He continued onward anyway
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Saturday, April 4th: Psalm 31:9-16; Lamentations 3:55-66; and Mark 10:32-34. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story that Jesus forewarned His followers on three separate occasions that He was going to Jerusalem and that there He would be arrested, killed and raised. They simply could not process this information. Their own expectations of Jesus as the Messiah conflicted with Jesus’ prophecy of His death. Their expectations prevented them from hearing Jesus.
It was not only Jesus’ closest followers, “the twelve” in today’s reading, who had difficulties. The other pilgrims heading to Jerusalem for the Passover festival were also “afraid.” They may not have been as informed as the Twelve, but they sensed something was amiss. Maybe these others who followed behind were Galileans, neighbours of Jesus, witnesses to His gospel and even His miracles. Something did not feel right.
This is why Palm Sunday, which we will observe tomorrow, was so cathartic for them. They yelled “Hosanna,” (“Save we pray”) at the top of their lungs. They welcomed Jesus into David’s capital city, the place of the Temple, the place where God resided on earth. They expected Jesus to usher in the reign of God by the power of God’s army. They praised and honoured Jesus because they saw Him on Palm Sunday as they wanted to see Him, not as Jesus had revealed those three distinct and clear times.
This unwillingness to accept Jesus on His terms rather than those of our choosing is the source of moral and spiritual (and even institutional) confusion. We want Jesus to support what we support and to condemn what we condemn. What should happen is that we must look to the example and teaching of Jesus as honestly as we possibly can, and then try our best to live accordingly.
Also, I am amazed at Jesus’ resiliency. He knows what lies in wait for Him at the end of His journey, but He also sees the confusion all around Him. It is one thing to die for a cause and trust that others will continue to carry it forward, but Jesus marches onward with no such assurance. He has tried to impress upon His followers that His is a radically new revelation, but now as death nears, He must realize that maybe no one gets it, that no one gets Him. He must fear that His ministry may end with Him. This fear means that His death may end up being meaningless.
Jesus, however, continues onward. He is true to Himself. He is faithful to His gospel. He is committed to the will of His Father. He is devoted to us – even if we don’t get it. Paul writes in Romans: “What if some are unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (3:3-4a) This is our Saviour. And now as we approach Holy Week, we can right the wrongs of His history. We can listen and we can follow, and we can be the people that Jesus always hoped we would be. Let us walk with Him now. Let us continue to carry onward with the faith. Jesus deserves no less.
From Job to Jesus
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Friday, April 3rd: Job 13:13-19; Psalm 31:9-16; and Philippians 1:21-30. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is our penultimate Lenten Friday. Our Lenten journey is entering the final stretch. Hopefully, we have taken the time to meditate upon the mystery of our “crucified God” in the words of Jurgen Moltmann. As we continue forward, the church presents us with a passage from Job.
Job is a familiar story. It is an entire biblical book dedicated to theodicy, the contemplation of how to reconcile a good God with the prevalence of evil, accident, disease and death in the world. Job’s suffering is inexplicable, which is the final message of this Old Testament book.
As you read through the Bible, the original message is that God sends suffering and death as divine punishment for sins known and unknown. Continue reading and you can hear the people of God beginning to recognize the dissonance between their actions and their situation in life. When their nation and Temple are destroyed, when they are murdered in their streets by conquering armies, when they are deported as a homeless people, they realize that this is too extreme a punishment to blame on God. In exile they encounter other religions that play on the idea of good vs. evil. The Jewish people adopt this duality and begin to teach that it is not God behind such horrendous destruction, but that there are evil forces in the world counter-acting God’s reign.
Satan is found in the first two chapters of Job, in one chapter of the Prophet Zechariah, and a poignant, single revision in 1 Chronicles. Satan is nowhere else found in the Old Testament. Then Satan explodes on the scene in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, Satan is an accuser, like a prosecutor in a heavenly courtroom. In the New Testament, Satan has become the personified evil who deliberately and powerfully counteracts God and specifically God’s Messiah.
Jesus lived almost 600 years after the fall of Jerusalem, and the Jews still remained nationless. Their land had been passed from Babylonians, to Persians, to Greeks and to Romans. The Roman Empire must have seemed invincible at the time of Jesus. The general religious mood was that there had to be a powerful evil force to cause all of this for centuries on end. They turned to apocalyptic thought, that God would have to intervene powerfully and personally in order to defeat this supernatural evil, that God’s Messiah would be a conquering hero.
Then came the humble, peaceful Jesus. Then came His violent crucifixion and death. And Job’s theme of inexplicable suffering reached its absurd pinnacle. The conquering Messiah was tortured to death by Israel's enemies.
Absurd if suffering and death must be evaluated as the punishment or absence of God. What if God is with us regardless of the accidents, the human against human violence that plagues us, and even our mortality. What if we looked at our suffering Messiah, our “crucified God,” as does Paul: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. … Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified …” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-23a)
What if “Christ crucified” is the invincible power of God in Christ to be with us always, regardless of what the world may indiscriminately throw at us or that people may intentionally throw at us? What if Jesus’ cruel demise is the “power of God” to be at-one with us always no matter what? Maybe Jesus’ own suffering and death with us and as us is God’s answer to the problem of theodicy.
May our next to last Lenten Friday give us the time to think about the cross as God’s ineffable love as the explanation for inexplicable suffering.
Seeing like God sees
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Thursday, April 2nd: 1 Samuel 16:11-13; Psalm 31:9-16; and Philippians 1:1-11. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I love the story of David’s anointing that is shared today. The call and ascension of David is a confused story because it is the combination of multiple stories. The first account told is that David was brought into King Saul’s service to play the lyre when Saul was tormented by “an evil spirit from the Lord.” (1 Samuel 16:14) He was chosen because he was “skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior …” (16:18) In the next chapter, however, we hear the familiar story of David and Goliath, and David is anything but a warrior. He is an untested and unknown youth. “‘Whose son is this young man?’” asks Saul incongruently.
The accuracy of the accounts is not the main point of these stories. Their purpose is.
The “facts” are in service of the “truths.” For example, I’m waiting for Amazon to deliver my copy of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I read this novel back in high school. (I thank Professor Thomas Roberts of my alma mater, Smith College, for his help in tracking down this title.) One of the main characters, Bazarov, believes in nothing. Life is absolutely meaningless. And he confronts every other character in the novel with his insistence on this point.
Then, at the end of the novel he dies from a small wound and an even smaller infection. He challenged everything including the grand and respected, but his death was at the hands of the smallest bit of reality. I thought this would be a good read during the COVID-19 pandemic’s shelter in place. I’m hoping to find “truths” even though the story’s “facts” are clearly fictional.
Likewise, the “truths” of David’s call to greatness, however told, are that they are unexpected, but guided by God. In today’s passage, Samuel is sent to the home of Jesse to anoint God’s chosen successor to Saul. Jesse marches out all of his sons. Samuel had been impressed by the “stature” of the eldest son, Eliab and was ready to anoint. God scolds His prophet and tells him not to judge by “outward appearance.” Rather, “the Lord looks on the heart.” The rest of the sons also fail to excite God.
Samuel is bewildered and asks Jesse if there are any other sons. This is when the youngest, David, is brought in from tending the sheep. His “stature” is lacking, but as soon as David walks in the room, Yahweh commands His prophet, “‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one!’” The message that God does not see as we see but that God looks inward, is a revelation filled with hope. It is a “truth” far more important than the “facts.”
I worry about the social and economic divide in the world and in our country. I’m afraid this pandemic and the worldwide recession it has given birth to will only exacerbate the separation. When it hits the poorest nations, how will those people practice social distancing? Our economy struggles forward on the labour of its lower paid workers who must continue to face exposure. The ones living paycheck to paycheck will likely fall deeper into debt and yet I hear stories of corporations like Boeing being cradled (https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/03/no-we-shouldnt-bail-out-boeing/). In a world that also threatens doctors with termination if they complain publicly about the failure of their institutions, I see where power accumulates. But there’s always the hope that comes from the “truth” that God does not see the way the world does.
God is not impressed by “stature” however that is judged. God looks inward. Our value is not based on our valuables. God cherishes each and every one us so much that even God’s Son dies on the cross for us all. God chastises His prophet to see like God sees. May we do the same so that our world may become fairer and more compassionate, that all God’s creation may be valued.
"A little crazy, good crazy"
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Wednesday, April 1st: Psalm 32; Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41; and Matthew 22:23-33. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
So in the spirit of April Fool’s Day let me share a little ditty that an old friend once told me. It has to be heard in the context of today’s Matthew passage. The Sadducees were the aristocratic, priestly families of Jesus’ day. They were rather conservative. They only accepted the authority of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, they did not believe in the concept of life after death. It may come as a surprise, but this hope arrives only in later Judaism.
This resistance to the belief in the afterlife is behind the question they pose to Jesus in today’s passage. They try to hit Jesus with a “gotcha!” question. Jesus fends it off and reasserts His belief in the resurrection. But in the spirit of April Fool’s Day, the question may be asked why the Sadducees are so dour. The answer being, “They’re sad-you-see because they don’t believe in eternal life.”
In all seriousness though, the unwillingness to believe in the hard-to-believe promise of life eternal, can prevent us from making the most of this life. I know this is not true for everyone. There are remarkable atheists who cherish this life all the more because they know that this is it. In our virtual Bible Study Group, we have mentioned The Gilgamesh Epic in regard to our study of Genesis. This is a Babylonian myth that predates Jesus by 2,000 years. It’s been around for a long, long time. Even at the dawn of written literature, humans were already struggling with mortality. Gilgamesh strives to achieve immortality, but the Epic ends with his realization that the best humans can do is live well, accomplish much and be remembered.
But for others the hope of life eternal is life-altering. The Rev. Joseph Lowery died on March 27th at the age of 98. He was one of the prominent, African-American ministers who with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From the late 1950’s, he fought for civil rights in the United States. He serendipitously avoided being blown-up in his hotel room in 1963 when instead he decided to take a late-night train home to see his wife.
Later in life he used this and other near-death experiences to describe the heroic work of the people involved in the civil rights movement as “a little crazy, good crazy.” This Minister’s trust in the resurrection empowered him to live life boldly and fearlessly. He faced death threats. An all-white jury fined him half a million dollars leading to the loss of property and car. But he persisted, and his faith gave him the strength to be “a little crazy, good crazy.” In 2009, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His faith in life eternal allowed him to make this life heroic. He wasn’t sad-you-see.
Or look at the example of Jeremiah. God asks much of this prophet. He must preach defeat and destruction to a people fighting a mortal enemy. He is locked away as traitorous. But Jeremiah’s story of purchasing a piece of land while within surrounded Jerusalem, speaks profoundly of his hope. Hope is an amazing gift. No matter the circumstance, no matter how dire, hope can motivate. Think about this as we walk ever closer to Jesus’ cross. Think about its promise of victory even in the face of utter defeat. Think about what the hope of life continuing means for the life we’re in. We’re not sad-you-see. We’re resurrection people!
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Tuesday, March 31st: 2 Kings 4:18-37; Psalm 143; and Ephesians 2:1-10. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is the end of a rather long and eventful month. We started off March with the regular practice of Sunday worship in our sanctuary. We end it by holding worship Services, Bible study and church meetings via live-stream due to the shelter in place restrictions caused by the pandemic.
We started off the month with our teenagers coming together for the Association Youth Group meeting in Southampton. Now schools are closed until May and maybe even until September.
We started off the month beginning to worry about what COVID-19 may entail. We end the month hearing Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Corona Virus response coordinator, commenting on the projections of Dr. Anthony Fauci that U.S. deaths could range from 1.6 million to 2.2 million. She sees this as a worst-case scenario if the country did “nothing” to contain the outbreak, but she said even "if we do things almost perfectly," there could be up to 200,000 U.S. deaths!
March is a transitional month. In normal times, it’s the move from Winter to Spring, from snowstorms to those special, occasional warm and sunny afternoons. This year March is transitional in a far more consequential sense. For one, I think we have transitioned from bluster to humility. We face the daily reality of this pandemic and how susceptible we are to a virus so small that it would take 750 of them to reach across the width of a human hair. For as advanced as our medical technology and infrastructure are, we remain locked in our homes for months so that we can help “flatten the curve” and give our care providers a chance to provide for us.
We can set dates for a return to normalcy. We can ignore the evidence that COVID-19 is ten times as deadly as the seasonal flu (1% vs .1%) and that it spreads much more casually and effectively. But the reality of all this doesn’t much care about our pronouncements. And that is humbling.
This humility has forced us to work together. We take precautions for our own health and safety, but at the same time our precautions help keep others from contracting the Corona Virus. By practicing preventive measures, we are not only thinking about ourselves, but people we know and complete strangers. We need to trust the advice of experts. We need to count on frontline medical professionals. We need to trust that companies will care less about short term profits than they will about manufacturing ventilators, masks, shields, and the such. We don’t, and we can’t, survive this alone.
And that humbleness has been a core Christian proclamation from the beginning. Ours is a faith meant to be shared and to be practiced as community. At the Last Supper, Jesus condenses all of the 613 Old Testament laws, and even His own Two Commandments of Love, down to the singular “‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’” (John 13:34) We are stronger together and it takes humility to realize this. And as it is said in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
In this month of transition, let us take another look at this idea that salvation is not our doing, but that we are the humble recipients of “the gift of God.” And let us look to the cross to see how costly that gift is.
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Monday, March 30th: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 143; and Acts 20:7-12. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
In the Elijah story, the prophet has seen the despair and suffering that the divinely ordained drought has wrought on people Elijah calls his own. The drought’s severity after some three years is frightening. There is a private oasis in the home of the widow of Zarephath as God provides miraculous nourishment. Then, tragedy strikes even here and her son dies. She believes his death is God’s judgment for some forgotten (and trivial) sin. The prophet himself, already wearied by the burden of invoking the divine punishment of drought, lashes out at God’s perceived indifference to human suffering, to human life.
How understandable is this reaction to tragedy if we accept that God has called it down upon us, that God doesn’t appreciate human life?
I’d like to wish my eldest daughter a happy birthday today. Life is a precious gift. Elijah returns life to the widow’s son. Paul returns life to Eutychus who had fallen asleep during church and fell out a third-story window. (Every preacher has a fun Eutychus story.) Life is a precious gift – as it was also for Jesus of Nazareth.
No matter how consciously I try to observe Lent as culminating in the cross and grave, I can’t help but anticipate Jesus’ return to life on Easter. Lent, though, isn’t only preparation for the coming joy of the resurrection mystery. Lent is the unpleasant work of processing Jesus’ suffering and death. It is coming to terms with Jesus’ offering of even His life for us – for me.
I try to separate Lent from Easter in order to foster a stronger connection with the reality of Jesus’ experience of human mortality. Not a morbid preoccupation with death-mortality, but a mortality that knows honestly of human limitations. This is the unfamiliar godliness of Jesus. That the Father raises the Son from the grave is a familiar godliness, but the cross is the epitome of the unfamiliar godliness that makes God real for me in Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t go to the cross thinking glibly that He’ll just endure this and then wake-up ready to be enthroned in heaven at God’s right hand. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He experiences the convulsive fear of the prospect of crucifixion (Luke 22:44). Jesus is not an actor imitating what it must have been like to be tortured to death intentionally and publicly. When He yells to heaven, it is no longer the closeness of “My Father.” It is the more formal and official, “My God, my God …” When He dies and screams, we don’t do heaven any favour by minimizing the physical pain and spiritual anguish of our Saviour. Life is a precious gift, and for us, Jesus sacrificed even that.
The life and death of Jesus are God’s answer to the fallacy of divine indifference. Jesus tears down the difference between us. Jesus knows how precious life is, but even more valued than His life are our lives. This is why He goes to the cross.
"They shall soon come home.”
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Saturday, March 28th: Psalm 130; Ezekiel 36:8-15; and Luke 24:44-53. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
We are getting ready today for tomorrow’s third Sunday of worship via live-stream. We’re practicing social distancing and shelter in place. These are necessary to help us flatten the curve, as they say, of the pandemic. This gives the health care professionals a fighting chance to give us a fighting chance. We’re trying to buy time.
A potential vaccine takes more time. No matter how smart the people working on the vaccine, no matter how much money is now thrown at it, it takes time to gauge possible side-effects and to determine dosage. We have no choice but to be patient and to help by even doing something as painless as worshiping together, but each in our own homes, in front of our own computers.
Both the reading from the prophet Ezekiel and from Luke, are hope-filled messages. To a defeated and displaced people, the prophet conveys Yahweh’s promise: “For they shall soon come home.” Luke shares the resurrected Jesus’ words. This seems a bit anachronistic as we enter the last weeks of Lent, but the resurrected Jesus is reminding His followers of what He had said prior to the cross and the empty tomb. He’s asking them to remember. He’s reminding them of “Lent.” Then, with this as their context, Jesus calls upon them to be witnesses to others and to the future.
I’d like to ask us to think about our current situation from a similar perspective. Ezekiel’s people are living in forced exile as they hear his words. Jesus draws the apostles’ attention back to the time when crucifixion seemed real, but the resurrection did not. And in both of these readings, hope was such a gift. Jesus ascends into the heavens to be seen no more and yet Luke writes that the apostles remained filled with “great joy.”
I was on a video conference with other pastors from the area a couple of days ago. We spoke about the hope that the faith itself and the community itself offered in these times of confusion and separation. Some congregations have begun live-streamed prayer groups or simply coffee klatches during the week. We spoke about members reaching out and staying in touch with one another informally and spontaneously. We spoke about the limitations of live-streamed worship, but also the potential to bring others to church who can’t be with us physically even after the pandemic has passed, blessedly, into history. We are now in those places that Ezekiel’s people inhabited and that Jesus’ apostles remembered. And we are offered the same blessed message of hope that faith shares.
This time will come to an end. We will look back upon it as life-altering. I’m hoping and praying that the world, governments and all of us will take more seriously plans for the future rather than draining all resources into a gluttonous present. I’m hoping that isolation causes us to turn outwards, to become more accepting of others, to become more cooperative than competitive so that we can work together to combat future global threats and build a future where hope is made real. Israel come out of exile. Jesus resurrected after the cross. We can do this if we choose to alter our ways, and faith can only help with its irrepressible gift of hope.
Jesus died alone; We never will
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Friday, March 27th: Psalm 130; Ezekiel 33:10-16; and Revelation 11:15-19. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
It’s another Lenten Friday. My thoughts on these Fridays are especially drawn to Jesus’ cross. Mark’s is the oldest Gospel. Part of the reason why scholars believe this to be the case is that it is the least adorned. Compare the Jesus in Mark with the Johannine Jesus from the latest Gospel and you can see “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3) transform into “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Mark does not shy away from unpleasantries: “When his family heard of it, they went out to restrain [Jesus], for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:21) The other Evangelists found this passage far too scandalous to repeat.
If you have the time and inclination, read the crucifixion accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Notice their differences. Notice that Mark’s is the least adorned of them all. Read in Mark 15 that Simon of Cyrene is a stranger who must be “compelled” to help Jesus carry His cross because the authorities did not want Jesus to die before they could publicly torture Him.
Note that Jesus is crucified between “two bandits” who “also taunted him,” neither of which is the “good thief” who sympathizes with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus could not find solace by looking to either side. Below Him the crowds passing-by casually on their way to the festival mock Jesus. The priests and the scribes mock Him too, but intentionally.
Jesus cannot even find relief as He looks above. In the most pitiful of all passages, Jesus yells toward heaven, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Then Jesus dies, not with solemn words, but with only a lonely, desperate, final “loud cry.”
There is no one around Jesus’ cross to offer a sympathetic gaze or word. Only “from a distance” are some women disciples watching, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. Jesus dies alone. He faces the whole fearful torment of our mortality. God experiences the terrors and uncertainties of death as one of us.
You wonder why, and then yesterday I read the story in the Boston Globe about an Episcopal priest who died from the Corona Virus. “[The Rev. Richard Ottaway] died just after midnight on Monday in Cape Cod Hospital, unable to have any visitors, with a Bible in his hands. … It is a hard thing for his family that they could not be with him in the hospital due to illness and the risk of infection. And they are keenly aware of the ironic tragedy that someone who had ministered to so many people near death died without family around him.”
Fr. Ottaway was not alone. The “ironic tragedy” that the family mentioned is heartfelt and their sorrow real. This “ironic tragedy” is also Jesus’ story. And because it is, Jesus was with Fr. Ottaway because Jesus faced down alone and faced down death. Jesus faced death alone so that we never would. The priest holding that Bible symbolizes that not even forced isolation and death can separate us from the love of Christ. That’s the meaning of the cross.
"In his word I hope"
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Thursday, March 26th: Psalm 130; Ezekiel 1:1-3; 2:8—3:3; and Revelation 10:1-11. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today was supposed to be the start of the 2020 baseball season. At 3:37pm (yeah, who knows why 3:37?) I was supposed to be watching the Red Sox play the Blue Jays in Toronto. Instead, I’ll be joining a weekly Zoom live-stream check-in with the clergy of the Hampshire and Hampden Associations that will be hosted by the Associate Conference Minister, Rev. Jill Graham.
The thought of some 35,000 people gathered in one ball park, passing hot dogs and drinks from vendor to adjacent seat to adjacent seat until it gets to you, high-fiving the guy next to you when the Sox hit their first home run of the season, the whole picture of an Opening Day baseball game seems so strange right now as we are still anticipating the peak of the Corona Virus pandemic. Our reality has changed. It’s not to our liking, but it’s not up to us.
Both Ezekiel and John of Patmos are living through times of harsh change that are well beyond their ability to control. Ezekiel lives among the exiles in Babylon. He was a Temple priest. He witnessed the destruction of God’s sanctuary, the defeat of God’s people and their deportation to a foreign land. Most of Israel had disappeared due to assimilation. When they were deported, they gave up. They became like the ones who had conquered them. The ones who remained faithful to Yahweh were few in number, defeated and impoverished. To remain faithful to Yahweh instead of accepting the conquering gods of the Babylonians seemed pointless.
John writes the Book of Revelation as an apocalypse. This form of literature is written during times of complete darkness. There is no hope of recovery. The situation is so dire that the only rescue is imagined to be the dramatic intervention of God. Human efforts are futile. John of Patmos is writing at a time when Christians are few in number and scattered, and they are being persecuted by the all-powerful Roman Empire. How could this band of a few believers preaching a crucified Saviour compete against and triumph over the Roman Empire? This would be the definition of absurdity.
Both books share the same imagery of ingesting the Word of God. The Word must become our nourishment, our sustenance. It must be as necessary a part of our lives as food. Only then can the Word feed us. As we think back to Ezekiel, history shows us that the Jewish faith remains as strong as ever and that the Babylonian Empire survives only in monuments and museums. As we remember John of Patmos, we still gather as Christians all around the world some 2,000 years later while the Roman Empire is studied for its rise and its fall.
In these uncertain and worrisome days of pandemic, let us especially now count on the assurance of our faith in Christ. When our reality has changed and changing it back is beyond our control, let us trust even more in God’s Word. Let the Word become as nourishing and essential to us as the food we share with our physical bodies.
And if you would, now read again today’s Psalm, a hymn of longing, trust and hope. As in times past, this time too shall pass.
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Wednesday, March 25th: Psalm 146; Isaiah 60:17-22; and Matthew 9:27-34. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
We have absolutely no idea about what day is Jesus’ birthday. Only half of the Gospels tell us Christmas stories, and they don’t even agree with each other. Convention has led us to celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Convention would then also lead us to the date of March 25th as the day the angel Gabriel announces to Mary (or Joseph depending on which Gospel you read) that she will conceive and bear a son. That’s today.
The prophetic expectations associated with the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour, are of a dramatic and immediate divine intervention. As we read today from the third prophet who uses the name Isaiah: “I am the Lord; in its time I will accomplish it quickly.” When the Messiah comes, there will be no questions or doubt. The Messiah will manifest God in convincing fashion. Again, from Trito-Isaiah: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.”
These prophecies of the coming Messiah are what Christians have postponed to the End-Time. When Jesus’ first-coming obviously did not fit into the prophetic mold of the Messiah, we spoke instead of His Second-Coming. At that time, there will be a spectacular display of the supernatural. In Matthew, we read: “‘The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.’” (24:30) This is the Old Testament prophetic expectation transferred from Jesus of Nazareth to the End-Time Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven.”
I wonder if this is necessary. We have misjudged the time of the Second-Coming for as long as there have been Christians. Paul thought that he would still be alive when Jesus returned (1 Thessalonians 4:15), and Paul died around 65AD. In this time of pandemic, people are once again speaking of Jesus’ return as imminent, just as people in troubled times have done for 2,000 years.
Maybe we need to re-think our relationship with the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah – because they proved inaccurate – and with the New Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s Second-Coming – because they too have proven inaccurate. Maybe the actual, and sometimes hard and harsh, reality of Jesus of Nazareth’s lived revelation is God’s fulfilled and complete coming into the world as our Messiah-Saviour.
Maybe the biblical calls to imitate Christ are the saving consequences of God’s intended intervention in the world. Maybe God come to us in the humbleness of Jesus, with a grandeur of a gospel message, and the promise of empowering grace so that we could work together to change the world. Maybe it’s not in the cards for God to do it for us as if we were perpetual children. Maybe God thinks more of us that we sometimes do of ourselves. Maybe God treats us as adults prepared to make a difference if we choose. Maybe this is what our church calls postmillennialism, that Jesus will come again only after we have established God’s reign.
The prophecies of the Messiah did not expect Jesus and definitely did not foretell His crucifixion, but this is the harsh reality of God’s lived revelation. Our “everlasting light” went to the cross in complete submission to this Way. It’s not as easy as expecting God to do it for us, but salvation is about us living in imitation of Christ, glory and hardship together.
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