December 7, 2016 Wednesday after the Second Sunday of Advent
2 Thessalonians 1.1–12
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
The first text from Isaiah is his call. If chapters one to twelve of the book are indeed, as a professor of mine suggested, the historical core of the historical person named Isaiah, then this comes at the middle, which in Hebrew poetry and in narrative structure is a very important place in the structure of a text. It is some time around the year 742 BC. Isaiah, already someone of eminence in that he was a priest offering incense in the First Temple, experiences the glorious presence of God in a vision. He sees angels call to each other in words that would influence the ancient Christian hymn used in the Eucharist known as the Sanctus and the early 19th century Anglican Trinitarian hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” (which has one of the more unusual metres in hymnody). In the face of God’s glory Isaiah feels ashamed and humble for himself and his people: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” He expects to die suddenly, for no one can see God and live. So the angels purify him, and God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, newly purified, says in Hebrew: “Hinneni” – “Here I am – send me!” And God does send him with a message of warning about war and destruction that will fall upon Judea, events that will leave only a faithful remanant, a stump, which will sprout and grow into a new and transformed people of God.
These messages of doom and destruction never seem quite right to us modern people, and there is a very good reason for it. In the minds of the writers of scripture God created the world and can do what God wants to. As God is inherently just, whatever he does displays justice. Paul in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians (which we begin today) states that God will exact “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” These people “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”. We might protest that that a God who does this is not just, but in this pre-modern perspective a God who does not have the right to do this is not God, and God’s justice will be perverted if all these evil people are rewarded the same as the righteous who suffer. God is the measure of all things. But the modern perspective since the Enlightenment is that “Man is the measure of all things”. Thus we can, as Kant and others succeeding him sought to do, construct a moral system on the basis of reason alone, without reference to the scriptures of any faith. The system that Kant devised ultimately wasn’t so different from the Christian morals that preceded him, but it had the advantage of universal appeal to all rational beings. Of course, ever since Kant people have provided rational arguments as to why his methodology and conclusions are wrong, and go on to devise alternative approaches to morals and ethics. But one result of this is that if there is some sense of justice and ethical behaviour that is independent of God, then we can judge God by it as well. Once this happens, people begin to call into question the divine authorship of scriptural texts that do not exhibit this high standard of justice, and God’s authority and relevance is called into question. Religion at best becomes a private matter, and humans look for other deities who can provide meaning and be broadly accepted by societies – for example, the gods known as “science,” or “nationalism,” or “dialectical materialism,” or “free markets,” or “racism,” or “the leader.”
I sometimes describe myself as post-modern, mainly because while I grew up in “the modern world” I certainly try not worship at the feet of these idols (although I sometimes slip and find myself saying things about which I know better). rather, I think that reason is far more limited than the Enlightenment folks thought just over two centuries to go. But I cannot go pre-modern (as some conservative Christians do) and act as if the past two hundred years never happened. rather, I need to engage and be informed by this history, and recognise that some good points are made, but they are not the ultimate answer.
Which curiously, in a way, takes us back to God, but this time God in Christ. The third reading for today is the very strange passage found in the Gospel according to John. The passage is strange not because of the content, but because it is most definitely not written by the author of the Fourth Gospel – it is an interpolation that in time became part of the text, but is absent in many ancient manuscripts of the gospel. The language is utterly unlike anything else in the Johannine tradition. It shows up in some manuscripts in the Gospel according to Luke. All of this said, it appears to be an ancient tradition that was written down and at some point somebody said, “Well, it has to go somewhere” and so some editor or scribe stuck in between the seventh and eighth chapter of John.
You probably know it already, and if you don’t, well, that’s why I put the texts below. It’s the story of the woman caught in adultery. She is facing a horrific death by stoning. Jesus saves her life by challenging the angry mob by saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Of course, none are without sin, and no one starts the stoning. Even Jesus, who is portrayed as without sin, refuses to condemn her.
So this is the post-modern part: Jesus represents the Father, but not as a judge or as one who wreaks just vengeance upon sinners, but as someone who does not condemn and simply calls the woman to refrain from sin. That’s it. He doesn’t even tell her she must repent, doesn’t even tell her she needs to make reparations – just, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” And this becomes the new standard of justice. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” “Do not judge one another.”
We make judgments all the time. That’s how we get through the day. But there are an awful lot of things where judgmental attitudes and demands for punishment don’t really accomplish a whole lot. Prior to the middle of the 19th century capital punishment was executed on everything from petty theft, witchcraft, petty theft, and chopping down a tree. This did little to reduce the prevalence of crime. A new approach was needed, one that was more forgiving, and looked to reform and not destruction.
Christians are called to be messengers among a people of unclean lips. This does not really make us better than them, because it is only by the grace of God that we have any sense that there is another way to do things than the ones that get mobs of people righteously blood-thirsty. My prayer is that we are people of mercy ad forgiveness, and that God will fulfil by God’s “power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in [us], and [us] in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
2 Thessalonians 1.1–12
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
This is evidence of the righteous judgement of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfil by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’