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Posts tagged ‘prophetic’

Giving to Receive

Malachi 3:1-3; 10   The Message [MSG]

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

But who will be able to stand up to that coming? Who can survive his appearance? He’ll be like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes.

Bring your full tithe to the Temple treasury so there will be ample provisions in my Temple. Test me in this and see if I don’t open up heaven itself to you and pour out blessings beyond your wildest dreams. 

giveselfDuring Advent and the Christmas season, it is important for us to be mindful of our Western biases when it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus and also the characters in the drama we think we know so well. Specifically, it is a must for us to accept the fact that the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi were not talking about Jesus of Nazareth, nor were they writing to a Christian audience. Those writings are much more ancient than the NT Gospels, and Jesus of Nazareth was not on anyone’s radar screen, of course. But in all fairness to the casual Bible reader, those who put the Bible together didn’t do us any favors. The order of OT books is set in such a way as to point the Christian reader to “aha” and foreshadowing moments that seem to draw connections for us between OT prophets [and other books] and the NT stories of Jesus.

Malachi is one such example. In the Christian Bible Malachi is the last OT prophet. This is not all the case in the Jewish canon. Obviously, the Christians who put together the order of their Bibles wanted Malachi last so as to draw connections between the OT prophecy and the birth of Jesus.

But I think it’s our responsibility to read the OT [as much as possible] through a Jewish lens, being careful not to jump to Jesus conclusions so easily. Why? First, because it’s honest and truer to the text. Secondly, because by doing so we can glean even more meaning from the text and not settle for cookie-cutter, Christmasy conclusions that limit our understanding of an ancient culture and religion. Okay, I’m off my soapbox.

What’s Malachi, and what’s it all about if it’s not about Jesus?

Malachi, not a name, but the actual Hebrew words “my messenger” is a book about the corruption of religion and the need for change. The priests in the Israelite temple of Jerusalem [the rebuilt one] are apathetic; there is corruption in the temple. Many scholars think that Malachi was written somewhere around 450 B.C.E.

Malachi’s audience, if that date is correct, is pre-Babylonian exile, and post-second-building of the Jerusalem temple. So basically, the people had ample time to get apathetic and lax in their treatment of people and their worship of Adonai. Yes, they had the big temple and their religious rituals, but as people they weren’t all that impressive.

So Adonai [the Lord of Hosts] is coming, and who can stand when Adonai appears? Adonai will be like a refiner’s fire, and a harsh soap [reminds me a bit of Ralphie in A Christmas Story].

Ralphie-SoapAdonai will help the people be the best people they can be, on the inside, and in their worship.

But that is not enough.

The refining and the harsh soap serve to remind people of what is important. Are they talking smack behind people’s backs? Are they ignoring the oppressed workers? Are they looking away from the widows, the orphans, and the refugees? For Malachi, it’s not enough for the priests and the people to be good, religious people, doing the right kinds of rituals in the right way.

Worship of Adonai must be paired with good behavior in the world.

How the Israelites treat people is more important. Otherwise, their worship is false.

Malachi is, as Professor John Holbert states, more than a mere warm-up act for the main stage appearance of Jesus.[1] He is a truth-teller rather than a predictor. And all of us would benefit from hearing this message. What would it be like if instead of focusing on the birth of a little baby boy, we actually focused on how we treat people in our community? What if instead we focused on the refugees, the lonely, the forgotten, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What if our worship was about being kind and compassionate to others?

You see, Adonai, the one who comes as a refining fire and cleansing soap–comes into our lives to help us realize our full potential. We are not limited to rituals or even religious practice itself, thinking that such things please God. Instead, we are refined in order to understand that we are so very capable of healing, caring, empathizing, and giving. The tithe acceptable to God [borrowing from Isaiah], is the giving of ourselves in the world. It’s not just money.

The tithe is our humanity, who we are.

Sometimes we forget that our humanity is such a gift to others if we share it with them.

When we give someone our time without distractions.
When we perform an act of kindness without expecting anything in return.
When share an honest, but difficult feeling we have with someone because we trust him/her.
When we listen intently and compassionately to someone going through hell.

Consider this:

What if God only cared about how much we truly gave of ourselves?
What if we focused more on that and less on everything else?
How would that change things for us as people?

[1] The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4, John C. Holbert, December 02, 2012.

 

Powerful & Prophetic Women be Heard!

Mark 12:38-44

Ruth

WomenPower

It’s important to recognize that all sacred books are grounded in a certain time and place. In the case of the Bible, it is also important to accept that the writers of the NT books and the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely all men. Women’s voices [and even their names] are not as prevalent as those of men. This is not an opinion; it is fact.

So, yes—often we have to look deeper at scripture stories to hear the voices of women and to hear the wisdom within their stories.

One rare story in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] is that of Ruth.

RuthFieldThis story is all about a female protagonist. Sure, there are some men involved, but for the most part, as a reader, we want to know what happens to Ruth, what she’s thinking, etc.

I encourage you to read the whole story yourself. That way, you can notice certain details and let your imagination go to work. Read Ruth like you would any short story.

But for the sake of this conversation with you, we need to at least summarize the story:

Ruth, the Cliffnotes Version:
Once upon a time, there was this nice Jewish family. But they had a problem. A famine had hit their hometown. So the heads of the household, Elimelech and wife Naomi, moved east to Moab with their two sons to find something to eat. In Moab, they established roots. They ended up staying there for about ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Their two sons met two girls from the area and they got married. Their names were Ruth and Orpah [not to be confused with Oprah]. Everybody was pretty happy in Moab. But then….

Those two now-married sons, one by one, passed away; so did Elimelech. None of them left behind good life insurance policies, so the three women were in trouble financially.

So Naomi decided that she should go back to her hometown of Bethlehem; maybe the famine would be over? Her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth packed up and started to go with her. But Naomi didn’t feel right about this and she asked the two women to stay in Moab. Orpah took her advice and went right on back. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. She even pledged her devotion to Naomi, deciding to leave her religion and her culture to stay connected to Naomi. What could Naomi say? She let Ruth join her.

Once in Bethlehem, things didn’t get any better. Naomi was depressed. Ruth was working a manual labor job in the barley fields for very little pay.

But as it so happens, while working out there Ruth met a famous rich guy called Boaz. Boaz thought Ruth was pretty hot [apparently] but also respected her enough to give her special privileges at the workplace. Ironically, Boaz happened to be related to Naomi’s late husband Elimelech.

Naomi figured it out. Boaz, by family law and custom, would be obligated to marry Ruth. So Naomi had a plan. She told Ruth to visit Boaz at night in secret and to lie at his feet. Yes, this is a PG-13 reference. It’s an erotic move.

Ruth did what Naomi asked and actually, Boaz was a bit surprised that Ruth had any interest in him at all. He was happy, though. He told Ruth that he would really like to marry her, but the problem was that there was another relative with even closer ties to Ruth’s in-laws. But Boaz had a plan. He would meet with this close relative to see what was up.

It’s high drama. Everyone’s holding their breath.

What Boaz found out was good news. The close relative was more interested in buying Naomi’s land than marrying her daughter-in-law. So a win-win deal was made. The closer relative renounced his obligation to marry Ruth, freeing Boaz to marry her.

So they get married.

This made Naomi really happy. Later on, Ruth and Boaz had a son and named him Obed. Obed, just for history’s sake, would eventually be the grandfather of King David. The end.

I said in the beginning that we have to keep culture, place, and history in mind when we read stories in sacred books. In 2015 you may see the story of Ruth as quite patriarchal and male-dominated. After all, Ruth [and other women] were just like property. We cannot deny that.

And yet, there are particular moments in this story that are rare examples of lifting up women as more than just wives for men who have babies and keep a house.

I’m struck by the comments said by the women in Bethlehem about Ruth. They tell Naomi that Ruth who loves her is of more worth than seven sons.

Now that’s a strong statement, for women’s worth was not a common subject. In this case, though, Ruth as a character is given her due. She’s more than just loyal, she’s full of love as a friend and committed to staying connected to that friend. She pushes aside even her religion and her homeland in order to stay connected to Naomi. She has no obligation to do this. Naomi tells her to go back. But Ruth insists on staying with her out of love. This is significant.

Ruth is a role model. Love is only mentioned once in the story, and it’s the love of Ruth for Naomi.

It’s that deep, devoted friendship that exists not out of obligation, but empathy for the other.

Thanks, Ruth!

widows-miteStory #2 I’d like to look at is in the New Testament in Mark’s gospel. It begins with Jesus of Nazareth warning anyone who will listen about pompous scribes who parade around in long robes screaming “Look at me!” and feel entitled to the best seats in synagogues and parties. They ignore the plight of widows [and even gain from their misfortune] and in the end, they say long prayers in public, for people to see and hear.

This warning is followed by another woman’s story. This time, she is not given a name. We only know that she was a widow, which also meant that she was poor.

She could have been Ruth.
Or Orpah.
Or Naomi.

Jesus sat outside the temple, staring at people putting money into the temple’s treasury. It was a charity box, supposedly. Rich people came and put large amounts in the box, for all to see. But then a widow approached the treasury and put in merely two copper coins. Barely worth anything.

After seeing this unfold, Jesus called his disciples together and made his point.

The widow, to the world, was only worth a few pennies. That’s it. But Jesus disagreed. She had actually put in more to the treasury than all of the rich people combined. She was worth so much more. She didn’t contribute out of obligation or abundance, but simply out of love. She gave all that she had—all that she was.

It’s not a stretch to see these two ladies, Ruth and the poor widow, as sister stories. Both were widows; both were poor; Ruth was also a foreigner and of another religion. Both were ignored, manipulated, forgotten. And yet, both were lifted up as prime examples of how we are supposed to live.

Both women were and are models of love and giving.

What stands out for me in both cases, what is prophetic about their stories, is that both of them overcame so much: a patriarchal system that was set up to oppress them; a lack of financial means; no significant place in society; tragedy and isolation.

In spite of all of that, they showed love. But it was real love, because they weren’t obligated to do so. They chose to love.

They chose to have empathy for the people around them.

They chose to call the other “my people” instead of other.
They truly loved.

And so I’ll stop now, and be quiet. May these women’s voices be heard! May their legacy live on in us.

Little Stories within the Big One

Based on Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:68-79

The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn’t that make life a story?[1]

LifeofPiBookThe words of the character Pi in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. I am moved by this novel and the movie’s ability to push us to ask important questions about life, story, and their connections to each other. During this time of Advent, we often make the mistake of believing that the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is all too familiar, and therefore, not a story that can challenge, move, and change us. And yet, in spite of the commercial animal of Christmas, here we are as people of faith, reading these stories and hoping that they will help us understand our own stories. How we understand the world greatly affects how we live in it. How we read sacred stories greatly affects how we apply them to our lives. So once again, I invite and challenge you to journey through these stories with me, but to take special care as to not infer what we think we know about them. Let’s open our minds and hearts to hearing them again, seeking new understandings.

Malachi is a book of the Bible that we don’t really read much, but there are definitely recognizable parts in it. Many people in Western Europe and in this country only recognize Malachi because of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah of 1741.

But before the hallelujah chorus gets stuck in your head [too late], you should know that the text for Messiah was put together by a wealthy English landowner named Charles Jennens. He took bits and pieces of scripture from both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, at times editing the text to fit the libretto he compiled in three parts. Jennens used the King James Version of the Bible and sought to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, focusing on the Divine mystery of God’s presence in humanity.[2]

handelMessiah, through song, tells a story that directly connects prophetic books like Malachi to the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Certainly, if you grew up with Messiah, then you most likely see Malachi through this lens. But I told you that we were going to attempt to hear the stories as they are—not inferring or even reading into them, as much as possible. So let’s give Malachi its due. First of all, Malachi is not the name of a prophet. This book was written by an anonymous author or group of authors. Malachi is Hebrew for messenger of God.[3] This prophetic book has a unique tone to it—much different than the familiar prophetic voices of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Malachi announces a messenger who will bring purification. Israel needs to be cleaned, but from what? According to Malachi, the religious leaders [the priests] had desecrated the temple with inappropriate sacrifices. There were false prophets and selfish leaders who looked out for themselves but not for the poor, or for the forgotten, or the marginalized. They had broken their covenant promises with God.

In essence, Malachi calls out so-called “religious” people who worshiped falsely because they did not act justly. They were supposed to do good in the world; their lives preached a message contrary to that. Their worship was adoration of material things, comfort, and the plans of people. This did not please Yahweh, according to Malachi.

I have to say, though most think that Malachi was written in the time period of 515-445 B.C.E.[4] when the Jerusalem temple was rebuilt, I think the message is for us today, too. We most certainly have plenty of religious temples all around, but what are we preaching and what are we doing? Especially in a season of consumerism and shopping, what are we worshiping? Are we keeping our promises? There are people without adequate food and shelter; there are injustices done to those without the “proper” paperwork; there is discrimination and bullying against people from other countries, those who speak languages other than English, those with little money, and those who practice a different faith. Malachi is a call to repentance, to turning around. Humanity’s intentions and humanity’s actions contradict the Holy One’s expectations.

Perhaps some of us hear this prophetic book as merely background noise for Handel’s Messiah, as merely another reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. But let’s stay with Malachi’s story. In this story, Yahweh is the refining fire—the One who will restore Israel to its blessed relationship with its God, but also the one who judges humanity for injustices. Malachi’s story is a prophetic voice that speaks a message not about prediction or foretelling, but a message of truth-telling.

Are we caring for people, or does our religion prevent us from doing so? In other words, yes, Malachi is concerned with how people worship God, but this worship is worthless unless it leads to merciful and just action on the streets. That wasn’t happening way back in the day. And…I think we have the same problem now. What does religious practice lead to? After worship, do we just go back to shopping, buying, stressing out, ignoring the world’s problems, and neglecting to help our neighbors?

Pi, in his story and journey of faith, observes this disconnect. As a boy, he notices this about many religious people:

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging…walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.”

 LifeOfPi

But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

 Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.”[5] 

From Malachi’s prophetic voice and story to Luke’s Gospel. Something to keep in mind here. We’re reading the Bible as a great big story. Malachi was a chapter in that story. Luke’s Gospel does not follow Malachi in the story, though it does in this version of the Bible. Let’s do this. Take the Bible and read Malachi’s ending, and then, like in many great stories, imagine that there is a fast-forward moment. Malachi ends and there are centuries that pass—ages. Generations of people come and go. Jerusalem becomes Greek in language and culture. Then the Romans bring the Latin language and their empire. People play taxes to Caesar. Jerusalem is occupied by Roman military. And now we’re into Luke’s story. We’re about to hear about another prophetic voice. We may think it is Jesus, but we would be wrong.

Luke’s story invites us to sit awhile with Zechariah and Elizabeth.

heqiElizThe Visitation, He Qi

These two characters are shared by the sacred stories of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those of the Baha’i faith. Zechariah worked in the temple, serving a priestly role. Elizabeth, due to the restrictions and taboos of her time, lived under a cloud of sorrow and longing. She and Zechariah could not have children. Being infertile was considered a shameful condition in this era. Many considered childbearing as a blessing of God and infertility as a curse. So Luke tells us a story of grief. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed to be part of the community. They hungered for connection. Even so, they remained faithful to their God, in spite of the many around them who whispered and gossiped. We’re tempted to skip over this story, but we cannot. We must stay a moment in this place of doubt, silence, and waiting. How do we expect to truly journey to Bethlehem unless we sit with Zechariah and Elizabeth? Advent is about waiting. It is about hearing the lesser-known stories and not going for the overplayed, mainstream, dominant stories. For how will we get the bigger message of God unless we hear the smaller stories?

Notice that Zechariah and Elizabeth, both advanced in age, were resigned to the fact that they would not have a child. But then, one day, while serving in the temple, Zechariah is visited by an angel and promised a son. This news is so unbelievable to him that he is literally speechless—unable to talk. What follows is a muted celebration [pun intended] of a child who will be called John. Of course, this John [often called the Baptist], in his story, will be another prophetic voice, preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, echoing Malachi: repent—turn around!  But well before Zechariah’s song of praise over John’s birth, there was great sorrow and doubt. Where was God? Did God forget about Zechariah and Elizabeth? Of course, the common mistake we make with this story is to say “whew” when Elizabeth gets pregnant and forget about the rest of the story. A happy ending that leads us to Jesus, right?

But throughout the Bible’s great-big story, we find numerous female characters in their struggle to have a child. We cannot overlook the feelings of isolation, sadness, and the terrible rejection of the community. Monica A. Coleman, Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religions at Claremont School of Theology, provides this insight:

 In real life, God’s “fix” [of barrenness leading to pregnancy] is not always a boy-prophet. Sometimes it’s adoption. Sometimes it’s a birthed child. Sometimes it’s nieces and nephews. Sometimes it’s finding peace with childlessness.

 If women wrote the Bible, it might mention how messy the enterprise of not having children really is. It might mention the girl children the women loved. It might talk about how the men were in the temple, while the bleeding women gathered somewhere else. If women wrote the Bible, we would have more than these solitary scenes where a woman pours out her heart to God, and God fixes it by “opening her womb.”

 If this woman wrote the Bible, I’d write about barren women … and the women who support them. Those stories would be my love letter to them.[6]

This is the story Luke asks us to hear. All of us who struggle with doubt, isolation, unfulfilled hopes—these stories matter. And they matter to God. Our seemingly small stories are part of a great-big one. Even in our pain, God is present. So when Zachariah is able to open his mouth and speak again, he spouts out a poem, thanking God for faithfulness. It reads like a Psalm. His poem remembers what God has done in the past and how God’s fulfillment of promises does not usually occur on our time—God acts in unexpected ways and the path to blessing is often paved with discomfort and doubt. I am especially moved by the last part of Zechariah’s poem:

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The tender mercy of God brings about the coming of dawn, bringing light into our darkest moments, guiding us into the way of peace. Luke’s story uses the word peace more than the other three Gospels combined. This word peace is prophetic. It does not mean the absence of conflict. Peace is not serenity, calmness, or lack of trouble. Peace originates from the Hebrew noun shalom, which means a state of wholeness. Living shalom does not mean that we don’t doubt; living shalom doesn’t wipe away our problems; living peace is more than just a happy ending. Like always, we ought to hear the voice of the story. Luke’s characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, carry a story, even in their names. Zechariah means Yahweh remembers and Elizabeth means Elisheva, my God has promised.[7] So this story tells us that God has promised to remember us. Even when we don’t believe in anything, much less God; even when life is pain and we’re isolated from community; when we’re burned out and hopeless; when we’re lost; when it seems that our story doesn’t matter.

God promises to remember us.

And if we hear that story loud and clear, during this season and every day of our lives, we will hear Malachi, too. For God is with all people in their pain—regardless of their faith or lack thereof; no matter where they live or where they are from; God is with those who suffer, who are pushed down and forgotten; God loves the stranger, the bullied, and the left out. The story pushes us to different levels of thinking and doing. The serene scene of a manger, cute animals, shepherds, and magi in a barn is transformed into something much, much bigger. If we seek wholeness-shalom-peace for ourselves, we should offer it to others. If we hope that God will remember us in our pain and suffering, we ought to sit, stand, and wait with others in theirs. In all of our smaller stories, the big story can be told.

God remembers you.
Now remember the hurting people all around you.

Don’t ignore their stories.

May we all be guided in the path of Wholeness. Amen.

 


[1] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[2] Handel’s Messiah, Rex Levang and Arthur Hoehn, December 1999, Minnesota Public Radio, http://music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/9912_messiah/#part1

[3] Malachi, Jewish Encyclopedia.

[4] John C. Holbert, Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, TX

[5] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[6] The Barren Woman Bible, Monica A. Coleman.

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