The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, 7 August 2016

Track One:
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24

Track Two:
Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22

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

Background: The Letter to the Hebrews

With this Sunday we begin a series of three Sundays of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews – hardly enough for this beautifully enigmatic book. The authorship of the book is hotly contested, but that really doesn’t seem to matter.  From Origen on there has been a high regard for the ideas of the book, and its elegant phraseology. In his commentary on the book, Hebrews – A Commentary, Luke Timothy Johnson, feels that contemporary Christians are at a significant remove from the world from which and for which Hebrews was written.  Dr. Johnson succinctly describes the problem,

“At least three elements contribute to the distance between ancient and contemporary readers of Hebrews. The first is the change in cosmology. The author of Hebrews and Gregory of Nyssa shared a basically Platonic view of reality (more on that later), which has scarcely been in evidence among thinkers even by way of revival since the nineteenth century. The second is the rise of the historical-critical approach to Scripture, which takes as its first premise that the Bible is to be read not as inspired revelation from God but as a literary production of a past writer, and takes as its second premise that the “historical” meaning of the text is primary and of greatest importance. The third is the slow erosion of classical Christian belief and practice itself. For many present-day Christians, the statements of the creed concerning God and Christ simply do not make sense. And the link between spiritual transformation and the practice of prayer and fasting is no longer obvious.”[1]  Johnson, Luke Timothy (2006-06-05). Hebrews: A Commentary (The New Testament Library) (Kindle Locations 716-722). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Lectors, preachers, and the casual reader have a challenge confronting them.

Track One:

The First Reading: 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.

This pericope consists of at least three parts, one of which (verses 2-9) is not included in the liturgical reading. It is an excellent summary of the prophet’s program and preaching and it previews what will become the prophet’s message to Israel. It takes the form of a legal accusation, although Otto Kaiser[2] titles the section “A Word to the Survivors” indicating a much later section that has been moved to the front of the collection. It is an accusation by YHWH, and serves as an explanation of why what will happen will happen.

The first verse introduces us to Isaiah and to his vision. Our selection continues with “The True Worship of God”[3] (verses 10-20), and its anti-temple and anti-sacrificial stance makes one wonder if it indeed was written following the destruction of the temple itself – rendering such liturgical and sacrificial rites unnecessary. There is a unique tie-in to the previous section, where in verse 9 the prophet observes, “If YHWH Sabaoth had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” So total was the destruction that the comparison can be made. Also interesting is the reference to “the remnant”, “the few survivors. However, in today’s selection the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah is not about destruction but about culpability. He pictures a people who do not listen to God nor understand what God is demanding. Thus the offerings that are mentioned are not only perhaps no longer possible but also not efficacious or convincing.

At verse 16, the mood changes and there is room for hope and for cleansing. If indeed the section from verses 2-9 was a rib (a legal brief), here it will be argued, “Come now, let us plead together says YHWH.” What follows is a list of comparisons (scarlet/white, crimson/wool) that indicate a repentant people. What is expected are the classic messianic anticipations – “Learn to do good, seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” This is indeed asking a great deal of a people just returned from exile whose only hope and motivation is survival. Society, however, whatever its situation, is about justice, and justice is about these expectations.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     What about your worship life might God have trouble with?
2.     What is genuine worship for you?
3.     How is your life about justice?

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.
2      Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory.
3      Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
4      He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.
5      "Gather before me my loyal followers, *
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice."
6      Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; *
for God himself is judge.
7      Hear, O my people, and I will speak:
"O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *
for I am God, your God.
8      I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *
your offerings are always before me.
23    Consider this well, you who forget God, *
lest I rend you and there be none to deliver you.
24    Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me; *
but to those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God."

The psalm greets with an unusual amalgam of “God names”, which is not all that apparent in our translation. The first line in Hebrew reads, “El, the God YHWH”, and more literally “God God YHWH”. Perhaps these are some evidence of a scribal error. All kinds of images are offered most involving light and beauty. There is to be some kind of trial, “(God) calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of (God’s) people.” The disposition of the psalm bears a great deal of similarity to the pronouncements of prophets – you may want to compare this language to that of Isaiah in the first reading. What follows, as in Isaiah, is a recitation of Israel’s sins. It is not ritual life that is the problem, “for your offerings are always before me.” It is a shame that the heart of the psalm, a recitation of troubles, and God’s aversion to sacrifice, has been removed from the lectionary selection. Its absence makes the psalm much more difficult to understand. The final verses attempt reconciliation with an understanding about a “sacrifice of thanksgiving”, a more spiritual understanding of what God requires.

Breaking open Psalm 50:

1.        Have you ever made a sacrifice of thanksgiving?
2.        What did you sacrifice?
3.        For what were you thankful?


Track Two:

First Reading: 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 covenant/promise stories about Abraham and his God. This telling, however, has several prophetic aspects to it, and it is good to remember that in Genesis 20 Abraham is introduced to Abimelech as “a prophet”. This encounter with God is in a vision, often the means by which the prophets encountered God. We are also clued in with the introductory phrase, “The word of the Lord came to Abram.” We hear Abram’s complaint about his lack of an heir, and he gives us enough detail that we are able to see some of the social structures of the ancient near east. As is often the case with prophets, God reveals God’s response with something out of everyday life, a glance to the star-lit sky. There he is invited to see the promise and the hope.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.     What is the promise and hope given to Abram?
2.     Have you had a similar experience?
3.     For what do you hope from God?

Psalm 33:12-22 Exultate, justi

12    Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! *
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!
13    The Lord looks down from heaven, *
and beholds all the people in the world.
14    From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze *
on all who dwell on the earth.
15    He fashions all the hearts of them *
and understands all their works.
16    There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; *
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
17    The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.
18    Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,
19    To pluck their lives from death, *
and to feed them in time of famine.
20    Our soul waits for the Lord; *
he is our help and our shield.
21    Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, *
for in his holy Name we put our trust.
22    Let your loving-kindness, O Lord, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you.

In this psalm we see the result of God’s promise to Abram in the previous reading, “Happy is the nation…happy the people (God) has chosen.” There is a double emphasis here, one having a national aspect, and the other more universal and general – God’s perspective is cosmic. The poem wants us to understand the scope of God’s power, and we are invited to compare it to a king and his army, and to a horse and its power. The use of the word “soul” in verse 20 renders a somewhat static understanding, when the writer wants us to see a more powerful dynamic. What waits for God’s intervention is “the ultimate essence of ourselves.”

Breaking open Psalm 33
1.     What is the power of a horse?
2.     How does the power of God share in that idea?
3.    How is the word “soul” a powerful word?

The Second Reading: 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.

Our reading today is a combination of two pericopes, “The Ancient Faith” (1-7), and “The Faith of Patriarchs and Matriarchs” (8-22). You may wish to read the entirety of both pericopes to capture the drift of the entire selection. There is a connection with Abraham as well, as the author envisions a sweep of faith that extends from God’s call at Ur, and moves on. If there is a phrase that ought to be mined in our study of this pericope it is “by faith”, which occurs some eighteen times, while the single word “faith” is seen in an additional six places. Combined then with the word “hope” we have a strong statement of faith seen in the earliest human experiences (read the elided verses 4-6) and then in the sweep from Abraham and on.

The faith of the patriarchs is not seen in a static background, the property of flat characters, but rather against the liveliness of their own experience, nomadic, childless and infertile, troubled. It is in this context that they hope and have faith. Here the emphasis on Abraham is almost Pauline in scope (an argument, I suppose, for his authorship). Appropriately Sarah is present as well in this pilgrimage of faith as well. Asked to give up everything (place, family, and gods) they are promised a city, or as Hebrews says, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. How is your life like a pilgrimage?
  2. How is your faith like that of Abraham or Sarah?
  3. What do you understand by the word “faith”?

The Gospel: Saint 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."

We move from a series of verses (32-34) that focus on the value of things – things that ought to be sold and given away. The question is, “but why?” The verses that follow (35-40) have a strong eschatological cast, as Jesus warns the disciples to be prepared for urgent action. We are reminded by the intent of this passage on the ancestors in Egypt who prepared to leave in haste and thus to attain their freedom. A brief parable about the householder further underscores Jesus’ intent. The reward for such faithfulness and alertness results in a startling response from the master – who bids his faithful servants recline at meal and who then serves them. I wonder if this has an almost Eucharistic flavor?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the urgency behind Jesus’ teaching?
2.     How do you look ahead in your life?
3.    In what ways are you prepared?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Johnson, L. (2006), Hebrews: A Commentary (The New Testament Library) Presbyterian Publishing Company, Louisville, Kindle Edition, Location 716.
[2]Kaiser, O., (1963), Isaiah 1-12, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 5.
[3]Kaiser, page 11.


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