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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Jeremiah 17:5-10, 14-17; Psalm 5; Philippians 4:1-13; Luke 21:1-38

Threats of God’s punishment dominate the opening of today’s lesson, with a poetic oracle that mirrors Psalm 1 in its “two ways” of life. Those who trust in mere mortals, who trust in their own strength and turn their hearts away from God will be like waterless shrubs in wilderness, cursed when the heat comes. Those who trust in the Lord are blessed, and like trees planted by water, send out roots to the stream. The tree has no reason to fear the heat when it comes. The Lord then pronounces judgment on the human heart—devious above all else and perverse. Who can understand it? The Lord tests both the heart and the mind to give to everyone according to their ways. Skipping over a third voice uttering praise, we come to Jeremiah’s third confession: “Heal me Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my praise.” His words are being rejected as authentic prophecy by the people. Yet, Jeremiah has been a faithful shepherd of God’s word and has not run away from that service. Though he does not desire the fatal day he is proclaiming, it is the word the Lord has given him to speak, and he has spoken it. He pleads that the Lord not become a terror to him, for he has no other refuge in the coming day of disaster.

Psalm 5, traditionally used in Morning Prayer, pleads for God’s protection and care against his enemies. Knowing that God abhors wickedness and the boastful, the psalmist expresses the certainty that, because of God’s steadfast love, he will again be able to enter God’s house to worship, even as he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit and their rebellion is really rebellion against God. Let them bear the fruit of their guilt and fall by their own counsel. On the other hand, let all who take refuge in the Lord rejoice. Let them sing forever. Pleading for the Lord to spread his protection over all who take refuge in him, the psalmist ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care for those who are righteous (in a right relationship with God and one another). Cover them with divine favor as a shield.

Paul brings this letter to his beloved Philippians to a close with words of deep affection and gratitude, exhorting them to faithful living in the interim. They are to stand firm in the faith. They are to be united in the mind of Christ. Quickly, he mentions a conflict between two women in the church, both of whom have struggled beside Paul in his work along with Clement. Paul calls upon his other companions there to work to reconcile the two women who have gotten at cross purposes with one another and are thereby disrupting the church and its witness. He then turns to the theme of rejoicing in the Lord, always. Not only are they to stand firm in Christ, they are to let their joy and gentle quality of life be known to all. Reminding them that the Lord is near, he exhorts them to abandon worry, and, instead, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let their requests be made known to God. In doing so, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep their hearts and their minds centered in Christ Jesus. Think on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise, and then do it! Keep doing the things they have learned from him. Paul now expresses a very personal reason for his own rejoicing in the Philippians: the recently received gift of support that they sent to him, which he mentioned at the beginning of this letter. But in this act of expressing his gratitude, Paul is careful not to appear in any way manipulative. The issue of monetary support was a challenging one, and Paul wants to avoid the allegation that his affection for the Philippians is solely based upon their support of him, or worse, that he tailors his teaching and preaching to please those who provide him support. He is grateful, to be sure. However, he has also learned to be content both in abundance and in need. He has known what it means to be well fed and to go hungry; he has known plenty and want. Most of all, he has learned to be content with what he has in all circumstances because he has learned that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

Jesus has just condemned the corruption of the temple establishment, especially the scribes, calling them, “those who devour widow’s homes.” Looking up, he sees the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also sees a poor widow put in two small copper coins and tells those listening that she has given the greater gift. Others contribute out of their wealth. She has given out of her poverty—giving what she has to live on. Less as a word of admiration for the widow’s stewardship, Jesus is continuing his judgment on a system that would take her gift and feel no responsibility for her in her poverty. Some around him begin to speak about the temple’s magnificence and he reminds them of what he had earlier said at the crest of the Mount of Olives: the days are coming when not one stone of the temple will be left standing on another. “Teacher,” they ask, “when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Jesus first warns them against false messiahs, as many will come in his name. Do not go after them. He then tells them that what is often seen as a sign of the end of the times is not that. Wars and rumors of wars will continue as will conflict between nations; earthquakes, various famines and plagues, and dreadful portents from the heavens will continue. At verse twelve Jesus turns to those who follow him—words that Luke includes here especially for the churches reading this letter—and reminds them that before all of this takes place, they will be arrested and persecuted and handed over to synagogues and prisons, and brought before kings and governors because of his name. They are to see this as an opportunity to testify. They need not worry about what it is they will say in that moment; he will be with them to give them words that none of their opponents can contradict. Even their parents, relatives and friends will betray them. Some of them will be put to death, but not a hair on their heads will perish. By their endurance they will gain their lives. Then, Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem in language reminiscent of the tragedy when Babylon savagely destroyed the city in 587 BCE. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles—God’s agents of destruction—until the gospel reaches them and the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled—remember, Luke is writing to a Gentile church! Thereafter, there will be cosmic signs foretelling the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds with power and great glory. (In Daniel, the Son of Man comes to God; here, Jesus reverses the order and has the Son of Man returning to humanity from God to bring its redemption.) So, when they see these signs, they are to stand up, raise their heads, knowing their redemption is near. He then tells them to read the signs of the times through the parable of the fig tree, promising that this generation will not pass away until all of this has taken place. So, they are to be on guard and not let their hearts become weighed down with the worries of life, lest the day come upon them unexpectedly. They are to remain alert, praying at all times that they may have the strength to escape what will take place, so that they may stand before the Son of Man. With this, Luke brings the temple teachings to a close, reminding us that, daily, Jesus taught in this way, and each evening retired to the Mount of Olives. Every day, the people rose early to get to the temple to listen to him.

Posted April 1, 2015
Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Jeremiah 15:10-21; Psalm 34; Philippians 3:15-21; Luke 20:20—21:4

Jeremiah complains about the course of his life, lamenting his birth, for he has become a “strife and contention to the whole land!” In spite of his upright ways, everyone curses him. The Lord enters the conversation, insisting that he has intervened in Jeremiah’s life for good, even though, in doing so, God has imposed enemies on him. Scholars differ over what verse twelve means, as the Hebrew text is unclear. Is it a warning about the invasion from the north and its inevitability, and, if so, to whom, Jeremiah or the people? Probably the latter as the text goes on to warn that the Lord will give the people up for plunder without price and they will serve their enemies in a land they do not know. Jeremiah now addresses God directly, calling on God for retribution against those who persecute him. It is on the Lord’s account that he suffers as he does. He has consumed God’s word and now it has consumed him. He has not given himself to merrymaking or rejoicing. Under the weight of God’s hand, he has and continues to sit alone, filled with indignation. He asks, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” And then, Jeremiah calls God a deceitful brook: promising water where there is none. God responds, “Return and I will take you back.” For whatever reason, there has been a breach in their relationship. If Jeremiah will utter God’s word to the people—what is precious rather than what is worthless—he will serve as God’s mouth. Though the people turn against Jeremiah, God will make him a fortified wall of bronze. Though the people fight against Jeremiah, they will not prevail, for the Lord is with him. Jeremiah is to continue to do what he has done from the beginning, speak God’s unwelcomed word to the people, warning them of their destruction. The Lord gives Jeremiah this final promise: “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”

Psalm 34 is attributed to David, when he feigned madness before king Abimelech so that the king drove David out, allowing David to escape. It is a wisdom psalm built on an acrostic pattern, each new section beginning with a word that begins with the successive letter of the alphabet and focuses on God’s goodness. It uses a number of Hebrew parallelisms, the first phrase making a statement that the second phrase repeats with different language: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be continually in my mouth.” “O magnified the Lord with me, and let us exalt in his name together.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” These, of course, have been solidly incorporated in the liturgical language of the church, as the Psalter was its first prayer-book. The psalm is testimonial through and through: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me…, look to him and be radiant. …. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” The young are then summoned to listen and learn the fear of the Lord and what it means for their lives. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in sprit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. …. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Whatever the issues are in Philippi that are causing disagreement, Paul urges those who are mature in the faith to be of the same mind (that was in Christ; see 2:5ff). If, in doing that, they find themselves thinking differently about anything, God will reveal the correct answer to them. For now, they must hold fast to what they have already attained—Christ himself. Now he calls on them to join in imitating him in his imitation of Christ and to look for those among them in Philippi who live according to the example they have formerly seen in Paul and his colleagues. For, it seems there are many in the community at Philippi who are abusing their freedom in Christ and, in doing so, actually live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Though Paul has warned them of this before, he does so again, now with tears. Their end will be destruction. Their god is the belly. Is this about food regulations, keeping other practices of the Jewish law, or is it a reference to using their so-called freedom in Christ to pursue all of their sensual appetites, especially the sexual ones for which the Roman-Greco world was so well known? We do not know. What is clear is that Paul understands that their end will be destruction and that the things they glory in now will be their shame. They have set their minds, not on Christ, but on earthly things. Then, taking up the theme of citizenship, so important an image in Philippi where Roman citizenship played such a significant role, Paul reminds them that regardless of whether or not they are Roman citizens (as he is!), their true citizenship is in heaven, from which they are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul does not normally talk about Christ saving in the future, but of what he did on the cross, and this may be Paul’s way of comparing and contrasting the benefits of Christ as Savior over those of the Roman emperors who themselves bore the title “Savior.” That leads Paul into the description of just how Christ will save us: he will transform our humble bodies, such as they are, so that they are conformed to the glory of his own, and will do it by the divine power that is now his and that enables him to make all things subject to himself. To really grasp this section in its fullest meaning, we must keep the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 clearly in mind. Heavenly citizenship means not simply life lived eternally with the risen Christ in some disembodied existence. Rather, it is a form of life free from the constraints of our current physical bodies—whatever those constraints may be—because our bodies will have been transformed into a glory just like Christ’s own, what Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44 calls a “spiritual body.”

The religious leaders know they cannot act against Jesus out of their own authority, for the people consider Jesus a prophet and would rise up against them. Consequently, they begin to look for a way to entrap Jesus with the Roman authorities, so that they might be used to get rid of Jesus. To that end, they send agents to the temple courtyard to spy on Jesus, and do so under the guide of honest questions, attempting to draw him into answers that will damn him with Rome. Notice how they address him: “Teacher.” It is the address of those always outside Jesus’ circle of followers. Their first question has to do with whether it is lawful for Jews to pay tribute (NRSV translates it “taxes”) to the emperor? Taxes are one thing, tribute quite another, though the tribute was paid like a tax—a denarius—equal to one day’s wage. Though not an extraordinary amount, it was a perpetual reminder that the Jews had lost their autonomy as the people of God and now lived under the reign of someone who claimed to be divine. Knowing what they are up to, as Jesus always knows in Luke’s gospel, he requests the coin and asks, “Whose head and inscription does it bear?” The coin had the head of Tiberius imprinted on it with an inscription identifying him as the son of the divine Augustus. Jesus’ famous answer is only partially understood. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” is clear: the coin is his, let him have it. “Give to God the things that are God’s,” is not simply a reminder of who we are to pay tribute to in worship, but more; whose image is stamped on us! Created in the image of God, we are to give ourselves to God alone. Not only are the spies unable to trap Jesus, they are amazed by his answer and fall silent. In their silence some Sadducees ask a question about the resurrection. The Sadducees were a religious party that condemned the oral traditions extrapolated from Torah by the Pharisees and who insisted on the strict letter of the law. Their question is about the resurrection, in which the Pharisees believed but the Sadducees denied. They too call Jesus “Teacher,” and ask their famous question about the woman who in life had been married to seven brothers, but with each of them remained childless. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus responds with an answer that sidesteps their reductio absurdum argument, reminding them that the afterlife is not bound to the constraints of this one. Those worthy of resurrected life neither marry nor are given in marriage, for there is no longer a need to bear children to maintain your identity and heritage as a man or your livelihood as a woman (the fundamental issue behind the institution of the “Levirate marriage” practice assumed in their question). Rather, they are like angels—now living forever—and are children of God because they are children of the resurrection. Having stepped out of their trap, Jesus addresses the more basic question the Sadducees are asking and uses Torah to do so. Quoting God, speaking to Moses at the burning bush, Jesus reminds them that God identified himself in that conversation as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—using the present rather than the past tense to describe the relationship. He was not simply their God then, but is their God now, for to him, all three of them are alive. The Sadducees have been given a proof-text for resurrection from Torah. Some of the scribes, who considered themselves the ultimate in scriptural interpretation, praise Jesus for his answer, thereby trying to maintain their position of superiority. And though Jesus’ other enemies have been silenced, he has more to say. How is it they, the scribes, say the Messiah is David’s son when David himself in Psalm 110:1 said, “The Lord [God] said to my Lord (the latter understood in that day to be the Messiah), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” If David calls the Messiah his “Lord,” how can he be his son? The scribes have nothing to say; they too have been outdone. Jesus turns to his disciples and warns them, and all who are listening, about the scribes. Stay away from them! They are not the authorities they claim to be. Rather, they love to walk about in their long robes, receive greetings of respect in the marketplace, have the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets, but devour widows’ homes, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They are among those who Jesus earlier described, when he was cleaning the temple that have turned the Lord’s house into a den of bandits. Their condemnation will be even greater.

Posted March 31, 2015
Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday, March 30, 2015
Jeremiah 11:18-20; 12:1-17; Psalm 119:73-80; Philippians 3:1-14; Luke 20:1-19

Jeremiah’s life has been threatened. The Lord has shown him his enemies’ evil deeds. Like a gentle lamb he was led to slaughter, but did not know that their evil schemes were against him. He now laments to God about the ways of the people asking, “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruits; you are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts.” As always, it is easier to speak words of faith than live into them. After affirming his own faith and his heart’s faithfulness, Jeremiah pleads, “Pull them out like sheep for slaughter,” “How long will the land mourn for lack of faithfulness and the grass of every field wither?” because of the wickedness of those who live in it. Even the animals and the birds are swept away because the people think the Lord is blind to their ways. God responds with words of challenge and warning that have become classic in ministry: “If you have raced with the foot-runner and he has wearied you, how will you compete with the horse?” Yes, even his own family deals treacherously with him. Though they speak fondly to him, do not believe them. In other words, Jeremiah has not seen anything yet. The Lord has forsaken his house, abandoned his heritage, and given his beloved into the hands of their enemy. God’s heritage has become like a lion in the forest roaring against him. Many kings have deserted the Lord and destroyed God’s beloved vineyard, trampling on God’s prized possession, turning the Lord’s pleasant portion into a desolate wilderness. The land mourns for the Lord, but no one takes it to heart. Spoilers are on the high places ready to invade. They have the sword of the Lord in hand to devour the land from one end of it to the other and no one will be safe. Having sown wheat they will reap thorns; tiring themselves out, they profit nothing and shall be ashamed of their harvest. The poetry now shifts to a prose section that warns the nations on the high places: “I am about to pluck [Judah] up from their land.” After that, God will again have compassion on them and bring them back to their heritage. Then they will diligently learn the Lord’s ways and swear by his name, saying, “As the Lord lives,” as once they taught the people to swear by Baal’s name. When that happens, the Lord will again build them up.

Psalm 119:73-80 is a portion of the longest work in the psalter and acrostic in its construction, each section built on a word beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, unfolding in its descending order and rendered in two line strophes. The psalmist opens this section on Yod (Y), with the affirmation that God has made and fashioned him like a master-builder and pleads for understanding in order to learn God’s commandments. Verses 73 through 80 are an acknowledgement of the justice of God’s ways and a prayer that he may ever walk within them. Those who fear the Lord rejoice in him. They know God’s judgments are right, and, even in moments of humbling, recognize it is God’s faithfulness at work. God’s steadfast love, promise and mercy are our comfort as we delight in God’s law. As for the arrogant, let them be put to shame. As for us, let us be blameless, saying, “May my heart be blameless in thy statutes, that I may not be put to shame.”

Paul warns his beloved congregation in Philippi against the Jewish-Christian missionaries who have been following him, discrediting his preaching, and teaching converts that they must first become Jews to be inheritors of the gospel’s promises. Paul argues that the Philippians are the “true circumcision,” for they worship in the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and place no confidence in the flesh, even though he, as a circumcised Jew, has every reason to place confidence in the flesh. Paul then states his credentials as a faithful Jew: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews (not a convert); as to the law, a Pharisee (the most scrupulous of Jews); as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. They are, frankly, astonishing credentials. Yet, whatever gain Paul had in all that, he regards them as nothing because of Christ. And not only that, but he regards everything—even his apostolic ministry—as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. He regards all that he has lost as so much rubbish, he is glad to be rid of so he can be found in Christ that is, not claiming a righteousness that comes from keeping the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. Paul wants to know nothing more than Christ and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his suffering by becoming like him in his death, if only, somehow, Paul may attain the resurrection from the dead. Paul’s longing for martyrdom may well reflect the conviction of the Book of Revelation that it is only the martyrs who are immediately joined to the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). Or, is Paul not being tentative here, but about to introduce the next theme—the need to continue in life to press on in faith, striving to make Christ his own? Faith is not there to give us such assurance that we fall into lax living; faith creates faithful living. But lest this sound like a Christian form of works righteousness, Paul quickly adds, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Yet, Paul does not think he has arrived. Rather, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

As Jesus is teaching in the temple, the chief priest, scribes and elders (the religious leadership in Jerusalem) arrive and demand to know by what authority he is teaching. Jesus responds that he will tell them if they tell him by what authority John was baptizing—was it from heaven or of human origin? That throws the religious leaders into a quandary. If they say “From heaven,” they know Jesus will challenge them for not having believed John—obviously, they resisted John as much as they are resisting Jesus—and if they say, “from human origin,” the people will stone them, for the people are convinced John was a prophet. When they answer, “We don’t know,” Jesus responds, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” He then turns to the people and tells a parable about wicked tenants who, when the master sent a servant to gather his share of the vineyard’s produce, the tenants beat the servant and sent him away empty handed. So too, with the next servant who was sent to the vineyard tenants. Finally, the owner sent his beloved son, but when the tenants saw him, they killed him so that everything would belong to them. “What,” asks Jesus, “will the owner of the vineyard do to those wicked tenants when he returns? He will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Their response of, “Heaven forbid!” gives expression to the religious authorities’ conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem and its religious establishment, would also mean the destruction of Israel. But Jesus has separated the vineyard from the tenants—only they will be destroyed. Knowing they understand full well that this parable is about them, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and challenges them to discover what it means when it says, “for everyone who falls over that stone will be broken to pieces and all upon whom that stone falls will be crushed into dust.” When the religious leaders hear this, they know he is talking about them. Enraged, they want to kill him right then and there, but they fear the people.

Posted March 30, 2015
Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015 Passion/Palm Sunday

Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 84; 1 Timothy 6:12-16; Matthew 21:12-17

Zechariah is a complex book—two distinct works—made up of many authors. The first wrote at a time when return from exile was taking place and prior to the rededication of the second temple in 515 BCE, and the second from about 450 BCE during the Greco-Persian wars when Israel was a vassal of Persia. Today’s lesson comes from the second part of Zechariah and falls on the heels of an oracle from the Lord that obviously is from an earlier, pre-exilic time when Israel’s enemies were those surrounding her. Our lesson opens with what is the best known text from Zechariah and calls on the daughters of Zion to rejoice, for her king is coming to her. (Handel used this for the magnificent soprano aria “Rejoice” from Messiah.) The image is of a triumphant Messiah who, in spite of being victorious, comes in humility, which is symbolized in the animal he is mounted upon. With his arrival, God will rescue Israel and restore her to full autonomy and power. Israel is addressed as “prisoners of hope,” and told to return to her stronghold, for God is going to restore her double and be her constant guardian. “On that day...;” reminds us that this is still a prophetic oracle; it has yet to happen. It reminds us that the return from Babylon to Israel, when Cyrus set the Jews free, was not a mass exodus, but a slow process and it took considerable time for the returning people to re-establish their lives, their economy and religious life.

Psalm 84 is a reflection on the wonders and gifts of abiding in God’s dwelling place, and one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire collection of one hundred fifty. The well-known psalm, set so masterfully by Brahms in his German requiem, written for the occasion of his mother’s death, celebrates the beauty of the temple as God’s dwelling place among the people, as well as the psalmist’s longing and desire to be in God’s presence there. In the temple all are cared for—even the lowly sparrow and swallow are welcome at God’s altar. It is worth the dangerous and difficult journey, as they go from “strength to strength” on their pilgrimage to Zion and its temple, for a day there in its courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. Better a life of modest service at God’s threshold, than a life of luxury and ease among the wicked. For, the Lord is light and protection, the source of all good for those who walk in God’s ways, and the source of happiness for all who trust in him.

Having been warned that those who seek riches have fallen into many destructive and senseless traps, bringing great harm upon themselves, Timothy is charged to shun all of that for righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. He is to “fight the good fight of faith” and take hold of the eternal life to which he was called when he first made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. This is followed by another confessional extract ending with “Amen.” Just as Jesus made the good confession before Pilate, so too, Timothy is charged to “keep the commandment without spot of blame until “the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which [God] will bring about at the right time.” God is then named confessionally as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, and who no one has ever seen or can see. The lesson ends with an ascription of praise, ascribing honor and eternal dominion to God. The section closes with an “Amen,” giving witness to the fact that, in all probability, Paul is quoting a well-known confession and ascription of praise rather than creating this himself.

Jesus enters the temple, sees what is taking place and drives out those “selling and buying”—those exchanging Roman coins for shekels so the temple offerings could be made in the required form of currency. He disrupts both their business and their worship, quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, and labels the religious establishments corrupt. He then turns to those whose physical infirmities have kept them from the house of prayer—the lame and the blind—and cures them, restoring their temple rights. The children respond, crying out, “Hosanna, Son of David”, which angers the chief priests and scribes who infer that Jesus should stop them. Instead, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2 as justification for their praise and withdraws to Bethany.

Posted March 29, 2015
Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 31; Romans 11:25-36; John 11:28-44

The Lord promises the restoration of Israel and Judah. He will sow it with the seed of humans and animals. Just as the Lord has plucked up and destroyed the people, so too, the Lord shall one day soon plant and watch over them. When that happens, never again will they complain that they are suffering for their parents’ sins. Rather, each shall die for their own sin, and all who eat the sour grapes of sinful behavior shall have their own teeth set on edge. Then, the Lord promises a new covenant that will not be like the first covenant the Lord established through Moses, which the people broke even though the Lord remained their husband through it all. This is the only place in the Old Testament the term “new covenant” is used, and is the touch-stone for the church’s theology about the covenant God has made with the world in Jesus Christ. Unlike the old, this covenant will be written, not on stone tablets, but on the peoples’ hearts—the center of human volition—and the Lord will be their God, and they shall be God’s people. Never again will people need to say to one another, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know the Lord from the least of them to the greatest. The Lord will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

Psalm 31 is both petition and praise and, though identified as a “Psalm of David,” is a composite, echoing phrases from other well-known psalms (Psalm 4:1; 18:19; 27:14; 33:18, 22; 38:15; 69:3; 71:1-3; 115:17; 118:5). It begins with a confession of faith: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me be put to shame;” virtually identical with 71:1-3. God is to respond, not because of the psalmist’s virtue, but for God’s own name’s sake—to preserve God’s reputation! Verse 4 begins to list the reasons for praise and trust: you are my rock, fortress, guide, and redeemer. It then moves to an expression of trust, confessing that God has placed him “in a broad place.” (See Psalm 18:19 and 118:5.) It is followed by a plea for deliverance, followed by an exhortation to wait for the Lord, (See psalms 27:14.) Verse 5 appears on the lips of Jesus as he is dying in Luke 23:46. Images and phrases from other psalter sources abound: “Let your face shine upon me.” “Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord.” “Blessed be the Lord who has shown his steadfast love to me.” It ends with wisdom’s counsel: “The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.” It then adds these injunctions: "Be strong, let your heart take courage,"  to the one so dominant in the psalms: "all you who wait for the Lord.”

Paul now reveals the mystery of God’s ways in Jesus Christ: “A hardening has come upon a part of Israel ….” The passive voice is Paul’s way of avoiding saying that God has done this, yet, what the hardening has done is to allow the Gentiles access to the Gospel. When “the full number of Gentiles has come in,” that hardening will be lifted; the Deliverer will appear and banish all ungodliness from Jacob, and “all Israel will be saved.” This will happen less for Israel’s sake than for the sake of the promise God first made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, for the promises, gifts and calling of God are irrevocable! Once again disobedience has served God’s purposes, and now mercy in Christ can be shown to the Jews just as it has been shown to the Gentiles. God imprisoned all in disobedience in order that God could be merciful to all. The language here is all-encompassing. With nothing more to say, Paul breaks into one of his doxologies, praising God’s wisdom.

After Martha confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the One they have been awaiting, she returns to her sister Mary, and tells her privately, “The Teacher is here and calling for you.” When Mary hears this, she quickly gets up and goes to Jesus. The friends and relatives who have come to console Mary and Martha think Mary is going out to Lazarus’ grave to continue her grieving, and so, they quickly follow her. When Mary comes to Jesus, she kneels at his feet and repeats her sister’s words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus hears this the second time, and sees the grief and weeping around him, John tells us Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The Greek behind those words connote irritation, anger and frustration even more than compassion. He says, “Where have you laid him?” When they show Jesus the grave and he too begins to weep, it is as much in anger and frustration at the work of death as it is love for Lazarus or compassion for his sisters. Though some in the crowd see this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, others use it as an occasion for criticism. After all, if he opened the eyes of the man born blind, as he had done earlier in the temple, certainly he could have healed Lazarus and kept him from dying. Still irritated and angry, Jesus approaches the tomb, a cave with a stone over its mouth, and says, “Take the stone away.” Martha is shocked; her brother has been dead for four days and his body has begun to decay—there will be a stench. Driven by the same emotions that have brought him to tears, Jesus says to her (and hear it as a stern word of his intention, not one of comfort), “Did I not tell you that if you believed you should see the glory of God?” She has already professed her belief in him; he is ready to act. As others take the stone away, Jesus engages in audible prayer, thanking his Father for having heard him. It is clearly his way of giving expression to the fact that what is about to happen is the work of his Father in and through him, and he says as much in the prayer. The prayer over, Jesus cries out in a loud voice and commands Lazarus to come out of the cave and Lazarus does, his body still constrained by the strips of cloth used to wrap his body and cover his face in burial. It is the same clothing that Jesus will leave behind in the tomb at his resurrection. Notice Lazarus is not called by name, but only “the dead man,” lest there be some suggestion that he had not been dead, or that this was only for Lazarus. Jesus then says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Posted March 28, 2015
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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