Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

Liturgy of the Palms
  Matthew 21:1-11
  Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Today is Palm Sunday! Hopefully, that doesn't come as a surprise to anyone. This morning we actually only have two passages of scripture: the narrative of the Triumphal Entry of course, and the Psalm from which the crowd quotes. The Triumphal Entry is the high mark of Jesus' ministry, the irony is of course that one week later this same crowd will condemn him to death as if this day never happened. But for now, on the cusp of Holy Week let us take a look at how the events of this day set us up for what is to come.

The first important aspect is the fulfillment of Scripture. Throughout Matthew's Gospel he makes it abundantly clear that Jesus' life, both things outside his control (his birth and flight to Egypt) and things he does control (miracles and the Triumphal Entry for example), are purposefully done to fulfill Old Testament Scripture and prophecy. Matthew paints an image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and the colt. Why? Because in Zechariah, which he quotes, that is what the text says. (Zech. 9:9)Never mind the fact that this is an example of Hebrew Poetry "parallelism." If Zechariah said the Messiah would ride a colt and a donkey, Matthew says that is somehow what Jesus did. The crowd also quotes three separate passages of Old Testament scripture proclaiming that the King has come to Jerusalem.

This brings us to the second important aspect of the story. The story is steeped in royal imagery. In 2 Kings 9, Jehu is anointed by Elisha to be the new King of Israel. His followers immediately took off their cloaks and placed them for him to walk on, declaring "Jehu is King!" (2 Kings 9:13). The Palm waiving also is not incidental, and has historical precedent. In the Maccabean revolt 200 years before Jesus' day, Judas Maccabeus had also entered Jerusalem as king to set up a royal dynasty that would last for over a century. Judas Maccabeus was greeted by the crowd waiving palm branches in celebration of their new king. In addition, the use of the language of the "Son of David" obviously had royal undertones. The hopped for coming Messiah would be from the royal line of David and would restore Israel to it's rightful place. By calling Jesus the Son of David, they were saying that Jesus was the one in whom the prophets had declared. He was more than a king like Jehu, his line would last longer than the Maccabean kingship, he was the Messiah who would restore the royal line of David to the throne.

This got Jesus into trouble with the Jewish leaders who had no questions about the imagery Jesus was enacting. He was setting up a rival leadership structure over and against that of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. This act, along with many others in Jesus' ministry, set up the events of the crucixion and the Jewish leaders opposition to Jesus.

The third aspect of this story is what it is not. And that is Jesus riding into Jerusalem as a warrior king ready to throw off Roman rule. He came in as a king to be sure, but as he defined it, not as the crowd wanted it. Just as the donkey and other actions carried meaning, so too would have a mighty horse, Jesus disciples surrounding him, and weapons on display. This would have signaled Jesus intent to be a warrior in a way similar to Judas Maccabeus and even David. The fact that Jesus didn't do this and live up to the people's might partially explain why less then a week later they would condemn him to death. Certainly the crowd was swayed by the leadership, but perhaps they had a nagging sense that Jesus wasn't what they were looking for after all. Perhaps it would be better to get rid of this false messiah then to have the Romans punish all of them, they may have thought.

Finally, notice the question the crowd asks, "When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, "Who is this?"" It mirrors Jesus' questions to his disciples followed by Peter's confession of faith in Matthew ch. 13 and earlier John the Baptist's question in ch. 11. This is the question Matthew wants all of his readers to wrestle with. Throughout his gospel he provides the true answer to that question as well as the various false answers people give. Ultimately, Matthew wants his readers to not only affirm that Jesus is indeed the Christ, but also the head the final Great Commission he ends his gospel with. Matthew's hope is that, like him, we will become evangelists of the Good News about Jesus.

May we all catch a vision for this task and spread the good news that Jesus is indeed the savior of the world.

Grace and peace.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lent Week 5

Psalm: Psalm 130
Old Testament: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Gospel: John 11:1-45
Epistle: Romans 8:6-11

This Sunday is what I consider the last Sunday when we focus on the themes of Lent. There are still two weeks in Lent, but next Sunday is of course Palm Sunday where the focus shifts to Jesus' Triumphal Entry and the last week of his life. Perhaps Easter plans are now forming in your life and there are visible signs of Easter's coming. But hopefully also, as we wait for that day, this time of waiting and reflection will draw us closer to God. 

This week a very clear theme emerges across our passages: God gives life. In Genesis, as the Creator of everything, he specifically breathes into humanity and gives them life. Throughout the story of Israel he is a life-giving God. The very existence of Israel, as a people chosen to be a light to the nations and through whom salvation would come, is giving life to creation.

Israel however, failed to live up to its potential and by the time of Ezekiel, was nothing more than a pile of dry bones. There was no life in the bones, and thus they definitely weren't a source of life to the rest of creation. But God brings Ezekiel down to the valley and he promises to restore life to the dry bones of Israel. He says that he will restore the breath, or spirit, into the bones and restore life. The word here ru'ach is the exam same word that Genesis uses to describe the God breathing life into humanity. Notice also, it is a two step process as in Genesis 2. First God "formed man of dust of the ground" and then he breathed life into them. In Ezekiel, the bones come together with sinew and skin, but life is still lacking. God then breaths his life into them and they are re-created from death. This point is reiterated in verse 14, when the Lord interprets the vision for Ezekiel. The bones are Israel, but God will breathe his spirit back into them. A future is coming when they will again be recreated, renewed, and brought back to life in and by the Spirit of God.

Moving into the Gospel reading, in John, Lazarus is brought back to life. The Pharisees know that it is indeed God's place to give life and Jesus is placing himself in that role. In fact, it is this moment which in the Gospel of John leads to Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. The section is 45 verses long and there is a lot to unpack here concerning Christology in particular, but for now I just want to say that Jesus continues the God given role of giving life.

Finally, turning towards Romans, we return to a theme from Ezekiel: the promise that God's Spirit will dwell in us. God's life giving Spirit not only gives us life now, but it also provides hope for the resurrection and the new life, or re-creation, God will accomplish through Jesus, in the Spirit. Paul takes the past acts of God, which reveal his character, and then extrapolates and projects that into the future behavior of God, viz. his life-giving nature. It is this hope of the resurrection that provides all meaning to Paul's gospel (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

I encourage you to read these 4 passages this week and think about where you need God's life-giving presence in our own life. Where does God need to provide hope in a hopeless situation? God is a life-giving, life-sustaining, loving God. And our hope rests in the power of Jesus' resurrection and that death doesn't have the final say.

Grace and peace.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lent week 4

Psalm: Psalm 23
Old Testament: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
Gospel: John 9:1-41
Epistle: Ephesians 5:8-14

I Hope this Lenten season continues to be a time of reflection for you and a time to draw closer to the Lord. I was thinking as I write this how at least in my evangelical church, we had an Ash Wednesday service and we will do a Good Friday service, but there has been no mention of Lent on the Sundays between the two. There is no recognition or any attempt to carry the themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent throughout the season. In my mind, this does a disservice to the season of Lent, and makes me wonder why we bother with an Ash Wednesday or Good Friday service to begin with. It's not like the church doesn't know how to celebrate a season! It may be securulaized in some churches, and it may not always be called Advent, but most churches celebrate the Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas as something special. So we can sustain a season beyond just one Sunday. That is enough of a rant for today, but after the forth Sunday in Lent in my church, I for one am wondering what the point of the Ash Wednesday service even was.

Turning towards our reading this week, I am struggling to find any connections between the four passages, especially as they relate to Lent. Three years ago when we read these passages I talked about the idea of anointing: David is anointed as king and Jesus is anointed as Messiah. Of course that idea still carries weight and the question of that week was what or how is God anointing, or calling, us to.

I want to reflect on the story of David as well this year. The narrative of God's people as told in the Old Testament is really a fascinating story. I know there was a movie made about Jesus called The Greatest Story Ever Told, but nothing can beat the plot twists, false starts, unexpected side stories, and quite honestly the sometimes bizarre things that happened in the Old Testament and the story of Israel (of which Jesus is the surprise culmination).

One such strange development is the calling of David. We have in our mind Kind David as the giant slayer, the musician, the perfect body as idealized by Michelangelo. He is immortalized, as the archetypal king from whence the Messiah would come to restore Israel to its former glory as under David. But our story today happens way before that, when David is just a poor shepherd boy that doesn't even get invited to the party. We are probably all familiar with the story. Saul, the first king of Israel, has been rejected by God for disobedience and the Lord sends Samuel to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to choose the next king. This in itself is noteworthy for the very fact that it is not noteworthy at all. Bethlehem is a not to important town at the time. Jesse isn't known for any reason before this and his ancestors weren't leaders or prophets in Israel. David's mother is never even mentioned in the whole Old Testament. So it is entirely unexpected that God would send Samuel to Jesse's house and then that he would pick the youngest of eight sons to be anointed as the new king of Israel. The events that follow this in the life of David are just as unexpected and provide much drama and fascination.

The "Story of God" at work in Israel --using human agents-- is remarkable. If anything we should be reminded that God can use anyone to accomplish his plans. Things may take a winding and unexpected route, but ultimately God's plan for his people and indeed all of creation will be brought about. God is just looking for obedient people. We don't have to be perfect or have it all together; we just have to be willing to say yes! Let us be willing to follow Christ wherever and however he calls us.

Grace and peace.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lent Week 3

Psalm: Psalm 95
Old Testament: Exodus 17:1-7
Gospel: John 4:5-42
Epistle: Romans 5:1-11

This week I figured we better talk about The Gospel reading from John since it is one of the largest readings the Lectionary ever gives us for a Sunday. Today, the story is the classic account of the Samaritan women at the well. There are so many interesting elements to this story and it works on a few different levels, as do all biblical texts. We probably know the story, and hopefully you read the passages. But real briefly, Jesus goes through Samaria on the way to Galilee. John writes that Jesus "had to pass through Samaria," but this is actually not the case if he followed the normal Jewish route between Judea and Galilee. The Samaritan's didn't like the Jews and would refuse to provide overnight lodging for them when they traveled through their country. Thus, Jews would travel on the East side of the Jordan River in territory that was more friendly to them. So when John says that Jesus "had to" travel this route, it says more about Jesus' mission rather than about his travel itinerary. While, Jesus was in Samaria he meets a woman who has been married five times and is currently living with a different man. Jesus and her talk, much to her surprise, and Jesus tells her that he could offer her living water and she would never thirst again if she would only ask. She accepts Jesus' offer and believes that he is a prophet and even the Messiah, The one who is promised to come. She returns to her village and tells her community about Jesus. In doing so, she becomes what I think is the first evangelist in the Gospel of John. She tells her people about Jesus and in doing so many also come to believe in Jesus and he stays there for 2 days and the passage ends with them declaring that Jesus is "indeed the Savior of the world." 

This is the first level the story works on, that of the contemporaries of the event.  A couple of other things to point out from this story as well. First, notice there is no "messianic secret" in John. Jesus' identity is clear and anyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see, in faith, can figure it out. Jew, Greek, Samaritan, it doesn't matter to Jesus. John also presents a very different image of Jesus then the Synoptic Gospels on this issue. For example, compare this story to Matt. 10:5 where Jesus won't even go to Samaria.

Moving on to the second level this texts work is that of John's audience. The text is explicit in letting us know that the readers, or hearers, of the story are different then Jesus' Jewish and Samaritan contemporaries. John puts a parenthetical aside in verse 9 letting his probably Roman or Greek audience know that "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans." For the hearers of John's Gospel then, I think the meaning of Jesus' actions and words lose some significance, which is why John tried to explain what was happening. Notice also, that when the disciples return to Jesus they "were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman," not that they were amazed that he had been speaking to a Samaritan, or even a Samaritan women. (vs. 27) But the message for John's readers was the same as for that of Jesus' contemporaries, Jesus was the Messiah for all people. The Samaritans were invited, worship of God wouldn't require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Jesus would provide his living water to all who would accept.

This is good news indeed. Especially for us Gentiles who get to be grafted into the people of God. Let us come to drink from the Living water Jesus offers, and let us invite others to the divine banquet.

Grace and peace.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lent Week 2

The Psalm: Psalm 121
Old Testament: Genesis 12:1-4a
Gospel: John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
Epistle: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Today is the second Sunday in Lent and thus we have just made it through the first full week of the Lenten fast. If you are like me, then you are feeling a little bit of the pain of giving something up. It's not like I am necessarily praying or reading the Bible every time I want to use my phone, but in feeling the impulse and then the denial, I am reminded of the sacrifice Jesus made for us. In the little moments everyday, when I want to look at my phone and don't, I am also reminded of those all over the world who don't even have the basics of life, let alone a smart phone. I am reminded in the choice I make to fast, that some people don't have as many choices as I do. Our volunteer fast in the West, from sweets or meat let's say, can become a way for us to find solidarity and compassion for those all over the world who don't have the opportunities we do. The Lenten fast can mean many things of course, but this is just one of the ways I was reflecting on it over the course of this week.