Sunday after Epiphany 1.13.19
Well today a long journey comes to an end, as this morning we celebrate the final Sunday of the Church Calendar. Next week the church year will begin anew with the first Sunday of Advent. So on this so aptly named “Sunday Next Before Advent,” we are presented with two noteworthy passages, the first from the prophet Jeremiah, and the second from the gospel according to St. John.
So when we take a look at Jeremiah 23, we have to remember the horrific event of the Babylonian exile, where the city of Jerusalem was laid to waste and God’s people were dispersed, and taken off captive by the Babylonians. God used Babylon as an instrument of judgment against his people for breaking the covenant, committing sins of idolatry, rebellion, and injustice against Him. I’m going to put this very articulately: this was really, really bad. Jerusalem, the city where God dwelt, was destroyed, and the Babylonians were infamous for their brutality. Jeremiah had gone to great lengths to warn his people about this impending doom, but unfortunately, in Jeremiah’s own day, with his own eyes, he saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile come to pass.
In spite of the perhaps complex idea, that is, God’s use of a foreign, pagan nation as a means of judgment on his people, what’s important to see is that this move of God is not the final move of the narrative. God says that he will indeed “attend to them, for their evil deeds,” he will judge, but he will remain faithful to his covenant and bring restoration. God says, in Jeremiah, “I will gather a remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, Judah will be saved, because I will raise up a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely in the land.” “The people will no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them, and they shall dwell in their own land.’” What’s being said here is that the Israelites will no longer see their salvation as merely their deliverance out of Egyptian slavery into the Promised Land, but now also their salvation will be seen as a bringing back, out of exile, in another journey of deliverance, back into the Promised Land again.
You see, for Israel, the primary motif of their salvation was the great Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, where God raised up Moses, who led the people out of slavery, through the sea, and into the promised land. And God made a covenant with his people at Mt. Sinai, where we see God’s intention for his people, the intention of the covenant: God’s people, living in God’s place in freedom, experiencing God’s blessing. But there were stipulations for this, and Israel demonstrated time and time again her infidelity to God and to his covenant, and thus their reality was not always what God intended it to be: God’s people, in God’s place in freedom, experiencing his blessing. Their infidelity is what caused the horrors that Jeremiah describes.
So then we fast forward, into the first century, and we find the Jewish people in an interesting state. The Babylonian exile was over, well kind of. Yes they had returned to the land, but that’s about where it stops. Because this land and God’s people were still under foreign, pagan rule, Persians, Greeks, Romans. And they had still experienced much persecution at the hands of these foreign rulers. Read the intertestamental literature, and you’ll get a good taste of the sufferings and persecutions that the Jewish people had to endure.
So there they were, in the first century, still waiting, still waiting for Jeremiah and other prophets and prophecies to be fulfilled, still waiting for the king who will reign and deal wisely, and execute justice and righteousness in the land. There they were still waiting, for their deliverance, still waiting for the new king, still waiting for the new prophet, the one like Moses, who Moses himself speaks of in Deuteronomy 18 where he says that God “will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, it is to him you shall listen…” They were still waiting, for God to move again, still waiting for the New Exodus, the recapitulation of the great Old Testament act of salvation in their midst.
So if you’re a Jewish person, occupying this religious space in the first century, and you hear this story about the feeding of the five thousand, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get the imagery that John and the other gospel writers are so intent on conveying: you have a man named Jesus, who is healing the sick, who goes up on a mountain, teaches the people, miraculously feeds them with bread, and then, after this walks on water: the mountain-Mt Sinai, teaching-the giving of the law, feeding the people like the Manna, and walking on water-Red Sea imagery.
John tells us clearly that the people indeed picked up on this imagery. In response to this sign, the feeding of the five thousand they say, “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” and they tried to take him by force and make him king. They were picking up on the hints. They saw in John 6 the salvific story of the Exodus, where God led his people, through the leadership of Moses, out of Egyptian slavery, through the waters of the Red Sea. God instructed his people, fed them with the supernatural bread-come-down-from-heaven, the manna, and sustained them on their road of deliverance to the promised land.
What the gospels do is demonstrate the connection between Jesus and Moses. Both are presented as great figures of deliverance. Both give the law: Moses with the Old Covenant Law and then Jesus with the New Covenant Law. And both miraculously provide bread for the people.
But as so often occurs, the people, who understand that Jesus was the prophet who was to come into the world and the king, didn’t have any idea of what this meant. Yes, there would be a prophet like Moses, a Davidic king, but he wouldn’t just be like Moses and David, he would be exceedingly greater. You see, the people didn’t understand that Jesus would do what Moses did, but on a cosmic level. It wasn’t about politics and foreign rulers, it wasn’t about defeating the Romans, it was far deeper. Jesus would lead the people out of a slavery, far greater, and much more dangerous than Egyptian slavery, Babylonian Captivity, or Roman rule. This is the prophet who would lead his people out of the slavery of evil, the malevolence, the sin which resides in the deepest part of your being, if you only had the honesty and courage to look. This prophet would not just rescue the two of the original twelve tribes that remained at the time, but would restore Israel, symbolized in the 12 baskets of leftovers, in which all people, from every ethnicity would be, in Christ, brought into the fullness of what it means to be God’s people. This prophet will give food, yes, but not the type of food, like the manna, which you eat and then you get hungry again, no, this prophet will give food and drink that when you partake of it, you will never be hungry or thirsty again. This prophet, won’t merely part the Sea, like Moses did, he doesn’t need to part it, because he will walk on it.
Because at the end of the day, Jesus is not merely one prophet amongst others. He is not a leader who merely communicates somebody else’s law, somebody else’s message, somebody else’s word. Jesus is the very Word of God, the one who was present with the Father in the beginning, the logos through whom all things were made. And the great message that John is presenting to us, as seen in the first chapter of his gospel, is that this very same Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Because of this it behooves us, then, in our following after God, to scrupulously study and imitate what Jesus did, that is the goal or the telos of God’s work in our lives, to make us like his Son. So let’s not miss the obvious, what do we see in Jesus’ ministry and signs such as these? These miracles are not about Jesus putting on magic shows, no, they are about remarkable displays of mercy and compassion. This is what the God of the universe does, he meets people’s needs, in this case, he extends an unprecedented and lavish hospitality to five thousand plus people who were starving and wanted some food. He compassionately feeds them until they are completely satisfied.
My prayer for us is that we would be mindful of and find our place in this great story, wherein the God of the universe, in his Son, is rescuing the world from slavery and leading them to the Promised Land. It’s fitting that we reflect on these things, and that our readings point us to this on the final Sunday of the Church year, the great culmination and in-gathering of all things in Christ. May we bear this good news, this story, in our being and in our lives, and extend what we have received out into the world, being reminded today, in Jesus’ actions, of the simple, yet overwhelming power of compassion and hospitality.
The word ‘tithe’ comes from the Old English word meaning ‘tenth.’ The first time we see tithing practiced in the Scriptures is when Abram gives a tenth of his possessions to the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14. A similar offering is given by Abram’s grandson Jacob in Genesis
28. The Mosaic Law took this example and codified it, as recorded in Leviticus 27 and
Deuteronomy 14, requiring the children of Israel to give the firstfruits of their harvest or herds to the Lord. By the word of God as recorded in Numbers 18, the tithes offered to Him came under the stewardship of the Levitical priests, who were to allocate the offerings for the support of the tabernacle in which they served and for the sustaining of their own families. Beyond this tithe, another tithe was expected from what remained after the first tithe, a special generosity offering given at least every three years during the so-called Year of Tithes as recorded in Deuteronomy 26. This time, the tithes went to support those who were in need, the orphans and widows in particular. The tithe of firstfruits was a grateful acknowledgment of the provision of God and was practiced through the incarnational discipline of giving back a tenth of everything to God, not because that was His share, but because it acted as an offering of thanksgiving that would redeem the whole of one’s income and possessions, consecrating them to holy use. The tithe to the needy was a recognition of Israel’s privilege of being God’s own people, through whom the whole world and all nations should be blessed, but starting with the strangers and the downtrodden right in front of them.
Early Christians seem to have picked up this practice without hesitation. We know from Acts 2 and 4 that converts to Christianity made generous gifts of their possessions for the growth of their local churches and for churches in distant cities. We know that St. Paul speaks in I Corinthians 9 about the right of those who labor for a church to be supported by the church they serve and in II Corinthians 9 about the spiritual and practical benefits of giving generously to the support of the churches. There remains in the Christian movement nothing controversial about the idea that the service of God involves a financial dimension. What is striking about the Christian expression of tithing, however, is its emphasis on the transformation of the heart in addition to the action of giving. This is really nothing new, as we learned from Malachi 3 that God requires justice and mercy as the validation of the act of giving, not just going through the motions. But our Lord’s own teaching on this in the Sermon on the Mount when He joins the condition of our very souls on the use of our treasure and in His praise of the poor widow whose generosity shamed the rich of Jerusalem teaches us that God is serious about the importance of generosity in both deed and in truth as a necessary dimension of a faithful life. As Christians, we do not evade the the Old Testament’s call to tithe in service to God and neighbor. If anything, we are called to see the tithe as a baseline, a given, a starting point from which to exercise a more radical generosity that expresses in action a love for justice and mercy that is meant to permeate all of our actions. The failure to exercise justice and mercy through generous giving is a threat to our friendship with God and to our very souls.
As Christians, we confess that God is Trinity , a unity of three divine persons who exist in an eternal relationship of self-giving. The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son submits Himself eternally to the Father, who gives all Creation to the Son, who in turn gives all things back to the Father with perfect thanksgiving in the eternal communion of gift that is the very being of the Holy Spirit. We confess that this Triune God is the creator of all things. This means that He is the author and owner of everything. He gives as He sees fit to us so that we may hold and use it in trust and creativity. We confess that God made us humans in His likeness to be icons of Him to the world He gave us. Our whole existence, seen this way, is one of a gift-shaped life. Our very being is given, the world that conditions our existence is given. There is nothing we know that is not grounded in the gift of God. So when it comes to God’s call for our generosity, He is speaking the command from the perspective that to be generous is the most natural thing possible for a being created in His image. Why wouldn’t an icon of a life-giving, self-giving God do what that God does?
In Revelation 3, our Lord tells the Church of Laodicea: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” When it comes to wealth and possessions, we are often likewise blind. We see our wealth and possessions ultimately as our own. We see them as the inevitable fruit of our hard work and good choices. We see them as unconditional personal property under our authority to be doled out by our own standards. We see them as the totems that safeguard our lives from accidents and tragedies. We marshall them as a shield against the forces of the unforeseen, and we use them as a ring of power to exert change that we see fit and to form institutions according to our notions of what is right and proper. Yet for all the ways we use wealth to vaunt our own existence in the making of our pristine worlds, this remains what it has always been: vanity. The last twenty years of this nation’s economic history should show us what the Scriptures have always taken for granted: that we are not in control and our money won’t save us in a crisis, it can abandon us in the space of a single day. Wealth and possessions will not protect us from everything, and they have approximately zero ability to save us in the hour of the great cataclysm of our deaths. Mammon makes a poor god because he has no answer for the riddle of death–he bids us to keep the party going when we should be numbering our days. Ultimately, all notions of wealth that do not acknowledge the foundational truth of God’s gift to us will destroy our souls. Only a return to Jesus the true Lord of all wealth and possessions can save us.
Giving in our tithes and abundant generosity is the way we pray with our money. It is the only way that money does not lead us into spiritual danger. To practice generosity is to proclaim the Gospel truth that anything which does not become a part of God’s new world will die, and to embrace life we must loosely hold the things of that dying world and offer them to Him for redemption. To cling to the things of this dying world will result at best in disappointment as they are burned away in the Judgment, and at worst in horror as they drag us into death with them. But when we return to God as Giver and to our place as His icons made to be givers, we return to the peace of God that passes understanding. We begin to worry less about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear. We begin to know that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him. We begin to trust and to live as the small, humble stewards of a big, magnificent cosmos. Mammon is an old dragon, one of the oldest, and service to him makes us old and tired like him, perched upon our hoard of gold with no will left to enjoy it. The life of gift that is the life of God makes us new again everyday, sets us free in communion with that eternal joy of the Triune God that has only been the joy of giving. For God has given all, and of what is His own we have given Him, and as our Lord has promised us: “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”