The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, 16 October 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104

Track Two:
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121

II Timothy 3:14-4:5
Saint Luke 18:1-8

Background: Beth-El

The story of Jacobs encounter with God at Beth-El seems to be our most basic understanding of the site and the place name. Further investigation of biblical materials gives us a more complete picture of the place and its role in the religious life of Israel. The site, known as Luz during the Canaanite period is some 12 miles north of Jerusalem. It was the property of the tribe of Benjamin, but was later occupied by the tribe of Ephraim. The Jacob story wants us to identify the site as devoted to the worship of YHWH, however following the reign of Solomon, the site is known for a variety of other practices. What seems like a real possibility is that the site was an ancient holy place appropriated by a variety of cults for the purposes of worship. Before the centralization of worship at the temple in Jerusalem, there were several shrine sites that were devoted to YHWH worship: Bethel, Gilgal, Dan, and others. The prophets Amos, Jeremiah, and Hosea prophesy against the site because of the placement of a golden calf during the reign of Jeroboam. It is well to note that the bull, like other Ancient Near Eastern figures did not represent the god itself, but rather the enthronement of the god. Thus the Ba’al, or perhaps even YHWH was pictured as enthroned upon the animal.

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

"The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge."

But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah continues to address the exiles in Babylon, and greets them with words of comfort. In the reading for today we have two oracles of promise (31:27-30, and 31:31-34). In the first oracle we are reminded of the mandate that the prophet receives in the first chapter. The mandate is fleshed out in a series of verbs, “pluck up”, “break down”, “overthrow” and “destroy”.  To this familiar list is added a fifth verb, “bring evil.” Jeremiah and his hearers/readers are fully aware that this has already happened. The future is seen in an additional two verbs, “build up” and “plant.” The reality of the oracle stands clearly in the middle with the negative remembered and the positive awaited. There is another aspect that is mentioned early in this first oracle, and that extends a promise of hope over all else, and that is that God “watched over them”. What was observed was the bad, and yet God still “watches over” in the context of protecting and caring for God’s people.

The second oracle deals with relationship that exists between God and God’s people in the form of the covenant. Here, however, Jeremiah takes it from the realm of the concrete to the realm of the spiritual. This covenant will not longer be an outside reality, but rather an intimate personal presence in the lives of the people. There are other hints of this intimate relationship, “I was their husband”, says the God of Israel. All of the language hints at this intimate relationship of God and people, the husband, and “they shall all know me,” gives us clues as to this profound connection, the One with the other.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     How do you know God’s intentions for you?
2.     Is God in your heart?
3.    What does knowledge of God mean?

Psalm 119:97-104 Quomodo dilexi!

97    Oh, how I love your law! *
all the day long it is in my mind.
98   Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, *
and it is always with me.
99   I have more understanding than all my teachers, *
for your decrees are my study.
100             I am wiser than the elders, *
because I observe your commandments.
101 I restrain my feet from every evil way, *
that I may keep your word.
102 I do not shrink from your judgments, *
because you yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are your words to my taste! *
they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.
104 Through your commandments I gain understanding; *
therefore I hate every lying way.

This personal reverie on the author’s love of God’s law is a perfect match to Jeremiah’s spiritualization of the covenant in the first reading for this morning.  What is interesting is to see that which accrues to the individual who learns from God’s law – “wiser,” “understanding”, restraint, and attendance upon God’s will, “I do not shrink from your judgements.”

Breaking open Psalm 119:97-104

1.        What is beautiful about God’s law?
2.        What is difficult about God’s law?
3.        How do you reconcile the two?


Track Two:

Track Two:

First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

We catch up with Jacob in the midst of troubling times, as he travels south toward Edom to meet up with his estranged brother, Esau. It is here that Jacob has an unusual theophany – although it is only late in the story that Jacob recognizes it as such. From Jacob’s vantage point he only wrestles with “a man.” Jacob has wrestled before, even at his birth as he grabs at his brother’s heel as he comes out of the womb. He contends with Esau and with his own father Isaac over a blessing, and he struggles with Laban over his marriage of his daughter. Here in the wrestling match we see a clue as to the true nature of Jacob’s opponent, for as the match seems unresolved, the man “touches” Jacobs hip. This is not an ordinary touch for the Hebrew verb does not implicate violence. It is a mystical touch.

I, and I suspect most of us, have assumed that the stranger is God. That, however, is not the only possibility given the folk tale nature of this pericope. Perhaps it was another kind of spirit who arrests Jacob, or perhaps it is only a representation of Jacob’s own internal psyche as he wrestles with the notion of meeting up with his brother. Jacob’s name, “bent”, indicates the troubled nature of his life. The story now centers on this reality as the man gives Jacob a new name, Israel, which indicates a different kind of self-knowledge, one of godliness and openness. Jacob realizes that once again he has prevailed, and our question might be “against whom?” That is grist for the preacher’s mill.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.     What does “the man” represent to you?
2.     How have you wrestled with God?
3.    Was your life changed as a result?

Psalm 121 Levavi oculos

     I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
2      My help comes from the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
3      He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
4      Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
5      The Lord himself watches over you; *
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
6      So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.
7      The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.
8      The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this psalm. When in the company of other clergy, both Christian and Jewish, on a tour of Israel in 1975, the Lutheran and Episcopal clergy on the tour chose this psalm to read as we made our way up to Jerusalem on a bus from Jericho. The Jews wept. It is a traditional psalm of assents, sung by pilgrims as they made their way to the holy city. Implicit in the lines of the poem is the realization that they way through the Judean countryside is dangerous and bleak. Thus, acknowledgment of a God who “watches over you” is both hopeful and a prayer. The “watching over” is not bounded by the confines of either day or night, but is constant and reliable. Other dangers are both realistic and magical, sunstroke on the one hand, and being moonstruck on the other. There are six repetitions of the phrase “watches over” in the psalm – defining the prayerful hope of a God who cares for the pilgrim.

Breaking open Psalm 121:
1.     How does God accompany you in life?
2.     What dangers are there in your life?
3.    How do you avoid them?

Second Reading: II Timothy 3:14-4:5

As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

In our progress through Paul’s letter to Timothy, we move back to chapter three. Timothy’s experience of the faith came more from the home, from his relationship with his grandmother and mother, than from an institution. Thus the setting looks forward to the church as a family or as a household, in which the Scriptures are upheld. It is also a school where the Scriptures become the textbook for living life.

In chapter four we have warnings about those who will challenge the beliefs that Timothy has been so lovingly taught. It is that teaching that is to guide Timothy as he contends with those who have another vision, who “wander away to myths.” The model of Paul’s own experience is held up at the end, sobriety, suffering, evangelism, and ministry is the mission of life commended to Timothy.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. How did you learn about your faith from your parents?
  2. Who were the other teachers of faith in your life?
  3. How do you teach others?

The Gospel: St. Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

If there is something that ties together the first and second readings for this morning it is the notion of persistence. Now it is Jesus, who will teach the lesson and recommend its use. In his parable about a crooked judge and a widow (high social standing vs. no social standing), Jesus wants us to understand persistence as both a way to live life in a difficult world, and as a way to pray. We learn from other writers, such as Habakkuk, that it takes patience. “If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” The proof, however, is in the asking, and in the persistence of asking. Such a behavior indicates a trust and a relationship that can suffer persistence.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How have you argued in prayer?
2.     When have you been insistent in prayer?
3.    Is your prayer life passive?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; 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


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