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Friday, February 21, 2014

Daily Readings for Friday, February 21

Gen. 32:22–33:17; Psalm 32; 1 John 3:1–10; John 10:31–42

Later that evening, Jacob takes his two wives, their two maids and all of the eleven children and crosses the Jabbok River at the ford where it flows into the Jordan. Jacob sends them and everything that he owns to the other side. Returning to the camp alone, Jacob encounters “a man” who wrestles with him all through the night until day break. When the man realizes that he is not going to prevail over Jacob, he strikes him at the hip socket and puts it out of joint, but still cannot prevail. As the sun is rising, the man asks to be let go, but Jacob refuses unless the man bless him. The “man” asks Jacob’s name, and when told, tells Jacob that this shall no longer be his name. Henceforth he is to be known as Israel—the word means “God strives”—for Jacob has striven with God and with human beings and has prevailed. At that, Jacob asks the man his name, but the man refuses. Rather, he blesses Jacob, who is now Israel and departs. Jacob names the place Peniel—which means “the face of God”—saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” As the sun rises on him, Jacob passes by Peniel, limping because of his hip, no longer out of joint, but severely injured because of the encounter. The chapter ends using this to explain why it is the muscle on the inside of an animal’s thigh is not eaten by the Israelites. Traveling back across the river he gathers up his wives and children. Soon, Jacob looks up and sees Esau approaching with the four hundred men. Consequently Jacob divides the children among the four women, putting Bilhah and Zilpha and their children in front, followed by Leah and her childen and then Rachel with Joseph. Jacob goes ahead of them, bowing deeply to the ground seven times until he reaches Esau. When Esau sees Jacob, he runs to meet him, embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him. Then the two brothers weep in their embrace. When Esau looks up and sees the women and children following Jacob he asks who they are and Jacob says, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant” Then the two maids and their children draw near Esau and bow in obessience. Likewise, Leah and her children do the same, and finally Rachel and Joseph do as well. Then Esau asks Jacob what he has meant in sending the company of servants and livestock ahead of him. Jacob says he has done so “To find favor with my lord”—note the continuing deference with which Jacob approaches his older brother. Esau responds, “No, I have enough, my brother”—signaling his acceptance of Jacob as a brother rather than a servant or underling. Jacob is to keep what he has. Jacob pleads with Esau to accept his present, telling Esau that the privilege of seeing his face is like seeing the face of God, since Esau has received Jacob with such favor. God has been generous to Jacob and he has all he wants. And so he urges Esau to take the presents, which he does. Esau then suggests that they travel together, but Jacob, not wanting to press his luck with his brother, tells Esau that the children and the flocks are frail, and if overdriven for even one day, the flocks would die. Jacob does not want to burden Esau and his company with such slow travel. They are to go on ahead of them; they will meet in Seir. Esau offers to leave some of the people who have come with him, but Jacob demurs, asking “Why should my lord be so kind to me? So Esau and his people return to the home in Seir, to the south east of the Dead Sea, while Jacob and his family move to Succoth, thus creating a distance between the two brothers and all their possessions. In Succoth Jacob builds himself a house. No longer will he dwell in a tent, but settle in this place. In addition, he builds booths for his cattle, and names the place after those booths.

This is a wisdom psalm in which the psalmist gives thanks for the gift of forgiveness. “Happy are those whose sin is covered.” He acknowledges that while he kept silence about his sin, he wasted away for the Lord’s hand was upon him, and his strength was dried up as the heat of summer dries all things. But when he acknowledged his sin, when he no longer hid it but confessed it, the Lord forgave him his guilt. He then instructs all who are faithful to offer such prayers of confession, promising that in a time of distress and the rush of many waters, these will not reach or overwhelm them. Again, addressing the Lord, he confesses that God is his hiding place who preserves him from trouble and surrounds him with glad cries of deliverance. The psalm then turns to addressing others, instructing them in the way they should go: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near.” It concludes with one final double affirmation: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Therefore: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

God’s love given to us is revealed in the fact that we are called God’s children; and indeed we are. Repeating words we heard from Jesus in John 17, the readers are reminded that the reason the world does not know them as God’s children is because the world did not know Jesus, God’s son. He goes on to remind them that if they are God’s children now, but what they shall ultimately be is yet to be revealed. This probably witnesses to one of the points of division in the community that caused the others to leave; if that group were Gnostics, then this may be about the notion of the resurrection of the body, which the Gnostics denied. What these, who are God's children, need to know is that when the risen Lord is revealed, they will be just like him. Those who hold onto this hope purify themselves as Jesus is pure. That leads to talk about sin in a way that suggests more than just behavior that is unacceptable to believers. John has mentioned sin in chapter 2, but this seems to be sin of a different order—rejecting Christ himself. For now the typology is either being a child of God or a child of the devil. Those who abide in Christ (notice same imagery Jesus uses in John 17), are children of God, while those who commit sin are children of the devil. In other words, one cannot abide in Christ and set forth to intentionally sin. That behavior is of the devil. The Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil. Those who abide in the Son cannot sin because God’s seed (Jesus) abides in them. In this way, the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed. All who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

When those gathered about Jesus hear him say, “The Father and I are one,” they take up stones once again to kill him for his blasphemy. Jesus, rather than run, confronts them further: for which of the works of Father that he has shown them will they stone him? They respond that it is not for the works but rather, though a human being, he makes himself out to be God. Jesus then appeals to scripture, quoting Psalm 82:6 and saying that if scripture makes the claim that they “are gods and sons of the most high,” how can they take up stones against one that God has sent into the world who claims to be God’s son? Returning to the theme of his work, he tells them to examine them. If he is not doing the works of his Father, then do not believe in him. But, if he is doing them, even though they don’t believe him, believe the works in order to understand that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. That enrages them further, and now they try to arrest him. But again, he slips through their hands. It is time to leave Jerusalem, and so he crosses the Jordan to the site where John had been baptizing. Many come out to him saying, John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man is true,” and many believe in Jesus.

Posted February 21, 2014
Thursday, February 20, 2014

Daily Readings for Thursday, February 20

Gen. 32:1–21; Psalm 80; 1 John 2:18–29; John 10:19–30

Jacob moves on from the hill country of Gilead, headed south toward his mother and brother. On the way, he is met by angels and names the place “God’s camp.” He sends messengers before him to his brother Esau, to tell him of what has transpired with Jacob in these twenty years and how he has become wealthy. When the messengers return they tell Jacob that they have seen Esau, and he is coming to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men. Jacob is rightly fearful and distressed, and so, at the Jordan River, he divides his family, his servants and all of his animals into two companies thinking that if Esau comes and destroys one company, at least the other will be left to escape. Then Jacob prays, reminding the Lord that he had directed Jacob to return home, and that in doing so, the Lord would bless him. Jacob reminds the Lord that when he first crossed the Jordan in route to Haran, he did so with only his staff in hand. Now he has become two companies. Jacob prays to be delivered from Easu, for he fears Esau will kill all of them, the mothers with their children. He concludes by reminding the Lord of his promise to do good to Jacob and make his offspring as the sands of the sea. Jacob then selects choice animals among his herds: goats, camels, cows, bulls, and donkeys, both male and female, and assignes to each drove one of his servants, and dispatches them one after the other, with a space between droves. When each encounters Esau, who will ask who they are and who owns the animals, they are to tell him they are a present from his brother Jacob who is coming behind them. With this, Jacob hopes to appease Esau so that he may see him face to face, with the hope that Esau will accept him. As the droves leave, one by one, Jacob settles in to the camp for the night.

This psalm is a community lament at the time of national disaster brought on by an oppressing super-power. Some scholars think it can be traced to 722 BCE when Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom—note the specific reference to Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, all northern tribes. It is directed to God as the “Shepherd of Israel,” the one who leads Joseph’s flock, enthroned in the heavens. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” This classic call for God’s presence to rise up and destroy the enemy is repeated at the conclusion of each of the psalm’s three sections. The first, the initial plea for salvation, the second, a description of Israel’s troubles, and the third, a beautiful allegory of Israel as God’s vine—uprooted from Egypt, brought into a new land and firmly planted there, but now in jeopardy of full destruction. “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?”—their worship. From this psalm comes the memorable phrases “bread of tears,” and “tears to drink in full measure.” Near the end, it prays for God’s presence and strength for the king, the one at God’s right hand who God has made strong for himself. Later, this phrase will take on Messianic tones. For the psalmist, it is a plea for God to rise up and restore his people.

As the epistle unfolds it becomes clear that the church from which it is written has experienced some of the same factions with a divisive group leaving them. Calling them “children” once again, the author announces that it is the last hour. Antichrists have come and gone, signaling the last hour. They went out from the author’s church as surely as they have gone out of the churches to whom he is writing. That, itself, reveals that they never belonged to them. They are now reminded that they have been anointed by the Holy One in their baptism, signed in holy oil as a sign of the Spirit’s presence in their lives. Each and every one of them has knowledge and knows the truth. (Here is the first signal that the controversy may have been over Gnosticism, a heresy that emerged in the church in the latter part of the first century.) He is writing to them, not because they do not know the truth, but because they do, and know that no lie can come from it. And who is the liar, the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist—those who deny the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father within them, while everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also—again, a hint that what is at issue is Gnosticism that denied Jesus was God incarnate. They are to remember what they heard from the beginning. If it abides in them, then they abide in the Father and the Son and are heirs of the promise of eternal life. He writes to remind them of this, lest they be deceived by the separatists who have left. The anointing that they have received from the One who abides in them is such that they need no one to teach them—simply to remind them to abide—for his anointing is true. Therefore abide in him so that when he is revealed, they all may have confidence and not be put to shame.

The division about Jesus and who he is continues among the Jews who are gathered in the temple, some claiming that he is demon possessed, while others disagree, saying his words are not the words of a demon. Furthermore, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” This closes the encounters in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. The next section takes place several months later at the festival of the Dedication of the temple. Jesus is still in Jerusalem, and seems to have been there since the fall. As the scene opens, Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon. The people gather around him and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus responds that he has told them but they refuse to believe him. The works he does in his Father’s name testify to him, but still, they do not believe them or him. And why is this so? They do not believe in him because they do not belong to his sheep. His sheep hear his voice and follow him. He knows them and they know him, and they follow, and he gives them eternal life. Furthermore, no one will snatch them out of his hand. For what has been given to him has been given by the Father, and no one can snatch that out of the Father’s hand. He and his Father are one in their work.

Posted February 20, 2014
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, February 19

Gen. 31:25–50; Psalm 48; 1 John 2:12–17; John 10:1–18

The tensions between Jacob and Laban, over Jacob’s prosperity have come to a head, as in anger; Laban has pursued Jacob and his wives and children, Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. The two groups camp opposite one another in the hill country, and Laban confronts Jacob, asking why he has deceived Laban and fled in secret, taking away Laban’s daughters and their children as if by force. Laban then says that if Jacob had asked, Laban would have sent them away “with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre.” Given Jacob’s experience with his father-in-law, it seems highly unlikely, but, Laban is pressing his argument. And why did Jacob not let Laban kiss his daughters and their children goodbye? Reminding Jacob that it is in his power to do Jacob harm, Laban then tells him that the Lord appeared to him the night before, warning him not to speak either good or bad to Jacob. And even though Jacob longed greatly to return to his father’s house, why did Jacob steal Laban’s gods? Jacob tells Laban that he feared Laban would take back his daughters by force. Jacob knows nothing of Rachel’s stealing the household gods and tells Laban to search his camp in the presence and witness of their mutual kin. Whoever it is that is found with Laban’s gods shall die. Laban searches Jacob’s tent, then Leah’s, and the tents of Bilhah and Zilpah, but finds nothing. Then he enters Rachel’s tent and finds her seated on a camel saddle, where she has hidden the gods. Sitting there, she professes to be in the midst of her menstrual cycle and unable to rise. Laban searches her tent high and low—save the camel saddle upon which she is sitting—and finds nothing. Now it is Jacob’s turn to vent his anger at his father-in-law. How many times did Laban abuse Jacob, who worked fourteen years for Laban in exchange for his two daughters? And how did Laban’s flocks fare under Jacob’s husbandry, as he labored for Laban another six years in order to gain flocks of his own? And when a sheep or goat that belonged to Laban was killed by wild animals, Jacob always replaced it with one of his own. And, how many times did Laban reduce Jacob’s wages in an attempt to limit his prosperity? Had not the God of Abraham and Isaac been on Jacob’s side, surely Laban would have sent him away empty handed. But God saw Jacob’s affliction and so appeared to Laban. Laban, for his part, still insists upon his paternal rights: the daughters, children and flocks are his own, but what can he now do? And so he asks for a covenant between himself and Jacob and all their people. Jacob consents, and together they go through various rituals of covenant making: setting up a stone marker, then gathering other stones to build a pillar and naming it in both Hebrew and Aramaic—the languages of the two households—“the heap of witness.” They name the pillar “Mizpah,” which means “watch post,” for it will serve as the boundary marker between Jacob and Laban and their peoples. Then they take an oath at Mizpah: “May the Lord keep watch between them, while they are absent, one from another, in order to assure that they keep this covenant.” Laban warns Jacob not to take other wives or ill-treat his daughters, for the Lord is watching. And so the heap of stones becomes not only a boundary marker between the two families and their descendants, but a witness to the oath Jacob and Laban have taken. The two swear by the God of their fathers, and then Jacob offers a sacrifice, and calls together all the people to eat. They both tarry in the hill country that night, and early the next day, Laban rises up, kisses his grandchildren and daughters, blesses them, and departs, returning to his home in the east.

This classic psalm of praise celebrates the Lord’s greatness and presence on Mount Zion, the site of the temple, and another name for Jerusalem, the city of God and the psalmist’s joy. It is probably a pilgrims psalm: “as we have heard so have we seen,” and remembers God’s presence in the city setting the kings of the earth to panicked flight and smashing them as the east wind drives ships against the rocks of Tarshish. Standing within the temple the pilgrim is struck with a moment of transcendence—this is a “thin place” in life where heaven and earth overlap—and he ponders God’s steadfast love, proclaiming that God’s praise reaches the very ends of the earth. Walk about Zion; go all around it. Count its towers and consider its ramparts. Go through its citadels so that you can tell of its greatness to future generations. Most of all, remind them that God is our God forever and ever, and will forever be our guide.

Affirming his care, John again calls the members of the troubled congregations “little children.” He first reminds them that their sins are forgiven on account of Jesus’ name. Now, John addresses, in descending order, members of the community in their various stages of faith maturation, giving a word of affirmation to each according to their situation. Fathers have known “him who is from the beginning,” young people have “conquered the evil one,” children “know the Father,” young people are strong and the word of God abides in them because they have overcome the evil one. They are now warned against “loving the world,” or things of the world—the realm of evil. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world. For all that is “worldly”—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes, not from the Father, but from the world. Because that world and its desire are passing away, those who do the will of God live forever.

Jesus continues to teach in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles, now taking up the image of 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 come in and go out and 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. His life is not taken from him—remember, in John, Jesus is in full control from beginning to end—but he lays it down in order to take it up again. All this, Jesus has received as a command from his Father.

Posted February 19, 2014
Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, February 18

Gen. 31:1–24; Psalm 30; 1 John 2:1–11; John 9:18–41

There are two versions of how Jacob obtained his wealth while continuing to work for Laban, the Yahwist account in chapter 30, and the Elohist (using the name Elohim for God), in chapter 31. The Yahwist account is the more humorous, as Laban tries to trick the trickster, only to have himself outwitted by Jacob, who used various techniques of the animal husbandry of the day to assure that his flocks are larger and stronger than Laban’s flocks. The Elohist account is the one we read today, and it tells of the strife and conflict that begin to emerge in Laban’s household over Jacob and his success and accumulating wealth, which Laban and his sons see as at their expense. The brothers accuse Jacob of stealing their father’s wealth. Jacob realizes that Laban no longer regards him as he once did. In the midst of this the Lord appears to Jacob, telling him it is time to return to his homeland. Jacob calls Leah and Rachel to join him in the pasture, and tells them of his plan. In the course of that we learn that Laban has changed Jacob’s wages several times, in an attempt to keep him from prospering at Laban’s expense, but to no avail. Now it is time to leave. The wives both acknowledge that they no longer have a place or inheritance in Laban’s household. As they gather up their children and their servants’ children and prepare to leave, Jacob prepares to drive his flocks ahead of him. In the meantime, Laban has gone out to his flocks for shearing, and in his absence, Rachel comes into his tent and steals Laban’s household gods, probably small figurines representing various deities that Laban used for divination or protection of his household. Jacob deceives Laban, not telling him of his plans, and loading the children and wives on his camels, drives his flocks ahead of them as they cross the Euphrates River and head to the hill country of Gilead. Three days later, Laban learns that Jacob has departed with his daughters and grandchildren. Laban gathers up a company of people to pursue Jacob and bring them back. Seven days later, Laban and his men catch up with Jacob and his household in the hill country of Gilead. But God appears to Laban and tells him to leave Jacob alone—he is not to say a word to Jacob, good or bad.

This psalm offers praise to God for recovery from a grave illness. The Lord has “drawn him up.” The “foes” are not necessarily classic enemies, but simply those who, like Job’s friends, insisted that his illness was the result of his own sin. God has not let them rejoice over him. Rather, he cried to the Lord and the Lord responded, bringing him up from the land of the dead and the pit of death. Consequently, the psalm calls on all to give thanks to the Lord. He then recalls the error of his previous ways: in his prosperity he has thought himself unmovable. But the Lord looked away, hid his face, and suddenly he was faced with the error of his ways. Yet he cried out to the Lord: what profit is there in his death; can he praise God from the grave? God responded and turned his mourning into dancing, his lament into a song of praise. It concludes with the promise to not again be presumptuous, but to praise God for the goodness of life forever.

“Little children,” is a phrase 1 John will use seven times in this letter, revealing both his affection and his sense of pastoral responsibility for the congregations in their troubles. The theme of walking in the light and remaining in it is demanding in a world where sin is ever-present and takes us captive, unaware. John is writing, not only so that they will not intentionally sin, but so they may know that when they unintentionally do, they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Notice that in John’s gospel, the Advocate is the Holy Spirit. Here, that word is applied to Jesus, though not as a title. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours alone, but for the whole world. That said, the way to know him is to obey his commandments. Those who say they know him but do not obey his commandments are liars. In such a one, no truth exists whatsoever. But for those who do obey, in them the love of God reaches perfection. It is by this that we may be sure that we are in him. If we say, “I abide in him,” then we must walk as he walked. This is not new, but the old commandment, the word from Christ that they have already heard, and heard from the beginning of becoming his followers. They are to love one another as he loves them (John 13;34; 15:12, 17). John will now elaborate, in light of what has been said about walking in the light, to the point that it is a new commandment. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.” The commandment here is directed to those within the community, not beyond it, and whoever hates another believer is in the dark, walks in the dark, and has been blinded by it.

The man born blind who Jesus has just healed is now being cross-examined by the Jewish officials. Unhappy with his answer that Jesus is a prophet, and still not convinced that the man had been blind since birth, they turn to his parents to question them. Notice how their question is highly skeptical: “who you say was born blind.” The parents answer carefully: “He is our son; he was born blind, but we don’t know who opened his eyes. He is of age, ask him.” Hear behind this the parents’ fear of being implicated and themselves judged for being involved with Jesus and, therefore, being put out of the synagogue. It is an echo of precisely what was happening to Jews embracing Jesus at the time this gospel was written. And so the officials go to the healed man a second time, and the dialogue becomes almost comical as they ask him to give glory to God and at the same time proclaim Jesus a sinner. The healed man takes the upper hand in the conversation saying, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner, but this I know: though I was blind, now I see!” Hear in this not only physical vision, but spiritual vision as well; sight the religious officials lack. They ask, “What did he do to you.” Now irritated with their obstinacy, the man sarcastically says, “I’ve already told you, but you will not listen. Why do you want to hear again; do you also want to become his disciples?” Notice the suggestion that in what has happened the man has already become Jesus’ follower; certainly the Jewish officials think so. And so they respond in anger, condemning him as Jesus’ disciple while they take refuge in being Moses’ disciples. God has, after all, spoken to Moses, but as for “this man, we do not know where he comes from.” Remember the former argument about from where the Messiah is to come? Now the healed man is filled with courage, and unlike his frightened parents, challenges the authorities with the absurdity of their position. “Here is an astonishing thing: you don’t know where he comes from but he opened my eyes.” He goes on to make the point that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to all who worship him and obey his will. Further, never, since the world began, has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of someone born blind. If “this man were not from God he could do nothing.” Stung by his rebuke the leaders resort to the fact that he is a sinner, he was born in sin, for he was born blind. At that, they drive him out because of his confession of belief in Jesus. Again, hear “out of the synagogue.” The scene ends with Jesus seeking out the man he has healed and completely revealing himself to him as the “Son of Man.” When Jesus does, the man worships him, and notice that Jesus does not reject the worship, but accepts it. The incident ends with Jesus’ comment that he came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. The Pharisees overhear and say, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” Their question reveals not only their blindness, but the judgment against them because of it—their sin remains. Imagine the comfort this story brought to those Jews who had been put out of the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus.

Posted February 18, 2014
Monday, February 17,, 2014

Daily Readings for Monday, February 17

Gen. 30:1–24; Psalm 97; 1 John 1:1–10; John 9:1–17

Rachel remains barren, and now is in severe distress because of the shame of being unable to bear children. She begs Jacob to make her pregnant, but he objects in anger, saying, “Am I in the place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of your womb?” And so Rachel resorts to the custom of giving her slave to Jacob as a wife. The children born to Bilhah will legally belong to Rachel. Jacob takes Bilhah as a wife and soon Bilhah is pregnant. She bears Jacob a son who is named Dan. Notice that it is Rachel who names him, as was the custom of the time, after the circumstances surrounding the child’s birth. The Lord has judged Rachel, keeping her womb closed, but he has also heard her voice. Dan comes from the Hebrew word for “judge.” Soon, Bilhah is pregnant again, and bears Jacob yet another son. Once again, Rachel names him, saying she has wrestled mightily with her sister and has prevailed. She names the child Nephtali, which means “the wrestlings of God.” Leah, who is now barren, sees this, and jumps back into the sibling maternal competition, giving her servant Zilpah to Jacob for a wife. Jacob takes Zilpah as his wife and soon she is pregnant and bears another son. Leah takes the right of maternal ownership and names the boy Gad, after her good fortune. Zilpah is soon pregnant again, and this son is named Asher, as an expression of Leah’s happiness at his birth. Both the sisters now are barren. One day, Leah’s eldest son Ruben is in the field and comes across some mandrakes, which were thought to possess special powers of fertility. He takes them back to his mother, Leah. When Rachel discovers this, she goes to Leah and asks to have some of her mandrakes. Leah responds, “You have taken my husband away from me, will you also take my mandrakes?” Then, Leah makes a bargain with Rachel: Jacob is to return to Leah’s tent that night and have sexual relations with her; if so, Rachel may have some of her mandrakes. The sisters agree, and as Jacob comes in from the field, Leah goes out to meet him and tells him she has just bought him with her mandrakes and he must now have sex with her. So, Jacob does. And we are told that God heard Leah’s plea, and she became pregnant again, bearing Jacob a fifth son, who she names Issachar, recognizing God’s recompense in having given her servant Zilpah to Jacob for a wife. Once again, Leah bears Jacob a son, this one named Zebulun, because God has honored her with a sixth son. After that, Leah bears Jacob’s only daughter Dinah. Jacob now has twelve sons and one daughter. Each of the sons will become the patriarch of a tribe named after him, and together form the twelve tribes of Israel—though Jacob’s name has yet to be changed.

The psalm 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 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!” 

Whether a letter or a sermon, 1 John is addressed to churches living with theological divisions that have caused some to leave. The author writes to assure those who have remained that they are the ones who remain faithful. Whether written by the author of the Gospel of John, or another who was a member of John’s community in Ephesus, the similarities in vocabulary and theology emerge immediately. Yet, there are also differences between this and the Gospel. The first four verses of today’s lesson can easily be a synopsis of the essentials, or the prologue, of John’s gospel. “We declare to you,” witnesses to the fact that this is written from a well-known community of faith, firmly established as true to the authentic traditions of the faith. What they have seen and heard they now declare to the struggling congregations to whom this is written. It is true and can enable the community to have fellowship, with not only the authors, but more, with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. They are writing so that their joy may be complete—a common phrase used by Jesus in John’s gospel—but whether this refers to the authors or the recipients of the letter is unclear due to textual variations. The first major theological theme emerges in the affirmation that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. One cannot claim to have fellowship with God and walk in darkness as it appears those who had left the congregation were doing, claiming that their new exalted status in Christ enabled them to do whatever they pleased. Only as we walk in the light, as he, himself, is in the light, are we able to have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. From here the text transitions to the second theological issue—that of sin in the lives of the redeemed. Those who have left evidently believed that because they were Christ’s they could no longer sin. However, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”—we even make God a liar. But, “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” These are words we often use in Reformed worship to call a congregation to the corporate confession of sin.

The blindness of the Jewish leaders is extended into the next incident, which is told in all four gospels, as Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind, and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” It was assumed in those days that such maladies were the result of sin. Jesus refutes that notion and says, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; rather, he was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him.” Jesus then comments about his need to be about the work of the One who sent him. While it is day, he must work. Soon, night will be upon them when no one can work. But for now, it is day; for as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world. Notice all of the images about sight and light, each a metaphor for the presence of God in him. Jesus then spits on the ground, gathers up the moist mixture of soil and spittle, kneads it into clay and places it on the blind man’s eyes. He then sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash. The man does, and comes back seeing, thus becoming an immediate sensation among his neighbors, some thinking he has been miraculously healed, others thinking he is not really the man born blind but someone who simply looks like him. In the midst of the hubbub, the man keeps saying, “I am the man!” Finally, they respond, “But how were your eyes opened?” He tells them what Jesus did and how he received his sight. They ask where Jesus is, and the man replies, “I don’t know.” He has never seen him! So they take the man to the Pharisees, and now we learn that it was on the Sabbath that Jesus healed him. The Pharisees begin their inquisition, wanting to know how he received his sight. The man tells them, and speaking of blindness, the Pharisees fixate on the fact that it was on the Sabbath when Jesus did this, rather than on what has happened, and the man once blind can now see. Because it was a violation of the Sabbath, they insist that Jesus cannot be from God. Others in the crowd ask, “But how could a sinner perform such a sign?” And so, again, we have a controversy over who Jesus is. Turning to the man born blind, they ask him what he thinks and has to say about it. The man replies, “He is a prophet.” The story is not yet over—the man can see, but those around him are becoming increasingly blind.

Posted February 17, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

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.

© 2014