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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, April 23

Exodus 12:40–51; Psalm 99; 1 Corinthians 15: (29) 30–41; Matt. 28:1–16

Today’s lesson begins by telling us that, upon the Israelite departure, their people had lived in Egypt four hundred thirty years, and it was at the end of that last day that the Lord brought them out. It was a night of vigil and is to remain so for Israelites through all generations. Then, we read further instruction for the observance of Passover: no foreigner shall eat it, but slaves who have been purchased may eat it, but only if or after being circumcised. So, too, for aliens. However, no one simply passing through as a sojourner or a hired servant is welcome at the meal. The meal is to be eaten in one house—it is not a progressive dinner! And, no portion of the roasted lamb is to be taken outside the house, neither are they to break any of its bones. All Israel shall celebrate in their homes at the same time. If an alien wishes to join the meal, he and his sons must first be circumcised. No uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be this one law for all, whether native or alien residing among them. The people do just what the Lord had commanded them through Moses and Aaron. It was on that very day that the Lord brought the Israelites out, company by company (clan by clan, though some suggest that behind this is military imagery.).

Psalm 99 is a psalm of praise that extolls the Lord’s holiness and sovereign power—the mighty King of the universe—who is also a lover of justice. The Lord is enthroned on the cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the temple; let the whole earth quake. For God is not only sovereign in power, but has also established equity, justice and righteousness among Jacob’s people. This, the last of the psalms that praise God as King, was and continues to be used in the church as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and triumphant reign. Because the church of the New Testament regarded the psalms as the work of the prophet David, it quickly understood him to be writing about his greater son, the Messiah. As Moses, Aaron and Samuel all went before the Lord on Israel’s behalf, so also did Christ go into heaven on our behalf. This psalm then blesses God for being forgiving, but also remembers God’s need to avenge wrong doings. The psalm ends, calling on everyone to extoll, praise and worship the Lord at his holy mountain.

Paul continues his argument against those in Corinth who are denying that they will be a resurrection of the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, why are they baptizing on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised, why bother? And why are Paul and his companions putting themselves at risk at every hour? They die daily, trusting in the truth of the resurrection. He finds that, as certain as his boast is in the Corinthians’ faith, it is a boast he makes in Christ Jesus his lord. Why else would Paul have fought with wild animals in the arena at Ephesus? What would he have gained by that, if the dead are not raised? Further, if that is true, then their goal should be to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,”—there is nothing better to live for. Evidently, the reference to eating and drinking is something of a slogan among some in Corinth, who do not believe there is a resurrection; they believe they are free to live as they please. Paul reminds the Corinthians that bad company ruins good morals, and he challenges them to become sober and be in a right frame of mind, sinning no longer. For those in question have no knowledge of God, something Paul says to the Corinthians’ shame; they should have corrected those who are wrong. Paul now goes on to describe the reality of a resurrected body, which is so hard for the Corinthians to comprehend—and not only first century Christians, but twenty-first century ones as well, who continue to try to measure the ways of God with the limitation of our own physics. First, he applies the agricultural image: the seed they sow does not come to life unless it dies. But when it dies, it gives new life that looks both similar but different from the seed that was sown, whether wheat or some other grain. God gives a body to each as God has chosen, and not all bodies are alike. And now, employing the biology of his day, Paul talks about the different kinds of flesh within the animal kingdom. Not all are alike; there are humans, animals, birds, fish and so on. Not content to stop there, Paul moves to astronomy, showing the distinction between heavenly ones, like the sun, moon and stars, to the earth and its glory. Each has its own glory assigned to it by its maker and, though their glory is different, each has a glorified body. The illustration complete, Paul will continue the argument tomorrow.

We turn to the account of the resurrection in Matthew. As the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph rise to go to the tomb. Is this second Mary, Jesus’ mother? In Matthew 13:55, Jesus had two younger brothers named James and Joseph. The third woman who had been with them to witness Jesus’ death, Salome (Mark15:40) the mother of the sons of Zebedee, is not now present. The women do not bring spices or other provisions for anointing Jesus’ dead body; they have simply come to hold vigil. Notice there is no question about having the stone rolled away—they simply want to see the tomb of this man they both so loved. Suddenly, there is a great earthquake, the earth responding to the descent of the angel of the Lord. The angel comes and rolls back the stone and then sits upon it, his appearance like lightning and his clothing white as snow. The guards that have been posted at the tomb are terrified, shake and become like dead men. The angel addresses the women and tells them, “Do not be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised as he said.” The angel then invites them to come inside the tomb to see for themselves the place where he lay. Though they had seen Joseph of Arimathea place Jesus’ dead body there, the tomb was now empty. The angel now tells the woman to go quickly and tell his disciples that he has been raised, just as he said he would, and is going ahead of them to Galilee; there they will see him. The two Marys leave the tomb quickly with a mixture of fear and great joy and run to tell the disciples. But before they can do that, Jesus appears to them and greets them. The women come to him and take hold of his feet to be sure he is real and not a ghost, and they worship him. Jesus repeats the angel’s message, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, there they will see me.” Do not miss the fact that Jesus is talking about those who had abandoned him as his brothers. As the women leave to go to the other disciples, the guards who had been keeping the tomb in surveillance go to the chief priests to tell them all that has happened. The priests quickly confer with the elders, devise a plan and give the soldiers a great deal of money to be co-conspirators. They are to tell whoever asks that Jesus’ disciples came by night and stole the body while they were asleep. The religious leaders promise that if this comes to the governor’s ears, they will satisfy him and keep the guards out of trouble for sleeping on their post. The guards take the money and do as the religious leaders have directed them to do. The lesson ends reminding us that “to this very day, this story is told among the Jews.”

Posted April 23, 2014
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, April 22

Exodus 12:28–39; Psalm 98; 1 Corinthians 15:12–28; Mark 16:9–20

The Israelites do what Moses has told them was necessary to escape the Lords’ avenging angel of death. At midnight the Lord strikes down all the firstborn in the land, beginning with Pharaoh and his household to the lowly prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon. All firstborn are killed, including the livestock. A great cry emerges and Pharaoh awakens to hear it. Pharaoh, in spite of his previous warning, summons Moses and Aaron and tells them, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites. Go, worship the Lord and take your flocks and herds with you, and be gone.” Pharaoh then asks Moses to bring a blessing on him. With not one Egyptian household spared, the Egyptians urge the Israelites to leave as soon as possible or else, all Egyptians will be dead. The Israelites take their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks or on their shoulder. Having gone to their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver and clothing, as Moses had told them to do, the Lord gave them favor in the Egyptians’ sight, and they now possessed a great deal of Egypt’s wealth—plundering the Egyptians. The exodus begins in Ramses, Pharaoh’s city, and moves on to Succoth. We are told the crowd numbered 600,000 men, plus women and children, as well as an additional “mixed crowd,” undoubtedly slaves of Pharaoh as well, who took this opportunity to seek freedom. Commentators point out that the numbers are highly exaggerated as that many men with families would range into several million people. And so, it is a number symbolic of the fact that all Israel left, and others with them. They bake their bread unleavened because of the haste with which they have been driven out of Egypt, but they have not made any further provisions for their journey.

“Sing to the Lord a new song!” Psalm 98 calls on all creation to sing joyfully for what the Lord has done—marvelous things! Israel is called to remember the way the Lord has gotten victory for them in the midst of the nations. In their distress, the Lord remembered his steadfast love for them and his faithfulness to them, and has vindicated them in the sight of their captors. All the ends of the earth have seen God’s victory on Israel’s behalf. The earth is especially called to join in the song of praise using all the musical instruments at hand: lyre, lute, trumpets and horns. The personification of aspects of creation is rich and expressive: let the sea roar and all who live in it; let the floods clap their hands and the hills together break into song at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. And when he comes, he will judge the entire world with righteousness, and its peoples with equity. Joy to the world! Isaac Watts paraphrased this psalm into that well-known and deeply loved hymn. Though most think it was written as a Christmas carol, it is really a metrical setting of this psalm.

One of the challenges in the Corinthian church is that there is a vocal group who insists that there is no resurrection of the dead—in all probability, Greeks who considered only the soul worthy of returning to God, whereas Paul, as a good Jew, knows the body is good and capable of sharing life in and with God. And so, Paul launches into an argument that gives us some of his finest thinking on resurrection. Again, he utilized rhetoric to make his point: if Christ is proclaimed as risen from the dead, how can some of them say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised and then Paul’s proclamation has been in vain and their faith in vain. Paul can even be accused of misrepresenting God, if the dead are not raised. Further, if Christ has not been raised, then their faith is futile and they are still in their sin. Those of the community who have died have simply perished. Paul quickly adds, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ; we are of all people most to be pitied. But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first fruit of those who have died in him. Returning to scripture, Paul develops the First Adam-Second Adam typology, saying that as in Adam all die, because of the sin he brought into the world, so in Christ shall all be made alive. But it will happen in God’s own time in God’s own order, first Christ, and then at Christ’s coming, all who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom he is reigning over to his Father. But Christ must reign until he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power that resists his reign. He must do so until he has put all of his enemies in his royal subjection (under his feet). The last of these enemies is death itself. God has put all things in subjection to Christ so that he may defeat them. Paul quickly realized that his “all things” could be misconstrued to mean God as well, and so adds that it is plain that it does not include the One who has made all things subject to Christ. And, when all things are finally subject to Christ, then he, the Son, will hand them all over to the Father, including himself, so that God may be all in all. If the Corinthians are not impressed or moved by this theological explanation, Paul turns very practical: if this is not all true, why are some of the Corinthians receiving baptism on behalf of those who died outside of Christ? If the dead are not raised, why are these people bothering with that? How widespread proxy baptism was in the early church is not known or witnessed to except in this brief comment by Paul.

Today, we read three alternate endings to the gospel written by people other than Mark. The first, a short synopsis that says the women ultimately did what they were commanded and, afterward, Jesus himself sent them out, from east to west with “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Both style and vocabulary make it clear this is not Mark. A longer ending, verses 9 through 20, has also been attached in later editions of the gospel (and remember that we have no original copy of it, only copies of copies, all with their own variations). Here, the women have yet to say anything until Jesus, on that same resurrection morning, appears to Mary Magdalene (as he does in John’s gospel), and she goes forth to tell the others, who are mourning and weeping, and who, when told refuse to believe her (again as is the case in the other three gospels). Then Jesus appears to two disciples, as he does in the Emmaus Road account in Luke. Later that same day he appears among the eleven as they are sitting at table and upbraids them, again, as he does in both Luke and John, then sends them forth with the commission similar to that in Matthew, with the addition that this is to “the whole creation.” Added are missionary words that “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” Added to that are the signs that were common in the Book of Acts: casting out demons in Jesus’ name, speaking new tongues. They will pick up snakes in their hands, as Paul had shaken off the viper, and if they drink anything deadly, it will not hurt them. They will lay hands on the sick and they will recover. Verses 19 and 20 then bring a full confessional summary to the gospel’s conclusion: after speaking this way to them Jesus is taken up into heaven and sits down at the right hand of God. The disciples go out and proclaim the good news everywhere, while the Lord works with them and confirms the message by the signs that accompanied it. Clearly, this last summary is written well into the second century, after the other gospels and Luke’s Book of Acts are in wide circulation, for this appears an attempt to conform Mark to each of them. There is yet a third ending (generally printed under footnote), that is clearly the work of another author, probably even later still, that is inserted after verse 14, when Jesus upbraids them for their lack of faith and stubbornness for not believing him risen even after seeing him. Jesus there attributes it to the work of Satan, and challenges them to “reveal your righteousness now,” announcing that the time of Satan’s power is now fulfilled, but that “other terrible things draw near.” The latter is a reference to the persecutions that will come. It ends with a final charge to faithfulness in the time of hardship that they “may inherit the spiritual and imperishable glory of righteousness that is in heaven." These other three endings give us a glimpse into how the church in the next hundred or so years would read the gospel. In many ways, ending with verse 8 leaves us in a situation similar to theirs, asking us how to tell the rest of the story. Of course, we have four other witnesses: Matthew, Luke, John and Paul (the earliest), each written from his own perspective and purpose, and all affirming Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his disciples. But given what we have learned as we have been reading and reflecting on Mark, and assuming that he did not end at verse 8, but that his original ending is forever lost to us, how would you bring this gospel to its conclusion? Does it have one? Or, is it still unfolding and being written in the lives of Jesus’ disciples—the likes of you and me—today?

Posted April 22, 2014
Monday, April 21, 2014

Daily Reading for Monday, April 21

Exodus 12:14-27; Psalm 97; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

Today’s lesson links the Festival of Unleavened Bread to the Passover. Many scholars think that both festivals predated the Israelite’s time in Egypt—the eating of the lamb as a nocturnal festival during Bedouin days, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread as a spring agriculture feast associated with a harvest. The meal became the commemoration of Passover and took that name, and linking the Festival of Unleavened Bread, made it an extended festival. Our lesson steps back to verse fourteen—the one that links the two as festivals of commemoration—and continues on with the description of the seven day Festival of Unleavened Bread that begins on the day after the Passover feast and continues for seven days. On the first day, they are to remove all leaven from their household, and for the next six days, eat only unleavened bread. Both the first and the last day are days for “solemn assembly” in which the only work to be done is that necessary to prepare the meals. Anyone who eats leavened bread during that time is to be “cut off from the congregation of Israel,” whether they are native or alien. The two festivals linked, the narrative returns to Moses giving instructions for the first Passover. They are to take the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb, and with hyssop, dip it in the blood and then mark the two doorposts and the lintel. When the Lord sees it, he will pass over that house and not let the angel of death enter their house to destroy them. Again, the command is given to make this a “perpetual ordinance” for themselves and their children. When they come into the land the Lord is giving them, they are to keep this ordinance, and when their children ask what it means, they are to be told it is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over their households when he struck down the Egyptians.

Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizes material from other psalms, as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), to construct a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as King. References to lightning and storm challenge the notion that those are the work of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth proclaims God’s glory, but the heavens as well. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but the God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”

Paul now turns to the foundation of the gospel he proclaimed to the Corinthians and which they received, through which they are being saved—notice it is not yet complete but at work in and among them. He then makes it clear that this gospel did not originate with him, but rather Paul “received it”—a technical term in Greek that essentially means “the received tradition.” Of first importance is, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Hebrew scriptures. He was buried but raised on the third day, again, in accordance with the Hebrew scriptures. He appeared to Cephas (Peter’s Aramaic name); then to the twelve—Jesus’ inner circle; then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to his brother James (who was not part of the twelve), and then to “all of the apostles.” By now, the term apostle is not limited to the twelve, but to any Christian missionary sent out to proclaim the gospel. Lastly, he appeared to Paul, who though untimely born (too late to have known Jesus or been his follower). Paul now names himself “the least of the apostles.” But by the grace of God, Paul is what he is, and God’s grace to him has not been in vain, for he has worked harder than any of those he has named. Then, catching himself on the verge of boasting, Paul quickly adds, “but it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Regardless of all this, whether it was Paul, or another of the apostles who followed Paul in Corinth, who proclaimed the gospel to them, it was the same gospel that the have come to believe. 

The three women wait through the sabbath rest and early on Sunday morning, as the sun is rising, they bring spices to the tomb to anoint and properly prepare Jesus’ dead body. Though they wonder between them about who will remove the very large stone that covers the door of the tomb, when they arrive and look up, they see that it has been rolled back. As they enter the tomb, they see a young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side of the tomb and are both amazed and distressed. The young man tells them not to be alarmed; they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” The man then tells the women to return and tell his disciples “and Peter”—notice how Peter is singled out—that Jesus goes before them into Galilee and there they will see him, just as he had promised. The women run from the tomb in a mixture of fear, trembling, and bewildered but ecstatic amazement, and say nothing to anyone, “For they were afraid.” Now, if you are reading a modern translation, the main text stops here. If you are reading one of the King James’ versions, the text continues through verse twenty to the “Amen.” The biblical discipline of textual criticism that emerged between the publishing of the King James’s Authorized Version, and today’s modern translations, has caused most, if not all biblical scholars today to conclude that Mark’s words end at verse eight, and that the other three endings found in various ancient manuscripts are the work of others. But concluding that Mark ends at verse eight raises more questions than it answers. Is this where Mark meant to end his gospel? Why does it not include a resurrection appearance, as do all the other gospels, especially since there are so many hints and suggestions within this gospel that Jesus and the disciples would be reunited after his resurrection? Did the original ending simply get torn off the document and forever lost? Did something happen to Mark so that he could not conclude the work, and others had to do so for him? Tradition tells us that John Mark died a martyr in Alexandria, where he founded the church there, around 68 CE. Others suggest that this is precisely where Mark intended the gospel to close, with everyone in fear, living under the promise that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. Behind this suggestion is the recognition that those to whom this gospel may originally have been written were living in just such fear and, with the exception of perhaps Peter, had not themselves seen Jesus. Jesus would meet them in their moment of need—even doubt—as he had met the others.

Posted April 21, 2014
Sunday, April 20, 2014

Daily Readings for Sunday, April 20

Resurrection of the Lord/Easter

Exodus 12:1–14; Psalm 93; Isa. 51:9–11; John 20:19–23

We return to Exodus. Moses has confronted Pharaoh one last time and warned the monarch that God is about to kill all firstborn in the land because of Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Lord’s people go to worship. Pharaoh has warned Moses that if he ever appears before Pharaoh again, Moses will die. Now the Lord gives Moses, not only instructions for how the Israelites are to protect themselves from the avenging angel of death that will pass through Egypt, but also to establish the meal as a perpetual remembrance of what the Lord has done to free them from bondage. Notice the calendar shift; the month of Nisan (March or April depending upon the lunar calendar’s relationship to the solar one) is to be the first month of the year—they are beginning anew; even the cycle of time is reordered. On the tenth day, they are to select a one-year old male lamb for each household. If the household is too small, it is to join its neighbor in the meal. Instructions are given concerning the animal: it must be spotless, may be either from the sheep or the goats, and when roasted, divided proportionally among those in the household. Each household is to slaughter its lamb at twilight on the 14th of Nisan, and take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and lintel of the house where they are living. They are to eat the roasted animal (notice the prohibition against boiling the meat, which seems to have been a Canaanite custom), and it must be roasted thoroughly—none of it may be raw. They are to eat the animal with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. There is no time for the bread to rise, and the herb is a remembrance of the bitterness of slavery they are leaving behind. The meal is to be eaten hurriedly, and they are to all be dressed for travel, sandals on their feet and staff in hand. Whatever is left over is to be burned. This is the Passover of the Lord. For on this night, the Lord will pass through the land of Egypt, striking down all the first-born, executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt. The Lord seals the promise by announcing his name. When he sees the blood on the doorposts and lintel of the house, the Lord will pass over and the plague will not destroy them as it will destroy the others in Egypt. Today’s reading concludes with instructions that this is to be a perpetual festival to the Lord throughout all generations.

Psalm 93, probably used during the annual enthronement of Israel’s king, is appointed for today, because, in his resurrection, Jesus has become King of kings and Lord of lords. The psalmist praises the majesty, strength and holiness of the Lord—Israel’s true king—and recalls how all creation has been fixed by God and shall not be moved. So too, is God’s throne firmly fixed from of old and is “until everlasting.” Even the floods join their voices in praising God’s majesty. God’s reign is eternal, God’s decrees are sure, and only holiness is suitable for God’s house. In the enthronement, this psalm reminds Israel’s king of who it is who truly reigns in Israel, and to whom he is accountable—the Lord. God is called on to “awake” and put on strength as in the days of old. The one who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon, who dried up the sea and made it go away, so the redeemed could cross over, is called upon to act. Thus, the redeemed of the Lord shall return to Zion. Isaiah 35:10 is quoted: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

In the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John, the women have already been to the tomb to discover it empty, Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, told her not to hold onto him as he had yet to ascend to his Father, but to go to his “brothers” and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary has returned to the others and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” making her the first witness to the resurrection. She tells the others what the risen Jesus had said and done. It is now evening, as the first day of the week comes to a close, and the disciples are gathered back in the house where they have previously met, but now the doors are locked, for fear that Jewish authorities might make the connection and come after them as well. Suddenly, Jesus appears, and standing among them says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows them his hands and his side.” Seeing this, the disciples rejoice. Again, Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you.” He now adds a commission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Saying this, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It is the comforter that he had promised to give to them upon his departure, breathing it into them as God had breathed breath into Adam’s lifeless clay. Jesus then tells them of their mission: it has to do with the forgiveness or retaining of sin, not individual sins, but rather, that which separates humanity from God. As the emerging church, they have the power to continue Jesus’ work of revealing God and God’s presence in the world as they witness to Jesus.

Posted April 20, 2014
Saturday, April 19, 2014

Daily Readings for Saturday, April 19

Holy Saturday/Great Vigil of Easter

Lamentations 3:37–58; Psalm 43; Hebrews 4:1–16; Rom. 8:1–11

Today is a day of mourning in the church, a day for silence, for what can be said? Some traditions even require absolute silence this day, to be broken only by tomorrow’s explosive salutation of the good news. For now, the Lord lies in the tomb, and our lesson offers a backdrop in which to contemplate these great three days.  For this reason, there is no gospel lesson for the day; the Lord of life lies dead in the tomb.  The lamentation gives expression to the theological conviction of God’s sovereignty in all things, even the dispatch of good and bad, and that when bad things come; it is God’s punishment for sin. Who then should complain—they deserve it! That said, the theology here reminds them that in such straights, they are to test and examine their ways and return to the Lord with uplifted hands and heartfelt prayers confessing their transgressions and rebellion, which God has not forgiven. The implication is that God’s wrath does not endure forever, and that he will forgive. But for now, God has wrapped himself with anger, pursuing and killing without pity. God has wrapped a cloud about him to block out their prayers. God has made them filth and rubbish among the peoples—their neighbors. Enemies speak against them, panic and pitfall, devastation and destruction are their lot. The lamenter’s eyes flow rivers of tears, and will do so until the Lord looks down and sees. What the lamenter sees concerning the young women of the city causes him grief. Those who are her enemies, “without cause,” hunt her like a bird. They have flung her into a pit to stone her and, in hurling stones, the waters of death close over her and she says, “I am lost.” In the depths of deepest despair, from the pit, she calls on the name of the Lord and the Lord hears her plea that God not close his ears to her cry for help and relief. The lament now turns a corner, as almost all laments in scripture do, for the Lord hears and says, “Do not fear!” The lesson for the day ends with the confession, “You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life,” words we can well imagine on the lips of Jesus as he says "It is finished."

One might expect Psalm 130 to be appointed for this day; the lament that says, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.” Instead, we read Psalm 43, a petition for God’s help in times of trouble, asking for God’s vindication against the ungodly ones who have behaved in deceitful and unjust ways against her. Affirming her trust in God, she asks why this has happened: “Why have you cast me off?” Then she prays, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me! Isn’t that what we most need when besieged by deceit and injustice? Once led through the treachery of injustice, let God’s light and truth bring her to God’s holy hill in Jerusalem and to God’s dwelling there, the temple. There, she will worship God with exceeding joy and praise him with the harp. After reaffirming her commitments to God, the psalmist turns reflective and asks herself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Her counsel is that universal word that continues to resound throughout scripture: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Yes, this is a difficult time, but God is present within it as her help and will be triumphant. There will come a time beyond this when she will again be filled with joy and praise.

Hebrews, having warned against the dangers of unbelief and its consequences, turns to the promise of entering God’s rest for those who believe. Recalling the Jews’ history, the reader is reminded that the good news came to their ancestors, but it did not benefit them because they were not “united by faith with those who listened.” On the other hand, “we who have believed enter that rest.” Notice that the verb is first person plural, present tense, meaning that we who believe have already entered it, but, it is a continuing reality. The quotation of Psalm 95:11, in which God, in anger swore, “They shall not enter my rest,” is not only a word of reminder about the past, but also recognition that God’s rest that he took up on the seventh day of creation is still available, though some enter it and others do not. Since it does remain open for some to enter, so too, “today” it is open as Psalm 95:7 confesses in its plea for people to return to the Lord. Had the rest that came to them upon entering the land of promise under Joshua’s leadership been sufficient, David (the psalm), would not have needed to speak of a “today” in which to enter. So, the sabbath rest still remains for the people of God, and those who enter it cease from their labors in order to rest in Gods security, peace and life. Again, the author exhorts his readers to make every effort to enter into God’s rest, so that none fall through disobedience. The writer now makes a statement that has been memorized by countless, but largely misunderstood. “The word of God,” that is living, active, sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces until it divides what seems undividable, and is able to judge our thoughts and intentions, is not the Bible. It is the living Word, Jesus Christ. Before him no creature is hidden, but all are laid naked and bare to the eyes of him to whom each must render an account. The Word of God is the judge at the end of history. That said; let us remember that he is also our great high priest who has entered through the heavens into the presence of the Father. So hold fast to our confession, for he sits there at the Father’s right hand as one who has been tested in every regard as we are, yet without sin. He is not unsympathetic to our plight. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace (notice it is grace and not judgment) with boldness, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. This last phrase is often used as a call to prayer in Reformed liturgies, especially prayers of confession.

We are at the high water mark of Paul’s theology in the letter to the Romans: there is no condemnation for those who are joined to Christ Jesus, because God has done in Christ what the law, weakened by human flesh, could not do for us. By sending his son in the flesh, Christ dealt with sin, and condemned it in his own flesh, so that what the law was designed to produce might be fulfilled in any who walk, not by the flesh but by the Spirit. It is then, a matter of mindset! Set the mind on the flesh (sin and its ways) and the result is always death. Set the mind on the Spirit (God and God’s ways) and the result is life and peace. The former is hostile to God; it cannot possibly submit to the law, much less keep it, and, therefore, simply cannot please God. But in Christ, we are not of the flesh but of the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us. And though our bodies are dead because of sin and still susceptible to its power, the Spirit is alive in us because of God’s righteousness. Then Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit which dwells in you.” It is not just a promise about the future beyond death; it is a promise for life now. God is doing in us what you and I cannot do for ourselves, in and through Jesus Christ.

Posted April 19, 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.

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