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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Futility and the Lord's Prayer

Sunday School today will look at Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and Luke 1:11-13

Ecclesiastes (based on the Greek word for church) is a "counter" work to much of the Scripture. Qoheleth is the feminine active participle of the word for assemble in Hebrew. It means public speaker or preacher. The first words hebel which conveys the image of a breath; hence transient, vain. Five times we hear this word. Vain, Vain, says the preacher. vain. vain, and all vain. This is not going to be a typical uplifting sermon. The author is not a provider of pious platitudes. but a harsh "realism" pronouncing the limits of human understanding.

The Hebrew is distinctive (Sibley Towner in The New Interpreter's Bible, volume 5) and probably indicative of the later date of its composition. Scholars think it best situated in post-exile times. Influences of Aramaic pervade the text, indicating a time when the Semitic neighbors of Israelite have significant contact impacting the language (Ezra actually contains sections written in Aramaic). In addition, the work has a philosophical bent not usually found in the Jewish Bible, and appears more at home in the context of the Hellenized (Greek influenced) period of the 4th or 3rd centuries before Christ.

The basic theme of the first chapter is a repetition of the "futility" of things, which is also a theme of the entire work. The author sees death casting a pall of hopelessness on all of life. There were many first century rabbis who debated whether this work (The canonicity of Song of Songs and Ezekiel were similarly questioned) was inspired of God. The problems included contradictions within the text and a general tone which seems at odds with the general message in the Jewish Scripture.

For our purposes I think this rather downbeat message today might be seen as a "picture" of why 
we need a Savior! The pairing with today's Gospel is especially fruitful in that prayer is the human experience of reaching outside the futility of this world and calling out to the One who saves.
The Lord's Prayer is probably intended as a model for prayer. There are three ancient texts which include it. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each have a version, and the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles which is usually dated in New Testament times), which is similar to Matthew. One value of the differences is it provides insight into the composition of the Gospels.

Matthew has gathered up three chapters of Jesus' words into what we call "The Sermon on the Mount." Much of the same material, often times modified, is found sprinkled throughout Luke. Matthew inserted the prayer into a three-fold exhortation "don't do your acts of piety to be seen." When you give do it in secret so the Father sees it. The parallel is broken by the Lord's prayer, which is also more liturgical ("who art in heaven"), an additional phrase "your will be done," and the verbs are in the aorist (indicating one time action). Mt provides us with a prayer for the end of the world and God's deliverance of His people.

Luke has set his version of the prayer in the context of Jesus praying. Prior to this, Luke's Jesus had sent out the "seventy" on mission. 10:25-42 begins with a lawyer "testing" Jesus with questions about the commandments. It is worth noting that the  Greek word will reappear in the Lord's prayer (it can be translated test or tempt). Luke combines love of God and neighbor as a single commandment, then illustrates it with a parable found only in Luke, "the God Samaritan." Then Jesus visits two sisters and Martha complains about Mary. After this Jesus is some place in prayer.

The prayer Jesus provides is a thoroughly Jewish prayer. The Kaddish prayer for example calls out to make God's name holy. Praying for the Kingdom is a  plea for deliverance from this world's ruler and for God to reign. The kingship of God is is a recurring theme in the Jewish Scriptures. By changing the verbs from aorist to present tense, Luke shifts the meaning of the petition into daily life. The kind of bread we pray for is uncertain. Unfortunately, epiousian, is not found in any other ancient Greek writings so the translation is based on etymology and three probable meanings are "daily", "future" and "necessary." Luke also uses the kath' hemeran  which means 'day by day' or 'each day' and so he would have us pray for our daily needs rather than a once and for all giving of the "Bread" which probably means the heavenly Messianic banquet at the end of time. Luke changes "debt" to "sin" in reference to our offenses against God. Ironically, the Lord's prayer as we know it uses "trespasses" which is found in neither Biblical work. In Luke we sin against God and forgive the debts of others.The different verses include themes found throughout the Gospel and remind us that this prayer is fully integrated into the life of a believer. It flows out of the faith of the Jews, the faith of Jesus and encompasses the faith life of Christians.

What follows in verses 5-8 is an example of human request from real life. Borrowing from the neighbors was much more common in my youth, when I regularly seemed to be getting an egg or slice of butter, or fielding a similar request. One is struck by the poverty of the people. The request is for three loaves because "I have nothing" to feed a guest. To have a home empty of food makes the request more desperate. The continued requesting would have offended against societal norms. Jesus' punch line is that human beings will cave in on requests to quiet the intrusion (similar to the widow and judge parable). In rabbinic argument it is customary to begin with the lesser (human) and build to the greater (God). The Lord says we should be inspired to ask, seek and knock because we will receive. This is not an exhortation to beg God endlessly, it is a declaration of trust in God and a belief that He wants to provide for His children. In spite of human wickedness, parents provide for their children. So much more God the Father will provide for His.

One of the central tenants of Jesus' own faith was the the Father hears him. This has been an endless theme of the Sunday School teaching the last four months. It is amazing how often this theme pops up.  Jesus seems intent on making us trust God in ways that we are reluctant to do. We have a nominal faith (in name) which is no doubt sincere--we would like to believe God hears us; but we pray in the 'name' of Jesus (nominal means a name) but not in "The Name (in union with His will)" of Jesus. To pray the Lord's prayer in communion with Jesus is to pray for God to rule as King.

If one does not pray from a heart centered in Jesus then fish and egg, snake and scorpion are less easy to differentiate. We sometimes pray for snakes and scorpions without realizing it, because we are fallible sinners. We do not see the whole picture. There are unexpected consequences. Prayer needs to be centered in Gospel values and the heart of Jesus. If we seek God then in our prayers we will be lead to pray for the good things we really need. Note that for Luke the gift of God is the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost event in Acts is the fulfillment of the gift giving. In our prayer, we must ask for and open up to the Life/Breath of God--His Spirit. As we conclude I invite you to pray for the Holy Spirit, trusting the Father wants to give you this gift and is giving you this gift now.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday: Job, Revelation, John

Sunday School reflections on Daily Office Readings
Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5
The Apocalypse 19:4-16
John 1:29-34

Trinity Sunday is the week after Pentecost. It is the day set aside to focus on the Holy Three. Christian faith has a unique perspective on God--the three persons yet one God--a formulation which is a mystery. Perhaps it is enough to say Divine Nature is foreign to us. Only analogies work (see St. Patrick's Clover image) and the church does little more than affirm that God is One, there are Three.
The word Trinity never occurs in the Bible, but the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) are all over the Bible. The readings from today's MP and EP are sited above. I provide brief comment on Job and Apocalypse which we reflected on in class.
Job is a very long work. It consists of several layers and in places can be a bit confusing as the "voices" are not always consistent in their arguments. There has been much scholarly reflection on the literary type, with an obvious difference in the narrative (at beginning and end)  which sandwiches the cycle of speeches given by Job's "friends" and Job's responses. It functions at some level as a "theodicy" ( ).

The context is a wager between God (who is pleased with His servant) and 'The Adversary' (the satan) who says Job is good because he has it good. One angle, therefore, is the story asks the question "is piety motivated by love of God or the benefits from God?" In the dialogues, Job argues for his righteousness and the unfairness of what he suffers. There are unasked questions, for example, "why should we think good things are the expected baseline?" Job never curses, so he does pass that test. The second theme is confronted with the appearance of God.

The friends are 'conservatives', trying to defend God's justice. In simple summary, they argue that bad things happen because people sin. This is hardly a radical idea. Job's response, "I am innocent," carries an existential weight, which is especially relevant for those who feel that the struggles of their life outweigh their personal evil. The debate rages on in  many chapters until God intervenes, demands that the friends apologize to Job, and then He turns His attention to Job (which we read a part of today). The story concludes with a "happily ever after restoration of Job's fortunes." The purpose of the author(s) is much debated--who wrote it and for what purpose (humanly) is lost to us. Some see different layers of editors and sources and discern different angles on the issue of "the problem of evil." The revelation(s) of God within this divinely inspired human work are also myriad. However, what we see and read today is a vital contribution in our quest to answer the question, "What kind of God is God?"

First of all, God answers Job out of a whirlwind. The Hebrew word (sa'ar) occurs twice in Kings in reference to the whirlwind that took up Elijah. It is also associated with God's judgment and appearances in several prophets. Storms are a regular feature of theophany and a reminder that God is not just 'another player' on the stage. It is noteworthy that this majesty and power are contrasted with remarkable humility. God answers Job. Think about it. The Creator stoops in an act of grace. Chapters 38-41 provide a relentless series of examples of what God is responsible for. Much of it is couched in questions. It is overkill, and another way of saying, "Job you are over your head so shut your pie hole." If God and reality are beyond our understanding, what then shall we do? One option is worship. We worship the One who is infinitely greater than we can imagine.

Apocalypse (cf Stephen Smalley "The Revelation to John who guides my thought here)
The majesty of God is again a focus. Here, arguably, is a type of literature which is a companion to the wisdom reflections of Job. Instead of asking "why is there evil in the world" apocalyptic literature is written to remind those who suffer that "better days are coming." "All is well that ends well" is certainly at play in Job and in the Apocalypse it is written large for the whole universe. Evil in the world will be subdued by the redemptive power of God. The modern reader is confused as past, present and future tenses are intermingled. (What God is doing, has been completed but will take place in the future, but we celebrate it now as accomplished because we have trust that what is happening will happen, and, as such, the redemption to come is the redemption that is trusted as already here.)
The Four beasts and Twenty four elders worship. Number symbolism is rampant in the Apocalypse. The number four is a "whole world" number (i.e. four directions on compass) so represents all living creatures. The two 12's are Israel's tribes and the New Israel/apostles.[Number awareness can be a way to open to God's subtle whisper; e.g., every time I notice it is 4:24 I think of the heavenly worship] Falling to worship is act of recognizing the glory of God (the one who is greater than we can imagine). Worship is fundamentally an 'on your face' activity directed to God. (Not an experience for a church audience!) The "voice from the throne" is not identified. Probably not God or Jesus, maybe it is the throne itself (we are in a land of wonders here!). What follows is a hymn/psalm of worship with the theme of the wedding feast.

I remind the reader that the entire Book of the Apocalypse may in fact be a theological/mystical/mythic description of the Sunday worship in the early church which unveils the reality of God's Kingdom (or heaven) on earth. Recall, the vision takes place on the Lord's Day. The whole book constantly weaves the Scriptures (the early church's only Bible is the Jewish Bible, what we refer to as the Old Testament) in such a way that hardly a verse cannot be found somewhere in the "Torah, Prophets or Writings."

The wedding, the Messiah joined to His church, is introduced here to be taken up again in 21:2. This is in contrast to the (anti-Bride) Harlot (Babylon's fall, mentioned in 14:8, but described in detail in chapters 17-18). This is a feature of the author's style, contrasting the true/real/authentic (e.g. Christ) with the false/imitation/phony ("anti" Christ). The wedding image can be found in Is 54:6, Ez 16:7 and Hos 2:14-23. In addition, Jesus is referred to as the Groom by John the Baptist and Himself. In addition, there are parables of the Kingdom as a wedding feast (hence, the first miracle at Cana is itself a "living parable"). Part of the mystery revealed is the centrality of union with God as the purpose of redemption. God made us for Himself and in the end we (the church, the called and chosen who respond) will be with Him forever. One unfortunate stream of Christian spirituality (I read 11th Century St. Bernard was its author) is applying the Bridal imagery to the individual soul. The emphasis on the personal private bond with Jesus must never forget the personal yet public/communal bond which is the source of the individual's relationship. Jesus comes for us, and "I" am part of that "us."  The guests wear white robes (associated with faithful witness earlier in the Apocalypse). One recalls the parable of Jesus (in Matthew) and the wedding garment as well. The "good/righteous deeds" is a controversial term, interpreted (as one would expect) based on the beliefs of the interpreter (and their stand on salvation; "Faith v. works"). My view is that what is able to be dissected in discussion is still in reality an organic whole. Faith is inhaling, works is exhaling--which one is most important? Faith is the gift of life, but without work-the outpouring of self in response to grace, the grace is only a gifted beginning, but the ongoing life in the kingdom is both.

The invitation is a recurring theme of both Testaments. Called and chosen! Come to me! This is one many Beatitudes found in the Bible. The Greek word "makarios" (blessed, happy) occurs seven (7 another symbolic number) times in the Apocalypse. Recall, written to upbuild those who were being persecuted, the idea of being blessed or happy based on faith/trust is vital in Christian living, and especially challenging when one feels not "abundant blessing" but "endless persecution." This is a hope literature. The wedding feast is the positive image of which the birds feasting on the carnage of the Lamb's enemies after the great battle is the "anti-." The symbolic imagery is shifts as both the wedding guests and the Bride are the church. However, the metaphoric nature of the images means that the author is simply piling image upon image to communicate the good news to us.

19:11-16 is another vision, the first of seven "I saw" in chapters 19-20. The two chapters function as a united sub unit. The warrrior Messiah emerges on a white horse. Faithfulness and Truth are overlapping concepts in Hebrew (where to be true is to be reliable). The deep symbolism of the names is no doubt connected to the Divine Name, which is a rich font for Jewish mystical traditions. The relationship of name and being is much stronger in biblical Judaic thought than it is in the nominalist post-modern world. Suffice to say in this brief encounter with the text, Jesus the Lord has a sword in His mouth (Sword is Spirit and Word of God elsewhere). His truth is judgment on the unrighteous and His word is destructive to the enemies of God. Remember the non-martial image of the death on the cross is another way to declare God's victory. The "garment soaked in blood" (and if garment is an image for deeds) may well be a direct reference to the crucifixion, atoning sacrifice of Jesus (who is elsewhere called the Lamb).

John 1:29-34 is read today because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all mentioned, in conjunction with John (no "Baptist" title in the fourth Gospel) who declares Jesus is "the Lamb of God" (an Apocalypse title) and then testifies that He saw the Holy Spirit descend on Him like a dove. In the fourth Gospel, John did not know who Jesus was and it is the appearance of the Spirit which tips him off (God who sent Him had foretold this). No mention of a voice here (which probably means nothing except the author wants to focus on the Spirit). This reading is why I say that "the word Trinity is not in the Bible but the Trinity is all over the place!")

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Greater Things than Jesus

On Pentecost (Feast of Weeks, 7x7), fifty days after Passover, Jews celebrates God's gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Luke says on that Jewish Feast God poured out the Holy Spirit on His people. If Ascension Thursday means Jesus is really gone, then Pentecost means the Holy Spirit is really here.

In John 14:8-14, Phillip says to Jesus, "Show us the Father." We all desire to see the Father, whether we know it or not. Every desire comes from longing for the Holy Three. Every empty place within us is the space for encounter with the Lord. Jesus replied, "Philip, if you see me, you see the Father." In a pluralistic society, many want to marginalize Jesus, reducing Him to one of the many ways to God. It is offensive to non-Christians to say too much about Jesus. I disagree. I think it is impossible to say too much about Him because Jesus and the Father are one.

And what He says next is the foundation of ministry:
"Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me... Very truly I tell you the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name."

"Faith" is not just thinking its true; faith is trusting and entrusting ourselves, body, soul and spirit to this Truth. The Holy Three in us and we in them. It means saying from my heart, "I trust God has come to us, and to me, in Jesus.  I surrender myself to the Father in Jesus and open to the Holy Spirit.  I trust that God, the Three in One, lives in me."

Loving Faith and Trusting Love is a radical gift of myself which empties me of me to make room for the Holy Spirit. We continue the ministry of Jesus because the Lord lives in us...

"you will do the same works as me, even greater, because I am with the Father.... if you ask in my Name."

But this promise has a focus. "if you ask In my name"
"In my name" has come to be understood as the magic word. We can say "in Jesus' name" without being in Jesus Name. We pray "Father I want my wishes to come true, in Jesus Name. amen" Then are saddened and disappointed with the outcome. In prayer our outward form is fine but the key is the inward reality. To ask in Jesus Name is not just saying the words "in Jesus Name." To ask in Jesus Name is literally to ask in unity with Jesus. Name and Person are interchangeable in the ancient understanding. Jesus Name is Jesus. It is another way of saying "if it be your will." And what we ask for is to do the "works" of God. This is the prayer which is always answered. The works of God are aligned with salvation, healing, rescue---abundant life!!!

When I ask in Jesus I am asking in conjunction with His mission and ministry: the works of the Father. I am praying with the same unity He has with the Father. That is why Jesus does signs and wonders--His unity with the Father make Him a conduit of the power of God. In faith, in trust, in union with Jesus the same power is available through us. Faith-Trust-Entrusting love commitment is the open door for God's light and love and life giving power to surge in and through us.

I can think of few promises of Jesus which are more wonderful or more amazing:
If you believe you will do the same works, even greater works than me--if you ask in my Name.

I want to believe and do His works. Do you?
I want our parish to be a church of believers. Do you?
I want to live in Jesus' Name so He can do this. Do you?
Are we hungry to do the works of God?
Do we trust Jesus wants to do them here and now?
Do we want the Holy Spirit to fall on us so we can boldly proclaim the Gospel?

We can ask right now in Jesus Name:
"I want to be holy. I want you to live in me and your works to flow out of me.
We believe the Father is in Jesus and that Jesus is in the Father. We believe we are chosen, holy and beloved. We ask in Jesus Name so the works of God will be manifest in us.

Are you ready for your life to sound like a Bible story?
If you believe, ask in Jesus Name, and receive---then it will.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Praying (again)

Sunday School the "Spring Semester" has heavily focused on the healing ministry. My intent has been to broaden the connotation of the term to include much more than just physical healing. In the end, any physical healing we receive is always temporary until the final healing in the resurrection. People all die eventually. But death is defeated!!!!

We have tried to emphasize the Father's will (health and salvation for ALL) and the role of Jesus (Joshua in Hebrew, Yeshua in Aramaic--all meaning YHWH saves/rescues). We have also said that what Jesus did in His ministry He now does in and through our ministry. He gave His followers (disciples) power and authority (in the Holy Spirit) and sent them out (apostles) to reconcile sinners to God by proclaiming God's rule (Kingdom) and teaching, healing and exorcising. We explained that there is a physical, spiritual and 'soul' realm and that each has it's own rules and part to play. The rationalist church addresses mind but Bible study and theology are only part of the ministry of Jesus. The fullness of life (redemption, salvation, etc.) includes body, emotion, desire, will, memory, spirit. A holistic ministry will look like Jesus' story in the Gospels. Lastly, we have tried to emphasize that the promises of God are true in the present time and not simply a code for "heaven" and the after life. The Holy Three in One have already begun the work of eternal life (Kingdom Shalom) and we can already "taste and see that the Lord is good"---even if we await the perfection and completion of the Kingdom among us. Patient trust has a present and future focus.

Why are all our prayers not answered? As we taught, the fallen world is still under the results of the curse. There are obstacles (world, flesh, devil) in a world which God made and sustains, but in which His rule is incomplete and another "god of this world" is exerting its dark power (even if Jesus has defeated the Enemy by His life, cross, death, resurrection and ascension). God is in the process of making all things new (it is both an on-going progressive work and a future once-and-for-all apocalyptic event). Time for God is a different kind of experience. His future bleeds into our present and even invades and redeems our past! Life is covered in darkness, sin, suffering and death--so much pain (pastors hear it, more importantly God hears it!); and God comes to save those in pain today, here and now (most usually through human agency, especially the church). Some day the completed glory, but already light shines, forgiveness and mercy are among us, health and wholeness are manifest. Pain is real, but there is more joy and peace, more celebration and strength, more blessing--at least for those with loving trust and open eyes and ears! God is with us (Emmanuel), to save us (Yeshua/Jesus) and heal us (Raphael) and strengthen us (Michael) and deal with us in Mercy/Covenant love and faithful kindness (Hesed) and pour out on us the abundance and life of peace (Shalom) in the Kingdom. The apostle prays over people those Hebrew words, with love and confidence, and already the future promise is made manifest in the life of each one of us. It is a remarkable blessing and gift (grace and salvation). We may not be happy, but in hope we can always have joy!

SO how then to pray?
1. As a means of communion. Not talking at God, assigning Him tasks, but being with (words optional) and entering the Three in One and opening to the Three in One. Our goal is to be one with God.... at its best prayer is always intimate communion.
2. if you use words, always include a time of honest speaking. Your simple words... Speak the truth to God, humbly and confidently. Believe God cares. Believe God loves. Believe and trust and entrust!
3. the Anglican Way (shaped by the Benedictine Way of the great Western monastic tradition) includes the formal recitation of psalms and prayers with readings from Scripture. This is the listening part of prayer. God speaks to us in our "soul" and we commune with God as we pray inspired words. The Scriptures shape and form our imagination. We want to pray to the Father as Jesus prayed. We want Jesus and the Spirit to pray in us. Word and Spirit are gifts. As we become familiar with Scripture in worship, it adds a spiritual dimension to the academic, rational study.
4. eucharist. Jesus says do this in memory of Me. so we pray at table with and in Him. Recalling to God the offer of Jesus and reminding ourselves, with gratitude and praise, of all the Father has done in/through the Son and Holy Spirit.

Every day, psalms and Bible readings. Ponder the word, repeat it and let it soak in.
Every day (often), talk to God in Jesus as a friend and teacher and loyal King.
Every day commune with God, becoming what you were created to be: a vessel, chosen, holy and beloved. A temple of The Holy Three and a tool/instrument of the mission and ministry of Jesus to flow into and out of in saving work.

Our cooperation is a door for God's power to do "infinitely more than we can ask or imagine" so "glory to God, in the church and in Christ Jesus (and in the Holy Spirit), today, tomorrow and forever!"
Pray, study, do the work of God (or, better, let God do His work in you).

Hardening Hearts? A Reflection

Part 1 Some Commentators
The issue of God hardening Pharaoh's heart is much discussed. As I begin this excursus I would remind the reader that any time we speak about God's activity in the world we are trying to explain  mystery beyond comprehension. All God-talk is metaphorical and analogical, we use limited human language to describe the eternal God. In addition, the earliest authors were Israelites living about three thousand years ago in the Middle East--a very different intellectual environment than post-modern Westerners!

For me, the best explanation is the process of how the heart is "hardened" (arguably not the best term)--by mercy. If God dropped the "Bomb" at Pharaoh's first refusal then the whole matter would have been taken care of immediately. Pharaoh would have caved. However, as we reflect on how things played out, Pharaoh, who was dismissive of YHWH, is never really open to repent or submit. In fact, the willingness of God to begin to punish, then withhold the full punishment, is arguably what makes Pharaoh more and more bold. Pharaoh is toughened and strengthened to resist because he escapes the full brunt of the divine rescue effort. This is the psychological problem of threats, the threatened person can become indifferent to the threat when it does not happen, or after it ends. The desire to do "my will" rather than "God's will" means that I must be coerced. Someone motivated by fear or threat is prone to non-compliance when the "pressure" is off. What we see with Pharaoh is a yo-yo response to YHWH, outwardly compliant when he feels the pain but then immediately resistant, sadly to the bitter end. With each round of "sign of judgment and escape" Pharaoh becomes more and more emboldened to resist!

I will review the commentaries I use and then provide my own thoughts about the subject.
Richard Friedman, as pointed out in chapter 7, makes note of the interaction of the root word kbd (heavy) to describe Moses' tongue (4:10), the labors of the people (5:9) and Pharaoh's heart. In addition, he notes four of the plagues will be heavy [insects (8:20), pestilence (9:3), hail (9:18, 24) and locusts (10:14). Additionally, from Friedman (p187), we learn that the word is used in 12:38 (cattle), 17:12 (Moses arms), 18:18 (governing people) and 19:16 (cloud on Sinai). The repetition, Friedman says, is a Biblical technique which ties together the narrative as a unity. He also believes that the term "strengthen" is better than "hardened." He says Dtn 5:26 indicates human freedom and that God may strengthen the resolve of a person (Pharaoh) but does not create the initial choice. I want to emphasize that the Hebrew writers frequently repeat words (or roots of words) which connect story to story. It is something I have noted again and again in my studies. 

Everett Fox (p254) offers that in the beginning Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and then later God is the subject of the act. The repetitive choices creating a new reality from which he cannot escape. The key for Fox is the refusal to listen/obey which is the only element that he sees repeated in each case of interaction. The hope for mercy is lost in the face of evil begetting evil in an endless cycle which ends in destruction.

Brevard Childs (The Old Testament Library, The Book of Exodus) offers a more extensive (and technical review, pp 170-175). He notes that in one of the literary sources (called J) "the hardening phrase comes consistently at the end of the episode, in fact after the plague has been removed...the hardening does not function as a cause of the plagues. Rather, the hardening appears as a reaction to the plagues, or more specifically, to the removal of the plagues." Childs continues, saying the purpose of the plagues is to reveal YHWH, so Pharaoh (and Egypt) will know He is God. The hardening is a refusal to recognize and know God. Hence, there are two streams which Child says try to answer the question, "why did God do these signs and Pharaoh did not recognize Him?" The issue of divine causality and supreme control remain an element in other Biblical sources and clearly the debate on this issue has raged for many years. Suffice to say, the elements of hardening (or being hardened) have both subjective and objective readings. It is something Pharaoh and YHWH both do. How the original Hebrew authors understood this language is lost to us. Looking on these texts today, with our minds filled with all manner of assumptions which are foreign to the ancient middle east, we should try to ponder them with an open heart.

Part 2 The Hebrew Words

There are three Hebrew words used to describe what Pharaoh and/or YHWH do with the heart: kabed, hazaq, hiqsah (with definitions as found in the Blue Letter Bible)
kabed, kabad: "to be heavy, be weighty, be grievous, be hard, be rich, be honorable, be glorious, be burdensome, be honored" It can also mean heavy, dull, insensible, unresponsive, as well.
It appears 132 x in 106 verses. It first shows up in Genesis 18:20 to describe the serious (heavy) sin of Sodom, next Gen 34:19 to describe a young man as the most honorable of his clan and a third Gen 48:10 to say that Jacob's eyesight had grown dim. I make note of this because it demonstrates the various meanings and nuances of meaning the word can have. As noted above it appears frequently in Exodus, beginning as a reference to the hard labor of the Hebrew slaves, then in reference to Pharaoh's heart but in Exodus 14:17 & 18 it twice describes the honor YHWH will get from Pharaoh! Here the punning nature of the Hebrew text is manifest. Lastly, this is the word (Dtn 5:16) translated as "honor" your father and mother in the ten commandments.
chazaq: "to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore" It can also mean to encourage, make stout, to strengthen and sustain or make bold. This word appears 383x in 267 verses. In Exodus 4:4 it is the verb for "grab" the serpent and Ex 9:2 for Pharaoh "holding" Israel and keeping them from leaving. In between (4:21, 7:13, 7:22, 8:19) there are four references to Pharaoh's heart being 'strengthened' or 'encouraged' or 'hardened'. However, we have noted before the use of words to tie together a narrative and it is also true here. In 14:4 both chazaq and kabed appear together, one referring to Pharaoh's heart and the other to the Lord's glory.
In 12:33 the Egyptians "urge" (chazaq) the people to let the Hebrew slaves go because otherwise we are dead men. In 19:19 the Lord appears on the mountain and their is fire. smoke, lightning and trumpet blast. The trumpet blast gets louder (chazaq) and louder. So the term ties together the heart of Pharaoh with several other elements.
qasha: to be hard, be severe, be fierce, be harsh, to have severe labor, to be ill-treated, to make hard, make stiff, make stubborn. Only 35x in 28 verses, the first two in Genesis refer to Rachel's hard labor. It only appears twice in Exodus 7:3 and 13 in a summary of the entire story.

Clearly, the tenses of the Hebrew have a bearing on the exact meaning of the word, but I hope it is helpful to see both the multiple uses of these terms within Exodus and the connections the "hard" heart (whether active or passive) has to other aspects of the story. Whatever else the revelation in the Book of Exodus means, it does not seem to be the case that we are to see Pharaoh as a helpless sock puppet whom God is forcing into sin.

Part 3
In conclusion, I am no scholar!!!! I think our understanding of God (He desires all people be saved, God redeems His people, God is a God of justice who acts on behalf of the oppressed, God expects right relationship with people) must be the framework for interpreting these events and the deeper meaning of the "strengthening/hardening/etc." taking place. God does not author sin, but He uses sin for His saving intent. Would God have softened Pharaoh's heart if Pharaoh were open to right relationship? I assume so. All I know is talking about God is a difficult thing. We have minds too small and vocabulary too limited to ever really express or explain His interactions with His world.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension Day

Jesus, a Jewish prophet and healer, was crucified and died. almost 2,00 years ago. The exact charges are disputed by historians, but the existing texts indicate that there were political and religious motivations. [The writings of the first Christians invite us to see deeper meaning to the event. The social political reasons are overshadowed by the interpretation of the cross- Jesus is the true paschal lamb drawing us into the true exodus, Jesus took on the curse, Jesus is a sin offering, Jesus is completing the covenant between God and His creation as the priest and sacrificial lamb, Jesus is the obedient New Man who is faithful to God even onto the shameful death on a cross.... Jesus, a man of the poor and downtrodden, was a populist figure. However, institutional authorities would prefer that peasants quietly work and refrain from sharing their input on Messiahs and Saviors. The local theologians determined Jesus to be a sham, a false prophet who misleads the people. Temple priests were enraged that Jesus had challenged their authority and and the status quo which particularly benefited them. Lay holiness movements rejected Jesus' soft attitude toward sinners. Social Justice zealots felt betrayed by His refusal to condemn the Roman occupiers and His willingness to heal a Centurian's servant. The vast population were indifferent to Him, intrigued by His miracles and drawn by His authoritative teaching, they were too busy and too concerned with the demands of daily life to follow Him around.

Jesus, the Galilean prophet and healer, was crucified. Some Jewish leaders were willing to engage with Roman authorities in making this happen. There are reports that a group of Jews were supportive of it. Jesus was crucified with two others and we must remember that getting crucified by Rome was common. Many thousands died in this horrible way. His crucifixion was particularly brutal and His willingness to die this way was unusual. It appears He embraced it as a mission. We can assume that most victims did not forgive their torturers or cry out for God's mercy on behalf of their killers. We read that Jesus died rather quickly and was buried by distraught followers. The man who had healed the sick and raised the dead appeared helpless and powerless before the power of the world. He died a shameful death which seemed to negate all His claims about God and Himself.

A few days later, however, the tomb was found empty and he appeared alive in a new state. A review of the record found in St. Paul and the four Gospels, impress us that the remarkable claim is rooted in a multitude of experiences, but the details are sparse and what all took place is only hinted at. What we know, to quote Luke, is that Jesus made it very clear that He was not dead any more. The resurrection, however, is different in kind from the revived corpses of Lazarus, the young man, and the little girl. Jesus' body had new qualities. He appeared and disappeared. He ate and talk and you could touch Him and hold Him.

Luke says that for forty days Jesus came and went. Because forty is also a symbolic number it is hard to know exactly what Luke is communicating. The death of Jesus, associated with the Jewish feasts of Passover and the barley harvest, took place fifty days before Pentecost, the celebration of the wheat harvest and the feast day remembering the gift of the Torah to Israel. It all ties together and Jesus' promise that after He was gone He would send the Holy Spirit must be factored in.

Today we celebrate two things. One happy, Jesus is now the King of Kings, seated at God's right hand, the other sad, Jesus is gone.... I often say that today is the feast day which explains why things are the way they are--Jesus is gone, He is in heaven waiting to return. Right now, the Kingdom is near and grows among us, but it is growing like wheat in a field sown with weeds by the enemy. Light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate continue to co-exist side by side.

The Gospel of Ascension is Jesus is home with His Father. He invites us to rejoice that He is there. He invites us to care about Him and what this means for Him. Jesus is in a good place. But He is gone. Gone.... But like all Biblical truths, it is more complex than a simple declaration. Yes, He is gone, but Matthew reminds us that He promised to be with us always until the End of Time. Jesus has ascended but He remains with us. How is He here? In word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is in the church, the church is His Body. This is why He sends us out. Go baptize. Go teach. Go tell them to obey. Go. Go. Go.

Jesus is gone but He is still here.
Jesus is gone but He will come back.
Jesus is gone, but we are sent in His Name, and He is still with us.
Let's do this, because that is what the Father wants...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Easter 6: Why Love?

John 14:23-29
"Those who love me will keep my commandments," Jesus begins today. Love and obedience are a unified reality in the Bible. Jesus does the will of His Father because of love. True love is more than a feeling; it is a decision in the heart which shapes behaviors. But 'love' is more than 'obedience'!

If we love Jesus and keep His word then He and the Father will make their home in us [the Greek word 'mone';occurs only in John 14:2 where Jesus says the Father's house has many dwelling places and He goes to prepare one for each of us]. Love is a relational bond. Obedience can be based on fear or self-seeking. It does not always form a life-giving bond. Love does bond. It changes us into a Temple where the Father resides with the Incarnate Word and Holy Spirit.

Hebrew has only one word for obedience: shama. However 'shama' also means 'hear' or 'listen.' To obey God one must hear. We listen to the Beloved to know His desire. The Father speaks His Word (Jesus) into us. When we listen to God, hear God, and obey God, His Word finds a home in my heart. This is what Jesus is saying; loving obedience opens us to a transformational-relationship.The Love opens us to Jesus Who desires to unleash the fullness of life and salvation. But the gift of the Kingdom is like a seed. It is an organic process that can move slowly and requires trust and faith. 

Two gifts of God's Kingdom are mentioned today. Jesus promises the 'paraclete'--the Holy Spirit Whom we will hear about more on Pentecost.

The other gift is peace. Kingdom shalom is different from what the world calls peace. Peace in the world is based on outward circumstances. It is often a function of power and control, even oppression. The World says peace is based on what I have or possess. The kingdom shalom-peace is different, it is the internal peace of being had by the Lord and possessed by God. It is the peace of the indwelling Holy Three in the power of the cross. Filled with the Holy Three, peace within us then flows outward to create the abundant society where all have a place, all have their needs met. Peace is the gift of God which creates an attitude of trusting love. When we believe that Jesus speaks truth, we have hope that all will be well someday.

The love of God is "soteriological"--it saves, rescues, heals, renews, strengthens, beautifies, sanctifies. It heals the illness of body, soul and spirit. It makes us holy vessels containing the Holy Three.

Why does love matter? Because it connects us to one another and to God. And that connection to God opens us to possibilities beyond our imagination.

Love, (obedient hearing) creates a new environment. The Holy Three change our hearts and our vision. The amazing promises of Jesus sound less like a fantasy and more like a mission mandate. We will see ourselves as Word-filled, Spirit-filled; chosen by God, Holy and Beloved.

Why is love so important? Because it creates a God-friendly environment where He can rescue and renew His people....
Why is love so important? Because love is obedient and when we obey Jesus we are open to receive and give abundant blessings...
Why is love so important? Because it makes us a Temple--home for the Holy Three...
Why is love so important? Because Love makes us the powerful apostles who forgive sinners, teach the nations, heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead and proclaim with steadfast faith the Good News.