Jun
2022

In Our Own Languages!

 

Sunday is Pentecost, which means that bewildered lay readers (and more than a few preachers!) across the church will once again be wrestling with the jawbreaking, tongue-tangling list of place names (go here for pronunciation help) in Acts 2:7-11.

They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?  How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

This concatenation of unfamiliar (to us, at least) places makes an important point.  Pentecost (called Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, in Judaism) was one of the pilgrim feasts, when Jews able to make the journey were to come to Jerusalem for the celebration (Deuteronomy 16:16; Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-23). So Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman world (and, in the case of the Parthians at least, even from beyond the empire) were gathered for Pentecost in Jerusalem’s streets.

People in Jerusalem at Pentecost Map - Acts 2 Nations of PentecostMeanwhile, Jesus’ followers were waiting in Jerusalem as he had commanded them (Luke 24:49), praying in an upper room.

Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak (Acts 2:1-4).

Boiling out of the upper room and into the streets, Jesus’ followers crashed into that polyglot crowd–and those pilgrims from distant lands discovered, to their astonishment, that they could understand these Galileans perfectly: “’we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!’(Acts 2:11).

The "Little" Tower of Babel - Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563 ...

Luke’s account of Pentecost plainly alludes to the Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9.  But too often, preachers and teachers of Scripture (including me!) have described what happened on Pentecost as undoing the curse of Babel, as though cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity were problems to overcome.  But that is not at all what Luke says!  This passage does not say that the people all started speaking the same language—that their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone. The Spirit does not return them to “one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Instead, each group hears God’s praise in its own language.

We should not be surprised that the members of the Pentecost crowd all hear the Gospel in their own languages. The entire Bible models for us how to escape what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a single story.  Scripture rarely gives us a single story about anything!  At the beginning of our Bible, we find two different accounts of the creation of the world (Genesis 1:1—2:4a and  Genesis 2:4b-25).   Our New Testament opens with four gospels, presenting four quite different accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Scripture itself, by its very structure, calls for us to listen with open ears and open hearts for the truth told, not as a single story, but as a chorus of voices.  Sometimes those voices are in harmony, sometimes they are in dissonance, but always they are lifted in praise to the God who remembers all our stories, the comedies and tragedies alike, and catches them up together in love, forgiveness, and grace–as Luke’s account of Pentecost goes on to show.

Peter responds to the confused crowd’s questions with a sermon (Acts 2:17-21) based on a remarkable little book of prophecy, the book of Joel:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves.

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. But everyone who calls on the Lord’s name will be saved (Joel 2:28-32 [Hebrew 3:1-5]).

The setting for Joel is a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  After the swarm has passed, and the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

But Joel’s audience also learns that they are part of a larger community than they had realized.  The “children of Zion,” called “my people” by the Lord, turn out to include far more than the adult men of the worshipping congregation!  Women, children, the aged, slaves:  all are a part of God’s congregation, upon whom God will pour out God’s Spirit–and as my dear friend and former pastor Ron Hoellein often says, “All means all.”  The Hebrew Bible emphasizes the importance of this affirmation by a chapter break: Joel 2:28-32 in our English Bibles (following the Latin Vulgate) is Joel 3:1-5 in Hebrew (the English Bible’s chapter 3 is Joel 4 in the Hebrew Bible).

Joel reminds us that we too belong to a larger community than we had realized.  We may have forgotten that—I confess that often I have forgotten that.  We succumb to the temptation to define our community too narrowly, as including only those like us, whether ethnically or ideologically or theologically.

May be an image of 7 people, people standing and indoorThis Pentecost weekend marks the gathering of the United Methodist annual conference in Western Pennsylvania, a meeting held in the shadow of schism, as many of our churches will likely join the newly-formed Global Methodist Church.

Myranda Raymond, right, of the South Hills crosses the Andy Warhol Bridge during the 2021 Pittsburgh pride parade.

Also this weekend, the Pittsburgh Pride march will be held on Saturday, in support of LGBTQ+ folk: a striking juxtaposition, as the new Methodist denomination is forming in large part to escape the continuing controversy in United Methodism surrounding the full inclusion of those very persons.

There may be no stopping that schism.  But in the days and weeks to come, friends, we must learn to listen to one another—not to agree, necessarily, but to listen, to learn, and to understand. Like Joel’s audience, and Peter’s centuries later, we today need to hear God’s promise of deliverance and freedom from shame. But we cannot experience those blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. God calls us, not to homogeneity, but to unity in diversity.  We must find our salvation together.

May
2022

God and Guns

Here in the U.S., Monday is Memorial Day: a day for remembering and honoring the deaths of soldiers, sailors, and pilots who fought for freedom. It is good, and right, that we do so.  If you are a veteran, or if you are mourning today for a beloved veteran, thank you and God bless you for sacrificially following your calling.

But it is also right for us to remember that, in the Christian calendar, Tuesday May 31 is the Visitation of Mary, expectant mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth her cousin–also pregnant with her son, John the Baptist.  The Visitation is a celebration of God’s gift of new life.  It is also the occasion for Luke’s Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), often called the Magnificat after its opening in Latin, Magnificat anima mea Dominum (in the KJV, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”).  Here is the whole song, from the Common English Bible:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
        because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
    just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.

The Magnificat (the Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage!) draws freely in style and imagery on the Song of Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10), although Hannah’s song is a bit more specific as to how God intends to upend the seats of the powerful:

The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
    but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! (1 Samuel 2:4).

A woman kneels as she pays her respects in front of crosses with the names of children killed outside of the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas Thursday, May 26, 2022. Law enforcement authorities faced questions and criticism Thursday over how much time elapsed before they stormed the Texas elementary school classroom and put a stop to the rampage by a gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

The notion of God shattering the weapons of war speaks powerfully to me after these last two weeks.  First, a racist massacre at a Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, New York, perpetrated by an 18-year-old white nationalist who “wore body armor, tactical gear and a helmet, officials said, and carried a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic rifle, modified to hold high-capacity magazines.”  Then, another racially-motivated attack at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, California, carried out by a Chinese man armed with two handguns.  Now, this week, yet another horrific school shooting: 19 elementary school children and two adults gunned down for no apparent reason in Uvalde, Texas by an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 assault rifle.  The same weapon was used nearly ten years ago when another gunman massacred 26 people, including 20 first-graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since then, there have been over 900 school shootings: Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida; Santa Fe High School in Texas; Oxford High School in Michigan; and FAR too many more.

At N.R.A. Convention, the Blame Is on ‘Evil,’ Not Guns

Meanwhile, also this week in Texas, the National Rifle Association convention continued unimpeded by these tragedies.

One by one, the gun rights activists and politicians who showed up at the National Rifle Association convention on Friday said they were appalled, horrified and shaken by the massacre of 19 children and two adults a few days earlier in Uvalde, Texas.
One by one, they then rejected any suggestion that gun control measures were needed to stop mass shootings. They blamed the atrocities on factors that had nothing to do with firearms — the breakdown of the American family, untreated mental illness, bullying on social media, violent video games and the inexplicable existence of ‘evil.’
Above all, they sought to divert pressure to support popular overhauls like expanded background checks by seizing on the issue of school safety, amid reports that the gunman in Uvalde gained easy access to Robb Elementary School through an unguarded door.
Former President Donald J. Trump, speaking at the event’s keynote session late Friday, called for “impenetrable security at every school all across our land,” adding that “schools should be the single hardest target.”
Friends, I refuse to believe that Americans are more evil, or more prone to mental illness, than folk in other nations; nor do I accept that the family is in worse shape here than elsewhere–yet, these repeated mass shootings do not happen anywhere else. Nor do I accept that our schools and churches need to become “hard targets,” like armed camps or fortresses–and in any case, such measures have been tried, and have failed.  As David Von Drehle of the Washington Post writes,
The milling cops outside the school are a strong reply to those who say the solution to mass shootings is to have more people with guns in our schools and churches, our concert venues and grocery stores. Judging from the videos posted to social media by confounded onlookers, there was no shortage of guns in Uvalde — only a shortage of officers willing to run inside and attempt to shoot a young man who was shooting back at them. “If they proceeded any further not knowing where the suspect was at, they could’ve been shot,” Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Chris Olivarez explained on CNN. “They could’ve been killed.” Realistically, how confident can we be that schoolteachers, lunchroom cooks, church ushers or produce stockers will be any better prepared to draw down and do battle than those trained professionals in Uvalde?
Prayer is certainly needed.  However, we must head the wise advice of my former student and colleague in ministry Jeff Schooley:
“Thoughts and prayers” should be heard for what it is – “thoughtless prayers.”  You want to address the Divine in prayer? Good! But don’t be so thoughtless as to think the Divine has not already addressed you back.  Though it is not without irony, I can assure you – as both a pastor and a Christian – that it is possible to use prayer as a way of ignoring God; to keep talking to the Divine so that you aren’t burdened with having to listen in response.
A fine model for avoiding “thoughtless prayers” is this one, from the National Council of Churches:

May be an image of text that says 'PRAYER FOR UVALDE, TEXAS National Council Churches Almighty God, there are no words sufficient for the horror of this act. We weep for these dear, innocent ones just as Jesus wept for His friend, Lazarus. Comfort all who ache with overwhelming pain from this evil act. Give us the strengh to meet their needs in this moment and be with all who struggle through this extended time of grief. Give us the courage to take bold steps to do all that we can to make sure this never happens again. Amen'

We must be willing to put feet and hands to our prayers–to be a part of God’s solution.  And God’s solution, friends, is right there in the Magnificat. Our God is a God who takes sides, with the powerless against the powerful, with the oppressed against the oppressor, with the victims, and against the guns.  As Hannah knew, our God’s intent is to shatter the weapons of the warriors.  On this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps we can resolve at least to keep weapons of war on the battlefield where they belong, and out of our schools, churches, and grocery stores.

AFTERWORD:

The statue that I have used to represent Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter is Two Women” (ca. 1950-1960), by Charles LePlae.  It stands outside the Openluchtmuseum voor Beeldhouwkunst Middelheim (Antwerp, Belgium).  I found this image in Vanderbilt Library’s wonderful online resource “Art in the Christian Tradition,” which is linked to the lectionary.  Also from that lectionary site comes this beautiful prayer for the Visitation of Mary:

Blessed God,
who invited us to be handmaids of your creative power:
Bless us as you blessed Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary,
filling our barren hearts with your fertile word,
nurturing faith within us,
sustaining us as we ripen with hope,
until your desire calls us to the time of labor,
and we give birth to your incarnate love. Amen.
May
2022

On NOT Being Warriors

 

Recently, I was captivated by a quote from A. J. Jacobs, the author of The Year of Living Biblically (2007), regarding his most recent book, The Puzzler (2022):

I’m an advocate of what I call the Puzzle Mindset. Instead of seeing the world as a series of hard-to-win battles, I try to view it as a puzzle–to see the world through the eyes of an engineer, not a warrior.  Even using the word puzzle can help. When I hear about the climate crisis, I want to curl up in a fetal position. But if I think about the climate puzzle, I feel motivated to find solutions.

As a Bible Guy, I tend to think biblically–in terms of texts and images from Scripture.  So Jacobs’ challenge “to see the world through the eyes of an engineer, not a warrior” got me thinking about martial metaphors in Scripture.  The earliest passages in the Bible celebrate God as the Divine Warrior: the Song of Deborah in Judges 5; the song of David in 2 Samuel 22//Psalm 18; the psalm in Habakkuk 3; Psalm 68; and in particular, the oldest passage in Scripture, Exodus 15:1-18, the Song of the Sea.

I will sing to the Lord, for an overflowing victory!
    Horse and rider he threw into the sea!

The Lord is a warrior;
    the Lord is his name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he hurled into the sea;
    his elite captains were sunk in the Reed Sea.
The deep sea covered them;
    they sank into the deep waters like a stone (Exod 15:1, 3-5).

 

Unfortunately, because we so readily think of our world as “a series of hard-to-win battles,” and so of life as combat, we are likely to forget that this ancient biblical metaphor is a metaphor, and to embrace it uncritically.  A personal example of this tendency takes me back eight years, to the time soon after my ankle replacement surgery.

I remember waking up on one morning to the realization that my leg was itching under the cast, where I couldn’t reach.  It was driving me crazy.  I twisted my leg inside the cast, got up, stomped around on the walker–and then realized that I would be trapped in that cast for another three weeks.

I sat in my recliner with the offending limb stuck up in the air, trying to read, trying to pray–trying desperately to think about something, anything, other than my leg–to no avail.  I imagined that ants were crawling around on my leg under the cast.  I began to have trouble breathing.  My heart was racing.  I was disoriented.  I thought, “I am having a panic attack.  This must be what a panic attack feels like.”

Then I thought about my son Sean.  Sean has wrestled since childhood with Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Along the way, he has learned not only to cope, but to thrive.  So I asked him if he could teach me how to fight my obsession with my leg’s discomfort.

Sean’s answer astonished me.  He said he had learned that you can’t fight obsessive thoughts: “They just come.”  What you can do is rob those thoughts of the emotions and anxiety associated with them.  To do that, Sean taught me, you first relax your body and your mind.  Then, you let the forbidden thought come: you deliberately think about what you do not want to think about.  As you do so, you keep breathing slowly; you deliberately relax, and so replace the anxiety with calm.  Sean suggested that I think, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter!”

Pin on My Catholic Faith

That night, when my leg itched, I didn’t try to fight it.  I breathed slowly, in and out, praying the Jesus Prayer in time with my breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  I thanked God for my healing.  I thought about the hundreds of other people who had had this same surgery, and had come through this period of recovery just fine.  I told myself, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter.”  And I fell asleep–the most restful sleep I had had since coming home from the hospital.

Over the next three weeks, I continued to practice my prayer and meditation, and bit by bit, my leg stopped bothering me.  It didn’t become magically more comfortable, or less prone to itching, but I stopped worrying about it.  I “won” the fight when I stopped fighting!

Debating the debate over the Russian war in Ukraine | Russia-Ukraine war | Al Jazeera

Please do not misunderstand me.  I do not question society’s need for warriors.  Undoubtedly, there are times when resistance to political and social evil requires a militant response: as is the case today in Ukraine.  But under the dominant influence of the martial metaphor, resistance to any evil becomes a war: the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, the War on Terror.  Theologian Walter Wink called this seductive notion the “myth of redemptive violence”:

Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been afforded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees absolute obedience to death. . . Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not appear mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], 23).

Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables: Vischer, Phil: 9781595551221: Books - Amazon

In a seventeen-minute video appeal to his fellow Evangelicals, Phil Vischer, creator of the wonderful Veggie Tales series, briefly summarizes the horrific history of race in America–faulting, in particular, the martial metaphor.  The War on Crime and the War on Drugs, he argues, led us to militarize our police, and to criminalize and incarcerate an entire generation of Black and Brown Americans.

Tara O’Neill Hayes, the Director of Human Welfare Policy at the American Action Forum, has the sobering statistics:

There are currently an estimated 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States.  The incarceration rate is now more than 4.3 times what it was nearly 50 years ago. This increase has led to the United States having the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, 37 percent greater than that of Cuba and 69 percent greater than Russia. This high incarceration rate is not because crime has increased; in fact, crime rates have declined since the 1990s.  Rather, the arrest rate increased dramatically, while sentences—particularly for drug crimes—have gotten longer.  These policy changes have disproportionately affected low-income and minority populations, who now make up roughly three-fifths and two-thirds of the prison population, respectively.

President Biden’s recent clemency actions, pardoning three people and commuting the sentences of 75, were a small start on responding to this injustice: “White House officials say the president thinks too many people — many of them Black and brown — are serving unduly long sentences for drug crimes.”

Defund the Police" Faces the Same Problems as "Taxation Is Theft ...

In the wake of the very public, brutal murder of African American George Floyd by a white police officer, worldwide protests called for justice and reform–including calls, specifically, to “Defund the Police.”  But a far better call would be to ditch the martial metaphor, and demilitarize the police–as they did in Camden, New Jersey.

In 2013, Camden had one of the highest murder rates in the country.  In response to that sobering statistic, the city “dismantled the entire police department, starting a community policing approach.”

The department un-hired, then hired back most veteran officers and then 150 new officers — 50% of officers are now minorities.  . . . The new force has more officers on the streets out of their cars, having conversations and mostly listening. They go through de-escalation training. . . they are trained to use their words, and guns are a last resort.

Retired Police Chief Scott Thompson, who helped start the new program, describes the difference like this: “from day one. . . our officers would be guardians and not warriors.”  It worked.  After the police in Camden ditched the martial metaphor, choosing (and training themselves) to be “guardians and not warriors,” shootings and murders went down by 50% in two years.  Metaphors matter!

So, what about those biblical texts depicting God as a warrior?  It is important that we hear these ancient songs, not from the perspective of a strong, secure, and self-confident Israel, but of an Israel in its infancy—a people fragile and vulnerable, who had until very recently been no people, hanging onto survival by their fingernails. Otherwise, we may use the image of God as a warrior standing against Israel’s oppressors to justify our own violence.

Title: Prophet Miriam [Click for larger image view]

Certainly Jewish tradition did not read the Song of the Sea as a call to arms!  According to the Talmud (the authoritative collection of the teachings of the rabbis), when the Israelites began to celebrate the defeat of the Egyptians, God asked, “How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?” (b. Megillah 10b).

Without doubt, the imagery of warfare and struggle is part of the biblical witness. But Scripture also, in many places, subverts the martial metaphor, transforming it unexpectedly into imagery of peace.

An actual rainbow | Rainbow, Quotations, Love quotes

Following the flood in Genesis, the LORD declares, “I have placed my bow [Hebrew qeshet] in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth” (Gen 9:13).  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, qeshet refers to a weapon, whether in the hands of a hunter (for example, Genesis 27:3) or a warrior (for example, Zechariah 9:10).  The rainbow is the LORD’s war bow (Habakkuk 3:9; Psalm 18:14), which God now sets aside, placing it in the clouds.

Remember, God had just finished destroying the world with a flood! Now, as life begins again on the renewed earth, the unavoidable question for the reader has got to be, what if this happens again?  God promises that it never will:

I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth (Gen 9:11).

To underscore and seal that promise, God disarms Godself.

This is far from the only Bible passage subverting the martial metaphor! Not too long ago, on Palm Sunday, we recalled Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30). In their accounts, both Matthew and John (Matt 21:5 and John 12:15) quote Zechariah 9:9 :

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.

By riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king in Zechariah’s passage shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace.  But there was a long tradition of kingly processions involving the king riding an ass (Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; AB 25c [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1993], 129).  Why should this one be any different than all those others?  Zechariah declares that this time, it is more than theater!  The LORD’s Messiah truly is humble, and not only comes in peace, but comes to bring peace:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
and from the river to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).

By entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus declares what sort of Messiah he intends to be.

Your God is a Mighty Warrior - Good News Unlimited

So, what about Revelation, where a blood-soaked Jesus returns to earth at the head of a heavenly army (Rev 19:11-16)?  Doesn’t this vindicate the martial metaphor?  Of course, that may be just fine with us!  In the end, God is finally going to trot out the big guns, and act in a way we can understand.

If we read the book of Revelation closely, however, we are in for a surprise.  The familiar biblical imagery of divine warfare (see especially Isa 63:1-3 for the blood-soaked garments and the winepress of divine wrath) is transformed when we realize that the robes of the rider on the white horse are already red with blood as he descends from heaven–so the blood cannot be from his slaughtered enemies!  Indeed, the only weapon he bears is his word: the sword which comes from his mouth (Rev 19:15; see also Rev 1:16; 2:16; Heb 4:12; Eph 6:17), as is appropriate for the one called The Word of God (Rev 19:13).  Whose blood, then, stains his robes?  It must be his own.

Crucifixion of Jesus - Wikipedia

In Revelation 5, John finds himself in the heavenly throne room.  In God’s hand is a scroll, sealed with seven seals.  John desperately wants to know what secrets the scroll contains,

But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it. So I began to weep and weep, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look inside it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:3-5).

John turns, fully expecting to see a Lion.  But instead,

I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne (Rev 5:6-7).

Ecce agnus Dei | 12.4.2009: from Matthias Grünewald, Isenhe… | Flickr

Anything further removed from the lion John had expected to see is difficult to imagine. The lion is regal, the lamb is ordinary. The lion is powerful, the lamb is powerless. The lion is a predator, the lamb is prey.  Further, it is a slaughtered lamb, which emphasizes even more its absolute powerlessness, as well as calling up another set of images associated with the lamb: the lamb as sacrifice.

Yet the lamb, although bearing the marks of slaughter, is standing–and so obviously alive, not dead!  Clearly, as John the Baptist had declared in John 1:36, Jesus is the Lamb of God.  In the remainder of Revelation, Jesus is never again called a Lion; but he is called the Lamb 30 times (e.g., Rev 5:12-13; 7:9-10; 12:11; 17:14; 21:22-23),

We often say that God is love (1 John 4:7-8), which surely means, if it means anything at all, that love is the strongest power in the universe: stronger than violence or coercion or control. So we should not find at all strange the marvelous assertion at the close of Scripture that the kingly power of the Lion is now invested, and manifested, in the suffering, sacrificial love of the Lamb.  God, in the end, has no need of the martial metaphor.  Perhaps we too should give it a rest.

 

Apr
2022

Christ is Risen!

In the early church, when believers met in this holy season, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!”

God bless you, friends!  In celebration of this day of resurrection, I would like to share with you two short and very sweet Easter poems by Ann Weems. First, “The Story and the Child.”

Mess-free Easter egg dyeing tricks for parents – SheKnows
The child comes, and we dye eggs
and make a cake and decorate.
“Why are we doing this?” he asks
“Because,” I answer, “Life is about to happen,
and on Sunday morning we’ll catch stars.”
He looks at me, quizzically at first,
and then grins. It’s then I ask him
to tell me the story. The only way he’ll learn
is to tell it himself.
The only way we’ll learn
is to tell it again… and again…

 

The second poem, by way of retelling the story, is “Lost and Found.”

Jack Dawson: Day 19 - The Borrowed Tomb - The Great Passion PlayAs we approached Jerusalem
The crowd stood at the gate and cried in a tear-choked voice:
“We are lost in his death.”

Icon of the Resurrection – F86 | Skete.com

Upon the hill the angels sang: “We are found in his rising.”

Christe anesti, friends!

Apr
2022

Riding On a Donkey

Facts about donkeys | Live ScienceI am a lectionary preacher–a practice I commend as a way to break out of the hamster wheel of our favorite, comfortable passages and encounter the wideness–and wildness–of the Bible.  But I confess that sometimes, the logic of the lectionary escapes me.  The only reading from Zechariah in the Revised Common Lectionary is 9:9-12.  Apart from it being yet another witness to the comparative paucity of readings from the left-hand side of the Bible in the Revised Common Lectionary, I have two problems with this reading.

My first beef  is its location in the church calendar: as the alternate Old Testament lection for Year A, Proper 9: the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost; the Gospel for that day is Matt 11:16-19, 25-30.  How, I wonder, is this is not one of the readings appointed for Palm Sunday?

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Anthony van Dyck.jpgBoth Matthew and John quote Zechariah 9:9 in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5 and John 12:15), while Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-40 both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the Greek Septuagint (commonly abbreviated LXX) of Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.

Applying to this passage a wooden literalism, Matthew describes Jesus entering Jerusalem mounted on both an ass and her colt, like a circus act (Matt 21:6-7)!  But this was no mistake on Matthew’s part: the most Jewish of the Evangelists certainly knew how Hebrew poetry works.  Rather, this bizarre image was intended to ram the point home, making absolutely certain that the reader could not miss the connection between the prophecy and its fulfillment. Similarly, in his commentary on this book, the early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus records, “This acquires a clear interpretation in actual events: the king who is prophesied has come.”

The NRSV translation “triumphant and victorious” (9:9) is difficult to understand, although the CEB “righteous and victorious,” is only a little better. The Hebrew reads tsaddiq wenosha’. The first term means “righteous,” perhaps defending “the royal legitimacy of the king” (so Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; AB 25c [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1993], 127), although it may also refer to his morality (the Aramaic Targum on this verse has zaqay, which means “innocent”).

The second word, nosha’, is a passive participle, meaning literally “one who is saved” (reflected also in the Targum). The LXX renders this as sozon, an active participle (“saving”). Following the Greek rather than the Hebrew, both the CEB and the NRSV read nosha’ actively, as “victorious.”  Carol and Eric Meyers, however, stay with the plain sense of the Hebrew: “Yahweh is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127). In short, Zechariah 9:9-10 presents a transformed notion of kingship, grounded not in dynastic and regal pomp, but in God’s own action.  Remember Zechariah’s words to the governor Zerubbabel, earlier in this book:

This is the LORD’s word to Zerubbabel:
        Neither by power, nor by strength,
        but by my spirit, says the LORD of heavenly forces (Zech 4:6).

As this unit unfolds, it continues to draw distinctions between this king and other, previous kings. Although the humble mount in 9:9 derives from a long tradition of kingly processions involving the king riding an ass (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129), this passage surely catches the point of that tradition: by riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace. Yet this time, the prophet declares, this is more than theater!  This king truly is humble, and not only comes in peace, but comes to bring peace: a promise our war-torn world desperately needs to hear!

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).

The mention of Ephraim (the largest of the northern tribes, often used to represent the entire northern kingdom of Israel, for example, see Isa 7:2; Jer 7:15; Ezek 37:19; Hos 5:3) shows that this renewed kingdom will include those formerly excluded: the “lost tribes” from the northern kingdom destroyed and dispersed by the Assyrians long before.

This brings me to my second problem with this lectionary reading: it is two verses too long!  Although in its final form, Zechariah 9 is a unit, the differing histories of its parts call for attention.  Zechariah 9:9-10 belongs with the first eight verses of the chapter–a series of oracles against the nations of Syria-Palestine, culminating in the arrival of God’s appointed king.   Zechariah 9:11 and 12  belong with 9:11-17.

Your God is a Mighty Warrior - Good News Unlimited

In sharp contrast to the peaceful vision of Zech 9:9-10, but in continuity with older visions of divine kingship (see Nah 1:2-11; Hab 3:1-19; Zeph 1:2-18), these verses describe the LORD as a blood-soaked warrior. The exiles are gathered, not so that God can guard them in peace (Zech 9:8), but so that God can muster them as an army. The expression “the blood of the covenant” appears only in Zechariah 9:11 and Exodus 24:8, where Moses sprinkles the people with the blood of their offering at Sinai, sealing their promise to obey God’s torah. Here as there, God has delivered Israel from bondage and oppression, but will now lead them into times of trial and conflict.  Including Zech 9:11-12 in our reading will likely prompt us to misread, or even ignore, the peaceful message of Zech 9:9-10–which would be a tragic shame.

It is little wonder that Zechariah 9:9-10 so captured the imagination of the Gospel writers. While the first Christians confessed Jesus as Christ (Greek christos, the term used in the LXX for Hebrew meshiakh, “Messiah”), it is clear that their understanding–and Jesus own understanding–of what being “Messiah” means transformed this title.

St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev | The Christ Pantocrator. Mosaic, … | FlickrMark 1:1 identifies Jesus not only as Christos, or Messiah, but also as “the Son of God.” While related to the idea of the king as God’s adopted son (Psalm 2:5-9; 45:6-7), this confession goes much further than any Jewish conception of Messiah: Jesus the Messiah is God! This confession creates new problems, raising the need for the church to affirm that “Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2; John 1:14).

But while on the one hand Christian confessions about Jesus exalt the role of Messiah far beyond traditional Jewish expectations, on the other hand these ideas subvert the idea of Messiah as king. In debate with the Pharisees, who believed in a literal future Messiah, Jesus asks. “‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” ‘David’s son,’ they replied.” (Matt 22:42). In response, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1

The Lord says to my lord,
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool” (NRSV)

Assuming the speaker to be David, Jesus asks, “If David calls him [that is, the Messiah] Lord, how can he be David’s son?” (Matt 22:45). Although Matthew’s genealogy takes pains to demonstrate Jesus’ descent from David (Matt 1:6, 17), Christ is more than David’s son!

Grünewald's Resurrection from the Isenheim Altarpiece - Kelly BagdanovParticularly subversive of traditional Messianic expectation is the Christian view that the Christ must suffer. Thus, in Mark, Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is Christos is inadequate: faced with Jesus’ determination to suffer and die, Peter rebukes him, and is in turn himself rebuked by Jesus (Mark 8:29-33). Indeed, in Mark, the first human to make a full confession about Jesus is his executioner, who declares when Jesus dies, “This man was certainly God’s son” (Mark 15:39).

It may well be that Jesus understood his own role in terms of the Suffering Servant in Second Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13—53:12). Certainly, early Christians did (1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), and the idea must have come from somewhere (Matt 8:17; 12:18-21; Mark 9:12; 10:45[//Matt 20:28]; Luke 22:37). In any case, for early Christians, the image of the peaceful and humble king in Zechariah 9:9-10 was the perfect representation of Jesus–and one we as well must learn to embrace.

AFTERWORD

The mosaic icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ as king of all) above comes from the central dome of  the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv, Ukraine.  The scene of wartime violence is also from Ukraine, following the Russian missile strike on refugees at the Kramatorsk train station.  The continuing senseless violence perpetrated by Mr. Putin in Ukraine is a reminder of how much we need the peace-bringing Messiah of Zechariah 9:9-10.

If you would like to support the people of Ukraine, I recommend that you consider giving through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  Since administrative costs are covered through the church by other means, 100% of money you donate will go to Ukrainians.  UMCOR is communicating with partners in the region to coordinate a humanitarian response. You can support UMCOR’s international disaster response efforts by making a gift to Advance #982450. Global Ministries’ Advance #14053A supports Methodist pastors in Ukraine and Moldova.

 

Apr
2022

Bodies and Souls

This has been a hard month for our family.  We lost two dear friends: our cat Mocha on March 9, and our son Mark’s cat Diana this past Saturday.  Mocha came to us fifteen years ago, as a kitten so tiny that Wendy brought her home cupped in one hand.  She was so playful and hyperactive that I joked we should name her “Ritalin”–but her coffee and cream coloring made Mocha a more fitting (yet suitably caffeinated) substitute.

Diana, named for the goddess of the moon and the hunt, was eighteen–a venerable age for a cat.  She moved with our family from Ashland to Pittsburgh, and then moved out with our son Mark when he left home.  But wherever she lived, Diana always carried herself with the dignity of a queen, accepting adoration as her due, and graciously conferring affection upon her subjects.

It was hard to say goodbye.  We wept in the veterinarian’s office, praying, holding one another, and stroking these dear friends as they breathed their last.  The end of these wee, wild lives is tragedy enough.  But it has also been a hard reminder that all things end–and that we, too, will one day die.

Friends have offered solace.  Many, in their well-meant words of comfort, simply assumed that Mocha and Diana had gone on to another life.  Others asked me what I believed, as a Christian pastor and a Bible Guy.  Do animals have souls?

WILLIAM BLAKE: GOLDEN STRING: CREATION OF ADAM

Many will be confident that the answer to that question is “no.”  Surely, the soul is what distinguishes we humans from the animals.  Some would point, as evidence, to Genesis 2:7:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (KJV).

The problem (as it so often is) is a matter of translation.  The Hebrew phrase rendered “living soul” in the KJV is nephesh khayyah.  The NRSV instead reads “the man became a living being,” while CEB simply has, “the human came to life.” Intriguingly, the phrase nephesh khayyah is used for the animals as well in Genesis 2:19 (there, the KJV renders it “living creature”).  Not only the human (Hebrew ‘adam) but “all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky” are nephesh khayyahSo if nephesh means “soul,” then the animals have them, too.

But while nephesh is sometimes translated as “soul,” it never refers to some separate, separable, supernatural part of the self.  Its basic meaning has to do with breath; in fact, nephesh can sometimes mean something as narrow and specific as “throat” (for example, Habakkuk 2:5; Jonah 2:5[6]).  Most commonly, nephesh simply means “self.”  So, a corpse can be called a dead nephesh (for example, Leviticus 21:11), while in Genesis 2:7 ‘adam becomes a living nephesh, alive and self-aware–or, as the NRSV reads, “a living being.”

Biblical cosmology - Wikipedia

What happens when we are no longer “living beings”?  Where do the dead go?  In the Hebrew Bible, the dead go to the underworld, or Sheol: a term that appears 66 times. But that Sheol appears only 66 times in such a huge, wide-ranging collection as the Old Testament tells us something important about the interests of the biblical writers!  The Hebrew Bible is focused on life, not death or what comes after.

Sheol is no afterlife, however.  The dead in Sheol are dead, removed from the living, worshipping community of Israel. So, in his thanksgiving prayer following his healing, Hezekiah says:

The underworld [Sheol] can’t thank you,
        nor can death praise you;
    those who go down to the pit
        can’t hope for your faithfulness.
The living, the living can thank you, as I do today.
    Parents will tell children about your faithfulness (Isa 38:18-19).

In the Psalms, death is not an event at the end of life, but a power that reaches back into life, to rob the living of joy and fulfillment–a power from which the righteous person prays to be delivered (Psalms 6:4-5; 30:1-3, 8-10). Death and contact with the dead were a major source of ritual defilement in the priestly worldview (Numbers 19:11-22; 31:19-24), and the cult of the dead (sacrificing to ancestors, or calling upon the dead for knowledge or for power) is universally condemned (for example, Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; Isaiah 28:14-18; 65:2-4). Texts that affirm God’s presence in Sheol, such as Psalm 139:8 (“If I went up to heaven, you would be there.  If I went down to the grave [Sheol], you would be there too!”), or that speak of death in positive terms (such as Psalm 104:28-30), are the rare exceptions to the rule.

The earliest explicit statement about a life beyond death in the Bible is Daniel 12:2, a text that in its final form dates to the second century BCE: “Many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace.”  Notice that this passage is not about the assured immortality of the soul, but rather about the hoped-for future resurrection of the body.    Indeed, the resurrection of the body at the end of the age is the teaching of the rabbis in the Mishnah, and is assumed throughout the Christian New Testament (for example, Luke 14:14; John 5:29; 11:24; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28).  The creeds of Christianity, too, confess the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.

Most importantly, the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection everywhere emphasize the empty tomb (Matthew 28:11-15; Mark 16:6) and the physical, tangible nature of the risen Jesus, who displays in his body the wounds of crucifixion, invites his friends to touch him, and even shares a meal with them (for example, Luke 24:36-43; John 20:26-29). The risen Jesus is not Jesus’ ghost, but Jesus himself: the same Jesus who was crucified.

Crucifixion of Jesus - Wikipedia

This Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, leading us inexorably to Golgotha, and the cross.  The entire witness of Scripture resists any attempt to shy away from Good Friday’s grim finality.  Jesus will suffer and die here–as all of us will one day die.  On Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the joyous surprise of his resurrection, but that the resurrection is a surprise–a glorious, grand, miraculous, and unexpected gift–must not be forgotten.  Death is real.  But so is life.

So–what do I believe happens when we die?  I believe in the resurrection of the dead.  That means, first of all, that I believe that the dead really die: not only Mocha and Diana, but those saints whom I have loved.  One day soon, I too will really die.  But I am also certain that the last word belongs to the Lord of life.  The God who raised Jesus can, and will, raise us up at the end of the age, in the world to come.

What will happen in the meantime?  Will I sleep, as Luther believed?  Will there be the opportunity to strive further toward perfection in purgatory, as Catholic dogma holds?  Frankly, I do not know.  But like Paul, I believe that nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38), and so when I leave this life, I will be with him (Philippians 1:23).  I remember Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise”  (Luke 23:43), and whatever that may mean, I trust him not to let me go.

Christian theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way: “The immortality of the soul is an opinion – the resurrection of the dead is a hope.”  Christian hope is not Pollyanna optimism–a saccharine denial of the hard realities of life, and of death.  It is rather the confidence that we may place ourselves, our world, our future, and even our mourned and beloved dead into the hands of God, trusting that the power at the heart of all things is indeed just and loving and kind, and that nothing beautiful–not even the tiniest wild and wonderful life–will ever be lost.

 

 

 

Mar
2022

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

FOREWORD:  This week, in keeping with my duties, obligations, and privileges as the World’s Biggest Leprechaun, I am reposting this blog entry in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Thursday March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

Patrick embraces a joyful spirituality of nature, wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.  This St. Patrick’s Day, may we too seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

 

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

 

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

 

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

 

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

 

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

 

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

Mar
2022

Is Russia the Antichrist?

Firefighters extinguishing a fire in the Kharkiv regional police department building, which is said was hit by recent shelling, in KharkivThe horror and violence of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine has, thankfully, unified most of the world in opposition.  But it has also seen the resurrection of a read on  biblical prophecy that I have not heard since I was a young Fundamentalist, in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the U.S.S.R.  Pat Robertson of the 700 Club has said,

I think you can say, well, Putin’s out of his mind, and yes, maybe so, But at the same time, he’s being compelled by God. He went into Ukraine, but that wasn’t his goal. His goal was to move against Israel, ultimately. . . . And he will link up with Turkey across the little (land) bridge, and they will come together,” Robertson explained. “And then, you look down into North Sudan, you’ve got a Muslim country down there, and there they all are. Persia, of course, is Iran.

While reviewing a world map, Robertson brought attention to a “choke point” between Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece, stating that point may be of great interest to Russia.  “And there is the land that is set up in Ezekiel 38 and you see how Ukraine is key because you see the land bridge between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey,” Robertson added. “And all of that area is going to be mobilized against Israel in the latter days. And God says, ‘I am going to deal with it.”

Robertson ended his remarks by saying: “And God is getting ready to do something amazing and that will be fulfilled.”

The title of this blog is a bit sensational, I will admit–Mr. Robertson does NOT in fact claim that Mr. Putin, or Russia, is the Antichrist–although Robertson certainly believes that that future world dictator, whoever he may be, will come into power through Putin’s actions.  Robertson’s claim, rather is that Russia is Gog.

Gog and Magog
Gog appears twice in Scripture: in Ezekiel 38—39 and in Revelation 20:7-10 (the Gog mentioned in 1 Chronicles 5:4 is a descendant of Reuben—clearly, not the foreign ruler Ezekiel and Revelation describe).   Magog (Gog’s kingdom, in Ezekiel) appears in Genesis 10:2//1 Chronicles 1:5 as second in the list of nations descended from Japheth, youngest son of Noah, whose descendants populate the lands north of Israel. In those lists, Magog is grouped with other nations in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), including several mentioned as well in Ezekiel 38: Gomer (likely Cimmeria, 38:6), Togarmah (a descendant of Gomer in Genesis 10:3; called Beth-Togarmah in Ezek 38:6), Meschech, and Tubal (Gog of Magog is identified with Meshech and Tubal in 38:2-3 and 39:1; see also 27:13; 32:26-27).  The name “Gog” may be derived from Magog (which meant “land of Gog” in the language of Babylon).  But whatever the source of the name, its referent belongs not to history, but to eschatology– the consideration of final things:
After many days you will be called out. In future years you will enter a country that has been freed from the sword, a gathering from many peoples on the mountains of Israel, which had become a perpetual ruin. This country was brought out from the peoples, and all of them live securely.  You will invade like a sudden storm. You and all your troops, and the many peoples with you, will be like clouds covering the earth (Ezekiel 38:8-9).
Gog of Magog is the last enemy, called up and then defeated by the power of God to demonstrate God’s sovereignty over the world and sure defense of Israel.
The justification for identifying Gog with Russia is Ezek 38:2–3, where Gog is called nasi’ ro’sh. The Septuagint (and an NIV footnote) render Rosh as a place name, so that Gog is “the prince of Rosh.” During the Cold War, some American apocalyptists interpreted Rosh as Russia, particularly as the text describes Gog as the enemy from the north, and Russia is definitely north of Palestine.
However, the expression “enemy from the north” was first used for Israel’s ancient enemies, Assyria (Isaiah 14:31; Zephaniah 2:13) and Babylon (18 times in Jeremiah: e.g., 1:13-16; 3:12,18; 6:1, 22-25; cf. Ezek 9:2; 23:24; Zech 2:6-7; 6:8). Although these enemies were to the east of Israel, geography forced their armies to march north around the desert wastes, then south along the coastal plain, approaching Palestine from the north.
Empires Attack the Promised Land — Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY
As a result, the “enemy from the north” became a prophetic code for all threats against Israel, and especially for the final threat (see not only Ezek 38–39, but also Joel 2:20 and Dan 11:40-45).
As for nasi’ ro’sh, the most natural reading of the Hebrew, followed by nearly all the versions (the Aramaic Targum, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac Peshitta) and nearly every modern English translation (not only the CEB, but the NIV, NRSV, NJPS, as well as the KJV), is to see this phrase as a title: nasi’ meaning “prince,” and ro’sh meaning “head,” in the sense of “leader” or “chief.” But what does it mean to say that Gog is “chief prince”?
Walther Zimmerli offers the most likely explanation: “already in his title Gog is introduced not as the ruler of a great united empire, but as the leader of a number of national groups” (Ezekiel, Vol. 2, translated by James E. Martin; Hermeneia [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983], 305). Gog is first among equals, a prince (albeit the chief prince) among princes.
Another problem for those who want to identify Gog as Russia, and Putin’s vile assault on free Ukraine as a biblical harbinger of the endtimes, has to do with the relationship between Ezekiel and Revelation.  While Ezekiel 38—39 certainly stands back of Revelation 20:7-10, in John’s vision, Gog of Magog is not the leader of an alliance of kingdoms from the north. Instead, Gog and Magog (evidently, John regarded both as personal names) represent “the nations in the four corners of the earth” (Revelation 20:7-8). Since Gog and Magog are explicitly said to represent all the enemies of God’s people, it is a mistake to try to identify Gog or Magog in Revelation with any particular power.
A major difference between these two passages is the motivation given for Gog’s assault. In Revelation, Gog and Magog are deceived by Satan into rebellion against God and all God’s people:
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison.He will go out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog. He will gather them for battle. Their number is like the sand of the sea. They came up across the whole earth and surrounded the saints’ camp, the city that God loves (Revelation 20:7-9).
In Ezekiel, however, Gog is brought out against Israel by the LORD:
Thus says the Lord God: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; I will turn you around and put hooks into your jaws, and I will lead you out with all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed in full armor, a great company, all of them with shield and buckler, wielding swords. Persia, Ethiopia, and Put are with them, all of them with buckler and helmet; Gomer and all its troops; Beth-togarmah from the remotest parts of the north with all its troops—many peoples are with you.
Be ready and keep ready, you and all the companies that are assembled around you, and hold yourselves in reserve for them. After many days you shall be mustered; in the latter years you shall go against a land restored from war, a land where people were gathered from many nations on the mountains of Israel, which had long lain waste; its people were brought out from the nations and now are living in safety, all of them (Ezekiel 38:3-8, NRSV).
A final problem with Robertson’s read of Russia as Gog is a matter of timing.  Curiously, Ezekiel and Revelation agree in their odd placement of Gog’s attack. In Ezekiel, the battle with Gog comes only after Israel’s ultimate restoration and renewal, when all its exiles have been gathered home and all its enemies have, apparently been vanquished:
In future years you will enter a country that has been freed from the sword, a gathering from many peoples on the mountains of Israel, which had become a perpetual ruin. This country was brought out from the peoples, and all of them live securely (Ezekiel 38:8).
Likewise, in Revelation, Gog and Magog emerge only after a thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon, the old snake, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the abyss, then locked and sealed it over him. This was to keep him from continuing to deceive the nations until the thousand years were over. After this he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and people took their seats on them, and judgment was given in their favor. They were the ones who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and God’s word, and those who hadn’t worshipped the beast or its image, who hadn’t received the mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and ruled with Christ for one thousand years (Revelation 20:1-4).

So–Russia cannot be Gog.  But nonetheless, what sense can we make of this bizarre claim–that after God’s people are at peace, and everything seems to have been put to rights, Gog attacks?

In Revelation as in Ezekiel, Gog stands as a rebuke to complacency and misplaced confidence. My old friend and fellow Bible Guy Jim Durlesser writes, “The message of the Gog oracle is that sin, oppression, and the brutality of war are not vanquished without significant effort, and that we ought not become lax or over-confident” (“The Timelessness of Apocalyptic,” in Approaching the New Millennium: Student Book [Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1995]).

Chaaban Wealth Management Group - Murphy's LawOn a personal level, in Ezekiel and Revelation alike, the Gog narratives address a universal experience: everyone knows what it is like to be blindsided by failure or tragedy, at the very moment when everything seems to be under control. Perhaps the lesson of Gog is, after all, very simple: “Don’t get cocky!” Even the best of us fail.

However, ultimately, our salvation depends not on our success or failure, but on our Lord’s faithfulness.  Remember that, despite their differences, Revelation 20 and Ezekiel 38—39 agree in giving credit for the victory over Gog entirely to God–and in strikingly similar language.  Ezekiel says, “I will pour out flooding rain, hailstones, fire, and sulfur on him, on all his troops, and on the many peoples with him” (Ezekiel 38:22), while John more succinctly writes, “fire came down from heaven and consumed them” (Revelation 20:9).  As the Lord told Jehoshaphat, “Don’t be afraid or discouraged by this great army because the battle isn’t yours. It belongs to God!” (2 Chronicles 20:15).

The fact that Robertson is wrong about Putin’s Russia being Gog does not, of course, mean that we should take Putin’s civilization-ending nuclear threats any less seriously.  However, we can find wisdom for these days in an essay Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote in 1948, called “On Living in an Atomic Age.”

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Lewis’ essay concludes,

[I]t is part of our spiritual law never to put survival first: not even the survival of our species. We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture or class, is not worth having unless it can be had by honourable and merciful means. 

The sacrifice is not so great as it seems. Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven must have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.

WHATEVER comes next, let us trust God, love one another, and hold fast to our faith.  That, friends, is far better advice than taking refuge in fanciful reconstructions of biblical apocalypses.

 

 

AFTERWORD:
If, by way of loving God and one another and serving humanity, you wish to make a contribution to support people in Ukraine, I recommend that you consider giving through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  Since administrative costs are covered through the church by other means, 100% of money you donate will go to Ukrainians.  UMCOR is communicating with partners in the region to coordinate a humanitarian response. You can support UMCOR’s international disaster response efforts by making a gift to Advance #982450. Global Ministries’ Advance #14053A supports Methodist pastors in Ukraine and Moldova.
Feb
2022

Beatitudes

3 Tips for Reading the Bible with Your Child - CSBOne of my earliest church memories involves a bribe.  A Sunday School teacher offered a WHOLE QUARTER to any child who memorized the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12).  I don’t remember that teacher’s name, or face–indeed, I don’t remember if I actually learned the Beatitudes, or even if I could have done so (I don’t think I had learned to read, yet!).  But I remember that I wanted that quarter, and that I was very upset when my family moved (and changed churches!) before I could get it.

Of course, I didn’t know until much later that there was another version of Jesus’ Beatitudes in Luke 6:17-26 (Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, a different form of the sayings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount).  And it would be later still that I learned from my teacher James Luther Mays about Psalm 1:

The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence (Psalms, Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 40).

The first word in Psalm 1 is ‘ashre: traditionally rendered “blessed.”  In the Septuagint, the Greek version of Jewish Scripture, this is translated as the Greek makarios, the same word used in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, also traditionally rendered “blessed.”  But “blessed” is decidedly a stained-glass word: one we rarely use outside of church, and so a word whose actual meaning is likely cloudy.  A more natural translation would be (as in the NRSV and the CEB) “happy.”

The righteous are described in the opening verse of this psalm as happy, but Psalm 1 is not about how to be happy. The beatitude pronounced upon the righteous in Psalm 1 describes rather than defines them.  Similarly, Jesus’ beatitudes are descriptive rather than prescriptive.

This is all the more surprising, as those Jesus calls “happy” are not at all who we would think of as “happy”–especially in Luke’s version.  Where Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke reads simply “the poor.” In Luke, it is not those hungry for righteousness, but simply the hungry who are called happy.  Still, in both versions, Jesus plainly regards blessedness, not as an accomplishment or a reward, but as a gift, given particularly to those most in need.  Indeed, unlike Matthew 5, Luke 6 also discusses those who are not happy.  Luke balances the blessings with woes, which again are surprising:

But how terrible for you who are rich,
    because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now,
    because you will be hungry (Luke 6:24-25).

The very folk we’d expect to be happy–the rich, the well-fed–are instead the objects of lament!

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams: 9780399185045 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

In my home church, St. Paul’s UMC, we have been reading together The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016).  The book is the record of a five-day conversation between these two great spiritual leaders about joy: a conversation all the more poignant when we realize that, as this conversation began, the cancer that would take Archbishop Tutu’s life had just recurred.

On the third day, as they were talking about joy and suffering, the Dalai Lama described his flight from the Chinese army and his exile, but also, as a result of that exile, the preservation of Tibetan language, religion, and culture:

“You see, if there are no difficulties and you are always relaxed, then you complain more,” the Dalai Lama said, now laughing at the irony that we could experience more joy in the face of great adversity than when life is seemingly easy and uneventful.

The Archbishop was laughing, too.  Joy, it seemed, was a strange alchemy of mind over matter.  The path to joy, like with sadness, did not lead away from suffering and adversity, but through it.  As the Archbishop had said, nothing beautiful comes without some suffering. . .  I saw the Archbishop gazing at the Dalai Lama with a sense of amazement.  

“I’m really actually very humbled listening to His Holiness,” the Archbishop said, “because I’ve frequently mentioned to people the fact of his serenity and his calm and joyfulness.  We would probably have said, ‘in spite of’ the adversity, but it seems like he’s saying ‘because of’ the adversity that this has evolved for him.”  The Archbishop was holding the Dalai Lama’s hand, patting and rubbing his palm affectionately (The Book of Joy, 150-51).

Like Luke 6, Psalm 1 also addresses those who are not blessed.  The Psalm contrasts the wicked (Hebrew resha’im) and the righteous (tsadiqim).  But the wicked are defined only in negative terms: by their opposition to the righteous, who do not follow their way, or sit in their councils (1:1), just as the wicked themselves “will have no standing in the court of justice—neither will sinners in the assembly of the righteous” (1:5).

Jewish Painting: Torah Reading - Alex Levin

The righteous, by contrast, are positively defined by their immersion in God’s torah: a word often translated as “law,” but better rendered (as in the CEB) “instruction”  Certainly, there is  no legalism in Psalm 1! Nothing is said here about obeying the law, or doing the right things.  Instead, the righteous “love (Hebrew chapets, “desire;” rendered “delight in” in the NRSV) the LORD’s Instruction” and “recite (the verb hagah actually means “murmur,” implying constant, repetitive study and recitation; the NRSV has “meditate on”) God’s Instruction day and night” (Ps 1:2).

The wicked have no substance.  They “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4, NRSV): empty husks–dry, lifeless, fruitless, and rootless.

But the righteous?

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper (Psalm 1:3).

Please note that the righteous are not commanded to bear fruit, any more than a tree must be ordered to produce!   Fruit-bearing is simply what trees planted by the water do! Those who love God, who draw life from God and are immersed in God’s Word, love what God loves, and act accordingly.

The NRSV, like the old KJV, has “for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:6). But the verb here is yada’, that is, “know.”  In Hebrew, “knowing” has to do not simply with intellectual grasp, but with relationship.  Those who desire to know God, who seek out and meditate upon God’s instruction, are in turn known by God: as the CEB has it, the LORD is “intimately acquainted” with them!

In the end, Psalm 1 isn’t really interested in the wicked at all—just as, in Luke, the woes are an afterthought. The righteous, the blessed, are the concern of these beatitudes. Those who know, and are known, by God enter into a relationship with the Divine; they become like trees, drawing life from God and bearing fruit for God. They, whatever the circumstances of their lives, are blessed.

AFTERWORD:

The colorized photograph above shows three homeless children sleeping on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, New York City. The original was taken in 1890 by Danish-American social reformer, “muckraking” journalist and social documentary photographer Jacob Riis, who contributed significantly to the cause of urban reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Credit: @retrograde_colour.  https://www.instagram.com/p/CZu9dmHNXXI/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet&fbclid=IwAR3SoB-aPoILIY0vVOacI56ujeQsdO_BNN61JI0LoMUFzeIEgA1SpAhhgIc

 

Jan
2022

Not Just Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day | MovieGeekBlog

In the United States (and Canada, too), next Wednesday, February 2, is known as Groundhog Day. We will wait with trepidation to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) sees his shadow–because if he does, then there will be six more weeks of winter.  Where in the world could this bizarre custom have come from?

February 2 marks the quarter-year: midwinter, as Hallowe’en is midautumn.  Celts called this day Imbolc,  and identified it as the time when ewes begin to give milk, in preparation for spring lambing.  According to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, shepherds in Roman times also celebrated a midwinter festival on February 2.

Protecting Your Fruit Trees from Frost Damage | Organic Gardening Blog – Grow OrganicThis day, in the dead of winter, is associated with hope for the return of warmer weather–but not too soon.  A “false spring” after all may be followed by a killing frost, wiping out trees that have budded too early, and threatening lambs born out of season.  Therefore, sunny weather on this midwinter day (so that a groundhog can see its shadow!) is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while cold and cloudy weather appropriate to the season augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery.

In addition to its ancient folk connections, this day also has a biblical warrant: by the Western Church’s reckoning, February 2 comes forty days after Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Leviticus 12:2-8 stipulates the rites of purification for cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth: for a baby boy, 7 days of impurity, followed by an additional 33 days during which the mother “must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area” (Lev 12:4).

Luke 2:22-40 records that Joseph and Mary, as observant first-century Jews, made the pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple with their son Jesus “[w]hen the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth.  In Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was accordingly called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin;” today it is known as “the Presentation of the Lord.”

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]This tapestry depicting Luke’s scene is from the Abbey Church of St. Walpurga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.  Mary is in the center, followed by Joseph (in the slouch hat).  Joseph carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor family may offer instead of a sheep as a sacrifice (see Luke 2:24).

Also pictured is Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).  Simeon holds baby Jesus, praises God for him, and prays a beautiful prayer, called (after its opening words in Latin) the Nunc dimittis:

Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
     because my eyes have seen your salvation.
 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and a glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

The Latin inscription on the St. Walpurga abbey tapestry refers to this prayer: Lux ad revelationem Gentium means “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Simeon’s prayer in turn alludes to several passages in Isaiah (see Isa 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3), but particularly to Isaiah 49:5-6, from the second Servant Song:

And now the Lord has decided—
    the one who formed me from the womb as his servant—
    to restore Jacob to God,
    so that Israel might return to him.
    Moreover, I’m honored in the Lord’s eyes;
    my God has become my strength.
He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant,
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
    Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
    so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

The salvation offered through Jesus is for everyone.

After this prayer of thanksgiving, Simeon gives to Mary a much more somber word:

This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Luke 2:34-35).

Michelangelo's Pieta | High Renaissance History and CharacteristicsAlthough Jesus has come for everyone, not everyone will receive him.  Simeon’s words prefigure Jesus’ coming rejection–his trial, condemnation, and crucifixion, and so Mary’s coming sorrow: “And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:35).  In this season after Epiphany, we rightly remember that Jesus’ way leads us to God’s light–but that way must pass through the darkness of the cross.  Simeon offers no illusions that God’s salvation comes easily, without opposition or conflict.

The fifth person pictured on the St. Walpurga tapestry is Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2:37).  Luke does not quote her words, as he does Simeon’s.  But he does tell us that her words are directed, not just privately to the family, but publicly, to everyone in earshot:  “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In Luke’s gospel, from the very first, anyone with eyes to see and a heart to believe knows who Jesus is!

Music and traditions of Candlemas | OUPblog

February 2 has one more traditional church connection–and one more name!  In the Western Christian calendar, this midwinter day is often called Candlemas, and was traditionally when the candles used in the coming year were blessed.  Friends, may we remember on this day of light and hope that Jesus leads us in the way of “[God’s] salvation . . . a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

AFTERWORD:

The order of the nuns of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  They fled to the United States in 1935 to escape the Nazis, and settled in the Colorado mountains. The walls of their church are lined with tapestries like this one of the Presentation of the Lord, all inspired by biblical texts.