Feb
2024

Hearts and Flowers and. . . Ashes?

No photo description available.Once again (it happened in 2018, too, remember!) Ash Wednesday falls on Valentines Day.  Certainly the contrast– the sweetest and most sentimental of secular holidays juxtaposed with the grimmest and most lugubrious of Christian fast days–is striking, and may prompt us to wonder why the church should be such a downer–so determined, it seems, to quash anything  fun.

The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, certainly seems to fit that killjoy perception:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! (Joel 2:1-2).

Then again, the relentless glee of what my colleague Andrew Purves scornfully termed “happy clappy worship” can be no less oppressive and unwelcoming!  I still remember a courageous sermon preached in the PTS chapel, observing that our community was a very hard place to be if you were sad. People who were hurting or depressed were likely either to be ignored, or worse, to be jollied: to be told to cheer up and trust in Jesus—as though sorrow and pain were somehow a denial of their faith.

As Donald Gowan ruefully observes,

Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph?” (Don Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox, 1976], 38).

But true repentance leading to new life requires lament: not only our own authentic lament at the realization of our sin, but also providing space for, and attending to, the laments of others.

Walter Brueggemann writes that the loss of lament in worship means “the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 [1986]: 60).

No wonder Joel urges the priests, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD” (Joel 1:14). By stifling lament, we shut off the genuine interaction that a living relationship with God presumes.

In his famous lament, the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told “my Christian and Jewish brothers”

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate . . . who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. . .  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Of  course we prefer the easy road that avoids confrontation, the “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  But for Joel as for Dr. King, true peace doesn’t come so easily!

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing (Joel 2:12-13).

Joel calls upon his community to demonstrate their whole-hearted desire to return to the Lord, and their deep sorrow at past wrong-doing, “with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.” This can be no superficial demonstration: “rend your heart,” the LORD demands, “and not your clothing.”

The setting for much of Joel’s remarkable book of prophecy is a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  After the swarm has passed, when 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 the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.

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 (Joel 2:28-30).

In this passage—the most familiar passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21)—the “children of Zion,” called “my people” by the Lord, include not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged—even slaves.

Joel reminds us that we too belong to a larger community than we had known.  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 this Valentines Day/Ash Wednesday, and the days of Lent that follow, reawaken us to our connections to one another.  May we give one another space to lament, to grieve, to disagree.  May we begin to listen to one another—not necessarily to agree, but to listen, to learn, and to understand. God’s promises of deliverance, of vindication, of freedom from shame cannot be experienced by us separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us—or we will not find them at all.

Feb
2024

Credo

In this Black History Month, I am remembering and celebrating W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), a pivotal figure in American history.  Du Bois was an educator (serving as a professor at Fisk University and Atlanta University), author (The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawnand his posthumously published Autobiography), and a tireless activist and advocate for racial equality (he was the founder of the Niagara Movement, a parent of  the NAACP).

I only recently learned of another important work of Du Bois: his prose poem “Credo,” published in the New York Independent 57 (Oct. 6, 1904): 787.

I learned of this piece through a concert at my home church, St. Paul’s UMC, by Archipelago, an extraordinary vocal ensemble conducted by Caron Daley of Duquesne University. The climax of the evening was a wonderful choral setting of DuBois’ “Credo” by African American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972).  Although she composed this piece in 1965, it was lost, and only recently rediscovered and published.

Several features of Du Bois’ “Credo” stand out to this Bible Guy and United Methodist minister.  First is Du Bois’ understanding, already in 1904, that God “made of one blood all the races that dwell on the earth.”

I had attributed this insight, that in light of Genesis all the people of the earth are one human family, to African American theologian George Kelsey (1910-1996), who was the Henry Anson Buttz Professor emeritus of Christian Ethics at Drew University, where he taught for 24 years, and who was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College.

In his book Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man (New York: Scribner, 1965),  Kelsey wrote:

All men are equal because God has bestowed upon all the very same dignity. He has created them in His own image and herein lies their dignity. Human dignity is not an achievement, nor is it an intrinsic quality; it is a gift, a bestowal. Christian faith asserts that all men are equally human; all are creatures and all are potentially spiritual sons of God (Kelsey 1965, 87).

But already in 1904, Du Bois wrote that “all men are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential feature, and alike in soul.”  Further, Du Bois recognized that affirming our common humanity in no way meant settling for some bland homogeneity.  Du Bois fearlessly and joyously affirms “the Negro Race” and “pride of race and lineage and self. . . so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves.”

John Wesley (1703–1791), as an Old Man

Methodism’s founder John Wesley would applaud Du Bois’ statement that all humanity shares “in the possibility of infinite development,” although of course he would insist that it is through the grace of God and the working of the Spirit that this is so.  Further Wesley, who urged his preachers never to be “triflingly employed,” would agree fully with Du Bois’ statement that “Work is Heaven, Idleness is Hell”!

When I heard this piece performed, one part of Du Bois’ “Credo” deeply troubled me–and troubles me still:

I was reminded of a time in chapel at PTS, when an African American student addressed a goodly part of her prayer to Satan, binding him and rejecting his power and presence.  At the time, I objected to this: surely, our prayers should be addressed to God alone!  But reading Du Bois’ “Credo,” I wonder how much of my refusal to acknowledge the Enemy’s power and influence is a reflection of my own privilege?  How often have I been confronted with and threatened by the power of evil in the way that Du Bois describes, and that my Black sisters and brothers face each and every day?

In his City of God (XI, 9), Augustine wrote, “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”  But I am persuaded that Augustine’s notion that evil is merely the absence of good is far too weak: evil is real, a power and presence in our world.  So I acknowledge the importance and symbolic power of the idea of Satan.  But I am also persuaded that there is good reason that the historic creeds of the church, unlike Du Bois’ “Credo,” do not confess a “belief” in “the Devil and His Angels.”  We are not dualistic bi-theists, friends.  Jesus tells his followers,

“I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.  Look, I have given you authority to crush snakes and scorpions underfoot. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you.  Nevertheless, don’t rejoice because the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18-20).

I am persuaded that one huge problem with American Christianity is the degree to which we have behaved as though the Enemy was as powerful in this world as the Lord, to the end that we have embraced a macho warrior “Christ” that bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels, and a militant “Christianity” likewise divorced from the biblical or historical Church.  Further, we are far too ready to project that dualism onto our political issues and adversaries, so that those with whom we disagree become, often quite literally, demonic.  In his book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (San Francisco: Harper, 2023), Tim Alberta describes the preaching of Greg Locke, leader of the Global Mission Bible Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee: “He called Democrats ‘God-denying demons’ and said, ‘You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation'” (p. 227).

It is worth taking a little time to recognize the way that the Hebrew word satan and the proper name Satan are used in Scripture.  In the New Testament, “Satan” is used thirty-five times as the personal name of a personal devil and spiritual adversary.  In the Hebrew Bible, however, the Hebrew term satan often appears with reference to a human enemy (satan is translated “adversary” in the NRSV of 1 Sam 29:4; 2 Sam 19:22; 1 Kgs 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25; and as “accuser” in Ps 109:6).

Satan is definitely used to designate a heavenly being in three places. The first involves the angel of the LORD, who becomes for a time a satan (the NRSV reads “adversary”) to the prophet Balaam (Num 22:22, 32). In the other two cases, Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, satan appears with the article, as a title: hassatan, or “the satan.” In both places, the NRSV (following the KJV) used the proper name “Satan;” however, the NRSVue has a much better rendering of the Hebrew: “the adversary.”  In each case, the satan is a member of the LORD’s heavenly court, and functions as a kind of celestial prosecuting attorney. So, in the book of Job, the satan accuses the righteous Job of serving the LORD out of self-interest, because God has always blessed him.  “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has,” the satan claims, “and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). Similarly, until rebuked by the Lord, the satan stands ready in Zechariah 3 to accuse the high priest Joshua.

This brings us to 1 Chronicles 21:1. Here, instead of hassatan (“the satan”) the Hebrew text reads simply “satan.” Most interpreters take this to mean that Satan here is a proper name–the first such occurrence in Scripture, and the only one in the Hebrew Bible.  However, it is also possible to translate the term as “an adversary” (so, for example, Sara Japhet, Chronicles, pp. 374-375; and Paul Redditt, 1&2 Chronicles, p. 147). In that case, some nameless, human advisor would be responsible for influencing David’s decision. Favoring this mundane reading is the absence of any other trace of a personal Satan in Chronicles.

On the other hand, the Greek Septuagint of 1 Chronicles 21:1 reads diabolos here, a Greek word generally translated as “devil” in the New Testament. This is not definitive, as the Septuagint uses diabolos three times with reference to a human enemy (the nameless accuser in Ps 109:6; Haman in Esther 7:1; 8:1; and Antiochus in 1 Macc 1:36). But elsewhere, diabolos is used in all the Hebrew references to a heavenly, supernatural satan, suggesting that the figure in 1 Chronicles was also understood by the Greek translators to be a supernatural adversary.  Other elements of the supernatural in 1 Chronicles 21 (David’s conversation with God through the prophet Gad in 1 Chr 21:8-13; the angel with a drawn sword and the fire from heaven in 1 Chr 21:18-27) further support the likelihood that Satan, too, is a supernatural being here.

A modern reader may find it odd that conducting a census should be regarded as an evil act. But David’s census of “men available for military service” (1 Chr 21:5) shows an unwillingness to trust God to defend and deliver Israel.  In Chronicles, David is enticed by Satan, yields to that temptation, and carries out an act he knows to be wrong–an act, furthermore, that his general Joab warned him against (1 Chr 21:3).

Satan’s temptation strikes at David’s desires and weaknesses: particularly, it seems, at his pride. Joab’s response to David’s command is a rebuke to such overweening pride: “May the Lord increase his people a hundred times! Sir, aren’t you the king, and aren’t they all your servants? Why do you want to do this? Why bring guilt on Israel?” (1 Chr 21:3). David’s need to count his people, like the compulsion of a miser to count his gold, speaks at once of possessive pride, and of neurotic insecurity. God has promised to preserve David’s kingdom. Why then should David worry about how many swords he can place in the field? In Chronicles, David in his righteousness was a model for the Chronicler’s community. So also, in his pride and rebellion, David stands as a warning. If even David could fall, and had to face the consequences of his failure, the Chronicler’s community needed to be all the more attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord.

When, as in De Bois’ “Credo” and in Chronicles, the Devil stands for the deadly and seductive power of evil, this biblical image is appropriate, indeed necessary.  But when we exalt Satan as a god to rival Christ, and when we demonize our earthly adversaries, denying their humanity, we fall guilty of idolatry, and forget the command of our Lord,

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:44-45).

Jan
2024

Not Just Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day | MovieGeekBlog

FOREWORD:   I am reposting this (lightly edited) blog from two years ago.  My apologies for not posting yet in this new year–I contracted COVID at our Christmas Eve service, and am really only now getting my bearings!  Thankfully, in the Tuell household we are all vaccinated and boosted, and so none of us was ever in real danger–but make no mistake, friends.  The new COVID variant is even more virulent, and bodes to be just as deadly, as the last: here in Allegheny County, it is killing about a person a day.  If you are not yet vaccinated, or have not yet gotten the booster, please go to your doctor or drug store IMMEDIATELY: not just for yourself, but for your family and your community.

 

In the United States (and Canada, too), Friday February 2 is  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.  The Order of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  The nuns of that order 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.

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!

La Candlemas: history and curiosities

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:

A prayer for this day, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.

God of love,
you refine silver and shelter the sparrow’s nest.
Accept the prayers we bring this day,
for you know all that tests and troubles us.
Embrace our needs in your blessing,
so that we may be sustained,
even in times of trial.
Strong and mighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus,
the presentation of your Son in the temple
was his first entrance into the place of sacrifice.
Grant that, trusting in his offering upon the cross
to forgive our sins and uphold us in the time of trial,
we may sing your praises
and live in the light of your salvation, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Dec
2023

Hark How All the Welkin Rings

Stained glass window featuring Charles Wesley from Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta, part of the United Methodist Church Global Mission Center. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

In 1739, Charles Wesley’s “Hymn for Christmas-Day” was included in the first Methodist hymnal, “Hymns and Sacred Poems.”  It began, “‘Hark how all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of kings.'”

I confess that I had to look up “welkin”!  The online resource Wiktionary  traces this twelfth century English word from the Middle English welken (“cloud; sky; weather (?); heavens; (astronomy) cosmic elementary, planetary, or celestial sphere; all the spheres beyond the elementary region, including the primum mobile”), Old English wolcn (cloud), Proto-West Germanic *wolkn (cloud), and ultimately, from Proto-Indo-European *welg- (damp; wet).  So–Charles had in mind a shout of praise that would make the heavens ring!

Learning to Preach from George Whitefield | Preaching Source

In 1753, evangelist George Whitfield proposed an alteration to the first line, which Charles’ brother John, who was editing the hymnal at the time, accepted.  Whitfield’s altered wording, and so the hymn’s new title, stuck.  The result was our familiar carol, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

The stirring, familiar tune of this carol is also not original.  It comes from “the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn’s (PHH 279) Festgesang (Op. 68) for male voices and brass. . . first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig”–nearly a century after Charles wrote his carol!

Some other lines from Charles Wesley’s original hymn have been altered in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, where the words to Charles’ Christmas hymn are:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Refrain:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel. [Refrain]

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth. [Refrain]

As Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications, observes, Charles Wesley’s original first line “was more biblically accurate. The Bible nowhere records angels singing!” Sure enough, in Luke’s gospel, when the angelic army announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds, they do not sing at all:

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.  The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said,“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:8-14).

Mostly, the more recent alterations to Charles Wesley’s carol clarify that women as well as men are included.  So, in the second verse, Wesley’s “pleased as Man with Men to dwell” becomes “pleased with us in flesh to dwell”–less euphonious, perhaps, but theologically sound as well as satisfactorily and properly inclusive.

Just as Wesley’s first stanza alludes to Luke 2, his third stanza alludes to Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), where the coming day of the LORD is described as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people.  But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who will be rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

For Malachi, the LORD is “the sun of righteousness,” who rises with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence (the Jerusalem temple faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.

In Malachi, depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

For Charles Wesley, Jesus is the “Sun of Righteousness”!   The third stanza of his carol originally read:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In the United Methodist Hymnal, the latter part of this verse becomes

Mild he lays his Glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.

While I am fully in favor of the use of inclusive language in the United Methodist Hymnal, our editors have erred theologically, I believe, in rendering the next-to-last line of this glorious hymn as “Born to raise us from the earth”–something like “born to raise we folk of earth” would have been far better.  Escape from the earth was not Charles Wesley’s intent here!  Instead,  because Jesus has come to us as one of us, we earthlings, we “sons of earth” in Charles Wesley’s admittedly sexist rendering, may be raised to new life (the “second birth”) right here.  Indeed, as Charles’ brother J0hn insisted, we may even attain holiness of heart and life here and now, in this world that Christ has come to save.  That is an important distinction, I believe.

Let us join together, friends, as God’s redeemed and reconciled people, in praise to our Lord Jesus!  Let us, as Malachi wrote, jubilantly “jump about like calves in the stall,” and may our shouts make the welkin ring!

AFTERWORD:

This Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is also Christmas Eve!  So let this fourth Advent blog also be my Christmas greeting to one and all!  Merry Christmas, friends–God bless us every one!

Dec
2023

Rejoice in the Lord Always!

Advent 3rd Sunday: Joy – Peacefully Harsh

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, after the first word in the Latin introit for this day, Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”).

The website “About Catholicism” explains why the Advent candle for this day is rose colored, rather than purple:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ, is on the way!

File:Jan Lievens, Painting of St Paul, ca. 1627-29. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum Sweden.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The introit for Sunday comes from the Vulgate of Philippians 4:4.  Philippians is Paul’s most joyful letter–and quite possibly, his last.  Here, for the first time, Paul anticipates dying before the Lord’s return (Phil 1:20-26)!  In 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, he describes the dead in Christ as being raised to meet the Lord in the air at his second coming (1 Thes 4:15-18).  But here, faced with the likelihood that he will be among those awaiting resurrection, Paul considers what that period may be like, concluding simply that he will “be with Christ” (Phil 1:23)–whatever that may mean.

In Philippians 2:1-13, Paul urges the Philippians to practice Christlike humility: “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).  He then quotes a hymn of the earliest church, describing Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and final victory:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
 Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
    so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
        and every tongue confess
            that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:6-1 1).

In this hymn, Jesus is our representative.  Being at once God and Human, he overcomes in his own Person the gap between humanity and divinity.  But of course, being fully and truly human means being finite: like us, Jesus was born, lived, learned, grew, suffered, and died.

But the specific death Jesus died–that he indeed chose to die–placed him with the shamed and outcast; the scorned and unjustly persecuted. As Immanuel, God with us (Matt 1:22-23), Jesus proves God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

As is typical, Paul concludes this letter with some personal advice. He urges Euodia and Syntyche, two female leaders in the church (who Paul says “have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel,” Phil 4:2-3), to overcome their (apparently famous) differences, and get along–advice one presumes Paul himself had been given regarding his own famous differences with Peter  (Gal 2:6-14)!  He thanks the church for their generous gifts to him in his imprisonment, but tells them that all he really needs is the knowledge that they are well, and growing in Christ: “a profit that accumulates in your account” (Phil 4:17).

It is in this connection, as a bit of practical advice for living the faith, that the passage giving Gaudete Sunday its name occurs.  The Common English Bible for Philippians 4:4-5 reads,

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad!  Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.

The Greek word used here, chairete, does mean “be glad.” Indeed, a translation note in the NRSVue, understands this passage as Paul’s goodbye to his beloved friends: “Farewell in the Lord. . . again I say, farewell.”  Still, the text of the NRSV, like the KJV, stays with the Vulgate here.  It is the King James of this passage that I hear in my head: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”  Praise and worship give shape to a Christian life.  Whatever our  circumstances, knowing that the Lord is near enables us to face what comes in the certain knowledge that we are never alone!

When I was a young Christian, I learned to sing the Philippians 4:4 passage that gives Gaudete Sunday its name as a round–I invite you to join me in singing it today. Perhaps uncertain times  like these teach us that we can indeed “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

 

Dec
2023

Chanukkah sameach !

What Is Hanukkah? Dates, Traditions, Story
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish lunar calendar, and ends on the second day of Tevet, the tenth month.  This year, on our secular solar calendar, those dates correspond to Thursday-Friday, December 7-8 (note that, in Jewish reckoning, each day begins at sundown; see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), and Friday-Saturday, December 15-16.  Although Hanukkah is a minor festival in the Jewish religious year, its significance as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to the Gentile world’s celebration of Christmas.  Beginning this Friday, on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah observant Jews will light another candle on their Hanukkah menorahs (these traditionally have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  The Hanukkah story is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61. Its setting is the second century BCE–although the roots of the story extend 200 years further back, to the conquests of a young Macedonian general named Alexander.

By 332 BCE, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the ancient Near East.  His kingdom stretched from north Africa to India. But Alexander died, suddenly and unexpectedly, scarcely ten years later, leaving behind no heir. So Alexander’s four leading generals divided the empire among them. Cassander, who claimed Macedonia, and Lysimachus, who claimed Thrace (that is, Greece and Asia Minor), play no role in Israel’s story. However, the heirs of Ptolemy, who ruled in Egypt, and Seleucus, who ruled in Syria, figure prominently.

Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; compare Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39).

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing (ominously named Jason–clearly not a Hebrew name!) in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. This may have been part of Antiochus’ campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion.  Or, he may have sought to control the temple in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury.  But when pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig.

Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live Science

The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” recalls the story:

 

Let us remember reign of terror, reign of terror
King who murdered, pain forever, pain forever
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

The blood he spilled, Jerusalem, Jerusalem
So many killed, gone all of them, gone all of them
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

Our hearts he broke, he burned the torah, burned the torah
Ash and smoke, the crushed menorah, crushed menorah
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

Arise our hero, Judah save us, Judah save us
Prize so dear, the vict’ry gave us, freedom gave us
Who then? Maccabeus, Maccabeus.

Oh sing our songs and praise the torah, praise the torah
Right the wrongs and light menorah, light menorah
When then? Chanukah, Chanukah.

Jerusalem was liberated in 164 BCE by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judah Maccabee (likely, “Judah the Hammer”!), or Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, he summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

How to Play Dreidel | My Jewish Learning

 

The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).

 

File:Michelangelo, profeti, Daniel 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Much of this history is also related, if symbolically, in the book of Daniel–although with a decidedly different ending!  The conquests of Alexander, his death, and the division of his kingdom are recounted in Daniel 8.  That Greek empire appears to be the focus of the night vision of Daniel 7.   Four chimerical beasts representing conquering kingdoms rise out of the sea— an ancient symbol of chaos (see Isa 27:1; 51:9-10).  The first three at least resemble actual animals: a lion, a bear, a leopard. But the fourth is unlike anything on earth: “terrifying and hideous, with extraordinary power,” it has ten horns and iron teeth (Dan 7:7).

In Zechariah 1:18-21 (2:1-4 in Hebrew), four horns represent the four powers “that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem” (1:19 [2:2]; likely Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia).  So too in Daniel 7:1– 8, four is the number of Israel’s oppressors, although a different four: evidently Babylon, Media, Persia, with the fourth and last being Greece.  This reinterpretation of images is common in apocalypses like Daniel.

Frei Clemente Rojão: O Segundo Anticristo, o Falso Profeta

Readers in later contexts have reinterpreted this vision in other ways; indeed, the first- century CE Jewish apocalypse 4 Ezra reads, “The eagle [a common symbol of Rome] you saw rising from the sea is the fourth kingdom. It appeared in a vision to your brother Daniel,but it wasn’t interpreted for him as I now interpret it for you or have shown it to you” (2 Esd 12:11– 12).  4 Ezra and the book of Revelation (Rev 17:9) alike understood Daniel’s fourth beast to be, not Greece, but Rome!

Among the ten horns of this fourth beast, which in the original context likely represented the kings of Alexander’s Greek empire, is a little horn “that bragged and bragged” (Dan 7:8; the Aramaic is milallil rabrĕbān, or “talking big”)–Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see also Dan 8:9-14; 23– 25).  This one, Daniel is told, “shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the ritual calendar and the law” (Dan 7:25 NRSVue)— all of which Antiochus did. But not much time remained to this arrogant ruler: only “a time, two times, and half a time,” or three and a half years (Dan 7:25;  also variously described in Dan 8:14; 9:27; 12:7, 11-12).

Setting aside the animal imagery of Daniel 7–8, Daniel 10:1–11:39  speaks more straightforwardly about Antiochus’ final days.  Antiochus’ terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean animal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” for later interpretations of this Danielic image, see Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14).  Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE.  Daniel does not describe this, nor does it mention the Maccabean revolt: likely because the book was completed sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.  Although Antiochus’ oppressive rule ended in the mid-second century BCE, the world did not.  As we have seen, later Jewish and Christian readers identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.

Indeed, the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mark 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20) clearly were not realized.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen as a sign of God’s grace.  The epistle reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent, declares “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

It is finally Jesus himself who puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  We are called, not to be clever, but to be ready!

Matthias Grünewald: John the Baptist

In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s faithfulness will prevail over every oppressor.  No matter how powerless we may feel, it is in that same confidence that we can read these passages today, sharing the confidence of John the Baptist:

“One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7-8)

Trusting in his wisdom and might, baptized with God’s spirit, we can face the trials of our time, and of any time!  Chanukkah sameach–a joyous Hanukkah and a blessed Advent to us all!

 

Nov
2023

Maranatha!

This Sunday is the first of the four Sundays in Advent, the season of the Christian year devoted to anticipating the coming of Christ–both Jesus’ birth, celebrated on Christmas Day, and his promised return at the end of the age.  For some time, I have used the ancient Christian salutation Maranatha (here, from the medieval Southwick Codex) in this season as a benediction, after prayers, and to close emails.  So, where does it come from and what does it mean?

In the King James Bible, the concluding verses of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth read:

The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand.  If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema MaranathaThe grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.  My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen (1 Cor 16:21-24).

King James’ translators followed the Latin Vulgate in leaving those two enigmatic words in 1 Corinthians 16:22 untranslated,  but few modern translators have done so.  The Common English Bible is typical: “A curse on anyone who doesn’t love the Lord. Come, Lord!”

The first of the two, the Greek anathema, does mean “curse.”  This word appears six times in the New Testament.  In Acts 23:14, Paul’s enemies swear an oath not to eat until they have killed the apostle, calling a curse upon themselves if they fail.  The other five uses of anathema are all in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:3; 1 Cor 12:3, 16:22; Gal 1:8-9). The Vulgate carries the word over untranslated in all five passages, although the KJV follows suit only once, in 1 Cor 16:22.

In the Greek Septuagint, anathema is used 25 times for the difficult expression kherem (or “the ban”) in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Lev 27:28; Num 21:3; Deut 13:15, 17 [13:16-18 in Hebrew]).  This word, sometimes also rendered “curse” (see Malachi 4:6 [Hebrew 3:24]) is often connected with holy war, where the enemy is utterly destroyed as a kind of whole offering to God. But this cannot be the intention of kherem everywhere that the term appears. For example, Deuteronomy 7:2 orders that the inhabitants of the land be hakharem takharim, that is, “certainly (or completely) placed under the ban” (the NRSVue reads “you must utterly destroy them”).  Yet the very next verse forbids intermarriage—difficult to understand if the intent of the text is genocide (see Jerome Creach, Violence in Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013], 108)!  Drawing on Origen’s allegorical reading of the ban as depicting the believer’s spiritual struggle with sin (“within us are the Canaanites; within us are the Perizzites; here [within] are the Jebusites,” Homilies on Joshua, 34; cited by Creach, 102), Jerome Creach suggests that kherem came to be sublimated or spiritualized, so that what had once been a “reprehensible practice . . . close to ‘ethnic cleansing,’ was transformed into a metaphor of spiritual purity” (Creach, 108).

St. Cyril of Alexandria Icon - OrthodoxGifts.com

In church history, anathema took on a quite specific meaning:

In AD 431 St. Cyril of Alexandria pronounced his 12 anathemas against the heretic Nestorius.  In the 6th century anathema came to mean the severest form of excommunication that formally separated a heretic completely from the Christian church and condemned his doctrines; minor excommunications, while prohibiting free reception of the sacraments, obliged (and permitted) the sinner to rectify his sinful state through the sacrament of penance.

Whether Paul intended anathema in this formal (and radical) sense is debatable (and I would say, doubtful).  But likely, this is the reason that the Vulgate did not translate this term in Paul’s letters, and that the KJV leaves it alone in the 1 Corinthians passage.

The second word carried over untranslated from the Greek text, maranatha, is actually not Greek.  It comes from Aramaic: the language of first-century Palestinian Jews, and so the language that Jesus spoke.  The New Testament preserves numerous words and phrases in Aramaic.  However, Paul typically stuck with Greek–making his use of this Aramaic phrase stand out all the more.

As the Greek text makes clear, Maranatha is actually not one word, but two: μαράνα θά (that is, marana tha).  The Greek letters transliterate the Aramaic מָרַנָא תָאmar, meaning “Lord,” with the first plural pronominal suffix na (hence, “our Lord”), and the imperative form of the verb ‘atha: “come.”  This phrase appears nowhere else in the New Testament.  However, it is found in the Didache, an early Jewish-Christian book of church discipline dating to the late first-early second century CE.  Here, as in Paul, it appears to be a benediction, although in the Didache it comes at the end of the eucharistic prayer: 

May grace come and may this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David.
If any man is holy, let him come;
if any man is not, let him repent. Maran Atha. Amen (translated by J.B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers; in the Greek text, 10:6 [note that in Lightfoot, this passage is 10:11-14).

As an added wrinkle, it should be noted that in Didache 10:6, the phrase is rendered maran atha, rather than, as in 1 Cor 16:22, marana tha.  This may suggest a different assumed meaning: “Our Lord has come.”  As Andrew Messmer notes in his recent article on this expression (“Maranatha [1 Corinthians 16:22]: Reconstruction and Translation Based on Western Middle Aramaic,” Journal of Biblical Literature 139 [2020]: 361–83), that was the meaning assumed by Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Erasmus (Messmer, 362), and it is still, he argues, the best-supported translation (Messmer, 382-83).

Still, while early evidence for the imperative form tha assumed by 1 Cor 16:22 is admittedly lacking, the imperative is certainly found in later Aramaic, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!  Further, I would argue that the translation “Our Lord, come!” is far more likely in Paul’s theology, which looks earnestly and hopefully to Christ’s return, and that it better fits the liturgical contexts, both in 1 Corinthians and in the Didache.  So to you all, in the midst of war and uncertainty, I say in this season of hopeful expectancy, Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus.

AFTERWORD:

Prayers for this season, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, 2002. Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.

God of justice and peace,
from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness,
that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder
before your marvelous deeds.
Raise our heads in expectation,
that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord
and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

Give us ears to hear, O God,
and eyes to watch,
that we may know your presence in our midst
during this holy season of joy
as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Nov
2023

The Day of the LORD

Title: Silence [Click for larger image view]In the alternate Hebrew Bible reading for this Sunday (Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18), the prophet calls for reverential silence, as God prepares to act:

Hush before the LORD God,
        for the day of the LORD is near! (Zeph 1:7; cf. Amos 8:3; Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13).

The day of the LORD is the central theme of the book of Zephaniah.  Beth Stovell and David Fuller neatly define the day of the LORD as “a day when YHWH intervenes” (The Book of the Twelve [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2022], 8, emphasis theirs).  In Zephaniah, that day is further depicted as “a day of fury” (Zeph 1:15, 18; 2:2-3).  But this prophet uses the concept of God’s wrath in ways that may surprise us.

Zephaniah 2:1-3 opens a collection of oracles directed against foreign nations, including Assyria, so we might at first think that God directs God’s wrath toward outsiders. But the prophet’s audience is not the nations, but his own people in Judah. These oracles expressly address “you humble of the land who practice his justice” (2:3). Thus, the “shameless nation” in 2:1 is not a foreign power, but Judah.

At the end of this chapter, the prophet moves without transition from an oracle against Nineveh, Assyria’s capital (Zeph 2:13-15), to an oracle concerning the “obstinate one, the defiled one, the violent city” of Jerusalem (Zeph 3:1-8)!  Wrath language, then, serves more as a warning for the faithful than as a condemnation of the faithless.

A Feast for the Senses ... and the Soul - Biblical Archaeology Society

In Sunday’s reading from Zephaniah, the day of the LORD’s judgment is described as a liturgical feast: “the LORD has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7 NRSVue).  But since that day is called “the day of the LORD’s sacrifice” (Zeph 1:8 NRSVue), when the LORD “will punish the officials and the king’s sons,” the nobles and religious leaders seem to be not only the invited guests, but also the sacrifice!  They have been consecrated, not to join in the sacred feast, but for the slaughter.

As the superscription to Zephaniah claims that the prophet is a great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah (727-697 BCE), the prophet Zephaniah, himself a member of Jerusalem’s nobility, is taking his own family and friends to task.  Zephaniah’s own peers are the ones whose religious corruption, cultural impurity, and social injustice will cause them to be sacrificed on the day of the LORD.

Jacob Jordaens Diogenes looking for an honset man Flemish Old Master painting for sale

The LORD says,

At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps;
        I will punish the men growing fat on the sediment in their wine,
            those saying to themselves, The Lord won’t do good or evil (Zeph 1:12)

The apathetic nobles of Jerusalem are content to drink themselves into a stupor, heedless of the religious corruption and injustice all around them. They believe God to be as careless as they are: “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zeph 1:12 NRSVue; cf. Mal 2:17; 3:14-15). Yet their declaration of the irrelevance of faith is about to be revealed for the lie that it is.  The day of the LORD, Zephaniah says, will hit them right in the pocketbook:

Their wealth will be looted and their houses destroyed.
        They will rebuild houses, but not live in them;
        they will plant vineyards, but not drink the wine (Zeph 1:13).

In Zephaniah, the message of God’s wrath turns not outward, against the world, but inward, to effect change within the community of faith.  Wrath is God’s response to our unresponsiveness.

Is God indeed a God of wrath?   If, as Julia O’Brien succinctly states, “A moral God cares about what happens to the world” (Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi  [Nashville: Abingdon, 2004], 95), then the answer must be a resounding yes! Rob Bell writes:

When we hear people saying that they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived [New York: HarperOne, 2011], 38).

God’s wrath is not opposed to God’s love; rather, God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love. God’s wrath is directed against injustice because God loves justice. God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed. That is what the day of the LORD means.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

The language Zephaniah uses for the day of the LORD is typical of both Testaments: “The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and coming very quickly” (Zeph 1:14; e.g., Isa 13:6; Ezek 7:10-12; Zeph 1:7; Mal 3:1–2). Just so, Mark summed up Jesus’ proclamation in a single verse: ““Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).  And Revelation begins and ends with this promise: “the time is near. . . The one who bears witness to these things says, ‘Yes, I’m coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 1:3; 22:20).

In the Revised Common Lectionary, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 is read together with Matthew 25:14-30 (the parable of the talents, which portrays God’s final judgment) and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, regarding “the day of the Lord” coming imminently and unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night.”

First Thessalonians was Paul’s first letter, and so the oldest book (dating to around 50 CE) in our New Testament.  Paul wrote to offer reassurance to a struggling church: the first he had established in Europe (see Acts 17:1-10).  The Christians of Thessalonica were concerned because some of their members had died: perhaps from persecution, but perhaps too from illness or old age (1 Thes 4:13-14).  Believing, as Paul had taught them, that Christ would come soon, they feared that these faithful dead would have no share in Christ’s kingdom.  Paul, however, assured them that, far from being left behind, those believers who had died would have the inside track in the world to come:

What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died.  This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise.  Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.  So encourage each other with these words (1 Thes 4:15-18)

Paul does not describe, as some Christians claim, an escape from this world prior to Christ’s return–often called “the Rapture.”  Jesus is not taking the church up out of the world.  He is himself coming down: descending to rule the world.  Paul writes, “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet,” and as he does so, both the resurrected dead and also “we who are living and still around”  rise to meet him in the air.  This isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party!

Also, note the present tense, friends–“we who are living and still around.”  For Paul, as for Zephaniah, John, and Mark, the day of the LORD is not a message for someday, in the indefinite future: it speaks with imminence and urgency, and calls us to action here and now.

Illuminated Lord's Prayer with Christ, large icon - Ancient Faith ...

Jesus taught us to pray daily, “Bring in your kingdom” (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).  What might it mean for us, in this time and place, to live under Christ’s reign?

 

 

 

Oct
2023

Happy Hallowe’en

Here we go again!  The Jack o’ lanterns, spooks, giant skeletons, and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING–after Christmas, “Halloween” is the biggest commercial holiday of the year.  But what many will not realize is that, like Christmas, Hallowe’en is properly a Christian celebration.

I stubbornly insist on spelling “Hallowe’en” with the apostrophe, to remind myself and others that October 31 is called Hallowe’en for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  It is, of course, the evening before November 1, which is All Hallows Day–hence, All Hallows Even, which becomes Hallowe’en.  All Hallows, or All Saints, Day was first celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV declared a feast day for all martyrs.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own, and as such All Saints Day was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the Celtic celebration Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

When the Celts became Christians, this grim night too was transformed.  As the author of Ephesians affirms,

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, . . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:11-23, NRSVue)

Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin, death, hell, and the grave–so death, and the dead, no longer need to be feared!

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America MagazineBecause of its association with Samhain, some Christians argue that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors for treats!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

All Saints Day was John Wesley’s favorite Christian celebration.  Joe Iovino writes:

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”

The separate Roman Catholic celebration of All Souls Day on November 2 is down to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, who died 1048. Having remembered all the saints in heaven, Odilo thought, it was only right that on the following day we remember all the faithful dead, and pray for their release from purgatory.   But for me, as for many Christians, All Saints Day celebrates the lives and anticipates the resurrection of all believers.

The Mexican Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), delightfully depicted in the Disney movie Coco, shows some influence from both Celtic Spain, and from the Christian All Saints and All Souls days.  However, its roots are not only pre-Christian, but pre-European, going back to indigenous Meso-American cultures such as the Aztecs.  Significantly, while this festival also involves belief in the dead crossing over to the world of the living, the dead are not feared: their families remember, celebrate, and welcome them.

Happy Hallowe’en, friends!  A joyous All Saints Day to you all–and to my Dad Bernard Tuell, the best saint I know, a happy 89th birthday too!

AFTERWORD

Retired Bishop William Boyd Grove died Oct. 27, in Johnson City, Tenn. The longtime United Methodist leader was a hymn writer, social justice advocate, encourager of pastors and the first ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

This year, the departed saint I am remembering in particular is Bishop William Boyd Grove, who died just this past week.  Bishop Grove ordained me, and in my heart has always been, wherever my call has taken me, my bishop.  He was, and now is forever, a luminous soul, a prominent voice for peace with justice in our church, and a mentor to me and to many, many other United Methodist ministers. May light perpetual shine upon him!

A fitting benediction for this season, from Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.  

GOD OF THE LIVING: A Blessing
When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.
When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.
When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.
Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall
and how strong what stirs
on the other side,
breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
Oct
2023

Justice and Vengeance

 

In my church, St. Paul’s UMC, pastor Karen Slusser has been leading a study of Jesus’ parables, guided by Amy-Jill Levine’s exciting and challenging book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).  This week’s study was on the parable depicted above, from Luke 18:1-8. Our lead pastor Amy Wagner recently preached on this same passage, and these three woman have shocked me into seeing this passage in a new, and strikingly relevant, way.

My first surprise came when Amy said in her sermon that the Greek phrase from Luke 18:5 rendered “wear me out” in the NRSV and “embarrassing me” in the CEB meant more literally “punch me in the face”–something Levine’s book confirmed.  I went to the Greek myself, and sure enough, hupopiaze me means just that–the judge is afraid this widow is going to give him a black eye! The only other place this word appears in the New Testament (it is not found in the Septuagint at all) is 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul compares his spiritual discipline to a boxer in training: “I’m landing punches [hupopiazo mou] on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others.”

The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), After Sir John Everett Millais (British, Southampton 1829–1896 London), Wood engraving; proof

Nearly every depiction of this parable I have found is like this one, or like the one opening this blog: the widow kneeling passively before the unmoved judge, her hands clasped in entreaty, her face piteous.  But a better image might be this:

Another surprise was Amy-Jill Levine’s observation that, while most translations have the widow seeking “justice” (Luke 18:3), hekdikeson me more precisely means “avenge me”!  Therefore Levine suggests a different title for this parable than “The Importunate Widow”:

The parable of the ‘Vengeful Widow and the Co-opted Judge’ is accurate, but doesn’t preach well. Perhaps that very difficulty in making an easy transition from text to sermon should be starting point for understanding a parable. If the parable cannot be domesticated, if it cannot be turned into something that neatly fits our preconceived notions of religion or morality, if it discombobulates us–then we may be on the right track (Short Stories by Jesus, 225-26).

I find this excellent advice for Bible study generally.  The Bible ought to discombobulate us–the last thing our Bible reading should be is “comfortable”!  As Hebrews 4:12 says of Scripture,

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.

So, how do we preach this parable?  As the traditional title indicates, Luke uses the parable to call believers to persevere faithfully in prayer while awaiting the consummation of God’s plan for the world (note how Luke frames the story in 18:1, 6-8).  But the story’s details jar with that application: nothing in the parable tells us that the woman’s cause is just, after all!  Levine writes,

The widow’s desire for vengeance will prompt her violent approach to the judge, and the judge, perpetuating the system of vengeance, will prompt violent action against the opponent. . . All the figures in this parable, and we readers as well, have become enmeshed in, if not colluded with, this system set up at best for a “justice” whose legitimacy is never determined, a justice that by any other name constitutes vengeance (Short Stories by Jesus, 244).

Rather than picking a side, the attentive reader will be challenged by this parable to reflect on the broader issues of justice and vengeance, of equity and compassion: “With his story, Jesus forces us to find a moral compass” (Short Stories by Jesus, 245).

Israeli firefighters extinguish fire after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a parking lot in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)Justice and vengeance have been on all our minds this month.  On October 7, terrorists from the militant organization Hamas (the ruling political faction in Gaza) swept out of the Gaza Strip as far as 15 miles into Israel, attacking 22 farms, towns, and other communities;  1,400 Israelis were killed and 200 were taken hostage. More Jews were killed and wounded in this attack than on any other single day since the Nazi Holocaust.

This horrific assault sent shock waves around the world, particularly in the Jewish community, prompting calls for justice.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel and Hamas were at war, and said that Israel would act “without reservation and without respite” to destroy the military capabilities of Hamas in Gaza.

Ayman Nofal, leader of Hamas’s militant activities in the central Gaza Strip, is confirmed as killed in the bombardment that has followed.  Meanwhile, “more than 2,800 Palestinians have been killed and 10,000 others have been wounded in the days since” the October 7 attack.  Now, as Israel prepares a ground assault into Gaza to destroy Hamas utterly, Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world are praying that Israel preserves its moral compass, and remembers the difference between justice and vengeance.

 

In Washington, D.C., religious leaders and faith-based activist groups protesting outside the White House are calling for a cease-fire.  In Israel, Nir Avishai Cohen, a major in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces and author of the book Love Israel, Support Palestine, writes:

I am now going to defend my country against enemies who want to kill my people. Our enemies are the deadly terrorist organizations that are being controlled by Islamic extremists.

Palestinians aren’t the enemy. The millions of Palestinians who live right here next to us, between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, are not our enemy. Just like the majority of Israelis want to live a calm, peaceful and dignified life, so do Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians alike have been in the grip of a religious minority for decades. On both sides, the intractable positions of a small group have dragged us into violence. It doesn’t matter who is more cruel or more ruthless. The ideologies of both have fueled this conflict, leading to the deaths of too many innocent civilians.

As a major in the reserves, it is important to me to make it clear that in this already unstoppable new war, we cannot allow the massacre of innocent Israelis to result in the massacre of innocent Palestinians. Israel must remember that there are more than two million people living in the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of them are innocent. Israel must do everything in its power to avoid killing innocent people and to focus on destroying the militant army of Hamas.

Sadly, the thirst for vengeance has already prompted violence against Palestinians and Muslims here in the U.S.
“This is reminding me a bit of how it felt post-9/11,” Palestinian activist and policy analyst Laila El-Haddad told Religion News Service on Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 17). . . . In Pennsylvania, a man was arrested after yelling slurs and wielding a gun at a pro-Palestinian protest. In Los Angeles, UCLA students attending a webinar on the crisis in Gaza were reportedly threatened and called terrorists by a small group of unidentified men. In Boston, the Palestinian Cultural Center for Peace was spray-painted with the word “Nazis.” 

In Chicago, seven-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume, who had recently had a birthday, died Saturday after being stabbed dozens of times by family’s landlord, Joseph Czuba, who was upset over the Israel-Hamas war and attacked them after the boy’s mother proposed they “pray for peace.”

 

Elsewhere, Jewish students report being harassed by students who, citing Israeli injustices against Palestinians, refuse to condemn or even condone Hamas’ terror.
Did we learn nothing from our own experience of terror, when after 9-11 we forgot our commitment to human rights, engaged in torture, and entangled ourselves hopelessly in unwinnable wars?

In counseling restraint, the United States can point to the lessons of its own recent history. For two decades, America waged a global campaign against terrorism, all too often ignoring international law when those rules seemed inconvenient. In doing so, America weakened the world’s commitment to those rules and helped embolden a new generation of extremists.

Israel finds itself at war because of the depravity of Hamas. Further bloodshed now appears unavoidable, but the way Israel fights will begin to determine what happens next: Defeating Hamas will make Israel safer; showing disregard for the killing of civilians will not.

 

Perhaps the lesson of the parable of the widow and the judge, friends, is that we need to reject their path of  vengeance.  Jesus surely calls us to eschew violence, weeping with those who weep, Israeli and Palestinian; Jew, Christian, and Muslim.  Jesus surely calls us to pray, and to work, for peace with justice.