The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, 3 November 2019

Track One:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144

Track Two:
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Saint Luke 19:1-10

Background: Jericho 

The springs of the Jordan River valley assured that the site of Jericho would be inhabited by human beings for thousands of years. The city was founded in 9600 BCE and it has seen twenty different settlements that thrived there. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and has a protective wall that is one of the earliest, if not the first in the world. Large stone towers were also an early development here. The name may be a derivative of the Canaanite word for “moon”, or the lunar deity Yarikh who was worshipped there. During the Herodian period, the site of the city was leased by Herod from Cleopatra, who was given the site by Mark Antony. With the victory of Octavian in 30 BCE, it became a part of the Roman Empire and was given to Herod to rule. It was this city that was visited by Jesus on at least two occasions, and that figures in today’s Gospel.

Track One:

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

The prophet Habakkuk seems also to be reacting against the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but we cannot be certain. Regardless he addresses the despair of a people, and then in the second part of the reading the hope to which they are called. The first section, 1:1-4, is an oracle that is seemingly addressed to an absent God, or at least a God who is not hearing the prophet’s cry. God is accused of forcing the prophet to look upon the destruction of his land by the Chaldeans (see verse 6).

The second section (2:1-4), is a response to the prophet’s cry. He is prepared to hear it, standing at his watch post, positioned upon the wall of the city. The Lord answers. The answer is obvious, readily understood, written so that “a runner may read it.” The vision is of “the appointed time.” That is the time when the Babylonian domination will end, and the treacherous times would be over. It may take time to be made manifest – there will need to be a vigil of waiting for it. There are those, the proud (although Robert Alter suggests “the callous”[1]) who will not perceive the obvious message, for “Their spirit is not right in them.” It is the faith of the righteous which will understand the message.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
1.        Does God listen to you?
2.        What do you do with a silent God?
3.        What is the message that God wants you to read?

Psalm 119:137-144 Justus es, Domine

137  You are righteous, O Lord, *
and upright are your judgments.
138 You have issued your decrees *
with justice and in perfect faithfulness.
139 My indignation has consumed me, *
because my enemies forget your words.
140 Your word has been tested to the uttermost, *
and your servant holds it dear.
141 I am small and of little account, *
yet I do not forget your commandments.
142 Your justice is an everlasting justice *
and your law is the truth.
143 Trouble and distress have come upon me, *
yet your commandments are my delight.
144 The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; *
grant me understanding, that I may live.

Devoted to the love of the Torah, Psalm 119 is composed of 22 stanzas, each composed of eight lines. It is an acrostic poem, which provides the only structure in the psalm. In the course of the psalm nine synonyms for the law, or more properly for instruction, are used: law, decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word, and promise. It meditates on and is completely devoted to the Torah. It does not address any other issues other than one’s life of faith made certain by faith in God’s instruction.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.        How were you instructed in the Bible?
2.        Whom might you thank for that instruction?
3.        How do you continue your study of the Bible?


Track Two:

First Reading: Isaiah 1:10-18

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.

In the first chapter we have an introduction, but the really formal introduction to the book is in Chapter 6. In the second half of the first chapter we have a new prophecy that departs from the themes in the first verses. The clue as to the new prophecy are its introductory words, “Hear the words of the Lord,” and it link to the previous oracle is in the phrase, “O rulers of Sodom”. The idea that first Isaiah wishes to explore here is that sacrifice, when it is rote ritual only, is ineffective. Sacrifice given by those who oppress or ignore the widow and orphan are an abomination. Sacrifice does not obviate the willful sinfulness of human life. The language is strong here, God says, “I have had enough,” “I do not delight,” “I cannot endure.” Why such strong language? The hands that are lifted up in prayer are literally covered in blood, “your hands are full of blood.” Such would be the case for the person effecting the sacrifice, hands covered with the blood of the sacrificial victim. But there is other blood here, the blood (the life) of widows, orphans, and the oppressed. This is an oracle of contrasts and double meanings. In the end, there will be salvation and redemption. The scarlet hands (bloody from the supposed sacrifice) will be made white, like snow, like wool, through God’s forgiveness.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.      What does God think of your worship?
2.      What do you think of it? Is it rote?
3.      How might you make your worship more genuine?

Psalm 32:1-8 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
     Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
     While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
     For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
     Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
     I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
     Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
     You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

The theme is quickly announced, a comment with which Isaiah ended his prophecy, “Happy (blessed) are they whose transgressions are forgiven.”  It is a thanksgiving psalm, although in the verses that follow our reading, there is an indication of a wisdom psalm. Verse 3 has a contrast between silence (“while I held my tongue”) and roaring. Several commentators feel that there is a line missing here, which would have further defined the silence, as the withered bones might define the “groaning all day long.” The verse following further defines a life limited by emotion, seeing the heavy hand of God as in the drying up of life in the heat of summer. The psalmist is troubled in life and finally understands what it is that dries him up. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you.” Here is the resolution to the heavy hand of God, admission of guilt and the subsequent forgiveness from the same God. All should pray in times of trouble. The “great waters” in verse 7 are a reference to the waters of death, which God’s forgiveness keeps from God’s people. Thus, there are songs of deliverance.

Breaking open Psalm 84:
1.        What makes you happy in life?
2.        Do you have a happiness in your forgiveness, or in the forgiveness of others?
3.        How is God your hiding place?

Second Reading: II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Although this second letter to the church at Thessaloniki is similar in so many respects to the first letter it is also markedly different in its less than personal tone, and the absence of a call to imitation on the part of the addressees. It is rather a call to heed both warnings and commands. In II Thessalonians, the parousia (the End) is not immanent, but rather seen at the culmination of events or steps. Here the author attempts to comfort a church in crisis.

After the address there is a thanksgiving prayer which lasts from verse 3 until verse 12. First Paul (if indeed it even is Paul) gives thanks for the faith and love of the Thessalonians. He sees “steadfastness and faith” in the midst of the persecutions that they are experiencing. 

The reading then jumps to the end of the pericope, where Paul prays that this church, this gathering of the faithful, might be found worthy and able to make real the faith in Christ in their very lives. 

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. For what might Paul give thanks in your church?
  2. What are the signs of faith in your church?
  3. What persecutions does your church face?

The Gospel: St. Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Luke has us pay special attention to those whom Jesus chooses to be around and sees as signs of the Kingdom of Heaven. The healing of the blind, and disfigured, the inclusion of children and tax collectors, are signs of his (both Luke’s and Jesus’) call for social inclusion and reconciliation. Both physical and emotional barriers seem to conspire to keep Zacchaeus from Jesus. He is seen by others as wealthy, a status given him though government contracts that are a sign of his collaboration with occupying Roman forces. He is also literally small – a physical manifestation of his social status. 

What is remarkable here is Zacchaeus’ longing to be in the presence of Jesus, and longing manifested in his climbing a tree (a child’s tactic) in order to see Jesus. Jesus understands the “invitation” and in turn invites Zacchaeus to come down and invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home. This action on the part of Jesus does not go unnoticed, and again we hear the grumbling of others that we have heard many times before from the mouths of Pharisees. Zacchaeus understands their outrage and gives a defense of his actions. Jesus affirms Zacchaeus on several fronts. He is a son of Abraham, he is saved. Jesus then characterizes himself as one who comes seeking and saving the lost. What does that mean for those who wish to follow him?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        How do you not live up to society’s expectations?
2.        How do you still seek Jesus?
3.        How is Jesus in your home?

Central Idea:               Who are those who are really seen by God?

Example 1:                  God sees us in the midst of oppression (Track One: First Reading)

                                      God sees us in spite of our sin (Track Two: First Reading)

Example 2:                  God sees us in the actions of our faith (Second Reading)

Example 3:                  God sees us in spite of what society sees in us (Gospel)

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

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller


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