The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, 13 November 2016

Track One:
Isaiah 65:17-25
Canticle 9

Track Two:
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98

II Thessalonians 3:6-13
Saint Luke 21:5-19

Background: Fire and purgation

Malachi and Jesus both hint at a fiery end to things in our readings for today. This tradition seems to stem from more ancient understandings of the cycle of things. Either as destination (as in Christianity) or as interim places between lives (as in Asian religious understandings) fire seems to be the mode of purgation and cleansing. For peoples who had discovered metallurgy it seems only natural that they would make this connection – a process that could inflict pain or even death also provided for things of great beauty and value. This along with the notions of Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures, or with the Netherworld of the ancient near east or Tartarus for the Greeks, seems to have formed the ideations around the image of hell. Purgatory attempts to wrest some kind of hopefulness in the midst of this despair, and the images of the threshing floor, and the burning of the chaff at least leave the winnowed grain – a thing of value and nourishment. Perhaps rather than abandoning the hell idea, we ought to mine it for its possible meanings and applications in life.

Track One:

First Reading: Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord--
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent-- its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

This is, in a manner of speaking the seedbed from which later apocalyptic strains would stem. The visions of John the Divine, and of Jesus as well, are cosmic expansions of what Isaiah is attempting to tell the people of Judah. He speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, as if anticipating a new creation – a new cosmic act of God. The reality, however, is more local but just as telling.  It is Jerusalem that is being renewed, and for the returnees from exile this is cosmic – it is the center of religious, political, and social life. The whole basis of life is renewed and this is the gift from YHWH that will renew them. The violence of their own time is put to the side, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together…” The holy mountain, Zion, becomes a refuge and a fortress protecting God’s own people.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          How has your world been remade during your lifetime?
2.          Has it been for the better or worse?
3.         What are your hopes for our world?

Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah   
Isaiah 12:2-6 Ecce Deus

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

The responsorial canticle comes from the first of the Isaiahs, but the content is remarkably similar to that of the later Isaiah in the first reading. It might very well come from the mouths of those who have been saved from the devastations of Assyria and Babylon. Indeed it hints at the great deliverance at the Red Sea, “Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.” Such great deeds, however, come with a responsibility. Praise is not only demanded by the redemption from the powers of the world, but is required as a testimony to the nations, to the remainder of the world that knows not YHWH.

Breaking open Canticle 9:

1.     From what have you been saved?
2.     How do you tell others about it?
3.    What are the joys of your life?


Track Two:

Malachi 4:1-2a

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

The work of Malachi is linked with the writings of Zechariah. If you are interested, you may want to look at the ninth and twelfth chapters of that prophet in order to see a fuller context. Malachi writes out of the Persian experience, and his purpose is to announce the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” In some respects our pericope this morning represents a “scorched earth” policy in which all that is evil or arrogant will be wiped away, branch and root, by a refining fire. In a series of six disputes he opens up the heavy conversation that the prophet and the people need to have with God. Like Isaiah, there is a remnant that remains faithful, who will survive the holocaust that the prophet describes. A different kind of heat will descend upon them, the gentle warmth of “the sun of righteousness.”

Breaking open Malachi:
1.     Are there things or situations in your life that you would like to see destroyed?
2.     How can they be removed from your life?
3.    What might you replace them with?                                                 

Psalm 98 Cantate Domino

     Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
2      With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
3      The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
4      He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
5      Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6      Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
7      With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8      Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
9      Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10    In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.

For the most part, the gods of the ancient world were warrior gods, and such is true here for YHWH as well. Clues are seen in the several uses of the word “victory”, and the reference to God’s “right hand and holy arm.” If we take that ancient portrait in, including the allusions to the Canaanite, Egyptian, and other ancient near eastern gods, then we see that the victory that is described by the psalmist is not just a local, but rather the cosmic battle against chaos. There is a double vision here of a god who is above all others, who rules the earth, and yet who has an intimate relationship with a certain people. All creation knows this, and gives voice to its praise of God. For a desert people, the often-unexpected floods that coursed down the usually dry wadi would have made a noise. The psalm sees the noise of these waters sing praises to God, “Let the rivers clap their hands.” It is in this context of praise and joy that God judges the world, but with equity and righteousness.

Breaking open Psalm 98:
1.     What are the sounds of rejoicing like to you?
2.     What do you have to rejoice about?
3.    How do you rejoice?

The Second Reading: II Thessalonians 3:6-13

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Our reading today comes from a section of paranesis or moral exhortation. Based on his apostolic calling and authority, Paul, “commands” his followers in Thessalonica to ally themselves with several behaviors, keeping to the tradition received, being careful of unhelpful associations, imitating Paul’s own example, staying away from idleness. Could the practice of communal sharing and mutual aid have led some to be idle and negligent? That seems to be a possibility here, and Paul rails against it.

Breaking open II Thessalonians:
  1. Is Paul arrogant or justly proud?
  2. What are you proud of in your Christian life?
  3. What are you idle about?

The Gospel: St. Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.

"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

We stand at the cusp of Luke’s reminiscing on the death of Jesus. In this reading, Jesus completes his instruction of the disciples and answers questions about the future. The focus of these questions, the fate of the temple complex in Jerusalem, seems to stem from the disciples’ amazement at the facility – its size and magnificence. Jesus makes quick work of their being impressed by relegating the entire building and operation to a heap of stone. But these are just signs of more that is to follow. All of this seems to be an embodiment of what Malachi speaks against in the first reading (Track 2). Jesus vision is surely informed by Luke’s experience of the on-going destruction of Jerusalem under the Romans. What Jesus anticipates Luke may have experienced – certainly his readers had. The social division that is so apparent in the Gospel of Matthew is hinted at here as well, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers.” The whole social fabric from religious life to family relationships is to be torn asunder. What this reading does is prepare the disciples and us for the horrors of the coming days when Jesus is condemned to death. Jesus places them in the midst of all of these difficulties, anticipated and imminent. Yet even in the midst of this, there is hope and salvation, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What about your world seems unmoveable?
2.     What has been destroyed during your lifetime that you never thought possible?
3.    What difficulties do you anticipate in your Christian life?

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 © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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