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Monday, April 27, 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015
Jeremiah 30:1-9; Psalm 115; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 6:1-11

In the midst of Jeremiah proclaiming God’s judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, God brings a different oracle to the prophet and tells him to write the words down in a book—words of God’s love for his people and their ultimate restoration. These words lie at the center of the weeping prophet’s proclamation and portray a time when the exiled communities shall be returned to the land promised to them long ago, so that they may take possession of it. The Lord speaks directly, revealing the panic, terror and lack of peace the people now experience. These words have been spoken before, especially about the people being like a woman in labor, racked by uncontrollable pain that cannot be stopped until new life is brought forth. But now, the object of that pain is not God’s people, but those who hold them in bondage. God will break the yoke on his people’s neck; burst the peoples’ bonds so that they are no longer held as servants of strangers. When that day takes place, God’s people shall serve the Lord their God, and David shall again be raised up for them as their king. Thus, begins a hint of messianic expectation.

Psalm 115 was probably written for use communally and reflects on the greatness of God as the Sovereign One in heaven who rules over the earth. The psalm calls on God to act on the worshippers’ behalf, lest their enemies, the foreign nations, say, “Where is your God?” Where? In heaven, and he does whatever he pleases! The psalm then levels an attack on the idolatrous enemies—probably fellow Jews—who worship idols—things of silver and gold, made of human hands that have mouths, but do not speak; have eyes, but do not see; have ears, but do not hear and so on. Those who make them are exactly like the sightless, deaf and speechless idols they craft; so too are those who worship and place their trust in them. The psalm then calls on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord! The Lord is their help and shield. The exhortation is repeated, probably antiphonally, another two times, followed by a reminder that the Lord has been mindful of his people and will bless them all, great and small—all who fear the Lord. There is then a blessing, perhaps offered by the priest, praying that the Lord give them and their children increase. The heavens are the Lord’s, the earth has been given to humans, and the netherworld belongs to the dead. There, the dead do not praise the Lord. The psalm concludes with the communal affirmation and promise to bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore, ending with “Hallelujah!”

Today, we begin a continuous reading of the Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is in prison, probably in Rome though possibly Ephesus, and is writing to the churches in and around the city of Colossae. Though Paul did not know the Colossians personally, he knew enough about them to write in order to support and encourage them in their devotion to Christ. On the other hand, Paul is concerned with some questionable practices that are seeping into their worship—possibly angel or astral worship. The letter opens in standard epistolary style, with Paul identifying himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” He is accompanied by Timothy. After greetings of “grace and peace from God our Father,” Paul reminds them of his prayers of thanksgiving for them, having heard of their faith in Christ and their love for all the saints. This is because of the hope laid up for them in heaven, hope they have heard in the word of truth—the gospel that has come to them. That word is bearing fruit throughout the world, just as it is bearing fruit among them. Paul mentions Epaphras, the founder of the church in Colossae, whom he calls his beloved fellow servant and faithful minister of Christ on their behalf. It is Epaphras who has made the Colossian’s faith and love known to Paul. It is for this reason that, from the day Paul first heard these words, he has not ceased to pray for them, asking that they be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as they bear fruit in every good work while they grow in the knowledge of God. He also prays that they may be strengthened in order to enable them to endure everything with patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued all of them—Paul and Timothy included—from the power of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom they have redemption—the forgiveness of sins.

Walking to the synagogue on the sabbath, Jesus and his followers make their way through a grain field, and, on the way, some of the disciples take the heads of grain in hand, rub them to remove the chaff, and eat the grain. The Pharisees see this and quickly point out that this is a violation of the law which prohibits work on the sabbath. Jesus asks them if they have forgotten how David, when he and his men were at the point of starvation, entered the tabernacle where the table held the Bread of the Presence, given to the Lord and only later eaten by only the priests, took it, ate it, and also gave some of it to his men. His historical point made, Jesus again ups the ante saying, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” That must have left the Pharisees’ heads spinning, wondering what he meant. On another sabbath, Jesus enters the synagogue to teach and there finds a man with a withered right hand—the right one being the acceptable hand for eating, greeting and other public activity. The Pharisees and their scribes have now taken up watch against Jesus and are waiting to see whether he will cure on the sabbath, so that they may finally bring an accusation against him. Jesus, of course, knows precisely what they are thinking and asks the man with the withered hand to approach him. As the man does, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and scribes and asks, “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath, to save life or destroy it?” Which is their piety producing? Looking around the room, Jesus tells the man to hold out his hand, and as he does, it is restored. We can be sure the man rejoiced, and others in the synagogue responded in amazement and wonder, as they always do in Luke’s gospel when Jesus heals. But, the Pharisees are filled with fury and begin discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus. Jesus, for his part, knows that in their so-called religious scrupulosity, the Pharisees and scribes continue to miss God’s redemptive and healing purposes in giving the sabbath in the first place—it is to restore life, not restrict it.

Posted April 27, 2015
Sunday, May 26, 2015

Readings for the Fourth Week of Easter
Sunday, April 26, 2015
Genesis 18:22-33; Psalm 136; 1 Peter 5:1-11; Matthew 7:15-29

The three “men” who appeared to Abraham and Sarah to announce the coming of their child have moved on to Sodom. Abraham has traveled with them as his nephew Lot lives in Sodom. The men reveal the judgment God is bringing on Sodom because of the outcry that has come to him over the people’s behavior there. The men go on but Abraham stands before the Lord and asks if the Lord will sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Suppose there are fifty righteous people within the city—will they be swept away rather than God forgive the city because of the fifty righteous within it? Is that just? The Lord responds that if he finds fifty righteous in the city, he will forgive the whole city—the Lord is not only a God of judgment but a God of compassion. But that is not enough for Abraham, who lowers the number to 45—will the Lord destroy the city because five are lacking, or perhaps even ten? No, the Lord will not destroy it if he finds 45, 40 or even 30 righteous within it. Abraham presses the Lord’s patience one more time—what if only ten among them are righteous? No, for the sake of ten, the Lord will not destroy. Abraham’s haggling with the Lord is over—it is clear that God can be gracious even in the face of great sin. The Lord goes his way and Abraham returns to his tent. Do not let it be missed that ten is the number of men the Talmud requires for a minyan—the basic community necessary to represent God’s people before him in various religious requirements such as corporate worship.

Psalm 136 proclaims that God’s goodness and steadfast love endures forever. This becomes the refrain in a litany of praise extoling God for both who God is and what God has done. The Lord is God of gods and Lord of lords, who alone does great wonders. God made the heavens and earth and all that is within them. God struck Egypt to bring Israel out from their enslavement, divided the Red Sea, made a path through it, overthrew and devoured Pharaoh in the sea, led the people through the wilderness, struck down great kings and gave their land to Israel as a heritage. God remembered them, not only in prosperity, but also in their second bondage and again rescued them from their foes, probably a reference to the Babylonian exile. Citing the Lord as the source of sustenance to all people, the psalm ends with one more title for the Lord: the God of heaven (see Daniel 2:18, 19, 37, and 44) whose steadfast love endures forever.

The author of 1 Peter identifies himself as an elder in the church at Rome and writes to his fellow elders reminding them of their charge: tend the flock of God, exercise oversight, not under compulsion but willingly and not for sordid gain. Rather than “lord it over” those in their charge, they are to be examples, living in humble gratitude for their work. When the chief shepherd of souls appears—shepherd (pastor) being another term for the elders of that day—he will award them a crown of gold. So, too, the younger in the community must accept the elders’ authority. Further, everyone is to clothe themselves in humility, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Those who humble themselves under God’s mighty hand will be exalted in due time. So, they are to cast all their anxiety on him—he cares for them. They are to discipline themselves, keep alert and vigilant. The adversary, the devil, is prowling around seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that the brothers and sisters in the faith are undergoing the same strife. After they have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called them into his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish them. The exhortations end with a doxology blessing God’s power forever and ever. So be it!

Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to conclusion, warning about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. They are not unlike the troublesome missionaries who disrupted many of the Gentile churches of Paul’s day. How can you tell the sheep from the wolves? By their fruits you will know them. One doesn’t gather grapes from thorns or thistles. Only good trees bear good fruit. Further, trees that fail to bear good fruit are ultimately cut down and used for firewood. You will know them by their fruits. For you see, not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into his kingdoms—only those who do the will of his Father in heaven. On judgment day, many will come and say, “Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons and do many deeds of power in your name?” To them, Jesus will say, “Go away from me evildoer, I never knew you!” So, everyone who hears Jesus’ words and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on a rock. When the rains and floods came, the house stood. Those who hear his words and do not act on them are like the fool who builds his house on sand. When the rain and floods came, they washed it away, and its fall was great. Build your life on the rock-solid truth of Jesus’ words. His sermon has astounded those who heard it, for Jesus was teaching, not like the scribes—the official teachers of the law—but as one with authentic authority.

Posted April 26, 2015
Saturday, April 25, 2015

Saturday, April 25, 2015
Daniel 6:16-28; Psalm 23; 3 John 1-15; Luke 5:27-39

The king is trapped by his own decree and the scheming of his jealous subordinate governors. He must place Daniel in the lions’ den. As he does, he publicly issues a plea that Daniel’s God, whom Daniel has faithfully served, deliver him—the point of the book. Daniel is placed in the den, a stone is laid over its door, the king sealing it with his own signet as well as the signets of his governors. Nothing can be changed. Then, the king goes to his palace and spends a sleepless night fasting. At daybreak, the king rises and quickly goes to the lions’ den to inquire about Daniel, who joyfully responds, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O King, I have done nothing wrong.” King Darius rejoices, commands that Daniel be taken out of the den. Daniel is found to have experienced no harm in the night. Then, the king gives the command that the scheming under-lords be thrown into the den, along with their wives and their children, just for good measure (remember, this is a story not history). In good story fashion, all are devoured by the lions before they reached the bottom of the pit. God has rewarded Daniel for his faithfulness under persecution. Daniel has refused the command that he worship someone other than the Lord. The author of the book has made his point again and again, writing to a people in exile or under religious persecution. The story ends with King Darius writing to all peoples, nations and every language through the whole world (remember Daniel 4:1, when King Nebuchadnezzar did the same thing!), not only wishing them abundant prosperity, but making a decree that all people in his royal dominion “should tremble before and fear the God of Daniel.” The book ends with a doxology lauding God’s universal power and the Lord’s protection of his faithful servant Daniel, reminding us that Daniel also prospered under the reign of Cyrus the Persian. We now leave the book of Daniel, as its second half is a series of four apocalyptic visions that will be visited on occasions later in the two-year cycle, when the lessons are appropriate to the season and theme of the day.

Psalm 23 is the best known of all the psalms and perhaps the most intimate in the entire Psalter, portraying the Lord as a shepherd who cares for us, not as a shepherd cares for his flock, but with special care for each of the sheep within it—notice that all the pronouns are first person singular; this is not a flock!—and does so in such a way that each of us has no wants. The Lord leads to verdant pasture and to still water. Sheep are infamously skittish, and the noise of running water is problematic. But, still water is safe to drink. Now the image turns even more personal: he restores my “soul”—the word in Hebrew means: “inner being,” “self,” or “sense of being alive and strong.” He leads in right paths, for the sake of his own name. It is God being true to God’s own nature. Remember that shepherds in the ancient Middle East did not follow sheep, but walked out ahead of them, their voices the sign for the sheep to follow. The Lord leads us always in the right way by his word. All of this is an affirmation of the intimate care and concern each of us can expect from the Lord. Even in the darkest valleys and bleakest times of life, there is no need to fear because the Lord is there, present, ready to help. The crook and walking staff that are so crucial to the shepherd’s work gives the psalmist security and comfort. God sets a table—providing all that is needed. Even in the presence of our enemies, we can be so assured and confident in God’s care that we have the leisure to eat at a well-set table. The Lord not only feeds, he anoints our heads in blessing and fills our cups beyond the brim. “Goodness and mercy” are God’s gifts, and they will not simply be given to us, but actually pursue us all the days of our lives. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long,” is both a vow and a confession, as the reference is twofold. First, it is a reference to the temple, where God was believed to live, but more, it is a vow expressing commitment to daily intimacy with God, regardless of where one might be. The word the King James Version translated as “forever” means “my whole life long,” as most footnotes now indicate. It is rendered in other translations: “through length of days” or, “as long as I live.” But post Jesus’ resurrection and his promises, “forever” is absolutely appropriate as well. Though this psalm is most often associated with funerals or memorial services, it is really an affirmation of God’s daily care. This is also the psalm that lies behind Jesus’ describing himself as the “Good Shepherd.” But he not only cares for his sheep, he actually lays down his life for them.

The third letter of John appears to have been written by the same elder who wrote Second John, and shares the same concerns for truth and walking in it. It is written to Gaius, who may well have been the elder overseeing the troubled congregation. After wishing Gaius well and praising him for walking in the truth, John remembers brothers and sisters, probably itinerate missionaries, who have recently been with Gaius’ congregation, who have now moved on to John and his people and reported on Gaius and his hospitality. Receiving traveling missionaries was considered both an honor and a responsibility in the church of the New Testament. However, it also presented problems when the missionaries’ message was divisive. Gaius is commended for his hospitality, something the visitors have testified to “before the church”—the first and only use of the word “church” in all of the letters or in the Gospel of John. The evangelist has previously written to the church (whether the second letter of John or not, we do not know); but a man named Diotrephes has not only failed to heed John’s word and authority, he has actually begun to spread false charges against John and his people. In addition, he has refused hospitality to visitors from John and is preventing others from doing so as well, expelling from the church those who do not comply with his demand. Evidently, Diotrephes was also an elder in that church—each house church seemed to have one. The letter is written not only to discredit Diotrephes as one who does not have the truth, but to encourage the church to continue to receive the brothers and sisters who are traveling missionaries. In addition, they are to receive Demetrius—evidently the person delivering the letter from John. For Demetrius has the truth itself. John has much more to say to Darius about these and other things, but he prefers not to put them on paper with pen and ink, but instead, come to him and see him face to face. The letter concludes with “Peace to you. The friends send you their greetings,” seems out of place, for an elder who spoke of members of the church as his “little children.” Also, notice, the friends to be greeted are not named. Consequently, this letter was somewhat contested when it came time to decide what belonged in the canon of the New Testament, but by the 4th century it was considered the work of John the Apostle, and therefore was included. Its value to us today is its witness that even in the church of the New Testament, there were disruptions, challenges to leadership, and struggles and differences among those vested with leadership in the church. How do you know who is true? Do they work at reconciliation and foster love or division?

Jesus moves on from healing the lame man and comes upon a tax collector named Levi, sitting at his tax booth, and calls Levi to follow him. Tax collectors were among the most despised within the Jewish community, because they were not only collaborators with Rome, but were also infamous for their abuse of their privilege of adding their own fees to the taxes to be collected. Having already paid Rome the amount of the tax for the right to collect it, everything the collector demanded in tax from the Jews went straight into the collector’s pocket, creating a situation ripe and infamous for abuse. That Jesus should call Levi to follow him was scandalous enough. Levi, in turn, leaves everything immediately—gives up his lucrative business—and follows Jesus. Thereupon, Levi gives a great banquet in his home and invites all of his friends—fellow tax collectors, for they had few if any other friends! Jesus and his disciples are enjoying Levi’s hospitably, when the Pharisees and their scribes come upon them and complain to Jesus’ disciples, asking why they are eating and drinking with tax collectors, who the Pharisees have now labeled “sinners.” Jesus overhears them and responds that, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He has come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. One would expect the Pharisees to be overjoyed by this news, but rather, they continue to press Jesus for behaving differently from them. They ask Jesus why it is that, though they and John’s disciples frequently fast and pray (twice weekly for the Pharisees), Jesus’ disciples do not fast but eat and drink? Jesus simply responds that it is not possible to constrain the friends of the bridegroom while he is in their midst. There will come a suitable time for them to fast. But for now, he is among them as the bridegroom, a clear messianic image. But having said that, Jesus now turns to the subject of the forms of piety the Pharisees are trying to impose upon the people, and tells his well-known parable about sewing a new patch of cloth on an old garment and new wine into old wineskins. In Luke, this saying has a unique twist: the new the Pharisees are importing into Israel’s ancient religion is tearing the fabric of the old, whether garments or wineskins, and is destructive, for the old—Torah—is good. It is not only good enough, it is better, as anyone who has ever compared old and new wine well knows. The things the Pharisees are importing into people’s day-to-day religious lives are actually destructive to the ways of God that Jesus has come to announce.

Posted April 25, 2015
Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday, April 24, 2015
Daniel 6:1-15; Psalm 49; 2 John 1-13; Luke 5:12-26

Today we begin the most well-known story from the Book of Daniel—Daniel in the Lions’ Den. King Darius, having conquered Babylon, has set up a system of governance that includes Daniel as one of his three overlords. Daniel excels to the point that the king decides to promote Daniel and appoint him over the whole kingdom. The other subordinate rulers of the land are jealous and try to find grounds for complaint against Daniel, to prevent this promotion, but they are unable to find any discrepancy. Consequently, they conspire against him. They go to the king to persuade him to issue an ordinance, enforced by interdict that not even the king can remove, which requires everyone in the kingdom to pray only to the king for thirty days. Violators are to be thrown into the lions’ den. Darius does so, and, of course, Daniel continues his practice of daily prayers—morning, noon and evening—facing toward Jerusalem as he prays from his upper room. The conspirators spy on him, find him praying and report it to Darius, who is trapped by his own interdict. In spite of all the king does to try to rescue Daniel, the law of the Medes and the Persians stands and must not be violated, even by the king.

Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm addressed to all the inhabitants of the earth—both high and low, rich and poor—and warns against placing trust in one’s wealth, or boasting in the abundance of one’s riches. Why fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of your persecutors surrounds you—those who trust in their wealth and trust in their riches? There is no ransom one can pay for one’s life; death comes to everyone. The rich and the poor alike, the wise and the foolish die together and leave their wealth to others. Mortals may be pompous, but, like all animals, we perish, whether foolhardy or prudently pleased with ourselves. Like sheep appointed for Sheol, death is their shepherd. In the midst of all of this doom and gloom, there is a surprising, even startling word—“God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Here is one of the unusual places in the Hebrew Scriptures that witnesses to the belief that communion with God does not end at death (see also Psalm 73:24). And now, the psalm turns to comforting those who see others gaining riches while they do not. Do not be afraid; they will die and carry nothing away. Though they count themselves happy because of their riches—for those who do well for themselves are praised in this world—when they die, they will never again see light. Again, wisdom reminds us that, in spite of our pride and pomp, we are no better than the animals that perish. Trust in God, the only true source of confidence.

At first look, Second John appears to come from the same author as the first letter. However, a closer look reveals some parallel but also some significant differences. The author calls himself “the elder,” who writes a classic epistle: salutation, thanksgiving, body of the letter and a farewell. Scholars think it written by someone other than the author of the first letter of John or the gospel of John. The issue seems to be the same, doctrinal conflict: “those who deny Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” are disrupting the church and are deceiving others. Elders were overseers in the church of the first century and this one writes to “the elect lady,” using a feminine image for the church. Concern for the truth still dominates the letter, and the author is overjoyed that “some” of her children are walking in the truth, but others are not. The commandment to love one another is reiterated as the means of walking in the truth. However, there are many deceivers who have gone into the world who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and they are not only deceivers but antichrists. The members of the church must be on their guard that they not lose what they have worked for but may receive their full reward. Everyone who does not abide in “the teachings of Christ”—either Christ’s own or those of the church about him—but rather, go beyond those teachings, do not have God the Father abiding in them. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. They are to exercise care not to welcome into their homes any who bring deceptive teaching, for to do so is to participate in their evil deeds. The letter ends quickly with the word that the elder hopes to come to them soon and speak with them face to face that their joy may be complete. In conclusion—notice there is no final blessing—the elder identifies his own people as “the children of your elect sister,” and sends their greetings.

Today Luke reports two healings. Jesus is approached by a leper who begs Jesus to heal him. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the leper, and, immediately, the leprosy leaves the man. Jesus then orders him to tell no one, but go and show himself to the priest for inspection, so he can be returned to the community, and at the same time make the sacrificial offering Torah requires for the healing. We assume the man does, for Luke tells us that now, more than ever, word about Jesus is spreading, to the point that he must regularly go away to deserted places in order to pray. The second healing is the familiar story of the paralyzed man let down through the roof by his friends. Jesus is teaching and Luke tells us the crowds are such that this is the only way they can get the man into Jesus’ presence. Within the crowd are the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who, having heard about Jesus, have come to check out his orthodoxy. Initially, they seem innocent observers. But, when the man is lowered before Jesus and Jesus says to him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” their ears perk up and they begin to question within themselves who Jesus thinks he is, suggesting that he can forgive sins. Only God can do that. Jesus, as always in Luke, knows precisely what they are thinking and so raises the stakes considerably by asking, “Which is it easier to do, say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or, ‘stand up and walk?’” Now, turning toward the Pharisees, Jesus says to them, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—the first time Jesus has used the term in this gospel to refer to himself—he now turns to the paralyzed man and says, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” The man does, and the room breaks into pandemonium as the people who have witnessed this join the healed man in rejoicing and praising God. Filled with awe they are saying, “We have seen strange things today.” They will soon see and hear even more.

Posted April 24, 2015
Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thursday, April 23, 2015
Daniel 5:13-30; Psalm 68; 1 John 5:13-21; Luke 5:1-11

Daniel is brought forth to King Belshazzar and after an elaborate introduction that establishes Daniel’s relationship with Nebuchadnezzar, King Belshazzar’s father, Daniel is told about the writing and the inability of any of the other wise men to read or interpret it. The king repeats the promise of the prize to the one who can interpret it, but Daniel tells him to give the prize to another. Yet, Daniel will read and interpret the handwriting. It is mene, mene, tekel, parsin. Daniel tells the story of Belshazzar’s father, his greatness, his complete sovereignty and power. But his father became proud and acted as though all of his power was his own doing, and so was deposed from his throne to humble him. His glory was stripped from him and he was driven from human society, his mind made like that of an animal. He lived with the wild beasts, fed on grass and was bathed with the dew of heaven until he learned that the Most High God was sovereign over all, and that only this God gives the kingdom of mortal to whom he wills. King Belshazzar has not humbled himself, even though he knows his father’s story. Rather, he has exalted himself against the Lord of heaven! Having bought out and used the vessels his father had taken from the temple, to drink and pour out offerings of praise to gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone, they have failed to honor the Lord of Heaven. Therefore, the Lord of Heaven has sent this writing and its sentence. Mene, mene (a measure of weight): God has measured the days of Belshazzar’s reign and is bringing his kingdom to an end. Tekel (shekel): God has weighed, Belshazzar on the scales, to determine his value, and found him wanting. Peres (half a shekel): his kingdom is to be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. Surprisingly, the king keeps his word and gives the robe, chain of gold and proclamation of rank to Daniel. But that very night, Belshazzar is killed. Darius the Mede receives the kingdom. Historical footnote: though no “Darius the Mede,” is known to history, in fact, the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian king Cyrus, who had conquered the Median Empire, and took Babylon in 540 BCE. The following year he released the Jews and allowed them to return to Jerusalem.

Psalm 68 is a battle hymn remembering and celebrating the victories of the Lord on behalf of his people. It is complex in that it uses virtually all of the biblical names for God: Elohim, El, Yah, Adonai, El Shaddai, Yah Elohim and Yahweh. It opens with the plea that those who hate the Lord will be driven out like smoke driven by the wind, as wax melts before a fire, that the wicked may perish. The righteous will be glad and rejoice in God and will sing to the Lord a new song. The prayer then turns to extolling God’s justice and righteousness—a father to the orphan, an honest judge for the widow, a home for the lonely, one who leads prisoners to freedom. It is a mixture of high praise for the Lord who dwells in his sanctuary among his people executing justice. It is also a description of various moments in Israel’s life when the Lord has intervened to give them victory—from their release from captivity in Egypt, their travels through the wilderness, to their settling into the land of promise, and various wars and skirmishes thereafter. The land quaked at Sinai at the presence of the Lord. Rain clouds opened to give drink to his people. Kings fled before the Lord, giving the people peace and prosperity among the sheepfolds. The mountains of Bashan are celebrated (a place in the Transjordan, famous for raising cattle). The number of God’s chariots is myriad—thousands upon thousands—and the Lord leads the people and is among them, while he imprisons those who have been taken captive. Ascribed to David, the psalm recalls a moment when the Lord has given the enemy into his hand. Verses 21 to 23 indulge in that language of battle that is graphic (evidently why those who developed the daily lectionary excluded it from today’s reading), but it reminds us of the brutality of war in any age. It then returns to blessing the Lord, as a festival procession makes its way to the temple to celebrate God’s presence in Jerusalem. Envoys come from far and wide to pay tribute. The kingdoms of the earth sing praises to the Lord who rides above Israel with strength and victory. The psalm ends with one final ascription of praise: the Lord gives strength and power to his people. Blessed be God.

John the Evangelist brings his letter to a conclusion, reiterating his theme of believing in the name of the Son of God so that they may have eternal life. He reminds them of the boldness they have in Jesus: whatever they ask, according to his will, he hears and will give them. John then turns to the subject of sin and introduces a new idea: two kinds of sin. There is sin that is mortal and leads to certain death and there is sin that is not mortal and can be forgiven. They are to pray for brothers and sisters who sin through error, but whose sin is not mortal—God will forgive these and give them life. There is no reason to pray for those whose sin is mortal for it leads to certain death. Though all wrongdoing is sin, there is a sin that is mortal. John never defines the difference, but given the context of the argument, it may be that the mortal sin is denial that Jesus is the Christ and God’s son. John assures them that those born of God do not sin, but the one who is born of God (Jesus, the Son), protects them so that the evil one does not touch them. Though the whole world lives under the power of the evil one, the Son of God has come so that they might know what is true and belong to God in him. John ends with one final admonition: “Keep yourselves from idols.”

Having preached throughout the region, Jesus now begins to call disciples to follow him. Standing by the lake of Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), as the crowd is pushing in on him, Jesus sees two boats beached, while their owners wash out their fishing nets. He steps into the boat owned by his friend Simon and asks to be put out a little way from the shore. Simon obliges, and Jesus sits down and teaches the crowd from the boat. When Jesus is done teaching, he tells Simon to put out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Simon objects, saying, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” Yet, at Jesus’ command Simon does, and they catch so many fish that the nets begin to break. Simon signals his partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who are still on shore. They quickly come to help, and, soon, the boats are filled with so many fish that both are to the point of sinking. When this happens, Simon falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” As all are marveling at the catch, Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Luke tells us that when they finally reached the shore, all three fishermen left everything and followed Jesus. It is sinners like Simon that Jesus has come to call to discipleship.

Posted April 23, 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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