God’s messenger, just as Malachi was God’s messenger 500 years earlier. John announces God’s coming in person of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s scathing critique of both Temple and Government (church and state) earn him the reward of many prophets: martyrdom.

What kind of reform do we need today? Can we not admit that our own religious structures are under the power of sin? As churches of the Reformation, can we not acknowledge that the church is always in need of reform, as the saying goes: Ecclesia semper reformanda: “the church is always to be reformed”, a phrase used by Karl Barth in 1947, deriving from a saying of St. Augustine? Are we not also called to expose the deeds of the government as well, as did Moses and the prophets, and many others?

The good news on this Sunday comes at the end of our text. The Word of God came to a very historical John, son of a very historical Zechariah. That John was called to be the Voice, preparing the way for the very historical Jesus. In preparing the way of the Lord, in making his paths straight, in leveling mountains and straightening what is crooked, all flesh, all flesh, shall see the salvation of God. It is not that we are so awesome at this proclamation. It is that the proclamation itself has power. John brings us from sin to salvation.

The list of rulers at the beginning of Luke 3 is not incidental. It is intentional. The gospel of Jesus, whose reign is not of this world, will require a reordering of our concepts of power.

As Mary sang, the rich and powerful will be pulled down and the weak and lowly will be lifted up – a leveling of the mountains – a leveling of the playing field. This doesn’t always sound like good news for some, but it is good news. It is hope for the world, which is filled with hungry and oppressed people, longing for the justice of God. Salvation is not pie in the sky when you die. It is a real, historical, incarnate reality.

 

 

ADVENT 1C – December 2, 2018

Jeremiah 33:14-16 – I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Psalm 25:1-10 – Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 – And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.

Luke 21:25-36 – There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

An Introduction to Luke’s Gospel

Hope in Chaos: Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

When I read this I am filled with questions. How did the original hearers understand this passage? What promise was made to the house of Israel? How will it be fulfilled? What righteous branch will spring up? Let’s sort this out.

Jeremiah (יִרְמְיָהוּ) is a prophet of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, during the reign of King Josiah. At least until the Babylonian Captivity in 587 B.C. He prophesied that Judah would be dragged into captivity because of their unfaithfulness to YHWH. He’s hard on idolatry and priestly greed. These prophecies land him in jail (33:1).

Luther Seminary Associate Professor of Old Testament Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us that this passage does not appear in the Septuagint (possibly 3rd century B.C.). It is a later addition. Brittanica.com says chapters 1-25 are Jeremiah’s prophecies against Judah. Chapters 26-45 are prose that often refer to Jeremiah in the third person. Some believe they were written by Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe. (Read chapter 36.)

In the midst of scathing prophecies that include corpses in the street, Jeremiah hints that better days will come, in time. Laughter will one day be heard again in the streets (33:10-11). Jeremiah cares about the streets.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C., followed by the Babylonian Captivity meant the end of the Davidic dynasty. It was now a dead stump. Once a tree is cut down, what can be done? The temple was destroyed. The end of a civilization. Or maybe not.

Jeremiah promises a shoot will spring up. It will be a righteous branch of David. This shoot, a person, will execute justice in the land.

Imagine a beautiful old tree, with much history. Your grandparents were engaged there. Your parents hung a swing and pushed you. Then someone cuts it down. Forlorn, you know you will never again sit in the shade of that tree. Your children will never swing from its branches as you once did. After a while, however, you return to the site, and you notice a shoot emerging from the stump. Hope. you and your children will not swing from that tree, but future generations might.

David’s line will never again occupy the throne. But Jews hundreds of years later will come to hope for a different kind of dynasty. A different son of David. The Jews will look for this anointed one, this messiah (in Greek, Christ, from chrism, anointing).

But for Jeremiah, rotting in prison, for the corpses in the street, for the people eventually in slavery in Babylon, this is a long way off.

Schifferdecker reminds us that we are called to do the same. When the world seems in chaos, we proclaim hope. When the world seems bent on hate, and when even the best of us respond to hate with hate, followers of Christ announce God’s coming reign of love. When, gripped with fear, we seem ready to shut out our neighbor, the one in the ditch, the holy family at our door, no room in the inn, we are invited to announce Gods risky, radical hospitality.

This is our privilege and obligation: to announce the love of God which casts out all fear – the love that became flesh in Jesus, son of David, our righteous branch.

Read the Signs: Luke 21:25-36

25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

On November 19 we read about Jesus and the disciples at the Temple. The disciples were marveling at the large stones, sparking a surprising comment from Jesus: “Not one stone will be left upon another.” Indeed, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. did the unthinkable: It obliterated the Temple. The story of the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in Jeremiah gives some context to the story of the Roman destruction of Herod’s Temple in the New Testament.

Today’s gospel reading comes from Luke 21, a chapter in which Jesus is at and around the Temple, watching rich people putting large sums into the treasury, and a poor widow only two copper coins. He follows with the prediction of the destruction of Temple. Both texts are borrowed from Mark.

There is both judgement (before today’s text) and promise (within today’s text).

Judgement: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know the desolation has come near.” (Luke 21:20).

Promise: Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)

There is an arch in Rome dedicated to Titus’ siege of Jerusalem (along with his father Vespasian). It was erected in 82 A.D. by Titus’ younger brother, the Emperor Domitian, shortly after Titus’ death. It is believed to be the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The south panel depicts the Romans carrying off the spoils of Jerusalem’s Temple, including a menorah, bread table, golden trumpets and more. The north panel shows Titus on a four-horsed chariot as the trimphator. Nike, the god of victory, crowns him with a laurel wreath. This is significant, because usually morals and gods are depicted separately. Nike and Titus are together, an advancing of the worship of “divine” emperors.

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The inscription says:

SENATVS

POPVLVSQVE·ROMANVS
DIVO·TITO·DIVI·VESPASIANI·F(ILIO)

VESPASIANO·AVGVSTO

“The Senate

and People of Rome (dedicate this)

to divine Titus (divine Vespasian’s son)

Vespasianus Augustus.”

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Parsons helps us to see how all Jesus’ predictions in Luke come to be fulfilled in Luke’s volume II: Acts (location 7303):

Prediction in Luke                                 Fulfillment in Acts

Arrest (“lay their hands on you”)            4:3; 5:18; 12:1; 21:27

Persecuted                                                   7:52; 8:3; 9:4-5; 12:4; 22:4, 7-8; 26:11, 14-15

Conflict in Synagogues                              6:9; 9:2; 13:44-51; 17:1-5; 19:8-10

Imprisoned                                                  5:18; 12:3-5; 16:19-24; 21:27-36; 28:16

Brought before kings and governors     12:1; 13:6-12; 18:12 – 17; 23:24-33; 24:1, 10; 25:13-26; 26:2, 27, 30

Given words to speak (also Lk 12:11)     18:9-61010; 23:11

None can withstand or oppose                 6:10; 13:8-12

Executed                                                        7:59-60; 12:2

In Luke, Jesus subtly makes an apocalyptic shift from the end of the Temple to the end of time. Parsons (Luke, Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), says this is a false dichotomy. Jesus is painting a coming historical conflict onto a cosmic canvas. That’s what apocalyptic literature is. It views events in human history as part of a larger cosmic battle going on.

Consider Ephesians 6:12:

For our[a] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

There is a larger battle of good and evil going on. Today’s current events are simply a manifestation of that larger “invisible” drama.

One cannot understand the New Testament without understanding the first century apocalyptic mentality. This apocalyptic mindset grew during the intertestamental period: fourth century BC until the first century. Rice University professor and director of the Jewish Studies department, Matthias Henze (a Lutheran from Hanover, Germany and spouse of Christ the King Pastor Karin Liebster) points out in his book, Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesusshows how Jewish realities in the New Testament that don’t appear in the Old Testament (rabbis, synagogues, Pharisees and messiahs) emerged during these 400 years. This 200-page book is written for a general audience. It’s worth your time. All too often, we use the Old Testament Judaism from the Hebrew Bible as a backdrop to understand New Testament concepts, leap frogging over half a millennium of intertestamental Jewish development.

The cosmic portents are signs of God’s judgement upon the nations. Most everything Jesus mentions here is borrowed from apocalyptic literature. When these things happen, the Son of Man will come on the clouds. Lift up your heads. Stand up straight (the same word used for the woman bent over by Satan in Luke (13:11). Your redemption draws nigh. The glorious coming of the Son of Man comes from Daniel (7:13-14), perhaps the last Old Testament book written, and thus the beginning of the intertestamental explosion of apocalyptic literature.

Then Jesus turns to the fig tree, and Luke adds all the other trees (vv. 29-33). Just as you know, when you see buds on the trees, that it is spring, and summer is just around the corner, so you should understand that when you see these earlier mentioned signs, the Kingdom of God is near.

Finally, an exhortation (vv.34-36). Avoid drunkenness and going through the motions of life, as if there is no direction or purpose to history. This is the same message as the parable about keeping your lamps lit. Paul says something similar in 1 Thessalonians 5:6-7:

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.

Wake up people. Don’t live careless, thoughtless, immoral lives. Tune into God’s purposes. Look around you. Be prepared to stand before the Son of Man.

Preaching all of this

It is quite a struggle to preach apocalyptic literature. People don’t think apocalyptically. Or maybe they do. Jon Meacham, the presidential biographer, in his most recent book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, says that America has always thought of itself in apocalyptic terms.

On the one hand, we are called to wake people from their stupor, the doldrums of life, and come alive to God’s movement in history. To jump in. On the other hand, we don’t want to be alarmists who run around claiming the sky is falling. Sometimes the sky is falling, but it always has been. Sin and evil are nothing new. What words call us to wake up to what is going on around us, but don’t border on the absurd.

Compounding all of this, this is the third week of apocalyptic texts. November 18 we had Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” (13:1-8) which claimed the end is near, and Jesus prediction of the destruction of the Temple: “Not one stone will be left upon another.” November 25 we had Christ the King Sunday in which Paul said (Romans 1:4b-8) that Jesus was coming on the clouds. And this week, Advent I, we have Luke’s apocalypse.

We needn’t be slaves to the lectionary. If you’re having apocalypse fatigue, then move on. You could do an introduction to the Gospel of Luke: An Introduction to Luke’s Gospel, or find a topic that your congregation desperately needs to hear.

At our most recent Preach at the Beach in Galveston, David Lose pointed out the challenging chronology of the four Sundays of Advent and then Christmas, especially for the unchurched who walk through our doors. We’re angling toward Jesus’ birth of course. Everyone knows this, even the postmodern, post-Christian, millennials. So how do we tell the story? We start on Advent 1 with the end of the world. You can work with that of course. Begin with the end in mind. There’s a sermon topic for you.

But from there, on Advent 2, we move to John the Baptist. Not the baby John the Baptist, mind you, but a full-grown John the Baptist, some 30 years after Jesus birth. Luke ties John to Isaiah’s voice crying in the wilderness. This will be confusing for all but the lifelong church-goers, and maybe even to some of them.

Then, on Advent 3, John calls the crowds that come to hear him preach snakes. How should they respond to his preaching? He teaches them to share, to not cheat people, and to be satisfied with their wages. He says I baptize you with water, but one is coming who will baptize you with fire.

On Advent 4, we go back in time thirty years, to a time before John is born, when Mary (Jesus’ future mother) meets with Elizabeth (John’s future mother). Mary sings her song, the Magnificat.

Then Jesus is born, Luke 2, on Christmas. Yes, this is a long-standing liturgical practice, our lectionary. But it is quite confusing to the world that we are seeking to inform and inspire with the hope of the world.

It may be worth noting that Advent emerged not a season to prepare for Christmas, but as a season to prepare for the second coming of Christ. In the earliest Advent sermons we have, the birth of Jesus is not even mentioned. The pastor and worship team may want to consider how to engage Advent in a way that makes sense in your context. What will inspire the people to come and engage the Word in worship, and then go to live the Word in everyday life.

If you choose to take on the Luke 21 text for this Sunday, here are some themes and thoughts from our group of 30+ pastors and deacons gathered in Galveston for Preach at the Beach last month:

  • Be not afraid, versus be very afraid.
  • Use this time for a big picture view of the new church year. Luke year.
  • A countdown is happening in the text. Perhaps like a countdown for a rocket launch. What kinds of count downs are going on in people’s lives today?
  • How do we counter millennial dispensational theology that is prevalent in our culture in the Bible Belt, especially after the Left Behind
  • Preparing for the end now. Begin with the end in mind.
  • Shift the focus from “when,” to “how” shall we live in the mean time?”
  • The “powers” fear. Christians anticipate.
  • Notice that fear and worry aren’t eliminated; they are transformed (think D-Day to VE Day). After D-Day, there’s no question about the outcome of the war, even though it’s not over. The victory is assured, though not yet won. In the meantime, you fight, but you fight differently. With hope. With the knowledge that the victory is in hand.
  • In the face of chaos: Christian confidence! … and freedom!

 

 

Christ the King – November 25, 2018

2 Samuel 23:1-7 – David’s last words: He has made with me an everlasting covenant. For a post on 2 Samuel 23 click David’s Last Words.

OR

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14– Daniel’s apocalypse: the son of man comes in the clouds to the Ancient One and is given dominion and glory and kingship.

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18) – O Lord, remember David’s hardships and his faithfulness.

OR

Psalm 93 – Ever since the world began, your throne has been established. (Ps. 93:3)

Revelation 1:4b-8– He is coming on the clouds, and every eye will see him. I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord.

John 18:33-37 – Jesus: My kingdom is not of this world. I testify to the truth. Pilate: What is truth?

Famous Last Words

 

Christ the King Sunday, sometimes called The Reign of Christ today, is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we begin a new church year, with the first Sunday of Advent. We also begin year three of the three-year Revised Common Lectionary. The gospel readings will soon focus on Luke’s gospel.

It is the last Sunday of the church year. We often focus on last things. The first reading, from 2 Samuel 23, begins, “These are the last words of David…” . Ralph Klein points out that these are the first of many “last words of David,” in the Bible. He counts ten (Exodus 23:1ff, 2 Samuel 23, 1 Kings 2:2-4, 5-9, 1 Chronicles 22:7-16,17-19; 28: 2-10, 20-21; 29:1-5, 10-19; 23:27). Even Luther had some doubt about David’s last words. That’s okay. Jesus had seven last “words.” Wherever you land, it might be a fun and enlightening time to gather together the purported last words of several famous people, and perhaps think about our own last words, our last will and testament, our legacy. What will your last words be? I’ve done a post on this here: David’s Last Words.

The Oldest Fragment of the New Testament

A few years ago Susan and I went down the Houston Museum of Natural History to see a traveling exhibit to view the oldest written piece of the New Testament in existence: Papyrus P52, found at an Egyptian market in 1920 and dated to 125 A.D. It was a bit of a fool’s errand, because, so what? You can see it online, and inspect it in closer detail. I’ll paste it here for you. But it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage for someone who has devoted his life and career to this carpenter from Nazareth who stood before Pilate nearly 2,000 years ago.

The fragment is two-sided. Both sides are from John 18, our text for this coming Sunday. On the front in the image here is John 18:31-33. On the back is John 18:37-38.

In the latter, Pilate famously asks, “What is truth?”

Below I will boldface and underline the words you can see in the fragment:

Front: John 18:31-33

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31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves

and judge him according to your law.” Then replied

The Jews, “For us it is not permitted to kill

anyone.” 32 So that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, that he

spoke signifying the kind of death he was

to die. 33 Entering therefore again into the

Pratorium, Pilate summoned Jesus,

and said to him, “Are you the King of the

Jews?”

31εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Λάβετε αὐτὸνὑμεῖς,

καὶ κατὰ τὸν νόμον ὑμῶν κρίνατε αὐτόν. εἶπον αὐτῷ

οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, Ἡμῖν οὐκ ἔξεστιν ἀποκτεῖναι

οὐδένα: 32ἵνα ὁ λόγος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πληρωθῇ ὃν

εἶπεν σημαίνωνποίῳ θανάτῳ ἤμελλεν

ἀποθνῄσκειν. 33Εἰσῆλθεν οὖν πάλιν εἰς τὸ

πραιτώριον ὁΠιλᾶτος καὶ ἐφώνησεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν

καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν

Back: John 18:37-38

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37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.

For this I was born, and for this I came into the

world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs

to the truth listens to my voice.”

38 Said to him Pilate, “What is truth?”

And this having been said, he went out to

the Jews again and told them, “I find not one fault in

him.”

37εἶπεν οὖναὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκοῦν βασιλεὺς εἶ σύ;

ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι. ἐγὼ εἰς

τοῦτο γεγέννημαι καὶ εἰς τοῦτο ἐλήλυθα εἰς τὸν

κόσμον, ἵνα  μαρτυρήσω  τῇ ἀληθείᾳ: πᾶς ὁ ὢν

κ τῆς ἀληθείας ἀκούει μου τῆς φωνῆς.

38λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

Καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν πάλιν ἐξῆλθεν πρὸς

τοὺς  Ἰουδαίους, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἐγὼ οὐδεμίαν αἰτίαν εὑρίσκω ἐν

αὐτ

The word “truth” appears one time in Matthew. Once. Twice in Mark. Three times in Luke. But the word “truth” appears no less than 21 times in the Gospel of John.

Jesus is the word made flesh, full of grace and truth. Grace and truth appear together in the Hebrew Bible, especially the psalms. Truth is the quality of Yahweh, who is faithful to his promises, the covenants. The law is filled with grace and truth in the Old Testament. John transfers this to Jesus. (St. John’s Gospel, R. H. Lightfoot, 1956)

The truth comes from above. Falsehood comes from below. The law comes through Moses, John says, but truth comes through Jesus. True worshippers worship in spirit and in truth. The truth sets you free. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth. The Spirit guides us into all truth. In John, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

In today’s passage, Pilate represents the State. The government. Lightfoot sees Pilate/The State as considering the tension between Law and Gospel, as represented by Jesus and his opponents, the religious leaders. The State has no interest in arbitrating this conflict according to Lightfoot. He doesn’t hate Jesus. He’s just uninterested.

Our text is just verses 33-37. The NRSV translates Praetorium as “headquarters” since most people today don’t know what a Praetorium is:

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters[a] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I think this text will preach in the current climate of fake news. A political figure asks, “What is truth?”

In a recent interview, President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was trying to explain why the president should not testify for special counsel Robert Mueller. He could be trapped into a lie that could lead to a perjury charge.

Guiliani: “When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

“Truth is truth,” Todd responded.

“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth…”

Todd answered: “Truth isn’t truth?”

Giuliani: “No, no, no.”

The preacher can wade into the bending of truth without naming names or wading into the mud. Politicians of all brands, in all times, have played fast and loose with the truth. Truth may not be truth, but winning is winning.

The preacher could begin with a series of questions. True or false? Ask the congregation. Perhaps choose some common misconceptions. The Bible says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” True or false? A verbal response is enough. Don’t embarrass people. Benjamin Franklin said, “Pride goeth before the fall.” True or false. (He might have said it, but it was first said a thousand years earlier, in the Bible. Edelweiss is the national anthem of Austria? (False) The Bible says there were three magi. (False) Toilet water rotates in a different direction in the southern hemisphere. (False) Maybe find a few truths to toss in there.

If we are going to be honest, sometimes its really hard to tell the truth from a lie. One person doesn’t acknowledge the other in the grocery store. The second person feels snubbed and tells you. Is it true? The fact is, you don’t know. It might be true. The perpetrator may have intentionally ignored your friend… or maybe didn’t see your friend. You don’t know. You may never know. Even if they were both in the room with you for a counseling session, you may not know.

Or someone says they saw a “big” dog. Was it big? That may depend on the reporter’s experience with dogs. If all they’ve had is dachshunds, then maybe the dog was big. If you’ve only had mastiffs, the dog may be have been small. Sometimes truth is subjective. Sometimes truth is in the beholder.

For Jesus, in John’s gospel, truth may not be a dispute over facts, but something much more profound.

So what is truth? Merriam Webster says truth is,

  1. The body of real things, events and facts…
  2. The state of being the case
  3. A transcendent fundamental spiritual reality

It may be that Jesus is more interested in the third definition than the first two. He’s less interested in a dispute over whether there are 8, 9 or more planets, than a more transcendent truth, like God is love, or being in relationship with God is what life is about. There are larger, transcendent Truths with a capital “T” that make our myriad of truths with a small “t” less pressing. The number of planets is interesting, but unlikely to change the course of your life. Love could be a matter of life or death, for you, and for those around you. To wit: facts about this or that don’t often set us free. The truth with a capital T can set you free. It can transform your life.

 

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