The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, 16 November 2014
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
St. Matthew 25:14-30
A pattern that is seen in certain of the prophetic books has its advent in the Book of the Judges. It is known as the riv pattern - a series of actions: faithlessness on the part of Israel, judgment by an “enemy”, the emergence and anointing of a leader (Judge), the defeat of the enemy, restoration of the relationship with YHWH. There are several judges who are remembered in the Book of Judges: Othniel vs. Aram, Ehud vs. Moab, Deborah vs. Hazor, Gideon vs. Midian, Abimelech vs. Israel in general, Jephthah vs. Amon, and Samson vs. the Philistines. The riv pattern is reviewed in the prologue of the book (1:1 – 3:6). The remaining two sections review the actual stories of the judges themselves (3:7-16:31) and an epilogue (17:1-21:25), which is actually composed of an appendix to the main text, and reviews the stories of Dan and Gibea. What is of value here is not the historicity of the events or even of the characters, but really the theology of Accusation – Punishment – Confession – Forgiveness.
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.'"
Following the pattern outlined in the Background (above), Israel following the death of Ehud, again falls into a faithless way with YHWH, and soon falls into disfavor. A new judge is called to deal with the situation. The circumstances of the threat are drawn in expansive terms. Jabin is not the king of Canaan, for there was neither such entity nor a kingship that ruled it. He is king of Hazor, a very important city, however, so the writer expands on his power. To this expansion is added the description of “iron chariots”, which is probably hyperbole as well. Chariots were usually made of wood with iron reinforcements. Here, the author underscores Jabin’s power by describing the whole vehicle as being made of iron. A woman is called to be judge in this situation, and she is already pictured as practicing that ministry “under the palm of Deborah” located in the hill country of Ephraim. The gender of this judge is not lost in the Hebrew, where she is described as a “prophet-woman” which underscores her in relationship to the men who operate around her. She is not described as a shofet (a judge) but rather as a nevi’ah (a prophet). Thus the anointing is presumed, and the divine relationship already a known entity. Here she functions as a judge (in our sense of the term) and not as a warrior. As a prophet she understands the whole context of the situation, knowing already the prophetic words of God to Barak, and what the results of the confrontation will be, “I will give him into your hand.” It is meaningful to note that the hands into which the man Sisera (the Canaanite General) is delivered are the hands of women: Deborah, the prophet-woman, and Jael, the woman who wields the deadly blow.
Breaking open Judges:
- What powerful women who are religious leaders do you know?
- What moves you to admire them?
- How do the women of your church move it in ministry?
Psalm 123 Ad te levavi oculos meos
To you I lift up my eyes, *
to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, *
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God, *
until he show us his mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.
This psalm of supplication begins with the first person singular, but the subsequent verses are in the third person. The initial intimacy is generalized. What follows, however, are intimate gestures that indicate not only knowledge but relationship as well – slaves to master, slave girl to mistress, our eyes to God. What lies beneath the text is the implicit neediness of the look, expecting affirmation, but often receiving scorn. The verse, “for we have had more than enough of contempt”, distinguishes the expectant look of the people to God, from the all-too-human expectation of rejection or scorn from masters and others. No punches are pulled in this psalm. The expectation of such rejection is taken for granted when dealing with the “indolent rich”, or the “proud.”
Breaking open Psalm 123:
- What do people see when they look at you?
- What do you see in your supervisor’s eyes?
- How do you adjust your behavior accordingly?
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.
Zephaniah is often described in his similarity to the prophet Amos, who prophesied in the north. Zephaniah’s work was largely in the south, in Judah. The pattern discussed in the Background (above) is also evident here, as the prophet sees the error of Judah’s ways, and the punishment that will surely follow. This lesson follows closely upon last Sunday’s reading from Amos, “Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light.” In that “light”, Zephaniah writes accordingly, “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.” The day of the Lord might tend toward salvation, but its immediate effect is one of judgment. Like Amos, Zephaniah, asks his hearers to look beyond their rituals and cultic life to see the realities of their relationship to and loss of faithfulness with God. But we need to be cautious here. In a reverse kind of universalism, the prophet’s words of doom are not only reserved for the people of Judah, but “the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” Perhaps Judah was charmed by the fate that came with its engagement with other gods, their blessings, and their prosperity. Here the prophet wants the people to understand that the God of all, judges all.
Breaking open the Zephaniah:
- How do you deal with dark themes in the Bible?
- Is there darkness in your life?
- What kind of light do you bring to it?
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 Domine, refugium
Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.
You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.
You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.
For we consume away in your displeasure; *
we are afraid because of your wrathful indignation.
Our iniquities you have set before you, *
and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
When you are angry, all our days are gone; *
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
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.
Who regards the power of your wrath? *
who rightly fears your indignation?]
So teach us to number our days *
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
This psalm sets up Moses as a model, but for more than his piety and wisdom. It is also his mortality that attracts our author. Whether it is all of time and space, day and night, or eon upon eon, it pales in relationship to YHWH. So in the psalm we see with our human scope and limitations, but are also invited to view the same situation from the perspective of The Eternal One. Knowing that we are finite should grant us a modicum of wisdom, according to this psalm. That is the insight that comes from “numbering our days, and applying our hearts to wisdom.”
Breaking open the Psalm 90:
- What are the limitations of your days?
- What do you wish you had more time for?
- How do you use your time to gain faith and wisdom?
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
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.
We seem to be caught up in a “time warp” or at least in a heightened sense of “times and seasons.” Paul has a very different take on “the Day of the Lord” than that of Zephaniah or Amos. For Paul there is also a sense of sudden threat and destruction, but also a sense of the security that comes when we ally ourselves with Jesus. “For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation.” “…So that whether we re awake or asleep we may live with him.” Again we are in the Advent Shadow, and again we are asked to wait, this time with the assurance of the blessings that are to come, not the threat. The protective elements of life are simple: faith, love, and hope. These Paul encourages his readers to take on in conjunction with their taking on Christ.
Breaking open Thessalonians:
- How does this reading give you a measure of assurance?
- When you think of God’s judgment, what thoughts do you have?
- How do faith, love, and hope operate in your life?
St. Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus said, "For 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 deal with absence. Last Sunday it was the absence and then the immanent coming of the bridegroom that made for Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. Here it is about the landowner who is absent in his person, but not in the responsibility that he has given to his servants. Thus the landowner is gone, but not quite. There are expectations, and the time of waiting will be filled with dealing with these expectations. Perhaps we need to look at Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ in seeking to understand Jesus’ teaching. We are, in ourselves, a “talent.” Paul recalled that to some it was given to be a prophet, or a teacher and so on. The landowner has left us with what we are, and what belongs really to the Landowner (the Creator). It is this dealing with expectations (God’s and our own) that forms the crux of the problem here. Do we risk in the execution of our faith, or do we hold back and conserve. Luther said it best. Pecca fortiter – “Sin boldly.” It is worthy of Poor Richard’s Almanac, and a common everyday bit of wisdom – “give it your best shot.”
What is it in ourselves that is first given to us via the Spirit that is of such great value that the Lord of Life expects a high return? Perhaps it is the truth that has been invested or inspired in us – the God loves us and saves us, that we are indeed already citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps that is why the Landowner is so harsh with the timid one. He doesn’t recognize the treasure that is already in him. Perhaps it isn’t even the resulting value so much as it is the effort to invest it in others.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What are your talents?
- How do you use them?
- How do you risk them?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
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.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller