Season after Pentecost (Proper 10 [15]) : The Old Testament Passages – Tying together two themes; tying two lineages together

I have chosen to use the alternate set of Old Testament and Psalm passages this week – not sure of my reasoning but I felt at the time the Gospel and Epistle passages were better suited to the second set. However, I wanted to give you a little update on Isaac’s wife, Rebekah. She is with child after many years of marriage to Isaac. She came to him as a young woman, but her youth is spent. Isaac had prayed to God for a child and the Lord broke her barrenness. But it was not an easy pregnancy, so she herself prayed to God to inquire why it was so difficult. The Lord answered her saying, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb.” (Genesis 25:23b-24)

And as I sit here and ponder that, it occurs to me it is a perfect lead in to the other Old Testament passage.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The Lord had promised Abraham that he would be a father of a nation. And what better way to start a nation then by having twin grandchildren. Ah! The Lord said, however, there are two nations in Rebekah’s womb. So, was Abraham the father of one nation or two nations? The fraternal twins were Esau and Jacob. And it was through Jacob that the lineage was passed down. Esau was the older and the stronger, but it was Jacob who received the inheritance.

Let us reflect back on the first two verses from the Isaiah passage that I selected for today. The Word of the Lord goes out and does not return empty but accomplishes that which the Lord intended. What was the intent of the Lord? Esau was the stronger and the older, but his nature was not what the Lord intended to build on. Jacob was younger and not as robust. He stayed close to “home”. He was also sneaky, but met his match in sneaky from his uncle Laban. He fled from home and the wrath of his brother, but found the Lord God and confirmation of his inheritance. He was worthy of the Lord God to wrestle with and Jacob also demanded a blessing from the Divine. And this actually ties to the verses that follow in this passage from Isaiah.

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Verses 12 – 13)

Esau, if you allow, was the thorn – rough and hearty. Jacob was the cypress – growing strong in time and useful in worship. Esau was the brier – wild and impulisive. Jacob the myrtle – sweetly scented and even useful when crushed. But do not let me lead to believe that those who are “rough and hearty”, “wild and impulsive” are not also God’s children. I want to make that abundantly clear. Each of us has our use in the Lord’s kingdom. Esau had a part to play, and Jacob had a part to play. While Jacob’s lineage might have been that which is traced down to Jesus, Esau was also a nation. Two nations, the Lord said to Rebekah. Just as Hagar’s son also had his own part to play in the story of the people of God. Those who came from Esau also have a place at the Lord’s table. Just as we can intertwine scripture passages, the children of the Lord God can also intertwine, bringing glory and honor to our Lord. Selah!

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Season After Pentecost: The Old Testament Passage – Looking ahead to the new, while remembering the old

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

My memory is an interesting construct. Many things I do not remember well – to my regret. But I make lists and make notes, so I do okay. Some things I remember well, and well enough. But somethings I remember vividly; when I remember them, they splash across my mind, and I feel the exact same emotions I did when the event first happened. Having such a vivid memory is not necessarily and advantage. Sometimes it seems like no time has past since the memory was made; whether that be a memory of many years ago, a memory of yesterday, or a memory that I cannot place but I know it happened!

There are some things I wish I would not remember – some unpleasant things. But it seems like the unpleasantness and the feelings/emotions are burned into my memory. And some things I do not want to forget – ever.

So, we come to the first verse of this passage, and God stating that the Divine is creating new-ness. And I have to pause, wonder and consider . . . am I willing to release the memories I have in order to be a part of this new heaven and new earth?

“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.” (Verses 18 – 24)

You may say, beloved reader, I would be a fool not to give up my former memories in favor of this. But who of us, beloved reader, would gladly leave this earth for the live to come? Who wants to be shed of these earthly and experiences and memories in favor of the eternity beyond? Are there not many people who cling to life, squeezing every second for that it holds? Is not living many decades a goal of so many?

Now, you may interpret this passage from Isaiah as being things on earth, in this world. But where are such things happening? Where is there joy and delight as the writer of Isaiah describes it? In what day and age did such things occur? For all the “utopia” that is recorded in human history, it did not last. This is our future, beloved reader, as sure a description of the new heaven and new earth that the return of the Lord will usher in. The question is often asked, will you be ready? What I am asking is, will you be ready to let go of this world?

“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. “ (Verse 25)

Who are we to be worthy of the Lord’s holy mountain? Who are we to insist on remaining in this world? We live between two realities beloved reader. The sweetness that we do find in this life. And the promise that is yet to come. If I must make the leap from one world to the next, I need to remember clearly why that leap is worthwhile and what I must do to earn it. Selah!

Season After Pentecost: The Old Testament Passage – A story of gardening

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” (Isaiah 5: 1-2)

I was hoping to pick the path of lest resistance today – a passage that would lay itself open before me and I can leisurely pick my way through the verses, commenting lightly and ending with a poetic finish. Instead I am here in Isaiah, trying to understand what is going one. Amongst the choices this week, the Isaiah passage seemed to hold the most hope for an above treatment. I am hopeful in the days that follow, I will be up to the more ambitious verses.

This portion of Isaiah is a metaphor for God choosing the Hebrew people as the “called” and “chosen” people, but it did not work out as expected.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Verses 3-4)

I have at various times of my life tried growing things, with varying degrees of success. My latest project, which is not so much growing something new as much as reviving something old, is growing a poinsettia plant. I started out with three: one became infested with insects and died before my eyes. I throw it out. The second became infested not to the point of death, but it threatened to infect the third plant. This second plant is awaiting what ever fate comes to it outside on my back porch. The third plant is doing quite well, and I have hopes for it, unless the insects lay waste to it also.

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” (Verses 5 – 6)

I felt badly throwing out the first plant. But the ground it was in just kept hatching out more insects. The second plant looked like it was quickly falling victim the same insects, and I could no longer take the chance that the third healthy plant might also succumb. It was a matter of saving the third and last plant. Tough choices.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Verse 7)

What was I to do, beloved reader? Sacrifice the third plant by making it keep company with the second one? My options were limited. And, I could not keep these plants inside at my home – I was keeping them at work because we have a cat who might have nibbled at the leaves. And I could not allow my office to be infested with the insects. There was no other choice.

Many portions of the Old Testament tell stories of harsh choices, and disaster and doom befalling the Hebrews. Are we to understand that the Divine makes such harsh choices for the “called” and “chosen” people? Or did the writers of the Old Testament place such a harsh interpretation of the events of their time? Or is it the bible commentators who assume a scurge? It could be any or all three – dependent on which book of the Old Testament one looks at. I know this – I am not the only one who wrestles with this. Plants are not people. Although, one would think with as little regard as segments of humanity treat one another that people are as disposable as unwanted plants. But the is commentary for another day, not today.

I have done my “duty” for this passage, and hope that I have given you something to think about. Shalom!

Season After Pentecost: The Old Testament – A “major” wake up call

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.” (Isaiah 1:1)

Isaiah is counted amongst one of the major prophets. That means in biblical study he is given great attention. Let us listen to what he has to say.

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” (Verse 10)

No, beloved reader, Isaiah is prophesying to the people in these distance lands. He is speaking, as verse one says, to the local folks. But it is as if he were (or Isaiah who is speaking what the Lord told him) speaking to people who are as sinful and far from God as the the Sodomites and Gomorrah-ites of that time were.

“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.” (Verses 11 – 15)

In recent days I have made much of laying the scripture passage at the door of modern times. So I will not belabor that point now. Let us instead consider how this must have sounded to the people of Isaiah’s time, especially the priests who were in charge of the “sacrifices” and festivals. There whole line of work, the whole purpose of them entering the priesthood was being condemned and obliterated. I could imagine they were not pleased. And how might the common folk react? How would they feel when all the means and procedures of reconciling and justifying themselves before God were taken away?

But, I think that was the whole point. That offerings of animal flesh and celebrating of festivals would not make up for the sins they committed against each other, and the ways they had flouted God’s laws and commandments. Process and procedure does not clean the mind, heart or spirit.

“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.” (Verses 16-20)

I had at first thought maybe they did not know what was right and good to do. We in these modern times have the example of Jesus Christ whose life was a model for our own. And maybe the people of Isaiah’s time really didn’t “get it.” Were prophets such as Isaiah paid attention to and heed? How aggressively and zealously should the people of Isaiah’s time be judged? And then I thought, what about we who live in these modern times? Could the same words and exhortations be turned against us? But as I said, I am not going to lay these scriptures at our modern door. Let us allow the words to echo around in the past. Because, sneaky person as I am, I suspect they will echo more there!

Week of Christmas, Proper I: What have we waited for?

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

The Revised Common Lectionary does not differentiate between years A, B, and C for the readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There are, however, three different readings (called Propers) that can be used for these days. I have chosen the scripture passage for today from Proper I. The other possible passages were Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-14 & 15-20.

Why this one then? It accesses an old theme for Advent – coming out of darkness and unknowing into light and illumination. Or, more keeping with the theme of Year B, having been lost but finding one’s way back out of darkness into light.

“You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” (Isaiah 9:3-5)

The writer of Isaiah was writing for and about a people who had suffered. Who had lost their homes and their way of life. And when this suffering came to an end, there was great rejoicing. The people praised and celebrated their deliverer. Praise and poems were written in remembrance, sometimes to be used against the day when suffering came again. To remember that suffering and oppression does not last forever.

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

It seems natural to think of this passage as foretelling the coming baby Jesus, and Jesus the Messiah. But when the writer of Isaiah wrote this, Jesus’ coming was far off in the distance. A distant hope born of dreams and aspirations of a desperate people. Some commentators say that this passage was to foretell the coming of human and purely mortal deliverer. And from an understanding that human endeavors and military might would secure the people’s freedom and fortune.

What do you wait for, beloved reader? What do you need deliverance from? We humans often do not know what we need. We want and want. We claim to suffer in varying degrees. We think we know what we need, but often when we have that we discover that we need something more or different. And with each round of suffering and misery what we believe would end it changes each time.

When we suffer, we may very well feel that we live in darkness. A deep darkness that takes away our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I believe we are living in such a time. We need to remember – maybe remember again – that the light did come. In the innocuous form of a baby. What this baby grew to be was not what we may have expected. But I believe it is what we need.

May you beloved reader see the light coming and may you celebrate it in your life with joy and thanksgiving. Selah!

REWARD OF THE PIOUS . . . By way of the self-understanding of the “pious”

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says the LORD your Redeemer. To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the LORD , who has compassion on you.“ (Reference: Isaiah 54:7-10 )

The writer of Isaiah at times seems to take great liberties in personifying God. Five years ago my writing partner at the time said he was uncomfortable with the image presented in this passage of Isaiah. [December 21, 2009] God abandoning the Lord’s people? Becoming angry and hiding the Divine Face? And my writing partner correctly reminded our readers that God did abandon the Lord’s people again after this writing.

And argument could be made that the Lord’s people abandoned God, so their punishment of being abandoned, and then being abandoned again might be considered a deserved one. But this brings to mind a wrathful God. The wrath of God is a frequent image in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament it is a kinder and gentler God that has sent Christ. I have heard or read several different theories as to why this is so, and known of them really satisfy me. I have my own idea . . . of course. Well, actually it might be partly mine and partly from other people who have expressed the same discomfort.

The historic Anabaptists did not seem to have any discomfort with this image of God. G. Kleermaecker, wrote about it saying, “Therefore, my dear sister in the Lord, though our God does now hide His face from us for a little while, yet will He gather us again with everlasting kindness, as the prophet says: “I will lead you into mine house, and give you a place within my walls, and a name better than of sons and of daughters; yea, I will give you an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. Yea, he will lay our stones with fair colors, and lay our foundations with sapphires, and will make our windows of crystal and our gates of carbuncles.” Isa. 54:7, 8; 56:5; 54:11, 12.” It is for this reason, I image, this passage is placed under the theme of “Reward of the Pious.” A theme title such as “Reward of the Patient” might be just as appropriate. If the historic Anabaptist believes that their persecution comes about because God’s face is “hidden” from them, then they might well believe that in time and/or through their death, and if they maintain their devote faith, they might see God’s face again.

But this explanation does not satisfy me any better than any other I have heard. Does this mean that God has hidden the Divine’s Face from those who suffer; but those who are doing well, and safe, and are prospering enjoy the full revelation of the Divine’s Face? You see the problem beloved.

I just don’t know about this God that the writer of Isaiah is personifying. And that is just it, beloved. We are reading the Old Testament writers’ theories and personifications of God. It is being interpreted by human perception through the lens of trying to make sense of what is happening to God’s “chosen” people. I believe it is an erroneous perception that if the people of God are suffering, it must be because God has allowed them to suffer or is setting them up to suffer.

I believe that the faithful will be rewarded; and by a God who has seen and felt every day of their suffering. I do not believe God has ever hidden the Divine Face, but that we have let things block and blind our sight so we cannot see God’s face. And sure, God gets angry about it. What loving Parent or Spouse would not? Your reading of these passages from Isaiah and other parts of the Old Testament may differ from mine. And I welcome your thoughts, ideas and reflections as always. Shalom for your day.

REWARD OF THE PIOUS . . . It is a comfort

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” (Reference: Isaiah 40:1-2)

Isaiah 40:1-11 is also part of the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent and was the verse I used on December 2nd. I also thought of this verse in conjunction with yesterday’s passage where the focus was on rewards found on God’s “Holy Mountain.”

There are several components of this “comfort” that is to be delivered to Jerusalem. First, it is to be spoken tenderly. In other prophetic writings the writers seem to have God shouting and yelling at Jerusalem, Israel, or Judah. But her the voice of the Lord is to be tender. Second, that while there have been hard times, the hardship is over and has been done successfully and completely. Third, that the hardship has paid for the sin and so beleaguered Jerusalem is now free of sin. Lastly, anything that has been taken away is returned and doubled, so that her loses have been redeemed and her fortunes restored to twice the amount. One can well imagine that this would be news that would comfort.

But this comforting and tender word is not just for Jerusalem but for the faithful who have suffered. It is news especially appropriate for Advent and Christmas, which is why I am sure it is included in the scripture passages in the Revised Common Lectionary.

I am not overly inclined to include what Reading the Anabaptist Bible quotes and excerpts of the writings of historic Anabaptists. It is, quite frankly, a downer and not in keeping with merriment of this season. One would almost think that the historic Anabaptists did not access the joy of Christ’s coming to us, but instead looked forward to their joy of going to Christ through death. Leonhard Schiemer writes, “The oil [of the third grace] is the Holy Spirit. He cannot teach anyone who has not first despaired of all human comfort and wisdom, and has raised the heart to God alone. He comforts and strengthens no one who has not first been terrified [over the soul’s condition] and alienated from all human comfort and strength.” A little further on he writes, “The life of the world has a happy beginning and an eternal mournful end. Our life has a mournful beginning, but then the Holy Spirit comes soon and anoints us with the oil of joy unspeakable. It is not a matter of solitary waiting for the comfort of God, but a Christian should and is able to encourage others and give comfort in tribulation. God speaks through Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her” [Isa. 40:1].”

It is understandable when all around you is suffering and death to look beyond the present reality to what might come. But, beloved, there have been decades and generations of suffering, and there will be more I am sure. There is nothing wrong in finding joy in this life through Jesus and our Lord God. In fact Jesus came to us to give us joy in this life and hope for a life to come. Our joy in the Lord is daily, and so too should our comfort be. May this season bring you comfort and joy beloved! Selah!