Monday, July 14, 2014

The Apocalyptic Discourse - 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Proper 10]

Jeremiah 7:1-15 OR Daniel 2:1-49
Psalm 17:8-14 (15) OR 83
Matthew 24:1-8 (OR Mark 13:1-8)
1Corinthians 7:1-40


The Apocalyptic Discourse


The most unique feature of Year D is its appropriation of some twenty weeks in what is traditionally known as Ordinary Time for preaching through Jesus’ Apocalyptic Discourse (five weeks), a Prelude to the Passion (consisting of several challenges to Jesus’ authority spread over four weeks), and the Passion Narrative itself (ten weeks, including World Communion Sunday), and culminating in Christ the King Sunday (one week). This sequence corresponds to the narrative trajectory in the later chapters of the gospels themselves. Owing to the manner in which the three-year cycle of the RCL arranges the gospel material, however, i.e., to culminate with Resurrection Sunday, the season of “Easter,” and Pentecost, a certain sense of continuity is lost where the events leading to Jesus’ death are concerned. Congregations are less likely to hear many of Jesus’ more difficult futuristic and ethically demanding sayings, more likely to see him as a passive victim than as the Son of God on a mission to fulfill the scriptures, to turn the tables on the religious authorities, to defeat the forces of evil on the cross, and to conquer death by his Resurrection. As it is, the birth and baptism narratives are soon followed by the calling of the disciples and accounts of Jesus’ teaching and miracles, including his glorious self-disclosure in the Transfiguration. Between Transfiguration and Holy Week, however, the season of Lent places the focus of the readings on self-examination, repentance, and possibilities for new life in Christ [see Stookey, Calendar (Nashville, Abingdon,  1996) 80-84]. Any sense of the plot is either compacted into the weekdays between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and his crucifixion (Good Friday), or further crushed into a single “Passion Sunday” observance.

As an alternative to the RCL’s way of truncating the action in the latter chapters of the gospels, Year D ventures a painstaking journey to the cross, the preliminary steps toward which unfold in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse on the Mount of Olives (hence, the “Olivet discourse”). The “little apocalpyse” (yet another name by which it is known) technically belongs to what I have called elsewhere the “Prelude to the Passion” for it comes after and perhaps in direct response to, not before, Jesus’ final confrontation with the religious authorities in the temple. Nevertheless, as the discourse constitutes a lengthy futuristic “aside” in the gospels themselves and interrupts the account of the historical events that led to the cross, Year D brings it forward somewhat, thus allowing for the narrative action to flow more continuously. While this may appear somewhat out of sequence from the Matthean and Marcan perspectives, the fact is that most of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings in Luke (and even some in Matthew) are arranged prior to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Though historically we may be inclined to favor Mark’s ordering of this material, our purpose here is not to interrupt the journey to the cross with the apocalypse, but to set the stage for it.

The Bible’s apocalyptic texts, of course, should be fair game for preaching any Sunday of the year. If the proverb holds that “every Sunday is a little Easter” and the Resurrection is of a piece with the eschaton, then there is absolutely no reason to restrict apocalyptic texts to a Sunday or two in Advent, the Sundays of Easter (Year C), or the last few Sundays leading up to Christ the King. On the contrary, instead of following the commonplace reminder issued every First Sunday of Advent, i.e., that “advent” pertains not only Jesus’ first coming in the incarnation but to his second coming as well, with a gainsaying inversion from the prospective to the retrospective in the subsequent Sundays of Advent, preachers should be encouraged to set aside their trepidation when it comes to preaching eschatology and give expression to the Christian hope with ever greater frequency. Year D provides for increased opportunities to preach apocalyptic texts throughout the year; with respect to the gospels in particular,  it lays hold of not merely a snippet, but the whole of the apocalyptic discourse and places spreads it over five weeks of midsummer (July/August), namely, the 15th through the 19th Sundays of Ordinary Time.

During these Sundays, of course, the Gospel lection takes the lead, with the Matthean material setting the tempo. While both the opening and closing section of Mark’s apocalypse (13:1-8 and 13:24-37) are included in the RCL (B), on 33rd Ordinary and Advent 1, respectively, these sections are separated by the better part of a year. Meanwhile, the much more fulsome material from Matthew 24 is given only one Sunday, Advent 1 (A), and then this solitary lection (24:36-44) stops short of what is perhaps the most important and instructive text that has bearing on the present project, namely, the task of text selection for feeding one’s fellow Christian servants!

“Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:45-51).

The glaring omission of this unique and virtually unparalleled Matthean material by the committee that has charged itself with the very task described here, that of giving “the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time” – yes, the proper time! - is startling to say the least, and arguably makes the case for Year D almost singlehandedly; to say so, however, should not obscure the fact that countless other texts we will encounter in Year D do so as well! No, the rigid insistence on the current three-year lectionary, which can only be propped up by the most willful homiletical tunnel vision and liturgical myopia, simply cannot withstand the cloud of Year D witnesses, i.e. texts that repeatedly and explicitly insist upon our attending to and “keeping” the whole counsel of God. But let us proceed to a survey of the apocalyptic discourse and its related lections. [TMS, May 31, 2010]

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 24:1-8 (OR Mark 13:1-8)
According to Matthew’s arrangement, the eschatological discourse actually runs through Matthew 25. Since the parables of the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the oracle of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) are well represented in Year A (32nd-34th Ordinary), our focus will be on Matthew 24. Mark’s shorter version of this introductory section occurs in Year B, and the Lukan parallel in Year C (both on 33rd Ordinary).

In each of the synoptic gospels, the occasion for the discourse is Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple with specific reference to the fact that not one stone will be left upon another: lithos epi lithon. The prophecy itself is in response to: (1) most immediately, the disciples’ expressed admiration of the temple with its large, wonderful (Mk 13:1) and beautiful, noble (Lk 21:5) stones; and (2) the whole series of contestations with the religious authorities in the temple, including Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, his declaration of woe to the scribes and Pharisees, his parables told against the wicked tenants and the guests who excuse themselves from the wedding banquet, his debates concerning authority, the resurrection, and the identity of the Messiah, and his lament over Jerusalem; in short, the prophecy occurs in response to the spiritual hardness of the Jewish authorities and the moral corruption that temple worship had acquired, all of which is embodied in the fruitlessness of the fig tree that Jesus curses on the way to the temple. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus and his disciples remove to the Mount of Olives whence the conversation continues. The disciples ask: “when will this be, and what will be the sign (σεμειον) ...?” In Luke, the question is specific: “what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” (21:7) Mark puts the question more broadly: “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4) Matthew alone completes the question in terms of the second coming: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) This then is how the evangelists set the stage of the apocalyptic discourse.

Oddly enough, when asked for the sign, Jesus responds by listing several things that will happen, but are not the sign itself – that will come later (see Mt 24:30) - but merely “the beginning of the birth pangs” (24:8). In the indicative mood, Jesus foretells the coming of pseudo-christs who will lead many astray (24:5), “wars and rumors of wars” (v. 6), uprisings between nations, “famines and earthquakes in various places” (v. 7). Again, these are beginnings, but they are not the sign. In fact, Jesus uses the same impersonal construction in each of the synoptics to say, these things must take place [δειγενεσθαι], the verb [δει] connoting that which is proper and fitting, born of an inner necessity. As to the specifics of these events, Jesus appears to be intentionally vague at this point, for he is more concerned that his disciples face the future with the proper perspective than he is with divulging historical details of events to come.

Hence, the heart of any sermon based on this introduction to the Olivet discourse will be found in the imperatives, and Matthew’s perspective is particularly important. All three synoptic writers use the imperative warning: “Beware” or “take heed” [βλεπετε] (Mt 24:4, par.), after which Luke employs a series of passive subjunctives (Lk 21:8-9). The only other imperative Jesus uses in this section of Mark is the relatively rare θροεισθαι [cf. 2Th 2:2], in order to say, “do not be alarmed” (13:7) … at the prospect of wars and rumors of wars! Matthew also uses this verb, but he couples it with another imperative, thus adding great emphasis: “See (to it) that you are not alarmed[`ορατε μη θροεισθε] (Mt 24:6). In short, Jesus exhorts his disciples with a double imperative: “By no means should you allow yourselves to be terrified.

In short, Jesus’ imperatives in this passage: “Beware” and “do not be alarmed,” proclaim both an awakening, as well as a reassuring word to those living in apocalyptic times with expectations of Christ’s return. In an age of terrorism, wherein whole perverse movements of violence and radical zealotry seek to create havoc and instill fear, in the midst of wars in various places and rising tensions in others, when even secularists and other non-Christians view global events with apocalyptic lenses, the word is first, “Beware,” which means literally, ‘Be wary,’ be alert, awake, and cautious; take seriously this warning that many will seek to lead masses of people astray; and second, despite all this, it is of critical importance that you are not scared, alarmed, or terrified. On the contrary, your peace of mind in the midst of such turmoil should be the very thing that makes you stand out. As I have often said to my preaching students, God’s glory is best revealed by way of contrast. Sobriety and wariness over against a world gone mad [cf. the use of χαλεπος in 1Tim 3:1 and Matt 8:28], peace, assurance, and tranquility over against a world bent on violence, terror, and war – these are the attitudes that should distinguish Christians living in such times, by which we may face the future, and thereby give glory to God [TMS, June 1, 2010]

Psalm 83
Year D restores many laments psalms to their rightful place in the Psalter with the aim of encouraging the church to pray the full complement of the psalms. While many of these psalms, such as Psalm 17, are individual laments, Psalm 83 is a communal lament, one that has come to be regarded as particularly problematic, evidently for its extended imprecation against the enemies of Israel (vv. 9-18). As William L. Holladay has observed, even the Roman Catholic “Liturgy of the Hours” omits Psalm 83 (along with Pss 58 and 109) from its otherwise comprehensive four-week cycle [see Holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 193), p. 304]. 

No doubt there are many reasons for this omission, but we proceed from the point of view that they are not insurmountable, consistent, or finally compelling. Whether one objects to the cry for vengeance (vv. 9-13, 17) from the point of view of Christian ethics, to the dense list of names of seemingly obscure enemies (vv. 6-11), or to the assumption that these specific historical enemies have any ongoing relevance today or any bearing on the modern state of Israel, Psalm 83 is not so unique among the psalms in any of these respect as to warrant banishment from the Psalter. On the contrary, each of these objections may be answered satisfactorily, not only so as to make a place for the use of this psalm, but to raise its use to a matter of considerable urgency.

To take the above objections in reverse order, first, we should be careful not to regard the opening verses with too much skepticism or to confuse them with imperative imprecation. Although the psalmist begins by calling on God to speak and act (v. 1), what follows is not a curse or an appeal for vengeance as such, but simply an indicative report of enemy activity (vv. 2-8). As is often said, you are not technically paranoid if your enemies really are out to get you. This report has the ring of Hezekiah’s simple prayer when the Assyrian emissary, the Rabshakeh, threatened the besieged Jerusalem by mocking the LORD’s ability to deliver his people, whereupon Hezekiah prayed: “hear the words of Sennacharib, which he has sent to mock the living God” (2Kings 19:16). Here too the psalmist simply reports what the enemy is doing and saying: “They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against those you protect” (v. 3). Next, the psalmist reports a direct quote from the enemy’s rhetoric, one that could be lifted from the newspaper today: “They say, ‘Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more’” (v. 4). With such statements very much a part of the rhetoric, as well as the political and military strategizing, in the Middle East today, where nation relentlessly rises against nation, is “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) to hamstring itself by censoring its own prayer-book specifically at this point? Perhaps it is precisely in the face of just such existential threats to Israel’s existence as one hears from Iran, et al., that the church should learn to pray Psalm 83.

Second, rather than shy away from the list of names (vv. 6 -11) that seem to weigh down the midsection of this psalm, the preacher might use these verses as an educative entrée to the table of nations (Gen 10) or to major events in Israel’s past as teaching moments, an occasion for recounting the LORD’s mighty acts of deliverance. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s quip, now a homiletical commonplace in certain circles, advised preachers that people do not come to church to learn what happened to the Jebusites. But this argument for the contemporary pastoral relevance of the sermon, a clincher for those who hold to a modernist view of preaching, risks foreclosing not simply on the historical or “biblicist” (read sneeringly “fundamentalist”) interpretation, it also effectively locks the door (Lk 11:52) to all spiritual and prophetic inquiry as it relates to the topographical and geographical “lay of the land,” so to speak. What happened to those who occupied the land before Israel’s conquest is not what the Bible considers an irrelevant question (see e.g., Gen 15:16; Lev 18:24: Deut 8:24; et al). Least of all should preachers dismiss such historical, biblical, and contemporary explorations of Israel’s “international relations,” when we see both the Jewish state, the church in the west, and indeed, western civilization as a whole, under persistent threat. Indeed, we might be wise to consider whether the failure of the church to pray Psalm 83 (and numerous other such laments) has contributed directly to the present state of the church and to mounting crises in the world.

Third, in light of many difficult sayings of Jesus – regarding, e.g., his coming not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34); the need for a king to plan properly for battle or else negotiate for peace (Luke 14:31-32); and not least, the fact that the very birth pangs he mentions in the apocalyptic discourse “must take place” (Mt 24:6) – we really must question whether his instruction to the stricken individual in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) can really be applied directly in the area of the foreign policy of nations, especially the foreign policy of a nation born out of Holocaust. Further, we should not fail to notice, amidst the admittedly zealous (no less a scholar than Walter Brueggemann would add hyperbolic) cries for the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the positively missional, we might even add evangelical, warrants nested within them and which, in fact, constitute the final word of the psalm: “Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek your name, O LORD. … Let them know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth” (vv. 16, 18; emphasis mine). In other words, this “imprecatory” psalm is not an unmitigated cry for the destruction of Israel’s enemies. If that were so, why would the psalmist have any interest in bestowing knowledge of God on literal dust and chaff? How can such inanimate refuse “seek” anything, much less seek the name of the LORD? No, in the end, we must say (with a nod to Karl Barth), though Psalm 83 rings with a resounding No! to the enemies of God’s people, this No! is clearly enveloped within his larger Yes! to humanity and his plan for the restoration of all things and the role he has carved out for his chosen people in participating in and enjoying that restoration. [TMS, June 2, 2010]

Psalm 17: (1-7) 8-14 (15)
A fragmentary reading of Psalm 17 is twice represented in the RCL, with vv. 1-7 and 15 being used on 18th Ordinary (A) and vv. 1-9 on the 32nd Ordinary/Proper 27 (C). Since, however, the latter is not represented in the Book of Common Worship of the PC(USA) [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993], the primary worship resource of my own denomination, the former selection will be considered normative for our purposes, hence, the supplementary lection for Year D (with the aim of canonical completion) will focus on vv. 8-14. This not to say the surrounding verses should not be included when employing Year D. On the contrary, since the Psalm 17 is not overly long, one would think it best to simply read and pray the entire psalm as is, with no deletions.

With the omission of v. 8, the psalm loses two strong and vivid imperatives: “Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” The apple of the eye is, of course, the pupil, and the physical response to any threat to the eye is generally swift, even what we would call involuntary or automatic. Not that the psalmist asks for any suspension of the divine volition or has any knowledge of automatons, but in the world of cause and effect, the protective reaction to any threat to the apple of the eye is sharp, swift, and decisive; it is certainly no less so when the LORD is its protector (Deut 32:10; Zech 2:8). If we may venture a pedagogical aside, it is interesting to say the least, if ancillary to our discussion and likely coincidental, to note that the student or pupil of the Proverbs is admonished to “keep my teachings as the apple of your eye” (Prov 7:2).

The plea for concealment is likewise vivid, not so much in terms of the verb, but for attribution of “wings” to God. The shadow or the shelter of the LORD’s protective wings are frequently sought in the Psalter (Pss 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:5; 91:4), and the LORD is sometimes likened to an eagle or bird of prey elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deut 28:49; 32:11; Jer 48:40; 49:22); but the Christological interpretation may the most interesting, especially in light of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Mt 23:37; Luke 13:34) on his way to the cross. Indeed, there is something peculiarly and providentially cruciform about the phrase: “Hide me in the shadow of your wings.”

As with the communal lament of Psalm 83, much of this plea for deliverance is simply a complaint regarding enemy activity. All the worst attributes of the enemies are mentioned: mercilessness and arrogance (v. 10), eagerness to do violence (v. 12; cf. v. 4b), wickedness (v. 9), and worldliness (v. 14). Twice the psalmist observes how they “surround” (vv. 9, 11) him. He is hunted and desperate. Yet once again, the imperatives (taken together with those in v. 8) favor the protection of the psalmist: “Rise up, O LORD, … deliver my life” (v. 13), rather than any sense of gratuitous retribution. Certainly, the petition is for the LORD to “confront them, overthrown them,” and give deliverance “by your sword” (v. 13; cf. Rev 19:15-21). But there appears nothing over-the-top in this series of petitions, at least not when one weighs in the balances the overwhelming, swarming activity of the enemies as described in this psalm. If anything, the concluding subjunctives appear restrained and mildly resigned to the divine will, even if the assumptions underlying this resignation are if not entirely friendly. “May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them” (v. 14). No doubt the psalmist assumes this will be a cup of wrath that will be poured out on more than one generation of the wicked, but the appeal to the LORD’s will here is surprisingly trusting in light of the threats described. In short, the psalmist respects the fact that vengeance belongs to the LORD (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30), and he is evidently content to let it reside there.

To conclude on a general note, one should not concern oneself with drawing too sharp a distinction between the individual and the communal lament, for in fact the distinction is not always quite as clear as form criticism has suggested. As John D. Witvliet has written, “the Psalms teach us that even prayers offered in the first person are not always soliloquies. ‘I-Psalms’ often express the sentiments not just of an isolated poet, but rather of the entire nation of Israel (e.g., Pss 3:9; 25:22; 130:8). They are expressions of a corporate personality that is the hallmark of the faith of Israel and a challenge to any culture marked by individualism.” [The Use of the Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 26]. This is, of course, no less true when we entertain the possibility of holding together Christological interpretation and the use of the psalms in the liturgical life of the ecclesia. In short, either Psalm 17 or 83 is equally suited for use in relation to the apocalyptic discourse, since appeal to the LORD for swift and decisive protection and deliverance from surrounding enemies; but neither is better suited than the other by virtue of its personal grammar, for as Karl Barth has said, even when an individual believer prays privately, it is the church at prayer [Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 5]. [TMS, June 3, 2010]

1Corinthians 7:1-40
With respect to the apocalyptic discourse, perhaps this lengthy chapter on marital relations might have greater bearing upon the gospel lection for 18th Ordinary (D), wherein Jesus declares, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt 24:35; cf. 1Cor 7:31). Or perhaps it might more readily speak to the one section of the discourse that has found its way into the RCL (Advent 1, Year A) wherein we read of the coming of the Son of Man “at an unexpected hour” until which time they will continue, “as (in) the days of Noah,” “marrying and giving in marriage” (Matt 24: 36-44). The simple, pragmatic fact is, however, that the unused material from 1Corinthians (and the remaining epistolary literature) has been arranged in semi-continuous fashion with occasional interruptions of the longer letters (which, over the course of Year D, happen to be arranged in reverse canonical order: Hebrews, 2 Corinthians, 1Corinthians, and Romans) where stronger correlations to the Gospels appear opportune.

What should be clear is the sense in which, even in apocalyptic times, life goes on, engagements and marriages are made and broken, questions of sexual ethics do not retreat, at least not entirely, though Paul does his best to escort the Corinthians from a simplistic ethic of sheer abstinence for all (1Cor 7:1), a sure recipe for disaster (v. 5), to a more nuanced perspective whereby the following priorities may guide believers in making godly decisions and avoid sin and temptation in what is, by all accounts, one of the most personal (and often painful) facets of human existence:
(1) domestic peace: “It is to peace that God has called you” (v. 15); “I want you to be free from anxieties” (v. 32);
(2) “good order” (v. 35) and mutual submission, in order that the chaos of sexual immorality may be avoided, temptation may not become an opportunity for Satanic exploitation (7:2-3), and authority over one’s own body is not reserved to oneself but accorded to one’s spouse (vv. 3-4);
(3) “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (v. 35), such that prayer alone – again, the God-relation – may interrupt normal conjugal relations between husband and wife (vv. 5-6), and those who are single and gifted with self-control may be entirely free to concern themselves with “how to please the Lord” (v. 32);
(4) the sanctification and salvation of the unbelieving spouse by way of the believer’s fidelity and witness  (vv. 12-16); and perhaps most surprisingly,
(5) a willingness to remain in the same social status in which one has come to Christ (vv. 17-24) or living ‘as if not’ (vv. 29-31). While the latter selection (7:29-31) is represented in the RCL (3rd Ordinary, Year B), the former (7:17-24) is not; the effect of this bifurcation has been to shift the attitude of which Paul speaks into the realm of abstraction and strip it of any obligation to social deference or submission. This may be perhaps the most difficult concept to grasp in this chapter, especially since Paul addresses not just the married and the unmarried, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, but also those who are slaves, and he urges them not to seek the status of a freed person. Frankly, on the surface of it, this simply does not square with the darling mainline doctrine of social justice and with recent progress made in the area of civil rights. Some caution is needed here, of course, for this passage has often been taken out of its original (Roman) context and misapplied, especially in the American south in the 18th-19th c., as a rationale for maintaining a very different and far more pernicious form of slavery. Nevertheless, we should not miss Paul’s essentially doxological reasoning here, which I have indicated above in addressing the Gospel lection: the greater glory of God is revealed in contrast. If Christian faith becomes a way of improving one’s own station in the world, then the world may easily dismiss the convert as one who is motivated by selfish gain. But when one utterly enmeshed in worldly affairs becomes a new creation in Christ while standing against the same worldly backdrop though no longer participating in it, then the light stands out against the darkness all the more brilliantly, the transformation becomes all the clearer, and the unbelieving onlooker will much more likely say, “What a change has come over him!” or “She is a whole new person.” What other explanation can there be but that God has done a new thing? Give glory to God! Thus, at every point, Paul is concerned with, and urges the Corinthians to be concerned with, the propagation of the gospel for the glory of God, yes, even by calling people to the highest form of sexual ethics. 

In short, this chapter is an important pastoral moment in the letters of Paul, wherein temporal issues of human sexuality are viewed in light of eternity and the approaching eschaton: “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31). Rather than foolishly assuring the congregation that Paul was “wrong” about the imminent return of the Lord Jesus, the preacher should seize upon this text – and others like it (Mk 12:18-27, et al.) – that speak to the “infinite qualitative difference” (Kierkegaard) between temporal and eternal matters, that reframe temporary facets of the human condition as such – yes, sex is, above all, temporary! - and hold out the promise of personal fulfillment in the resurrection life. As much as this may not answer satisfactorily the immediate, pressing, and specific questions that individuals tend to harbor with some urgency, it does serve to remind one and all of the fact that we are not to invest all of our hopes in this world: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1Cor. 15:19). This is a perspective that needs to be preached, not only where human sexuality is concerned, but certainly not to the exclusion of such issues. In fact, one may well argue that the present state of the mainline denominations today, torn apart as they are over sexuality debates, has been in no small measure exacerbated by the failure to regularly read and preach on such texts as this one and in fact by the tendency to repress them. It takes no great leap of the imagination to recognize that, on any given Sunday, someone in the congregation, whether single, married, widowed, or divorced, will be listening attentively when this passage is read and carefully explained; one can also be sure that those who struggle with these most personal issues, and perhaps the entire congregation, will leave in a healthier frame of mind for the perspective that is offered here, not so much by way of a celibate saint who stands above the fray, but by means of the gracious, pastoral, reassuring, and eternal perspective provided by the Holy Spirit (v. 40). [TMS, June 4, 2010]

Jeremiah 7:1-15
The temple sermon of Jeremiah is so important it appears twice in the book of the major prophet, both here and in Jeremiah 26:1-24 (esp. vv. 1-6), but never once in the RCL. I chose to include it here, at the outset of the apocalyptic discourse, because of the strong parallels (noted in Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece) between the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer 7:14) and the prophecy of Jesus (Matt 24:1-2) that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. Two different temples are in view, of course, and both prophecies have been fulfilled. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the destruction of the first temple, built by Solomon, was fulfilled with its destruction by the Babylonian army in 586/7 BC; Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Herod’s temple (a major expansion of Zerubabel’s second temple) was fulfilled in AD 70, though it is also clear that Jesus spoke of another temple altogether (see John 2:13-21, esp. v. 21). Interestingly, tradition holds that both events occurred on the ninth day of the month of Av.

Although the temple or “holy place” is not mentioned in the apocalyptic discourse itself until 17th Ordinary (D) (Matt 24:15), the question, or more precisely, the misunderstanding and misuse of the temple occasions a certain theme of “precipitation,” so to speak, in the prophecies of both Jeremiah and Jesus, as well as in the contrast between the devil’s temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:9-13) and apocalyptic scenarios that require both the erection of a third temple (see, e.g., Ezek 40-48), its defilement by a “man of lawlessness” (2Thess 2:3-4), the destruction of the same figure, at the return of Jesus, by “the breath of his mouth” (2:8). In short, the preacher should perhaps deal with the role of the temple at the outset, for both the temple sermon of Jeremiah and the prophecy of Jesus that sets up the apocalyptic discourse serve to place the role of the temple in much-needed perspective.

Jeremiah’s sermon, issued from the very front door of the temple itself, is obviously a call to repentance: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (7:3). This saying is prefaced by “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel;” hence, the first person “me” is a reference not to the prophet, but to the LORD himself. The verb rendered in the passive sense here is ambiguous and the alternative reading may be better: “and I will let you dwell with me.” Nevertheless, the possibility of a passive grammatical sense is not without its important theological implications, especially when we consider Jeremiah’s career as the weeping prophet and Jesus as the fulfillment of the suffering servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), as well as the stark figurative sense we have from the gospels that the temple is a direct reflection of Jesus’ physical body. Surely the covenantal framework of both testaments, particularly the terms established with Solomon at the dedication of the temple (1Kings 8), can well account for the “conditional” sense connoted by a passive reading here. In short, the presence of the LORD literally cannot abide by superstition and manipulative deception (Jer 7:4, 8, 10), injustice (7:6a, 9a, 11), and idolatry (7:6b, 9b), which taken collectively are here designated “abominations” (v. 10; cf. Matt 24:15; Mk 13:14). Indeed, it is to this sermon that Jesus makes an allusion when he cleanses the temple, charging the moneychangers with making it a “den of robbers” (Jer 7:11; Matt 21:13).

The problem is that the “people of Judah” (Jer 7:2) had turned the sanctuary of the temple itself into nothing more than a “safe place,” quite apart from any understanding of the holy presence “the one who dwells in it” (Matt 23:16-22); thus, they presumed the holiness of the temple would protect them, regardless of their criminal and idolatrous conduct.

Difficult as it may be to do so, the preacher of this text should take care not to secularize or politicize the denunciation of injustice here, where the oppression of “the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (v. 6a) and crimes against the neighbor (v. 9a) are concerned, for to do so is to miss the fact that, in each case, these oppressive crimes are mentioned in combination with idolatrous worship (v. 6b), including making “offerings to Baal” and the pursuit of other unknown gods (v. 9b). In other words, as with the Great Commandment that pertains first to the wholehearted love of the LORD your God and second to the love of neighbor (Matt 22:36-39), so too does justice pertain first and foremost to the worship of the LORD in spirit and in truth, and second to the neighbor. Conversely, we need to remember - and teach! - that the primary definition and form of injustice with which we should be concerned is injustice against God. Advocates of social justice, even within the church, almost always reverse this priority; worse yet, they rarely consider the primary sense at all, at least not in terms of “doing justice to God,” the very prospect of which is assumed to be impossible, since “doing justice” has become synonymous with retribution.

But Jeremiah’s temple sermon serves as a corrective to this common error, especially when the prophet reminds the people in Jerusalem of the sad history of Shiloh, where an earlier shrine that once housed the ark of the covenant was destroyed and whence the ark was captured, all due to the corruption of the priestly sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, in their administration of the people’s offerings to the LORD, for they “treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt” (2Sam 2:12-4:22; esp. 2:17). In signaling that previous episode, at the conclusion of which we are told repeatedly, “the glory … departed” from Israel (2Sam 4:19-22), Jeremiah’s sermon reminds us that, though social injustice is an evil that must be amended, liturgical injustice is far worse, for it reflects directly on the reputation, and detracts from the glory, of holy God of Israel, thus potentially driving a wedge between the LORD and his people and running counter to the mission of God. This, no doubt, is why the sins of the religious authorities, idolatrous priests, false prophets and teachers, hypocritical scribes, lawyers, Pharisees, and Sadducees, and are so consistently denounced throughout the whole of scripture, from beginning to end, for their (though, perhaps we should confess, “our”) misconduct sullies the LORD’s reputation and glory, at least, in the eyes of those who have yet to come to faith.
What does this have to do with the apocalyptic discourse? Simply the fact that the “third temple” movement, along with the hope and expectation that both Jews and evangelical Christians tend to place in a reconstructed temple in Jerusalem, need to be placed in perspective, even as mainline and liberal Christians, who often tend toward mockery where futuristic prophecy is concerned, need to learn to regard this future event with far greater seriousness. Although biblical prophecies in both testaments undeniably infer that the stage must be set for the fulfillment of coming events, that is, if any vestige of plain sense or literal interpretation of these texts is to be mingled with the rich complex of typology, figure, allegory, and parable that make up the genre of apocalyptic prophecy, we must continue to guard against, on the one hand, cynically dismissing such texts and interpretations as the province of dispensational fundamentalism, and on the other, acquiring a sort of magical or automatic presupposition that the act of temple reconstruction will “trigger” events, either abominable (i.e., as in the case of the eventual defilement of the holy place) or glorious (i.e., the return of Jesus to reign on earth from Jerusalem). The temple, whether first, second, or third, is always and only holy insofar as the presence of the holy LORD elects to dwell therein, and in his own estimation, according to his own terms, he will only do so when the people of God, especially those who lead the people in worship, “amend (their) ways and doings” and put away all idolatrous practices that injure the LORD’s reputation and erect ethical stumbling blocks (Luke 17:1) that prevent those who seek him from entering (Luke 11:52) his place of prayer.

In conclusion, what the mainline preacher needs to recognize is that, notwithstanding the tearing of the temple veil (Matt 27:51), the destruction of the temple in AD 70, and the commission of the church to witness to the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), the mission of God as revealed in the apocalyptic texts of the Bible speak not only in terms of expansion, but also of contraction – at very least, this is part of what is meant by “birth pangs” – and that contraction undeniably entails an eschatological focus on Judea and Samaria, and ultimately on Jerusalem. Unless the preacher is prepared to recognize this countervailing contraction, s/he is not prepared to do justice to the apocalyptic discourse or the temple sermon of Jeremiah, and should by no means attempt to preach on these texts.

Daniel 2:1-49
This text foretells, by way of a dream given to Nebuchadnezzar and revealed interpreted by Daniel, a series of successive and increasingly weak empires following the Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar, the sequence of which will be brought to an end with the establishment of an everlasting (Messianic) kingdom that shall turn the others to chaff and supplant them, filling the whole earth. Under threat of execution along with all the other wise men of Babylon, the Hebrew exile Daniel responds “with prudence and discretion” (v. 14) to the king’s edict that unless the guild of prophets can tell his dream as well as its interpretation, they shall be put to death; Daniel asks for more time, but he adds with assurance that he will comply with the king’s request (v. 16), a task that by all accounts is impossible. How could Daniel make and keep such a promise, except by appealing to the very God of heaven who gave Nebuchadnezzar the dream in the first place?

Daniel enlists his friends to pray with him “to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery,” and God mercifully answers Daniel’s prayer, “so that Daniel with his companions and the rest of the wise men of Babylon might not perish” (v. 18). God reveals the mystery of the dream to Daniel “in a vision of the night, and Daniel (blesses) the God of heaven” (v. 19). The song itself is worthy of attention and a place of honor in the church’s liturgy and among its canticles.

Once armed with the interpretation, Daniel first denies, at the risk of his own life, that he or any human being is able to reveal and interpret the dream; he also refuses to attribute any worthiness or wisdom on his own part (v. 30), but he gives glory to God, “the revealer of mysteries,” who has “disclosed to (Nebuchadnezzar) what is to be” at “the end of days” (vv. 28-29). With that phrase alone, this episode is freighted with apocalyptic significance.

What are we to make of the dream itself and its interpretation? First of all, notice the enumeration of the kingdoms. Four are numbered, the fourth evidently being of pure iron, for no clay is mentioned in connection with the legs of the statue; where we would expect a fifth to be mentioned by number, the text simply makes mention of the feet and toes of both iron and clay, and then refers to “it” (v. 41). The focus then shifts to the toes, with no mention of the feet, though the composition of mixed materials is mentioned, which is identical with the feet, rendering them “partly strong and partly brittle” (v. 42). In short, there appears to be a total of six epochs in view, the fourth suggesting a certain purist “golden age” (so to speak) of iron, followed by a gradual division and dilution of power in the feet (iron and clay), followed by a further fragmentation (still iron and clay, but now branching out into the toes. The distinction between empires four and five is not clean, but for the introduction of division and weakness (clay), but still less clear is the distinction between the feet and the toes.

More difficult and speculative is the task of identifying each of the separate parts of the statue with its respective imperial regime and/or era. The text is, of course, unambiguous regarding the fact that Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire corresponds to the statue’s golden head. After that, interpreters differ as to whether the silver chest and arms reflect the Median kingdom only or a conflated Medo-Persian empire, and this in turn has implications for whether Greece is to be associated with the bronze torso and thighs or the iron (lower) legs, and whether Rome is represented by the iron legs, by the iron mixed with clay, or perhaps not represented at all. A significant stream of current of scholarship holds that the fourth kingdom (encompassing the whole spectrum from strong, pure iron legs to brittle feet of clay) corresponds to the post-Alexandrian Ptolemaic and Seleucid era, which was certainly fragmentary. This interpretation surely limits the sense in which the vision bears upon the present day and necessitates a pre-Christian understanding of the “end of days” (v. 28), or rather one that identifies the first, rather than the second, advent of Christ with the divinely cut stone that destroys the statue and the becomes the everlasting mountain that fills the whole earth. While there is no doubt that the proper interpretation of this final kingdom corresponds to the Messianic kingdom of God, the difference between the first coming and the second coming of Christ is, of course, a matter of at least two millennia! The problem with the “first advent” interpretation is that it does not seem to satisfy the sense of finality and permanence connoted by the assertion: “It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (v. 44b). On the other hand, the difficulty for those who associate the stone/mountain with the second coming becomes how to account for the ensuing centuries since the collapse of the Roman empire. Can we really read the entire two-thousand year history of western civilization since the birth of the church into the lower extremities of the statue? If so, how? Surely any such interpretation must aspire to a level of complexity as marvelous as the anatomy of the foot itself.

In his so-called “Blank Bible,” Jonathan Edwards speculated that the Greek philosophical tradition, with its “notion of (the) four ages – the golden, silver, brazen, and iron ages” – may derive from this very event. Edwards obviously took an early historical (pre-critical) view of the authorship and person of Daniel, suggesting a connection between the twelve years Pythagoras spent in Babylon as “an auditor of the magicians, of whom Daniel was the master,” and this episode, “which made a great noise though that city and country.” While Edwards’ apocalyptic speculations were much more elaborate in relation to the book of Revelation, here his more general, less intricate summary of Daniel’s vision appears quite sound: “When God sends forth his word, when he sends forth the rod of his strength out of Zion in the latter days, God’s word shall run and be glorified. And everything that stands in its way shall be broken in pieces before it, whether it be gold, or silver, or brass, or iron, or clay. … And however magnificent, bright, and glorious, and precious in the esteem of men, it shall be broken in pieces. … All alike shall become as the chaff of the summer threshing floor that the wind drives away, light and worthless … Then the interest of infidelity and heresy, however strengthened by the arguments of the men of great abilities, … and the curious, beautiful schemes of philosophers, which had been adorned with the greatest eloquence, and a fine style, and highly valued by the world as silver and gold, shall come to nothing, shall become as the chaf [sic] that the wind drives away” [The Works of Jonathan Edwards; Vol. 24, Part I: The “Blank Bible,” ed. Stephen J. Stein (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) 760-61]. In other words, what is needed is not an intricate reconstruction (historical or otherwise) or an elaborate (esthetic or political) description of the details of the statue, which, after all, represents idolatry and the godless vainglory of human enterprise and empire, but a clear articulation of the decisiveness of the event of Christ’s coming and the sense in which the reign of God will eventually permeate all of creation. In short, the important question to ask of this vision is not when, but what. Nevertheless, if we need a historical parenthesis in which to account for the interim period between the two advents of Christ, then the interval between the striking of the statue by the divinely-cut stone and the time when the stone becomes a mountain that fills the whole world should suffice. In other words, the Christian era of church history, from the cross to the culmination of the kingdom of heaven coming to earth, corresponds to this very process of the stone “becoming” a mountain; thus, in the final analysis, the thoroughly decisive missionary reach and expanse of this kingdom not only places the imperial statue of empire in perspective and in fact obliterates it, it does the same with respect to any and all anxiety one may feel at the prospect of nation rising against nation, that is, with respect to storied and stratified composition of the statue itself. [TMS, June 6-7, 2010]

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