Advent 4, Year C–Micah 5:2-5a

The last week of advent features a common Old Testament passage because it predicts Bethlehem as the birthplace of Messiah, and is quoted as such by Matthew. However, Matthew doesn’t quote the whole prophecy. Let’s take a moment to examine the text, but then I want to also address a second issue.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler of Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until he time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.

Micah 5:2-5a

Bethlehem means “house of bread” in the language of the Hebrews, and the further demarcation Ephrathah, an alternate name, means “fruitful.” I will resist the urge to draw too many connecting lines, but Jesus is the bread of God born of a woman–the fruit of her womb. Surely that can’t be completely coincidence. Micah sees the smallness of Bethlehem as a tiny village, not even a clan, as a grand reversal in that the Messiah will arise from there. Matthew cites this passage, but he also cites a non-biblical prophecy (unless Matthew is making a play on words and is referring to the word “branch” in passages like Isaiah 11) in Matthew 2:23 that says Messiah will be a Nazarene.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but he is raised in Nazareth (Galilee). Sometimes, two things can be true at the same time.

It is quick work to note details of Messiah–which would form a very good outline for a sermon or Bible study.

  • His coming is from of old–ancient.
  • He shall give them up–enigmatic to be certain, but I take it as a reference to ‘leaving Israel to her own devices for a period of time’
  • The rest of his brothers . . . return–I think this is future and refers to the repatriation of Palestine by Hebrews. You can pick your time period–distant past, recent past, or future. Or all of the above.
  • He shall shepherd–This is a kingly usage as David was the shepherd. Messiah will exert real power to protect the people.
  • They shall dwell secure–this is the people, his brothers, in Israel.
  • He shall be great to the ends of the earth–The name of Messiah will be feared by all peoples.
  • He shall be their peace–Messiah will ensure peace for his people.

Some of this prophecy is the past–the birth of Jesus. Some of this is also fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus as he has come to bring us peace and he is also our good shepherd. But much of it has not. Which is why this Micah oracle is applied across multiple timelines. We should also not rule out that some of it might have been fulfilled before Jesus’ birth, such as the return of exiles. Nevertheless, the bulk of it will not be fulfilled until the ultimate return of Christ and eternity begins.

Now, to the dirty work. The scholars of Israel in Herod’s time knew this oracle, and they knew where to tell the Wise Men to look for the baby. The actual timetable for when these things happened is hard to know, but the location is not. They said, look in Bethlehem. For this same reason, Herod knew where to do his butchery. He sent the soldiers to Bethlehem too. This leads us to the unsettling reality of prophetic and biblical material. In the wrong hands, it can be used for evil. If I were preaching this passage this Sunday (and I am not), I believe I would make this the actual focus of my sermon–“When the Good Word is turned into Evil Actions.”

This isn to about poor hermeneutics or misunderstandings. This is about people who are evil in their heart and turn the words of the Lord upside down.

  1. Terrorists quote the Bible as they murder abortion doctors.
  2. Politicians quote the Bible as they oppress millions or start wars.
  3. Churches cite scripture and verse to justify the tolerance of abuse.

You probably can come up with your own, but it is a real problem. Does this make God culpable? A co-conspirator? Absolutely not. People who twist the scriptures in violent and immoral ways will be punished. We, as people of faith, have an obligation to be alert for these particularly heinous kinds of false teachers.

 

 

 

 

 

Advent 1, Year C–1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The Epistle reading for the first week of Advent seems whittled down for my taste. I would prefer it take a bigger bite and include the earlier material in chapter 3 about afflictions, because the theme of afflictions matches the other readings as all the travail leading up to the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Son of Man will be filled with afflictions. It will get worse before it gets better.

But instead we have these encouraging words. Maybe the lectionary thinks we need some encouragement after the harsher materials from Zechariah and Luke.

“For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” 1 Thessalonians 3:9-10

How can I thank God enough for you? I got it–I will pray night and day for the opportunity to come fix what it is that you clearly don’t understand yet. Okay, I admit that is a little harsh, but I’ve been reading Paul for so long that I feel like I understand his sarcasm. He is writing 1 Thessalonians because they have questions about things they should have already understood. He clearly perceives they are lacking some finer points of discipleship or theology (v. 10) and he needs to come fix it. For the record, they still didn’t quite get it, which is why we have . . . 2 Thessalonians.

The concept, though, that people who earnestly follow the Lord and try to do and be right, yet have something lacking is intriguing. Paul hints at the same thing in the Roman church (Romans 1:11) and there is no end of problems in Corinth. Here in this time of advent, maybe we should consider–is something lacking in our own faith?

  1. Perhaps our personal faith is lacking. What I mean is, we could devote ourselves to learning more. Stop relying on whatever the pastor is leading and read books on your own, listen to podcasts, do some study. Learn. Fill in the gaps. This personal lacking might be practice as well. Perhaps you don’t pray as often as you should, or at least don’t pray ‘earnestly’ as Paul mentions.  Only an arrogant fool would say ‘There is nothing lacking in my spiritual life–I’m a perfect 10.’
  2. It could be something is lacking in our local church. Maybe your church is a sweet fellowship, but it doesn’t lift a finger to help solve the problem of clean drinking water in Africa and could not care less about child sex-trafficking. Flip it around, maybe your church is great at reaching children and young families, but terrible at discipling older adults. Maybe your work is to address what is lacking in your congregation.
  3. There is no way anything is lacking in Western Christianity, though. We have our act together perfectly. #sarcasm.

From this desire to fix a problem, Paul turns to benediction. In fact, this benediction could be crafted and worked very nicely as the spoken benediction to finish a worship service.

“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13

Having read the benediction, we see Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians and we see how it fits the familiar pattern. As much as Paul wants to fix their theology and fill in the gaps, the things that really matter in our daily living are:

  1. Love. Paul is quite specific when he says love for one another and ‘for all.’ I take this to mean all people. Love within the church fellowship is important, but love for neighbor, love for stranger, love for enemy, love for the confused, love for the addicted, the immigrant at the border, the extremist Muslim in Malaysia, and even Tom Brady.
  2. Holiness. The curious thing about holiness is Paul doesn’t mention their behaviors when he describes this, but instead their hearts. Remember, Jesus told us that it is what comes out of our hearts (Matthew 15:18) that defiles a person. If we are not holy the root is not behaviors. The root is the heart. In the end, we do what we want to do.

The apex of this benediction is the eventual coming of Jesus, which is a major theme of 1 Thessalonians and it is what I am preaching about this Sunday.

Advent 1, Year C–Luke 21:25-36

The gospel reading for the first week of Advent plunges us into the heart of some of Jesus’ scariest words, near the end of the Olivet Discourse. Jesus is teaching in the temple, in the shadow of his own cross. By the end of the week he will be dead. You can feel the weight of atonement in his words.

Several years ago I translated these passages, let me share them with you here again:

There will be a sign on the sun, and on the moon, and among the stars as well as upon the land.  The Gentiles will have anxiety over not knowing what to do, like a sound tossing the sea.  Men will have died from fear and the whole inhabitation of the earth will be waiting, for the power of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the son of man coming in the clouds’ with power and all glory.  Now, when these things begin to occur, you straighten up and lift up your heads because your redemption is near. And he spoke a parable to them, “You see the fig and all those other trees?  When it blossoms you see for yourselves and you know now that summer is near.  In the same way, when you notice these things happening you will know that the kingdom of God is near.  Truly I say to you that this generation will not pass by until everything happens.  The heavens and the earth will pass away but my words will never pass away.  Watch yourselves, that you do not let wildness, drunkenness, and the cares of everyday life overtake your hearts in those days.  It will come upon every one of those living everywhere like a trap.  You must be awake at all times; praying that you will have the strength to flee out of all these things that are about to happen and to stand before the son of man.”–Luke 21:25-36

Let’s just pick apart what Jesus is saying in a literal way.

  1. Signs–some kind of omen– will be everywhere–sun, moon, stars and the land.
  2. People will be so afraid, that fear itself will kill them.
  3. The heavens will shake.
  4. The Son of Man will come from the cloud.

I can’t tell whether this is theology or science fiction. This is some worthy of blockbuster special effects. You can see why Christ-followers have struggled for years to imagine this as metaphor rather than literal activities. However, as I contemplate the text, it sounds more and more plausible.

Could a sign not simply be atmospheric changes? Pollution that blots out the sun at day and changes the color of the moon at night could be seen as a sign. The stars I find particularly fascinating as we, today, see far fewer stars in the sky than our ancestor because of light pollution. Then we think of the land. Has the land not changed? Is it not a sign that whales beach themselves, bees die off, and the forest burns constantly?

Then Jesus talks about fear and anxiety that leads to death. Perhaps he means heart attacks, strokes, or paralyzing fear. You know, the kind of fear that would rather die than keep on living. Just being honest, I can think of no better description for some segments of our society today than to describe it as afraid. Politicians make their living stoking fear.

Shaking heavens seems harder to explain, but not entirely so. The powers of the heavens are what is shaken. Maybe this is an allusion to the gods, the false gods who live in the sky. They are shaken because the cosmic order is shuffling. Another view might be a simpler technological idea: airplanes and rockets moving through the sky could be described as powers shaking the heavens.

Last, the son of man comes on the clouds. Perhaps he comes to put a stop to the shaking heavens, the fear, and to heal the land. This is an article of faith, that some day we will look up (maybe not me as odds are death will claim me first, but it will be people who have the same faith convictions I do from all over the world) and Jesus will be coming again to set all things right.

The great teacher says these words, and he sees the trepidation on his disciples face. So he tells them to not be like the gentiles, don’t be afraid. He tells them that when this stuff starts going down, their redemption is near (v. 28). Lift up your heads, he says (Ps. 24), because the King of Glory is coming.

The Lord then comes back with promises.

  1. This generation (the disciples) will not pass away until this happens.
  2. Heaven and earth will disappear, but Jesus’ words will not.
  3. Wildness, drunkenness, and everyday cares will consume peoples thoughts.

Let’s work backwards. The promise of wildness, drunkenness and the trap of being swallowed by the mundane is stated as a warning. Jesus expects his followers to be better than that. His words, which mean his teachings but also, I think, extend out to the entire word of God. Philosophies, political systems, the power dynamics of this world will all disappear but the way of God does not.

But the generation–it surely did pass away and here we are, yet remaining? How can such a thing be? The simple answer is this all began before the end of the week when Jesus was crucified and signs were in the heavens, people were afraid, and everything changed. But it was not the end of this transition, for a generation later Jerusalem itself fell in a great holocaust–and ever since we have lived in the tension between the times. It is the times we live in now when the wildness, drunkenness, and mundane seeks to swallow us alive, trying to make us forget that we serve a God who shakes the heavens and terrifies the world with his death defying love.

Advent 1, Year C, Zechariah 14:4-9

In my opinion, there is no more Christological Old Testament book than Zechariah. Word for word, it punches way above its weight. This is especially true in the latter section of text, beginning around Chapter 9. The lectionary reading to start the advent observance doesn’t disappoint. Nestled here in the ‘fly-over country’ of the Bible which most Christ-followers skip are words with deep messianic meaning.

“On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives . . . [it] shall be split in two from east to west.”  Zechariah 14:4

This is probably the idea Jesus is alluding to when he says, rather bluntly, that if we ask for a mountain to be moved in prayer, it will be moved into the sea in Mark 11:24. It should be noted by the interpreter that Mark puts this after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a theme which is prevalent in Zechariah (c/f 9:9)

What specifically interests me about the Zechariah reading is the eschatological emphasis.

“On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost . . . neither day nor night . . . living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem . . . and the Lord will be king over all the earth.” Zechariah 14:6-9

It doesn’t take a brilliant scholar to point out these ideas also emerge in the ending chapters of The Apocalypse.

“The sea was no more . . . behold the dwelling place of God is with man . . . and God himself will be with them as their God . . . To thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payments . . . and I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God . . . and there will be no night there . . . the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding is fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed.” (from Rev. 21:1-6, 22-25, 22:2-3).

There are, then at least three identifiable themes that emanate from Zechariah 14.

  1. One is the literal earth shattering nature of the coming of Messiah. When partnered with Jesus’ prayer words when he is standing in a place where the Mount of Olives could be seen in the distance for Mt. Zion, we see the power of Jesus’ advent in our own spiritual lives.
  2. The second theme is one of newness. Jesus not only made all things new, he makes all things new in a continual manner. Things cannot stay the way they are and also be in the presence of Christ.
  3. The third theme is healing and wholeness. No frost. No night. The Lord’s presence. Jesus is the balm of Gilead for a sick soul, a sick culture, a sick family or a sick church.

Zechariah’s vision of the future is not about when Jesus comes as a nativity event, but when The Day of the Lord Comes and turns upside down the cosmic order the same way he turned upside down the moneychangers tables in the temple. He turns the frost of winter and Christmas into the springtime of Easter. He exchanges winter’s shortened days with summer’s elongated sunshine. He takes us from the desert wanderings to the living waters in his oasis.