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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Back! Thursday Bible Study

Sabbatical is over. I will resume writing and posting my Bible Study reflections, Sermons and Sunday School Notes.

This week our readings are taken from Maccabees. This book is not in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but it is a fascinating story of the Jews during the time between Alexander the Great and Jesus. It recounts the efforts of the Jewish people to throw off the oppression of the Syrian  overlord who was trying to Hellenize them (make them like the Greek culture). Issues of Jewish laws (dietary and circumcision) became life or death. Earlier we read of the slaughter of families, including the murder of babies. It is not far removed from the atrocities of ISIS in today's news reporting. One fascinating aspect of the story is the tension between two approaches to God's salvation (in the sense of the Jewish Bible). The (so-called) Old Testament (think of it as Jesus' Scripture) is very much focused on God's salvation. The word salvation has many dimensions: healed, rescued, forgiven, restored, blessed with health and abundance. When a person cried out to (YHWH) God, the salvation longed for was generally in this plain of existence.

Divine causality (what we receive as a gift) and human causality (what we must do for ourselves) are overlapping but separate realms. What should one do in the face of insurmountable odds, limited resources, and grave suffering? What should one do when the (Jewish) faith is at risk of annihilation and extinction? Maccabees (like Exodus and Ezra/Nehemiah) is the story of the Jewish people surviving another threat to their existence. It is the context for our New Testament as the religious practices of Jesus' day were deeply influenced and affected by the events unfolding in Maccabees.

Does God help those who help themselves (in 1 Maccabees they take up arms and fight many battles, just like under Joshua, Judges and Kings)? Is God's gift of salvation in and through our human choices and behaviors? Or is it something for which we wait more passively? Is it beyond our control and too large for our efforts? Must the deliverance be an intervention "from heaven" and a  miraculous work of God? (This is more the emphasis in some of the other Maccabean writings--there are four in all) The dilemma is expressed in the story of the Sabbath massacre. A large group of Jews, unwilling to fight on the Sabbath, were put to the sword in their desert hiding place. This created a crisis; and the Maccabees decided that they would fight on the Sabbath to stay alive. The paradox, is they were fighting for their Law, including the Sabbath. "Sometimes you have to break the law to save the law..." is certainly a problem.

Revelation 20-22
Coming from the end of this work, these readings are full of the same mysterious images and references which constitute "apocalyptic" (An English transliteration of the Greek word meaning "unveiling" or "revelation"). In contrast to the "historical" Maccabees (with its details of human wars and God helping) the Revelation is mystical, heaven focused and God driven. It shows the impact of the unseen spiritual realm on the earthly realm. While there are dozens of approaches to this work (history, timeline for end of world, symbolic expression of the past, present, future or any age) clearly the message is that some day "this" world will end and with it the dark power of earthly rulers opposed to God and the spiritual entities (devil) behind it all. In The Revelation the struggles of this life (think wars and oppression) are actually spiritual warfare between competing "kings": God the True King (and His Messiah) versus human and demonic "counterfeits."

The story line is familiar, (and while I think Jesus Himself has made it clear that "no one knows the day or the hour" and implies the end will take us by surprise) enemies are punished, all people are judged, and the reign of God comes down from heaven to earth. Tuesday's reading is especially poignant for me as it my preferred text for funerals. No more tears, no more death, no more sorrow, no more suffering--such things will pass away. This is the Christian Hope (and the hope and desire of every human longing to escape life's burdens). The Apocalypse of John is written to give hope, it is an exhortation to faith and and entreaty to remain faithful. The justification of that struggle is the promise of God. "Better days are coming" is the Christian attitude to every disaster.. Better days are coming when God and His son reign among us and are our Sun and Light, our Temple.

There is not time nor space for a detailed analysis of these chapters. I did that in my bible study years ago. However, most of the imagery comes from the Jewish Scriptures. The references are piled, one upon another, as the Torah, Prophets and other writings are incorporated into this text before us. Another point, during this time period numerous apocalypses were written by both Jews and Christians. We do well to understand these writings in the context of that ancient literature. Biblical books are written in Hebrew and Greek. We translate them into English so we can read and understand them. The work of "translation" requires additional effort, however. The "rules' of literature must be understood. For example, the heavenly Jerusalem is a cube. It is 144 cubits (12x12). There are 12 gates (each one a pearl) and 12 Foundations. The names of the sons of Jacob and Apostles are attached to them. This is a reminder that Christianity is Jewish to its core. Trying to figure out how a pearl is a gate is beside the point. The author frequently says " it is like"... Apocalyptic is dream language, it has multiple meanings and allows for many meanings. It is overfull and too much for our minds to comprehend!

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