Showing posts with label Liturgy and Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liturgy and Life. Show all posts

Monday, August 5, 2019

Thabor and Hermon Rejoice at Your Name





Today things that cannot be heard are heard by human ears; for the visible human being is attested to be Son of God: unique, beloved, of the same substance. 
The witness cannot deceive, the proclamation is true; for the very Father who got him utters the proclamation himself. 
Let David stand as witness, and strike the lyre of the Spirit that speaks God's words. 
Let him sing the message now, more clearly and precisely, which the foresaw of old, as from a great distance, with purified eyes: the coming of the Word of God to us in flesh, as something yet to be, when he said, "Thabor and Hermon will shout for joy in your name."1
For this is the name above every name,2 over which Thabor and Hermon rejoice! 
This is my Son, the Beloved!3  
This is cause of rejoicing for all creation, this is a prize for humanity, a boast that will never be taken away! 
For the one to whom this witness is borne is a human being, even if he is not merely this! 
O joy, bestowed on us beyond all imagining! 
O blessedness here, beyond hope! 
O gifts of God, overcoming our desires! 
O graces, not given simply in response to modest demands! 
O generous giver, who have made a supernatural magnificence your own! 
O grace, befitting not so much the receiver as the giver! 
O mysterious covenants! 
O you who grant power and take on weakness! 
O you who reveal the human being as eternal, in that the eternal one begins to exist bodily as a creature! 
For if the human person is divinized, in that God is humanized, and the one God himself is revealed as also human, then the same individual, being human, is eternal in divinity, yet still, being God, begins to live in his humanity. 

-- St John of Damascus, Excerpt from a homily in celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord






1.  Psalm 88:13
2.  Philippians 2:9
3.  Matthew 17:5






Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From Milwaukee






AP photo/ Jeffrey Phelps



Here is a link to an article I wrote for the Theopolis Institute about the 2016 Milwaukee riots. The link to that article can be found here.










Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be like the eunuch (an Easter meditation)




My wife and kids were all sick this past Lord's Day, so we stayed home and worshiped as a family, using the readings from the BCP as our focus for the day. Below are some of my thoughts about those readings. 

Year B, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8



Our passage from Acts is well known. Philip receives a message from God, informing him to go south to the road which travels from Jerusalem to Gaza; there he would meet a eunuch and court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her entire treasury (Acts 8:27). This eunuch "had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah" (vv. 27-8). When Philip meets with him, the eunuch asks about whom Isaiah was referring--about Isaiah himself or another person--when he wrote: 
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
Philip then uses that passage of Isaiah to teach him the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 35). This eunuch then responds with faith in Jesus by receiving baptism (v. 38), and continuing on from there in his travels he rejoices (v. 39).

Upon reading this the first time, what struck my attention first was the fact that this eunuch had just visited Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, but while he was in Jerusalem worshipping, none of the Jewish authorities taught him about Jesus, the messiah whom they had recently crucified. The second thing which struck my attention is that he is found traveling away from Jerusalem while reflecting seriously upon Isaiah 53, a messianic passage specifically about "justice being denied" a servant of God, during "his humiliation." These references to injustice and humiliation are particularly intriguing, because Luke describes this man as both a eunuch of the Queen (which, ordinarily, was a humiliating status) and her treasurer; but if this man is a genuine eunuch--that is, a slave surgically castrated according to a King's orders, for the purpose of serving in an official capacity for his wife, the Queen--then he would not have been allowed to enter Herod's Temple, no matter how great his faith was. The Jewish authorities would not allow it, based on their interpretation of Torah. This man's status as a eunuch disqualified him from having direct access to God in Jerusalem's Temple. Although this eunuch was given a surprisingly high status in his own culture, among those of similar faith, he was marginalized; he was forbidden to become a full proselyte of Judaism.1 

This message of marginalization echoes in our other readings for this day. In John's first epistle, he writes to a marginalized Christian congregation, a congregation filled primarily with Jews, but also Gentile God-fearers like the eunuch. John writes to Christians whose faith was being "shaken up" and challenged by anti-Christian Judaizers and proselytes of Judaism. John could not have been any clearer about why he wrote such polemical, black-and-white statements:  
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. (I John 2:26)
These allies of anti-Jesus Judaism were intentionally trying to deceive Christians into believing their worship of God, in Christ, was false worship. Similar to the Jewish authorities who kept the Ethiopian eunuch from learning the gospel of Jesus, so these antichrists are intentionally deceiving the Christians of John's congregation. A few verses earlier (I John 2:18) we learned that "many antichrists have come," and these antichrists infiltrated the Christian community to become "one of them," eventually making it plain among all, when they left, that Christians worshiped another God than the God of the Jews. Christians affirmed the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, and also One-with-the-Father (I John 2:22), which the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem emphatically denied (John 5:18). Christians affirmed that they worshipped God the Father and the Son together as the one true God, whereas these antichrists denied that they could worship both the Son and the Father as one (vv. 22-23). 

While Jesus was among his people, he had spoken clearly about such escalating unbelief in Israel, and that God would come and visit them to prune the vine of Israel, removing every branch in Jesus which does not produce fruit. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, 
I am the true vine, and my Father is the winegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. ...Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6)
This pruning began with the first disciples of Jesus, and the gathering of dead branches culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its idolatrous anti-Christian Temple in 70 A.D.. Jesus was abundantly clear about this message, as the gospel of Matthew testifies. The epistle of first John was likely written very close to the end of that idolatrous old covenant system, as seen by John's reference to it being the "last hour" (I John 2:18). 

In 2:28 John reminds his congregation about this promise of Jesus to come to them, delivering them from their oppressive enemies (i.e. the antichrists, the anti-Christian Jewish authorities). John says that no one born of God persecutes God's own children, as these antichrists have been doing (I John 3:1-24). Moreover, John commands his congregation to not believe every spirit, because some spirits put on a great show, claiming to be of God while rejecting Jesus as God the Father's Messiah.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. They are from the world...and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 
This is the message which takes place immediately before our lectionary reading today. And so, in light of this marginalization of Christians from Jewish antichrists, I think it's important to notice how John instructs his Christian congregation to respond. He tells them to respond with love toward their brother; and not just any brother. In context John seems to be referring to Jewish brethren, the same brethren who are challenging them to publicly walk away from the Christian congregation with them, back to Jerusalem, back to Herod's Temple where faithful, Torah-keeping "believers" have exclusive access to God, and can draw near to Him with a sacrifice.

From the very beginning, John exhorts his Christian congregation to hold fast to the faith by loving their brothers while resisting the Judaizing cultural pressure to go back and worship the Father in their Temple, where they can offer the old covenant sacrifices of God again. 
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world
John's message was the same as Philip's. God sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the midst of his own people, to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of Israel, and not for them only but also for the sins of the whole world, even for eunuch's from Ethiopia, who would not have been allowed to draw near to God in Herod's Temple. Even Isaiah prophesied about these days with the coming kingdom of Israel's Messiah: 
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people."
And do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 
For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off." 
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered." (Isa. 56:3-5, 8)
God's love was revealed to the whole world in this way: God sent his only Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for its sins, so that the whole world could live through him (I John 4:9-10). God sent his only Son in the world so that the world could no longer find life through the Temple, Torah, liturgy, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. "We have seen and do testify," John says, "that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God" (4:14-15).

In our day and age, nearly 2,000 years past those events of which John spoke, Christians are still confessing the same truths and are still being marginalized by "the world" because of it. Just look at the Islamic terrorist groups in the middle east, terrorizing, torturing, and killing them as enemies of God. Christians confess that Jesus is both Lord and Savior of the world, which includes Muslims too, but some people simply don't want to receive that truth claim. Apart from the vine of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation for the world. Time doesn't change the hearts of people who love darkness, and refuse to step into God's light.  

Even 2,000 years of Church history doesn't change the way brothers treat each other, marginalizing some because of zeal for the truth. Did you ever meet a Christian who behaved that way? Did you ever meet a Christian brother, baptized into the Body of Christ, who turns on you or someone you know, treating them as though they're not true Christians, as though they can tap into the secret councils of Almighty God and deliver His sovereign message about your personal salvation to your front door? Did you ever meet any Christian who marginalized others because that so-called Christian actually enjoys drinking alcohol, and he doesn't think it's sin! Or they enjoy "worldly movies" and entertainment? Or, God forbid, they're Catholic, or Charismatic, or anything that's not in accordance with the true Christian doctrine, and so they know who is and not a true Christian? (That's sarcasm, by the way.)

If you haven't met any Christian brother like that, you are very fortunate. In reality, our so-called "Christian nation" is plagued with unloving, foolishly zealous "brothers" like that. They love you just enough to insult and demean your intelligence, but they have the best of intentions for your soul. Even more unfortunate is the fact that all "Christian" cults in America have been like that too, and they try to recruit Christians out of Trinitarian churches to save them by joining their cult. They tell you you need to use their rituals to draw near to God. You need to abide by their laws to be saved. You are welcome to feast at the table of their god once you repent and believe what they believe, as they understand "belief" to be. 

Thankfully, these are not the ways in which we know God. Our congregation uses a formal liturgy, but our liturgy is not essential for drawing near to God. We even have rituals which condition us week after week, year after year to focus our attention on Jesus Christ, His spoken Word, and His Table, but He is essential, not the rituals; our rituals and liturgy can change from church to church, but God can still be known in all of them. Our lives are caught up in the life of God, not our rituals. Because Jesus is our life, the cycles of our life and the boundaries we place around us are approved by Jesus, boundaries which are faithful and beautiful and holy in God's sight. 

Each week we gather together in the eucharist to feast at the Lord's table, not a Mormon table or a Presbyterian Table or a Roman Catholic table. It is the Lord's table, and you know the significance of that message. You know its significance because you know the One who goes out into the margins of a violent, ungrateful, and unloving world to heal, comfort, and love, to bring them into His Church and be renewed by His Spirit, to bring justice and peace to the oppressed, and to proclaim liberty to those enslaved in sin. You know the God who I'm talking about because greater is the One in you than the one who is in the world. Those who are violent and ungrateful in the face of Christ, in the face of God's children, are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world and the world listens to them. We are from God, and we confess that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh from God, to reach beyond the margins of Israel to the margins of the whole world, to be the true bread and true drink of heaven for the whole world.  

If you ever doubt God's word about you, about how he sees you in Christ--as a brother, a sister, a child of God, and friend--that is why the Lord offers the waters of baptism for you, as he did with the Ethiopian eunuch. If you have not been baptized, be like the eunuch and point to some water, asking, "What prevents me from being baptized?" After God has claimed you for himself, go on rejoicing like the eunuch too! 

Unlike the Pharisees and other Judaizers of John's day, God doesn't marginalize anyone who puts their trust in him, no matter how great your sins are. (Yes, I said that right: no matter how great your sins are.) Just as there is no sin so great but that it deserves God's wrath, so there is no sin so great that it can bring God's wrath upon all those who truly repent. Because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, God doesn't deny us justice in our humiliation, or treat us as insignificant or peripheral to the world he came, in flesh, to save. In Baptism he gives us an everlasting name that we can live  forever rejoicing in, a name that will never be cut off, the name of "son" or "daughter." At the Table he gathers the outcasts of the world and brings them beside other sons and daughters that have already been gathered. That is why our Lord sets His table before us each and every week. If God has claimed you for himself, don't come doubting whether you are welcome to feast with Jesus. It is his Table, and you are welcome to feast upon the faithful sacrifice who died for your sins. 

Be like the eunuch. Believe and rejoice in this glorious gospel of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.










1.  See Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Volume 2) [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2013], pp. 1567-1573 




Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Trinitarian Hospitality




 
    Some philosophers, like Jacques Derrida, say that hospitality must be absolute. We are to welcome all, and welcome them as they are. That is not the sort of ethic I propose here. Rather, it is an ethic of hospitality that welcomes in order to change. We don’t welcome the naked so they can be naked in our presence; we don’t show hospitality to the hungry so they can watch us eat. We welcome the naked and hungry to change their circumstances. We make room for them so we can clothe and feed them.
    So too with moral hunger and personal shame. We don’t welcome addicts so they can continue in their addiction. We make room for them, and take up residence in their lives, in order to be agents of ethical transformation. We don’t receive the prostitute to help her get more tricks. We open our lives to the prostitute so we can deliver her from her slavery— to the pimp, perhaps to drugs, to poverty, to a destructive life. Hospitality is not universal approval. It is universal welcome for the sake of renewal. We make room not to tolerate but to transform. We’ve made some advances in our turn from ontology to ethics, more than we might have noticed. From this point in our climb, we can begin to see the peak and begin to have something more than suspicions about what’s up there.
    The nature of the universe as I’ve described it encourages an ethic of self-giving love; if we are going to live in accord with the shape of things, we need to adopt a stance of availability, of openness to others and willingness to enter when others open to us. And that suggests a way to reason back from ethics to ontology. If the ethics of mutual penetration is an ethics of love, then the ontology of mutual indwelling is an ontology of love. The world is open to me and I to the world. Persons are capable of being open to other persons, and times to other times. Words make room for other words, and chords have room for all the clustered notes that contribute to their sound. At every terrace, it seems, even when we were only looking through a glass darkly or hoping for some insight into the way things are, we were glimpsing traces of love, love wired into the world, love as the operating system of creation. And as we look up to the peak, we might begin to see the outlines of a love that moves the sun and all the other stars.1




1.  Peter J. Leithart, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience [Brazos Press, 2015]





Tuesday, January 20, 2015

If theological work becomes sterile




    ...[T]he service of God and the service of man are the meaning, horizon, and goal of theological work. This goal is no gnosis floating in mid-air and actually serving only the intellectual and aesthetic impulse of the theologian. It is neither a gnosis of a speculative and mythological kind like that of the major and minor heretics of the first centuries, nor a gnosis of a historical-critical kind like that which began to flourish in the eighteenth century as the sole true theological science and which today is preparing to celebrate, if appearances do not deceive, new triumphs. If the proclamation or adoration of strange gods lurks behind the first kind of gnosis, skepticism or atheism lurks behind the second. After his fashion, Franz Overbook no doubt was right when he pursued the way of this modern gnosis to its end and became wholly disinterested in theology as service. Although a member of the faculty of theology, he wanted to be and to be called, no longer a theologian at all, but--as may be read on his tombstone--only a "professor of Church history."
    If theological work is not to become sterile in all its disciplines, regardless of how splendidly it may develop at one point or another, it must always keep sight of the fact that its object, the Word of God, demands more than simply being perceived, contemplated, and meditated in this or that particular aspect. What is demanded of theological work is the service of this word and attendance upon it. This may not always be its primary goal, and often it is the most remote one, but it remains its ultimate and real goal. 
    As a further delimitation of our theme, a second remark must be made here. Since theology is called to serve, it must not rule. It must serve both God in his Word as the Lord of the world and of the community, and the man loved by God and addressed by God's Word. It may rule neither in relation to God nor in relation to men. ...If theology is not ashamed of the Gospel, it does not need to excuse itself to anyone for its own existence. It does not need to justify its actions before the community or the world, either by constructing philosophical foundations or by other apologetic or didactic devices. Precisely because of its character as service, theological work should be done with uplifted head or not at all! 
-- Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction [Chicago, IL: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; 1963] pp. 187-88

Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:1-7



Today is January 2nd, 2015, and in this post I would like to share some of my thoughts about the assigned Psalm for morning prayer today, Psalm 34. In order to spare my audience from this appearing like a tome, in this post I'm just going to comment on one section of this chapter that stood out to me this morning. I also intend to post more thoughts on other sections in the future.

[A Psalm] Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek,1 who drove him away, and he left.
1. I will bless Yahweh at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.

2. My soul makes its boast in Yahweh; let the humble hear it and be glad.

3. O magnify Yahweh with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4. I sought Yahweh, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5. Look to Him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6. This poor soul cried, and was heard by Yahweh, and was saved from every trouble.
7. The Angel of Yahweh encamps around those who fear him, and delivered them.


This section seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, and also seems to be a personal testimony of David about Yahweh delivering him from troubles in a time of great distress and fear of what Achish, king of the Philistines, could have done to him (I Sam. 21:10-15).2 One of the aspects of this Psalm that interests me is the way David begins to speak. His focus is not entirely upon himself, or even his own joy. It seems as though David considered his own personal praise to be, first and foremost, an inadequate expression of the praise that Yahweh is worthy of. Yahweh delivered him, which is what this Psalm addresses (as the opening title states), but Yahweh's deliverance is worthy of far more praise than he alone--or any single person--can offer. All of God’s people are then encouraged by David to praise Yahweh together. From another angle, it is also true that the people ought to rejoice in David's deliverance because David had become Yahweh's anointed king, Saul's successor, and his deliverance ensured future hope for the kingdom of God.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the allusion to Moses' encounter with Yahweh at Sinai, whose face became radiant upon His visitation. (I recognize that translations differ in this verse.) Perhaps David's exhortation to "Look to [Yahweh] and be radiant" is a counter example to the shame which Israel encountered as the glory of Yahweh came down Sinai to them (in the face of Moses, to confront them for their sins in worshipping a golden calf). That is, without any further reflection, the first thought which comes to my mind. If this was David's intended allusion, then not only could the people of Israel remember the shame they felt upon seeing Yahweh's radiance in Moses' face, but even more to the point, David would likely be portraying himself as one who, like Moses, was visited by Yahweh and was comforted, not destroyed; one whose face became radiant, and not ashamed; and if Israel would follow after that example of David, as they should have with Moses, not being found committing lawlessness as they were at Sinai, they too could look upon Yahweh's face and be radiant. 


Finally, the promise that the Angel of Yahweh will encamp around "all those who fear Him" is interesting. Upon reading it I was immediately reminded of Yahweh's message to Israel at Sinai in Exodus 23:20 (LXX): 
Behold, I Myself am sending an angel before your face in order to guard you on the way, that He may lead you into the land that I have prepared.
Such an allusion is particularly fitting in David's situation because Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23 referred to Israel's future hope of conquest within the promised land (a conquest which had not been completed until David captured Jerusalem, brought the ark back to Israel, and built a permanent Temple in that city). If David was alluding to Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23, then his message of personal deliverance was also, again, rooted in a concern for the whole kingdom of God's people. His focus was not on God receiving praise from him alone, but rather the praise due to His name, a praise that is offered up by all those who fear Him. And as the next sections of this Psalm show, "fearing" God has less to do with emotions (terror, trembling, awe, reverence. etc.) and more to do with an ethos which pleases God. In the context of this Psalm, those who "fear" God are doing specific things that they know are pleasing to Him (i.e. "keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." vv. 13-14). I am personally convinced that David was trying to inspire Israel to good character and good works so that their praise and hope for Yahweh's deliverance would never be in vain.

I will post more of my thoughts on the next section of this Psalm in the future. 






1.  Abimelek was a title among Philistine kings, much like "Pharaoh" was a title among Egyptian kings.

2.  Compare the title of the Psalm with the names mentioned in 1st Samuel 21.







Sunday, November 30, 2014

Facing away (A homily for Advent, Isaiah 64:1-9)





First day of Advent (Year B)
Isaiah 64:1-9


If you are familiar with the history recorded in the books of Kings and Chronicles, you know that time in which the prophet Isaiah lived was not a pleasant one. Isaiah lived during the reign of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah; and during that time northern Israel and the fortified cities surrounding Judah would endure political and economic turmoil, as well as many, many wars. By the end of Isaiah's life, a number of Israel's fortified cities would be laid to waste, and many of Gods people would be dragged into captivity by the Assyrian military.

The reason for all of that, Isaiah says, is because Israel's iniquities had ruptured their relationship with the Lord. Isaiah tells the people that their hands are covered in blood—but the blood shed is not caused by murder; their hands have become bloody by defrauding their neighbor and suing their brother to the point of leaving him impoverished. Their hands are covered in blood by speaking lies too; and even when they do speak the truth, they speak it in such a way that that speech is violent. Isaiah also denounces the rulers of the land for being companions of thieves, people who love bribes. Instead of upholding justice for the poor, the widow, and the stranger within their gates, Israel's leaders disregard the cries of the poor, and they exploit the widow and stranger. And to make matters worse, when the Lord confronted His people with their sins, they merely went and offered the correct sacrifices, pretending that would appease God's frustration with them and make all things better. 

But the people of God didn’t stop their wicked schemes

Time and time again, the Lord stretched out His hand to help Israel turn from their wicked ways, but the people would not listen; and they would not call upon the name of the Lord for help to change their own ways. They would only call upon the lord to deliver them from troubles. Israel's wickedness had risen to such frustrating heights that the Lord turned His face away from that terminal generation and didn't look back.

All of this stands in the background of Isaiah’s prayer in chapter 64 (part of which is in the lectionary reading for today, vv. 1-9). Here in these verses, Isaiah is found pleading on behalf of Israel, pleading for Yahweh to come down, tearing the heavens open and shaking mountains in order to make His presence known. Isaiah knows Yahweh could come down and visit His people again because the Lord had done it many times before, delivering them from oppression, from fools, from enemies, and even from their own sin. 

Isaiah cries unto the Lord asking Him to come down and make His presence known, to deliver Israel from the Lord's enemies. But the irony of Isaiah's plea is that the Lord had already come down and judged His enemies. Surely it would be great if the Lord came down to deliver Israel from His enemies again, as He had done in the past, but what was Israel to do once they had become His enemy too? What was Israel to do once Yahweh had turned His face away from that generation of His people?

Speaking on behalf of Israel, Isaiah 64:5-7 says this:
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned. We continued in sin for a long time, and shall we be saved  
We have all become like a person who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, carry us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of You, for You have hidden Your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 

The picture which Isaiah paints is not pretty. God's people walked obstinately in wickedness for a long, long way, and they had reached a point in which even they should have wondered if they had passed the point of no-return. Even they should not have been surprised when the Lord finally turned His face away from them. Isaiah asks, "Will we be saved?" Or, to put it another way, Isaiah is wondering, 'Why would the Lord save us?' After all, they certainly didn't deserve the Lord's help. Isaiah describes them all as being unclean, and even their best attempts of doing good demonstrate their uncleanness. At best all their righteous deeds were like polluted garments--garments spotted by the flesh, bloody garments which kept them from drawing near to God's holy presence.

At this point in the story we should be asking ourselves, ‘What hope would there be, or could there be for the people of God?’ The Lord seems to have already made up His mind, and so, what could Israel do to change that? 

What would you have done if you were in their situation? Would you quit on God or would you wait for Him to return again? 

The reason why I think we should be asking these questions is because of the season that begins today. Today is the first day of Advent, and Advent is a time when questions like these should be asked by the people of God. Advent is a time when Christians are supposed to think through where they have come from, how they stand today in their relationship with God, and how they got from where they were before to where they are now.

Because Advent is a time of serious reflection about life, it’s also a time of repentance and penitence for the people of God. It's a time when we should want Jesus to come into our lives again, delivering us from our sin, to deliver us not only from the oppression of our enemies but also the way we oppress others. We wait upon Christ to come and deliver us from our foolishness, from our hardness of heart, from our injustice, from our ingratitude, so that there is no more blood on our hands.

Isaiah describes the importance of waiting upon the Lord in this way, even during times when everything appeared hopeless:
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear; no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (v.4)
O Yahweh, you are our Father. 
We are the clay, and You are our potter. 
We are all the work of your hand. 
Be not so terribly angry, O Yahweh, and don't remember our iniquity forever.
Behold--please look!--We are all Your people  (vv. 8-9)

As we wait upon the Lord this season we not only remember that Christ has come, but that Christ comes again in time and history, in our lives now as well as at the Last Day. When we look around and see how dark and confusing the world is without Christ, Advent reminds us that it's not, in fact, hopeless. It's not hopeless because Christ came into the world to make all things new, and He keeps visiting His people to keep making all things new. His Kingdom has come and His will is being done on earth, as it is in heaven. Christ is deeply involved in His creation, and He will remain deeply involved in this fallen world up to its Last Day. 

God is not absent from His world, and He has not turned His face away from everyone in it either. That is, in part, what we learn from participating in the Eucharist. That is partly why we feast at the Lord's Table week after week as a rhythm of life. In first Corinthians, the apostle Paul teaches that by participating in the Eucharist we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes, and that proclamation of death each and every week is a continuous token of hope for the world until our Lord comes in final judgment.

In the Eucharist we proclaim the death of a man who tore the heavens open and came down to condemn the sins of His people--that includes the sins in Isaiah's day, in Jesus' day, and even our sins today

In the Eucharist we not only proclaim the death of a man who condemns our sins; we also proclaim the death of a man who took all of the condemnation that we deserve upon Himself, on a cross, to save us from Judgment.

In the Eucharist we receive Christ, and by receiving Christ we have assurance from God that He has not, in fact, turned His face away from us.

* * * * * * *

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet you with joy at the coming of our Lord. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.










Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Breaking tradition by breaking bread (Matt. 14:14-16:12)

Photo by Nicholas Nichols

As noted in a previous post, chapters fourteen through seventeen of Matthew's Gospel talk a lot about bread

In 14:14-15:20, Jesus is followed by a great crowd (πολν χλον) to a great lake to feed a great amount of people with, presumably, great tasting bread (5,000+). Jesus then gets in "the boat" (ναβάντων ες τ πλοον), crosses the lake, and is immediately confronted by Jewish authorities who had been asking, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread" (Matt. 15:2, ESV). (Although most English translations don't include the word "bread," including the ESV, the word is actually there in the Greek text: ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν.) 

A lot of bread was being broken, and so was a lot of Pharisaical tradition.

In the next section (15:21-28) Jesus withdraws to Tyre and Sidon---a distinctively non-Jewish area---and is confronted by a Canaanite woman of great faith. Her faith is, in fact, greater than the Jewish authorities of the previous section. Her faith in Yahweh is so great that she gets excited about bread crumbs. While 5,000 Jews are being stuffed with loaves of bread, this Canaanite woman is satisfied with crumbs from her master's table. Immediately we can see the great contrast that Matthew intended his audience to see. The contrast is between a Canaanite's persistent acceptance of bread crumbs and the Pharisees persistent rejection of entire loaves of bread. The contrast is between a Canaanite's allegiance to the God of Israel--the God of the Bible--and the Pharisee's allegiance to that God as well. While the Pharisees prepare to attack Jesus over washing their hands before eating bread, a Canaanite sees the value of every speck of bread that her master allows to fall on dirty ground.

The Pharisees and scribes were looking for a fight. The Canaanite woman was looking for the Lord, her savior.

This episode is followed by a similar series of events (15:29-16:12) that just occurred, only with a slight twist of emphasis. After Jesus' trip to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus is followed by another great crowd (πολλο χλοι) to the same great lake to feed another great amount of people with, presumably, more great tasting bread (4,000+). The twist this time around is that Jesus is not feeding Jews; instead he seems to be feeding Gentiles. (This may take a few moments to explain, so I'll comment about this shortly.) Afterward Jesus, again, gets into "the boat" (πνέβη ες τ πλοον), crosses the lake, and is immediately confronted by Jewish authorities. Jesus then privately speaks to his disciples, warning them about the "leaven" of the Pharisees and the bread (ἄρτον) they've been feeding the children of Israel. This is neither coincidence, nor is it contrived history; it is a real life series of encounters between Jesus and his enemies. Like the prophets Elijah and Elisha before him, Jesus is gathering together a new school of disciples and preparing the way for another exodus from the land, as the land grows in its apostasy and becomes riper for judgment.

The shocking twist in the midst of this narrative section is Jesus' departure into Tyre & Sidon and his subsequent following of Gentile disciples. As I mentioned a moment ago, this needs more explaining. 

Notice carefully all of the narrative details recorded by Matthew. With the first feeding, Jesus multiplies five loaves. With the second feeding Jesus multiplies seven loaves. In total, that’s twelve loaves, just like the twelve loaves of God’s presence required by Law in the Tabernacle. Jesus was preparing a table of bread in the midst of his enemies and gathering together the people of God on both sides of the sea—the Jews of Galilee (5,000) and the Gentiles of the Decapolis (4,000)—to feast on and with the bread of life. This act of mission in feeding the hungry Gentiles even foreshadows the Eucharistic meal on the night of his betrayal. In 15:36, Jesus gives thanks to God, breaks the bread, and hands it to his disciples, who then in turn distributes the bread to the remaining crowds. The only other time in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus breaks bread and gives thanks is on the night of his betrayal (26:26-29). 

Still not convinced? Consider the following as well.

Throughout Scripture, the numbers five and twelve are associated with Israel, and here it is seen with the feeding of the 5,000. The numbers four and seven are associated with the world and with Gentiles throughout Scripture, and here it is seen with the feeding of 4,000. Also, with the feeding of the 4,000, we find something that is not found among the crowd of 5,000. Just before Jesus multiplies the 4,000 loaves of bread (15:31), Matthew says these new crowds “glorified the God of Israel,” which implies that previously they had not been glorifying the God of Israel because this God was Israel’s, not theirs. This makes perfect sense if these newly acquired crowds are Gentiles. As an additional note to confirm this fact, Mark’s account of this feeding (of 4,000) takes place in “the Decapolis,” east of the Sea of Galilee, which was a well-known Gentile territory.1 

How much more evidence do we need to acknowledge this distinction? 

I'll take one more stab at it, and I'll stick within the larger narrative of Matthew's Gospel too. All throughout Matthew's gospel he uses keywords, all of which are repeated in ways that link previously illustrated events in the Gospel. We find this again in this section. Jesus “sits down” (ἀνακλίνω) to eat bread with the children of Israel (the 5,000 of Matt. 14:19), and the last time this word for “sitting” is used in Matthew’s gospel was with Jesus’ conversation with the Gentile Centurion (8:11-12), saying: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table (ἀνακλίνω) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The “sons of the kingdom” at that time were Israelites. However, as we find out later on in Matt. 14, the Israelites who followed Jesus and ate bread with him (the 5,000) are distinct from those “sons” who would be thrown into the outer darkness mentioned in 8:11-12. The "sons" who remain in the Kingdom are those who eat bread with Jesus and his apostles. Only the "sons" who reject table fellowship with Jesus would be cast out. Those Jews who maintained table fellowship with Jesus and His disciples would be constituted part of the new Israel in Christ, and would be included with the Gentiles who would come from east and west to “sit” with the Patriarchs in the Kingdom.

This message of Matthew's gospel has implications for the Christian Church today. For example, with whom does Jesus break bread today? Or, perhaps another way of expressing the same concern is, with whom do Christians break bread today? Do Presbyterian Christians break bread with Lutherans today? If Jesus welcomes them to his table, they should be willing, because it's the Lord's Table spread before them, not a uniquely Presbyterian table or a Lutheran one. Do Baptists break bread with Roman Catholics, or Pentecostals with Episcopalians? Even though Jesus invites them all to his table, through baptism, some of them still come like the Pharisees with freshly washed hands holding a confrontational axe--always ready for a fight; others come persistently and humbly, satisfied even when they only find crumbs on the floor. 

Which of these characterizes the attitude and perception of your church? 

Which of these characterizes your fellowship with the baptized Body of Christ?

Jesus broke tradition by breaking bread, blessing it, giving thanks, and distributing it to great crowds that followed him--crowds of Jews and Gentiles. Christians of all denominations would be wise in breaking their own Pharisaical traditions too, in order to recline at table with Jesus. Even if bread crumbs are all that's left over for some who seek after Jesus, such would be infinitely better than the outcome of those who are filled with the leaven of Pharisees.








1.  I want to extend my thankfulness to John Barach for pointing these details out to me. For those who may be interested, Pastor Barach has a treasure trove of other biblical insights on his blog: http://barach.us