Sunday, January 01, 2017

First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 63
I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
the deeds for which he is to be praised,
according to all the Lord has done for us—
yes, the many good things
he has done for Israel,
according to his compassion and many kindnesses.
8 He said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will be true to me”;
and so he became their Savior.
9 In all their distress he too was distressed,
and the angel of his presence saved them.[a]
In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.

In the same way owning a bunch of brooms doesn’t make your house clean, owning a bunch of Bibles doesn’t make you religious. There’s always some follow-up required, sweeping or reading.

Gazing upon the bookshelf in the dining room, I see an NAS, CEV, NEB, three NLTs (I guess I went though an NLT phase), a GNB and something called “Das Neue Testament.” That one’s not mine, ‘cause if you said ‘sprechen (spray-shan) sie Deutsch’ I would have to say no.

So as I noted a moment ago, religious enough, but not based on the number of Bibles on the shelf. Still, it’s handy to have a few versions at hand, even if and others have made owning multiple versions of the Bible somewhat redundant.

Back in my day, we had a Cruden’s Complete Concordance for searching words, Smith’s Bible Dictionary for learning what the words meant, and (for the truly posh scholar) Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels, with four Gospels presented side-by-side. Add a Bible in Hebrew and and a Bible in Greek (that’s for the Queen’s grads only) and you were set for life, or until someone invented the World Wide Web.

So over at Bible Gateway we are confronted with a serious translation problem, one that we should at least acknowledge—even if we can’t solve it. In the absence of our local biblical scholar, we are on our own and somewhat helpless, but we can try.

So, I’m going to read you part of two versions of Isaiah 63.9, one from the Revised Standard Version and one from the New Revised Standard Version, and you will see the issue straight away:

and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

That’s the RSV. Now the NRSV, the translation currently favoured by scholarly types:

It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

So which is it? Did the angel of his presence save them? Or was it that “no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved them? Angel or no angel?

Considering the season—according to Walter Brueggemann—we should maybe opt for angels. It’s not a bad argument, since this is the eighth day of Christmas (eight maids a milking!) and we have been overrun with angel visitations of late.

But I might take the opposite view. It is God alone who does the saving, there is no intermediary. God’s direct presence with Israel meant that ‘in God’s love and pity God redeemed them.” Full stop. This is the God who saves, who never fails to redeem the people even when the people don’t deserve redeeming. This is the God we serve.

And there is another bit “under the hood” that we should note, that underlines our redemption, and gives us an new word to ponder and perhaps adopt as our own: hesed. Before I say more, listen to 63.7:

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.

The key phrase at the beginning (“gracious deeds”) is hesed. The key phrase at the end (“steadfast love”) is hesed. Some translate hesed to mean loving-kindness, grace, compassion, mercy, and at least one political theorist says hesed means “loving covenant obligation.” (Daniel Elazar)

So let’s go with the political theorist for a moment and retranslate verse seven:

I will recount the loving covenant obligation of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of God,
Because of all that God has done for us,
and the great favour to the house of Israel
that God has shown them according to God’s mercy,
according to the abundance of his loving covenant obligation.

Taken in this new and slightly redundant sounding formulation, God is keeping the covenant—and doing praiseworthy things—that demonstrate favour for Israel, mercy, and an abundance of loving covenant keeping.

This kind of steadfast love is more than simple loyalty, more that keeping a promise made: this is an determined effort to underline the nature and activity that defines God. Who is God? What is God like? In a word, hesed. The God who acts faithfully, who maintains covenantal fidelity, who only ever meets Israel with loving-kindness, this is the God we love and serve.

Now, if a parent describes some aspect of their parenting, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine what their kid is like. If I say that I’m very patient, you have kid that would make anyone impatient. If I say I’m very forgiving, there is likely lots to forgive, and so on.

So this God who describes a parenting style with hesed—steadfast, loving, showing mercy—it easy enough to imaging what the kids are like: unfaithful, not loving, in need or mercy. And isn’t that just the way.

Barely a week old, and the new King of the Jews (Jesus) is being pursued by the old King of the Jews (Herod) and what follows (infanticide, genocide) is so shocking that I can’t even bring myself to have it read in church. The one that was hailed as the Prince of Peace just a week ago is already dealing with the reality of human sin, sin that will take the boy from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Galilee to Jerusalem and the cross.

The reason God is so determined to show hesed is we need it. The short path from Christmas to Easter will take us through hesitation, misunderstanding, disbelief, scorn, anger and eventually deicide. Yet even when we commit the ultimate act of betrayal—killing God—we are met with hesed. “Forgive them, father, they know not what they do.” Even from the cross, God speaks hesed, loving covenant obligation, manifest in forgiveness and mercy.

The end of one year and the beginning of another is also hesed, redemption through the passage of time. In God’s loving-kindness we are given a new year and a fresh start each and every year. God knows we don’t deserve it, but it comes anyway. As 2016 ends and 2017 begins we reflect on what we want to leave behind and what we want to embrace going forward. It’s the hesed of time, the mercy that comes with a fresh start.

To be fair to 2016, some good things happened:

Catholic and Orthodox leaders met for first time in 1,000 years.
World tiger count rises for first time in 100 years.
Volunteers in India planted a million trees in a single day.
Viola Desmond and Harriet Tubman were selected to appear on currency in their respective countries.
The Americas became measles-free.
Colombia and FARC hammered out peace deal after 50 years of war.*
A solar-powered airplane flew around the world.

So we remind ourselves of the good stuff, we remain conscious of the bad stuff, and we trust in God. We remember that hesed, God’s covenantal loving-kindness in the face of undeserved mercy follows us from one year to the next. Like Israel’s children wandering in the desert, God is with us. Like those who weep beside the rivers of Babylon, God is with us. And like those who take up the invitation to follow Jesus, God is with us, steadfast and determined, Amen.


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