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Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122: 1-9, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

This coming Sunday we enter the season of Advent and begin a new lectionary year.  After years of working with the lectionary readings, something struck me this year.  In moving from the end of one lectionary year into the beginning of the next, the tone is much the same.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve been paying attention to the biblical anticipation of a time when God’s ideals are realized, when they reign supreme in human life.  When we enter Advent we do not suddenly leave all those dreams and visions.  Instead they come to focus in the expectation of a Messiah.  For the early church and Christians, the season of Advent is a time of anticipation, waiting for the birth of the Christ child in whom all those visions are in some way “fulfilled.”

The word “fulfilled” appears 31 times in the New Testament, more than once with reference to the words of Isaiah.  (See, for instance, Matthew 4:14)  The final words of the first stanza of the familiar Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

It’s not easy to make sense of this fulfillment.  Certainly not all evil disappeared with the birth of Jesus.  People didn’t suddenly cease to face threats and challenges.  Injustice was still quite evident.  The weapons of war weren’t suddenly all put into mothballs.

What happened, I believe (from a Christian perspective), is that all those visions about an ideal future came to focus on Jesus.  They are no longer out there in the beyond; they are visions that compel us and empower us and motivate us in the present.  We are inspired by and find hope in events as simple as the birth of a child.  It is not so much that Jesus establishes a new order.  He becomes the one in whom we see the visions, the one who keeps them alive in us.

Think of it this way.  We human beings sometimes develop an ideal image of one who would make a good life partner.  We keep looking.  Could this be the one?  How about this one?  For some there comes a day when we meet someone and say, “He’s the one” or “She’s the one.”  We find, of course, that that person, over time, falls short.  In human affairs, though, a particular person often becomes the one who reminds us of, and calls us to, the highest ideals.

This week’s lectionary readings begin the Advent focus on the search for and realization of ideals, offering visions and hopes sometimes applied to a Messiah or to Jesus.  Both the Psalm and Isaiah call us to a location where God can be found.  In Isaiah the vision is of a time when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”  (Isaiah 2:2 & 3)  In much of the biblical tradition, God is assumed to dwell atop the mountain.  That is where Moses receives the tablets that contain the ten commandments.  I’ve spoken before about the inspiration I receive from the wonder and awesomeness of nature, including the snow-covered peak of Mt. Hood which we can see from the deck of our apartment.

In Isaiah, however, it may be that the mountain is Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Interpretations, if you research  this line, are rich in historical meaning and application.  Some also suggest that the “mountain” is symbolic of government, pointing to the establishment that ideal kingdom long imagined and awaited.

The Psalm connects, perhaps, with the Temple Mount image.  It sees God’s dwelling place in the temple and in Jerusalem.  (Psalm 122:1-4)

Like the elusive visions which seek to identify God’s kingdom with a specific time and place, these attempts to locate God may be a diversion.  Jesus, in this week’s Gospel reading, says, “ . . . about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)  I prefer to focus upon God’s agenda, which, in both Isaiah and Psalm 122 is “peace.”  The reading from Isaiah speaks of a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)  In Psalm 122, the instruction is to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . . Peace be within your walls . . . For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’”  (Psalm 122:6-8)  Granted that the peace in these latter verses is somewhat limited---peace for me and mine, perhaps we can expand it to be more global.  I’m convinced that God’s vision is at least that large.  We associate Christmas with a message of peace on earth delivered by an angel choir.  We have come to speak of Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.”  Can we look to him and say “He’s the one,” the one who calls us and inspires us into the ways of peace?

Romans draws upon another image associated with God’s agenda, that of light overcoming darkness. (Romans 13:12) Jesus has been called “The Light of the World.”  We find instructions that might be thought of as behavior fitting those who would seek peace.  “ . . . let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”  (vs. 13)  Portions of this verse have been used by some groups to enforce a narrowly defined moral code, but it can also be seen to refer to behaviors which are self-centered and contentious.

The troublesome Gospel lesson comes to us as part of a passage in which Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and signs of the end of the age.  (See Matthew 24:1-35)  It includes verses which have fed the notion of a “rapture” in which some are “left behind.”  “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (vss. 40-41)

I like to read passages like this from the perspective that we are always living in the end times.  We are mortal.  Our days will end.  A friend may be beside us today and gone tomorrow.  This passage calls us all to live in readiness, to live one day at a time expecting, so to speak, the unexpected.  (See vs. 44)  And remember, the first verse of the passage (words I quoted earlier) reminds us to exercise humility when trying to tie God down to particular times and places.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

The season of Advent is a time of looking for the ideals of peace and justice and love embodied in the people and events all around us.  Maybe even in a manger, or the birth of a child in the finest of hospitals or the poorest of rural homes, we may suddenly exclaim, “He’s the one” or “She’s the one.”
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:

Reign of Christ Sunday:  Jeremiah 23:1-6 AND Luke 1:69-70 OR Jeremiah 23:1-6 AND Psalm 46:1-11, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

If observed as Thanksgiving Sunday (readings for Thanksgiving Day):  Deuteronomy 26:1-11 AND Psalm 100:1-5, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

The focus on images of what it will be like when God’s ideal is realized continues in this week’s lectionary readings.  The lectionary year ends with the promise of such realization.  I found myself focusing upon the word “paradise.”  To talk about paradise is one way to talk about the ideal of life where Christ reigns.  I’ve also included the reading for Thanksgiving Day for those who want to think of the coming Sunday as Thanksgiving Sunday.  We might ask what are the hints of paradise that come our way in this life and elicit our thanksgiving?

The word “paradise” appears infrequently in the Bible and is attributed to Jesus only once---in the reading from Luke 23.  In the Old Testament it is a word of Persian origin which means a royal park or garden, sometimes thought of as an orchard or a forest.  It came to be applied to the Garden of Eden.  Luke 23 tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion between two criminals.  (vs. 23)  People are taunting Jesus whose cross bears the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.”  (vs. 37)  If he is the Messiah (the specially anointed king sent to save the world), why doesn’t he saved himself?  (vss. 35-37)  One of the criminals joins in (vs. 39) but the other says, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  (vss. 40-14)  Then he says to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom,” and Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  (vss. 42-43)

We often take this conversation to be about heaven.  The criminal, though, probably had in mind that, by some miracle, Jesus was still going to establish a kingdom of peace and justice on earth.  That was the prevailing expectation of believers during Jesus’ day.  Nor was paradise, in Jesus’ day, thought of in terms of heaven.  It was an earthly place (a utopia, if you wish) where there was no rain or snow or intense heat, a place refreshed by a gentle wind perpetually blowing from the ocean.  If we take Jesus’ use of paradise here to be similar to his teaching about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, both definitions may miss the mark.  He talked about the kingdom as a place in the here and now, in our midst, in our hearts, in our relationships.  More than once he talks about it as something being realized “today.”  Now he does it again.  You will realize paradise today.

This exchange between Jesus and the criminal set me to thinking about the ideal that I might consider “paradise.”  During our recent trip to Hawaii, I heard someone say, “Welcome to paradise!”  I enjoyed the beauty of Hawaii, but I did not experience it as “paradise.”  I invite you to think about what it is that you might experience as paradise.  My main takeaway for Luke’s story is that paradise is a place where we are together with and surrounded by the fullness of love.

The reading from Colossians gives us an expansive poem about that all-encompassing love embodied in Jesus.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers---all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”  (Colossians 1:15-18)  And then this mind-blowing statement:  “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  (vss. 19-10)

This poem reminds us that the reality of God’s love pervades and gives life to and reconciles all things.  Now that’s peace, part of a vision of paradise for many of us.  It will certainly take a lot of reconciliation for that kind of peace to be realized.
Jeremiah dreams of a world in which the leaders (“shepherds”) are working to build such a world. (Jeremiah 23:4)  The present leaders, he says, are not doing that, almost as if he were looking into our time and speaking about our leaders.  (vss. 1-2)  Then, in verses which came to be applied to the expected Messiah and eventually to Jesus, the Lord says, through Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming . . . when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as kind and deal widely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  (vs. 5)

The alternative reading from Luke foresees the coming of that same leader.  The Lord God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” whom we might serve “without fear, in holiness and righteousness.”  (Luke 1:68-69 & 74-75)  The words are spoken by Zechariah at the circumcision of his son (and Jesus’ cousin), John the Baptist.  He goes on to say to his son, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break among us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  (vss. 27-29)

The vision of paradise we see here includes holiness and righteousness, forgiveness, and light to guide us in the way of peace.  John is called to prepare the way for such a paradise.  Would that we might all take up the mission of preparing the way for such a paradise.

Like Colossians, Psalm 46 describes a place (“the city of God”) where God is ever present, making wars to cease.  (Psalm 46:4-5 & 9)

The readings for Thanksgiving Day begin with instruction for those who have reached a “Promised Land.”  There are all kinds of problems, in my mind, with the notion that God would sanction a group to go in and take over a land already occupied by others.  The consequences of the belief in entitlement to such land continue to haunt us to this day.  Although it doesn’t mitigate those problems, it is important to note that, in the original promise to Abraham, God said, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  (Genesis 12:2)  The attitude of entitlement is misguided.  The focus of the promise is outward, about reaching out so that God’s blessing flows to all people.

No matter what interpretations I bring to the promise and possession of a “Promised Land,” I am not at ease with it.  Deuteronomy, however, does calls us to humility and thanksgiving for whatever we have, however it has come to us.  We cannot undo all the land issues that have arisen from thousands of years of history.  We can decry arrogance and abuse, acting as if our “possessions” allowed us to lord it over others and oppress them.

This week’s reading from Deuteronomy calls the people to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to God, “the first of all the fruit of the ground.”  (Deuteronomy 26:2)  In Deuteronomy, chapter 8, they are warned, When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself . . . Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’”  (Deuteronomy 8:12-14 & 17)

Often much of our thanksgiving focusses upon material possessions.  The Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day comments on such a focus.  The Gospel According to John reports that Jesus fed 5000 people who had followed him to a mountainside.  (John 6:1-14)  Then Jesus withdrew to be by himself.  (vs. 15)  The lectionary reading picks up the story with the people finding him “on the other side of the sea.”  (vs. 25)  Jesus chides them, telling them that they are only interested in him, “because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  (vs. 26)  He suggests that there is something more important than “food that perishes,” speaking of “food that endures for eternal life.”  (vs. 27)  He points them toward “bread from heaven.”  (vss. 32-35) 

Without further interpretation, it is enough to note, in our thanksgiving, that there are things much greater than possessions for which we can give thanks.  Perhaps paradise, in fact, is defined by such things.  The reading from Philippians, after calling us to rejoice (Philippians 4:4), calls us to “think about these things”---“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable”---things of “excellence” and “worthy of praise.”  (vs. 8)

In the framework of today’s theme, I suggest that wherever such values prevail, we are experiencing a bit of paradise---reason to give thanks.  And Philippians tells us to “keep on doing” such things.

That leaves only Psalm 100 which, perhaps, catches the essence of paradise when  its call us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” and “enter his gates with thanksgiving.”  (Psalm 100:1 & 4)  What is the Psalmist so ecstatic about?  “We are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”  (vs. 3)  There we come back to the imagery of good shepherding of which Jeremiah spoke.  “His steadfast love endures forever; and his faithfulness to all generations.”  (vs. 5)  When we live fully into such truths perhaps we will find paradise.  Maybe it can even begin today!
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 65:17-25 AND Isaiah 12:1-6 OR Malachi 4:1-2a AND Psalm 98:1-9, II Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Christian theology and its scriptures assume that history is going somewhere.  I suspect it’s more than just Christian theology.  We human beings live in anticipation.  Oh, there are days I would rather just pull the covers up over my head and hide from the world, but most days most of us would rather wake up expecting some surprise, or at least opportunity.  I believe we were created to live in anticipation.  We just lose sight of that gift at times.

The lectionary year begins in anticipation, waiting for the birth of the long-hoped-for one who will usher in a new era of justice and peace and hope.  The year ends with visions and promises of a time when all will be fulfilled.  We’ve hit that time.  There’s one more Sunday before we begin a new church year---beginning not with the first Sunday in January but with the first Sunday in December.

Our readings call on us to reflect upon what it is that we anticipate.  What are our visions and how will they come about?  Various biblical visions and narratives have given birth to a wide variety of views about the unfolding of history, leading to many denominational divisions.  Some denominations take their basic identity from one or another of those interpretations and expectations.

I don’t think God intended us to get it all figured out.  Jesus himself said, “ . . . about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36), and, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)  In fact, I believe God’s intent that we work together with the very Spirit of Life to dream and accomplish great purposes.

It all begins with a vision.  Will Rogers once said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll probably hit it.”  (Read it again and think about it.)  If we are to get anywhere in this life, God would have us dream big.  Throughout history there have been those who have dreamed of and experimented with utopias.  Ironically, the word “utopia” means, in the Greek, “nowhere.”  It has come to mean “a perfect place.”  I suppose one would reconcile the two definitions by noting that a perfect place is no place to be found.  We need dreams of perfection, however, if we are to keep headed in the right direction.  In the 1960s there were those who experimented with various forms of communal living.  Some succeeded; some did not.  I know I learned a lot from, and was inspired and disappointed by, such efforts.

This week’s reading from Isaiah offers one version of God’s dream, God’s utopia. It describes “new heavens and a new earth.”  (Isaiah 65:17)  What follows is like the litany of promises that might be given by an idealistic political candidate.  No more weeping.  (vs. 19)  “No more shall there be . . . an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.”  (vs. 20)  People will live in the houses they build and eat the food they grow.  (vss. 21-22)  There are certainly people today who have a vision of a time when their property will not be swept away by occupiers.  “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity . . .”  (vs. 23)  How many parents long for a place where their children can grow up in safety and hope?  The prophet even transports us into a vision of peace among the animals.  (vs. 25)  Can it be that we might hope for a time when we view nature as part of the peace process?

How big is our vision?  How great is our anticipation?  This reading from Isaiah 65 is not a bad place to go when we are asking that question.  What challenges does it put before us?

Many of the biblical visions include scenes of judgment.  The reading from Malachi is no exception.  “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up . . .”  (Malachi 4:1)  There are those who seem to live in almost gleeful anticipation of the destruction of their enemies.  “Just wait.  They’ll get what’s coming to them.”  I, myself, cringe when I think about such vengeful destruction.  I once arrogantly declared that, if anyone went to hell, God’s love demanded that I go there and sit beside them surrounding them with love.  Human beings throughout history have struggled with evil and its consequences.  Doesn’t justice require some consequences for people who bring so much destruction and misery to life and its relationships?  No one I know of has found a fully satisfactory answer.  What’s your answer?  Any utopian vision I know of lives in anticipation of a life free from such forces.

It’s interesting that the reading from Malachi holds out the promise of one who comes “with healing in its wings.”  (vs. 2)  Healing has a lot more appeal to me than vengeance and destruction.  Maybe we are even to be part of the healing, people sitting beside those who are going through hell and surrounding them with love.

The reading from II Thessalonians might be seen as a manifesto for those who oppose welfare.  It decries idleness, even going so far as to suggest that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  (II Thessalonians 3:10)  While we cannot wish away the harshness of some of these verses, we need to consider the context.  The Christians in Thessalonica seemed to have been caught up in anticipating that Jesus would soon return and establish his reign of peace and justice.  Some went so far as to assume that all they needed to do was to sit around and wait for it to come.  Paul is urging them to get back to work.  God’s purposes are not going to be accomplished magically.  Anticipation should move us to work rather than wait passively.  The punch line for this reading is verse 13, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Even if utopias are nowhere to be found, keep on letting the vision of peace and justice be your guide.

There are a couple of other readings to mention before moving on to the difficult Gospel lesson.  Both are primarily about praise.  Their only connection with today’s topic is that God’s purposes and visions are something to sing praises about.  “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously . . .,” says Isaiah 12:5.  Psalm 98 is similar to another Psalm from recent weeks (149) in that it calls us to sing “a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  (Psalm 98:1)  In remembrance, and in anticipation, we sing songs of praise.

The Gospel lesson takes us again into questions about what to anticipate.  On this day Jesus speaks of a day when the temple will be destroyed.  (Luke 21:6)  His followers want to know when it will happen.  “What will be the sign that this is about to take place?”  (vs. 7)  He talks about wars and earthquakes and famines and plagues, etc. (vss. 9-11)  Notice, though, that he also says, “ . . . but the end will not follow immediately.”  (vs. 9)  He also warns against following those who think they know the timing of things.  (vs. 8)  Mainly, however, Jesus notes that those who stand up for God’s purposes will be persecuted.  (vs. 12)  My takeaway from the first part of this reading is that troubling times will be with us in all ages.  Utopian visions will not be popular.  Those who persist in such visions will meet opposition, but, the reading ends, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  (vs.  19)  It is a little like Paul’s instruction to keep on working.  Living in anticipation means finding and drawing upon the strength to endure.

Our enduring, in fact, is a testimony.  (See vss. 13-15)  The way we live in troubled times brings the vision into the present.  It becomes hope lived out---lived in anticipation.
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Haggai 1:15b-2:9 AND Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 OR Psalm 98:1-9 OR Job  19:23-271 AND Psalm 17:1-9, II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

When are the best of times?  Are they behind us?  Are they yet to come?  Are things getting better?

Some people try to preserve the past.  Some people look back and see the golden years.  Oh, if things were like they used to be.  Some are perpetually trying to escape the past.  Most of us admit that we are shaped by the past---shaped, I would say, but not determined.

The existentialists would have us living in the present moment.  It is the only time we have.  The past is gone and the future is yet to come.  But even the past exists in the present moment.  The present moment is but a point in the stream of time.  We bring our experiences and memories of the past into the present moment.

Some philosophers and historians and theologians would see our identity and behavior as shaped by our perception of the future.  Some of us approach the future with fear.  It is dangerous and unknown territory.  Others see the future as opening opportunity.  Some have seen history as progressing and evolving into an ever-better state.  However we see it, every step we take, every decision we make, every behavior we undertake contains assumptions about the future.  The sun is going to come up tomorrow.  This is a good person to enter into partnership with.  We will work well together.  It is safe to invest in such and such a stock because the stock market isn’t going to collapse overnight.

People have been aware of the past and future throughout human history.  It was no different in biblical times.  Many texts address attitudes toward past and future, giving one or the other priority.  Sometimes both come together in a single text.  Religion is, at times, seen as bound up with a tradition to be maintained.  At other times, it is seen as an expression of hope about the future.

The lectionary readings for the coming Sunday can be seen as helping us to think about the past and future and how our lives fit into the stream of time.  As was the case last week, I’ll not go into detail about each overall passage.  Instead, I’ll emphasize (mostly) the focus upon connections with past and future.

The words of Haggai come from an era following massive destruction in Jerusalem, including the temple.  The people have returned from exile and begun rebuilding, but they long for the grandeur of the past.  Nothing measures up to what it used to be.  Speaking of the temple, the prophet asks, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?”  (Haggai 2:3)  Sound familiar?  Who has not said, or heard someone say, “Things just aren’t what they used to be”?

Much of the Bible calls us to look ahead to better times.  In this case, the prophet speaks of a time when “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former . . .”  (vs. 9)  For many, it is the possibility of better times ahead that keep them going.  We cannot go back; we can only go forward.

(Note in vs. 8, the startling announcement that “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.”  The context, of course, is the cost of rebuilding, but it is also a reminder that earthly wealth is not meant to be hoarded for selfish purposes.  All that we have and are exist as part of larger divine purposes---the purposes, I would say, of “Love.”)

Many Psalms sing the praises of what God has done in the past.  We are to remember, because in such memory there is hope.  As we get older, we remember the challenges and crises we have faced and gotten through.  When another comes our way, we are not intimidated.  We’ve been here before and found the power (God’s power?) to get through.  Such memory is part of Psalm 145:  “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.”  (Psalm 145:5)  It is there in Psalm 98:  “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  (Psalm 98:1)

Note that it is “a new song” that is to be sung.  The Psalm does not speak of clinging to the past.  The marvelous things God has done in the past are reason to step out and do something new.  We can move into the future with confidence.

Psalm 145 also connects past and future when it speaks of one generation lauding God’s works to another.  (Psalm 145:4)  Part of the continuity between past and future is in the movement from one generation to another.  We---we---between our grandparents and our children and grandchildren, are a link where past and future meet---in the present moment.  Past and present are represented in real people and real relationships.

(Some other phrases in these two Psalms are worth noting.  I offer them, with little comment, for those who may wish to pursue them.  Psalm 145:20 speaks of the Lord watching “over all who love him,” although I’m always troubled when God’s care seems to be linked with “all the wicked” whom “he will destroy.”  Psalm 98:4 is a call to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.”  I love the exuberance of the instruments and the seas and the hills.  Song, even the blues, seems to lift us to a new place.  In singing, even in difficult times, we find hope and see, however dimly, into the future.)

Much of the book of Job is filled with complaint and crying out.  Job had plenty of reason to complain.  The short lectionary reading for the coming Sunday comes at the end of a long litany of ills Job lists, including the almost humorous observation that “my breath is repulsive to my wife.”  (Job 19:17)  Of course, there’s the more serious, “My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.” (vs. 20)  He pleads, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!  Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?”  (vss. 21-22)  Then come verses 23 & 24 at the beginning of our reading, many feeling that there should be a break before moving on to verse 25.  Job suddenly seems to feel that if his complaints were preserved, “engraved on a rock forever,” some future generation might restore his reputation.  Then we have the wondrous words of verses 25-27.  Where do they come from?  Christians sometimes read into them a vision Job must have had of the possibility of resurrection.  Probably not, but from somewhere, Job sees beyond all his troubles to a life which is restored.  All is not lost.  Somewhere, sometime, I will experience the power of God in my life again.  He looks ahead and finds hope, maybe even the will to live.

The other optional Psalm, Psalm 17, cries out in a manner similar to that of Job.  “Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.”  (Psalm 17:1)  Part of the Psalmist's appeal is to his past.  “My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”  (vs. 5)  We sometimes feel we deserve a good future on the basis of our “good” past.  Religion almost always emphasizes both faithfulness to a tradition and hope for the future.  II Thessalonians instructs people living through a time of trial to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”  (II Thessalonians 2:15)  We stand in a stream of time.  People who have gone before us have learned a thing or two and are able to give us some guidance that may be useful as we move ahead.  We are probably not called to choose between past and future, but to see and experience, in the present moment, the ways in which they are connected.

Finally, we have a somewhat humorous, but odd and puzzling, reading from the Gospel According to Luke.  Jesus increasingly became a threat to the powers of his day, both religious and political.  They were constantly trying to trap him into saying something that would be a basis for arresting him.  In this reading, it is the Sadduccees (one of the religious parties of the day) who come at him.  Their question is based on the Mosaic Law that says if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow with no children, he must step in and marry her.  The Sadduccees pose a question about seven brothers who die one by one, each then having to marry their brother’s widow.  Finally, she dies.  “In the resurrection” (we might say, “heaven”), they ask, “whose wife will the woman be?”  (Luke 20:27-33)  The words Jesus speaks are clear, but what do they mean?  He says that “in the resurrection from the dead” people “neither marry nor are given in marriage . . . they are like angels and are children of God.”  (vss. 34-36)  Is he trying to say something about “heaven”?  If so, his statement would probably disturb many who imagine family reunions in heaven.

I think Jesus was mainly just trying to confound those who were trying to trap him.  He seems to have succeeded.  There is, however, a punch line.  God is not God “of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”  (vs. 38)  Stop speculating about what you cannot know and pay attention to living.

My takeaway is that Jesus reminds those Sadducees, and us, that we cannot tie down the future.  As we move ahead we cannot see everything that will be.  We can only trust because we remember God’s faithfulness in the past.  What it’s all about is living.  When past, present, and future come together in the presence of God’s Love there is fullness of life---whosever wife or husband we are!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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