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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday, December 20, 2014
Isaiah 10:20-27; Psalm 139; Jude 17-25; Luke 3:1-9

On the day that the Lord of Hosts (one of Isaiah’s favorite names for God) acts against Assyria, a remnant will remain in Israel. It will no longer “lean on the one who struck them,” but rather lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel (another favorite name for God in First Isaiah). That remnant will return—a recurring theme in Isaiah of Jerusalem. Quickly, however, Isaiah returns to the theme of destruction; it is decreed because of God’s righteousness. However, those who are God’s people in Zion, are not to be afraid when the Assyrians beat them with rods and demonstrate and exercise authority over them as the Egyptians did during their days in slavery. For in a little while, God’s indignation will be spent and his anger directed toward Assyria’s destruction. The Lord of hosts (“hosts” being a reference to those heavenly beings that surround, serve and go forth to execute God’s warring judgment) will wield a whip against Assyria just as he struck Midian. “His staff over the sea” is a reference to dividing the waters so the children of Israel could escape Pharaoh. “On that day…,” the day of God’s judgment against Assyria, his burden will be removed from them and Assyria’s yoke on Judah will be destroyed.

Psalm 139 explores the wonder and marvelous nature of God with us, who knows us through and through, who loves and cares for us and whose presence is closer to us than we are ourselves. It is one of the most beautiful, intimate prayers in the entire Psalter. There is nothing we can do or say that the Lord does not know. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” God surrounds us and holds us. There is no where we can go or ever find ourselves that God is not also present with us, his hand leading, and his right hand holding us fast. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” It has been thus from our very beginnings, when God was forming our inward parts, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. Reflecting on the miracle of who we are—“fearfully and wonderfully made”—the psalmist stands in awe and wonder. God has known us and has had our days written in his book before the first of them came to be—an expression of the wondrous wisdom and knowledge of God, not a fatalistic notion of human life. God’s ways are so vast they cannot be counted. And suppose they could, God would still be there: “I am still with you.” The prayer closes with a curse that makes many uncomfortable. But, if you read it carefully, it is a calling of God’s vengeance on the wicked, the blood thirsty and malicious who lift themselves against God and God’s ways. He reminds the Lord that he—the psalmist—hates those who hate God, and loathes those who rise up against God and God’s ways. God’s enemies are the psalmist’s enemies, so much so, that he hates them with a “perfect hatred.” In these days, following the tragic shooting of the children in Newtown, the abuse of police power, and the revelation of the use of torture in pursuit of security that has revealed our national hypocrisy concerning human rights, perhaps we too can offer these words as an expression of our horror at those who have betrayed us, for whatever reason, and invoke God’s curse on such behavior. The psalm ends in the wonder with which it began: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way that is everlasting.”

This brief letter, written either by Jesus’ brother Jude, or by another in Jude’s name (scholars debate the question), seems directed to a specific Jewish-Christian community that is being besieged by false teachers similar to those afflicting the churches to whom 2 Peter is written. In fact, a large portion of Jude is a source for 2Peter, causing scholars to think of Jude as one of the earlier letters written somewhere in the middle of the 1st century. The issues are the same: the false teachers have brought their licentious behavior into the church’s worship (love feasts of vs 12) under the egis of “freedom from the law”—a distortion of Paul’s teaching about freedom in Christ—and are creating chaos and leading many to destruction. Our lesson today is the concluding section that exhorts the beloved believers to remember that all of this was predicted by the apostles (the term here causes some to see the author as a second generation Christian), who warned that in the last time there would be scoffers who, devoid of the Spirit, would simply indulge in their own lusts and cause division. The believers, on the other hand, are to build themselves up in their most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep themselves in the love of God, and look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. Then, the letter turns to how to deal with the false teachers. Notice the gentleness and mercy that are to be the foundation of their discipline for those who are wavering. “Snatching them out of the fire,” implies the judgment awaiting those involved. Even those most deeply ensnared are to be treated with mercy, while hating their deeds. But, they must exercise care that they too not be drawn into the sinful behavior, hating even the clothing defiled by their infamous behavior. In baptism, they were clothed in Christ; they must not let the filth of others’ garments defile them. The letter ends with an ascription of praise to “the one who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing. It is still addressed to “God our Savior,” (rather than “Christ our Savior, as it would if it were written at a later time), “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” To God, through Christ, be “glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time and now and forever.” This is the God who was, who is, and who is to come.

We turn to Luke’s portrayal of John the Baptist. Ever the historian, Luke gives us an elaborate list of names by which to date John’s entrance onto the scene, somewhere around 28-29 CE. Luke, of the gospel writers, gives the most attention to John, interweaving his life and ministry with that of Jesus, beginning right from their conceptions. More than a voice crying in the wilderness, John is a “prophet of the most high,” (1.76) who prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry. Important here is what is said at the end of the historical markers: “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.” A prophetic call has taken place, and John is now responding as he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke includes the prophecy of Isaiah, but in fuller terms to incorporate “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” He omits references to John’s clothing and diet to introduce this as God’s work for Israel’s restoration. The judgments that were leveled against the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew are now leveled against all who come out to John. They have come out to him to be baptized, having heard the warning. But this is not enough. They must now bear fruit worthy of the repentance into which they have been baptized. This is not simply a ritual cleansing from past sins. This is an entrance into a new way of life. The same warning is issued about the ax lying at the root of the tree. Those that do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Posted December 20, 2014
Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014
Isaiah 10:5-19; Psalm 54; 2 Peter 2:17-22; Matthew 11:2-15

The Lord has used Assyria to accomplish his judgment against Israel and Judah, but Assyria has forgotten that it too is the Lord’s servant and has come to think of all this victory as the result of its own power and might. God used them as a club to express his fury. God commanded Assyria to express God’s wrath, to take spoil and seize plunder and tread Israel down. But Assyria had something else in mind—the assertion of its own sovereignty. Having conquered Syria and the Northern Kingdom and having flooded Judah up to Jerusalem, it decided to try and take Jerusalem as well. But Jerusalem is God’s possession and, as such, is not to be taken. It belongs to the Holy One of Israel. Should the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it? Should the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it? Assyria is a rod in the Lord’s hand. The Lord will send a wasting sickness among its warriors. The light of Israel will become a burning fire and devour and burn in one day those set against Jerusalem. But, the devouring fire shall consume the glory of the forest and the fruitful land, as the Lord destroys both soul and body. There will be a remnant of the trees of the forest, but so few that a child will be able to write down their number.

Psalm 54 records a prayer of trust from David when Saul was seeking his life (1 Samuel 23:19), and offers a model of prayer for any who are in trouble. “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.” The insolent have risen against him, the heartless seek his life; their disdain for God and God’s ways and judgments enables them to pursue the psalmist with such ruthlessness. Then, the psalm voices its faith and trust in God—“Surely, God is my helper, the upholder of my life.” Vengeance is left to God—“Surely he will repay my enemies for their evil.” Notice that this conviction is based upon God’s faithfulness! God not only rescues; God cuts off the enemy—the deliverance is complete. The psalm ends with the promise of a freewill offering in the temple, giving thanks to the Lord, for he is good. And now, what the psalmist sought has taken place: The Lord has delivered him from every trouble. The psalmist’s eye has looked in triumph on his enemies, for deliverance is not deliverance until it includes vindication.

The false teachers are “waterless springs and mists driven by a storm.” There is no substance to them or their teaching, and, for them, the deepest darkness has been reserved. Though bombastic in presentation, they speak nonsense. With their licentious desires, they entice people to their teachings about freedom and, thereby, further enslave them. It would have been far better that these had never heard the gospel in the first place than to hear it and leave it behind for the corruption that now has mastered them. They have become like the dog of the proverb (26:11), or a sow who bathes in mud.

Matthew’s focus on John and his ministry now cuts away to that time when John has been imprisoned by Herod. Having heard what Jesus is doing and how different Jesus’ behavior is from John’s own, John has his disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah and his vision of what God’s reign looks like: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus then pronounces a blessing on anyone who takes no offense at him. Can John and his disciples receive this blessing? As John’s disciples return to their master with Jesus’ words, Jesus speaks to the crowds about John. What is it they went out into the wilderness to see? Someone dressed in soft robes like Herod whose palace was in the wilderness. Did they go looking for a reed shaken by the wind—the reed itself a symbol of Herod’s reign? Did they go looking for a prophet? Yes, a prophet, but more than a prophet. And now, Jesus quotes Isaiah as well, identifying John as the forerunner who has come to prepare the way. Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John. Yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.

Posted December 19, 2014
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014
Isaiah 9:18-10:4; Psalm 60; 2 Peter 2:10b-16; Mathew 3:1-12

The description of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, continues. Their wickedness was consumed by fire and, in the end, the tribes of the Northern Kingdom turned against one another. Total anarchy emerged. At chapter ten, the description turns to a lament warning the Southern Kingdom, Judah, that the same judgment awaits them if they do not change their ways. Through their iniquitous decrees, they have created elaborate legal systems to enable them to take unfair advantage of widows and orphans and turn aside those who are in need of justice. But what will they do on the day of punishment? To whom will they flee, and where will they leave their wealth but behind? The Lord’s anger at their injustice has not turned away; his hand is outstretched still.

Psalm 60 is both a lament and a plea for God to act: The nation has suffered a military defeat and the psalmist confesses that God has turned against them and is no longer going out with the army to assure its victory. There is no “Why?” but simply the confession that this is so. God has broken the defenses, and has been angry. And now the direct plea: “Now restore us! God has set up a place of safety out of bow shot. “Answer those whom you love so that we may be rescued.” Notice that, again, the emphasis is less on the people’s love and loyalty to God than God being reminded of his covenant love for David. There follows an oracle that affirms that all lands belong to God, who has apportioned them to his design. The tribes are claimed with Ephraim (dominant northern tribe) God’s helmet and Judah, the site of the capital, God’s scepter. Moab, Edom and Philistia are listed but named with terms of derision, with the semitic insult of hurling a shoe. The psalm ends with a plaintive rhetorical plea: “Who will bring me to the fortified city?” God no longer goes out with the armies. It ends with a plea, a confession and a final word of hope: Grant us help, for human help is worthless. “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.”

The false teachers among the churches are characterized as bold, willful slanderers. Not even the angels dare such things. These enemies among them are like irrational animals that will ultimately be destroyed. These teachers have brought with them licentiousness, born of their conviction that freedom in Christ means freedom to do as they please. They carouse in the daytime and revel in their pleasure and dissipation at night. They constantly look for someone to consume sexually, with adultery ever in their eyes. Their hearts are trained with greed. They have brought all of this into the assemblies of the churches as they gather in the evenings for worship. The false teachers have left the straight path for the road of Balaam, the prophet who attempted to curse Israel for financial gain, but was restrained by his talking donkey. They, too, are false prophets who love the wages of doing wrong.

We turn today to Matthews’s portrayal of John the Baptist and his prophetic word for the people to repent, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew identifies John directly with the words of Second Isaiah, as the voice of one crying in the wilderness (40:3). However, for Second Isaiah, the emphasis is upon preparing the way in the wilderness for the exiled Children of Israel to return to Jerusalem. Matthew shifts the focus on the wilderness to the place of John’s ministry, with the emphasis on preparation. As in Mark, John is portrayed in ascetic terms that remind us of Elijah. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea are going out to him, as well as those along the region of the Jordan, there to be baptized in the river as they confess their sins. Among these are many Pharisees and Sadducees. Upon seeing them, John erupts into curses, denouncing the religious leaders with threats of wrath to come. They are to bear fruit worthy of repentance and not assume that because they are children of Abraham that God does not also expect lives of righteous faithfulness from them. After all, God is able to raise up from the stones children for Abraham. The ax is lying at the root of the tree ready to cut down all that fail to bear good fruit, regardless of their ancestry or public piety. John baptizes with water for repentance. But, one more powerful than John is coming after him. John is not even worthy to carry his sandals. The coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire—the latter to purge and the former to restore. He has his winnowing fork in hand to sort the wheat from the chaff. The former will be gathered into the granary, while the latter will be consumed with unquenchable fire.

Posted December 18, 2014
Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Isaiah 9:8-17; Psalm 53; 2 Peter 2:1-10a; Mark 1:1-8

The fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria is recalled as a warning to Judah. The Lord sent warnings to the people of Ephraim and Samaria through natural disasters but, in their pride and arrogance, they ignored them, rebuilt and continued in their idolatrous ways. Consequently, the Lord raised up adversaries against them: Assyria from the East and Philistia from the west. (As the Assyrians moved against the Syro-Ephraimite coalition, the Philistines used it as an opportunity to raid and capture outlying villages in the south and west.) Yet, the people did not return to or seek the Lord of Hosts. So, he used Assyria to cut off the head and Philistia to cut off the tail of Israel—the elders and dignitaries on the one hand, and their false prophets on the other. It is these who led the people astray. The Lord did not have pity on any of them, because everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly.

Psalm 53 is a variation on Psalm 14 and is almost identical with it, except that this psalm uses the more generic word Elohim for “God,” rather than the divine name Yahweh traditionally rendered “The Lord.” It derides and names as “fool” those who deny God’s existence and behave in godless ways. Corruption and other abominable behaviors emerge from them, and none of them are able to do good. But God looks from heaven in search of the wise, defined as those who seek after him. The assessment is bitter: all have fallen away, all are perverse, no one does good, “no, not one.” Whereas Psalm 14 identifies God on the side of the righteous and the poor, neither is mentioned here. Rather, the focus is on God’s judgment on the fools. God will scatter their bones and put them to shame. The psalm ends with the very same plea of Psalm 14 that deliverance would come from Zion with God restoring the fortunes of the people.

The author continues his attack on the false teachers among them, equating them to the false prophets in Israel’s history. (Much of this section matches Jude 4-16, and is thought to have been taken from it.) There follows three biblical illustrations of God’s judgment and punishment of those who led people into rebellion and licentious behavior as they maligned the truth. The first is God’s judgment on the rebellious angels, only vaguely alluded to in Genesis 6:1-4, but more fully amplified in 1 Enoch. The second is God’s judgment during the flood, rescuing Noah, the “herald of righteousness.” The third is God’s rescue of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial and keep the unrighteous under punishment—especially those who indulge in depraved lust and who despise authority.

The Gospel of Mark is the first of the four to have been written, several generations after the events, probably for the church in Rome, somewhere between 65 and 75 CE, during the reign of Nero when the church first experienced persecution from the government. It presents Jesus Christ the Son of God, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, and fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptizer. John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He is presented as the reappearance of the prophet Elijah, clothed with camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Yet, John proclaims the coming of one more powerful than himself, who will baptize, not with water alone, as John does, but with the Spirit and power of God.

Posted December 17, 2014
Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Isaiah 9:1-7; Psalm 47; 2 Peter 1:12-21; Luke 22:54-69

Today’s lesson is most familiar because we hear it each Christmas Eve as part of the liturgy celebrating the birth of Christ. The early church looked upon this as an oracle announcing the birth of Christ. In its original context, it is a hymn of praise offered to God on the occasion of a major event in Jerusalem in which God has intervened to save them. Scholars suggest that it was near the end of the Syro-Ephraimatic war of 734 BCE, when Assyria came to Judah’s rescue defeating the northern coalition. The great light that has been seen is the emergence of a royal son—either by birth or coronation—scholars disagree on that. In all probability, it is the birth of King Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah. Whether the occasion is his birth or his coronation, all is seen as God’s doing as the initial words of thanksgiving and praise are addressed to the Lord (Yahweh). The Lord has broken the yoke of burden on Judah’s shoulder. All the implements of warfare are now to be burned as fuel, for they are no longer needed. The reason for the rejoicing is the royal child continuing the Davidic reign. The names assigned to him speak of his gifts and his relationship to God as the Lord’s servant and viceroy ruling Judah on God’s behalf. The hymn envisions the reestablishment of the glory of David and the gift of endless peace. The reign will be characterized by justice and righteousness and will be for evermore. All of this is the work of the Lord of Hosts. The power of the prophetic poetry is such that it is easy to see how the text took on Messianic dimensions after the destruction of the monarchy in 587 BCE.

Psalm 47 celebrates God’s reign over all the earth. It is a hymn of praise that may have been used during a festival commemorating God’s covenant with Israel, and calls on the people to celebrate God’s ritual enthronement. It remembers how the Lord, the Most High, is God of the gods, awesome and king over all the earth—not just Israel. Not only has God subdued the nations, the Lord has chosen Israel as his heritage, “the pride of Jacob whom he loves.” “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.” All are called upon to sing praise to God as king. “Our King is King of all the earth.” The phrase, “God has gone up with a shout,” caused the church to associate this with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, while “with the sounds of a trumpet” suggests this was used as part of the liturgy for Rosh ha-Shanah, when the ram’s horn is blown to announce the new year.

The author now tells those reading why he is writing: to remind them of what they already know and to continue to establish them in the truth first conveyed to them, which is now being challenged by false teachers among them. Knowing his death is near, he will do his best to insure that they know and can recall the truth. The message he and his colleagues have preached about “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,”—the teaching that is being questioned—is not myth. He then reasserts his apostolic credentials, reminding them that he was present at and eyewitness to the transfiguration. Not only do he and his apostolic colleague have the prophetic message (reference to Old Testament witness), it is actually more fully confirmed in him because of their authority. Regard it, then, as a lamp shining in the darkness until that day that “the morning star”—a Messianic image applied to Jesus Christ—rises in their hearts. Hold fast to it as light in the darkness until he returns. Finally, the author adds an additional word about prophecy and its interpretation: it did not come by human will, but by the Spirit. Consequently, it cannot be interpreted by human will (as the false teachers are doing, ignoring the apostolic teaching), but only by women and men moved by the Holy Spirit speaking from God.

The arresting party seizes Jesus and leads him to the house of the high priest, and Peter follows in the distance, finally settling in the outer courtyard, next to a fire. In the fire’s light, a servant-girl recognizes him as one of Jesus’ followers, but Peter denies it, saying he does not know Jesus. A bit later, another sees him and says, “You are one of them,” but again Peter denies it. About an hour later, another insists that Peter was with him; his Galilean accent gives him away. Again, Peter loudly denies it, and, at that moment, the cock crows. Jesus turns to look at Peter, who remembers Jesus’ prophetic words about Peter’s three-fold denial, and now Peter leaves the scene weeping bitterly. Jesus has also said he would be mocked, abused and mistreated, and in the lull of the night, that behavior unfolds as the men holding him blindfold him, strike him, and demand that he name his assailant. So they pass the night abusing him. At dawn, the ruling assembly of elders, chief priests and scribes gather and demand that Jesus tell them if he is the Messiah. He replies that even if he does tell them, they will not believe. More, if he questions them, they will not answer. It no longer matters; from now on they will see the Son of Man “seated at the right hand of the power of God” as the risen Lord! At that, the council members ask, “So, you are the Son of God.” He replies, “You say that I am.” Don’t miss this: the chief priest, elders and scribes have just named Jesus the “I am” and have done it of their own accord, but do not yet recognize it. Rather, they think it his own testimony and conclude they need nothing more. They have heard it from his own lips. (The daily lectionary now leaves the continuing reading of Luke.)

Posted December 16, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

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.

© 2014