Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Beautiful, beautiful Zion"


I purchased this photo of Jerusalem in that city in 1983
and have displayed it in our homes over the years.
From my "Bible" blog.... I’ve a Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (hereafter ZPBD) that my grandma Crawford gave to me when I was 14 (1971). I was appreciative but mostly uninterested, and the book became a keepsake after Grandma died just a few months later. Then, when I was 18, I began to take faith more seriously. I kept the book and still use it along with some of my other reference books. I took it down the other day to take a few personal notes about the subject of Jerusalem in the Bible---references I can continue to study over time.

The subject of Jerusalem is way longer and more involved than my few modest notes. A good Bible dictionary can give you the many references to the city in the two testaments. The biblical citations alone are numerous, and also one can take into account the extra-biblical historical materials about the ancient city, along with its importance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam---not to mention the long history of the city into our contemporary time. Not only was it the capital of David’s kingdom but was also the site of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit; later, it was central in Muslim faith and the destination of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey.

For now, I mostly wanted to write down a few biblical references about its founding and also its symbolic significance. It is a pre-Hebrew place, called U-Ru-Sa-lim in ancient times (later in Hebrew Yerushalayim), that is, “city of peace.” The earliest biblical reference to the place is  the story of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen. 14:18). That connection of “peace” (salim, in Hebrew shalom) is found in Haggai 2:9, Psalm 122:6, Isaiah 66:12, and other scriptures (ZPBD, p. 417).

The city’s name Yerushalayim appears for the first time in Joshua 10:5, and then later in the book (15:8, 18:28), where the text tells of Joshua’s failure to drive out the Jebusites, although the Israelites may have inhabited part of that area (Judges 1:21).

It is worth consulting a Bible dictionary about the parallel history of another city, Shechem, which eclipses Jerusalem in importance to the Israelites prior to the time of David. It is the city deeply associated with Abraham (Gen. 12:6-7, Jacob (Gen. 33:18-19, Gen. 34), Joseph (Gen. 37:12-14, Joshua 24:32), and Joshua (17:7, 24:1), and Shechem continued in importance for the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:1, 12:25, 2 Chron. 10:1, Jer. 44:5ff, Psalm 60:6, 108:7). Shechem falls from the biblical record, although the Samaritan woman of John 4 met Jesus in that area (ZPBD, 780-781).

The city of Shiloh is another important early city, the place where the Israelites under Joshua set up the Tabernacle, thus making Shiloh the center of the Israelite theocracy until the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant 400 years later (1 Samuel 4:3). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh. It was one of the worship centers during the time of the northern kingdom, but Jeremiah refers to it as a desolate place by his time (Jer. 7:12, 14) (ZPBD, 785-786).(1)

As for Jerusalem, David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10, about 998 BC). That is the first reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps citadel. David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others. The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22) (ZPBD, 914).

But the glory of Jerusalem itself is also found in the references to the place as God’s city (Isa. 45:13, 60:14, Ps. 46:4, 48:1, 87:3), the mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:3, 11:9, 56:7, 66:20), and many other lofty and praising references. It is called Hephzibah, “my delight is in her” in Isa 62:4) (ZPBD, 418). The image of the New Jerusalem is also a powerful image in the concluding chapters of the Book of Revelation.

A very different biblical theme is the prophetic image of Jerusalem as God’s unfaithful wife! On this theme I recommend an excellent book by a former classmate, Dr. Julie Galambush: Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh's Wife (Society of Biblical Literature, 1992).

I’m a member of a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group on Middle Eastern issues, and I enjoy learning from my colleagues about challenges faced by Israelis and Palestinians, including the complicated social, citizenship, and political issues of East Jerusalem (pre- and post-1967) within the overall municipal area. Discussion-friendship groups like this are one important way for us all to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

I was glad when they said to me,

   "Let us go to the house of the Lord!" 

Our feet are standing

   within your gates, O Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem—built as a city

   that is bound firmly together. 

To it the tribes go up,

   the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,

   to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 

For there the thrones for judgment were set up,

   the thrones of the house of David. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

   "May they prosper who love you. 

Peace be within your walls,
 
  and security within your towers." 

For the sake of my relatives and friends

   I will say, "Peace be within you." 

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,

   I will seek your good (Ps. 122)

As I’ve taken these notes, a song has been stuck in my head. I learned this old hymn in Sunday school as a child (words by Isaac Watts, refrain and music by Robert Lowry). The city thus became nostalgically lodged in my childhood faith, years before I ever went there.

Come, we that love the Lord,

And let our joys be known;

Join in a song with sweet accord,

Join in a song with sweet accord

And thus surround the throne,

And thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion,

Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

We’re marching upward to Zion,

The beautiful city of God.

Finally, I wanted to recommend a lovely 2-CD set of music called "Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces," which I discuss here: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/11/jerusalem-city-of-two-peaces.html

Note:

1. The fact that Jerusalem became more significant than Shechem and Shiloh---and only in the eras of David and Solomon---reminds me of my "Changing Bibles" post for May 18, 2012, where I discussed the ambivalence in the biblical sources about an Israelite king. Some passages (that I discovered and discussed there) affirm that Yahweh is Israel's true king and thus was not according to God's original plan---as, one might argue, these other two cities were God's original places of importance and worship. But God incorporated the monarchy---and specifically King David---as a "type of God's kingdom." And so the career of David---and now, we can add, the Jebusite city that he conquered for the Israelites---became significant for Israel's messianic hope. It is interesting to reflect theologically about the way God seems to adapt and be reflexible in these aspects of Israel's experience.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Haydn: Morning, Noon, and Evening

from tabulaplenamusica.com
Joseph Haydn’s sixth, seventh, and eighth symphonies are called Le matin, Le midi, and Le soir (morning, noon, and evening). I love to play Haydn’s symphonies while I work. I’ve the Dorati set on my iPad and the Fischer set on CDs and my iPod. These three early symphonies, though, are among my favorites: short pieces that suggest by their titles a good day.

I know that Wikipedia is not supposed to be a source to quote, but nevertheless I like the writer’s words about #6: “Haydn wrote this, his first symphonic work for his new employer Prince Nikolaus Eszterházy, in the spring of 1761, shortly after joining the court. The Eszterházys maintained in permanent residence an excellent chamber orchestra and with his first contribution for it in the symphonic genre, Haydn fully exploited the talents of the players. In this, Haydn was consciously drawing on the familiar tradition of the concerto grosso, exemplified by the works of Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Tartini, and Tomaso Albinoni then much in vogue at courts across Europe. All three symphonies (Nos. 6, 7 and 8) feature extensive solo passages for the wind, horn and strings, including rare solo writing for the double bass and bassoon in the third movement of No. 6. ...

“It has been commonly suggested that Haydn's motivation was to curry favour [sic] both with his new employer (by making reference to a familiar and popular tradition) and, perhaps more importantly, with the players upon whose goodwill he depended. Typically during this period, players who performed challenging solo passages or displayed unusual virtuosity received financial reward. By highlighting virtually all of the players in this regard, Haydn was, literally, spreading the wealth.”

Here is #6 in a period interpretation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwUKZG-fFZI&list=PLBC69B5E8CA5BBD23

And here is #7: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJapgNM15Z0&list=PLBC69B5E8CA5BBD23

And here is #8: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9hqn_kq2hY&list=PLBC69B5E8CA5BBD23


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Anger Toward God

Sistine Chapel Jeremiah
I should note that I’m not feeling angry at God as I write this---quite the opposite, I’m feeling really happy! But if I don't say that first, someone will think this post is about how I'm currently feeling and thus will miss my point, LOL.

I have felt angry and frustrated at God in the past, as I struggled with confusion and disappointment over some aspect of my life. I know I’ll feel that way again. These are very human feelings as one grows in faith and devotion and seeks to serve God in different ways. Faith in God is also trust in God, but you don’t know why certain things happened and where was God in those circumstances. People will say, “God never lets you down,” but you do feel that way. Not only that, but so do other persons of faith, including people in the BIble.

Last week, I caught up on my devotional reading, and read the June 6th devotion in the Christ in Our Home quarterly (Augsburg Fortress). The writer (Jessica Harris Daum) told of a time when some members of the church youth group had lost a classmate to suicide. The writer said that she led the group with this prayer: “Dear Lord, we’re so mad that Ben has died We can’t believe that something like this would happen to him or any of us. We’re confused, and we don’t know what to do. How can we have faith when the world can seem so hopeless?” She writes that some of the group were uncomfortable with her prayer and worried that we should talk to God a more holy way.

She writes that Elijah didn’t sound very “holy” in the story in 1 Kings 17:17-24, when he called upon the Lord in distress after the son of the widow had died. This passage was a portion of the scripture for this past Sunday:

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, "O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, "O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again." The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth." (NRSV)

When I preached on this passage, I considered the power of God to protect our physical lives and to give us eternal life. But afterward, I was still thinking about Elijah’s anger and frustration expressed in verse 20. God has brought Elijah to this woman, and seemingly, the result is calamity upon her life. If Elijah’s question is rhetorical, he is saying, “God, you killed this woman’s son!” But Elijah may also be asking a non-rhetorical, distressed question, “God, why have you allowed this to happen?” This, from a man of God.

Elijah continued to have faith in God and became the conduit for the son’s resuscitation. God did not begrudge Elijah his anger, nor the widow’s.

Leafing through my old Bible, I came across Jeremiah 20:7-18, a text that I first discovered in div school. Here is the NRSV:

Lord, you have enticed me,
   and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
   and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
   everyone mocks me. 
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
   I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me
   a reproach and derision all day long. 
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
   or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
   shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
   and I cannot. 
For I hear many whispering:
   ‘Terror is all around!
Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’
   All my close friends
   are watching for me to stumble.
‘Perhaps he can be enticed,
   and we can prevail against him,
   and take our revenge on him.’ 
But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior;
   therefore my persecutors will stumble,
   and they will not prevail.
They will be greatly shamed,
   for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonour
   will never be forgotten. 
Lord of hosts, you test the righteous,
   you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them,
   for to you I have committed my cause. 

Sing to the Lord;
   praise the Lord!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
   from the hands of evildoers. 

Cursed be the day
   on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
   let it not be blessed! 
Cursed be the man
   who brought the news to my father, saying,
‘A child is born to you, a son’,
   making him very glad. 
Let that man be like the cities
   that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
   and an alarm at noon, 
because he did not kill me in the womb;
   so my mother would have been my grave,
   and her womb for ever great. 
Why did I come forth from the womb
   to see toil and sorrow,
   and spend my days in shame? 

Like some of the psalms, this passage mixes despair directed at God, with praise at God’s ability to rescue and prevail. Unfortunately, Jeremiah also feels that God has prevailed over him, in gifting him as a prophet and thus giving him over to a life of misery, rejection, and shame.

Verse 7 is particularly strong language directed at God. Years ago I wrote in my margin that the Hebrew word pata (deceive or entice) also means “seduce,” while the word yakol (prevail) has a strong sexual connotation. The sense is that God seduced and then raped Jeremiah.

When we discussed this passage in div school, our interests were in a feminist reading (1)---the language of sexual violence that we find here and elsewhere in some of the prophets, particularly Ezekiel---and also a pastoral reading---what does it mean to be called to ministry but then feel so utterly deceived by God?

You might think: how can a servant of God become so despairing of God that she or he accuses God in horrible, angry terms? Surely a pastor should have more confidence in God’s calling! A lot of clergy and clergy-writers, I think, believe that God’s calling of us should be that which assuages all doubt and distress.

And yet, I'd guess that many and perhaps most clergy have felt, at one time or another, discouragement or despair that God had not brought about hoped-for grace and help in some parish situation. I think that there is a certain feeling of shame when you've sought to do God's will but bad things happen instead---"no good deed goes unpunished," as the saying goes. Anger at God can also be self-directed anger at yourself---feelings of foolishness that you tried to do the right thing and people treated you badly instead, and God seemed silent and unhelpful.

Just look at verses 14-18. To use a crude expression, Jeremiah declares, in effect, “F my life.” He wishes he’d never been born. Loathing of himself and fury at God are two sides of the same experience. And don't forget---these are words of the Bible, God's word for us!  

Jeremiah expresses anger and despair both at God and toward his own sense of self-worth. And yet he remains true to his calling. Part of his despair is, indeed, that he is committed to this life of faith and will not deviate from it, even though, in his perception, God has treated him in the worst possible way.

These responses---both Jeremiah's and Elijah's---are are very human! They express sorrow that God---who is powerful enough to intervene in times of hardship----did not (apparently) do so in this situation. And here are these very human responses recorded in the Bible, spoken by persons of God and heroes of faith.

All these people “hung on” to trust in God, were “real” to God as it were, and called upon God in their distress. As Rev. Daum writes in her devotion, God listened and responded to Elijah's prayer.

(As I was proofreading this post, I recalled Psalm 44, a painful cry to God from God's people, which has the same spirit as these other passages: we are in trouble and despair and so, God, where are you? Wake up and rise up and come to our help!)

Note:

(1)  I hate to not address the disturbing images of seduction and rape in this Jeremiah passage, considering that date-rape and “rape culture” have been in the news lately. But I did find the discussion helpful in the following blog; the woman blogger and some commenters discuss issues of gender, gendered emotional response, and sexual violence that this passage implies: http://theroundearthsimaginedcorners.blogspot.com/2012/06/god-and-images-of-rape-in-jeremiah.html

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Twelve Minor Prophets as One Book


Michelangelo's Zechariah
from royal-paintings.com
A post from my other blog.... I was leafing in my old Bible through the "minor prophets" the other day. They are “minor” in the sense that they’re short, compared to the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In the Jewish Bible (Tanakh), they are one book, Trei Asar or the Twelve, and as such, the Twelve are the last book of the Neviim, or prophets, which in turn is the middle section of the Tanakh. (http://www.ou.org/about/judaism/treiasar/) In the Christian Old Testament, these prophets are separated into twelve separate books and are the last books of the testament. That’s how many of us are accustomed to reading them, if we do indeed study them.

Altogether (if I've counted correctly), the Twelve have 67 chapters, which is only one chapter longer than Isaiah. Like the major prophets, the Twelve are concerned with the events of the Israelite kingdoms following the division (after Solomon’s death) into the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah. Israel is conquered by the Assyrians in 722-721 BCE, and Judah is conquered by the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE, who also destroy Jerusalem and take the people into exile. After the Persians conquer the Babylonians, many of the people are able to return to the land and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple (as recounted in Ezra and Nehemiah).

Any of the prophetic books can be tough reading. Our Sunday school class in Akron, OH tackled Hosea for a while. Then we got depressed at all the difficult and discouraging prophetic pronouncements so we switched to something more cheery: penitential Lenten scriptures! Any of the prophetic books demand a good commentary or study book to help you know what's going on. 

On the other hand, once you dig into the material, you appreciate their beauty and witness. One Jewish website (http://www.ou.org/jewishiq/treiasar/1.htm) has these words: "The voices of the Trei Asar, taken as a group, were like a great symphony, of dramatic and powerful movements. Or, using a visual metaphor, they were like a rainbow; a most appropriate metaphor, because their prophecies encompassed all the colors of the rainbow, from darkest to lightest, from the most somber to the most serene."

Recently I purchased the Berit Olam set of Old Testament commentaries published by Liturgical Press. I decided to start leafing through the two volumes (published in 2000 and 2001) on the Twelve, both by Marvin Sweeney, who teaches Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at Claremont. I was interested in learning about the themes and concerns of the Twelve, if we were to study them together as one long book. How do they interrelate, written as they were by a dozen prophets over a 300 year span? I took the following notes from Sweeney's interesting texts.

Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles order the twelve minor prophets following the order of the Hebrew text of the Tanakh (that is, the Masoretic text): Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Many Orthodox Bibles, following the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanakh), have a different order of the first six of the twelve: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah. The reason for the different ordering is not clear. As Sweeney notes, the LXX has the benefit of common themes: Hosea, Amos, and Micah concern the norothern kingdom of Israel, especially as an example for the southern kingdom of Judah, while Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk concern the foreign threat to Judah and Jerusalem, and lastly, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi speak to the restoration of Jerusalem. Also, Joel---which is difficult to place historically---becomes, in the LXX order, a general statement of God’s restoration that provides a segue point between the first three (northern) prophets and the rest of the prophets, with their themes of Judah and Jerusalem (p. 148).

A late 1st cen. BCE or early 1st Cen CE fragment
of the Septuagint minor prophets,
from wikipedia
To say more about the themes of the books: Hosea portrays the crisis of Israel as an example for Judah, then Joel provides a framework of punishment and restoration for Jerusalem on “the day of the Lord," connecting to themes in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah. With that framework and connection in mind, we move to Amos, wherein the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel is the opportunity to restore the monarchy of David. Then Obadiah preaches against Edom (the kingdom south of the Dead Sea) for threatening Jerusalem. Jonah depicts God’s mercy for Assyria. Micah also portrays the fall of the north as a framework for Jerusalem’s fall and restoration. Then Nahum condemns Assyria for its actions against Jerusalem. Habakkuk similarly condemns Babylon. Then Zephaniah preaches about the purification of Jerusalem; Zephaniah addresses the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple; Haggai preaches about the restoration of Jerusalem; Zechariah is concerned with that process of restoration, and then Malachi is concerned with the city’s final purification (pp. 148-149).

Hosea. Hosea reflects the 8th century rise of Assyria, and the text depicts Israel's conflicts with that kingdom (p. 3-4). Sweeney 
writes that although Hosea is by Rabbinic tradition called the oldest of the twelve, Amos mentions Jeroboam and Uzziah and Hosea mentions the chronologically later Ahaz and Hezekiah (p. 3). Also Amos writes during the rise of Assyria before it had definitely threatened the northern kingdom. But still, he writes, “Hosea seems to be particularly well suited for its position at the head of the Twelve on thematic grounds. It employs the metaphor of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the birth of their children as a metaphor for YHWH’s relationship with Israel” (p. 3). That is, as Gomer is divorced because of harlotry, so the Lord condemns Israel for abandoning its covenant with God---Israel’s figurative “adultery.” But Hosea takes his wife back, and the Lord also restores Israel following punishment from gentile nations. Sweeney notes that the Lord’s disdain for divorce in Malachi connects back to Hosea (p. 3). 
Frieze of  Prophets, Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea,
by John Singer Sargent, Boston Public Library, bpl.org.

Joel. The book has no definite references to its historical circumstance, and the threatened “Day of the Lord” seem to refer to natural calamities. But, “[w]ithin the MT version of the Book of the Twelve, Joel presents the paradigm for Jerusalem’s punishment and restoration as a fundamental question to be addressed within the Twelve as a whole” (p. 149).

Amos. The theme of locusts connects Amos and the previous book Joel (Joel 1-2, Amos 7:1-3), as does the theme of the restoration of fertility and agricultural prosperity (Joel 3:18, Amos 9:11-15). Amos also connects to the subsequent book, Obadiah, in the need for Edom to be pushed (Amos 1:11-13, 9:12). Furthermore, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah are connected because of the theme of the day of the Lord (Joel 1:15, Amos 5:18-20, Obadiah 15). In the LXX order of the books, Amos connects with Hosea in identifying the Beth El sancturary as a specific problem of God’s anger depicted in Hosea, and then Amos connects to Micah in their mutual depiction of God’s punishment and restoration (p. 191). Also, Hosea, Amos, and Micah are all the 8th century prophets among the Twelve (pp. 191-192).

Obadiah. This short book has in common with Amos the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, as well as the theme of the day of the Lord (p. 279).

Jonah. This book depicts God’s mercy toward Nineveh of Assyria, thus connecting to the mercy God shows in restoring Israel and Judah as depicted in the next book, Micah. Jonah balances Obadiah’s prophecies against Edom, but it also contracts with the book after Micah, Nahum, which shows the punishment of God toward the ultimately unrepentant Assyrians (p. 305). Jonah also addresses the question of God’s mercy and trustworthiness following the Babylonia exile, for the themes of creation and the Exodus are brought in, functioning to tie together earlier scriptures about God’s power and faithfulness (pp. 306-307).

Micah. The restoration of Zion amid the nations is a major theme of Micah (chapters 4-5). As the sixth book in the Masoretic order of the Twelve (the order most of us are used to), Micah bridges God’s judgment and mercy to the nations in Obadiah and Jonah, with themes of the next three books: the fall of Ninevah, the Babylonian threat, and God’s call to his people to repentance.  As the third book in the LXX, Micah’s perspective of the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel has ramifications for the experience of Jerusalem and Judah as well as the nations, including Micah’s vision of Zion as the center of God’s world peace (p 339). “Overall, the book of Micah is esigne to address the future of Jerusalem or Israel in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile,” even though Micah himself was 8th century (p. 342). 

Nahum. Concerned in part with the divine judgment against Nineveh, the book follows Jonah, indicating that the repentance of Nineveh was temporary. But the book is also the beginning of the long process of God’s judgment against the nations, as well as against Judah and Jerusalem, which are the subjects of the subsequent five books (p. 420).

Frieze of Prophets. Micah, Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah,
by John Singer Sargent, Boston Public Library, blp.org. 
Habakkuk. Like Nahum, Habakkuk affirms the Lord’s control of world events, and the Lord’s use of the nations in the divine purposes. The two books contrast in affirming the fall of Assyria (Nahum) and looking forward to the fall of Babylon (Habakkuk) (p. 453). “This prepares for Zephaniah, which calls upon the people to make their decision to observe YHWH’s requirements or suffer punishment if they refuse to do so (p. 454).

Zephaniah. Zephaniah links with Habakkuk in the prophecies about Babylon (the agent of Judah’s fall) and with subsequent Haggai, who looks to the rebuilt Temple and the hoped-for restoration of the Davidic monarchy (p. 493). But the beginning of Zephaniah locates the prophets career during Josiah’s reign, thus connecting with the pre-exilic reforms of that righteous king. The call for repentance and purity of Josiah’s reforms have a new urgency in the post-exilic times (pp. 493-494).

Haggai and Zechariah are prophets who appear in the account of Ezra. Haggai’s concern with the Temple and the restoration connect with Zephaniah’s themes. 

At the same time, Zechariah affirms the Temple and restoration but also looks beyond the Temple to God’s cosmic purposes (pp. 529, 561). 

Malachi. The last book of the Twelve calls the people to “to take the action that is necessary for Jerusalem and the Temple to fill” the role depicted in the previous books: Israel and the Temple as “the holy center” of God’s peace for the nations and the cosmos. As Sweeney noted elsewhere (in my notes above), the Lord’s disdain of divorce circles us back to the divorce and return of Gomer and Hosea in the first book of the Twelve (p. 713).

In this biblical book "The Twelve," we have history of God's people from the 8th to the 5th centuries, with many harsh and difficult pronouncements as well as distressing theology (e.g., YHWH as a husband who seeks to punish his wife). But we also have a vision of God's peace for the world, centered at Jerusalem. We also have a vision of God's universal purposes. Many Christians, of course, interpret some of these texts as referring to Christ and his kingdom, and we understand more about Christ and his person and work by appreciating his place and context within God's purposes with Israel. We also find among the Twelve, classic Bible passages that always inspire and call us, like Micah 6:8, Habakkuk 2:4, Amos 5:24, and others.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Demas, and Staying Strong in Faith

Have you ever noticed the New Testament disciple Demas (Δημᾶς, pronounced day-MAS)? Possibly not, since he only appears three times, at the end of letters.

My mom used to own collections of Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermons, and in one sermon he made a hypothetical case about the stages of Demas' loss of faith (or, at least, Demas' commitment to Paul's difficult ministry). 

Fosdick noted that, in Philemon 23-24, Paul lists him ahead of Luke. Here is the NRSV:

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers. 

Then in Colossians 4:14, among his greetings and acknowledgments, Paul (assuming Pauline authorship of this letter) mentions Luke first, and then Demas:

Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 

In 2 Timothy 4:9-11, Paul writes:

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.

Fosdick suggested a regression of Demas' devotion: first he is listed ahead of Luke (implying his importance to Paul), and then he is listed after Luke, implying a drop in importance. In the third verse, Paul regrets that Demas has abandoned him because he loved the world more than the Gospel. (I read that the name is used by John Bunyan for a deceiver in The Pilgrim's Progress.)

Perhaps that isn’t fair. It's not hard to imagine that Paul wasn’t easy to get along with! Paul, like many preachers following him, was singleminded in his efforts. I remember a pastor whom I met casually years ago. He made the comment to someone that Satan had been sending him the wrong persons to assist in his ministry. I thought that was a rather arrogant thing to say. He should have been more humble and said that his assistants had so far been incompatible with his own personality, style, and goals, which does happen in workplaces. 

Perhaps that was the way with Demas; perhaps he and Paul weren't compatible, and Paul (not realizing his personal letter would become scripture!) was hurt, lonely, and assessed him harshly. 

But one’s religious faith and devotion can certainly weaken. That's not hard to imagine, either. Maybe Demas felt that he got "a better deal" out of other paths. Many times I've felt discouraged in my faith, especially in the face of difficulties outside my control and times of distress. Tired of feeling worried about certain things, I'm currently seeking God's help to grow in my trust in the Lord.

Thus, in Paul's letters as well as Hebrews and also the Gospels, that we should seek to stay strong in our faith and not to lose heart.  Two passages come to mind at the moment: 2 Cor. 4:16-18 and Gal. 6:9. Can you think of others? 

One hopes that Demas found other chances to be a disciple, just as we all hope that God continues to work in our lives when we are weary, or when we drift or stumble.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jesus Has Compassion

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Pentecost.... My parents are both gone now. My mother died this past September and my father died back in 1999.  Like everyone else, I struggle to have a growing faith and to have a peaceful, trusting heart in the face of life’s difficulties, which definitely isn’t always easy. Grief from a family loss is a very major thing to face. I have to say, though, that all the biblical promises of eternal life and heaven helped me tremendously as I contemplated the fulfillment of those promises for my mother, who was 93 and had been ill and infirm for many years.

I like to think of Christ's death and resurrection as bringing about a kind of reality, which is forceful and real for us today. Our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God, because we’re protected in that resurrection reality.

Eternal life is like being kept in a protective and secure place, out of reach of danger. Obviously, we still face difficult and dangerous, painful situations. But if we have a relationship with Christ, then Christ keeps us out of reach of the full powers of death and evil. Our very lives are tucked away and protected, because we’re already sharing in the divine life of Christ. We have a new identity for the remainder of our physical existence, characterized and empowered by God’s tremendous and infinite love.

Nothing we do in this life can separate us from God’s great love, because we have already died and been buried, so to speak, because the physical death we will eventually----awful as death is---has been rendered impotent as far as our eternal life is concern.   Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ.”  Baptism is a sign of this safekeeping, our “burial” with Christ, so that as Christ is buried we are buried with him, and as he has risen from death so too will we be raised to eternal life.

These two stories, from 1 Kings and Luke’s gospel, are traditionally paired together. If you study them side by side, they parallel one another. Scholars think that Luke must have written the story in order for it to parallel the Elijah story, since structurally and thematically they’re very similar.

Elijah and Jesus both approached the gate of the town, they both immediately met a widow whose son had died. Both Elijah and Jesus had compassion, with Elijah’s expressed as a cry to the Lord and Jesus’ by the time he took to address the situation. Also, Elijah’s compassion was expressed in the way he reached out to a Gentile woman, while Jesus reached out to someone who was simply passing by while he was doing something else. In both stories, the son is given back to the mother, and also in both stories, Elijah and Jesus are both recognized as persons from God.

When I took an introduction to religion course during my freshman year of college, I learned my first “cool” biblical word, and it happens to be used in Luke’s story. The Greek work is splagchnizomai, which is translated “to have compassion,” but it is euphemism because the literal meaning is “to feel yearning in the bowels”---or, as we might say, “to feel it in the gut,” a gut feeling.  In other words, Jesus felt compassion in his deepest inner being.

This is an important thing to remember in this story, as Jesus was moving along with a large crowd following him and the disciples. He noticed another large crowd---dueling crowds, so to speak, but this second crowd was following the widow and her dead son. One of my commentaries quotes the epistle from James, that true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Obviously Jesus had power to help the widow and raise up the Son, but hypothetically he could have going on his way without discovering what the other crowd was about.

Jesus’ reaction, though, was compassion.

I’d like for us to think about that for a minute. One day my mother made an offhand comment that she wondered if she was good enough to go to Heaven.  I kind of hit the ceiling---because she was a lifelong churchgoer and I wished she had a more confident understanding of the gospel. But as we chatted, I did wonder if we do a good enough job communicating to people that salvation is a free gift.
Being with God in our life and after our death is completely a gift from God.  Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus didn’t say, “I go to prepare a place for you but only if provide good drywall and do the wiring.” It is completely Christ’s work that gets us a room in Heaven.

But I think, how sad it would be if you were a person in a hard situation, many very scared and the thing you needed most was a message of God’s great love and God’s free gift of salvation. But you feel like you should've volunteered more at church, you should have done this or that, you didn't resolve this or that conflict.  Sunday, the pastor might be preaching sermon about how you need to step up and volunteer more. You end up climbing to the notion that you have to earn God’s grace and work hard to get to Heaven.

But our scriprtures this morning teach us that Jesus responds with compassion to our weaknesses and our struggles.  When we’re at the end of our lives, he isn’t checking his notes to see if we’ve passed muster with him, like a fussy boss----he has already surrounded us with more love than we can realize.

That might be just a good all-around phrase to memorize and recite to ourselves when we’re in a bad way, and in particularly if we’re facing our own mortality: “Jesus has compassion....”  Repeat after me....



Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Maintaining a Strong Prayer Life

Sometimes, prayer is an urgent and necessary aspect of your day, and other times, prayer gets put on the "back burner" amid other things going on in your life.

The epistle says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) but of course that cannot be taken literally if it refers to an individual Christian’s prayer. I like this short page (http://www.allaboutprayer.org/pray-without-ceasing-faq.htm) that explains “without ceasing” as an attitude and an openness. One of the first Hebrew words I learned was hinneni, “Here am I!” the response that people like Abraham made when God called to him. Our professor, Bonnie Kittel of blessed memory, noted that the response implied a openness and readiness to hear God. That’s one good way to think about prayer: a communicative attitude toward God that in turn makes us open to God’s leading and guidance.

I’ve several prayer books but usually read from the “Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer” based on the Liturgy of the Hours, and I’ve four devotional quarterlies that I like to use. Recently I got out other resources that I like but haven’t used for a while. My wife’s deceased first husband received a little prayer book ("My Prayer Book") when he was confirmed, and it contains wonderful intercessory prayers. I’ve other books that I use less often, but I found a nice Minister’s Prayer Book published by Muhlenberg Press in the 1950s.

I wish I was more consistent day to day to use these resources. I do pretty well, but since my days are filled with teaching and writing on religious subjects, I’m often thinking about God and mentally praying to God but my “organized” religious devotion falls by the wayside unless I make an effort to keep that part of my life on track.

On the other hand … Years ago (1980s?) I read an article in Christian Century that made the point that Jesus seemed not to have a structured way of praying. He prayed a lot and sought time and places for solitary prayer, but the texts say nothing about specified times that he prayed, nor did he make people wait for him to conclude his prayer time. The article noted that being organized in our prayer lives could just mean that we’re … well organized!

We grow in quality and quantity of prayer among our daily comings and goings (Ps. 121:8). When I was in seminary, my prayers were self-doubtful, anxious, and uncertain about the future---not untypical of a “dark night” situation. Seminary is a time for many of us when God tests our calling and vocation. Now … I’m nearly thirty years out of seminary, happy with and amazed at the ways God has led me over the years. So my prayers aren’t self-doubtful in the manner of a young person, but my prayers are offered with a heightened, respectful sense of mortality and the unpredictability of life. During the last ten years my amazing daughter has grown from middle school- to college-age, and I’ve handled my widowed mother’s affairs in addition to all my other responsibilities. Circumstances like these (and others) can help a person turn more of “life” over to God’s care. You really do understand, psychologically, that surrendering to God's care is a happier way to live than clinging to the idea that you have a lot of control over your life.

But mental prayer can carry the risk of self-involvement and self-satisfaction. That’s why I have my little battery of prayer helps that I use to direct my prayers during those secret times of Matt. 6:6. Prayer resources are wonderful: among other things, they explain prayer, they provide accompanying scriptures, they contain great prayers with which we can read along and make our own, and they remind us what to pray for. Prayer resources can also stop us cold when we encounter prayer-words that we really don’t want to pray at that moment! Thus we can think about the present situation of our feelings toward God.

Prayer has a "community" aspect, too, so I’m a member of two prayer chains. The requests come by email and I print these out. Much of my daily attitude in prayer is intercessory, but I’m liable to forget to pray for folks whom I don’t know unless I have the prayer requests at hand. I have these words of Oswald Chambers almost memorized: "The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends NOW; pray for those with who you come in contact NOW."

As I wrote this little piece, I grew very insecure. Specifically, I worried that I don’t do enough for God, both in my prayer life or generally. This is a good example of the importance of fortifying our mental prayers with scripture study and resources. We’re saved by Christ’s redeeming work, not anything we do. Although there are numerous ways to pray (some better than others), our prayers are never ways to earn God's favor or to "leverage" God. Prayer is a wonderful way to learn more about the God who has done more for us than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20-21).


* On a related note, a friend tweeted this Christianity Today article, an excellent reminder of God's love! http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=86920

(This piece was originally posted in March 2011 and republished at the umc.org site.)

Monday, June 3, 2013