Archives for December 2015

Psalm 139:7–12; Amos 1,2; Revelation 7:9–17

Psalm 139:7–12: In these verses the psalmist marvels at God’s omnipresence, asking rhetorically, “Where can I go from Your spirit,/ and where from before You flee?” (7) He answers his question immediately in a verse of sweeping grandeur (and a reminder why the Psalms are truly the greatest poems ever written) that moves vertically across the universe: “If I soar to to the heavens, You are there,/ if I bed down in Sheol–there You are,” and then horizontally: “If I take wing with the dawn,/ if I dwell at the ends of the sea.”

No matter which direction he might go, the poet knows that “there, too, Your hand leads me.” And in a reference back to the potter image of verse 5, “and Your right hand seizes me.” (10) For the psalmist, God’s presence is palpable. God takes him by the hand and leads. God is not the mere abstraction that we so often make him out to be. And I think for us Christians, these verses are a direct indication of the Holy Spirit in our lives. No matter where we go or what we do or what straits we find ourselves in, we must allow the Spirit to lead us.

Even if we should will to escape, attempting to find a place free of God’s presence, and saying with the poet, “Yes, darkness will swathe me,/ and the night will be light for me,” (11) there is no escape from God because “Darkness itself will not darken for You,/ and the night will light up like the day,/ the dark and the light will be one.” (12) God is inescapable–nor should we want to escape.

Notice, too, that “the dark and the light are one.” Darkness still exists but it is somehow transformed. In even our darkest hours, God’s light–his omnipresence–brings comfort. The murders in San Bernardino this week are deepest darkness. Yet as we see people gather and hug each other and comfort those who have suffered incalculable loss, we see God’s presence bringing light into those darkest places.

Amos 1,2: We have only the briefest biographical sketch of Amos, who comes from “among the shepherds of Tekoa” and he prophesied “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.” (1:1). What’s clear here is that Amos emerged out of the crowd as God’s anointed prophet. As usual, God does not choose from the powerful, but from the weak and seemingly ineffectual.

Amos’s prophecy begins with placing God squarely at Jerusalem and it appears that God is (surprise!) angry: “The Lord roars from Zion,/ and utters his voice from Jerusalem” as  judgement is pronounced first on Israel’s neighbors:
For three transgressions of Damascus,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. (1:3)

Amos repeats this imprecation against Gaza (1:6), Tyre (1:9), the Ammonites (1:13) and Moab (2:1). These judgements are not pronounced because these nations have invaded Israel or Judah, but for the own awful sins against humanity. Amos explains the reason for punishment against each of these nations: Gaza has “carried into exile entire communities.” Tyre did the same thing and “did not remember the covenant of kinship.” Edom because “he maintained his anger perpetually,” and the Ammonites worst of all, because “they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory.” (13)  Moab is punished for the unique sin of cremating the king of Edom. (2:1)

Taken together, this list reminds us that sin and disorder are found wherever humans are found. The point here is that community sin is just as offensive to God as the sins of each individual, and and there are consequences for the entire community or nation. Something to reflect on as we seem to be flying apart as a country today.

Nor are Judah and Israel to be spared punishment for their sins. Judah is to be punished for breaking the Covenant
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
    and have not kept his statutes,
but they have been led astray by the same lies
    after which their ancestors walked.” (2:4)

Israel’s punishment arises, among other things, because it oppresses the poor:
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
   they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;” (2:6,7)

Amos goes on to list other sins of Israel such as incest and making the nazerites drink wine.

So, what is the point of this seemingly endless catalog of sins? I think it demonstrates the enormous variety of sins that humanity is capable of committing–each sin illustrating how a Commandment has been broken. Be it sins against one’s relatives, against strangers or against God. We humans seems to be endlessly creative in how to separate ourselves from God.

Revelation 7:9–17: This magnificent section of John’s vision describes the universal worship of the Lamb. I think John is reminding his readers that they are not alone, but it is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (9) This helps us remember that in Bohoeffer’s words, “that under our paths are the deepest shafts of eternity.” We are not here alone. millions have gone before us and we forget that fact at our peril. And like the Jews of yore, we will stand before the walls of the New Jerusalem “with palm branches in our hands” (9) singing a reprise of the throne room hymn of chapter 5:12-14.

But then, something I’d not noticed before: “one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” (13) John replies, ““Sir, you are the one that knows.” (14a) and the elder then recognizes them as those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (14b). To me this is a clear indication that the 24 elders represent the perfected Israel (2 x 12 = 24), which now acknowledges that all who have been “washed in the blood” of Jesus Christ–and especially the martyrs– are equally worthy to come before God and worship him.  John’s vision encompasses Israel and the church coming together at the end of history and worshipping together as one as the chapter closes with a clear reference to Psalm 23:
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
        and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
     and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (17).

For John’s readers who lived in the midst of the turmoil of the Roman empire and for us, who are living in the chaos that seems to be overtaking western civilization, there is this great promise of eventual reconciliation where the Old and New Covenants come together and worship at the throne. And we of the New Covenant are there because we have been washed whiter than white by the blood of Jesus Christ. Not a terribly Lutheran image to be sure, but still a wonderful metaphor of what Jesus has done for each of us to bring us justified before God.

Psalm 139:1–6; Joel 2:15–3:21; Revelation 6:9–7:8

Psalm 139:1–6: This remarkable psalm of introspection meditates on the incredibly close connection between we humans and God, or more personally, between God and me. As his created beings, God knows everything there is to know about us, including our innermost thoughts: “It is You Who know when I sit and rise,/ You fathom my thoughts from afar.” (2) He knows our every action and decision: “My path and my lair You winnow,/ and all my ways are familiar.” (3) Knowing what we think, God obviously knows what we are going to say: “For there is no word on my tongue/ but that You, O Lord, wholly know it.” (4)

What’s fascinating to me here is not the omniscience of God–after all, that’s an essential quality of God–but the freedom he has given us. Even though there we are no surprise in any dimension to God, this intimate connection between God and us is free of judgement. It’s not that God knows only our pleasurable or “religious” thoughts; he knows our darkest secrets. God knows where we are going, but he makes no judgement about our often poor choices. God knows what we are going to say, but he does not intervene to prevent us from saying stupid or hurtful things. (Although sometimes I wish he would!) These verses are doubtless the Bible’s best description of what it means to be God’s creature, yet to enjoy autonomous free will.

Once again we encounter the implied metaphor of God the potter shaping us: “From behind and in front You shaped me,/ and You set Your palm upon me.” (5) This is not a palm of correction or punishment, but of a loving God gently applying pressure to the clay that forms us. It also suggests to me that each of us is a uniquely “custom” work shaped and molded by God.

The psalmist’s contemplation on these wonders of this relationship adds up to the acknowledgement that “Knowledge is too wondrous for me,/ high above–I cannot attain it.” The psalmist knows that God is Creator and we are the created. Like the jars and pots of the potter we can never know the thoughts and skills of our creator. Too bad that we humans think we can outsmart God and know more than him. This arrogance leads inevitably to a bad end.

Joel 2:15–3:21: Joel imagines that the people repent and return to God and that they
call a solemn assembly;
   gather the people.
      Sanctify the congregation;
      assemble the aged;
   gather the children,
    even infants at the breast.
  Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her canopy. (2:16)

And God responds “and had pity on his people.” (2:18) What follows is a remarkable poem describing how God will keep enemies at bay (2:20); return nature to a pristine state (2:22), including rain (23). Agricultural bounty returns as well:
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. (2:24)

The relationship between God and his people is reestablished, and he will return to his people with enormous generosity. Above all–and of enormous importance to we Christians who have received the Holy Spirit–Joel tells us:
 I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions. (2:28)

But in the context of Joel’s prophecy this statement is also a bridge to an apocalyptic vision where “ I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (2:30, 31) Jesus surely had Joel in mind when he spoke to his disciples in the Olivet discourse. Joel goes on to describe in great detail what seems to be the end of history as the wicked world comes to judgement:
Multitudes, multitudes,
    in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
    in the valley of decision. (3:14)

I’m intrigued by “valley of decision.” It implies that each of us has a choice to make about whether we will follow God or not. Unlike John’s Revelation which envisions a new Jerusalem, Joel understandably restricts the victory to Judah and a restored Jerusalem:
you shall know that I, the Lord your God,
    dwell in Zion, my holy mountain.
And Jerusalem shall be holy,
    and strangers shall never again pass through it.” (3:17)

As always, we need to look to the Old Testament to even begin to comprehend the full implications of the New. Joel speaks directly to John.

Revelation 6:9–7:8: The opening of the fifth seal speaks directly to the church suffering under Roman oppression–and of course to the many martyrs that have followed down to our present time: “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given.” (6:9) The martyrs understandably seek vengeance: “cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:10) But they are told to be patient, “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” (6:11a) That’s a potent message to those of us who seek vengeance on our own. John reminds us that vengeance is God’s and he will do it in his own time.

Notice how John includes those still alive but facing martyrdom: “their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” (6:11b) There’s no question that John was writing to Christians living in an incredibly hostile world–something to think about when we whine about how we’re being oppressed here in a post-Christian America.

The opening of the sixth seal seems to be the anti-creation: “ The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (6:14) which is understandably terrifying as “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,” (15). The feelings of God’s wrath and humankind’s doom here are remarkably similar to Joel’s vision of the nations being trapped in the “valley of decision.”

In chapter 7 we come to the 144,000 who are “marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.” (7:3). The Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed they are the 144,000, but ran into trouble long ago when more than 144,000 adherents showed up. I think John’s vision is much simpler. He is describing the final restoration of Israel at the end of history–a wrapping up, if you will, of the Old Covenant. The number 12 is symbolic of governmental or administrative perfection: 12 tribes of Israel 12 disciples, etc.  I think John simply wants to address the fact that God will never forget Israel at the end of history. God will not abandon Israel, but he will bring it to a final indescribable perfection squared (12 X 12). In short, God will make his original compact with his chosen people perfect in a way that we simply don’t understand.

Psalm 138:6–8; Joel 1:1–2:14; Revelation 5:11–6:8

Psalm 138:6–8: The psalmist leaves no question in these three verses that God is deeply involved in human affairs. First, he observes from his position: “For high is the Lord yet the lowly he sees,/ and the lofty, from a distance he knows.” (6) The implied image is God on his throne looking down and the first people he sees are the ones he cares most deeply about: the lowly, the poor, the widows and orphans, those who have been treated unjustly by those in power.

As for those in power–the lofty–God also sees them from a distance. Distance here implying that despite what the powerful may think, they are no closer to God than the lowly. Also, “distance, He knows” in the sense that God is well aware of what they are doing to oppress the lowly–and that God will be meting out their just desserts to them.

Verse 7 is a direct echo of Psalm 23: “Though I walk in the midst of straits,/ You give me life in spite of my enemies wrath.” God does much more for those who are oppressed than just observe us. He is with us and is our life source no matter what trials we endure.  God’s “alongsideness” is not just conceptual, but is expressed as a powerful physical interaction: “You stretch out Your hand,/ and Your right hand rescues me.” We can know that when we are in dire straits and are rescued it’s because God has seen us, is alongside us, and stretches out his hand to us. For the psalmist, rescue and protection are never natural coincidences; they are the direct act of God.

Following rescue there is gratitude: “The Lord will requite me./ O Lord, Your kindness is forever.” But there is also the realization that we have been created by God and we want always to remain with him: “Do not let go of Your handiwork.” (8) The word “handiwork” reminds us that we have been fashioned by God. He is the potter and we are the clay, the work of his hands–the very same hands that have rescued us.

Joel 1:1–2:14: Unlike Hosea, who enters into a marriage with a whore as a metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel, we know little of Joel, “the son of Pethuel,” who just begins speaking a lamentation. Israel has been invaded and come to ruin:
For a nation has invaded my land,
    powerful and innumerable;

   It has laid waste my vines,
      and splintered my fig trees; (1:6, 7a)

The invaders have disrupted religious life:
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
          from the house of the Lord.
       The priests mourn,
        the ministers of the Lord. (1:9)

As with all lamentations, there is a call to repentance:
Sanctify a fast,
        call a solemn assembly.
     Gather the elders
        and all the inhabitants of the land
         to the house of the Lord your God,
         and cry out to the Lord. (1:14)

Joel then moves to apocalyptic language–the language Jesus used in his Olivet Discourse in Mark and his warnings in the temple in Luke, which surely must have reminded Jesus’ listeners of Joel:
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
       for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
        a day of darkness and gloom,
       a day of clouds and thick darkness! (2:1,2)

But amidst the gloom and gnashing of teeth Joel is telling his listeners–and us–that honest from the heart repentance will turn everything around:
Yet even now, says the Lord,
        return to me with all your heart,
      with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; (2:12)

And then, Joel says something truly remarkable: “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Here is the essence of repentance: it is an action of the heart,not an outward sign. It doesn’t matter if we head down the sawdust trail and “go forward for Christ” if our heart is not truly changed. But if Israel is willing to change–and if we are willing to change, then we can truly experience the impact of some of the most famous words in the entire Old Testament:
Return to the Lord, your God,
       for he is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, (2:13)

Yes, there is lamentation, but with repentance tears turn to joy and we experience God’s unending love.

Revelation 5:11–6:8: The lamb, holding the scroll with the seven seals has entered the throne room of God. And now John hears “the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,” (5:11) as they worship the risen Christ in words that echo down through the centuries:
    “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
      to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
      and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:12)

But the angels of heaven, the creatures, and the 24 humans are apparently insufficient for true worship that the risen Christ deserves. Now John hears “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
      “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” (5:13)

This passage reminds us that our ordinary worship is a mere whisper compared to the worship that is going on in heaven. But that is not to discourage us. John helps us realize that when we worship Jesus Christ together it is not an isolated act, but we are joining in with churches around the world and as John tells us, with the angels in heaven. Which is why worship is about much more than just feeling good about Jesus; it is our primary duty when we are gathered together and it is serious business that is at once solemn and joyful–but never trivial or performed for our own entertainment.

The worship in heaven ceases as the Lamb opens the first four seals to reveal the four horses and riders: white, bright red, black and pale green. The rider of the white horse holds a bow and “a crown was given to him,” –a clear symbol of military might and power of the Roman empire. The bright red rider is given a great sword and “was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another” (6:4) clearly represents the bloodshed of battle and, I suspect, of the oppression of the church and the blood of the martyrs.

The rider of the black horse “held a pair of scales in his hand” and is accompanied by a voice speaking of a day’s pay and “do not damage the olive oil and the wine” (6:6) appears to represent the economy and perhaps famine to come.

There is no confusion about the pale green horse and its rider: “Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.” (6:8) I don’t know why the fraction “a fourth” is there, but there’s no question that death will march relentlessly through the land–just as it has from John’s time right down to the present. There is no reason to assume the effects of the four horses and their riders are predictions of tribulation to come. They have been free to roam the earth for the past 2000 years.

 

Psalm 138:1–5; Hosea 13,14; Revelation 4:9–5:10

Psalm 138:1–5: This psalm of thanksgiving opens with a line of intense feeling–“I acclaim You with all my heart” and a puzzling line that follows: “before gods I hymn to You.” (1) Is the psalmist acknowledging that small-g gods even exist? Or is this a simply a derisive assertion that he worships the true God despite those around him that worship the small-g gods? I think the psalmist is simply admitting that although he lives in a culture awash in small-g gods, he knows that only God is worthy of his praise. In light of our present culture, where all sorts of small-g gods are worshipped, this is an interpretation that certainly resonates with me.

Worship–“I acclaim Your name” (2a)–is far more than an emotional praise song feel good phrase here. The psalmist gives us the reasons behind his worship: “for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth” (2b) God’s love and truth are the qualities we worship–and experience. Moreover, he acknowledges God as Creator, who continues to create: “for You have made Your word great across all Your heavens.” (2c) Of course when we encounter the phrase, “Your word,” we of course think of God’s Word, who came in flesh to save us.

The psalmist’s full heart arises not only in the psalmist’s knowledge of what God is and does, but in his personal experience as well: “On the day I called You answered me,/ You made strength well up within me.” God is not just a remote abstraction, but a source of physical, emotional, and psychological strength. This is a real challenge for me since I am so fast to worship a God who is “out there” rather than experience the physical pleasure (yes!) of God who is “in here.” God is of course both.

Hosea 13,14: God’s frustration with Israel’s relentless sinning is evident:
And now they keep on sinning
    and make a cast image for themselves,
    idols of silver made according to their understanding,
    all of them the work of artisans.
   “Sacrifice to these,” they say.
    People are kissing calves! (13:2)

It’s as if God cannot even fathom the sheer stupidity of people because they have reduced themselves to kissing calves!  Hosea, speaking the words of God reiterates the great truth that we do well to heed as well: “you know no God but me,/ and besides me there is no savior.” (13:4) But in the light of Israel’s refusal to repent, it’s as if the God of truth and justice has no other choice but to destroy these intransigent sinners as Hosea employs some of the most gruesome possible images:
    Samaria shall bear her guilt,
    because she has rebelled against her God;
   they shall fall by the sword,
    their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
    and their pregnant women ripped open. (13:16)

One would think that the prophecy would end here. But Hosea knows that as Israel is relentlessly sinful God is relentlessly merciful. Now we hear Hosea’s own voice as he prays:
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
    for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
   Take words with you
    and return to the Lord; (14:1, 2a)

Hosea knows what Israel does not: that one day it will repent and realize:
   Assyria shall not save us;
    we will not ride upon horses;
   we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
    to the work of our hands. (14:3)

And God answers Hosea’s prayer as this book ends with God’s promise that he will indeed forgive:
I will heal their disloyalty;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them. (14:4)

That’s always it, isn’t it? No matter how grave our sin or how far we try to distance ourselves from him, God always sticks right with us. We can try to ignore him, sometimes for a very long time. But God is there. God wants nothing more than to forgive and to be in relationship with us. Why do we resist? Alas,the answer is all too simple: our overweening pride always insists that we never give up control of our lives. That desire for control–to think we are masters of our fate– makes us blind to God, who is standing right next to us waiting patiently.

Revelation 4:9–5:10: John informs us that not only are the living creatures (which I believe represent God’s creative agency in nature) who “give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne” (4:9) but there are humans present as well: “the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever” (10) They are obviously Very Important People since they have crowns which they cast at God’s feet as an act of obeisance. Needless to say there’s been ample speculation as to what Biblical characters they are, but suffice to say, they probably include Moses and Elijah, who appeared at Jesus’ transfiguration. Certainly Daniel, and I’d also like to think the group includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the other prophets whose words were scorned by Israel and Judah.

There’s more than  worship going on here. God is holding a rolled-up scroll, “written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” (5:1) An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2) but no one can. This is a huge disappointment to John, who begins weeping. But one of the elders assures him there is someone who can open and read the scroll. An elder provides the honorific titles of this person: “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (5). Well, we know enough from reading OT prophecy and the Gospels that it can be none other than the resurrected Jesus Christ, whom we expect to see stroll confidently into the throne room in all his heavenly glory.

But instead, John sees “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes.” This is certainly not what he–and we–were expecting. [My take on this is that this is one of those places where the glory is so overwhelming that John’s words cannot adequately describe what he sees.] The lamb steps confidently up to the throne and takes the scroll. The living creatures and the elders immediately fall before the lamb and worship, and each elder is “holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (8). So we have acclamation and prayer at this worship. There is one more thing: they all begin singing. Not just any song, but a new song that acknowledges the lamb’s power and what he has done for us:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving  our God,
    and they will reign on earth.”

There’s no mistaking who this is: Jesus Christ, the lamb of God.

This scene tells us several important aspects of worship. There is solemn respect. There is praise of God; there is reverence and kneeling. There is prayer. There is the Word (the rolled-up scroll). There is singing. Above all, there is the presence of Jesus Christ. These are the elements of serious worship–and it is not a casual affair.