He goes ahead

File:PikiWiki Israel 19308 Settlements in Israel.JPG

Wednesday

This is a reposting of a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday in 2014

John 10:1-10

4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Palestinian shepherds are different than most shepherds worldwide. Most places in the world the shepherds come behind, driving their flock. In Palestine they walk ahead and the sheep follow.

This contrast alone makes this chapter of John priceless. How much religion consists of people being driven? Driven by guilt, by rules, by demands, by self-righteousness, by the psychological needs of the leadership, by history, by desire. Most of life is driven. Driven by our need to provide, our need to succeed, our need to feel safe. Driven by our fears, our wants, our restless sense that we are missing something. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden in their shame. The prodigal son is driven home by his desperate hunger – but the prodigal father runs to welcome his son with open arms.

Jesus leads his flock. He goes before. He goes ahead. And though that often results with us running to catch up, it means we are not going anywhere that Jesus has not already been. Every sorrow he has tasted first. Even the grave. But also the resurrection.

He is our elder brother. He goes ahead. He paves the way. He opens the door. He does not ask us to wash feet before he has washed our feet. He does not ask us to take up the cross before he has taken up his cross. He does not ask us to give what he has not given. He does not ask us to walk where he has not walked. He does not ask us to love anyone he has not loved or forgive anyone he has not forgiven.

There is all the difference in the world between the command to go and the invitation to “Come with me.”

My brother got me to do all kinds of things by doing them first. I learned to swim because my brother went first. I learned to ski because he went first. I learned to hold a pigeon, I walked the streets of Brussels, I picked up a live crab, I left home for college. And there were some things I didn’t have to do because he did them, battles he fought I didn’t have to fight.

God does not sit on a throne spouting orders; he has come as our elder brother, leading the way. There are commands in the scripture, to be sure. We know of the ten, even if we can’t name them all. Jesus himself gave a new commandment – and tightened the others. He talked about forgiving seventy-seven times. But he went first. He goes ahead. He calls our name and bids us walk with him.

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The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
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 February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

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Live the mercy

 

Thursday

Deuteronomy 30:1-14

File:Musée du Petit Palais Petit Palais n09.jpg1When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. 4Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back.

These words are not part of the assigned text for the first reading on Sunday, but they should be. They set the context for the promise of prosperity and for the declaration that “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.”

The story starts in exile. The exhortation begins in mercy. This is a word of hope. When all is lost, there is yet a future. If we turn back, God will restore. And what God asks is “not too hard” for us. It is not esoteric. The life God wants for us is within our reach.

Justice and mercy are simple things. We may not want to give them, but they are simple and straightforward. God’s commands are not like the tax code. You do not need a legal expert to make them intelligible. You do not need a hero to discern them. God’s commands are really pretty modest: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

At first glance, Jesus seems to make the commands tougher: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you… But what Jesus is asking is that we keep the spirit of God’s law not simply its outward form. There is a lust of the heart not just of the body, and an anger that rends the human community though it does not murder.

God has commanded us to love our neighbor. Jesus just wants us to stop limiting mercy. Mercy is not hard. Compassion is not hard. It is our hearts that can be hard.

There are a thousand reasons not to stop and help the wounded man. The priest will be defiled and have to return to Jerusalem to undergo purification. The Levite, too, is surely on some important business and has good cause not to get involved. But this is not a situation that calls for nuanced interpretation of legal obligations; this is a situation that calls for us to live the mercy of God. Pretty simple: Live the mercy of God.

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMus%C3%A9e_du_Petit_Palais_Petit_Palais_n09.jpg By jean-louis Zimmermann from Moulins, FRANCE [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Doing the good

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Thursday

Galatians 6:1-16

9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

I don’t know why this translation chose “doing what is right” instead of “doing the good”. Yes the word can mean what is right and proper and good, but the phrase “doing what is right” tends to make me think about rules, whereas “doing the good” makes me think about people and relationships. “Doing what is right” is about social and ethical norms. “Doing the good” is about being a gracious and healing presence in the world.

Paul has spent his whole letter arguing against the a definition of righteousness based on the observance of social and legal norms. He has argued fiercely that it is fidelity to the mercy of God and a life governed by the Spirit to which we are called. In this very passage he declares that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  Social customs and laws belong to the tribe of Israel. Fidelity to the God of Mercy and Life belongs to us all.

It’s very important that we not get confused about what God seeks. Even the Mosaic Law is more a collection of examples and precedents for the just and faithful life than a legal code. Legal codes invite us to parse and define them. So we read that we are to love our neighbor and set off on a discussion about who, exactly, falls in that category of neighbor. Are people from the next village neighbor? Are the elite families in Jerusalem neighbor? Are the Romans neighbor? Are the Samaritans neighbor? And we know how Jesus answers this question – or rather steps beyond it. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan and simply asks who showed himself a neighbor.

The translation “doing what is right” is grammatically acceptable – maybe even grammatically proper. But it is theologically misleading. Our responsibility as human beings is not to be right, but to be good.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg  Maximilien Luce [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The end of “law”

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Friday

Galatians 2:15-21

19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

If I had been a Pharisee at the time, I would have hated Jesus, too. And I would have hated Paul – hate in the Biblical sense of feeling no connection or sense of obligation. He is simply not one of us. (So, as with Simon, the customary courtesies don’t apply.) And when Paul begins to pull people away from the path of Judean observance…well, such a one is deserving of whatever ill fate befalls him. He is against everything I know about God and our identity as God’s people. He betrays core values of our community. His words are like someone burning a Qu’ran/Koran. They incite violence, just like an African-American sitting down at a white’s only lunch counter. You can’t transgress communal norms so willfully and not expect violence. Just ask Stephen, stoned to death by a mob.

Modern American society is no longer bound by such tight communal norms – although we still see its vestiges when crowds assault people for coming to hear Donald Trump. They would assault Trump, if they could, for he is violating core values of tolerance and inclusion. Such words must be silenced, shouted down, removed from the community.

I wish I knew all that Paul meant when he declares, “I have been crucified with Christ.” His world is far different than mine and I’m sure those words speak differently to him than to me. There is a kind of death of self that is part of true religion. A turning from a life preoccupied with my wants and desires to a life focused on what I can give, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. It’s the turn towards compassion, kindness, generosity, sacrifice.

But I don’t think that’s quite what Paul means here. I think he means that his old life, defined by obedience to Torah, has perished in his encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. He has come to see that God’s favor does not come from the observance of Judean cultural practices. It comes from allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, allegiance to God’s work of bringing the kingdom, allegiance to the gathering of all nations and peoples to proclaim God’s praise, allegiance to the rebirth/re-creation of the world that has begun in Christ and is dawning for all the world.

He has died to the life he once lived, the way he once defined his identity. And now he has been raised into a new life, a new identity, a new vision of God and the world.

Those who talk about being “born again” understand something of this fundamental transformation and reorientation of life.

The notion that we are saved by some law is like a huge gravity well that tends to draw everything into itself. It is that fundamental assumption that there is some standard by which we obtain some sense that we are the right kind of people. It changes from group to group. The way we dress is a group marker. It shows our affiliation – and the people with whom we identify establishes our identity. Language, too, shapes our identification and identity. In Detroit, a black child could be mocked for “talking white”. Trump was mocked for say “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” – it was a tell revealing he was not an insider.

Custom, culture, practice, law written and unwritten, it is all part of the “law” that defined Paul. And now he has broken with that past and given his allegiance to the world of the resurrected Jesus. But gravity keeps pulling Jesus back into the realm of culture and custom, of “law”. People are right with God, pleasing to God, because they observe certain practices, be they rituals in church or personal prayer and Bible study. People are acceptable to God because they are generally good people, kind to pets, tolerant of children, decent neighbors, or because they have had the correct kind of religious experience. There was a time that people were acceptable because they put on their Sunday best and attended church each week, though that is fading fast. Success, education, political views, opinions about creation and evolution or sex and abortion are all markers of who is and who is not acceptable to God. This gravity well of “law” sucks Jesus and the human religious impulse into its center.

But then comes the resurrection of Jesus, this new reality in the world. What was once an event for the end of time when people would be sorted by their conformity to “law” has become a living reality in the midst of time. And the hope of a world transformed, set free from its sins and called back into the peace of God – a world that was thought to follow the general resurrection – that “age to come” is here now in this Jesus risen. And so Paul declares that he has been crucified with Christ. The old world is gone and a new one dawns.   And what matters now is not “law” in any shape, but allegiance to the new world God is making where sins are forgiven and bread shared and all people are regarded as members of one family (“love one another,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love your enemy”). The old has passed; the new has come.” This is the dawning truth of the world, and what matters now is allegiance to this new life of the risen Christ (“faith”).

It’s not easy to fight the gravity well of “law”. But the grave is empty and the door open for us to be born from above.

It’s why the woman bursts into Simon’s house ignoring all custom and law to declare her love and allegiance to Jesus and to give her most precious gift: herself.

+   +  +

For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArtists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice%2C_(statue_on_the_Old_Bailey%2C_London).png By https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lonpicman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than much fine gold

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Wednesday

Psalm 19

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

The country went crazy last week because the lottery jackpot had grown to over a billion dollars. People stood in line for hours, the news media told us, as they added their voice to the hype. It says something about our culture when the millionaire broadcasters are buying tickets. We believe in money. Despite all our disavowals that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” we have a deep and abiding faith in the power of wealth to bless us.

Sunday we will read together Psalm 19 that speaks of God’s wondrous ordering of the natural world around us – and then testifies to God’s wondrous ordering of what we might call the spiritual and moral universe:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

And then comes the verse above: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.”

God’s word, God’s instruction, God’s wisdom and guidance for life, God’s promise and our loyalty to that promise, is worth more than the lottery prize.

And the interesting question as we recite these words on Sunday is whether we will regard them as true or as a pious fiction.

 

Image: By Ian and Wendy Sewell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Cuckolding

For Wednesday

Mark 10:1-16

File:Studio per Vulcano e Venere.jpg10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Cuckold. It is a verb that describes what one man has done to another by being intimate with his wife. Committing adultery in the Biblical world was about cuckolding. It is something a man did to another man. Sex outside of marriage wasn’t the issue. Adultery was shaming a man by taking what was his – or shaming the woman’s father and brothers.

We tend to think about adultery as a matter of personal morality, a measuring of ourselves against a personal standard of conduct, not altogether so different from measuring our Body Mass Index or how fast we can run the mile. In the Biblical world, adultery is a betrayal of your neighbor and a rupture of the human community.

This was also the problem with divorce. Marriage was arranged by the parents. It involved an alliance of two families (or a bond within an extended family, since the ideal marriage was with a cousin or second cousin). For the groom’s family to dismiss the woman and send her home told the whole village there was some defect in her. It brought shame to her father and brothers. It led to feuding. It tore the fabric of the community.

So adultery and divorce are part and parcel of the same problem – human communities at war. Betrayal. Dishonor. Revenge. Feuding. It is a world awry. It is a world sundered from God and one another. The world where Cain kills Abel and we assassinate with everything from words to barrel bombs. It is the world where Jesus will be crucified.

Divorce isn’t really authorized in the Old Testament law; it is merely acknowledged. What is in the law are some restrictions to limit the destructiveness of divorce.

But, of course, that is the essential nature of the law. It seeks to limit our destructiveness. The concern is always our neighbor. The commandment not to steal, kill – or commit adultery – is not about my personal morality; it is about protecting my neighbor. So the scripture limits revenge, limits greed, limits our treatment of the natural world, limits our wars and slavery and all the other realities of a broken world.

But God intends more for us than just that we be a little less cruel, a little less violent. God wants the law to be written on our hearts. God wants our lives to be governed by God’s own Spirit. God wants us to be new creatures in a renewed creation.

So, when asked about divorce, Jesus talks about the beginnings, about God’s intention, about Eden, about all that marriage could and should and will yet be when the stone is rolled away and the Spirit given and the new world begun.

We need to do more than limit the harm we do. We need to be born anew. We need to journey with Christ through the death of our old self into the resurrection of the new. The argument here isn’t whether divorce is “right” or “wrong”, but whether I am right or wrong. And the unspoken but precious promise here, as they head towards Jerusalem, is that Christ will set me and us and all things right.

 

Image: Venus, Mars, and Vulcan, Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Death, Resurrection

Watching for the Morning of March 22, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

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Christ en croix, The Musee national du Moyen Age, (National Museum of the Middle Ages)

Shattered covenant, shattered world. New covenant, new world. A grain falling into the ground to die, yet bringing forth life. An exaltation upon a cross. A priest, like the cryptic figure of Melchizedek to whom Abraham gave a tithe, who is an eternal priest. A son made perfect through suffering. A priceless revelation of the heart of God come to abide in our hearts: I treasure your word in my heart.” The way and will of God written on our hearts.

The mountain range that was far off when we began this journey towards the Paschal Triduum, the three-day celebration of the cross and resurrection, draws ever nearer. The cloud and thunder at the mountain peaks echo across the plains. We hear the dramatic and transforming sounds of the coming days.

Through Jeremiah, the prophet of doom, God promises a new beginning. That covenant created at Sinai, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” has been utterly and completely shattered. It lies on the ground like the broken walls of the city, the burnt cedar beams and collapsed stone of the temple, the gold and bronze and jewels stripped and added to the royal treasury of a foreign nation. Priesthood and Kingship ended. The people have betrayed the one who was a husband to them. Irredeemably. And yet: the promise of a new creation, a new covenant, a new day.

And Jesus, by all accounts betrayed and broken, stripped and shamed, crushed and dead upon the timbers of a cross, yet exalted for all the world to see. For all the world to believe. For all to enter the world of living bread and new wine and the broken made whole and the blind now seeing. To enter the world of imperishable life.

A high priest forever, writes the author of Hebrews, the source of eternal salvation. “With my whole heart I seek you,” sings the psalm.

For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran church, and for sermons and other information on Lent see our Lent site.

Our theme this Lent is Renewal, and for Lent 5: Renewing the World with Justice and Mercy

 

The Prayer for March 22, 2015

In your Son, O God, we see your face,
giving yourself to bring life to the world.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that, your law of justice and mercy
may be written in our hearts,
and we prove faithful to you and to all;
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 March 22, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” – In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, God promises to make a new covenant with crushed and scattered nations of Israel and Judah. Though they have betrayed and broken their covenant with God, God will start again, promising to write God’s commands on their hearts.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:9-16
“I treasure your word in my heart.” – A portion of the majestic hymn to the revelation of God’s will and way in the Torah, God’s word/law/teaching.

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10
“He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
– Jesus the faithful one has become our perfect high priest.

Gospel John 12:20-33
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” – When Greeks come to “see” Jesus (see with faith), Jesus knows that the hour is at hand for him to be exalted/lifted up on the cross. He will lay down his life like a grain of wheat – and his followers also – for the sake of a rich harvest that gathers all people into life.

 

Art: By Chatsam (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“But wait for me.”

Saturday

https://i2.wp.com/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.”

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.