08 February 2016

The First Sunday in Lent, 14 February 2016

Deuteronomy 261:11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
St. Luke 4:1-13

Background: Temptation    
Looking at a series of articles on “temptation”, it was interesting to see that the word “trial” was used a great deal in attempting an understanding of the notion of temptation. In Greek, the noun, peirasmos, is masculine, while in Hebrew, the noun, maccah, is feminine – a reflection perhaps of how women were thought of in the biblical record. The idea of trial, actions being observed by an external entity, lends itself to a God who looks upon as we act in life. But there are other understandings of temptation, and indeed there is an understanding of temptation as a purely internal force as well. It is there that we find other means that seem appropriate: failing, rebellion, proving, and enticement. Indeed we can see all these forces at work in our understandings of what temptation is and means. If indeed it is a trial, is it a trial by God, or other “high powers”, or by our peers. Or, does it need to be a sentient entity at all – does my television tempt me, or the candy box. Some thoughts as we walk with Christ, and encounter temptation in our entrance into Lent.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

The Gospel will tend to make us associate this particular Sunday with temptation, but this reading does not. It connects this day with remembrance, journey, and salvation. The context, of course, is the journey, as Israel moves from Egypt to the land of promise. The effect of the words, however, is remembrance, and presented to us as a liturgy as well. The remembrance of Israel and its subsequent salvation becomes the stuff of prayer and chant. For those of us who have done Seder with Jewish friends and family, the passage that begins, “My father was a wandering Aramean,” will bring to the surface all sorts of images of the present day as well as the imagined past. In that remembrance the whole context of the “wandering” is provided for. The wandering includes Abraham’s movement from Mesopotamia through the Levant and into Egypt. There is a going in and there is a coming out. It is interesting to note that Egypt itself would become a temptation, when in the desert; the tribes would remember abundant food in the midst of slavery. What we also see here is the transition of a people from being wanderers to farmers, nomads to a settled people. Thus the Deuteronomist can recite about the first fruits that are due, and the subsequent verses will preach to us about the tithe. These remembrances, however, reflect a future time (when it was most likely written) in which there was a more complex society that involved not only people and Levites (and a Temple) but also “the aliens who reside among you”. All are bidden to celebrate the salvation that God has offered.

Breaking open Deuteronomy
  1. Where have you wandered in your life?
  2. How has God accompanied you?
  3. What kind of abundance has God given  you?

Psalm 91 Qui habitat

     He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2      He shall say to the Lord,
"You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust."
9      Because you have made the Lord your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,
10    There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
11    For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.
12    They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
13    You shall tread upon the lion and adder; *
you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet.
14    Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15    He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16    With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.

Oddly enough, one commentator describes this psalm as an “amulet psalm” in that it describes the protection that God offers to those who follow God. We have three people talking to us in this psalm. In verse 1, and verses 3-13, we hear from the psalmist, who describes the situation that will be explored theologically, “He who dwells in the shelter…abides under the shadow.” Unfortunately, some of these verses are not included in the liturgical selection, so you may want to read the entire psalm. Verse 2 is the words of the one who trusts in God, “You are my refuge and my stronghold…” Finally, God has a say in verses 14-16. The main theme can be seen in verse 10, “There shall no evil happen to you,” and verse 11 is used as a proof text by Satan in the Gospel reading for this morning. If we assign these words and connections only to the tempted Jesus, then we will miss out on the promises that are made to us as well, as we live amongst the world’s temptations and difficulties.

Breaking open Psalm 91
  1. What do you do or wear to protect yourself?
  2. How does that work for your?
  3. How is prayer like an amulet?

Romans 10:8b-13

"The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart"

(That is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

If the efforts of Luke and the other evangelists are to connect Jesus to the stuff and difficulties of our own lives, which I think is the case, and then we need to carefully heed Paul’s words of inclusion as well. What follows on a section of Roman’s that deals with God’s Election of Israel, (9-11) is a thought that embraces all of humanity, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” There are complementary ideas is Galatians (3:28). The quote is from Deuteronomy, “The word is near you…” and the sentiments are known in Jeremiah as well – that both word and faith exist on and in our hearts. Paul notes that this faith can be witness with our lips and with our heart, an external and internal extension of confession and witness. Like the psalm above, we have here a sense of a protective God, who monitors our progress and our failings – to lift us up. Paul urges us to call upon the name (see Joel 2:32), something that Jesus does not do, for all the right reasons.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. How is Jesus’ life like your life?
  2. How is it not?
  3. How do you confess Jesus?

St. Luke 4:1-13

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written,

'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'

'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

We step back in liturgical time. Over the last Sundays the Spirit has impelled Jesus, and we who have been following him in the liturgical readings, into the world in ministry, to reconcile, to heal, to confront, and to receive those who were easily forget. Now the lectionary sends us back to see that we have been journeying with someone who was “tempted in every way as we are.” The forty days are here (hmmm. Lent as forty days of temptation), redolent of Israel’s wanderings, the days of the flood, and so on. But then aren’t all of these moments of testing and probation. Certainly it was for both Israel and Noah; and certainly it is for us as well. What does Jesus come out of this with – a father’s approval? There is more here, I think, than meets the eye and ear. At the baptism we heard the voice announcing approval, and last Sunday we heard the same thing. Here the issue is, “what is my business – what is my intent”, questions that haunt the brooding Jesus as he thinks through was has happened following the Baptist and Jordan’s water. The problems are ones of humanity, authority, power, and relationship. Hunger and wealth we deal with on a daily basis, but how often do we think through our relationship with God. We know that Jesus wrestles with this – at least in the Garden of Gethsemane. What shall we do then, during these forty days? How shall we be tempted?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think of when you hear the word, “temptation”?
  2. In ways have you tempted others?
  3. What do you think of Jesus’ methodology?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

01 February 2016

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 7 February 2016

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
St. Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

Background: Mountains
Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion, stand out in the biblical record, by the designation of mountains, as sacred places is common to many ancient religions. Even artificial mountains filled the bill. As peoples moved south from the Russian steppes into the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, memories of sacred mountains caused the Ziggurat to be thrown up in the desert, with a house of God nicely perched at the top. The pyramids of Egypt and of Meso-America also functioned in much the same way – close to the heavens and to the gods. Thus too, the Greeks with their sacred mountains seenes of bloody battles between the titans and the gods, and in the Christian era, Mount Athos with its devotion to the Virgin and monastic life.

In todays readings we see the connections between the holy mountain of Sinai, and Moses, and the vision that the disciples see at Mount Tabor – the mount of the transfiguration. Even Calvary functions as a “high place” with its ultimate sacrifice. Here are echoes of the high places scene of much controversy in ancient Israel. Indeed, Jerusalem itself was such a “high place” with pilgrims mouthing the psalms of assents as they ascended from the valleys and low places to the Temple on Zion. To this day it is known as the temple mount. All of this is an excellent background to keep in our minds as we see the effect these high places have on the ones who are devoted to God.

Exodus 34:29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

It is easy to understand the inclusion of this pericope in the lectionary on this Sunday, which in the Lutheran Churches is named as The Sunday of the Transfigurations. Episcopalians save that nomenclature for the Feast on 6 August, but preserve something of the ancient tradition by retaining these texts. The focus of this pericope is not only Moses (his name is mentioned frequently) but also even more so on the effect of being in the presence of the divine. We understand that from the on-going glow that emanates from Moses’ face, and also from the veil that is used to conceal the divine radiation and holiness.  Such indirect theophanies are not peculiar just to Israel, but were also known in Mesopotamian culture and religious life. Thus it is an idea that had traveled with the people as they moved south into the Fertile Crescent. The fear that overcomes the people is a reflection of the fear of God that comes with exposure to the divine presence. Thus Moses is more than a prophet whose mouth is filled with the word of the divine – his face communicates God’s presence as well.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. When have you been close to the Divine?
  2. How did it change your life?
  3. How do you share the Divine with others?

Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.

The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.

Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.

"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."

Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.

Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.

He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.

O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.

Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

This is a theophany in poetic form – the multiple images giving us a sense of God’s presence as prophet, priest, and king. This notion will be assigned to Jesus as well. These are imperial images with God ruling over the heavens and the earth. The poem begins with a cosmic sense, with the God “great in Zion” and yet “high above all people.” This universal attitude quickly diminishes, however, as the last verses become more national in nature, with the mention of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, and allusions to the freedom from Egypt. The holy hill, the temples mount, Sinai, or Zion are all mentioned, and we see God ruling in the heights. In spite of all the images of might and power, the poet notes that God is the one “who forgave them.”

Breaking open Psalm 99:
  1. Are your images of God magnificent or simple?
  2. Why do you image God as you do?
  3. How does God rule in your life?

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Paul gives us two visions here. The first is a vision of the Glory of the Covenant, while the second is the Glory in weakness. All of what we have talked about in the first reading from Exodus, from the Psalm, and soon from the Gospel, is seen here in these two texts as well. Paul does something interesting here. He reverses the characterizations of the Exodus story. It is now the people who are “hardened” against the message with the minds veiled from the truth. Paul sees the Spirit “unveiling:” us so that we might perceive the glory that is in Christ Jesus. Paul also uses a notion from Jeremiah, where the law is not written on “stony hearts” but rather in the living flesh of the heart – so that we might know God intimately.

A new argument begins in the second half of this reading – really a different pericope. Here Paul recognizes the glory that comes to bear in spite of our weakness and difficulty. He sees the people of God renouncing the hindrances and weaknesses that beset us, “we have renounced the shameful things.” If faces glow with the revelation of God, then let them be unveiled.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. What veils you from your faith?
  2. What do you see as glorious about your faith?
  3. What is difficult about your faith?

St. Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]

In a series of stories of the activities of healing and teaching, Luke has us take a pause, as Jesus retires with some of his disciples (Peter, James, and John) and ascends to a high place to pray. It is interesting that the intention is to pray. In much the same way as at the baptism, the theophany is not the intent, but rather accompanies faithfulness (at the baptism) and prayer (at the transfiguration). There is a difference here. We wonder at the baptism if the crowd sees and hears what Jesus experiences. Here, however, it is the disciples’ perceptions that are shared with us. This is an exposition of the “hooks” to not only the past as experienced in the history of Israel (Moses and Elijah) but also to the future glory that will come upon Jesus, in unexpected ways. Some have seen this as a post resurrection appearance, while others recognize in it an anticipation of what is to come. The business of the world is always at hand, as the optional part of the reading shows us. The cares of the world are always present in spite of the glory. The focus is clear, however. After all the bright light, Luke adds, “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent.” One wonders if the silence comes from a mind at worship, or from the fear of being in God’s presence. Or, perhaps, they do not yet have the words to communicate how the Kingdom of Heaven has been opened up to them. Coming down from the mountain the works of the kingdom continue, and Luke clues us in to the reaction of the people, “And all were astounded” I wonder, did they remain silent as well?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How has Jesus transfigured your life?
  2. Are there moments when you wish to stay in a state of reverie?
  3. What brings you back into the world?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, who before the passion of your only ­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller