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Bishop Michael Rinehart

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michaelrinehart

Bishop of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Christ Roots Us

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, December 8, 2020 – Advent 2A

 

Christ roots us. (Satterlee.) It may become easy to be smug in our religious roots.

 

Isaiah 11:1-10

– A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

 – Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. 

Romans 15:4-13

 – May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12

 – John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…” Do not presume 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. The axe 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.

 

 

Isaiah’s Shoot, Stump, Branch, and Roots

Isaiah is an 8th century prophet from Judah. The Isaiah text is from First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), which prophesies Judah’s destruction and exile. Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), written perhaps 200 years later, by a different author, in the exile, prophesies the return from Babylon. Chapters 56-66 change to yet a third author, writing after the exile. Isaiah is a collection of pre-exilic, exilic and post-exilic writings.

Jesse is David’s father. Son of Obed. Grandson of Ruth and Boaz. He is from the tribe of Judah. David was the youngest of his eight sons. Perhaps the stump of Jesse is the Northern Kingdom, defeated by the Assyrians. Assyria will soon get its comeuppance from Babylon. 

Here is the entire text of Isaiah 11:1-10:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

David was a slayer of lions, Michael Chan points out, but this Spirit-anointed Davidic leader will rule in a different sort of way, not subduing enemies, but transforming them. The wolf will lie down with the lamb. So also the leopard and lion, with their respective prey. This is the peaceable kingdom. Barbara Lundblad recalls Woody Allen’s clever quip: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!”

Mr. Tree Services says:

Without leaves, the cut tree cannot produce food for the growth of its roots. However, the roots might have enough nutrients left to allow the growth of sprouts from the roots or from the leftover stump. If a sprout develops enough leaves, it can eventually grow back into a tree.

If a tree doesn’t produce root sprouts, then it’s unlikely it’ll regrow. Instead, the roots will eventually decompose. Trees like pines, oaks, and maples do not grow back from roots. Conversely, some tree species aggressively sprout from the roots even after the tree is cut down and the stump ground up… Trees like elms, ficus, and willows can grow back from roots. As a rule of thumb, fast-growing trees can grow back and slow-growing trees cannot.

This is a passage of hope. Even after being beaten into submission and completely devastated, the country may yet emerge, if the roots still have enough nutrients. Isaiah believes this is the case with Israel. A sprout will emerge from the stump of Jesse and become a branch. This sprout will be a Spirit-anointed leader who will transforms enemies, until a peaceable world appears. Of course, Christians identify Christ with this righteous, peacemaking branch. 

 

 

 

Psalm 72: The Righteous Leader

Psalm 72 lays out the qualities of a righteous national leader. Here is the selected text:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more… Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

A righteous leader defends the cause of the poor. A righteous leader does not continue to pad his or her nest, but makes sure those at the bottom of the food chain are being cared for, making sure they are treated justly, and not taken advantage of due to their low status and meager means. A righteous leader works for the prosperity of all, and crushes all who would oppress them. May such a leader live long. 

 

 

 

Romans 15:

In the penultimate chapter of his most theological epistle, Paul pulls together his many arguments for both the Jewish and Gentile communities. Here is the text:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

 

As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul chooses these texts that emphasize the mission of God is to the Gentiles. The Gentiles will join the Jews in praise-filled worship in the coming reign of God. In the meantime, Paul encourages the church to share the love of Christ beyond their local, religious and ethnic circles. He draws on Old Testament texts to reinforce this. One of those texts is the Isaiah prophecy. The Spirit-anointed leader who arose from the dead stump was called to lead even the Gentiles Paul says. 

 

 

 

Rooted But Not Arrogant:

Matthew 3:1-12:

In  those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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. Even now the axe 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. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

John appears in the wilderness. He is The Voice about whom Isaiah spoke (Isaiah 40:3). This aligns him with the prophetic tradition. John is wearing a coat of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. This aligns him with the prophet Elijah, who called Israel to righteousness. King Ahaziah asks his messengers to describe Elijah:

He said to them, “What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
(2 Kings 1:7-8)

From the outset, Matthew wants us to understand John as a prophet, calling Israel to righteousness, back to its roots. He is a reformer.

David Garland, in Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (2012) notes:

The renewal of Israel does not begin in its hallowed center of political and religious power. John makes no appearance in Jerusalem or the temple; instead, Jerusalem, all Judea, and the region across the Jordan must come out to him. Even many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to him to be baptized.

The Voice is crying in the wilderness, not the city, not the Temple. Reform rarely comes from the center. It comes from the fringes. John’s reformation comes from the wilderness, on the other side of the Jordan. Luther’s Reformation came from a backwater part of the Holy Roman Empire, on the other side of the Alps. Jesus himself came from the tiny northern town of Nazareth, not even mentioned in the Old Testament. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

There’s something really fresh and engaging about John the Baptist’s direct approach. It’s honest: his blunt irritation with the Pharisees and Sadducees: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Period. He has clarity about what he wants: outcomes. Show me the fruit. 

For John, the religious establishment is so hopelessly broken, God is going to remake it from the roots. Even now, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree that has failed to bear fruit. 

It may be worth of considering what fruit your life is bearing. What fruit is your congregation bearing? After all the flurry of activity (or, in some cases inactivity) what fruit has been borne? Where is your church in the life cycle? Are you a stump? A spout? A branch? Bearing fruit?

The tirade continues: Don’t even think that your race, your bloodline or religious heritage gets you automatic salvation. Some rabbis held that all Israelites would escape the fire of Gehenna, by virtue of their birthright. David Garland (see link above) quotes the Babylonian Talmud, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come.” The Voice in the wilderness begs to differ. No circumcision (or baptism) can be a substitute for righteousness. Being a child of Abraham does not excuse one from injustice. God can make children of Abraham out of rocks. Repentance is our only option.  

The thrust of this passage is preparation for the one who is to come. It’s like Matthias Grünewald’s surreal crucifixion that has John the Baptist ahistorically at the foot of the cross pointing at Jesus with the oversized finger. John is always pointing to Jesus. “I baptize you with water… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire cleanses and purifies.

Reza Aslan (Zealot) imagines Jesus might have been a disciple of John in the early days. It would explain a lot: their relationship, Jesus’ baptism, John’s disciples coming to Jesus. It’s purely speculation, but an interesting hypothesis. The church certainly has had to struggle with why Jesus needed to be baptized at all, given the ever-elevating christology of the early church. Even the gospel writers display a struggle with this. The first gospel, Mark, simply records Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan. Matthew’s gospel, ten years later probably, puts the early church’s question on John’s lips: “I need to be baptized by you and yet you come to me?” Luke doesn’t mention this, and John omits the baptism altogether. We’ll revisit the baptism text on The Baptism of our Lord, in January.

 

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea…
Matthew 3:1

Though scholars debate this, John was likely an Essene, one of the three major sects of Second Temple Judaism. The Essenes were based in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew tells us that this is precisely where John appeared 3:1. Not as numerous as either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes rejected those more institutionalized sects in favor of asceticism. Pliny said the Essenes did not marry, possessed no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. The Wikipedia article on Essenes describes a monastic community that “congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy.” The gospel writers’ description of John leads us to this conclusion. 

Conservative N. T. Wright draws a different conclusion. He points out that the Essenes practiced frequent (some daily) ritual washing/baptism, but John’s appeared to be a “one off” as he says – a prophet preaching a one-time conversion of repentance. Is Wright right? Or is Wright wrong? John may be close to, but not formally aligned with the Essenes. Here’s a short video clip of an interview with Wright on the topic. 

Contrary to Wright, Aslan points out that not all Essenes had the same practices. Some lived in cities and villages while others lived in a more monastic community. Both kinds were ascetic. The only items of personal property an Essene at Qumran would be allowed were a cloak, a linen cloth, and a hatchet for digging a latrine in the wilderness. In addition to their numerous ritual washings by immersion, some Essenes also practiced a one-time baptism for ritual conversion into the sect. Most importantly, the Essenes rejected temple authority, which put them at odds with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They opposed animal sacrifice and observed strict dietary restrictions. They actively prepared for the end times. This sure sounds a lot like John the Baptist to me. 

 

 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
— Matthew 3:2

Get used to this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew uses it 32 times. It is found nowhere else in Scripture. It is probably interchangeable with “kingdom of God,” which Matthew uses only four times, compared to 14x in Mark, 31x in Luke and 2x in John. (John only uses the word “kingdom” five times.) In the Markan parallel for this passage (Mark 1:15), John says, “… the kingdom of God is at hand.” Some have suggested that Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God” so as not to offend his Jewish readers, who have a prohibition against speaking the name of God. This suggests Matthew has a significantly Jewish-Christian community, something I pointed out last week. Matthew doesn’t explain complex Jewish customs, so we can be fairly certain he is writing for a Jewish-Christian community.

It’s always poignant to draw attention to the fact that the kingdom is not a place to which we are going. It is coming near, coming to us as Jesus will teach his disciples to pray later, “Thy kingdom come…”

“Kingdom” is passé today, except in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Americans don’t think of themselves as living in a kingdom. We live in a country. It will be jarring to the ears of life-long Christians to say “God’s country is at hand,” or “The Empire of God is breaking in,” but it might convey a clearer sense of what is being said. When people today hear the kingdom of God, they automatically think of a castle in heaven after you die, which is far from what John is saying.

The reign/kingdom/empire/country of God is anywhere God is sovereign. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. The hungry are fed and the poor are rich. There is no more war. Swords are beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. People give up killing for farming. The powerful are replaced with the meek and humble. When these things happen, you are in God’s country, whether now or in the future. Being rooted in Christ leads to this reality. 

The call to repent is issued to the rich and powerful. God is about to bring wrath upon the rich and powerful. Repent! John is in line with other prophetic voices, like that of Ezekiel:

Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. (Ezekiel 18:30)

What transgressions? Ezekiel leaves no room for doubt. Idolatry, adultery and usury. Neglecting the hungry and naked. Robbing the poor through predatory lending. 

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 18:5-9)

Hauerwas says it’s tempting for us to think of repentance in individualistic terms. John is calling Israel to repentance as a nation. Repent or else all hell will break loose and all calamity will rain down. Indeed, it did, in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem. 

When John speaks of the wrath to come, he may indeed be speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple. With eschatological thinking in the first century air, it can, at the same time be alluding to God’s coming judgment at the end of time.

It’s interesting that when Jesus begins his ministry later, he carries on John’s exact message, word for word: 

From that time Jesus began to proclaim,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
(Matthew 4:17)

 

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” — Matthew 3:3

This passage from Isaiah 40:3 is quoted by all four gospels. This was Isaiah’s invitation for the people to return from the Babylonian Captivity to Jerusalem. John’s (and Matthew’s) listeners would hear “Babylonian Captivity” as “Roman Captivity.” However John meant it, it was likely heard as a critique of the Roman occupation and the Temple authorities who were in collusion with them for personal gain. This sedition, among other things, will get John beheaded, and Jesus crucified. Matthew, however, clearly wants us to hear this voice as John preparing the way for Jesus. 

 

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. — Matthew 3:4

The description of John in Matthew’s gospel is clearly designed to evoke images of Elijah (1 Kings 1:8) who was hairy, had a leather belt and lived in the wilderness. All Jews expect Elijah to return to announce the coming of Judgment Day. Hauerwas (“Matthew” Brazos Commentary) points out the very last words of the Old Testament point to Elijah (Malachi 4): 

Remember the law of my servant Moses, to whom at Horeb I gave rules and regulations for all Israel to obey. Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment.

John and Jesus are announcing that the “great and terrible day of the Lord” is at almost here. John is Elijah and Jesus is the Christ/Messiah/Anointed. 

 

Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. — Matthew 3:5-6

While “all Judea” is clearly an exaggeration, Matthew wants us to know that John is gathering quite a crowd. He is drawing attention to himself, something one doesn’t want to do with the Romans. 

Repenting and confessing is sealed by baptism. To understand this concept from John’s perspective, consider this passage from Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
(Ezekiel 36:25-27)

 

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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.
— Matthew 3:7-9

Gentiles might come for a ritual conversion with water. Jewish peasants might also come, to repent and profess faith in the sovereignty of God and the prophetic call. But Pharisees and Sadducees? For John, they were the very problem. They find righteousness through temple rituals of sacrifice. Perhaps they were simply coming to observe this crowd-drawing attraction in the Judean wilderness, but something was getting through to them, because some did indeed come for baptism.

Amy Jill Levine (The Annotated Jewish New Testament) says it was believed that a new born brood of vipers ate through their mother’s stomach. The Pharisees and Sadducees in John’s perspective were destroying Israel by feeding off of it. By the Temple tax and exorbitant cost of atonement sacrifices, they were bilking the poor farmers and widows so they could live in luxury. 

Barclay (the Gospel of Matthew) suggests the vipers fleeing the wrath to come evokes a wilderness brush fire, with the line of snakes desperately racing ahead of the flames. 

Clearly John is worried that they don’t really mean it. They hedging their bets, coming for fire insurance. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” is his warning to them. Baptism is not enough. If you’re really repenting, show me the fruit in your life. Saying you are a child of Abraham will not cut it either. If you mean it, then let justice roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, per Amos. 

Genesis 17:7 says, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” If Pharisees and Sadducee believe they promised an everlasting covenant as descendants of Abraham, then their place in the kingdom is secure. Their righteousness comes from their family tree. 

John disagrees. 

Stanley Hauerwas suggests John’s call to bear fruit worthy of repentance means he is refusing to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees. I’m not so sure, but it is plausible. 

 

Even 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.
— Matthew 3:10

Bearing fruit is also a motif that Jesus will adopt in his ministry (Matthew 7:16-20, 12:33, 13:23, 21:19, 21:43, 26:29). Everyone knows what happens to a tree that does not bear fruit. The farmer can’t afford to let it take up space. It will be destroyed. The ax at the root is an ominous warning to Israel. Change your ways or calamity will strike. 

 

It is easy to see why some folks make outrageous claims when calamity does strike. Planes hit the World Trade Center. Katrina hits New Orleans. Armchair theologians want to see God’s wrath in everything. The roots for such are in Scripture. Sometimes calamity is of our own making, the result of our sinfulness or evil. Other times, however, calamity happens through no cause of our own. We must be careful before making such claims, unless we have some revelatory knowledge. 

 

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. — Matthew 3:11

For the connection between the purifying properties of water and fire in Jewish thought, consider Numbers 21:23:

Everything that can withstand fire, shall be passed through fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless it shall also be purified with the water for purification; and whatever cannot withstand fire, shall be passed through the water.

John is offering a way to have forgiveness of sins without the Temple sacrifices according to Ben Witherington. If so, this is an offense to Rome and Jerusalem, both of which demanded sacrifices. It would also explain why the Pharisees and Sadducees have come to check it out.  

Your religious rituals are not magic. Alone they cannot save. Neither can your religious pedigree, affiliation, church membership, or religious heritage. 

 

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” — Matthew 3:12

This will not be a familiar image to most folks in 21st century America. Imagine tossing wheat into the air with a huge winnowing fork. The wind blows the lighter chaff to the side, leaving the heavier wheat to be harvested. Once the wheat has been separated, the chaff can be burned. 

I like Brian Stoffregen’s thoughts here: “Our cleansing means more than just “being dipped” (baptizo) but also, perhaps, being thrown into the air to let the “Holy Wind” blow away the worthless stuff.” (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt3x1.htm)

 

 

How does one preach this text? 

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about repentance as returning to the roots of our faith, the things that really matter to God. Bearing fruit. We can invite our people to hear John’s call for justice and compassion. We can challenge one another to return to the roots of our faith. When leaders make decisions that benefit those who are already wealthy and powerful, and when religious leaders support them, or fail to call them out, God calls prophets to be voices crying in the wilderness. 

This might be a good time to help people understand the prophetic role in critiquing the religious and political establishment when it fails to care for the most vulnerable in society. 

We might also talk to our folks about pointing, like John, to one who lived God’s compassion and revealed God’s justice, who baptized us with the Holy Spirit so that we might bear fruit. 

More thoughts… Frederick Buechner on John the Baptist: http://frederickbuechner.com/content/john-baptist 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wake UP!

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday December 1, 2020 – Advent 1A

Christ comes to claim us.
How do we remain vigilant for Christ’s appearance?

These summary themes come from Dr. Craig Satterlee, former professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, currently serving as bishop of the NW Lower Michigan Synod.

 

Isaiah 2:1-5A hopeful vision of the end times… 

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Psalm 122 – I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

Romans 13:11-14 – You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness…

Matthew 24:36-44 As we are vigilant in life, so we should be ready for the coming of Christ. 

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

 

Resources for Matthew

It has been my pattern to start the new church year, the first Sunday in Advent (or sometimes Christ the King Sunday), with an introduction to the gospel for the coming year. In this case, that gospel is Matthew. There are a number of very good commentaries on Matthew. 

 

 

How is Matthew Used in Year A?

First, a look at how Matthew is used in the lectionary this year. 

Advent: Matthew 24, 3, 11 and 1
Christmas: Luke 2, Matthew 2, John
Epiphany: Matthew 2-7
Transfiguration: Matthew 17
Lent: Matthew 6, 4, 17, 21, 26, 27 and Lent 3: John 4 (woman at the well), Lent 4: John 9 (healing of the man born blind, Lent 5: John 11 (raising of Lazarus)
Three Days: John Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (option for Matthew 28 Easter Day)
Easter Season: All John and Luke
Summer: Matthew 7-16
Fall: Matthew 18-25

 

 

 

Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s is a Jewish gospel. He assumes his hearers are Jewish as well. As David Garland points out, Matthew makes no effort to explain hand washing rituals, the two didrachma (temple taxes), the seat of Moses, phylacteries and fringes, or flight on the Sabbath (24:20). Matthew’s Jesus is sent only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He is completely obedient to the law and is the “fulfillment of the law.” Matthew shows interest in Gentiles, but probably to bring them into a Gentile Jewish community, gathered around Jesus. 

Matthew’s gospel is neatly arranged into 5 sections like the five books of Moses. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the new law-giver. “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Sermon on the Mount. Moses said… now I say to you…

In the early 20th century B. W. Bacon noticed that Matthew used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” (Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους…) five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. To oversimplify, one could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:

 

Introduction: Matthew 1

  1. Narrative: Matthew 2-4. Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
  2. Narrative: Matthew 8-9. Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse).
  3. Narrative: Matthew 11-12. Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom).
  4. Narrative: Matthew 14-17. Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community).
  5. Narrative: Matthew 19-22. Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse).
  6. Conclusion: 26-28 (Death Resurrection)

 

 

Powell’s Introducing the New Testament

 

Mark Allan Powell is a professor at my own Alma Mater, Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. I’m a bit of a Mark Allan Powell junkie, I’ll admit. Nevertheless, his textbook on the New Testament, helpfully named Introducing the New Testament, is the second most popular New Testament textbook. It  is written at the undergraduate level, and is extremely user-friendly. What I love about Powell’s book is that it comes with a website, which houses all the illustrations and also numerous others that would not fit in the book. Brilliant. You can also watch some videos by Dr. Powell himself.

Powell reminds us that 90% of Mark’s gospel is also in Matthew’s gospel. For various reasons, scholars believe Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke used it as one of the sources for their gospels. The gospel is anonymous, but later Christians attributed it to Matthew based on a comment by Papias (early second century). Papias says that Matthew the tax collector was collecting sayings of Jesus and translating them into Greek. Eusebius took this to mean Matthew the tax collector wrote this gospel, and so it is named. Matthew’s use of the Jewish Scriptures and customs suggests training as a scribe.

Here is a list of the material that is unique to Matthew’s gospel.

They include the only passages in which Jesus talks about the church. Jesus intends to build a church in Matthew’s gospel, and he gives advice on how matters should be handled in that church.

Jesus shows less human frailty in Matthew than in Mark’s gospel. One would say it has a higher christology than Mark, though significantly lower than John.

Hyperlinks 5.1 to 5.28 provide some outstanding snapshots of Matthew’s gospel. 

 

 

God With Us

Another book by Powell approaches Matthew from a pastoral perspective. Most books on Matthew approach it from a systematically theological perspective: What are Matthew’s Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ethics? Powell’s hope is that looking at Matthew through a pastoral/ministry lens might offer new insights into Matthew’s perspective.

The book has five chapters:

  1. MISSION
  2. WORSHIP
  3. TEACHING
  4. STEWARDSHIP
  5. SOCIAL JUSTICE

 

 

MISSION

Powell points out that Matthew’s gospel comes to a close without the mission having been accomplished. Not only have the disciples not preached the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 24), they have not preached it anywhere. Not only have they not made disciples of all nations (Matthew 28), they have not made any disciples. Matthew’s gospel ends in a way that feels somewhat incomplete. Unlike Luke, with Matthew we don’t get the rest of the story.

What is the mission of Jesus in Matthew’s terms? Powell points out Jesus’ relationship to the law. Sometimes he relaxes it, other times intensifies it, but it seems clear in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ mission is to be the fulfiller of the law. Powell puts in one column all the verses in which Jesus lays out his sense of his own mission, and in another the verses in which he spells out the mission of the church. The juxtaposition sparks new insights. The earthly, eschatological and ethical imperatives of the kingdom cannot be fulfilled until he returns, but until then, the mission of God begun in Jesus is to be carried out by the church. There are challenges for us here.

 

WORSHIP

Worship is not as prominent a theme in Matthew as in Luke. There are no major works on worship in Matthew. Powell begins with a study of the eight words Matthew uses for worship. Then he looks at those who worship in Matthew: the Magi, the leper, the crowds, a ruler, Jesus, the disciples, a Canaanite woman, the mother of James and John, children. He points out 13 explicit acts of worship.

There are several different kinds of worship in Matthew’s gospel. Some pray with requests. There is an economy to worship in Matthew’s gospel. Your heavenly Father already knows what you need, so there’s no need to heap up empty phrases like the hypocrites. Some respond with worship to healing. Others are overwhelmed with the presence of God, as in the transfiguration. People respond in Matthew sometimes with joy and sometimes fear, awe or doubt. The disciples are afraid when they hear God’s voice at the transfiguration.

Finally, Powell points out the diversity of worshippers. They are of all ages. 1/3 are women, 2/3 men. They vary ethnically and economically.

 

TEACHING

Teaching is, of course, part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, or at least obeying Jesus’ teaching. However, this is the only place it is mentioned as a post-Easter event. Jesus’ mission is teaching, preaching and healing, but teaching is conspicuously absent from the disciples’ job description. In fact Jesus explicitly forbids them to allow people to call them rabbi, father or catechists.

But Matthew 28 makes it clear that teaching is one of the ways the church makes disciples. Powell explores what is to be taught, by whom and to whom? The results of allowing Matthew to not be invaded (for a moment) by Mark, Luke and John are interesting.

Matthew does not refer to Jesus’ ministry as teaching. Telling parables reveals the mysteries of the kingdom, but Matthew does not refer to this activity as teaching. The only time Jesus “teaches” in Matthew is in chapters 5-7, known as the Sermon on the Mount. In these verses, keeping the law is paramount. At times the law is loosed (it’s okay to pick grain on the Sabbath to alleviate hunger). Other times it’s bound even tighter (even having lustful thoughts is adultery). Jesus’ disciples bind and loose the law according to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ interpretation of the law is to be supreme.

Teaching is for the church. Don’t cast pearls before swine. The ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount are likely to be too high for most of the world. In fact 5:1-2 suggests the Sermon is for Jesus’ disciples and not the crowd. Ironically, the world has often found the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount compelling in a magnetic way. The astonished crowds “listen in,” and are mesmerized.

In 5:2 Jesus emerges as the master teacher. He restricts teaching authority at first, but later seems to open it up. Authority is a big deal in Matthew’s gospel. There is danger in teaching. A hypocrite is one who teaches one thing but does another. So it’s best not to judge. Focus on your own game. Powell contends the establishment of a hierarchical teaching office is forbidden in Matthew. The community is to be egalitarian. Jesus will be the only Teacher. Perhaps Matthew intends his gospel to be the teaching authority. Powell suggests that Matthew offers no distinction between teaching and doing. Jesus teaches. The little-faith, cowardly disciples are just to DO.

A reminder: Matthew’s witness is not The Biblical Witness. He is one voice among many. Intentionally so. We are taking a microscope to the mind of Matthew, who is redactor of Jesus, Mark, Q and who knows what else.

 

STEWARDSHIP

Anyone who has read Powell’s book Giving to God, knows he’s brilliant on stewardship. And anyone who’s read Matthew knows that the three parables most often used to teach stewardship of any kind (earth, time, money, etc.) come from this gospel: Matthew 21:33-43, 24:45-51, 25:14-30. Powell has a grand time rummaging around concepts of stewardship (oikonomos) as managing a household.

Powell explores motive, principle and human relationships of stewardship. Matthew’s concept of stewardship is grounded in some indelible truths: everything we have belongs to God, on whom we depend, and to whom we owe a debt we can never pay. All stewardship begins here.

As an aside, Powell points out that for Matthew, even divorce is a stewardship issue. No one has the authority (that word again) to separate what God has joined. We are stewards of our relationships, which are given to us by God.

 

SOCIAL JUSTICE

In Matthew, justice is one of the weightier matters of the law. Those who hunger for justice will find satisfaction. Matthew challenges the concept that God’s will is done in the church rather than in the world. Matthew understands justice won’t be complete in the world, but Jesus’ followers are to live justly anyway. The Gentiles lord it over one another, but “it shall not be so among you.”

Powell points out that the most popular justice text is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 but the popular interpretation is not supported by modern scholarship. Matthew is more focused on justice within the community than without, and has been criticized because of this. Powell doesn’t condemn or defend Matthew’s concept of justice, but works to describe it as accurately as possible. Preachers should read this carefully instead of pontificating on Matthew based on popular opinion.

 

CONCLUSION

This book is 21 years old. There has been a lot of ground-breaking New Testament scholarship in the last 21 years, and yet this book still has a fresh view. In fact, it feels very much like a piece of that research, drawing on modern literary theory and composition criticism. I look forward to this year, looking at the gospel and at Jesus through the eyes of Matthew’s community and his theology. I look forward to rediscovering why the church put this gospel as the first book of their New Testament.

 

 

Wake up! – Matthew 24:36-44

 

It is interesting that the first day of the new church year begins with the end in mind, toward the end of Matthew’s gospel. Advent is like that. The short, four-week season originally was to meditate on the second coming of Christ. The season was to prepare for Christ’s coming, not to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The earliest Advent sermons don’t even mention the birth of Jesus, even on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a few days before the Nativity. 

This text is in line with that tradition. It comes from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, the final of the five great discourses in Matthew, so named because it was delivered from the Mount of Olives. 

Regarding the end of the world, Matthew’s Jesus wants his followers to know that no one knows the when this will happen, not even the angels or he, himself. I like to tell congregations, “If Jesus doesn’t know, it’s doubtful that evangelical preacher down the road does.” Apparently there were end times predictors of the precise last day back in Matthew’s time as well. 

Proponents of the rapture racket also like to use this as a proof passage:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 

The idea is Christ will rapture the faithful, and the unfaithful will be “left behind,” as in the book series. But read more carefully. Noah and his family got on the ark, and the wicked were swept away. The wicked are not left behind; they are swept away by the flood. It’s Noah and his family that are left behind. In Jesus’ story, you want to be left behind.  

Then Jesus gets to the point:

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 

A few years ago, my mom was dying. We all knew it. She knew it. 

Because she was hours’ drive from my house, I was on the road a lot. Every time I left I knew it might be the last time I saw her. So every moment was sacred. I hung on her every word. I paid attention when she spoke of the past, taking notes, asking questions. It was a bubble in time, too short. It woke me up. 

Wake up. Tend the end. 

Often in life we take everything for granted, as if time is suspended, and things will never change. We are asleep, going through the motions. Then something happens that wakes us up. (The preacher might cue an alarm clock to go off at this moment.) We come come awake, come alive, become aware of what is right before us. An awareness of death, mortality, the end of things in general, helps us savor each moment as precious and see the sacredness of life. Live life with the end in mind. 

And so Paul in our epistle text tells the Romans to wake up! Don’t walk through life in a fog. Don’t become complacent as you await Christ’s coming. Be alert, awake, alive!

So also Jesus, in the last of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel, encourages his followers to wake up, even though God’s reign seems delayed. According to Isaiah, the reign of God will mean the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk. Troy Troftgruben summarizes: Jerusalem will be the throne of God and the center of the world. There will be international peace. Weapons will be beaten into agricultural tools. War will no longer be studied. Death will be destroyed. Tears will be wiped from all eyes. 

Don’t give up hope on God’s vision for the world, even when all seems hopeless. The resurrection of Jesus is our sign that God will make all things new. Don’t become weary. Do you see the injustice in your world? Open your eyes. Do you see those who are hurting? Wake up. Don’t doze. Be like the persistent widow, demanding justice, which, according to Jesus in Matthew, is one of the weightier matters of the law. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Be aware of what the Spirit is doing in your community, and get involved. Wake up! Don’t doze off!

It is interesting that the first day of the new church year begins at the end of time and the end of Matthew’s gospel. Could it be that to tend the end of the world also makes us more aware of the sacred in life? Advent is like that. It points to the end to wake us up. Begin with the end in mind. 

God’s reign is coming. When? No one knows, not even the angels or the Son. (If Jesus doesn’t know, it’s doubtful that preacher on TV does.) Apparently there were specific doomsday predictions in Matthew’s time as well. 

We may not know the or the hour, but that needn’t stop us from being ready. Wake up! Become spiritually alive. Don’t lose heart, or grow weary. Gods reign is breaking in. Love God. Love your neighbor. Be a peacemaker. Hunger for Justice. 

Wake up therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming!

 

America’s Table 2019

America’s Table celebrates our diversity. This event is held each year place at Rice University’s Grand Hall in the student center. This yea the breakfast was held on November 22, 2019.

I was honored to join with a group of Houston community’s leaders: Walat Aqrawi, Peggy Edge, Bishop Michael Rinehart, Jose Luis Lopez, Linda Toyota, Pastor Becky Keenan, Zafar Zaf Tahir, Toni Ramos, Jeron Bradford, Imam Waleed Basyouni, Rabbi Gideon Estes, Artemio Temo Muniz, HPD Chief Art Acevedo, Alison Leland, Anhlan Nguyen, Stephen L. Klineberg, Allan Van Fleet, Michael Nichols, Marcia Nichols, Dorit Haenosh Aaron, Sarah Lee-Anna Hobbs and Emanuelee Outspoken Bean, John Rudley, Judson Robinson Bishop James Dixon and Rabbi Steven Morgen.

Special thanks to Randy Czarlinsky for organization and coordination:

Hanging out with Bishop Dixon.

Sat with Judson Robinson

Congressman Al Green: ” There is room at America’s Table for all of us. We can have without uniformity. We are the keepers of the flame of hope.

Sarah Hobbs is the 2019 Texas Female Vocalist of the Year.

Emmanuelee Ourspoken Bean: “We have the opportunity to build a better humanity. You are a person not people. You are the starving child abandoned in Ethiopia…

Chief Acevedo: “I was a political refugee. I entered school in California in 1969 not speaking a word of English. I was told all Cubans were communists. Because of my experiences in the U.S. I became an officer in 1986…”

My ancestors’ journey to America was different than others. My fourth great grandfather purchased his wife for $1250. Today I am defined not by my European ancestry, who would not want to recognize me, but by my African ancestry. I don’t know that ancestry, because there are no records.

Stephen Klineberg: “We are a free people and we come from everywhere, and nowhere is that clearer than in Houston, Texas….”

Judson Robinson

Conchita and Judson

So happy for Sarah Hobbs who made top ten with her hit Like I Love You. So nice to meet an artist with such an incredible voice, who is also so kind and gracious.

We also launched the Houston region’s “Community of Conscience”, a group of leaders seeking to eradicate the hateful rhetoric that has poisoned our political discourse and spurred violence.

Priests, pastors and preachers, imams, rabbis, ethnic and civic leaders will sat and ate together, reflecting on the values and humanity that bridge our communities.

The entry fee was a timely donation of canned goods or dry food, collected for the Houston Food Bank. The breakfast was standing room only, at capacity.

Baking Bread at Kindred

Every Wednesday at 7 am is bread-baking time at Kindred in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood (2515 Waugh Dr., Houston, TX 77006, 713.528.3269).

The smell of fresh bread wafts through the church as the local Central City Co-op is setting fresh fruits and vegetables. Check it out:

The bread is made with organic flour and all organic ingredients.

Intern Morgan Gates (LSTC) shows her enthusiasm for the weekly project. While Pastor Ashley Dellagiacoma and Cindi Scruggs engage in a very serious conversation.

While the bread bakes, I check to see what the co-op is setting out, then we sing morning prayer and discuss 2 Kings 22.

The intoxicating smell of fresh bread gives way to dozens of loaves coming out. Most of these will be sold at the co-op.

Of course, we have to test the bread, solely for quality control purposes.

Welcome Pastor Phil Geleske

Today we installed Pastor Phil Geleske at St. Paul’s in Brenham!

Pastor Pat Dietrich is serving as Interim Associate Pastor.

Pastor Rusty Sullivan from Faith Lutheran in Flower Mound, Texas preached.

Dean Andrew Bell of St. John Bellville was the installing pastor.

The call committee.

Pastor Pat Dietrich and Pastor Phil Geleske with Bishop’s Associate Tracey Breashears Schultz (center) who oversees the call process in this synod. Great job!

Kyle Merten, Call Committee chair

Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without Bluebell at the reception.

Christ the King/ Reign of Christ – November 24, 2019

Listen to the Podcast.

Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord… The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Luke 1:68-79 – The Song of Zechariah: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.
OR
Psalm 46 – God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, we will not fear.

Colossians 1:11-20 – He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. He is the head of the body, the church. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43 – The Crucifixion. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

 

 

Christ the King/Reign of Christ

The texts for Christ the King change in each of the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary:

Year A Year B Year C
Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24 2 Samuel 23:1-7 Jeremiah 23:1-6
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 100 Ps. 132:1-12, (13-18) Luke 1:68-79
Psalm 95:1-7a Psalm 93 Psalm 46
Ephesians 1:15-23 Revelation 1:4b-8 Colossians 1:11-20
Matthew 25:31-46 John 18:33-37 Luke 23:33-43

 

Christ the King is the last holy Sunday in the Western liturgical calendar. It is the newest of Christian festivals. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to counter the rise of secularism and the rise of secular dictatorships in Europe. Pius hoped:

  1. That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state 
  2. That leaders and nations would give respect to Christ
  3. That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast

 

 

Thanksgiving 

Some find this festival difficult. What is the alternative to secularism? Theocracy? Does not our concept of freedom of religion necessitate a secular state? Not an irreligious state, but one that allows for pluralism? Yes Christ is Lord, King if you will, but not in an earthly sense. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Additionally, some find an apocalyptic focus unhelpful, when we are about to have the early Advent apocalyptic texts which focus on the second coming of Christ. My home congregation glossed over this “new” festival of the church year and used the Sunday to celebrate Thanksgiving, which, while not a religious festival, certainly gives time for a sacred theme of gratitude for all God’s gifts. The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The German mystic Meister Eckhart once famously said, “If the only prayer you ever prayed was ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.”

If you want to go with a theme of gratitude, thanksgiving, or generosity, here are some thoughts:

 

If, however, you are sticking to the RCL texts, read on…

 

 

Luke

This is not just the last Sunday of the church year; it is also the last Sunday we will spend in the Lukan lectionary this year. As we read this last text from Luke chapter 21, and prepare to embark on a journey through Matthew’s Gospel beginning next week, I find myself profoundly grateful for Luke’s gospel.

Luke lifts up the universality of Jesus’ message to a greater extent than the other three canonical gospels. Jesus’ teaching that we are to love God with all our heart soul mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, was of itself nothing new. What was new was Jesus’ wider interpretation of the word “neighbor.” It was commonly understood that your neighbor was your fellow countryman. A Moabite or an Ammonite was not strictly understood as neighbor. Pagans were not neighbors. Samaritans were not neighbors. The neighbor laws had to do with how you treated your fellow countrymen and women. You do not charge interest to your brother/sister Israelite, but charging interest to Egyptians? That is perfectly appropriate. 

The debt of love you owed to your neighbors, was owed to your fellow Israelites, and so the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” is a fair question, and quite to the point. Luke is the only gospel in which Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with the story of the Good Samaritan. After the story, Jesus responds with a question of his own. “Now, you tell me who is neighbor: Who do you think was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Jesus reframes our understanding of neighbor from that of race and religion, to basic human compassion and decency. Even a stranger can be the neighbor. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus moves from a nationalistic obligation to ones fellow citizens, to a universal obligation to all humanity.         

It seems this concept is losing traction in American Christianity. Now more than ever, Luke’s proclamation of Jesus needs to be heard. 

I will miss Luke. Without Luke we would not know the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or Zaccheus, the height-challenged tax collector of Jericho, whose life was changed spiritually and economically through an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. 

 

 

Golgatha

Skull in rock at Golgotha

On this last Sunday of the church year, the lectionary takes us to the place called the Skull, (Κρανίον) possibly named for all the skulls that littered the site from thousands of previous crucifixions. (We don’t know where the place of the skull actually was. Some claim it was named because of this peculiar rock formation, but it was likely in a more open and public place.) I recently learned that many people were killed before they were crucified. While crucifixion was a form of torture, it’s primary purpose was deterrence. The many crosses outside cities along frequently traversed roadways sent a warning: This is what happens to all who defy their Roman masters. 

It doesn’t take much to imagine how humiliating and dehumanizing crucifixion was. To be publicly stripped of your clothes, mocked, then beaten senseless was to be completely dominated by laughing, well fed, well-dressed, well-paid soldiers. For them, this is just another day on the job. You are nothing. You will now be taken to the place of execution. You know this is what is happening, but there is nothing you can do about it. They will crucify you on a cross, making you carry that cross to the place where they will end your life. Once at the place of the skull, the soldiers may execute you in any number of ways, or crucify you alive. Apparently this is what they did to Jesus, along with two others. 

Matthew and Mark call them thieves/bandits (lestai). Luke calls them criminals (kakourgoi), literally, bad-doers. Lestai were bandits who robbed Romans and the wealthy Israelites who had caved in to Roman rule, profiting from it. Lestai is the word Luke uses for the “robbers” who beat the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan. These were not run-of-the-mill bandits. These were organized criminals that were trying to destabilize the collusion between the Roman occupation and the Jewish aristocracy. Their crime was more than theft. It was defiance of the Pax Romana, and therefore sedition. 

Jesus’ crime was most likely also sedition. After all, he had heralded the destruction of the Temple, and the destruction of Jerusalem. He had announced the coming of a new kingdom and taught his disciples to pray for it to come. He had ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem with shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” He had caused a riot in the Temple during Passover, chasing out the moneychangers with a whip. He was called the Christ, which means “anointed.” Only kings get anointed. He must think he is a King. Treason. His crime is nailed above his head on the cross: “King of the Jews.”

One of the lestai/kakourgoi said, “Hey you, Messiah, Christ, Anointed One, yeah you, would-be king: so if you’re all they say you are, then save yourself. And us too!” The other criminal said something different:, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus extended salvation freely to an unworthy thief, evil-doer, who had not even repented. This is a stunning act of grace.

And just like that we learn that while the reign of God may be breaking into our world, it encompasses more than this world. The line between heaven and earth is blurred. There is more to life than meets the eye. This kingdom, this reign that Jesus preached, where even strangers are our neighbors, where we turn the other cheek, where we share the shirt off our back, where we love our enemies, is a universal kingdom. For now we see only in a mirror dimly. The kingdom is eternal. Now is only a small portion of eternity. Trusting in the reign of God, of Christ, is to be in the moment, but also to see beyond this moment. It is to say at the same time, “The kingdom of God is among you,” (Luke 17:21) and “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

 

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