Friday, October 24, 2014
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 35; Revelation 9:13-21; Luke 10:38-42
The Lord is taking the people to court for their infidelity and calls upon the mountain and foundations of the earth to be witnesses. With the plaintive, “O my people, what have I done to you?” the text begins a series of rhetorical questions remembering how the Lord has intervened again and again on Israel’s behalf. The court scene then turns to judgment on their worship, asking what it is the Lord most needs from the people. “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?” Not burnt offerings, not calves a year old, not a thousand rams or ten thousand rivers of oil—the massive numbers are exaggerations for effect. “My first born,” is the condemnation of the practice of child sacrifice that was practiced by people surrounding the Israelites, and took place in Israel on occasion (Judges 11:29-40; 2 Kings 3:26-27; 16:1-4; 21:6). The text then reaches its zenith with its resounding “No!” “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what the Lord requires: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” Some suggest that the last phrase is better translated, “walk wisely with your God.” This is the hallmark of the book of Micah and one of the high-water marks of all biblical prophecy regarding the religious life the Lord expects of his people.
Psalm 35 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies and is filled with petitions for the Lord to rise up, to act, to see, to put to shame and to dishonor those who seek the psalmist’s life. “Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers” is a vivid request, not only for protection, but for the enemy to be utterly destroyed. The language is familiar in the way it describes the psalmist’s distress and enemies, and it falls into three broad categories: those who plan evil in secret against him, those who lie and bear false witness maliciously against him, and those who are treacherous and hate him. Each of these sections ends with a petition: “let ruin come on them unaware,” “How long, O Lord? Rescue me.” “Put to shame all those who rejoice in my calamity.” Then each petition is followed by a vow of loyalty and praise. The psalmist even includes his supporters in his petition, asking that they be able to shout for joy and be glad, evermore able to say, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant.” As is often the case with such psalms of petition, it ends promising that, upon deliverance, his tongue shall tell of God’s righteousness and sing God’s praise all day long.
The sixth trumpet is blown and a voice from the horns of the altar tells the angel to release the four angels of death that are bound at the great river Euphrates. Having been held at the ready for this moment, they are released and kill a third of humankind. Their cavalry is massive in number, and they are portrayed with vivid images of destruction: breastplates of the color of fire, their horses’ heads like those of devouring lions breathing smoke, sulfur and fire, the horses’ tails like serpents inflicting harm. Behind this lies the empire’s fear of the Parthian barbarian hordes east of the Euphrates that the Romans were never able to conquer. But the remaining two-thirds of humanity do not repent or give up worshipping demons and idols, or turn away from their murdering, sorceries, fornications or thefts. Notice that throughout this judgment section of the book, the judgment comes creating opportunities for those spared to repent, but they do not; their evil only increases.
Luke introduces us to the sisters, Mary and Martha, who welcome Jesus into their home. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet in deep devotion, while Martha scurries about the household attending to matters of hospitality. In utter frustration at being left to do all the work by herself, Martha complains to Jesus, clearly expecting him to tell Mary to join her in preparation for a meal. Jesus replies that while Martha has allowed herself to become distracted and worried by many things, only one is needed—devotion to him. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her. This story is not about the value of the contemplative life over the active one, as it has so often been misinterpreted, but rather, is told to warn the readers of this Gospel about the worries and distractions that get in the way of their devotion to Jesus. Also notice the sub-theme of women as Jesus’ disciples.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Micah 5:1-4; 10-15; Psalm 37:18-40; Revelation 9:1-12; Luke 10:25-37
Jerusalem is under siege, its king being humiliated. But from Bethlehem, David’s birthplace, will come a new ruler, like David, who will liberate Israel and restore its strength and prosperity. He will be an authentic shepherd (recurring image for faithful king ruling on behalf of the Lord), and his name will be great throughout the earth as a man of peace. When this was not ultimately fulfilled upon return from the exile, this became one of the texts that fueled messianic expectation. Matthew cites it when the Magi come to Herod looking for the new king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-7). Today’s reading skips two sections which scholars believe to be later additions: verses 5b-6, appear to be a war hymn asserting Judah’s triumph over Assyria, and 7-9 portrays Israel as a remnant, surrounded by nations, yet having the ravenous strength of a lion, enabling its hand to be lifted over all its enemies. The reading picks up in verse 10 with “In that day...,” the prophet’s way of shifting to future fulfillment. It best falls directly on verse 5a, and the prophecy of the new Davidic king. When that monarch arrives, all of the false things Israel has depended upon for strength and security: horses, chariots, stronghold, sorcerers, soothsayers, idols, and sacred poles, will be put away and destroyed. God will cut them off, because they are not necessary. Israel’s strength will be the Lord, who will execute vengeance upon all of Israel’s enemies. The prophets regularly challenged reliance on military might as a sign that the people did not trust the Lord to protect them. The reference to idols and sacred poles reveals the same mixture of Baalism with Yahwism that brought down the Northern kingdom.
Psalm 37:18-40: This wisdom psalm continues, affirming that the blameless will not be put to shame, but ever supported and defended by the Lord. The psalm continues in its acrostic structure to contrast the wicked from the righteous in a series of proverbs. The wicked borrow and do not pay back, the generous give and keep giving. Our steps are firm when the Lord delights in our way, and though we stumble we will not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand. Other memorable proverbs complete the theme of the Lord giving prosperity, life and generosity to those who love him and walk in his ways, while the wicked will be cut off forever. “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing. …. Depart from evil and do good; so you shall abide forever. For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. …. Wait for the Lord, and keep his ways, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked. ….The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord, he is their refuge in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked and saves them because they take refuge in him.”
The fifth trumpet is blown and the first woe unfolds. A heavenly messenger is dispatched to open the gates of the underworld, so that its plagues and wickedness can invade the earth and do its damage. The image is that of the locusts in the Egyptian plague, devouring vegetation, but also locusts with a sting in their tail, like that of a scorpion, inflicting pain and suffering so great that the people will long for death, but death will flee from them. Only those sealed with God’s mark upon them will escape this horror. The imagery is vivid, with a mixture of vicious metaphors. The locusts are servants of Abaddon—the Destroyer, the king of the bottomless pit—but their power and time of destruction is limited. With that the first woe is past, but there are two yet to come.
Jesus has been talking about hearing and doing the word, and Luke inserts an episode in which a lawyer interrupts and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the Law of Moses, and the lawyer responds with what we know as the summary of the Law: love the Lord with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commends him for his correct answer and says, “Do this and you will live.” But unable to live with that, the lawyer equivocates and seeks to justify himself by asking, “But who is my neighbor?” It sets the context for the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus begins, “A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho….” The man is nameless, as an expression of all humankind. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infamous for its dangers, and the man succumbs to robbers who strip him, beat him and leave him half dead. A priest comes along and, seeing the man, crosses over to the other side and passes him by. Commentators wonder if this was his way of protecting his status as one free from the taint of anything unclean, for the man certainly appears dead, but Jesus does not comment on it. So, likewise, the Levite, for perhaps the same reasons, but again, that is not Jesus’ concern. He is simply pointing to the fact that two of the most respected people within the community do nothing. When a Samaritan comes along—among the most despised people in Judah—he intervenes. Moved with pity, he goes to the nameless man, pours wine on the wounds to cleanse them and oil to help them heal, and then bandages them. Then, placing the man on the Samaritan’s animal, he brings him to an inn for care, staying the night. When the Samaritan leaves, he pays the innkeeper two days wages and says, “Care for him, and when I return I will repay you for whatever you spend.” Jesus then responds to the lawyer’s question with an oblique question of his own: who of the three behaved like a neighbor? Of course, the one who had pity and showed mercy. Jesus tells him to go and do likewise and shifts the definition of neighbor from that of someone living in close proximity, within one’s family or clan, to one who behaves in mercy toward others, whoever they may be.
Wednesday: October 22
Micah 3:9—4:5; Psalm 119:25-48; Revelation 8:1-13; Luke 10:17-24
Repeating his indictment against the rulers and the priests in Jerusalem, Micah reminds them that they are deceiving themselves when they say, “the Lord is in our midst,” simply because the temple is on Mt. Zion. The judgment is that because of their corruption, Jerusalem will be plowed as a field and become a heap of ruins, its mountain (the temple mount), a wooded height. But in the midst of all that condemnation comes a word of hope: “in the days to come,” more often translated “in the last days” (KJV or, “in the latter days,”—turning this into prophecy about consummation—the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains). All the nations will come saying, “let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that we may learn his ways and walk in his paths.” From this comes the conviction that, in the end, all nations shall recognize Israel’s God is the only God, and shall come to them to learn the Lord’s ways. It is why Judaism has never been invested in evangelism or proselytizing. The deep conviction remains that ultimately all people will see the truth in Zion. Then, words appear in verses one through three that are also on the lips of Isaiah of Jerusalem: “The Lord shall judge between the nations. They shall beat their swords into plow shares and their spears into pruning hooks.” War shall cease, with all of its calamity. None shall be afraid. Each shall enjoy the work of one’s hands and the fruit of one’s own vines. The curious phrase, “for all people shall walk in the name of its god while Israel walks in the name of the Lord forever,” is a recognition that this time has not yet come and still lies on the distant horizon. For now, only Jerusalem will walk in the way of the Lord, but it shall be forever.
Psalm 119:25-48 is the second portion of this, the longest psalm in the Bible, a wisdom psalm composed using the acrostic pattern. Verse 25 begins with the letter D (dalet) with the theme of “the way” of the Lord, praying, “Teach me your statutes. Make me understand the way of your precepts.” As the psalmist’s soul melts away in sorrow, she pleads for God’s word to strengthen her and put “false ways” far away from her. She speaks of clinging to God’s decrees lest she be put to shame. The psalm is filled with rich liturgical language: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” This theme is repeated in various expressions using verbs like “lead,” “turn,” “confirm,” culminating in the psalmist reminding God that she has longed for his precepts and is pleading, “in your righteousness give me life.” The psalm then turns to letter W (Vav) and two new themes emerge: God’s steadfast love comes through the keeping of God’s law, and, rather than restrict, the law brings full life. Its statutes create liberty, delight and reverence, and, so, she meditates on them continually.
The seventh seal is broken, and all falls silent in heaven for about thirty minutes. Seven angels stand before God’s throne and are given seven trumpets. There is in this book a series of “sevens”—the complete number, in which one expects the culmination with the seventh event, such as the breaking of the seventh seal. But, rather than seeing the culmination, it folds into another series of sevens, as the seventh seal folds into seven trumpets. It is the book’s way of saying the culmination is near, but not yet here. In the silence, prayers are being offered by the saints, symbolized by the abundant smoke of incense rising before God’s throne from the golden altar. The silence is broken by the blowing of the first four trumpets (four being the earth number), revealing the troubles on the earth: fire consuming a third of the trees and vegetation, great mountains burning (volcanos?) exploding and dissolving into the sea, stars falling from heaven drying up rivers and streams, and a third of the cosmic lights being extinguished. These seven trumpets are announcing and unleashing seven plagues. As God used plagues to free the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, these plagues are God’s forerunner to the redemption of the world. At the end of the four, there is a brief interlude as an eagle (symbol of wisdom and high intelligence), flies to and fro crying, “Woe, woe, woe” (the number three being the heavenly number, making this a heavenly warning), to the inhabitants of the earth for what is to come as the three angels blow their trumpets.
The seventy return, rejoicing in what has been happening through them in Jesus’ name. Even the demons submit to them! Jesus responds that, as they did their work, he watched Satan fall from heaven, marking the beginning of the decisive defeat of him and all of his forces of evil. Satan no longer stands in God’s presence making accusations against humankind. The limitation of his power in Jesus’ name has already been demonstrated in his own healing work, and now in their own. Jesus then explicates the authority he has given over to them. However, they are not to rejoice in this power, but rather, that their names are written in heaven. And now, Jesus himself turns to rejoicing, offering a prayer of thanksgiving to his Father, that what has heretofore been hidden from human eyes—especially the wise and the intelligent—has now been revealed to infants—such is God’s gracious will. All that is the Father’s has been handed to the Son, and no one knows the Son except the Father or the Father except those the Son chooses to know him. Concluding his thanksgiving, Jesus turns to the disciples and blesses them, telling them many prophets and kings have longed to see what they are now seeing and hearing.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Micah 3:1-8; Psalm 28; Revelation 7:9-17; Luke 10:1-16
Micah turns his judgment against the rulers, nobles, prophets and priests of Jerusalem for their corrupt ways. Those who are responsible for maintaining justice actually hate the good and love the evil, and devour the very people they are to be caring for. When the time comes for them to cry out to the Lord, he will not listen. The prophets lead the people astray, giving their prophecies for hire, promising peace to those who give them something to eat, even where there is no peace, and declaring war on those who have little and therefore cannot put food in the prophets’ mouths. The prophets’ vision shall fail; all will be darkness and night, without any revelation or word from God. On other hand, Micah is filled with power and the spirit of the Lord and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgressions.
Psalm 28 lament’s God’s silence, as the petitioner prays, “Listen Lord, listen, lest I be like those who go down to the pit! Hear the voice of my supplication when I cry to you for help, when I lift my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.” The prayer then turns to reflect on the wicked, pleading, “Do not drag me away with them!” It then calls on God to repay them for their evil work as well as the fact that they do not regard the works of the Lord. God’s judgment is invoked: “Break them down and build them up no more.” Then the psalm makes a shift and blesses the Lord, for he has heard the sound of the psalmist’s pleading (note the tense shift). Therefore, the Lord is blessed as a strength and shield in whom the psalmist’s heart trusts. Helped and given an exultant heart, the psalmist sings songs of thanks and hints at the fact that he may be the king. The final hymn of praise ends with a call for God to save his people, bless his heritage and be their shepherd forever.
The sealing of the 144,000 of Israel is followed by seeing a crowd so large it is innumerable, from all the nations, peoples, tribes and languages of the earth standing before God’s throne, singing a hymn of salvation. Both Israel and the church are now united into one people of God, and together with the angels, elders, and four living creatures, they fall on their faces to worship God. The hymn is a seven-fold blessing: “Glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power and might be to our God forever and ever.” As John stands on looking at the scene, one of the elders approaches him saying, “Who are these robed in white and where have they come from?” When John asks for the answer the elder replies, “These are those who have come out of the great ordeal,” (tribulation in the KJV). They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. This is the only place the “tribulation” is mentioned, and it is clearly a reference to the persecution and martyrdom being experienced in the Roman Empire because of believers’ loyalty to Jesus. These are now before the throne worshiping God day and night under the shelter of his presence. Never again will they know hunger, thirst, nor the heat of the sun. The Lamb is in the center of them as their shepherd, who will guide them to the springs of the waters of life (picking up the image of Jesus in the temple, offering living water to all who seek it [John 7:38], as well as his conversation with the woman at the well, [John 4:10-11]). Not only will they drink this living water and never thirst again, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
As Jesus had sent forth the twelve, he now commissions seventy, or, is it seventy-two? Ancient manuscripts carry two numbers, the latter being what was believed to be the number of nations in the world. The number, seventy-two, witnesses to the fact that the gospel is being sent to every tribe and nation on the earth. The disciples are sent out in pairs to every town and place where Jesus himself intends to go as he makes his way to Jerusalem, or, does Luke mean something far larger than the number seventy-two would imply? The travel instructions are the same as for the twelve (Luke 9:1-5), but now there is the warning and judgment: they are being sent out like lambs among wolves, though those who resist them will meet the same fate as Sodom. This is followed by a series of woes against cities that did not receive them, cities where they had ministered in Galilee but had been rejected. Notice that it includes Capernaum, the center from which Jesus’ Galilean ministry emerged. The section ends with a promise: whoever listens to them listens to Jesus; whoever rejects them rejects Jesus, and whoever rejects Jesus rejects the one who sent him. They are his presence and voice wherever they go.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Micah 2:1-13; Psalm 9; Revelation 7:1-8; Luke 9:51-62
Having “seen” the judgment against Israel for its worship of the Baal and its alliances with Assyria, Micah trains his eye on Judah (Southern Kingdom) and especially its capital Jerusalem, for those within it who are greedy for gain and exploit the financial weakness of neighbors. This is a warning against any who would exploit another’s hardship, especially those who “rob” their property, covet fields and seize houses. The “therefore” in verse 3 introduces God’s judgment: they will be utterly ruined. The property they have seized from the vulnerable among them will be taken from them as they took it from the weak, and be given to foreigners. It is not a good word for those whose business is buying distressed properties, driving the price down, and then restructuring it financially to gain profit—which is profit at other’s expense. Not only will their profit be given to others, they will lose their place in the assembly of the Lord. The people in Jerusalem do not like what they hear and say to Micah, “Do not preach such things here.” Stick to spiritual things, preacher, not politics or business which you do not understand! Micah responds, these are spiritual things; “Is the Lord’s patience exhausted? Are not my words good to those who walk uprightly?” On the other hand, the people in Jerusalem have become an enemy to the people, stripping the robes from the peaceful, driving out women from their homes. Micah is not a false prophet, but speaks the truth. They, on the other hand, want a preacher whose soft words will bring them assurance and peace—someone to preach to them of wine and strong drink. The oracle ends with a word of hope, not to the greedy, but to their victims. The Lord will gather them as he will gather the survivors of Israel and set them in a shepherd’s fold to care for them. The one who breaks out—the Lord—will do so like a king leading them to victory. Scholars puzzle over these last two verses, wondering what they are doing here, and if they are really Micah’s words or those added by another at a later time, perhaps after all of the doom, gloom and judgment of this book have actually come for both Israel and Judah, the former in captivity to Assyria, the later some 250 years later with Judah in captivity in Babylon. Either way, the word is a word of hope, not to the oppressors, but to the oppressed and an expression of the fact that the Lord does not abandon those in need or those who are the victims of economic as well as political oppression.
This acrostic psalm gives thanks to the Lord for continuing protection and salvation. Though it might appear a royal psalm, the enemies being other nations, we never hear the voice of the prayer identified as the king, as it would be in a royal psalm. Rather, it simply focuses on God’s ability to respond, whether “present” or afar, to scatter the wicked and maintain the just person’s cause. The text moves from thanksgiving for God’s wonderful deeds to thanks for deliverance from particular enemies, to praise for the rebuke of other nations and the wicked, to the affirmation that the Lord is enthroned forever and his throne is a throne of judgment. Then, it affirms that the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed who seek him. These he will not forsake. After calling for praise in Zion, the psalmist turns to personal intercession and deliverance from those who hate him. Again, there is recollection of God’s judgment on the nations who have been caught in their own net. The wicked are consigned to Sheol, while the needy shall “not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor taken away,” one of the high and memorial phrases from this psalm. Finally, God is called upon to “Rise Up” and judge the nations and put them in their place—they are only human. “Se’lah,”is a word that calls upon a musical chorus of praise, whether instrumental or vocal, from the temple musicians. Because this is an acrostic psalm, beginning each successive section with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the flow of ideas can seem a bit jumbled. It can seem two psalms that have been joined into one: the first a psalm of thanksgiving, the second a petition for help. And, because psalm 10 has no introductory material, some believe Psalm 9 and Psalm 10 were originally one. In fact, they appear as one in both the Greek Septuagint and the Roman Catholic Vulgate Bibles.
We have suddenly jumped into the Book of Revelation. Though we have read earlier portions of it prior to now, those readings have been episodic. Consequently, it will be good to review what has happened before today’s reading. The opening chapters witness to Christ’s presence in and among the churches, speaking to them messages of hope as well as correction. Chapter 4 introduces God’s judgment on “the Great city,” (Rome), which will continue through the emergence of the “Holy City,” (the New Jerusalem) in chapter 21. So, we are squarely in the middle of the judgment section. We have been party to the worship that takes place in heaven: praise to God as creator of all, praise to the Lamb as the redeemer of all, and the opening of the seven-sealed scroll by the Lion of Judah, the lamb that was slaughtered but now lives and has all power (seven horns) and all sight. Six of the seven seals have been opened, each unveiling their horror and introducing the four horsemen and their judgments: conquest, war, famine and death by plague—the wages of warfare. The fifth seal reveals the martyrs beneath the throne of God crying out “How long, O Lord, before you judge and avenge our blood?” They are each given a white robe (symbol of triumph rather than purity). The sixth seal represents the beginning of the end as the earth, and its cosmic partners begin to disintegrate, and the cosmic order turns to chaos. Today’s lesson gives us an interlude in the destruction as the church is sealed (an ancient term for Christian baptism) and Christians are marked with the gift of endurances. The number of those sealed is symbolic: twelve tribes of Israel multiplied by the twelve apostles times 1000—the apocalyptic number for absolute fullness. As Paul has written in Romans, all Israel is to be redeemed (Romans 11:26).
As the time draws near for Jesus to be “taken up,” he sets his face toward Jerusalem where he knows he must die. Jesus sends messengers ahead of them, to make preparation for their hospitable welcome in the towns and villages along the way. The Samaritans, when they learn that he is headed for Jerusalem (capital of their ancient enemy), rather than Samaria, refuse to receive him. James and John are outraged and want to call down fire from heaven to consume them, but Jesus rebukes them. Notice that, at this point, a portion of the text lies in the footnotes, which seem to be a later theological correction to judgment on the Samaritans, and Jesus’ disclaimer of violence against them. As they make their way to Jerusalem, others want to join him, providing the opportunity for Jesus to talk about the demands of discipleship. Those who offer to follow him need to know that he has no permanent place here to rest, neither will they. When Jesus calls another to follow, he asks permission to first bury his father, to which Jesus says, “This is more important.” “Let the dead bury the dead. As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another is ready to follow but wants to go back and first bid farewell to his family. Jesus responds that no one looking back to old ties is fit for the kingdom of God—even family ties. These are extraordinarily harsh responses. In all probability they were included here by Luke to speak to the church for which his gospel is written. Is it warning about the cost of discipleship, or is it confirmation that the very hardships they are experiencing as Jesus’ disciples have, in fact, been foretold by Jesus, and give witness and confirmation to the fact that they are truly Jesus’ disciples? Probably both!
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.