Saturday, July 26, 2008

Old and New Things from the Treasury

St. Matthew 13:44-52

The church gathers in the Divine Service on this day, the 11th Sunday of Pentecost, and she ponders the parables of Jesus Christ. While parables are often difficult to understand, they have the potential to unlock the mysteries of the Christian church, the mysteries of how Jesus thinks, and how we are to live and breathe as Christians in this world.

The parables in the gospel for today are rather clear, in my opinion. A man sells all he has to buy a field that contains a treasure. A merchant finds a costly pearl and sells all that he has to buy the pearl of great price. A dragnet is cast into the sea and draws out many fish. The bad are thrown out and the good are kept. In each of the parables, Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Much musing can be done on these parables. We may think that the man who finds the treasure and sells all that he has could be you and me. After all, the kingdom of God is a treasure worth having. The same goes for the pearl of great price. It is strange, though, that the world’s response to the kingdom of heaven is often not like this.

How many people do we know who have been offered this pearl of great price, but have found no need for it. How many people have received this pearl of great price, or this rich treasure but have found worldly things more interesting?! As always, we must look for the proper context of these parables. We know that Jesus is speaking, but to whom is He speaking? What is the setting?

Earlier in this chapter we are told that Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” So, Jesus explains the previous parable, but proceeds to tell them these parables we ponder today. When Jesus is finished telling the disciples the parables, He asks them, “Have you understood all these things? And they responded by saying, “Yes, Lord.”

Then Jesus ends by saying, “therefore, every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” The whole text for today hinges on the interpretation of this last verse. Jesus is speaking to His disciples. He tells parables about the kingdom of God being like a costly pearl, and then says that a scribe is like one who brings out of his treasure new and old things. What is Jesus getting at?

Well, a scribe was a teacher of the law. He was learned and highly respected. He was taught by a Rabbi and everything he knew was from what his Rabbi had taught him. What does this mean for the disciples? What does this mean for you and me? To understand this saying of Jesus, we have to understand the role that those disciples were to play in the kingdom of God. As we well know, the disciples of Jesus become the first apostles who are sent out to preach and teach.

What they are being told to do in the future is to reach into their treasury of wisdom, that which they have been taught, and preach Jesus Christ from the Old Testament and the New Testament. They previously had the understanding of the Old Testament, and with the teachings and instructions of Jesus, they are being given some new things to preach.

All of this bears meaning for you and me. Just like the men in the parables, we have found a rich treasure as well. The Bible is like a vast field and, as you and I know, all kinds of religious groups use the scriptures to push their agendas. But we Lutherans have found the treasure.

The Bible is not a how to guide to form the perfect government. The Bible is not a how to guide to have a perfect moral life, or a manual on how to elect the next President. Go to Barnes and Noble to the Spirituality section and look at the plethora of books of so called evangelists who have supposedly found the key to better living.

Those who use the Bible as a “how to guide” have not found the treasure yet. The treasure is Jesus. We see it in such places as St. Matthew 5, where Jesus says that He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, that is the Old Testament, but He came to fulfill it. St. Luke 18:31 says, “all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. If the disciples were going to be “householders,” then they were going to have to pull out of their treasury the correct interpretation of the Bible.

They were going to have to find the sayings of the Old Testament which speak of Christ. To put it in line with the last verse of the gospel, they are going to have to pull out of their treasury the old treasure. Likewise, they were going to have to pull out of their treasury some of the new treasure, which is preaching the New Testament. Take the sayings of Jesus and preach Christ crucified and resurrected.

This holds true for you and me today. If we are going to understand the Bible, if we are going to understand why we are here in this church, then we need to know why we are here. Furthermore, we need to know what we seek here. If we think that we are doing our good deed by coming to church, then we have missed the point. If we are coming here because its family tradition, we are not doing ourselves any favors. We should be here because it is here that treasures new and old come out for us to ponder and hear.

We are here to have the forgiveness of Jesus placed upon us. We come here, forsaking the world and selling all that the world is to us, in order to gather around the lecturn and pulpit to hear treasures new and old proclaimed. Hearing the Old Testament proclaimed in a Christ-centered way brings life to the hearers of the message. Hearing the words of Jesus in the Gospel and the epistles of the New Testament transform us, as we are forgiven.

For in the hearing of the Scriptures, we behold God’s glorious way of salvation for sinners (his oikonomia “economy of salvation”). In fact, we get to catch a glimpse of the majesty and glory of God. For in the Scriptures, God is made known to us. He who created the world has revealed Himself to us, and it is through the man and the face of Jesus Christ. If you want to know forgiveness, look for the treasure of Jesus. If you want to know love, mercy, understanding, freedom, peace, joy--then behold the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified for you. Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Balaam, Divination, and the Serpent

Attention to detail is key in diving into the depths of the Holy Scriptures. As I study the scriptures, I am constantly struck by how much I missed the previous times I read any certain pericope.

For example, I did not recall, in my previous readings of Balaam and the donkey, that when Balak sends messengers to Balaam, they take with them a "diviner's fee" (Numbers 22:7). This is absolutely integral to the story of Balaam, the donkey, Israel and Moab. To miss this one detail, means that you miss the whole point of the account.

To really appreciate the importance of this, one must even forsake the Greek and go to the Hebrew. The Hebrew for "diviner's fee" is QeSem. It is synonymous with another Hebrew word, NaHaSH. NaHaSH, also meaning, "divination" carries with it something of great import for the story of Balaam and the Donkey. As the story unfolds, Balaam is told by God that he is not to bless Moab and curse Israel. Balaam, as God's prophet, is to bless Israel and curse Moab, the very opposite of Balak's request.

There is much to the story, what with the Angel of the Lord and the donkey, etc. These things are worth pondering and ruminating. For the purposes of this particular musing, however, I want to focus on another detail. Balaam goes with the messengers and Balak takes Balaam up to a couple of high spots to look at the situation between Moab and Israel. Balaam goes to speak to God while Balak makes sacrifice on seven altars. God gives reply and Balaam utters the words of God to Balak. The third time is different, however.

Numbers 24:1 says, "Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times, to seek to use sorcery, but he set his face toward the wilderness." A careful observation would note that the first two times that Balaam sought a word from God, he used sorcery. In fact, the Hebrew word is NaHaSH. For the first time with Balaam we read that Balaam raised his eyes, and saw Israel camped according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him."

Indeed, we see a change in Balaam, for he takes up this oracle and says, "The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor, and the utterance of the man whose eyes are opened; the utterance of him who hears the words of God, and has the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the almighty, who falls down with eyes wide open"(Numbers 24:15-16). A change took place with Balaam. We see that Balaam, a prophet of God, in doing God's work for the sake of another, for Israel, Balaam, too, is changed and blessed.

Balaam's shift from seeking answers through divination to the Spirit of God coming upon him, has enormous consequence and cannot be overlooked or treated with superfluousness. What is so revealing about the Hebrew word for "divination," NaHaSH? To understand, we must go back to Genesis 3:1. "Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made." The word for serpent is NaHaSH. The second vowel is different in "serpent" as opposed to "divination," but they are related.

The serpent is deceitful and cunning. This is Satan and He is a liar, a distorter, and a perverter of truth. He is a deceiver. To seek things by "divination" or "sorcery" is on par with Satan and the serpent. This is even more shocking to me, when we are told in the account of Jacob and his father, Laban, that Laban declares to Jacob, "I have learned by 'divination' [NaHaSH] that the Lord has blessed me for your sake"(Genesis 30:27).

Did Jacob not know or realize the fourteen years that he lived with Laban, that his father-in-law was such a pagan? Yet, we see how Jacob's love consumed him and even clouded his faithfulness to Yhwh.

I think that there is something to be learned by Balaam's exchange with Balak and the ensuing "revelation" that Balaam has. God's word is concrete and it is DaBar, it is a word, or a thing: it is something concrete. Prophecy comes from God alone. His word is sure. Balaam told Balak on each of the first two occasions what was going to happen and he pronounced blessing upon Israel and curses upon Moab, as God had directed. But once we are told in Numbers 24:1-2 that Balaam did not use sorcery on the third occasion but the Spirit of God came upon him, then we hear a blessing that goes beyond Israel and unto all the world.

"I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult"(Numbers 24:17).

Balaam speaks here of Jesus. Beyond the current situation, God blesses His prophet with seeing something that not many prophets were able to see--beholding the Messiah, the Star and Scepter of Israel. What can we learn? Holiness and righteousness comes from God's revelation alone. Brought to the prophets and apostles, we now behold this blessing in their words put down for the church to hear, to know that the Star come out of Jacob is in our midst and ransomed us on the tree as all the sons of tumult have been destroyed, yea, even the serpent with his forked tongue and poisonous bite.

+Fr. Chadius

Saturday, July 12, 2008

9th Sunday after Pentecost

St. Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”(Romans 10:17). St. Paul said that. Those words are the spotlight on the parable of Jesus in today’s gospel. We heard the reading of the parable of the sower. There is much to glean from this text. First, Jesus mentions that the sower goes out to sow. What does this tell us about the one who sows the seed? The one who sows is called a sower, meaning that this is not just a one time occurrence.

This is what the man does; He sows. He knows what he is doing, and when he sows seed it tends to go all over. We hear in the parable that some of the seed fell by the wayside, some fell on rocky places, some fell among thorns, and some fell on good, dark, rich soil. Notice that it’s the same seed, the same sower sowing, but different ground. So, what do the different types of ground signify? The hearts of the hearers.

The seed that falls by the wayside is quickly devoured by the birds. The seed that falls on rocky ground springs up quickly but is scorched by the sun. The seed that falls among thorns is choked out by the thorns, as they compete for the soil’s nourishment. What is important for you to know is what these different variables are and why they arise.

Why do the birds devour the seed on the wayside? Why does the sun scorch the quick-growing seed on rocky ground? Why do the thorns choke the seeds? Can’t they live side by side? Even the disciples needed this parable explained. Jesus explains that the birds who snatch away the seed happen to be the devil. But notice that Satan snatches away the seed sown because the people who hear the word of God are not understanding it. In other words, they are not cognitively listening to God’s word.

This is for all of us. You can come to church every Sunday, but if you are not actively trying to understand the scriptures, if you are not pondering the Holy Scriptures, then it is violently snatched away by Satan. If during the readings and the sermon you are daydreaming or thinking about all those things you are going to do for the coming week, Satan is snatching God’s word, His seed, right out of your heart.

We need to seriously consider and ponder God’s word, listening to the Majesty from on high speak words of life to us. But there’s more! He who receives seed on rocky ground is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, but there is no root and when the world creeps into your life, then you quickly fall away. The seed is scorched.

This is what happens in much of our culture today. When churches try to bait and hook people through emotionally driven services, people respond quickly and find joy in what they have found. But once the emotional high is gone, then there is nothing left.

Because these same kinds of church are usually low on substance, ie., they don’t teach doctrine or the scriptures, then people fall away quickly due to the pressures of the world, family, work, etc. The churches that often try to get people in through emotional services tend to see a high rate of turnover.

The seed among thorns, we are told, grows for a while, but when the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, then the seed dies. We see this today, particularly in young families. They go to church if there are no schedule conflicts, but when a schedule conflict exists, then the world’s agenda takes precedence. The world’s ways get in the way of the gospel. This world and church are difficult things to balance today, no doubt.

The world presses in like thorns, and it forces people to make decisions. Which shall I do? Shall I tend to the things of this world or shall I tend to God’s word? If we looked at things a little differently, it might help us in some of our struggles. If I went one day without eating food, I would be hungry. If I went very many days without food, I would start to lose weight. You would see a physical change in me after some time. We must look at God’s seed in much the same way.

If we are going to church to hear God’s word and gather for the Lord’s Supper, we are feeding ourselves spiritually. If we “fast” from God’s spiritual food, it begins to have an effect on our souls. We would do well to take heed to Christ’s warnings in this parable, but there is more. Seed is sown on good soil and Jesus says that he who hears the word and understands it will bear and produce fruit.

Did you notice an interesting point Jesus makes? Those who hear the word and understand it will produce fruit. Do you remember what Jesus said about the seed sown by the wayside that the birds violently devoured? By the wayside, they did not understand the word. In order to make this point clear, we have to understand what the Greek says.

The Greek word that St. Matthew uses for “understanding” means to comprehend and to put together ideas for better comprehension. In other words, this is an active endeavor, having received this seed to, then, take it to heart. Those who don’t try to comprehend and put together in their hearts and minds the scriptures, will not gain much but will lose what is sown.

But, those who do comprehend and put together God’s word in their hearts and really wrestle with the word will bear fruit, but did you hear what Jesus said about the fruit? Those who do actively work to understand God’s word will produce fruit in different measure: some will produce a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. In other words, God the Holy Spirit works different things in different people at different paces.

Not everyone is a St. Paul. What it does mean is that Jesus works His salvation and sows that seed according to His good pleasure. The church is full of saints and you are all at different points on the path of Christ, but what is great is that you are on His path.

What I, your undershepherd, am concerned about is that you take to heart God’s word. May your hearts be the good soil. God plants His seed in your heart through the hearing of scripture and through the preaching of God’s word.

The gospel and the blessing in all of this is that Jesus knows each of you and understands you as His beloved creation. He gives to you as He sees fit and when Jesus gives, it is good. Through His Holy word, God leads us to muse on the mysteries: We cannot help but ponder the mystery of the cross;

We cannot help but ponder the resurrection from the dead; We cannot help but ruminate on the incarnation of God in the womb of a virgin and His birth; We are awed by the whole notion that God walked on this earth with footsteps—feet of a man who also breathed like we do and felt pain as we do.

We are further awed by God who promises to come to us under bread and wine, thereby giving us His body and blood to eat and drink. And to think that we become one with Christ through water and the word in Holy Baptism. Jesus means for you to ponder these things and take them to heart, because these things mean eternal life for you.

You are blessed, because Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted by the world. He knows what you are up against. The peace of Christ is yours freely. The seed that is sown in your heart is likewise free. It comes as a gift from the cross. Jesus, knowing what this world is like gave the apostles this seed to sow so that you may be continually strengthened and protected. The love of Jesus is here for you, now and always. Amen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Drawn to Antiquity

I must admit it. I am drawn to the things of old. I have always been a lover of history. As a child I would go to historic sites such as the site of the battle of Vicksburg in the Civil War and I would see the indentions of the fox holes still intact. I would try to picture soldiers in those fox holes, people scurrying around. The wounded lying on the ground with the many dead. I always yearned to get a piece of history embedded in my mind.

I am still the same today, though it comes out in different ways. I have been reading Egeria's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and I am just fascinated by what she describes. The second half of her memoirs describe in detail the liturgical practices of the church there. One of the things that amazes me the most is the dedication of the Christians. When the church was to gather for the different prayer offices, the people would assemble hours before the appointed time. They would spend their time singing the hymns and the antiphons. The singing of the antiphons in those services were very important and the people knew them by heart. This hints at ritual.

These antiphons, whatever they were, had to have been repeated over and over again, depending upon the time and the season of the church. There is something to be said about ritual. I heard an elderly pastor say not too long ago that if you don't have it in your heart, then you don't have it. True. If we don't know things by heart, then how important are they to us?

American culture today seems to make light of the aspect of ritual, but it has historically been an important part of the church, as Egeria points out for her readers. I was also favorably impressed by the ritual aspect in holy week. On Palm Sunday the Christians in Jerusalem would gather at the main church. Scripture would be read, the Eucharist celebrated, and the bishop would then lead a procession to the Mount of Olives where it was thought that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The bishop would read the particular lection from the Armenian Lectionary which was the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Then after more antiphons were sung, the bishop would continue the procession up the mountain to the place where it was thought that Jesus ascended into heaven. Again went the proclamation of the Gospel, the singing of more antiphons, and the bishop would then lead the procession down the mountain with all the faithful and catechumens carrying palm and olive branches chanting "blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord." This procession would lead back to the main church for the office of Vespers.

All this took hours. Many antiphons, many scripture readings, much walking and, all the while, a good number of these people had been fasting through the Lenten season.

Today, people don't have the stamina for a church service that lasts longer than an hour. People seem to abhor repetition and ritual (although the lives they live in their homes are so covered in ritual and repetition).

Now, I like to read the writings of the blessed Martin Luther as well, and I have always been interested in what his life was like, but I am of the opinion that our culture today is resembling more and more the life and times of the "early church," the first 3 or 4 centuries in the church. This is why I am so interested in Patristics. We live in an age where people have little or no knowledge of the mysteries of God. They have no understanding of what the church even is, and churches that promote great variety actually do more harm to these people who are brought into the church from paganism.

If our worship is full of constant variety so the "worship experience" doesn't get boring, then the people are being duped. They will not learn what the church is and, as a result, they will end up fashioning their own understanding of what Christianity is "to them," thereby separating the body of Christ and fragmenting it. St. Paul tells us that we are the body of Christ and, therefore, one. Ritual, teaching, and just having the Divine Service with the sacraments will solidify and unify.

Ritual is important precisely because of what Jesus says about the seed sown on good soil--it bears fruit and produces in some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirty"(St. Matthew 13:23). In other words, for those who take the word sown to heart in order to understand, they will grow in the faith at different speeds, and in different measure. This is OK. It is God's way. It is meant to be this way.

This variance along with St. Paul's reminder of the oneness and unity of the church, teaches us something. People gathered in the Divine Service are all at different points on the road with Jesus. This sounds complex. How does the pastor work with this situation? Such a community is brought together by ritual. A common way unites and then God through the preaching of the gospel and the giving of Himself in the sacraments then takes care of the task of caring for His people who are at different points on the road of Christ.

Variety and constant change, along with emotion-driven services attempts to make up for the disparity and unevenness of the faithful and wrestles the work of the Holy Spirit away from the gospel and sacraments, as the minister attempts to "grow everyone" through human means.

But there is nothing new under the sun, as history has shown by the many and various heresies that existed. In the midst of it all, we see from people such as Egeria that the church simply relied on the gospel and sacraments. It continued to teach through the ritual of antiphons and psalms, and a common liturgy that was considered home.

I continually yearn for a rich and distinct Christian piety that is sacramental and catholic. I love the ancient expressions of the church because they are distinct from the world, and why shouldn't I? After all, St. Paul reminds us that we are only sojourners here on this earth and heaven is our home. How distinct and wonderful must the worship of Jesus Christ in heavenly glory be?!!

+Fr. Chadius