Thursday, November 15, 2012

Who is the Faithful One? A Lectionary Reflection


Daniel 12:1-3

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

Mark 13:1-8

Who is the Faithful One?

            The Day of Thanksgiving is at hand.  For Americans, the fourth Thursday of November is a national holiday that has religious overtones.  After all, to whom shall we give thanks?  Obviously not to Congress or even the President.  They are mere humans, and fallible ones at that.  Some are faithful to their calling, others aren’t.  But, we seem to believe, or at least many believe, that there is one to whom thanks can be given.  We don’t all agree as to who this recipient of our thanks is, but however we call divinity, we recognize the need to give thanks and to offer our statement of faith in one who is larger than any of us.  It may be an expression of an American Civil Religion, but stopping to give thanks is not a bad thing to do!

For those of us who profess faith in the God of Jesus Christ, we know that life isn’t always easy.  There are times of trouble through which we will travel.  We’re able to give thanks even in the midst of difficulty because we believe that God is faithful.  The question is – how do we discern the patterns of God’s presence and activity in our midst? 

            The three texts we have before us address these questions in their own way.  There is a common refrain – that God is faithful to God’s promises.   Some of these texts, perhaps all three of them will make us feel uncomfortable, especially when we hear words of judgment, but in the midst of these words of judgment come words of hope, because is at work. 

            The readings for the week from the Hebrew Bible are drawn from 1 Samuel 1:4-20, which describes the promise made to Hannah that she will bear a child, and Daniel 12.  I’ve chosen to focus here on the latter text, which speaks of judgment and rescue, words that would have resonated with the original audience.  The second reading is drawn from Hebrews 10, a passage that continues the meditation on Christ’s high priesthood, but here lifting up the call to hold fast in faith to the promises of God.  Finally, the gospel reading from Mark 13 is itself a word of judgment, noting that the Temple will not survive.  In short, you could say that the message of these texts is this – when times get tough whom will you trust?

            Readings from Daniel don’t appear often in the lectionary – perhaps because it is such an apocalyptic text.  There are stories that we all know that are drawn from Daniel – stories like the lion’s den and the fiery furnace, stories that we learned as children.  These texts call us to lead lives of faithfulness in the most difficult of situations.  Other parts of Daniel, the more visionary parts, are difficult to comprehend and understand, leading at times to rather bizarre interpretations.  In this reading of Daniel, we focus on a mere three verses, which follow a series of apocalyptic visions.  The promise here is one of resurrection.  It’s important to remember that while the events described in Daniel are said to take place during the Babylonian exile, most scholars (and I concur) believe that Daniel emerged out of a much later set of events – the Seleucid occupation of the region.  The Jews experienced oppression on the part of their occupiers and wondered if they could see a new day of freedom to worship and live as they believed they should.  And here we have a word of hope.  Yes, the times will be difficult, but God will bring resurrection.  God is represented in this vision of the future by the angel Michael – “the great leader” (CEB).  He will take a stand and the people will be redeemed and resurrected.  You see in this passage a dualism.  Some are raised to eternal life and others to eternal disgrace.  This isn’t a universalist passage, but even if we adopt a more universalist view and embrace the idea of divine forgiveness, don’t we feel the need for justice to be served?  Don’t we want some sense that right is rewarded and wrong is punished?  For Jews living under Seleucid occupation, having seen their occupiers desecrate the Temple, didn’t they want to see vindication?  Texts such as this make many of us uncomfortable, but maybe we need to have honest discussions about our expectations.  I was reminded of this very issue in a conversation with a police chief, who sees all manner of difficult situations.  When you see murders and rapes, the idea of forgiveness is difficult to accept – even if we understood this to be the gospel.  How do you forgive those who oppress and persecute?  Where is the justice?   Could resurrection be part of the answer?  Can we not rejoice that those who are faithful and righteous, those who are wise and lead others to righteousness, will shine like the stars in the heavens? 

            The reading from Hebrews seems to take us in a different direction from Daniel, but it too lifts up God’s faithfulness in difficult times.  There is a continuation here of the conversation about the priesthood and its effectiveness.  Once again Jesus is lifted up as the high priest who offers once and for all the sacrifice that cleanses humanity from sin and therefore paves the way to relationship with God.  There is a word of judgment, because after making this sacrifice, the high priest sits down at the right hand of God, with his enemies serving as his footstool.  It is a similar scene to that in Philippians 2, where every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord.  In making this sacrifice, he perfects those who are being made holy. 

          Building in this message of God’s perfecting humanity through the sacrificial offering of Christ, which cleanses humanity and enables humanity to enter the holy of holies.  Remember that in Hebrews the author uses the Temple or Tabernacle as a metaphor for the work of Christ.  It does lead to a supersessionist view, unless we’re careful.  But in the midst of this conversation about the sacrificial offering of Christ, we hear this word about a “new and living way” that Jesus has opened up for us.  It is an opportunity to “draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us” (v. 22).  I recognize that certainty is difficult to come by and isn’t always a good thing.  It can lead to over confidence, arrogance, and exclusion of others, but doesn’t each of us need some sense of certainty?  Can we live lives of hope if everything is always in flux?  Don’t we need something, someone, to hold on to; someone who will be there for us in season and out of season?  That is the promise of this passage – there is one who is faithful and we can hold, should hold fast, to this one who is reliable.  Politicians, preachers, spouses, parents may all fall short, but the promise here is that God will be faithful.  From this, finding our confidence in God’s faithfulness, we can live out our calling.  We can love each other and do the good works God has prepared for us.  Oh, and by the way, don’t abandon the community.  Stay together, encourage each other – especially as the day of difficulty nears. 

            Jesus leaves the Temple – it’s the final week of his life.  The trial and the cross lie ahead of him, but his followers still hold out hope that he can and will turn things around.  In this moment in time, as Jesus and his followers leave the city and head toward the Mount of Olives, they take in the grandeur that is Herod’s Temple.  One of the great wonders of the Ancient World, it was the legacy of a rather brutal king, but it was also revered by the Jewish people.  But, Jesus reminds the disciples that even such a wondrous building is impermanent.  It’s not something one can put one’s trust in.  Indeed, he tells them that the time is coming when the Temple will be destroyed (this is of course reason for us to date the gospel to a time after 70 CE).  The disciples want to know when this will happen, but Jesus isn’t willing to take the bait.  Instead, he tells them to “watch out that no one deceives you.  Many people will come in my name saying, ‘I’m the one!’ They will deceive many people” (vs. 5-6). 

Wouldn’t it be nice to know the time and the place?  It would certainly make for better planning if we knew when the Day of the Lord would arrive.  We could take care of business and do our thing – of course, isn’t that the point of why we don’t know time and place?  The purveyors of apocalyptic dreams want us to believe that they have it figured out.  They’ve been watching the skies and figured that this must be the day, though such forecasts have been made throughout history and proven wrong.  Paul thought the days were short, but we’re now 2000 years later.  So, here is Jesus’ message:  When you hear of wars or earthquakes, these are but the beginnings of sufferings.  Don’t get alarmed; just stay faithful to the one who is faithful --- as the letter to the Hebrews declares.     

And let us give thanks with grateful hearts!

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