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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 30 - Proper 25 - Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4,2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 119:137-144


The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 31 - Proper 26 - Year C


HABAKKUK 1:1-4,2:1-4          Very little is known about most of the twelve
minor prophets, especially Habakkuk. Even the identity of the enemy
threatening the violent destruction of Israel is uncertain.  Probably the
background of the book were events related to the Babylonian invasion of
609-598 BC.  The prophet's message typically warns of disaster to come as
result of national apostasy.  But he proclaims his hope as clearly in 2:4
"The righteous live by their faith."


PSALM 119:137-144             Echoing the prophet's message, this selection
of the longest of the psalms affirms the righteousness and justice of God
and the reward of living by God's commandments.


2 THESSALONIANS 1:1-4,11-12   Faithfulness in difficult times is the
central message of this brief letter, one of Paul's earliest.  The
congregation to which Paul wrote had grown in faith and in love for each
other under considerable persecution.  So Paul could boast of their
faithfulness and mutual love in other congregations.  He prayed for them to
continue in their witness to Christ as they had been doing so well.


LUKE 19:1-10                  Jesus continually challenged the traditional
view of who is faithful.  In Roman times, tax collecting was rented out to
the highest bidder who then could extort whatever he could from the general
populace.  As a Roman lackey and a greedy profiteer, Zaccheus was a much
despised man as well as too short to see over the crowds gathered to see
Jesus enter Jericho.  Yet Jesus sought him out and invited himself to his
home to dine.  When Zaccheus promised to be generous to the poor and repay
what he had taken by fraud, Jesus praised him as a son of Abraham, the
Jewish ideal of a faithful servant of God.  Whose values apply today? Do we
always do whatever gains most for us or does faith help us stand out from
the crowd?

          NOTE: There are two alternative lessons from the OT and
          Psalms.  The summaries and analysis of these passages
          follow those of the regular RCL lessons.  


ISAIAH 1:10-18                (Alternate)  This thunderous rebuke of
ritualist piety without genuine justice for all remains one of the great
prophetic proclamations of God's will for all nations.  It quickly evolves
into a sincere plea from God for Israel to accept God's forgiveness.

PSALM 32:1-7                  (Alternate)  The joy of forgiveness comes
from free confession of sinfulness and bring the promise of protection and
deliverance from evil.  

************ 


HABAKKUK 1:1-4,2:1-4   Very little is known about most of the twelve minor
prophets, especially Habakkuk.  Even the identity of the enemy threatening
the violent destruction of Israel is  uncertain.  Probably the background
of the book were events related to the Babylonian invasion of 609-598 BC.  

Unlike most of his predecessors, Habakkuk addresses his words not to his
fellow citizens of Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, but to Yahweh. 
He demands to know when Yahweh wilful his purpose to bring in a reign of
justice, righteousness and peace on the earth.  When is the kingdom of
Yahweh going to come? In total the book is a conversation between the
prophet and Yahweh with a concluding psalm confirming what the prophet had
come to believe as a result of this exchange.

This reading consists of two oracles.  The first is Habakkuk's initial
lament as he witnesses only destruction and violence.  This results in a
breakdown of law and order in which evil and injustice triumph over
established social values.  Habakkuk's complaint is that Yahweh appears to
ignore all the misery and wrongdoing.
     
The prophet gets Yahweh's answer in 2:1-3.  As he stands in a watch-tower,
he has an epiphany.  The reminder of the chapter (2:4-20) elaborates the
prophet's vision of the woes to come.  Typically the message warns that the
pending disaster is the result of national apostasy.  But he proclaims his
hope just as clearly in 2:4 "The righteous man will live by his
faithfulness."  Centuries later, of course, this became the theme of Paul's
letter to the Romans.

In what sort of behavior is faithfulness attained?  To begin with, the
prophet is instructed to be patient (vs. 3) for Yahweh's purpose is
accomplished according to Yahweh's own timing and not by our need.  That is
a potent message for this very day.  It is all but impossible to see God's
purpose in  the events of September 11 and the devastating assaults on
terrorist havens which followed.  Despite continual warning that the
struggle against terrorism will be long and costly, we clamor for immediate
justice.  Once again, we need to be reminded by this prophetic scripture
that God is Lord of History.  Great empires,  military alliances and
political negotiations may become agents of divine purpose, but they do not
determine the ultimate outcome.  Justice, righteousness and peace remain
forever in God's control.  Our response is to work toward these ultimate
goals as best we can in contemporary circumstances.


PSALM 119:137-144   Continuing the acrostic model of this selection of the
longest of the psalms, each line begins with the eighteenth Hebrew letter
*tzaddi*.  This letter simulates the sound of a soft *c* (as in "census")
not commonly symbolized in English but designated in French as *‡* (
*le‡on* - "c" with a subscript "s" pronounced "c - c‚dille").  

Exhibiting many characteristics of Wisdom literature with many synonyms for
the Torah, the psalm dates from the late post-exilic period after the time
of Ezra (c.450 BCE).  It appears to owe much to the influence of the
Chronicler responsible for the final editing of Chronicles and Ezra-
Nehemiah.  Thus, it may be dated in the early Greek period (after 330 BCE)
although drawing from much earlier liturgical sources.
 
Echoing the prophet Habakkuk's message, this part of the poem affirms the
righteousness and justice of Yahweh and the reward of living by Yahweh's
commandments.  The psalmist feels marginalized (vs. 141), but still clings
faithfully to divine precepts.  

Particularly appropriate to our time is the contrast between the temporary
nature of present troubles and the everlasting justice of Yahweh's truth
expressed in the law (vss. 142-143).  This gave the psalmist something
(Someone ?) to trust in when all else is causing him extreme anguish and
uncertainty.

Julian of Norwich provides a helpful antidote to the anxiety and depression
so many of us are experiencing as a result of too much involvement in
recent traumatic events.  This 14th century  mystic wrote: "....our Lord
God does not want the soul to be frightened by this ugly sight."

Julian could make such a comment even after experiencing two onslaughts of
the Black Death in which most if not all of her family died from bubonic
plague.  She lived as an anchorite alone in a cell in Norwich where the
Lollards led by John Wycliffe were brutally suppressed for wanting the
scriptures in English.  Could we not also look on the events of our time
with similar faith in God's constant love?.


2 THESSALONIANS 1:1-4,11-12   Faithfulness in difficult times is the
central message of this brief letter, one of Paul's earliest.  The
congregation to which Paul wrote had grown in faith and in love for each
other under considerable persecution.  So Paul could boast of their
faithfulness and mutual love in other congregations.  He prayed for them to
continue in their witness to Christ as they had been doing so well.

We have only slight data on the exact nature of the Thessalonians struggle. 
In his first letter and his earlier ministry among them Paul had taught
them the gospel clearly.  There appears to have been an attack on them by
some unidentified exterior evil force.  The object of the attack may well
have been Paul himself or his teaching.  It has been suggested that the
Thessalonians were suffering from the initiatives by the emperor Claudius
(41-54 CE) to revive Roman religious traditions in 47 CE.  Others have held
that Jewish misinterpretation of the Christian gospel concerning the coming
of the Messiah had confused them about the return of Christ.  Scholarly
debate about the apocalyptic figure of the Antichrist includes discussion
of Paul's Thessalonian correspondence.

The contemporary situation in which we were thrust by the terrorist attacks
of September 11 has been interpreted by some Christian preachers as a sign
that the second coming of Christ is at hand.  While Paul may have believed
and taught that this was imminent in his time, we cannot extrapolate a
similar hypothesis from our circumstances.  On the other hand, Paul sought
only to encourage the Thessalonians to continue their strong witness.  He
praised them for their steadfast perseverence under persecution (vs. 4). 
He prayed for them to be worthy of their call to be God's people in their
community and to have the spiritual strength to fulfill God's purpose.  He
asked that their every act might be motivated by faith and so show by their
daily living in him that Jesus really is Lord (vss. 11-12).

I have previously mentioned a growing contemplative movement, the World
Community for Christian Meditation.  It has set a similar goal advocating
that participants engage in two half -hour meditations daily in small
groups or as individuals linked as a global network by means of the
Internet (www.wccm.org).  To the founder of this movement, the late
Benedictine monk, Fr.  John Main, "living in Christ" means to share the
consciousness Jesus' had of his unity with God who is love.  In his *
Community of Love,* Main quotes from the Prologue to the Benedictine Rule
about the establishing of a monastic community in the 12th century.  It too
seems to echo what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.

"Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that
leads to salvation.  It is bound to be narrow at the outset.  But as we
progress in the way of life and in faith we shall run on the path of God'
commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of
love, never swerving from his instructions then, but faithfully observing
his teaching until death, we shall through patience in the sufferings of
Christ deserve to share also in his Kingdom."

For many, quiet contemplation and prayer may well be an effective means of
dealing with the turbulence which Christians and all people of faith find
themselves.  Like the Thessalonians we are confronting a significant
spiritual enemy who claims to have the only true faith and is determined to
destroy all who differ with them as apostates or infidels.


LUKE 19:1-10   Jesus continually challenged the traditional view of who is
faithful.  In Roman times, tax collecting was rented out to the highest
bidder who then could extort whatever he could from the general populace. 
As a Roman lackey and a greedy profiteer, Zaccheus was a much despised man
as well as too short to see over the crowds gathered to see Jesus enter
Jericho.  

One of the most hated men in town praised as a son of Abraham? He would
have been pelted with stones had he tried to approach the crowd
accompanying Jesus into Jericho.  No one would have believed him if he had
begun to make restitution of his own accord, even though the law required
that he repay what he had stolen with interest (Leviticus 6:5; Numbers
5:7).  The irony of it was that Zaccheus expressed no desire whatsoever to
escape from his social ostracism.  He just climbed the tree so he could
have a better vantage point to see Jesus as he passed by.  Or was he
becoming vaguely conscious of the deep loneliness his profession had
created?  Did he have even the faintest beginnings of a guilty conscience? 

Jesus saw only a man waiting to be redeemed.  Although he risked being
ostracized himself, Jesus sought him out.  Breaking all the barriers of
social custom, Jesus invited himself to the man's house for a meal.  No one
is beyond the reach of divine love.  The experience changed  Zaccheus into
a grace-filled man.  In the excitement of what had happened to him, he
promised to be more than generous to the poor and repay many times over
whatever he had taken by fraud.  Jesus praised him as a son of Abraham, the
Jewish ideal of a faithful servant of God.  

There is an ancient sycamore tree still standing in Jericho surrounded by a
fence and reputed to be the very tree from which Jesus called Jericho. 
Every tourist bus stops there for people to be photographed beneath it.  It
had special meaning for me when I had the chance to photograph a very short
man there.  I recalled my father, a lifetime elder of The United Church of
Canada who occasionally conducted worship in my tiny home church when our
minister was not available.  One sermon has stayed with me over the years. 
It dealt with Zaccheus, the little man who was up a tree, and  what
happened when Jesus found him.  Dad's point was that we are often up a tree
for a multitude of reasons and need to be found by Jesus too.

Whose values apply today? Do we always do whatever gains  most for us or
does faith that motivates genuine, generous, forgiving love help us stand
out from the crowd?


************ 

ISAIAH 1:10-18   (Alternate)  This thunderous rebuke of ritualist piety
without genuine justice for all remains one of the great prophetic
proclamations of God's will for all nations.  It quickly evolves into a
sincere plea from God for Israel to accept God's forgiveness.

The late Professor R.B.Y.  Scott, of McGill University, Montreal, and
Princeton University, has a memorable paragraph in his exegesis of this
passage in *The Interpreter's Bible*, vol.  6, 170.  Abingdon, 1956).  His
comment begins: "One of most the notable and original features of the
teachings of the Hebrew prophets is their repeated insistence that the Lord
is more concerned with men's (sic) behavior in their social relationships
than with the formal worship offered to him....  It is not that formal
worship has no place; rather, it must be the expression and symbol of
reverence for the moral character of God and the corresponding moral
standards which should characterize Gods's people.  Otherwise, worship and
sacrifice become meaningless, or even a positive evil, since men may
thereby deceive themselves and falsify the meaning of true religion,
exhausting their religious impulse without real commitment of themselves to
the service of God."

The likely occasion for Isaiah's outburst could have been the temple
precincts during a religious festival.  We cannot discover any specific
date, but the early period of the prophet's ministry prior to the threat of
Assyrian invasion when Israel enjoyed both peace and prosperity seems most
probable.  This message bears considerable similarity to the messages of
Amos at the same general period during the third quarter of 8th century
BCE.  As is often the case in times of prosperity, the people were not
conscious of their hypocrisy.


PSALM 32:1-7   (Alternate)  The joy of forgiveness comes from free
confession of sinfulness and bring the promise of protection and
deliverance from evil.  

Anyone who has felt the weight of sinful guilt lifted from the conscience
knows full well how meaningful the words of this psalm can be.

These few verses offer no hint of the nature of the sin for which
forgiveness has been granted.  They merely exult with joy and commit the
sinner to a different path.  Accordingly, they could be used by anyone who
sincerely seeks the mercy of God, not merely to ease a burdened conscience,
but to place one in a right relationship with God.  For God does not hold
our sins against us, as if keeping an account book of our failures and
transgressions.  Such a view of forgiveness is a romantic myth which
denigrates the grace that true repentance brings to the troubled soul
exemplified by this psalm.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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