Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Easter: He is risen!

Sorry I have neglected my blog for a couple of weeks! But Easter is an event in eternity, a life-transforming, world-changing presence that never leaves us and never ends, so it is still timely for us to go on exploring Easter. We were still thinking about Hebrew Bible background of Easter, and one passage I don't want to omit is Isaiah 25:6-10, and 26:1-3, 14,19. "On this mountain" is Mt. Zion (24:23). The feast motif is picked up by Jesus in Mt. 8:11 where he celebrates the faith of the Roman Centurion, saying "Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven...", and indeed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all gave feasts, e.g., to celebrate the weaning of Isaac. The word for feast used in Isaiah comes from the verb " to drink" and describes a celebratory meal which includes drinking wine, and often music (Is. 5:12). Here the use is figurative: the great feast of the Kingdom of God. It is for all peoples; the Hebrew is literally "And will make Yahweh Sabaoth for all the peoples on this mountain..."so the idea of inclusivity is primary here. Easter is for all the world!
The rich foods and well-aged wines are "shemanim" and "shemarim", so that the oracle has lots of alliteration in it as these words are repeated, and insists that God is providing the very best! And the effect of God's offering of this food and wine is to "destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples... to swallow up death forever... to wipe away the tears from all faces... and to take away the disgrace of his people from all the earth; and the summary name for this is "his salvation", the work of "the hand of the Lord"! What a picture of what God would do for the world on that hill called Golgotha and the nearby garden tomb! The word for "disgrace" is used to describe the shame of the Israelite army when for forty days Goliath mocked them, daring anyone to come and fight him, and they were all afraid (I Sam 17: 16,26) and for the disgrace of widowhood in a woman "cast off" by her husband. (Is.4:1, 54:4,6). God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ's death and resurrection, not counting our trespasses against us (II Cor. 5:19); the shame of all our sin and the judgment by God that includes our mortality -- all this is taken away; death is swallowed up by grace and mercy! "It will be said on that day, "This is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation! -- and of course the word "salvation" is "Yeshua", Jesus. How can we not read this passage every Easter? Isaiah goes briefly back to the theme: 26:1 describes "the city of God": "We have a strong city; he sets up Yeshua like walls and bulwarks. Open the gates so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in! ... Trust in the Lord forever!" 26:14 affirms the reality of death, but 26:19 affirms God's gift of resurrection: "The dead do not live; shades do not arise, because you have punished and destroyed them, and wiped out all memory of them. But you have increased the nation, O Lord... Your dead shall live, their corpses shall arise! O dwellers in the dust awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew and the earth will give birth to those long dead (the shades)." Shakespeare said, "The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven..."; so the mercy of God has come like life-giving dew to the dwellers in the dust, and we all awake and sing for joy!
The dead who belong to God by faith shall live! Happy Easter! Jesus Christ is risen, and we rise with him!
The New Testament accounts of Easter morning bring us the glorious good news of God's victory over sin and death in Jesus' death and resurrection. And there is a gift of liberating freedom in the way the Gospel stories diverge in detail and converge in the truth they affirm. The women are there in every story, but how many and which ones go to the tomb vary from Gospel to Gospel. The messenger who tells them the good news is "a young man in white clothing" in Mark, two men in lightning-bright clothing in Luke, a terrifying angel who sits on the stone he had rolled from the mouth of the tomb in Matthew, and two angels in John. (It helps to remember that the word "angel" is just a transliteration of the Greek word aggelos which means messenger, and could be used of earthly or heavenly beings. ) Each gospel includes things others omit. Yet the net effect is to help us trust the integrity of the early stewards of these stories, for they passed them down as they received them, without trying to "harmonize them". And the good news is that Jesus is not dead, he is alive, and he wants to meet with them and with us. He breathes his Spirit into his new body the church, and we who share that Spirit are able to meet Jesus in one another and experience the power of his presence in his risen body. Every Sunday is Easter when we gather with God's people to worship the risen Lord and to have him send us forth once again into the world he died to save! Happy Easter -- now and forevermore!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Easter Event Perspectives, continued

Exodus 2:1-10 tells the story of the birth of Moses. "The princess adopts the foundling, and calls it 'Moshe' saying, "From the water I took him (meshitihu)". That is an interpretation of the name which is not only a scandal to Egyptians and Egyptologists, but a profound degradatioon of a name which was borne by more than one of the proud 'sons" of the sun god (in Egyptian Moses means 'son') who sat on the throne of Pharaoh -- Kemose, Ahmose, Tutmose. Israel's redeemer is 'one taken from the water'. 'God assuredly brought forth Moses, the future redeemer of his people, as it were from the grave, to show that the beginning of the salvation of the Church is like a creation out of nothing' (Calvin). "W. Vischer, The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ, Vol. I, London, Lutterworth, 1949, page 167

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Easter Experience, Then and Now

The Sunday School Class for which I am preparing Palm Sunday and Easter reflections is called "The Biblical Perspectives Class". Our effort is to look at current questions of faith and life from a perspective illumined by study of the Bible. (My daughter persuaded me that there might be other folks who would be interested in these notes, and therefore this blog!)

Understanding the foundational Christian event of Easter from a Biblical Perspective has to begin with the antecedents in the Hebrew Bible's accounts of Passover and Exodus. This is underlined by Luke's reference in Luke 9:31 where he tells us that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah, the symbolic representatives of the Torah (or the Law) and the Prophets, "about his departure -- and the word in Greek is his "Exodus", the same word used for the deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt!-- which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."
The Easter event is seen in this perspective as a new Exodus, a new leading-forth of God's people from bondage into freedom and the fulfillment of God's promises, only this time it is not a geographical but a spiritual journey, a liberation from bondage to sin and death and despair into new life and freedom and hope and joy in Christ and by God's indwelling Spirit.

In Genesis 50:24-25 the dying Joseph says to his brothers: "I am about to die, but God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, "When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here." This sets the Exodus of Israel from Egypt in a framework of faith in God who will come to save God's people and in whose salvation even the bodies of the dead will have a sure part. This is not yet the hope of resurrection, but it is a hope that the faithfulness and the power and the holy purpose of God transcend our deaths. The first Exodus foreshadows the glory of "the Exodus which Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem."

The account of the Exodus plagues has many echoes in the story of Jesus' suffering and death in the Gospels. Of course the primary echo is the death of the first-born sons of the Egyptians (Exod. 11:4-5) which foreshadows the death of God's own Son, but there is also the darkness over the land of Egypt for three days (Exod.10:21-23), echoed by the darkness over the whole land for three hours (Mt. 27:45; Lk.23:44,45), and the loud cry (Exod. 11:6, 12:30) which corresponds to Jesus' crying with a loud voice (Mt.27:46, 50; Mk. 15: 34,37; Lk.23:46). The sacrifice of the Lamb for the Passover, and the marking of the houses with the blood of the lamb, foretell the death of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). One detail noted by John 19:33-36 is that none of Jesus' bones were broken, as was required of the Passover Lamb (Exod. 12:46). The death of the first-born of Egypt opened the way for God's people to leave their physical bondage as the death of Jesus opened the way for us to escape our bondage to sin and death.

"The Lord is my shepherd,,,"

"The Lord is my shepherd..." These words from the 23rd Psalm, attributed to David, the king of Judah and Israel, are among the best-known words of faith. But the idea apparently didn't originate with David. In Genesis 48:14, Jacob/Israel, in preparing to bless Ephraim and Manasseh, the two eldest sons of Joseph, says "The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day... bless the boys...". The date when this passage was actually written down is unsure, but the experience of God as our shepherd is attributed to Jacob, who was himself a shepherd and a wanderer most of his life, many generations before David. Again in Gen. 49:24 Jacob refers to God as "the mighty one of Jacob, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel". In II Samuel 7:7 God speaks of the leaders before David whom he had "commanded to shepherd my people Israel". It would appear that from the time of the patriarchs the idea of God as shepherding his people, both directly and through appointed leaders, had been a part of the faith of Israel.

More Palm Sunday Perspectives

The "Testament of Jacob" passage in Genesis 49:10-11 has another interesting reference to the promised messianic figure in close proximity to a mule-colt, and may somehow lie behind or be a development on the significance of the "royal mule" in David's coronation of Solomon, the prophecy of Zechariah, and the Gospel references to the "colt tied" which Jesus' disciples are sent to borrow. The references to the "scepter" and the "ruler's staff" which shall belong to the tribe of Judah (from which, of course, Jesus is a legal descendent through Joseph) "until he comes to whom it belongs" (if we take the Syriac reading) are clearly messianic and are here related to the act of "binding his foal to the vine, his donkey's colt or mule (polon tes onou autou) to the choice vine"; this is apparently a symbol of such affluence that the risky behavior which would allow the colt to devour a choice vine can be dared, along with the extravagant act of washing one's garments in wine. This may or may not shed any light on the other passages, but it is an interesting and apparently very ancient linking of the royal figure from the tribe of Judah with a tied-up mule, as in the Gospel references. Puzzling, isn't it! (It is also interesting that vss. 8 and 9 seem to transfer to the tribe of Judah the fulfilment of Joseph's dream about his brothers bowing to him.) (Gen. 37:5-11)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Palm Sunday Perspectives

To appreciate the significance of Jesus' "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday it helps to read I Kings, chapter 1, which describes how the aged King David established his son Solomon as king when his older brother Adonijah had tried to usurp the throne. Note especially vss. 33, 38, and 44 which clearly show the importance of "riding on the king's mule" (in Greek, "hemi-onon", "half-ass")as a vital part of the coronation ceremony along with anointing by the priest (and prophet) and the acclaim of the crowd. The spring Gihon was the ritual site. All these elements are repeated each time the story is told, so each must be significant for the coronation ritual.

The other important Old Testament passage is, of course, Zechariah 9:9-10. This prophecy, spoken in the days after the return from exile in Babylon when the Jews were rebuilding the walls and the temple of Jerusalem, still under the political control of governors appointed by Darius, announces the coming of a future Messiah and describes the effect of his rule. Note the presence of the elements noted in I Kings: acclaim of the people, riding on the mule (here the technical term is not used, but the description "colt, the foal of an ass"is the equivalent). There is no reference to the spring Gihon, but the "setting free of the prisoners from the waterless pit" may be a veiled reference to the role of the living waters which sustained life in their "stronghold". The king is triumphant, but not in human strength, since he is "humble and riding on a donkey/mule, and cuts off the battle bow and war-horse, symbols of human military might, and commands "peace to the nations" in his world-wide dominion.

When we turn to the NT accounts, we see that Jesus has carefully arranged for the donkey/mule to be ready; a central element of his claim to be Messiah. Matthew cites Zech.9:9-10 and Psalm 118:25,26 "Hosanna! (Save us!) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!", Mark also cites Psalm 118:25-26 as the acclaim of the crowd. Luke cites it also, as does John, who also cites Zech. All underline the acclaim, all mention the riding on the donkey/mule, though none mention Gihon. Luke mentions the messianic peace they have forfeited (19:42) by failing to recognize God's visitation. John refers to the "worldwide dominion" of Zechariah's passage in 12:20 "Look, the world has gone after him!"

What does this tell us? (1) That Jesus was making a deliberate, planned appeal to be recognized as Messiah, "Son of David", and claiming the allegiance of God's people. And yet, it was not simply a claim to the political power then vested in another foreign-appointed governor, Pontius Pilate. John tells us (6:15) that Jesus deliberately avoided this when they wanted to make him king by force. He was willing for them to "render to Caesar what is Caesar's -- political tribute and authority -- but he was calling them -- us -- to render to God what is God's: the ultimate and intimate authority over our lives involved in living as he taught us to pray: "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"; "Not my will, but thine be done" -- even if that means we die on a cross! (2) That his role in the kingdom is that of a humble servant who rejects all use of military power -- the legions of angels he could have called upon! -- and all its symbols such as war-horses and chariots (read tanks and humvees?); he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many! He calls all who would be "great" in his Way of life to be servants of all. He commands peace to the nations, and he brings great joy to those who dare to trust in Him. As one bumper-sticker puts it, "When Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, he probably meant don't kill them." (3) That in a time when Kings have ceased to exist, or become expensive ceremonial anachronisms having little or no real power or purpose, maybe we need to find other metaphors to describe our relationship to God in and through Jesus. Instead of the Kingdom of God, so central in our Biblical vocabulary, can we communicate with people today more effectively if we talk about "following the Way", as early Christians did, or about the "Society of Friends" as the Quakers do, picking up on the Johannine "You are my friends if you do what I command you... I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father... love one another!" or if we emphasize "thy will be done", which in the Lord's prayer is the equivalent of "thy kingdom come"? Can we explore Paul's "New Creation", or take another look at Jesus' "be born from above"? Dare we talk about the "Democracy of God", if we do so with an adequate understanding of the Holy Spirit as reigning in each of us and available to guide us through the written Word, and of ourselves as members of the risen body of Christ in whom Christ lives by his Spirit and through whom he wants his will to be done in the world? Could this fit with the question raised by Rev. Karen Haak this morning: Could our prayer be not asking God to do something about the world's problems, but a voicing of our concern, followed by a humble and obedient listening for what God may be telling us to do about the world's problems?

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Blog Intro:

Hi! I am a retired Presbyterian Pastor who loves to study and teach the Bible, and to learn from folks who share that interest. I will be posting some notes, ideas, and questions as I prepare a couple of class lessons for Palm Sunday and Easter. I invite you to read my notes (which will change from week to week) and add insights or suggestions! Thanks!