A Provocation: Third Sunday After the Epiphany: January 21, 2018: Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.

1:17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

1:18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

1:19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.

1:20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

A Question or Two:

  • Why did all this happen after John was arrested?
  • Where was Jesus before this?

Some Longer Reflections:

…after John was arrested…

This past week I heard a man on the radio.  He was talking about getting arrested back in the 1960s because he sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter.  I also heard on the radio about the death of the man convicted in the deaths of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  In 1964, as part of the Freedom Summer Drive, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were working to register voters in Mississippi.  They were young, about the same age as my youngest son.  And they were killed by white supremacists.  Some people today might call the killers “fine people.”  I would not.  Killers are killers, and those who join groups that supported the killers are not fine people.  I might call them “accomplices-after-the-fact.”

Showing up and announcing that the world was about to change did not bring safety (or even success) for John the Baptist.  It did not bring safety or success for the Freedom Riders back in the 1960s.  A member of the congregation I served 30 years ago was one of those Freedom Riders.  She told me about her experience when I had expressed frustration at the state of civil rights issues in our country.  “Nothing changed,” I had said.  Then she told me her story.  “A lot changed,” she said, “but we are not done.”

I wonder if that is what Jesus said “…after John was arrested…”?

It is clear that my teacher, the Freedom Rider, was correct.  We are not done.  Not even nearly.  The people who refused to serve Black people at their lunch counters believed that any “race mixing” violated their religious principles.  The Supreme Court has been asked to consider whether “religious principles” allow people to refuse to serve people to whom they object.  Lunch counters or wedding cakes, it’s the same issue.

We are not done.  

Federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map this past week because it was obviously drawn to create and preserve a political advantage.  Take a look at the map ( go to https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/us/north-carolina-gerrymander.html).  If that is not gerrymandering, the word has no meaning.

We are not done. 

Read through the tweets (some of them perhaps generated by bots?) that erupted when Doug Jones won the special election in Alabama.  They are full of claims that lots and lots and lots of Black people voted illegally.

We as SO not done. 

There are many things with which we are not finished: affordable health care, protection from harassment in the workplace (and any place), protection for people who come to our country for political freedom, religious liberty, and economic opportunity.  This is just the short list.

So listen to what Jesus says after John was arrested: “Their time is up,” he says.  “The new day is on the horizon.”

Well, actually that was Oprah, but Jesus says the same thing.  He even uses the same basic metaphor to talk about how near the Reign of God has come.  The word translated as “has come near” (ἤγγικεν) is the word you would use to describe the moment just before the sun breaks above the horizon.  Get up early, an hour or two before sunrise, and wait for the sun. Watch the horizon.  It is still night, and will be for a long, cold time, but you can see the sky getting lighter, even two hours before sunrise.  Watch the horizon.  Just before the sun actually rises, the horizon looks as if it were boiling.  And then the first edge of the sun pops up, and the whole sky changes.  In the next few minutes, I swear I can feel the earth turning under my feet, and then the sun breaks free and rises.  Even on the coldest winter day, you can feel the warmth.  

Do you suppose Oprah knew what the text for this Sunday would be?

You don’t have to like Oprah, or want her to run for president to feel the rightness of what she said.

Before you preach, listen to the old song, “Here Comes The Sun.”  You could listen to the Beatles version (you can find it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/NI5iR52f65o).  Or you could listen to Paul Simon sing it with Graham Nash and David Crosby (https://youtu.be/muFOeZSIC2U).  Make sure that you listen to Richie Havens (https://youtu.be/VBbXKsKXyNU).

But above all, wait and watch.  The Christian faith does not teach you to put up with the way things have always been.  As my teacher taught me: “A lot changed,” she said, “but we are not done.”

A Provocation: Second Sunday After the Epiphany: January 14, 2018: John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51
1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

1:44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

1:46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

1:47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

1:48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

1:49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

1:50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

1:51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus tell Philip to follow him?
  • It is a simple question, but take it seriously.

Some Longer Reflections:

“Follow me.”

With these words, it all starts: all Christian life and Christian theology.  And not just Christian life and theology: Jesus has issued the summons a rabbi offers to a potential student, and Philip responds.

Becoming a student requires moving your feet, committing your self, engaging in the bodily work of study.  Studying changes you forever.  Every actual student discovers this.  Philip clearly knows it in this scene.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also knew what study requires.

His book, translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship, is originally titled simply: Nachfolge.  The physical fact of following is the heart of discipleship.  For Bonhoeffer, it was clear that this following consisted in “obedience unto death, even death on a cross.”  This, all too often, leads to masochistic theology that courts opposition and begs for persecution.

But Bonhoeffer was no masochist.

I read him as a realist.  Following Jesus and learning Torah from him requires a settled realization that the task of the messiah always tangles you up in the very real complications of the very real world.  “The world remains the world,” he says in his Ethics, and he means it.  Too much of Christian hope seems (to me, at least) to be made of cotton candy.  It is sweet and airy, and it will make you sick to your stomach if you make it your regular diet.  Bonhoeffer expected that Christian hope would have to make its way in the real world where things are difficult to figure out.

The storyteller in John’s gospel knows this, as well.

All of this makes Jesus’ comment upon meeting Nathanael most interesting.  He says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  Some interpreters waste their time (and their moral authority) by supposing that we should read this is a veiled insult directed at Jews in general.  These interpreters suppose this statement to mean that Nathanael stands out because, unlike other Jews, he (at least) is honest.

Ish.

Stop it.

We are done with interpretation like that.

Two things to notice:

First, Jesus refers to Nathanael as an Israelite.  Of course this is appropriate, because he is Jewish.  He simply is.  But it is worth noting that Jesus uses the form of reference (Ἰσραηλίτης: Israelite) that Jews use in ancient texts when speaking to other Jews, a form of reference that claims the other as a brother Jew.  When outsiders speak of Jews, or when Jews speak to outsiders, they refer to Jews, not as “Israelites,” but as Ἰουδαίοι (Judeans).  Jesus begins by calling Nathanael his Jewish brother.

Second, Jesus says that Nathanael has no “guile.”  I am guessing that you have, for the most part, not used that word recently.  At least, not when speaking aloud.  People know what the word means, but we don’t say it much.  The word, of course, refers to clever trickery.  It implies the playing of word games meant only to trip and take advantage.

Guile is a tool used particularly by people with power to trick people without power.  Think of the old song, The Preacher and the Slave by Joe Hill.  The chorus goes:

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and Pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (It’s a lie).

These beguiling words are offered by preachers to keep workers and other common folk quiet and subservient.

Listen to the stories told next to the hashtag #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter.

Read the comment sections that follow these stories, or listen to the dismissive comments made by opponents.  “What about mistreatment of men?” someone will ask.  “Don’t white lives matter?” asks another.  These questions are wonderful examples of guile.

And that is what Nathanael does not have.

That is a good thing.  Nathanael has no power to preserve.  He is a person of faith living under Roman domination.  Guile will be of little use against Rome.  People with power are not impressed with fancy word play, and that is why (it seems to me) that it is of little use to get suckered into Twitter matches with the president-for-now.  Some of what he tweets is politically offensive to me and to those who share my particular political positions.  But some of what he tweets has struck even members of his own party as foolish and unhelpful.  (Note, for instance, the reaction of Mike Rounds, Republican senator from my home state.)

But responding with clever wordplay will (for the most part) make little difference.

If the task of the Body of Christ is the task that led Jesus through his life and career as messiah, then our task is to participate in the raising of the Creation out of death.  This will not be accomplished by guile, but by simple, stubborn following.  Sometimes the task will require nothing other than partisan politics, messy and divisive as that can be.  And sometimes the task will require multi-partisan cooperation on tasks more important than countering juvenile tweets.

“Here is truly was a generation not satisfied with guile.”

That would be a lovely thing to have future generations say about us, regardless of our political persuasion.  We might even get something done that goes beyond partisan politics.

A Provocation: The Baptism of Our Lord: January 7, 2018: Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the voice from the sky say: Beloved?
  • No, really: Why?
  • Go to Phil Ruge-Jones’ Early Sermon Seeds on Facebook to help think about this.

Some Longer Reflections:

John has indeed baptized with water.  Baptizing is his essential function: you can tell this from the way he is named when he enters the story.  And he did this baptizing with water, which is only natural since water is what is used in significant Jewish rites of purification.  Those rites provide a way for ordinary people to return to a state of “ordinariness” after having come into contact with holy mysteries like blood or semen or corpses.  Those mysteries are, to be sure also ordinary, normal in their own way.  Menstruation and ejaculation are normal and healthy parts of everyday life.  But they are also tied to the mystery of the gift of life, and that is why the Jewish community developed rites that allow people to come into contact with them and still return to their ordinary jobs and responsibilities.

In this scene, John is washing people to prepare them for the work of turning the world right side up.  This means that washing is to be understood as facilitating the crossing of the border between the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Washing in this scene, then, is the mirror image of the usual rites of washing.  Those rites allow crossing back to regular life.  This washing allows people to cross over to the truly extraordinary act of re-balancing the world, which is a holy mystery if ever there was one.  Washing is the gateway.

But what is really interesting here is that John points ahead to a washing with the Holy Spirit.

This activity is so charged with energy that Christians have been interpreting it vigorously throughout our history.  Pentecostals have read it as a reference to a divine action that results in the bestowing of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues.  Lutherans (and many others) have linked the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” to the sacrament of baptism which is understood to create new life in the person baptized.  Both of these readings are charged with power.  They are different from each other, but both see the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” as decisively connected to the heart of the faith.

But it remains unclear just what “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” means.

As an experiment, avoid dragging the Third Person of the Trinity into your interpretation.  Maybe the Holy Spirit belongs here.  You can always bring the Trinity back in if you so decide.  But for now, notice that the Greek here is ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ. The word ἁγίῳ means “holy.”  And πνεύματι could mean “spirit,” but you would do well to stop and think about what you think a “spirit” might be.  There are all sorts of theological ready-made answers, but I have come to distrust theological answers (especially of the ready-made variety) when they require me to assert the existence of an non-material material, a non-thing thing.  So I am struck that πνεύματι mainly means “breath” or “wind.”

So what would a “holy breath” be?

There are two places to go for an answer.

The first is to Genesis 2.  When God has formed the Mud Guy (adam) from the soil (adamah), Mud Guy is still only an intricately-formed mudpie.  He lies inert and lifeless on the ground.  And then God puffs breath into his nose, and the Mud Guy becomes a living being.

This breath is the original holy mystery.  It is the reason that blood is so powerfully holy (“the life is in the blood,” which is to say that the breath of God goes straight from your lungs into your blood).  And the word in Hebrew (ruach) means “breath“ or “wind” and is translated into Greek as πνεύμα.

So John is linking this greater “washing” with the act of God that created life in Genesis 2.

A second link comes in Paul’s letters.  Look at the times he uses the word πνεύμα (translated as “Spirit”).  His uses of πνεύμα are the seeds out of which our notions of the Holy Spirit grow.  But if you look closely, you may notice that Paul’s talk about Spirit are tightly tied to his words about the resurrection of Jesus.

What if the πνεύμα he is talking about is the breath that God blew into Jesus’ nose as he lay in the tomb, the breath that raised him from the dead?

What if?

This same breath now creates new life not limited by death in all those baptized into Jesus’ death and gives gifts that create a new experience of life for all those who have this πνεύμα blown into them.  (This, by the way, seems to catch what both Pentecostals and Lutherans are trying get at when they talk about “baptism with the Holy Spirit.”)

If we read ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ as “being washed with the Breath of resurrection,” this washing does indeed mark a momentous crossing between ordinary and extraordinary.  And the particular nature of this extraordinary created reality is important: in a world where Power (especially the power to kill) is the real, effective Deity, the storyteller opens to us a world in which Power does not have the last word.

Read this carefully.

If you take this as a set of magic words, this could be nothing more than whistling while you walk past the graveyard.  Such readings are of little practical (or theological) use.

But notice that this scene makes it clear that Power will indeed have its way.  There are no magic words, and there is no supernatural deliverance from domination.  Resistance does not guarantee success.  Not in the short run anyhow.  But being washed with Resurrection implies being committed to resisting nevertheless.

Out of death comes life.  But only out of death.

Buckle your chinstraps, girls and boys.  This will get rough.

Nevertheless…

A Provocation: The Epiphany: January 6, 2018: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

A Question or Two:

  • Poor Herod.
  • Do you suppose he tweeted about this?

Some Longer Reflections:

The heart of this scene is the revelation of the birth of the Messiah to pagans from the East.  Or maybe better, the heart of this scene is the revelation of the birth of Messiah BY pagans from the East.  Both happen.  Both matter.  And that would imply that the notion that the world needs to be set right-side-up is not an insight only Christians can have.  Or only Jews.  Or only religious people.  Maybe we all know that the world needs to be set right, and thus the revelation that comes clear this Epiphany might be that we are ALL in this together.

That is worth thinking about, especially if you are accustomed to being right and to having the Truth.

The other thing to think about is Herod.

Herod claims the title, “King of the Jews.”  Herod maintains his hold on this title through the use of brutal force.  The next scene in Matthew’s story shows Herod ordering the slaughter of toddlers in and around Bethlehem in his effort to hold power.  His next act is to die.

But I see Herod in this scene, and in this scene the storyteller informs us that he is frightened.  In English, anyhow.

And “all Jerusalem” is frightened with him.  In English.

The Greek word is ἐταράχθη, and you can indeed translate this as “frightened.”  I think, however, that such a translation over-determines the word.  I think that the word is more open-ended, more allusive than “frightened” allows.  But before we consider that, notice what this way of translating implies.  Herod is frightened.  Jerusalem is, too.  They are made to be basically similar.  They are both afraid of the baby born in Bethlehem  and this similarity suggests that the whole city of Jerusalem is complicit in Herod’s genocidal attack.  Be careful of such interpretive lines.  Blanket condemnations are dangerous.  It’s time we stopped issuing blanket condemnations.

Even if the storyteller is doing it.

I am not convinced, however, that Matthew’s storyteller is doing that at all, and that is because the Greek original is more interesting than the English translation.

The word ἐταράχθη means that Herod was “shaken.”  I like how wide open ἐταράχθη leaves things.  There are many ways of being shaken, only some of which involve fright.  I rather enjoy the image of big, powerful Herod being afraid of a toddler.  I suspect that the storyteller (and surely the translators) share my reaction: Herod is being undercut.

But why is Jerusalem also ἐταράχθη?

Some possibilities:

Perhaps Jerusalem is shaken because they have learned that bad things happen when Herod is upset.  That does not imply that Jerusalem is on Herod’s side, but only that the people in Jerusalem have learned that Herod is dangerous.  The storyteller will make it clear just HOW dangerous he is in the next scene.  This means that Jerusalem is an ally of the reader who learns to fear Herod.

But what if Jerusalem is shaken because word has gotten out that there is reason to believe that Messiah has been born?  This possibility is worth careful consideration.  The word ἐταράχθη does not pre-determine the KIND of shaking that has happened. For Herod, it is negative.  He feels the earthquake beginning and he is afraid.  The people of Jerusalem feel the earth move under their feet and rejoice.  This, also, is a possible reading of ἐταράχθη.

And maybe we are simply supposed to notice that everyone in this narrative world is shaken.

Herod is shaken.  Jerusalem is shaken.  Bethlehem will be shaken.  Jesus’ family (as a consequence) will be shaken.  And Jesus will also be shaken.

This last shaking really matters.  Matthew’s storyteller opens to us a world that suffers earthquakes and other disasters.  When Messiah is born into that world, Messiah is shaken, too.  Necessarily.

This is necessary because otherwise he would not be “Immanuel.”  Matthew’s storyteller insists that this must be a story about “God-Is-With-Us,” and that must mean that Messiah suffers earthquakes and disasters exactly the same way we do.

This s not a story of magic deliverance.  This is a story of Incarnation.  This is, therefore, the real revelation in this story.

 

A Provocation: First Sunday After Christmas: December 31, 2017: Luke 2:22-40

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

A Question or a Two:

  • When have you seen people do what Anna and Simeon do?
  • What do they look and sound like?

Some Longer Reflections:

Why do we assume Simeon is old?

Maybe it because his story is associated with Anna’s story, and she is 84 years old, which is well-aged In any century, old enough to have seen hopes and fears come and go and return again.

Maybe it’s because he is described as “righteous and devout.”  These terms, in my imagination, apply best to people with some age on them, some seasoning, some gracefulness that only comes with long practice.  Young people who are serious about religion I would describe as “enthusiastic,” and I would wait to see how they ripened.  Some grow deep and wise.  Some just get loud.  Simeon sounds deep and wise.

Maybe we think he is old because Mary lets him take the baby from her.  Not many mothers are going to hand over their newborn to some random young man who might never have held a baby.  An old man, who might be a grandfather with lots of experience, maybe she would let such a person hold her baby.  Maybe.  But maybe this is why we assume Simeon is old enough for Mary to trust him.

What matters most about Simeon, I think, is that he is described as “looking forward.”  That is an interesting phrase in English.  Because of the way our heads are built, we ALWAYS are looking forward.  But it is even more important to note that we are built, as human beings, to look forward, to peer beyond the messy present moment in an effort to see a future that corrects things that need correcting.  Tim O’Brien describes this human trait (in his his book The Things They Carried) this way: “You are filled with a hard, aching love for what the world could be, and always should be, but now is not.”  This is exactly what it means to “look forward.”  This is what Simeon is doing.

The word in Greek, προσδεχόμενος, is also interesting.  The first part of the word, προσ-, is caught by the “forward” part of the English translation.  It expresses a forwardness, a leaning and reaching that are essential to catch in rendering this word.  But the last part of this word, -δεχόμενος, doesn’t mean “looking.”  The metaphor behind this word in Greek expresses “receiving.”  So προσδεχόμενος suggests something like “receiving forward,” an activity that you can’t do unless you lean, reach, and stretch toward something that you need, but cannot yet grasp.  Once again, O’Brien gets it right: “…what the world could be, and always should be….”

Exactly.

The word for “waiting” in Hebrew, qavah, is behind this little scene with Simeon, and the Greek word προσδεχόμενος catches the Hebrew background better than does the English. Qavah (“wait”) carries the metaphoric hint of being stretched tight, stretched even to the breaking point, like a string on a guitar, tightened and tightened and tightened yet some more, until finally it is about to snap.

Simeon, the storyteller informs us, is stretched tight.  If he were a younger man, he would be about to snap.  Thank goodness he has learned the lessons about waiting that only old people can learn.  They wait.  They feel the tension, perhaps more powerfully than young people even can, because they have waited so often, and so long.  For some essential things they have waited longer than I have been alive.  In my experience, this does not make them complacent, it does not make them cease to hope.  If anything, old people wait with a settled insistence that stuns me.

Listen to Isaiah 25:9: “it will be said in that day, ‘This is our God, we have waited for him.’”  I hear an 80-year-old voice when I read that verse, a voice that has waited for the end of labor and delivery, for children to finally find their balance, for wars to end, and for safety to return.

What matters especially in this story is that Simeon is not alone in his waiting.  Anna, a prophet, is waiting wth him.  And she speaks (a good thing for a prophet to do), she speaks about the baby to all those who were also waiting.  There seem to be a great many of them.

The older I get, the more I find myself to be waiting, the more I hear Tim O’Brien’s words to describe all of life.  When I was young, I waited for the end of the semester, or to graduate (from this school or that one).  I waited to find a job, to find a better apartment, or to own a house.  All of those things were just a matter of time, and I knew it.  Waiting was something you could put on a calendar, more or less.

Waiting is more complicated these days.  I have friends and students who are waiting to be deployed, some of them for the third or fourth time.  I am waiting with them, and I wait for them to return.  But I find myself stuck with O’Brien’s “hard, aching love.”   I find myself feeling the tension of generations of mothers and fathers who waited for any of this to make real sense.  I feel more acutely the tension between the historically repeated necessity of sending our children off to war and the historic awareness (expressed in John McCutcheon’s song about the Christmas truce in WWI, Christmas in the Trenches) that:

The ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame

And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

I am waiting with friends facing difficult diagnoses, waiting for remissions, or for cures, or for aggressive disease processes to work themselves out.  I suppose that I used to think that these separate hopes exclude each other, but even my limited experience with waiting has taught me that even “cures” can turn into end-stage disease states with a rapidity that leaves us dizzy and disoriented.  And I have learned that it can go the other way, as well.  Waiting is complicated, these days, and that is true even before we add in the waiting we all do for a day when we find the political will and the fiscal sanity that will allow us to treat medical care for all of us as a cultural priority.

Waiting is very complicated.  Given Anna’s age (and Simeon’s probable age), neither of the central characters in this scene would have been around to see how Jesus’s story worked itself out.  Neither would have seen Rome condemn him to death.  Neither would have witnessed the torture that killed him.  Before you leap to the resurrection, imagine what Anna or Simeon would have said if they HAD lived long enough to stand at the foot of the cross and watch.  What would they have said then about the consolation of Israel or the redemption of Jerusalem?

It’s worth asking.  Waiting is complicated.

A Provocation: Christmas Eve: December 24, 2017: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why shepherds?
  • Why angels?

Some Longer Reflections:

Here is a thing to notice: This scene starts with a massive show of strength.  Caesar Augustus sends out a decree.  His subordinates leap to carry out the order, and all the world is forced into motion.  Caesar can do that.  Rome can make that happen.  That is how the world works, and this week is a good week to reflect on that hard truth.

But at the end of the scene, we are shown something else.  First there is one angel with a message.  And then suddenly we discover “a multitude of the heavenly host.”  We all know this moment in the story.  We have seen a multitude of Sunday School Christmas programs, and many of them had a multitude of kids from the congregation wearing haloes and praising God.

It is worth remembering, however, that this “heavenly host” is better rendered as the “army of the sky.”  Notice, first, the army.  That is what “host” means, but the word is not often used in regular speech (except in Christmas programs), so the impact is lost.  In Greek, the phrase is πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου, and it refers to a powerful army.  

Stop and imagine what the shepherds saw: not cute little cherubs, and not sweet angels.  They saw a sky full of heavily armed warriors.  They saw an overwhelming military where moments before they had only seen stars and maybe cloud or two.

The end of the scene balances the beginning.

At the beginning we see an intentional display of Roman power.  At the end we discover that the sky is full of an army that makes Roman might look puny.

And it was there all the time.

That is why it is important to translate οὐρανος as “sky,” not “heavens.”  “Heaven” is a religious place, impossibly far off and impossible to reach until you die.  The sky is always there, right over your head.  And the sky is full of angels, warriors in the fight to turn the world right-side-up.  The storyteller is making an obvious point: Rome can make the world jump when it issues a decree, but Rome cannot fill the sky with an army.  And even when Rome can make the whole world jump and run, all it really accomplishes is that the Messiah is born in the perfect place: Bethlehem, David’s home.  Rome is not even in control of its own power.  And Caesar Augustus has no idea.

That’s what happens when the sky is full of angels. 

The collision in this scene between Roman power and the power of the army of the sky is worth thinking about.

The temptation is to pretend that the sky full of angels makes everything dandy, to imagine that all we have to do is assert this little bit of theology in the face of very real power and we will have preached the sermon that fixes the world.

Not so much.

Before the sermon begins and after its last echoes fall into the corners of the sanctuary, the real world remains unrepentantly real.  In the real world, the abuse of power works far too often, maybe even most of the time, and a pretty sermon won’t charm it into compliance.  Come to think of it, that was true for Jesus, too.  In the end, Rome killed him, which is what abusers always do.  They may kill your body, or they may kill your hope and break your spirit, but they will kill you.  It matters that we remember this.

So what is the point of this story with a sky full of angels?  If Rome retains control over life and death, what is the point?  Christians have historically tried to solve this by relying on heaven.  After we die, we go to heaven.  Simple.

The problem is that this solution leaves Roman power untouched.  It leaves the abusers in control. In fact, it needs the abusers to win before theology has any effect.  The abuser still kills you, and then you go to heaven.

Somehow, this seems like less than what the angels (or the shepherds) had in mind in this scene.  They seem to have imagined that peace would take place on earth.

That is another reason to translate οὐρανος as sky.  This scene is not about a heaven that is hopelessly far away.  The storyteller is painting a picture of a real world that is livelier than Rome imagines.  

On the cover of the program for the Christmas Vespers Service at Augustana University where I teach they reproduced “The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Anton Mengs (you can see the painting at https://goo.gl/images/ybjMfi).  Go to the website and look at this fascinating picture.  There is a mother and there is a baby and there is a crowd of adoring shepherds.  As you would expect.

But just barely over their heads, closer than you might expect, the room is full of angels, crowded together, within reach.

A friend of mine tells me that Celtic spirituality teaches that the spiritual world is just about 36 inches above our heads, which makes it always near to us, but always just out of reach unless you are Michael Jordan.  But, says my friend, there are in the world “thin places,” places where the spiritual realm is so close that a breath from that realm would rustle your hair, so near that you can experience it while still remaining a creature of earth.

Mengs has painted “The Adoration of the Shepherds” as a “thin place.”  The angels are so close they could knock your hat off.

The storyteller in Luke has done the same thing with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Abusive power is real, but so is the army of the sky.  The angels are always there, barely above our heads.  We just don’t see them.

The storyteller opens our eyes.  

For a day, practice imagining the crowd of angels just above your head.  Practice imagining, with the Midrash Rabbah, that every blade of grass has its own angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow!”  (Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 10:6)  I find myself imagining that Mary thought of the world this way.  Maybe that is why she was not frightened when Gabriel appeared: she had always imagined him standing there, just out of reach, just beyond sight.  Maybe that is why Mary chose to be mother to the Messiah.

The abusers still have the power, and they regularly win.  But maybe the strength of the #MeToo movement is due, at least in part to the crowd of angels whispering to each strong woman, “Grow!  Grow!”  The abusers may have the power, but the truth-tellers have the strength, and that makes all the difference.

Just like it did for Mary.  Treasure this strength, and ponder it in your heart.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 24, 2017: Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38
1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

1:35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

1:38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Mary take this moment to give the angel a biology lesson?
  • Why does Mary choose to be part of God’s project?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is an angelophany.  All that means is that this is an angel-appearance story.

No kidding.

But there are rules that govern these things.  An angel doesn’t just show up.  They (apparently) have to play it by the book: the angel shows up, the person to whom the angel appears is afraid, the angel says, “Be not afraid.”  And then the angel delivers the message they were sent to deliver.

Read a bunch of angel-appearance stories.  You will see that they follow this pattern.

And that is what makes this scene in Luke so interesting.

Most of the elements are there: the appearance is typical, Gabriel gets his line right and says, “Be not afraid,” and he delivers his message successfully.  Most interpreters don’t notice that there is something missing.  But there is.  And I think it matters.

The storyteller never tells us that Mary is afraid.  Sure, the angel tells her not to be afraid, but we are NOT told that Mary was afraid.  When Gabriel appears to Zechariah earlier in the story, Zechariah is afraid.  The storyteller says so.

But the storyteller, this time, does not say that Mary is afraid.

Stop and think about that.

On cultural averages, Mary is likely to have been 12 or 13 years old.  Even in a world that required young people to grow up in a hurry she is still a young girl.  And she is not afraid, not even in the face of an angel who stands in the presence of God.

In fact, in the face of an angel, Mary “ponders.”  The word might be better translated as “debated,” or “dialogued.”  It is a verb that is used to reveal intellectual analysis.  And then, in the face of a biological impossibility (which angels might not exactly understand, after all, since they do not procreate), she asks a direct question without hesitating.  And the angel responds.

At the end of all of this, Mary chooses to act as the servant of the LORD and as the mother of the Messiah.  She does not submit, she chooses and she acts.  This matters.

It also matters that when she explains the situation to her auntie, Elizabeth, she goes well beyond what Gabriel has said to her in this brief conversation.  Mary chooses to be the mother of the Messiah on the grounds that this will result in the toppling of the proud and pointlessly powerful.  Mary acts so that the poor might be raised up.  She chooses to join the effort to turn the world right-side-up.

Jesus comes from a strong family.  He has a courageous mother.  This also matters. 

The world will not be turned right-side-up by submitting.  It will take real courage, durable commitment, and the kind of creative stubbornness that real accomplishment always requires.  The repairing of the world is, of course, a gift from God, but this gift requires the kind of strength Mary displays in this scene.  It requires persistence.  Mary persisted.

May we also persist.  

 

A Provocation: Third Sunday of Advent: December 17, 2017: John 1:6-8, 19-28 

John 1:6-8, 19-28 
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”

1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”

1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does John confess that he is not the Messiah?
  • Don’t settle for a simple, or single, answer.

Some Longer Reflections:

Just a note in passing: the storyteller in John disagrees with the storytellers in the synoptic gospels.  The synoptic storytellers paint John as Elijah.  John’s storyteller emphatically does not.  Who is right?  Yes.

This is worth noting, but it is not worth spending time manufacturing a way to avoid this obvious contradiction.  The storytellers disagree.  They just do.  That is a problem only if we refuse to accept the gift of a rich and diverse storytelling tradition, the gift of multiple stories, each with its own perspective and point, the gift of being freed from having to engage in tiny little arguments about biblical “inerrancy” that only make us look silly to outsiders.

We are getting close to Christmas.  Accept the gifts.

It is somewhat important to sort out who John confesses that he is not, but it is far more important to absorb who he says that he is.  He is, he says, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”  Commentators often note that this is a misquoting of Isaiah’s words.  Isaiah said: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…,” but John (and the Septuagint) have the voice in the wilderness instead of having the “way of the LORD” there.  It is worth noting, again just in passing, that this is not necessarily a problem with text or quotation or translation.  It may only be a problem with editorial decisions since you could just as well present the text in John (and the Septuagint) as:

Ἐγὼ φωνὴ βοῶντος, Εν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ὐθύνατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου…  (I am a voice crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…)

 All that requires is a shift in capital letters and commas, and the original manuscripts had no commas and were written all in capitals, so it’s only editors who put the voice in the wilderness.  They certainly did this because John (who had wildness in him and around him) was such a powerful attractor that he distorted the original words of Isaiah all by himself.  But it is not clear to me that the editors are right, nor is it clear that John would have agreed with them.

The original words put the way of the God whose Name is Mercy in the wilderness.

The words do that because this is a prophecy from the time of the Exile and the promised Return to the Land of Promise.  The Jews in Exile knew plenty about the wilderness.  They knew that the shortest way home lay straight through the desert: dry, rough, and inhospitable.  They also knew that the regular road back to Jerusalem and the Land of Promise lay through the Fertile Crescent, through the territory of the nations that had ridiculed them when they were marched naked into Exile after the Babylonian Conquest.  They remembered that experience, and they knew that they would be traveling with few resources, which would force them to rely on the generosity of the people that had taunted them.  “Make a straight path,” said Second Isaiah.  Where? “Straight through the desert, made miraculously level and life-giving.”

But there is a deeper level to this.  The Jews in Exile knew that there were all sorts of wilderness.  The word in Hebrew is midbar, which means “a place far away from speech (dabar).”  The image is powerful.  It combines the silence of wildlands with a hint that these lands were inhospitable because they had not yet been shaped by God’s creating Word (Genesis 1) which made chaos into a place where people could live safely.  The Jews in Exile knew about the desert wilderness; they also knew about the chaos of life in Exile, and could anticipate the chaos that would attend their return to Jerusalem, the city that had stood empty and ruined in their vivd imaginations, but which had been inhabited by very real people for the past two generations.  This, also presented a kind of wilderness, with no sure track or certain outcome.

“Make a straight road for the God whose Name is Mercy, make it in the wilderness, make it in chaos, make it in our imaginations so that we can bear the hard, chaotic work that lies ahead of us,” so says the prophet.  You need a prophet sometimes; sometimes only a prophet can tell you the truth, and also give you the courage you will need to handle that difficult truth.

And that might be the connection that lets both John the Baptist and Second Isaiah speak to the people who will show up for worship on the Third Sunday of Advent.

They are acquainted with the wilderness.  All sorts of wilderness, both in them and around them.

 

You know that wilderness, or at least some of it, and you also know the wilderness that frightens you.  John the Baptist comes into this week’s scene singing a song about making a road for Mercy in the middle of any imaginable wilderness.  This might be a week to look closely at the First Lesson for this week, also from Isaiah.  It expands on what all four gospel storytellers understand to be John’s purpose and task.  For all the differences amongst the four gospels, they agree on this: John the Baptist sings the song that Second Isaiah began.  That suggests that the gospel storytellers saw the chaos around them as calling for that same voice to cry out, the same voice that the Jews in Exile needed and heard.

As an experiment, read the scene from John’s gospel, and when John the Baptist links his voice with the voice of Second Isaiah, add a verse or two from this Sunday’s First Lesson as well.  Now go back to the beginning of the scene and read it again, this time adding yet more words from Isaiah 61.

Now consider this: Where you live, who are the oppressed?  Who are the brokenhearted?  Who are the prisoners, and who are the mourners?  What are the ancient ruins that need to be built up?  How can the people who gather for worship this Third Sunday of Advent bind up, and comfort, and build up?  It is my conviction that it is the brokenhearted that are best at binding up, that those who mourn are best at comforting mourners, and that those who have lived through devastation are the most helpful at helping us repair ruined cities and broken communities.

There is a lot of binding and healing and rebuilding needed, maybe especially this year.  This Sunday is a good day to get on with that work.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
61:1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;

61:2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;

61:3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.

61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

61:8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

61:9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.

61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

 

 

 

A Provocation: Second Sunday of Advent: December 10, 2017: Mark 1:1-8

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does John eat locusts and wild honey?
  • Notice that this diet makes him independent and free.  The Creation itself feeds him, and he doesn’t have to ask anyone “pretty please.”
  • What does telling the truth have to do with asking “pretty please?”

Some Longer Reflections:

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, strangely dressed and passionate, and he proclaims a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  I have been working with actors to perform this scene for a long time, nearly 20 years, in fact.  I have seen women and men perform this scene, old people and young, pastors and sophomores at Augustana, where I teach.  In almost every performance, John the Baptist shouts.  Sometimes he foams at the mouth.  Most of the time he resembles a revivalist preacher, whether or not he adopts a phony Southern accent (it is especially bad when he does).

You can see why this happens: the storyteller repeats the thing about repenting of sins, and the thing about being baptized as part of that repenting.

But this common way of playing this scene ignores how John is invited into the story.  The storyteller weaves the invitation out of memories from Exodus, from Malachi, and from Isaiah, and calls the whole thing (at least in a broad, and reliable set of ancient manuscripts) a word from the prophet, Isaiah.

Go look at the source material in Isaiah (it is the First Lesson for this Sunday).  It comes from Isaiah 40, and it does not anywhere mention repentance.  It does not foam at the mouth.  It does not even shout.

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says God.  “Speak tenderly.”

Stop and think about that.

Speak tenderly. 

Isaiah, especially the later chapters of that prophet, was well known.  Any imaginable audience for Mark’s story would have recognized Isaiah 40 as soon as the storyteller opened her mouth.  The audience would have known that the prophet is speaking comfort, tenderly.

So why do we shout?

We appear to believe that people will only change if we scold them, preferably loudly.  I have worked for managers like that.  In my experience, they are bad at their jobs.  They may get short-term results: people will (at least at first) do almost anything just to stop the shouting.  Chaotic bosses who manage by being loud and unpredictable may succeed in putting themselves at the center of everything, but they stir resentment and resistance.  People work AGAINST them as much as they work FOR them.  And they never work WITH them.  A moron with power is still a moron.

If John the Baptist had been a shouting moron-with-power to convince people that they needed to jump when he said jump, his movement would have ground down to nothing after his death.  Notice that in Mark’s story, John’s movement flows directly into Jesus’s movement.  The people who come out to John continue to work with him, and with Jesus after him.  You don’t get that by yelling at people.  That just leads to resentment.

So, a suggestion: Speak tenderly.

When you read John’s words to the crowds who came out to him, speak them as words of comfort.  Imagine the words about repentance as tender, kind, loving, and comforting.  John is offering people a chance to be done with all the things that have bound them to anger and resentment, an opportunity to be free from sin.  That will lift up every valley, and smooth out every wrecked road.

Speak tenderly, and then the glory of the God whose Name is Mercy will be revealed.

A Provocation: First Sunday of Advent: December 3, 2017: Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

A Question or Two:

  • Which apocalyptic movie will you watch as you prepare to celebrate Advent?
  • Skip the Left Behind nonsense, or anything made by that crowd.
  • Try Harry Potter.  Try The Lord of the Rings.  Try Band of Brothers.  Try White Christmas.  Yes, seriously.  (Sort of.)

Some Longer Reflections:

Real end-of-the-world stuff this week.

And almost all of the customary notions about this miss the point.  Sometimes really badly.

All of this goes sour when somebody pops up with the Rapture, and the threat of being “left behind,” and pretty soon we’re all doing the backstroke in the lake of fire.  Oh joy.

A bit before my parents were born (early 1920s) Lutherans in North America got together and decided to suspend preaching on the second coming and the end of the world.  They judged that such preaching was doing more harm than good and that they would do better to give it a rest.  A long rest.

I am sometimes really thankful so such a decision.  Speculation about dates and times and heavenly signs leads to mischief.  Only mischief.  But as a result of that decision both my parents and I grew up with almost no acquaintance with apocalypticism.  That meant I was spared the hellfire-and-damnation theology that generally goes with it.  I’m fine with that: as a result of missing out on hellfire, anger has always seemed to me a dangerous intrusion in theology, not a major key to play in.  But also as a result of that decision, my whole generation was ill-prepared to deal with the apocalyptic times in which we grew up.  We fell victim to the various galloping apocalyptic schemes (some religious, some not) that burst on the scene in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Kent State Massacre.  We swallowed the Jesus Movement (for good and for ill), some of us much more than others.  Perhaps we would have been spared some of the excess (wretched and otherwise) of that era if we had developed critical theological skills around apocalyptic.  Perhaps.

That is the last century.

This is now.  It is another apocalyptic time, in some ways as excessive (and as dangerous) as the late 60s and early 70s.

This is maybe a good time to look closely at apocalyptic texts and trends, and to think critically about them, whether they are religious in origin or not.

The first thing to notice is that the celestial events listed in Mark 13 begin after “that suffering.”  This is no time to fire up old rants about “the tribulation.”  That is NOT what Mark 13 is talking about, no matter what TV preachers will tell you.  “That suffering,” for any imaginable audience of Mark’s ancient story, would have called to mind the horrors of the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.  Ancient sources say that something like 1 million Jews died.  The disaster came to its climax in the siege of Jerusalem, which was horrifying.  This catastrophe left marks on the Jewish faith (and the Christian faith) that are visible still.

(See David Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins for a fine exploration of this and other generative catastrophes.)

Notice that it is AFTER that suffering that the powers of the heavens are shaken.  Rather than speculate about how the stars can fall from the sky, imagine what such events would have meant for the first audience of this story.  The sun rules the day, says Genesis 1, and the moon rules the night.  The stars are for the marking of the regular and reliable seasons.  Even during the darkest days of the siege of Jerusalem the sun always rose in the east every morning, and set every night in the west, reliable and regular even in disaster.  The moon walked through its phases, week by week, moving from new moon to full, and back again, every month, every year.  And the North Star was always steadily in the north, with all the other stars spinning around it.  For these guarantors of regularity to be knocked from their places would have meant that all reliability, all predicability, was gone.

I imagine that these images named quite precisely how Jews felt after the Revolt was crushed.  After that suffering, there was nothing left to count on, nothing to trust, nothing to hope for.

Mark’s storyteller takes the feeling of deadly vertigo that comes at such moments and makes it into a sign that the END  of the suffering is near.

This is not a scene about the “end of the world.”  It is a scene about the end of suffering, the end of hopeless desperation.

The storyteller goes on.  After “that suffering,” after the loss of so many friends and family members, God will gather all of the lost and scattered Chosen People “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  The roots of this notion go all the way back to an earlier trauma, the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) by Assyria in 722 BCE.  At the end of that horrible period, all surviving members of the Northern Kingdom were hauled into Exile and scattered.  Ever since that disaster, any promise of restoration had to account for those who were lost.  Now in the aftermath  of the First Jewish Revolt (already seen for the gospel’s audience, but not yet for Jesus’ audience), with the orienting stars and ruling sun shaken and unreliable, Jesus promises that when the sufferings end, the lost and scattered will return.

How soon?  “This generation will not pass away,” he says, but “about that day or hour no one knows.”  This is an important collision of ideas.  Consolation is close, he says, but not so close or so readable that you could put it on a calendar.  This last unreadability is perhaps another result of the sun, moon, and stars being knocked loose.

It seems to me that apocalypticism that is too sure of itself gets angry and impatient: impatient with God’s delay, and angry with Them for living less-than-faithful lives (presumably the cause of the delay).  Impatience is risky and anger is destructive.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

So, we live in an apocalyptic world.

Again.

Again we have groups that believe that the cycle of the aeons is about to turn and the world will change.  Some of those groups are convinced that the election of the current US president is the sign that their sufferings have ended, though it is beyond me how the Obama administration, with its long, steady climb out of the Great Recession, could be characterized as suffering.  (Unless it was having a black man in the White House! That must be the cause of their “suffering.”)  Again we have groups who have taken up arms, threatening armed rebellion if Their president should fail at getting re-elected, just as they threatened revolt if he had failed at getting elected the first time.  Are the threats real?  Are they planted by foreign entities?  Who knows?  It comes down the same either way: there are armed people who plan only to accept election results of which they would approve.  Every once in a while they drop a hint that they are heavily armed.  Heavily.

In the last apocalyptic age that I lived through the politics were very different, but the armament was the same.  The Weather Underground (no, not the weather forecast app) was armed, and intended rebellion.  It promised violence and it meant what it said.

In the apocalyptic age that the gospel of Mark knew, it was the Zealots, likewise armed, and likewise set on violence.  Apocalypse is always a favorite of the violent.  The two seek each other out.

So, beware.

Keep alert.  Look out for impatience and anger.  It is easy to make things worse, and slow work to make things better.  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  No matter where you land on the political spectrum, you likely agree that there is work to be done.

That is, you likely agree unless you are one of those who is playing with the idea of armed violence.  So long as that is your plan, you are the problem.  You are the danger.  You are the cause of the present sufferings.

If you are one of those who is playing at threatening armed revolt, you won’t like the changes that are coming.  Do you remember how many women turned out for the Women’s March last year?  Have you been following recent elections?  You’ve had your turn, and the rest of us (regardless of our political party affiliation) are tired of you.

The changes that are coming will be disorienting for all of us, and disheartening at times.  But “this generation will not pass away” before the changes start.  I don’t know when.  Maybe the mid-term elections.  Maybe 2020.  Maybe later.  But the changes will come.  I will not like all of them.  Neither will you, no matter where you land on the political spectrum.

But no matter the shape and nature of our political commitments, we likely agree that things have to change.  Perhaps we could even find ways to work together on some of the changes.  The people who need to threaten others with their weapons, however, they can stay home.