The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, 11 August 2019

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
St. Luke 12:32-40

Background: Inheritance in Ancient Israel

The question we need to deal with here, that will give us some kind of background to the Hebrew Scriptures in Track Two, is what were the norms for inheritance in ancient Israel? Their customs were not particularly unique, in that they shared a great deal of custom and culture with the peoples surrounding them. In the case of the death of a landholder, the next of kin would have the right to inherit. Normally that was the oldest living son who succeeded as head of the family. When there were no sons, the landholder could appoint a close friend (see the First Reading in Tract Two, below). There are other exceptions, where the father may choose among his heirs. Abraham drives out his mistress Hagar and her son Ishmael, and later Isaac chooses Jacob over the first-born Esau. Numbers 27:8-11gives us another option: Tell the Israelites: If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his heritage to his daughter…” For an interesting article in the Jewish Encyclopedia click here.

Track One:

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 vision and accompanying oracle were probably placed here by editors due to the calling of heaven and earth to witness what the prophet has to say: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the LORD has spoken.”[1]There is a similar call to witness in Deuteronomy 32. The witness of the first prophet with Isaiah’s name actually begins at Chapter 6. Verse 10 begins a new prophecy that refers to Sodom a link to the previous prophecy. What follows is a long screed whose intent is the faithlessness of the people, but whose focal point and symbol is the sacrificial and festal system of the Temple. He argues against the rote saying of prayers and doing of sacrifices. In the long run, the prophet proclaims, that these rituals are futile in their effect. “they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” What has been ignored by the people is their obligation to God given to both widow and orphan. Later this is made quite explicit, “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” A series of visual images accentuate Isaiah’s argument. Hands are lifted up in prayer but are seen covered with the blood, and the insinuation is that they are not covered with the blood of sacrifice but rather the blood of other victims. The visual quickly changes at verse 18. “Though you sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” This pericope ends with two choices, “willingness and obedience” or “refusal and rebellion.” One will lead to prosperity, while the other will lead to death.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.    Is your prayer life rote?
2.    Is your church’s liturgy rote?
3.    How might it be made real?

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.
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."

This is an Asaph psalm. Asaph was the forebearer of a line of Levitical priests. In verse one we have several names for God: El, Elohim, and Adonai (substituted for YHWH). This grouping seems to be unique to this particular psalm. Perhaps the author wanted us to be stunned with the presence of God, for the verses following this panoply of names underscore an epiphany of God’s glory. In verse four we have the riv pattern in which heaven and earth are called to witness the trial of the people and the judgment God is about to make, “Gather before me my loyal followers, those who have made a covenant with me.” Here, as in the first reading above, God is not inclined to animal sacrifices. You might want to read the elided verses in order to hear the entire argument that the psalm makes. At the final verses we have a final request from God, to consider and observe the Covenant made with God. What sacrifice is desired? That of thanksgiving. For this sacrifice God will in turn offer salvation.

Breaking open Psalm 50:
1.    Where and when have you been “in awe”?
2.    What does the awe of God mean to you?
3.    What does God need from us?


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 stories in which Abraham is concerned about his future lineage and God promises an heir. What is different about this tale, is that it comes in the night, much like other prophetic tales. The phrase that follows God’s initial promise, ‘your reward shall be very great,” reveals a concerned Abraham, “But…O Lord God.” We hear an Abraham who is acutely aware of his mortality, and of the fact that the has no heir. Abraham, using the common practices in such an instance, is looking to a member of his household to inherit what he has accumulated. Abraham states his concern twice so that God might understand his predicament. What follows is a visual – the starry heavens which represent the countless number of descendants who will follow him. The answer is strikingly simple, “And he believed.”

Breaking open Genesis:
1.    How is Abraham insistent?
2.    Have you ever been insistent in your paying?
3.    Insistent about what?

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.

The first verse of the psalm is an effective evocation of the intent of the First Reading – the nation, the descendants of Abraham. The following verse, however, expands the view beyond the nation as God looks down upon all of creation, “upon all who dwell on the earth.” God is the creator and preserves them in God’s wisdom. Then begins a comparison between the Creator God, and ordinary human rulers, and powerful beings, kings and horses. They cannot compare. God’s eye is universal in what it sees and, in the needs, that it beholds. The call at the end of the psalm is for God’s people to wait on the One who beholds and will come. 

Breaking open Psalm 33:
1.    Who has real power in your world?
2.    How are your needs met by that power?
3.    Where is God’s power in your world?

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.

You may wish to read Hebrews 10:35-39in order to see the author’s theme of endurance and faith outlined in that pericope  that is them further developed in today’s reading. This new section builds on the pilgrimages that God’s people have made in the past, and now continue into the future. Abraham is used as an example in this reading – you may want to review the first reading in the light of this reading. The foundational idea is that of faith, a word that appears in various forms some twenty-four times in the book. Both men and women are named in the entire pericope including Sarah and Rahab. Due to the way the lectionary has structured the reading, we will lose the references to Abel, Enoch and Noah, but we need to understand the author’s intent to lift up all these men and women as witnesses. The first section, verses 1-7 lists all these witnesses and the faith that was theirs to endure the struggles that they faced.

The second section of the reading verses 8-16 {17-22], focuses on the faith of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Here we are reminded to think of these peoples as pilgrims journeying to a heavenly city. One commentator reminds us that a great deal of the descriptions are drawn from the Septuagint’s translation of the Patriarchal History. A phrase that the author uses to describe the particularity of the faith of these peoples is that faith in “things not seen.” It reminds me of this prayer from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

O God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

One striking passage, that seems pertinent in our own time is this, “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.” If we all confessed such a status, we might be more welcoming to those we do not know – who are now in our midst. The author reminds us that God is not ashamed to be in relationship to any people, but rather has prepared a city for them.

Breaking open Hebrews:
1.    How has your life been a pilgrimage?
2.    Have you arrived or are you still wandering?
3.    What is your promised land?

The Gospel: 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."

Heinz Werner Zimmermann, the German hymnwriter and composer, wrote a wonderful jazz hymn to Jesus’ commission, “Have no Fear Little Flock.” What follows, however is a difficult dictum, “Sell your possessions and give alms.” All of this is in line with Jesus mission in Luke 12-13:9, teaching about wealth, security, and watchfulness. The question Jesus wants us to ponder is one of knowing what is our real wealth and where it might be found. 

What follows from that is a life of action, awareness, and vigilance. God has promised us the Kingdom, now where might that be. If we link this with the readings from Hebrews, where pilgrims make their way to the promised city, or to the Track Two first reading, where Abraham seeks God’s promise, we see what the continuum of Jesus’ teaching. It is one of watchfulness and preparation – an ongoing Advent.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What are your fears?
2.     How do you allay them?
3.     How are you ready for the Kingdom?

General Idea;              On being a pilgrim – or Where are we going?

1st Indication:             Moving toward salvation in spite of our unfaithfulness (Track One – First Reading)

                                      Journeying toward the promise (Track Two – First Reading)

2ndIndication:             Walking with the Saints (Second Reading)

3rd Indication:             Walking without fear, knowing what’s about us. (Gospel)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Isaiah 1:2, which is not included in today’s reading.


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