Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Lord Is Coming to Judge

Psalm 96

As we get ready for Sunday's texts, we notice that we have this lofty hymn of praise for the psalm.  This psalm is prescribed every Christmas Eve (though, can be substituted with 97 or 98) and we see it a few times in our lectionary throughout the three years.

Rather than give a verse by verse, "Wow! Isn't that cool!" look at it, I thought I would lift up something that can be a stumbling block for folks who sing the psalms each week.  But, before we get there, we notice the command in the first verse, "Sing to the LORD a new song."  I choose to think that this is a command based on the language of the psalter everywhere else.  This isn't simply a suggestion or an encouragement, rather it is a "how could you not?" command that affirms the works of the Lord in creation and salvation of his people.

It's too easy for us to come up with excuses not to worship or to participate in worship.  For Lutherans we understand scripture through the lenses of Law and Gospel.  Gospel being good news that we want to hear, that we like to hear.  Too often we are comforted by the Gospel without the challenge of the Law.  While I wouldn't say that this psalm is naturally a "Law" psalm, as it were, I would say that the command to worship, to sing to the Lord a new song, is affirmed by the telling of God's deeds of creation and salvation.  To go a step further, I believe that is our responsibility, or calling (Law and Gospel) to recount these deeds every time we gather together.  The active recounting of these events comes each week in our worship, both in Word and Sacrament.  It is in the reading of scripture for the whole people that we hear the works of the Lord.  It is in the lifting up of the sacrament and our receiving of it that Christ's cross and resurrection are recounted.  Therefore, as we gather each week, weathered by the challenges and chances of life, we are a new people, being reborn each day in the gift of our baptismal covenant coming together as a body of confused human beings setting forth a "new song" through the proclamation of the deeds of our God.  Sing to the Lord a new song?  How could we not?

To address something that tends to trip up folks (including myself) when singing or reading these psalms, I wish to write for a brief moment about the idea of judgment.  This fall, I have taken on a challenge that I won't soon forget.  I have challenged myself to a "scripture surge" (my term).  I wanted to get a perspective of the whole of scripture.  I wanted to understand the Law in light of Jesus without it being close to a year between the reading of the two.  Therefore, I decided to read or listen to 10-15 chapters a day, surging through the scriptures.  I can hear it now, "Gee, I wish I had that kind of time."  It's not about time, I have learned, it's about priority. I have no more or less time that anyone else.  Are there days that I haven't read?  Sure.  But, my goal was to get a picture of the shape of the Bible.  Do I understand everything that I am reading?  No.  Often, I get impatient with a section a take a few days off.  But, this makes for good conversations about how people understand scripture.  Also, I get to see how others interpret a book or the Bible as a whole by reading commentaries to bridge the gaps of my ignorance.

Like worship, every time we approach the Bible, we are different people coming up with different observations.  This go-round, I have noticed that the idea of judgment is not nearly as dark as I have always perceived it.  Even in the psalms, we always hear of judgment as a part of a celebration of what God is doing.  The people of Israel looked to God as judge because they needed someone to make a terribly wrong situation (Egypt, wilderness, battles, exile, return) right.  This is what judgment is: putting things right.  Liberal sensibility is inclined to interpret judgment as all people being treated equally.  Rather, judgment (as N. T. Wright would put it) is all people being treated appropriately.  In this light, we see that all things can be made right.

It seems that God is celebrated as judge often in the same passages that he is celebrated as creator.  Who better to evaluate than the one who creates?  We bristle at the thought of judgment because we ourselves are not capable.  How can we who haven't created, we who haven't given life and who haven't sustained cast any judgment on others?   I think that this is what Jesus meant in the oft quoted passage from Matthew 7, "Judge not, lest you too be judged."  We read the first two words as a command, what is being said however, "Judge if you will, but know that by your own system of evaluation will you be evaluated."  In other words, leave the judgment up to God.

This is probably one of the most freeing realities of the Christian.  Judgment is not necessarily "punishment" is making all things right.  It is through Jesus that God has done this work.  God judges the world through Jesus, through his life-giving death and resurrection.  It is why we pray every Good Friday, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and
our souls, now and in the hour of our death."  Therefore, judgment is something to be celebrated and justice is something to work toward (but that's another entry for another time).

Our ongoing lesson?  Jesus stands at the center both of the new and renewing song and at the judgment of the world.  Celebrate this today.  Celebrate it every day.  The salvation of the world, of the cosmos has Jesus at the center of it.  Let's get ourselves out of the way and sing that new song to the Lord!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Come to the Feast, Psalm 23

Have you memorized Psalm 23?  Probably.  Think about it.  You can probably help yourself through each of the verses by looking at the first word or phrase and before you know it, you have said the psalm from memory.

Why does this particular psalm have so much of an impact on us?  I remember it was one that my grandmother made me memorize as a kid and like most of you who may have been in a similar situation, there was no translation of this particular psalm that captured the spirit quite like the King James Version.

Nevertheless, this psalm comes up a few times each year in the lectionary.  Coming up every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, it highlights Christ as the Good Shepherd.  This time of year, which is called the time after Pentecost, it comes up with some other readings focused on a great feast.  Here's an excerpt from the Isaiah reading:

"On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of
well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of
well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all 
the sheet that is spread over all 
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he
will take away from all 
the earth,
for the LORD has spoken."

One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned when it comes to studying the Bible or trying to understand scripture for a certain context is to study the Bible with the Bible.  For instance, if we read Psalm 23 with this Isaiah text in mind, we get a completely different look at "You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies," and "my cup overflows," and the oft referenced "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."

In light of this Isaiah reading, our perspective of feasting and of death as it is presented in Psalm 23 is shaken up a little bit.  Notice who Isaiah says is included in the feast that the LORD of hosts (heavenly armies) is throwing -- all peoples.  In case there is any doubt about who is included in this, we see a further unveiling of a shroud that is cast over all peoples that divides all nations -- and this shroud, this sheet will not only be removed, but it will be "destroyed." 

Is psalm 23 this inclusive?  Perhaps.  The psalm says that the table is prepared in the presence of "my enemies."  Now, it's likely that the psalmist could mean that this abundance is a display of victory over our enemies and it is to their everlasting shame that they must watch as we enjoy the spoils of victory, the feast of abundance.  OR, if we look at it in light of our Isaiah reading, could it be that our enemies, in front of whom this victory meal is prepared, are sharing in this feast?  Again, I think that it is contextually irresponsible to interpret this psalm exclusively in this way, but it does give us food for thought (pardon the pun).

Lutherans aren't universalists, though we're not terribly concerned with the fate of individual souls either.  What we do preach and constantly so is the mystery of the cross and resurrection of Jesus that makes all things new.  This being made new includes God, through Jesus, acting as judge making what was wrong right, what was crooked straight, what was dark light.  We call this reconciliation.  When we say that all things are reconciled to God through Jesus, we mean that all things are made new and that through Jesus, the world is judged and the wrong is made right again, as it was intended to be.  This is the feast that we are invited to.  

The feast, as Isaiah puts it, is one that will put an end to division.  Ending division, though we can work toward it, is an act of judgement that only God can bring about.  This is justice.  Perhaps if we look toward the feast, it will affect our understanding of who's at the table.  If we know that there is no division, that our wants are satisfied to overflowing, doesn't that affect the way we look at people today?  If I know that the world is being reconciled through Christ and his cross, if I know that he makes all things new and that all divisions are broken down, then why do I hold a grudge?  Why am I weirded out about people that stand in stark contrast to everything I believe?  Maybe it's because I am the one that's trying to do the reconciling.  "How can they be invited to the feast?"  

It is God that does the reconciling through Jesus and we see that the imagery of the poet, Isaiah, is that the shroud is destroyed.  The feast is ready and all are invited.  How do we behave like all people are invited?  

This even affects our perspective of evil in the world.  How does God reconcile this?  Through Jesus. How could anyone as evil as ____ be invited to the table?  I don't know.  Really, I don't.  But, I believe that God is reconciling all things through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  (Again with Jesus!)  A practical way of looking at it, to get through the "I just don't understand" part of the challenge is to pray.  I find that when I am angry with the evil or injustice in the world, I pray.  Often these are prayers that can't form words, but there is something profoundly rewarding about pausing and realizing that through God's abundant mercy he is making all things new, making all things right.

Lord, have mercy.