Saturday, April 4, 2015, Holy Saturday
Job 19:21-27a; Psalm 43; Hebrews 4:1-16 or Romans 8:1-11; Luke 23:47-56
Today’s reading from Job is the portion of this epic poem that is most well-known: “Oh that my words were written down in a book, or with chisel and hammer they were carved in stone forever. For I know that my redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see (on my side), and not another.” The word “redeemer” here can also be translated “vindicator” or “redeeming vindicator.” Translations differ regarding the portion I have placed in parenthesis. Some simply say, “I will see him with my own eyes.” Seeing God “On my side,” suggests that God would be more than a vindicator, but actually Job’s advocate and constant defender. Or, is Job asking for a heavenly vindicator to stand with him against God? What is most clear is that Job knows that a heavenly vindicator exists and, rather than be declared innocent after his death, Job wants a face to face audience with God now—with or without the vindicator—in order to establish his own innocence and the injustice of what he is suffering. The church has, of course, identified this redeeming vindicator as Jesus, who will stand before God on our behalf at the last and has not only overcome the accuser, but driven him out of God’s presence forever.
Psalm 43 is a wonderful little psalm that is a petition for God’s help in times of trouble, asking for God’s vindication against the ungodly ones who have behaved in deceitful and unjust ways against her. Affirming her trust in God, she asks why this has happened: “…why have you cast me off?” Then she prays, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me!” Isn’t that what we most need when besieged by the confusion of deceit and injustice all around? Once led through the treachery of injustice, let God’s light and truth bring her to God’s holy hill in Jerusalem and to God’s dwelling there, the temple. There she will worship God with exceeding joy and praise him with the harp. After reaffirming her commitments to God, the psalmist turns reflective and asks herself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Her counsel is that universal word that continues to resound throughout scripture: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Yes, this is a difficult time, but God is present within it as her help and will again be triumphant. There will come a time beyond this when she will again be filled with joy and praise.
We are at the high water mark of Paul’s theology in the letter to the Romans: there is no condemnation for those who are joined to Christ Jesus, because God has done in Christ what the law, weakened by human flesh, could not do for us. By sending his son in the flesh, Christ dealt with sin, and condemned it in his own flesh, so that what the law was designed to produce might be fulfilled in any who walk, not by the flesh but by the Spirit. It is then, a matter of mindset! Set the mind on the flesh (sin and its ways) and the result is always death. Set the mind on the Spirit (God and God’s ways) and the result is life and peace. The former is hostile to God; it cannot possibly submit to the law, much less keep it, and therefore simply cannot please God. But in Christ, we are not of the flesh but of the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us. And though our bodies are dead because of sin and still susceptible to its power, the Spirit is alive in us because of God’s righteousness. Then Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit which dwells in you.” It is not just a promise about the future beyond death; it is a promise for life now. God is doing in us what you and I cannot do for ourselves, in and through Jesus Christ.
Jesus had been hanging on the cross surround by mockery and rejection, save the one criminal who had asked to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Thereafter, Jesus entrusted himself to God and died. Now, we hear five very different responses to him. First, the centurion in charge of the Roman crucifixion detail proclaims Jesus not only innocent but just—the Greek word’s first and primary meaning here is “just.” Second, the people of the city, those who have watched the mock trial and, out of curiosity, have followed the detail out for the crucifixion, now suddenly face the injustice of it all, and reacting to “what they have seen,” leave the site beating their breast in mourning, contrition and repentance. The third is the extraordinary actions of Joseph of Arimathea, a Jew who was a member of the elite Sanhedrin—the religious council that conspired to have Jesus killed. We are told that he did not consent to the council’s action and now goes to Pilate to secure the body for burial. Fourth is Pilate’s response—it is most unusual—he consents to Joseph’s request. Rome did not grant such burials to the convicts it crucified. But then again, Pilate has known from the moment he met Jesus that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him. Is Pilate attempting to atone for his complicity in granting this permission? Joseph takes Jesus’ body and treats it as though it belonged to a member of his own family, giving it a hurried burial in his own, heretofore, unused tomb because the sabbath will soon arrive. Finally, the women who have accompanied and helped provide for Jesus from the very beginning in Galilee have been watching all of this from afar. There is one last act of provision they must offer: spices and ointments for his dead body. But, as the sabbath is about to begin, they return to where they have been staying to prepare ointments to apply to the body once the sabbath is past. That commitment will make them the very first witnesses to what God does once the sabbath rest is past.
Good Friday, April 3, 2015
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 22; 1 Peter 1:10-20; Luke 22:24-38
This is one of the most chilling lessons in the Old Testament: God’s ultimate and last test of Abraham. After years of waiting for a son to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, God tells Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to Mt. Moriah and offer him to God as a burnt offering. The word “Moriah” is similar to a verb meaning “to see” and is understood to be a place where the Lord can see Abraham’s obedience. Later, tradition identified Mt. Moriah as the temple mount in Jerusalem. Abraham does as God tells him! We are not sure which is the more disturbing, God’s command or Abraham’s assent, but either way, we understand the story is centered in what theologians call “a moral paradox.” The story is masterfully told, drawing on the pathos of Abraham’s silent, determined obedience, and Isaac’s open innocence, in pursuit of what has been commanded. Bearing the wood for the fire on his own back, Isaac repeatedly asks his father about the sacrificial victim. A major theme emerges here: God himself will provide the lamb—God will “see to it,” playing on the verb “to see.” Does Abraham believe that, or is it simply his way of avoiding Isaac’s demanding question? The tension of the drama increases as the altar is built, the wood placed upon it, Isaac bound and placed on the wood, and Abraham’s knife is poised to slay the boy. Only then does God intervene (“the angel of the Lord,” is a pious way of avoiding naming God present to intervene). Stopping the action, God announces that he has “seen” that Abraham fears him above all else since he has not withheld his son, his only son, from him. Looking up, Abraham sees a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. He takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering instead of Isaac, and names the place “The Lord will provide.” The phrase can also be rendered, “The Lord will see.” Of the many things that can be said about this text, two seem appropriate this day. First, in a world where the sacrifice of children was not unusual, and even far more frequent in Israel’s life than is often realized, frequently used in an attempt to insure one’s future (the sacrifice of the first born to insure the fertility of the womb that bore him, the sacrifice of a king’s son at the city gates to insure their protection), this text is clearly a polemic against it: the Lord does not demand the sacrifice of children. Second, what the Lord is not willing to demand of Abraham, the Lord requires of himself in the death of his only Son! But from that sacrifice comes the redemption of the world and the revelation of God’s power to turn death into new life.
Psalm 22 is the best known lament in the Psalter, primarily because it contains the words that are on the lips of Jesus hanging on the cross and is all but prophetic concerning what takes place there. It is a lengthy plea for help that describes the psalmist’s troubles. Day and night he calls for help with no answer. Yet, God is the Holy One enthroned on the praises of Israel; the One his ancestors trusted and he delivered them. But the psalmist does not ask on the basis of his own righteousness. He is but a worm, not human, and scorned by others who despise and mock him. “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver,” is repeated in the passion (Matthew 27:43 ) with the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees using these words to mock Jesus in his dying. In the midst of suffering, the psalmist remembers that God has cared for him since his birth and from that time the Lord has been his God. Again he pleads, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” Vivid language follows to describe the psalmist’s condition: surrounded by strong and destructive bulls, poured out like water, a heart melted like wax, bones out of joint, mouth dried like a potsherd, and his tongue cleaving to his jaw. The psalmist understands this as God’s judgment against him: “you lay me in the dust of death,” circled by dogs ready to devour his flesh. His enemies likewise stare and gloat over his suffering and divide his clothing among them by casting lots—another image Matthew includes at the cross. After one final plea for the Lord’s presence and aid to save him from the power of the dog and the mouth of the lion, suddenly, there is a shift in the second half of verse 21: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” God has acted. The rest of the psalm is one of praise to God for not hiding his face, for answering and for coming to the psalmist in his distress. The psalm is exultant and filled with promises to testify to the Lord’s goodness among his brothers and sisters in the midst of the congregation. His rescue is such that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship him.” For, dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. Even those yet unborn will be told about the Lord and proclaim him. It is easy to see why the infant church found in this psalm prophetic witness to Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection and eternal rule, and how its influence found its way into the passion narratives.
The theological cantus firmus of 1 Peter is that God has graciously acted through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring about a salvation that is being kept in heaven for those to whom Peter writes, those being protected by the power of God through their faith and trust in him. The author of 1 Peter reads the entire Old Testament through a Christological lens, so that all of it is understood as preparation for and in service to the Gospel revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Having said that, he presses his readers to live lives of holiness, worthy of the grace and salvation Christ will bring when he reappears. Notice that their ultimate salvation still lies in the future. Consequently, they are to abandon the ways they formerly lived as ignorant children and become holy as God is holy! If they are going to claim to belong to God in Christ, they must live lives that look like it, for they have been redeemed from their former ways, in the sense of “ransomed,” not by perishable things like silver or gold, but “with the precious blood of Christ.” None of this has been an afterthought on God’s part, but was destined by God before the foundation of the world and revealed at “the end of the ages” for their sake. 1st Peter affirms that before creation, God knew its future ways of becoming captive to sin, and determined, even before bringing creation into being, the means for its redemption.
As the disciples question who it is among them that will betray Jesus, they fall into an argument over which one of them is the greatest. Jesus intervenes by reminding them that this is the way the rulers of the Gentiles behave. Even though the Gentiles call those in authority their “benefactors,” it is not to be so with Jesus’ followers. Rather, the greatest among them is to become like the youngest, and their leaders must be like those who serve at tables. For which, after all, is greater, the one reclining at table or the one serving? Is it not the one being served? Yet, Jesus is among them as one who serves. They have stood with him in his trials and now, just as the Father has conferred on him a kingdom so that they may eat and drink at his table, he confers on them a kingdom of their own. They will sit on thrones judging the people of God (the word “judge” is used in the sense of the “judges” of the Old Testament who governed the twelve tribes of Israel). Do not miss the Eucharistic language here intended for the churches to which Luke is writing. They are, in their Eucharistic assemblies, at table with Jesus in the kingdom that has already come among them. Leadership in that community of shared table fellowship is to be servant leadership after the likes of Jesus’ own leadership among them.
Note: If you are not going to be participating in a Good Friday service remembering our Lord’s passion and death, then please continue today’s reading through Luke 23:56.
Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015
Jeremiah 20:7-18; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:27-32; Luke 22:1-23
Jeremiah confesses his anguish at his appointed lot. The Lord has enticed him—no, overpowered him—and Jeremiah is helpless in the face of that. This has made him a laughingstock to everyone. When he speaks, it is the Lord’s words that he must speak, and he cries out “Violence and destruction!” If he determines to no longer speak God’s word, it becomes like a burning fire within him that he cannot contain. His enemies plot terror against him from every side. Even his friends watch for him to stumble, hoping to entice him away or prevail over and take revenge against him. But, this final confession ends in words of confidence: “the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore all my persecutors will stumble.” They will not prevail, but be greatly shamed and their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. Now the confession turns from trust to, first, a petition and, then, a word of praise: “…let me see your retribution upon [my enemies], for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of the evildoers.” That said, Jeremiah curses the day he was born, despairing over the prophetic life that he has been consigned by God to live. It would have been better for him to die in his mother’s womb than to be born into the toil and sorrow that has marked his days in shame.
Psalm 27 expresses confidence in the presence of the Lord and does so in triumphal language. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” (Sorry, that’s the way I memorized it, and this should be memorized, right after Psalm 23!) The Lord is the strength and stronghold of my life, of whom should I be afraid? Enemies range from “evildoers,” adversaries and foes—all shall stumble and fall because of the Lord’s care. “Even though an army encamps against me, yet, my heart shall not fear.” The imagery of a fearful heart is so true to life when anxiety hits. After one more expression of confidence, the psalm turns more reflective: “One thing have I asked of the Lord and that will I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” This is precisely the same sentiment with which Psalm 23 ends. It goes on to affirm (and perhaps even recall) God’s sheltering care in the day of trouble. The double action of “conceal me in his tent,” and “set me high on a rock” covers the span from shelter when on the run to ultimate triumph over those who pursue. And now, the psalm turns victorious and exultant with promises of sacrifice, shouts of joy and songs (psalms) and melodies to the Lord (remember, they were often accompanied by or sung to melodies; not just recited). There is the request for God to hear when he cries, and to answer. Immediately, his heart says to him “Come, seek his face,” and he replies, “Your face Lord, do I seek; do not hide it from me.” Notice the kind of face-to-face intimacy of relationship that is being sought as the psalm pleads not to be turned aside, cast away or forsaken. And then there is the extraordinary confession, “Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will not, but will take me up.” There follows the request to be taught the Lord’s ways and to be led on a level path (who of us does not want life without its ups and downs?), and to be kept out of the hands of his adversaries, for false witnesses have arisen against him and are breathing threats of violence. The psalm ends with the wonderful affirmation, “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” and then “wait for the Lord, be strong, let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.” This last phrase, in one or another form, appears some fourteen times in the Old Testament, better than a third of them in the Psalter. The faith of the Psalter, if not all of Scripture, can be summed up as “Waiting for the Lord.” Seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living along with the previous, “the Lord will take me up,” was later seen as a reference to life after death in heaven. Here, in its original setting, it simply means goodness of life lived with and out of the strength of the Lord now, here, in the land of the living.
Paul, in warning the Corinthians about their thoughtless and shameful behavior with one another in their evening worship meals, has recounted the exodus story as their own and has incorporated images of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper into that narrative. They were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink—Christ himself. However, that did not prevent the Lord from punishing them for their sinful behavior. So, too, the Corinthians must be careful not to desire evil, as the children of Israel did (he calls them “your ancestors”), or become idolaters, as their ancestors were. As today’s lesson opens, Paul again refers to the Supper with words that are often incorporated in todays’ Eucharistic liturgies: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; the bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Partaking thus of Christ, they are to avoid what has been sacrificed to demons, or they partake of that sacrifice as well—they cannot do both!—for, in doing so, they will unite Christ with the demon to whom the food was sacrificed. Stepping over Paul’s handing on the tradition of Jesus’ words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, the reading continues with the theme of the consequences of participating in the worship meal in “an unworthy manner.” They will be answerable for the Lord’s death. Rather, they are to examine themselves and their behavior with one another before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For, to eat and drink without “discerning the body,” is to do so in a manner that will bring judgment upon them. This text has a long history of abuse in the church in its debate over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and questions about who is and who is not able to receive the sacrament. Transubstantiationists have insisted that Paul is saying that, unless one “discerns” Christ present in the bread and the wine, one cannot commune, for doing so would be to one’s own judgment. When read in isolation from Paul’s larger argument, it can be read thus. But, when read in the larger context of Paul challenging the Corinthians over their behavior with one another at the supper, “the body” he is demanding they discern is not Christ present in the bread and wine, but Christ present in the body gathered about the Eucharist—their need to discern Christ present in one another and, thus, to behave accordingly. Whatever Christ’s relationship to the bread and wine, they must understand he is present in and among them in the Eucharist in more than bread and wine—he is the host of the meal! They cannot abuse or disregard one another in their assemblies and then come to the table to receive Christ in bread and wine. Rather, until they can perceive Christ in one another, they are not to come to the table, lest they receive Christ in an unworthy manner and, therefore, bring judgment upon themselves. Their failure to do this in the past has resulted in many of them being weak and some of them dying. So, when they come together for worship, they are to wait upon one another so that their coming together is for their blessing rather than condemnation.
As the Passover draws near, the chief priests and scribes continue to plot Jesus’ death, but in a way that will not turn the people against them. Luke tells us that Satan enters Judas, who goes to the religious officials and offers to betray Jesus to them. Pleased with this, the officials offer Judas money, which he accepts, and then begins to look for an opportunity to betray Jesus to them when no crowd is present. The narrative shifts to Jesus instructing Peter and John to make preparation for them to observe the Passover meal, which normally was celebrated within families with others invited as guests. When they asked him, “Where?” Jesus tells them to look for a man carrying a jar of water and follow him to his house and there make the preparation. In that culture, carrying water was something only women did, unless, of course, there were no women in the household. This has led some to suggest that the meal was held in a guest room in an Essene monastic community, and, in fact, there is some evidence that the site of the Supper was, indeed, precisely that. For Luke, however, the more important thing is that Jesus is not only making preparation for the most important meal of the year in Israel’s life, the moment that instituted and ever after commemorated their liberation from Egypt, but doing so as an act that signals the making of a new covenant marking a new liberation. Now gathered at table with them that evening, Jesus tells them how eager he has been to share this Passover meal with them before he suffers. He then tells them that he will not eat this meal again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God—until his coming suffering has fulfilled its redemptive purpose. Blessing and then sharing a cup of wine with them, he says neither will he do this again until the kingdom of God comes. Thereafter, he takes a loaf of bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to them and says, “This is my body given for you, do this as my remembrance.” Finally, at the last cup of wine shared in the Passover meal, he blesses and shares it with them. (In Jesus’ day, Passover meals included four commemorative cups of wine—two at the beginning of the meal and two at its conclusion. Luke is the only gospel writer that includes a second cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper, one at the beginning, instituting the covenant meal and the one at its conclusion.) With this last cup, Jesus tells them it is poured out for them in the new covenant of his blood. The first covenant was commemorated with the blood of the sacrificial lamb smeared on the door posts while the household ate the Passover meal. This new covenant is being established in the shedding of his own blood as he, himself, becomes the Pascal lamb whose blood is poured out for them to bring that new covenant into being. With that, he tells them his betrayer is among them. Though the Son of Man goes forth as has been determined, woe to the one by whom he is betrayed! Those at table with him immediately begin to ask one another who among them could do such a thing?
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Jeremiah 17:5-10, 14-17; Psalm 5; Philippians 4:1-13; Luke 21:1-38
Threats of God’s punishment dominate the opening of today’s lesson, with a poetic oracle that mirrors Psalm 1 in its “two ways” of life. Those who trust in mere mortals, who trust in their own strength and turn their hearts away from God will be like waterless shrubs in wilderness, cursed when the heat comes. Those who trust in the Lord are blessed, and like trees planted by water, send out roots to the stream. The tree has no reason to fear the heat when it comes. The Lord then pronounces judgment on the human heart—devious above all else and perverse. Who can understand it? The Lord tests both the heart and the mind to give to everyone according to their ways. Skipping over a third voice uttering praise, we come to Jeremiah’s third confession: “Heal me Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my praise.” His words are being rejected as authentic prophecy by the people. Yet, Jeremiah has been a faithful shepherd of God’s word and has not run away from that service. Though he does not desire the fatal day he is proclaiming, it is the word the Lord has given him to speak, and he has spoken it. He pleads that the Lord not become a terror to him, for he has no other refuge in the coming day of disaster.
Psalm 5, traditionally used in Morning Prayer, pleads for God’s protection and care against his enemies. Knowing that God abhors wickedness and the boastful, the psalmist expresses the certainty that, because of God’s steadfast love, he will again be able to enter God’s house to worship, even as he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit and their rebellion is really rebellion against God. Let them bear the fruit of their guilt and fall by their own counsel. On the other hand, let all who take refuge in the Lord rejoice. Let them sing forever. Pleading for the Lord to spread his protection over all who take refuge in him, the psalmist ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care for those who are righteous (in a right relationship with God and one another). Cover them with divine favor as a shield.
Paul brings this letter to his beloved Philippians to a close with words of deep affection and gratitude, exhorting them to faithful living in the interim. They are to stand firm in the faith. They are to be united in the mind of Christ. Quickly, he mentions a conflict between two women in the church, both of whom have struggled beside Paul in his work along with Clement. Paul calls upon his other companions there to work to reconcile the two women who have gotten at cross purposes with one another and are thereby disrupting the church and its witness. He then turns to the theme of rejoicing in the Lord, always. Not only are they to stand firm in Christ, they are to let their joy and gentle quality of life be known to all. Reminding them that the Lord is near, he exhorts them to abandon worry, and, instead, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let their requests be made known to God. In doing so, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep their hearts and their minds centered in Christ Jesus. Think on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise, and then do it! Keep doing the things they have learned from him. Paul now expresses a very personal reason for his own rejoicing in the Philippians: the recently received gift of support that they sent to him, which he mentioned at the beginning of this letter. But in this act of expressing his gratitude, Paul is careful not to appear in any way manipulative. The issue of monetary support was a challenging one, and Paul wants to avoid the allegation that his affection for the Philippians is solely based upon their support of him, or worse, that he tailors his teaching and preaching to please those who provide him support. He is grateful, to be sure. However, he has also learned to be content both in abundance and in need. He has known what it means to be well fed and to go hungry; he has known plenty and want. Most of all, he has learned to be content with what he has in all circumstances because he has learned that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.
Jesus has just condemned the corruption of the temple establishment, especially the scribes, calling them, “those who devour widow’s homes.” Looking up, he sees the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also sees a poor widow put in two small copper coins and tells those listening that she has given the greater gift. Others contribute out of their wealth. She has given out of her poverty—giving what she has to live on. Less as a word of admiration for the widow’s stewardship, Jesus is continuing his judgment on a system that would take her gift and feel no responsibility for her in her poverty. Some around him begin to speak about the temple’s magnificence and he reminds them of what he had earlier said at the crest of the Mount of Olives: the days are coming when not one stone of the temple will be left standing on another. “Teacher,” they ask, “when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Jesus first warns them against false messiahs, as many will come in his name. Do not go after them. He then tells them that what is often seen as a sign of the end of the times is not that. Wars and rumors of wars will continue as will conflict between nations; earthquakes, various famines and plagues, and dreadful portents from the heavens will continue. At verse twelve Jesus turns to those who follow him—words that Luke includes here especially for the churches reading this letter—and reminds them that before all of this takes place, they will be arrested and persecuted and handed over to synagogues and prisons, and brought before kings and governors because of his name. They are to see this as an opportunity to testify. They need not worry about what it is they will say in that moment; he will be with them to give them words that none of their opponents can contradict. Even their parents, relatives and friends will betray them. Some of them will be put to death, but not a hair on their heads will perish. By their endurance they will gain their lives. Then, Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem in language reminiscent of the tragedy when Babylon savagely destroyed the city in 587 BCE. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles—God’s agents of destruction—until the gospel reaches them and the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled—remember, Luke is writing to a Gentile church! Thereafter, there will be cosmic signs foretelling the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds with power and great glory. (In Daniel, the Son of Man comes to God; here, Jesus reverses the order and has the Son of Man returning to humanity from God to bring its redemption.) So, when they see these signs, they are to stand up, raise their heads, knowing their redemption is near. He then tells them to read the signs of the times through the parable of the fig tree, promising that this generation will not pass away until all of this has taken place. So, they are to be on guard and not let their hearts become weighed down with the worries of life, lest the day come upon them unexpectedly. They are to remain alert, praying at all times that they may have the strength to escape what will take place, so that they may stand before the Son of Man. With this, Luke brings the temple teachings to a close, reminding us that, daily, Jesus taught in this way, and each evening retired to the Mount of Olives. Every day, the people rose early to get to the temple to listen to him.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Jeremiah 15:10-21; Psalm 34; Philippians 3:15-21; Luke 20:20—21:4
Jeremiah complains about the course of his life, lamenting his birth, for he has become a “strife and contention to the whole land!” In spite of his upright ways, everyone curses him. The Lord enters the conversation, insisting that he has intervened in Jeremiah’s life for good, even though, in doing so, God has imposed enemies on him. Scholars differ over what verse twelve means, as the Hebrew text is unclear. Is it a warning about the invasion from the north and its inevitability, and, if so, to whom, Jeremiah or the people? Probably the latter as the text goes on to warn that the Lord will give the people up for plunder without price and they will serve their enemies in a land they do not know. Jeremiah now addresses God directly, calling on God for retribution against those who persecute him. It is on the Lord’s account that he suffers as he does. He has consumed God’s word and now it has consumed him. He has not given himself to merrymaking or rejoicing. Under the weight of God’s hand, he has and continues to sit alone, filled with indignation. He asks, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” And then, Jeremiah calls God a deceitful brook: promising water where there is none. God responds, “Return and I will take you back.” For whatever reason, there has been a breach in their relationship. If Jeremiah will utter God’s word to the people—what is precious rather than what is worthless—he will serve as God’s mouth. Though the people turn against Jeremiah, God will make him a fortified wall of bronze. Though the people fight against Jeremiah, they will not prevail, for the Lord is with him. Jeremiah is to continue to do what he has done from the beginning, speak God’s unwelcomed word to the people, warning them of their destruction. The Lord gives Jeremiah this final promise: “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”
Psalm 34 is attributed to David, when he feigned madness before king Abimelech so that the king drove David out, allowing David to escape. It is a wisdom psalm built on an acrostic pattern, each new section beginning with a word that begins with the successive letter of the alphabet and focuses on God’s goodness. It uses a number of Hebrew parallelisms, the first phrase making a statement that the second phrase repeats with different language: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be continually in my mouth.” “O magnified the Lord with me, and let us exalt in his name together.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” These, of course, have been solidly incorporated in the liturgical language of the church, as the Psalter was its first prayer-book. The psalm is testimonial through and through: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me…, look to him and be radiant. …. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” The young are then summoned to listen and learn the fear of the Lord and what it means for their lives. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in sprit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. …. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
Whatever the issues are in Philippi that are causing disagreement, Paul urges those who are mature in the faith to be of the same mind (that was in Christ; see 2:5ff). If, in doing that, they find themselves thinking differently about anything, God will reveal the correct answer to them. For now, they must hold fast to what they have already attained—Christ himself. Now he calls on them to join in imitating him in his imitation of Christ and to look for those among them in Philippi who live according to the example they have formerly seen in Paul and his colleagues. For, it seems there are many in the community at Philippi who are abusing their freedom in Christ and, in doing so, actually live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Though Paul has warned them of this before, he does so again, now with tears. Their end will be destruction. Their god is the belly. Is this about food regulations, keeping other practices of the Jewish law, or is it a reference to using their so-called freedom in Christ to pursue all of their sensual appetites, especially the sexual ones for which the Roman-Greco world was so well known? We do not know. What is clear is that Paul understands that their end will be destruction and that the things they glory in now will be their shame. They have set their minds, not on Christ, but on earthly things. Then, taking up the theme of citizenship, so important an image in Philippi where Roman citizenship played such a significant role, Paul reminds them that regardless of whether or not they are Roman citizens (as he is!), their true citizenship is in heaven, from which they are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul does not normally talk about Christ saving in the future, but of what he did on the cross, and this may be Paul’s way of comparing and contrasting the benefits of Christ as Savior over those of the Roman emperors who themselves bore the title “Savior.” That leads Paul into the description of just how Christ will save us: he will transform our humble bodies, such as they are, so that they are conformed to the glory of his own, and will do it by the divine power that is now his and that enables him to make all things subject to himself. To really grasp this section in its fullest meaning, we must keep the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 clearly in mind. Heavenly citizenship means not simply life lived eternally with the risen Christ in some disembodied existence. Rather, it is a form of life free from the constraints of our current physical bodies—whatever those constraints may be—because our bodies will have been transformed into a glory just like Christ’s own, what Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44 calls a “spiritual body.”
The religious leaders know they cannot act against Jesus out of their own authority, for the people consider Jesus a prophet and would rise up against them. Consequently, they begin to look for a way to entrap Jesus with the Roman authorities, so that they might be used to get rid of Jesus. To that end, they send agents to the temple courtyard to spy on Jesus, and do so under the guide of honest questions, attempting to draw him into answers that will damn him with Rome. Notice how they address him: “Teacher.” It is the address of those always outside Jesus’ circle of followers. Their first question has to do with whether it is lawful for Jews to pay tribute (NRSV translates it “taxes”) to the emperor? Taxes are one thing, tribute quite another, though the tribute was paid like a tax—a denarius—equal to one day’s wage. Though not an extraordinary amount, it was a perpetual reminder that the Jews had lost their autonomy as the people of God and now lived under the reign of someone who claimed to be divine. Knowing what they are up to, as Jesus always knows in Luke’s gospel, he requests the coin and asks, “Whose head and inscription does it bear?” The coin had the head of Tiberius imprinted on it with an inscription identifying him as the son of the divine Augustus. Jesus’ famous answer is only partially understood. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” is clear: the coin is his, let him have it. “Give to God the things that are God’s,” is not simply a reminder of who we are to pay tribute to in worship, but more; whose image is stamped on us! Created in the image of God, we are to give ourselves to God alone. Not only are the spies unable to trap Jesus, they are amazed by his answer and fall silent. In their silence some Sadducees ask a question about the resurrection. The Sadducees were a religious party that condemned the oral traditions extrapolated from Torah by the Pharisees and who insisted on the strict letter of the law. Their question is about the resurrection, in which the Pharisees believed but the Sadducees denied. They too call Jesus “Teacher,” and ask their famous question about the woman who in life had been married to seven brothers, but with each of them remained childless. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus responds with an answer that sidesteps their reductio absurdum argument, reminding them that the afterlife is not bound to the constraints of this one. Those worthy of resurrected life neither marry nor are given in marriage, for there is no longer a need to bear children to maintain your identity and heritage as a man or your livelihood as a woman (the fundamental issue behind the institution of the “Levirate marriage” practice assumed in their question). Rather, they are like angels—now living forever—and are children of God because they are children of the resurrection. Having stepped out of their trap, Jesus addresses the more basic question the Sadducees are asking and uses Torah to do so. Quoting God, speaking to Moses at the burning bush, Jesus reminds them that God identified himself in that conversation as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—using the present rather than the past tense to describe the relationship. He was not simply their God then, but is their God now, for to him, all three of them are alive. The Sadducees have been given a proof-text for resurrection from Torah. Some of the scribes, who considered themselves the ultimate in scriptural interpretation, praise Jesus for his answer, thereby trying to maintain their position of superiority. And though Jesus’ other enemies have been silenced, he has more to say. How is it they, the scribes, say the Messiah is David’s son when David himself in Psalm 110:1 said, “The Lord [God] said to my Lord (the latter understood in that day to be the Messiah), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” If David calls the Messiah his “Lord,” how can he be his son? The scribes have nothing to say; they too have been outdone. Jesus turns to his disciples and warns them, and all who are listening, about the scribes. Stay away from them! They are not the authorities they claim to be. Rather, they love to walk about in their long robes, receive greetings of respect in the marketplace, have the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets, but devour widows’ homes, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They are among those who Jesus earlier described, when he was cleaning the temple that have turned the Lord’s house into a den of bandits. Their condemnation will be even greater.
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.