Tuesday, September 2, 2104
Job 12:1, 13:3-17, 21-27; Psalms 26; Acts 12:1-17; John 8:33-47
Job’s friends have not told him anything he does not already know; it simply does not answer his question and so he wants to speak to the Almighty (notice the name) and argue his case directly with God. Is God as “almighty” as God’s name implies? As for Elipaz, Bildad and Zophar, they are simply whitewash lies and worthless physicians. He would have been better off had they remained silent. That would be real wisdom on their part, and one of the themes that is emerging in this book! Why is it they feel the need to speak for God? Their speech is false and misleading. How will God look upon it when judging them? Surely, God will rebuke them and terrify them with his divine majesty, with its dread falling on them. Their maxims are proverbs of ashes and defenses of clay. He pleads for silence from them. It is God he wants to hear from. He will speak to God, come what may, taking his life in his own hands. God will surely kill him—he knows he has no hope—but he will defend himself to God’s face. In this, Job will find salvation, rather than having himself judged by the false words of his friends. Prepared to argue his case, he knows he will be vindicated. Who else is there to contend with him? And now his speech is turned to God. In doing so, he asks for two things: that God not withdraw his hand, and that he not be terrified by God’s presence and overcome with dread, lest he not be able to speak freely. Then, God can call and Job will replay, or Job will speak and let God reply. He asks God to tell him of his iniquities, transgressions and sins—how many are they? Why has God hidden his face and counted Job as his enemy? Why is Job being so oppressed, tormented and driven to the edge of life, like a decaying, rotten thing, like a moth-eaten garment?
Psalm 26 could easily have been written by Job. It pleads for vindication while insisting on one’s own integrity. She has trusted in the Lord with unwavering devotion. If there is any doubt of that on God’s part, then prove her, try her, test her heart and mind. She walks faithfully trusting in God’s steadfast love. She continues to make her point: she does not sit with the worthless or consort with hypocrites, hates the company of evil doers and shuns the wicked. In innocence, she washes her hands, cleansing herself in preparation for offering temple sacrifice, and circles the altar singing songs of thanksgiving and praise (rather than penitence seeking forgiveness). How she loves being there and doing that! And so she asks that she not be swept away with sinners, the bloodthirsty whose hands are filled with evil and bribes. As for her, she walks in integrity and so pleads for God’s gracious redemption. Sanding in the midst of the congregation she continues to bless the Lord.
Persecution now moves beyond the synagogue to the civil authorities, as King Herod takes it up, having James, John’s brother, killed. Because Herod sees that doing so pleases the Jews, he then arrests Peter. It is taking place during Passover and the parallels to Jesus’ arrest are not only striking but probably intentional. Peter is jailed, chained between two guards and in a dungeon supervised by four squads of soldiers. Meanwhile the church prays. The night before Herod plans to bring Peter forth, an angel of the Lord appears in divine light, illuminating the cell. Tapping Peter on the shoulder, he awakens him, and tells him “Get up.” Immediately, Peter’s chains fall away. The angel tells him to get dressed and follow, and Peter does, but thinks all of this is a dream. They pass by the guards and out the prison door and head to the city gate, which swings open on its own before them as they approach. As they continued to walk into the city, the angel departs, and, suddenly, Peter realizes this is not a dream but the work of the Lord to set him free. Immediately, he goes to the house of Mary, leader of one of the house churches in Jerusalem and mother of John Mark, where many are gathered praying for Peter. The comic nature of the story brings not only relief, but also makes it clear that the power of the Empire is ridiculous in the face of God’s power in Jesus. Peter knocks on the door of the gate and when the slave girl, Rhoda, recognizes Peter’s voice, rather than open the door, she leaves Peter, standing outside knocking, while she rushes back to Mary and the others to say Peter is there. They tell her she is out of her mind and assume that what she has seen is Peter’s guardian angel, while she insists, ‘No, it is Peter’ (who is still outside, pounding on the door!). Finally they open the gate door to see for themselves, and there he stands. They are amazed. Peter motions them to be silent and then describes what has happened and then adds, “Tell this to James and to the other sisters and brothers.” The “James” here is not John’s brother, who has been killed, but the brother of Jesus, who seems to have now become, or is in the process of becoming, the leader of the Jerusalem church. Having said this, Peter leaves them, though for where we are not told. It makes sense; otherwise the authorities would have known where to search for and arrest him once again.
Jesus’ words about the truth making them free offend the Jewish leaders. After all, they are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. Really; have they forgotten Egypt; and what about Babylon and now Rome? At any rate, they ask what he means by being made free. He is talking about their slavery to sin, which keeps them, like all slaves, from having a permanent place in the household and is so total that they do not even recognize it. On the other hand, the son has a place forever. So, if he, as God’s son, makes them free, they will be really free. Yes, they are descendants of Abraham, yet they seek to kill him, because they cannot make space for or accept his word, even though he is only speaking what he has seen and heard in the Father’s presence. They again assert that Abraham is their father. Jesus responds that, if they truly were children of Abraham, they would do what Abraham did and not be trying to kill him, a man who has told them the truth that he has heard from God. Abraham believed the word that he heard from God. However, they are indeed doing what their father—the Devil—does. Not yet clear about what Jesus has just said, or thinking he may be making reference to Abraham fathering Esau, the illegitimate heir, they insist that they are not illegitimate children, and have only one father, God himself. Jesus responds that if God were their Father, they would love Jesus as well, because he has come to them from God. Again, affirming that all of this is part of God’s design, he insists that he has not come on his own but from the One who sent him. Why can’t they understand what he says? It is because they are from the Devil—he is their father—and they are doing his will. A murderer from the beginning, not only does he not stand in the truth, he cannot stand it, for there is no truth in him. Rather, he lies—that is his nature—and is the father of lies, which is why they do not believe Jesus. As Jesus continues, he makes it clear that their lack of belief is because they are not from God, as he is, but from the Devil, whose work they are doing. This is anything but the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” that we so often romanticize about. This is Jesus, the truth teller, the living Word of God, speaking in their midst and ours.
Monday, September 1, 2014
Job 12:1-6, 13-25; Psalm 25; Acts 11:19-30; John 8:21-32
Job responds to Zophar with scathing criticism: he and his two companions are not as wise as they think themselves to be. Job is not their inferior—he knows all that they have said—but he has become a laughingstock to them, he who calls upon God and God answers, he who is just and blameless. Decrying the lack of justice, he points out that those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune—most of all his three friends! The tents of robbers are at peace and those who provoke God are secure, as well as those who worship idols. But the animals know better—this is the hand of the Lord at work in Job’s life, the One in whose hand is the life of everything, humans and beasts alike. Age and length of days do not provide wisdom. What kind of wisdom is it that when he tears down, no one can rebuild, or if he shuts in, no one can open? And then, Job lists a series of behaviors on God’s part that are simply beyond human understanding. Wisdom and logic have no place here, or, God is anything but Wisdom and Justice.
Psalm 25 is a prayer in which the psalmist pleads for God’s protection, guidance mercy, instruction, pardon and grace. A wisdom psalm, it is acrostic in structure—the first word of each line beginning with a descending letter of the Hebrew alphabet—and repeats the convictions that those who wait upon the Lord and who walk in God’s ways (Torah), will never be put to shame, while the wantonly treacherous will end in disgrace and defeat. Seeking for the wisdom ever to know God’s ways, the psalmist asks to be led in God’s truth and taught God’s ways. She pleads for God’s mercy and steadfast love and asks that the sins of her youth be forgotten. She blesses the Lord as good and upright, who instructs sinners and leads the humble in the paths of steadfast love and faithfulness. In the midst of many foes, she asks that they not prevail or put her to shame, for she has taken refuge in the Lord. May that integrity and uprightness be a source of strength and preservation as she waits on God. Finally, the scope of this petition is expanded beyond personal concerns to pray that God will redeem all Israel out of its troubles.
With the exception of the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius, the church thus far has remained a movement solely within Judaism. Those who fled Jerusalem because of the persecution that resulted in Stephen’s death find their way to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, the latter the third largest city in the Roman Empire, with a large Jewish community. They settle into synagogues there and begin to speak of Jesus as the Christ among their fellow Jews, but to no one else. But some believers from Cyprus and Cyrene, upon coming to Antioch, begin speaking with the Greeks there—whether Greek Jewish converts Luke calls “the Hellenists,” or Greek unbelievers is unclear; probably the former, because Luke goes on to say "a large number who believed turned to the Lord." As this news reaches Jerusalem, the church there sends Barnabas to Antioch. Barnabas speaks Greek and is highly regarded in Jerusalem, and he becomes the link between the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch. When he gets to Antioch and sees what has taken place, he rejoices and encourages them to continue to evangelize among the Greek converts, but soon recognizes the fact that additional help is needed. And so, he goes to Tarsus to search for Saul—who also speaks fluent and cultured Greek—and upon finding him, brings him to Antioch, and, for the following year, the two work together while the church continues to grow. We are told that it was in Antioch that the believers were first called “Christians.” Until then, they had been “followers of the way,” “believers,” “disciples,” and “saints.” The narrative turns to describing a famine in Jerusalem, foretold by a prophet among them named Agabus, and we get the historical note that this took place during the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE). In fact, famines did occur in several places across Palestine and Asia during 46-48 CE. The disciples in Antioch decide that, as they are able, they will assist their fellow brothers and sisters living in Judea, where a famine was severe, and so begin sending relief to the elders there (the first time the word “elder” has appeared with regard to the church’s leadership), doing so through Barnabas and Saul. Has Luke confused this for the collection for the saints in Jerusalem that Paul will later collect among the churches in Asia Minor and Greece, or is this an earlier act of mutual care? Either way, mutual concern is expressed by those formerly considered outsiders. The church is not only growing, it is on the verge of becoming more than a Jewish movement.
Jesus continues his teaching in the temple, telling them that soon he is going away and they are going to search for him but not find him, and consequently, they will die in their sin. For where he is going they cannot come. Confused by this, they ask, “Is he going to kill himself?” No, rather, they are from “below,” while he is from “above,” they are of “the world,” while he is “not of this world.” They are going to die in their sin, unless they believe he is the “I am.” (“I am he” is a bad translation of what the text actually says, and again, is an occasion when Jesus uses the ineffable, divine name for himself.) At that, they ask, “Who are you?” and he responds, “Why do I talk with you at all?” in essence saying—“are you listening? I have told you this from the beginning!” And so he continues his condemnation of them, not simply out of his own experience, but on the basis of what he has heard from the One who sent him, reminding them that because it is from Him, it is true. They, of course, do not understand that. But, when they have “lifted up” the Son of Man—a phrase that means not only to “raise” as “on a cross” but also “to exalt” as in, what comes from all of that—then they will understand what they have done to him and that he is the “I am.” The One who sent him is with him; he has not been left alone because he always does what is pleasing to the Father. Jesus then turns to those Jews who do believe in him and he says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Job 11:1-9, 13-20; Psalm 150; Revelation 5:1-14; Matthew 5:1-12
Zophar the Naamathite now speaks, and his words are more harsh that those of either Eliphaz or Bildad, for Zophar attacks Job directly and calls him a babbler and one who mocks God with his insistence that his “conduct is pure and clean in God’s sight.” If God would only speak to Job and tell Job the secret of wisdom, Job would understand how wrong he is. Further, God is exacting from Job far less than Job’s guilt deserves! Zophar then enters into a series of rhetorical questions about God that remind Job that no one can fully understand God’s ways nor comprehend the rationale for God’s punishment. However, if Job will direct his hand toward God, put away his iniquity and reject the wicked from his tents, then surely he will be able to lift his face in God’s presence without fear. He will be able to forget his misery. He will be secure and more prosperous and revered than before. Zophar then concludes with a traditional condemnation of the wicked: they are destined to fail, have lost all way of escape, and their only hope is death.
Psalm 150 brings the Psalter to a proper conclusion with a hymn of praise calling upon everything and everyone to shout “Hallelujah”—Praise the Lord! The hymn begins praising God within God’s heavenly sanctuary above the firmament and then moves to the firmament itself. Praise begins simply as the acclaim that befits God as God. Only then does it move to praising God for his mighty deeds and surpassing greatness as the source and sustainer of all that is. Musical instruments and dance are called upon to join and take up their part in worship as each is reminded that their first and foremost purpose is simply to praise the Lord. Finally, everything that breathes is called to praise the Lord. And then, fitting to the whole collection, there is one last Hallelujah!
In the midst of the vision of worship in heaven, God is seen, seated on the throne with a sealed scroll in hand. Interpretation as to what the scroll actually is differs: the Law, the Prophets, the table of destiny revealing God’s future plans, the Book of life, the record of human deeds, God’s last will and testament for the world—or perhaps all of this. Regardless, the scroll is central to all that is taking place, and an angel appears asking who is worthy to open it. No one appears and John weeps bitter tears of disappointment. However, one of the elders interrupts him, saying the Lion of Judah has conquered; he can open the scroll. Immediately, John sees between the throne and the four living creatures one standing among the elders—a Lamb, once the Lion of Judah, but now slaughtered but again alive, who through his death has conquered and possess all power (seven horns), all knowledge (seven eyes), and all spiritual authority. He takes the scroll from the hands of God and as he does, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall in worship before him, offer their incense (prayers) and sing a song of the New Creation. The Lamb alone is worthy to open the scroll, for by his blood he has ransomed all people for God, and made them a kingdom of priests who will forever serve God as they reign upon the earth. Suddenly, the angels join in the song—thousands upon thousands—singing, full voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Then all creation is drawn into the song, singing praise to the One on the Throne and to the Lamb, drawing the scene to a close, portraying God’s act of redemption of all creation. Hymns play a large role in the Book of Revelation. It may well be that they are the very hymns that were sung in the worshipping community John served. We know these hymns at a popular level because of how their texts were incorporated into Handel’s “Messiah.”
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, begins with these words of blessing. The context is that news has spread about Jesus throughout all Syria, and people are bringing to Jesus all who are ill, suffering from various diseases, demon-possessed, paralytic and so on, and Jesus has healed them. Consequently, large crowds follow him wherever he goes. They come from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Back in the region of Galilee, just north of the lake, a crowd gathers. Jesus, on seeing the crowd, goes up a mountain slope, sits down (the traditional teaching pose for rabbis of the day), and teaches his disciples who have come from the crowd with him. Remember, at this time they are only four in number. But, by the time these words were written down, they were understood to be addressed to all who follow Jesus. Each announces God’s favor (blessing) on people in less than life’s ideal conditions: the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for their righteousness, and all reviled or persecuted because of their commitments to Jesus. The kingdom Jesus comes proclaiming, is an “upside-down” one that reverses all that the worldly powers embrace as important.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Job 9:1, 10:1-9, 16-22; Psalms 20; Acts 11:1-18; John 8:12-20
Job continues to lament his life; he loathes it but now will give free utterance to his complaint, speaking out of the bitterness of his soul with a series of questions. Why does God condemn him? Why does God despise the work of his hands while favoring the schemes of the wicked? God knows he is not guilty. God knows that he has no one to deliver him from God’s hand. God fashioned him and blessed him, why has God now turned to destroy him and return him to dust? Did God bless him only to destroy him? Is God taking perverse pleasure in all of this? Like a lion, God hunts Job, constantly renewing the divine witness against him. Why? Why bring Job to birth in the first place? And now, he returns to his earliest theme: best he had not been born at all. Cannot God leave him alone and give him a little respite and comfort before he goes to the land of gloom and deep darkness? Whereas death, earlier on, seems a relief, now even death is no longer a source of release but of dread.
Psalm 20 initially seems addressed to anyone. It is an intercessory blessing: “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May God give you support from Zion, remembering your sacrifices and burnt offerings. May God grant you your heart’s desire, fulfill all your plans and give you victory when you set up your banner in God’s name.” Only in verse six does it become clear that this is ultimately addressed to the king, the anointed of the Lord. Where other monarchs take pride in their chariots and horses, the king is reminded that “our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. Others will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright." It ends with one final petition: “Save us, O Lord! Deliver us,” as it continues with its intercessions for the king. But it can also be read as, “Answer us, O King (a reference to God’s sovereignty), when we call.” Though originally a Royal Psalm, it is to be prayed in confidence by all of God’s anointed.
Word of the Gentiles inclusion reaches the apostles and believers throughout Judea. Peter and the six men, who had accompanied him from Joppa to Caesarea, return to Jerusalem and are severely criticized for going to “uncircumcised men” and eating with them. Peter responds, “step by step” all that had taken place, beginning with his vision of the sheet filled with animals the Jews considered unclean, the voice and heavenly command to eat, the demand that nothing the Lord has cleansed must be called unclean or unholy, the arrival of the men, the instruction of the Spirit, their journey to Caesarea, his preaching to the household, and finally the descent of the Holy Spirit just as it had fallen on them at Pentecost. It was then, says Peter, that he remembered Jesus’ words, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God has given the Gentiles the same gift God has given to the Apostles and other Jews when they believed in “the Lord Jesus Christ,” who was Peter that he could “hinder God?”
The lectionary skips over John 8:1-11, because it is not found in the oldest manuscripts of John’s gospel and seems to have more in common with the stories of the controversies between Jesus and the Temple authorities that we read in the other three gospels, whereas John is a series of extended conversations and debates in sermonic form, and the story interrupts this section of “I am” sayings. This does not make the story any less valid or true, but does interrupt the flow of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, and seems to be a later insertion of an event in Jesus’ ministry remembered only here. Today our lesson begins with verse 12 of chapter 8 and falls on the heels of Jesus’ announcing his gift of life-giving water. Now, his “I am” sayings take up another image—light—a common metaphor for the presence of God and itself an important element in the Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life. The Pharisees challenge him for testifying on his own behalf, a testimony that is therefore not valid. Jesus does not deny it, but says, “even so, it is valid, because I know where I have come from and where I am going, while you know neither!” Further, the Pharisees judge by human standards; Jesus judges no one, but simply does what his Father tells him. But if he did, it would be valid for it is not Jesus alone who judges, but the Father who sent him. Quoting “your law” back to them, he reminds them of the Torah’s requirement of two witnesses to make something valid. He then says that he and his Father are those two witnesses. The Jewish leaders respond by asking where his father is. Jesus tells them that they know neither him nor his Father, for if they knew him they would know his father. To know Jesus is to know the Father and vice versa. It is open testimony to who he is, but they cannot hear it. The lesson closes by telling us that he continued to teach this openly in the temple, but no one arrested him, because “his hour had not yet come.” Whereas in the other three gospels, Jesus’ identity is a secret (Mark), or not fully disclosed until the trial before the Sanhedrin or Pilate (Matthew and Luke), in John, Jesus speaks very openly about his identity as God’s Son, and as the gospel continues to unfold, that becomes even more apparent. It is one of the reasons that John has been a favorite among people involved in evangelistic missions and ministries.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Job 9:1-15, 32-35, Psalms 16; Acts 10:34-48; John 7:37-52
Job responds directly to Bildad and agrees with what he has to say about God’s treatment of the blameless, but then he asks Eliphaz’s question: how can mortals be blameless before God? How can they contend with God? He then utters a creation psalm, praising and acknowledging God’s power over all things; who then, can stop him or ask, “What are you doing?” If God is thus, and Job is innocent, still, Job is in a box—he cannot answer. Rather, he must simply appeal for mercy. After verses that recognize God’s superiority in all things as well as the futility of contending with him, Job laments the injustice of it all: God destroys both the blameless and the wicked and mocks the calamity of the innocent, giving the earth into the hands of the wicked, while covering the eyes of its judges. If this is not so—if it is not God who is doing this—who then is it? Given all of this, what can Job do? Human life is short; would that he could simply put on a happy face and get on with it, but he cannot. Would that God were mortal, as Job is, so that they could have a fair contest with an umpire between them, then Job could speak without fear, for he knows that he is not what his friends think him to be—guilty of some secret sin for which God is punishing him. Notice that how, amid all of Job’s troubles, God is still at the center, and that sustains him.
Psalm 16 is a psalm of trust acknowledging the Lord as not only a refuge, but the source of all good in life. The psalmist looks to the holy ones—the saints—for guidance and fellowship while not willing even to speak the names of those who serve and worship other gods. With the Lord at the center of life—the chosen portion—the dimensions of life have fallen in “pleasant places,” delivering a goodly heritage. Therefore, the psalm blesses the Lord who gives constant counsel. Keeping the Lord always at the center means not being overcome or defeated. Rather, heart, soul and body rejoice, are glad and rest secure, for God does not give up His faithful ones to Sheol or the Pit. Rather, God reveals the path of life. In God’s presence there is fullness of joy and pleasures, forever more.
Peter confesses that he now understands that God shows no partiality; anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable—an astonishing statement for a Jew of Peter’s day! Peter then turns to proclaiming Jesus as the source of peace (not Rome or its emperor) and the good news of Jesus—anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, and his going about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Jesus is Lord of all, not just Israel, another astounding claim. Peter has been a witness to that, as well as to what came next. In Jerusalem, Jesus’s own people put him to death by hanging him on a tree. But God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to everyone, but to those who were chosen by God as witnesses. As those who ate and drank with Jesus after he rose from the dead, Peter and his companions have been commanded to preach and testify that Jesus is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. As the prophets foretold, all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins in his name. As Peter continues to speak, the Holy Spirit falls upon all of them and Cornelius and his household and friends begin to speak in tongues, extolling God. The Jewish believers who have accompanied Peter to Cornelius are astonished—the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out, even on Gentiles! Peter then asks the Ethiopian eunuch’s question: What is to prevent these, who have received the Spirit, from being baptized? And so, they are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They then invite Peter and his companions to stay with Cornelius several days, which they do. The boundaries continue to come down.
On the last day of the festival, as the priests are pouring fresh water on the altar as an offering to God, Jesus stands and cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let those who believe in me drink,” and with allusions to Isaiah 44:3, 55:1 and 58:11, he proclaims himself the source of new life. As his body is the manna of Passover, he is also the life-giving water celebrated in the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). The author quickly reminds us that Jesus is talking about the gift of the Spirit, which believers will receive after Jesus’ glorification. When the crowd hears Jesus' words, some say, “He really is the prophet.” Others say, “This is the Messiah.” But the skeptics in the crowd return to the theme of his origin—Galilee. The scriptures are clear; the Messiah is from David and will come from Bethlehem. And so, a division occurs among them. The temple police return to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed, so overwhelmed were they by Jesus’ words and the people’s response. The Pharisees accuse them of having been deceived, like the rest of the crowd, and then ask a self-incriminating question: “has any one of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” After all, the crowd is both accursed and ignorant of the law—what do they know? But Nicodemus, who in chapter 3 went to Jesus by night, is among them and, knowing the law, challenges them with it: the law does not allow them to judge people without first giving them a hearing. Angered and embarrassed, they try to shame Nicodemus with the deprecating question, asking him if he is a Galilean as well, and challenge him to search the scriptures. If he does, he will learn that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.
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.