Into the unknown

The Lord tells Abram, leave your family, and county and go away to this place I will tell you … Abram went.

 When I was ordained my bishop said: You know you have hitched yourself to an itinerant star and the Spirit can be very precious. I had no idea; my family had even less of an idea. In twenty years I have been in several places; none of them were anywhere on my sphere of interest.  All that gets to God’s statement I will tell you. Abram heads off into who knows where, and he did so, knowing he did not know where he would go. I give him all the credit for righteousness. Yes, I’ve been to places unimagined; but I always thought I knew where I was headed. Wrong.

In one respects this reading reflects last week’s, obedience. Like Jesus, Abram obeyed, where Adam and Eve did not. He didn’t obey to the full degree Jesus did, but he did obey.

In our Lenten discipline, maybe venturing into the unknown is a call to obey God?

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Obeyed

A colleague of mine has focused on a line from collect for Sunday … illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. It’s a powerful bit of prayer. I don’t know a Christian who wouldn’t agree with the first to bits of being so illumined: for Jesus to be known and worshiped. I rather suspect that many would just as soon ignore the obeyed bit, if for no other reason than we really don’t anybody telling us what to do.

However, as I read through Isaiah 49:1-7 there is an implicit piece of obedience, perhaps no so much. The servant’s response to God’s speech is I’ve wasted my time; I’ve done my best to no avail! God’s reply is:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

At first reading God seems to be pilling on; so you haven’t done any good, okay, in addition to Jacob/Israel, now you are to tell the story of salvation to the ends of the earth. (And no matter how big one’s vision of earth may be, it’s big.) On the other hand, God expresses increased certainty that the divine plan will come to fruition as he speaks of a once despised Israel being respected and honored by rulers of the earth.

To some extent there is persistence message here; God wants the servant, either the prophet or Israel, to be persistent irrespective of what they perceive the results to be. On the other hand I see an element of obedience, precisely because the servant cannot correctly see the future, nor the effect of the work. That means doing the work anyway, and that means trusting God, which is at the very heart of any relationship.

The Kingdom in the mundane

I am finding myself spending more time moving into the New Year than I had anticipated; hence the absence of postings. There has been some change in setting, but those changes are not the trouble; the troubles are in the usual and customary events of moving into the New Year. Many of them are perfunctory, calendars, files – both paper and computer, and the like.  As the week began all this felt at odds with the purpose of priest; now, not so much. All this work will support the month to month, week to week, day to day functions, which underlay my relationship with the church, the community and God. It’s becoming a task of mundane and righteousness.

This week’s Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism by John is the root of the emerging understanding. John has been proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God and baptizing folks in the river Jordan for a while. He may be the most gregarious, but is not the only practitioner of a Jewish rite of Baptism that is related to purity. Jesus, whom John knows to be of the Kingdom of God, appears to John to be baptized by him. John does not understand why; he does not want to baptize Jesus; in fact, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus relies: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

English usage of ‘righteousness’ implies adherence to established norms, following the rules. Biblical writers are seeking to show “the fulfillment of the terms of a covenant between God and humanity.” which is all about relationship with God. [i]  Matthew refers to Joseph as righteous, because he seeks to follow the law, and because his relationship with God leads him to contrary actions, i.e. marriage to Mary, contrary to law and custom.

Both Jesus and John display righteousness. Jesus from the start reveals his relationship to God, his purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. John, in humble submission to Jesus is righteous, he humbly submits to the presence of the Kingdom expressed in Jesus reason for seeking baptism. [ii]

John’s Baptism while not perfunctory is not unusual. Jesus is following a usual and customary form of expressing obedience relationship with God. And therein lies my learning, all things, perfunctory or singularly unusual, should be some expression of expressing our relationship to God and to God’s people. Yes, it brings a greater purpose to the mundane acts of getting ready for a new year, more importantly it (hopefully) will cause me to think about how what I am doing expresses the presence of the Kingdom.

 


[i] Holman Bible Dictionary

[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary

A sermon for Advent 4

Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

We all know the Music of Handel’s Messiah, well at least the Alleluia Chorus. I would have said that he was no slouch when it came to lyrics, but then I learned, they were written by his good friend, Charles Jennens, a large land owner, patron of the arts,and devoted Christian scholar with particular interest in primitive Christianity; living as 1st century Christian did, and John Chrysostom, [i] the saint with the unpronounceable last name. So, I would now observe that Jennens, was no slouch when it came to storytelling. The lyrics are entirely from scripture, and he chose well, particularly from the new testament. Luke’s version, with his long journey, a city full of “no vacancy,” a sparse, spare manger, night shift shepherds, and angel choirs, is a really grand story. Jennens masterfully weaves it together, and Handel’s musical genius well its lasted centuries. 

But this is not the only biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew includes a birth narrative in his Gospel account; and it’s quite different; and it’s as dramatic, on its own terms. We heard it this morning. So we know Mary is engaged to Joseph. We know she turns up pregnant. We know Joseph intend to quietly divorce her. Finally we know Joseph: listens to God’s messenger angel, marries Mary, and names the child Jesus. To our ears, Joseph seems rather harsh, a self-centered prig. Until we forget all our social customs, and immerse ourselves in Joseph’s world; for Joseph’s story, challenges how we live today. 

Let’s start with marriage. In the first century, there is no falling in love, asking her father for her hand in marriage. Sons’ fathers made arrangements with daughters’ father. There were contracts. A dowry was paid to ensure the bride’s future, and to compensate her family for the loss of a productive family member. The payment of the dowry made a marriage legal before any feast. [ii] Then there is Deuteronomy 22:23 ff 

 23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her,  24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death,

 The first thing we hear about Joseph, is that he is a righteous man; and that means he is very intentional about living his life by the law. His decision to divorce Mary is not out of anger or feeling of betrayal, it’s out of his deep religious commitment. Love as we think of it in marriage is simply not part of the equation. It is not Joseph’s choice, it is his obligation. [iii] Yet, even in the first century there were legal interpretations, made by Rabbi’s through the years. And there was mitigation in cases of marriage contract violations, though they were harsh and humiliating. [iv] It reveals much about Joseph and about Matthew’s teaching, that Joseph seeks to follow God’s word, i.e. be righteous, and be merciful, perhaps stretching the boundaries of mercy, as Joseph seems to be more generous to Mary than rabbinic mitigation suggest.

We still have names to ponder. Joseph is common in scripture. The first time we read about a “Joseph” is the one with a coat of many colors. He is the eleventh son of Jacob, the first by Rachel. He starts out as a bit of a brat, gets sold into slavery by his brothers, makes a name for himself in Egypt, ends up running the show for Pharaoh, and when Jacob’s family shows up starving from the famine he generously provides for them, setting up the flowering of the Hebrew people. Joseph is a shepherd to the Hebrews. 

Normally a son would be named after his father. But Joseph is told to name his son Jesus, a common Hebrew name. Jesus is derived from ‘Yeshua’, which is derived from ‘Joshua’, who is Moses successor. By name Jesus is established as Moses’ successor.  [v] The importance of this might be akin to a person believed to be the successor to George Washington. By implication Joseph is the shepherd to Moses’ successor, as the true leader of the Jews.

There is one more element in this ever growing complex weave of literary fabric. Joseph, a righteous, merciful man, has a dream in which God’s angle, God’s messenger, tell him: 

            “… marry Mary, and name the baby ‘Jesus.’”

 And Joseph does. There is something in Joseph’s character, that allows him to receive God’s word, even though it beaks strong customs, the naming of first sons, and even breaks God’s law as set forth in Deuteronomy. And even though is sounds like a sound bite from the Reformation, which is a millennium and a half after all this, Joseph’s personal relationship with God is stronger than whatever is handed down to him by tradition or written law. Joseph knows God. And that relationship allows Joseph to be obedient to God, even though obedience makes him appear to be unrighteous, and subjects him to humiliation and ridicule.

What this morning’s Gospel reveals is a righteous merciful man obedient to God to the extent that he violates established norms and law to shepherd God’s anointed successor to Moses.

And oh yea, one more little tid-bit; Joseph, as is Mary, are two bit players, from two bit families from a two bit tribe. In no way, are they the ones anyone, including us, would look to, to bring God’s incarnate presence into the world, into our lives into your lives.[vi] There is no pedigree, there is no education, no training, no experience, no nothing, except: righteousness, mercy and obedience, from Joseph, and acceptance, 

“… let it be with me according to your word.” [vii]

 from Mary.

All of this rather muddles up, our preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. But that is only half of our Advent observation, the other being preparation for the return of the King. So, if one wants to actively prepare, to actively participate in what we pray for, every day, (at least I hope you do)

… thy kingdom come, thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.

we have a model to follow in Matthew’s birth narrative. From Joseph: be righteous in flowing the law, God’s as revealed in scripture and interpreted by faith leaders, and secular law, which, at least according to Paul, are also established by God for the benefit of God’s people; be merciful in the application of the law seeking not only your benefits, but just consideration of others, be obedient, be discerningly obedient, and when God calls you to act, against the current interpretation of God’s law, and / or secular law, do so  trusting in God. And finally from Mary, when called to accept the unacceptable, do so trusting in God.

It only took me a thousand or so words to get here but the Incarnation gives us four little words to prepare for the return of the King: righteousness, mercy, obedience, and acceptance. May they be your guiding light: to the truth of incarnation and to presence of our King.

Amen

 

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[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Jennens
[ii] Eaton’s Bible Dictionary
     Holman’s Bible Dictionary
[iii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, Matthew
[iv] M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible
[v] ibid
[vi] Lose, Working Preacher, Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation, December 17, 2013
[vii] Luke 1:38

______________________
Arland J. Hultgren, Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25, Working Preacher, 12/22/2013
Scott Hoezee, Matthew 1:18-25, Center for Excellence in Preaching, December 22, 2013

 

Live righteously, do justice, and be obedient.

I got promoted last night. It was  well worth the two hours I spent standing in front of the big box store front doors ringing bells, wishing people “Merry Christmas” and saying “Thanks” when they made a contribution to the Blytheville Union Mission’s ministry to the homeless in Mississippi County and surrounding area. My benefactor was blond, maybe three. We exchanged Merry Christmas as she and her mom went in the store. Her mom contributed to the effort on their way out to a “Merry Christmas and thank you.” That’s when I got promoted, Dad arrived in their car, then as mom put her in her car seat, she said “Bye Santa” What a great ending to a long day.

I suspect it was my 60 year old gray beard and red pointy hat and not the exchange of “Merry Christmas” that lead to my promotion. But the truth is, it happened because I was where I was, doing my part to support the mission. In that respect the experience is a little bit like our relationship with Joseph. Scott Hoezee notes that Joseph never speaks a word in the Bible. (1) We know Joseph through his actions. He is righteous; he lives his life by the law (i.e. he intends to divorce Mary) he exercises justice (i.e. he chose to divorce her quietly, not exposing her to public humiliation and possible death) and he is obedient (he does what the angel of God tells him to do, and completes the marriage contract with Mary). At least according to Matthew, Joseph saves the day for the infant Messiah when, once again, he listens to God’s angel messenger and flees with his family (as unorthodox as it is) to Egypt to escape Herod’s fearful violent effort to keep what he has.

One could easily spend all their time reading the books and articles on how a church can make itself known through Face-book, Twitter, Web sites, Instagram, email news letters, and a bunch I don’t even know about. Jospeh’s story leads us to another conclusion. His model is to live righteously, do justice, and be obedient. I believe such a life will draw more attention than all the social media ever could.

(1) Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Matthew 1:18-25,