The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, 15 November 2020
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: The Day of the Lord
In the Track Two first reading we encounter Zephaniah’s use of the term, “Day of the Lord” (yom YHWH), which we will comment on more fully below. It might be good, however, to take some time to discuss this term, as it appears in a great deal of prophetic writing, and then later in Christian thought, theology, and eschatology. We had experience of one of the first instances of the use of this term in last Sunday’s alternative Track Two reading from the book of Amos. “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light.” In popular thought it was a day in which God would intervene in human history and bring victory or protection to the people of ancient Israel. Amos clues us into what the import of the day actually was. It was a judgment on Israel and Israel’s faithlessness. Amos reminds his hearers something like this – “You think it will be a day of light and delight, but it will be a day of judgment and darkness.” Isaiah has a similar take in Isaiah 2:12, “For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and they shall be brought low.” We hear similar notions in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and in the Magnificat as well. We need to be reminded that use of the word yom (day), does not indicate a 24-hour period of time, but rather the beginning of an age or an epoch. See Revelation 6:12-17 for a more full image of the day as an age – here a day of wrath.
First Reading: Judges 4:1-7
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”
In this section of the book of Judges, we meet three influential characters, whose claim to fame is their leadership of Israel against the powers of Canaan. These individuals are: Deborah, whom we meet in our reading for today, Barak, the army commander, and Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. All of these contribute to the success of Israel, but the point of the book and the reading is that YHWH is the real leader and power standing beside Israel. The Jewish Study Bible makes the point that structurally, the defeat of Sisera, the Canaanite general, is modeled on the defeat of Egypt’s army at the Reed Sea (see Exodus 14:23ff.). Indeed, it too is followed by a song in chapter 5, just as Egypt’s defeat is followed by Miriam’s song. The so-called Song of Deborah may be the earliest example of Hebrew poetry, dating perhaps to the twelfth century BCE.
It is important that we recognize that when we speak of Canaan, we are not talking about a nation-state with a king, but rather a collection of city-states. Language and culture, however, unified these peoples, so that it is understandable that the biblical writers would look at these city-states as a unity. Deborah, a prophet and a judge, is the only female judge mentioned in the Bible.
Breaking open Judges:
1. Who are influential people who have influenced your life?
2. How has God worked through them?
3. Have you been such a person?
Psalm 123 Ad te levavi oculos meos
1 To you I lift up my eyes, *
to you enthroned in the heavens.
2 As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, *
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
3 So our eyes look to the Lord our God, *
until he show us his mercy.
4 Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
5 Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.
This is another song of ascents, thought to have been sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem. It is a psalm of dependence on God, which we especially see in the first two verses. The images that the psalmist uses are quite graphic, look up to the enthroned YHWH in heaven, servants and a maid looking up to their masters and mistresses. The author gives us this example so that we too can picture ourselves as “looking up”, just as a pilgrim looks up to see the road that he or she needs to follow to reach her destination. This is also a psalm that asks for assistance, for a recognition of the need of protection in the face of others who condemn, and insult. It makes for a dour ending of the poem, “Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.”
Breaking open Psalm 123:
1. To whom do you look up?
2. Why do you look up to them?
3. Who, in your life, holds you in contempt?
First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”
Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.
The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord's wrath;
in the fire of his passion
the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
As I often advise, it would be helpful to read the entire context of this reading, to discover the prophet’s intent and language. The title given to this section in the New American Bible is, “The Day of the Lord: Judgment on Judah”. First some introduction to Zephaniah. The book comes from the period of Josiah, so probably it was written in the late seventh century BCE. It is supposed that what we have in the book of Zephaniah is based on an earlier collection written in monarchic times that was edited at a later date, after the monarchy had fallen. Like other prophets, Zephaniah paints Judah in stark difficult colors, full of faithlessness and lawlessness.
Our reading begins with a plea for silence, for God will be present in the words that the prophet is going to speak. There is another reason for this silence, “for the day of YHWH is at hand”. The poem is quite picturesque. If the day of the Lord is darkness, then God is pictured as wandering about Jerusalem with lamps. The implication is that righteous souls are in short supply. Verse 13 sounds very much like Deuteronomy 28:30, you may want to investigate that connection. The following verses are full of the usual language describing the great disaster that the prophet envisions as the day of the Lord. The prophet Joel (1:15) describes it well: “O! The day! For near is the day of YHWH, like destruction from the Almighty it is coming.”
Should you look at the initial verses of the chapter, you will understand the prophet’s point of view, and the reasons that he is forecasting this destructive visitation. Some commentators see in these verses an indication that Judah stumbles because of her abundance (which will soon disappear) greed and idolatry. You might want to read this as a prophet’s comment on our own time.
Breaking open Zephaniah:
1. Zephaniah implies that his people no longer fear (literally) God. Is that true of our time?
2. How do you feel about a God that might be wrathful at times?
3. What might that wrath be about?
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 Domine, refugium
1 Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.
3 You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."
4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.
6 In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.
7 For we consume away in your displeasure; *
we are afraid because of your wrathful indignation.
8 Our iniquities you have set before you, *
and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
9 [When you are angry, all our days are gone; *
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 The span of our life is seventy years,
perhaps in strength even eighty; *
yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.
11 Who regards the power of your wrath? *
who rightly fears your indignation?]
12 So teach us to number our days *
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
Psalm 90 is described as “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God”. It is a vibrant poem which compares God’s eternity to humankind’s transience. There are three sections: 1), verses 1b-6, in which the poet compares the timelessness of God to our mortality, 2), verses 7-12, Our length of days, and our inability to heed God’s will, and 3), verses 13-17, A plea for forgiveness, (this section is elided from our reading). It is, in its entirety, a commentary on the human situation, and the reason behind our search for God. The final verses of our reading ask us to “count our days”. It is an example of the “Advent Shadow” that I discussed in the last edition of this blog. It is the plea for an Advent of waiting.
Breaking open Psalm 90:
1. How do you number your days?
2. What is your idea of eternity and afterlife?
3. How do you deal with human suffering?
Second Reading: I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Meanwhile, back at the Parousia, Paul continues his admonishment about the ideals of vigilance and waiting. Again, we meet the “day of the Lord” (see Background, above). Here Paul emphasizes its suddenness and urgency. The question that is posed in the background is “what then shall we do?” Unlike the darkness that Zephaniah sees haunting the people of Judah, Paul sees the Thessalonians as suffused in light, “for you are all children of light, and children of the day.” Like the virgins of last Sunday’s gospel, the expectation for us is soberness, faith, and hope. Perhaps Paul moves beyond the damnation of the virgins who have forgotten to provide enough oil (that is, light) when he says, “so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live with him. And how do we survive this period of waiting? Aren’t we really doing that now, as we await a vaccine, as we await healing and purpose? As Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another.”
Breaking open Thessalonians:
1. What have you learned in this period of isolation that you can apply to your spiritual life?
2. In what ways are you a child of light?
3. How do you encourage yourself? Others?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Once again, we meet the traveling landowner who needs to protect his wealth while he is away. Just as Zephaniah calls Judah to account in the Track One first reading, so Jesus uses this parable to ask those who follow him, or is it Israel, or is it the religious leaders, to make an accounting of what God has left for them to manage. Perhaps it is better to see this parable as anticipatory. Jesus will leave and leave gifts behind (gifts of the Spirit) that those who follow him will need to manage and then account for. We are talking about precious gifts here, for the talent was the highest form of exchange at the time.
The owner is gone for a considerable amount of time. Matthew puts it well, “After a long time.” The waiting of the early Church for a second coming, indeed our own waiting as well, has far exceeded our expectations. It has been a very long time – and the question is, “What have we done in this period of waiting?” What have we done with the precious gifts that have been left to us?
Many commentators see Matthew’s concern here as being one about the final judgment – how well did we do? But as we continue to be the church in the times that are left to us (a precious gift? Zeit ist Gnade?) perhaps we should see a different emphasis. Perhaps the emphasis needs to be in the quality of waiting, the quality of what is to be done with the gifts that the Spirit has given to us. Paul wants us not to worry, at least that’s what he tells the Thessalonians. Paul, too, asks us to wait with quality and with resolve. Do not fear for weeping and wailing, but rather give and invest the precious gifts in the lives of those who need.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What are your talents?
2. Where have you invested them
3. How do they benefit others?
General idea: A new day of the Lord.
Perhaps 1: Letting God show the way (Track One: first reading)
Being silent and listening for the Lord (Track Two: first reading)
Perhaps 2: Not seeing or experience darkness, but rather light (second reading)
Perhaps 3: Putting our talents, and gifts to work (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller