Thursday, October 31, 2013

Companion volumes

Pastors, as you know, November is prime planning season for the coming liturgical year; so bear in mind that Year D and Greater Attention are companion volumes for the journey through the unexplored regions of the canon. (I know, Greater Attention was designed to match the Liturgical Elements series, so it may not look like a companion to Year D, but it is!) May the Spirit bless and inspire you as you undertake the study of fresh texts and offer these scriptural nutrients to the body of Christ.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psalm 110

Christians know Psalm 110 as the psalm quoted in the New Testament more often than any other psalm, although those quotations continually draw on just three of its seven verses (Year D, 75). Of the various ways in which it is put to use, it is perhaps best known by way of the brain teaser with which Jesus finally silences the several parties in the Jerusalem temple complex who take turns challenging his authority with their own doctrinal litmus tests. Taking those several pericopes together as a series of huddles that only result in one failure after another, these encounters are really quite (divinely) comical. The psalm in question is "of David" (according to the superscription), who was inspired by the Holy Spirit (Mark 10:36); hence, Jesus posits that the psalm's authority is indisputable. Who then is the "Lord" who is to be seated in this psalm, the Lord who is clearly differentiated from the David himself (who calls him "my Lord"), and from the "LORD" Yahweh, who addresses this "Lord" and invites him to be seated?

In his question in the Gospels, Jesus associates this Lord with the Messiah; indeed, he well knows it is himself, but for now he keeps what Wm. Wrede termed "the Messianic secret;" he does not declare himself openly, even at this late juncture. What is most interesting about this verse is the sense in which this Messianic Lord is at once enthroned and placed in a passive posture, seated until Yahweh brings about the submission of his enemies. The passive seating and waiting is mentioned in the Gospels during Passion week, the words for inaction and suffering sharing a root, of course, and while this is a royal enthronement psalm, one that predicts a sure victory and vindication of the "Lord," we should never forget, not even at Christmas, what sort of King this suffering Lord is, or what the manner of his victory shall be.

The second verse clearly indicates the expansion of the Davidic King's reign into hostile territory: "Rule in the midst of your foes" (v. 2b), though again, it is the LORD Yahweh who is the active agent in sending out from Zion the royal scepter —"your mighty scepter" — that belongs to the newly enthroned Lord (v. 2a).

The third verse anticipates a future assault, actively led by the Messianic King, on "the holy mountains" (which here must refer to those surrounding Jerusalem or Zion, not Mount Zion itself). Moreover, this verse presupposes two assemblies that are friendly and allied with the King: first, his "forces" which he shall lead in battle, and second, his "people (who) will offer themselves willingly" on that future day (v. 3). The reference to the holy mountains is sufficiently terrestrial to make it clear that these willing people are on earth, anticipating the Lord's reign, but the word "forces" is sufficiently ambiguous and the reference to the seat at Yahweh's right hand is sufficiently heavenly that we have good reason to conclude these forces proceed from heaven itself, the sorts of forces of whom we catch but the barest glimpse or hear a scant whisper from time to time (2Samuel 5:24; 2Kings 6:17; Matthew 26:53).

The promise of "the dew of your youth" doubtless signals fresh energy, vitality, and vigor, and perhaps even a reversal of aging itself — think of the sign given to Hezekiah at his healing: the shadow on the sundial retreating several intervals; from a New Testament perspective, it is almost impossible not to associate the cavernous "womb of the morning" with the quintessential restorative event of Jesus' resurrection from the empty tomb.

The Messianic King is now declared a Priest as well (v. 4), which conflates these roles in a way that is only rarely seen in Scripture. King Saul's priestly act of offering a sacrifice was denounced as rash and cost him dearly; the favored King David was never deemed as priest as such, but his music, his psalms, and his dancing certainly verged on the priestly. More importantly, we see such a positive conflation of these roles in the mysterious character of Melchizedek, "King ... of Salem" and "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). While the Epistle to the Hebrews bears the primary responsibility for exegeting and explaining the significance of this (at once new, ancient, and eternal) priesthood, here we should simply note the absolute, irreversible, and enduring character of Yahweh's oath: "The LORD has worn and will not change his mind; you are a priest forever ..." (v. 4).

Thus far (vv. 1–4), the use of the second person pronoun "you" has referred to the Messianic Priest-King, the "Lord" who is seated at the LORD's right hand. In what remains of the psalm, however, the Messianic Lord is mentioned solely in the third person. The reference is to "The Lord," followed by five nominative occurrences of the indefinite pronoun "he." Now that the Lord is discussed as "he," however, rather than addressed as "you," the first statement of this closing section begs the question: Who is now playing the role of the second person in this phrase: "The Lord is at your right hand"? The reference to "your right hand" would seem to suggest the Messianic Priest-King has taken the seat offered him by the LORD Yahweh, and thus it is now the LORD Yahweh who is being addressed. There is certainly nothing to prevent such an interpretation.

Another possibility, however, which is additive, not exclusive, is that "you," the reader or the listener or the gathered assembly — though the pronoun is in the singular — are being assured that the Lord (let us identify him clearly as the Christ) is at your right hand, in the same way that David the psalmist claims elsewhere of Yahweh: "I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (Psalm 16:8); or as the psalmist Asaph says to Elohim: "I am continually with you; you hold my right hand" (Psalm 73:23).

Such a reading, at once doxological and pastoral, would situate the Messianic Lord in between the LORD Yahweh and the individual, singular reader or listener, with the implication that all the fearsome actions he will in future undertake will be executed on behalf of both parties, namely, the Sovereign LORD (whose sovereignty is vindicated by the shattering of lesser kings and of "heads over the wide earth") and the adherent who stands hard by the Lord's right hand and keeps the Lord at his own. For in every respect, the right hand position indicates loyalty, allegiance, faith, and trust, in contrast to the "sinistral" left hand position, and in that (right) attitude, the adherent is assured of safety, unlike the enemies (v. 1), the "corpses," and the shattered heads (v. 6) that will pile up under the Lord's executive judgment.

The final verse is by most accounts obscure, but is nevertheless undeniably pastoral (especially in contrast to the head-knocking that has gone before). The image of the Lord drinking "from the stream by the path" suggests: (1) refreshment after the exertion of a hard fought victory; (2) a final satisfaction of the longing for the presence of the LORD—as that of a deer thirsting for flowing streams (Psalm 42:1); (3) that the clunking of principal, presidential, and prime ministerial heads will reflect the efficiency of Gideon's army, the three hundred who lapped like dogs and routed the entire Midianite army, and will therefore glorify the LORD for his decisive role in the victory; and finally, (4) that the dreadful image of the nations being filled with corpses will not so befoul this stream as to put the Lord off drinking from it. On the contrary, this refreshing image suggests an actual purifying of the environment by the means of the Lord's judgment, rather than its desolation or pollution.

"Therefore, he will lift up his head" (v. 7). In the New Testament, the Messiah directs his disciples to lift up their heads when they see the signs of his coming, "for your redemption draws near." The   is certainly suggested here in this erect and expectant posture, but clearly, if this phrase is to be read positively, it is the lifting up of the Lord's head—let us say, his coronation to complete his enthronement (v. 1)—that is in view. In short, it is from his exaltation, from his rest and refreshment, from his victory that ours shall arise. In preaching this psalm at Christmas, let us proclaim that very coronation!

On the other hand, a similar phrase is used in the Joseph narrative regarding both the happy restoration of Pharaoh's cupbearer to his position of honor (Gen 40:13) and of the terrible end that will meet Pharoah's baker (40:19). In the unlikely event the phrase used here at the conclusion of the psalm is to be read negatively, as an extension of the previous prophecies of the vanquishing of the Lord's enemies, then we may need to look even beyond the Reformed canon to that wonderful Psalm 151 that lies "outside the number" in the LXX and recall David's victory over the blaspheming Goliath, an episode that reads like a typological postscript to not only the Psalter but to revelation—and Revelation—itself.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Two theses for Reformation Day

For the record, I never campaigned or even discussed with the editors of The Presbyterian Outlook (October 31, 2011) or The Christian Century (October 30, 2013) the issue dates in which their respective articles discussing Year D were to appear, but since both saw fit independently to publish them on or about Reformation Day, let me inch out onto the limb provided, the limb being the barest suggestion that I am somehow more than a mere "dabbler in reform" — stepping very lightly, indeed — and venture, with due respect to Luther whose 95 theses we might round up to an even buck, my own two cents in the form of two (ecclesial) theses. Here they are:

(1) Jesus Christ, both incarnate and risen, is an ambidextrous biped. He lacked nothing anatomically in his earthly ministry; he walked along the road to Emmaus on both feet and used both hands to break the bread. By extension, the church as the body of Christ is also an ambidextrous biped. It has, and is meant to have, a fully functioning left and a fully functioning right. Therefore, the continual repudiation of one half by the other is completely out of place, completely lacking any basis in scripture, and should be curtailed. In other words, knock it off.

(2) While the heart, anatomically located on the port, larboard, or sinistral side of the body, is traditionally associated with love, thereby claiming a certain predominance when it comes to compassion—although the scriptural and etymological roots of the idea of compassion have less to do with left and right per se, and more to do with the lower, largely (though not entirely) symmetrical regions of the womb, bowels, and guts—wisdom, by contrast, is granted marginal predominance (again, in terms of the heart) by virtue of this much neglected saying from the Solomonic wisdom tradition: "The heart of the wise inclines to the right, the heart of the fool to the left" (Ecclesiastes 10:2). While that is not a verse to bring an end to all discussion, it should at least serve to give the leftist pause and invite him or her to a bit more humility. Therefore, much as one may mock a conservative situation in the body of Christ or a conservative orientation to the Christian life as "stupid," such mockery does not even begin to deal with the genuine wisdom to be perceived from that angle; on the contrary, it reveals the projection of one's own lack of wisdom. Likewise, much as one may be inclined to dismiss all liberality or social concern for the poor and oppressed as godlessly socialist, etc. (again, I am concerned here with the actual body of Christ, not that which is in reality beyond the bounds of the baptized, confessional, and practicing church of disciples), to do so is to clearly depart from that which Jesus both taught and did, as well as that which was unanimously affirmed by all of the apostles (Gal 2:10), those who on other matters famously disagreed (for a time), such as the role of circumcision (Acts 15); on this matter, however, they were of one accord, for the care for the poor is absolutely a distinctive and essential characteristic of the true body of Christ. Let us be governed by this (Year D) verse: "Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?" (Rom 14:4a). And let us agree that how to best care for the poor is the question, not whether to do so.

If I may attach a sub-thesis here, I would suggest we consider: (1) those who have suffered the trauma of amputation or the loss of the use of a limb due to stroke or injury, and (2) the neurological fact that the left side of the body is governed by the right brain, and the right by the left, and therefore give thanks to God for, and honor, those who dwell and function on the opposite side of the body of Christ from ourselves, those whose functioning and perspective reflect, match, and balance our own, lending co-ordination — now, there is a word for you! — to the whole.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Christian Century interviews Dr. Dan Mayes on Year D

This is a very instructive and illuminating interview. Thanks to Dan Mayes and Steve Thorngate of the Christian Century for publishing this helpful conversation. Great stuff!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hebrews 4:1–11

The fourth chapter of Hebrews begins as the third chapter does, with the word, "Therefore," but in this case the antecedent is provided or restated as follows: "while the promise of entering his rest is still open" (4:1). The aim or function of this passage is much the same as in the previous chapter which urges faith, for without faith one cannot enter God's rest; it is the very key to rest. Here, however, faith is less the primary aim of the passage and more the means to its desired end, namely, that one should not simply arrive at the point of entry, but actually enter into God's rest. One can, of course, open a door, but there remains the simple act of crossing the threshold and passing through, and to fall short of that is to run the risk that one "may fall through such disobedience as" ancient Israel displayed (Numbers 14:1–25).

Although the apostle asserts that the rest is still open (thus, does not even need opening)—a presupposition established in the previous chapter and restated here as a basis for his urging that we should by all means enter—the large part of the remainder of this passage is devoted to repeatedly emphasizing this continued openness. This the apostle does by appealing to a sort of chronology of the Spirit's progressive revelation on this matter of rest, namely, by focusing on when precisely the the Holy Spirit, speaking in various places and through various agents, revealed that God's rest remains open. In many respects, this survey or quality inspection of the apostle's interpretation seems as much aimed at warding off despair and inspiring hope as it does summoning obedient faith. For while the psalm (Psalm 95) that is the basis of his meditation sternly warns of the consequences of disobedience for those who failed to enter, the temporal and grammatical (tensive) references to God's rest must now be enlisted so as to say, in a sense: Do not give up on finding rest for your souls, for the door is still open, and this is how we know. The very fact that God spoke of his rest well after the sabbatical completion of creation confirms it (4:5). The fact that David, centuries after Joshua led Israel's new generation into the promised land, still spoke of entering God's rest in the ever-present tense—"Today!" (4:6-8)—also proves it. With Israel's conquest of Canaan, God did not close the door to his rest behind them (as he did, for example, for Noah upon his entering the ark; see Genesis 7:16).

Thus, with this additional work of confirmation done, we may consider what is new and astonishing in this text: (1) the tension between the effort required to enter (v. 11) and the cessation of labor upon entering (v. 10); (2) the evidently evangelical concern that one avoid even the appearance of having failed to enter (v. 1); and most importantly, (3) the nature of "the good news" that is (again) to meet with faith in those who are thus enabled to enter.

All three of these concerns are closely related to the apostle's straightforward and unambiguous claim that "we who have believed enter that rest" (v. 3). Neither this certainty, however, nor the decisive role of faith, nor the promised rest itself, exempt one from making "every effort" to enter. This seems quite paradoxical, of course, since the happy result of faith is so strongly assured. Why then is effort required at all? The apostle's spiritual logic would suggest two reasons: (1) to avoid lapsing into disobedience, and (2) to avoid discouraging or encumbering others by even seeming to have failed. In other words, entering is imperative, but so too is ensuring that others are able to enter and are not hindered by unfaithful or disbelieving stumbling blocks.

Finally, what is perhaps most interesting about this passage is the sense in which the homilist equates "the good news" of God's open rest as he and his audience have heard it with the good news that was proclaimed to, but not believed by, a generation of rebellious Israelites who died in the wilderness. There can be no doubt, in light of the epistle as a whole, that the apostle has in mind the Christian gospel; yet here he claims this "good news" came to Israel in the wilderness, centuries before Christ, and they (all but two of them: Joshua and Caleb) failed to receive or believe it.

This then begs the question: in what sense was the New Testament gospel conveyed in the Old Testament to this generation as they heard it, poised as they were on the threshold of (but unable to enter) God's rest? Approaching the question in this way should rightly send us in search of those hidden and overlooked signs of Christ in the Torah. (Thus, the reading of Numbers next week suggests a fruitful focus for such an exploration.)

But the question could also be posed another way: what dimensions of the Christian gospel as we have heard it may be read back into the Torah, retrospectively. The latter way of putting the question has always been somewhat controversial, but is nevertheless unavoidable and is even arguably normative. For as Paul asserts, the unveiling of Torah can only occur from the standpoint of Christ (2Corinthians 3:14–16); likewise, Kierkegaard's observation that we understand in hindsight, though we "live forward;" so too, Barth, Cullman, and 20th c. Basel theologians of the Reformed tradition who observed that, dogmatically speaking, revelation and Christology lead us to the doctrine of God, not the other way around.

To suggest but a few possibilities, we may wish to simply ask: "In what sense does the Christian gospel convey the desired and blessed rest?" A number of associations spring readily to mind: the light yoke assigned to those who come to Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30); the assurance of faith (Heb 10:22; 11:1; cf. 6:11); the kingdom of peace Jesus confers on his disciples (Luke 22:29; John 14:27); the freedom from worry and the unsurpassed peace that derives from the nearness of God (Philippians 4:4-7). Above all these, however, I would suggest that the rest the author of Hebrews has in mind is the good news of the resurrection itself, for he makes a point of indicating that the Sabbath (seventh day) is not the rest of which the Holy Spirit speaks in Psalm 95; rather, he seems to point beyond Sabbath to what the Epistle of Barnabas (15:8) describes as the eighth day, the Lord's Day, the "beginning of another world." In short, what Hebrews offers is an eschatological view of this rest that, even now in our day, remains open.

The early Christians, of course, took this as a warrant for worshipping the risen Christ on Sunday, the Lord's Day. But clearly there is more than a scheduling change offered us here. While scholars such as Walter Brueggemann suggest texts of exile and restoration are perhaps the best standpoint from which to address the North American church at present, I would propose alternatively that a Deuteronomic standpoint "on Jordan's stormy banks" is at least as compelling, if not more so. No, we are not as the pilgrim Puritans undertaking a great experiment on a new and wild continent, but we stand on a far greater threshold, where the faded glory of Christendom is no longer the predominant point of reference, but rather something more like the eschatological consummation. Advent is a season of apocalyptic expectation, and at this juncture in history, we should no longer be attenuating this expectation as we draw near to Christmas. On the contrary, in anticipation of the coming King of kings, we should be singing:

O'er all these wide extended plains
shines one eternal day;
there God the Son forever reigns, 
and scatters night away.

When I shall reach that happy place,
I'll be forever blest,
for I shall see my Father's face
and in his bosom rest.

Samuel Stennett (1727–95)

A note on Year D's Old Testament and alternative gospel lections

I think a reply to Steve Thorngate may be in order where the Old Testament selections in Year D are concerned. By conceding that a greater degree of subjectivity may well be involved in making these selections, I simply meant that this is an inevitable result of having to work from a much broader field of possibilities as we find in the larger testament. I did not mean to suggest these were purely subjective selections. Readers should not overlook the textual evidence of literary and thematic connections between Old and New Testament passages that I have identified and enumerated in Chapter 4.

Perhaps I should also add that, in suggesting a fresh body of gospel texts, other than the familiar and well used narratives, for the high holy days, I am not suggesting the preacher neglect the story, but that these alternative texts can lend a new revelatory angle on the familiar story that, owing to the occasion, is (for many people) already in mind. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Year D featured in The Christian Century

Check out this substantial piece by Steve Thorngate over at The Christian Century on lectionary expansion proposals. He gives a good bit of space to Year D, the Narrative Lectionary, and the African American Lectionary. It's a major article that took a good bit of time and labor to pull together. I'm grateful to Steve for the write up (despite some of the finer points on which we may disagree).

UPDATE: I was sorry to see Steve's piece made no mention of David Ackerman's book, my review of which can be found here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: But now I see David's book is mentioned along with a number of related sources in the bibliography, "A Wealth of Lectionaries," that Steve attached to his article.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hebrews 3:1–19

The third chapter of Hebrews is essentially a discourse on faith: the faithfulness of Jesus as the Son of God (vv. 1–6) and a call to faithfulness on the part of the reader or hearer of this homiletical epistle (vv. 7–19). The first word, "Therefore," however, obligates us to search for the antecedent in the previous passage (2:5-18).

Much of that passage concerns how Jesus fulfilled his mission: his temporary subordination (of a sort) to angels, his suffering, and his death "for everyone" (v. 9); indeed, his suffering even seems to have served his perfection, who is here for the first time termed the pioneer, and who is identified as one who sanctifies (v. 10), a task we normally associate with the Holy Spirit. But this raises the still more immediate issue of what Jesus has done, and that sanctifying or purifying work is stated most plainly in this "why" statement of purpose: "so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (2:14–15); furthermore, this liberating work (we should also note) serves God's purpose of "bringing many children to glory" (2:10). Again, the apostle reiterates the fact that Jesus' solidarity with his flesh and blood brothers and sisters in suffering — the how of his abasement — was necessary in order to "help those who are being tested" (2:18). But the what of his liberating mission is likewise restated in terms of his purifying, high priestly calling: "so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (2:17). 

With this complex description of Jesus' faithfulness as high priest, suffering pioneer, purifying atonement, and liberating destroyer of death, we may proceed to the discourse on faith, and having done our contextual work, it is easy to see how Moses' faith may be at once affirmed as that of a household servant and prophet of the things to come (vv. 2, 5), yet allowed to diminish in comparison to the faithfulness of Jesus, whose sonship is once more asserted, but now with an added layer of metaphorical complexity. With the introduction of the phrase "in all God's house" the apostle would almost seem to have the covenant with David in view, in which the LORD promises to build David a house; this everlasting Messianic covenant with David is not mentioned here, except perhaps by inference, but according to its assigned metaphorical roles, God is the builder of the house, and the promised Son of God/Son of David is the house itself (or so it would seem). Here, however, Jesus is both the builder (v. 3) and the Son of the builder (v. 6) whose faithfulness "over God's house" entails his headship, lordship, and oversight (such as we encounter in the Christology of Ephesians and Colossians)—all of these roles and functions far exceeding that of the household servant (Moses) in glory. Jesus' servanthood is no basis for comparison to Moses, for that is but one dimension of the Son's comprehensive and multifaceted identity, which here includes his administrative relationship to the house, the building from God (2Corinthians 5:1), of which we as his brothers and sisters are a part (v. 6). 

If one sits with this repository of Christological metaphors long enough, a similarly rich ecclesiological complex eventually presents itself at their marvelous nexus, that is, where the identity and coherence of the body or house derives from the head, while dexterity is expressed in the broader structure. What we should not miss, as we turn to the call to faith (vv. 7-19), is the sense in which the architectural and biologic-somatic metaphors are oddly conflated here, yet in a manner that is fully consistent with similar Petrine, Johannine, and Pauline expressions: the house is made of living stones (1Peter 2:5); the temple is the body of Christ (John 2:21); the members of the church are members of his body (Ephesians 5:30; 1Corinthians 12:12, 20). 

With the turn to ecclesiological application, the homilist of Hebrews urges faithfulness upon his readers/listeners; they (and we) "have become partners of Christ" (v. 14) and should therefore exhort and encourage one another daily (v. 13). But each if these positive assertions are deeply nested, indeed, are almost overwhelmed here by warnings against unfaithfulness. The prospect of partnership is conditional: "if only we hold our first confidence to the end" (v. 14); exhortation is to serve as a check against the hardness of heart brought on by "the deceitfulness of sin" (v. 13). 

The remainder of this chapter consists of a cautionary reminder that recalls the tragic episode of Israel's rebellion under Moses whereby an entire generation of those set free from slavery in Egypt died in the wilderness without entering the promised land, the promised "rest." The focus of the apostle's exhortation is Psalm 95:7–11, which (despite its function as a conditional stipulation here) eventually serves to remind us that, for all the time that has lapsed since that ancient rebellion, "the promsise of entering (God's) rest is still open" (4;1). For the time being, however, in the text before us, it is the stick, not the carrot, that lends rhetorical incentive: do not put God to the test (v. 9) or go astray in your hearts (v. 12); do not harden your hearts (v. 8) or turn away from the living God (v. 12); for such an unfaithful, disloyal, "unbelieving heart" is "evil" (v. 12). Meanwhile, this entire caveat, strong as it is, does not condemn blindness or senselessness for which people may be found faultless; rather, it speaks to a very particular existential experience: "Today, if you hear his voice ..." (vv. 7, 15). Israel, of course, had not only seen the delivering miracles and signs of God in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness; they had also heard the fearsome, unmediated voice of God at Sinai, where centuries later Elijah would discern it as "a still, small voice" or "the sound of sheer silence" (1King 19). Whether loud or soft, whether through a human mouthpiece or from on high, whether in the voice of the conscience or the stillness of one's heart, ... the voice of the LORD, when heard, is to be obeyed, not stiff-armed or rejected in a diversionary turn to sin. Neither is it to be tuned out, for all such forms of rejection and avoidance only serve to dull one's spiritual sensitivities and will eventually lure one into regions where no hope of rest shall ever be found. Here, as everywhere, these warnings would direct us to the narrow gate, Jesus Christ, the way of obedience and faith, through which, through whom alone, we may gain access to God's promise of rest. 





Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hebrews 1:13—2:4

The prologue to the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:1–4) is one of a handful of such texts (cf. John 1:1-18; 1John 1:1–4; Ephesians 1:1–14; Colossians 1:15–23) that speak of the pre-existence of Christ, and on that score alone it should be regarded as a deep, clear source that invites repeated, even continual, contemplation. It also lends such rich and vital literary context to what follows that it really should be included in any exposition of these subsequent verses (1:13—2:4). Since we are focusing, however, on material excluded from RCL, we take up with the conclusion of the supra-angelic excursus (1:5–14), where a final proof text (1:13) is cited to support the apostle's assertion that the Son of God (and his name) is immeasurably superior to the angels (and their names) (1:4). This final proof text is particularly significant, hence, its position as a rhetorical coup de grâce (and hence the inexplicability of its exclusion from RCL), in that it speaks not only of the Son's relationship to the Father (or in the original psalm setting, the LORD), but of his enthronement at the right hand of the LORD, elsewhere "the right hand of power" (Matthew 26:64); moreover, the chosen verse is taken from a psalm that testifies to this favored one's priestly role according to a new, yet pre-existent (non-Levitical) order, the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110; see also First Sunday of Christmas). This priestly role will be the focus of a lengthy exposition in Hebrews 4—10. Here, however, the seating of the Messianic Son, with his enemies converted (comically) into a footstool, clearly refers to the "rest," or the sitting down, of the Son of God after his great work whereby he "made purification for sins" (v. 3). 

By this work of purification, we mean, of course, no merely human labor or mundane task among many others, but the central work of redemption history, "the" work on which absolutely everything— every hope of salvation, renewal, restoration, reconciliation, the continuation of life itself—depends. Thus, where the prologue speaks of God's revelation through the Son, the Son's sovereign appointment as "heir of all things," his mediating role in creation, his glorious character, his equality with God, his power to sustain all things, his great work of purification, his incomparable superiority to the angels, and his heavenly enthronement, the conclusion of the excursus (1:13–14) and the summons to "pay greater attention" clearly assert that what is at stake in our doing so, in our attending to the revealing word and the atoning work of Christ, is our very salvation, the salvation in the service of which the angels themselves labor (v. 14). So "great" is this salvation that, were we to "drift away from it" (2:1), forget or "neglect" it, there would be no escape (2:3). Threatening as this may seem, the logic is as simple and straightforward as possible: how can one escape when one refuses the only means of escape? And if anyone is in doubt as to the greatness and comprehensiveness of this salvific means of escape (i.e., the Son of God and his purifying work), the apostle assures us (or takes as an utterly reliable presupposition) that, according to this Christological (and perfectly logical) revelation and his atoning work, "every transgression (and) disobedience (have) received a just penalty" (2:2). What incomparably good news!

As for the certainty and reliability of all this, we are reminded that this is the message of God himself, who has not only spoken it (1:1) through various messengers, but also attested to it by way of additional "signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit" (2:4). This means of escalating divine authority and assurance will be mentioned again very explicitly when the epistle speaks of God's sworn promise to Abraham (6:13). Though less explicit here, the same (at very least) doubling of the divine assurance is clearly indicated: the revelation of salvation comes from no less than God himself, and God himself has sworn to it repeatedly. With so much at stake then, and with such unimpeachable solid ground on which to trust it, the demand for "greater attention" on our part is—or it should be—absolutely riveting.



Monday, October 14, 2013

Psalm 41

The Psalm assigned for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time is Psalm 41, for its associations with the Last Supper, the gospel accounts of which are suggested for World Communion Sunday. The opening section of this psalm (vv. 1–3) asserts in general terms that the LORD blesses, delivers, protects, keeps, preserves, sustains, and heals "those who consider the poor." Such merciful people "are called happy in the land" (v. 2), for despite the many troubles from which the LORD preserves them, the assumption is that they will face them for a time — yes, they will have troubles, they will have enemies, they will fall ill on occasion — but the LORD will ultimately guard them and show them favor, and they will enjoy a good reputation as those who are so blessed.

With the phrase, "As for me ... " (v. 4), the psalm takes a decidedly specific and personal turn, and the focus remains on the psalmist and his circumstances until the final verse. What is remarkable in this section is the sense in which it is framed between, on the one hand, a plea for gracious healing, the rationale for which is a confession of sin against the LORD (v. 4), and on the other hand, a reiteration of the plea (with the expressed desire to "repay" the psalmist's enemies) attached to a word of self-assurance that the LORD must be "pleased with" the psalmist, and indeed has "upheld (him) because of (his) integrity" (vv. 10–12). The memory of the psalmist's confessed sin has receded entirely, and in fact the assurance is pregnant with eternal significance, for the LORD (sings the psalmist) has "set me in (his) presence forever" (v. 12).

In between the confession and assurance, an extended complaint (vv. 5–8) describes the conduct of the psalmist's enemies who visit him in his illness. What is startling about this description is the psalmist's characterization of the enemies' malice and their inwardly hostile motivations: "their hearts gather mischief" (v. 6), as compared to the description of the enemies' actions, which appear relatively benign and mundane. These enemies, unlike those in other psalms, do not ambush the psalmist or seek to murder him, but they simply wonder when he will die; their attempts at comforting words are "empty" and they go away gossiping. Their hostile actions consist of "thinking" the psalmist will soon expire (v. 8), of spreading the news of his condition "abroad" (v. 6) — no doubt in unduly pessimistic terms — and of whispering together: the kind of thing that occurs all the time in hospitals and nursing homes. It is even difficult to distinguish some of these actions, externally speaking, from the common practice of sharing concerns among the community of faith. Hence, in light of the sense in which the inward attitude is altogether decisive here, this psalm should stand as a cautionary tale for anyone who renders pastoral care or attends upon the sick.

One closing word of complaint escalates the psalmist's sense of betrayal, since he perceives the same conduct and hostility in his bosom friend who has "lifted his heel against me" (v. 9). This verse is taken up in the New Testament in association with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, as the phrase: "who ate of my bread" (v. 9b) is connected with Jesus' identification of the the one who "dipped his hand into the bowl with me" (Matthew 26:23; par.), an action that connotes a clear lack of respect and deference, or even a brashness akin to that of Esau who exchanges his birthright for some stew. The phrase "lifted the heel against me" clearly signals more than a mere departure, or a turning of one's tail (so to speak), but a traitorous turning away that amounts to permanent renunciation, an irreversible rupture of friendly companionship.

Nevertheless, from all this, the LORD delivers the psalmist such that his assurance is certain, his vindication is declared, his confession is (largely) forgotten, and the psalm ends with a doxological outburst (v. 13), blessing "the LORD, the God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting," and concluding with a double "Amen." Thus ends the first book of the Psalms.

Malachi 1:1-14

This is the first Old Testament lection assigned to Year D, i.e., for the First Sunday of Advent. Chosen primarily for the latter and larger portion (1:6-14) of this chapter, the whole chapter (1:1-14) has nevertheless been suggested. The opening section is admittedly difficult, contrasting the LORD's love of Jacob with his hatred of (or judgment against) Esau (Edom). If there is a ray of hope in this stark and startling text, it is surely in the conditional clause: "If Edom says, '... we will rebuild ...," only then will the LORD tear down "until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the LORD is angry forever" (v. 4). In other words, the threat of irreversible divine anger is not a certainty for Esau, but is conditional, based on whether Esau repents of rebuilding (i.e., resisting and refusing to accede to God's judgment). Perhaps this thorny opening passage may be best treated in conjunction with Romans 9:13 (see 28th Ordinary), but such an inflammatory text should not be introduced without a word of hope, and in this case, as in the New Testament generally, the Lord does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2Peter 3:9), a major theme of Year D.

More to the point for the Sunday in question, the oracular ministry of Malachi generally and the closing section of this chapter specifically (1:6-14) raise Advent themes on a number of levels. Broadly speaking, Malachi ("my messenger") forecasts the coming of the preparer of the way (3:1a; cf. Isa 40:3), and the sending of Elijah as the forerunner "before the great and terrible day of the LORD" (4:5). More narrowly, 1:6–14 raises the issue of a corrupt priesthood that habitually offers corrupt sacrifices of damaged, blemished, imperfect, and lame offerings from the flock. This in turn provides a fitting framework for the priestly and sacrificial focal points of the gospel and epistle lections, both in terms of their strictly human counterparts in Zechariah and John, and their fulfillment in the coming Messiah as holy lamb for the atonement and high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

The First Sunday of Advent is often an occasion for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, thus, the surprising reference to "the Lord's table" being polluted or profaned (v. 12) should invite (at very least) an attitude of self-examination; while the threshold of a new liturgical year serves as a fitting occasion to invite the people of God to offer a pure, whole, and whole-hearted thank offering to the LORD, with the reminder that the Messiah himself has gone before us and offered just such a perfect human offering on our behalf and modeled such worship for us to imitate.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Lutheran Forum

Just sent in an article on Year D to The Lutheran Forum, a print journal (where the current issue has a feature piece on "St. Søren Kierkegaard"). Thanks to Sarah Wilson for the invitation to contribute and place the prospect of lectionary expansion before our Lutheran brothers and sisters. I'll let you know when the article hits the press. Meanwhile, thanks be to God for each opportunity and each new denominational communion that is willing to consider including more of the written revelation in the preaching of the church, "that the Word of God may be fully known."