Saturday, March 31, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Lamentations 4-5 and Romans 16

Lamentations 4 – This section of Lamentations is about what it was like to be in Jerusalem after its fall in 586 BC. As much misery as we may have experienced, it is not anywhere near the desolation that affected the inhabitants of this city. There are places in the world where life is as terrible, but I have not known anything like this.

“Happier were those killed by the sword, than those pierced by hunger, whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people” (4:9-10). The prophet goes on to warn Edom that her destruction will also come.

Lamentations 5 – The people of Israel are terribly persecuted and bear the yoke of their “fathers’” crimes. They suffer all the terrible things people suffer today in Sudan and Congo and other conflict-ridden hotspots: famine, violence, rape of their women and abuse of the young.  “Make us come back to you, Yahweh, and we will come back.” (5:28)

Romans 16 – Good-byes and commendations.  He mentions Phoebe, a deacon from Cenchreae, and many other workers in the church, some of whom may be his relatives.  He also cautions them to be wary of “those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that [they] have learned . . .” (15:17).

Tertius, writer for Paul, greets them and sends along the greetings of others. Then some last words of benediction and an allusion to the “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith . . .” (15:25-26).

There has been much recent discussion of whether and to what degree there are elements of Gnosticism in the early preaching of the gospel, and this is one of the passages used to prove that there was.  I don’t think Paul was opening the door to the Gnostic elements that might have been present in his day, but I do think there is in the Christian gospel an intellectual, imaginative dimension that is Gnostic-like.  By this I mean an intellectual and imaginative delight simply in seeing ‘the truth’ (or those degrees of truth we are given a vision of) set forth in the Christian gospel.  I experience it when I consider the way the scripture narrative finds its fulfillment in the person and work of JesusThe fact that we know today that the scriptures were actually not dictated by God but were the product of many writers and editors is to me cause for even greater amazed delight and faith in the Holy Spirit—for His one unifying intelligence is the fruit of a great coming together of circumstances, personalities, happen-stances and whatever.  Still it can be seen as a great unifying intelligence.  Anyway, I think this is what Paul is talking about here when he refers to the way the writings of the prophets shape our understanding of Christ.  The power of this gnosis to bind us to Christ, to shape a vision of how great God is, how He embeds Himself in His creation and in our distinctive human consciousness is very great.  I am not sure it is something you must see or appreciate to be a Christian, but it is certainly one of the beautiful things our faith offers.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Lamentations 3 and Romans 15

Lamentations 3 – If you are not torn apart by the words of this lament, I do not understand it. The comments I have in my notes on this reflect the many different “states of mind” I have brought to it over the years. It slays me every time.

Here are the first three verses:

“I am one who knows what it is to be punished by God. He drove me deeper and deeper into darkness and beat me again and again with merciless blows. He has left my flesh open and raw, and has broken my bones. He has shut me in a prison of misery and anguish. He has forced me to live in the stagnant darkness of death. He has bound me in chains; I am a prisoner with no hope of escape. I cry aloud for help, but God refuses to listen. I stagger as I walk; stone walls block me wherever I turn” (3:1-9).

But then at the deepest moment of despair, we sense an inward turning: “I have forgotten what health and peace and happiness are. I do not have much longer to live; my hope in the Lord is gone. The thought of my pain, my homelessness, is bitter poison. I think of it constant, and my spirit is depressed. Yet hope returns when I remember this one thing. The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue, fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise. The Lord is ALL I HAVE, and so in him I put my hope” (3:17-24).
The idea that the Lord is our portion—almost our fate—is so important.  Here we have a Lord that is equally our worst enemy (enemy to all that would let Him down) and our best lover.  We can find our meaning nowhere but in Him, but it is not always fun—he is our portion, nevertheless. The underlying truth is “he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (3:25-26) This is a good Quaker passage.
Another interesting passage – pre-Enlightenment: The Lord knows when our spirits are crushed in prison; he knows when we are denied the rights he gave us; when justice is perverted in court, he knows” (3:34-36).
Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven.  We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (3:40-42)
“You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!” (3:57). This is always what Jesus said when he approached people to follow or relate to him.

What a different spirit this comes from than the one we bring the Lord today in our pride and refusal to bow before His role in the circumstances of our lives, even those that are dire. I try to imagine what it is like to have been a Jew after Hitler, reading these lines—what fury must they have kindled in the breasts of Jews toward God, but what confusion too. The wonderful movie called The Quarrel wrestles with this.

How so we reconcile ourselves to this experience of God’s mysterious presence in the sufferings we endure because of human unfaithfulness to His Love and because of the complexity of the reality God places us in?

Romans 15 – Paul encourages us to serve our neighbors, put up with their weaknesses to build up the church.  Then Paul quotes or alludes to psalm 69—“I am scorned by those who scorn you,” but this fits less well than verse 7 of the same psalm:  “Let those who seek you, God of Israel, not be disgraced through me (‘hindered’ might be more apropos).” The NRSV has “dishonored.” The JB says, “Let those who seek not be ashamed of me.” This last seems most conducive to the use Paul is making of the psalm.  It is interesting because it permits Paul too to make a generalization about the uses to which sacred writings may be put.  He says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (15:4).

Paul goes into the role Christ plays as reconciler.  He came to “confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (15:8), AND to evoke the praise of the gentiles [for as they—we—learn of the way his steadfastness to the Jews has been confirmed, so we too are led into relationship with Him. He cites several OT passages that allude to the fact that God’s name will be proclaimed among the nations or the gentiles [2 Sam.22: 50, Psalm 18:50, Is.11: 10 (JB)—the root of Jesse shall “be sought out by the nations”] ** The JB is uniformly better at translating OT passages in such a way as to make it appear Paul actually might have been using them appropriately.

Paul reviews his success in spreading the gospel among the gentiles.  He has not gone where other evangelists have been but only to those who have not heard (15:14-21). These missions have long kept him from coming to Rome, but now he plans to come on his way to Spain.  But first he tells them he must go to Jerusalem to bring the money he has collected to the saints there.  He anticipates trouble in Jerusalem: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, . . . to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea . . .” (15:31).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Lamentations 2 and Romans 14

Lamentations 2 – “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel 
. . . he has destroyed his tabernacle . . . and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest” (2:5-6).

“The Law is no longer taught, and the prophets have no visions from the Lord” (2:9). ” All the favors and blessings God’s people have enjoyed, all the marks of redemption, are destroyed or rejected.

“My eyes are worn out with weeping; my soul is in anguish. I am exhausted with grief at the destruction of my people. Children and babies are fainting in the streets of the city” (2:11).
“Your prophets had nothing to tell you [people] but lies; their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you thing you did not need to repent” (2:14).  

This is the Israel I love, this self-searching, self-critical people of faith. Most people just blame others for the bad things that happen. But there is a deep internal contradiction in the logic or rationality of scripture when it comes to dealing with this punishing God. They do “blame” God in the sense that they see Him as the source of our suffering and loss, but at the same time, they see God as NECESSARILY just; that is just His identity – the Just One. It occurred to me today in struggling with this for the millionth time that perhaps we are dealing here with a contradiction that is similar to the koans that Zen Buddhist masters use to get human minds dislodged from the ordinary, habitual way of perceiving truth. The God of the Jews - this cosmic, omniscient Lord of all - is reduced in the narrative we ponder to something we can identify with; but inherent in that reduction is a loss of a proper sense of our own limits in being able to understand something so beyond our powers. The contradictions, the koans, help us to see that we cannot ever grasp it fully.  
“Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger. . .” (2:19). WHY? WHY? Because God IS WHO IS, there MUST be an answer to this question that lifts ALL blame away from Him. 

Romans 14 – The church is to welcome all people, even the weak in faith.  Those who are stronger must not look down on the weak or lord it over them.  Arguments over “days” or over things like foods, etc. should not divide us as long as the things we do are done out of love and dedication to the Lord. We are not to judge each other over these things (14:10).  In the end we will all be accountable to God. “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (14:13). “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Lamentations 1 and Romans 13

Lamentations is a poetic description of the desolation Jerusalem suffered in the wake of its destruction in 586 BC—attributed to Jeremiah. Each “chapter” of Lamentations consists of a 22-verse poem.

Lamentations 1- “How lonely lies Jerusalem, once so full of people! Once honored by the world, she is now like a widow; the noblest of cities has fallen into slavery” (1:1).
The “bride” of Yahweh cries and is without any allies or friends. Her people have been carried away and are “surrounded by enemies, with no way to escape” (1:3).  No one comes to the Temple any more. “The Lord has made her suffer for all her many sins” (1:5). It is amazing to me that Jeremiah had no issue ascribing all the things they suffered with God’s anger. He clearly sees ALL THINGS as coming from God: the beauty of the cosmos, the moral arc of all history and the terrible pain and suffering that come from “man’s” sin. God is the designer and creator of the universe. There is no other equal force to which the bad things can be ascribed.

“He took note of all my sins and tied them all together; He hung them around my neck, and I grew weak beneath the weight” (1:14).
“The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word“ (1:18)
“My enemies are glad that you brought disaster on me. Bring the day you promised; make my enemies suffer as I do. Condemn them for all their wickedness; Punish them as you punished me for my sins” (1:21-22). 

Romans 13 – Paul tells us that we as Christians are “subject to the governing authorities,” that they have in some sense been “instituted by God” (13:1). He is assuming, of course that they really are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (13:3).

I think in light of some of the very evil governments we have seen, however, that we must use this measure first to see what they are a terror to first.  If we do what is good and find ourselves in trouble with state authorities, then we are dealing with a different situation – a government that cannot claim justification by God. But if the government is a “terror” to bad conduct and bad conduct alone, then Paul has no trouble seeing them as serving God (13:4).

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (13:8). George Fox loved this passage but reduced the message to six words: “Owe no man anything but love.” It was used by Friends as a reminder that we should never get ourselves into debt.

Paul reminds his readers that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. . .” (13:11-12).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 51-52 and Romans 12

Jeremiah 51Oracle Against Babylon Again – Jeremiah here repeats that the “moral arc” of God’s dealing with Israel and Babylon will be long, but in the end Babylon whom God used to punish the unfaithfulness of His people, will also be brought low by its “kingdom from the north” [Persia].

The Lord made the earth by his power; by his wisdom he created the world and stretched out the heavens. At his command the waters above the sky roar; he brings clouds from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning flash in the rain and sends the wind from his storeroom. At the sight of this, people feel stupid and senseless; those who make idols are disillusioned because the gods they make are false and lifeless. . . The God of Jacob is not like them; he is the one who made everything, and he has chosen Israel to be his very own people” (51:15-19). This monotheistic approach to religion, this Creator God held high by the people of Abraham, will – after everything – show that the wonders and miracles of nature are also reflected in the history of humankind.

God is a mace that will be used against Babylon: “I will dry her rivers up, make her springs run dry, and turn Babylon into a heap of stone, a lair for jackals, and thing of horror and of scorn with no one living in it” (51:36). 

Jeremiah sends Seraiah, brother of Baruch, to read every word of the Babylonian oracle to them and then to throw the scroll into the Euphrates saying “so shall Babylon sing, never to rise again. . .”(51:64). “The words of Jeremiah end here” (51:64).

Jeremiah 52 – This chapter seems tagged on to just put the key events of Jerusalem’s fall into a very brief historical context: Zedekiah was 22 when he became king (597 BC), and served 11 years before the end came for Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah (586 BC).  In his ninth year, the siege began.  When he was captured his sons were killed before his eyes and then he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon. The valuable fixings of the Temple were carried off.  The High Priest, Seraiah, his next-in-line, Zephaniah, and a number of others were killed in Riblah.  A total of 4,600 people were taken into exile.  In Babylon, the king Jehoiachin remained in prison until 561/560 and then he was released and treated honorably at the expense of the government there until his death.

Romans 12“Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:1). As the body has many parts so we, though many, are one body in Christ (12:4-5).  All these words are so precious:

“Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection. . .” (12:9).

Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them. . .do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. . .Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (12:9-21).

These words of Christ are here even before the first gospel was written, one of the relatively few occasions where we hear Paul repeat Jesus’ teaching rather than reflecting on what Jesus did—in his dying and rising again.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 49-50 and Romans 11

Jeremiah 49 - Oracle on the Ammonites – The lands of Gad, on the east bank of the Jordan, had been taken by Ammonites after the collapse of the northern kingdom. (Amman, Jordan today).  Milcom is the God of the Ammonites.  Jeremiah promises destruction of them as well and eventual restoration too
Against Edom – an implacable enemy of Israel, they profited from Judah’s downfall. They were renowned for their wisdom, but it does not save them from destruction: “As when a lion comes up from the thicket of Jordan to the permanent feeding rounds, So I, in an instant, will drive men off; and who I choose I will establish there!  For who is like me? Who can call me to account? What shepherd can stand against me?” (49:19).
Against Damascus -“How can the city of glory be forsaken, the town of delight. But now her young men shall fall in her streets, and all her warriors shall be stilled” (49:25).
Against Arabia – “Hazor shall become a haunt of jackals, a desert forever, Where no man lives, no human being stays” (49:33).
Against Elam – An ancient kingdom east of Babylonia. “I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four ends of the heavens: I will scatter them to all these winds, till there is no nation to which the outcasts of Elam shall not come” (49:36).

Jeremiah 50 – Against Babylon: Jeremiah foresees their defeat in 538 BC at the hands of the Persians, though he foresees that it will be the Medes who overtake them. At this time the Medes were stronger than the Persians in the northern area. The defeat of Babylon will bring the return of the people of both Israel and Judah to their lands. “My people are like sheep whose shepherds have let them get lost in the mountains. They have wandered like sheep from one mountain to another, and they have forgotten where their home is” (50:6). The Lord’s judgment on the Neo-Babylonians is very harsh – a little inconsistent, I think, with earlier reference to them as being “sent” by God to punish His unfaithful people. It is a little hard to believe that the same hand wrote these words as wrote the words of Jeremiah 6 or 13, when the Lord was threatening His unfaithful people with destruction from the North.

Now it is the Neo-Babylonians who are threatened with punishment for having destroyed the Lord’s Temple and taken His people into exile. And the Israelites and Judeans will be brought back to get a new start. “I will punish the king of Babylon and his land as once I punished the king of Assyria; but I will bring back Israel to her fold, to feed on Carmel and Bashan, and on Mount Ephraim and Gilead, till she has her fill” (50:18-19). “They shall seek Israel’s guilt, but it shall be no more, and Judah’s sins, but these shall no longer be found; for I will forgive the remnant I preserve” (50:20). 

Romans 11 – “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? Of course not! For I too am an Israelite. . .” (11:1). NO! The call of God and the favor of God toward the Jews is ‘irrevocable’ we learn in this passage (29): “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

Paul refers to a story from the Hebrew Scriptures about Elijah and the prophets of Baal to justify the approach he (Paul) and ultimately many in the early church will take to the Jewish reluctance to accept Christ - his tendency to reproach them in a prophetic way.  This prophetically critical approach to the community at large familiar to those in the Jewish tradition. It is part of their own sacred writings, so it is not surprising that Christians took this same tack, which modern “liberal” scholars reproach Christians for today.  Paul refers to the Elijah story: Elijah says to God, “I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword.  I alone am left, and they seek to take my life” (1Kings 19:10 and 18). Paul compares himself and the Jews (and Gentiles) who do accept Christ to the 7000 faithful Jews of the Elijah story—those whom God set aside to be the saving “remnant.” He says, “So also at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5).

The good to be found in the unfaithfulness of the Jews is the opportunity it gives to take the message out to the Gentiles. But when all the pagans have been brought in the Jews will also be converted.  God has not forgotten them. 

What I find interesting about this passage is the light it could shed on the unfaithfulness of those gathered into Christ, namely us, the pagans, the second half of God’s harvest in the worldWhat does the history of the Jews have to teach us about our own problems.  The problem of unfaithfulness in and amongst God’s people is not something that began with the Jews’ rejection of Christ. It was part of the relationship from the beginning. Elijah himself is quoted by Paul as prophetically addressing it.  But there will always be a remnant that God can build upon.  Christ opened the invitation of God to all the nations; but the ingathering that came of it has been very much like the first ingathering.  It has been marked by both heroic faithfulness and mass back-sliding.  If we only could see in Jewish history the pattern of our own, we would not keep looking back at the Jews and talking about how unfaithful THEY were in not accepting Christ.  It is WE whom we must tend to, our failure to be true to our roots.

Paul says this too. “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.  Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?’” (11:32-34)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 48 and Romans 10

Jeremiah 48Oracle against Moab – Bitter enemies of the Israelites (conquered by the Babylonians in 582 BC, two years after Jerusalem. “Because you trusted in your works and your treasures, you also shall be captured” (48:7). The Lord says through Jeremiah, “Moab has always lived secure and has never been taken into exile. Moab is like wine left to settle undisturbed and never poured from jar to jar. . . So now, the time is coming when I will send people to pour Moab out like wine. They will empty its wine jars and break them in pieces. Then the Moabites will be disillusioned with their god Chemosh, just as the Israelites were disillusioned with Bethel, a god in whom they trusted”(48:11-13). Bethel was the site of Jacob’s dream, a sanctuary town and official shrine for the northern kingdom. Still, even if they were bitter enemies, it seems that Jeremiah sees tragedy in Moab’s defeat.  They were a proud and glorious nation from what he writes.  He even says “And so I wail over Moab, over all Moab I cry, over the men of Kir-heres I moan. More than for Jazer I weep over you, vineyard of Sibmah.  Your tendrils trailed down to the sea, as far as Jazer they stretched.  Upon your harvest, upon your vintage, the ravager has fallen” (48:31-32). Great poetry! At the end of the oracle, there is an implied promise of restoration, though, even though these are not officially His people: “But I will change the lot of Moab in the days to come, says the Lord.  Thus far the judgment on Moab” (48:47).

The prophecies of devastation, whether to the Israelites or to other groups known to the prophets and writers of these times are sometimes very hard for some people to read. I know among those who regularly read scripture with my husband and me, some just can’t associate harsh words with the God they know. But I think if one looks at them as the words of men, who were inspired by God to help people SEE the hand of God in all the joys and disappointments of life, there have to be the downs, the defeats, the moments of desolation and despair [amazing how many negative words begin with “d” in English – devil too!]. There is a tremendous amount of hard stuff in life – in our individual lives and in the lives of ALL who have lived in history. What do we do with all that? I think what the God-lovers have done is try to see through it all to the good that lies in it or beyond it.

Romans 10 – Paul does not abandon hope for the Jews, for they “are deeply devoted to God”; but their “devotion is not based on true knowledge” (10:2). I take this to be Paul’s way of talking about the “experiential” or existential level of devotion early Quakers focused on so intently.

God’s way of putting people right” (10:3) is something deeper than what the Law can achieve. Paul maintains here that “everyone who believes [in Christ] is put right with God” (10:4). “They have not known the way in which God puts people right with himself, and instead, they have tried to set up their own way; and so they did not submit themselves to God’s way of putting people right” (10:3). This translation of “putting people right” is from the Today’s English Version. The Douay-Rheims version talks about “the justice of God” and most other translations us “God’s righteousness” meaning the “way” God saves. It’s tricky.

Like the words Moses said of the law in Deuteronomy 30, the same could be said about Christ: “’Who will go up into heaven?’ (that is to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will go down into the abyss?’ (that is to bring Christ up from the dead)” (10:6-7).  No one needs to do this.  Christ is near us, even in our hearts and in our mouths—“that is the word of faith that we preach” (10:8).

But people can only “call on” Christ if they believe in him, and they can only believe in him if they have heard of him; and they can only hear of him if we preach about him; and we only preach of him if we are sent.  Paul sees in some of Isaiah’s words a prophecy of the turn of events they are seeing unfold: “I was found [by] those who were not seeking me; I revealed myself to those who were not asking for me” [quoting Is. 65:1-2]. The people of Israel, on the other hand, continue to be “a disobedient and contentious people” (10:21).

Much is made of words like these that have been used by so many over the years to inflame “anti-Jewish” sentiment, but to think that Paul really entertained such animosity is ridiculous. He was himself deeply Jewish in genealogy and conviction; but he did believe that the Jews, who were clinging strictly to the Law were being unfaithful to their own identity. They were belaboring their people for not seeing that Christ was a fulfillment of God’s promises to them. Like Jeremiah, Isaiah and the others, they were merely trying to convey what they saw as a prophetic ministry.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 46-47 and Romans 9:24-33

Jeremiah 46 – The next four chapters are Jeremiah’s oracles on the nations: Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus and others. He begins with an oracle against Egypt. This is a poetic look at their defeat under Neco at Carchemish (605 BC) on the Euphrates.  The poetic retelling of the battle of begins with the Egyptian side, getting ready for what they are confident will be a victorious assault.; but the Lord is not going to favor them today. Nebuchadnezzar will conquer Egypt and defeat the Egyptian gods. “The people of Egypt are put to shame; they are conquered by the people of the north. I, the Lord, have spoken” (46:24). The Lord will punish the god of Thebes, Amon, and hand the pharaoh over to the Babylonians.

But then comes another word of assurance to Israel: “But you, my servant Jacob, fear not; be not dismayed, O Israel.  Behold, I will deliver you from the far-off land, your descendants, from their land of exile. . . .You, my servant Jacob, never fear, says the Lord for I am with you; I will make an end of all the nations to which I have driven you, But of you I will not make an end: I will chastise you as you deserve, I will not let you go unpunished” (46:27).
Jeremiah 47 - Oracle against the Philistines  –  the coastal cities of the Philistines are attacked by the Pharaoh and then by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar (605-604 BC).The Philistines were thought to have been a  “remnant” people from the island of Crete (Caphtor); they too fall to the Babylonians.

Romans 9:24-33 - Paul goes into verses from the prophets that confirm God’s sovereignty in the matter of who will find his favor and who will not.  The prophets Hosea and Isaiah always prophesied that the Lord would extend His salvation to “the nations,” to those people who were not part of the chosen people. And Isaiah also talked about the “remnant,” the few among the “chosen people” who would persevere in faithfulness, even though they did not completely achieve salvation through the Law alone.  It is from faithfulness that “righteousness” flows, not from works, and faithfulness means not merely an assent to God’s reality but a willingness to be led by Him in one’s life – never perfect perhaps but with integrity (9:30-32).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 44-45 and Romans 9:1-23

Jeremiah 44 - For the Jews in Egypt, Jeremiah continues to rant and rave against them.  It is because of the evil they did to provoke God that they have seen Judah and Jerusalem destroyed.  “Though I kept sending to you all my servants the prophets, with the plea not to commit this horrible deed which I hate, [sacrificing to strange gods] they would not listen or accept the warning to turn away from the evil of sacrificing to strange gods” (44:4).

Why do they keep doing this Jeremiah asks, endangering even the precious remnant they might have been? “To this day they have not been crushed: they do not fear or follow the law. . .” (44:10).  Obedience to God, Jeremiah tells us here, is in some ways a crushing of our own wills, our own sense of what we feel we must do.  We must put the fear of displeasing God up higher on the list of things that motivate us. They must not offer incense to the Gods of Egypt.  But still they reject his word.  The women especially defy him, offering incense to the “Queen of Heaven.” (Ishtar)  Pharoah Hophra will be dethroned and killed by Amasis—his successor-- in 569.  Amasis also will be later slain by his opponents.

Jeremiah 45 – Flipping back to the time of King Jehoiakim [c.609-598 BC]. We are told that a message was given to Baruch at the time of Jeremiah’s prophecies in 605-604 BC that God would soon be tearing down what he had built, uprooting what He (God) had planted in destroying Jerusalem.  But Baruch is reassured that he will be left unharmed.

Romans 9:1-23 – Paul tells of the “great sorrow and constant anguish in [his] heart” over the rejection of Christ by his Jewish brothers—who have had every blessing and gift from God to bring them to understand and accept Christ (9:4). Paul then says something that is a little – no very - startling. He says, For their sake [for the sake of his people, the Jews] I would wish that I myself were under God’s curse and separated from Christ” (9:3).

Could Paul really think this for a minute? But here I think I do understand him.  I have had similar feelings myself—not about the salvation of the Jews.  I don’t worry about the Jews.  They will do fine before God.  I worry about people who CANNOT come into knowledge of Christ because of deep mental handicaps. And here I must add something very personal. When I read these words, I think of my mother and sister, both of whom struggled all their adult lives with schizophrenia.  Their lives were full of a misery I cannot even begin to imagine in all honesty.  By contrast, my own life has been so blessed by God, right here in this life, it often seems very unfair to me. The happiness I have had and especially the moments of “redemption” I have experienced – those amazing moments where I have experienced the “intersection of the timeless with time” (TS Eliot) have been moments so rich, that they make thoughts of a heavenly afterlife relatively unimportant to me. If there is something more after death, I would happily give it up if my mother and sister could only come into an experience of God in some dimension or realm beyond my imagination.  I have already been rewarded.  They have never really even lived if true “life” is “in Christ.”

Returning to Paul’s analysis, however, of the Jews, the real children of Abraham, he posits, are not those who are descendants through the flesh, but those who are his descendants through faith.  Is this an injustice on God’s part, he asks?  Surely not, for God’s will is beyond question (9:15); “it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy” (9:16)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 42-43 and Romans 8:18-39

Jeremiah 42 - The leaders of the remnant, Johanan and Azariah, beg Jeremiah to intercede for them with God. They sound as if they are REALLY ready to be obedient to whatever the Lord wants from them. Jeremiah takes ten days to consult with the Lord, but when he returns and tells them they must not go on to Egypt, they disobey YET AGAIN. They give in to their fears: their fear of the Chaldeans, their fear of starvation and battle. The message of Jeremiah is ever the same.  The word of God runs counter to the natural inclinations of men—their sense of what they ought to do, their reasoned judgment about what is wise.  God always seems to advise us not to pay attention to immediate fears - what we might even say is common sense - or to the things we might want the most.  When you run away from what you fear, disaster always overtakes you. Obedience is counter-intuitive because our intuitions are not tuned to God.  Azariah and Johanan cannot believe that this is what they ought to do.  So they defy him. 

Jeremiah 43 - They will not obey and stay in Judah.  They accuse Jeremiah of being the pawn of Baruch in encouraging them to stay.  Instead, they go to Egypt and they take both Baruch and Jeremiah with them to the city of Tahpanhes, on the Nile River. Here Jeremiah predicts Nebuchadnezzar’s expedition to Egypt in 568-56 and his victory over it. There is no running away from what God brings.

Romans 8:18-39 - Paul is at his most difficult in verses 18-21.  I do not understand it very well, but perhaps I am not alone.  Paul seems to be saying that the consequences of the fall—futility, in particular—is something only partly overcome, even by faith

“For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; . . . all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved” (8:19-24). Our bodies do not yet partake of the redemption Christ has gained for us.  I don’t know if this is true.  Early Friends thought it could be FULLY EXPERIENCED.

But the fruits of the redemption are richly offered to us in this life, in all kinds of ways, spiritual and physical.  I think I understand what he means when he says that  the hope -- the less than rational optimism we feel as Christians -- cannot be for what we already enjoy but must be for a something we only dimly sense now, something in a dimension we have no clear access to right now or perhaps something in the future.  Now, whether this thing we hope for is an anticipation of heaven (after life) or something that pertains more to this creation—its full restoration perhaps—this I do not know.  Sometimes I think the thing I hope for more than any kind of “heaven” is for a “restoration” of human fullness in this creation, that somehow the faithfulness that we offer through our lives, our work, our testimony to the world, etc—that these things somehow, incredibly, will inspire and move people distant from us in place and time to a kind of life more in keeping with what God always intended for us than what we live today.

The mystery continues.  The Spirit groans in pain for us (8:26).  “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (8:28-29).  This is an interesting idea.  I guess Calvin must have liked this passage. Maybe Paul didn’t have everything just exactly right either.  Jesus as the first-born of the redeemed creation—this I understand, and feeling called to be his sister, this I understand too.

Then the chapter ends with this lovely passage: Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (NRSV, 8:35-39).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Jeremiah 40-41 and Romans 8:1-17

Jeremiah 40 - The next several chapters are very dramatic and show the chaos surrounding the whole broken Judaean region following the Chaldean conquest. Jeremiah is taken with the captives who are being led into exile with their Chaldean captors as far as Ramah, but is then told that he does not have to go into exile; he can go wherever he wants to go.  He is advised to go to Gedaliah, whom the king of Babylon has named governor of Judah. Gedaliah comes from a family that was deeply associated with the reform movement started by Josiah; and his father, Ahiakam, had helped save Jeremiah earlier [see chapter 26]. So Jeremiah does go to him.

There are also some Judeaen military officers who had not surrendered to the Chaldeans who go to Gedaliah to seek refuge; and other people as well – Israelites from Moab, Ammon, Edom and elsewhere return to Judah, hoping that Gedaliah will be able to provide some security.

One of the Judaean officers  -- Johanan – tries to warn Gedaliah that the Ammonite king, Baalis, who has not yet surrendered to the Chaldeans, is resentful of Gedaliah and sees him as a puppet of the enemy. Johanan tells Gedaliah that Baalis intends to assassinate him, but Gedaliah refuses to believe it. Johanan advises Gedaliah to send someone to kill Ishmael, the man appointed to assassinate him, but Gedaliah will have none of it.

Jeremiah 41So the assassination happens—while they are all together at a dinner table in Mizpah. Ishmael and the ten men with him also slay many of those associated with Gedaliah. The day after--before anyone has learned of the assault--eighty men with beards shaved (under a vow of some kind?), clothed in rags and with gashes on their bodies, arrive to bring food offerings and incense.  Ishmael greets them, invites them in and then slays them as well—except for ten. He takes captives, including women left behind by the Chaldeans for Gedaliah and leaves.
When Johanan learns of the slaughter, he and his men set out after Ishmael, overtaking him at the Great Waters of Gibeon.  When the captives with Ishmael see them, they go over to the pursuers; but Ishmael escapes with eight of his men to the Ammonites. Johanan takes charge of the assorted “remnant,” but fearing what the Chaldeans will do now, they decide to escape to Egypt. 

Romans 8:1-17 – Paul describes a Christological understanding that is rooted in the Levitical sacrifices—the Law was powerless to completely deal with sin (bring it to a state of utter holiness), because the “flesh” in human makeup could not be brought into complete obedience to the Law but rather found in the Law ever new ways to undermine God’s will, which was to save through the Law under the Old Covenant.  So now it is flesh itself—in the person of Christ—that is condemned and handed over to God in sacrifice.  But only God can do this.  By joining ourselves to Christ through faith in his sacrifice, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the divine that gives us a spiritual power capable of overcoming the drag of flesh.

For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness (8:7-10). He says this a time or two again.

So we see the indwelling Christ proclaimed here, but also the expiatiatory nature of Christ’s incarnation and death—Quaker and not so Quaker aspects of the faith. I am very interested in the tension between the “fleshly” and the spiritual dimensions of the truths proclaimed in the Christian gospel.  The sacramental spirituality of the Catholic Church seems a two-edged sword – it is a vital reminder or teacher of the truths and the message of Christ’s redemption; but it seems to me too a snare that sometimes (maybe often) keeps people from passing into a real spiritual grasp of what that redemption is all about.   One could argue (and I do) that true sacramentality comes after the spiritual rebirth.  When the Spirit of Christ animates our mortal bodies and dwells at the heart of all we do in the flesh - our marriages, our friendships and our communities.