Ash Wednesday, Year A in 2020: Old Testament, Epistle & Psalm Passages – Taking the time to think and ponder on our need of the Divine

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1 – 2)

We need Transfiguration Sunday in order to endure and survive Ash Wednesday. We need someone on our side to see our way through the darkness. And because Ash Wednesday comes every year, we need to be reminded on the day of Transfiguration that the Jesus who seeks to be our Friend is also the Jesus who is our Redeemer.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Verses 12 – 13)

If we could be assured, without a doubt, that we would be forgiven and our sins absolved, what use would there be to return to the Lord God? That salvation is assured for those who return and believe does not mean that we can come belatedly or halfheartedly.

“Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?” (Verse 14)

When the fortunes of the Israelites seemed to rest not just on their correct and devote worship of Yahweh, but also their relationship with the nations around them, it behooved the nation of Israel to take no unnecessary chances. This was the warning of the prophets.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ “ (Verses 15 – 17)

We who believe in wake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection should not be complacent or less than diligent in our worship and beliefs. The apostles, who preached after Jesus returned to heaven, deliver the same sort of message. Paul, who is quoted here and who knows well the struggle his forebearers had, describes himself as suffering as the prophets of old did. But he is willing and glad to suffer through it if it means his readers find their way to salvation.

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10)

I have been thinking about my experience of Ash Wednesdays in the past. In my growing up years, the season of Lent was not a large part of our church calendar although Easter certainly was. In my early adult years Maundy Thursday was a great emphasis as was the week before Easter Sunday. But the weeks before Maundy Thursday were not of particular note. It was in seminary that I cam to learn about the shades and meanings of Lent. And embraced it as a season of reflection and growth. If it can be said that one looks forward to Lent, I do.

Ash Wednesday in seminary was noted and celebrated by having an ashen sign made on one’s forehead, and it made me conscious of the coming season. I miss that also. Almost enough to make me consider putting such a symbol on my forehead this day. I am writing this at least a week in advance, so I have time to consider and plan it. But it seems anti-thematic to simply put such a symbol on my forehead as a solo experience and ritual. The meaning becomes so much richer in the context and company of others, and in a joint/corporate worship service. I do want to think of something to do however, to set aside the day as special to me. With all the mercies and blessings that have been bestowed upon me, I desire to respond back to the Divine.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:1-17)

May you, beloved reader, find a way and a time to think about the meaning of this day and make an acceptable and heartfelt response to the Divine. Selah!

First Sunday in Lent, Year A in 2020: Old Testament Passage – Gaining a new world view, and being scared

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:15 – 17)

When I was a small child I had a pretty limited world view – or at least that is what my scant memories of childhood tell me. I do not remember much of my childhood. Less, I think, than other people. One memory that sticks out in my mind is living in a tall apartment building. I was playing in the back with a friend and we decided to go inside to play – or at least I remember we were outside and then went back inside to go up to my apartment. I knew reliably we had to go in to the up and down machine, push the right button (I knew which button it was) and then go up to my apartment that was a certain door. I had done it plenty of times. This time, however, the elevator got stuck with us in it. And my world view was shattered. It had always worked before. I think, beloved reader, my world view was shattered a great deal in my childhood and that is why, I suspect, I do not remember much of it.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”(Chapter 3, verses 1 – 5)

Adam and Eve were, for all intents and purposes, like children. They were told something and that is what they believed. Perhaps because they had been told to avoid it, they had kept away from the middle of the garden. In my case, my mother had told me the elevator was safe, and so that it what I believed, and used it without fear. It is when we push the boundaries that we learn, to our regret, that surface appearances do not always match what the deeper reality is.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (Verses 6)

You might wonder, beloved reader, how my experience connects to the situation in the Garden of Eden. Well, I do not know for sure that I was allowed to ride the elevator alone. It might have been that my mother told me to stay down in the protected playground of the apartment complex and that she would come get me when it was time to come up. Maybe I decided on my own to go up to my apartment, and having been told how the elevator works I thought I could do it myself.

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” (Verse 7)

What I do know is that by the time my friend and I were released from the trapped elevator I was frantic, and so was my mother. I also realized as a child I was vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances. That my world was not as safe and predictable as I thought it was. One moment I was safe in a world I thought I knew the parameters and wheres & whys for. Next thing I know I am trapped with no way out. So I can appreciate how Adam and Eve were flooded by their realization of being vulnerable and exposed. Growing up, beloved reader, is hard. Selah!

Transfiguration Sunday, Year A in 2020: Old Testament Passage – Being transformed, all in good and proper time

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”
(Exodus 24:12)

I cannot disguise, and there is no use trying, that this Old Testament passage is a prelude to Jesus going up the mountain and conferring with Elijah and – yes – Moses. Moses was no stranger to “mountain top” experiences. And Elijah was no stranger to hearing and conferring with the Divine. The delivering of the Ten Commandments ties back to last week’s verses, almost as if it was part of a plan – which it was! The Revised Common Lectionary can be very deliberate about leading the reading through the events and experiences of the bible.

So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” (Verses 13 – 14)

The difference and divergence of the Transfiguration versus Moses going up the mountain is that Jesus brought along some of his disciples. What was shrouded in secrecy in Moses’ time was done openly in Jesus’ time. It was the great “reveal” that heralded Jesus’ mission coming to an end. Much the way the lectionary uses it to herald the coming of Easter, umm, which it was.

“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” (Verses 15 -16)

I have to wonder, why the difference? Let’s think this through beloved reader. We know (and I said last week) that the Israelites fresh out of Egypt were being re-acquainted with the faith that the forebearers held dear. It was their life-blood and the reason they endured all that happened to them. Now, the interlude in Egypt seems to me to have been a time that they went from being a small group of people to being a large group of people. And a time when what they believed was in opposition to the larger group around them, the Egyptian. And part of the fear that the Pharaohs’ had was that Hebrews were becoming a large group and presence that were not under control the same way your average Egyptian peasant was. Taming the Hebrews involved great punishment and suffering, and the Divine heard their calls and pleas for help, and developed Moses into their rescuer. But just because they remained faithful to the faith of Abraham did not mean they could live out that faith on their own. Hence the Ten Commandments, and the other rules that were sent down in the Torah.

Now, let us turn to the Jews of Jesus’ time. Persecution, capture, being conquered, and oppression had not taught the Jews how to be faithful followers either – at least not on a nationwide level. But this time, instead of rescuers and prophets, the Divine has sent the Godself in the form of Jesus. And what was shrouded and veiled was now out in the open. In fact, the apostle Paul says basically the same thing – come to think of it.

“Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (Verse 17)

Here is another difference. To the people waiting down below for Moses, the glory of the Lord was fiery and fierce. Jesus, however for the most part, was gentle and welcoming. It seems odd, but it is true that the Christian faith taken as a whole since Abram was called out from Ur has been like the growth and development of a child. At first the teaching was stern to set down the lessons, establish expectations, and set boundaries – as if teaching a wayward child. Later the teaching was gentle and yielding, explaining and promoting understanding as if teaching a child/youth who has come to the stage of reasoning. What, I have to ask, is the development stage of the Christian faith now?

“Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (Verse 18)

It takes time, beloved reader, to learn how one out to live; it takes time. Moses was on the mountain forty days being taught, I assume, the intent of the Ten Commandments. I have to wonder about that – the effectiveness of the lessons and whether it was passed on. Jesus was in the desert for forty days, being refined himself. And made ready to teach his disciples the lessons that were needed. And yes, I have questions also as to whether those lessons that were taught so well to the disciples have come down to the present generation as Jesus intended.

What I take away from all of this, beloved reader, is that transformation can take place in our lives. Moses, it was said, was transformed developing a glow he kept veiled. Jesus was transformed and did not hide it from his disciples. And we, beloved reader, are to be transformed also. And we are to show this transformation, like a lighted city on a hill.

As we draw near to Lent, let us consider how our lives have been transformed and transfigure, and what our life looks like to the world. Let us compare that to what our life should look life, and if further change, transformation and transfiguration is needed. And let us determine, for our own self, what we can do better. Selah!

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, Year A in 2020: Old Testament Passage – More questions than answers and comments

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (Deuteronomy 30:15 – 16)

For the second day I am sitting here trying to decide what to say. On the one hand, this message to the Israelites seems pretty clear. And one would think through the generations there would be enough Hebrews/Israelites/Jews to keep God’s blessing flowing. So what happened?

“But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.” (Verses 17 – 18)

We know that the Hebrews/Israelites were seduced and drawn away by other gods, and indulged in erroneous practices of worship. And that through the years the prophets called again and again for the people to return to proper worship.

And while I am thinking about it, how is “live long” defined? Because some remnant of people remained, enough that the land was occupied by some members of the twelve tribes. I know from doing research that the Jews lost the designation of a “homeland” in the early 700’s BCE. And that in 1948 the designation was re-established – hotly contested but re-established. Do the conditions of God’s blessing mean that the Jews “lost” the land when the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel?

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Verses 19 – 20)

And what of the coming of the Messiah? And the opening up of faith to all peoples, not just Jews? With all my questions rolling around in my thinking, maybe that is why it has been hard to discern what to write. And what of the question that so often arises in my writings – how does this apply to us today? Or, how should we apply it?

It will be interesting, very interesting, to see what theme develops as the week goes on. And I hold in my thinking the newest foreign policy that has been revealed in the United States’ relationship to that part of the world. Indeed, Shalom!

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany, Year A in 2020: Old Testament Passage – Reminding us all of a gentle, compassionate, merciful belief system

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (Isaiah 58:1)

The prophet Isaiah was called forth, according to his story of being called by the Divine, to deliver messages to Israel that descended from the house of Jacob. This, if did not know, was the beginning of the twelve tribes of the Jews. Israel had come a long road since then. And apparently had gone astray from the Lord God more than once.

“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” [This statement represents the Israelites naively asking “what did we do wrong?” The Divine sets forth to tell them.] Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Verses 2 – 7)

I am reminded again of my intention to highlight a gentle, compassionate, merciful belief system. It seems to me that is what the Divine is asking of the Israelites. And does such a belief system not point to a gentle, compassionate, merciful God? (Forgive the reverse/set in the negative questioning. It is a type of rhetoric style.) These verses also point to a caring Lord God, and it seems that Isaiah is saying the Israelites have forgotten that is the type of Almighty the Divine is. But . . . . . it is not just the Israelites that have forgotten that. And that is why, beloved reader, I am setting forth on my intentions to prompt a gentle, compassionate, merciful belief system.

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (Verses 8 – 12)

I have written on numerous occasions about the challenges I face – health and other issues. I have also written about how the Divine has helped me through all those times. Beloved reader, I try very hard (do not always succeed but I try) to practice gentle, compassionate, merciful faith belief and spiritual disciplines. Now I understand better how and why the Divine has been there – because I have been there for others! Selah!

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, Year A in 2020: Old Testament Passage – Hear and Come!

Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” (Micah 6:1 – 2)

I am mindful, beloved reader, of what I wrote yesterday. The back and forth as to whether I agreed or disagreed with the passage. Questioning and wondering if I could enter into the passage or whether I wanted it to go away. Such is the experience in wrestling with a passage, especially if you are struggling with other things and issues. Well, I am not feeling much better today than I did a few days ago! But I do not feel the need to wrestle here. In fact it is the Lord God that is wrestling with the called and chosen people. We, you and I, can be just spectators here. The Divine has spoken, through Micah, and is upset about the called and chosen people complaining in their prayers and daily activities.

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.” (Verses 3 – 5)

The Lord God reminds the called and chosen people (through Micah) that they have been rescued from slavery and cared for, and have sent them leaders who would guide them into relationship & covenant with the Divine. The Divine reminds them also that they have been protected from those who would harm them.

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Verses 6 – 7)

It is actually a pretty one-sided conversation, with Micah writing both parts – the Lord God and the called & chosen people of God. The readers/hearers of this passage supposedly ask what they should do to apologize to the Divine and make amends. We, you & I beloved reader, can into this conversation by asking ourselves if we have forgotten the actions and promises on our behalf by the Divine. You may remember the last time I wrote, I acknowledge that the Divine has been faithful to me in my illness, and I have not journeyed alone in my illness. Maybe as you remember the times the Lord God has been there for you (I also remember when I have felt the Lord God’s presence) you might read to find out what Micah suggests. For it is clearly Micah who is giving this answer.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Verse 8)

Do you remember, beloved reader, what I said might be a recurring theme that I speak to this year? Gentle, compassionate, merciful belief. I think that perspective fits very well here. Shalom and Selah!

Third Sunday After Epiphany, Year A in 2020: Old Testament Passage – The Coming of the Light of the Divine

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” (Isaiah 9:1)

Each winter I eagerly await spring. One of the hallmarks, for me, that spring is coming is that the light of the sun lasts longer into the afternoon. I mourn the passing of summer/fall when it is getting dark by the time I get home after a full day of work. But the coming of spring means there is still daylight left at 5 pm. Soon after that realization comes daylight savings time, and the darker hours are pushed off, and there is still light as the early evening passes. The light during the summer continues each day until the tasks of the day are completed and I am ready for a night’s rest.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” (Verse 2)

I have spoken before that the realization of the need for Jesus Christ and the Lord God was made known to me at an early age. Just as the dawn of light of cognitive reasoning and understanding came to me, so did the desire for a relationship with the Divine. I craved it and longed for it. Others’ faith stories are different from mine; for everyone who claims Christianity, there was a point in their lives when they knew it was time. It may have been a coming to the “light”, or a desire for “light”; the light may have come at baptism, before or after. One’s faith story & faith journey may be of many twists and turns.

“You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” (Verses 3 – 4)

In the history of the called and chosen people “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” was located at the Sea of Galilee. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were the first tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel deported by the Assyrians. In other words, their “darkness” came early for them. Imagine living at the site of where your ancestors were taken away. You are there on ancestral ground, but it is still not yours to control. The Jews there were intermingled with Gentiles and foreigners, and the government was controlled by another nation. In Jesus time the government was Roman. The bitterness and lack of hope had a long a history. What Isaiah was promising and promoting then was the same thing that Jesus was promising during his ministry. That fact may make it easier to understand why the Jews of his time put little faith in his message. It had been preached to them for so long the promise had become meaningless. Or that they may have felt it would only come true by toppling the current government, as many of the sects of Judaism had tried to do in the past. But . . . . I am getting ahead of myself and the scope of this passage. Remember this, however, beloved reader; remember that the message of hope was put forth centuries ago. A promise of light was given, but not the timing of the coming of light. Shalom!