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Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday, May 22, 2015
Ezekiel 34:17-31; Psalm 96; Hebrews 8:1-13; Luke 10:38-42

This chapter opens with an oracle against the kings of Israel (the people’s shepherds), who have abandoned the needs of the people for the sake of their own royal comfort and indulgence. As a result, the people have become prey for all sorts of things. After pronouncing judgment on the royal shepherds, God announces that he will become the people’s shepherd and will search out the lost and bring back the strayed, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong God will destroy with justice. The lesson then condemns those among the people who have been strong and secure and who have grown fat in their prosperity, but have shown no concern for the weak. Not only do they claim the choicest pasture, they actually tread down what they don’t eat so others cannot. Rather than drink at clear water carefully, they greedily wade in and foul the water beneath their feet, making it undrinkable for others. “Therefore, says the Lord God to them: ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.’” God will save his flock. No longer will it be ravaged from without or within, for God will judge, not simply rulers, but between sheep and sheep. This is followed by the promise of a new Davidic king who will rule with justice and compassion and feed all the people. The Lord will be their God and this new David will be God’s servant. From this will come a covenant of peace and abundance. God will provide “showers of blessing” (from which the gospel hymn takes the theme), the earth shall be verdant and plentiful in food, and all shall be secure on their land. They will know that the Lord is their God and they are God’s people, and that God is with them. God will then say to the house of Israel, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God.”

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—and justice will ultimately be done.

Hebrews comes to the center of its message: in Jesus Christ we have a high priest superior to all others, who is seated at the right hand of “the throne of Majesty” (the way a pious Jew would avoid using God’s name), a “minister in the sanctuary, the true tent, one that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” The “tent” is a reference to the tabernacle that the Lord instructed Moses to construct in the wilderness wanderings that became the precursor to the temple in Jerusalem with its “Holy of Holies,” where God was thought to dwell and where the high priest entered, once a year, on behalf of the people. These priests were required to offer gifts and sacrifices before entering. Jesus is contrasted with this sacrificial system, that seems to still be in place at this letter’s writing (ergo its dating somewhere around 65 CE, but before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE). But that sacrificial system and worship space is but a “sketch and shadow of the heavenly one” in which Jesus now resides. Consequently, Jesus has obtained “a more excellent ministry” and, thereby, has become the “mediator of a better covenant” which has been enacted through God’s promise. Had that original covenant at Sinai been faultless there would be no need for this second. But God, himself, found fault with it, and the text goes on in verses 8 through 12 to quote Ezekiel 31:31-34, in which God promises a new covenant with the house of Israel. The author concludes his argument making the point that, in speaking of a “new covenant”, God has made the first one obsolete. And, what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. Several things need to be said at this point: first, this is one of the texts that gave rise to the dispensationalist heresy, claiming that God had abandoned his covenant with and relationship to Israel when establishing the new covenant (dispensation) with the church. Notice that the new covenant that God promised through Ezekiel is a covenant with Israel—God does not abandon his people! Second, that the older covenant did not include within it forgiveness of sins is one of the reasons the new covenant is superior to the old. That the old “will soon disappear” is probably a reference to Jesus’ own words about the future of the temple. The point the author is making to Jewish Christians, probably in Rome, is that this new covenant that includes both Jews and Gentiles is vastly superior to the covenant God made with only Israel at Mt. Sinai, and so there is no reason to return to it.

Luke has placed the story of the sisters Mary and Martha behind the parable of the Good Samaritan to demonstrate what it means to be a neighbor to Jesus and a faithful follower. Martha welcomes Jesus into their home and her sister Mary immediately sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach, becoming so absorbed in him that she fails to help Martha with the provisions of hospitality. Martha, on the other hand, not only makes provision, but becomes “distracted by her many tasks,” and ultimately comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left all of the work to me? Tell her to help me.” Jesus’ response is not a comment on the difference between the contemplative and active lives of faith (as this has often been portrayed in sermons), but is simply the plain statement that only one thing is necessary—devotion and attention to Jesus and his word. It is possible to get so caught up in “making provision,” in providing hospitality, and in serving in the church, that we soon forget who it is we are serving and why. Mary is listening, has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her. Notice that nothing is said about taking away Martha’s part for her welcome and hospitality. Rather, as important as that may be, there is something more important still—authentic discipleship. One other word: the astonishing thing here is that, in a world where women were expected to serve as Martha was serving and not to exercise spiritual leadership, Mary has chosen to be a disciple. Though outrageous for the day, Jesus has blessed Mary’s decision and welcomed her.


Posted May 22, 2015
Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thursday, May 21, 2015
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 19-32; Psalm 47; Hebrews 7:18-28; Luke 10:25-37

It is not fair! That is the accusation, and it is against the Lord. In response, the Lord quotes a proverb common in that day, “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” a truism about the impact of parents’ behavior upon their children’s future. But the Lord announces that no longer shall that be the case. This is the Lord, to whom all life belongs, the life of the parent and the life of the child. Only the person who sins shall die—each for their own sins. The material the lesson steps over is a description of the behaviors, right and wrong, in question. At verse nineteen we again hear the community’s objection: “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” After all, there is plenty of evidence in life that this is so. The Lord responds with his own standards: the person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child. Each shall live or die on the basis of her or his own righteousness or sinfulness. And now, the Lord adds a new word: if the wicked turn from their sins and keep the Lord’s statutes, and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live. Repentance is still an option for those in exile. Does the Lord take pleasure in the death of the wicked? Absolutely not! On the other hand, when the righteous turn to wickedness, shall they live? No, their former righteousness will not save them. Rather, their current treachery shall be the standard by which they are judged. Is this unfair? Is this arbitrary? The point is this: the Lord is looking for righteousness, not excuses. The oracle ends with the Lord putting the exilic community on notice—they are to be henceforth judged on their current behavior. Repent and turn from all transgression, otherwise their iniquity will be their ruin. It is time for a new heart and a new spirit. Again, the Lord plaintively asks the painful question: “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone. Turn, then, and live.”

Psalm 47 celebrates God’s reign over all the earth. It is a hymn of praise that may have been used during a festival commemorating God’s covenant with Israel, and calls on the people to celebrate God’s ritual enthronement. It remembers how the Lord, the Most High, is God of the gods, awesome and king over all the earth—not just Israel. Not only has God subdued the nations, the Lord has chosen Israel as his heritage, “the pride of Jacob whom he loves.” “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.” All are called upon to sing praise to God as king. “Our King is King of all the earth.” The phrase, “God has gone up with a shout,” caused the church to associate this with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, while “with the sounds of a trumpet” suggests this was used as part of the liturgy for Rosh ha-Shanah, when the ram’s horn is blown to announce the new year.

Hebrews continues to argue for the superiority of the new covenant and high priest over the old. The former was weak and ineffectual—it made nothing perfect. The new has introduced a better hope, which has been confirmed by divine oath. Others became priests by birth, without oaths. Jesus became a high priest with God’s oath, again, quoting Psalm 110:4. Consequently, Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant. More, the former priests needed to be many because death ended their office. But Jesus’ priesthood is forever. Consequently, he is able, at all times, to save those who approach him, since he is always there to make intercession for us before God. God has made provision for us to have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens. Unlike any other priest, he has no need, day after day, to offer sacrifices for his own sin before offering sacrifices for the people. He did this “once for all” when he offered himself. The law appoints priests subject to weakness. But God, by word of oath, which came after the law, has appointed a Son who has been made perfect forever.

A lawyer stands up to test Jesus by asking a lawyer’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking him what he reads in the law. The lawyer answers with the double commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus congratulates him: “You’ve gotten it right; do this and you shall live.” So far, so good; but Luke tells us the lawyer wants to justify himself and so asks, “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, but puts a twist on it, asking who has been a neighbor to the beaten man. The answer, of course, is the Samaritan, the one who comes from the despised community that James and John were, not too long before, ready to call on fire from heaven to destroy. Who was the neighbor; the one who showed the man mercy? Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.” We must be merciful as God is merciful. We must forgive as we are forgiven.


Posted May 21, 2015
Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Ezekiel 11:14-25; Psalm 99; Hebrews 7:1-17; Luke 10:17-24

Ezekiel has had a vision of the glory of God leaving the temple (chapter 10), and now it stops at the temple’s east gate to judge the civil officials of the people, where they daily met, who have been leading the people into iniquity with their wicked counsel. God’s judgment is already revealed to the religious officials, as God’s glory is leaving the temple. The spirit of the Lord falls upon Ezekiel and he prophesies to the twenty-five men, and, while doing so, one of them dies. The judgment has begun. The word of the Lord then comes to him again, telling him that he and his kin in exile are being spoken of as “gone and afar from the Lord”. Therefore, the Jerusalemites believe they have the right to take the exiles’ land. God’s word to Ezekiel is that the Lord will gather him and his people in the lands where they have been scattered and will again bring them to and give them the land of Israel. And when they come there, they will remove from Israel all the detestable things and abominations that have been set up there. The Lord will give the people one heart, and a pure and new spirit within them. God will remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow God’s statutes, keep the Lord’s ordinances and obey them. “Then,” says the Lord, “they shall be my people and I will be their God.” As for those who go after detestable things, the Lord will bring their deeds upon their own heads. At this, the cherubim lift up their wings, their wheels and, with the glory of the Lord above them, ascend from Jerusalem and stop on the Mount of Olives east of the city. The spirit then lifts up Ezekiel and brings him, by vision, into Chaldea, to the exiles, where the vision leaves him, and Ezekiel tell the exiles all that the Lord had shown him. The Lord has left Jerusalem. He is not bound to the temple as so many believed. And now he is able to be among the exiles in Chaldea.

Psalm 99 is a psalm of praise that extolls the Lord’s holiness and sovereign power—the mighty King of the universe—who is also a lover of justice. The Lord is enthroned on the cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the temple; let the whole earth quake. For God is not only sovereign in power, but has also established equity, justice and righteousness among Jacob’s people. This, the last of the psalms that praise God as King, was and continues to be used in the church as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and triumphant reign. Because the church of the New Testament regarded the psalms as the work of the prophet David, it quickly understood him to be writing about his greater son, the Messiah. As Moses, Aaron and Samuel all went before the Lord on Israel’s behalf, so also did Christ go into heaven on our behalf. This psalm then blesses God for being forgiving, but also remembers God’s need to avenge wrong doings. The psalm ends, calling on everyone to extoll, praise and worship the Lord at his holy mountain, Jerusalem.

Hebrews returns to its argument concerning the superior nature of Melchizedek’s priesthood to that of the Aaronic priesthood, recalling the circumstances in which Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, with the priest subsequently blessing Abraham. Further, Melchizedek having no mother or father, without genealogy or beginning or end of days, resembles the Son of God and remains a priest forever. It was into this everlasting priesthood that Jesus came, not as a Levite, but as a member of the tribe of Judah. Now, if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood, there would have been no need to speak of another according to the order of Melchizedek. But the Levitical priesthood could not produce perfection. And when Jesus, who belonged to another tribe than Levi’s, entered the priesthood, not by physical descent but through the power of an indestructible life, there was, of necessity, a change in the law to permit such a thing. And Jesus is, by God’s own word, “A priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4).

The seventy disciples return rejoicing at what they have experienced in their missions—even the demons have submitted to them. Jesus says, “Yes, I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Satan is no longer there to exercise his power in God’s presence. More, Jesus’ power is superior to Satan’s, and Jesus has given the disciples authority over all the powers of the enemy so that nothing will hurt them. Nevertheless, they are to rejoice, not in this, nor that the spirits submit to them, but that their names are written in heaven. Jesus then breaks into prayer, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, and says, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Such has been the Father’s gracious will, who has handed everything over to the Son who is only truly known by the Father, just as only the Son truly knows the Father, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father. As the prayer of thanksgiving closes, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them, privately, how blessed they are to have seen what they have seen. Many prophets and kings desired to see what they have seen and hear what they have heard, but did not.


Posted May 20, 2015
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Ezekiel 7:10-15, 23b-27; Psalm 98; Hebrews 6:13-20; Luke 10:1-17

The Lord addresses Ezekiel and gives him an oracle of the destruction of Jerusalem. The day is coming, it is certain. The rod has blossomed; violence has grown into a rod of wickedness. (Is this the rod of Babylon coming in violence to destroy, or is this the violence in Jerusalem that has blossomed into wickedness—the text is unclear and either could be correct.) None in Jerusalem shall remain. Their abundance their wealth and the pre-eminent among them shall all perish. The time has come when buying and selling will end. The vision concerns all of their people, and no amount of priestly or prophetic inquiry can stop it. Though the warning horn calling Jerusalem to battle has been sounded, none have responded, for this too is God’s wrath upon the people. Outside the walls is the sword, inside the walls are pestilence and famine. Those outside die by the sword while those inside perish from famine and disease. The portion of the text that is skipped over simply describes the panic and absurd behavior of those who under siege discover no one has privilege and their silver and gold is worthless. The Lord will hand it over to the plunderers. This is because the land is full of bloody crimes; the city filled with violence. The Lord is bringing the worst of the nations to take possession of them and their houses. God is silencing the arrogant and the strong, and their holy places shall be profaned. In their anguish, the people will seek peace, but there shall be none. Disaster will come upon disaster and rumor upon rumor, as they consult their prophets and priests and seek counsel from their elders. The king shall mourn; the princes shall be wrapped in despair and the hand of the people tremble in fear. The Lord is dealing with them according to their own way, and by their own judgments the Lord is judging them. Then they will know that the Lord is God.

Psalm 98 exhorts us to “Sing to the Lord a new song!” But the imperative is about more than us; all creation is called on to sing joyfully for what the Lord has done—marvelous things! Israel is called to remember the way the Lord has gotten victory for them in the midst of the nations. In their distress, the Lord has remembered his steadfast love for them and his faithfulness to them and has vindicated them in the sight of their captors. All the ends of the earth have seen God’s victory on Israel’s behalf. The earth is especially called to join in the song of praise using all the musical instruments at hand: lyre, lute, trumpets and horns. The personification of aspects of creation is rich and expressive: let the sea roar, and all who live in it; let the floods clap their hands and the hills together break into song at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. And when he comes, he will judge the entire world with righteousness, and its peoples with equity. Joy to the world! Isaac Watts paraphrased this psalm into that well-known and deeply loved hymn. Though most think it was written as a Christmas carol, it is really a metrical setting of this psalm.

The readers of Hebrews are reminded of the promise God first made to Abraham to bless and multiply him. Having no one greater than himself to swear by, the Lord took an oath in his own name, thereby giving two witnesses that are absolutely trustworthy: God’s word and God’s oath. Therefore, we have this hope, doubly secured, a sure anchor for our lives. The anchor is none other than Jesus, our forerunner, who has entered the shrine of God’s presence behind, the curtain on our behalf and there serves as a high priest forever according to the order of Melchisedek. Therefore, let your lives remain anchored in Jesus.

Jesus appoints seventy of his disciples. Some translations include the number seventy-two. Seventy comports to Moses appointing seventy elders to assist in the governance of Israel, and the theme of Jesus as the prophet greater than even Moses, sending forth disciples to help with his work. Seventy-two is the number of the nations of the world, according to the Greek translation of Genesis 10. The point here is the universal nature of the work that Jesus has come to do on God’s behalf. Jesus sends his disciples out ahead of him in pairs into every town and place where he himself intends to go, saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” They are to pray that the Lord of the harvest send forth additional laborers. Jesus sends them out like lambs in the midst of wolves. They are to travel light and not get distracted: carry no purse, no bag, no sandal, and greet no one on the road. Whenever they enter a house, greet it in words of peace. If that peace is shared, peace will rest upon that household. If not, it will return to the disciples. Remain in the house that receives them, eating and drinking what is set before them, for laborers deserve to be paid. Do not move about from house to house (note, these are as much traveling orders for Christian missionaries that will later evangelize, as for the seventy Jesus is sending out here). If upon entering a town, the people welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But if the town does not welcome you, then go out into its streets and shake their dust off of your feet as a protest against them, telling them, nonetheless, that the kingdom of God has come near. On that day—the day of the Lord’s coming judgment—it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. Jesus follows with woes to various cities, some where we know he ministered, and others we know nothing about that may have been later points of Christian witness that rejected it. Even Capernaum is listed among those under judgment. Had the people of Capernaum become to “high and exalted” because of Jesus’ tenure and work there among them? They, too, will be brought down for their pride. Whoever listens to the disciples listens to Jesus himself, and whoever rejects the disciples rejects Jesus himself, and whoever rejects Jesus rejects the one who sent him. The seventy return with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”


Posted May 19, 2015
Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday, May 18, 2015
Ezekiel 4:1-17; Psalm 97; Hebrews 6:1-12; Luke 9:51-62

The Lord commands Ezekiel to take a brick and sketch on it an image of the city of Jerusalem. He is then to build siege ramps around it and plant camps about it, complete with battering rams. Finally, he is to place an iron plate between himself and the brick as a symbol of the barrier between the people and God during their siege. It is prophetic action, foretelling the siege of Jerusalem before its fall in 587 BCE. Ezekiel is to lie on his left side 390 days, each day symbolic of a year. Then he is to lie on his right side 40 days, each symbolic of a year. Though the text indicates both are days of punishment for the houses of Israel and Judah, it can also be read that the 390 years represent the time between Solomon’s reign, when foreign gods first entered into the community through Solomon’s foreign wives, and the exile, the latter, the time of exile itself. Ezekiel is told to bake bread on human dung—a profound symbol of ritual uncleanliness. This siege and subsequent exile will be a time of severe uncleanliness for the people. As a priest, Ezekiel objects and God relents, allowing him to use cow’s dung. But his ration of bread and his water is miniscule—witness to the scarcity that will exist, not only in the siege but in the exile.

Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel! It utilizes material from other psalms as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), creating a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as not only Israel's King, but sovereign over all creation. References to lighting and storm challenge the notion that those were the works of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth, but the heavens as well, proclaim God’s glory. 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 God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”


The author of Hebrews urges the readers to move beyond the basics to a deeper understanding and practice of the faith, warning against lapsing into their pasts as Jews. The things listed as basic to the faith are foundations of Christianity shared with Judaism, especially if baptism is seen simply as the ritual cleansing of John and not the sacramental action it is understood to be by Paul. Are the readers failing to move beyond the basics of Judaism shared by Christianity, or withdrawing back into it, in order to avoid persecution or ejection from the synagogue? There then comes a warning of the difficulty of restoring one to the faith who has “tasted it,” then fallen away. The apostates are quite literally “crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” They are described as ground that absorbs rain but only produces thorns and thistle—worthless land on the verge of being cursed and burned over. Having issued the warning, the author quickly returns to assuring his readers about his confidence in them and their salvation. God is not unjust; God will look upon their work and the love that they have shown for God’s sake and that they are still showing and will bless them. The author is writing to keep them diligent and from becoming sluggish, encouraging them to imitate those who, through faith and patience, inherit the promises.

Jesus has just talked about the promise of blessings that come to those who receive him or his disciples with just a cup of cold water. Now, as he prepares to head south to Jerusalem and take up the remainder of his ministry, Jesus sends messengers ahead of him into Samaria to make preparation for their travel there. Is this because travel through Samaria is the most direct route to Jerusalem, or does Jesus plan to preach his gospel to the Samaritans as well? The Samaritans and the Jews had been enemies for ages, first arguing over Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim as the cultic center for worshiping the Lord and, later, because the Samaritans had assisted the Babylonians in the defeat and sack of Jerusalem, as well as resisted its rebuilding after the exile. The Samaritans reject Jesus and his disciples because of their ultimate destination. James and John are outraged and want to call fire from heaven upon the Samaritans, as Elijah did against the soldiers sent out against him by King Ahaziah because Elijah had foretold the king’s destruction (2 Kings 1:1-18). Jesus simply rebukes his disciples for considering such a thing and moves on toward Jerusalem using the longer way, down through the Jordan Valley. On the way, three people come to Jesus, two of whom offer to follow him. This section is the only place in the gospel where people volunteer to become disciples of Jesus, whereas the others are called. Luke uses this as an opportunity to teach on both the urgency and the cost of discipleship. The first would-be disciple promises to follow Jesus wherever he goes and is warned of the hardships. The Son of Man, contrary to the animals of the field, has nowhere to lay his head; neither will Jesus’ disciples. Jesus turns to another and says, “Follow me,” but the man responds, “Let me go and bury my father.” It is not a frivolous request but an indication of the man’s faithfulness to the Torah and respect for his father. Jesus’ response indicates that following him has priority over Torah. A third promises to follow but asks for permission to bid farewell to his family, as Elisha did when Elijah called him while Elisha was plowing a field (1 Kings 19:19-21). Though Elijah gave Elisha permission to do so, Jesus makes a direct reference to Elisha’s call by saying, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Things are much more urgent now. Notice, however—and this is important: none of those in this dialogue are rejected as followers, but simply warned of the cost of discipleship.


Posted May 18, 2015
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