Ascension Journey: A Lenten alternative

As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Luke 9:51 NLT

 

Introduction

Lenten materials arrived in my church mailbox.  They included scripture references.  I wondered which New Testament passages would explain Lent.  Not finding any, I started asking questions and doing some research.  The passage above helped me raise questions.

Background

In the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the common language instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted for the period before Easter. This word initially simply meant spring (as in German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen. The original Greek term for the period is tessarakoste, for the “fortieth day” before Easter. This form is preserved for the period in Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima).  Depending on the tradition the 40 days are calculated in different ways.  Sundays are skipped in the Roman Catholic tradition because they are “mini-Easters.”  Some have connected the fasting of Lent to an imitation of Jesus time in the wilderness (which would end possibly about the beginning of Lent).  Later, Lent “floated” to connect with “Holy Week” observances.  The roots of Lenten observance are believed by some to extend back nearly to the time of the apostles.   It is interesting to note that observation of Lent became part of expected religious observance after Christianity became the official religion of the empire.

Practice

Traditionally, church guidelines for Lent include prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  In addition, some people feel experiencing suffering during this time is important.  This takes the form of not eating a favorite food, for instance. (!) We know Jesus spent time in meditation and prayer. Luke tells us that he went out to pray “a long time before day”.  Other places we are told of Jesus fasting.  No specific mention of meditation is made but the words of Jesus various places, esp. John 14-17 suggest that times of meditation preceded the talks/prayer. Jesus gave up material goods and comforts even before the days leading to his death.  This is made clear by his words to the prospective follower:  “Birds have nests and rabbits their hole, but the son of man has no where to lay his head.”  I would affirm the blessing of these spiritual disciplines, not just for a period in the spring, but throughout the year.

Questions from my study

The question being asked is what is the nature of what Jesus did during his last days: forty-five to fifty days of Lent or the eighty days to the ascension?  I wondered why in the nearly fifty years that I had been a Christian I had never heard this question.  (I think during the first part of that period we had revivals, rather than Lenten observances.)  An internet search revealed that I could order an “I gave up Jesus for lent” T-shirt but little more.  Since the Mennonite Church emphasizes following Jesus’ example, it seemed appropriate to review the practice of Lent in light of that focus.  Many questions have come to me as I reflected on Jesus activities during his last 45/80 days.  What questions would you ask?

Luke 9:51 marks the beginning of Jesus last days on earth, those associated with Lent, Easter and the Ascension. Some see the transfiguration in Luke 9:28ff as the beginning of this period.  There are very few indicators of time elapsed in these chapters.  The NT writers are fond of the number 40, so it is surprising that Luke does not mention forty days (or 45 if weekends are included) or some time period. (Articles referenced below on the origins of Lent do not refer to Luke 9:51 and what Jesus did during his last days on earth.)

Last days’ activities

What did Jesus do during those last days before his death as he anticipated his ascension?  He clearly had a sense that this was a crucial time in his ministry. How did the pressure of his coming death and ascension influence his activities?  Surely the activities of Luke 9 through Luke 22 arose out of Jesus declaration in his first sermon (Luke 4).   Beyond that, Jesus, I believe, was preparing the way for continuation of kingdom work.  He began a new phase outreach by sending out seventy of his followers (chapter 10) to announce the coming of the kingdom. Once ascended, he would reign and provide intercession for his followers as they lived as they were created to live.  During the last days of his life, didn’t he continue to do what he announced what he would do? What indications are there that he simply prepared for his death? (Of course, he prepared for his death or the manner of his death at Gethsemane.) Just before the ascension declaration in 9:51, Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then raised from the dead.  Did he change what he was doing under the threats from religious and political leaders? To what extent is it true that the way he lived led to the cross; to the tomb; from the tomb to his exaltation as King?  Was this why Jesus came, to draw people to God, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? to be acknowledged as king in the kingdom of God?

Conclusions

Much of the Christian church uses the period before Passion Week to anticipate Jesus death. Jesus, according to Luke, “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”   The question I am asking:  what does one do about the disconnect?

What does this suggest we should do to honor Jesus last days on earth?  Perhaps we should see the last days as he did.  We should be announcing the kingdom, doing the works of the kingdom, accepting the consequences of kingdom work and recognizing the vindication by God of what has been done through Jesus’ giving himself.   Then, praising God for raising Jesus to his right hand to be our intercessor.  I will be posting a list of readings from Luke 9:51 through Luke 24.  Later I will add scripture from Acts and other sources for the period leading up to the ascension.

The Origins of Lent, MARCH 31, 2014 BY BILLY KANGAS
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2014/03/lent.html#FcsZTBaACGK4XXs5.99

Accessed 1/29/2018

The Early History of Lent, Nicholas V. Russo, 2013 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, accessed 1/29/2018 through

https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193181.pdf

The Beginning of Lent
“Like all Christian holy days and holidays, Lent has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same.”  TED OLSEN, Christianity Today, August 8, 2008

Accessed 1/29/2018

_______________________

Martin Luther King, Jr and me

 

or How I discovered the racist within

Diploma in hand, job plans up in the air, I stuck out my thumb to begin my journey from Messiah College to Atlanta, Georgia, for a summer in Mennonite Voluntary Service.  I was also beginning a more important journey:  away from racism.  Rides quickly took me to Frederick, MD, Washington, DC, and then near dusk to Culpeper, VA.  Rides disappeared with the daylight. So, I headed for the Greyhound depot and asked the ticket seller how much I would need to pay for a bus trip to dawn.  The agent said that Knoxville looked promising and near daylight the bus dropped me at the edge of the city for my next free ride to Chattanooga, TN.  From there a big car made quick work of the distance to Atlanta.  My ride deposited me at a phone booth in front of a restaurant.  There I could make a call to check on the cheapest way to Mennonite House, my home for the summer.

The cab driver to whom I gave the Mennonite House address said, “You don’t want to go there!”  Apparently, the police, concluding that they knew the one reason blacks and whites would spend the night in the same residence, had raided the house the previous night.  The restaurant where the cab picked me up made news several weeks later.  Lester Maddox, the owner (and later governor of Georgia), passed out axe handles to white patrons to help him keep non-whites from entering the restaurant.

I fought against racism at an ordinary summer camp with activities of games, crafts, songs and stories.  The difference was that we were the only white males that most of the children had seen who were not police or insurance agents.  We rode a public bus from Mennonite House across town to the camp in a Black ghetto .  One day on the bus, I realized that some of the people were young, some old, some bald, some with lots of hair, some lighter, some darker.  Individuals, not just members of another race.  I was surprised to realize that I was still a racist.  Not completely, of course.  After all, I had come to Atlanta to help deal with the problem of racism and its effects.

The journey begun on that bus continued and continues today, I hope.  During the summer, my heart was reshaped by seeing the “hate stare” at a suburban outdoor theater I attended in a mixed–race group.  Later I sensed the anxiety of a black friend who felt he had to duck down in the back seat as we traveled through rural Georgia to go birding.  Fears about some members of the VS group at Mennonite House traveling to Mississippi were fanned by the news that three civil rights workers were missing.  This was 1964, the summer of “Mississippi Burning” and other hot stuff.

When the VS term was over, the Southern Christian Leadership Council office asked if any of us could work for a week or two. They offered to pay my bus fare back to Pennsylvania, so, I nobly agreed.   I worked in the mail room in a basement room three levels below the offices of the important people above. During breaks from sorting mail and packaging books written by Martin Luther King, Jr., I took time to read some of his books.

Sometimes as I worked an interest–looking man walked by the mail room and up the stairs.  Only some weeks later did I realized that the man I saw was actually Martin Luther King, Jr.  I knew he had an office upstairs.  His hideaway office was near the mail room!  Perhaps I was still seeing people of color, rather than individuals. Perhaps I didn’t expect him to be working next to the mail room.

Even after 50 years, that bus-trip milestone in my journey away from racism surprises me.  My racist mind may have been re–formed by my Christian college experience.  But my diploma, my courses in psychology, sociology, history and social justice had not yet renewed my racist heart.  I remember that experience when I hear of “ethnic cleansing” and race-related violence.  I am reminded how deep-seated prejudice can be.  The journey has continued.  But, I still need to recognize the racist within, in spite of my commitment against racism, and to continue let the love of Jesus renew my heart and mind.

Revised from an essay published October 2001 in the Weaver, a publication of  Weavers Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va.

Mother’s was best: Mush, pon haas, scrapple, polenta

 

Mother was a city girl. She married a farmer. So, when they moved to the farm after their marriage in 1937, I imagine she had many skills to acquire. She was new to gardening, canning and caring for animals.   By the time I was aware of what cooking was, she had been developing those skills for ten or more years. She had gotten a head start on cooking. Her mother was a short order cook in Harrisburg, Pa., a job she continued into her late 70s. After graduation from high school, Mother took a job as a nanny in the country not far from where Dad grew up.   Somewhere, Mother learned to make pon haas.

Learning to like mush

The pon haas Mother made often included chicken broth plus small scraps of meat.  I wish I had asked her about the origin of her recipe.  Wife, Julia, grew up with regular (plain) cornmeal mush.  Her mother would start the pieces of mush in a big cast iron skillet at moderately high heat while getting ready to go to the barn for milking.  Then she turned the heat under the skillet to low when leaving for the barn.  An hour or so later,  after the cows were milked, the family walked up the hill to a breakfast which included mush, always with apple sauce on the mush. To improve flavor of the corn, the ears of corn would be laid on the kitchen range’s oven racks at low temperature to lightly roast the corn.  When I came on the scene, I made several trays to put in the oven to make moving the corn ears around easier. After shelling the corn, the kernels were placed in 5-gallon tin cans in an attic over an unheated section of the house.  When more cornmeal was needed,  the kernels were taken to the Belleville mill for grinding.

Our children learned to enjoy the mush.  They visited their grandparents during the summer, sometimes by themselves, and with us on holidays.  Now, Julia maintains the tradition by making mush for them on our return to Big Valley (Pennsylvania) for the summer vacation.  Applesauce is always a required accompaniment.

Sweet corn mush and cornbread

One summer in Michigan, our sweet corn was going to mature later than we expected.  Before we headed to visit family in Pennsylvania, we asked our non-gardening neighbors to harvest and eat the sweet corn.  When we returned home about 20 days later, most of the corn was still in the garden!  We asked our friends about it.  They said “You have worked so hard to grow the corn, we thought we should leave some for you.”  The corn was in the dent stage, so I did not pick it.  A bit later I wondered about making cornmeal with the corn.  After letting the corn mature, we dried and ground the corn.  After cooking some of it, we tried to slice it for frying.  What a disappointment.  It would not set up–just crumbled.  But, it made a tasty thick porridge.  Later we made corn bread with the sweet corn.  The best cornbread ever.

Puddin’ meat

When we moved to Virginia, we learned from a native Virginian, Glendon, that his family didn’t make fried mush.  After butchering the family would have puddin’ meat.  This meat is made from various scraps of the pig as it is trimmed out during butchering. The meat is cooked down with salt, pepper and sometimes other spices.  Glendon’s family ate the puddin’ meat with hominy purchased from the store.  In other areas, the scraps that are used for puddin’ meat are combined with oats, flour, cornmeal or a combination of them and cooked until thick.  The porridge is poured into bread pans to be later sliced and fried for breakfast.  The fried product is called pan haas or scrapple.  Some of the terms used above vary by locality—spelling changes, too.  Related products of butchering are head cheese and souse.  I know nothing about these but what I have read in Wikipedia.

Polenta

This year I wanted to try different of version of cooked cornmeal.  A local organization, Our Community Place, had a fund-raising meal.  The chef for the meal worked at a local Italian restaurant.  One of the featured entrees was meat balls on polenta (porridge).  So, I tried making polenta. I used rich turkey broth made from several turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving. I sautéed the onion and garlic on top of the stove, then beat in the cornmeal.  Instead of using an oven proof saucepan for this first step, (see recipe below), I poured the polenta from the saucepan into a casserole dish, which went into the oven.  Worked good.  We enjoyed porridge for supper.  The next morning, I fried polenta for breakfast.  (I would have made the polenta while the family visited on Christmas vacation, but they would not hear of breaking the plain cornmeal mush tradition.) Recipe source:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/savory-polenta-recipe-1915949

Scrapple or pon haas?

The Thomas House Restaurant in Dayton Virginia may be one of the few eateries around to serve pon haas.  But, I would call it scrapple.  It is dark and strong flavored—mostly soft, but a bit crisp. The “pon haas” Mother made was light-colored.  She sliced it thin and fried it until crisp.  Thomas House’s dark, softer pon haas is tasty, but Mother’s light, crisp “pon haas” was something else.

Part 2: Nuts I have known and loved

Georgia pecans

After college, I hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to Atlanta, GA for a summer with Mennonite Voluntary Service.  While there our MVS group travelled south 3 hours to Americus, GA to visit Koinonia Farm where Clarence Jordan and several others were trying to find ways that blacks and whites could live together.  They were snubbed, shot at, and boycotted—mostly by professing Christians.  They developed a pecan grove to support themselves by a mail order business.  I bought pecans there a number of times in later years.  In 2016, we travelled that way on our return from visiting family in Texas. We bought pecans there fifty years after my first visit. This picture comes from that 
pecan-tree-shaker.jpg

visit.  Can you guess what it is?  Answer at end of blog.

Texas pecans

When we visit son Nathan and family for several weeks in March, we usually travel several days west to the Hill Country of west central Texas.  On our return trip, heading east from Llano, TX, we discovered the “Pecan Capital of the World”! San Saba Pecan Capital San Sabo, TX  (A title also claimed by a town in Georgia).  Pecan groves, processing plants and specialty stores proclaimed the presence of pecans.  Of course, we sampled the pecan ice cream and bought some roasted pecan coffee with bits of pecans with the coffee beans.  One specialty was “cracked pecans”. Less expensive than shelled they saved a step over cracking whole pecans oneself.  Didn’t ask how they pronounced their specialty (“pe kahn” or “pee can”: (“But, some in Texas say, a “pee-can” is something one carries in their pickup truck for beer-induced emergencies.” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Pecan

Our granddaughter, Annabelle, and her father knew how much I liked pecans. They picked up nearly half a bushel of pecans near their Waco home and on the grounds of their church meeting house.  Pecans bore bountifully that year in Waco.  Many people were picking up pecans along the street and sidewalks.  Radio, TV, and newspaper warned that property rights extended to the street and nuts should be harvested along the sidewalks only with permission of property owners.  Apparently, people were going nuts over nuts.

I had been thinking about my history with nuts (all kinds) in late November as I crack nuts for Julia’s fruitcake.  She makes a double batch for family and friends.  She has been making the fruitcake for nearly all the fifty years we have been married. (Enhanced, of course, by the nuts I crack for them.) Hearing all the jokes about fruitcake makes me wonder what people have been eating.  Julia’s fruitcakes are almost good enough for me to marry her for them.

—————

The picture shows Koinonia Farms pecan tree shaker.

 

Nuts I’ve known and loved (Not a family history)

Nutty as a fruitcake.  Just nuts.  Why the use of this nutritious, tasty tree product for deprecating people?  As far back as the 1820s variations of this word have been used to describe people in derogative ways. Walnuts are high in nutrition, so the negative connotation of these sayings doesn’t make sense.  My nutty experiences in five states over more than 60 years have been mostly positive.

Hickory nuts

Our farm in northwest Illinois had walnuts and hickory nuts.  I just picked up hickory nuts until I tasted the bitterness of what I learned were called “bitternuts.” Bitternuts and pignuts looked similar were much more abundant, so I picked them first.  The bitternuts (didn’t know their name then) were thinner shelled, too.  But, they were bitter.  Best left for pigs. I soon learned that shagbark hickory nuts were the best.  Also, the trees http://ouroneacrefarm.com/hickory-nuts-foraging-pignut-shagbark-hickory-nuts/ says that pignuts are not the same as bitternuts.  Now I know that pignuts and bitternuts are different.  I did collect some hickory nuts to crack.  The flavor is great, but they are small and all I had to crack them with was a hammer.

Since walnuts were bigger and abundant, I switched favorites.  I filled five or six gunny sacks (burlap bags) of walnuts.  My father used the tractor scoop move them to the farmhouse where we had a hand-turned corn sheller.  This doubled as a walnut huller.cornsheller

After running the walnuts through the sheller, my father helped me dump the walnuts on the roof of a small chicken house a short distance from the trees near the house.  Just far enough for the Illinois squirrels not to challenge our dog for a race from to the chicken house or back to the trees.  When the walnuts were dry, I brought some to the house to start cracking them for cookies and cakes.  They were duds! I had probably 3 or 4 bushels probably all were bad.  No more walnut collection for me—well, until adulthood.  (I was in my early to mid-teens at the time.)

Michigan walnuts

Rosalyn was 8 and Nathan was 5 when they joined the walnut collection activity.  We were excited by the announcement in the newspaper that a walnut processing company would hull and buy walnuts.  We had a small trailer to load the nuts into.  Previous years I had dumped nuts in the driveway and used the car to smash the hulls.  Then we had pulled the messy walnuts out of the hulls and rinsed off the remaining flesh.  Finding a place to dry the walnuts out of the reach of squirrels was always a challenge. Ros and Nathan each kept track of how many 5 gallon buckets of walnuts they gathered.  I preferred to pick up at the neighbors where there was a special tree that had thin internal walls that permitted cracking out large pieces, sometimes complete halves of the black walnuts.  We filled the little trailer and the children’s labor rewarded them.   Ros was pleased that she was able to buy a red J. C. sweater that she had been wishing for.

Native Americans had learned about walnut duds.  Their technique for separating out worthless nuts was to put a wide basket in the bottom of a shallow, but flowing stream.  Walnuts were poured into the basket.  Bad walnuts were lighter and would float away.  Good ones dropped into the basket for recovery and drying.  Not having a stream handy, I dumped walnuts into a half-barrel and lifted out the floating ones with a sieve to duplicate this process.  The walnut buying company would hull my walnuts and buy back what walnuts, including the duds that I didn’t want, sufficient to pay for the hulling of the walnuts for my use.

The second year the children looked forward to earning more money with the walnut harvest.  We picked walnuts, computed the shares, planned how the money was to be spent. Then, off we went to take the walnuts to the huller. After the seven-mile trip, we could not find the huller.  Unfortunately, Dad had failed to check the paper for ads for the huller. Disappointment!  My memory is not good, but I hope I gave the children something for their work.  We hulled the walnuts the old-fashion way.  When I asked Rosalyn (now past young adulthood) recently about her memory of the walnut disaster, I expected some comment about a ruined childhood.  But, she didn’t remember the disappointment of the disappeared huller.  She did remember how pleased she was to be able to buy the wonderful sweater to go with the skirt her mother made her.

The Pennsylvania nut cracker and Virginia nuts

Julia’s parents had two “English” walnut trees that they had planted when she was small.  The seedlings came from trees near Gettysburg where Julia’s uncle lived. By the time I knew Julia the trees were mature and produced many bushels of nuts most years. Some years we were given (or picked up ourselves) a half-bushel or more. family-farm.jpg (The walnut trees are between the barn and the house.  Okay, so I found an excuse to sneak in a picture of the children and granddaughter.)

Julia’s father, Fred, recommended seeing Israel Peachey about a nutcracker.  Israel, an Amish man, whose wife was a reflexologist, lived off Long Lane, at Back Mountain Road, Belleville, Pa (in Kishacoquillas Valley) and made unusual nut-crackers.  The nutcrackers handled black walnuts easily (relatively).  “English” walnuts shell out with unbroken halves.  Mine cost around $30, an exceptional price, even in the late ’80s.nutcracker

We had moved to Virginia some years earlier.  Neighbors had black walnuts to give us.  For several years there was a walnut huller in the area.  Recently, friend Laurence brought me some walnuts he picked up.  He knew that after two back surgeries bending over to pick up walnuts too much of a challenge for me.  I was not ready to hull the walnuts he gave me, so pulled the plastic garbage can to the backyard.  Several days later I walked into the yard and found a large hole in the can.  Squirrels had chewed the hole to get the walnuts!  And, it was Laurence’s can!

Next post:  Pecans

Immanuel: A warning to Joseph about power politics

Isaiah and Ahaz

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. Isaiah 7:14-16

What if Ahaz (king of Judah) had believed Isaiah’s word from God that God was with him?  Isaiah gave Ahaz a timeline for the future of the kings of Israel and of Aram.  A young woman/virgin would conceive, give birth to a son who would be named “God with us”.  That boy would reach the age of knowledge of right and wrong, probably twelve years.  By that time the neighboring kings of Israel and Aram, who Ahaz feared, would no longer be a threat. But, only if Ahaz believed God was with “us” [and not trust in a military alliance with Assyria].  Read verses 17 and following to discover the terrible things that would happen if Ahaz did not listen to the word from God.

What happened:  Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and traveled there.  He liked the altar he saw there and had one made to use in Jerusalem—he may have been required by the treaty to erect an altar for Assyrian gods.  Israel became a dependent of Assyria.  During the time it took the young woman’s son to reach twelve, the kings threatening Ahaz and Judah were defeated and, one of them, Israel, ceased to exist as a nation.

What would have happened if Ahaz had trusted in “God with us”?

Five hundred years later

 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what did the Lord through the prophet speak would be fulfilled: 23 Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Mt. 1:20-23 (NET) [Emphasis from NET]

Was the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz (Joseph’s ancestor) of the importance of trusting “God with us”?  (I am not dealing in this essay with the questions of the nature of Jesus’ birth and the incarnation.) Then we might conclude that part of the message was that Joseph’s trust in God (Immanuel) was essential in the days to come. Challenges included social disapproval due to Mary’s pregnancy, immigration to Egypt under the threat of death, and a son would be born into a world hostile to the message of “God with us.”

Warning about power politics

For Isaiah, “Immanuel” meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence).    Joseph was in Bethlehem because of the Roman occupation of his country.  The occupation came in part because of a choice of violence over trusting God.  The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, compiler of the Daniel experiences, opposed that call to violence.  The Daniel writer called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history. The “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class that gained power after the successful revolt against the Seleucid (Syrian) government.  The Jewish leaders had chosen violence as a way to protect the temple and their way of worship.   After the Hebrews gained their independence, the Romans used the treaty with them as a pretext to take over Judah.  Some of the chief priests and legal experts maintained their alliance with Rome for personal economic advantage as well as to protect their religious freedom.

During Jesus ministry, the legal experts or “chief priests and rulers” were frequent opponents of Jesus.  At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests worked with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel.  Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because they, like Ahaz, had made accommodations with the superpower of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?

What if the Persian astronomers had continued to look for the star they had seen in the East and gone directly to Bethlehem, rather than to Jerusalem?  Although Bethlehem was only five miles from Jerusalem, it is possible to plot a path from “the East” directly to Bethlehem.  One could conclude that they gave in to popular notions of kingship and went Jerusalem because it was the center of political and military power.  If the Persian astronomers had continued to seek the star’s guidance, would the deaths of the boy children around Bethlehem have been avoided?  The “chief priests and keepers of the law” were more concerned with maintaining their alliance with Herod than seeking “God with us”.  Could the astronomers have refrained from telling Jesus’ location to Herod?  What did Joseph learn from the Persian astronomers that prepared him to quickly respond to the Spirit’s warning to leave Bethlehem ahead of Herod’s search?

A dark shadow extends from Ahaz, through the Maccabees and their descendants, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time and to Herod.  It continues through Caiaphas and his allies who were willing to allow the Romans to kill Jesus to protect the place of the ruling classes in Palestine.  We are compelled to ask whether it extends to “collateral damage” of drone strikes and assassinations by order of governments ostensibly seeking peace, freedom and order.  Does it extend to the displacement of Palestinian Arabs and Syrian Arab Christians from land owned by their families for many generations?  The question must be asked even if we acknowledge some moral distance between Herod’s massacre of Judean boys and drone strikes.

Consider, then, the line, connecting Isaiah’s understanding of Immanuel with the wisdom teachers in Daniel-who anticipate shining like stars if death came (Dan. 12:3)-rather than doing violence.  The line extends to the angel’s challenge to Joseph to trust Immanuel and to the angel’s message of peace at Jesus’ birth. The line extends to and beyond Jesus’s weeping over Jerusalem: “If only they knew what made for peace.” *

For Joseph, the “Immanuel” message was a warning of difficulties leading to violence, but also the assurance that God was with him.  But he was encouraged to be faithful.  Today many people of God argue that goodness/justice/freedom of worship can only continue through ultimate reliance on military solutions (although some acknowledge the need for development and diplomacy).   Christians want to use political power to protect, ensure and enforce Christian practices on society.   The consequences of this choice in Isaiah’s time, in Joseph’s time, and Jesus’ time should challenge us to reexamine these texts for guidance today.  The answer begins with our willingness to hear the Isaiah and the angel’s message, Immanuel:  God with us.

 

*[Isaiah, the Daniel editor and the gospel writers see faithful covenant living as an essential base for trusting Immanuel.  I hope I have not obscured that base by focusing on the issue of political/military alliances and the reliance on violence versus trust in God.]

[revised blog reposted from November 2017]

Not Slaughtered bulls or scorched grain: Sacrificial living according to Romans 12

Sometime during his growing up years, son Nathan asked: “Why did people have to kill animals to make God happy?”  I do not remember what I answered then, but I have thought about the question since.  Recently, I have looked at the question of sacrifice in the Bible again. Due to the complications of the different types of sacrifices, especially in Leviticus, I decided to look at a reference to sacrifice in the New Testament and try to understand what I needed for living the Christian life.  Romans 12:1 and following provides an opportunity to better understand sacrifice, at least, its implications for today. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (NIV).

God’s Mercies

Paul first reminds that we can enter God’s presence (that’s what a sacrifice helps us do) only because of “the mercies of God”.  We can enter God’s presence, experience forgiveness and come to a right relationship with God only because of God’s “steadfast love”.  What does Paul write elsewhere about God’s love and mercy? “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).  We have been brought into God’s presence through His love and mercy shown in Christ. In Romans 9-11 Paul writes of mercy and compassion, especially to Israel, but also to Gentiles as he explains how they can be part of the people of God.    At one time, you Gentiles rejected God. But now Israel has rejected God, and you have been shown mercy. And because of the mercy shown to you, they will also be shown mercy.  All people have disobeyed God, and that’s why he treats them as prisoners. But he does this, so that he can have mercy on all of them. Romans 11:30-32 (Contemporary English Version)

Sacrifice

Several things I have learned that sacrifice is not:  1. A mechanical means of making God like us again.  Sometimes we get the impression that the performance of a one of the sacrifices describe in Leviticus required God to be gracious to us again and that doing the sacrifice automatically turned on God’s grace.  Hosea 6:6 says that God is interested in mercy, primarily.  2. Sacrifice is not about suffering (however much it “costs” to give one’s best animal), because in Jewish practice having a very sharp knife is important so that the animal does not suffer.  3. Sacrifice is not primarily about death.  In the case of the grain offering which was burned, of course, that is evident.  In the case of the “sin offering” ((Lev. 16) one of the two goats used was driven into the wilderness, rather than killed.  In the peace or fellowship offering (Lev. 3), parts of the animal were burnt, but the rest eaten by the family and friends of the one offering the animal.  In this case, the death of the animal was not much different from any other butchering of an animal.  4. Sacrifice is not the only or even the primary image or metaphor for the work of Jesus in life and death. What kind of sacrifice did Paul have in mind?  Other terms used are reconciliation, fellowship/peace, purification and sin.  Did he have a particular one in mind?  What definition of ‘sacrifice’ did Paul have in mind when he wrote Romans 12?  We know the purpose of the sacrifice was to bring reconciliation between God and humans (I prefer reconciliation to “atonement” which is used for reconciliation in some translations.  The word “atonement” was coined in the 16th century and may not clearly translate the words ‘reconciliation’, ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’.)  Leviticus, especially, provides many details about proper enactment of the worship service of sacrifice.  Sacrifice, a reconciliation worship service, expects that repentance has already taken place, confirms forgiveness and restores the humans involved to the community of God.  Also, participation in sacrifice carries with it the expectation that the participant will live his or her life according to the previously agreed upon covenant with God.  Could Paul have been thinking this of sacrifice?  It is a ‘worship service’ that affirms that we have repented (and are repenting of) our sins and are seeking forgiveness from God that confirms that we have been restored to membership in the family of God and will be living our lives according to God’s covenant.  Not only that, but we will be living the kind of ‘sacrificial’ life that Jesus lived:

and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  (Ephesians 5:2)

Reasonable Worship

Paul tells us that our living sacrifice and reasonable worship will lead to being transformed by renewal.  What does the Hebrew Bible Paul used tell us about sacrifice and covenant living?

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:16-17. “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:6-8: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6) “When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle…but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.”(Amos 5:21,22,24 JB) For I did not speak with your fathers, Nor, did I command them in the day of My bringing them out of the land of Egypt, Concerning the matters of burnt-offering and sacrifice, Jer. 7:22  Young’s Literal Translation 

Paul would have remembered these verses that point out that right relationship with God and living according to the covenant is more important than performing sacrifices.  So, I find the slant that we get from Peterson makes this point.

So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. (The Message)

Everyday worship

How we live our lives is determined by our “continuing gift” of our “reasonable worship” and also ourselves.  (It has been helpful to me to substitute the words “continuing gift” for “living sacrifice” in Rm. 12.  How does that help or hinder us in understanding Paul’s meaning?)  Most commentaries note that the NIV translation “spiritual service” does not provide the most direct translation of the Greek word used here which is usually translated “logical” or reasonable.  The “reasonable” translation connects to the word “mind” in the verse following.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. Rm. 12:2 (NIV) (Perhaps I should remind Nathan that a Sunday-morning-only faith comes under the same kind of censure that the prophets and Paul had for “sacrifices”.)  Transformed living (spiritual service, nonconformity, reasonable worship), then, is the subject of Paul’s writings in Rm. 12:2 through 15:13.  He writes about the variety of worship of God we should be doing from brotherly love to joyful hope to fervent prayer to making love, rather than government requirements our highest value.

Sacrifice and life

Paul understood, I believe, that dead sacrifices did not accomplish God’s purposes for humans.  Animal sacrifice was not effective in helping God’s people live according to the covenant.  The prophets realized that a new heart and mind were required.  God’s love and mercy in sending us Jesus taught us that a “continuing gift” of oneself is what God desired.  In Heb. 10:7-10 we are assured that doing God’s will is better than sacrifice. So, what should I have told Nathan about God and animal sacrifice?  My current understanding is that God used what people were doing anyway (sacrificing humans, animals and grain is nearly universal) to prepare us to understand Jesus life, death and resurrection.  I would remind him also, that there are five major metaphors or images used in scripture of give us a glimpse of what God has done in Christ.  1. Redemption (from the world of war and commerce), 2. Reconciliation (from world of personal relationships); 3. Sacrifice (from the world of religion and worship); 4. Victory (from the world of national/international relationships and the battlefield; and 5. Justification (from the world of law and the courts).  None of these images is sufficient in itself to lead us to God or help us understand how becoming what God created us to be happens.  Even if we understood all of these Biblical images, we would not fully comprehend “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

     ___________________________________________