Ancient Answers

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Some choice words

Some words for “God’s chosen, holy and beloved.” Yes, that’s how Paul addresses his fellow believers in Christ, and that’s how I address you this morning. What a privilege! But it is not a privilege in the way that human beings privilege themselves to the exclusion of others. These three epithets in Greek, ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιοι καὶ ἠγαπημένοι, are not meant to make us proud or boastful. They describe what is our standing before God, how God sees us. And they have consequences: “as God’s chosen, holy and beloved” put on….the five attributes that Paul singles out. If you are God’s chosen, holy and beloved, it follows that you will have a compassionate heart, that you will be kind, humble, meek and patient. And I love the symbols that this slide uses to accompany each of those qualities.

σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ is best translated not as “compassionate hearts,” but rather as compassionate guts! The compassion Paul is talking about is not just an emotion: “Oh, I feel so sorry for that poor child.” No, it’s compassion that stirs you in the depths of your being and leads to action and personal involvement in the other person for whom you feel pity. Every time the Gospels describe Jesus as having compassion on someone it’s the verb that comes from σπλάγχνα that is used to describe his reaction. Jesus didn’t just feel an emotion, he was stirred in his guts to acts of compassion.

The compassionate person is also kind – χρηστότητα is Paul’s word here, which also means goodness. Just as God is kind and pours his goodness on us, so also we show goodness to those we encounter. Paul is not talking about emotion of pity which might last for a few seconds or a minute before we move on. Anyone can feel pity. But the true Christian response to suffering is not pity but gut-stirring compassion that arises from the goodness/kindness within that reflects God’s goodness to us. Paul is never superficial. He never deals in slogans. He used words carefully, making full use of the rich meanings that these ancient Greek words had.

True compassion comes with humility, meekness and patience. Many times we reach out and help someone while silently also passing judgment on the person, thinking he or she is lazy, or wondering whether drug use brought him or her to such a bad state or illness. Sometimes pity is little more than an expression of judgment of the person we are pitying, and even a sense of superiority to that person. So Paul connects the attributes of humility, meekness and patience to compassion and kindness so as to prevent judgmental pity that comes so easily when we label others. The Christian who is humble, meek and patient is far less likely to show judgmental pity on someone. If you know your own lowliness, your own neediness for God’s compassion and goodness, you will not be arrogant; you will be meek in your attitude to life. And if you have had to be patient in your own life to reach a certain goal or to overcome a sickness or a temptation, you will be less likely to judge the other person. If it took you time to overcome something, you can hope for time in the other person; and you will be patient in your estimation of the other person.

So you see, Paul is not just piling on good words here. He has thought this through; maybe not exactly the way I’m thinking it through and almost certainly far more profoundly than I am capable of connecting the meaning of these beautiful words. Perhaps I can conclude my short exploration of this verse by quoting the rest of the paragraph that begins with this verse in Colossians. It is all a further expression of what it means to be “God’s chosen, holy and beloved”:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17, RSV)

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On the Lord’s Day

It is a pity that the book of Revelation has been turned into a money-maker for books and movies that are more science-fiction fantasy than Christian teaching. Revelation is used to create a timeline for all sorts of fantasies of destruction. What’s even more tragic is that while it’s easy to misinterpret the book of Revelation and indulge in fantasies of futuristic destruction, why is it so difficult to care about the present realities of destruction, especially the destruction of the environment?

Yes, the Book of Revelation contains many visions of global death and destruction, but it belongs to a particular type of religious writing which was very popular in the time of Christ – what we call apocalyptic writings. We who read this book 2,000 years later do not share the mindset of the time in which it was written. I don’t want to trivialize things, but it’s almost like someone 2,000 years in the future, when human civilization is on the brink of calamity, people find a movie called Avengers: Infinity War and think it’s a prophecy about the end of the world. I know I’m being silly, but it’s not a completely unacceptable analogy.

Ceiling Icon of Christ Pantokrator at our church (click to enlarge)

But thank God the Book of Revelation is not only about scenes of destruction. It starts with a dazzling vision of Jesus Christ. The words of verse 8 in chapter 1 are inscribed in red letters around our icon of the Pantokrator Christ in the ceiling of our church: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty [Pantokrator].” Jesus dictates “seven letters” to seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 – which should prompt us and every church to wonder which of the seven churches are we most like, or what kind of letter Jesus would write to our church! Then follows a scene in the next two chapters of Revelation which can only be described as a heavenly liturgy. Indeed, the development of our own Liturgy was greatly influenced by the vision of chapter 4. Our illustrated verse today (Revelation 4:8), in combination with Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9, became part of a hymn we sing at every Liturgy. It is perhaps a little known or rarely acknowledged fact that our entire Liturgy is permeated with words and phrases taken straight out of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments!

The entire vision that John describes in the Book of Revelation took place on a Sunday: On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit (Revelation 1:10). And in chapter 4 he again reiterates: At once I was in the Spirit (verse 2). Of course he is referring to the Holy Spirit, the one whom elsewhere we have called the Comforter, the Helper, the Parakletos. The Holy Spirit can come into our lives in so many ways and in so many different situations of need or blessedness. We don’t tell the Holy Spirit how to impact our lives. The Holy Spirit is boundlessly free, like the wind in John 3:8. All we can do is call the Holy Spirit, be open to the Holy Spirit, just as John was on the Lord’s Day. And the Spirit showed him a vision of worship in heaven – certainly not a vision to be taken as something that happens for all eternity. It was a vision for that particular day or time in John’s life, when he was given to understand the mystery behind world events. And it was the unveiling of the mystery that gives his book the title Αποκάλυψις, Apocalypse or the Uncovering/Unveiling – or, Revelation in most English versions. The scene of worship described in our verses today and in all of chapter 4 sets the stage for the appearance of Christ as the Lamb in chapter 5, which itself marks the beginning of the incredible visions to come. Everything is an unveiling – but not necessarily an unveiling of any particular events, but rather an unveiling of the general movement of human history and human apostasy. But all that is beyond my ability to discuss today.

We also call upon the Holy Spirit every Lord’s Day at the Liturgy: We pray to the Father to “send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here presented. And make this bread the precious body of your Christ….” The Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. But what the Holy Spirit does “upon us” we don’t dare specify. One thing is for sure: the Holy Spirit acts in the life of everyone who is present on the Lord’s Day. Are you?


Biblical Catharsis

The Psalms express the full range of human emotions – from the highest expressions of intimacy with God to the vilest expressions of violence and hatred. It’s all there. And I have always viewed the Psalms as the biblical analogue of the catharsis that the ancient Greeks sought when they participated in the performances of tragic plays. And note, I wrote “participated”, not attended. A tragic performance by Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides became almost a ritual experience for the ancient Greeks, a form of communal cleansing, a catharsis. Even today a performance of one of these great tragedies can be a soul-shattering experience. Therefore, how sad that only a tiny portion of the Ancient Greek tragedies have survived; most were lost forever in ancient times.

The Psalms are the Bible’s catharsis for the human soul. They are the language of our relationship with God. Even Jesus, at the time of his death on the cross, spoke to God with Psalm 22. Someone very dear to me memorized many of the psalms; they became part of her daily speech. And I’m sure they were her silent prayers when she could no longer speak after her stroke. She lived what Psalm 42 expresses in verse 8:

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

Are you embarrassed by an emotion you are experiencing, or a word of hatred or jealousy that just now agitated your spirit? You will find several psalms that express what you are experiencing! Did you wake up this morning with a burst of confidence, or words of praise for God? Many psalms share your faith. Are you facing doubt and depression? Then today’s verse directs you to one of the psalms that can be the catharsis of your doubts and sadness.

How beautifully the psalm begins – and I’m using the NIV Bible here because I find this translation more poetic:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

Only someone who runs a marathon or goes for a long hike in the summer might know what it is to pant for water. The person who wrote this psalm expresses his longing for God as a thirst similar to how a deer pants to find water in the desert of the Middle East. The psalmist pants for God the way a deer pants for water. That’s where faith begins, when we pant for God. But go on and read this Psalm, it is one of the most beautiful and profound. “Deep calls to deep,” the psalmist says at one point. Isn’t that what prayer should be, what our relationship with God ought to be? Not me and the “man upstairs” (a despicable trivialization of God, if you ask me) – but deep calling to deep. The human soul is deep – we are not just a bunch of neurons and cells – and God is deep, the ultimate deep! You trivialize yourself when you trivialize God; when you turn God into your drinking buddy or the vending machine in the sky.

The psalmist laments that God has forgotten him; yet he still speaks to “God my Rock.” This is the ambivalence we all experience at traumatic times in our lives. We believe in God, yet we cry out in anger or despair, “Why have you forgotten me?”

Psalm 42 is a psalm of lament. But it is also a psalm of confidence, memory, and healing self-talk. There is confidence in verse 8 that I quoted above. There is memory in verse 4:

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

Can you see here the power of worship as part of a community? Can you see here why it is essential for each of us to participate in Liturgy? Isn’t Liturgy the closest we come as a community to experiencing what the ancient Greeks experienced at tragic festivals and what nourished the psalmist in his time of difficulty?

Twice in this psalm, in the middle and at the end, the psalmist engages in self-talk, healing self-talk, reassuring self-talk. But it is not superficial psycho-babble self-talk. It is self-talk rooted in memory and trust.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

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The Bible in party mode

Oh, my goodness, who ever said that the Bible doesn’t know how to party? And party with the most expensive foods and wines!! I can’t wait to see the full menu! And yet, this wonderful verse comes in the middle of a chapter that celebrates the defat of Moab, one of Israel’s perennial enemies. And it follows a longer chapter 24 in Isaiah that describes the devastation of the earth in language that is more dire than any climate change forecast. And not only the earth, but heaven too! Read chapter 24 and shudder at the language of destruction. I will not quote it here because I shudder at the sheer terror of the imagery.

Even the wine mourns in chapter 24 (verse 7). And yet, here in chapter 25, verse 6, the Lord will feast the peoples with the finest aged wine. And note, that the promise in this verse is not reserved solely for God’s people, Israel. God will offer this feast of food and wine for “all peoples.” It is not unusual for the Bible to move from harsh language of judgment and destruction to language of comfort and celebration. The book of Isaiah is full of such contrasts.

The illustrated verse is part of a paragraph that needs to be read. It is the opposite of the terrors in chapter 24:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.

What a marvelous vision, what beautiful promise! The destruction and devastation of chapter 24 is followed by this vision of healing and celebration. Yes, celebration is never absent for long from the language of the Bible. Jesus himself used images of feasts and dinners to describe heaven and the kingdom of God. Eating is the Bible’s favorite way to represent fellowship with God. And that perhaps should not surprise us, since so much of the world’s population is starving!

I will quote one verse from chapter 24, despite the reluctance I expressed above to quote anything from that chapter of devastation:

The earth lies polluted
    under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
    violated the statutes,
    broken the everlasting covenant.

It is not only the judgments of God that destroy, but also our sins against God’s eternal command to be good stewards of the earth and all life on it; to care for each other, to see that no one goes hungry; to share the wealth of the earth instead of hoarding it. The everlasting covenant has been broken repeatedly by human beings. But God will heal. And so in chapter 25, in the paragraph that includes today’s illustrated verse, we read: And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. It’s like a shadow has come over the nations, that blinds us to the sufferings of others and our own destructiveness. Part of God’s healing will be to remove the cover, the veil, that blinds the nations! This is one of the most profound promises in the entire Bible, and it is one that we can all understand, especially from our vantage in the 21st century.

And finally there is that promise that has come to reality in Jesus Christ: God will swallow up death and wipe away all tears from the faces of people. What else can God promise? What other incentive can God offer to create in us a desire to turn back, to return to God and our Lord Jesus Christ? May the Helper, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, guide our steps back to the rich food and wine that waits for us. Bon appétit.


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Powerful words from a powerful God

The entire chapter 35 of Isaiah can be seen as a vision of God overturning the entire ancient order. It is a vision, a prophecy, a preparation for what is about to happen to God’s people. For in the very next chapter of Isaiah we are plunged into the maelstrom of history, around the year 716 BC. It is a time of war, with the Assyrian king issuing an ultimatum to King Hezekiah in Jerusalem. Certainly the old order did not end with the events of the Assyrian conquest, or the Babylonian conquest, or the Hellenistic and Roman conquests several centuries down the road. And neither has the old order disappeared in the two thousand years since the coming of Christ. The old order is still with us, in its many changing forms, so the prophecies of Isaiah continue to be visions of a new order that God will bring about.

So the vision in chapter 35 of Isaiah is as much an encouragement to us in the 21st century as it was to the Jewish people 2,800 years ago. The people of ancient Israel were looking for God’s “vengeance” on the nations that threatened them – including the Assyrians and Babylonians. But notice how the “vengeance” is represented in the verse illustrated here and in the entire chapter 35. The eyes of the blind will be opened, the deaf will hear. And “then shall the lame leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” in verse 6 that follows. God’s vengeance is a time of miracles and healing. Why has that message not resonated with human beings for so many thousands of years? Even after Jesus inaugurated the time of healing?

And then look at the whole of chapter 35 and consider the vision universal and ecological of peace and healing. Place yourself in the desert lands of the Middle East, and then imagine with Isaiah and with God: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (verses 6-7). “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (verse 10 that concludes chapter 35 and leads to chapter 36 and the ultimatum from Assyria!)

The ransomed – the redeemed, the rescued, equally good translations of the Hebrew – of the Lord shall return and come to Zion…. Or, shall return and come to Portland…. Or, shall return and come to any other town or city of a devastated earth that is healed and made new in God’s new order. The vision is eschatological. It is God’s vision for a new earth where there will be no war, no suffering, no pain, no ecological destruction. “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way” (verse 8). A highway, a broad way, a way for all the redeemed to embrace and travel together to eternal glory: “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God” (verse 2).

Do you want to be on that highway? Then “Be strong; fear not!” And say to those who have an anxious heart, who are fearful, “Be strong; fear not!” But don’t be passive. Join God’s vision and work for it in whatever small or big way God has granted you to do. If we work with God against the forces of disorder we will walk that highway with heads and hearts illumined. That is the true power of the Lord: a powerful people walking with fearless trust in the ultimate goodness and deliverance of the Lord.


The Good Pleasure

Throughout his teaching and healing ministry, Jesus counseled us not to get obsessed with material things and concerns. Wasn’t that one of the messages in this morning’s Gospel parable of the Sower and the Seed? He likened the seed that falls among thorns to the man or woman who hears the word of God but is so focused on the cares and pleasures of life that the word is choked. Repeatedly Jesus taught this message. It was at the core of his healing ministry.

But the ultimate healing came through his death on the cross. It is there, on the cross that he showed the vanity of our restless concerns. It is on the cross that he showed the emptiness of our riches and fears. The claim that material goods have on our lives makes these material goods and concerns among the “powers” that Paul often wrote about – the powers and principalities that aim to separate us from the love of God. But what did Jesus do to these powers? In Colossians 2:15 Paul offers the insight that goes beyond the surface appearances: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

The context of Luke 12:32 is Jesus telling us not to be anxious about material things. And he ends with the verse here represented. But the picture caption is missing two words. The full verse reads: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus was under no illusion that only a small flock would listen to him. Today, too, his flock is small. But what a profound encouragement this verse contains for all of us, both rich and poor.

Think about it. It is the Father’s “good pleasure” – in Greek, it’s one of those beautiful ευ words that I have often pointed out. God is no grudging giver; God is pleased, more than pleased, to give us the kingdom. God is happy to give us his kingdom. Are you happy to give some of what you have to bring some relief from anxiety to someone else? Can you share in God’s good pleasure? The kingdom of God arrived through the cross of Jesus Christ, on which he disarmed the powers and principalities. You are not under any foreign power or occupation. Your destiny is the kingdom, because it is the Father’s good pleasure to give it to you. So start unburdening yourself of anxieties and the power of material goods. Lighten your load as you keep on the path of righteousness and glory. And don’t be afraid. FEAR NOT, our Healer says.

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A Debatable Verse

2 Corinthians 6:17 does not sit well with me. Yes, it’s Saint Paul, but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything Paul writes. This verse is part of a longer segment that consists primarily of quotes and allusions to Old Testament passages. This verse 17, for example, comes mostly from Isaiah 52:11, which itself is part of a longer section in Isaiah 52. But note what is written in Isaiah 52:11. “Depart, depart, go out thence, touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her, purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord.” Do you see what’s happening here? Paul quotes most of the Isaiah verse, but leaves out the all-important last phrase, which identifies who are being addressed – namely, those “who bear the vessels of the Lord.”

The image in Isaiah is of a procession where the holy “vessels of the Lord” are carried. What are these vessels? Most likely, liturgical or temple vessels. Just as we today can call the communion cup a holy vessel. I’m simply writing this off the top of my head, as I don’t want this to be scholarly or thoroughly-researched; but I don’t think I’m wrong in my reading of Isaiah 52. And because Paul strategically leaves out the last part of Isaiah 52 I’m allowing myself to get a little creative now with my own reading of Paul.

Consider the longer segment in 2 Corinthians, chapter 6, from which verse 17 is taken. Why is Paul writing such exclusionary words? Because “we are the temple of the living God”. And it is because we are the temple of the living God that Paul immediately then goes on quote passages of the Old Testament, “as God said.” So the way I’m reading Paul, he is taking Old Testament passages that refer to the holiness of God’s people and God’s temple, and masterfully weaves them together into the profound insight that “we are the temple of the living God”! And that is part of the reason why he leaves out the last phrase of Isaiah 52:11.

It’s a brilliant move by Paul to take the ritual holiness in the Old Testament and adapt it to believers in the New Testament. This is an example of how great a theologian Paul was. But Paul’s overall message still leaves me unconvinced. Because Paul contradicts himself! In his earlier letter to these same Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, he wrote: “For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.”

So which is it, Paul? “Do not be mismated with unbelievers,” as in 2 Corinthians 6:14? Or, “the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband” in 1 Corinthians 7:14? The purpose of the temple in the Old Testament was to make people holy. The believer in Christ is the temple of God. So aren’t we here to make others holy? It’s not the church building in which we worship that is holy. It is the people of God who make the building holy! That is why at Liturgy it is not only the wooden images of Christ and the saints who are censed with sweet-smelling incense, but all the people who are present, who are the living icons of Christ! I’m itching to bring Christ’s own words here that go against the verse here illustrated, but I will stop here before I get too transcendent…😇