Friday, January 30, 2015
Isaiah 50:1-11; Psalm 148; Galatians 3:15-22; Mark 6:45-56
This lesson from Isaiah falls in three parts. First, we have a short poem reflecting on the reasons for the exile and again promising Jerusalem’s restoration. Had the Lord completely divorced his wife Israel in sending them into exile? Was he in debt to a creditor and had sold them off in that transaction? Was her mother truly guilty? No. It was because of their own sins that they were sold and for their own transgressions, not hers, that their mother, Jerusalem, was put away. Where were they when God called? Why was no one there when God came? Yet, God’s hand is not shortened or limited so that he cannot redeem them. Remember his former rebukes to the sea, and that he clothes the heavens with blackness and makes sackcloth their coverings—the clothing of those in mourning or penitence. Suddenly, the voice is no longer God’s, but the servant who sings his third song. Whereas Israel was absent, the servant is present. Whereas Israel did not listen, the servant awakens each morning with open ears attuned to God’s word. In all that he has heard, and not all of it is easy or good for the servant, he has not rebelled or turned back. He has given his back to those who struck him, his cheek to those who pulled at his beard, and his face to those who spit on him in insult—those among the Israelites who despise him and refuse to listen to the word he has spoken and continues to speak. No matter, it is the Lord God who helps him. None of this spiteful behavior can disgrace him, he is the Lord’s. And so he sets his face firmly, like flint, with a steadfastness that knows the One who will vindicate him is near. Are there those who wish to contend with him? Let them stand up and be counted. Are there those who are his adversaries? Let them come out of the shadows to confront him. It is the Lord God who helps the servant; who, therefore, can declare him guilty? Those people will wear out like a garment, and moths will eat what is left. Now the voice changes; it is not the servant speaking, but another who speaks to those who still resist. Who among them fear the Lord and obey the voice of his servant who, though he is walking in darkness, yet, trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon him? Evidently, not many, for a final warning is issued: they are “kindlers of fire” and “lighters of firebrands,” who walk in the light of their own fire rather than the light of the Lord. Therefore, they will face the judgment of lying down in torment. It is easy to see how the early church saw this as a script of Jesus’ struggles with the religious authorities of his day that lead to and included some of the events of his passion.
Psalm 148 calls upon all creation—the sun, moon, stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens—to shout, “Hallelujah!”—“Praise the Lord!” The Lord commanded and each was created. Sea monsters and all deeps (the place of chaos), fire, hail, snow, frost and stormy wind are not blights of nature, but actually agents that fulfill God’s commands. The Lord is sovereign over all. Mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and all cattle, things that creep and things that fly, kings of the earth and all their people, young men and women alike, and old and young together are to praise the name of the Lord, for the Lord’s name alone is to be exalted. God’s glory (presence and power) are above both earth and heaven. Finally, all are to shout “Hallelujah” because the Lord has “raised up a horn for his people” (the horn a symbol of deliverance and strength that is often used to speak of Israel’s kings). But now, the dignity, honor, and praise due the king are given not to the king, but to the people of Israel who are close to the Lord. Hallelujah!
Paul illustrates the soundness of God’s promise to Abraham by employing the example of a person’s last will and testament. No one can annul it once; it has been written. God made such a promise to Abraham “and to his offspring,” in the Greek, the singular word for “seed.” Capitalizing on the singular, Paul makes the point that the promise was not to the Jewish people in general, but specifically to one Jew, Christ. The Law, which came four hundred thirty years later, cannot annul the promise God made to Abraham. For, if the inheritance as God’s children comes through keeping the law, it is no longer according to the promise that God made to Abraham. So, why then the Law? God added it because of transgressions of the people to identify and restrain them, until the child to whom the promise had been made had come. Thereafter, the Law was no longer necessary. Yes, the law was ordained from God through angels to Moses (see Deuteronomy 33:2 which speaks of the presence of “myriad of angels” at that event), a conviction common in Paul’s day. He takes that tradition and uses it to show that, because God acted through intermediaries at Sinai, rather than directly himself, the result—the Law—is inferior to the promise God made directly to Abraham. Is the Law then opposed to God’s promise? Absolutely not! But, if a law could have been given that had the capacity to give life in the midst of sin, then righteousness would and could come through the Law. But that is not the case. Rather, the Law (Paul uses the word “scripture” but clearly means the Law) itself is under the power of sin. Because of that, it has kept things locked up and imprisoned, disclosing both peoples’ powerlessness before sin and humanities’ alienation from God. The only solution was for God to act, which God has done through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (notice the footnote), so that what was promised to Abraham might be given to those who believe. Nothing, either in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis or Paul’s use of it here ever suggests something being promised to us “through faith in Jesus Christ.” Rather, it was through Christ’s own faithfulness as the “offspring” of Abraham that the power of sin could be broken and the promise would come to be.
The moment the feeding was complete and the twelve baskets of leftovers had been gathered up, Jesus made the disciples get into their boats and go ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. Thereafter, Jesus went up the mountain to pray—the reason they had first come over to this deserted place. In the middle of the night, when Jesus has completed his prayer, he returns to the shore and sees that the disciples are still at sea, straining at the oars against a strong wind. He goes out, walking toward them on the sea, early, as the sun is rising. Mark tells us he intends to walk past them. Is this an allusion to God “passing by” Moses who was hidden in the cleft of the rock? Perhaps; but, the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, think him a ghost, and cry out, for the sight of him on the water terrifies them. Jesus turns to them and says, quite literally: “Courage, I am, do not fear.” The “I am” here is frequently translated, “I am he,” or as the NRSV renders it, “It is I.” The phrase in Greek is the translation of the divine name which means, “I am,” and clearly intended to be a revelatory moment. He is not a ghost, nor simply a miracle worker among them. He is the Lord—God incarnate—who, according to Job “walks on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). He gets into the boat with them and, once again, the storm ceases as it did on their way to the land of the Gerasenes (Mark 4:35-41). They are utterly astonished, for, as Mark tells us, they have learned nothing from what happened with the loaves. Rather, they are no better than the rest of those who fail to understand who he is. The only explanation is the hardness of their hearts. In Paul’s language, they too are imprisoned by the power of sin. When the crossing is complete they land at Gennesaret. When they get out of the boat, the people there recognize Jesus at once and begin to bring to him their sick. As Jesus moves through the countryside, into villages or cities or farms, they lay the sick in the marketplaces and beg simply to touch the fringe of his cloak so that they might be healed. All who do are healed.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Isaiah 49:13-26; Psalm 136; Galatians 3:1-14; Mark 6:30-46
The poem of God’s restoration of Jerusalem continues with the promise that Israel’s exile is about to end. A brief psalm of praise calls on all to break forth into singing God’s praise, because he has (again, notice the past tense) comforted his people. They thought themselves forsaken and forgotten. Employing the metaphor of a mother unable to forget her child, the Lord reminds them that so, too, God has not been able to forget Israel. They have been inscribed on the palm of God’s hand: their walls are before God’s eyes, their builders outnumber their destroyers; look, even now their builders gather. Promising that what was waste and desolate will no longer be devastated, Jerusalem will so flourish that it will be too crowed for its inhabitants. Those who had been born in exile will look in wonder for a place to settle, and those who had been left behind will wonder, where have all of these come from? The Lord again speaks in promise: the nations shall be called to come and serve as foster parents to those who have been orphaned, kings and queens bringing Israel’s sons and daughters back to Jerusalem. Once there, those kings and queens will bow down to them in obeisance. The Lord asks two rhetorical questions about those who are prey and captive and then answers clearly: the Lord will take the captives away from the mighty and the prey from their tyrant captors, contending with those who have contended with Israel. Their captors shall devour themselves so that “all flesh” shall know that the Lord is Israel’s Savior and Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Psalm 136 proclaims God’s goodness and steadfast love endures forever. This becomes the refrain in a litany of praise extoling God for both who God is and what God has done. The Lord is God of gods and Lord of lords, who alone does great wonders. God made the heavens and earth and all that is within them. God struck Egypt to bring Israel out from their enslavement, divided the Red Sea, made a path through it, overthrew and devoured Pharaoh in the sea, led the people through the wilderness, struck down great kings and gave their land to Israel as a heritage. God remembered them, not only in prosperity, but also in their second bondage and again rescued them from their foes, probably a reference to the Babylonian exile. Citing the Lord as the source of sustenance to all people, the psalm ends with one more title for the Lord: the God of heaven (see Daniel 2:18, 19, 37, and 44) whose steadfast love endures forever.
Paul now turns his argument directly on the Galatians, asking first, who the sorcerers are who have cast the evil eye upon them to bewitch them? Paul asks a series of questions based upon their own experience that should make it abundantly clear to them that the law does not apply to them and is not the means of living in a right relationship with God. Did Paul not portray publically and vividly to them the reality of Christ’s crucifixion and just what it means for them? Did they receive the Spirit by obeying the law or by believing what they heard from Paul? Having begun with the Spirit are they now so ready to leave it for the flesh? Does, in fact, God give them the Spirit and work miracles among they in response to their keeping the law? Of course not! And now, Paul quotes Torah itself saying, just as Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, so too, those who believe are descendants of Abraham. Paul declares this a foreseeing of the fact that God had promised to justify the Gentiles by faith, a promise made to Abraham in the law itself. They do not need circumcision to become children of Abraham. As for the law, all who rely on its works are under a curse, for it says, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the Law (Deut. 27:26). Then, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to show that those who are righteous live by faith. But it is not faith in Law, but faith in Christ who came to redeem humankind from the curse of the Law by taking that curse upon himself. Why did Christ do it? He did it in order that the blessings of Abraham might come to the Gentiles that they might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. The Galatians have already received the Spirit. What possible need could be met or benefit found in now trying to keep the law?
The disciples return from their itinerant preaching mission to tell Jesus all that they had taught and done. He calls them away on retreat for some rest, for Mark tells us that so many were coming to them that they did not even have time to eat. Boarding the boat they head for a deserted place, but the crowd gets wind of it, and heads there on foot ahead of them. When Jesus and the disciples come ashore and see the crowd there awaiting them, Jesus has compassion on them. They are like sheep without a shepherd, an image used frequently in the Old Testament to sit in judgment on unfaithful kings of Israel. Jesus will be a faithful king and good shepherd to the people, and, so, he begins to teach them “many things.” The day moves into dusk and none of them have eaten. The disciples want Jesus to send the people away into the nearby towns and villages so they may find something to eat, but Jesus says, “No, you give them something to eat.” Startled by this, the disciples object: with what? Two hundred denarii worth of bread could not feed this crowd. He asks what they have. The disciples search and discover among them five loaves and two fish. Jesus orders them to have the people break into groups and sit on the ground. He then takes the bread, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. So too, Jesus divides the fish among them all. Mark tells us that not only was everyone’s hunger met and satisfied, but that there were twelve baskets left over. The number of those who were fed was five thousand men. The Eucharistic symbolism of this feeding is intentional on Mark’s part. Indeed, many early depictions of the Eucharistic meal included fish as well as bread and wine. The twelve baskets left over can either bring to mind the twelve tribes of Israel still wandering for lack of an authentic shepherd or, they may be an image that says there is a basket for each of the twelve disciples with which they are to continue to feed Jesus’ sheep.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Isaiah 49:1-12; Psalm 134; Galatians 2:11-21; Mark 6:13-29
In this second of four “servant songs” in Isaiah, the servant speaks to the people to explain his call and his mission. Like Jeremiah, while still in his mother’s womb, the Lord named and shaped him, making his mouth like a sharp sword and the servant a polished arrow in the Lord’s quiver. Though hidden away, he is the one through whom the Lord will act. The Lord said to him, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Scholars remind us that this is the only one of the four poems that specifically identifies the servant with the nation Israel and in the Greek translation of Isaiah in the Septuagint, the word “Israel” is missing, further adding to the debate about the identity of the servant. His task is to bring Jacob back to the Lord. The servant tells us what he said to the Lord: “I have labored in vain, spent my strength for nothing.., yet my cause and reward are with the Lord.” At that, the Lord replies, it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob; “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Consistent with Second Isaiah’s universalistic theology, and in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, Israel’s vocation is to bring God’s blessings, instructions and salvation to all people. Here, the servant’s poem ends and Second Isaiah’s voice is again heard with the words, “Thus says the Lord….” The servant, who is deeply despised and abhorred by the nations, and is their slave, shall ultimately be the one to whom kings and princes shall rise, come and prostrate themselves because the servant is the Lord’s chosen, and the Lord is faithful. Again the Lord speaks, but notice, all of the language of help and salvation is in the past tense; the Lord has already done this. The Lord has acted; it is simply a matter of time as things unfold. “I have answered you…, I have helped you…, I have kept you and given you as a covenant.” In keeping with that, the Lord is saying to prisoners, “Come out,” and to those in darkness, “Show yourselves.” The speech is directed to those in exile and with it comes the repetition of the promises that have been made so many times in these previous eight chapters: God is preparing the way, making provision, and will bring them from far away—not simply those exiled in Babylon—but all from Israel who have been scattered throughout the earth. Syene is located in southern Egypt at the first cataract on the Nile where there was a strong and well-known Jewish Colony in the 5th century BCE on the island of Elephantine, in the midst of the Nile. The Lord is going to gather all of Israel through the servant.
Psalm 134 is the last of the “Songs of Ascent,” and concludes the section of such psalms that began with Psalm 120. It is short and is both a call to worship and a word of blessing. Some think it is a liturgical blessing that was invoked upon a new “shift” of priests coming to take up their service in the temple, a charge and blessing on the “changing of the guard” within the temple personnel. Others think it is simply a word of priestly blessing invoked over pilgrims as they come to the temple to bless God, make sacrifices, and dwell, for a time, in the presence of the Lord. Its tri-form structure is built around the invitation to “Come, bless the Lord….” “Lift your hands,”—the posture of prayer—and the priestly blessing: “May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.” Zion, of course, is God’s holy mountain, Jerusalem, but also a reference to the temple which was at the very top of the mountain and understood to be the Lord’s dwelling place on earth, or better, the "thin place" where heaven and earth met.
Paul continues to defend his gospel of freedom from the Jewish Law by reporting an incident that took place while Peter was visiting him, Barnabas and the Gentile church in Antioch. Peter had lived among them and enjoyed their hospitality and table fellowship fully until the circumcision faction—a group of Jewish Christians that believed that converts to the faith must be circumcised and become “Jews”—arrived from Jerusalem at James’ behest. At that, Peter, as well as some of the other Jewish believers in the Antioch church, Barnabas among them, withdrew and separated themselves from the Gentile believers. Paul confronted Peter over this “hypocrisy” reminding Peter that he and the others were not living consistently with the truth of the gospel. Paul now goes on to explain that truth: a person, whether Jew or Gentile, is not brought into a right relationship with God (“justified”) through keeping the dictates of the Jewish Law, but through...; now read your text carefully! Do you see the footnote? The phrase can be translated, “faith in Jesus Christ,” or, “the faith of Jesus Christ.” The former is chosen because it seems the most consistent with Paul’s larger message. But there is no real inconsistency here and it is perhaps best rendered, “faith in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” which, of course, is what the gospel is all about. We are brought into a right relationship with God through Jesus and his faithfulness to his Father. Paul argues that the Law cannot do what Jesus has done. However, by trusting in Jesus, and no longer being bound by the Law, which Jews would understand to be sinful, has Paul made Jesus an agent or servant of sin? Absolutely not! On the other hand, if Paul returned to building up the Law as the source of justification, he would indeed be a transgressor—a transgressor of God’s grace in Jesus. For it was in the pursuit of justification through keeping the Law, as Paul persecuted Christians, that he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and, there, “died to the Law” so that he might live to God. There Paul learned that God never intended the law to bring about justification. He will explain the Law’s purpose later in this letter. For now, he uses the powerful metaphor of crucifixion to explain all of this. Paul has been crucified with Christ, died to the law, and raised in Christ, so that it is no longer Paul who lives, but Christ who lives within him. And the life that Paul now lives in the flesh he lives by faith “in the Son of God” who loved him and gave himself for Paul. Again, we have a footnote to contend with that is similar to the former one. This can also be translated “the faith of the Son of God,” and even “faithfulness of the Son of God.” Again, it is a distinction without a difference. Paul is saying that he places his trust in the faith and faithfulness of Jesus, through whom God’s grace is manifest and available to all who will live into it. He does not thereby nullify that grace, for if justification comes through the Law, then Christ died for nothing. Returning to the dictates of the Jewish Law, as a means of seeking to live in a right relationship with God, is a rejection of the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ fame is spreading and with it misunderstanding as to who he is. Some think him John the Baptist back from the dead. Others think him Elijah returned, as he was expected to do before the Messianic reign appeared, and others simply one of the prophets of old, since the well of prophecy had dried up. Now Mark takes time to tell us about the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s hands. John had been publically condemning Herod for his marriage to Herodias, who had formerly been Herod’s sister-in-law, when married to Herod’s brother Philip (Lev 18:16; 20:21). Consequently, Herodias had a grudge against John and wanted him dead. The most Herod would dare to do is arrest John and put him in prison, for not only had John become powerful among the people, Herod both feared him, but also regarded him as a righteous man and liked to listen to him. But when, on the occasion of his birthday, Herod gave a party for his courtiers and officials in Galilee, one thing led to another. Herodias’ daughter came to dance for him and so pleased Herod and his guests that Herod promised her whatever she might ask. It was not simply an aside to the girl; it was a public oath. One gets the sense that the wine had been flowing all too freely at the party! The daughter (it is the Jewish historian Josephus who tells us her name was Salome) goes to her mother for advice, and Herodias replies, “The head of John the baptizer.” The daughter does, leaving Herod deeply grieved but bound by his word and oath in front of his guest. And so, he sends soldiers of the guard with orders to return with John’s head. They bring it back to the girl on a platter and she promptly gives it to her mother. The story ends with John’s disciples coming to claim and bury John’s body in a tomb. The point to all of this too easily gets missed in the drama of dance, vision of veils falling away, and an illicit wife’s revenge. Herod had great regard for John and found himself between a rock and a hard place. Believing in the resurrection of the dead, Herod now thinks that John has been bodily raised and is back in Jesus, which for Herod, explains the powerful things that Jesus is doing.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Isaiah 48:12-22; Psalm 127; Galatians 1:18-2:10; Mark 6:1-13
The Lord continues to address Jacob: Listen-up you dotards! When will it finally dawn on you that “I am He; I am the first, and the last?” My hand has made all that is. When I call, all creation stands at attention. What about you? Attention! Assemble and hear: the Lord loves Cyrus! Cyrus is going to do the Lord’s work in Babylon and fell the Chaldeans (Babylon’s other name). The Lord has spoken and called Cyrus, has brought him to this time and purpose, and he will prosper. None of this is a secret. The Lord has spoken it and from the time it began, the Lord has been there. And now, the prophet reminds us that he is being sent by God’s spirit. “Thus says the Lord….” The Lord is the Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord their God, who teaches for their own good, who leads in the way they should go. Had they only listened; had they only heeded God’s commands, they would have flourished in prosperity with the power of the sea. Their offspring would have been like the sand of the sea—never cut off or destroyed. Now get out of Babylon! Flee! Declare with shouts loud enough to be heard to the ends of the earth, just who it is that is doing this for you—the Lord! You did not thirst in the desert because he split open rocks that water might pour forth for you (an allusion to the Exodus). But, there is no peace for the wicked—“Thus says the Lord!”
Psalm 127 reminds us that the Lord is our builder and maker, and unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. So too for the city, so too for those who go to bed late and rise early, working 24/7 as they eat the bread of anxious toil. It is all vanity! Now, the psalm shifts from the things we anxiously try to do to make a name for ourselves to God’s gifts of heritage—it is our children. They are like arrows in the hands of a warrior. Here, there is a double entendre that we miss when paraphrasing “son” to “children” for the sake of inclusivity. The image of arrow is both one of sexual potency that continues to maintain the tribe, and one of protection, such as a large family provides. Might “quiver full of them” also be a reference to a wife’s womb that was believed to hold those children before conception. Whatever, happy are those who have a household full of them. However, at the end of the day, is it not the presence of many children that brings prosperity and protection. That comes from the Lord. For unless the Lord builds our house, all else that we try to do is in vain.
Paul continues to write biographically to the Galatians, reminding them that his gospel is not the work of others. Though after his vision of Christ and his time in Arabia and then again in Damascus, he did go to Jerusalem to meet with Cephas (Peter) and stayed with him fifteen days; he did not confer with any other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother, who by now was on his way to becoming a leader in the Jerusalem Church and would become its bishop after Peter’s departure for Rome. After that visit, Paul went to his home in Syria and Cilicia and remained unknown to the churches of Judea. All that was said was that the one who had formerly persecuted the Jewish believers in that region was now proclaiming the very faith he once had tried to destroy. Consequently, the Judean Christians glorified God because of him. After another fourteen years, between his first and second missionary journey, Paul went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus—a Gentile—along with them to make his case for his ministry among the Gentiles and argue that circumcision and keeping the Jewish Law was not a gospel requirement for them. In that meeting, “false believers”—Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem who demanded that Gentiles like Titus be circumcised—were secretly brought in to make their case and win the day. But Paul would not submit to them. And whether they were leaders or not, they contributed nothing to Paul, who remained steadfast in his convictions to the point that Peter, James and John—the three pillars of the Jerusalem church—recognized the validity of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles and the grace Paul had been given by God for his work, just as they recognized Peter’s commission and grace-filled work among the Jews. Consequently, they gave Paul and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship,”—both a blessing and an acknowledged welcome—and sent them on their way back to the Gentiles, asking only one thing of them: that they not forget the poor, which Paul was already eager to do.
Jesus returns to Nazareth with his disciples, and on the sabbath, goes to his home synagogue to teach. Those who hear him are astounded, wondering where he has gotten all of this and where his wisdom has come from. They are astonished at the deeds of power he is doing. They ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon, as well as his sisters. (Notice that Joseph is not included here and is clearly dead.) Why they take offence at Jesus is unclear—was it his entourage and the fact that they thought he was taking himself entirely too seriously? Jesus simply responds with the truism that prophets are honored everywhere except at home, among their own people, even in their own families, or perhaps, especially within their own families! His clearly did not know who he was or understand what he was about. At any rate, their unbelief is such that he can do no deed of power there except for laying hands on a few of the sick and healing them. Mark tells us Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Leaving Nazareth, he moves through the surrounding villages, teaching in them. Then he calls the twelve and gives them authority over unclean spirits—it is not only his, but his to give!— and he sends them out to preach and heal. Sending them out without bread, bag or money, and limiting what they wear, he has put them into the status of itinerant preachers who are to be dependent upon the hospitality of those to whom they preach. Such was common in that day, and, generally, it was thought an honor to house and care for such a preacher. Whenever a house welcomes them, they are to stay there until they leave the village. If any place will not welcome them, and they refuse to hear what it is they have to say, leave town and shake the dust of that place off of your feet as testimony against them. And so they went out and preached that the people should repent. Notice the absence of “and believe the good news.” They cast out many demons and healed many sick by anointing them with oil, but so far, they seem not to understand that this is the good news of God and bigger than their miracle-working leader.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Isaiah 48:1-11; Psalm 126; Galatians 1:1-17; Mark 5:21-43
God summons his people, the house of Jacob, called by the name “Israel,” who came forth from the loins of Judah and who swear by the name of the Lord. Though they call themselves after the holy city and lean on the God of Israel, they do not do so in truth or integrity. Knowing them obstinate, with necks of iron and foreheads of brass—how’s that for being stiff-necked and hard-headed?—God declared to them from long ago what would happen, so that when it came to pass they could not attribute it to their idols. God is now going to declare new things, things hidden that they have not known, created now—today—things they have never heard. Why? Because, from birth they have been a rebel who deals in treachery (remember Jacob’s cunning nature and his treachery in stealing his brother’s birthright). For his own name’s sake God is going to defer his anger, and for the sake of his own praise, restrain it from Israel that it may not be cut off. Israel has been refined and tested in the fire of adversity. The coming deliverance is less for them than for God’s own name’s sake. “For my own sake I will do it,” for why should God’s name be profaned and God’s glory given to another?
Psalm 126 is a pilgrim song, sung to the song of ascents, as worshippers make their way to the temple. It remembers the initial joy experienced by the people upon their return home to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. They were like those who dream: their mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with shouts of joy. As the Lord had promised, the nations said among themselves, “The Lord has done great things for them.” In affirmation they declare it themselves: the Lord has done great things for them,” and in them they rejoiced. They have been saved. But now home, there are new challenges. The second half of the psalm falls into a petition for God to bless them, to come and restore their fortunes, like water rushes through the watercourses in the Negeb. When the rain comes, those flat, dry riverbeds suddenly become awash with torrents of water. May the restoration come as suddenly, so that those who sow in tears—planting season in the Ancient Near East was associated with sorrow for many reasons, not the least being that the summer drought was drawing near and threatened to destroy the seed—will reap with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves, because the crop has been abundant beyond belief.
We begin the continuous reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written to churches he had founded, whether on the first or second missionary journey is a scholar’s debate and, for us, does not matter. Paul is writing in response to a crisis that has emerged in those churches because of Jewish-Christian missionaries who have come after him, who are preaching that, in order to be included within those redeemed by Jesus, the Gentiles must convert and become Jews. The men must be circumcised and all must adhere to the Law of Moses. Paul, who knows that God called him specifically to preach to the Gentiles, has not required this of them upon their profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and he has seen among his converts powerful examples of the presence of God’s Spirit. Consequently, he is firmly convinced that the Gentiles can be justified—put in a saving relationship with God in Christ—without having to adhere to the world of the Jewish Law. As the letter opens, Paul identifies himself as an apostle sent neither by human commission nor from human authority, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead. In the blessing that follows, Paul identifies the themes that will emerge in the rest of the letter: the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age according to the will of his Father. The salutation complete, Paul jumps in with both feet, astonished that they have so quickly deserted the one who called them in the grace of Christ. Notice that they are not deserting Paul, nor even his gospel, but the one who called them, God himself. This “other gospel”—not that there is another—is a perversion of the true gospel. There is only one gospel, the one Paul and his companions announced among them. And even if they or an angel from heaven should appear among them proclaiming something contrary to what they first heard from Paul, let those who proclaim this false gospel be accursed! Paul then repeats the curse. Is he writing to seek human approval—theirs, or even God’s? Is that why he preached a gospel that does not require circumcision—to please people? If so, he would no longer be a servant of Christ. And now, Paul tells them a series of events that they evidently do not know, as a means of further establishing the truth of the message he proclaimed among them. It was not of human origin; he did not make it up. Nor did he receive it from human sources. It came to him through a revelation of Jesus Christ. He then recounts his time as a persecutor of the church, and his status as one far more advanced and zealous for the traditions of his Jewish ancestors. But God, who had set him apart long before he was even born, called him through God’s grace and was pleased to reveal the risen Christ to him, so that he could proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. Like the calls of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Paul was destined by God before birth, then prepared, and finally summoned to take up a prophetic mission among the Gentiles. When that happened, Paul did not confer with humans about it, nor did he go to Jerusalem to the others there who were apostles before him—those Jesus had called prior to his death and resurrection. Rather, he went away at once to Arabia. What he did there is pure speculation. Did he preach among the Nabateans in the kingdom of Aretas IV in Petra, as most commentators assume, or, by Arabia, does he mean the Sinai, where, like Elijah, with whom Paul so identifies, he went to Mt. Horab, there to sort out and think through what all of this meant, before returning to Damascus, as Elijah himself had done? We don’t know. The point is, this gospel Paul is preaching is from God and no one else, and has been given to him by God to preach among the Gentiles.
Having returned back to the home side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is again met by the crowd. Within it is a leader of the synagogue named Jairus, who falls at Jesus’ feet, imploring him repeatedly to come and lay his hands on his daughter and heal her for she is about to die. Jesus goes with him and the crowd follows. Within that crowd is another in need, a woman who has suffered menstrual hemorrhaging for twelve years. Having seen many physicians and having spent all that she had on possible cures, she is still no better, but actually worse. She has heard about Jesus and comes up behind him in the crowd and touches his cloak, believing that if she could just touch his clothing she would be healed, and immediately she is! Equally as immediately, Jesus is aware that “the power has gone forth from him,” and demands to know who touched his clothes. The disciples are astonished at the question; in this crowd? Jesus looks around, and, as he does, the woman comes to him in fear and trembling and falls at his feet. After all, her touch has rendered him unclean. She tells him the truth and Jesus says what he will tell so many when similarly healed, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed of your disease.” It will not be back. While Jesus is still talking to the woman, some people from the leader’s home come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died. It’s too late; why trouble the teacher any further? Overhearing it, Jesus turns to Jairus and says, “Do not fear, only believe. At that, he allows no one to follow them except three from his inner circle: Peter, James and John. When they arrive at the house, the mourners are already there, and the place is filled with weeping and loud wailing. Jesus asks why they are making such a commotion; she is not dead, but only asleep. Suddenly, the mourners’ weeping turns to mocking laughter. This is outrageous—she is dead. Jesus puts everyone outside, and taking Jairus and his wife and the three disciples who had come with him, they go to where the child lay. Taking her by the hand, Jesus speaks to her in Aramaic, which Mark quickly translates as “Little girl, get up!” Immediately she does, and begins to walk about the room. In an aside, Mark tells us she is twelve year of age—the age at which a girl in that culture became a woman and was ready for marriage. Two women have been restored, one by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak, the other by receiving his touch as the gift of life. The parents and the disciples are overcome with amazement. Jesus strictly orders them that no one should know this, and tells them to give the little girl something to eat to assure them that she really is alive. Ghost and spirits were believed to be unable to eat food. When she eats they will truly know that she is alive.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.