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.

 

Psalm 92:10–16; Isaiah 66–Jeremiah 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:5b–2:9

Psalm 92:10–16: Having likened his enemies to withering grass, our psalmist continues to rejoice that God’s enemies will soon meet their doom just as the grass withers in the hot afternoon sun:
For, look, Your enemies, O Lord,
for, look, Your enemies perish,
all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (10)

Likewise, the enemies of our faithful psalmist suffer their deserved fate at God’s hands—contrasted with what seems to be an anointing from God himself. Notice that the poet witnesses the downfall of his enemies both visually and audibly. There is no question they have been fully vanquished:
And You raise up my horn like the wild ox.
I am soaked in fresh oil.And my eyes behold my foes defeat,
those hostile toward me, my ears hear their fall.” (11, 12)

With his enemies dispensed with, our poet turns to how God blesses the righteous man (including him) as he employs a metaphor of tall trees that contrast mightily with the enemies who were metaphorical grass a few verses back:
The righteous man springs up like the palm tree,
like the Lebanon cedar he towers.
Planted in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of our God they flourish.
They bear fruit still in old age,.
fresh and full of sap they are” (13-15)

This flourishing takes place because he is “planted in the house of the Lord.” Just as trees cannot grow without constant nourishment so too, we cannot grow in God without being “planted” in worship, prayer and scripture. What’s especially encouraging to me in my advancing old age is that spiritual growth continues to occur throughout one’s life as long as we remain “planted in the Lord.”

Our duty as growing, fruitful trees is to witness both to God in worship and to others of God’s saving grace that he has given to us through Jesus Christ and, “to tell that the Lord is upright,/ my rock, there is no rong in Him.” (16)

Isaiah 66–Jeremiah 1:7: We arrive at last at the end of Isaiah, although I know from experience that Jeremiah will also be something of a slog…

Isaiah continues to peak God’s words, making it clear that God is totally in charge of all creation:
Heaven is my throne
    and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
    and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
    and so all these things are mine,
says the Lord.” (66:1, 2a)

God is looking for humility and obedience, not false worship from the rich and powerful:
But this is the one to whom I will look,
    to the humble and contrite in spirit,
    who trembles at my word.” (66:2b)

But as for those who “have chosen their own ways,/ and in their abominations they take delight” there is the darker fate of being brought to justice before God:
I also will choose to mock  them,
    and bring upon them what they fear;
because, when I called, no one answered,
    when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did what was evil in my sight,
    and chose what did not please me.” (66:4)

Which seems to be Isaiah’s overall theme as far as God’s relationship with humans is concerned. Ignore God or abandon him altogether and you will suffer bad consequences. This is not the grace-filled, loving God we mostly like to think about. God demands obedience and worship and woe to those who fail to heed his command.

As always, though, Isaiah presents us with both sides of God, who also promises to deliver Israel from its present woes in a metaphor of a mother giving birth:
Listen, an uproar from the city!
    A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
    dealing retribution to his enemies!

Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
    she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
    says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
    says your God.” (66:6, 8,9)

Indeed, Israel will find comfort at last through its rebirth:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
    and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (66:12, 13)

However, all of these events appear to be off in the distant future at the end of history on the Day of the Lord as things once again turn apocalyptic:
For the Lord will come in fire,
    and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to pay back his anger in fury,
    and his rebuke in flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord execute judgment,
    and by his sword, on all flesh;
    and those slain by the Lord shall be many.” (66:15, 16)

A prose description of the fate of unbelievers follows. But what is perhaps most meaningful for us is that once again the Day of the Lord will be a ingathering over every tribe and nation, not just Israel, which I think is what became known in the NT as the Day of Judgement: “They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord.” (66:20)

This long, brilliant yet often puzzling book ends with God reigning over all creation and all people faithful to God:
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
    which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the Lord;
    so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
    and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.” (66:22-23)

But Isaiah cannot resist a footnote describing the eternal punishment of the disobedient: “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (66:24) Which is hardly a happy note to end on, but then again that does not seem to bother this prophet.

Since the Moravians are indifferent to stopping at the end of a book, we meet Jeremiah, “son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.” (1:1, 2) Jeremiah prophesied at the very end of Judah’s existence in the years before it was overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah receives his prophetic chops directly from God, who speaks to him:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (1:5)

Jeremiah is only 13 and tries to demur, but God remains insistent:
Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.” (1:6)

Thus begins the career of Judah’s second greatest prophet after Isaiah.

1 Thessalonians 1:5b–2:9: Thessalonica was one of Paul’s earliest missions and he commends the people in the church there for becoming a missionaries like Paul to other cities: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” (1:6, 7)

Paul knows this because he heard from others “how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” (9b, 10) Notice that in this early letter Paul is quite specific about the Second Coming, which he believes to be in the near term. Like Isaiah, he also mentions the wrath of God.

We encounter the hint that something fairly awful happened to Paul when he visited Philippi: “though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” (2:2) As we read in Acts, it was the Jews who threw Paul and Baranbas in jail there.

Once again, Paul is at great pains to establish his bona fides: “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (2:4) He also makes it clear that he is trying to avoid becoming a personality cult, which would obscure the gospel message: “we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.” (2:5, 6) It wouldn’t hurt for a few current TV evangelists to reflect on these verses for a while.

Paul apparently plied his tentmaker trade while at Thessolonica in order to avoid having to be supported by the church, which doubtless did not have the funds to pay Paul a salary so early in its existence: “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” (9)

These verses are not in the lectionary nor have I ever heard them as the subject of a sermon. I wonder if that’s because a congregation would be tempted to compare Paul with the preacher standing in front of them. And the comparison would probably raise a few sticky issues over personality and/or finances.

 

 

 

Psalm 92:1–9; Isaiah 64,65; Colossians 4:10–1 Thessalonians 1:5a

Psalm 92:1–9: Designated for the Sabbath day—and doubtless sung on the Sabbath throughout Jewish history—this psalm celebrates the act of worship. As far as the psalmist is concerned worship occurs both in the morning and evening. He also designates the appropriate musical instruments to accompany the choir:
It is good to acclaim the Lord
and to hymn to Your name, Most High,
to tell in the morning Your kindness,
Your faithfulness in the nights,
on ten-stringed instrument and on the lute,
on the lyre with chanted sound.” (2-4)

The impact of the act of worship on the worshipper is substantial because it causes us to reflect on God’s faithfulness, as well as his creation:
For You made me rejoice, Lord, through Your acts,
of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.” (5)

The chanted psalm has long been a part of Lutheran worship and I well remember the days when we sang the psalms every Sunday at Saint Matthew. Alas, the psalmody became another element of worship consigned to the dustbin of liturgical history in order to accommodate additional praise choruses and a longer sermon.

But it is this very reflection on God’s kindness and faithfulness and the profundity of his works that makes us realize that he—not we—is the center of the universe. As the psalmist implies, singing the psalms helps increase wisdom by putting the acts of the ungodly into their proper perspective:
The brutish man does not know,
nor does the fool understand this:
the wicked spring up like grass,
and all the wrongdoers flourish—
to be destroyed for all time.” (6-8)

These are immensely encouraging verses as we witness—and endure—the venality and gross stupidity going on in Washington DC (and for you residents of California—in Sacramento) among our so-called leaders.

Today’s reading concludes on an enthusiastic note:
And You are on high forever, O Lord.” (9)

We can be grateful that among the noise and hubbub, as well as the constant cultural refrain that denies his very existence, God still reigns.

Isaiah 64,65: Isaiah wishes for something that I think every believer wishes for at some point when things seem hopeless:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1,2)

Isaiah goes on to describes his—and our—feelings of discouragement at God’s seeming absence. It feels like God gave up on us because the world gave up on him:
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered  us into the hand of our iniquity.” (64:7)

But then as now, and despite our frustrations, we must remember who is is Creator and who are God’s creatures, as Isaiah famously reminds us:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.” (64:8)

Of course most of us wrongly imagine ourselves as the potter fully in control of our destinies. Nevertheless, God’s silence today is just as frustrating as it was for Isaiah. Just as the temple had been destroyed, so it seems our very civilization teeters on the brink and,
and all our pleasant places have become ruins.
After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
    Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (64:11b, 12)

We rightly wonder what God is thinking as he looks down on the tumult that surrounds us. The prideful folly of our humanity has gotten us into this fix and we rightly cannot expect God to bail us out. After a brief moment of thanking God, we would simply start right back in our sinfulness. After all, we have the back and forth history of Old Testament Israel as a prime example of people wasting God’s rescue.

Isaiah’s frustration comes to the fore in chapter 65. His prophetic words have been ignored:
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
    to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
    to a nation that did not call on my name.” (65:1)

It’s an enormous frustration to Isaiah as he witnesses the hypocritical stupidity of the people’s false religions:
a people who provoke me
    to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
    and offering incense on bricks;” (65:3)

A great image: offering incense on bricks is symbolic of our own idols that in the end are simply bricks.

Basically, God plans to do away with these people who have drifted far from him:
“...because they offered incense on the mountains
    and reviled me on the hills,
I will measure into their laps
    full payment for their actions.” (65:7)

But God will not punish everyone. He will spare and bless a faithful remnant:
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
    and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
    and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
    and my servants shall settle there.” (65:8b, 9)

But as for the majority that have abandoned God, he will in turn abandon them:
I will destine you to the sword,
    and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter;
because, when I called, you did not answer,
    when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my sight,
    and chose what I did not delight in.” (65:12)

At this point, things turn apocalyptic as God promises a brand new creation to the remnant of believers. The old creation will not merely become a distant memory, rather, it will be forgotten altogether:
For I am about to create new heavens
    and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
    or come to mind.” (65:17)

I suspect the author of Revelation was familiar with this passage that describes a perfect world, if not heaven itself:
No more shall there be in it
    an infant that lives but a few days,
    or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
    and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall not labor in vain,
    or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord
    and their descendants as well.” (65:20, 23)

This is indeed a blessed hope for us since we have become those very heirs through Jesus Christ (and what is explained at great length in the epistle to the Hebrews).

Colossians 4:10–1 Thessalonians 1:5a: Paul’s letter to Colossae concludes with a remarkable list of people who are with Paul. As a special bonus in addition to the names, we are given hints about these people themselves and/or what they are doing:

  • There’s a fellow prisoner named Aristarchus.
  • Aristarchus, Mark and Justus are the only Christian Jews with Paul.
  • Epaphrus, apparently from Colossae, “is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf.” (4:12)
  • Epaphrus has not only worked for the Colossians, but the Laodiceans as well.
  • Luke is the “beloved physician” and Demas is Luke’s and Paul’s friend.
  • And a certain Archippus is called upon to “complete the task that you have received in the Lord.” (4:17) Would that we knew what that task was.
  • The letter needs to be passed on to Laodicea after being read to the Colossians
  • There was apparnetly a letter from Laodicea Received by Paul  that raised some of the same issues as at Colossae, which Paul has addressed in his letter.
  • Depsite his enthusiasm, Paul asks that everyone “Remember my chains.” (18) He is, after all, a prisoner of the state.

The letter to the Thessalonians, which is thought by theologians to be Paul’s earliest letter, opens with the usual compliments about its recipients, who are also the subject of Paul’s prayers: “ We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:2,3)

Interestingly, it appears those at Thessalonica became believers not just through Paul’s sermons and teaching, ” but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  (5) Which I take to be some kind of miraculous occurrence. As usual, we are left without the details…

With the introductions taken care of, Paul will soon get down to business. But both the conclusion to Colossians and preamble to 1 Thessalonians reminds us that Paul had a very human side. He valued friendships and was quick to spread credit among his associates. Unlike some self-centered preachers Paul did not claim all the glory for himself.

 

Psalm 91:9–16; Isaiah 62,63; Colossians 4:1–9

Psalm 91:9–16: The last half of this psalm is a beautifully poetic description of the promise of protection afforded the man who follows and as we see here, metaphorically if not literally, dwells with God:
For the Lord is your refuge,
the Most High you have made your abode.
No harm will befall you,
no affliction draw near to your tent.” (9, 10)

While we who live in this God-rejecting age tend to poo-poo the idea of guardian angels, for this poet it is the means by which God provides protection from physical danger—be it the rocky landscape or the many animals that once roamed the Judean countryside:
For His messengers He charges for you
to guard you on all your ways.
On their palms they lift you up
lest your foot be bruised by a stone.
On lion and viper you tread,
you trample young lion and serpent.” (11-13)

God now speaks and makes it clear why he is protecting this man. It is simply because he has chosen to follow God:
For Me he desired and I freed him,
I raised him high, for he has known MY name.
He calls Me and I answer him,
I am with him in his straits.
I deliver him and grant him honor.” (14, 15)

Moreover, in the concluding verset we see that God grants his follower long life:
With length of days I shall sate him,
and show him my rescue.” (16)

Wow. What promises! And what a contrast to the many psalms of supplication where God has apparently abandoned the psalmist. Somehow we know that this psalm speaks the absolute truth of God’s promises even when we are in our darkest hour. Yes, there is hyperbole, and it often seems that God has indeed abandoned us. This psalm makes it clear that is not the case. But I can think of no better description of God’s faithfulness when we but elect to follow him through the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

I think the psalmist has beautifully expressed in just a few lines the concept that it takes Paul chapter after chapter to get across: God is faithful and loves us and saves us. We need only be faithful and love God and others in return.

Isaiah 62,63: Speaking of God’s promises… Isaiah writes of God’s promise to rebuild Zion (the temple) and Jerusalem itself:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
    and her salvation like a burning torch.” (62:1)

Some of the language of this promise becomes downright florid:
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” (62:3)

But we have to believe that when the exiled Jews read these passages they would experience that most elusive of emotions: hope:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
    and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.” (62:4)

More importantly, Isaiah writes of God’s promise that is not just for the daughter of Zion, but through Jesus Christ is for all of us:
See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.”
They shall be called, “The Holy People,
    The Redeemed of the Lord”” (62:11)

If we can say nothing else about this book we can agree that its author certainly jumps around. The beginning of the next chapter describes God’s planned vengeance on Edom (of all places). God or his agent apparently returns from Edom, his robes stained in red. The author asks,
Who is this so splendidly robed,
marching in his great might?”

“It is I, announcing vindication,
    mighty to save.” (63:1)

The author asks “why are your robes red,/ and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?” (62:2) The figure answers that is the metaphorical juice of the people of Edom, who were like grapes crushed in the press as he explains,
I trod them in my anger
    and trampled them in my wrath;
their juice spattered on my garments,
    and stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
    and the year for my redeeming work had come.” (63:3, 4)

So much for the image of this redeeming God as we once again see his vengeful side.

As happens so frustratingly often in this book, the author abruptly changes the subject to speak of God’s mercy on Israel:
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
    the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,

that he has shown them according to his mercy,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” (63:7)

A long disquisition about Israel’s rebelliousness follows as our author again recapitulates how God accompanied the people of Israel into the promised land, but after a brief interval of faith they abandoned God. The chapter ends with a prayer of penitence wherein our author asks one of the great but wrongheaded questions all of ask at one point or another as we seek to return to God:
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?” (63:17a)

Well, we know the answer, don’t we? God does not make us stray from our ways or harden our hearts; we do. But it is because God has given us the free will to reject him.

The chapter ends on a sad note of supplication as the author admits their collective sinfulness in following the small-g gods of other nations rather than the Lord God of Israel:
Turn back for the sake of your servants,
    for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.
Your holy people took possession for a little while;
    but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
We have long been like those whom you do not rule,
    like those not called by your name.” (63:17b-19)

Colossians 4:1–9: Even though Paul’s writing about slaves makes us uncomfortable in the same way as about the requirement that wives be subordinate to their husbands, he never fails to include instructions to the other side of the relationship. Just as husbands are to love and respect their wives, so too, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (4:1)

Paul then turns to the necessity of prayer in the Christian life: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” (2). In one of those personal notes he often inserts, he asks for prayer for himself: “At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.” (3,4) Notice that Paul does not ask that he be released from prison, but that he be given more opportunities to witness for Christ. Communicating the Good News was always Paul’s highest priority. Sad to say, it’s rarely mine.

Paul’s concluding instructions—and goodness knows, he is never short of advice—are about the relationship between those in he church with the world outside the church: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (5,6) In other words, don’t waste others time or your own. I think this relates to Jesus’ command to recognize where the gospel will not be received and to shake the dust from our sandals and move on.

I particularly like the part about gracious speech seasoned with salt. Gracious speech does not have to be boring and bland. Too many Christians engage in those tired cliches and Chirsitain jargon like “God knows your heart” or “Jesus told me…” that have zero meaning outside the church. Paul’s advice is to speak kindly but originally in terms the non-Chirstian world will understand.

This short but grace-filled letter ends with some personal notes, not least being the happy return of Onesimus, “the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” We will get the Onesimus  back-story in the short letter of Philemon.

Psalm 91:1–8; Isaiah 60,61; Colossians 3:12–25

Psalm 91:1–8: This psalm is somewhat unusual in that the psalmist identifies the speaker as “He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter,” and sets the scene as the man who is “in the shadow of Shaddai [that] lies at night.” (1) The man who speaks is deeply grateful for God’s protection from what appears to be both military conflict and/or a plague, stating that same protection is available to others (the plural “you”), which certainly includes us:
I say of the Lord, ‘My refuge and bastion,
my God in whom I trust.’
For He will save you from the fowler’s snare,
from the disastrous plague.” (2,3)

God’s protection is metaphorically that of a mothering bird. (And we need to be careful here: the metaphor is describing God’s protection, not a description of that God looks like a large bird):
With His pinion He shelters you,
and beneath His wings you take refuge,
a shield and a buckler, His truth.” (4)

There is continuous 24-hour benefit from God’s protection. It is psychological and emotional protection both from the trials of the day and our ruminations as we lie awake at night:
You shall not fear from the terror of night
nor from the arrow that flies by day,” (5)

And there is physical protection as well:
…from the plague that stalks in darkness
[and] from the scourge that rages at noon.” (6)

God’s protection is directed to us as individuals, even when we find ourselves in circumstances where all others around us are dying, whether in battle or from disease, which our pslamist states memorably:
Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
you it will not reach.” (7)

I think this psalm is meant as encouragement for when we feel downtrodden. Obviously there is some hyperbole here: we mortals are still subject to disease and plagues and God-followers certainly die in battle. We certainly could have been among the thousand or ten thousand. Of course then we would not be praising God.

I can think of no finer verses to encounter than when we are feeling lonely and despondent—or threatened by some enormous event such as a natural disaster that we cannot control. Everyone around us may have deserted us, or family and friends may have died from a tragic event or a disease we did not catch, but God is our steadfast protector. In fact, I think this psalm is a good antidote against survivor’s guilt. It is God who protects us, not some random occurrence. But since God remains inscrutable as mere mortals we cannot question why we survived and others around us did not. Rather, we must simply be grateful the fact that God has protected us.

Isaiah 60,61: Like the psalm above, these two chapters are meant as encouragement to the downtrodden, especially the Jews who have been exiled from their homeland. Even though there appears no hope of restoration, God will indeed bring us back together some day, if not right away then certainly at the end of time:
Lift up your eyes and look around;
    they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.” (60:4)

Joy will suffuse this reunion and along with joy will come God’s gift of prosperity and power that will be far greater than before:
Then you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” (60:5)

Isaiah tells us that the national status of restored Israel will be reversed from being downtrodden by other nations to becoming greater than all of them:
Whereas you have been forsaken and hated,
    with no one passing through,
I will make you majestic forever,
    a joy from age to age.
You shall suck the milk of nations,
    you shall suck the breasts of kings;
and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior
    and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (60:15, 16)

Like the psalm above I think there is hyperbole here that is meant as encouragement, not prediction. We need to be careful to avoid conflating these verses with actual historical events such as the restoration of Israel as a nation in 1949.

It is in chapter 61 that we encounter one of the most encouraging verses in all of the Old Testament as Isaiah reminds us of God’s purpose in intervening in human affairs:
[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;” (61:1)

As Christians we know exactly how God has accomplished this: through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, the world blithely ignores God’s majestic promise, happy to have these words carved into courthouse walls, but always assuming that God is irrelevant or even non-existent. As history demonstrates again and again, humankind is incapable of fulfilling this magnificent promise. Only God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can accomplish these great things.

And great things they are as Isaiah exults:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (61:10)

And yet we’d rather reject this wonderful promise in favor of maintaining the illusion that we do not need God and that we can control events by our own will. Such is the arrogance of humankind.

Colossians 3:12–25: Just as he did in his letter to the Philippians, Paul is mostly concerned about relationships within the church among believers. His relentless theme is that you have been changed for the better by being saved in Christ, so we should start behaving that way: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (12) At the top of the list and receiving special mention is the issue of forgiveness, which like today’s church was apparently in short supply at Colossae: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord  has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (13) At the root of all actions in the church and among Christians lies one simple thing: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (14) So why do we make this simple instruction so hard? As Rob Bell puts it, love wins every time.

As he has done elsewhere, Paul provides instructions for how to worship: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” (16) I am certainly challenged by Paul’s command to sing with gratitude—and implicitly including songs I don’t like very much.

Paul then turns to describing how these various relationships actually should work: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” (18) I know that in our supposedly enlightened age of gender equality these words are anathema. And while it’s true that Paul is writing in a very different social context than the one we live in today, his words still have power. Solid relationships require some sort of hierarchical order. Otherwise we end up with the sort of chaos we see on display at the Trump White House.

Also, notice that when he makes these hierarchical announcements, Paul never fails to be reciprocal. If wives are “subject” to their husbands, the husbands in turn must be kind and respectful of their wives. Moreover, husbands are never to be abusive—something far too common today. In our societal quest for total equality and the rise of the cult of individual rights, we have created far greater relational instability than what Paul has on offer here.

Paul goes on to describe the duties and relationship of children and their fathers: “Children, obey your parents in everything,…Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” (20, 21) Alas,we have seen the fruits of ignoring Paul’s advice in our current epidemic of too many children—especially boys— growing up without fathers and lacking not only fatherly skills themselves, but never really coming to adult maturity. 

Paul writes of the duties of slaves, which advice is pretty irrelevant today. But even though we are not slaves, we would do well to follow his advice as employees and workers: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.” (23) The question is, do I work for my self-satisfaction or for “the Lord Christ?”