John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.
Holbert's column, "Opening the Old Testament," is published every Monday on the Progressive Christian portal and the Preachers Portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.
Within the huge collection of prophetic oracles that make up the fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah's witness, one finds more than tears -- one also finds startling promises of hope. These more obscure corners of the biblical tradition can yield some very important and very timely ideas if we give them a chance. I want to be honest with you; sometimes when I say "Thy Kingdom Come" in the Lord's Prayer, I have another voice in the corner of my mind saying, "But not today!" Jeremiah points the way to a God who in continually fresh ways serves as shepherd to a flock forever in need of care. Our "Opening the Old Testament" columnist reflects on the biblical implications for our current celebration of Thanksgiving. Thomas Wolfe famously said, "You can't go home again," but the Bible suggests otherwise. And Advent is the quintessential time for going home. What sort of sentimental clap-trap is this Isaianic picture of animal peace? Just what sort of person are we waiting for? Will the real messiah please stand up! First, God is "enraged against all the nations" (Isaiah 34:2) and then God is making the desert bloom. What gives? The hope of the birth at Christmas is that God is with us in the midst of our greatest fears. Now that we got Jesus born again, what do we do? I admit to liking this Sunday a good deal, because I do want to think about and sing about and pray about that huge question: what now? The collectors of the lectionary chose this first servant song to help the preacher think about the basic implications of the ministry of Jesus, a ministry that begins with his baptism by John. The season of Epiphany attempts to explore the fuller meaning of the Christ child by looking again at texts that early believers found illuminative for that meaning. This Son will seek not the implements of battles and power, but rather the authority of justice and righteousness that only leads to endless peace. Those of us who spend any time with the Bible have learned never to imagine that the last word about any of it has been spoken. So we look again and try to see what we have not yet seen. God is always available, attentive, attuned to those who work for justice. God is far less interested in great shows of religious practice. It is so easy to read the book of Deuteronomy as a simplistic guide to health, wealth, and comfortable long life, the Hebrew Bible's own prosperity gospel. What has a Christian to do with Leviticus, filled as it is with obscure food laws, peculiar sex laws, and lengthy instructions about proper priestly activity? Our own journey of Lent draws near. It can at times be a fearsome journey, but Isaiah reminds us that we never take this or any journey alone. What do locust plagues have to do with our Lenten journey? Our Old Testament scholar shines some light on the lectionary texts and locusts for Ash Wednesday. Having reduced God to a tweet ("OMG"), can we once again feel the mystery and wonder of God on Transfiguration Sunday? As we begin Lent, let's start at the very beginning and consider why we need to go on this trip in the first place. This passage is the Bible's lynchpin, because the remainder of the Bible's story will be one attempt after the other to reconstitute a broken world. The stories of Israel in the desert are profoundly theological, asking their successors, and us, just how do we know whether YHWH is with us or not? This extraordinary tale of power politics, difficulties of family, and the future of the people of Israel, has too often been reduced to flannel board simplicity. It has long been said that in Ezekiel we get one of our first hints of resurrection from the dead among the Hebrews, but it seems quite clear that Ezekiel had no such thing in mind. In this less-preached text related to Passion Sunday, the preacher should focus on the actions of the servant in order to help the hearers deepen their portrait of the one they have come to call Christ. To add immeasurably to the discussion of Easter Day, I would suggest that the preacher turn to the psalms, the Bible's quintessential book of celebration. Why is Psalm 16, an odd little poem about kidneys, hearts, and pulses, read on the Sunday after Easter? How now shall we live on this side of the Resurrection? Psalm 116 offers some heartfelt ideas. We "sheep" desperately need a shepherd. In the Psalms, we are reminded that God has always been active in the lives of God's people, and that this same God will never leave or forsake us. If I stay away from the worshipping assembly, I too easily forget that God's rescue is not just for me; God's rescue is for all who cry out. Psalm 47 is a deeply political psalm, as is the Ascension of the Lord. God loves, adores the creation, all of it, all the clacking, buzzing, whistling, howling, shouting, laughing, weeping cacophony of it. What do you think of this Dr. Doolittle God, a God who talks to the animals and includes them in our human creation? The God of strict justice who brought the flood has now become the God of grace who forbears from destruction in the face of our continual evil. To be progressive is not to be bound by traditional ways and beliefs. Here my hero is Job, that loud-mouthed questioner, seated on the ash heap of his life. This week's text shows that despite our too clever actions and desires, God is working the grander purpose out. And in that belief we keep our hope. From Gideon to Isaiah to Jeremiah to Ezekiel, God's call to service is regularly met with reluctance, recalcitrance, and lack of enthusiasm. Exactly what does this powerful memory of complaining, repeated several times in several scenes in the wilderness, imply about the people of God? The commandment says "you must not kill." Why? Because life and death belong to God, not to us. The so-called "story of the golden calf" is far more than that -- it's the story of Moses and Aaron and their model of genuine leadership. What does it mean when Moses' request to see God's face is met instead with God's backside? We need to hear again and again the careful warnings of Joshua on the hills of Shechem. The story of Deborah shows the surprising way of our God, who does not always use the expected rules of society and culture but often goes another way to perform the divine work. The one to come is in every sense of the word returning to us. The question always is for us: will we hear this time? This story we celebrate each Advent is so odd, so unexpected, that it is a wonder that we have such a story at all. But we do, thank God. So, if the great light has truly come for us, how can the world see in us the reality of that light of justice and righteousness? If I may stretch our Bible just a bit, let me suggest that Isaiah 62 contains both resolutions and predictions, decidedly odd and decidedly wonderful. We 21st-century Christians are no different from our 2600-year-old Israelite forebears. We are also desperately in need of the glare of YHWH's epiphany. The first Sunday of Epiphany offers to us the grand curtain raiser of Genesis 1:1-5. No words could be brighter than these as we peer into the gloom of January. Can any human finally know if the words that fall from her or his lips are in fact the words of the Almighty? Read this story at your peril and laugh at the antics of its main character, but know that your laughter is at yourself. We need to hear our Jobs, despite the sometimes too-easy nostrums of our too-certain Isaiahs. There is wisdom in low places, and we who are high must listen to what they have to say. This Ash Wednesday, ol' Joel has some things on his prophetic mind that might help the dark cynic that hides in all of us. Maybe the rainbow is a divine sign, but it's for God more than us. Must we bow to the wonder of this grand story, fall on our own faces in reverent awe, and swallow the miraculous birth of a boy to the geriatric pair? How do you preach on the Ten Commandments during Lent? What is a 21st-century Christian to make of the fiery serpents and snake-pole healings from this week's lectionary text? This grand and desperate passage warns us, preachers and teachers, that we must hear the full word of God and proclaim it with boldness and assurance. Why including the Lectionary's Old Testament reading from Acts in your Easter sermon -- and for your Easter audience -- is a perceptive move. Communism, socialism, capitalism are not finally the problem; are there needy among you? That is the problem. Like that old hymn, our charge is to join Jesus in "making the wounded whole," healing the brokenness of a broken world and binding up the wounds of the world. Any time that the name of Jesus is used to divide, and not unite, to generate hatred and not love, that name has been besmirched, misused, profaned. This a story about the marginalized brought into the community, a new community that God is forming from every nation, the new community of Jesus. Why in heaven's name do so many Christians spend vast amounts of time speculating on Jesus' return, when we're called instead to witness to the world? The miracle of Pentecost is not babbling speech, but clear Gospel speech. When we choose to sing that ubiquitous hymn, saying "Here I am, Lord," we had better be clear about just where and for what the Lord may be sending us. Could it be that this weird tale is a cautionary one for the would-be new king of Israel, the willful and ambitious David? Nowhere in the Scripture is one chosen by God for ease and comfort; responsibility for the world comes with God's choice. Why tell such a grim and unrelenting tale about one's greatest king? That's a question every preacher needs to answer if this story is to have meaning in our churches. Even the "man after God's own heart," isn't immune to the poisoning corruption of absolute power. When we seek knowledge apart from God, we run the dangerous risk of making the search only for our own benefit. In whatever exiles we are in, we all need stories of hope like Esther's. If God doesn't reward the righteous and punish the wicked, then what is God doing? Would God rather have an unpleasant, demanding believer than a self-assured, comfortably pious one? Our old way of reading Job needs a more active "seeing," if we hope to catch sight of the real God whom we all seek. We must seek, even demand, to see and experience God for ourselves. Ruth is like the YHWH she has chosen to embrace, a YHWH who will never depart from us and will forever offer us an unbreakable love. In Ruth's story, we find a model of devoted love to enrich a famine-plagued world. We all need to be reminded that God often works through the unexpected, the marginalized, and the overlooked. The poet offers us a David who utters the very words of YHWH, laced with two of the crucial theological notions of the Hebrew Bible: "righteousness" and "fear of God." Peace is one thing, but peace without justice is no peace at all. When the messenger of the covenant shows up, he will look carefully at how we've treated people who are on the margins, who struggle for daily bread and fulfilled life. Like Jesus, we still live in the world of Zephaniah. Through Christ, Micah predicts justice, unity, and peace for God's people and the world. Hearing echoes of Jesus in the ancient story of the prophet Samuel. Those of us who preach are in the same business as Isaiah and Matthew, offering our people who walk in various shades of darkness the surprising and winning light of God. In this time of Epiphany, when the light has come again into our world, may we hear the words of the ancient prophet, "Fear not, all those whom I formed and made." To be a Christian and a cynic is nothing less than an oxymoron for we are named "Delight of God." Good Bible reading can open our eyes to the realities of our world and send us forth in service and joy. When you look at the events that have brought you to where you are now, one thing is certain: God was there and indeed God is here now. When we remove our veils, we can see most clearly God's gift of light and hope for our world. To truly enjoy God's gifts, we must share our bounty in a new form of thanksgiving. Great nations are not defined by the size of their armies or the power of their culture; they're defined solely by their blessing of other nations. God invites us to think -- and live -- higher than we could ever imagine. As YHWH's special people, we are called to take responsibility for ourselves and for one another. How in the world can we believe any prophet who demands that we forget those things we've been asked always to remember? Through the death of the servant, we find a way to make the world new again. Maundy Thursday is a celebration of the glorious community of equality of goods and equality of service. A service not to be missed! Every preacher needs to ask each year that haunting question that lies at the base of all of our attempts to make new this most strange of all days: So what? For Christians there is only one Suffering Servant. The goal of Good Friday is not to suffer with Jesus or to become like him on his cross. Rather then argue about which of the accounts of Paul's conversion is "accurate" in some historical sense, why not pay attention to the wonderful ways that the tale itself is actually told? Wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God's world. Luke presents us with a key to unlock many of the conundrums we continue to face in our religiously plural world. Through clever and complex ways, including full inclusion of women, the tireless Paul is the hero of Luke's story about the early church. Luke is far less interested in the dramatic appearance of tongues and the rushing sound of wind than he is in what those who witness all that actually do in response. Too many Christians pray mightily for the Second Coming and neglect completely the First Coming. Lady Wisdom is not only the right way to go; she also offers the most pleasurable way to go. All of us, like the dastardly David, need openness to those who are different if we are to experience fully God's amazing mercy. It is far past time for us to relinquish these antiquated and absurd notions about a God who rewards and punishes our human actions in directly cruel and sadistic ways. Surely, that should end the matter. First husband dead and buried. Child born. All is well! Or is it? Miracles are like that. They don't provide solid foundations for ongoing faith. Just ask Jesus. God is continuously raising up new masters to serve, offering to them a double portion of God's spirit, and for that we can only thank God. Is it not interesting that in this ancient tale all the great men are fools, while the servants pipe the tune? While Amos's unremitting tone of fury is hardly what any of us hunger to hear, we must make a place for him in the pulpit today. According to Amos, while the poor are forgotten and the needy are shoved aside, no amount of reading and preaching and singing and praying can ever lead us into the presence of God. As painful and difficult as the metaphor of Gomer is, she holds the key to YHWH in her inconstant life: God will never forsake us, no matter what. Here we discover a God of new heart, a God madly in love with someone who too often does not, will not, cannot love YHWH back. Sometimes the lessons will be learned and lived, but sometimes the students will leave the teachers behind and go their own way. Perhaps it is past time for more prophets to appear whose eyes see deeper into the heart of things and who are willing to speak a truth that few wish to hear. Sometimes love means not sweetness and light but a challenge to the beloved to cease destructive behaviors and return to the paths of justice and righteousness. What gives me the right to think that God has called me to ministry? How could anyone possibly tell if they are called by God or simply have made the whole thing up? When priests stop speaking of God, disaster among the people cannot be far behind. The parable of the pots is less about the ability of God to respond to our good or evil acts, than it is about God choosing us to contain the gospel. Without doubt, we are all under threat from the certain heating of the planet. It's past time to sharpen our prophetic eyes and act. I have long found this remarkable text to be the antidote to a would-be prophet of God who has gotten too caught up in self-righteousness. When we think that the end has finally come to our hopes and dreams for justice, the land deal of Jeremiah reminds us that the end has not yet come. The reality of Lamentations presents us with our own realities and offers genuine and truthful resources for tackling these huge questions once again. Many exiles live here in Dallas, Texas. Jeremiah asks them to pray for the shalom of their new home, while I am asked to open up my lives to them. Jeremiah's famous words are thus hope and warning; do the work of God but allow God finally to reap God's own harvest. If you know you have been saved by God, your whole life has been transformed, both inwardly and outwardly. Habakkuk's clear words in this tiny book are among the most important phrases that the Bible has to offer for emerging Christian theology. The prophet Haggai preaches hope in the midst of hopeless ruin, a future in the midst of a land nearly devoid of one. Can we do any less? Not to sound like Scrooge, but I hope you can remind your congregation that what we want for Christmas is a transformed cosmos, rather than another transformer toy. Would not Jeremiah cast a withering glance in our direction today and boom an oracle at us, failed shepherds? How easy it is to become jaded and rushed and overwhelmed by the oncoming train of Advent and Christmas. How do we pastors survive all this one more time? God's plan for the cosmos is peace and harmony and beauty. God is bringing this about again and again. But where and when, we rightly ask? When Advent rolls around, it will hardly do to upset the Christmas-eyed folk with these bloated corpses and bloody hills, now, will it? Well, will it? The Christmas story is not about a virgin birth; it is about a birth that demonstrates again that God is with us. We ask that God rule with justice and righteousness so that our darkness may become light, so that God's world may at last truly become God's world and not ours alone. The birth of Jesus is for all people: gays and straights, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, "nones" and nuns. The work of justice is not only for the famous, the public, or the notorious; it is all of our work, however small the act, however little known the deed. The servant Jesus called his followers to attend to all, not just to some, not just to those they knew and loved and recognized as "one of them." If we so-called chosen ones, we 21st-century Christians, await the victory of God over our enemies, there is peril aplenty in entertaining such a hope. The verdict is clear enough; we are and remain guilty of denial of YHWH until we begin to focus our full attention on the doing of justice for all of God's people. Just what sort of fast does YHWH want? Hint: Not one that majors in public displays of piety, bowing down, and shouting loud affirmations of humility. It is in our mouths and in our hearts: YHWH loves us and chooses us for YHWH's purposes in the world! The definition of just who the neighbor is I am to love as I love myself is made clear right here -- it is the poor and the immigrant, among others who are in need of my love and caring. I happen to like Transfiguration Sunday myself, primarily because of its spookiness. That's right, there is something downright weird about this day. If Lent is to sound forth its call for transformation, we must think also of the larger locust infestations that forever plague our corporate lives as well as our private ones. The garden in Genesis 2 depends on us as much as we depend on it. There is one idea for preaching: how do we humans relate to the created order of God? How are we to be a "light to the nations"? What if all nations prefer their own light, and their own understanding of what they mean by being disciples? We are all in the desert of Sin with this question on our lips: is YHWH near us or not? 1 Samuel 16 is about God choosing a deeply flawed human being to be King. It is also about us on our Lenten journey, flawed humans that we are. We are Ezekiel's dry bones, waiting for a fresh breath of the spirit to give us new sinew and flesh and skin so that we might become whole again. What does the passion of Holy Week teach us about the way we're to live in this world? Why the Israelites' resurrection story is as important this Easter Sunday as the one about Jesus being raised from the dead. We cannot read Peter's sermon innocent of what has happened as a result of its preaching. We must not, lest we continue to play out its dreadful inferences. Yes, I get the goal of Peter's sermon in Acts 2, but I decry its means of reaching that goal. According to Luke, "Christian family" has little to do with abortion or the choice of marriage partner; nor does it particularly involve dutiful children. I find no joy in Luke's story of the stoning of Stephen, but his introduction of Saul/Paul into the story offers me a glimmer of hope for the future of the faith. There can be no real dialogue with those with whom we do not agree unless we can imagine that we have as much to learn from our partners as we have to teach them. Ascension Sunday is about the dangers of looking high when Jesus asks us to look low at the people he has come to redeem. Many readers of this story focus their attention on the spooky details of wind, fire, and amazing speech, and miss the real story Luke is trying to tell. It is time for us, past time, to end this foolish and incorrect notion that it is our world. It is, and always has been, God's world. How easily does our gracious laughter turn to angry arrogance when the shoe is now on our bigoted feet? We preachers must learn to speak of the demands of faith without resorting to stories that employ the abuse and murder of a child to make a point. The Bible gives us always the stuff of real life, not merely the romanticized would-be life. How grateful we preachers must be for such amazing writing from so long ago! However much we want to claim they we are not like these very human characters; in fact, we are. We are Jacob; we are Esau; we are Abraham and Sarah. Like Jacob, in the face of God's free gift we too often grudgingly give God a crumb or two and imagine we are then God's followers. The founders of Israel are, like us, always ready to get even, always concerned to get the best stuff, always interested in the way to save their own skin. "Jacob wrestles with a man" is in fact what the text itself says, but that designation may stand in the way of a fuller understanding. This is fully a Genesis tale: trickery and hatred and deception abound, and the hero is finally not so heroic after all. Yes, revenge is sweet, but like all sweet things it is, in the end, not very good for you. It is always far easier to play the tyrant than it is to be God's people. God's so-called revelation at the burning bush is that God's name may not be known, and Moses and we must learn to live with that. What can we Christians learn from this peculiarly intrusive ritual text concerning the Passover? God is working on us at this very moment to turn us toward the healing of the planet, the 'tikkun olam' of Judaism, "a healing of all." This mode of living, enough for today, "our daily bread," as a later prophet asked us to pray, is nothing less than YHWH's Torah. How are you passing the test? It turns out that the greatest trial for the Israelites is not unlike our greatest 21st century trial: just how can we finally know if God is with us or not? Preachers, you and I have a problem, as the old Ten roll around again. We utter the Ten Commandments into the ears of many who could just care less. Do not imagine that Aaron is dead; he is alive in us whenever we try to have it both ways: a little bit of YHWH and a little bit of the calf, too. We can experience God’s compassion, grace, love, and faithfulness, but of God's name and glory and essence and face we can know nothing. There are and always will be wise leaders who speak the hard word of truth into ears who would prefer the easy words of the soft lie. Do not allow anyone to make the book of Revelation into a thing of scary fear, of partisan choice, of believing rightly lest you end in fire. No! If YHWH is God of all, then my choice of YHWH bids me pray for all who call on the name of God, whether that God be called YHWH or Allah or Vishnu. The Bible often presents us with surprising actions and characters, dashing our common expectations, warning us that YHWH acts in ways we sometimes least expect. The ruler YHWH has in mind, the leader we all should have in mind, judges people with righteousness and the poor with justice. We need to look for God not in the great deeds or in the torn heavens, but under and through the wrapping paper, in the bowl of gravy, in the face of a wife or husband, or child or grandchild. God comforts us in order that we may at long last become what God wanted us to be from the beginning. By quoting Isaiah 61 Luke reminds his hearers and readers that the sweet little Jesus boy is no one to be trifled with or romanticized. This poem is easily 3500 years old, yet its ancient cry for strength leading to the search for peace remains supremely relevant to us as we strive for peace in a world bent on war and destruction. I can only conclude from the scene of Samuel's confrontation with YHWH's voice in the night at Shiloh that hearing the voice of God is both exhilarating and very dangerous. Whenever we read the Bible and use it to exclude, deny, and reject living creatures of God, there is Jonah. When a prophetic word remains empty, unrelated to the powerful love and challenge of YHWH that is shown throughout the Hebrew Bible, then it is plainly not YHWH's word.