Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Wise men asking odd questions

January 28, 2018

It has been a while since I’ve written about the Magi. Perhaps it is time to spend a little time with them. This is one of those stories in the Bible that we think we know, but maybe we haven’t giving it it’s proper attention. If you want to read the story, it is Matthew 2:1-18. 

The Magi are not Jews and they are not Romans, they are foreigners in every sense of the word. They don’t belong in Israel, they don’t belong in the Roman Empire, yet they show up in King Herod’s court looking for the king of the Jews because they want “to pay him homage.” Gentiles traveling to worship the Jewish king. And they ask the current Roman approved king of the Jews- Herod- where they can find the new king of the Jews. Notice they don’t pay homage to Herod, they are looking for Herod’s replacement. In fact they scare Herod and “all of Jerusalem”.

Frightened Herod needs to find this new King of the Jews. The chief priests and the scribes, people who should know about the birth of the King, can narrow down the location to Bethlehem. But Herod, the Roman approved king of the Jews, still needs the Magi to find Jesus. Herod tries to use the Magi for his own ends, sending them off to find the child.  The Magi find the child,Jesus and “overwhelmed with joy” they worship him. And then, they wisely pay attention to a dream and avoid Herod on their way home.

Often we end our reading here, with Herod tricked, Jesus worshiped by mysterious wise men and the Magi safely on their way home. A tidy and satisfying ending.

If we read farther we find that the rest of the story is horrifying. An angel warns Joseph and the Holy Family flee for their lives. Herod is “infuriated” by the actions of the Magi and kills all the children “in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under”. Even after Herod’s death, things are not safe in Judea for the Holy Family. Archelaus is ruler there and so Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Nazareth in Galilee. It’s a grim ending to the nativity story.  Babies have died. Families mourn. The Roman Empire continues its oppressive rule.  The young boy Messiah is in hiding in Nazareth.

Look where Matthew’s emphasis is-  7 verses on Jesus birth, focused mostly on the disgrace of Mary’s pregnancy and 18 verses on the story of the Magi. Matthew tells a pretty grim story.

And there is truth, hard truth in this story. Kingdoms and rulers do not give up their power without a fight. And innocent people suffer. Babies and toddlers suffer. Salvation is a costly business for everyone.

The Bible, whether we like it or not, describes the world with a clear eyed realism. There is no fairy tale happy ending. The kingdoms and powers which resist God are strong and not to be trifled with. And yet, yet a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord..” the beloved Son has come. The way is not easy, but God will not stop until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Which is for us, in our days, good news. The beloved Son has come and God will not stop until God’s purposes are fulfilled.

 

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Tear Open the Heavens

January 7, 2018

There are many interesting and helpful ways to read the Bible. I always find it fascinating when a word, or phrase, or image repeats across texts. Sea, mountain, shepherd, wilderness-  are all words the can clue us into the larger story of God.

So also, the words,”tear open” or “rend”. In Isaiah 64, we read, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” Then in Mark 1:10, the story of Jesus baptism we read, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And in Mark 15:38 (and also the other gospels) at the crucifixion, “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

It is helpful to remember as we contemplate the rending of the heavens that ancient people believed the sky was a dome. They inhabited a three storied universe. There were waters above and below, and a dome over the earth.

By Ralph V. Chamberlin (?) – Ralph V. Chamberlin. “The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe”. The White and Blue. Vol XIII no. 11, Dec. 24 1909. pp. 84-88, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39116402

The understanding of the ancient world was that the heavens could actually be torn apart. This sort of cosmic disruption of nature imagery is fairly common in the Bible. Often God’s appearing is described as mountains quaking, stars falling from the sky, fire and smoke.  Ancient people expected the world to be dramatically changed when God came near. Mt Sinai is covered in smoke with thunder and lightning, and the mountain shakes as Moses goes up to receive Torah.

So God rends the heavens-

When Isaiah writes about God coming to God’s people, the heavens are torn open,and the mountains quake. When Jesus is baptized, Mark tells us the heavens are torn apart. And when Jesus dies, all the gospels tell us the curtain around the Holy of Holies is torn.

It is a powerful image, God tearing the roof off the world to come to us. God tearing open the division between the holiest place in the Temple and humankind. Every barrier between God and humanity is disrupted, Nothing stops God. Nothing will keep God from us.

And yet… God loves a paradox. So Jesus’ birth is a quiet event. His is born to poor parents in backwater Judea. The only people, in any telling of the nativity, who experience divine drama are a few shepherds who see the heavenly host, the heavenly army who come, paradoxically, singing of peace.

These are, of course, not the only times, nor the only ways “tear open” are used in the Bible.  Most often tearing and rending refer to the practice of tearing garments in grief or despair. Ultimately though, rending and tearing  are not the result of despair but the result of God coming to us, a theophany, the appearing of God. Tears changed to joy. Despair to hope.

O that you would rend the heavens and come down!


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