God has hung up his warrior’s bow

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Watching for the Morning of February 18, 2018

Year B

The First Sunday of Lent

We hear of God’s covenant with all creation this Sunday, a promise that God will not allow the waters of the primal chaos to overwhelm the earth again. God puts a sign in the heavens as a reminder – not to us but to God! – of God’s promise. In those days when God’s children are shooting one another, abusing one another, warring and thieving and allowing one another to suffer, in those days when God’s children are crucifying one another, God will see and remember that he promised not to destroy us.

It’s rather chilling. I have set my bow in the clouds” God says, and the word ‘bow’ is the word used for the archer’s weapon that Jehu used to murder the fleeing king of Judah. It is the word David uses when he sings of God: “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze,” or when he sings his lament for Saul and Jonathan after they fell on the battlefield: “From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty.”

Psalm 7 daringly declares:

God is a righteous judge,
….and a God who has indignation every day.
If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
….he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
….making his arrows fiery shafts.

But God promised to Noah that he would not deal with us according to our sins. God would not wage war on us. God has hung up his battle bow. And on that day when we pounded nails into his hands and feet, he did not call for heavenly armies; he said “Father forgive them.”

We hear this promise spoken to Noah this Sunday. And we hear of Jesus in the wilderness tested by Satan. And we hear the psalmist pray “Do not remember the sins of my youth,” but “Make me to know your ways, O Lord.” And First Peter will remind us that Christ “suffered for sins once for all.” And in this wonderful mix of awe, grace, and repentance, we will begin our season of renewal.

This Sunday we begin our Lenten series on Baptism. For an introduction to this see the post “Baptism & the journey of the human spirit” at Holy Seasons

The Prayer for February 18, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and True,
in your Son, Jesus, you have answered the ancient cry of the prophets
to tear open the heavens and come down to save your people.
Help us hear his voice and be faithful to your reign of grace;
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 18, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.’” – God establishes an eternal covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the ark to never again destroy the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” – The poet entrusts himself to God and asks God to teach him God’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
– With imagery that is somewhat foreign to us, Peter proclaims Jesus the victorious one, ascending through the heavens, announcing God’s just judgment on the wicked angels imprisoned since the flood. Then, building on the imagery of the flood, proclaims the saving work of baptism, comparing it to the ark by which the righteous were saved.

Gospel Mark 1:9-15
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” – Mark’s narrative of the temptation of Jesus is sweet and to the point. Jesus shows himself to be worthy of the great honor conveyed by God at his baptism when God declared him “my beloved son.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADouble_Bows.jpg By Nicholas from Pennsylvania, USA (Double Bows) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Raised for the world

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Watching for the Morning of February 4, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

There are echoes in our Gospel reading for Sunday that are not fully apparent in English. Our translation says that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed and Jesus lifted her up, but the Greek word will be used for the resurrection. The word order has been changed in the English as well – the act of raising her stands at the head of the sentence. The word that the fever left her – departed from her – is the word used for forgiveness. And the statement that “she began to serve them” uses that important Greek word that is the basis of the English word deacon. It is the word we find in Mark 10 when Jesus describes the character of Christian life:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

We need to let that sentence linger in the air for a moment: Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

And he himself is such a servant. When all come to the door of Peter’s home they are healed. And, in the morning, when the disciples want Jesus to come back to Capernaum, he declares he must go on to other towns and cities.

Sunday will summon us to hear the magnificent words of the prophet Isaiah declaring “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” And that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” They shall be raised up – we would understand in light of Jesus – raised up for service.

And our psalm will have us sing of our God who “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” And Paul will speak to us of his service to bear the message of Christ to all saying, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” It is not a manipulative missionary strategy; it is a life freely given to bear the grace of Christ to all.

This Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

The Prayer for February 4, 2018

Almighty God, healer of all our sorrows,
grant that we might not seek to possess you for ourselves,
but joyfully bear your word and grace to all people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 4, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” – The prophet addresses the exiles with a promise that the God who laid the foundations of the earth has not forgotten this people but will restore them:

Psalmody: Psalm 147:1-11 (appointed 1-11, 20c)
“Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God.”
– A psalm of praise proclaiming God’s power and grace as revealed in God’s work of creation and in his mercy to Israel.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” – In the middle of Paul’s response to the question whether believers can partake of meat that has been offered in sacrifice to other gods – a response that begins with the necessity of not acting in a way that derails another person’s faith – Paul offers himself as an example of serving others in love.

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, and astounded the crowds in Capernaum with his teaching and authority over the unclean spirits, Jesus dispenses the gifts of God, healing Peter’s mother-in-law and many others in the community. The next morning he announces that they must take this message and ministry to all the towns and villages in Israel.

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Image: Healing Peter’s Mother-in-law, from a 13th century manuscript from the Athos monasteries, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAthos-Evangeliar_Heilung_der_Schwiegermutter.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus the destroyer

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Watching for the Morning of January 28, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

A demon comes forth this Sunday. It rises up in the middle of church – in the middle of the sermon – as the crowds are marveling already at this lowly laborer’s audacity to preach – and cries out “What are you to us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us?!” Or maybe that first expression means “What are we to you?”

“Why are you bothering us, Jesus? What have we done to deserve this? Keep on preaching like this and you will destroy us for sure.” You don’t have to think him demon possessed for such thoughts. Jesus’ challenge of the existing order is exactly why the leaders will put him to death. Mark alludes to it (11:18). John lays it out clearly: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)

How ironic it is that Jesus is accused of endangering the nation, when it is the Judeans themselves who rebel from Rome and rain destruction on their nation.

But there is a spiritual battle going on. The demon calls Jesus by name and reveals his identity: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It is a standard notion that to possess the name of a spiritual being (god or demon) is to be able to control it. But the demon is helpless before Jesus. And the crowds are amazed – not by the presence of a possessed man (such people were common) but by the teaching. Jesus’ presumption of the authority to teach is confirmed by his command of evil spirits. He must rank above them to rule over them. Here is a ‘tekton’, a construction worker, but he has supreme authority over those powers that possess, drive and govern human life. It confirms his authority to teach. And the crowd is blown away: A teaching with new power. A teaching with new focus not on purity and law but compassion and fidelity to all.

So Sunday we will hear Deuteronomy promise a prophet like Moses who will bear God’s word to us. And the psalm will sing that God “has shown his people the power of his works.” And Paul will speak of the “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” And the amazement of the crowds at the authority of Jesus will linger in the air and bid us to recognize that we are in the presence of a supreme authority. His teaching ranks above every other.

The Prayer for January 28, 2018

God of power, God of grace,
you have spoken by your prophets and in your Son Jesus,
to call us out from death into life,
from despair into hope,
from sin into forgiveness.
Deliver us from all that binds the human spirit
and free us to live in you for the sake of the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 28, 2018

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:9-20 (appointed 15-20)
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”
– Moses addresses the people after their forty-year journey through the wilderness, just before they enter the land, warning them not to imitate the religious practices of the Canaanites. Then, in a passage that will come to be heard as a promise of the Messiah, Moses declares that God will raise up a prophet for them.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart.”
– A psalm of praise that exalts the faithfulness and mighty deeds of God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – Paul continues to attack the distorted notion of freedom in the Corinthian congregation that fails to recognize the obligations of the members of the congregation to one another as the body of Christ.

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, Jesus enters the town and begins to teach in the synagogue, astounding the community with his authority to teach and to command the spirits.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChristus_heilt_einen_Besessenen.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Casting wide the net of mercy

File:A fisherman casting a net neat Kozhikode Beach.jpgA reflection on the call of Jesus’ disciples from Sunday, January 21, 2018 (the Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Mark 1:14-20: 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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Before we begin this morning, I want to make two comments about the text. First, the text begins “Now after John was arrested.” The word that is translated ‘arrested’ here means to be betrayed or handed over. It is the word used of the betrayal and capture of Jesus. When we hear the word ‘arrested’ we think of a police force and a judicial process, but that’s not the world of the first century. ‘Seized’ is probably a better word. And the reason this matters is that here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the shadow of the cross.

Second, I want to remind you that the phrase “repent and believe” is the exact same phrase used when the Roman General defeated Josephus when he was part of the Judean rebellion that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. As a member of the upper class, Josephus was given the choice to change sides and show allegiance to Rome. Jesus comes announcing the reign of God and calling us to change sides and show allegiance to the reign of God. These are not religious words about regret and moral regeneration; they are words about the fundamental commitment of our lives.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The 16th chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a brutal prophetic word. God tells Jeremiah that he is not to take a wife or have children as a sign to the people of his day that a terrible judgment is coming upon the nation, a destruction so fierce that the bodies of children and their parents will lie unburied and unwept. They will become food for the buzzards and wild dogs.

Jeremiah is not to attend any funeral, or console any grieving parent, because no one shall lament those who perish in God’s coming judgment. Jeremiah is not to attend any wedding or celebration because the sound of joy is about to be banished from the land. Indeed, God is sending for a horde of fishermen and hunters to search every cave and cove to haul this people from every hiding place to their destruction.

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

What’s interesting about this Biblical text, however, is that somewhere along the line – either when the words of Jeremiah were being written down or when they were being copied and passed on to the next generation – someone along the way felt compelled to pluck two verses of hope from somewhere else in Jeremiah’s preaching and set these words into this declaration that God was sending out fishermen with nets to gather the people for judgment.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (Jeremiah 16:14-15 // Jeremiah 23:7-8)

By setting this passage inside the other, the net of judgment becomes ultimately a net of grace.

God’s purpose for the nation does not end with their being scattered from the land where they were supposed to do justice, to show faithfulness to God and to one another, to care for the poor and weak – a faithfulness they failed to show. But God’s purpose ends with the scattered people being gathered.

There are many words of woe in the Biblical text, many words of warning about what will happen if we fail to live God’s justice and mercy. But the prophets do not stop there. It is easy to preach disaster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when a society fails its most fundamental obligation to care for one another and the earth upon which we live. But God never stops with judgment. God always pushes on to reconciliation, to restoration, to hope. One of the most fundamental elements of the Biblical story is that when all hope for the future is lost – God gives us a future.

Abraham and Sarah have no child. He is 100 and she is 90. The promise of descendants seems at an end. But God is not finished with Abraham or with the world he has promised to save through Abraham’s line.

At the time of Noah, the whole earth has become “corrupt in God’s sight…and filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12), that “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually”! (Genesis 6:5RSV) But God is not done with his creation. He grants it a new birth.

Israel is in bondage in Egypt. They have been there for 430 years! (Remember, we are less than 250 years from the declaration of independence.) Pharaoh no longer remembers how Joseph saved the country. Pharaoh fears all these foreigners and instructs the midwives that every male child is to be killed at childbirth – and, when that fails, he issues an edict that every male child should be thrown into the Nile. But God saves a little child named Moses as he is being carried down the river out to sea.

When Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and all seems lost – there is no hope – but during the night a wind blows and creates a path through the sea.

The people are without water in the desert, but God brings forth a river of water from the rock.

The people are without food and want to go back to Egypt and their slavery, but in the morning there is manna upon the ground.

Jerusalem is destroyed and the people scattered throughout the world. Many are taken as prisoners to Babylon. But fifty years later, Cyrus overthrows Babylon and lets all its captured people go home. And Jerusalem is rebuilt.

God is a god of mercy. God is a god who works reconciliation and restoration. God is a god who creates a future. God is a god who opens the grave.

So the editor of Jeremiah can’t let those words of judgment stand unanswered. And he reminds us that God’s purpose is to gather the scattered. The nets of judgment become nets of grace.

When Jesus walks along the shore of Galilee and sees those fishermen working there, he sees nets of grace. And he calls those fishermen to the work of gathering all creation into the arms of God.

It’s important we understand this. Our defining task as a Christian community is to gather all creation into the arms of God. The risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit on his followers and say As the father sent me, I sent you.” The last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples. Students. Followers. Practitioners. Citizens of the dawning age. Participants in the new creation.

Our tendency is to hear those words in a vaguely institutional sense of making new church members – or at least new Christians. But the vision is of a world brought under the reign of God’s spirit. The vision is a world pulled back from bondage into freedom, from death into life. The vision is a world gathered in the nets of mercy.

Our defining task as a Christian community, as followers of Jesus, is to gather all creation in the nets of mercy.

Now there are some things about this story that I want to be sure we also hear. The text says Jesus is walking along the shore. Jesus is walking on the boundary between the land and the sea. Boundaries are places of spiritual importance in the world of the scripture. All the conversation about clean and unclean in the Bible is about boundaries. What are the boundaries between what is holy and what is not holy?

I don’t have time to go into detail on this, so I hope you will trust me. But the shore is a boundary between the land – where we are safe – and the sea – where there is danger. When God began to create, the sea was a chaos and God set boundaries to the water. He created the dome of heaven to divide the waters above from the waters below, and he divided the sea to allow dry land to appear. He set boundaries that the sea could not cross (cf. Jeremiah 5:22). When Jesus stills the storm or walks on the sea, he is commanding the sea as God commanded the primordial chaos. When Jesus casts the demons out of the man in Gerasa, the demons go into the pigs and what do the pigs do? They run into the sea. The depths of the sea is the realm of chaos and darkness, the realm of evil spirits.

When Jesus walks along the shoreline and calls his followers to be fishers of people, part of the imagery rattling around in the background is the sea as a realm of chaos and evil. We are being called to gather humanity out from the realm of bondage into the realm of freedom. We are being called to cast wide the nets of God’s mercy, to gather the world out from darkness into light, from despair into hope, from death into life.

The second thing I want you to remember is that something is lost when we read this story clipped from the larger narrative. Yes, this is a great story on its own. Yes, it is a classic Sunday school story. But this story is still at the beginning of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And, as we talked about last week, Mark’s gospel is filled with intensity.

‘Immediately’, it says, they left their nets. (v. 18) ‘Immediately’ Jesus called them (v. 20). The word ‘immediately’ is used twelve times by Mark in this first chapter alone – that averages better than one in every fourth verse. It will get used thirty more times in this short little Gospel. The story Mark tells is full of urgency. It begins with a bang.

Jesus’ summons of followers is part of this incredible dynamic power of Jesus. He is the mighty one who will drench the world in the Spirit of God. He is the one for whom the heavens are torn open. He is the one on whom the Spirit descends. He is the one of whom God will say, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This is the one who will be immediately tested by Satan and be waited on by angels. This is the one who declares that the time has come; God’s reign is begun. He summons people to come and they leave everything to follow him. Next Sunday we will hear how demons cry out and immediately he silences them. We will hear how the sick are brought to him and he heals them. In the Sundays to come we will hear how he reaches out and touches a leper and renders him clean, and how he will announce a crippled man to be forgiven and then tell him to take up his mat and walk.

This story about Peter, Andrew, James and John is not really a story about us; it is a story about Jesus. We are called to discipleship. We are called to follow. We are called to cast wide the nets of mercy. But the story is not about us. It is about Jesus who walks fearlessly on the boundary between earth and sea, between heaven and hell, between death and life to rescue the world.

This is the Jesus who encounters us in the waters of the font. This is the Jesus who embraces us in his mercy and feeds us at his table. This is the Jesus who speaks to us words of life and breathes his Spirit upon us. This is the Jesus who commissions us as his agents and summons us to cast wide the net of mercy.

In a world so deeply entangled in passions and desires and hates and hostilities, in a world so deeply fractured as our own, in a world where judgment looms over our brokenness and sin, God is casting his net of mercy. He bids us follow.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_fisherman_casting_a_net_neat_Kozhikode_Beach.jpg By Aswin Krishna Poyil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An immeasurable mercy

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Watching for the Morning of January 21, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah opens our readings from the scripture on Sunday. The great fish has vomited him onto the shore and God tries again to send him to warn the Assyrians that God is about to destroy them for their wickedness. Unless they repent. Every prophetic warning includes the possibility of repentance. It’s why Jonah tried to run away when he was first commissioned. He was afraid the people would turn from their wickedness and God would forgive them. They didn’t deserve forgiveness.   Of course, none of us do. Some of us certainly seem like saints. Some of us certainly are saints. But living well and living faithfully doesn’t put God in our debt. We are still frail creatures, still caught in our selves. The true saints know this. It fills them with compassion for sinners. The rest of us less complete saints want a little credit. It makes us a little judgmental. Those people should know better, behave better, try harder, make better choices. And if they don’t, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. But mercy isn’t earned; it’s given.

So we will hear of Jonah half-heartedly marching into Nineveh and the people hearing and repenting. And God forgives, just as Jonah feared.

Jonah resists the call of God. Tries to, anyway. But the call of God doesn’t let us get away. It pounces on us in unexpected ways – as it did to Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were tending their nets. Suddenly the summons is there and a lifetime of fishing is suddenly turned in a new direction. They will be gathering the world into the arms of mercy, the “fishnet” of heaven’s grace.

The summons is compelling. There is no resisting the eternal voice. Christ stands before them and calls them to follow. And what shall we say? We have work to do? No, we have mercy to do. The world awaits the embrace of God. The world awaits healing and life. The world awaits care and compassion. The world awaits the message that a new kingdom is at hand, a new spirit, a new governance of the human heart.

To choose hardness of heart in such a moment seems unthinkable, though we do make that choice. Often, it seems. Our hardness of heart becomes unrecognizable to ourselves. We cheer what we should not cheer. We trust what we should not trust. We show allegiance to things we ought not serve. Jesus will have things to teach – even as God tried to teach Jonah. The cross and resurrection will be the final lesson: it’s not about what we deserve; it’s about an immeasurable mercy.

It will be sung in the psalm on Sunday. Paul will speak of it in the reading. And Jesus will name names. We are summoned by mercy. We are summoned to live mercy.

The Prayer for January 21, 2018

Almighty God,
as Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew, James and John,
to leave their nets and follow,
you summon all people to lives of faith and love.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
and confidence to cast wide the net |
that gathers all people into your gracious embrace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 21, 2018

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” – In this delightful tale of Jonah fleeing God’s call to bring warning to Nineveh, choosing death (tossed into the sea) rather than repentance until he is swallowed by a great fish and vomited onto the land, he now finds himself compelled to accept his commission and the thing he feared happens: the wicked city repents and God forgives.

Psalmody: Psalm 62:5-12
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
– Speaking to the community more than to God, the poet expresses his confidence in God and calls the people (warns his opponents?) to also put their trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.” – Paul concludes his guidance on matters of sex and marriage by reminding the community that they live in the light of the dawning reign of God and their lives should be defined by the age to come not the age that is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Jesus summons Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him in gathering the nation and instigating a new era of faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFisherman_in_Myanmar.jpg By Pupuce22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A new beginning of the world

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A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.

King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.

We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.

The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.

David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.

What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.

But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.

So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.

Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.

Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)

War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.

The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.

This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.

So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.

The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.

The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.

This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.

This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.

Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”

Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.

This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.

Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.

This is a new beginning of the world.

It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.

This is a new beginning of the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Awash in the Spirit

File:Caban-coch dam overflowing - geograph.org.uk - 148870.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 14, 2018

Year B

The Baptism of Our Lord

(See the note below on why we are celebrating The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday)

The heavens were torn open.

As he was coming up out of the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It is the word that will show up again in Mark when the curtain of the temple will be torn from top to bottom. Mark doesn’t use a subtle word to describe what happens at the banks of the Jordan. Mark is rarely subtle. His story is urgent, compelling. Something powerful has burst into the world, tossing demons aside and healing all who come near. Bursting the bonds that bind. Tearing open the heavens to bring all heaven’s gifts down. This Jesus is the coming one, the promised one, who will flood the world with God’s Spirit.

So Sunday’s texts will take us to the beginning, when God’s spirit/breath/wind blew over the face of the great deep and God called forth light for the world. And the psalm will proclaim the mighty voice of God that shakes the wilderness and shatters the cedars of Lebanon. And the book of Acts will tell us of the believers in Ephesus who had not yet heard of the Holy Spirit, but will receive it in abundance. And we will hear again of John the Baptist and the promise of the Spirit, and we will see Jesus come and the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending.

And in our liturgy we will remember what it means to be a people awash in the Spirit, to be witnesses of a world forever changed, to be agents of that Spirit, a people empowered, the body of this Christ in the world.

The Prayer for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children the abundance of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” – The opening words of that profound vision of God creating a good and ordered world, assembled by a people who have lived through the chaos of war, social disintegration, famine and the destruction of their nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and rising over Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” – Paul connects with disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-11
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
– The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism and God declares him God’s ‘Son’.

As noted the last two weeks, our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the reception of the child by Simeon and Anna on the Sunday in Christmas. The second Sunday after Christmas (nearest January 6) is celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany and provides us with Matthew’s account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Messiah.

Occasionally, as in this year, this puts us out of sync with the appointed lectionary. So this Sunday, the first after our celebration of the Epiphany, we will celebrate as the Baptism of our Lord and next Sunday we will skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

A post about the Second Sunday after Epiphany in year B and its readings from 2015 can be found here. For other comments on the readings for Epiphany 2 B follow this link.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACaban-coch_dam_overflowing_-_geograph.org.uk_-_148870.jpg Mark Evison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Flooded with Joy

File:Leather bucket of a well.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 17, 2017

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

“The LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses our first reading for this Sunday as the text in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. The message will be simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is the language of the jubilee year when every debt is wiped away and all things restored. It is, in the mouth of the prophet, a promise of the return from exile and the rebuilding of their life in the land. It is, in the life of the church, a promise of that day when all things are made new. Everlasting joy.

Joy ripples through our worship this Sunday. It is the day once known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the ancient introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper…,” “Rejoice in the Lord always” from Philippians 4:4-6. We will hear similar words in our second reading that begins with the exhortation to “Rejoice always.” We will hear joy in the song of Mary, the Magnificat. And it is reverberates through the proclamation with which Mark begins his account of Jesus: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The runner has come from the battlefield to announce that the city is saved. The enemy is fallen. Our long awaited king comes to wash us in the Spirit.

Every translation of which I am aware says that the one who is coming will ‘baptize’ us in the Spirit. And, yes, the Greek word in the text is taken into English to give us the word ‘baptism’. But, for us, the word ‘baptism’ is almost exclusively a church word. We might refer to a baptism by fire, but we would never say that drowning sailors are being baptized. The Greek word was not a religious word, and if we take it out of the religious realm for a minute, we might hear something of the true drama of this promise: The coming one will wash us in the Spirit. The coming one will immerse us in the Spirit. The coming one will drown us in the Spirit. The coming one will drench us in the Spirit. The coming one will flood us with the Spirit. The coming one will shower the spirit upon us.

In a world often immersed in hate and fear, violence and deceit, here is the promise that we will be immersed in the Spirit of God. We will be awash in grace. We will be showered with compassion. Good news will be announced to the poor. Liberty will be proclaimed to the captive. We will be flooded with joy.

The Prayer for December 17, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and fill us with the joy of your presence.

The Texts for December 17, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61.1-11 (appointed: 61.1-4, 8-11)
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” –
The prophet describes his ministry as announcing a jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all lands restored.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– Paul concludes his letter to the believers in Thessalonica with a series of exhortations about their life together as they wait for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

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The appointed texts for December 17, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 126, (Luke 1:46-55 is an alternate for the psalm)
“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
– The poet remembers the joy of their restoration to the land, and prays now that God would refresh the land anew with rain and abundant harvest.

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” – The wealthy and powerful leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to discern whether John represents a threat to revolt against their rule, and seem satisfied that he is “only” a prophetic voice. They fail to hear his message that the coming one is already here.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeather_bucket_of_a_well.jpg By Neogeolegend (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We are their children

Sunday Evening

Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion

Mark 14:1-16:8

File:A Woman Praying over the Dead Body of Christ LACMA AC1998.240.2.jpg14:39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It’s pretty clear from the Greek that the Gospel of Mark was composed as an oral Gospel. When you listen to someone tell the story of something that has happened to them, it has a much different rhythm than a written document. To put it simply, the stories we tell tend toward extensive run-on sentences joined by the words ‘and’ and ‘but’: “we went here and we did this and we did that and then this happened and then somebody said this and then we all agreed to that….”

You can see this in the Greek of Mark’s Gospel. Translators take out all those ands and buts and turn it into a written document, but it is a living voice, the story of a community, the story that is our story. When Mark names Simon of Cyrene you can see the congregation nod, because they know him or his family. When Mark names Mary the mother of young James and Joses, you can hear the murmurs of appreciation for these men and their mother.

When Mark tells us of Peter challenged by a servant girl and trying to deflect her attention by going into the outer court, and you hear the challenge growing as others begin to question it, you know there are people present in the listening congregation who have stood in that courtyard – or their parents have stood there. And they know about Peter’s understandable but unthinkable betrayal, and they are filled with appreciation for the grace of Jesus who knew this would happen and who received Peter back. And they know what Peter has meant to them all.

When Mark tells his story, there are people in the congregation who have faced that ultimate test and failed. And others with friends and family who did not fail, but were crucified by the Romans or became the victims of violence from their neighbors and friends. No one holds it against Peter. It is our story. And it magnifies Jesus.

He died with eyes open. He died with courage and strength and dignity. He is not beaten into silence before the High Priest or before Pilate; he is possessed of that inner stillness that knows when to speak and when words are of no use.

He died with honor, so that even the Roman centurion had to admit he seemed like a son of the gods – or, as they all now know – the Son of God, the beloved, the anointed one.

He died with courage and endurance in the face of great suffering, refusing the drugged wine. He died with a confession of faith on his lips – the psalm the begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” that confesses “You are the Holy One, enthroned, the Praise of Israel” and prays “deliver me from the lion’s mouth” and declares “Let the ends of the earth pay heed and turn to the LORD.” It is not a cry of abandonment, but a prayer of faith and trust.

He died with courage and dignity and only the leaders of Judah shamed themselves, snatching him in the dark though he taught openly in the temple, plotting to act by deceit and trickery rather than nobly in the open, sending thugs in the night rather than acting openly in the day, abusing an innocent man.

He showed himself honorable in a dishonorable world. He showed himself true in a deceiving world. He showed himself compassionate in a brutal world. He alone merited the royal purple, though they put it on him only to taunt and torture. He alone wears a true crown, though they gave him a crown of thorns.

He was not a fool. He was not surprised by what happened. He knew what was coming. He knew that one in the inner circle would betray him. He knew that all his inner circle would abandon him. He knew that his body would be broken like the bread and he would not drink wine again until that day when God’s kingdom dawns in its fullness. He knew Peter’s denial.

He was not a fool. He knew what was to come, but he trusted God would use this to reclaim and redeem his rebellious world. He sought God’s will not his own safety.

All this is in the story Mark tells. A living story for a living community. A community who knows that the empty tomb inspired terror at first. But Jesus went before them. The risen Christ met them. God voided the sentence imposed by the Jerusalem council and by Rome. God voided the judgment that Jesus was a liar. There was no mortification in the tomb, no decaying of the sinful flesh. God raised Jesus, declaring him righteous – raising him as the firstborn of the dead, the first of the resurrection when all humanity is judged and the world made new.

And that little band of refugees and survivors that listens to Mark tell his story, that little band that gathers around a shared table, that little band gathered in allegiance to Jesus and to one another, that little band is an anticipation of what is to come when all creation bows before the holy and righteous one.

And we are their children, gathered around the same table, telling the same story, and kneeling before the same Lord, trusting God’s declaration that he is the one who reigns and shall reign over a world where the debt of our sins is wiped away and we inhabit once more the garden world God made.

 

Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_Woman_Praying_over_the_Dead_Body_of_Christ_LACMA_AC1998.240.2.jpg

Renewal

Watching for the Morning of February 22, 2015

File:Ilya Repin Tempation of Christ.jpg

Ilya Repin, Tempation of Christ.

Our theme for the season of Lent this year is Renewal: renewing faith, renewing friendships, renewing families, renewing the earth. We will still read the texts in our Sunday service; they will still infuse our worship, but our hearing of them will be shaped by the theme of renewal.

It makes me nervous, of course. I don’t like preaching on themes.   I remember reading a little book on preaching my senior year in seminary where Gerhard Von Rad (I think) said that every young preacher has about six sermons in him – and after that, he or she has to start preaching the text. There is nothing eternal in my words. But there is life in the words that come to us as scripture.

Still, every text is shaped by the time and place in which it is read, by the health or weariness of the community, by the cries and joys that surround us. The text is shaped by the day. It speaks to a moment in time. And our moments in this Lenten season will be shaped by our hope for renewal.

The readings this coming Sunday are rich and wonderful, starting with God’s promise to Noah and all the creatures aboard the ark that God will never again war against humanity. God binds himself with a promise, and sets a sign of that promise in the sky.

1 Peter will use the story of those eight saved in the ark as an image for baptism and God’s promise to carry us safely to a world washed and renewed.

And Mark will tell us of Jesus in the wilderness, tested by Satan, and attended by angels. He is the faithful Son. He is the new Adam – dwelling in peace with the “wild animals”.

The psalmist rightly sings of God’s faithfulness. So it will be proper to speak about renewing our trust in God, and praying with the psalm “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

The Prayer for February 22, 2015

In the wilderness, O God, you watched over Jesus
and he kept faith with you.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that, rooted in your Spirit and in your Word,
our trust in you may be deepened,
and we may 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 February 22, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.’” – God establishes an eternal covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the ark to never again destroy the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” – The poet entrusts himself to God and asks God to teach him God’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
– With imagery that is somewhat foreign to us, Peter proclaims Jesus the victorious one, ascending through the heavens, announcing God’s just judgment on the wicked angels imprisoned since the flood. Then, building on the imagery of the flood, proclaims the saving work of baptism, comparing it to the ark by which the righteous were saved.

Gospel Mark 1:9-15
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” – Mark’s narrative of the temptation of Jesus is sweet and to the point. Jesus shows himself to be worthy of the great honor conveyed by God at his baptism when God declared him “my beloved son.”

 

Image: By Ilya Repin (Bukowskis) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons