Wednesday, June 4
Isaiah 4:2–6; Psalm 99; Ephesians 4:1–16; Matthew 8:28–34
The first five chapters of Isaiah are oracles of judgment against the Israelites for their sinfulness. The flow of those judgment visions is given a brief respite by this later inserted promise that God will return the future glory of Israel. The Lord’s “branch,” she shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of those Israelites who survive the judgment. Whoever is left in Jerusalem will be holy because their names have been “recorded for life”—the roots of an image that will become “the Book of Life,” which appears in Psalm 69:28, in Philippians 4:3, and some six times in Revelation. Their holiness will be because the Lord has washed away filth of “the daughters of Zion” and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem with a spirit of burning judgment. Then the Lord will return his glory and presence to Jerusalem. The pillar of fire and cloud that were signs of God’s presence in the exodus will return and be a canopy over Jerusalem.
Psalm 99 is a psalm of praise that extolls the Lord’s holiness and sovereign power—the mighty King of the universe—who is also a lover of justice. The Lord is enthroned on the cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the temple; let the whole earth quake. For God is not only sovereign in power, but has also established equity, justice and righteousness among Jacob’s people. This, the last of the psalms that praise God as King, was and continues to be used in the church as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and triumphant reign. Because the church of the New Testament regarded the psalms as the work of the prophet David, it quickly understood him to be writing about his greater son, the Messiah. As Moses, Aaron and Samuel all went before the Lord on Israel’s behalf, so also did Christ go into heaven on our behalf. This psalm then blesses God for being forgiving, but also remembers God’s need to avenge wrong doings. The psalm ends, calling on everyone to extoll, praise and worship the Lord at his holy mountain.
The letter to the Ephesians now turns to the practical implication of what has been said thus far. They are to lead a life worthy of their calling and live with one another in all humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love, and making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Why does this not appear in church mission statements? They are, after all, the body of Christ in whom Christ dwells fully. There is but one body, one Spirit, one call, one hope, one Lord one faith, one baptism—notice the list of seven reasons for their unity. But there is an eighth, the one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all—is in them! There follows the list of gifts that have been given to them, introduced by a brief digression and reflection on the gifts of Christ’s work, including a quotation of psalms 68:18 that now is a reference to Christ’s descent into hell to take even it captive. The list of gifts among them includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. All of these have been given to them by Christ for the purpose of building them up in the faith, until they all come to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full measure of Christ. Christ is the goal and belonging to him, they are to become like him. Let them speak the truth in love as they grow into him who is their head, who joins them together in one body, each portion working perfectly as they promote the body’s growth in love. Paul’s theology of the church as the body of Christ is no longer a static image, but now a full-blown, living, dynamic organism.
Jesus has just demonstrated his authority over the forces of nature in the storm at sea; now it is time to demonstrate his authority over the demonic. The little boat sails on into the night, landing on the Gentile coast of Garaenes (notice that the name of the place is slightly different in Matthew’s version; it is Gergesnes in the other two synoptic gospels), and that there are two men rather than one. Both are possessed so severely that no one can deal with them. As the possessed men come out of the cave tomb in which they have been living, the demons within them begin to shout, “What have you to do with us, Son of God?” Notice the confession of recognition—they, at least, know who Jesus truly is. They ask, “Have you come to torment us before the time?” There is a time in which he will not only torment them but take victory over them, but that is yet to be. Recognizing their own vulnerability, the demons ask Jesus to cast them into a herd of swine feeding on a nearby hill. Jesus simply says, “Go!” and they do. Upon entering the swine the entire herd rushes headlong down the hill, falls into the sea and is drowned. The sea being a place of chaos, they are returning to their home base, never to torment the two men ever again. The herders of the swine see all of this and run to town for protection, telling the whole story about what had happened to the possessed men. Then, “the whole town comes out to meet Jesus,” and when they see him, they beg him to leave the region of their country. They fear his power and just who he may represent, which will become a common accusation of Jesus later in the gospel: that by the power of the lord of the demons, he cast them out.
Tuesday, June 3
1 Samuel 16:1–13a; Psalm 66; Ephesians 3:14–21; Matthew 8:18–27
Speaking of being strong and courageous in the Lord, we have an example of it here in Samuel who is told to quit grieving over Saul’s unfaithfulness; the Lord has rejected Saul from being king over Israel. Rather, Samuel is to anoint a new king from among the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem. Samuel complains, knowing that if Saul gets word that he is off to anoint a successor, Samuel’s life will be at severe risk. The Lord tells Samuel to travel under the guise of going to Jesse to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, to which Jesse and his sons are to be invited. There, the Lord will show Samuel what to do and who to anoint as the next king. Samuel does as he is told. Notice the fear of the people of Bethlehem when Samuel appears. Why has this great prophet of the Lord come to them; is it in peace? Yes, it is in peace; he has come to sacrifice to the Lord. Jesse and his sons sanctify themselves in preparation for the sacrifice, but as each of the sons appears before Samuel, the Lord says “No!” Samuel is not to look on outward appearances or on the height of the son’s stature. Remember, Saul was among the tallest men in Israel. For the Lord does not see as humans see. The Lord looks on the heart. Jesse calls all seven of his sons, and in each instance the Lord says, “not this one.” Finally Samuel asks if these are all of Jesse’s sons and learns there is one more, the youngest, who is out caring for Jesse’s sheep. Samuel demands that the boy be brought to the feast, insisting that he will not sit down to the feast until the boy appears. Notice the craft of the narrative: the young boy’s name is kept from us to the very end. The boy appears, and in spite of what has been said about how the Lord chooses, they boy is described as “ruddy”—either a reference to his complexion, or, more probably, the color of his hair, with “beautiful eyes, and handsome”. The Lord tells Samuel to rise and anoint this one—he is the one. Samuel does, anointing him in the presence of his father and brothers, and the spirit of the Lord comes “mightily upon David”—the first mention of his name, from that day forward. David will become Israel’s greatest king, save David’s greater Son, the Messiah. The name David means “beloved of the Lord” and it was said of David that he walked before the Lord with integrity of heart and uprightness (1 Kings 9:4).
Psalm 66 calls upon the entire earth to make a joyful noise and sing to the glory of God’s name, telling God how awesome he is. The whole earth is called to worship God. Then, all are invited to “come and see what God has done among mortals.” The psalm then remembers God’s acts of redemption out of Egypt and deliverance at the Red Sea. God has kept us among the living and does not allow our feet to slip. But, God also tests. And so, the people have known the burdens that come with subjugation by other peoples. But, in the end, God “brought us out into a broad and spacious place.” The psalmist now vows to enter the temple with burnt offerings to fulfill the promise that his lips have made, making an offering of bulls and goats. Finally, the psalmist calls on all who fear God to listen as he tells them what God has done for him. He cried aloud and extolled God and God listened, because the psalmist was innocent. Had he cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not have heard his voice. But truly, God has listened. Blessed be God, who has neither rejected his prayer nor removed his steadfast love.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians asks that they may be blessed according to the riches of God’s glory, be granted strength in their “inner being” through God’s Spirit, and that Christ will dwell in their hearts through faith, as they are rooted and grounded in love. Some think this is part of a baptismal liturgy, and it may well have become that. The author continues to pray that they may have the ability to comprehend, with all the saints, the power and extent of God’s work in them and the world, and know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge and understanding. He prays that they may be filled with all the fullness of God. The theology of the incarnation of Christ within believers is rich and speaks of “the God in us,” which would be blasphemous, except for the fact that it is the work of God. It is not that we are each a God, but that God is within us in Christ. That is startling and mind-stretching. And so, he concludes with a doxology, blessing God for having the power to do what he promises, as astonishing and unbelievable as it might sound. He again affirms what he has said before, this time in doxological language: “To him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations.” Who cannot say “Amen” to that?
Needing to escape the crowds that have been drawn to him because of his healings, Jesus and the disciples cross the sea, only to be encountered by a scribe who wants to join Jesus as a disciple. Jesus responds by describing the challenges and demands of following him. Another disciple asks permission to first bury his father, and Jesus responds with “Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.” This is scandalous talk: the fifth commandment demands honoring father and mothers, and there could be no greater dishonor than not properly burying a body. In other words, this business of following Jesus exceeds all other commandments. Jesus gets back into the boat and his disciples follow him. Was the scribe among them or the other disciples? Matthew does not tell us, one way or the other. Rather, he leads us to the next scene in which Jesus sleeps through a windstorm while the boat is being swamped and about to go down. In terror, the disciples wake him and plead for him to save them—they are about to perish. Irritated at their lack of trust, Jesus rebukes the wind and it falls silent and the sea with it. I’ve always imagined Jesus going back to sleep while the disciples marvel among themselves about who this is they have chosen to follow; one who can do far more than we can ask or imagine! Be strong, and of good courage!
Monday, June 2
Joshua 1:1–9; Psalm 97; Ephesians. 3:1–13; Matthew 8:5–17
Moses has died (or been taken to heaven alive, as an extra-biblical account says), and Joshua, heretofore Moses’ assistant, is now in charge. The Lord speaks to Joshua and tells him it is time to cross the Jordan to take possession of the land that the Lord has promised. Every place the soles of their feet tread upon, the Lord will give to them, just as the Lord promised Moses. The dimensions of the land are identified: from the wilderness of Lebanon to the river Euphrates, and from the land of the Hittites to the great sea in the west. These are, in fact, the boarders of the kingdom under Solomon’s reign. The Lord tells Joshua that he will be with him as he was with Moses; he will not fail or forsake him. And then the Lord says, “Be strong and courageous….” Repeating the charge, the Lord reminds Joshua of the need to keep the book of the law, and turn neither to the right nor the left, from it. Joshua is to “meditate upon it day and night.” If he does, he and the people will be prosperous and Joshua will be successful. This charge from the Lord to Joshua, will appear some twenty-eight times, in various forms, across the pages of scripture, from Deuteronomy 31:6, when Moses first speaks the words to Joshua, to 2 Timothy 2:1 when Timothy is charged to find strength in the grace of Jesus Christ. For Joshua, it is the reminder that God’s ways are recorded in the books of Moses that he has been given. He is not to depart from them. It is the charge that David will give to his son Solomon at the end of David’s reign as it transitions into Solomon’s, reminding Solomon that he cannot lead on his own or out of his own resources. It is the culmination of Psalm 27 that begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear?” For the church it is the same reminder: “Be strong in the Lord and the strength of his power.” Ephesians 6:10. Strength and power belong to the Lord, who gives them to those who wait in trust on him.
Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizes material from other psalms, as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), to construct a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as King. References to lightning and storm challenge the notion that those are the work of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth proclaims God’s glory, but the heavens do as well. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but the God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”
The letter to the Ephesians now turns biographical, describing Paul as a prisoner for Christ (some manuscripts read “of Christ”) for the sake of “you Gentiles.” Paul’s commission is described along with the grace given to him, to enable him to fulfill it among the Gentiles. In it, he was given a revelation into the mystery long-held secret: the Gentiles have become fellow heirs with Jews, members of the same body, and sharers in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel. It is as a servant of this gospel that Paul has lived out his commission by the power of God working through him. Though he is the least of the saints, God chose Paul to bring the news of salvation to the Gentiles. And now, Paul unveils God’s reason for the church. God’s plan, from the beginning, has been that through the church the wisdom of God, in all its rich variety and fullness, might be made known to all, even the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. All this is in keeping with what God carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Christ they—indeed, all of us—have access to God in boldness and confidence, through faith in Christ. This section ends with a prayer that the Ephesians do not lose heart over Paul’s suffering for them. His sufferings are their glory. What does this last phrase mean? Interestingly enough, commentators do not seem to want to touch it, and it is even excluded from the continuing reading in the three-year lectionary. The phrase is a verbatim translation of the Greek. Paul well understands the suffering that he has undergone to fulfill his commission to the Gentiles—to reveal the mysteries of God to them. Is he here confessing that even now, as he suffers in prison for the ministry they know is for them, they are not to lose heart because they have responded to the gospel and embraced it to their own glory? If so, his sufferings are their glory.
Jesus has come down from the mountain where he preached his sermon and great crowds begin to follow. After healing a leper, Jesus and the crowd move on to Capernaum. As Jesus and the crowd enter the city, a Roman centurion comes to him appealing for him to come and minister to his servant who lies at home paralyzed and in terrible distress. The centurion tells Jesus that he knows he is not worthy to have Jesus enter his home, and then says, “But only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. The centurion is, after all, a man of authority with soldiers under him, to whom he says, “Come!” and they come, and “Go!” and they go. When Jesus hears this he is amazed—the only place in the gospels that someone amazes Jesus with his utter trust. He responds by telling the crowd following him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” This is followed by Jesus reminding his hearers that many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while those who are the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown in outer darkness. Turning to the centurion Jesus says, “Go, let it be done for you according to your faith,” and at that same hour the servant was healed. Now, Jesus enters Peter’s home and we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s feverish mother, who after Jesus touched her, rose and began to serve him. As the evening came on, the people in Capernaum and the surrounding countryside began to bring many who were possessed with demons, and he cast out the evil spirits with but a word, as well as cured all who were brought to him. Matthew, true to his prophecy-fulfillment pattern, quotes Isaiah 53: “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” This is the foretelling of God’s servant at work among the people.
Sunday, June 1
7th Sunday of Easter
Exodus 3:1–12; Psalm 136; Hebrews 12:18–29; Luke 10:17–24
Guilty of murder, Moses has escaped Egypt and been on the run finally finding what he thinks is cover with his father-in-law Jethro, Priest of Midian, in the Sinai wilderness. Tending to the flocks in the western hillside of Mt. Horeb he encounters a burning bush, approaches it, and God speaks: Moses has been chosen to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh—his adoptive grandfather who has a price on his head!—and say “Let my people go!” The drama of redemption begins at a burning bush. The redemption is so thorough, that a former murderer will become the law giver.
Psalm 136 proclaims God’s goodness and steadfast love endures forever. This becomes the refrain in a litany of praise extoling God for both who God is and what God has done. The Lord is God of gods and Lord of lords, who alone does great wonders. God made the heavens and earth and all that is within them. God struck Egypt to bring Israel out from their enslavement, divided the Red Sea, made a path through it, overthrew and devoured Pharaoh in the sea, lead the people through the wilderness, struck down great kings and gave their land to Israel as a heritage. God remembered them, not only in prosperity, but also in their second bondage and again rescued them from their foes, probably a reference to the Babylonian exile. Citing the Lord as the source of sustenance to all people, the psalm ends with one more title for the Lord: the God of heaven (see Daniel 2:18, 19, 37, and 44) whose steadfast love endures forever.
The writer of Hebrews continues the argument that the new covenant God has established in Jesus is superior to the one made with Moses. Today’s lesson remembers the constraints placed on the people as that first covenant was being made at Sinai, which are not in place now. Rather we are now at Mount Zion in the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, surrounded by angels and the assembly of the first born (the church of Jesus Christ), the spirits of the righteous made perfect (those who have been eternally joined to Christ), and to Jesus and his blood that has been sprinkled on the altar to establish the covenant, more innocent than even the blood of Abel. The vision is of being in the very presence of the kingdom manifest in and among us now, what scholars call “realized eschatology,” which means, the kingdom is here, now! That being the case, there follows a third and final warning that the reader not refuse the one speaking, as the people at Sinai earlier refused to listen to Moses. Quoting Haggai 2:6, the reader is warned in apocalyptic imagery of God’s future shaking the earth and the heavens until all that is left is what “cannot be shaken”—the kingdom and all who belong to it. Since we are receiving that kingdom, let us give thanks, by which we offer God acceptable worship; for indeed, our God is a consuming fire.
The seventy disciples return rejoicing at what they have experienced in their missions—even the demons have submitted to them. Jesus says, “Yes, I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Satan is no longer there to exercise his power in God’s presence. More, Jesus’ power is superior to Satan’s, and Jesus has given the disciples authority over all the powers of the enemy so that nothing will hurt them. Nevertheless, they are to rejoice, not in this, nor that the spirits submit to them, but that their names are written in heaven. Jesus then breaks into prayer, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, and says, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Such has been the Father’s gracious will, who has handed everything over to the Son who is only truly known by the Father, just as only the Son truly knows the Father, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father. As the prayer of thanksgiving closes, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them, privately, how blessed they are to have seen what they have seen. Many prophets and kings desired to see what they have seen and heard what they have heard, but did not.
Saturday, May 31
Numbers 11:16–17, 24–29; Psalm 23; Ephesians. 2:11–22; Matt. 7:28–8:4
The Lord tells Moses to gather seventy men from the elders of Israel and bring them to the Tent of the Meeting, for there, the Lord is going to pour out his spirit upon them to enable them to share the burden of leadership with Moses. The elders gather with Moses and the Lord comes down in a cloud and speaks with Moses, then takes some of the spirit that is on him and puts it on the seventy elders, and when the spirit rests on the elders, they prophesy, though it does not happen again. Somehow, Eldad and Medad failed to make it to the Tent, yet the spirit rested on them as well. Consequently, they are found prophesying in the camp. Joshua, Moses’ young assistant, wants to stop them—it’s neither decent nor in order!—but Moses says, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of God’s people were prophets, and God would place the Spirit upon them!” It is a prayer that will be answered at Pentecost.
The best known of all the psalms, and perhaps the most intimate in the entire Psalter, Psalm 23 portrays the Lord as a shepherd who cares for us, as a shepherd cares for his sheep—the word for sheep is singular—this is not a flock!—and does so in such a way that the sheep has no wants. The Lord leads to verdant pasture and to still water. Sheep are infamously skittish, and the noise of running water is problematic. But still water is safe to drink. Now the image turns even more personal: he restores my “soul”—the word in Hebrew means: “inner being,” “self,” or “sense of being alive and strong.” He leads in right paths, for the sake of his own name. It is God being true to God’s own nature. Remember that shepherds in the ancient Middle East did not follow sheep, but walked out ahead of them, their voices the sign for the sheep to follow. The Lord leads us always in the right way by his word. All of this is an affirmation of the intimate care and concern each of us can expect from the Lord. Even in the darkest valleys and bleakest times of life, there is no need to fear because the Lord is there, present, ready to help. The crook and walking staff that are so crucial to the shepherd’s work give the psalmist security and comfort. God sets a table—providing all that is needed. Even in the presence of our enemies, we can be so assured and confident in God’s care that we have the leisure to eat at a well set table. The Lord not only feeds, he anoints our heads in blessing and fills our cups beyond the brim. “Goodness and mercy” are God’s gifts, and they will not simply be given to us, but actually pursue us all the days of our lives. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long,” is both a vow and a confession, as the reference is twofold. First, it is a reference to the temple, where God was believed to live, but more, it is a vow expressing commitment to daily intimacy with God, regardless of where one might be. The word the King James Version translated as “forever” means “my whole life long,” as most footnotes now indicate. It is rendered in other translations: “through length of days” or, “as long as I live.” But post Jesus’ resurrection and his promises, “forever” is absolutely appropriate as well. Though this psalm is most often associated with funerals or memorial services, it is really an affirmation of God’s daily care. This is also the psalm that lies behind Jesus’ describing himself as the “Good Shepherd.” But he not only cares for his sheep, he actually lays down his life for them.
Today’s text reveals conflict in the churches of Central Asia between Jewish and Gentile believers, with the Jews claiming superior credentials, not unlike the conflict that took place in Rome and other places where the church emerged out of synagogues. The passage is written directly to the Gentile Christians, reminding them of who they were in their pre-Christian existence: without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and both its heritage and promises, strangers to its covenants, without hope and even without God. But now in Christ Jesus (note the reversal in the name—another sign that this was written at a later period of theological development), they who were once far off have been brought near “by the blood of Christ.” Jesus’ self-offering had torn down the dividing walls. What follows next is so lyrical that some think it a hymn text that has been included, as preachers sometimes quote hymn texts in their sermons. “For [Christ] is our peace.” In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has "broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” Two things to notice here: “in his flesh” is not a reference to crucifixion, but the church as his body. Gentile believers are as much a part of Christ’s body as are the Jewish believers. In addition, the author self-identifies as a Jew, naming himself formerly with the “in group.” But now, there are no “sides” within the body of Christ. Christ has put that hostility to death, proclaiming peace to those who were far off (the Gentiles) and those who were near (the Jews). For it is through him that both have access in the one Spirit to the Father. So then, the Gentile believers are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints (citizenship in that world being a highly exalted status), and also members of God’s household, built upon a foundation, named from the top down as apostles, prophets, with Christ Jesus as the “keystone.” Why the translators chose “cornerstone” is a mystery, except that foundations have cornerstones, whereas arches have keystones. However, Asia Minor was filled with such stone arches, and knew exactly what “keystone” meant: it holds things together, and without it, the arch collapses. And that is precisely the point: it is Christ who holds the church together to make it into a holy a temple in the Lord, in which God himself dwells. Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ has grown even more expansive, from Christ dwelling in individual believers, to the community of believers becoming a new temple, in which Christ is the keystone where God himself dwells. If this was written after 70 CE, after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, it has even greater impact and meaning. Also, notice the emerging development of Trinitarian language to describe God’s actions in all of this.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount comes to a close and the people are left openmouthed and breathless at his teaching. It is fresh, it is new, and, unlike that of the scribes; it has authority and power. Descending with the crowd in tow, Jesus is encountered by a leper who kneels before him and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus does, and then commands him to say nothing to anyone. Rather, he is to go and show himself to the priests to be certified for reentry into the community, and as testimony, there offer thanks to God according to the prescriptions of Moses. For the next two chapters of Matthew, Jesus’ teaching will take a back seat to his healing, but always, it will include words on the meaning of discipleship.
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.