Daily Readings for Sunday, March 9
1st Sunday in Lent
Daniel 9:3–10;’ Psalm 32; Hebrews 2:10–18; John 12:44–50
In the midst of a series of apocalyptic visions about what is to come, we have a lengthy prayer of confession. Daniel perceives that the time of Jerusalem’s destruction, foretold by Jeremiah, is about to unfold. And so, Daniel dons sackcloth and ashes—traditional symbols of repentance—and offers this prayer. It recognizes that the Lord is the “great and awesome God, keeping covenants and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” Notice that the parallel words of judgment on those who rebel are missing. Rather, Daniel includes himself as he confesses that the people “have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from [God’s] commandments and ordinances. Though the Lord has sent prophets to speak in his name to kings, princes and their ancestors, they have not listened. Again, the prayer recognizes God’s righteousness, while “open shame” falls upon the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and “all Israel”—those who are far away in the lands to which the Lord has driven them because of their treachery. Again, the phrase “Open shame,” is used to describe the behavior of their kings, officials and ancestors. This portion of the prayer concludes with a different kind of confession, the recognition and affirmation that “To the Lord, our God, belong mercy and forgiveness, because we have rebelled against him.” But to access that mercy and forgiveness, they owe the Lord repentance—it is an obligation—and the door through which they may enter that mercy and forgiveness.
Psalm 32 is a wisdom psalm in which the worshipper gives thanks for the gift of forgiveness. “Happy are those whose sin is covered.” He acknowledges that while he kept silence about his sin, he wasted away for the Lord’s hand was upon him, and his strength was dried up as the heat of summer dries all things. But when he acknowledged his sin, when he no longer hid it but confessed it, the Lord forgave him his guilt. He then instructs all who are faithful to offer such prayers of confession, promising that in a time of distress and the rush of many waters, these will not reach or overwhelm them. Again, addressing the Lord, he confesses that God is his hiding place who preserves him from trouble and surrounds him with glad cries of deliverance. The psalm then turns to addressing others, instructing them in the way they should go: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near.” It concludes with one final double affirmation: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Therefore: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Hebrews, having attested to Jesus’ divinity, now turns to the ramifications of his humanity. It is “fitting” that the God of all things, in order to bring many children to him and his glory, should not only make Jesus the pioneer of their salvation, but do so by making him perfect through his suffering. For he is the one who sanctifies—as in “makes holy and acceptable to God”—and has the same Father as those he has come to sanctify. Consequently, he is not ashamed to call us his sisters and brothers. The author then appropriates texts from Psalm 22:22 and Isaiah 8:17-18, quoting them from the Greek rather than Hebrew translation, because most Jews had read their scriptures in Greek for the last three hundred years. Jesus and we share the same flesh and blood so that he might, through death, destroy the one with the powers of death, so that his brothers and sisters, who have been held in slavery to death for all these years, might be free from death. He did not do this for angels, but for the descendants of Abraham. This is why he had to become like us in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, making a cleansing sacrifice of atonement for the sins of humanity. Because he was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
This chapter brings to an end Jesus’ public ministry as he cries out, one last time, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.” What follows is a summary of what he has said in the temple earlier about being the light of the world. He then makes a point first spoken in John 3:17: he has not come to judge the world but to save it. However, on the last day, his words to them will serve as a source of judgment for those who have heard and have not responded, for Jesus speaks, not on his own, but at the commandment of the Father who has sent him. The Father has told Jesus what to say. That commandment is eternal life. What he speaks then, he speaks as the Father has told him to speak.
Daily Readings for Saturday, March 8
Ezekiel 39:21–29; Psalm 143; Philippians 4:10–20; John 17:20–26
Israel's children are in exile, scattered to Babylon and beyond, and Jerusalem is in ruin. The Lord has hidden his face from the house of Israel, executed judgment upon it and laid his hands upon them, because of their iniquity and treacherous dealings with the Lord. The nations have seen this as a display of the Lord’s glory. But now, the Lord is ready to restore Israel, for his own name’s sake. He will bring them back—none shall be left behind. And when he does, they will forget their shame and the treachery they practice against him. When the Lord gathers them back they shall know that it is he, their God, who has done this, both sending them into exile and gathering them home once again in their own land. The oracle ends with this promise: “Never again will I hide my face from them.” Rather, the Lord promises to pour out his spirit upon his people.
In Psalm 143, the supplicant has suffered defeat and turns to the Lord for help, recognizing that no one is righteous before the Lord, yet, in spite of that, the Lord is merciful. The psalmist now remembers the old days of victory, the days when the Lord was at hand. And so now, he stretches out his hand in search of God lest he go down to the Pit. Pleading for God’s steadfast love, the psalmist has asked God to deliver him from his enemies, teach him his ways, and let God’s Spirit lead him on level paths. He is but God’s servant, and pleads no right of his own. Rather, he asks God to do all this for God’s name’s sake.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--a challenge every preacher faces at one time or another. 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. Nonetheless, it was kind of the Philippians to share in Paul’s distress. He then reminds them that in the early days of the gospel, once he left Macedonia, no church, save the Philippians, provided Paul support. Even in Thessalonica, the Philippians sent Paul support, and more than once. Quick to disassociate from those who preach for profit, Paul makes the point that he does not need the gift, nor does he seek it, but rather views the Philippians themselves as profit to God. Nonetheless, Epaphroditus has arrived with their most recent gift, which Paul views, more as an offering to God than to Paul himself. Paul brings his words of thanks to an end, assuring the Philippians that “my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” This section of the letter concludes with a brief doxology to God their Father.
Jesus’ prayer now turns from concern for his immediate followers to all those who will come to believe in him through their witness to him, that we, today, may be one as he and the Father are one, and that we, together, might be one with the two of them in order that the world may believe that the Father has sent him. Unity in the church is not for the sake of life within the church, but rather an essential for the church’s credible witness in the world. Not only does Jesus ask for unity in the coming church, but also that his glory be given to it, again, for the sake of their unity with him and his Father. These believers who have yet to come have also been given to him by the Father, as surely as his initial followers were given to him, and so he asks that these, too, may be with him where he is, to see the glory that is and was his from the foundation of the world. Jesus concludes the prayer summarizing what he has said earlier about his work in the world, making the Father’s name known, and asks that the love with which the Father has loved the Son may be in them so that he may be in them.
Daily Readings for Friday, March 7
Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32; Psalm 130; Philippians 4:1–9; John 17:9–19
Ezekiel, called by God to be his mouthpiece among God’s people before and into the Babylonian exile, responds to the allegation of the people that the Lord is unfair in his judgments, repeating the well-known proverb, also quoted and refuted by Jeremiah that it is the parent’s fault, not their own (Jeremiah 31:29). God calls on Ezekiel to deny it and warn that each person will live because of their own lives of righteous behavior, but die for their own sin—behavior that violates those covenant obligations. The text between verse four and twenty-four are a detailed explanation of that, utilizing the covenant obligations either adhered to or ignored, and notice most of them have to do with behavior and interactions between people. Only “eating on the mountains”—worshipping and feasting in the high places of pagan religions—or “lifting up his eyes to idols” are mentioned as violations of the relationship with God. Ezekiel returns to his argument in verse twenty-five and the people’s complaint that “The way of the Lord is unfair.” It is not the Lord’s ways that are unfair, but that of the people of the house of Israel. And now the point is made that the Lord is so fair that even one who has been a wanton sinner, who then turns from sin to righteousness shall live. Conversely, one who has lived righteously, but then falls into sin that is not left behind will die. Far from being unfair, this is extraordinarily gracious—even intentional sin, when repented of, is met with a forgiveness that leads to life. The lesson ends with a plea for the people to repent and turn from their transgressions, or they will spell their ruin. Cast all of that away and get a new heart (center of volition), and a new spirit (obedience). It ends with the plaintive question: “Why will you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn then, and live.”
Psalm 130 is the classic lament of those living “in the depths” of life, whether physical or emotional, waiting on God to come and save. Notice that it is also a “psalm of ascent.” It is being used by a pilgrim who has come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God in the midst of despair. Out of the depths he has been crying to the Lord with no response. Now, he pleads again for the Lord to hear his voice and supplication. Notice that the psalmist has moved beyond self-recrimination. This is about more than personal sin. The pit is not God’s punishment, for if God counted sin and thus punished, who would stand? No one! No; with God there is always forgiveness. And so, the psalmist continues to hold tenaciously to God’s word and wait and watch with an intensity that exceeds that of the watchmen waiting for the morning. The psalmist knows that, when God comes, it will be with steadfast love, healing and redemption. He prays, “Come, Lord; redeem all Israel!” This is a prayer for all who wrestle with depression, all with chronic or terminal illness and for any who find themselves in the pit of life for whatever reason.
Paul begins to bring this letter to his beloved Philippians to a conclusion 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, over who knows what, and are 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, and the God of peace will be with them.
Jesus continues to pray for those that the Father has given him, because they belong to the Father. All that is his is his Father’s, and all that is his Father’s belongs to Jesus. And now, Jesus will no longer be in the world with them, but coming to the Father, and so he asks that his disciples be protected in his name, so that they may be one as Jesus and the Father are one. While with them, not one of them has been lost, save the one who was destined to be lost. Now that Jesus is coming to the Father, he speaks these things openly so that their joy may be complete. He has given them the Father’s word and the world has hated them for it, just as it has hated Jesus for it. Jesus does not ask that the disciples be taken out of the world, but rather, he asks that the Father protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. Therefore, “Sanctify them in the truth”—God’s word is truth. As the Father has sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends his followers into the world. Both have been sanctified (set apart) to do God’s work. Jesus sanctifies himself (sets himself apart) so that they, too, may be set apart (sanctified) in God’s truth.
Daily Readings for Thursday, March 6
Habakkuk 3:1–10 (11–15) 16–18; Psalm 102; Philippians 3:12–21; John 17:1–8
Habakkuk has just called for silence across the entire earth, for the Lord is in his holy temple. Habakkuk offers a lengthy prayer. It begins with a petition for God to reveal his divine workings in the world—deeds for which the Lord is renowned. Habakkuk then calls upon God to act on the vision of Babylon’s fall, and cause it to come to be. The prayer then turns into a psalm that praises God’s victories over Israel’s previous enemies and then to a psalm exalting God’s power and ways in creation. God is sovereign over the chaos of the sea, brings forth land with its rivers and mountains and establishes and maintains the sun and the moon. God has come forth to save his people and his anointed, and has crushed the head of the wicked house, coming like a whirlwind to scatter the proud who were ready to devour the poor in hiding. Habakkuk calls on God to do that now, but in the recital of those incidents he is overwhelmed. He hears himself and trembles and determines to wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon Babylon. And though all the forces of nature cease to produce, yet, he will not only wait, he will rejoice in the Lord and exalt in the God of his salvation. The book ends with the affirmation that God has given him the nimble feet of a deer that can tread the most treacherous of mountain heights. God, the Lord is his strength.
Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to intercession as he pleads for God’s presence and compassion, not on himself, but on Zion. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm turns to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name may continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. Though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing, yet remains the Lord forever. A final note of affirmation and hope is spoken: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.
Paul confesses that all that he does is not because he has reached the goal of becoming Christ-like, but “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Consequently, forgetting what lies behind and what he has done, Paul strains forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Whatever the issues 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 looks for those among them in Philippi who are living 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 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 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 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.”
Jesus’ conversation with his followers about what is to soon take place, including his “going away” and “coming again,” has come to a conclusion and he now talks directly to his Father with the disciples listening in. The time has come for the Father to glorify the Son so that he can make visible God’s presence in him and his ability to give eternal life. And what is eternal life? To know the Father and the Son whom the Father has sent. Jesus has glorified the Father by finishing the work the Father sent him to do, now it is time for the Father to glorify Jesus with the glory he initially had in the Father’s presence. Now, the prayer turns to concern for his followers. Jesus has made his Father’s name known to those the Father has given him from the world, and Jesus has given to them all that the Father sent him to give. They believe the Father has sent him to them. And so, Jesus now prays on their behalf, not only because they belong to him, but also because they belong to the Father. This section of the prayer closes with the affirmation of the unity of the Son and Father in all things—a major theme throughout this gospel. All that is Jesus’ is his Father’s, and all that is the Father’s is Jesus’. In all things, Jesus has been glorified.
Daily Readings for Wednesday, March 5
Amos 5:6–15; Psalm 51; Hebrews 12:1–14; Luke 18:9–14
Today we enter the liturgical season of Lent, originally a time of pre-baptismal training for adults that included instruction, weekly fasting, and turning aside from old ways. After infant baptism became the norm in Christendom, Lent became a time of renewal through penance, self-denial—especially fasting once or twice a week, while observing the larger fast of denying oneself meat or any milk products during the period. Consistent with the biblical terminology for a long time, the fast lasted forty days. But because Sunday is a festival day, because of Christ’s resurrection, Sundays are “in Lent but not of Lent.” There is to be no self-denial on those days. With Ash Wednesday, we enter the season of Lent, headed toward the “three great days” that remember Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
Our lesson from Amos is the southern prophet’s cry in the north, to abandon their abuse of things in search of riches and to return to seeking the Lord. It is leveled by Amos at a time of great prosperity in the Northern Kingdom, but a prosperity that often emerged because of various injustices, corrupt practices, and especially, the abuse of the working poor. Does that sound familiar? Amos warns that, unless the people repent and change their ways, the Lord will break out against them (the house of Joseph was one of the northern tribes), and consume it like fire, devouring its central worship shrine at Bethel. They have turned justice to wormwood and brought righteousness to the ground. Amos reminds them that the Lord, who created all things, is watching their behavior. He sees how the people hate anyone who raises questions about their actions, reproving them at the city gate—the traditional place in which legal cases were debated and decided by the elders. They abhor those who, in these disputations, speak the truth. Rather, they trample on the poor, taking from them levies of grain, and with the profit, built for themselves stone hewn houses. However, the Lord will act: they will not live in them, nor shall they drink the wine from their pleasant vineyards. They afflict the righteous, take bribes to decide for the rich at the expense of the poor, pushing the latter aside in the courts of justice. In such a time, even the prudent keep silent, much to their judgment as well. The Lord knows how many are their transgressions and how great is their sin—even if they refuse to acknowledge it—and the Lord will act. But, as is always the case with prophets, there is a call to repentance: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate. It may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. And so, that theme leads us into Lent, a time of reflection, a time of correction, a time of deeper commitments to loving good and doing justice. This is the worship that the Lord expects and most welcomes from us.
Psalm 51 is a confession of sin without peer, and as appropriate today as when it was first uttered. Tradition attributes it to David, upon being challenged by his prophet, Nathan, concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent engineering of the military murder of her husband Uriah. However, it shows marks of having been written later than that, after the return from exile, especially the last two verses. The center of the psalm focuses on the human heart, which to the Hebrew mind is not the center of affections, but the center of one’s will. In pleading for a clean heart, the supplicant expresses the conviction that, without the gift of a new and right spirit, it is not possible to remain in obedience. The human heart is prone to pride and stubbornness. And so, he pleads for God’s holy spirit to sustain him—one of the few places in the Old Testament where the phrase “holy spirit” is used. But notice, it is not yet personified, but simply an expression of God’s presence. The point is, even right praise is God’s gift to us, motivated by God’s Spirit. We cannot offer it without God’s prompting. Consequently, the psalmist utters the phrase that has become a classic invitation to prayer, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” He then expresses the prophets’ recurring conviction that rather than sacrifice, what God truly desires in each of us is an obedient heart committed to God and God’s ways. Sacrifices God may or may not accept. After all, God does not need them, and since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been none. Prayer itself has become the new form of sacrifice. And so, a heart in which stubbornness has been broken, and self-pride crushed, is a heart God will never despise or reject. The prayer ends with a plea for Zion and the rebuilding of its walls following its sack by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the restoration of the sacrificial system.
In light of the cloud of faithful witnesses that has just been recited in the previous chapter, Hebrews challenges us to lay aside the sin that clings to us and run with perseverance the race of faith that lies before us, looking always to Jesus, the author, founder and perfecter of our faith. Knowing the joy that lay ahead of him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has now taken his place of ultimate honor at God’s right hand. Let him be our example, so that we do not lose heart in our own struggles in life. After all, none of us have resisted to the point of shedding our blood. Such struggles are the discipline of the Lord at work in our lives, intended to make us holy. Endure your trials as a means of discipline being dispensed in your lives for the sake of strengthening you in holiness and preparing you for what lies ahead. What loving father does not discipline his child, lest the child be ill prepared for life? Does the child like the discipline as it is unfolding? Absolutely not! But, the day comes when children recognize it was for their own good and are thankful. This discipline is in order that we may share in God’s holiness. Therefore, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and walk in straight paths,” so that what is weak may be strengthened, and what is sick may be healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, without which, no one will see God.
Jesus tells a parable about prayer and faithfulness as we await the fullness of the kingdom, this one addressed to the Pharisees and scribes—those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Already, we can see Jesus setting up the religious leaders, for the cultural difference between the two could not have been greater. The Pharisee stands by himself, away from the crowd of common worshippers, thanking God that he is not like them: thieves, rogues, adulterers, “or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee reminds God of his pious observances, just to insure that God and others listening, understand just how righteous he is—prayer was always audible. The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off because he is despised by all of the other worshippers, not just by the Pharisee, and cannot even bring himself to look up into heaven with open hands—the typical posture of prayer in the temple. Rather, beating his breast as a sign of sorrow and penance, he simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus declares that this man went to his home justified—restored in his relationship with God—rather than the Pharisee, making the point that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
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.