Saturday, April 18, 2015
Daniel 3:19-30; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:11-18; Luke 4:1-13
The three young men refuse to bow down to the golden idol King Nebuchadnezzar has set up, and the king flies into a rage demanding that the furnace fire be heated to seven times hotter than usual and that the three be bound hand and foot, in their clothing, and thrown into the fiery furnace. The fire is so hot that those who bind the three and throw them in are themselves killed by the heat. But the king is astonished. When he looks into the furnace, he sees not only the three unbound and unharmed, but a fourth man who “has the appearance of a god.” Nebuchadnezzar approaches the furnace and demands that the three young men, who he now addresses as “Servants of the Most High God,” come out. The three do, and all of the king’s officials who have gathered are witnesses to the fact that the fire had no power over the men; the hair of their heads was not even singed. Nebuchadnezzar then blesses the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who he recognizes has sent an angel to protect and deliver them. They disobeyed the king’s command “and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” (Here is the center and the point of the story as it is being repeated in a time when Jews are being commanded to worship the Greek gods.) The king now issues a decree: any people, nation or language (note the expansiveness to the tale) that utters blasphemy against the God of the three young men, shall be “torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruin.” The king now confesses, “There is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” The tale ends with the promotion of the three men to higher ranks in the province of Babylon.
Psalm 149 is another “Hallelujah” psalm that calls on the assembly to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Employing Hebrew parallelisms, Israel is called to be glad in its maker, while the children of Zion are to rejoice in God their king, making melody with tambourine and lyre, and praising him with dancing. The Lord takes pleasure in his people, adorning the humble with victory. Let the high praises of God be in their throats as the two-edged battle sword is in their hands, executing God’s vengeance against their enemies, binding the defeated king in fetters and that king’s nobles in chains. This is less the people’s doing than judgment decreed by the Lord. It is glory for all of God’s faithful and ends as it begins, with a Hallelujah—“praise the Lord!”
The evangelist John continues to work with the commandment to love one another. We are not to be like Cain—who was from the evil one—who rose up and killed his brother Abel, because Cain saw that Abel was righteous. So, too, they are not to be surprised that the world hates them because of their own righteousness. They have passed from death to life, because they do love one another. Love is the litmus test. Whoever does not love abides in death. Any who hate a brother or sister are murderers just as Cain was a murderer, and they have no life in them. The true witness to love is that Jesus laid down his life for us. Therefore, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. So far, the focus here has been on how anger in a church conflict can turn to hatred. The evangelist is warning the congregation that they must not let the conflict that divided them escalate into hatred of those who have left. But now, he turns the corner on love and asks how God’s love can abide in someone who has the world’s goods and sees a sister or brother in need and does not help. It is not enough to love in word or speech. We must love in truth and action. Here—with love in action—is how we will know that we are from the truth and it will reassure us before God—even when our hearts condemn us. But more, God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. If our hearts do not condemn us, then we have boldness before God and we receive from God whatever we rightfully ask. John would not say that obeying God’s commandments earns us these gifts, but rather, doing so puts us into a relationship with God in which we can receive God’s good pleasure. The commandment to love is expanded to believe in Jesus and take him at his word, just as he has commanded. Scholars point out that, in the original, the word “in” is missing so that the sentence shifts from “believing in” to simply “believing Jesus”—taking him at his word. All who believe and obey his word abide in him, and he in them. Finally, we will know that he abides in us because of the Spirit that he has given to us.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he is tempted by the devil. During that time, Jesus eats nothing. Consequently, when the days come to a conclusion, he is famished. It is then that the devil delivers these three most significant temptations. Jesus is famished. Will he use his power for his own need, to turn stones into bread? The devil uses the word “if” to mean “since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Can the Son of God be tempted? Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Deuteronomy 8:3) Thwarted, the devil “led him up in an instant” to show him the kingdoms of the world. The devil insists that all their glory and power have been given over to him to grant to any as he so chooses. (Really? Remember, the devil is a liar!) He will give it to Jesus, if Jesus will but worship him. Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” Jesus has quoted scripture twice to the devil to deflect the temptation, and so the devil now quotes scripture back to Jesus—proof-texting has its limits in the face of evil! Snatching Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple he says to him, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Does Jesus believe scripture? Is he willing to stake his life on it? Jesus responds, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” It is not that Jesus does not believe and trust scripture; it is that he knows his primary allegiance must be, not to scripture as it is quoted to him, but in the Lord. It is something we need to remember whenever we find ourselves caught up in “battles over the Bible!” With that, the devil has done his best—he has even quoted scripture—but it has not been good enough. He departs from Jesus until an opportune time.
Friday, April 17, 2015
Daniel 3:1-18; Psalm 148; 1 John 3:1-10; Luke 3:15-22
Today’s lesson is as much satire that mocks kings who would be worshiped, as it is about God’s power to deliver. We read only the first half of the lesson today. King Nebuchadnezzar has built an enormous statue. A cubit was roughly three feet—you do the math! And presumably, it is a representation of the king as a god. Covered with gold, Nebuchadnezzar has the statue set up on the plain of Dura. Then, he calls together all of his functionaries—their number as ridiculous as that of the size of the statue. Hear the humor intended as they are named and then repeated; do the same for the list of musical instruments named in the musical ensemble that is to call the people to prayer before the idol. The author is having some good fun at the expense of kings and their functionaries. Once all the officials have gathered for the dedication, an official declares that, when the ensemble calls on them, they are to fall down and worship the statue the king has erected. Punishment for failure to do so is to be thrown immediately into a furnace of blazing fire. The first scene closes with the people being called by the ensemble and “all the peoples, nations and languages” falling down to worship the statue. Again, notice the gross exaggeration. Scene two opens with “certain Chaldeans” coming forward to denounce the Jews for refusing to bow down as the king has commanded—again, there is elaborate repetition. The Jews are named—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (noticeably, Daniel is absent here). Nebuchadnezzar erupts in royal rage and demands that the three be brought to him. As is typical in martyr stories, this gives opportunity for witness to the oppressor. The king asks them, “Is it true?” but adds not only that they have failed to bow down to the statue, more, they do not worship the king’s gods. The three confirm that, indeed, it is true. The king gives them one last chance: if they are ready to bow down when the ensemble gives the sign, well and good. Otherwise, they shall immediately be thrown into “the furnace of blazing fire.” And now the center of the story emerges as the king asks, “And who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” The three respond that they don’t know if their God will deliver them or not. If he is able, let him do so, but regardless, the three will not serve the king’s gods or worship the golden statue.
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, 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!
God’s love given to us is revealed in the fact that we are called God’s children; and indeed we are. Repeating words we heard from Jesus in John 17, the readers are reminded that the reason the world does not know them as God’s children is because the world did not know Jesus, God’s son. He goes on to remind them that, if they are God’s children now, what they shall ultimately be is yet to be revealed. This probably witnesses to one of the points of division in the community that caused the others to leave; if that group were Gnostics, then this may be about the notion of the resurrection of the body. What they do need to know is that when the risen Lord is revealed, they will be just like him. Those who hold onto this hope purify themselves as Jesus is pure. That leads to talk about sin in a way that suggests more than just behavior that is unacceptable to believers. John has mentioned sin in chapter 2, but this seems to be sin of a different order—rejecting Christ himself. For now, the typology is either being a child of God or a child of the devil. Those who abide in Christ (notice same imagery Jesus uses in John 17), are children of God, while those who commit sin are children of the devil. In other words, one cannot abide in Christ and set forth to intentionally sin. That behavior is of the devil. The Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil. Those who abide in the Son cannot sin because God’s seed (Jesus) abides in them. In this way, the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed. All who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
John’s appearance, preaching and baptizing, has filled the people with the expectation that he is the coming Messiah. Remember, that in the day this gospel was first written, John had as significant a religious following as Jesus, and there was debate between the two communities over who was superior. Though all the gospel writers present John as the forerunner, with John himself clearly denying that he is the “coming one,” Luke presents his story in such a way that John has already been arrested by Herod when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized. John baptizes with water, but one more powerful than John is coming. John is not worthy to even serve as his slave and untie the thongs of his sandals. This coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. With clear references to coming judgment, John portrays the “coming one” in fearful terms: winnowing fork in hand to separate the wheat from the chaff, gathering the wheat into his granary, but burning the chaff, not simply with fire, but fire that is unquenchable! Then, with two verses about Herod imprisoning John because John had publically challenged Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Luke takes John off the scene. Only now does Luke tell us that Jesus was baptized with all the other people. And is it as Jesus comes up out of the water, or thereafter, when he is in prayer, that the descent of the Spirit takes place? Luke regularly uses times of prayer as moments of revelation. If so, it is an additional way of distancing John and assuring his ministry as one of preparation for Jesus’ more important one. Regardless, Luke tells us that, after his baptism, while Jesus is in prayer, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him and the voice from heaven speaks to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He has been anointed for his ministry as the Anointed One—the Messiah.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Daniel 2:31-49; Psalm 147:12-20; 1 John 2:18-29; Luke 3:1-14
Daniel describes the king’s dream. He saw a great statue of extraordinary brilliance standing before him, frightening in its appearance. The statue’s head was made of gold, its chest and arms were made of silver, its middle and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were partly iron and partly clay. Scholars identify the various metals of declining value as four successive kingdoms of declining power that dominated the Middle East from the Exile until the time of this book’s writing: Babylonia (Nebuchadnezzar), Media (Darius the Mede), Persia (Cyrus), and Greece (is it Alexander the Great, one of the kings of the Hellenistic wars, or, Antiochus?). Notice that Rome is not yet on the scene. A stone is cut out by divine hands and cast at the feet of the statue, shattering not only its feet, but causing the entire system of monarchs to collapse. The statue not only breaks into pieces, it becomes like chaff, which the wind drives away (Psalm 1:4). Not a trace could be found. But the stone, a Messianic figure described in Psalm 118, becomes a great mountain (Jerusalem) and fills the whole earth. Daniel now turns to interpret the dream. Nebuchadnezzar is the head, the king of kings to whom the God of heaven has given this reign with all its power, might and glory and all of its subjects, even the birds of the air. He is the head of gold. After Nebuchadnezzar there will rise up a kingdom inferior to his, made of silver, and after him, one more inferior still of bronze, but still, it shall rule over the whole earth. Then the fourth will be strong as iron, and, just as iron crushes things, this kingdom will smash everything. But the feet are made of iron and the toes of clay—a divided kingdom that is strong, but also brittle, a kingdom mixed together in marriage. But it will not hold. And just as the God of heaven sets up those kingdoms, each in their own days, they shall all come to an end by the stone cut from the mountain that crushed the statue’s feet, bringing it all down. Then, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor be left to another people. It will crush all the other kingdoms, bring them to an end and it will stand forever. Daniel concludes by telling the king that it is the great God who has informed the king of what shall come hereafter. Nebuchadnezzar falls on his face, worships Daniel and commands that a grain offering and incense be offered to him, for his God is the God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries. Daniel is promoted, given many gifts, and is made ruler over the whole province of Babylon. At Daniel’s request, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are appointed over the affairs of the province, while Daniel remains in the king’s court.
Psalm 147:12-20 calls on all of Jerusalem to praise the Lord, and is especially addressed with the parallel phrase following on: “Praise your God, O Zion!” God strengthens the bars of her gates and blesses the children within her. God grants her peace and fills her with the finest wheat. As God commands, the earth quickly responds, giving snow like wool. Frost is scattered like ashes. When he hurls down hail, who can stand before his cold? All of this is the creative force of God’s word, melting snow, making the wind blow and the waters flow. This word God has declared to Jacob, and his statutes to Israel. God has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know God’s ordinances. The psalm ends as it began, “Praise the Lord!”
As the epistle of 1st John unfolds, it becomes clear that the church from which it is written has experienced some of the same divisions with a disruptive group leaving them. Calling them “children” once again, the author announces that it is the last hour. Antichrists have come and gone, signaling the last hour. They went out from the author’s church as surely as they have gone out of the churches to whom he is writing. That, itself, reveals that they never belonged to them. They are now reminded that they have been anointed by the Holy One in their baptism, signed in holy oil as a sign of the Spirit’s presence in their lives. Each and every one of them has knowledge and knows the truth. (Here is the first signal that the controversy may have been over Gnosticism, a heresy that emerged in the church in the latter part of the first century.) He is writing to them, not because they do not know the truth, but because they do and they know that no lie can come from it. And who is the liar, the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist—those who deny the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father within them, while everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also—again, a hint that what is at issue is Gnosticism that denied Jesus was God incarnate. They are to remember what they heard from the beginning. If it abides in them, then they abide in the Father and the Son and are heirs of the promise of eternal life. He writes to remind them of this, lest they be deceived by the separatists who have left. The anointing that they have received from the One who abides in them is such that they need no one to teach them—simply to remind them to abide—for his anointing is true. Therefore, abide in him so that when he is revealed they all may have confidence and not be put to shame.
John the Baptist appears on the scene as “a prophet of God most High,” just as his father Zechariah had foretold (Luke 1:76). Luke is careful, as always, to place this event in the context of both Roman rule and the religious leadership of Jerusalem, as he continues to relate John and Jesus to one another at the beginning of this gospel. John comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Luke cites Isaiah 40 as warrant for his appearance. John has come to prepare for the restoration of Israel. John confronts those who come out to him for baptism, calling them a “brood of vipers” trying to escape God’s coming wrath. He reminds them of how far they have strayed from being God’s people. It is not enough to claim Abraham as their father. God is able to raise up from stones children to Abraham. The axe is lying at the root of the tree, ready to cut down and burn any who do not produce good fruit. The crowd asks what they should do. Interestingly enough, John does not tell them to be baptized, but to repent: those with two coats must share one with any who has none; so too with their food. To the tax collectors who have come for baptism John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers who have come out, he says, “Do not extort money by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Daniel 2:17-30; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 John 2:12-17; John 17:20-26
Daniel is granted time and goes home to his three companions who are named again, telling them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this great mystery, so that Daniel, his three companions, and all the wise men of Babylon might not perish. That night, the mystery is revealed to Daniel in a night vision, and Daniel blesses the name of God (notice it is not “the Lord” but “The God of heaven”) in a psalm of praise, acknowledging God’s sovereignty over time, season, kings and kingdoms, who gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the understanding. It is the God of his ancestors—not the gods of the Babylonians—who has given all this to Daniel. Now Daniel goes to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy all the wise men, and Daniel tells Arioch not to do so, but rather, “bring me in before the king and I will give the king the interpretation.” Arioch quickly does so, announcing that he has found among the exiles from Judah a man who can tell the king the dream and the interpretation. The king asks Daniel to speak. Daniel responds that no diviner, enchanter or magician can grant what the king is asking, but there is “a God in heaven” who reveals mysteries and has disclosed what is to happen to the king at the end of his days. Daniel then describes the dream: as the king lay in bed, thoughts of what would come hereafter came to him, and the revealer of mysteries disclosed to the king what is soon to be. But all this has not been revealed to Daniel because of any superior wisdom that he might have, making him greater than the other wise men (note the sarcasm on the part of the biblical writer!), but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that he may understand the thoughts of his mind that came through the dream..
Psalm 147 is a Hallel Psalm, beginning, as each of them does, with Hallelujah—“Praise the Lord!” The psalm celebrates God’s graciousness and calls for a fitting song of praise to be sung. The reason for praise is the Lord’s ability and willingness to forgive and restore, to build up and heal. The Lord builds up Jerusalem, gathers the outcasts of Israel, heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. The one who made the stars lifts up the down-trodden and casts the wicked to the ground, and delights, not in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner, but in those who fear him and hope in his steadfast love.
Affirming his care, the author of 1 John again calls the members of the troubled congregations “little children.” He first reminds them that their sins are forgiven on account of Jesus’ name. Now, John addresses, in descending order, members of the community in their various stages of faith maturation, giving a word of affirmation to each according to their situation. Fathers have known “him who is from the beginning,” young people have “conquered the evil one,” children “know the Father,” young people are strong and the word of God abides in them because they have overcome the evil one. They are now warned against “loving the world,” or things of the world—the realm of evil. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world. For all that is “worldly”—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride in riches—comes, not from the Father, but from the world. Because that world and its desire are passing away; those who do the will of God live forever.
Now Jesus’ prayer turns from concern for his immediate followers to all those who will come to believe in him through their witness to him, that they (we!) may be one as he and the Father are one, and that we, together, might be one with the two of them in order that the world may believe that the Father has sent him. Unity in the church is not for the sake of life within the church, but rather an essential for the church’s credible witness in the world. Not only does Jesus ask for unity in the coming church but also that his glory be given to it, again, for the sake of their unity with him and his Father. These believers who have yet to come have also been given to him by the Father, as surely as his initial followers were given to him, and so he asks that these too may be with him where he is, to see the glory that is and was his from the foundation of the world. Jesus concludes the prayer, summarizing what he has said earlier about his work in the world, making the Father’s name known, and asks that the love with which the Father has loved the Son may be in them so that he may be in them.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Daniel 2:1-16; Psalm 146; 1 John 2:1-11; John 17:12-19
Who are the true diviners in Babylon; the Chaldean magicians, enchanters and sorcerers, or Daniel? That question lies at the base of a story about King Nebuchadnezzar having a most troubling dream, one that so terrified him that he could no longer sleep. He calls all of his diviners to come and interpret the dream. They approach the king and address him in Aramaic (from here to the end of chapter 7 the book is written in Aramaic), saying, “O King, live forever!”—and then they ask about the dream. King Nebuchadnezzar wants to be sure that they are telling him the full truth, and so he demands that they not only tell him the dream’s meaning but also the dream itself. Then, to raise the ante, Nebuchadnezzar makes a public pronouncement: if they can do this, he will bestow riches and great honor upon them. But, if they cannot, he will have them torn “limb from limb and their households also shall be laid in ruins.” The Chaldean diviners object: “No one on earth can do this!” The king accuses them of buying time to save their heads and again demands an answer. The diviners respond that no king, however great or powerful has ever asked such a thing of a magician, sorcerer or enchanter. No one can do this except the gods, and they don’t dwell with mortals. At this, the king flies into a violent rage and demands that all of the wise men of Babylon be destroyed—including Daniel and his companions. Today’s lesson ends with Daniel asking the king’s chief executioner, “Why is the king’s decree so urgent?” When the matter is explained, Daniel steps forward with the request that the king give him time and he will tell the king the interpretation.
Psalm 146 is a Hellel psalm (one in which the opening and closing words are Hallelujah: “Praise the Lord”). It is one of my favorites. After full-throated praise to the Lord and a promise to continue to do so all of his life, the psalmist reminds us of who alone in life is worthy of trust. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Conversely, “Blest are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” There follows a recital of all of the good and marvelous things that come from God’s hand—creation, faithfulness, justice for the oppressed, food to the hungry, liberty to the captive, sight to the blind, exaltation for the lowly, love for the righteous. Notice that these are characteristic that the gospels regularly celebrate in Jesus. The Lord watches over the stranger, upholds the orphan and widow, but brings the way of the wicked to ruin. In this highly politicized country, we need to remember this psalm’s council concerning “princes,” regardless of the political party they represent. The one and only source of true justice in this world is the Lord; all other systems simply fall short, even when we “idolize” them, and, perhaps, precisely because we do!
Notice that what began in first person plural has become the sole voice of the author. “Little children,” is a phrase 1 John will use seven times in this letter, revealing both his affection and his sense of pastoral responsibility for the congregations in their troubles. The theme of walking in the light and remaining in it is demanding in a world where sin is ever-present and takes us captive, unaware. John is writing, not only to keep them from intentional sin, but unintentional as well, so that they may know when they do, that they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Notice that in John’s gospel, the Advocate is the Holy Spirit. Here, that word is applied to Jesus, though not as a title. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours alone, but for the whole world. That said, the way to know him is to obey his commandments. Those who say they know him but do not obey his commandments are liars. In such a one, no truth exists whatsoever. But, for those who do obey, in them the love of God reaches perfection. It is by this that we may be sure that we are in him. If we say, “I abide in him,” then we must walk as he walked. This is not new, but the old commandment, the word from Christ that they have already heard and heard from the beginning of becoming his followers. They are to love one another as he loves them (John 13:34; 15:12, 17). John will now elaborate, in light of what has been said about walking in the light, to the point that it is a new commandment. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.” The commandment here is directed to those within the community, not beyond it, and whoever hates another believer is in the dark, walks in the dark, and has been blinded by it.
As Jesus is no longer in the world, but coming to the Father, he asks that his disciples be protected in his name, so that they may be one as Jesus and the Father are one. While with them, not one of them has been lost, save the one who was destined to be lost. Now that Jesus is coming to the Father, he speaks these things openly so that their joy may be complete. He has given them the Father’s word and the world has hated them for it, just as it has hated Jesus for it. Jesus does not ask that the disciples be taken out of the world, but rather, he asks that the Father protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. Therefore, “Sanctify them in the truth”—God’s word is truth. As the Father has sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends his followers into the world. Both have been sanctified (set apart) to do God’s work. Jesus sanctifies himself (sets himself apart) so that they too may be set apart (sanctified) in God’s truth.
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.