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Swords into Plowshares and a Future of Peace

December 18th, 2012 No comments

“Swords into Plowshares and a Future of Hope” (Isaiah 2:1-5; Luke 1:46-55)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
November 25, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It seems like there will always be wars and rumors of wars.1 And I often worry about the world that we have brought our daughter into. One merely has to glance at the news headlines to feel this sense of hopelessness at the violence, destruction, and pain that is the reality for the world we live in. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic, random, senseless acts of gun violence, including the Aurora, CO movie theater massacre and the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East coast killing over 100 people and causing destruction to homes, hospitals, nursing homes, transportation systems, places of business, and felling 1000s of trees. Sex abuse scandals abound. The gap between the poor and the rich continues to widen. Tanzania has reported an increase in recent months of elephants who are being slaughtered and left to rot all for the sake of their ivory tusks. Schools continue to need to cut spending and yet the global military spending was over $1.7 trillion dollars this past year alone. We continue to come up with more creative ways to kill others and to inflict pain and suffering on others through the art of war and yet children continue to go to bed hungry. Plowshares continue to be beaten into swords.

Isaiah paints a beautiful image of Jerusalem as a place of peace streaming out into the rest of the world from the mountain of the Lord. Yet the reality of what is taking place in Jerusalem and the surrounding land these days is so far removed from this peaceful vision. Tony Campolo observes that to call it the “holy land” “is a misnomer when what goes on there is so unholy.”2 It was sobering to see firsthand some of the atrocities being committed against fellow human beings and to hear the stories of how many people have experienced injustice and how much pain has been endured. We visited with a family whose home had been bulldozed 4 times, which has recently been destroyed again since our visit. We heard the story of a man whose 14 year old daughter was killed by a suicide bomb. And just this month the violence has escalated with the fighting near Gaza which has been the bloodiest exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas in 4 years. This recent violence claimed the lives of 172 people, which included 34 children. One devastating picture showed a father weeping over the body of his 11 month old son who had been killed in the fighting. After seeing that image, I have needed to hold Sophia more often knowing that these parents will not be able to hold their own child again. Such terrible pain, all hopes and dreams for the future shattered in one horrific instant.

Where is the hope for the future in the midst of such hateful violence and desecration? Where is the hope when the powers at work in the world are so far from God’s will? Where are the songs of joy amidst the wailing laments? Creation is groaning with the pain of violence, hunger, fear, illness, and destruction that are inflicted upon the world. We cry with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord? How long shall the wicked be jubilant?3 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?4 How long must we bear pain in our souls and have sorrow in our hearts?5 How long before those who mourn are comforted?”

It often seems as though the world is beyond hope, that those working in opposition to God’s will seem to triumph and that violence, destruction and greed rule the day. Yet we are those who hope in what is not seen, even when the present state of the world seems hopeless. This beautiful vision that Isaiah paints for us is God’s future for the world; creation will be restored, all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house and will walk in the ways of God’s peace.

It is as Paul assured the congregations in Rome,

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for the … redemption of our bodies. … Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But … we hope for what we do not see…”6

And we continue to hope. God’s future is certain. Things will not stay as they are. God will set things right. God’s kingdom will come. Even when plowshares continue to be beaten into swords, God’s kingdom will come. Even when violence begets violence and greed begets greed, God’s kingdom will come. Even when children continue to suffer at the hands of others, God’s kingdom will come. Even when things look hopeless, God’s kingdom will come.

And all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord and all will walk in the ways of God’s peace. And then God will settle things fairly between nations and will make things right. Then swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Never again will nation lift up sword against nation, never again will a person lift up a hand in violence towards another, never again will the ways of violence prevail.

In God’s future, people will willingly disarm and destroy their weapons to be repurposed for tools that will bring hope for the world and nourishment for the nations. Weapons will be used instead to cultivate food so that the harvest will be plentiful and every mouth will be fed. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Tanks will be transformed into tractors and guns into gardening tools. Everything that had once been used to inflict pain will be converted for God’s good purposes. When weapons are willingly being converted into instruments of agriculture we know that in God’s future even long-feuding and ancient enemies will be reconciled: family members who have long since parted ways, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and Protestants, Israelis and Palestinians, even Jayhawks and Wildcats. We will all be one new humanity instead of two; the hostility between enemies will be no more.

God’s future is one of peace, of hope, where every person will have enough to eat. Creation itself will be restored and set right. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard; the pain, chaos, and suffering of the past will be forgotten. No more will an infant live only a few days; everyone will live out their lifetime. Houses will be inhabited by those whose hands have built them; the harvest will be eaten by those whose hands have cultivated, tended, and planted it. The lion and the lamb shall lie down together and no one, neither animal nor human, shall hurt or kill when God’s kingdom comes and creation is restored.7

God’s future of hope is certain, and we who hope for what is yet to come wait expectantly for the day when all creation will be restored. And as the people of God we do not sit idly by while we wait for this day to come. If faith is believing in what we don’t yet see, if we truly believe that God’s kingdom is coming that that God will ultimately set things right, then that will affect the way we live now. We know how the story is going to end, “so we start living it into being.”8 It’s like a child who on Christmas Eve puts out cookies and milk and sleeps on the couch in anticipation of the excitement of what is yet to come.

“And so it is for us. If we know that the story ends with [people] beating swords into [plowshares], we start now. And we … don’t keep building more swords. When we know that the earth is going to be healed, then we don’t want to keep creating new wounds. … We don’t have to wait.” We can begin living as though the kingdom is already come.9

We do this by following God’s Word so that we might learn and walk in God’s ways. We engage in worship and prayer, by loving our enemies as ourselves and praying for those who persecute us. We participate in God’s future by practicing reconciliation, by feeding those around us who are hungry for bread and by feeding and nourishing those who are hungry for the Living Bread. We seek shalom in our lives and pursue it for ourselves and our neighbors and for the creation. We proclaim God’s future in a world so desperately in need of hope.

For there are times when things often feel hopeless, and even we who hope for what is yet to come will experience times of discouragement. There will be days when we will ask ourselves how we will be able to go on in a world so far removed from God’s good purposes, a world so full of greed and hate and violence. I certainly have days when I worry about tomorrow, of the world we are leaving for our children, of whether I will be able to keep my daughter safe in a violent world. I have days of despair and doubt and there are times when I admit that things seem hopeless.

Yet I am reminded of a young girl who found herself in a situation that seemed hopeless. She was single and she found herself pregnant. Her fiance was planning to leave her because he knew that the child was not his own. Her life was at stake because it was within the laws of her community to execute her for becoming pregnant without being married. And yet even within this seemingly hopeless situation, this young mother was still able to sing a song of God’s great triumph that the world would be set right. She sang of God’s great mercy, of the proud being scattered and the lowly being lifted up, the powerful being thrown down from their thrones and the hungry poor being filled with good things. She knew that God has the final victory. And she knew that the child who was being formed within her womb would be the One who would make all this possible. Mary sang a song of hope of a new creation that was coming into the world through the birth of her son.

In their book “Red Letter Revolution” Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne tell the story of a Christian family who lives in the West Bank. They write,

“[They] have lived simple lives off the land for generations, until recently. Israeli settlements have been built around them, and the Israeli government tried to take their land. Unlike most families, … they actually have deeds going back over 100 years that prove they own their land which made things tricky for the Israeli government.

As [they] continued living on their land, a new strategy evolved – harassment. Olive trees were uprooted. Piles of boulders were dumped on the road leading to their home, so they couldn’t get any vehicles in and out. Even though they owned the land, they were refused permits for electricity and water. So they went off the grid and used solar and rain-water collection. When they were refused building structure permits for their home, they started building underground …

At the front of their property is a sign that reads, ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ After their olive trees were uprooted, a Jewish group caught wind of it and came and helped them replant them all. One story after another of reconciliation. … They continue to live there and have gotten to know their neighbors. At one point they invited one of the Israeli settlers to dinner. When she came into their house, she started weeping, and said, ‘You have no water, and we have swimming pools. Something is wrong.’ And when asked how they retain hope in the midst of such injustice, [they smile and simply say] ‘Jesus.’”10

For he is our hope. He is the one whose life, death, and resurrection make reconciliation between enemies possible. He is the one who will scatter the proud-hearted and lift up the lowly. He is the one who will fill the hungry with good things. He is the one who inspires swords to be beaten into plowshares. He is the reason that we follow God’s ways and seek God’s shalom and pursue it in our lives. He is our hope in a world full of seemingly hopeless situations. He is the one who has promised to return and to set things right. He is the one who has proclaimed ‘Surely I am coming soon.” Alleluia! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!11

Notes:
1. Matt. 24:6//Mark 13:7
2. Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo
3. Psalm 94:3
4. Psalm 89:46
5. Psalm 13:2
6. Romans 8:18-25 abridged
7. Isaiah 65:17ff paraphrased
8. Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution
9. Ideas for this paragraph from Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution
10. Claiborne and Campolo, Red Letter Revolution, pages 216-217
11. Revelation 22:20

Why do you stand looking into the heavens?

August 26th, 2011 No comments

Why do you stand looking into the heavens?” (Acts 1:6-14)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 5, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Two men in dazzling white
I remember a hot June evening in 1999. I was playing baseball in Lindsborg, and it was the top of the sixth inning of what had already been a long game. We were at bat, and I was sitting in the dugout gazing aimlessly off into center field. We were short on players, and though I was getting tired, I had two innings left to pitch. I was thinking of how I was gonna get through the rest of the game. Maybe I could throw a few more breaking balls and fewer fastballs. Maybe I could get a little more speed if I’d snap my wrist a little more, or lean into it with my back and legs a little more. Maybe I could drop down and throw. . . when BAM! A foul ball zipped into the dugout and hit me right in the mouth. Coach just looked over at me and chuckled and said, “Got a little distracted there, didn’t you?” I have no recollection of how well I pitched after that.

So I can have a little sympathy for these disciples who are once again preoccupied and distracted.

I wonder if any of them recognized those two men in dazzling white. They seem to show up when folks are looking in the wrong place. Forty days earlier two men decked in white had asked some perplexed disciples who had come to an empty tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Now their questions is, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

But then, they say a most remarkable thing: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Now, if I heard that, I’d wanna keep right on looking up to heaven to see him come back, but my guess is, the two fellows in white were hoping this would lead them to start looking elsewhere. Jesus had already started to fix their sights on new horizons.

Is now the time?
They’d all gathered together at the Mount of Olives, and Jesus was getting ready to make is departure. He’d just promised that they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit (and next week is Pentecost), and Acts is all about the surprising power of the Holy Spirit. But it just “blew” right on by them. They wanted to know when the kingdom is going to be restored to Israel. They were still hoping Jesus is gonna be the guy to do what the Messiah was supposed to do: boot out the Romans and bring an end to the suffering of God’s people. Is now the time at last? Is our suffering finally over?

But that’s not what Jesus was all about, and he steers them away from such preoccupation and worry and back to their purpose and their calling: The Holy Spirit will come to give them power to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth! Why bother worrying about the end times when new times are beginning? Why look up to heaven, when the Holy Spirit’s coming to earth? Why worry about when the world’s going to end, when we’re being sent to the ends of the earth?

I think it’s easy to get so distracted, so preoccupied with worries about tomorrow that we forget that God has a plan, a purpose, a call for us today. God has a purpose and call for each one of our lives, and on us as God’s people. Isn’t it just amazing how we get so preoccupied with achievement or success or the worries of tomorrow that we forget that God has a purpose for each of us, a purpose that stretches to the end of the earth! My, how we get distracted with filling our lives with all kinds of stuff and activities, or we distract ourselves with petty arguments and lose sight of what’s really important!

Or we get so distracted with what other people want us to be – sexy, athletic, smart, funny, gossipy, wealthy, popular – that we forget what God’s purpose for us is – witnesses of Jesus Christ in how we live, in what we say, in how we spend our money, in our attitudes, in our very character, we’re witness for Jesus here in this place, and to the ends of the earth!

How often do we look in the mirror, and see someone who’s not skinny enough, who’s not tall enough or tan enough, who’s too old or too young, who’s not smart enough, who doesn’t work hard enough, who’s not loving enough, not good enough, instead of seeing a person with a purpose. You can’t stare up into heaven with despair or into the mirror with disappointment for long, because we are a people with a purpose.

And the same goes for churches. How often do we get preoccupied with trying to be who the world wants us to be – flashy, frantically cranking out all the best programs, worrying about tomorrow, pleasing people with pie in the sky and sweet by and by as we stare up at heaven. But we’re a people with a purpose, to be witnesses, ambassadors of the gospel of peace, friends of the friendless, hope for the homeless, healers of the hurting, and voices to the violent, embodying the character and presence of Christ in the world.

We are a people with a purpose, one that stretches to the end of the earth.

A people with a purpose: Living God’s future, now
I think that’s what Jesus was trying to help his disciples understand when they were getting distracted by when the end would come, and I think that’s what the two men in white were trying to get them to see when they were feeling abandoned and staring up into the heavens. “Don’t worry – he’ll come again the same way you saw him go. He’ll come again.” And in that promise they came to realize their purpose.

You see, the coming of Jesus isn’t just something that makes for profitable books and movies; nor is it something that just makes for good headlines (like we’ve seen here of late) or flashy billboards. It’s something that says we’re a people with a purpose.

The way the New Testament understands history is that the present age is an age of dominating powers, suffering, exile, and rebellion. But there is a coming age, in which God will overcome evil and rescue and restore all things. The word for eternity in the New Testament is more literally referring to this age to come. That’s how lots of folks viewed the world in the time of Jesus. But, the uniquely Christian claim is that Jesus is has already come as a first fruits of the age to come (1 Cor. 15), that in Jesus, God’s future has already broken into the present age, that in Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, God has already begun the restoration of all things, and we now live in a time of the overlapping of the ages, in the already-and-not-yet, as it’s often said, as those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come,” as Paul put it (1 Cor. 10:11).

Jesus has inaugurated God’s coming age, and his resurrection is a foretaste of God’s new creation, of God’s redemption and restoration. God raised Jesus into the life of the coming age, and those who are “in him” now share already in the life of the age to come, having passed from death into life (Rom. 6; Gal. 2). To be “in Christ” means that we’re in the age of resurrection, in the age of redemption, of restoration and righteousness and peace.

Yes, we do still have one foot in the old age – the age of suffering and rebellion and death, but we’ve got our other foot in the age to come, and that’s the way we’re leaning. We’re still living in the old age, but if you ask us who we are, we’re the people of the coming age. That’s how we understand our identity now already – we’re people of the age to come.

We’re a people with a purpose, and our purpose is to begin living now already the way the whole world will live ultimately, to embody now already the hope of the age to come. That’s the claim that God’s future has on us now already in the present age. Because the Holy Spirit has sealed and guaranteed us for the age to come (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13; 4:30), we are to be a sign, a foretaste, an instrument and agent of God’s future.

Rather than speculating on when the end is coming, we’re supposed to live every day as if the end were coming tomorrow, and as if the end (or rather, new beginning) has already come. John Howard Yoder put it well:

The consummation is first of all the vindication of the way of the cross. When John [in Revelation] weeps in despair because there is no one to break the seals of the scroll in which is revealed the meaning of history, his joy comes from the cry that the lamb that was slain is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals (first vision, Rev. 5). The ultimate meaning of history is to be found in the work of the church [now already]. . . The victory of the Lamb through his death seals the victory of the church. The church’s suffering, like the Master’s suffering, is the measure of the church’s obedience to the self-giving love of God. Nonresistance is right, in the deepest sense, not just because it works, but because it anticipates the triumph of the Lamb that was slain.1

Participating in Christ’s sufferings in the old age
That’s why Peter could talk about suffering the way he did. “Rejoice if you’re participating in Christ’s sufferings,” he said, “because you’ll shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). For those who are joined to Christ share not only in his sufferings, but also in his life of the age to come (again, Rom. 6; Gal. 2; etc.). This is part of God’s plan and purpose in Jesus.

Sometimes we’re comforted by the thought that when we suffer, it’s part of God’s plan for our lives, but we need to be careful with that language. I simply cannot accept that the suffering of an abused child is part of God’s plan, or that a car accident that leaves behind orphans is part of God’s purpose.

Nevertheless, that’s when we need the reminder the most, when we’re gazing up into heaven, feeling lost and abandoned, that in spite of all this, God still has a plan and purpose for our lives. When God’s people were suffering in exile in Babylon, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah: “Surely I know the plans I have for you. . . plans for your peace and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

For we are a people with a purpose, and our purpose is to begin living now as a witness to the way the whole world will live ultimately. That means we don’t have to get stuck despairing of the way things are because we trust that we’re not abandoned; rather, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re supposed to embody in our own counter-cultural community the future, the change that we hope for.

Why stand look into the heavens?
First thing disciples did when they heard they were a people with a purpose wasn’t to go out and change the world; rather, they met to pray together and awaited the empowering of the Holy Spirit for the task ahead, which began by changing them. The coming of the Holy Spirit is to be the down payment, the guarantee or seal of the coming fullness of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.

Why be preoccupied with tomorrow, why get distracted by stuff and achievement and what folks want us to be? Why stand feeling abandoned and staring up at heaven? Jesus has ascended, which means he now reigns over all. Christ is coming; the Holy Spirit is upon us, and we’re a people with a purpose. Amen.

Notes:
1. John Howard Yoder, “Peace without Eschatology?” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiastical and Ecumenical, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1998), 151.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Our Future Hope

February 17th, 2011 No comments

“Our Future Hope” (Readers’ Theater)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 19, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Worship: An Odd Thing

It’s an odd thing we do here every week, gathering together for worship. Instead of cleaning the house, or getting caught up on all the paperwork stacked up on the desk, or getting the last of the Christmas shopping done, or even just sleeping in to get caught up on some much needed rest, we assemble week after week, sing a few songs together, listen to some stories from an old book, and, let’s be honest, try and stay awake through a 15-20 minute speech about something we’ve already heard all there is to hear about after 2000 years.

But even more peculiar is the content of our worship. We say strange things to each other, like “love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44) or “sell all of your possessions and give it to the poor” (Luke 18:22) or “in order to gain your life, you must lose it” (cf. Mark 8:35).

Or think about the words of Jesus, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me” (Mt. 28:18). To any armchair Messiah, it would sure seem as though if he were really in charge, he could be doing a better job handling terrorism and food crises and environmental degradation and myopic market systems! Such odd things to say!

Or think about how every Advent in our worship, we oddly enough ignore all the pain and suffering of the world and look to the skies, hoping and waiting and preparing for the herald’s proclamation above the din of chaos, violence, and pain, at last: “A Savior is born to you” (Luke 2:11). Year after year, worshipers look heavenward with the thousands of God’s people across the millennia of the world’s darkness who have taken hold of God’s covenant promise and, improbably as it may be, boldly hope for and wait for salvation.

Perhaps that is the oddest thing about our worship. It is indeed an odd enterprise to encounter the pain and ambiguity of being human, to experience the pain that death brings, to come face to face with the horrors of evil, to live in an age of frantic schedules and terrorism and massive out-of-control economic systems and the grind of global poverty, where every Messiah seems to end up before one Pontius Pilate or another, and yet to hope and trust and await and prepare for God’s ultimate intervention and deliverance, to believe in the power of resurrection, to trust in God’s final restoration of all things, when God will wipe away every tear, when even death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

An odd thing, our worship is, wherein we gather week after week in this daring hope for the future, over against the darkness of this present age.

Human Progress?

Now I suppose, that if we wanted, we could tame down our future hope a bit. Make it a little more realistic and say our future hope for a time when even death will be no more is a sort of metaphor for human progress, a dramatic sort of way of talking about the relentless progression of human development to culminate one day in some expression of utopia or another. We are, after all, a reasonable lot, are we not? We each have a mind capable of making good choices for ourselves.

In fact, we have made some progress over the years, you might say: how about the improvements of democracy, or the spread of human rights? Surely one day, we will create our own just and peaceful future, and perhaps we’ll even speed it along by following Jesus when possible.

No doubt, there has been progress, and yet, as we look back over the past hundred years or so of human history, we find not the triumph of reason, not the full flourish of the human individual, nor indeed our brightest hour; rather, the past hundred years have been the bloodiest in human history, a sobering reminder that when all things are considered, it looks like “human progress” as we may call it is not just a “tamed down” hope, but a false hope, leading us not for deliverance, but for destruction.

The Eternal Now?

Now, of course, we could alternately say that this is already just as good as it’s going to get. So like to say emperors and kings and princes and presidents in their static triumphalism. Indeed, ever since the church first tasted secular political authority in the 4th century, it has proclaimed the eternal now. The future has arrived.

After all, Jesus himself said that those who believe in him have already passed from death to life, and have eternal life starting now (John 5:24), in the present. Paul would later say that Jesus is already the cosmic king, having all things placed under his feet (Eph. 1:20-22).

Perhaps we have arrived. After all, we are living well. We have warm homes, a beautiful building in which to worship. Our healers are constantly getting better at their trade, so that pain and suffering, even if they aren’t totally gone, sure aren’t anything like they used to be. Jesus Christ has already come into the world to save us from our sins.

As we shed our mortal tent, we may already be clothed with the heavenly (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5). What more do we need? Perhaps God’s future has already begun. Perhaps evil is still running rampant in the world simply because we have not yet taken it upon ourselves to quash it by force and grind it out of existence.

Yet surely an honest assessment of the world will again lead us to acknowledge that we have not yet arrived, or if we have arrived, it’s been to a world spiraling into exponential population growth, climate change, and fear of terrorism, war, or genocide. Not quite that odd and bold vision of hope we dare to talk about as we gather for worship.

Calendarizing?

Shall we then abandon the present age to oblivion and claim our hope as an opiate against this present darkness? Is there indeed nothing to be done until the slate is wiped clean and things start completely afresh? Is there no trajectory to this story God’s saving purposes throughout history that we have been telling for the past four months? No long preparation at last complete? Does it all finally get scrapped to start afresh?

Perhaps all that we can do in this dark, dark world is to cling to the promise of our hope and wait it all out, or just grit our teeth and do what we’ve gotta do to get through it until we arrive at the other side. Perhaps then rather than working for God’s justice, healing, hope, and peace in the present, we should work at cobbling together various bits of biblical prophecy to discover its hidden, secret message, so that we will know precisely when the world will end, and then prepare for it.

Christians have set to work calendarizing the end times since the second century. The past 150 years or so have seen a great explosion and resurgence in apocalyptic expectation and calendarizing. The Watchtower Society has variously predicted 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1994. The expectation of the Branch Davidians of Waco ended tragically. Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, predicted the rapture for 1988, and of course, there was much ado about the year 2000.

It seems that in every age, we simply re-adjust the map of biblical prophecy to extend it out a little further. Five hundred years ago, the antichrist was the pope (and recurring since then). A generation ago, it was Richard Nixon, or Yassir Arafat. Today, it’s variously Osama bin Laden, or Sarah Palin, or Barack Obama, or your pick of Wall Street executives.

We live in an apocalyptic world

To be sure, such “creative” biblical interpretation has led to a good deal of discomfort for many Christians when it comes to our future hope of resurrection and restoration. And yet, perhaps our preoccupation in every age with the coming of Christ reveals something to us. Indeed, perhaps all of our misdirected wanderings grasped something of the truth, though only in part.

In our age of globalization, massive military-industrial complex, seductive secularizing spirits, nuclear power, AIDS crises, and an enormous economic machine, can we say that we live in an apocalyptic age any less now than when John of Patmos penned the Revelation? Do we not live in a world of powers at play beyond our control? Do beasts not continue to rise from the sea and demand of us our total allegiance (Rev. 13)? Is not the whole creation still groaning (Rom. 8:22)?

Perhaps this odd hope we celebrate in worship is more important than we think. Precisely for all of these reasons does our future hope of resurrection and restoration grace our present reality, infusing our lives today already with new meaning and significance, as we cling to the vision of all peoples streaming to the mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:2). The Bible is never much interested in fortune telling or divination (e.g. Deut. 18:10); any claims it makes about the future are claims on our present living.

For we do not live as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Rather, we may without fear, in all places and in all seasons, risk all to live for Christ (e.g. 2 Cor 6:4-10). And in that sense, perhaps there is some hope for what we sometimes call “progress,” though it might better be labeled “grace” or “shalom.”

Future Hope for Present Living

The New Testament understands the church as those upon whom the ends of the ages have come (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:11). We are to be a foretaste, a sign that points towards God’s glorious future and God’s Reign, a people in which, in a certain sense, eternity has begun now.1 Indeed, “Our task in evangelism is to both live by ways of the coming kingdom now and invite others to know Jesus and become a part of God’s future.”2

Because of our future hope, the effectiveness of our life and mission can never be measured by temporal worldly standards, but will rather be redeemed and enhanced in God’s glorious future in resurrection power.

J. Nelson Kraybill puts it succinctly:

The New Jerusalem is the faith community to which all who know and follow Jesus belong. Wherever people believe in Jesus and begin to live in ways of the kingdom, something of the New Jerusalem comes to earth. The new Jerusalem in Revelation is another image for what Jesus meant when he taught his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”3

Whenever someone believes in Christ, there the new creation has already begun, Paul wrote (2 Cor. 5:17). John Howard Yoder, the famous Mennonite theologian of the 20th century, once argued that the church’s purpose for being is to begin living now the way the world is called to live ultimately, and to embody the promise of a new reality in God’s future.4 And what does that future look like? If the book of Revelation is to be any guide, it is, oddly enough, a future of ceaseless praise, worship and allegiance toward God.5

Worship

Perhaps our worship is the most important expression of our future hope; perhaps our gathering together is the most important witness to what is to come; perhaps our weekly declaration of allegiance to God and God alone is the most important thing we can do in this world of principalities and powers vying for our loyalty.6

Perhaps it is this odd thing we do every week, assembling to worship the God of our salvation, to tell the story of God’s saving purposes, and to celebrate our future hope of eternity in God’s presence as those who have been joined to Christ, and the final restoration of all things – perhaps it in this odd thing where we boldly confess our hope and declare our allegiance to God that we become most fully joined to Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the keystone and the key, the final Lord of history, and to his Body.

N.T. Wright puts it beautifully:

The New Testament image of the future hope of the whole cosmos, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus, gives as coherent a picture as we need or could have of the future that is promised to the whole world, a future in which, under the sovereign and wise rule of the creator God, decay and death will be done away with and a new creation born, to which the present one will stand as mother to child.7

For one day, we do believe, God will wipe away every tear; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, evil will finally be judged and done away with, and at long last, this story of God’s saving purposes throughout history will find its completion at the coming of our God and of his Christ.

Today as we conclude this story, may this story of salvation that we have been telling become our very own story; may we become the characters of its timeless drama as we follow after the Lamb who was slain and yet lives again. I think the famous German theologian Karl Barth summed up the whole story perfectly in his conclusion to his multivolume systematic theology: “Jesus loves me; this I know.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Notes:
1 See, e.g., Matthew 5:14; Luke 10:17-20; John 3:36; 5:21, 24-26; 14:12; 17:21; Acts 2:43; 4:16; Rom. 6:13; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Cor. 5:5, 15-21 (esp. v. 17); 2 Thess. 2:13; Eph. 1:8b-10, 13-14; 2:1-6; 4:30; James 1:18; 1 Peter 2:9-10; 1 John 3:14; Rev. 14:4. Cf. also Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and his “signs” of that Kingdom, a witness that continues in his Body; and Jesus’ teaching about preparing for the kingdom (Mt. 7:21-27; 22:4-14; 24:36-25:23 and parallels). See also Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Articles 9 (“The Church of Jesus Christ”) and 24 (“The Reign of God”).
2 Kraybill, Jesus Matters, 239.
3 Kraybill, Jesus Matters, 238.
4 John Howard Yoder, “The Kingdom as Social Ethic,” in The Priestly Kingdom, 92.
5 E.g. Rev. 4:8-11; 5:11-14; 7:15; 11:16; 15:4-8; 19:4; 22:3
6 See, in Revelation, the contrast between worship of the Beast (and cronies) and worship of God. Worship is the language of allegiance.
7 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 107.

A Brief Exegesis of Matthew 6:11 (// Luke 11:3)

April 29th, 2010 No comments

I thought it would be fitting to begin this blog with an exegesis of Matthew 6:11, the source of this site’s name. It’s a fascinating study that involves a good amount of Greek, so hang on for the ride!

Translating επιούσιος (“Daily”)

The Greek term επιούσιος is notoriously difficult to translate, occurring only twice in the entire New Testament (Mt. 6:11 // Luke 11:3), with only two possible but disputed occurrences outside the New Testament. The extreme rarity of this term, coupled with the fact that it appears in both Matthew and Luke at the same place, likely indicates that Matthew and Luke had a common Greek source, such as the posited Q source, or that one writer used the other as a source. Recalling that Jesus spoke Aramaic, it is possible that whoever translated the prayer into Greek used this particularly obscure construction to capture some complexity of meaning in Aramaic that is difficult to translate into Greek. In fact, Origen posited that the gospel writers themselves invented the term. Arland J. Hultgren notes four possibilities for translation and etymology:1

  1. “Necessary/For subsistence.” The etymology here is επί (“for”) + ουσία (“being/existence/substance”). The main weakness to this option is that the iota is generally elided (dropped) in such a situation; we would expect επούσιος instead.
  2. “For the existing [day].” Eπιούσιος is a contraction of επί την ούσαν (“for the existing/present”). This option also suffers from the same elision problem as above.
  3. “Coming [day].” Eπιούσιος is a participle of έπειμι (“come upon”). A common participial usage is ή έπιούσα ήμερα (“the coming day”), often abbreviated ή έπιούσα. Eπιούσιος is then formed from επιουσ + ιος. Using this etymology, the translation is, “Give us today our bread for/of the coming [day].” Some additional support comes from the extra-canonical “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” which translates “of tomorrow.” But why not use the more familiar participial forms — or even the familiar noun αύριον (“tomorrow”)?
  4. “Coming bread.”  The etymology remains the same as 3), but the adjective now modifies “bread” instead of “day.”

Textual Context

Matthew and Luke differ slightly with their presentation of the phrase in question. The imperative “Give” is in the aorist active tense in Matthew (similar to the way we usually think of imperatives), while Luke uses the progressive active tense, indicating repeated action. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke have chosen different adverbial constructions to modify “Give.” Matthew uses σήμερον (“today/this day”), while Luke uses καθ’ ήμεραν (“daily”), which answers Luke’s iterative imperative nicely. Therefore, we have Matthew: “Give us today our επιούσιον bread,” and Luke: “Continue giving us daily our επιούσιον bread.”

Luke’s usage of the imperative and the adverb indicate a sort of continual action. Interestingly, Luke uses the same adverbial construction in 9:23, “. . . take up their cross daily,” an addition to the statement as recorded in Mark and Matthew. Some have wondered whether Matthew and Luke both added the adverbial modifier in order to clarify the meaning of the obscure επιούσιον; however, it is probably more likely that Luke simply modified the phrase so that it would flow with the larger themes of day-by-day discipleship in his Gospel. Furthermore, Exodus 16:5 LXX contains the same adverbial construction, and Luke may be making a canonical connection (Huldgren).

Indeed, in choosing the vocabulary of bread, Jesus pulled in a richness of biblical significance. I imagine that the Exodus story was most immediate in his listeners’ imaginations: unleavened bread at the Passover and manna (“bread from heaven”) in the wilderness. The idea of “coming bread” captures this powerful memory of bread coming from God. The New Testament — especially the gospels — further adds to its significance: the Last Supper, feeding the multitudes, “not by bread alone,” the Bread of Life, and so forth.

Eschatology

Much of the discussion so far has been implicitly pointing toward the question of the role of eschatology in interpreting this phrase. Eschatology literally has to do with “last things.” However, biblical eschatology follows a slightly different paradigm of the fulfillment of things. We generally tie in ideas of salvation or the “big picture”. I like to think of it has having to do with “the coming fullness of God’s Reign,” or “the full realization of God’s New Creation.”

Clearly, the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come,” is eschatological. So is the second, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The overlapping of heaven and earth, or the coming of heaven to earth, is a common biblical eschatological motif, indicating God’s sphere of influence being present in the entire created order.

But the eschatology of the remaining petitions is debated. Clearly, there is a “dailiness” to them — especially in Luke’s version. We need bread each day. Forgiveness is needed each new day, and deliverance too. But need daily discipleship preclude eschatological hope in this passage?  I don’t believe so for several reasons, two of which follow:

First, each successive petition in the Lord’s Prayer can be seen as supporting the first (“Thy kingdom come”). Further, each successive petition is a sign of God’s kingdom: God’s will is done (God reigns); all have bread, which comes from God (justice); forgiveness abounds (righteousness and mercy); and God’s deliverance reigns (peace and victory).

Second, the New Testament affirms both a realized and an expectant eschatology. That is, in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s future has begun, God’s reign has been inaugurated, the Spirit has come, and creation is being restored! At the same time, we hope for a coming fulfillment of what is begun. Holding these two convictions together, the church sees itself as a foretaste of the coming fullness of God’s reign. Day-to-day discipleship becomes a sign, instrument, and agent of God’s New Creation. Daily discipleship is therefore an eschatological act, and the traditional wedge between dailiness and eschatology is overstated.

Conclusion

So, what are we left with? I think Jesus purposefully chose a rich image and at least somewhat unique vocabulary in Aramaic (which also found its way into the Greek) to communicate a multifaceted idea. At its most basic level, the petition is a corporate prayer for simple human needs (a sign of God’s future). It is also a prayer that recognizes the sustenance that comes from God alone (our “coming bread”).  And it goes beyond in fervent expectation of sharing and becoming a foretaste of God’s tomorrow. I think “coming bread” is the translation that best captures the richness of meaning being communicated here. I also think “bread of tomorrow” is highly evocative and a correct expression of one meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, which beautifully captures our future hope expressed already in the present. In the case of naming a website, aesthetics wins over exegesis!

Notes:
1. Arland J. Hultgren, “The Bread Petition of the Lord’s Prayer,” Anglican Theological Review Supplemental Series (11 March 1990): 41-54.

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