Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Isaiah 1:21-31; Psalm 11; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12; Luke 20:9-18
Isaiah laments over Jerusalem and how she has fallen into harlotry (an image that will become constant in prophetic literature for people abandoning the Lord as God). Isaiah describes the deterioration of things because of the harlotry. Therefore, the Lord, who is Sovereign, will pour out his wrath upon them, now named “my enemies” and “my foes.” God will turn his hand away and smelt out their dross, as with lye. He will restore her judges and counselors as they were in the beginning, and, once again, Jerusalem will be called “the city of righteousness.” Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent shall be known as “God’s righteousness.” Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed; all who forsake the Lord shall be consumed. The repentant shall be ashamed of the oaks (places of pagan worship) in which they formerly delighted. They shall blush in embarrassment over the gardens they constructed for such worship. The gardens shall wither and dry up; the strong (oaks) will become tinder, and those who made them like a spark that set the oaks and gardens afire. The rebellious shall be consumed in the fire, with their work, and there shall be none to quench it.
Psalm 11 is a song of trust that responds to those who say, “Flee! They are after you. Seek the refuge of the mountains. Look, your enemies have bent the bow and are shooting arrows in the dark in an attempt to destroy you, O Upright of Heart.” This is the counsel of the friends of the psalmist who himself is under siege. He replies, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold; his gaze examines humankind.” The Lord tests both the righteous and the wicked and his soul hates the lover of violence. The psalmist will place his trust in the Lord, who will rain coals of fire and sulfur on his enemies. The psalm ends with just such a confession of trust and praise: “For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.”
Has Timothy returned from Thessalonica with word that some there have been criticizing Paul and his companions, accusing them of being preachers for hire, and only interested in their own self-aggrandizement, or is this simply Paul writing as a Hellenistic philosopher might write, to bolster and authenticate his own credentials as a means of further strengthening the message he proclaimed among them? We do not know, and scholars debate the question as either are possible. Paul begins by reminding them of the hardships he and Silas had experienced in Philippi for proclaiming the gospel there (beaten and imprisoned), but how that had not kept them from coming to Thessalonica. Rather, given courage by God, they came to declare the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. If any would accuse them of trickery or impure motives, Paul reminds them that he and his companions have been approved by God, entrusted with the message of the gospel, and commissioned to speak of it, not to please mortals but to please God, who tests their hearts. He now reminds the Thessalonians of their behavior among them—a nurse caring for children. They did not come with flattering words as a pretext for greed; nor did they seek praise from any of them or make financial demands of them, which, it would be their right to do. Traveling philosophers in the Hellenistic world—which Paul and his entourage would have certainly been considered—were often paid for their teaching. Rather, Paul and his friends worked night and day at their trades so that they might not be a financial burden to any in Thessalonica, a practice Paul will continue wherever he goes. It seems to be a point of pride for him that they are different than other traveling philosophers or teachers, not only in matters of money but other aspects of their lives as well. They were “pure, upright and blameless” in their conduct toward the new believers, and did not take advantage of their role among them in any way. Rather, they behaved as a father with his children, urging and encouraging and pleading that the Thessalonians lead a life worthy of God who calls them (notice the present tense—Paul is still preaching) into his own kingdom and glory. It was one thing to believe what Paul was saying about the gospel, and quite another to live fully into that, given how different a lifestyle it was than that of the Roman-Greco world of which the Thessalonians were a part; so too, for us, today!
Having stepped beyond the question of authority, Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard owner who goes away for a long time, leaving the vineyard in the care of its tenants. When the season of harvest comes, he sends one of his slaves back to the tenants to receive the owner’s share, but the tenants beat the slave and send him away, empty-handed. The owner continues to send slaves to the tenants, but their rejection and abuse of the owner’s slaves becomes increasingly more severe. Behind the word “slave” you should hear “prophets” that had been sent to Israel and rejected. Think especially of Jeremiah who was severely abused by the ruling monarch and priesthood. Finally the owner decides to send, not a slave, but his own son. Surely, they will treat him with respect and give to the owner his portion of the produce of the vineyard. But, when the tenants see the son they conspire to destroy him, so that his inheritance of the vineyard might become their own. So they do; they kill the son and throw him out of the vineyard. Jesus asks, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Answering his own question, Jesus continues, “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Those listening to Jesus respond, “Heaven forbid!” But Jesus looks at them—actually, the text is stronger in the Greek and says he “stared at them” in confrontation. He has been about as clear as he can be with them and now demands: “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?’” It is Psalm 118:22, a royal psalm emphasizing the fact that God took David from the “little clan” of Judah that had been rejected and built a royal dynasty upon him. He, too, is being rejected as David was initially rejected, but is, in fact, the cornerstone of God’s dynasty (Isaiah 28:16). Jesus goes on to say that whoever falls on “that stone” will be broken to pieces, and any upon whom it falls will be crushed. The scribes and chief priests hear this parable in the context of the well-known prophecy of Isaiah, who named Israel God’s vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7). Ever-after, to this day, that connection will be made. Consequently, the religious leaders realize that Jesus is talking about them—they are the tenants of the vineyard who have abused the slaves sent to them—the prophets—and are about to kill the son and heir. Remarkably enough, the religious leaders do not heed the parable but set out to do precisely what Jesus says they will do.
Monday, December 1, 2014
Isaiah 1:10-20; Psalm 4; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Luke 20:1-8
God’s lawsuit against Judah and Jerusalem continues with them being equated to Sodom and Gomorrah. What does the multitude of the people’s sacrifices to the Lord mean to him when they are not accompanied by acts of justice and mercy? Cultic behavior—sacrifice, solemn ecclesiastical assemblies, worship, prayer, Bible study, Communion, retreats—none is ever a substitute for just and merciful behavior with others, especially the poor. God is weary of them trying to trade the former for the latter, and is actually burdened by their sacrifices. Rather, he looks for the cleanliness that has removed evil, learned to do good, seeks justice, rescues the oppressed, and defends the orphan and pleads for the widow. These latter were among the most vulnerable in Jewish society because they had no protectors or provider. The text ends with the invitation to argue it out, with the assumption that in doing so the Lord will do something about it. The words that follow are often used in reformed worship as a call to confession: “Come now, let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow, and though red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Repentance is always met by God with acceptance, but rebellion leads to death. These last words are not simply Isaiah’s words: “The mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”
Psalm 4 is an individual plea for God’s help that incorporates elements of lament as well as expressions of confidence in God’s care. It alternates between talking to God and talking to others and falls into instruction in wisdom along the way. God has responded to the psalmist's former distress; the plea is for God’s graciousness now. The psalmist now turns to those around him asking, how long should they be allowed to cause his honor to suffer shame? How long will they love vain words and seek after lies? Let them know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself, and clearly, the psalmist considers himself among the faithful. He says, “The Lord hears when I call to him.” Now the psalmist offers instruction; is it to himself or to those around him? “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord.” Once again, the psalmist turns to the Lord, telling him there are many who search after signs of God’s goodness and plead for God’s face to shine upon them (reference to the Aaronic benediction, Numbers 6:24f). Affirming that God has put gladness in his own heart, more than when grain and wine abound, he can now lie down this night in safety and sleep in peace. Only the Lord gives such care. This final phrase suggests that the psalm was intended for use in night prayer, as it is regularly used in the Christian tradition today. One lovely paraphrase of this last verse is used in a night prayer liturgy and says, “In the night I can take my rest; you alone keep my life secure.”
Today we begin to read our way through 1 Thessalonians, the earliest document in the New Testament, written by Paul approximately 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection and well before Mark wrote the first gospel. The church in Thessalonica was founded on Paul’s second missionary journey. As was his custom, he always went to the local synagogue first to bear witness to Jesus as the Christ. The result was that a number of Jews, and a larger number of pious Gentiles who regularly worshipped in the synagogue, became believers and were soon expelled from the Synagogue. Paul’s continuing missionary success in the city raised such a conflict that the leaders of the synagogue rose up and drove Paul and his companions out of town (see Acts 17). Thereafter, Paul was persona non grata in Thessalonica and traveled first to Beroea, then to Athens, and finally settled in Corinth. Once in Corinth, Paul sent Timothy back to see how the fledgling church was doing in Thessalonica. Timothy returned with a report, and Paul wrote back this letter by way of instruction. Paul was a Hellenistic Jew who was highly skilled in the practice of writing and came from a culture in which such letters were a common means of being present to others when distance or other circumstances made it otherwise impossible. Paul uses the Hellenistic style for such letters, the first of his many, using classic opening and closing salutations and opening paragraphs that outline what is to follow. This letter is the first written proclamation of the gospel. After identifying himself and his companions, as well as the recipients—those who gather in Thessalonica in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ—he offers words of blessing. Paul then begins a lengthy remembrance of the Thessalonians, telling them that they are constantly in his prayers as he remembers them and their work of faith, labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Read that carefully—it is not only a mouthful, but a compact description of life in the infant community and model of what Paul will expect from all his churches.) He reminds them that he knows they are not only beloved but chosen by God because “our message of the gospel”—the first time the word appears in print—came among them not only in word, but also in power and the Holy Spirit, with full conviction. He goes on to express thanks that they became imitators of Paul and his companions and the Lord, in spite of the persecution they experienced for doing so. Consequently, they have become an example to all of the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The word of the Lord has sounded from them in every place that their faith has become known. That word is not only about how they welcomed Paul and his fellows, but “how they turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son’s return from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” These eight verses are a masterpiece of pastoral care and proclamation wrapped up in a Hellenistic literary form.
As Jesus takes up teaching the crowds in the courts of the temple, the chief priests and scribes come with the elders and demand to know by what authority he is doing these things. The emphasis here is on his teaching, and the issue of authority is central. If they can discredit Jesus in front of the people, he will disappear as a nuisance. They are, after all, the ones with “human authority” to teach, as well as to allow Jesus to do what he is doing in the temple, and they have not given it. If he says that his authority is that of a prophet (heavenly authority), they will have something to warrant an accusation against him and his arrest. Either way, they will be done with him. Jesus answers that he will tell them if they answer one of his questions. It was common among the rabbis for a question to be answered with another question—thus did their debates unfold. Jesus is doing nothing that would be unexpected here, but further, is demonstrating himself as more than their equal. He asks, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The Jewish leadership discusses it among themselves and realizes the fix it has put them into, concluding, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he will ask us why we did not believe John. But if we say ‘of human origin,’ the people will stone us, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” Jesus has them check-mated. Unwilling to be open to the possibility that Jesus may be a prophet, they answer, “We do not know.” “In that case,” says Jesus, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” If they could not recognize the authority from God that made John a prophet, how will they possibly recognize Jesus’ authority? The irony here is that Jesus had said they would not recognize the hour of their visitation, and this first encounter in the temple by the religious authorities is witness to that. Thus, the hostility that Jesus experienced on the way to Jerusalem now comes full force in the very center of the religious establishment—the temple.
Sunday, November 30, 2014, First Sunday of Advent, Year I
Isaiah 1:1-9; Psalm 113; 2 Peter 3:1-10; Matthew 25:1-13
We begin a new liturgical year with the prophet Isaiah. Scholars think the book actually includes the work of two or three different prophets by that name, but from very different periods of time in Israel’s life, the latter two during and after the end of the exile in 542 BCE. Today’s reading comes from the prophet whose work began in 742 BCE, the year that King Uzziah died. Often called “Isaiah of Jerusalem,” he continued to preach through the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, whose reign came to a conclusion in 687 BCE—some 55 years! Be aware, however, that his oracles are not in chronological order. The book opens with a vision concerning Jerusalem and Judah. God calls on heaven and earth to be witnesses and jury in a law suit God is bringing against his covenant people. “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know; [God’s] people do not understand.” They have rebelled against the Lord; they do evil, deal corruptly and have forsaken the Lord. They have despised “the Holy One of Israel, and are “utterly estranged.” This phrase, “Holy One of Israel,” identifies God as wholly other, beyond the realm of human defilement, and is used more in Isaiah of Jerusalem than any other place in the Hebrew Bible. It represents Isaiah’s understanding of who God is—one who exercises universal sovereignty (as opposed to a god among gods) and does so from his throne in the temple in Jerusalem. God asks why the people want to take another beating? Their rebellion has earned them the devastation brought upon them by King Sennacherib in 701, when after taking the northern kingdom he later moved against Judah. Though he did not finally take Jerusalem, he left the countryside desolate and its cities burned with fire and vulnerable to other alien nations and their attempts to loot the countryside and overthrow the nation. Jerusalem is called the “daughter of Zion,” a name introduced and used four times by Isaiah of Jerusalem. She has been left like an unprotected booth in a vineyard or a defenseless shelter in a cucumber field. Had it not been for the Lord of hosts, Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem would have been successful and there would not have been any survivors. They would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Psalm 113 is a psalm of praise that blesses God’s name—“the Lord”—as sovereign of the entire earth, and calls upon all God’s servants to praise the name of the Lord from “this time on and forever more. From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.” But the Lord is more than “high and mighty.” And so, the psalmist asks. “Who is like the Lord our God…,” who though seated high above the heavens, nonetheless, looks down from afar to raise the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash heap? The psalm continues to extoll the Lord for his concern for all of the creatures of his creation. Not only does the Lord come to its rescue, he makes the poor and needy sit with princes. The Lord has compassion on all in need and does something about it. God does this, not by bringing the mighty “low,” as is the case in other places that extoll the Lord for his concern for the poor and needy, but rather, by raising those in need to the status and conditions of nobility. He gives the barren woman both a home and children—a place to live in safety and a heritage to care for her in her days of need. Hallelujah!
Why has the Lord’s return been delayed? That is the question behind today’s lesson from 2 Peter. The author is probably not Peter, but someone several generations thereafter; notice the phrase “your apostles” in verse 2, suggesting that the writer is not a part of the first or even second generation of leaders within the church. After reminding his readers that this is the second time he has written to them—whether the first time is the epistle of 1 Peter or not, we do not know—he states his purpose “to arouse their sincere intentions” and remind them that “in the last days” scoffers will appear, not only indulging in their own lusts but also mocking the faithful’s belief that the Lord will return. They will argue that since the foundation of the world, things have been as they are. Why should anyone think anything will ever change? But such scoffers deliberately ignore the fact that even the world itself is the product of God speaking it into existence, forming it out of the watery chaos (Genesis 1) and judging it through a flood (Genesis 6-8). God has reserved the earth for final judgment through fire. This latter image is common in the Bible, fire being the source of refining and purification, and is here a judgment on the godless as it appears in the book of Revelation. But the author’s central point is that time is not measured by God the way humans measure it. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” The delay is not slowness on the Lord’s part, but rather an expression of God’s merciful patience. God wants all to come to repentance before bringing the day of the Lord. Still, the day will come, and at an unexpected time—the thief being a common metaphor for unpreparedness. The heavens will pass away, the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and all that has taken place on it will be disclosed. The apocalyptic imagery is vivid and may well be informed by stoic philosophic thought of the day that believed the universe went through endless cycles of destruction by fire as a prelude to the creation of a new one. This may be a Christian appropriation of that notion, but under the sovereign hand of God who created all things, fire will be used as judgment to refine and purify rather than total destory, as dross is burned out of gold. The God will usher in the new heaven and earth.
The Advent theme of the coming of the Lord is accented in today’s lesson from Matthew as Jesus tells a parable about ten bridesmaids awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, who has been delayed. Five are wise and five are foolish. The foolish fail to take enough oil for the wait, whereas the wise take additional flasks of oil. In the delay, all of them become drowsy and fall asleep—is the church listening? Has it fallen asleep? But, at midnight—thought to be the darkest part of the night—the bridegroom’s arrival is announced by a loud shout. At that, all of the bridesmaids wake up and reach for their lamps to trim them, all of which have burned low through the night. But the foolish find that they do not have enough oil to sustain and increase the light in their lamps, so they plead with the wise to share what they have brought. Unfortunately, if the wise do so, there will not be enough oil for any of them to provide light for the coming bridegroom. Rather than make that mistake, they send the foolish five off to purchase more oil from a merchant (forget the fact that few oil merchants would be awake at midnight—this is a parable not an allegory). But while the five are gone, the bridegroom arrives, and those with lighted lamps are invited into the wedding banquet (frequent biblical image for the Day of the Lord), and the door is shut behind them. When the foolish return with lighted lamps, they find the door closed. They beg, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But the groom replies, “I do not know you.” Jesus concludes, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The function of the parable is two-fold: first, to remind disciples of the need to keep awake (as the author of 2 Peter is trying to encourage the churches to do), and second, to remember “staying awake” has to do with being prepared for the long haul, having the provisions of faith necessary to do so. In that time, it is important, not only to keep awake for his coming, but also to continue in the things that are the oil of faith that enables us to keep our lamps lighted and shining.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
Zechariah 14:12-21; Psalm 104; Philippians 2:1-11; Luke 19:41-48
Having announced the ultimate triumph of Jerusalem, Zechariah describes a ghastly plague that will befall all of Jerusalem’s enemies, making the ending to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” seem like child’s play. Humans and animals will rot while standing on their feet, turn against one another, while their own armies will turn upon themselves in confusion that will result in their ultimate destruction. Those of the foreign nations who survive the plague will be drawn to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. It is here that Zechariah’s theme of universalism again emerges: all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord, who alone is God. This links “Second Zechariah” with the theme of “First Zechariah” and its conclusion in chapter 8:20-23. All people will be called to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Booths—the remembrance of God’s special care for Israel while it wandered in the wilderness. It is not an invitation; it is a command, and includes a threat to those nations, especially Egypt, who do not comply. And so, this book finally ends with a word of God’s sovereignty over all the nations, not just the Jews. God’s holiness will so saturate Judah that even its cooking pots will be as holy as the sacrificial vessels in the temple. Notice the final phrase: “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” The word “trader” can also be translated “Canaanite,” as some versions have rendered the word. In the latter case, it can be seen as Zechariah’s conviction that Israel’s worship will never again be mixed with the Canaanite practices that vexed Israel most of its life upon its entrance into the land. The former translation is more likely, as from the beginning priests had received payment from worshippers for their sacerdotal work (2 Kings 12:4-16) especially the payment offered for sin and guilt offerings. Consequently, the temple had always been a place of some commerce. However, by the Persian period, by Persian design, the temple became the center of Jewish commerce, almost its central bank, since all offerings had to be paid in Jewish currency. Zechariah envisions a time when all such commerce will cease and the temple will return to its role as a house of prayer. This is what lies behind Jesus’ outrage at the commerce taking place in the temple when he finally arrives in Jerusalem, prompting his driving out the merchants, and making that a messianic sign.
Psalm 104 is a creation hymn and one of the “load stones” of the psalter. It speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also of God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God creates each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds to nest in, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is, fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order parceled out by God’s wisdom that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last to be written and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those that appear in the book of Job.
Paul writes to his favorite congregation, the believers in Philippi—his first church on European soil—and a people now under some opposition because of their faith (1:28). He is encouraging them to unity—here spoken of as “being of one mind”—humility and obedience. What follows is one of the most important Christological passages in all of the New Testament, rivaled only by the prologue to John’s gospel (John 1:1-18). Paul begins by exhorting the Philippians to follow his own example of concern for one another as well as faithfulness in suffering. Remember, Paul is writing from prison. In telling them not to look to their own interests but to the interest of others he points them to Christ himself. What follows is a text scholars love to mine and debate: is it a hymn that pre-existed Paul’s writing that he is incorporating into this letter as an illustration or, did Paul write it himself? Is Paul talking about Christ’s decision for obedience prior to his incarnation or his decision in the Garden of Gethsemane? This is not the place to settle those questions. Rather, simply let the poem’s lyric message speak for itself: Christ Jesus, who though he was God from the beginning (the Greek literally says, “began in the form of God”) did not regard being God as something to be exploited or hung onto for his own sake or benefit, but emptied himself of all of those divine prerogatives in order to become a human being whose sole purpose was to be God’s servant, even to the point of death on a cross. That being the case, how much more should our lives of faithful servanthood submit to God in humble trust and obedience as Christ did? What follows, that which talks about God’s exaltation of him, simply rounds out the poem and is witness to the fact that it is probably a hymn or creed that was in common usage in the church that Paul has here appropriated to make his point, the way preachers often quote a hymn to strengthen or illustrate their point. One other thing: the NRSV’s slavish tendency to always translate doulos as “slave” rather than its other meaning, “servant,” or “bond-servant” is unfortunate at worst and infelicitous at best. The point is not his “slavery” but his willing servanthood which is being held up as a model for the Philippians, and, ever after, for all Christians. Its secondary implications for theology, especially Christology—the discipline in theology that deals with Jesus’ divine nature—is important, to be sure, as this is a load-stone text for that work, but it is not Paul’s primary point, but rather, simply, the common assumptions he has used to make his point. One other thing: it punctures the thesis of those who accuse Paul of inventing Christianity by turning the work of a Jewish prophet into a separate, new, Hellenistic religion. The church seems to have been proclaiming Jesus as the pre-existent Christ long before Paul appropriated this text for his own use.
Jesus reaches the crest of the hill at the top of the Hosanna Road, and, for the first time since he took up his ministry, he sees Jerusalem spread out before him. (Remember that heretofore, as a Jewish male, he would have traveled to Jerusalem four times a year for its pilgrimage festivals.) Knowing what is coming for the city, he is overcome by emotion and reduced to tears that are a mixture of frustration and deep sorrow. If only Jerusalem could recognize her hour of visitation. But, failing to do that, she will reject her Lord and unwittingly usher him into his reign. The events that follow that will ultimately lead to Jerusalem’s second destruction and all the judgment that the prophets have foretold about her. Rome will, in 70 CE, do precisely what Jesus says will happen. It is one of the reasons the writers of the New Testament could so quickly appropriate the words of the writing prophets like Zechariah and Nahum, as a foretelling of Messianic expectation and God’s judgment on Jerusalem and Judah. The accuracy of Jesus’ description is one of the reasons scholars believe Luke’s gospel to have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus then enters the temple and drives out the merchants there. Zechariah had envisioned a day when all commerce there would stop. Jesus will try to inaugurate that, and, short of that, at least stand in judgment on it. For the next four days Jesus will teach at the temple. The Pharisees and scribes who have been following and who are increasingly in opposition to him, are now joined by more of the religious establishment—even the chief priests are there, along with the peoples’ other leaders. They want to kill him, but cannot because the people are simply spellbound by what they are hearing from Jesus. And so, our readings from Year II of the Daily Lectionary have come to an end. Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent, and we will return to the daily readings from Year I.
Friday, November 28, 2014
Zechariah 14:1-11; Psalm 141; Romans 15:7-13; Luke 19:28-40
The familiar “a day is coming” places this oracle of restoration in the future. But, before restoration, there is the judgment of destruction. The nations shall gather against Jerusalem to do battle and it shall be taken, its houses looted, its women raped, and half its people taken into exile. It is clearly a remembrance of Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 587 BCE and a foretelling of those events coming again in the future. But the Lord shall go forth against those nations. A great earthquake will split the Mount of Olives north and south, and the people shall flee as they did during the earthquake during King Uzziah’s days. “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” What follows is the oracle of restoration, with constant sun, climate and water for the growing of crops. Living water shall flow out of Jerusalem in abundance to both the east and the west throughout the entire year, providing drink for the people. The Lord will become king over all the earth and his name One (remember the Shema: “The Lord our Lord is One.”). From this universal rule will come peace and abundance for the people. Jerusalem shall be re-inhabited and never again fall, but abide in security forever.
Psalm 141 is a wisdom psalm that is a personal petition and calls on God for protection from the lures of evil. It alternates between “the way of life” and “the way of death”—the traditional “two ways” theme of wisdom literature. It opens with a call to prayer that has, ever after, been used in communities gathered for evening prayer: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense; the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” It recalls the incense burning in the temple as a symbol of the prayers of the faithful. God is called upon to “Set a guard over my mouth, and keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not turn my heart to any evil.” God is asked to keep the psalmist from the company of those who work iniquity. “Do not let me eat of their delicacies.” It is a plea to be kept from the company of those who walk in the way of evil and, rather, be kept in the way of good, even to the point of, “Let the righteous strike me....” This is an expression of continual openness to correction on the way, especially by those who are more wise than themselves. This is followed by the plea that “the oil of the wicked never anoints my head.” The imagery quickly shifts to violence that befits the wicked. But, just as quickly, the psalmist returns her focus upon the Lord and addresses God directly: “O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless. Keep me from the trap that the wicked have laid for me; let them fall into their own nets, while I escape.
Paul encourages the mixed and divided congregation of Jews and Gentiles in Rome to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed each of them, and to do so, not for their own sake, but for the glory of God. Christ has become a servant of the circumcised in order to confirm the truth of the promises given to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles might also glorify God for his mercy. Paul follows this with a series of Old Testament quotes, each confirming that it has been God’s plan, from the beginning, to include the Gentiles in salvation. This is simply part of the fulfillment of God’s plan. Paul concludes this section with the wonderful blessing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It is a word important for every community of faith in any and every age, especially when the secondary agendas of life, with all of their passions and prejudices threaten to bring division into the community. In Christ, there is no place for such things, for if we are truly one in Christ, it will ameliorate the hindrances of our diversity while utilizing them to the full extent of their gifts.
Luke tells his version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The journey from Galilee to here has been filled with opportunity for Jesus to tell his disciples what to expect once here, and part of that expectation is fulfilled. Jesus is welcomed as the Davidic Messiah, at least initially. The story of sending two disciples to secure the colt is both an affirmation that all of this is unfolding as God intends, the owners freely giving up the animal for Jesus’ use. Behind this all is Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9:9 that we recently read. Their king comes to them humble and riding on a colt, as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem. The people give him a royal greeting, spreading cloaks down before the animal as it makes its way to the Mount of Olives. There, the path turns down what is now called “the Hosanna Road,” and the people break forth into shouts of praise from Psalm 118:38, used before the loss of the monarchy in Israel as a liturgical greeting for the annual reenactment of the king’s coronation. Some of the Pharisees who have been in his entourage shout out to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” But there is no stopping this. Even if everyone—disciples, crowd, bystanders, all—were to be silent, the very stones would shout out in welcome, for they recognize their Lord even if the religious leaders do not!
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.