Bible Tuesdays for Advent IV, 2015
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
5 and he shall be the one of peace.
Abraham had Isaac, Isaac had Esau and Jacob, Jacob had twelve sons, the most famous being Joseph, as in Joseph and the Amazing Technocolored Dreamcoat. When Jacob was dying, he called all twelve of his sons to his side and blessed them each individually. It was tradition that the oldest would get the best inheritance and the best blessing. Heretofore in the book of Genesis, God was bucking tradition and choosing the youngest for the best inheritance, a trend that continues throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but when Jacob blesses all his sons, it is a middle son, Judah who gets the choice blessing. It is through Judah that the kinds of Israel will rise.
When it was time for Samuel to anoint a new king, one who would be faithful to God, God directed the prophet to the land given to the tribe of Judah, to a geographic region called Ephrathah, to a little town called Bethlehem, to the youngest son of Jesse. There Samuel anointed a shepherd kid named David to be king of Israel. Because David raised a successful army and more than doubled Israel’s lands, and because he moved Israel’s capitol and built a decent sized city for that area and time, and because David had a strong relationship with God, David is considered the greatest king of Israel.
It is to all this history that the above passage refers. Christians read this as a prophecy regarding Jesus, but faithful Jews, from the time the prophecy was written until now, interpret this passage in many ways. All understand this passage to look forward to God’s own appointed king of Israel, but who that would be and whether or not that one has already come is wide open in Jewish teaching.
Christians interpret the reference to “given the up until she who is in labor has brought forth” as a reference to the fallenness of humanity until Mary gives birth to Jesus, the savior of all. Many Jewish scholars focus on the “given them up” part of this passage. Does it mean that just before the messiah comes there will be nine months of great suffering? Does it mean there will be a time of less than a year of great oppression by the Romans as in the time just before the Temple was destroyed in 69-70AD? Is this pregnancy to be interpreted more figuratively, as in all of the times Israel/Judah has suffered?
To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn* of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
In the ancient traditions of Christians, prayers were prescribed for every Sunday. These have come to be called the “Prayer of the Day.” While these have changed some over the centuries, the Prayer of the Day that is prayed is most liturgical churches is very similar to the prayer prayed in the 400’s by the baptized. In Advent, the Prayer of the Day begins, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come…” It is from this psalm that we get this powerful plea.
Referring to the above story of the anointed of David, and thinking on the search for and anointing of David’s predecessor, Saul, we remember that God did not want Israel to have a king. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures that precede 1 & 2 Samuel, God proclaims that God is Israel’s shepherd and that they do not need a king. When kings were crowned, they were referred to as Shepherds. Note that the first verse of this psalm calls upon God using that title, “Shepherd of Israel.”
While God did not want Israel to have a king, the people of Israel grew to crave one. “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim” is a reference to God’s distance from the lowly psalmist. The psalmist writes out of great need for God, who is nowhere to be seen. “Let your face shine that we might be saved!” You are hidden from us and we need you!
Consequently, when Christ* came into the world, he said,
‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God”
(in the scroll of the book* it is written of me).’
8When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt-offerings and sin-offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, ‘See, I have come to do your will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will* that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
The obvious interpretation of this passage is, “If you believe in Jesus, then you don’t offer sacrifices because Jesus is the sacrifice.” Yes, but why? How does Jesus change the whole religious practice of Jews?
According to the law of Moses as spelled out in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, sacrifices were offered on many different occasions and different things were done with those sacrifices. Sin offerings were made in order to restore broken relations between sinner and sinned against, and between sinner and God. Those offerings were consumed by fire completely. Thank offerings were given out of gratitude for marriages, children, promotions, land and home purchases, etc. These were slaughtered, then one leg went to the priest, and the rest was roasted or boiled right then and there by the offerer and fed to his guests during a feast of gratitude. There were offerings given when blood flowed but now it is stopped (the two turtle doves that Mary offers when she and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple for naming and brist). There was the scape goat onto which the priest prayed all the sins of Israel, which was neither burnt nor eaten, but rather led out into the wilderness to die. There were first fruits offerings, a portion of which was burnt but the rest given to the priests to eat. And there was the incense offering which was burnt on the incense altar whose rising smoke symbolized the rising prayers of the faithful.
The problem with offerings is that we don’t always mean what the offering is meant to symbolize. You may bring a thank offering to the Temple but that didn’t make you grateful. You may bring a sin offering to the Temple but that didn’t make you either contrite or repentant. The Hebrew Scriptures prophets railed against this. “Your sin offerings and your thank offerings I have come to loathe, but a broken and contrite heart I will not despise.”
Jesus takes on human form and becomes all sacrifices. In his innocent execution, he is the sin offering. Through each of us partaking in Holy Communion, Jesus is the thank offering, his body and blood being the feast that is given. Jesus is the incense offering, teaching us to pray and bringing about the answer to all prayers: salvation, peace, healing, life, and eternal life. In Jesus’ lonely death, when all his followers have deserted him, Jesus is the scape goat, onto which all the sin has been heaped, and left to die alone.
Therefore, children of God, disciples of Jesus, do not offer sacrifices. No. The baptized voice gratitude. The baptized live gratitude. The baptized evangelize through gratitude. The baptized give out of gratitude.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
It is not merely the Jewish sacrificial system that Jesus turns on its head. As Mary proclaims, it is everything. Through Jesus, God proclaims God’s world order; everyone gets exactly the same amount of divine love, mercy, patience, freedom, and peace. How much? Exactly the amount you need to be in harmony with God, through Jesus. Why? Because God promised God’s love, mercy, patience, freedom, and peace to Abraham and all his descendants. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has proven to be the only way this promise could be fulfilled with us, fallen humanity.
We needed a hero, a savior we could see and emulate. Someone just like us but so much better than us who could shepherd us along the right way to go. This is who the shepherds find in the manger. Thank you, God!
The next Bible Tuesday will be written for January 3rd. Until then…Merry Christmas to you all!