1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh
In Luke’s Magnificat Mary celebrates God’s prerogative of humbling the proud and lifting up the humble. Such a sentiment is, of course, not uncommon in the biblical story. God is often at work leveling the playing field, attending to the needs of the poor and marginalized, while bringing the rich, the proud, and the powerful to account. We may wonder how this actually happens in real life. The high and mighty continue to get higher and mightier (Bernie Madoff being the exception to the rule), while the poor and the middle class continue to struggle. News came out this week that suggests that over the past thirty-plus years the income of the top 1% of earners increased by 275% while the rest of us stumble along with growth rates around 10% to 20% (all in 2011 dollars). We may be wondering what God is doing, but the message remains clear – God is on the side of the poor and the marginalized. So, be careful. Don’t get too haughty and proud. Your day may come.
There is something of that message here in these passages, though it’s more subtle. Here there is a sense that God is the one who lifts up and honors, especially when it comes to bearing witness to the works of God. Here the focus is on the quality of one’s witness to the things of God, and God’s attestation of that witness. The three texts before us do not explicitly address any economic imbalances, but they do suggest that one would be wise to let God do the exalting, lest there be a humbling in the future.
Over the past few months we have been moving through the biblical story from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph and on to Moses. We have seen the people of God become enslaved in Egypt and then delivered through the Red (Reed) Sea, across the desert, to the edge of the Promised Land. In the most recent set of readings, we heard the story of Moses’ death. Although Moses could look into the Promised Land from the top of a mountain, he couldn’t cross over the Jordan (Deuteronomy 34). In this reading from Joshua 3, the next step in this long journey will commence. The realities of slavery are to be left behind as the people enter the Promised Land, and they will do this with a new leader going out in front of them. The call of Joshua comes from Yahweh, who says to Moses deputy: “I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (3:7). It may have been assumed that Joshua would succeed Moses, but at least in this story, Joshua must receive God’s affirmation before assuming that mantle. It was his choice, of course. He could have gone ahead without God’s affirmation, but would he have succeeded?
How does God affirm Joshua’s calling? It is with acts of power – the parting of the River Jordan and the driving out of the Promised Land the current Canaanite inhabitants. Yahweh instructs Joshua to command the priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant to the edge of the river, and then step into the river. As they move toward the center of the river, the waters coming from the north will be stopped allowing the people walk across on dry land. As with the previous crossing out of Egypt, this took faith, and by faith I mean trust, that God will be true to God’s word. Joshua must trust God will act. If God doesn’t act, Joshua’s leadership will be undermined. The Jordan might not be the deepest river in the world, but that’s not the point. The point is that the people need this sign to give them courage to enter the Land, to know that God was with them in the venture. Joshua heeded the call, considered the choice, and allowed God to exalt him in the sight of Israel, so that he might lead Israel as had Moses.
As we ponder this story, and celebrate God’s engagement with the people, we must consider the dark side of the story. In these verses we see the seeds of genocide being planted. Not only will God exalt Joshua to leadership, but according to this story, God will wipe out the current residents. It is a reminder that we must take these stories into our lives with great care. We must ask the question – what does this say about God? In this portion of the story, however, the people take the risk, act in faith, and follow Joshua’s leadership, and cross the river into the Promised Land. The journey out of slavery has come to an end. Now it’s time to build a new life as God’s people.
From the story of God’s call of Joshua to leadership of the people of Israel, we turn to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul continues his reflections on his ministry among the Thessalonians. What looks to be defensiveness, may simply be a reminder of the connections that that exist between him and them. He speaks of it in parental terms, noting that they had encouraged and pleaded with them to live lives worthy of their calling to be people of God. He also reminds them that they had done everything they could to keep from being a burden to them, all so that their message, their witness, might have greater credibility among them. They do this because God is in the witness. The key here is that the Thessalonians had received their word as God’s word. The church in this community had recognized God speaking through the words of Paul. The lifting up and honoring Paul here is more subtle, but the people discern this authorization of the message. With this authorization in mind, Paul invites the church to be imitators of the churches of Judea who have remained true to their calling despite persecution. They have suffered, and offer an example as to how to endure the suffering. When we hear this word about the two sets of churches, I think it wise to recognize that whether Jew or Gentile, there will be resistance to the message. We must be careful when we hear a text like this to not allow it to color our vision of Judaism, so they become the enemy. But in this context, it would appear that there is resistance to the Gentiles receiving the word of salvation. But the message has gone out despite the opposition, and therefore the Thessalonian church is now Paul’s joy and crown.
In the Gospel lesson from Matthew 23, Jesus critiques the Scribes and Pharisees – one group of religious leaders with whom Jesus has issues. Jesus doesn’t discount their teachings. Do what they say, Jesus admonishes. Just don’t do as they do. They put heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people, but don’t do anything to lift them. This is a regular criticism on the part of Jesus. We know now that some of this critique of the Pharisees may have eventuated from a later turf war. But the message that we might take from this concerns not the attitudes of the Pharisees, but our own. How do we act, especially those of us who are clergy, when it comes to “putting on the Ritz?” When I see the word about seeking the best seats, I think of those clergy parking spots that many churches have set aside – so the pastor can park closest to the door. What’s that about? And as for the titles – do we relish them? Are they important to our self-esteem? Do we glory in being called Father, Teacher, Doctor, Reverend, Pastor, Professor, etc? If we do, then the word is clear -- be careful, for we have but one teacher – the Messiah. As for the rest of us – the greatest will be the servant. Those who seek to exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Joshua, Paul, Jesus, all receive their exaltation not from themselves, but from God. God is the one, after all, who humbles the proud and lifts up the humble!