Falling stars

Wednesday

Mark 13

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Falling Stars, Mihály Zichy

24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“After that suffering.” We can’t read the whole Gospel at once – at least not on a Sunday morning. The readings in the liturgy are mere fragments of a story the community is supposed to know. When you hear the piece you ware supposed to remember what comes before and what comes after and how the pieces all fit together. As if you could pick up a small jigsaw puzzle and at first glance know where it fits.

We can’t read the whole Gospel at once, because of the time constraints of worship, but those who have heard this Gospel recited talk about how incredible is the experience. Mark was an oral Gospel, told to the community – preached to the community in the best sense of that word – proclaimed, and only later written down. It is full of the urgency of a breathless witness.   I think of my brother about 10, giving my mother a blow-by-blow rendition of “the best movie ever!” She is struggling to get groceries in from the car; he is oblivious to everything but the story.

“After that suffering.” It is a haunting reference to the struggle the community has endured. Mark’s is not a nice rural or suburban congregation in Middle America. It is like a refugee community on Syria’s border, surrounded by war and its aftermath.

Since the death of Jesus, his followers have suffered violence for their perceived betrayal of communal values – think about Paul participating in the stoning of Stephen, and he himself victimized, including by stoning, for the message he preached. He is nearly murdered by a mob in the temple and escapes an organized plot against his life only by being secreted out of Jerusalem at night by a detachment “of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen.” (Acts 23:23)

Conflict within the Judean community in the city of Rome, apparently involving hostility against the followers of Jesus, led to their expulsion in AD 49. Judeans return to the city, but the Christians become numerous and identifiable enough to get blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome in 64. Among the tortures they endured, some were dipped in pitch and set alight as torches for the emperor’s parade route. Then in 66 the Judean revolt began. The leaders of that revolt were acclaimed as the anointed of God – in Hebrew, ‘Messiah’, in Greek, ‘Christ’. When Jesus warns about false Christs, Mark’s community knows their names. The followers of Jesus are perceived as enemies of Romans and rebels alike. Those who fled Jerusalem were captured by the Romans and crucified in a circle around the city, facing the wall so that all inside could know the fate that awaited them.

In the first year of that war, as Vespasian marched through Galilee, refugees flooded the city. They would later starve or perish in the zealot reign of terror. There is a reason Jesus tells his followers to flee to the hills.

So when Jesus continues his discourse with this simple phrase: “After that suffering,” the crowd listening to Mark tell the story of Jesus knows the suffering of which he speaks. It is the suffering of their community squeezed on all sides.

But Jesus doesn’t offer them consolation; he speaks a promise: “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The sun, moon and stars are divine beings in the ancient world, spirit beings inhabiting the realm of the air. We would think of them as forces, spiritual realities that drive human existence, like ideologies and isms. We see these forces at work on a grand scale in the clashing and mutually incomprehensible perceptions and experiences of the world between Palestinian and Jew or black and white in Ferguson. Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Fundamentalism, Racism – these are forces that seem beyond human control, but wreak their wrath upon people and children, communities – even on the earth itself as carbon dioxide levels rise far beyond anything earth has known in 90,000 years, changing not just the weather but ecosystems and the chemistry of the ocean. Polar ice melts and orca now plunder the once protected nurseries of the narwhal and bowhead. Polar Bear are reduced to eating seaweed and trying to learn how to fish for salmon.

Before such transcendent powers Mark’s community seems helpless. But their story doesn’t end with suffering. “After that suffering” these powers will be thrown down. The Son of Man, the crucified and risen one, will come with power and great glory.

It is not pie in the sky. It is very far from pie in the sky. It is faith and courage and hope and continuing testimony in the face of great powers – born of the confidence that they are witnesses of a far greater power.

This is Mark’s urgent and compelling and liberating story. The unimaginable has happened: the true Messiah has been crucified but made alive by God – and he is coming to reign.

Fling Wide the Door

Watching for the morning of November 30

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent:

Doorway

Open doorway at the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission. Photo credit: dbkonde

Sunday begins a new church year. The cycle that runs from Advent through Christmas to Lent and Easter and then from Pentecost to the end of the year resets itself – only now our Gospel readings are drawn mostly from Mark.

The church year does strange things to our reading of the gospels. It means we pick up the next writer’s story almost at the end, when Jesus is in Jerusalem predicting the fall of the city – and the Jerusalem leaders are making plans to arrest and destroy him. We don’t start at the beginning; we start at the end. We start with Jesus speaking about the events when history draws to its close.

Maybe it’s not altogether inappropriate.

In our time and place we generally like narratives to being at the beginning and explain all the complex psychological states of the adult from the traumas and experiences of youth. But we will not find that here. Quite the opposite. From the remarkable achievements of the adult – the ancients’ reasoned – there must have been a remarkable childhood. If you became a great king, there must have been signs in the heavens and wonders on earth to anticipate it.

But that’s not where our reading of these ancient narratives begins. We begin with the promise Christ will come on the clouds and the warning to keep awake. It’s where we ended the year, pointing to Christ as our true king.

Christianity begins and ends not with the manger or the cross and resurrection, but the promise that “The kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the first words of Jesus in Mark and the testimony of the angel at the empty tomb. God is drawing near to reign. God is drawing near to restore the connection between heaven and earth. God is drawing near to raise this broken world from its bondage to sin and death. God is drawing near to establish the just faithfulness of God. And that day is begun amongst us. The dead are raised. Sins are forgiven. The outcasts gathered in. The sick made whole. The possessed set free. Blind eyes opened.

That dawning reign of God began in Jesus. It continues among us. And it will come in fullness. For that day we watch and wait. Our Father is coming; and we are staying awake to jump into his arms with joy and delight when the door swings open.

The Prayer for November 30, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
grant us wisdom to recognize the hour in which we live
and courage to remain faithful,
that we may greet you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 30, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

“But the fat and the strong I will destroy”

Friday

Ezekiel 34

File:US Capitol Building.jpg16I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.

It’s such a sweet verse until you get to that last part about the fat and the strong. It is like eating sweet grapes and then biting into a sour one. It is the kind of language that troubles us about the Old Testament. But there is a story behind these words.

We don’t typically hear this shepherding imagery as political speech. We think of Psalm 23 and the parable of the shepherd searching out the lost sheep. We see the paintings of Jesus as the good shepherd with the lamb around his neck. We hear these words as sweet assurances of God’s care in times of trouble – and the last line doesn’t seem to fit.

But this is tough, prophetic language, spoken in a time when the leadership of the nation had engaged in policies that inevitably brought the nation to destruction. The royal house and wealthy families had caused this people to be scattered, wounded and impoverished. The words of the prophets in their time sound more like God declaring, “I, myself, will run the Fed, and lead the banks, and manage the economy,” in the years when the banking system nearly failed because of the criminal greed and manipulations of the banking houses. “I myself will refinance mortgages, and provide loans to Main Street, and hire the unemployed.”

Jerusalem had set a course that betrayed the justice and mercy God had commanded of the people, that worshiped at the altars of fertility gods and rain gods – gods of prosperity, gods of sex and power and wealth.

When God declares I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,” the reference is to those refugees of war and famine that had fled the country – and looks back 200 years to the collapse of the northern kingdom for the same reasons and to the Assyrian resettlement policy that scattered the Israelites across the ancient world.

“I will bind up the injured,” speaks to those cut down by sword and spear. “I will strengthen the weak,” evokes those at the edge of starvation, like the liberated captives of the concentration camps. The siege of Jerusalem had been beyond brutal.

When God declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” it is a roaring voice from heaven that God will take back the reins of power and rescue his shattered people.

In such a context we can recognize the words “but the fat and the strong I will destroy” as words of grace. Those who ruled with power and greed will be erased from the nation, no more to inflict their damage upon the people of God.

I like the sweet hearing of the text. I like the picture of a tender God taking up the grieving, the lonely, the struggling, the wounded of life into his tender care. But there is also a word of the mighty God in this text – a God passionate for his people and his world – a God of power willing and able to undo the damage of human misrule. In the face of the continual violence erupting throughout the world, and the perpetual devastations of economic greed and power, there is warning and also great grace in these words – including those words at the end.

Into his presence with thanksgiving

Thursday

Psalm 95

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Piligrims riding on the outside of a train after a three-day Sunni Muslim festival in the ancient city of Multan, Pakistan

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

A few years ago I met my brother and his son in Berkeley for the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. It was the first time I went to see this game on enemy territory. Stanford was the home team when we were growing up. Palo Alto’s main street is University Avenue. The Stanford stadium was across the street from my high school. Our high school played its big rivalry game at Stanford Stadium and though our small crowd looked silly rattling around a 90,000 seat stadium, this was the big time! Playing in Stanford Stadium!

Going to the game in Berkeley with my brother and his son was my first foray into the enemy’s camp across the Bay. I rode up on a BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and joined the throng walking up the hill to the stadium. As the crowd ascended it grew ever bigger and the energy level grew ever higher. The mounting excitement was contagious. Songs and cries and chants broke out continually. We might as well been led by the marching bands. (The infamous marching band story we won’t get into.)

I think of that day when I hear these invitatory psalms calling the community to worship – the throngs of people ascending the temple mount to stand in the presence of God and acclaim him as their lord and king, their rock and deliverer.

It’s too bad we can’t recreate that energy as people walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We get a taste of that pilgrim excitement on Christmas Eve when the place will be full and people come early for seats. There is a taste in the energy of the children eager for Christmas morning. There is a taste in the walkway bordered with luminaries and the buildings adorned with lights. There is a taste in the beauty of the sanctuary, the special music as people arrive, and the moment the congregation rises to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As children, we waited all year for that moment at the end of the service when the lights are extinguished, candles distributed and the warm, flickering candlelight spreads through the room, passed from one person to the next, until we all lift up our candles singing “Silent night, Holy night.”

We don’t generally see that excited expectancy on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost or in the cold or wet winter days of the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. But this is true of all of life. I am much more likely to duck out for the restroom or refreshments in the middle of the fifth inning at AT&T Park than the bottom of the ninth.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving sings the psalmist to the crowds ascending the hill of Mt. Zion. There is excitement and energy in the crowd because it is a national festival like Christmas. The city is full of pilgrims for the holy season. But the psalm does more than capture the excitement of the day – as we can tell from the warning in the second half of the psalm. We won’t read those words on Sunday, but the thought shapes the meaning of the call to enter God’s presence.

We are not coming in the excitement of the festival to celebrate our team. We are coming to honor the God who promised a homeland to Abraham, who gathered a people from bondage in Egypt, who taught a new way to live, who guided his motley crew of former slaves through an arid wilderness and brought them to a rich and abundant land. We are coming to honor the God who revealed himself in the words of the prophets and in the words and deeds of Jesus his anointed. We are coming to bow down before the one who bears the brokenness of the world in his hands and side, and deals with us according to his goodness not our deserving.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving. The singers of the psalm are not serving as cheerleaders or the marching band to geek up the crowd. They are reminding us that our only proper response to God is a profound gratitude.

He is the creator who lifted up the mountains and governs even the depths of the earth. He is Lord of all, setting limits to the chaotic seas and forming the land upon which all life depends. He is master over every spiritual reality and has made us his own. Shouts of joy are appropriate, but above all we come into his presence with thankfulness.

Sheep or goats?

Wednesday

Matthew 25

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A Nubian (aka Anglo-Nubian) goat attempts to eat their prize ribbon at a Scottish fair. By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

Jesus calls them “my brothers,” the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. If we could just pause here long enough, we might begin to understand the true power of the parable. We might begin to understand the true power of Jesus. He has claimed those that others have scorned.

Some have argued that the word ‘brother’ means a follower of Jesus, that the nations will be judged by their treatment of the disciples of Jesus. The suggestion is that the ‘nations’ are Judeans scattered throughout the Hellenistic world, and their response to the oppressed and persecuted witnesses of Jesus will reveal whether they are sheep or goats.

The other possibility is that Jesus has declared these ‘least’ are members of his family. If you ask me, this latter sounds much more like Jesus. He had that pesky idea that everyone was our neighbor, not just people like us – and therefore you should welcome the outcast and show steadfast love even to enemies.

We call this parable the Last Judgment, but it is not a judgment scene. It is a sorting. No lives are being weighed. No actions are being evaluated. The mass of humanity is simply being sorted out. Some are sheep. Some are goats. The sheep go over here. The goats over there.

Jesus’ hearers understand this idea: goats need to be kept warm at night; sheep can remain outside. The flocks are taken out together during the day to graze the hills, but at night they must be sorted.

So we shall be sorted.

Sheep don’t have much symbolic significance for me. I haven’t known any. I have known a couple goats. They were cute. At a motel years ago, high in the Rockies with my daughters, there was a couple with some baby fainting goats. They were adorable just gamboling around. But when you clapped your hands, they fell over. They passed out. Kerplunk. No twitching. No stumbling. At a loud noise they just fell right over. It was hysterical. And darling. Anna wanted one. Anna really wanted one. So, to me, goats are cute and sheep are just sheep.

But just as we invest animals with a certain symbolic character, so did the ancients. When we call a man a ‘dog’ it has a strong cultural meaning – so, too, if we call him a ‘puppy dog.’ Or a ‘lion’. Or a ‘fox’. And calling a man a ‘fox’ has a different meaning than calling a woman a ‘fox’.

To Jesus’ audience, sheep were honorable; goats were not. Sheep symbolize honor, virility and strength; goats are unrestrained and lascivious. (This was my experience of my friend’s goat – entertaining, but always into trouble). An honorable man will protect the honor of his family. In particular, he will defend his wife from the sexual advances of others. A ram will not allow anyone but himself to approach one of his ewes; goats, apparently, have no such compunction. A cuckolded man was called a goat. Zeus and noble Apollo were associated with the Ram; Pan looks and behaves like a goat.

This sorting of humanity into sheep and goats is more than just sorting buttons. It is a gathering of the honorable and a setting aside of the dishonorable. It evokes the parable of the weeds and wheat that grew side by side until the harvest.

It is not a judgment scene; it is a sorting – a sorting by whether we have acted honorably towards the poor, the outsider, the needy. What a surprise if American Christians are to be sorted by the hospitality shown to Muslims! Did we extend our protection to the stranger? Did we give water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry? Did we tend the sick or send them back to Liberia? I understand the fear, but the church’s first response to AID’s was not particularly honorable. We could probably come up with an uncomfortable list.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”   No books are opened. No witnesses are heard. No records are examined. The Lord knows who have treated others with the grace of heaven and those who have not.

We need to do more than pray for mercy.

There is grace here. The shameful will not govern the earth forever. The faithful will be gathered. This is a great promise and a profound assurance in a world with too much evil.

But there is also a challenge. And the question is not whether we will pass inspection, whether we have the right religious heritage or the right religious experience – the question is whether we have lived hospitality and compassion towards the poor and the outcast. Have we shown ourselves to be sheep or goats?

“All the nations will be gathered before him.”

Watching for the morning of November 23

Year C

Christ the King:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

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Original statue of Christ the King with the globe. Preserved in the palais du Tau in Reims (Marne, France).

For all our concern about language and gender equality there is something primal, archetypal, about the notion of kingship. When the true, just and wise king is on the throne all is well in the land. When the usurper rules, all is corrupted.

The just king cares for the lowly. The just king sees what is done in his lands. The just king rights wrongs and in the presence of his justice, the people prosper.

Power corrupts. Those who lust for power, who seize power, are corrupted and corrupting; they are not the source of gracious order but insecurity and instability. Those who do not seek it, to whom power and authority are entrusted, are able to rule with the light touch and just hand that are required.

So the young King Arthur, when just a squire, pulls the sword from the stone unknowing. George Washington is prevailed upon to accept the presidency – and refuses a third term lest it become a lifetime appointment. King David is a shepherd boy, offended by Goliath, not an aspirant to the throne. (Until Bathsheba comes along, anyway.) Jesus is the just and righteous king who saves his sheep. He does not, like the Jerusalem leaders confronted by Ezekiel, feed on them.

In this modern era when have witnessed fascisms and tyrannies of terrible stripe, when kings and leaders and rebels slaughter the sheep rather than protect them, when people are thought to serve the state (or the economy, ideology, movement, company or religion) rather than the state serving the people – in such an epoch as ours, the church wisely declares that Christ is King. Only Christ Jesus can claim our lives without taking them. Only Christ Jesus can summon our service without stealing our humanity. Only Christ Jesus is the just and righteous one. Only Christ Jesus is our true king.

Sunday is the feast of Christ the King and the final Sunday of the church year. We will read more words about judgment, but the dominant note is the just and faithful reign of God in Christ. Ezekiel will blast the leaders of his day but make the strange dual promise that God will be our shepherd – and give us a new shepherd. The psalm sings thanksgiving, summoning us to kneel before our maker, “a great King above all gods,” for “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” Ephesians will speak of Christ ascended and all things placed under his feet. And Matthew records for us that great and profound parable about the sorting of humanity like sheep from goats.

In a world with a myriad voices demanding we kneel before earthly dominions and rulers, we come to kneel before the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and declares as his family “the least of these”: the hungry, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned.

The Prayer for November 23, 2014

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 23, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

“But wait for me.”

Saturday

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Ghanians_wait_for_visiting_USN_medics_-b.jpg

Ghanians waiting for medical care from U.S. Navy medics

 

Zephaniah 1

12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The LORD will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”

When we hear the word ‘punish’, much that is wrong about the common perception of religion comes to mind. There are two familiar stereotypes of God: one that God is love, perfect love, embracing everyone with compassion regardless of our choices or actions. Everyone gets to travel the tunnel of light to a land of reunion and bliss.

The other stereotype is that God is the author and defender of “the rules”.   The exact rules differ from place to place or people to people. For some, these are social rules and boundaries, often involving sex and property. God may be forgiving, but there are rules about that, too. There is a way in which forgiveness must be sought and given – either in a ritual or in a specific attitude of mind and heart: true repentance and amendment of life. And there is a price that must nevertheless be paid by someone – God cannot just forgive; Jesus must die.

There is power and wisdom and truth in the biblical words about the majesty of God’s love and the reality of sin, grace and redemption; it’s just not all one or the other. And the important thing is it’s not a ‘system’; it’s a relationship. It’s not a set of rules; it’s a God who engages the world in a dynamic give and take. God is not the watchmaker who creates the clockwork and sets the world running. God is the parent seeking reconciliation with rebellious children. It’s why the Old Testament has no problem suggesting that God changes his mind. It’s why God can promise David an endless line upon the throne of Jerusalem – yet bring Babylon to tear it down when that becomes necessary to save his people and his world. “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable,” yet God is free. I will always be my Father’s son, but that does not mean I will always get the keys to the car – or, for that matter, that I will always find an open door. God’s purpose is to save us not protect the rules. God’s purpose is to restore his creation not preserve the system.

So back to the word ‘punish’. God will ‘punish’, not because Judah broke the rules, but because Judah betrayed its relationship with God. This is about a people, not individuals. Lightning isn’t striking one person for his or her sin; the thunderstorm is advancing upon a nation that has betrayed its identity, its reason for being. This is about a people, and it is about a long pattern not a single transgression. It is the outcome of a path they have pursued for generations – a path that leads them ever further from God, a path that leads them to an inevitable cliff.

These are the children of the Exodus. These are the descendants of those who saw God give Pharaoh ten opportunities to repent, ten plagues, ten awe-filled manifestations of a world gone wrong, until those who tried to kill God’s first born (the people of Israel) lost their first born. These are the descendants of those who saw pharaoh’s army defeated by the returning waters of the Nile. These are the descendants of those who were fed manna from heaven and water from the rock, who heard God’s voice at Sinai and vowed to be ever faithful. These are the descendants of a people who were led through the wilderness and given a land, the dream of the homeless, the fulfilled promise to Abraham and Sarah. And now these children of God say: “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They believe there is no reward in righteousness, no consequence for disobedience. They think God is powerless to affect our lives – or God simply doesn’t care. It is another way of saying “God is dead.”

There are consequences when you have reached the place where there is no right and wrong only power. Believing this, they will now see what power will do. Babylon is coming and they will “search Jerusalem with lamps”:they will capture every man in hiding; they will seize every woman; they will steal every horde hidden away; they will strip the temple of its gold and bronze; they will leave nothing but rubble. Such is the way of power.

This is not punishment for breaking rules; it is the consequence of the total rupture of their right relationship with God and one another. They have chosen a path with no happy ending.

The prophet’s words are powerful and chilling. And, of course, they are ignored – for this is a people who have come to believe there is no God, no reality, other than themselves. But, for God, this is a relationship. It means God suffers with and for this people. God suffers with and for this world. And after the prophet’s devastating words of judgment, exposing all this people’s betrayal, we hear in chapter 3 verse 8 this sweet, sweet word: “But wait for me.” God is not through with this people. God is not through with us. After this utter destruction, God will yet arise and this people shall be reborn – the world shall be reborn, born from above, born of God’s own Spirit. In chapter 3 verse 15 the prophet bids the broken people to rejoice for “The LORD has annulled the judgment against you.” After death comes resurrection.

God is not the taskmaster with a ruler waiting to smack our knuckles; God is the parent willing to lock the door and let the child go to prison if he will not enter rehab. A terribly painful choice. But a redeeming one. One that will, eventually, bring the child home.

“Wait for me,” says the LORD, “Wait for me.”

A full and terrible end?

File:Prophets from Ferapontov01 (Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg

Icon of the prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jonah and Moses

Friday

Zephaniah 1

18A full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

A lot depends upon translation. Different words evoke entirely different images. The word translated as ‘earth’ also means ‘land’.  “He will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the land” is far different than “he will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the earth.” The one disaster is local; the other sounds cosmic. The one is about Judea; the other is about all of us. The one is about the Babylonian onslaught in 586 BCE; the other is about the apocalyptic end.

Of course, the devastation of war – the hunger, the violence, the ruined buildings, the disease that follows in its train, the dead, the violated, the captives taken into slavery, the lost national treasures, the lost identity, the lost hope – there is no other way to describe it than as “the end of the world.”

And, still, we speak of even personal tragedies and crises as “the world crashing down.”

We understand the prophet. Berlin after the war, Dresden, Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Iwo Jima, the killing fields of Cambodia, Aleppo – only apocalyptic language can tell the horror.

This language of the prophets will be taken up by others, especially by the Revelation to John. It will come to speak of that final catastrophe when humanity persists in rebellion from God until every plague has been suffered. Yet even that allusion to the plagues of Egypt, the plagues that were the consequence of Pharaoh thinking he was master of all and resisting to the end God’s purposes for the world – even those plagues are about redemption, setting both Israel and Egypt free from the bondage of slavery. So, too, are the disasters of humanity’s ultimate resistance to God. They are the birth pangs of a redeemed world.

God will make an end of all the inhabitants of the earth. God will make an end to the brutality of war. God will make an end to the sufferings of injustice. God will make an end to the corroding reality of poverty.

God will make an end to our violence and fear. God will make an end to our guilt and sorrow.   God will make an end to our pride and pettiness. God will make an end to our thirst for revenge. God will make an end to the coldness of our hearts and the disorders of our passions. God will make an end to our rebellion, one way or the other.

And though it cost us our life, it will give Life.

The LORD’s sacrifice

Thursday

Zephaniah 1

File:Stanley Kubrick - butcher with slab of beef cph.3d02352.jpg

Look photographic assignment: Chicago city of contrasts. Stanley Kubrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 The LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

I am ever amazed at the skill and audacity of the prophets. Here, with a half dozen words, a terrible and frightful image is set before the nation. God is getting ready to offer a sacrifice and he has called upon his guests to prepare themselves. “Take up your knife and fork. Say the table blessing. I am setting before you a feast. I myself will draw the knife and lay the carcass upon the fire. You need only come and dine.” The guests are the nations around them. Jerusalem is the fatted calf.

With five words (in the Hebrew text) any attempt to envision God as a partisan God, hawking and defending the glories of the nation, is shattered. God is not interested in Jerusalem for Jerusalem’s sake; God is seeking a people of justice and mercy. God is not interested in a temple bigger and more glorious than other gods; God is interested in a holy people, a people who walk God’s holy way, a people who honor the poor and speak the truth in testimony and do not pervert justice with bribes. A people who do not cut down the fruit trees for instruments of war, who do not take the mother bird with the eggs, who give a Sabbath even to their own oxen, who leave the margins of their fields for the poor to come and harvest. God is not looking for powerful armies, but humble kings. God is not looking ritual purity but spiritual fidelity.

And this nation, that bears God’s holy name, that sings God’s holy songs, that offers God’s holy sacrifices – this nation God will bind and lay upon the altar, a feast for all the nations to come and gorge themselves.

It is chilling. I feel like a beggar asking my congregation for scraps compared to this daring herald of God. “Please be a little nicer…” rather than “Thus saith the LORD…”

But I am not a prophet; I am a preacher. I point to the prophet’s words. I try to help those words come off the page and speak to us. I pray for God’s Spirit to grant us ears to hear. But I have a privilege Zephaniah does not have.

I am glad not to be a prophet. I envy their skill, but to I do not want their burden. I know what happened to the prophets. I know their laments. I know their sufferings.

But I am glad, not just because I do not want their sorrows. As a preacher I have this other treasure, of a child born, a man awash in the Spirit, an anointed one bearing witness to God’s ultimate governance of this earth. I have this other treasure of sins forgiven, bodies healed and spirits delivered. I have this other treasure of bread shared and feet washed and a life laid down. I have this treasure to announce of an empty tomb and an ascended Lord.

The words of judgment stand. God has prepared a sacrifice. God will pull down his own temple when it serves injustice. God will scatter his own people when they abandon mercy. But God does not abandon mercy. The knife is drawn across his own throat. He himself is the lamb that reconciles us to heaven and one another.

The prophets are fearless and bold. They speak brilliantly. And even their songs of hope are exquisite. But I get to point to a man who is the prophets’ word made flesh, who is God’s voice incarnate, who is slain but lives, and who summons us to live in him.

Consider the mob boss

Wednesday

Matthew 25

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Paulamaria Walter: Die anvertrauten Pfunde, Betonrelief, 1963, Wege zur Kunst

26 ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

It is hard for us to hear this parable as the crowd around Jesus would have heard it. We give our children savings accounts at an early age and teach them the value of accrued interest. If my girls didn’t spend their allowance right away, I paid them interest on their “savings”. I wanted to encourage the practice of delayed gratification. We share something of the mythology of the banker as the most trusted man in town – reinforced by images of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.

Of course, in recent years, we have discovered that bankers can be unscrupulous, selling us worthless stocks and taking a government bailout while paying themselves huge bonuses. Yet, still, we tend to make a distinction in our minds between these “Investment Bankers” or “Wall Street Bankers” and our local banker. So we have conflicting sentiments about banking, our memory of the home town banker contrasting with the impersonal megabanks charging outrageous fees, while giving the wealthy preferential treatment.

The only reason bankers pay lower taxes than I do is because, instead of paying taxes for the common good, they bought legislators who granted them special privilege. But I’m not bitter…

The ancients were bitter. They lived in a world where charging interest was forbidden by God – but bankers then, like today, found ways to manipulate or evade the rules. Charging interest was seen as taking advantage of those in need. Debt led to foreclosure, led to lost family lands, led to indentured servanthood, led to ever deeper poverty – or to landlessness and death.

So to “invest” with “bankers” in our parable is akin to investing with loan sharks. It is not honorable. It preys on human misery and multiplies it. The man who buries the talent entrusted to him is the only person in the story who acts honorably. He is the only person in the narrative for whom the crowds would feel sympathy. But they would also recognize he is a fool. You can’t swim with the sharks and not be one. He knows his master is ruthless – he should act accordingly.

And this is the strange power of the narrative. It takes a scene out of The Godfather and uses it to speak about our Father God. God’s servants should live like their master. It is dangerous folly to fail to recognize who God is and what he expects. If we are smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of this foolish man with one talent; we should be smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of those who fail to live God’s reign of mercy.

But we must remember this is a parable. It does not say God is a mob boss. It says servants are fools not to live in keeping with their master. The purpose of this story, like all the parables, is to open our hearts and minds to see and live a new way.