God's promise; our (un)faithfulness
2008-11-03 by Jerry Sumney
The Joshua reading begins the final speech of Joshua (both the book and the person). Joshua has led the people through the conquest of the land of Canaan and is now about to retire. He begins the speech by giving the people a stark choice, they can either worship the God of Abraham and that God alone or they can worship the gods of the peoples around them. These are supposed to be mutually exclusive options. This is, of course, very odd. No other god expected exclusive worship, so they are being asked to do something quite extraordinary.
In the section that the reading skips, Joshua reminds his listeners of all the wondrous and powerful things God has done for their ancestors and for them. God called Abraham, brought the Israelites out of Egypt, preserved them in the desert, and has now given them the land. They have seen God’s power and how God can preserve and bless them. Now they must choose. If they want to maintain their relationship with this God, they must enter the exclusive relationship. When Joshua makes the initial offer, the people are quick to accept God’s offer.
Joshua, however, is not ready to let them make this choice without think about its fuller ramifications. They are not just siding with the God who has power, they are committing themselves to a relationship that has demands.
It is crucial to set this passage not only in its literary context (the end of the Conquest), but also in the context of its final composition. Joshua, like other books within the Deuteronomic histories, was finished as Judah tried to make sense to their defeat and exile. If their God was truly the God of the cosmos who was over all other gods, how could it be that they had suffered such a devastating defeat. The writers of these books put the blame squarely on the unfaithfulness of the people. Joshua’s warning that God would punish unfaithfulness has already come true when this passage takes the form it has in this book. It serves as much as an explanation for where they find themselves as it does as a warning.
Set in this context, these warnings assume, perhaps emphasize, the patience and mercifulness of God. This sounds odd, but when we read the following stories in Judges and 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles it becomes obvious that the people never live up to the commitment they make in this text. They never worship only God, so they should expect bad things to happen to them. Yet, God keeps taking them back. Now that devastation has come, it should be no surprise. The account of the life of Israel and Judah in these books intends to show how patient God had been and how long they had deserved the terrible things that had finally befallen them.
We need to emphasize here that the preservation of the nation for as long as God saved it, must be seen as an act of pure grace. If God had fulfilled the conditions of the agreement as it is set out in Joshua, the people would have existed for about two weeks! Their unfaithfulness, however, does not move God to reject them. The stories of Judges and then of the monarchy tell of remedial judgments, but not of final rejection—at least until the fall of the northern kingdom. So the evil done by the people could have, should have, brought judgment earlier. This is not because God is mean or vindictive or judgmental. Just the opposite picture of God is seen in these stories. When we read the stories in isolation from one another, we get the impression that God is mean, waiting to punish the slightest infraction. But they intend to convey precisely the opposite message. As a group, these stories show a pattern of the people’s unfaithfulness and God’s patience with them as God constantly takes them back when they turn (however briefly) to God to ask for help.This passage in Joshua calls preachers to remind their congregations of the great blessings God has heaped upon them. The proper, indeed required, response of the people is faithfulness to God. Unfortunately, most of us are little better at faithfulness than our spiritual ancestors. That call for repentance should be accompanied by the reminder that the gracious God who continually restored the Israelites still seeks relationship with us and has shown us this posture in that most dramatic act of sending Christ.
God won't forget
2008-11-03 by Jerry Sumney
Much of what I have said about the general background of apocalyptic ideas is also central to the 1 Thessalonians 4 reading. In this earliest of his letters, Paul addresses the question of what happens to believers at death, or most specifically, do those who die miss the parousia? This is an important question in a church that has been suffering persecution. They want to know whether the people who maintained their faith, in spite of disadvantage and harassment, did so for nothing. We must remember that the members of the early church who turned from worshiping many gods to the worship of the one God through Christ found themselves in an odd place. They had turned to what they now believed was the one true God, but their lives got worse instead of better. Paul has already tried to assure them that they had not made the wrong decision by telling them that God’s people have always endured opposition and persecution (see 2:13-16). The basic question of the Thessalonians is a theological question: will God act with justice for these who have suffered because of their faith?
Paul assures the Thessalonians that those who have died will not miss anything at the end. In fact, he says that the first event of the end will be the resurrection of those faithful people who have died. This scenario promises that they will not miss anything those who are alive at the end will experience. We must be careful not to let ourselves or our congregations get bogged down in the details. Paul gives various accounts of what is to happen at the end in different letters and the details do not match. This is not because he is simply inconsistent; rather, he sets out accounts of the end that help make the theological points he needs to get across to the church he is writing. Had you mentioned to Paul that the details of chronology of his various accounts of the end did not match, I am fairly confident he would have replied: “So, what’s your point?”
The message of the various New Testament accounts of the coming return of Christ is not dependent upon the literal accuracy of the details. These writers all know they are speaking in symbolic language; it is us later people who think of this material as literal. The point of this 1 Thessalonians is passage is to assure the readers that God is faithful, God will not let the suffering of God’s people go unrequited. All the faithful will “be with the Lord forever.”
We are often hesitant to preach on eschatology. Besides all the misunderstandings that surround us (from the Left Behind series to those strange, traveling seminars on Revelation), we don’t think of the world in the way these writers did. Most of us think the world will end when the sun burns out (or when we blow ourselves up), not when the sky rolls back and all will see Jesus floating down to earth. We should remember that even those ancient apocalypticists knew these were symbolic descriptions (look at how often John says “it was like…” in Revelation). While the imagery of the New Testament writers may not resonate with us, eschatology is an essential element of the Christian faith. As I mentioned in connection with the Matthew reading, belief in the power, love, and justice of God depend on God exercising that power in some way we cannot see now and do not experience now. This Thessalonians passage is the promise that God is the God we say God is, God will not allow God’s people to suffer unjustly without having a response that shows them the love and justice that are central parts of the character of God. When we see the real point of the New Testament’s eschatological schemes and promises, we can read them as Paul intends these Thessalonians to hear his words. He finishes his comments saying: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”The kind of preaching I have talked about in connection with Matthew 25 and 1 Thessalonians 4 require significant theological work, on the part of the preacher and the congregation. I have confidence that the congregations have the stamina when preachers take up the task.
Bridesmaids be ready!
2008-11-03 by Jerry Sumney
The three texts for this week share many themes: being prepared to serve God, faithfulness, and reminders of God’s judgment, some of the most prominent among them. Our Matthew 25 passage is one of those that should help us shake the image of Jesus as someone who simply pats the heads of children and sinners without making demands. The parable of the Ten Bridesmaids appears in the last of Matthew’s discourses of Jesus. Each discourse has themes that run through it, and the dominant theme of this discourse is eschatology. Matthew places this discourse after Jesus’ last visit to the temple. It begins with Jesus commenting on the fate of Jerusalem. Matthew takes this beginning material from Mark but then supplements it with a series of parables that emphasize being prepared for the second coming and judgment.
The two most direct messages of this parable and the one before it (the Unfaithful Servant) are that no one knows when the end will come and that because no one knows that, believers must remain in a constant state of readiness.
In difficult times such as these, when there is uncertainty in the political, military, and economic spheres, many people pay more attention the timing of the end time. They begin to look for signs and to identify various people (including presidential candidates) with specific evil signs and beings of the end time. People look for certainty, thinking that knowing the timing provides security. But it never does. Preaching on a passage that intends to illustrate that no one can know when the end will come is a good opportunity to direct a church’s attention to the point that is really important. All the talk about the end in the New Testament intends to assure believers that the difficulties they endure for their faith are not in vain. Apocalyptic eschatology has at its heart the defense of God’s justice, love, and power. The assurance that the end will come, even though we cannot know when, is important for the church to affirm. The most important theological affirmation that comes from this talk about the end and judgment is that God will not let injustice have the final word.
We affirm that God is the most powerful being in the cosmos and that God is loving and just. (Indeed, all our preaching and teaching about justice depend on our belief that God is a God of justice.) But the world we say was made by God does not reflect these characteristics of God. The world is dominated by evil and by values that oppose God’s will. We are more sensitive to this reality in difficult times. A parable like the Ten Bridesmaids offers assurance that even if the timing is not what we might want, God will respond to the injustice of the world. In the meantime, the church must remain patient and vigilant in its living of the values of God’s reign.
It is important to note that such parables assume that the church recognizes that it cannot bring the kingdom of God. The coming of the Kingdom is always an act of God, not an event that believers can be good enough to initiate. This may sound discouraging at first, but it also brings an important word of encouragement (and not a little realism). This affirmation that God will bring the Kingdom, not us, lets us see what our job is. Like the bridesmaids, we are to remain ready to meet the coming lord. We are to be engaged in the kinds of work and living that honor God. We work for justice and love in God’s world because being one of God’s people simply entails doing those things. We do not engage in such works because we expect to bring God’s kingdom into the world. If we do think we are, or are supposed to, bring the kingdom into existence, we will be discouraged or suffer from burn-out. Besides, seeing ourselves as the ones who will bring the reign of God requires a significant amount of hubris. We serve God and our fellow-humans because we are the children of God, not because we have the power to conquer evil and establish God’s will. This is good news! What God requires of us is that we remain faithful, not that we do the impossible.
This parable also contains a threat. Those who are not prepared for the coming of the groom are permanently excluded from the celebration. We must remember that this parable is not a threat to unbelievers, but to believers. It admonishes those in the church to remain faithful when it is easy and when it is difficult. We can remain faithful because we stand not so much under a threat as under a promise: the faithful will be in God’s presence forever.
This week's guest lectionary preaching blogger is
2008-11-02 by CJ Teets
Jerry L. Sumney:
2008-11-01 by David von Schlichten
In Lectionary Homiletics, Anna Carter Florence points out an instructive lesson in Matthew 23: that Jesus tends to lead us away from criticizing about and harranguing against others and toward reforming ourselves.
I was wondering what could be done to help McCain supporters feel less anxiety about Barack Obama, who will probably win the election. Perhaps the above guidance from Matthew 23 would serve to reduce that anxiety.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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