Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Isaiah 52:2-6; Psalm 46; Revelation 2:1-7; John 2:1-11
Some background is necessary before we look at today’s first lesson. In the interval between Christmas and now, we have entered into Second Isaiah, which begins at chapter 40 and is the work of the prophet Isaiah of the exile in Babylon. Its opening words are those of comfort. Israel’s punishment is complete. God is in the process of restoring her, freeing her from exile and bringing her home to Jerusalem. Between then and now there have been three servant poems; a fourth, and the longest, will soon follow, 52:13—53:12, in which the servant suffers vicariously for the people at the Lord’s hand. Scholars debate about who this servant is. Is it a single person or is it the nation Israel as a whole? As time wore on, the servant took on messianic dimensions that the church later capitalized on, understanding the poems as prophetic words about Jesus’ life and work. The first song, 42:1-4, identifies God’s chosen servant as the bearer of God’s spirit who will bring forth justice to the nations and be a light to them. The second poem, 49:1-6, further expands and explains the servant’s mission and explicitly names the servant “Israel.” The servant complains that he has labored in vain, to which the Lord replies, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…, I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The third servant song, 50:4-9, is sung by the servant himself to the Israelites who have fallen away. Here the servant is presented as the model of faithfulness before God, knowing that God will ultimately act and vindicate him. The chapter before today’s reading introduces an oracle promising Jerusalem’s restoration. The people are called upon “to listen,” indicating a breach between those in the community who are righteous and those who are not, with the emphasis now upon the righteous. The teachings and justice of the Lord will be a light to the peoples. The arm of the Lord will rule the peoples—note the plural, meaning “the nations.” Again Israel is called upon to listen and at verse 9, God is called upon to “Awake,” put on strength and redeem as he did long ago. At verse 12, the Lord again identifies himself as Israel’s comforter. Nonetheless, Israel has forgotten him. More promises of restoration follow and at this, Jerusalem is told, “Rouse yourself!” She is to awaken from her captivity and exile. She has drunk the cup of the Lord’s wrath with no one to grieve for her or comfort her. But now, the Lord has taken from her hand that cup of staggering. It shall now be put into the hands of her tormenters. Again, Zion is called on to “Awake” and put on her strength. Like the call for God to “Awake” in verse 17, Jerusalem is called to “Awake.” She is to put on her beautiful garments—her wedding clothes. She is, again, God’s bride and God’s Holy City. With that as background, today’s lesson appears to be an insertion in the poem of restoration. Zion (the remnant in exile) is called on to shake herself from the dust and stand up. She is to shake loose the bonds of captivity and exile from her neck. The reason this appears an intrusion in all that has come before is because it suggests that the exile was not God’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, but rather, as the fourth servant song suggests, it was the Lord’s way of preserving justice. Beyond that, her suffering was without cause—“they were taken away without cause.” The howling rulers that daily despise the Lord’s name are not Israel, God’s chosen ones, but those who have taken God’s people captive. In spite of the enemies’ derision of God’s name, Israel shall know the Lord’s name, and in that day, they will know that it is the Lord who is speaking. Finally, though it is tempting to take the concluding “here am I,” as spoken by the Lord, scholars suggest that because it is a standard prophet’s response to God’s call, it is the servant leaving his signature behind. At verse seven, the song of Israel’s redemption continues with its beautiful poetry leading into the fourth servant song.
Psalm 46 is a communal psalm that is a source of comfort and solace as well as an affirmation of confidence and trust in God as our only refuge and strength in times of trouble. No matter the threat or crisis—even one as dire as massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or the enormous tides, tsunamis and floods created by the sea—we will not fear for God is with us. God is not only stronger than the forces of the earth, God is in the city of his holy habitation—Jerusalem and its temple—and it shall not be moved. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter, the Lord speaks, and the earth melts. Again, the psalmist repeats the affirmation that the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. The psalm then invites us to look upon and consider the works of the Lord: his sovereignty over the chaotic forces of nature and his ability to silence and still warring and ravenous nations. Therefore, be still—know God! Know that God is sovereign over all things that can harm, be it the forces of nature or the brutality of humanity. More; know that the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Be still and know God.
The Book of Revelation is addressed to the seven churches of Central Asia, in which each church is specifically spoken to, challenged, warned and comforted. Today the church is Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital of Asia, its most important city in that Roman province, and the fourth largest city in the empire. The angel of the church in Ephesus is the one to whom this message is given to write down. The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand is the risen Christ, who walks among the seven golden lampstands—the churches to whom these words are given. We are back to the highly imaginative and symbolic language of apocalyptic literature. The risen Christ is among them and commending them for their toil and patient endurance, for their rejection of the “evildoers.” Here, “evildoers” probably refers to the false apostles who have traveled and taught as they have come and gone among them. The Ephesians have tested them and found them to be false, and rejected their teaching. In all of this they have not grown weary. However, the risen Lord has this one thing against them: they have abandoned the love they at first had for one another. Fighting against false teachings can, and almost always causes the church to abandon love for one another for what it thinks more important—the truth. The debates over teaching, doctrine and ethical behavior almost always issue in division and finally, one side calling the other apostate. They are to repent of this, or the Lord will come and remove them from their place within the larger church. They have this to their credit: they hate the Nicolaitans, which the Lord also hates. The Nicolaitans seem to have been a group of believers who were among the false apostles being resisted, who advocated various compromises with Hellenistic culture in pursuit of a more enlightened and progressive Christianity. For many reasons, this text’s message is as relevant today as when it was first spoken: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Those who conquer will eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God, an obvious reference to life in the garden with God before the fall.
John the Baptist has identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus walks by John, who is standing with his own disciples, and again names Jesus, “the Lamb of God.” At that, two of John’s followers leave John to follow Jesus. One of the two is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, who quickly goes to Peter and says, “We have found the Messiah.” The next day Jesus goes to Galilee, finds and calls Phillip, who goes to recruit Nathaniel. Jesus promises Nathaniel that he will see far greater thing than he has experienced in the miraculous nature of his call. It is now the third day, and they are all at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and Jesus’ mother is with them. The story is familiar: the wine runs out early, and Mary (who is never mentioned by name in John’s gospel, but only as “the mother of Jesus”), turns to her son to resolve the problem. Jesus disavows any responsibility, noting that his hour has not yet come. Nonetheless, Mary tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do. Standing there are six large stone jars for water used for the ritual of purification (hand washing). The enormous amount of water indicates quite a large crowd—no wonder the wine was gone so quickly. But if the host knew enough to provide that amount of water, why did he not also provide an equally large amount of wine? Jesus tells them to refill the jars, as some have been used and are no longer full. After they have filled them all to the brim, Jesus tells them to draw some out and take it to the chief steward. They do, the steward tastes what has now become wine, and not knowing its origin, goes to the bridegroom to compliment him on having saved this very best until last. Usually the best comes first, with the inferior wine being served when people have had so much that its inferior quality will not be noticed. That’s it! That is where the story ends, with Jesus responding to a need with extraordinary generosity and abundance simply because it is his nature to do so. John tells us that this was the first of a series of Jesus’ signs, John’s term for what we call a miracle, signs that revealed Jesus’ glory (who he is and his generous and abundant nature), and that his disciples believed in him. From here they go on to Capernaum, which will become a base of operations for Jesus. His mother had told the servants to do what he told them to do. They did, and look what came of it. Doing what Jesus tells us to do is the secret to the abundant life.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015, Epiphany
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 72; Revelation 21:22-27; Matthew 12:14-21
In an oracle of Jerusalem’s salvation, Isaiah announces, “How beautiful are the feet of the messenger on the mountain announcing peace” and brings the good news of their salvation, saying, “Your God reigns.” Jerusalem’s sentinels shall rejoice when they see their redemption in plain sight. The ruins of Jerusalem are commanded to “Break forth together in singing; for the Lord has comforted his people and has redeemed Jerusalem” (notice the past tense—the redemption has happened, it is the result of that redemption that are now happening). The Lord has bared his holy arm before all the nations. “All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
Psalm 72 is a royal psalm that prays for the king, the son of a king, and may have been used as part of an annual enthronement liturgy. The attribution in the heading: “Of Solomon” suggests that its roots are in the reign of King Solomon, King David’s son, at the height of Solomon’s reign. It describes the boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom: dominion from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. It recalls the tributes paid to him by kings from Sheba, Tarshish and the isles. It extols the kings goodness, delivering the needy, having pity on the weak, saving the oppressed from violence and holding them precious in his sight. The psalm intercedes, asking for long life and all of its blessings, and that he may continue to judge God’s people with righteousness and justice. It ends, blessing the Lord as the God of Israel who does wondrous things. It is not the king, but the Lord who stands behind the king’s righteousness. May the Lord’s name and glory fill the whole earth, “So be it; let it be!”
John now looks more closely at the New Jerusalem and discovers that there is no longer any temple within it, for the city itself has become the temple—the dwelling place of the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. The city has no need for sun or moon, for the Glory of the Lord is its light, and the Lamb is its lamp. Finally, the nations will walk by its light and all the kings of the earth will bring their glory. The gates of this city will never be shut for there is no danger that can harm it, and it will never be night. People will bring into the city the glory and honor of all of the nations. But again, it is stressed, that nothing unclean will be there; only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Jesus has healed the man with the withered hand, and has done so on the sabbath. As a result, the Pharisees go out and begin to conspire against Jesus, seeking to destroy him. Aware of this, Jesus departs, but the crowd continues to follow him. As they do, Jesus cures all of them, but orders them not to make him known. Matthew now quotes the first of the four Servant Songs, this from Isaiah 42:1-4 to illumine his readers further, reminding them that Jesus is the Lord’s servant long ago foretold, the chosen, God’s beloved, in whom the Lord is well-pleased (notice the words also appear in the baptism). The Lord has put Spirit upon Jesus, who will proclaim justice, not just to Israel, but to the Gentiles as well. But in doing so, he will not argue or shout out in argument in the city streets, but rather will proclaim God’s mercy in such a way that not even a bruised reed will be broken or a dimly-burning wick be quenched, until he brings justice to full victory. In him and his name, even the Gentiles will hope.
Monday, January 5, 2015, 12th Day of Christmas
Joshua 1:1-9; Psalm 96; Hebrews 11:32—12:2; John 15:1-6
Moses has died (or has 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 and 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 96 celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and is a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, and will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.
Hebrews continues its roll-call of the faithful, remembering some of the great judges who appear in the book by that name: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah. It then moves on to Samuel and David and the prophets, who through faith accomplished mighty things. The list includes allusions to the biblical heroes of faith from Sampson to Daniel and beyond, the miraculous works of Elijah, raising the widow’s dead son back to life, Elisha, and into the period of the Maccabees. These suffered greatly under the Greek rule of Antiochus Epiphanies. They were flogged, imprisoned, stoned, even “sawn in two,” others killed by the sword. They wandered destitute, dressed in the skins of sheep and goats, being persecuted, living in caves and holes in the ground. Yet, through faith they persevered—the world was not worthy of them. But even as great as their faith was, they did not receive the promise, because God was awaiting something even greater. They were not, apart from “us,”—the author’s readers—to be made perfect. Having built his case for the foundational role of faith, the author uses those models of faith as witnesses, and calls upon those who read and hear his words to join them by laying aside every weight and sin that they so closely cling to. Rather, with perseverance they are to run the race that is set before them, looking to Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of faith”. For the sake of the joy that was to be ultimately his, he endured the cross, disregarding it shame, and has now taken his seat of honor at God’s right hand. All that had come before, in that great roll-call of faith, has been brought to perfection in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. Therefore, let us lay aside anything that would keep us from following him.
In one of his many “I am” saying, in which Jesus uses the ineffable name of God as a designation for himself, he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser.” The image of the vine was a strong one in the Old Testament for the people of Israel. Jesus tells his followers that he is the true vine and they are the branches. Every branch that does not bear fruit, the Father takes away. Every branch that does bear fruit, the Father prunes so that it may be even more fruitful. After reminding them that they are clean because they belong to him, he tells them that no branch can bear fruit unless it is connected to the vine, therefore, they are to abide in him, and he in them, that they may bear much fruit, for apart from him they can do nothing. Those who do not abide in him will be broken off, gathered up and thrown into the fire and burned.
Sunday, January 4, 2015, 11th Day of Christmas
Exodus 3:1-5; Psalm 20; Hebrews 11:23-31; John 14:6-14
Guilty of murder, Moses has escaped Egypt and been on the run, until finally finding what he thinks is cover with his father-in-law Jethro, Priest of Midian, in the Sinai wilderness. Having settled in, marrying one of Jethro’s daughters, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks in the western hillside of Mt. Horeb—the Mountain of God (also known in other traditions as Sinai). There, Moses comes upon a bush that is burning but is not being consumed and decides he must investigate. Already, we have been told that it is “the angel of the Lord” appearing to him. As Moses approaches the bush, the angel, who is really the veiled presence of God, speaks, calling Moses by name. Moses responds, “Here am I”—a phrase loaded with much more than simply identifying himself as the one addressed; it signals open to a command. Moses is told to take off his sandals, for the place he is standing is holy ground.
Psalm 20 initially seems addressed to anyone. It is an intercessory blessing: “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May God give you support from Zion, remembering your sacrifices and burnt offerings. May God grant you your heart’s desire, fulfill all your plans and give you victory when you set up your banner in God’s name.” Only in verse six does it become clear that this is ultimately addressed to the king, the anointed of the Lord.” Where other monarchs take pride in their chariots and horses, the king is reminded that “our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. Others will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright. It ends with one final petition: “Save us, O Lord! Deliver us,” as it continues with its intercessions for the king. But it can also be read as, “Answer us, O King (a reference to God’s sovereignty), when we call.” Though originally a Royal Psalm, it is to be prayed in confidence by all of God’s anointed.
Hebrews continues the roll-call of the faithful, today focusing upon Moses, the exodus, and the taking of the land of promise. Faith, here, recognizes dangers attendant to trusting God’s promises. Moses is hidden by his parents because Pharaoh, fearing the exponential growth of the Hebrews in his land, has ordered that all male Hebrew children be killed at birth. Yet, by faith, Moses’ parents were not afraid of the King’s edict, or more correctly, trusted God in the time of trial. By faith, when an adult, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but rather, identified with the hardship, and chose to share in the ill treatment of God’s people, rather than enjoy “the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Here, Moses’ encounter, breaking up a fight between an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave by killing the Egyptian, which made him a wanted man in Egypt—Pharaoh’s adopted grandson or not—is given a spiritual twist and is seen as something that he “suffered for the Messiah.” Moses is portrayed as looking forward to what was to come. By faith, Moses left Egypt, not fearing the King’s anger, but rather, persevering because he saw “him who is invisible.” By faith, Moses kept that first Passover, sprinkling blood on the door posts so that the angel of death would not strike any of the first born of Israel. By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea as though it were dry land, but when the pursuing Egyptians tried to follow after them, they were drowned. The Exodus accounted for, the author moves to describe the beginning in the taking of the land of promise: the siege and destruction of Jericho, and the role the prostitute Rahab played in it. All of it was done by faith, but none of it was easy.
Jesus has been trying to prepare his followers for his departure. Then he tells them that they know the way to the place where he is going. Thomas objects: they don’t know where he is going; how can they know the way? Jesus responds that he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him—he is the door into the heart of the Father. If they know him, then they know the Father, and having seen Jesus, they have seen the Father. Phillip, not understanding what Jesus means, says, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responds, “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father?” Jesus again affirms that he and the Father are one; the words he speaks are not his own but those of the Father who dwells in him and is doing his work through Jesus. Again Jesus says it, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not believe it, then believe me because of the works that the Father is doing through me.” But more, truly, those who believe in Jesus will do the works that he is doing and, in fact, will do greater works than these. Why? Because he is going to the Father, and, from there, Jesus will do whatever they ask in his name so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. Again he says it: “If, in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Saturday, January 3, 2015, 10th Day of Christmas
Genesis 28:10-22; Psalm 111; Hebrews 11:13-22; John 10:7-17
The covenant promise made to Abram has passed on to his son Isaac, and Isaac has just blessed Jacob and sent him back to his grandfather’s homeland in Haran to find a bride. Having left Beersheba on his way to Haran, Jacob stops as “a certain place” for the night, the very place his grandfather Abram had stopped earlier and worshiped the Lord (Genesis 12:8), though Jacob seems unaware of it. Jacob takes a rock for a pillow and falls asleep. In his sleep, he has a dream of a ladder or stairway (see the footnote) into heaven with God’s messengers ascending and descending, and standing next to it the Lord God himself, who identifies himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. The Lord tells Jacob that the land on which he is resting the Lord will give to him and his offspring. More, his offspring shall be like the dust of the earth and spread abroad to the east, west, north and south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed by these offspring. More, the Lord promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes and will bring him back to this land. The Lord will not leave him until he has done what has been promised. Jacob awakens with a sense of fear and awe, realizing that this is none other than the house of God, lying at the very gate of heaven. Early the next morning, Jacob rises, takes the stone that has been his pillow and anoints it with oil, naming the place Beth-el—“house of God”—though the biblical writer identifies the site by its older name, Luz. Jacob also makes a vow in response to the Lord’s promise: If God will be with him and keep him in this way that he goes, giving him bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that he is able again to come to his father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be Jacob’s God, and the anointed stone, set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And, of all that the Lord shall give to Jacob, a tenth of it he will return to the Lord. The covenant promise has made its transition to the third generation. The land is claimed and named, and Bethel becomes a marker, not only of the event, but thereafter, a place of worship for Jacob and his offspring.
Psalm 111 calls on everyone to praise and thank the Lord from the heart—the soul of wisdom—and to do so in the midst of the assembly, in the company of the upright. It then turns to reflection on the works of the Lord, majestic and splendid, righteous and enduring forever. Yet the Lord is also gracious and compassionate, giving food to those who fear him, and remembering his covenant forever. He has made all of this known to his people and has given them the heritage of the nations. Truth and justice are the works of his hands, and his precepts are forever sure. Upheld forever, those precepts are the soul of righteousness. Sending redemption to his people, the Lord has ordained his eternal covenant with them—holy and awesome is his name. The psalm, which is, in fact, a Wisdom Psalm, crafted in acrostic style (each half verse begins, in descending order, with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with alef and ending with tav, which accounts for some of its unevenness in narrative), ends quoting Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It then adds, “A good understanding have those who do, for the Lord’s praise endures forever.
The theme of faith and faithfulness continues as Hebrews reminds us that all who had come before Jesus died in faith, without having received the promises, but rather, only saw them from a distance. Yet, they still welcomed them, confessing to being strangers and foreigners on earth, seeking for a better homeland, rather than return to the one they had left behind. And that better country they sought is a heavenly one. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them.” The theme of faith returns, as the text recites for us the pattern of the Patriarchs’ faith: Abraham being put to the test and found to be willing to offer up Isaac, though Isaac was the son and link to God’s promise. We are told that Abraham did so because he was convinced that God could raise someone from the dead, and in that trust, received Isaac back. By the same faith, Isaac invoked the promised blessing on his sons Jacob and Esau, which Jacob, when dying, passed on to the sons of Joseph. By the same faith, Joseph, as he came to the end of his life in Egypt, foretold the exodus and gave the people instructions for his burial.
Jesus continues to teach in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles, now taking up the image of the shepherd from Ezekiel 34, who in Israel’s life had been the king. The king was understood to have been chosen and commissioned by God to care for the people, who were God’s flock. God’s reign was the sheepfold and God himself the gatekeeper. But with the loss of a king in 587 BCE, increasingly God was looked to as the shepherd and keeper of the sheep (Psalm 23). Jesus announces himself as the “Good Shepherd,” as well as the gate to the sheepfold. The sheep know his voice and follow him. All who have come before him as messiahs have been thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. He is the gate: whoever enters by him will be saved, and whoever comes in and goes out through him will find pasture. He is a shepherd who not only cares for his sheep, but actually lays his life down for them—unheard of! The hired hands (religious leaders of the day—the Pharisees and chief priests) do not own the sheep, so, when the wolf comes, they leave the sheep behind and run away. Jesus on the other hand, knows his own just as they know him, in precisely the same way that he and the Father know one another. He lays down his life, but does so in order to take it up again.
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.