Phillips and Kobia

As part of my sermon preparation this week, I’ve committed myself to reading one sermon (or essay) each day on the topic of Sunday’s sermon. Two days into the process and I’m doing alright. My “low hanging fruit” is J. B. Phillips a British pastor and writer. J. B. Phillips is probably best known for his translation of the New Testament and for a book entitled Your God is Too Small. His little book New Testament Christianity has a chapter on each of the advent themes: hope, peace, joy (mingled in) and love. His essay on Peace deals almost exclusively with a sort of personal, spiritual and psychological peace.

Of Peace he writes, “‘Peace with God’ is sometimes rather carelessly used in religious circles as though it had only one connotation, as though all the problems of a complex human personality were solved if only a man [sic] would accept the redemptive sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Actually, this is an oversimplification, for although to accept the reconciliation which God has provided in an absolute essential, there are many other factors, especially among the more intelligent, which prevent the soul from being at peace” (p. 80).

In the essay he addresses:
1. The problem of Self-Pleasing (p. 81)
2. The resolving of inner conflicts (p. 82)–Guilt
3. The sharing of life with God (p. 83)
4. Realization of adequate resources (p. 84), “We probably are not adequate for all our ambitious schemes, and only at the cost of enormours nervous energy can we succeed in becoming momentarily what we really are not” (p. 84)
5. Peace as a positive gift (p. 85)
6. Alignment with the Purpose (p. 85), “However painful or difficult or, on the other hand, however inconspicuous or humdrum the life may be, the Christian finds his peace in accepting and playing his part in the the Master Plan. Here again we must ask ourselves, ‘Am I doing what God wants me to do?'” (p. 86).

Phillips words are very common to me. They fit nicely within the personalized and therapeutic mind set of the evangelical language. In contrast, I also read Dr. Samuel Kobia’s address to the international conference on violence and Christian Spirituality.

Dr. Kobia is the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. In his address he discussed the World Council’s initiative “Decade to Overcome Violence.” He referenced a World Health Organization report on violence and health. I’ve not found the explicit report he referenced however, one from November 24, 2001 said that “In the year 2000, 1.7 million death in the world were due to violence.” Kobia sites here the forms of violence like armed conflict, suicide, homicides and domestic violence. The problem is indeed staggering. But here’s my dilemma–what are we supposed to do about it? When he gets to the action stage of the the address, he spoke about prayers and Christian spirituality. I believe in prayer; I believe in spirituality. Yet, surely there is more than we can do.

Here’s the question I wrote down Sunday morning, “Can we, in good conscience, speak about peace as an internal spiritual quality and ignore the larger social-global ramifications of our world?” In the end, both Phillips and Kobia though they characterize the problem differently, prescribe the same remedy. What do people committed to peace do beyond refraining from violence? How do we help in the work to make peace?

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The Hope of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9
November 27, 2005

Fifty years ago, the British Christian pastor and writer, J. B. Phillips wrote an essay entitled “Ground for Hope.” He described a time 50 years prior as a time of “bouncing optimism.” I found this phrase curious for as I imagine the 1950’s–the time when J. B. Phillips was writing–I would imagine using the same description. The Leave It To Beaver Generation–surely there has never more been a time of bouncing optimism. Yet, as I read, I concluded that things hadn’t changed much from the time Phillips was writing to today. I concluded that Phillips must have overestimated the optimism of days gone by and that nearly every generation struggles with its unique set of anxieties and ills. We haven’t developed more problems in the intervening years just different ones. In the past fifty years, we have traded the enemy of communism for the enemy of terrorism, the threat of nuclear war for the threat of biological attack, the challenge of integration for the face of pluralism. Today we fear the possible breakout of a bird flu pandemic. In 1918-1919 the world witnessed a global flu pandemic that took the lives of between 20 and 40 million people. We watch the news and read the papers and we drown in the overwhelming flood of humanity’s ability to act inhumane and wonder if things have ever been this bad. Yet, every generation faces anxieties this includes the generations that gave to us holy scripture.

Whether we turn to the Bible for guidance or not depends a great deal on our outlook. While I am an advocate for Biblical hope, I recognize that Biblical hope is only one of a series of options. We can choose, as Phillips recognizes, wishful thinking. Wishful thinking sees the problems of today but feels powerless to respond. And so, we believe that some how God will simply whisk our problems away. We may also respond with unrealistic nostalgia–a naive view of the past that pretends we were somehow better, kinder, more Christian at some point in the past and if we could just get back there life would be good. The prevailing option however, in the face of our world’s complex problems seems to be atheistic analysis. By atheistic analysis I do not mean the analysis of atheists. Those who openly admit they do not believe in God and set out to prove that God does not exist do not concern me. I don’t encounter that many of them. What concerns me is what I see far too often–the functional atheism of professing Christians. How often do we set aside our beliefs about God in our discussions of politics, economics, psychology? Many Christians have decided that their faith works for nice pleasant occasions like weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easter traditions, but in the “real world” it’s of little value. When problem come their way it’s best to find the most applicable trend and the best wisdom of the age, than the most appropriate text and the wisdom of the ages.

Why is biblical hope superior to the other responses to the circumstances of the day? Again, J. B. Phillips writes that when we are reading scripture, “We are reading what was written by men at first-hand grips with realities, and it is astonishing and heartening to find how hopeful they are” (p. 47). Biblical hope provides the most constructive response to anxieties because it provides the one that affirms both our human abilities and limitations. Biblical hope points us to what we can do and points us beyond ourselves to the One who can do immeasurably more.

For now well over a hundred years, Biblical scholars have accepted the idea that Isaiah was written by two and perhaps three authors. Isaiah, the prophet of Jerusalem, composed chapters 1-39. Another prophet writing wrote chapters 40-55. A third prophet, or the second prophet in a different setting, wrote chapters 56-66. The three parts of Isaiah have always been edited together. They share common themes and theological outlooks. Nonetheless, the historic circumstances surrounding the author of our focal text are decidedly different from those of the early part of the book. Specifically, chapters 56-66 address those who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (see Ezra and Nehemiah). They now behold the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and God’s holy temple. The sight of the ruined temple provides the historical context for this prayer (Isaiah 63:18; 64:10-13). The prayer of Isaiah mixes contrition and confession, petition and hope. The contrition and confession comes as the prophet acknowledges how few call upon the name of the Lord or rely on God. The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem was understood by the prophet to be God’s punishment for sins. The petition and hope is expressed in the prophets desire for a rebuilt Jerusalem and temple. It is also in the desire to see vengeance served against God’s enemies–likely those who both destroyed the temple but also those who stand in the way of the temple’s reconstruction.

Isaiah’s prayer is an example of Biblical hope. Biblical Hope holds an honest vision of today’s circumstances along side an expectation that God will act for good. Correspondingly, it involves a commitment to align one’s self with the purposes of God. He prays, “Oh that you would rend open the heavens.” The word “apocalypse” literally means to uncover or reveal. We think of it as the end of the world but it is more accurately depicted in the sort of scene Isaiah imagines. Isaiah had heard the stories from his scriptures about God guiding his people to that place with a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Isaiah knew how God had made promises to Abraham, commissioned Moses, empowered Joshua, preserved Ruth and ordained David. Isaiah knew if they had any hope at all, God would have to act on their behalf. “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:4, NRSV).

If we are to emulate Isaiah’s Biblical hope, we also must cultivate an anticipation of a God who acts. Yet, we have a barrier here as the result of our expectations. The scientific world view says that when we encounter any phenomena we seek ways to explain, predict and control. How do we explain what takes place when grass converts sunlight, oxygen and water into cells? How do we explain what takes place when gas prices rise and fall? Once we’ve learned to explain things we learn to predict them. Meteorologists have their careers staked on their ability to predict. They look at trends and based on their understanding of those previous trends, they can suggest what the next day will be like. But our modern world view most wants control. We want to be able to eradicate diseases, persuade clients, sustain markets, and feed the population. Explain, predict, control is a great mantra for many things but it simply doesn’t apply to the activities of God. God’s actions cannot be explained. We do not know why God chooses to act at one point and not at another. Nor can we predict when God would act. I’d love to be able to give you a five day forecast on Sunday mornings. There should be a low tomorrow of mild disconnect from God and a high of scattered blessings. The blessings will begin to blow out of our area by Wednesday leaving us with cold speculation about the existence of God by Thursday. But God’s activities don’t work that way and even if they did, we could never control God. Biblical hope comes with no formulas; it comes with not plans. Since God’s activities do not fit into our world view’s template of explain, predict and control, many choose to relinquish faith.

Biblical hope however, focuses on the way God has acted in the past, on the nature of the promises made in scripture and affirms that such expectations can be placed before God in prayer. Knowing this makes Bible study of such crucial importance. By actually studying scripture we develop a sense of God’s character and a narrative of how God has chosen to act. People often do not turn to the Bible until they get in a bind and need quick answers. In the back of some Gideon’s Bibles, you know, it has a list of possible resources–if lonely read, page 455; if confused read, page 124, etc. But honestly the Bible doesn’t work that way. The wisdom of scripture comes through like the benefits of exercise–slowly at first but if we remain consistent it develops over time. If you have not committed to an intentional plan of Bible study, I hope you will. Isaiah is a great book to study in that regard. Occasionally I encounter people who describe their prayer life to me. A few times, people have said to me, “I don’t pray anymore. I don’t pray because it doesn’t work. I prayed for wealth [or whatever they prayed for] and I didn’t get it.” I’ve generally wanted to say in those moments, “What in the biblical story of faith made you believe that God would answer that prayer?” Isaiah rooted his prayer in the activities of God in this past.

Yet, Biblical hope also grounds itself in our need to align ourselves with God’s purposes. It is naive to think that God is here to serve our agenda. The problem with wishful thinking, unrealistic nostalgia and the functional atheism of today is that all of them are assertions of our rebellion. We want things our way and if God wants to fit into that agenda great but if not God can go back to heaven and play with the clouds and angels. Isaiah’s view of God isn’t so passive and fluffy. This God makes mountains shake and throws nations into chaos like burning twigs. This God crafts and molds people but doesn’t ask for our opinions or permission.
Ultimately, biblical faith reminds us that if we have any hope in this world it comes from repentance. Our hope comes from committing ourselves to doing God’s work.
It is in this conscious commitment to God’s plans that we find our response to all that causes us anxiety. Isaiah recognized that repentance was involved here.

The response to terrorism isn’t the war on terrorism but in missions of life. I have a college friend living in Malaysia who wondered if people from this church would be interested in a mission trip to his Island nation. I thought about all of the difficulties and challenges, the fears and anxieties that such a mission trip would create but I am reminded that if we want to experience God we may just have to visit God on the job. Our nation has been rocked this year by such destruction and damage. We cannot simply send our young people on a mission trip and call the work done. I pray that someone today will say we need at least one adult mission trip in 2006 to a location where God is calling us to participate in God’s work: it could be to God Samaritan Outreach Center in Los Fresnos, Texas to work with Filoberto Perrara, it could be Jackson, Mississippi or it could even be to Malaysia but we find our hope by aligning ourselves with God’s work in the world. Isaiah prayed to God, “You meet those who gladly do right.” Let’s be those people whom God meets.

Third Sunday of Advent–Philippians 4:4-9

Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2005
Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord Always, Again I say Rejoice. Paul uses the word rejoice or some variation of it, eleven times in the small letter to the Philippian Christians 1:18 (2), 2:17 (1 and derivative 2:18 (1 and diravative) 2:28, 3:1, 4:4 (2) and 4:10. The word by itself simply means to be joyful or to be happy. Yet, Paul does not admonish the Philippians to be happy in general. Rather by looking at the specific ways he uses the word, we can identify four specific characteristics of rejoicing for Paul.

1. Paul’s rejoicing comes in the face of unpleasant circumstances. In 1:18, he says that although there are those who proclaim the gospel out of selfish greed, he rejoice that Christ is proclaimed. In 2:17-18, he acknowledges that he is being “poured out” that is he is being exhausted in the service of the Lord. Joy does not depend on our circumstances but rather depends on choice.

2. Paul’s joy is communal. Repeatedly Paul implores the Philippians to rejoice with him (the meaning of the word sugcharis He has joy from their concern for him (4:10) and he recognizes that they will rejoice having Epaphroditus returned to them (2:28). Joy is made complete within the communal fellowship of the early church.

3. Paul’s joy is contagious. 2:17-18 expresses a reciprocal quality to joy. He rejoices with them and wants them to rejoice with him. Their joy feeds one another.

4. Paul’s joy is theocentric. The word theocentric means centered on God. God is at the center of their Joy. So it is that Paul uses the phrase in the Lord to modify rejoice. If repentance is returning to God’s grace in the face sin; rejoicing is returning to God’s joy in the face of sadness. Or perhaps more accurately from this context, returning to God’s peace in the face of anxiety. God is the source of joy. Joy is not found apart from God but in God.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. Paul is pleading with two persons in the church who seem to be at odds with one another (4:2-3).

The Lord is Near. Does Paul mean that the return of Christ is near (see the preceding discussion) or does he mean that the Lord is presen? Certainly Paul emphasizes both an apocalyptic return of Christ (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:3) and also the presence of Christ. Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10-11), in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-28) and through God’s on-going work (2:13). Since nothing leading up to this point has suggested the nearness of Christ’s return, it is best to think of the nearness of the Lord in this sense as a reassurance that Christ is present with the church.

Do not be anxious about anything. The Philippian Christians may well have been anxious about several matters. (1) They were concerned about their friend Epaphroditus who had apparently gone to Paul with a collection from the Philippian church to support him while he was in prison and/or house arrest. He had become ill–which the Philippians had almost surely heard–and almost died. (2) They were concerned about Paul’s plight (4:10-120). The primary reason for Paul writing–it appears–was to thank the church for their concern and to reassure them of his well-being and contentment in every circumstance. (3) They were concerned about the demands it seemed certain Judaizers were trying to persaude them to meet (chapter 3). It appears from this portion of the letter that a group of Christian leaders who sought to adhere to a version of Jewish righteousness that emphasized purity laws (eating kosher and circumcision) had sought to persuade the Philippians to follow suit. This was also the issue in Galatians. Paul takes some time to refute these leaders in the middle part of the letter.

But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests to God. The response to the following forms of anxiety is a consistent prayer life filled with praise (prayer), requests (petition) and thanksgiving. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Peace of God should be understood as peace with God. Paul did not have here in mind the Greek or Roman concept of a cessation of war but thought much more of the Jewish concept of shalom. Keep in mind that the context (4:2-3) speaks of an end to a conflict within the church. Peace of God relates also to peace with sisters and brothers. As James D. G. Dunn writes, “As the most fundamental of all human relationships, a positively interactive relationship with God is the basis of all other fruitful relationships. Without it human community cannot fully flourish” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 387). Paul recognizes that there is something mystical and not entirely explainable in the peace of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworth–think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from em, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Paul’s concluding admonition consists of pleoxia or the compilation of a string of ideas. This is seen frequently in Paul’s “vice catalogs” (Romans 1:29-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21) and in his virtues catalogs (2 Cor. 6:6; Gal 5:22-23; Col 3:12). It’s a rhetorical device meant to emphasize the virtues but should not really be subjected to excessive scrutiny.
Paul calls his readers to follow his example which he has done before.

Second Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2005
2 Peter 3:8-18 (Peace)
Debate about the authorship of 2 Peter has continued for as long as the book has been a part of the discussion among Christians. In the third century, Origen wrote “Peter, on whom the church of Christ is built–against which the gates of Hades will not prevail–left one epistle of acknowledged authenticity. Suppose we allow that he left a second; yet, this is doubtful” (from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot, p. 516). Second Peter was the last book to actually be canonized into the New Testament showing the obvious skepticism the church showed to its authenticity. A few internal clues to its pseudonymous authorship include:

  • Peter himself died in 64 yet the letter contains references to historical events that happened much later.
    –The collection and circulation of Paul’s letters and their view as “scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16) probably did not occur until at least the late 90’s.
    –The passing of the Apostles (2 Peter 3:2) and the diminishing hope of Christ’s return (2 Peter 3:4)
  • Complex Greek that is doubtful of a first century Jewish fisherman.
    Saying that Peter didn’t write 2 Peter is a little more threatening than saying Matthew didn’t write the gospel of Matthew. None of the gospels explicitly claim any specific authorship. The authors were placed on them after the fact by tradition. However, the opening verse of 2 Peter says it was written by Simon Peter. Some conservative scholars defend Peter’s authorship of the letter. Yet the conservative scholar Bruce Metzger who offers credible–or at least plausible–defense of Peter’s authorship of 1 Peter writes, “In light of such intenral and external evidence [similar to what’s been detailed above] one must conclude that II Peter was drawn up sometime after A.D. 100 by an admirer of Peter who wrote under the name of the great apostle in order to give his letter greater authority” (The New Testament, Its Background, Growth and Content, p. 258-259).

There are other conservative biblical scholars who defend Peter’s authorship. But should we choose to accept the majority opinion that Peter did not write 2 Peter, what do we do with a book that seems to contain such an obviously false statement? Do we simply ignore it? There are those who would say indeed we ought to intentionally ignore certain passages which contain content which we find exceedingly problematic. That is, we ought to have a canon within a canon. Certainly, whether we do so intentionally or not most of us function with such a canon within a canon–emphasizing certain passages and de-emphasizing others. A fact that some people relish in pointing out by referring to our unwillingness to stone our children for back talk as scripture would direct (Deut 21:18-21). For people so inclined, they could simply ignore 2 Peter and write it off as nonauthoritative since it seems to falsely present itself as the work of Jesus’s apostle.

Others defend the pseudonymous letters as scripture. Disciples biblical scholars Boring and Craddock emphasize that pseudonimity bothers us more than it would a first century person. The practice, they argue, was much more common then. Further they write, “The issue in each case [of pseudonymous authorship] is whether the document concerned represents the apostolic faith. The fact that the books are in the canon indicates that the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, heard in these documents the word of God, the authentic witness to the apostolic faith, as it tried to find its own way forward after the death of the apostles but before any authoritative tradition, canon, or organizational structure had been accepted” (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 595). We can choose to ignore it or choose to accept it on the grounds that the Holy Spirit was at work not merely in the writing of the texts but also in the collection and canonization of the texts of the New Testament.

Obviously since I’ve chosen to preach on this text, I’m not one who believes it ought to be ignored. There are certain passages in both the Old and New Testament that I find so problematic that I do not believe they represents God’s word. The charge that gets rightfully made against people like me who choose to willfully deny the authority of certain passages is “How do you decide?” Aren’t we putting ourselves above scripture and making ourselves judges of the text rather than allowing the text to judge us? I haven’t worked out a completely acceptable answer to this question but here are a few guidelines that I try to follow.

  • I do not deny the authority of a passage simply because it calls me to do something I don’t want to do or asks me to believe something I find hard to believe.
    I don’t like what Jesus said about seeking retribution (Matthew 5:38-42). Oh well. My discomfort doesn’t justify ignoring Christ’s teaching. I have find it hard to believe in the whole demon possession of a person but my incredulity doesn’t mean I get to ignore exorcism texts. I am obligated to wrestles with those texts even if I find them hard to grasp or accept at face value.
  • I cannot construct of view of scripture that excuses my behavior but judges others.
    My friend Doug Skinner has said, “Be careful of anyone whose theology brings all the good news to them and all the judgement to someone else.” Put another way, in the Old Testament a prophet was often called upon to bring words of God’s judgment against a group of people. God used them to call people to repentance. I believe few people are called by God to play that role. On the other hand, all of us are called to examine ourselves and seek to pursue holiness and serve the kingdom of God.
  • I can only deny the authority of a particular passage on the basis of a strong sense that the passage denies my understanding of the Gospel (God’s good news for humanity) and God’s vocation (what God expects people to be and to do).
    Paul Ricoeur has described the situation in Protestantism where “you can criticize the Bible only by citing another text from the Bible” (from Figuring the Sacred, p. 71). In saying this, Ricoeur was being descriptive of Protestantism’s tendency. He didn’t necessarily advocate it as the correct approach. Such a practice leads to the accusation that you “can prove anything with the Bible” or justify any behavior from some passage of scripture. People line up their passages “for” or “against” whatever they themselves are “for” or “against.” We must be diligently avoid such a practice. However, there is a sense of the gospel and its implications that can be articulated across the breadth of the Biblical witness. We identify that gospel by looking at the frequency and primacy of biblical testimony. Similarly, we can through discernment identify that which God expects us to do–God’s commands for a pure life and God’s call to service, mission and ministry. This process of discernment requires consistent and prayerful scripture study. It rarely works that we can come at the Bible with “our” questions and get straight answers. What does work is to cultivate a practice of daily scripture reading and deep, intentional Bible study in conversation with other Christians, that enables us to arrive at answers when they are needed. Well, that’s a long detour from the actual text. But, I thought it needed to be said and here’s as good a time as any to say it.

Our scripture reading begins in verse 8 which actually divides the actual thought. The author begins a new section of the letter in verse 1 where he explains his purpose in writing. The writer sought to return his audiences attention to continuing in the teaching they had received. In the opening passages of the letter (2 Peter 1:3ff), he describes the process of continuing in the faithful walk despite the corruption that surrounds us. Along with faith, he says, we must make every effort to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love. He certainly suggests that those who lack these qualities fall short of God’s expectations and they do not experience the fullness of God’s promise (2 Peter 1:8-11). This process is called sanctification. Sanctification is a process by which the Holy Spirit works in us to cultivate a Christ-like nature. In the simplest terms, sanctification is godly self-improvement. It requires endurance. In particular for the audience of 2 Peter, the motivation to live a holy life and work toward sanctification came with the belief that Christ would come back soon. However, as time wore on and Jesus’s apostles began to die, the sense that Christ would return soon began to wain. Scoffers apparently compounded the problem for the early church mocking their belief in Christ’s eminent return. Second Peter addresses this concern head on reminding readers that God’s time and ours are not the same. “A day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.” If we think God is being slow, we are calculating slowness on our scales and trying to impose those scales on God. God is not confined by creation; God is the Creator.

In this is also a motivation. God’s delay in bringing history to a close is not stoic apathy toward our human plight. God is not teasing us by waiting so long. Rather, God’s delay is born out of God’s love. God doesn’t desire anyone to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Verse 10 raises speculation about the “day of the Lord” or what some now call the “rapture.” All too often, people speculate about the who, what, when, where and how of this day and forget prophetic trajectory. What do I mean by prophetic trajectory? I mean the point that a biblical writer was trying to make. Read through the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the book of Revelation in the New Testament, and other books, and you will read about scenes of incredible destruction. In these futuristic visions, God is portrayed as one who comes to bring destruction and judgment to the world. This pictures can be both exciting and frightening. Yet fixating on the these scenes without considering their purpose is a bit like reducing the Fourth of July to a day of fireworks. Yes, the fireworks are salient symbols of July 4th but we celebrate the Fourth of July to commemorate our nation’s founding. Similarly, the scenes of the Day of the Lord in the Bible serve a broader purpose. In this case, they grasp our attention and call us to holy living. “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness . . ?” (vs. 11). Given all these, we strive to be at peace, without spot or blemish, patient and wise. Regardless of what we believe concerning the Day of the Lord, Peter’s call is to endure in the process of sanctification.

Isaiah 64:1-9

First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2005
Isaiah 64:1-9 (Hope)

For now well over a hundred years, Biblical scholars have accepted the idea that Isaiah was written by two and perhaps three authors. Isaiah, the prophet of Jerusalem, composed chapters 1-39. Another prophet writing wrote chapters 40-55. A third prophet, or the second prophet in a different setting, wrote chapters 56-66. The three parts of Isaiah have always been edited together. They share common themes and theological outlooks. Nonetheless, the historic circumstances surrounding the author of our focal text are decidedly different from those of the early part of the book. Specifically, chapters 56-66 address those who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (see Ezra and Nehemiah). They now behold the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and God’s holy temple. The sight of the ruined temple provides the historical context for this prayer (Isaiah 63:18; 64:10-13). The prayer of Isaiah is a mixes contrition and confession, petition and hope. The contrition and confession comes as the prophet acknowledges how few call upon the name of the Lord or rely on God. The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem was understood by the prophet to be God’s punishment for sins. The petition and hope is expressed in the prophets desire for a rebuilt Jerusalem and temple. It is also in the desire to see vengeance served against God’s enemies–likely those who both destroyed the temple but also those who stand in the way of the temple’s reconstruction.

This texts uses a variety of metaphoric images to convey its message. Isaiah asks that the enemies be caused to be like twigs ablaze or like boiling water. The picture envisioned is that of chaos. Unlike a log or coals which burns steadily and predictable, kindled twigs burn rapidly. They crackle and pop. The air pockets in the space between the wood causes the flames to bounce off one another. Similarly, boiling water rolls and bubbles. The writer had likely seen armies lined up in long, orderly rows, marching to destroy. He prays for their ordered marched to be disassembled.

To describe “us” (i.e., the people of Judah), Isaiah said that they had become like one unclean and like filthy rags. Unlike today where we make dish towels for the explicit purpose of cleaning, rags were probably the remaining material of old, worn garments. Something once in tact had become torn. Next, Isaiah describes his people as dried leaves. Something once vibrant had become lifeless. Finally, Isaiah, perhaps extending the metaphor of dried leaves, says that they have been blown about. Something once grounded has become scattered. Isaiah’s description of how they are encounters his image of what they might be–clay in the hands of God, the potter. In the act of making a pot, a potter reverses the process that Isaiah has described. Taking useless, scattered, earthen materials, the potter forms the pot into a useful, in tact, assembled object.

There is a close relationship between the hope that Isaiah has for the reforming of the temple and the city and the activity of repentance and God’s forgiveness. Where we often think of forgiveness as purely and internal matter, this writer envisioned forgiveness as an essential step in rebuilding the physical world in which they lived. It would to some rethinking, but it is perhaps some rethinking we ought to do, for us to consider repentance and forgiveness as essential steps in the rebuilding of our finances, our families, our careers, our church structures and our communities.

Biblical Reflections

As part of my sermon preparations, I try to write a summary of the exegetical work I do for the sermon preparation. I call them “Biblical Reflections.” They work best when they are done weeks in advance. I have not, however, been successful in accomplishing that for quite some time. I have decided to start postin these to this blog instead of sending them via e-mail.

Next Blog

At the top of most of the blog sites through blogspot, there’s a “Next Blog” button. Lately, I’ve been randomly moving browsing blogs. It amazes me how many people use their blogs to wrestle with issues of faith. Even in a church as open-minded as ours, I don’t see people asking the same complex, reflective or difficult questions as I do out on the internet. Could it be (a) that the people who ask the most interesting/important theological questions don’t come to church; (b) that when they come they don’t ask their questions out loud; (c) that church doesn’t provide a context for serious question asking; (d) people are asking questions at church but I simply don’t hear them because too many people are relating some benign detail of their week.