Archives for August 2017

Psalm 101; Jeremiah 15:1–16:13; 1 Timothy 1:12–2:7

Psalm 101: This wisdom psalm, dedicated to David, sounds like a chapter from Proverbs set in poetry. The poet first celebrates the example of upright men of kindness and justice as an exemplar of those he should emulate in his own life:
Kindness and justice I would sing.
To You, O lord, I would hymn.
I would study the way of the blameless:
when will it come to me?
I shall go about in my heart’s innocence 
within my house.” (1,2)

Notice the juxtaposition of kindness and justice. Those are not qualities we normally associate with each other as we too often wish “harsh justice” on alleged wrongdoers. The place where our poet begins to practice kindness and justice is within his own house, which I take to be among his own family.

Avoiding what the Catholics call “occasions of  sin” is paramount for the psalmist.
“I shall not set before my eyes
any base thing.
I hate committing transgressions.
It will not cling to me.” (3)

In this Internet era where base things such as pronograohy are instantly available, all of us would do well to “not set base things before our eyes” when we’re tempted.

The next step in emulating the blameless occurs outside one’s home, avoiding those who say and do things to destroy others, especially conspiracies against their ostensible friends such as those Jeremiah encounters. Here is where pride lives.
May a twisted heart turn far from me.
May I not know evil.
Who defames in secret  his fellow,
him shall I destroy.
The haughty of eyes and the proud of heart,
him shall I not suffer.” (4,5)

Notice that the poet does not accept evil passively but rather acts against it. Unfortunately, “the haughty of eyes and proud of heart” seem to be the style of leadership we continue to endure as a nation.

Rather than focusing on evil, we should focus on the good and faithful people who are around us—and good advice for all of us in these fraught times—as the poet now speaks in David’s voice:
My eyes are on the land’s faithful,
that they dwell with me.
Who walks in the way of the blameless,
it is he who will serve me.” (6)

And David ensures that those who surround him are pure of heart and intention:
Within my house there shall not dwell
one who practices deceit.
A speaker of lies shall not stand firm
before my eyes.” (7)

This is excellent advice for those who run businesses and lead governments. Speaking as king with judicial power, David can act on the last verse. I recommend that the rest of us rely on our system of laws and justice as the psalm ends on a rather harsh note of death and exile:
Each morning I shall destroy
all the wicked of the Land
to cut off from the town of the Lord
all the wrongdoers.” (8)

Jeremiah 15:1–16:13: God’s seemingly endless diatribe in Jeremiah’s voice against Judah continues apace. The kind of the destruction to be visited upon Jerusalem becomes fairly specific:
Those destined for pestilence, to pestilence,
    and those destined for the sword, to the sword;
those destined for famine, to famine,
    and those destined for captivity, to captivity.” (15:2)

And finally we learn exactly who is the root source of God’s ire: “I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah did in Jerusalem.” (15:4) Again, it is the acts of leadership which determine the fate of a nation, for it is the leader who sets the moral tone of the led—a warning that rings especially loud and clear these days.

After delivering a reiteration of the destruction about to be visited in Jerusalem, we see the psychological and physical impact these voice-of-God speeches are having on Jeremiah the man, as he tells God that he is innocent “yet all of them curse me” (15:10) God’s reply is not particularly reassuring: “The Lord said: Surely I have intervened in your life for good, surely I have imposed enemies on you in a time of trouble and in a time of distress.” (15:11) In other words, Jeremiah, get over it: I, God, give to you like everyone else have good times and bad times. Deal with it.

But Jeremiah refuses to be encouraged as he asks God,
Why is my pain unceasing,
    my wound incurable,
    refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
    like waters that fail.” (15:18)

Finally, I think God utters the words Jeremiah wants to hear. That those to whom he prophesies will try, but not succeed, in harming the prophet:
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
    and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (21)

God goes on to tell Jeremiah that “You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.” (16:2) God’s logic is that because “the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases.” (16:3) In short, there’s no point for Jeremiah to establish human relationships with people he is prophesying to. 

A grim prose scenario of death and destruction follows, which of course Jeremiah is being commanded by God to carry to the people. Although my eyes now glaze over at the repeated predictions of unburied, unmourned corpses lying in the field, there is one image that strikes at my heart because it means that joy of any kind has been eradicated: “I am going to banish from this place, in your days and before your eyes, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.” (16:9)

God instructs Jeremiah that people are going to ask, “why us?” And God couldn’t be clearer: “It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me.” (16:11, 12) 

There we have it: your ancestors were bad, but you are worse. Will our descendants meet the same fate as we see so many lives around us that have rejected God? We baby boomers are bad enough. But have we raised our children without sufficient values or we have failed to demonstrate ethical behavior with our own selfish focus on self-aggrandizement? Or is there hope for the generations that are following us?

To be blunt, Jeremiah’s words are not just history, they are a warning.

1 Timothy 1:12–2:7: Editor’s note: a widely held belief by many theologians is that although the letters to Timothy and Titus are ostensibly written by Paul, significant stylistic and theological differences strongly suggest they were written some years after Paul by another author. I happen to agree with that view which is anathema in Evangelical churches.

Nevertheless, our author certainly sounds like Paul, but for me something just doesn’t quite ring true in this autobiographical testimony: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (1:15, 16) Personally, I don’t think Paul would set himself so bluntly as an example to follow.

Nor do I think the actual Paul would have permanently excommunicated—and named—”persons [that] have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1:19 20) I think that the actual Paul never really gave up on people. There was always hope for him.

Also, at the end of today’s reading there is the statement, “For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (7) While he was often defensive,I just don’t believe that the actual Paul would have inserted that defensive parenthetical phrase.

While this epistle’s authorship may be questionable, there’s still plenty of good advice here. One such is that we should pray for everyone inside and outside the church, especially our leaders: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (2:1,2) 

Notice the description of the well-lived Christian life: “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” We are not to be off seeking wealth or power. And in this culture where so many of us are defined by what we do or accomplish, the higher calling here is simple to be—to live a quiet life of godliness and dignity. 

 

Psalm 99; Jeremiah 12:1–13:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–18

Psalm 99: This is another psalm that celebrates God’s kingship over all the earth. However, I’m glad the psalmist didn’t lead off with the “Sing to the Lord a new song” line since this psalm is much less musical and a little more scary than the preceding one. And nature as part of God’s dominion is pretty much missing, although we do get to meet a heavenly beings who hold up God’s throne:
The Lord reigns—peoples tremble,
enthroned upon cherubim—the earth shakes.
The Lord is great in Zion
and exalted over all the peoples.
They acclaim Your name:
‘Great and fearful,
He is holy” (1-3)

It’s worth remembering that cherubim are not the cute little angelic beings found in baroque paintings. Instead, they are pretty fearsome creatures with the body of a lion, a human face and multiple wings. Not anything you’d want to encounter on a dark night…

Unlike the previous psalm there’s little joy here. God is “great and fearful,” and seems pretty unapproachable. Nevertheless, throughout this entire series of God-as-king psalms, God is all about justice. In fact, God is the creator of justice as well as the righteousness and judgement that accompany justice:
And with a king’s strength He loves justice.
You firmly founded righteousness,
judgement and justice in Jacob You made.” (4)

I’m pretty sure ‘Jacob’ in this usage is a reference to the nation of Israel, not to the human who stole his brother’s birthright. The psalmist is asserting that God’s judgement, righteousness, and justice were first expressed in the laws brought down from Sinai by Moses to all Israel.

The psalmist reminds us that all people are to “bow down to His footstool/ He is holy.” (5) Then we get a small catalog of the great men in Israel’s early history who bowed down before God, prayed and listened for God’s answer:
“Moses and Aaron among His priests
and Samuel among those who call on His name
called to the Lord and He answered them.” (6)

For this psalmist, God does indeed answer and speak:
In a pillar of cloud did He speak to them.
They kept His precepts and the statute He gave them.
Lord our God, it was You Who answered them,
a forbearing God You were to them
yet an avenger of misdeeds.” (7, 8. )

God answered the prayers of these great men, and even though they sinned, God was patient with them. But if they did not repent then God would punish them. The psalmist’s message is clear: if these great men obeyed God, prayed, listened for God’s response, and repented, then that’s the duty of we of the hoi polloi as well.

But above all is our duty to worship God:
Exalt the Lord our God
and bow to His holy mountain,
for the Lord our God is holy.” (9)

Jeremiah 12:1–13:19: So far, Jeremiah has done and said everything God has asked him to. But his latest speech to Israel has resulted in a conspiracy to kill him. Sounding very much like the author of a psalm of supplication, Jeremiah asks the question every sentient human has asked at one time or another:
You will be in the right, O Lord,
    when I lay charges against you;
    but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
    Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (12:1)

Like a good politician, God does not actually answer Jeremiah’s question, but once again he reminds the prophet that everyone—even his own family—has conspired against him and have abandoned God. So God announces his quid pro quo for that abandonment:
I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.” (12:7)

God goes on to point out that it is they, not he, who are ultimately responsible for the destruction to come:
They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns,
    they have tired themselves out but profit nothing.
They shall be ashamed of their  harvests
    because of the fierce anger of the Lord.” (12:13)

WHich is a good lesson for us that when we sin the consequences are our problem, not God’s. Even though we may be forgiven we must bear the “harvest” of what we have said or done.

But there is always hope. As always and despite their misdeeds, God still loves them and like a father who punishes his wayward child, he will then embrace them once again: “And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, every one of them.” (12:15) But if repentance is lacking, “then I will completely uproot it and destroy it.” (12:17)

In one of the more almost amusing commands of God, he tells Jeremiah to buy a new loincloth and wear it. (Did he wear anything else or did Jeremiah go around in his underwear?) In any event, God commands Jeremiah to take off the loincloth and bury it by the Euphrates—which is a long way from Jerusalem. “After many days” Jeremiah is commanded to dig it up and he sees that it is ruined.

The loincloth is an obvious metaphor for Judah. Once they followed God and like the new loincloth were pure and unsullied. And as a man’s underwear is the closest thing to his body, God’s relationship with his people was equally close: “For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord.” (13:11a)

But then the people buried themselves in sin and idolatry, which ruined them. All because “they would not listen” to God. Jeremiah is commanded to speak to the people that they are like wine-jars and that God will fill them with drunkenness “And I will dash them one against another, parents and children together, says the Lord. I will not pity or spare or have compassion when I destroy them.” (13:14)

The consequences of not listening to God is pretty much the theme of this chapter:
But if you will not listen,
    my soul will weep in secret for your pride;
my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears,
    because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive.” (13:17)

Like Judah, America is in the process of failing to listen to God and going on its merry, dissolute way. Will we meet the same fate as the queen mother in Jeremiah?
Say to the king and the queen mother:
    “Take a lowly seat,
for your beautiful crown
    has come down from your head.” (13:18)

2 Thessalonians 3:6–18: Apparently some people at the Thessalonian church have decided they are above others and do not need to work in the church. Even worse, they may enjoying benefits and living off what others are working to produce. Paul is clear that freeloading is unacceptable, citing his own actions as an example to follow: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” (7,8)

Paul boils it down to one simple statement: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (10b) And as we know from simple observation today those who do not work tend to become “mere busybodies.” (11) Paul makes his stance on the people very clear: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (12)  And if these folks still refuse to work they need to be shunned: “Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed.” (14). But Paul also warns us that we shouldn’t see these people as enemies, although they certainly need to be warned.

I wonder how Paul would view our present day welfare state where many too people find it preferable to live off the work of others? Obviously, there are situations where people cannot work but Paul would have no patience with the entitlement state that we have become.

Of course, he’s speaking not of society at large, but the church in particular. Yet, in many ways the church has also become a consumer product where too many people go to be receive the benefits of the work of others but do nothing themselves to advance the cause of the kingdom.

Psalm 98; Jeremiah 10:17–11:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5

Psalm 98: One begins to think there was a psalmists contest at some point when competing poets announced their new compositions with “Sing to the Lord a new song” as their opening line to distinguish their hymn from the competition’s.

Like the previous few, this psalm again celebrates God’s victorious kingship over all his creation, including the nations beyond just Israel:
“The Lord made known His victory,
before the nations’ eyes He revealed His bounty.” (2)

Not surprisingly, Israel comes in for special mention as God’s chosen nation but God’s triumph is visible throughout all natural creation, not just the nations::
He recalled His kindness and His faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.” (3)

The remainder of the psalm is simultaneously hymn and instructions to the choir and the orchestra that accompanies them:
Shout out to the Lord, all the earth
Burst forth in glad song and hymn.
Hymn to the Lord on the lyre,
on the lyre with the sound of hymning.
With trumpets and the sound of ram’s horn,
sound loud before the king, the Lord.” (4-6)

I’ve always wondered what kind of musical scale they used. Probably not the chromatic scale. Perhaps the pentatonic? It would be cool to hear this music. Would it be closer to the organ or to a praise band? Probably the latter…

All creation then joins in the music-making with their own sounds in some of the most beautiful verses (for me, anyway) in all the psalms:
Let the sea and its fullness thunder,
the world and those dwelling in it.
Let the rivers clap hands,
let the mountains together sing gladly
before the Lord, for He comes
to judge the earth.” (7-9)

Well, it wouldn’t be a true psalm if it didn’t invoke at least one of God’s qualities or actions. Here, it’s judgement, but as always justice accompanies judgement:
He judges the world in justice
and peoples righteously.” (10)

What’s remarkable to me here is that God’s judgement occurs in joy, not in anxious trepidation. But to those who are righteous—and for us Christians, those who are righteous (justified) in Christ—God’s judgement is truly an occasion of celebration. For it is then we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Jeremiah 10:17–11:23: Jeremiah’s mood has not improved as he predicts the scattering and exile of Israel and Judah. God speaks:
I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land
    at this time,
and I will bring distress on them,
    so that they shall feel it.” (10:18)

And this dispersal from the land certainly has a note of finality in the metaphor of Israel and Judah being a metaphorical tent that has been ruined:
My tent is destroyed,
    and all my cords are broken;
my children have gone from me,
    and they are no more;
there is no one to spread my tent again,
    and to set up my curtains.” (10:20)

As before, the leadership—the officials, priests, prophets, and I presume, the kings themselves—that are metaphorically shepherds, bear ultimate responsibility for all that has gone awry in the land:
For the shepherds are stupid,
    and do not inquire of the Lord;
therefore they have not prospered,
    and all their flock is scattered.” (10:21)

Given what is currently going on in Washington DC, an erratic over-verbal president, his opponents, and the in the media itself, I think these verses have real—and rather portentous— relevance.

But Jeremiah loves the people despite their sins. He now speaks and begs for mercy on behalf of these wayward people, asking God to punish the conquerors rather than the conquered:
Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you,
    and on the peoples that do not call on your name;
for they have devoured Jacob;
    they have devoured him and consumed him,
    and have laid waste his habitation.” (10:25)

At the chapter break we appear to begin all over again as the word of the Lord comes once again to Jeremiah, this time focusing on the Covenant between Israel/Judah and himself: “And the Lord said to me: Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: Hear the words of this covenant and do them.” (11:6)

But in the end, Jeremiah treads pretty much the same prophetic ground. Israel and Judah have sinned and thereby broken their side of the Covenant: “And the Lord said to me: Conspiracy exists among the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors of old, who refused to heed my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” (11:9,10)

Equally unsurprising, God therefore “is going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape; though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” (11:11) This is one of those places where God, as described in the Old Testament, seems somewhat petulant—not a desirable quality in anyone, much less God himself. The loving God we’d rather think about seems to have gone on hiatus.

In fact, God instructs Jeremiah quite specifically about his misguided attempts at asking for mercy: “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” (11:14)

Jeremiah, faithful prophet that he is, speaks this word of God to the people and they are not terribly pleased to hear his dire words. He realizes the “people of Anathoth” are conspiring against him and want to kill him. He prays to God,
But I was like a gentle lamb
    led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
    that they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
    let us cut him off from the land of the living,
    so that his name will no longer be remembered!” (11:19)

God is always on Jeremiah’s side and promises, “I am going to punish them; the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine; and not even a remnant shall be left of them. For I will bring disaster upon the people of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” (11:22, 23)

Which we presume is exactly what happened. The lesson here is that God-inspired prophecy is protected speech, even when it delivers the most dire news possible to convict listeners of their sins.  I wonder: are there any God-inspired prophets among us in the midst of the unceasing babble?

2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5: This is one of those places where we have to be careful in interpretation as Paul asserts, “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2:13b) For Calvin and others his is one of those passages that are used to support the idea of predestination, i.e., that God specifically chose those whom he would save ahead of time. This gets us into lots of theological conundra such as, ‘If God has chosen us ahead of time, what’s the point? I have no say in the matter.’

Personally, I think it’s simpler than that. Jesus is reaching out to everyone on earth. Some choose to follow; others don’t. But the sheep and goats have not been sorted out ahead of time. We are all free to accept or reject. And when we accept, we look back and feel chosen, just as Israel was chosen so many years ago. As Lutherans put it, it is Jesus who comes to us, not the other way round.

In any event, those who are Jesus-followers are to follow Paul’s correct instruction, to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2:15)

This short letter ends with Paul’s prayer request: “Finally, brothers and sisters,  pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just  as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith.” (3:1,2) Which is a request that’s as relevant to the church today as two millennia ago, for it is a prayer for each of us carry out Jesus’ Great Commission and be effective evangelists through not only our words, but more importantly, I think, our actions.

But it is Paul’s concluding sentence that resonates for me: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” (3:5) In the end, it’s the condition and focus of our hearts that matters most.

 

 

Psalm 97:7–12; Jeremiah 9:10–10:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12

Psalm 97:7–12: Our psalmist points out not just the futility of idol worship, but its negative impact on their worshippers:
All idol-worshippers are shamed
who boast of the ungods.
All gods bow down to Him.” (7)

At first read the last line of this verse about small-g gods seems to contradict the the first two lines. After all, aren’t idols mere inanimate human constructions? I go with my perosnal theory here that the small-g gods refers to the host of heaven as our poet once again reinforces God’s preeminence over nature but also over the population of heaven itself.

In any event, the realization of God’s power and majesty as king bringing judgement over creation generates true joy in all of Judea’s precincts, be it Jerusalem or its suburbs:
Zion heard and rejoiced,
and Judea’s villages exulted
because of Your judgements, Lord.” (8)

And to make sure we get the point about God reigning over all creation, our poet reiterates his ascendancy over both heaven and earth:
For You, Lord, are most high over all the earth;
You are greatly exalted over all the gods.” (9)

At this point the psalmist turns his attention to those who love and follow God, reminding them that they, too, must follow God’s example. In return they receive God’s protection:
You who love the Lord,, hate evil!
He guards the the lives of His faithful.
From the hand of the wicked He saves them.” (10)

Of course as we learn in Jeremiah, not that many were faithful to God and the wicked were certainly the ones in power.

In a beautiful agricultural metaphor our poet reminds us that if we indeed follow God we will receive the light. This line has a prophetic impact on me because this is exactly the point Jesus made when he told his followers that “I am the light of the world.” At that point in history God had indeed “sown light” in the Incarnation in order to save all humankind.
Light is sown for the just,
and for the upright of heart there is joy.” (11)

The psalm ends where it began—on a note of rejoicing and worship, which also suggests elements of the structure of worship: We enter rejoicing and we depart rejoicing:
Rejoice, O you just, in the Lord,
and acclaim His holy name.” (12)

Jeremiah 9:10–10:16: OKay, Jeremiah, we get it. The people of Judah have abandoned God, turning to wicked ways and they will pay a heavy price for their apostasy:
I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins,
    a lair of jackals;
and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation,
    without inhabitant.” (9:11)

When that awful time of judgement and desolation comes, Jeremiah promises that there will be the proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth. The prophet evokes the image of the professional mourning women of that day:
Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
    and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge,
    and each to her neighbor a lament.
“Death has come up into our windows,
    it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
    and the young men from the squares.” (9:20, 21)

In the end God is asking but one thing: that we abandon the illusions of wisdom, might, and wealth and that we come to “understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (9:24)

And that’s just as true today. If we put God at the center of our lives we will come to understand that he is not just the God of vengeance for wickedness, but the God who wants nothing more than to have us love him as he loves us.

Jeremiah concludes this chapter by observing “all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (9:25) Stephen references Jeremiah’s theme in his sermon just before he is stoned to death  that his accusers are “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51) In short, not much had changed in the centuries between Jeremiah and Stephen—nor between Stephen and today.

In chapter 10 Jeremiah turns his gaze away from Judah and on to Israel, the northern kingdom. First, there are various warnings to avoid emulating their neighbors:
Do not learn the way of the nations,
    or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens;
    for the nations are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are false.” (10:2,3a)

The custom to be avoided specifically is the creation of idols:
For the customs of the peoples are false:
a tree from the forest is cut down,
    and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so that it cannot move.” (10:3b, 4)

Jeremiah spends the remainder of the reading on a tear about the stupidity of those who worship powerless idols, first reminding us that they are inanimate, powerless objects as he denigrates them with a rather nice simile:
Their idols  are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
    and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
    for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
    for they cannot do evil,
    nor is it in them to do good.” (10:5)

Sounding almost like a psalmist, Jeremiah contrasts their powerlessness with God’s power:
There is none like you, O Lord;
    you are great, and your name is great in might.” (10:6)

Jeremiah goes on to contrast the pathetic artisanship of humans with the magnificent work of God, forcing us to draw the obvious conclusion that there is but one true God:
[Idols] are the work of the artisan and of the hands of the goldsmith;
    their clothing is blue and purple;
    they are all the product of skilled workers.
But the Lord is the true God;
    he is the living God and the everlasting King.
At his wrath the earth quakes,
    and the nations cannot endure his indignation.” (10:9, 10)

To make sure we understand God’s true power as over against the impotence of idols, Jeremiah makes his point about idols vs. God once again:
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
    at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is the Lord,  the portion of Jacob,
    for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
    the Lord of hosts is his name.” (10:15, 16)

But alas, like Israel’s failure to recognize these truth, so we too pursue our idols and reject God—at increasingly great cost. Exactly as both today’s psalmist and Jeremiah warned us.

2 Thessalonians 2:1–12: Paul continues his apocalyptic theme, warning the Thessalonians that contrary to what they have concluded (probably from the persecution they are enduring), the Day of the Lord—the end of history—has not yet come. That will not happen before the arrival of the person Paul designates as “the lawless one.” This will not happen “unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” (3) The thing to watch out for, Paul warns, is that this person “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” (4)

This would be the same person identified in Revelation as the Antichrist, whose true identity will be revealed at the Day of the Lord. As Paul points out this is not to say wickedness isn’t already afoot, but its most dire consequences are being held back from their full fury by someone: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed.” (7) Satan is the person behind it all and is presently giving everyone on earth a foretaste of the horrors to come at the end of history: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders,” (9)

Like Jeremiah, Paul points out that those who refuse God and the saving power of Jesus Christ will perish: “every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (10)

But then Paul says something that is truly puzzling. Referring to those who rejected salvation, he says “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.” (11, 12) Really? God purposely deludes those who reject salvation? I think Paul is referring back to the Antichrist, who uses false religion to delude the gullible. If we reject the truth about Jesus Christ, Paul implies, we will by default turn to the delusions created by the Antichrist.

Identifying the Antichrist has been a popular sport in various churches down through the centuries with theories ranging from various popes to Hitler, Stalin, and today, ISIS. But as I read Paul here, we ain’t seen nothing in terms of evil yet. WHich is difficult to get my head around.

Psalm 97:1–6; Jeremiah 8:1–9:9; 2 Thessalonians 1

Psalm 97:1–6: Like the two preceding psalms, this one celebrates God’s kingship over his creation in a series of striking images. The opening verse leaves no doubt as to who is in charge of the earth and what our response should be:
The Lord reigns—let earth exult,
let the many islands rejoice.” (1)

Alter informs us that “islands” is the Hebrew usage for “remote lands,” i.e., everyone on earth regardless of their location should rejoice in the reality of God’s kingship. While God himself is somewhat shrouded in the magisterial mystery that we cannot fully comprehend, represented by clouds and fog, there is no ambiguity as to what God’s throne stands for:
Cloud and dense fog around Him,
justice and judgement the base of His throne.” (2)

For me, the most important part of these few verses is that God is active in the world, dispensing judgement and justice in metaphors that connote immense power over all creation:
Fire goes before Him
and all round burns His foes
His lightnings lit up the world:
the earth saw and quaked.
Mountains melted like wax before the Lord,
before the Master of all the earth.” (3-5)

Fire, lightning, earthquakes, and volcanoes: these remind us that while God loves us as individuals, he is still almighty  God. And we’d better not try to domesticate him, (as so many praise choruses seem to do).

Notice how the theme of justice is intertwined with the demonstration of God’s power:
“The heavens told His justice,
and all peoples saw His glory.” (6)

As far as this psalmist is concerned, justice is God’s ultimate purpose over humankind. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as societies reject God they see a woeful increase of injustice, especially to the poor and downtrodden. What can we say about our own? I think it’s the growing perception that the 1% elite are exempt from justice that is eating away at our own society.

Jeremiah 8:1–9:9: Although the reading today begins in prose, the theme is pretty much the same we’ve encountered in the previous poetry. Jeremiah, continuing to speak in God’s voice, describes the grim fate of those who have disobeyed and abandoned God.  A haunting image of disinterred officials, priests, and yes, prophets who have abandoned God is capped off by a dark prediction for those still living: “Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, says the Lord of hosts.” (8:3)

Reverting to poetic form, Jeremiah’s God reminds us that he has been patient, yet the people persist in wickedness:
Why then has this people turned away
    in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit,
    they have refused to return.” (8:5)

But what is even worse is that despite God’s patience there has been a refusal to repent. These people have worn out God’s patience:
I have given heed and listened,
    but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness,
    saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course,
    like a horse plunging headlong into battle.” (8:6)

Notice that Jeremiah is holding officialdom to account, not the people as a whole. The great sin of leadership is that in their pride and refusing to repent and ignoring God, they have become absolute hypocrites and are misleading those who they lead. Even worse, they seem to believe their own press releases:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;

    yet they were not at all ashamed,
    they did not know how to blush.” (8:11, 12a)

We could certainly say those words about those who inhabit and have power in the Washington “swamp.” As always, the prophetic promise of dire retribution follows:
[Enemies] come and devour the land and all that fills it,
    the city and those who live in it.
See, I am letting snakes loose among you,
    adders that cannot be charmed,
    and they shall bite you,
says the Lord.” (8: 16b, 17)

There’s an intense and doleful effect on Jeremiah of these collective sins and refusal to repent is causes the prophet mourn for the hoi polloi, who have been so badly misled by the priests, prophets, and officials that purportedly lead them:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
    my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
    from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
    Is her King not in her?” (8:18, 19a)

And in one of those famous lines that was once well known in the culture but that today would only provoke unknowing stares, Jeremiah asks,
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
    not been restored?” (8:22)

Those to whom Jeremiah prophesies are so evil that the prophet wishes he could hide in the desert, free from his prophetic duties:
O that I had in the desert
    a traveler’s lodging place,
that I might leave my people
    and go away from them!
For they are all adulterers,
    a band of traitors.” (9:2)

Tragically, is their flight from God, trust among those in the community has evaporated:
Beware of your neighbors,
    and put no trust in any of your kin; 
…They all deceive their neighbors,
    and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongues to speak lies;
    they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent.
Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!
    They refuse to know me, says the Lord.” (9:4-6)

As always, evil begins to manifest itself in words and speech that seeks to deceive:
Their tongue is a deadly arrow;
    it speaks deceit through the mouth.
They all speak friendly words to their neighbors,
    but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush.” (9:8)

I think these verses are playing themselves out right here in 21st century America as we see less and less trust among different groups as our various tribes grow increasingly polarized. We hear cries for peace, but as Jeremiah makes so abundantly clear there is no peace where God has been cast out.

2 Thessalonians 1: As with the case of the Corinthians, there must have been some now lost response from the people at Thessaloniki that have generated Paul’s second epistle to them. And as with II Corinthians we can only guess at the what the contents of that letter (or perhaps verbal report by someone such as Timothy, who has returned to Rome from Thessaloniki).

This time Paul’s words of praise and gratitude for the Thessalonians is more brief than in his first letter. However, he is still as encouraging as before, especially since that church appears to be under severe persecution, perhaps by Jews in the city who see Christianity as a dire threat to their religious hegemony: “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.” (4)

Sounding somewhat like Jeremiah, Paul promises them that at the end of history, God’s judgement will be meted out to those who oppress them now: “For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels .” (7) And in a distinctly Old Testament tone, Paul goes on to note that this judgement will occur “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (8, 9)

These verses form the basis for the Christian concept of judgement and hell—a theme which in today’s feel-good churches is distinctly ignored, but which historically has been much more at the forefront of theology and sermonizing—perhaps most famously in Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon titled, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

 

 

Our ancestors took hell much more seriously than we who live in a therapeutic culture. There is Michelangelo’s fresco, “The Last Judgement” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. And we should never forget Hieronymus Bosch’s famous vision of hell in his paintings, The Last Judgement and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Perhaps these are over the top but I think we ignore the consequences of evil at our peril. Neither Jeremiah nor Paul are irrelevant in our modern world that denies death and the consequences of evil.

Hieronymus Bosch : “The Last Judgement”

I confess to great ambivalence on the topic of eternal punishment being meted out at the end of history, but as we also read in Matthew 25 in Jesus’ Olivet discourse,’ judgement for wrongdoing awaits all of us. Judgement Day will b binary as we are divided into metaphorical sheep and goats.  It would do me good to reflect more frequently on which category I belong to.

Psalm 96:1–9; Jeremiah 5:26–6:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:4–15

Psalm 96:1–9: Aside from the 23rd Psalm, the opening lines of this psalm are perhaps the most familiar (and upbeat!) in all the Psalms and has been set to music numerous times:
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name,
Bring tidings every day of His rescue.
Recount among the nations His glory,
among the peoples His wonders.
For great is the Lord most praised,
awesome is He over all the gods.” (1-4)

As in the preceding psalm, God reigns over all the small-g gods, which I take to be the host of heaven. At the next line however, the small-g gods are the creation of idol-worshippers:
“For all gods of the peoples are ungods,
but the Lord has made the heavens.” (5)

I really like the neologism, “ungod” because it is the complete opposite, the negation if you will, of everything our true God is and stands for. The word perfectly communicates the emptiness of the numerous ungods that we create—or purchase— for ourselves, be it various toys, status symbols, wealth, success, physical acumen, or power over others.

Our psalmist continues in his joyous vein as each verse ascribes to God what we must acknowledge belongs solely to him:
Greatness and grandeur before Him,
strength and splendor in His sanctuary.
Grant to the Lord, O families of peoples,
grant to the Lord glory and strength.
Grant to the Lord His name’s glory,
bear tribute and come to His courts.
Bow to the Lord in sacred grandeur;
quake before Him, all the earth.” (6-9)

The alliteration (which Alter tells us replicates the alliteration in Hebrew) and repetition*—greatness, grandeur, grant, glory—communicates a majestic musicality (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and captures the spirit of joy that should suffuse our worship.

*Notice however that this is not the rote repetition (sorry again!) of the same line over and over that is found in so many boring praise choruses. Each line that includes the same verb ‘grant’ illuminates a different quality of God’s magnificence—in turn creating a sense of ascending step by step to summit of the final command in today’s reading: “quake before Him, all the earth.”

Jeremiah 5:26–6:30: I’m not exactly sure why the Moravians insist on readings in this book that are not aligned with chapters, so we pick up in the middle of Jeremiah’s sermon, as usual writing in God’s voice. He does go on and on about the wickedness of so many people in Israel and Judah:
For scoundrels are found among my people;
    they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap;
    they catch human beings.” (5:26)

As far as Jeremiah is concerned, the greatest scoundrels of all are his prophetic competitors who falsely influence the religious leaders—not too different from Jesus’ own comments about religious leaders:
An appalling and horrible thing
    has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
    and the priests rule as the prophets direct.” (5:30, 31)

It’s really not too surprising that Jeremiah’s jeremiads (more alliteration!) did not endear him to anyone. No treacly Joel Osteen-like sermonic love-fests for him. He really was a prophet without honor in his own country. And as is the case today, people speaking truth, especially to power, are just as reviled as I presume Jeremiah was.

Fully in his dire your-world-is-about-to-end mode, Jeremiah returns to his favorite topic, waring Israel and Judah of the disasters to come:
Flee for safety, O children of Benjamin,
    from the midst of Jerusalem!
…for evil looms out of the north,
    and great destruction.” (6:1)

In a brilliant piece of writing Jeremiah casts his warning in the various voices of those who are about to invade Jerusalem:
Prepare war against her;
    up, and let us attack at noon!”
“Woe to us, for the day declines,
    the shadows of evening lengthen!”
“Up, and let us attack by night,
    and destroy her palaces!” (6:4,5)

God then speaks again:
For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Cut down her trees;
    cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her.” (6:6)

These lines certainly seem relevant today where so many cities and countries are such hotbeds of oppression.

Jeremiah knows that his warnings are falling on deaf ears and that he is reviled for his efforts to warn the people:
To whom shall I speak and give warning,
    that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed,
    they cannot listen.
The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
    they take no pleasure in it.” (6:10)

Rather than following God, Jerusalem has become a cesspool of wickedness:
For from the least to the greatest of them,
    everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
    everyone deals falsely.” (6:13)

And in lines that echo down to today, leaders are hoodwinking those whom they lead, betraying them with empty words, especially that much overused word, ‘peace:’
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.” (6:14)

Yet more descriptions of the destruction to come follow. As Jeremiah admits up in 6:11, “I am full of the wrath of the Lord;/ I am weary of holding it in.” So he really lets go and lets his words spill into the streets and announces once again his central warning:
Thus says the Lord:
See, a people is coming from the land of the north,
    a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
…they ride on horses,
    equipped like a warrior for battle,
    against you, O daughter Zion! (6:22, 23)

These armies are coming up a against a people who have been weakened by their relentless corruption described in a metaphor of metals being refined by God. The people he finds are almost worthless bronze and iron when God is looking for precious metals. Even worse, they look like silver but are in fact the basest metal of all: lead.
They are all stubbornly rebellious,
    going about with slanders;
they are bronze and iron,
    all of them act corruptly.
The bellows blow fiercely,
    the lead is consumed by the fire;
in vain the refining goes on,
    for the wicked are not removed.
They are called “rejected silver,”
    for the Lord has rejected them. (6:28-30)

So the question is, are we like Jerusalem? Do we look like silver before others but in the end our hypocrisy fails to hide the fact that we are merely worthless lead?

1 Thessalonians 5:4–15: Paul echoes Jesus’ parable of the watchmen who need to be alert for the return of the master. Here, Paul asks the Thessalonians to remain sober and alert to the imminent Second Coming: “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.” (6,7) While they wait for Jesus’ return, Paul advises them again, “be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (8)

And since (to use the old phrase) Jesus still tarries, Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians is his advice to us. We are assured of our salvation and ultimately, Jesus will return to bring us back with him to heaven: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep [i.e., alive or dead] we may live with him.” (9,10)

So, more advice for how to live in the interregnum between Jesus’ ascension and his eventual return: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (11) Which I know is something I have so often failed to do.

Paul then gets quite specific about exactly what this encouragement is. First, to our leaders: “respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (12, 13a) Then to each other: “Be at peace among yourselves.” (13b) Then, what we should do about those who are not carrying their fair load in the community: “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” (14)

Finally, “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” (15) The best place to put Paul’s commands into practice is exactly where Paul is pointing: within the church—especially Christian communities in which we are members.

There is nothing theologically abstract going on here. These are all straightforward personal responsibilities expected of each person who calls himself or herself ‘Christian.’ Alas, churches are so often hotbeds of exactly the opposite behaviors. Or as Jeremiah might put it, we may look like silver, but we’re acting like lead.  

 

 

 

 

Psalm 95; Jeremiah 4:23–5:25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:3

Psalm 95: As with other celebratory psalms, this one also opens with the command to sing to the Lord, reminding us that singing has always been a central element of worship:
Come let us sing gladly to the Lord,
let us shout out to the Rock of our rescue.
Let us greet Him in acclaim,
in songs let us shout out to him.” (1,2)

And also as usual, the main topic of these worship songs is God as being the sole and mighty God over all creation including here over other small-g Gods:
For a great god is the Lord
and great king over all the gods.” (3)

So, who are these other small-g gods? They are not human-fashioned idols but rather what I take to be the host of heaven. (Alter speculates this verse may be a linguistic leftover from ancient Canaanite mythology.) In any event, it is the Lord as creator of the natural world, including humans that the psalm celebrates:
In Whose hand are the depths of the earth,
and the peaks of the mountains are His.
His is the sea and He made it,
and the dry land His hands did fashion.
Come, let us bow before the Lord our Maker.” (4-6)

Our psalmist emphasizes Israel’s special relationship with God with the shepherd-sheep metaphor. But like stupid sheep, we often fail to heed God’s voice:
For He is our God
and we the people He tends
and the flock of his hand.
If you would only heed His voice!” (7)

At this point the tone of the psalm shifts from celebration to a rather tense sermon written in God’s voice. The psalmist reminds the congregation of Israel’s former acts of disobedience during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:
Do not harden your heart as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when in the wilderness,
when your forefathers tested Me,
tried me, though they had seen My acts.” (8,9)

In fact the entire psalm becomes rather downbeat as the poet continues in the voice of God, emphasizing God’s memories of Israel’s stubbornness and cowardice that resulted in wandering in the wilderness for forty years:
Forty years I loathed a generation,
and I said, ‘They are a people of wayward heart.
And they did not know my ways.’
Against them I swore in My wrath,
‘They shall not come to my resting place.” (10,11)

The psalmist’s implicit warning is, if the Jews of his generation do not come to worship God and follow him they will be denied the ‘resting place’ (aka the Promised Land) as well.

The same goes for us. If we rebel against God, or as is more common these days, deny his existence, we will also never find true peace for ourselves because the ‘resting place’ does not exist within us. It exists only in God. Which also explains the size of the therapy industry as lost souls seek that God-free resting place. Like the end of the rainbow it can never be found.

Jeremiah 4:23–5:25: Jeremiah continues his speech in the voice of God with a depressing description of a ruined creation of darkness, earthquakes, and emptiness:
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.” (4:26)

However, while Israel’s land will be made desolate, God is not ending creation itself. But destruction will indeed be visited on a sinful nation whose futile attempts to make peace with surrounding nations are lampooned as the pointless efforts of an ugly woman trying to make herself beautiful:
And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
    that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
    that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
    Your lovers despise you;
    they seek your life.” (4:30)

From this Jeremiah shifts to another feminine metaphor of a dying Israel. And it is even less pleasant:
For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
    anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath,
    stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!” (4:31)

Jeremiah relents with the descriptive metaphors of a destroyed nation to explain—again speaking in God’s voice—why this national destruction will occur. As at Sodom, God will forego destruction if he can find but one truly faithful soul:
Search its squares and see
    if you can find one person
who acts justly
    and seeks truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem.” (5:1)

But everyone there is a hypocrite—”they say, “As the Lord lives,”/yet they swear falsely.” (5:2)—and worse,
“...they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to turn back.” (5:3)

God assumes that perhaps the problem exists only among the poor, so he examines the rich, thinking,
surely they know the way of the Lord,
    the law of their God.”
But they all alike had broken the yoke,
    they had burst the bonds.” (5:5)

But as we know from experience today the rich are no smarter than the poor. They are just stupid about different things. Because of their collective sinful intransigence God writes them all off:
For the house of Israel and the house of Judah
    have been utterly faithless to me,
says the Lord.” (5:11)

As with our culture today, everyone is in denial that God would finally act and the prophet’s warnings go unheeded:
[They] have said, “He will do nothing.
No evil will come upon us,
    and we shall not see sword or famine.” (5:12)

Jeremiah makes a very specific prophecy to Israel that they will be conquered by “a nation from far away,” (5:15) that brings only death and destruction:
They shall eat up your harvest and your food;
    they shall eat up your sons and your daughters;
they shall destroy with the sword
    your fortified cities in which you trust.” (5:17)

But as always, there is a glimmer of hope. Some will survive: “But even in those days, says the Lord, I will not make a full end of you.” (5:18) But in the end,
this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
    they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say in their hearts,
    “Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives the rain in its season,”
…Your iniquities have turned these away,
    and your sins have deprived you of good.” (5:24, 25)

These words are a stern tocsin for us as well. Just like Israel and Judah we are equally in denial about our collective sinfulness. Without acknowledgement followed by repentance things will not end well for American society just as they didn’t for Israel and Judah so many years ago.

1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:3: We arrive at the most controversial part of this epistle and one of the most controversial in the entire New testament: Paul’s description of what will happen at the end of history at Jesus’ second coming. Somebody certainly must have asked him what happens when Jesus comes again, which in those days was seen as imminent:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (15, 16)

OK, I can accept that as a reasonably rational description of what might happen when Jesus returns. But the next verse has become the ‘go-to’ verse for those who believe in the pre-tribulation Rapture: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (17)

Many interpreters have stretched this verse to conclude that Jesus will come take believers out of the world and up into heaven before various prophecies in Revelation come to pass, specifically the 7-year tribulation. This is the plot of the novel, Taken, from some years back. This belief is particularly widespread among Evangelical and Pentecostal believers.

But I see nothing of the sort here. Paul is simply using his logical thought process to deal with the problem of how already dead Christians and living Christians will get to heaven at the Second Coming. It’s a reasonable explanation unadorned by concatenating it with parts of Revelation. But who knows? There are more important things for us Christians living in the here and now—which was certainly the thrust of Jesus’ own teachings.

There’s one thing we can be sure of, though. When it happens it will be a surprise: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (5:2)

As for me I’m content to leave it all at the level of abstraction we find in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds: “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”

 

Psalm 94:12–23; Jeremiah 3:14–4:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12

Psalm 94:12–23: This is the turning point of the psalm where the vast rhetorical questions become personal as our psalmist rationalizes the pain he is personally enduring as God’s lesson:
Happy the man whom Yah chastises,
and whom from His teaching He instructs,
to make him quiet in evil days
until a pit is dug for the wicked.” (12, 13)

At first, I have trouble with the argument that God causes us to suffer as a way of teaching us. Yet, there is suffering in the world and I have certainly learned life lessons from my own experiences. I think it is more that since we already live in a fallen world, God allows us to suffer—after all we can’t avoid it—and because we are God-followers, we become wiser from that suffering. As Rahm Emanuel famously said, ‘Why let a crisis go to waste?’ It’s just that God was way ahead of Rahm on that score.

In this suffering, our poet finds a modicum of comfort in the assurance that God will not abandon the nation of Israel and that those unjustly treated will one day find justice:
For the Lord will not abandon His people,
and His estate He will not forsake.
For justice will join with judgement,
and all upright will follow.” (14, 15)

Of course that’s not exactly how Jeremiah sees it, as the prophet warns Israel that God is indeed about to give up them. But even our poet seems to realize his optimism is a bit overblown as he asks:
Who will rise for me against evildoers,
who will take a stand for me against the wrongdoers?” (16)

The answer to these questions is that justice will not be brought to him from among his neighbors or the established political order. Only God provides the rescue and justice he seeks:
Were not the Lord a help to me,
I would have almost dwelled in the silent realm.
When I thought my foot had stumbled,
Your kindness, Lord, sustained me.
With my many cares within me,
Your consolations delighted me.” (17-19)

In fact, injustice and corruption emanates from the highest levels in the nation:
Will the throne of disaster consort with You,
that fashions trouble against the law?
They band together against the just man’s life,
and innocent blood condemn.” (20, 21)

Only God provides protection against the predations of institutional evil:
But the Lord became my fortress,
and my God, my sheltering rock.” (22)

In these politically fraught times of our own we can take comfort in those words if not in the rather vengeful conclusion of this psalm:
[God] will turn back against them their wickedness,
through their evil He will destroy them,
the Lord our God will destroy them.” (23)

Jeremiah 3:14–4:22: Jeremiah beautifully communicates God’s frustration with his people. On the one hand, God wants to be done with them; on the other he wants to redeem them as we read lines that seem to be God begging his people to come back:
Return, O faithless children,
says the Lord,
    for I am your master;” (3:14)

This thought leads to Jeremiah’s reflection on that which once was in a remarkable verse expressing God’s sorrowful regret:
I [God] thought
    how I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land,
    the most beautiful heritage of all the nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
    and would not turn from following me.” (3:19)

Alas, it is not to be, and we feel Jeremiah’s sorrow at Israel’s and Judah’s present generation which has corrupted all that went before it: “But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our ancestors had labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.” (3:24) To draw a modern parallel, I think that the Baby Boomer generation in its self-centeredness has accomplished much the same kind of destruction to the work and values of the generations that preceded it.

As always, there is the promise of God’s blessings of Israel would only repent and turn back to God:
[Thus] says the Lord,
    if you return to me,
if you remove your abominations from my presence,
    and do not waver,
and if you swear, “As the Lord lives!”
    in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,
then nations shall be blessed by him,
    and by him they shall boast.” (4:1, 2)

Jeremiah asks the same of Judah and Jerusalem in a memorable metaphor of repentance as  circumcision of the heart. (Where’s the praise song for that?):
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,” (4:4a)

But as usual, God’s pleas are accompanied by the threat of the consequences of non-compliance:
“...or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn with no one to quench it,
    because of the evil of your doings.” (4:4b)

Jeremiah pretty much predicts that God will carry out his punishment by means of an invasion, which of course is exactly what happened to both Israel (Assyrians) and Judah (Babylonians). As for Israel:
A lion has gone up from its thicket,
    a destroyer of nations has set out;
    he has gone out from his place
to make your land a waste;
    your cities will be ruins
    without inhabitant.” (4:7)

Judah and Jerusalem will meet a similar fate:
Look! He comes up like clouds,
    his chariots like the whirlwind;
his horses are swifter than eagles—
    woe to us, for we are ruined!” (4:13)

Jeremiah makes it perfectly clear that Israel and Judah have brought this disaster upon themselves. They cannot play the victim card:
Your ways and your doings
    have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!
    It has reached your very heart.” (4:18)

And for all these prophecies, what does Jeremiah feel?
My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
    Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
    I cannot keep silent;” (4:19)

But as God has made clear and Jeremiah must utter:
For my people are foolish,
    they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
    but do not know how to do good.” (4:22)

Which pretty much sums up the human condition even today, doesn’t it?

1 Thessalonians 4:1–12: Paul is in serious advice-giving mode in this epistle and he does not hesitate to instruct the church he loves so much. He reminds them what he told them when he was physically present in Thessaloniki: “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (2) in order to become sanctified. Specifically,

  • abstain from fornication” (3b)
  • know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;” (4,5)
  • wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things“(6)  (a little bit of Jeremiah there!)

To make it clear he’s serious Paul reminds them, “whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (8) Some have argued that this means one can lose one’s salvation through evil acts. I think it’s much more a question of us abandoning God rather than God abandoning us. Which is exactly what’s happening in Jeremiah’s time—and ours.

Paul turns from his warnings to one of his favorite topics: love, at which the Thessalonians seemingly excel. He remarks that They are exemplars in the matter of love: “you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” (9) However, the lesson for them and for us is that we can always love more: “But we urge you, beloved to do so more and more.” (10b). And in love we are to lead our quotidian lives as noted in yet another but really very appealing (and short!) Pauline list: “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.” (11) Paul explains why: “so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (12)

I think this reading is good evidence of Paul’s belief that the church must fit into society and not raise a social ruckus, especially around fraught issues such as slavery in his time. In those days the last thing the nascent church needed to do was to undertake actions that would be viewed as radical or even revolutionary. Better to quietly carry out its work and be effective, loving witnesses on a one-on-one basis within the community. Paul is implicitly saying that is the best way to bring people to Christ.

Which makes me wonder about the efficacy or wisdom of the church participating in public protests and/or taking public positions on controversial social issues beyond communicating what Paul wants in Thessaloniki: sincere love for everyone. A militant church is not necessarily a loving church and social pronouncements tend to be polarizing.

Psalm 94:1–11; Jeremiah 2:20–3:13; 1 Thessalonians 3

Psalm 94:1–11: Wow. So much for ‘God is love’ as our psalmist boldly asks God to strike down the haughty and wrongdoers. Unlike other psalms, there is no gentleness or reflection on God’s justice. There is just a bold request for God to take vengeance. This is as aggressive an opening as we are likely to see:
God of vengeance, O Lord,
God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth,
bring down on the proud requital.” (1,2)

The psalmist then asks the question that we encounter so often in psalms of supplication. But here it is much more an angry disquisition on the evil that the wicked commit as these verses catalog the types of sin committed by people who ostensibly follow God:
How long the wicked, O Lord,
how long will the wicked exult?
They utter arrogance, speak it,
all the wrongdoers bandy boasts.” (3,4)

Notice that again the first thing on the mind of the psalmist is sin committed by speech, causing us to reflect on the destructive power of words—something we certianly see on display daily in Washington DC. And here, we see the effects of evil words on wicked actions against the innocent:
Your people, O Lord, they crush,
and Your estate they abuse.
Widow and sojourner they kill,
and orphans they murder.” (5,6)

With the poet we wonder why God is silent as this evil mayhem persists. Just as bad as their acts is the fact that these wrongdoers think they can get away with it:
And they say, ‘Yah will not see,
and the God of Jacob will not heed.'” (7)

Our poet is warning the people who obviously aren’t listening that the consequences of their deeds will come back to haunt them:
Take heed, you brutes in the people,
and you fools, when will you be wise?” (8)

I think I know the answer to that question: very rarely, if ever. But our psalmist is going for the logical approach. After all, he argues, God has created humankind so he is well aware of the evil being committed and will eventually act to rectify it:
Who plants the ear, will He not hear?
Who fashions the eye, will He not look?
The chastiser of nations, will he not punish,
Who teaches humankind knowledge?” (9,10)

Wrongdoers need to understand that God is not missing a thing they are doing:
The Lord knows human designs,
that they are mere breath.” (11)

Yes, we humans may be ephemeral, but our evil acts have long-lasting effects. And in a world where skepticism about God’s very existence seems on the rise there is little to hold back the rise of evil that I think we see all around us increasing each day.

Jeremiah 2:20–3:13: Continuing his speech to unfaithful Israel in God’s voice Jeremiah expresses frustration of a people gone bad in the famous line:
On every high hill
    and under every green tree
    you sprawled and played the whore.” (2:20)

Metaphors tumble out of Jeremiah’s pen. Israel is a wild vine; (21), a camel in heat (23); a “wild ass in the wilderness” (24). WIthout question Israel’s most egregious sin has been its embrace of idolatry as Jeremiah states with dripping sarcasm, noting their hypocrisy:
who say to a tree, “You are my father,”
    and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
For they have turned their backs to me,
    and not their faces.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
    “Come and save us!”
” (2:27)

I remember after the national trauma of 9/11 the churches were full for a time. In a time of trouble people tend to turn to God. But only for a while as previous behavior resumes. Human behavior has not changed a whit. We Americans much prefer our idols of technology and wealth. Jeremiah’s sarcasm continues as he asks rhetorically:
But where are your gods
    that you made for yourself?
Let them come, if they can save you,
    in your time of trouble;
for you have as many gods
    as you have towns, O Judah.” (2:28)

All around us today are the small-g gods that people think will bring them satisfaction. If that were really true there would be far fewer people in therapy! Israel—and we—are like a teenager, always going after the next catch. But without maturity or wisdom:
How well you direct your course
    to seek lovers!
So that even to wicked women
    you have taught your ways.
How lightly you gad about,
    changing your ways!” (2:33, 36a)

Nor do they (we) appreciate the consequences until they come whining back to God:
 Yet in spite of all these things
you say, “I am innocent;
    surely his anger has turned from me.” (2: 34b, 35a)

But God can spot hypocrisy from a mile away and he’s not letting anyone off. Humiliation awaits them:
You shall be put to shame by Egypt
    as you were put to shame by Assyria.
From there also you will come away
    with your hands on your head;” (2:36b, 37a)

I wonder what consequences await our own culture. God will not abandon those who seek after him, but he has no interest in saving those who have rejected him.

Jeremiah is on a tear and the same topic of evil deeds and hypocrisy occupies the beginning of chapter 3:
You have polluted the land
    with your whoring and wickedness.
…Have you not just now called to me,
    “My Father, you are the friend of my youth—
will he be angry forever,
    will he be indignant to the end?”
This is how you have spoken,
    but you have done all the evil that you could.” (3:2, 4,5)

But here we learn that God is equally angry at Judah, thinking that upon seeing the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah would repent. Alas, that was not to be: “[Judah] saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.” (13:8)

In fact, Judah has been the greater hypocrite than even Israel: “Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the LordThen the Lord said to me: Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah.” (13:10, 11) Which serves as a serious warning to the church those of us who profess to follow God. We are better off to reject God altogether like Israel than to profess faith like Judah but to fail to have our actions follow our words.

1 Thessalonians 3: Paul continues in his autobiographical mode, noting that after the events at Philippi he went by himself to Athens, where as we learn in Acts, he was not particularly effective. Instead of going himself, he sent Timothy to Thessalonica, “proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.” (2,3)

In a time without instant communication Paul still worried that his beloved Thessalonians had suffered persecution. That’s the real reason he sent Timothy and he’s thrilled to learn that Timothy “has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.” (6)

It’s difficult to describe how greatly this news encouraged Paul, although he tries: “For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith.” (7) And then, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (9)

The question I ask myself here is, do I rejoice in the same way that Paul does when someone I know returns to Jesus Christ? Or do I merely say, “Well, that’s nice…” and then go about my business.

Paul concludes this chapter (but not the epistle itself) with a wonderful benediction:

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (12, 13)

I think it would do us good to hear the words, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” every week at worship. After all, it’s all about love, isn’t it? Love for God; for Jesus; for each other and yes, even for ourselves.

Psalm 93; Jeremiah 1:8–2:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:10–20

Psalm 93: This brief but powerful psalm has no superscription. Rather it starts right out with a poetic shout of praise worshipping God our king in a metaphor of donning kingly clothing:
The Lord reigns, in triumph clothed,
clothed is the Lord, in strength He is girded.” (1a)

After all, a king was at the pinnacle of national order, so it’s certainly no poetic stretch to celebrate God as the king over all his creation. And having been king for all time, bringing stability to the world—which is certainly more than we can say about our worldly leaders:
Yes, the world stands firm, not to be shaken
Your throne stands firm from of old,
from forever You are.” (1b, 2)

And what better representation of all nature praising its creator than the sound of waterfalls and the roar of the surf:
The streams lifted up, O Lord,
the streams lifted up their voice,
the streams lift up their roaring.
More than the sound of many waters,
the sea’s majestic breakers,
majestic on high is the Lord.” (3,4)

For me, rushing, tumbling water is the perfect metaphor of nature praising God. I think that why we experience that transcendent feeling when standing on a beach with pounding surf (which, alas, is not the case here on Buzzards Bay), or we are transfixed by a place like Yosemite Falls in the spring.

With the abruot shift in the next verse, our psalmist implicitly reminds us that we, too, are part of God’s creation and that is why we are to follow God’s law and worship him:
Your statutes are very faithful.
Holiness suits Your house.” (5a)

And in the concluding line of this beautiful poem, we must never forget that God is eternal (and we are not):
The Lord is for all time.” (5b)

Jeremiah 1:8–2:19: The young, fairly frightened (as I would certainly be!) Jeremiah is reassured by God:
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.” (1:8)

Writing autobiographically, Jeremiah tells us “the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.” (1:9,10)

This is certainly a reminder of the power of spoken words and the heightened power of prophetic words as they authenticate everything that will be spoken by Jeremiah henceforth.

After passing the initial test of seeing the branch of an almond tree, Jeremiah has a vision of “a boiling pot, tilted away from the north.” (1:13) From this single image God explains how the northern kingdom of Israel has sinned and will be destroyed by an enemy to the north if they don’t repent. So he sends Jeremiah to plead with Israel to repent.

Of course it’s a fairly long speech which opens with how God remembers Israel’s original faithfulness:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
    your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
    in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
    the first fruits of his harvest.” (2:2,3a)

God reminds them of all the wonderful things he did for Israel and on its behalf, but that Israel lost no time in turning to sin:
I brought you into a plentiful land
    to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
    and made my heritage an abomination.” (2:7)

Unfortunately, the sins of the father will be visited on subsequent generations:
Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
    and I accuse your children’s children.” (2:9)

Jeremiah tells them they have committed two sins: first abandoning God and then turning to idols. We again encounter a watery metaphor, this time comparing God’s blessings to the our pathetic attempts of following idols instead:
for my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water.” (2:13)

That memorable image pretty much sums up our present world that is filled with cracked cisterns that cannot hold true spiritual water. Yet, like Israel, we prefer the cracked cisterns of our culture to God’s overflowing fountain of blessings.

Jeremiah reminds Israel (and us) that we cannot blame anyone but ourselves:
Have you not brought this upon yourself
    by forsaking the Lord your God,
    while he led you in the way?” (2:17)

Of course we like to blame God for our woes rather than taking personal responsibility for our actions. Jeremiah concludes his Jeremiad (I’ve wanted to say that for a long time!) on a down note that while true, is not wholly motivational:
Your wickedness will punish you,
    and your apostasies will convict you.” (2:19a)

Which is just as true for us as for Israel, even though the church does not like to talk about it very much. We can deny God all we like, but in the end it is our our own sins of omission and commission that convict us.

1 Thessalonians 2:10–20: As is his habit, Paul polishes his bona fides as he reminds the Thessalonians, “You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” (10) He also gives us a hint of the content of his sermons which certainly involved “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (12)

Paul’s happy that his ministrations at Thessalonica have taken root in that they understood that Paul was not making this up but was speaking for God: “when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” (13)

He then has some pretty harsh things to say about his Jewish opponents who believe he is corrupting Judaism by encouraging Gentiles to join what to them is sacred: “for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews,  who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.” (14-16)

In fact, Paul is quite pleased that “God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.” (16b) Which is not exactly turning the other cheek as Jesus advised.

I read genuine pain on Paul’s part in being a prisoner in Rome and unable to visit them personally: “we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.” (17) But as much as he would like to visit them again, a return visit is simply not in the cards: “certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” (18)

Absent his personal visit, the church at Thessalonica receives Paul’s highest accolade: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” (19, 20)

But a letter will have to suffice. And following this lengthy preamble we presume Paul will shortly get down to the theological business at hand.