Readings (Using Gospel from Luke)
Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas—in spite of entering the new calendar year still besieged by the COVID 19 pandemic. It’s been brutal, and tends to eat away at hope. My focus on hope is inspired by Paul’s in our second reading: he celebrates the Ephesians’ faith and love, but thinks their hope could use a little support—as could mine.
Jeremiah’s vision of new exodus (our first reading) lays out an extravagant vision of hope: the Lord will again make a way through the wilderness, a way that even the lame and very pregnant will be able to negotiate. At the end, full-throated worship in the temple, with the land’s staples—grain, wine, olive oil—in abundance. That’s the Lord’s heart, the Lord’s passion, on full display.
And, by the Lord’s power, there was a return in the 6th century (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah). But it was ambiguous enough that most readers of Isaiah and Jeremiah thought the new exodus was still to come. The editors of Daniel, for example, working in the second century, thought that when Jeremiah talked of 70 years of exile he was talking about 70 weeks of years, that is, 490 years. So Jesus’ family celebrating Passover (the first exodus) would have been hoping for the Lord to do it again.
Which is essentially what John the Baptist and Jesus were announcing: this is it! It’s no accident that Jesus focused on “the Kingdom of God” and that the first mention in the Bible of the Lord’s kinship is at the climax of the song Moses and Miriam sang on the far side of the Red Sea: “The LORD will reign forever and ever.” Or that in Luke’s account of the transfiguration Jesus, Moses and Elijah speaking about Jesus’ “exodus” “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (translated “departure” in the NRSV). As the Gospels tell it, Jesus’ death and resurrection is not the derailing, but the fulfillment of the new exodus hope. “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7-8 KJV).
So we gather together every Sunday, because Sunday’s the day of the resurrection: “Christ is risen from the dead, / trampling down death by death, / and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” Or, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving: “Christ has died. / Christ is risen. / Christ will come again.” Death can only dream of having the last word, playing the last card.
As Paul tells it, the same divine power evident in the resurrection continues to work, gathering communities of believers throughout the Empire—like Ephesus. Eventually “throughout” transitions to “beyond,” so here we are in Wisconsin!
Ephesus: capital of the Roman province of Asia, home to a magnificent temple to Artemis—four times larger than the Parthenon. This is where some of the merchants started a major riot in response to Paul’s preaching on the chance that he might make enough converts to cut into their temple trade profits. Paul describes God building another temple: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” So the visions of pilgrimage to God’s temple, God’s glory, in Jeremiah and the psalm are not stuck in past, but descriptive of our reality—in the middle of Empire. And it’s not that the church in Ephesus simply survived. It thrived, planting churches in multiple neighboring cities, and, later, hosting a major ecumenical council (431).
One final observation from that letter. In the middle of Paul’s glowing affirmations and many specific instructions: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” That’s important: Christian life, congregational life, is not a turnkey or scripted affair: experimentation and improvisation are essential. So Jesus “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” This isn’t something Jesus grows out of; the Gospels are packed with Jesus’ questions. And to the degree that we’re listening we hear Jesus asking us questions, including, for some of us, “Why are you so hard on yourself?”
And sometimes Jesus asks us questions through the questions one of us asks. Here’s the thing: groups—including congregations—tend to have unwritten rules about what questions can be asked and what questions can’t be asked. I doubt that these rules serve us well. Between Jesus’ example in the temple and Paul’s “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” we may well need everyone’s questions.
We’re entering a new year already weighed down by a brutal pandemic. We don’t know how that’s going to play out. We do know that Christ is risen from the dead, and that Christ has a strong track record of nurturing life-giving communities from Ephesus to Baraboo. “Christ has died. / Christ is risen. / Christ will come again.”