The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 14, 11 August 2013

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
St. Luke 12:32-40

Background:  Hebrews
There has always been a question as to who authored this book.  Originally assigned to Paul, it has been in subsequent ages equally assigned to Barnabas (Tertullian), Apollos (Luther), and anyone from Prisca to Jude.  It is probably best to honor the comment by Origen that  “only God knows”.  It is an elegant book, though not a “letter” in the standard understanding of that biblical form.  It does end as a letter, but its standard construction and organization moves beyond such an understanding.  The pattern that seems to obtain in the book is one of a homily with the following elements: Introduction, Citation, Exposition and Exhortation, and Conclusion (see 3:1-4:13).  Attridge says that the whole work is more of a homily than anything else.

Addressed to “the Hebrews”, this may be more of a characterization of the contents, than an actual title.  The argument of the book is to see the Christ witnessed to in the liturgical life of the Tabernacle.  So it is either an invitation (to Jews) or an exhortation to Jewish Christians to remain faithful to the Christian faith, as it was represented in the latter quarter of the first century.  The usual time marker of the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, doesn’t work here, since the Temple which is discussed is a virtual one, a memory of the ancestral shrine in which G-d revealed G-d’s will.  It is in this context that the author places Jesus as either exalted Son or High Priest.  The purpose is to lift up an understanding of Jesus as the figure who is both (as the hymn declares) priest and victim.  The readers are described as those who have been followers for some time, and who have faced difficulties.  The recitation and exegesis of the ancient stories of the dessert and tabernacle would be appropriate in that they too existed in a time of trial and difficulty.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Scholars are still debating the structure of the book of Isaiah, trying to determine the role and origin of a “first”, “second”, and a “third” Isaiah or more.  We do not need to delve into this argument for this reading since it is the prologue to the first section of the book, Chapters 1 – 39).  What is described here are the oracles and proclamations of the prophet working in the eighth century BCE, pronouncing judgment on the Kingdom of Judah, especially its kings.  In the introductory material, Isaiah projects his objections and G-d’s pronouncements.  Seeing that the people of Judah have forgotten their heritage and their covenant with G-d, they are accused (as in a trial) of all that they have left behind.  It is a classic list of prophetic justice: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  The traditions of the temple are declared to be nothing to the G-d of Israel.  The offerings, sacrifices, and incense of the temple are rejected; instead G-d seeks justice.  Such threats of divine justice were not idle.  Common memory would focus on the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE.  The judgment proposed by G-d would have seemed quite real and palpable.  The closing verses of the reading offer a redemption, and a cleansing with some of the most impressive images in the book.  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be whiter than snow.”

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What of your Christian traditions have been forgotten during your lifetime?
  2. Would you describe yourself as faithful?
  3. How have you been cleansed by G-d?

Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24 Deus deorum

The LORD, the God of gods, has spoken; *
he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory.

Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.

He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.

"Gather before me my loyal followers, *
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice."

Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; *
for God himself is judge.

Hear, O my people, and I will speak:
"O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *
for I am God, your God.

I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *
your offerings are always before me.

Consider this well, you who forget God, *
lest I rend you and there be none to deliver you.

Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me; *
but to those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God."

This psalm is assigned as an “Asaph Psalm”.  Asaph was the patriarch of a line of Levites that went back to the time of David.  There are other such psalms in the collection, grouped together in the Third Book of Psalms (73-89).  The first line of the psalm has an unusual collection of divine names: “El” and “Elohim”, both names used in Israel and in Canaan.  The translation should roughly be then, “G-d, G-d” followed by YHWH for which is substituted the name “Adonai”, translated as Lord.  The psalmist then pictures G-d in images of a theophany replete with fire, storms, and Zion “the zenith of beauty.” G-d calls for the people to gather, the purpose of the gathering not being named.  What is named, however, is G-d’s judgment against the people of Israel in which G-d will bear witness to their unfaithfulness.  What follows are a shadow of the sayings of Isaiah and Micah, in which God repudiates animal sacrifice – seeking a more faithful relationship.  The final two verses underscore the consequence of such forgetfulness of G-d.  There will be awful judgment, but there will also be opportunity for mercy and rescue.  This is a most appropriate psalm to follow the Isaiah reading.

Breaking open Psalm 50
  1. What is your favorite name for G-d?  Why?
  2. G-d appears as the witness for the prosecution in the psalm.  What would his witness be?
  3. How does the psalm end in hope?


Genesis 15:1-6

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

This is one of several times in this liturgical cycle that we meet both Abraham and G-d in a discussion about the future of Abraham and his tribe.  A couple of Sundays ago it was the vision and visitation at Mamre, and this morning the discussion embraces Abraham’s worry of having no heir.  The verse begins with a prophetic cast: “the word of the Lord came to Abram.”  Indeed Abram is characterized as a prophet in the 20th chapter of Genesis. God’s speech is met with Abraham’s silence with is broken by his complaint about being without an heir.  The image that follows is quite elegant, in which the Creator asks Abram to look at the stars in the sky.  Thus Abraham looks, “and he trusted” in the promise of an heir “the one of your own issue,” not some substitute.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. Why is Abraham concerned about not having an heir?
  2. How is this reading similar to Abraham’s bargaining with G-d at Sodom?  How is it not?
  3. What does it mean to trust?

Psalm 33:12-22 Exultate, justi

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD! *
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

The LORD looks down from heaven, *
and beholds all the people in the world.

From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze *
on all who dwell on the earth.

He fashions all the hearts of them *
and understands all their works.

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,

To pluck their lives from death, *
and to feed them in time of famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD; *
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, *
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you.

This psalm, with its opening verses (not read this morning) indicates that this psalm is indeed a hymn, sung with musical instruments.  The psalm is stretched between two points of view: a national one “the people he has chosen to be his own” and a more universal view, “he beholds all the people in the world.”  What is contrasted in the poem is the might of G-d and any potential might on the part of humankind – “no king can be saved by his mighty army.”  G-d’s power is more subtle, not like the sheer power of the horse.  G-d’s power is made manifest by the word that G-d speaks.  The breath that makes the word is like unto the “soul” (literally “the life breath”) that awaits G-d.  It is in this connection of life – the Creator to the created – that trust is found.

Breaking open Psalm 33:
  1. Who are G-d’s chosen people?
  2. What does it mean when the psalm says that “G-d beholds all the people in the world”?
  3. How are words “power”?

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

The Standard of Ur

Our continuing reading from Colossians has ended, and we know turn to the Book of Hebrews (see Background, above).  What we have in this reading is an Encomium (a text in praise of something) on Faith.  Several examples will be served up by the author as examples of faith.  Abraham (see the First Reading), in his following G-d to a new land, and Sarah in going with him, are examples of such faith.  What the author is seeking are examples of steadfastness in the face of difficult situations or times, or progress toward a stated goal.  The journey to a strange place seems to serve as an example of the early Christian’s plight in seeking the homeland promised in Christ.  Sarah’s plight is more dire.  In the culture of her time, her bareness seemed insurmountable and desperate.  Even to these, however, G-d delivers the promise.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. Why is Abraham an example of faith?
  2. How is a Christian’s life comparable to a journey?
  3. What are the promises of your religion?

St. Luke 12:32-40

Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

"But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Jesus continues his teachings.  Two Sundays ago on prayer, last Sunday on Anxiety and Things, and this morning on being prepared.  One almost feels that we are in Advent with this text.  Things were uncertain, when Luke assembled his Gospel.  No one knew what was to happen, and the times “they were a-changin’”.  So what shall the faithful Christian do?  First of all, “have no fear”.  The promise from G-d is that the kingdom will be given to those who believe.  What follows are two images: be properly dressed for action and movement, and take a flashlight, ready to move and to see when the Bridegroom comes.  We are called to expect the unexpected.  Luke will move in coming chapters to the foreshadows of the Passion and the events that will disturb the disciples. However, for the “Son of Man” to appear, we must be ready to accept the coming at any time.  Stuck at the end of the first paragraph of this reading is a pithy bit of advice.  Understanding what we really treasure is a clue to what we will be ready and willing to do.  If the heart is to guide us, it must be the heart of Christ.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What were the fears of those who followed Jesus?
  2. What do you fear?  What does your faith say to your fear?
  3. What do you treasure most?

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

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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