Friday, November 29, 2013

Second highest month of traffic

With another day and half to go in the month of November 2013, The Year D Project has registered the highest traffic figures for any month since its inception. (Now, if only the zombies, vampires, and other stat robots would bug off, the numbers might be more meaningful and worth sharing.) 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Micah 7:1–20

(vv. 1–7). Jesus quotes Micah's closing lament (7:1–20; see. v. 6) in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 10:21; Mark 13:12; Luke 12:53) to warn of a time when the most intimate and trusted family relationships will have broken down. In the context of the gospels, this constitutes a prophecy of division and persecution in apocalyptic times for Jesus' missionary followers. For Micah, it is a result of the total corruption of the people, the disappearance of the faithful (7:2), the refusal to bear the "summer fruit" of repentance (7:1), and the utter predation and perversion of justice by those in authority. The first four verses read like a dystopian nightmare (in the vein of Psalm 12) while the closing phrase of v. 4 — "now their confusion is at hand" — captions the imperatives of v. 5 and the reasons given for them in v. 6. In short, their confusion results from the fact that the corruption is now so pervasive it undermines even those relationships assumed to be most friendly and safe. The corrupt can trust no one, neither friend nor loved one, neither wife nor mistress (v. 5); their very households are full of enemies (v. 6).

In contrast to this thoroughgoing depravity, the prophet sets himself and the LORD apart: "But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me" (v. 7). It is a revolutionary resolution, a song of trust that, though brief, comes as no small relief and offers strong assurance: there is One who is still supremely and uniquely worthy of faith, sure to hear, and mighty to save!

(vv. 8–10). In setting himself apart from the depravity, violence, and injustice of his enemies, however, the prophet does not claim to be without sin. Rather, he confesses, "I must bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him" (v. 9a); nevertheless, he qualifies this, for he knows that his suffering will be temporary; that is, "until he takes my side, and executes judgment for me" (v. 9b). For this reason, the prophet cautions his enemy: "Do not rejoice over me" (v. 8a). But his confidence is no triumphant self-confidence; it is a testimony of faith in the LORD: "when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me" (v. 8b); "he will bring me out to the light; I shall see his vindication" (v. 9b). Clearly it is not the prophet's own vindication that is sought, but that of the LORD. The prophet's faith and hope is placed in the one—in the holy One—rather than in himself.

The fact that the LORD's vindication is at stake becomes even clearer in the next verse, where it is revealed that the last minute recognition and the shame of the enemy will come at the very moment of the enemy's downfall, who had taunted Micah: "Where is the LORD your God?" (v. 10) Who is this singular feminine enemy? One possible reading (e.g., NIV) suggests this whole portion is a song of Zion, thus, Micah's repentance vicariously embodies that of the city whose downfall he earlier predicted (3:12). In other words, "my enemy" is a conglomeration of other nations allied against Zion. If so, the singular representation of a plural entity goes unresolved, not only with respect to the enemy or enemies but also with respect to the repentant prophet who waits for the LORD on behalf of an unrepentant and pluralistic society.

On the other hand, it is possible that Micah is testifying, like Jeremiah, against the corruption of the city herself. It is just possible that corrupt Zion is the enemy, while the prophet speaks solely for a righteous remnant within. Neither interpretation conflicts with the rising hoped for here or the expansive restoration forecast in what follows (v. 11ff.). The former would signify more clearly the intercessory grace of Christ on behalf of those lost in darkness (cf. Isaiah 9), while the latter would serve to narrow the focus on the significance of Micah's ministry for Jeremiah and his time (Jeremiah 26:20). Either way, the focus takes on a particular acuity: on vicarious repentance and intercession, or on the singular uniqueness of true faithfulness; by either route, we are soon led to "the light" of the LORD (Micah 7:8, 9), Jesus Christ.

(vv. 11–13). With the defeat of the enemy, the prophet envisions a restoration that begins thus: "A day for the building of your walls!" (v. 11a) The image is not restrictive though, since the new walls will mark a vastly expanded territory that includes former enemies, Egypt and Assyria, and encompasses a busy, vibrant zone in which people travel freely "from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain" (v. 12). People shall be drawn to the large, safe, and prosperous nation from north and south, but the rest of the earth beyond its expanded walls "will be desolate;" and this desperate state will be the direct result, "the fruit," of the conduct of those—it would seem fair and even tautological to say, anti-Zionist—entities that are hostile to Israel.

(vv. 14–17). This section unfolds in two contrasting thoughts: an invocation of Israel's divine shepherd, and a prophecy of the response of the nations put to shame. First, the prophet appeals directly to the LORD, asking him to "shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you ..." (v. 14a). The setting for this pastorale is described nostalgically. The flock "lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land," suggesting a peaceful, intimate existence with her shepherd, where she may "feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old" (v. 14b). Yet, the prophet's pastoral vision is neither drowsy nor dull: "Show us marvelous things," he asks, such as the mighty things the LORD did when he led Israel "out of the land of Egypt" (v. 15). In other words, such prosperity and security as Israel will enjoy in the garden with her shepherd-king will not be without marvel, miracle, drama, or spectacle. But she will nevertheless be secure.

By contrast, "the nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might." This phrase suggests two things: (1) all their might, the totality of the worldly forces arrayed against Israel will have been imposing indeed, compared to Israel's physical and military means of defense, but this overwhelming force will itself appear shamefully minuscule and ineffectual compared to the incomparable rod and "staff" of the LORD (v. 14a; cf. Psalm 23:4); shamefully minuscule and shamefully cruel and corrupt, for "they shall lay their hands on their mouth; their ears shall be deaf" (v. 16). The roar of war will have cost them their hearing; its terrible toll will render them speechless; yet it is also clear from what has gone before (v. 13) that its deadly results will have been reflexive. The nations shall have unleashed this hell, directed at Israel, upon them themselves—the ultimate backfire. Therefore, when the nations "come trembling out of their fortresses" to "turn in dread to the LORD our God," they shall come groveling on their bellies, licking the "dust like a snake; like the crawling things of the earth" (v. 16).

The final word is directed once again to the LORD: "they shall stand in fear of you" (v. 17). We should notice not only the victorious certainty that the LORD shall be held in awe and reverence by those once hostile to him and his people, but also the change in the posture of these conquered and subdued enemies. They have slithered from their strongholds, senseless, at their defeat; but as they "turn" or "turn in fear" to the LORD—as they repent!—they find themselves no longer slithering, but standing! And in this redemptive situation, the stage is set for the final, climactic song of adoration and assurance, with which this chapter, and the book of Micah itself, closes.

(vv. 18–20). In the final song, the prophet expresses wonder to God at his forgiving nature (v. 18a); assures God's people (with third person reference to God) of God's merciful and compassionate intentions (vv. 18b–19a); and turns to address God (once again in the second person) with the conviction that God will act in faithfulness (in accordance with his sworn promise to the patriarchs) to finally separate the people from their sins (vv. 19a–20).

"Who is like you?" Micah asks. But the cause of the prophet's wonder is not, in this instance, the incomparable power of God, but his "pardoning iniquity, and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession" (v. 18a). Beneath and behind the very notion of iniquity and transgression is the assumption that such sinful and unholy things, in the presence of the holy God, inevitably invite a volatile confrontation, a clash of qualitative opposites that can only result in a destructive explosion of divine anger. But here it is God's restraint of his power, not his power itself, that the prophet finds astonishing.

Such anger as we might have expected, we are told, is only ever temporary: "he does not retain his anger forever" (v. 18b);) but even more wonderful is the reason given for this reminder of what the psalmists have sung for generations (see, e.g., Psalm 103:9): "because he delights in showing clemency" (v. 18b). God's is no begrudging, teeth-grinding, fist-clenching forgiveness. His compassion and mercy are wholehearted and utterly good-willed, and the prophet assures us we will know them in future when "he will tread our iniquities under foot." Such a trampling action is reserved for the iniquities, not the iniquitous, and while the cynical world often objects to hearing the formulaic claim that "God loves the sinner but hates the sin," here, in this clear dramatization of the truth that persists despite all protestations, we gain the sense that God's hatred of sin, and of the power of sin, derives from what it does to his beloved. His trampling of iniquities, and the promise that he shall "cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (v. 19b), suggests that God regards them with revulsion, not because they are part of our nature, but because they are contrary to the nature of Christ; they are enemy invaders, spoilers, perversions of our intended nature. We would not say, "God loves you and he loves your cancer, your addiction, your uncontrollable anger, too." If the cancer of sin, the self-destructive addiction, the murderous rage can be removed and life restored, then we can be sure God desires to cast out such enemies. Thus, there is a strong sense here that, as Paul, who identifies death as "the wages of sin" (Romans 6:23), will later say: "the last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1Corinthians 15:26). Of all the enemies that Micah has mentioned in the course of his prophetic service, sin and death are the archenemies and the last to be defeated; but defeated they will be, and most decisively. Such a victory is the sworn promise of God, from the beginning, to the patriarchs (Micah 7:20) who saw it from afar, and to us who know and welcome it in the faith of Jesus Christ, in whom there is no sin whatsoever.

"The Genesis and Purpose of Year D"

My aforementioned article on "The Genesis and Purpose of Year D" is available (in print only) in the new (Winter 2013) issue of The Lutheran Forum

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ezekiel 33:23–33

This is a bleak text that has nothing in particular to do with Christmas Eve, aside from perhaps its bleak setting. Ezekiel, in the twelfth year of Judah's exile in Babylon, has just had news of the fall of Jerusalem. On July 10, 586 BC, the wall was breached; on August 14, the temple was burned; on January 8, 585 BC, a refugee arrived with the news (33:21–22). Soon thereafter, the word of the LORD speaks to Ezekiel regarding the survivors, "the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel" who "keep saying, 'Abraham was one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given to us to possess" (v. 24). Their reasoning is classic collectivism. The individual as such is inferior and subordinate to the group and the needs thereof; therefore, if an individual associated with, or in this case, at the genealogical head of, the group receives some good, the group must therefore be entitled to at least the same, if not a better good. Such thinking is purely quantitative and numerical; its logic is that of the ruling majority or even the mob.

But the word of the LORD to them through Ezekiel introduces the essential qualitative distinction, i.e., holiness, that is entirely missing from their thinking, and the prophecy declared to them is not only that they shall not possess the land (vv. 25–26), but that their numbers shall be drastically reduced by the sword, wild animals, and pestilence, until the land and its mountains are "desolate" and "its proud might shall come to an end" (vv. 27–28).

This devastation has a purpose: "then they shall know that I am the LORD." And the sign that shall make this knowledge clear is the LORD's laying waste the land, owing to "all their abominations that they have committed" (v. 29). What abominations? Each one is an unholy violation of the covenant, of the people themselves, and of the land: eating (raw) meat with its blood; the exaltation and adoration of idols; bloodshed; violent self-rule; adultery; and other unspecified abominations (vv. 25–26).

It requires no great leap of the imagination to recognize that all of these, even in the popular cult of vampirism, are still with us today, some 2700 years later, each one a qualitative departure, from the holy faithfulness that we associate with the single individual Abraham, into the vileness of popular abandon. But the LORD will show the abominable mob what he thinks of their collective claim of their entitlement to the land he promised to Abraham.

But lest you think I have cast this in terms that are too political for one side of the aisle to bear, there is another word from the LORD for those—may we consider them a certain class of biblicists?—who profess to admire and even adore the words of the prophet—esthetically!— especially as his oracles impress with their form and poetic beauty. These are those who are near to the prophet, and even preoccupied with what he has to say; moreover, they even listen to him with the expectation that they shall hear a word "from the LORD" (v. 30). Churchy people, indeed. Yet their attention to his words is restricted to an appreciation of their artistry: "To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it" (v. 32). For them, hearing never turns to heeding; listening never leads to action. "For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain" (v. 31).

It is not entirely clear how they expect to gain from mere listening, but somehow they regard acting on the word as too costly to themselves. There is an innate selfishness about them, an ungenerous and stingy spirit of pretension and hypocrisy. They are connoisseurs and consumers of the word, rather than doers thereof (Romans 2:13; James 1:22–25).

In contrast to both the collectivist and the consumerist crowds, there remains the solitary figure of faithful Abraham to whom the promise of the land, and the promise of a son and heir,  a "seed," was given (Genesis 17:4–8; Galatians 3:15–18). While many attributes of Abraham and Jesus Christ his "seed" may present themselves for consideration at this point, the contrast, in light of this text, is best drawn in terms of the holy faith and the obedience of this unique individual.

To summarize, the aim of any sermon on this text should not be to preach individualism or the individual per se, but to narrow in on the holy obedience of the true heir of Abraham. Neither should it be an austere attack on beauty, form, or the art appreciation that always seems to emerge at Christmas, but a call to the active imitation of Christ the Word, which poetic "doing" is the very substance of discipleship. And that, after all is said and done, is certainly a fitting word for Christmas.