Good News?

Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Phil 4:4-8

Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers!”  If you are someone who preaches or in other ways leads a church community, I’m sure you have been tempted to begin a sermon or a church meeting with this line.  So satisfying; so true; probably not helpful; guaranteed to cause more problems than it solves.  It does, however, seem to work for John the Baptist.  We read in this Sunday’s gospel that John’s warning of God’s immanent judgement provokes all types of people to ask, “What then should we do?”  John offers his hearers a variety of concrete ways of demonstrating their repentance.  Luke concludes this passage by calling John’s message “good news.”  

With all the imagery of chopping down of unfruitful trees, separating wheat from chaff, and unquenchable fire, one might well be excused for thinking, “Where is the good news in this?”  The first part of the answer to this quite reasonable question lies in the closing verses of this passage when John promises that someone greater than he is soon to come.  The one who is coming is both more powerful than John; of much higher status; and will baptize with the Spirit and fire. John’s expectations for this person are clear.  This coming one will bring the judgment of God that John has been warning will come.  This judgment will be clear, decisive, and we should do what we can to repent and prepare.  Knowing this in advance is good news. 

Luke has already made it clear to us that Jesus is the coming one whom John anticipates.  This is also good news.  This good news, however, raises some issues for John.  Fairly quickly after our gospel reading ends, we learn that Herod imprisons John.  Herod will later order John’s murder.  While he is in prison, it becomes clear that John is keeping tabs on Jesus.  He receives regular updates on what Jesus is doing and saying.  It becomes evident that what John hears causes some level of frustration. By the time we reach Luke 7:18 John sends messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Clearly, Jesus is not acting the way John expected.  There seems to be little chopping, little winnowing, and no fire.  Jesus is not doing any of the things John anticipated.

Instead of answering John’s question directly, Jesus points to the things he is doing: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (7:22).  Although these are not the activities John anticipated, they do resonate with the reading from Zephaniah 3, 

“I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you. . .”

Jesus’ words and deeds point to the arrival of God’s redemption of Israel. Jesus has come to incarnate the reign of God, to display to all of us what God’s deepest longings for us might look like. No doubt, there is room within that time for God’s judgment. Even so Jesus’ accounts of God’s rule would indicate that God’s judgment is designed less to punish us than it is to restore us and render us fit to live as citizens of God’s reign.

This is not the first time that Jesus has failed to meet the expectations of his Jewish contemporaries. Neither will it be the last time. The challenge that he lays before John the Baptist and before us is this:  will we change our expectations to conform to Jesus or will we keep our expectations intact, and fail to recognize who Jesus is? 

Yes, it is true that Jesus did and does meet us where we are.  It is not the case, however, that in meeting us where we are, Jesus will conform himself to our hopes and desires.  Rather, he will invite us to follow him and have our desires transformed and reordered as the Spirit works in us.  I have no doubt this transformation and reordering will be difficult, even painful, at times.  This may be what John means by being baptized with fire. The result of this will render us more truly and deeply ourselves.

By the third Sunday in Advent, the time is getting short.  Jesus is coming, soon.  Will our expectations of him frustrate his working in our lives or will be open to receiving him as he is, even if he does not come as we expect? 

Sharing the Gift of Truth with our Neighbors

Image Credit: Hilma AF Klint, Altarpiece #1, Guggenheim Museum

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

John 6: 35, 41-51

It seems like I have spent a great deal of my scholarly life engaged with Ephesians.  The passage that comprises the epistle for this Sunday is, to my mind, one of the most interesting in the entire letter.  It may be tempting to treat this passage as simply a list of some things to do and other things to avoid doing.  That is not incorrect, but it leaves out a lot. 

For example, what does it say about this church for Paul (let’s call the author Paul) to address people who are stealing on a regular basis? What do we learn about anger among and between Christians? I am as captivated by the image of words “giving grace” to those who hear them as I am terrified by the idea of causing the Holy Spirit to grieve.  Both the vices of v.31 and the virtues of v.32 are concerned with relations with others and, thus, imply a certain sort of common life. There is so much going on in just a few verses. 

This passage appears in the lectionary at a time when church life in so many places seems caught up in larger societal tensions, divisions and communicative habits. It takes a great deal of discipline to avoid looking at our congregational life with lenses ground for us by media accounts of the state of political life in the U.S.  I think we should treat the presence of this passage in our lectionary as a providentially arranged call to self-reflection.  

Let’s look at the first admonition in this passage, “Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” 

Paul begins by speaking of falsehood as something that can be “put away” as if it were a garment that is no longer attractive or in fashion.  Truth, however, is not treated as a more fashionable garment.  Rather it is something that must be spoken to neighbors. Truth is a good that can and should be shared.  It is a gift we and our neighbors can offer each other.  Of course, Paul’s admonition presumes we and our neighbors can distinguish truth from falsehood. If truth is a gift that can be spoken between neighbors, then one thing this passage may be pointing out is that truth is best established in conversation. If that is so, then it is easy to see how those with the loudest or most appealing voices could have a huge advantage in distinguishing the true from the false.  If the past couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that many of us have been ignoring voices that have been pushed to the edges of our conversations.  These voices often belong to people most different from us.  When we primarily rely on those with the loudest voices that sound most like our own, then truth becomes more like something we impose on our neighbors rather than a gift arrived at and spoken between us.  

Establishing truth conversationally is much slower and more labor-intensive than virtually all of the other paths we use for dispersing information, opinion and reaction. Ideas, issues, points of interest are offered, revised, negotiated, and clarified through a patient sustained engagement with others in an iterative process.  The first words are never the last word.  Even then, the last word is always awaiting further attention in the light of new circumstances and new information.  Despite the fact that such conversations are more labor and time-intensive, the results of establishing truth this way are much more enduring, making our words much more likely to be gifts that “build up” and “give grace.”  

The cacophony of voices surrounding us, the density of mis and disinformation, and our own impatience, makes it tempting to adopt the idea that we live in a post-truth world in which each of us has our own truth.  If Christians adopt this view, we give up on speaking the truth with our neighbors.  There is no gift of truth established and shared communally.  There is simply self-assertion.  Even if “evil talk” is not coming out of our mouths, we have little reason to think our words will “build up” or “give grace.”

If Christians desire to speak the truth with our neighbors, we could do well to return to John’s Gospel.  I am not thinking of the bread of heaven passage that is the reading for this Sunday.  Instead, we should recall Jesus’ announcement to his followers that he is the truth (Jn 14:6).  Later when Jesus tells his followers that the Spirit of truth will lead them “into all truth,” it is clear that the work of the Spirit is first and foremost dependent upon sharing the truth that is Jesus (Jn 16:12-15).  At its root, truth is not a set of assertions, it is a person.  This fundamental disposition toward truth means that coming to truth that might be shared with neighbors depends first on a relationship rather than a set of true beliefs.  

The importance of speaking the truth with our neighbors is made clear in the final clause of 4:25.  Speaking the truth is important because “we are members of one another.”  Paul says little directly in this passage about what this might mean.  Yet everything he advocates in these verses is based on the conviction that the lives of the Ephesian Christians are so deeply intertwined that stealing, anger with each other, and a commitment to falsehood are realistic options for them. Obviously, these are all things to be avoided, but the fact that they are live options for these Christians already indicates that their lives, their possessions, and their speech are open to each other to such a degree that abuses are possible.  They are members of one another.  I wonder if for many of our congregations the first step towards sharing the gift of truthful words with our neighbors is to understand and come to love the fact that we are members of one another.

Mourning and Joy

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Sam 1:1,17-27

Mark 5:21-43

The OT reading and the gospel reading for this Sunday are a study in contrasts.  Second Samuel begins with David’s song lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, who died in battle against the Philistines on Mt. Gilboa at the end of 1Samuel.  Those familiar with 1 & 2 Samuel know that a host of conflicting motives flow through David over the course of his life. The political, the religious, and the personal combine in complex ways in this future king of Israel.  In this case, I suggest that his grief for both men seems completely sincere.  

This is unsurprising when one thinks of the abiding friendship between David and Jonathan.  Theirs was a “wonderful love,” “surpassing the love of women.”  It is David’s equally sincere grief over Saul which is striking.  For some time, Saul had been trying to kill David.  As a fugitive from Saul, David had even gone so far as to work for the Philistines as a sort of mercenary.  Despite Saul’s animus towards him, David refused to treat Saul as his enemy, sparing his life on multiple occasions.  Whatever relief David may have felt at the demise of his tormentor, it is overshadowed by the loss of Saul and Johnathan.  Perhaps David’s mourning is so intense because he was unreconciled to Saul and exiled from Jonathan when they died.

This calls to mind so many scenes that we have witnessed over the past 18 months as COVID claimed the lives of people who were isolated from the very friends and relatives they would have most wanted to engage in their final days and hours.  

This sadness in the face of death is in sharp contrast to our gospel reading.  Jesus forestalls the death of Jairus’ daughter and he seems to radiate such healing power that an unnamed woman with hemorrhages only needs to touch Jesus’ clothing to be healed.   Both Jairus and the woman share a level of desperation, Jairus for his daughter and the woman for herself.  They also share an almost ferocious confidence in Jesus’ capacity to heal.  Their concern is whether Jesus is willing to heal them.  This is similar to the leper who comes to Jesus in 1:40 saying, “if you are willing you can make me clean.”

As one of the leaders of the synagogue, Jairus would have been a man of some stature in the community.  In order to discern Jesus’ willingness to heal he takes the direct approach, falling at Jesus’ feet and begging repeatedly.  He must have been relieved when Jesus agrees to go with him. 

The woman, who is known to us only by her ailments, shares Jairus’ confidence in Jesus’ capacity to heal.  She, however, lacks Jairus’ social standing.  Moreover, her hemorrhage would have made her ritually unclean and would have made anyone she touched unclean as well.  As she is socially isolated from her fellow Jews, she assumes that Jesus will not willingly touch her, but if she can touch him… 

This episode of two healings concludes with Jesus admonishing Jairus and his family to tell nobody about this incident.  In our world, where no incident or thought goes unrecorded and unremarked upon, this is extremely strange.  It is strange even within Jesus’ world.  Especially in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus often orders someone he has just restored to health to “tell no one.”  It is clear that this is as ineffective as it is odd.  

I don’t know if there is a single way to make sense of this Marcan phenomenon.  Nevertheless, if we contrast this reading with the reading from 2 Samuel, some things may come into better focus.   Although both Jairus and the woman seem most interested in Jesus’ willingness to direct his power on their behalf, Jesus seems most interested in their faith or confidence in him.  He tells the woman, “Your faith has made you well.”  He tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  When Jesus cannot do any work of great power, it is because of unbelievable unbelief of the people of Nazareth (Mk: 6:6).  

It would be fairly easy for a reader of Mark to assume that if one simply believes that Jesus can heal, one will be healed by Jesus.  From that it might well follow that failure to be healed is a sign that one has not believed or not believed enough.  In this way of looking at things, faith, confidence, or belief in Jesus can become a product of our own will power through which we can access healing from Jesus.  Any failures to be healed are on us. 

Those orders from Jesus to “tell no one about this,” may be small indicators that Mark inserts into his gospel to remind us to be very careful about what we say about Jesus the healer; to not say more than we actually know; to be hesitant to infer too much.  This becomes especially important for those of us, like Mark’s first readers, who live in that time between Jesus’ resurrection and the final reconciliation of all things under Christ’s lordship.

Although we live in the light of Easter and Pentecost, our time shares much with David’s.  We will shed tears in the face of death; we will know the pain of being separated and alienated from others; we will live as pilgrims on the way to our true home.  At the same time, we also rejoice in healings, reconciliations and foretastes of the kingdom as we long for that day when God will wipe all tears from our eyes.

Image Credit: Ilya Repin, The Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter


Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9


“Six days later.” That is a strange way to begin a reading.  If you are at all curious, you are probably asking, “six days after what?” The answer, of course, is found in the previous chapter.  In Mark 8, six days before our reading begins, Jesus has one of his most significant conversations with his disciples.  In that conversation Jesus asks his followers “Who do people say that I am?” After spending so much time preaching, teaching, doing miracles, engaging in arguments over how best to follow God, Jesus wants to know what people make of him.  The response seems to indicate that people think Jesus is a prophet.  Then Jesus asks his closest followers, “Who do you think I am?”  Peter quickly responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Read more

Serving Wealth

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

The gospel reading for this Sunday is one of the stranger passages in the New Testament. The steward is identified as both unrighteous and clever. In addition, it looks like the master who tells his steward that he is being fired for embezzlement then commends him a few verses later for fraud. It gets worse. When Jesus says that you cannot serve God and wealth it would seem that in the parable we are invited to see the master as God. As you might imagine, this passage invites a lot of scholarly gymnastics. Read more