Friday, November 28, 2008

The Waiting Game: Additional Thoughts on This Sunday's Bible Lessons (November 30, 2008)

I've already shared a few items meant to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and any other folks who use the Revised Common Lectionary plan of Bible lessons, to get ready for worship this coming Sunday. You can see those posts here, here, and here. But below are a few more helps and reflections.

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Prayer of the Day:
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Some Thoughts...
Isaiah 64:1-9
Most contemporary Old Testament scholars believe that Isaiah was written by two (or three) different prophets writing in different times. Chapters 1-39, were authored by Isaiah, the son of Amoz. He prophesied between 742 and 687 BC. The Northern Kingdom*, what was called Israel and would later be referred to as Samaria, had been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah warned the Southern Kingdom, what was called Judah or Judea, its faithlessness could result in the only reliable power they possessed, the power of God, to disappear from the national life, leading to the same fate Israel had suffered. About the balance of the book, the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version) have this to say:
Chapters 40-66, commonly called Second Isaiah (or Second and Third Isaiah), originated immediately before the fall of Babylon (October 29, 539 B.C.) to the armies of Cyrus, king of Persia, and during the generation following.**The anonymous author of the first bipartite section (chs. 40-55...) exults in joyful anticipation of exiled Judah's restoration to Palestine, for which Cyrus is God's participating agent (44:28). Second Isaiah emphasizes the significance of historical events in God's plan, a plan which extends from creation to redemption--and beyond. Blindness to God's way is a cardinal sin in Second Isaiah. The author's interest in was unique to his time; it is used to emphasize the concept of God as exclusive creator and lord of all, whose ultimate glorious manifestation will be accompanied by a new creation.
v.1: The tearing up of the heavens called for is a desire for God to manifest Himself and help His captive people.

The heavens were torn open at Jesus' Baptism, according to the Gospel accounts, God the Father affirming Jesus as beloved Son to Whom all should pay attention. The heavens were torn open again when, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, Jesus' appearance was "transfigured" and God the Father affirmed Jesus again. Another tearing took place immediately after Jesus died on the cross. At that moment, the curtain in the temple, which had formerly concealed the Holy of Holies, the place where the presence of God rested on earth, was torn, indicating that through Christ all that the power of all that had once separated us from God--our sin--had been destroyed and we gain access to God, forgiveness, and life.

v.2: The blazing presence of God causes people to tremble. That happened on the first Pentecost (Acts 2).

v.3: Here begins a reminiscence about God's saving acts during ancient Israel's exodus journey from Egypt to the promised land.

v.4: Here, we have an important theme of Advent mentioned: waiting on God. To wait on God isn't to be passive. But it does mean that we're unwilling to act on our own power or in our own wisdom. I'm just beginning to learn what this means.

v. 5: Isaiah confesses that the sin of his people was responsible for the wall between God and them.

v.6: We're all unclean and insubstantial, nothing without God.

v.7: People don't call on God, Isaiah says, and God lets them go their own way.

v.8: "Still," Isaiah says to God, "we do belong to You. You made us. We bear the stamp of Your authorship and You've gone to a lot of trouble to make us Your own people."

v.9: "Don't hold our sins against us," Isaiah goes on to plead, "Think about the fact that we are Your people."

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
This psalm was traditionally attributed to Asaph, one of his descendants, or members of a group of poets and singers who saw him as their master or teacher. It was most likely written after the Northern Kingdom had fallen to Assyria, its people deported to there as slaves.*** The impatient waiting of a captive people can be seen in this psalm.

v.1: God is portrayed as both Shepherd, a common way of referring to ancient kings, and as King, enthroned on the cherubim.

v.2: "Stir up": God is asked to stir Himself to action on behalf of His people. One of my seminary professors, Ron Hals, used to refer to the Prayers of the Day appointed for the Advent season as the "stirrup prayers"; they all begin with the phrase, "Stir up." Human impatience, as well as weariness with suffering and adversity, is reflected in this phrase, no doubt. We don't wait well.

But the phrase also recognizes that only God's power can make a difference in what would otherwise be pointless living.

"save us": This is the bottom line in our prayers, no matter what our immediate desires. We need God to save us from sin, death, and futility.

v.3: "Restore us": This petition appears like a refrain at three different places in the psalm. Israel is displaced; Asaph is asking for restoration. For us, the prayer means a restoration of our fellowship with God, a restoration accomplished through Christ.

"let us see your face shine...saved": When God shows up, we are saved.

v.4: "How long...?": This plea often shows up in our prayers. But I can personally testify that God is faithful. One petition I prayed repeatedly for thirteen years suddenly, unexpectedly, and miraculously, was answered...and more incredibly and wonderfully than I'd ever imagined it would be.

v.5: The tearful bread and drink, born of sin and separation from God, is set in contrast to the bread and water God provided the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness. There, God gave them manna and water from a rock. Both were happy events. But now, captive Israel is experiencing "the bread of tears" and "tears to drink." The psalmist is asking God to miraculously provide for His people again.

v.6: God, it's said, has made Israel a laughingstock among neighboring nations. Without the strength of God, Israel is seen for what it is: weak. Jesus, God in the flesh, tells us today that without Him, we can do nothing.

v.7: "Restore us": The refrain appears again.

v.17: "right hand": the power of God.

The plea here is that the line of Davidic kings will be restored. "Shore up the power of the king, the anointed one." the psalmist asks."

v.18: This reads like deal-making (i.e., "If you'll empower us and give us life, we'll 'call on Your Name.") Maybe it's just a pledge, "We promise to call on You and not to forget You again, God." Whatever, it was a pledge that Israel could make apart from the power of God. The same is true for us today.

v.19: "Restore us": There's that refrain again.

Line B is also a repetition of sentiments expressed earlier in the psalm.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
This letter was written by the apostle Paul to the first-century church at Corinth. The Corinthian church had truly taken the fun out of dysfunctional. The spiritual issues were many: there were people having sexual relations with their step-mothers; wealthy Christians weren't sharing their food with poorer Christians as they celebrated Holy Communion together; many in the church identified more with Christian preachers and leaders rather than with Jesus Himself; some felt that they had no reason to concern themselves with obeying God's will as embodied in the Ten Commandments; some asserted that Jesus hadn't really risen from the dead; and some who had or claimed to have the spiritual gift of tongues looked down their noses on those not possessing this gift.

On this last matter, Paul wrote a good deal in this letter, at one point telling the Corinthians:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)

In chapter 12, Paul spends a long time discussing the fact that spiritual gifts are given by God for the purpose of building up the whole church and its ministry and to show how they're to be used.

The most famous chapter of this letter, chapter 13, referred to as "the love chapter," wasn't written for weddings, although its use then is fine. It was written to remind the Corinthians to be humble about the gifts, spiritual and otherwise, that have come from God. You may be able to make a lot of noise with your gift of tongues, Paul is saying, but if the love of Christ isn't inform you, you're just noise.

All of this lay in the background of our lesson from 1 Corinthians. It reads like a commendation of the Corinthian church, like that he gives at the beginnings of other New Testament readers. See what he says here, here, here, here, and here. But there is no such commendation for the Corinthians. Instead, Paul here seems to thank God for the grace that saves even the dysfunctional bunch at Corinth and then foreshadows some of the hard things he's going to broach with them in the letter.

v.3: Like a good pastor, Paul invokes the peace of God on the Corinthians.

v.4: Paul thanks God for how the Corinthians have been blessed by "the grace of God...given you in Christ Jesus."

vv.5-6: In Christ, the Corinthian church has been "enriched." This may be an ironic reference to the treatment given by the wealthy church members to the poorer ones.

Paul says that the Corinthian Christians have been enriched in "speech," possibly more irony in light of the chastising he's about to administer for the spiritual pride of those who think that God's gift of tongues signifies their spiritual superiority.

This interpretation of the passage is supported by Paul's reference also to the gift of knowledge. In the letter, Paul will later say that people with the gift of tongues should never exercise it publicly unless another person, with a gift of discernment or knowledge, can interpret the tongue. This is meant to ensure accountability and humility.

v.7: The complementarity of spiritual gifts exists so that the life of the Corinthian church--or of any church--can fully reflect God and God's grace. No congregation, no matter how small, need lack the spiritual and other gifts needed to fulfill the mission to which God has called it.

v.8: This passage links the lesson thematically with the other Bible lessons assigned for this Sunday.

Christ will help us to be faithful, as we live in daily repentance and renewal, until that indeterminate time of Christ's return or, as Paul puts it, "revelation." Until then, we're to wait patiently, again not passively, but, as we're shown in the Gospel lesson, in faithful attentiveness to Christ's call to love and serve each day.

v.9: God is faithful, even if the Corinthian Christians aren't. As Paul puts it elsewhere, "If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13).

Lest we become spiritually proud, tending to think that the righteousness that God confers on us through Christ has to do with our goodness rather than God's, Paul reminds us that it's God Who makes it possible for us to have fellowship with Jesus Christ. This too, is a point that he'll make again later in the letter: "I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Mark 13:24-37
Go here to see some general comments on Mark and this passage.

v.24: "those days": When the stones of the temple are thrown down (Mark 13:2-3). As the allusions to Old Testament passages that referred to judgment by God, it also references the end of the world.

"sun will be darkened...moon will not give its light": The description is akin to an eclipse, it seems. Jesus' words appear to allude to several prophetic passages from the Old Testament:
a. Isaiah 13:10: This is part of a section of Isaiah that foretells God's judgment against nations outside of Israel.****
b. Ezekiel 32:7-8: Judgments on Israel's enemies. Ezekiel was originally addressed to Judeans in captivity in Babylon, c.571 B.C.
c. Joel 2:31, 3:15: This discusses "the day of the Lord." The language here was cited by Peter in his Pentecost sermon, found in Acts 2. More cosmogony here.
v.25: "powers in heaven": What Jesus talks about here fits the description of Jesus' crucifixion as summarized by another of my seminary professors, Bruce Schein, "the cosmos in convulsion."

v.26: "Son of man": Jesus' most characteristic way of referring to Himself, the phrase comes from the Old Testament apocalyptic book, Daniel.

"with great power and glory": This won't be the "Christmas Jesus," or the "Crucifixion Jesus." Of course, it will be the same Jesus. But Jesus will no longer restrain Himself. All people, even those who have never believed in Him or surrendered to Him, will know exactly Who Jesus is. But by then, it will be too late to "call on the Name of the Lord and be saved." The time for surrender will have ended. Now people will be forced to live with the judgments they Himself have rendered on their eternal destinies. See here.

v.27: Christ's dispersed peoples will be brought together, no longer forced into dispersion by persecution. It will be safe to believe.

vv.28-29: Jesus uses the fig tree as a metaphor. Everyone in first century Judea knew the signs of the seasons given by changes in a fig tree's appearance. Similarly, when we see the things to which Jesus refers here, we know that the Son of Man is "at the gates." In the next verse, Jesus tells us that all the signs of His return had already been fulfilled. So, the life of the world should tell us both that His return is impending and that He is present with those who trust in Him right now.

By the way, the ancient rabbis believed that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of a fig, not an apple, tree. Jesus would have, of course, been familiar with this speculation. That makes His use of the fig tree in this metaphor all the more pointed, signifying judgment and God's decisive action.

v.30: All is already "ripe" for the return of the Son of Man.

v.31: Jesus' words, conveying His will and authority, will outlast a creation brought into being by that word and ticketed for destruction.

v.32: Speculation about when the end will come is not just futile, it's faithless. This doesn't preclude scientific speculation or human efforts to forestall natural or human-made disasters that could hasten mass destruction. As an example, this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to reverse global warming or halt the proliferation of nuclear arms. But it does mean that we shouldn't try to play a guessing game about God's timetable for intervention, the day of Jesus' return.

v.33: Our call is simply to be spiritually ready, believing in Jesus Christ and seeking to follow Him.

v.34: This passage reminds me of two parables from Matthew 25, both of which were Gospel lessons in recent weeks: the parable of the talents and the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

We are given our tasks in life and we're to be vigilant in our faith; that's how we watch and wait for Jesus's return.

v.35: The Master Jesus could come back any time.

v.36: "asleep": To be asleep, in this sense, is to spiritually insensible to the temptations and pitfalls around us, the things in everyday life that work incessantly to tear us away from God. The sources of these things were identified by Martin Luther as "the devil, the world, and our sinful selves." The disciples fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, even after Jesus pleaded with them to pray to avoid falling into temptation and sin.

v.37: Jesus emphatically underscores the importance for us, as we await His return, to "keep awake!"

*These two kingdoms were the result of the breakup of ancient Israel after the reign of Solomon. For more on the divided kingdoms, see here.

**Babylon, like Assyria before it, had conquered God's people and taken many of its people captive. Cyrus, a Persian king, even though he wasn't a believer in the God of Israel, was referred to in the Old Testament as "God's anointed." God, the prophet believed, was appointed by God to liberate God's people. The Hebrew word translated as "anointed [one]" is Messiah. In Greek, the term is Messiah. This isn't to say that Cyrus was "the Christ." That role uniquely belongs to God-enfleshed, Jesus. But all the rulers of God's people were actually anointed on the days of their enthronements and were referred to as God's anointed ones.

***According to The Oxford Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Assyria was "located in what ix now northeastern Iraq."

****Isaiah, chapters 1-6, render judgments against Judah, the Southern Kingdom, the nation that Isaiah was from and from which Jesus would later come. Isaiah, chapters 7-12, give judgments against Samaria, the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah, chapters 13 to 23, render judgments against the nations.

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