01 February 2016

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 7 February 2016

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
St. Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

Background: Mountains
Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion, stand out in the biblical record, by the designation of mountains, as sacred places is common to many ancient religions. Even artificial mountains filled the bill. As peoples moved south from the Russian steppes into the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, memories of sacred mountains caused the Ziggurat to be thrown up in the desert, with a house of God nicely perched at the top. The pyramids of Egypt and of Meso-America also functioned in much the same way – close to the heavens and to the gods. Thus too, the Greeks with their sacred mountains seenes of bloody battles between the titans and the gods, and in the Christian era, Mount Athos with its devotion to the Virgin and monastic life.

In todays readings we see the connections between the holy mountain of Sinai, and Moses, and the vision that the disciples see at Mount Tabor – the mount of the transfiguration. Even Calvary functions as a “high place” with its ultimate sacrifice. Here are echoes of the high places scene of much controversy in ancient Israel. Indeed, Jerusalem itself was such a “high place” with pilgrims mouthing the psalms of assents as they ascended from the valleys and low places to the Temple on Zion. To this day it is known as the temple mount. All of this is an excellent background to keep in our minds as we see the effect these high places have on the ones who are devoted to God.

Exodus 34:29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

It is easy to understand the inclusion of this pericope in the lectionary on this Sunday, which in the Lutheran Churches is named as The Sunday of the Transfigurations. Episcopalians save that nomenclature for the Feast on 6 August, but preserve something of the ancient tradition by retaining these texts. The focus of this pericope is not only Moses (his name is mentioned frequently) but also even more so on the effect of being in the presence of the divine. We understand that from the on-going glow that emanates from Moses’ face, and also from the veil that is used to conceal the divine radiation and holiness.  Such indirect theophanies are not peculiar just to Israel, but were also known in Mesopotamian culture and religious life. Thus it is an idea that had traveled with the people as they moved south into the Fertile Crescent. The fear that overcomes the people is a reflection of the fear of God that comes with exposure to the divine presence. Thus Moses is more than a prophet whose mouth is filled with the word of the divine – his face communicates God’s presence as well.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. When have you been close to the Divine?
  2. How did it change your life?
  3. How do you share the Divine with others?

Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.

The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.

Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.

"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."

Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.

Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.

He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.

O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.

Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

This is a theophany in poetic form – the multiple images giving us a sense of God’s presence as prophet, priest, and king. This notion will be assigned to Jesus as well. These are imperial images with God ruling over the heavens and the earth. The poem begins with a cosmic sense, with the God “great in Zion” and yet “high above all people.” This universal attitude quickly diminishes, however, as the last verses become more national in nature, with the mention of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, and allusions to the freedom from Egypt. The holy hill, the temples mount, Sinai, or Zion are all mentioned, and we see God ruling in the heights. In spite of all the images of might and power, the poet notes that God is the one “who forgave them.”

Breaking open Psalm 99:
  1. Are your images of God magnificent or simple?
  2. Why do you image God as you do?
  3. How does God rule in your life?

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Paul gives us two visions here. The first is a vision of the Glory of the Covenant, while the second is the Glory in weakness. All of what we have talked about in the first reading from Exodus, from the Psalm, and soon from the Gospel, is seen here in these two texts as well. Paul does something interesting here. He reverses the characterizations of the Exodus story. It is now the people who are “hardened” against the message with the minds veiled from the truth. Paul sees the Spirit “unveiling:” us so that we might perceive the glory that is in Christ Jesus. Paul also uses a notion from Jeremiah, where the law is not written on “stony hearts” but rather in the living flesh of the heart – so that we might know God intimately.

A new argument begins in the second half of this reading – really a different pericope. Here Paul recognizes the glory that comes to bear in spite of our weakness and difficulty. He sees the people of God renouncing the hindrances and weaknesses that beset us, “we have renounced the shameful things.” If faces glow with the revelation of God, then let them be unveiled.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. What veils you from your faith?
  2. What do you see as glorious about your faith?
  3. What is difficult about your faith?

St. Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]

In a series of stories of the activities of healing and teaching, Luke has us take a pause, as Jesus retires with some of his disciples (Peter, James, and John) and ascends to a high place to pray. It is interesting that the intention is to pray. In much the same way as at the baptism, the theophany is not the intent, but rather accompanies faithfulness (at the baptism) and prayer (at the transfiguration). There is a difference here. We wonder at the baptism if the crowd sees and hears what Jesus experiences. Here, however, it is the disciples’ perceptions that are shared with us. This is an exposition of the “hooks” to not only the past as experienced in the history of Israel (Moses and Elijah) but also to the future glory that will come upon Jesus, in unexpected ways. Some have seen this as a post resurrection appearance, while others recognize in it an anticipation of what is to come. The business of the world is always at hand, as the optional part of the reading shows us. The cares of the world are always present in spite of the glory. The focus is clear, however. After all the bright light, Luke adds, “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent.” One wonders if the silence comes from a mind at worship, or from the fear of being in God’s presence. Or, perhaps, they do not yet have the words to communicate how the Kingdom of Heaven has been opened up to them. Coming down from the mountain the works of the kingdom continue, and Luke clues us in to the reaction of the people, “And all were astounded” I wonder, did they remain silent as well?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How has Jesus transfigured your life?
  2. Are there moments when you wish to stay in a state of reverie?
  3. What brings you back into the world?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, who before the passion of your only ­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

25 January 2016

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
I Corinthians 13:1-13
St. Luke 4:21-30

Background: Prophets I
There are several redeeming features to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the most salient of which is the film’s depiction of ecstatic prophecy. Those playing the role look fairly crazy, and that is probably how they might appear to us were we to have the ability to see and experience them. Prophecy was not just the product of Israel, but was know throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE). The title means “one who speaks for another”, and all the cultures of the Near East had offices and practitioners of this sort of thing. The other aspect to prophetic work was the importance of “interpretation”, and in some cultures that was a separate function and duty. In Israel, the prophetic office was usually not connected with the priestly office, while in other cultures the two were interconnected, with the priest serving as both medium and interpreter. We get a glimpse of these other prophets especially in the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24) in which case the foreign prophet serves at the behest of YHWH. A great deal of the prophetic mission, both in the ANE, and in Israel as well, was of a protective nature, determining if the god would protect a king or a nation. A good example of this is in I Samuel 23:2. Another aspect of the prophetic world is that of the ecstatic prophet, where in a sense of “possession” is present. Another glimpse into the other prophets can be seen in the “contest between Elijah and the prophets/priests of Ba’al in I Kings 18:19-40. In the higher cultures, such as that at Babylon, the prophetic office was a bit more rigid and formal, leaving behind the ecstasy of Canaan, and other “lower” cultures. There were, however, Babylonian ecstatic prophets, the mahhu, who delivered their messages in the midst of a divine possession. This, however, was a much wider office than the focused prophets of Israel, mixing priestly, magical, and medical functions into one office. It is important to see that the Israelite office does not emerge wholly on its own, but shows a dependency and influence from other cultures. It enhances our ability to understand the prophetic office and its forms.

Next Week: Prophets II (The Call)

Jeremiah 1:4-10

The word of the Lord came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the Lord said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord."
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

Marc Chagall - The Prophet Jeremiah

Today’s reading functions not only as an introduction to the work of the prophet Jeremiah, but also as his credentials in doing this work. The commentator John Bright sees this pericope as “the prophet’s own reminiscences”[1] which served to lead the reader (or hearer) into the substances of the prophet’s work. The call exists as a dialogue between the prophet and YHWH. Readers may want to compare similar experiences in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-3. The features of this call are: 1) A foreknowledge of the call, 2) Personal objections, 3) Promises of divine aid, and 4) Receiving the word in his mouth. It is in this last element that we can understand Jeremiah’s motivations, namely that he spoke for YHWH. Our pericope ends at the first vision, but is followed with two other visions (1:11-16 and 1:17-19). You may want to acquaint yourself with those further visions and images to give a broader context to this particular call.  The vision of the pericope certainly makes it clear about the “sending” of the prophet, for the Hebrew word nabi has that notion as a root of its understanding of the prophetic mission as “sent ones” (apostles!) Thus, “for you shall go to all to whom I send you.” The sending is first, and then the speaking. What accompany these actions are the protections that God affords, “for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah sees the word given to him as devastating, a warning to those to whom he speaks the word. The devastation, however, is followed by the promise of renewal, “to build and to plant.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. I what ways do you think yourself unqualified to speak about God?
  2. I what ways are you prepared to speak about God?
  3. What of Jeremiah’s remarks resonate with you?

Psalm 71:1-6 In te, Domine, speravi

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; *
let me never be ashamed.

In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; *
incline your ear to me and save me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; *
you are my crag and my stronghold.

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.

For you are my hope, O Lord God, *
my confidence since I was young.

I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother's womb you have been my strength; *
my praise shall be always of you.

The psalm reflects Jeremiah’s understanding of the foreknowledge of his call, “From my mother’s womb, you have been my strength.” Out of this understanding, the psalmist makes supplications to God. Thus we can see this psalm as one of supplication, but also one of thanksgiving as well. There is a retrospective aspect to this psalm, as the writer looks back over a lifetime to discover God’s presence and protection. The verse regarding being sustained in a mother’s womb is reminiscent of Psalm 22:10, and may have been influenced by that work. The framers of the Lectionary certainly chose this psalm because of its shared themes with Jeremiah.

Breaking open Psalm 71:
  1. What supplications do you need to make known to God?
  2. What thanksgivings to God do you need to make?
  3. How does God sustain you in life?

I Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Saint Paul continues his meditation of the “Body of Christ.” It is unfortunate that this particular pericope has been blunted by overuse at weddings. The subject of “love” becomes flattened and static, and it will take some effort on the part of the lector or the preacher to recover the multi-dimensional nature of love in the Scriptures. In Paul’s vision, love is not what only what binds people together romantically (such a notion was probably foreign at the time) but what binds together the spiritual gifts that he described in the previous verses. It is an attitude that perceives the divine and spiritual nature of what the other offers, and accepts and receives it as a gift. This lesson on the nature of love within the Body of Christ is best seen in Paul’s stated purpose, pronounced in the first chapter of the book, I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose,” (1:10). Thus the nature of this agape becomes hopeful, patient, and kind. Its purposes go far beyond the relationship of two individuals, but rather extend to the whole “body.”

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Can you read this text without thinking of a wedding?
  2. What is there to really see in its phrases?
  3. How does this passage speak about the Body of Christ?

St. Luke 4:21-30

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The great themes from Isaiah’s reading which formed the core of last Sunday’s Gospel, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord,” lead us and the hearers of the reading to questions concerning authority. There are notable claims here, prophetic anointing, and messianic hopes. We need to remember that in Luke this pericope immediately follows the Baptism scene. With its anointing by the Spirit, and the proclamation by the heavenly voice it is natural for Jesus to take on the prophetic role and to see in Isaiah’s vision a realization of the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus hopes to announce and advance. So Jesus is anointed at his baptism and immediately uses the power of the Spirit to announce something greater.

The reaction of the congregation, the synagogue (the gathered people), will even more firmly affix the prophets mantel on Jesus’ shoulders, here seen in its negative aspects. What Jeremiah derides about his own call (see above, “I am only a boy.”) is reflected in the comments of the congregation, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus sees through their polite talk and gets to the heart of the matter. How is a prophet received? Anticipating the rejection by his own, he anticipates the ministry to the Gentiles in mentioning the Widow of Zarephath from Sidon, and Naaman the Syrian. Early in the ministry in Luke, the boundaries are erased and the outreach goes beyond Israel. In a sense, the text anticipates Jesus’ fate as well – it is death that is intended for him, but his time has not yet come. With their reaction, however, we see Jesus as the true prophet with all of the expectations and difficulties that accrue to such a call.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How radical is Jesus’ message here?
  2. Why do you think that the Nazarenes found it difficult?
  3. How have you been rejected because of what you said?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Bright, J. (1965), The Anchor Bible, Jeremiah, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Doubleday & Company, New York, page 6.