Monday, April 3, 2017

Malachi: Prepare Ye the Way

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Malachi 1:1, 3:1-3, 4:1-6:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. That is the message that begins Jesus’ ministry, it’s also the message proclaimed by John the Baptist, although how we normally hear it is repent for the end is near, or at least that’s how cartoonists like to picture it, and I think that’s appropriate for today’s message because we are coming to an end. Today is the end of life without real baseball. It’s the end of our normal Sunday’s of Lent as next Sunday is Palm and Passion Sunday. Malachi is the last book in the Hebrew Bible, and so his writings marks the end, or as Tertullian says, the boundary of the New Testament, and today also represents the end of our sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets, and we end with the prophet Malachi and his message about the coming of the messenger who will make the way for the messiah.

Malachi is another one of the prophets that we are not given any genealogy about, as the book simply starts telling us that these are some oracles from God delivered by Malachi, of whom we know nothing. The word Malachi means “messenger of God” and so it’s possible that this is not even a proper name but instead that it is a title that this prophet held, much like is possible with the prophet Obadiah. There is no specific information given about events that are taking place during the time of his prophecy, but we do have some hints that give us possible dating points. The first is that he refers to governors of Judah, rather than kings, which would seem to indicate that the Jews are not in political control of the territory, and he also refers to sacrificial activities as if the Temple is built and functioning, which would mean that it has to be either before the destruction of the first temple, when there were kings not governors, or after the Temple has been rebuilt after their return from the Babylonian exile, which is certainly the most likely period. In addition, the linguistic style that is being used is from the Persian period, and so most scholars date the work around the mid 5th century, but there is no certainty on that dating.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Zechariah: This is a King?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Zechariah 1:1, 9:9-12:

When President Trump was deciding on cabinet picks, he said that one of the criteria he was using was to find people who, in his words, looked the part. He wanted them to look like they came from central casting so that people would believe they could do they job because they looked like they could do it. That’s not an unusual position, although it’s probably not stated as bluntly as that. One of the things Prince Charles was always going to have a problem with was the fact that he doesn’t look very king like. Now Prince William, who inherited some things from his mother, he looks like a king. We do the same thing as we see movies where Harrison Ford is plays the role of president, but we do not cast Danny DeVito as president. We have an idea of what rulers, leaders, important people are supposed to look like.  In scripture, we are told, when God is deciding to make David the king of Israel, that God looks at what people are like on the inside rather than on the outside to decide if they are worthy or not, and so David is being chosen over others, but then what are we immediately told about David? That he is a good-looking guy. We still do the same thing, after all, we cast Harrison Ford as president but we do not cast Danny DeVito. It’s true even in the church. The clergy who get appointed to the largest churches are all men, an important issue to be considered, and they tend to be tall and they tend to have been jocks in high school, and quarter backs of the football team in particular. That is, they look the part. They match what we want to see in important leaders. But what if the one we are looking for, what if the king does not look like or match what we expect them to be? Will we accept them as such? Or will we seek to change them to become we want them to be rather than who they are and perhaps even who we need them to be?

The prophet Haggai, who we heard from last week, and Zechariah have many similarities. The first is that they are contemporaries with each other, including both beginning their prophetic careers in the same year, 520 BCE. This is the second year of King Darius, the leader of the Persian empire who is ruling over Judah after the people return from the Babylonian exile. Malachi, the last of the 12 Minor Prophets who we will hear from next week, also prophesies during the Persian Empire, so the last 3 books in the 12 all take place roughly during the same time period. Unlike Haggai, we are given a genealogy about Zechariah although there are some questions about it. In Zechariah, we hear that he is the son of Berechiah and the grandson of Iddo, but in the book of Ezra, we are told that Zechariah is the son of Iddo. Because often the superscriptions, which are the lists of genealogies appear to be later additions to the works, not things the prophets included about themselves, we don’t know which is correct.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Haggai: You Can't Go Back

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Haggai 2:1-9:

In just two weeks the Major League Baseball season will start, and baseball is one of those sports that in the more things change, the more they stay the same, so for example, one well known player said of the younger players coming up "The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money and that's it, not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it." Does anyone want to make a guess what year, or decade, that was uttered in? It was Ty Cobb, and he said it in 1925 while he was still playing the game. So, for all those people who complain today that the athletes are only in it for the money, that’s a complaint that goes back a long, long way, and I am sure that others had said exactly the same thing about Ty Cobb and his peers when they broke into the game as well. There seems to a natural tendency among humans to look to the past and to long for the ways that things used to be done, to wish that if things could only be like they were back then, then everything would be great. Or to phrase it differently, everything was awesome back then, and it’s terrible now, and who do these kids think they are anyways, kids in my day yadda, yadda, yadda. Perhaps it will make you feel better, or maybe not, to know that we see this same story taking place in scripture. There are the people complaining to Moses as they are wandering in the Egypt, who say “remember how good we had it back in Egypt? I mean sure we were slaves and all, but at least we weren’t walking all day following a cloud, Moses, when are we going to get there? Yadda, yadda, yadda.” And then there are the people who were complaining about the state of Judah after the people returned from Exile and how good it used to be, which is where the prophet Haggai comes into play.

All of the minor prophets we have encountered so far have been making prophecies in or to Israel, the northern kingdom, or Judah, which was the southern kingdom during the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. As you may remember, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian empire in 721 and the 10 northern tribes were removed from the land and basically disappeared to the sands of history. They were replaced on the land by the Samaritans. Then the Assyrian Empire was destroyed by the Babylonian empire, who then laid siege to Judah and Jerusalem destroying the city in 587 and then the Temple in 586 carrying off all the treasures of the Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments, and set in place Indiana Jones’ search. They also carried off the elites of the society, including the political and religious leaders, into captivity in Babylon, which is why it’s called the Babylonian exile. This is one of the most important events in Jewish history with most of the books in the Hebrew Scripture focusing on the issues surrounding these events. But, then in 538 the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, ending their reign, and starting a whole new empire in the region, see you didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson on the empires of the ancient near east. But the last 3 prophets we will encounter deal with Judah under the rule by the Persian Empire. And just so you know it’s Alexander the Great who defeats the Persians, although I’m guessing the Persians didn’t think he was too great.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Zephaniah: A Celebration

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Zephaniah 3:14-20:

In Star Wars: Rogue One, the lead female character Jyn Erso says about the rebellion, “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.” Of course, we have known that all along because what we know as the original Star Wars was later retitled Star Wars: A New Hope, but this was the first time that phrase had really been uttered in the movies about its necessity for the rebellion. If they didn’t have hope for the future, no one would join the rebellion, no one would dare to take on the empire, no one would risk their lives for something bigger than themselves because what would be the point? If there was no hope, why do anything? Why not just slink back into the woodwork, just keep on keeping on, seeking just to live one more day, and then the day after that. If there is no sense that things will get better, if there is no sense that things can get better, then there is no need to do anything. Thus, saying that rebellions are built on hope says that things not only can, but they must get better, that there is something better out there even if we cannot see it, even if it seems impossible, it’s still there.

Of course, long before we had the wisdom of George Lucas, we also heard the same thing from Paul who tells us “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God… For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25) That is also part of the message that we get with Zephaniah, that although he gives a prophetic claim not just of the coming destruction of Judah, but of the surrounding nations, that he closes with this truly remarkable message about God and about hope that we heard this morning.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Habakkuk: When Good Things Happen to Bad People

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The scripture was Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4:

Last week when we looked at the prophet Nahum, we addressed his gleeful delight in God being an avenging warrior who was going to bring destruction to the city of Nineveh, and I used Nahum’s position as a sort of launch pad to look at the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” I didn’t really give a full answer to that question, first because we don’t have enough time in one setting to do that, but secondly because in many ways that question is ultimately unanswerable.  The technical word for the inquiry is known as theodicy, which is if God is just how come there is injustice in the world, or if God is all powerful why doesn’t God use that power to stop bad things from occurring. If superman can stop a plan from falling out of the sky, and even turn time back to undo something that had happened, why doesn’t God do the same? The prophet Habakkuk is asking the same question, although he asks it in a different way, which is why are good things happening to bad people, and they are getting away with it, and in his inquiry Habakkuk is very unlike the other prophets we have encountered.

We know really nothing about Habakkuk, and yet can speculate about a lot. He is the first of the minor prophets we have seen who is specifically called a prophet in the introduction, although several others do have a similar introduction. Like others, there is no specific information given about when he is prophesying, that is there is no list of kings included. But because he is talking about the Babylonian Empire, who are here referred to as the Chaldeans, which is how the Biblical historians called them, we can come pretty close to his dating, or at least make a pretty good guess about it.  The Assyrian empire is not officially defeated by the Babylonians until the year 605, and then the Babylonians appear on the Judean coast in the year 604. Since Habakkuk makes a proclamation that God will use the Babylonians to destroy Judah in punishment for their sins of injustice, it is presumed that Babylon is actually a known threat to them, but has not yet appeared on the scene, although it could be that they are hovering, increasing a sense of doom, but have not yet attacked, which happens when Jerusalem is sacked, but not destroyed, in the year 598. That means we might be able to guess his prophetic career, or at least what we have record of, to a five-year period, which based on some of the other minor prophets we have encountered is remarkable. There is also some speculation that because of Habakkuk’s use of wisdom, lamentation and psalm literature, or at least their genres, that Habakkuk might be involved with, or a member of, the cultic operations of Judah. That is, he might be an official prophet for the Temple. Much of this speculation comes about because of chapter 3 which is phrased as if it is a psalm, and if you didn’t read it in preparation for today, I would encourage you to do so.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nahum: Vengeance Is Mine

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Nahum 1:1-9:

In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner recounts an event early in his career when he was called on to help a couple whose only child, their 19-year-old daughter had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a burst blood vessel in her brain. He said that when he went over to their home he expected anger, grief, shock, but he didn’t expect the first words they said to him which was “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, the most important of the high holies in Judaism, a day in which people, even many non-observant Jews, will refrain from work and will fast and seek forgiveness for the sins they have committed in the past year, and committing not to do those sins again. When this couple was struck by tragedy, they reverted back to a basic belief that God punishes people for their sin, and thus the death of their daughter had to have been caused by their failure to participate in Yom Kippur six months earlier. If only they had done that, they thought, then their daughter would be alive.

When my brother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 20, my father had the same thought. He believed that God was punishing him for the sin of pride, by striking out at my brother. My brother’s cancer was a lesson that God was trying to teach my father and to punish him for a perceived slight to God. These are not unique stories, because they happen all the time with people seeking to give some meaning, some reason, some purpose for something that has happened in their life, and often it comes to a belief that God has caused this to happen, which often comes with a statement like “everything happens for a reason” or more specifically “This is part of God’s plan even if we don’t understand what that plan is.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

Micah: What Does The Lord Require Of You?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Micah 6:1-8:

This week I did a google search to find out what the most famous passages from the Bible were. The results I found were not necessarily the most famous, but they were the passages that were most looked up. At the top of the list were some passages you might expect like John 3:16 “for God so love the world that he gave us his only son,” and there was the 23rd Psalm “the Lord is my shepherd” and 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous statement about love, “Love is patient and kind, love is not boastful or envious.” And there were some that I was totally surprised by, like a passage from Zephaniah, who we will discuss in 3 weeks, saying “Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”  A nice passage, probably taken totally out of context, but not one I have ever found myself quoting. But the reason I wanted to look up what the most famous passage were was to see if any were included from the prophet Micah, because he has at least two with which most of us are familiar, and another we know although we don’t know that we know it.

The one we don’t probably know is that it is from Micah that we get a prophecy that the messiah will come from the town of Bethlehem. In the 5th chapter we hear “O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2) A more famous one is from the 4th chapter, where we hear “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Now that’s a phrase most of us are more familiar hearing from the prophet Isaiah, who was a contemporary of Micah, but it appears word for word in both books. But by far the more common passage, and one of my favorite scripture passages, is Micah 6:8, which we heard this morning, which the New Revised Standard Version translates as “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Monday, February 13, 2017

Jonah: God Loves Us Anyways

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Jonah 3:1-10:

Last week in our series on the 12 Minor Prophets, we heard from Obadiah, probably the least known, and definitely the least read of the minor prophets, and a reminder that the term minor here does not have anything to do with importance, but instead with the lengths of the books as compared to the Minor prophets. This week we move on to probably the best known of the minor prophets, Jonah. Even if we don’t have any idea what Jonah actually says, or what the book is about, at the very least we remember the story of Jonah and the whale, except that it’s not actually a whale. The book of Jonah is unique in many ways. The first is that he is the only minor prophet mentioned by Jesus. But more importantly, he is the only one of the minor prophets in which we are not really given any prophetic statements or oracles from God, but instead the book consists of a series of stories about Jonah.

At the beginning of the book, we are told that Jonah is the son of Amittai, which doesn’t tell us much now, nor is there any king listed to give us the time Jonah was living. But, in 2 Kings 14:25, we are told of a prophet by the name of Jonah, the son of Amatti, who was from the town of Gath-Hepher, which is a small town in Galilee, about 3 miles from Nazareth, and was prophesying under king Jeroboam of Israel. There are some problems with that dating, however, because Nineveh was not yet a “great city” as it is described in the book of Jonah, so there are arguments that take place amongst scholars about dating, but it’s not probably ultimately important, because the story can be told and interpreted without knowing fully what was going on at the time, or at least the minute details, because the overarching point is that is that Jonah is told to get up and go to Nineveh, which is the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the most important and powerful city in the ancient-near east at the height of Assyrian power, and he is to cry out against the city because, God says, “their wickedness has come before me.” What exactly this wickedness that God has taken notice of is never mentioned, but we can make some guesses because we do know that the Assyrians were hated by nearly everyone.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Obadiah: Turning Back Those In Need

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Obadiah 1:1-4, 10-17:

There is a Depeche Mode song from the 80’s that says “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors, but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor and when I die I expect to find him laughing.” That’s how I feel sometimes about God when it comes to Sunday’s messages. I began planning this series on the 12 minor prophets last summer, long before we knew the results of the election and certainly long before I knew what that president would or would not be doing when we got to each of the individual prophets, but sometimes the scriptures just seem to match up with world events, especially when it comes to controversial events. Just once I would like the scripture to match up positively with something that’s happened in the world, but that doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much, if ever, as scripture calling us out as individuals and as a nation for some action we have undertaken, which, I think, is where we find ourselves today.

Now just by a show of hands, who here had ever heard of Obadiah either before today, or before you saw that Obadiah would be covered today? That’s about what I thought. The first time I heard about Obadiah, or at least could remember it was while I was in seminary, but it was not in class, instead it was through my wife Linda who came home and told me right at the beginning of the school year that she had a student named Obadiah, a girl by the way, and I was like “okay.” And so, she had to tell me why she thought this was important information for me to know because she was named after one of the prophets, and so then I had to go look it up. Obadiah is one of the few books that is not covered at all in the lectionary, and according to what Biblegateway.com, based on what verses and books people look up and read on their site, Obadiah is the least read book in the bible, and six of the top 10 least read books are all minor prophets. So, if you have never heard of Obadiah you’re in good company.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Amos: Economic Inequalities

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Amos 1:1, 5:6-7, 10-24:

Most of us are familiar with the words and images of the prophet Amos, even if we didn’t know that they were his words, or more appropriately God’s words conveyed by Amos. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, routinely used the words that close the passage we heard from this morning “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If you look up that quote, sometimes you will even find it attributed to MLK, rather than to Amos. The book of Amos is rich with imagery, and with language, that made it appropriate to be used in civil rights and other social justice movements of the last two hundred years, and these modern-day prophets, plumbed the depths of Amos for a word of God to be used in support of their cries for justice. In that, our exposure to Amos is unusual, because the book has largely been ignored by both Jewish and Christians except at the time it was written, and in our times, and the reason is because there is little word of hope to be found in Amos, as there is in other prophets, but more importantly because of the message that Amos proclaims about justice, especially economic justice, and a call to God’s righteousness.

We know a little more about the prophet Amos then we do about Hosea and Joel, the first two minor prophets we have covered. Our introduction to Amos is also different than the others, in that for Hosea and Joel, we are told that the word of the Lord came to them, but here we are told that it is the words of Amos which he saw concerning Israel. That is that Amos is not only conveying the words of God, but he is conveying visions that God shows him. While this is common among some prophets, Amos is the first prophet we have giving us visions. We are also told that Amos is from the town of Tekoa, which is about 9 miles south of Jerusalem. What that means is that Amos is from the kingdom of Judah, but is being sent and is making prophecies about the Kingdom of Israel. That is and of itself makes him an unpopular figure. Just think of how we would deal with someone from another country coming and telling us how we were doing everything wrong and God is going to punish us for it. We don’t deal well with our own people saying that let alone someone else, and so we even have the high priest of Bethel telling Amos “O seer, go and flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel.” (7:12) Of course that is one of the things that Amos says, is that “they hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” (5:10) So if you don’t like today’s message it’s okay, because Amos has already said you won’t like it because it’s hard to hear things that hit too close to home.