Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Isaiah 48:12-22; Psalm 127; Galatians 1:18-2:10; Mark 6:1-13
The Lord continues to address Jacob: Listen-up you dotards! When will it finally dawn on you that “I am He; I am the first, and the last?” My hand has made all that is. When I call, all creation stands at attention. What about you? Attention! Assemble and hear: the Lord loves Cyrus! Cyrus is going to do the Lord’s work in Babylon and fell the Chaldeans (Babylon’s other name). The Lord has spoken and called Cyrus, has brought him to this time and purpose, and he will prosper. None of this is a secret. The Lord has spoken it and from the time it began, the Lord has been there. And now, the prophet reminds us that he is being sent by God’s spirit. “Thus says the Lord….” The Lord is the Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord their God, who teaches for their own good, who leads in the way they should go. Had they only listened; had they only heeded God’s commands, they would have flourished in prosperity with the power of the sea. Their offspring would have been like the sand of the sea—never cut off or destroyed. Now get out of Babylon! Flee! Declare with shouts loud enough to be heard to the ends of the earth, just who it is that is doing this for you—the Lord! You did not thirst in the desert because he split open rocks that water might pour forth for you (an allusion to the Exodus). But, there is no peace for the wicked—“Thus says the Lord!”
Psalm 127 reminds us that the Lord is our builder and maker, and unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. So too for the city, so too for those who go to bed late and rise early, working 24/7 as they eat the bread of anxious toil. It is all vanity! Now, the psalm shifts from the things we anxiously try to do to make a name for ourselves to God’s gifts of heritage—it is our children. They are like arrows in the hands of a warrior. Here, there is a double entendre that we miss when paraphrasing “son” to “children” for the sake of inclusivity. The image of arrow is both one of sexual potency that continues to maintain the tribe, and one of protection, such as a large family provides. Might “quiver full of them” also be a reference to a wife’s womb that was believed to hold those children before conception. Whatever, happy are those who have a household full of them. However, at the end of the day, is it not the presence of many children that brings prosperity and protection. That comes from the Lord. For unless the Lord builds our house, all else that we try to do is in vain.
Paul continues to write biographically to the Galatians, reminding them that his gospel is not the work of others. Though after his vision of Christ and his time in Arabia and then again in Damascus, he did go to Jerusalem to meet with Cephas (Peter) and stayed with him fifteen days; he did not confer with any other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother, who by now was on his way to becoming a leader in the Jerusalem Church and would become its bishop after Peter’s departure for Rome. After that visit, Paul went to his home in Syria and Cilicia and remained unknown to the churches of Judea. All that was said was that the one who had formerly persecuted the Jewish believers in that region was now proclaiming the very faith he once had tried to destroy. Consequently, the Judean Christians glorified God because of him. After another fourteen years, between his first and second missionary journey, Paul went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus—a Gentile—along with them to make his case for his ministry among the Gentiles and argue that circumcision and keeping the Jewish Law was not a gospel requirement for them. In that meeting, “false believers”—Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem who demanded that Gentiles like Titus be circumcised—were secretly brought in to make their case and win the day. But Paul would not submit to them. And whether they were leaders or not, they contributed nothing to Paul, who remained steadfast in his convictions to the point that Peter, James and John—the three pillars of the Jerusalem church—recognized the validity of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles and the grace Paul had been given by God for his work, just as they recognized Peter’s commission and grace-filled work among the Jews. Consequently, they gave Paul and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship,”—both a blessing and an acknowledged welcome—and sent them on their way back to the Gentiles, asking only one thing of them: that they not forget the poor, which Paul was already eager to do.
Jesus returns to Nazareth with his disciples, and on the sabbath, goes to his home synagogue to teach. Those who hear him are astounded, wondering where he has gotten all of this and where his wisdom has come from. They are astonished at the deeds of power he is doing. They ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon, as well as his sisters. (Notice that Joseph is not included here and is clearly dead.) Why they take offence at Jesus is unclear—was it his entourage and the fact that they thought he was taking himself entirely too seriously? Jesus simply responds with the truism that prophets are honored everywhere except at home, among their own people, even in their own families, or perhaps, especially within their own families! His clearly did not know who he was or understand what he was about. At any rate, their unbelief is such that he can do no deed of power there except for laying hands on a few of the sick and healing them. Mark tells us Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Leaving Nazareth, he moves through the surrounding villages, teaching in them. Then he calls the twelve and gives them authority over unclean spirits—it is not only his, but his to give!— and he sends them out to preach and heal. Sending them out without bread, bag or money, and limiting what they wear, he has put them into the status of itinerant preachers who are to be dependent upon the hospitality of those to whom they preach. Such was common in that day, and, generally, it was thought an honor to house and care for such a preacher. Whenever a house welcomes them, they are to stay there until they leave the village. If any place will not welcome them, and they refuse to hear what it is they have to say, leave town and shake the dust of that place off of your feet as testimony against them. And so they went out and preached that the people should repent. Notice the absence of “and believe the good news.” They cast out many demons and healed many sick by anointing them with oil, but so far, they seem not to understand that this is the good news of God and bigger than their miracle-working leader.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Isaiah 48:1-11; Psalm 126; Galatians 1:1-17; Mark 5:21-43
God summons his people, the house of Jacob, called by the name “Israel,” who came forth from the loins of Judah and who swear by the name of the Lord. Though they call themselves after the holy city and lean on the God of Israel, they do not do so in truth or integrity. Knowing them obstinate, with necks of iron and foreheads of brass—how’s that for being stiff-necked and hard-headed?—God declared to them from long ago what would happen, so that when it came to pass they could not attribute it to their idols. God is now going to declare new things, things hidden that they have not known, created now—today—things they have never heard. Why? Because, from birth they have been a rebel who deals in treachery (remember Jacob’s cunning nature and his treachery in stealing his brother’s birthright). For his own name’s sake God is going to defer his anger, and for the sake of his own praise, restrain it from Israel that it may not be cut off. Israel has been refined and tested in the fire of adversity. The coming deliverance is less for them than for God’s own name’s sake. “For my own sake I will do it,” for why should God’s name be profaned and God’s glory given to another?
Psalm 126 is a pilgrim song, sung to the song of ascents, as worshippers make their way to the temple. It remembers the initial joy experienced by the people upon their return home to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. They were like those who dream: their mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with shouts of joy. As the Lord had promised, the nations said among themselves, “The Lord has done great things for them.” In affirmation they declare it themselves: the Lord has done great things for them,” and in them they rejoiced. They have been saved. But now home, there are new challenges. The second half of the psalm falls into a petition for God to bless them, to come and restore their fortunes, like water rushes through the watercourses in the Negeb. When the rain comes, those flat, dry riverbeds suddenly become awash with torrents of water. May the restoration come as suddenly, so that those who sow in tears—planting season in the Ancient Near East was associated with sorrow for many reasons, not the least being that the summer drought was drawing near and threatened to destroy the seed—will reap with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves, because the crop has been abundant beyond belief.
We begin the continuous reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written to churches he had founded, whether on the first or second missionary journey is a scholar’s debate and, for us, does not matter. Paul is writing in response to a crisis that has emerged in those churches because of Jewish-Christian missionaries who have come after him, who are preaching that, in order to be included within those redeemed by Jesus, the Gentiles must convert and become Jews. The men must be circumcised and all must adhere to the Law of Moses. Paul, who knows that God called him specifically to preach to the Gentiles, has not required this of them upon their profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and he has seen among his converts powerful examples of the presence of God’s Spirit. Consequently, he is firmly convinced that the Gentiles can be justified—put in a saving relationship with God in Christ—without having to adhere to the world of the Jewish Law. As the letter opens, Paul identifies himself as an apostle sent neither by human commission nor from human authority, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead. In the blessing that follows, Paul identifies the themes that will emerge in the rest of the letter: the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age according to the will of his Father. The salutation complete, Paul jumps in with both feet, astonished that they have so quickly deserted the one who called them in the grace of Christ. Notice that they are not deserting Paul, nor even his gospel, but the one who called them, God himself. This “other gospel”—not that there is another—is a perversion of the true gospel. There is only one gospel, the one Paul and his companions announced among them. And even if they or an angel from heaven should appear among them proclaiming something contrary to what they first heard from Paul, let those who proclaim this false gospel be accursed! Paul then repeats the curse. Is he writing to seek human approval—theirs, or even God’s? Is that why he preached a gospel that does not require circumcision—to please people? If so, he would no longer be a servant of Christ. And now, Paul tells them a series of events that they evidently do not know, as a means of further establishing the truth of the message he proclaimed among them. It was not of human origin; he did not make it up. Nor did he receive it from human sources. It came to him through a revelation of Jesus Christ. He then recounts his time as a persecutor of the church, and his status as one far more advanced and zealous for the traditions of his Jewish ancestors. But God, who had set him apart long before he was even born, called him through God’s grace and was pleased to reveal the risen Christ to him, so that he could proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. Like the calls of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Paul was destined by God before birth, then prepared, and finally summoned to take up a prophetic mission among the Gentiles. When that happened, Paul did not confer with humans about it, nor did he go to Jerusalem to the others there who were apostles before him—those Jesus had called prior to his death and resurrection. Rather, he went away at once to Arabia. What he did there is pure speculation. Did he preach among the Nabateans in the kingdom of Aretas IV in Petra, as most commentators assume, or, by Arabia, does he mean the Sinai, where, like Elijah, with whom Paul so identifies, he went to Mt. Horab, there to sort out and think through what all of this meant, before returning to Damascus, as Elijah himself had done? We don’t know. The point is, this gospel Paul is preaching is from God and no one else, and has been given to him by God to preach among the Gentiles.
Having returned back to the home side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is again met by the crowd. Within it is a leader of the synagogue named Jairus, who falls at Jesus’ feet, imploring him repeatedly to come and lay his hands on his daughter and heal her for she is about to die. Jesus goes with him and the crowd follows. Within that crowd is another in need, a woman who has suffered menstrual hemorrhaging for twelve years. Having seen many physicians and having spent all that she had on possible cures, she is still no better, but actually worse. She has heard about Jesus and comes up behind him in the crowd and touches his cloak, believing that if she could just touch his clothing she would be healed, and immediately she is! Equally as immediately, Jesus is aware that “the power has gone forth from him,” and demands to know who touched his clothes. The disciples are astonished at the question; in this crowd? Jesus looks around, and, as he does, the woman comes to him in fear and trembling and falls at his feet. After all, her touch has rendered him unclean. She tells him the truth and Jesus says what he will tell so many when similarly healed, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed of your disease.” It will not be back. While Jesus is still talking to the woman, some people from the leader’s home come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died. It’s too late; why trouble the teacher any further? Overhearing it, Jesus turns to Jairus and says, “Do not fear, only believe. At that, he allows no one to follow them except three from his inner circle: Peter, James and John. When they arrive at the house, the mourners are already there, and the place is filled with weeping and loud wailing. Jesus asks why they are making such a commotion; she is not dead, but only asleep. Suddenly, the mourners’ weeping turns to mocking laughter. This is outrageous—she is dead. Jesus puts everyone outside, and taking Jairus and his wife and the three disciples who had come with him, they go to where the child lay. Taking her by the hand, Jesus speaks to her in Aramaic, which Mark quickly translates as “Little girl, get up!” Immediately she does, and begins to walk about the room. In an aside, Mark tells us she is twelve year of age—the age at which a girl in that culture became a woman and was ready for marriage. Two women have been restored, one by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak, the other by receiving his touch as the gift of life. The parents and the disciples are overcome with amazement. Jesus strictly orders them that no one should know this, and tells them to give the little girl something to eat to assure them that she really is alive. Ghost and spirits were believed to be unable to eat food. When she eats they will truly know that she is alive.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Isaiah 47:1-15; Psalm 125; Hebrews 10:19-31; John 5:2-18
This oracle against Babylon is similar to those we find in Isaiah of Jerusalem but unique to Second Isaiah. Nonetheless, it is comprehensive in its announcement of God’s judgment on Babylon, here, portrayed as a woman. She will be dethroned from her glory and sit in the dust, half naked, grinding her own meal, for God is taking vengeance on her and none will be spared. Consigned to sit in silence and go into darkness, she is no longer sovereign over other nations. Though the Lord was angry with his people, Israel, and profaned them by giving them unto her, she mistreated them. She laid heavy burdens on the aged, showed no mercy, and abused them. Though she thinks she is secure and will ever be so, in an instant she will lose both her husband and her children. In spite of their rituals of divination, sorcery and enchantments, evil will come upon her that she cannot charm away. The Babylonians were known for their elaborate systems of soothsaying and reading the heavens astrologically to predict the future. She is mocked for this and encouraged to wear herself out with star-gazing. But it will all be for naught. The coming fire will consume them like stubble and they will not be able to deliver themselves from the power of the flame. Such it will be to all of those diviners and astrologers with whom she has trafficked since her youth. There is no one to save them.
Psalm 125 is a song of ascent and less a prayer than a wisdom hymn that extolls the Lord’s ability to care for those who trust in him. Like Mt. Zion, they will not be moved. Like the mountains that surround Mt. Zion, so the Lord surrounds his people and will do so forever. Reigns of wickedness shall not fall on the land that has been allotted to the righteous, that they may not stretch out their hand and do wrong. Finally, there is the petition: “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,” followed by the parallel refrain, “and to those who are upright in their hearts.” But for those who turn aside to walk in their own way, the Lord will lead them away with the other evildoers. The psalm ends invoking peace on Jerusalem, not unlike our politicians invoke God’s blessing on America.
Being Sunday, the Daily Lectionary takes us back to the Book of Hebrews. Building on what has been said before, we are called to enter God’s sanctuary in confidence. The blood of Jesus has opened a new way for us in his flesh. The Old Sanctuary—the Holy of Holies—could be entered only once a year by the High Priest, after an elaborate series of purification sacrifices. Since we have this great priest over the house of God, we can approach God’s presence with a true heart filled with the assurance of faith, hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and bodies washed with pure water—all baptismal references—and hold fast to the confession without wavering. He is faithful, in that we can trust. Rather, it is time to provoke one another to love and good deeds. Do not neglect to meet together, as seems to have become the habit of some. Rather, encourage one another as you see the Day approach—the day of Christ’s coming. There follows a warning against willfully persisting in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth. For these there is no sacrifice that will cover their sin. Apostasy—turning from the truth once you have found it—can only result in a fearful judgment. If anyone who has violated the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses, how much worse will the punishment be to those who spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they have been sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? These will hear, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” as the Lord judges his people. For those who would abuse God’s grace or presume upon it there comes this warning: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”
Again, because it is Sunday, we leave our continuous reading in Mark for a reading from John, in which Jesus continues to heal on the sabbath. This is the third of the seven signs of Jesus’ identity and authority—healing the man at the pool of Bethzatha on the sabbath. We are not told which of the three pilgrimage festivals this is, only that Jesus, as a devout Jew, has come up to Jerusalem for it. (Because Jerusalem is located at the top of Mt. Zion, the highest point in Judah, one always “goes up to Jerusalem,” or “down to” some other place from it.) Jesus seems to have entered by the sheep gate, near which was a pool renowned for its healing properties. Notice that in modern translations, verses 3b-4, explaining that an angel would come and stir the water, and the first person to enter into the water thereafter was healed. That does not appear in themost ancient manuscripts and seems to be a later scribal addition that only distracts from the purpose of describing this third sign event. The pool has five porticos surrounding it in which many invalids—the blind, the lame and the paralyzed—lay. The focus of the story is on a man who has been there thirty-eight years. Jesus sees him, realizes he has been there a long time and asks him if he wants to be made well? Notice “made well” is sufficiently ambiguous that the man is able to respond to Jesus at its most practical level. Yes, but, whenever the water is stirred, someone always beats him to the water. But there is no need for angels or stirring water here. Jesus simply says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” and the man does! Only now are we told that it is the sabbath. Sabbath observance, including the prohibition against any work on it, was one of the hallmarks of first century Judaism, and the people who see the cured man walking away, carrying his mat, challenge him. Don’t miss the irony here: they are so preoccupied with maintaining Torah that they miss the fact that the man has been healed! His defense is simply that the man who made him well told him to do so. Now the focus turns to who did this, but the man does not know. Jesus simply appeared in his life, engaged him in conversation, told him to stand up, take up his mat and walk, and then disappeared into the crowd. Later that day, Jesus finds the man in the temple, a place the man had been denied entrance to for 38 years because of his paralysis. Is he there to offer thanks for his healing? We do not know, but Jesus again engages him in conversation and says, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more so that nothing worse happens to you.” It is straightforward advice as good today as then, whether or not we believe, as people did in Jesus’ day, that illness was God’s punishment for sin, something, by the way, that Jesus seemed not to have believed (see John 9:3). Jesus’ injunction to “sin no more” probably has more to do with preserving the man’s spiritual health than his physical well-being. The man now knows who Jesus is and goes off to the people who had challenged him for carrying his mat on the sabbath and tells them Jesus’ name. Consequently, the Jewish leaders start persecuting Jesus because he is doing such things on the Sabbath. Jesus’ answer is straight-forward: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” That enrages the leaders even more, for now he is not only breaking the sabbath, but blaspheming, calling God his own Father, and, thereby, making himself equal to God.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Isaiah 46:1-13; Psalm 117; Ephesians 6:10-24; Mark 5:1-20
The Lord returns to the theme of ridiculing those who trust in idols, this time those of the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo. Whether this is a reference to the Babylonians taking their statues out of the temples to hide them before the coming devastation of Cyrus II’s invasion or simply the cultic practice of parading them through the streets of the city in a religious festival is unclear. The point is this: they cannot save and they, too, will go into captivity. The Israelites are again reminded that God has been carrying them from birth and will continue to do so through their old age. The Lord made them, will bear, carry and save them. Now God asks, “To whom will you liken me and make me equal?” He is not like the gold and silver they take to the smiths to fashion into idols that they then lift to their shoulders and carry about. Remember, consider, and call to mind the former things. Again God’s sovereignty is confessed in the recurring monotheistic refrain: “I am God, and there is no other.” There is no one like the Lord who declares the end from the beginning and from ancient times, things not yet done, promising, “My purpose shall stand; I will fulfill my intension.” God is calling a bird of prey from the East—Cyrus II. God has spoken; it will come to pass. A final exhortation is leveled at the “stubborn of heart,” not only among the exiles in Babylon, but those who have remained in Jerusalem and from all over: God is bringing deliverance—it is not far off. God’s salvation will not tarry. God will put salvation in Zion, for Israel is God’s glory.
Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the collection of 150, is a call to worship addressed to everyone, followed by a brief hymn of praise. It easily comports with the theology of Second Isaiah: the Lord is God, there is no other. But more, the Lord is steadfast love and faithfulness, and endures forever. Hallelujah!
Ephesians comes to an end with one final exhortation: be strong in the Lord and the strength of his power. The struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of darkness, the spiritual forces of evil exercising their power in the world. Consequently, they are to take up the whole armor of God so that they may withstand “on that evil day”—a reference to the final apocalyptic battle between good and evil; God and the power of darkness. Though the image is a military one, it is clear, the warfare is spiritual, for so is the armor of God. Wrap yourself in a belt of truth. Let righteousness be your breastplate. Put on shoes that will equip you to run and proclaim the gospel of peace. Let faith be your shield and keep your head ever secure in the knowledge of your own salvation. Your only weapon is the sword of the Spirit—God’s word. It alone will defend and protect you. Therefore, pray in the Spirit at all times. This is a constant refrain in Paul’s letters (Rom 1:9-10; Col 1:3; 4:12; Phil 1:4; 4:6; 1 Thess 5:17). “In the Spirit,” is simply the recognition that all of our communication with God is via God’s Spirit, regardless of its form or shape, and is the conduit through which we receive God’s power. It is to be offered not only for themselves but “for all the saints,” a reminder that life in Christ is communal and cannot be lived on one’s own. “Pray also for me.” The focus now turns to the author. The prayers of the saints have sustained Paul in the past, even affecting his release from prison. Now, he does not expect release. Rather, the request is that he be given a message “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” for which he is in chains. Pray that he can declare it boldly, for he must speak. The letter closes with personal remarks about his own well-being. He is sending Tychius to them, a “brother and faithful minister of the Lord,” and probably the bearer of the letter. He will let them know, first-hand, how they are doing and seek to encourage them. The final blessing differs a bit from what we normally hear from Paul—“grace to you and peace from God the Father…,”—and is here reversed so that “peace” is invoked on the community first, then love with faith, and finally grace for all who have “an undying [incorruptible] love for our Lord Jesus Christ.” Though different than the conclusions of the letters Paul writes to communities he knew well, this may be a reflection of the fact that the letter was originally a circular letter to the churches in Asia Minor that Paul did not know. One wonders, if someone was writing pseudonymously in Paul’s name, why more care was not taken to make it consistent with what we know are his authentic letters? But the themes are still the same, and given how the letter has ended on the theme of spiritual warfare, it makes sense to begin as this does—Peace! “Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is then invoked on all who have an undying, imperishable, incorruptible love for “our Lord Jesus Christ”—for all who have read this letter from its inception until now.
The storm quelled, the disciples and Jesus reach their destination, the Gentile country of Gerasenes, and are immediately met by a demon-possessed man who is living among the tombs. The unclean spirits within him are such that he has super strength and, in spite of numerous attempts to constrain him with chains, he has always broken free. He has spent his days and nights howling and bruising himself among the tombs. Upon seeing Jesus, he runs to him, bows to the ground and shouts at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” This last phrase is the demon’s attempt to invoke spiritual help to keep Jesus from casting him out, for we are told that Jesus has already told the unclean spirit to leave the man. Jesus asks the spirit its name, and it replies “Legion, for we are many.” He begs Jesus not to send them out of the country—the territory where they have some authority and power. In Jesus’ day, spiritual beings were believed to be connected to particular places and lost their power when displaced. A herd of swine are feeding on the hillside near them, and so he begs, “Send us into the swine.” Jesus gives them permission to do so. Notice the absolute authority he is exercising over this legion of demons. They do and, thereupon, about two thousand swine rush down the steep bank, fall into the sea and drown. They have returned to what was believed to be one of sources and homes of evil and chaos—the sea. As the wind and the sea had obeyed him, so too, now, the legion of demons have obeyed. Those who had been tending the swine rush into the city and wider countryside to tell people what has happened. When they come out to see Jesus, they find the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they are filled with fear and begin to beg Jesus to leave them. As Jesus and the disciples get back into their boats, the man who had been possessed begs to come with them. Jesus refuses—one of the few instances in the gospel where he turns someone away who wants to follow. Why? For one thing, the man was probably a Gentile. What would a Gentile be doing in Jesus’ entourage? But, there is more to this than, at first, meets the eye. Jesus tells the man to go home to his friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for him, and what mercy has been shown to him. The man goes away and begins to proclaim throughout the ten Greek cities of the Transjordan known as the Decapolis, not what God has done for him, but how much Jesus has done for him! What appears at first to be Jesus’ rejection of the man and his request turns out to be a means of spreading Jesus’ fame and message among the Gentiles.
Friday, January 23, 2015
Isaiah 45:18-25; Psalm 86; Ephesians 6:1-9; Mark 4:35-41
The Lord continues to assert both divine sovereignty and sole authority, both as creator of all and savior of all. God did not create the world in chaos and did not and does not intend to be sought in chaos. God did not speak in secret, saying to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in darkness.” “Rather,” says the Lord, “I speak the truth, I declare what is right.” The people are summoned—whether the survivors of Israel or the survivors of all the nations is not clear—but no matter. None of those carrying idols have any knowledge. They carry them and pray to them, but the idols cannot save. Again, the people are called to court to present their case. Who told all of this to them long ago? Was it not the Lord himself who did so? There is no other god beside the Lord who is a righteous God and Savior, and there is no righteousness or strength except in the Lord. After another reminder that there is no one beside the Lord, the people are called to turn and be saved. The invitation is not simply to exiled Israel, but to all the nations. After all, the Lord is their sovereign and savior as well. God has sworn by himself—made an oath that only God can insure—and has spoken words from which righteousness will endlessly go forth: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue swear,” the language used in the Christ hymn of Philippians (2:6-11). It shall then be said that only in the Lord is there righteousness and strength. Those who have been set against him shall come to him and be ashamed of their former resistance. The passage ends with the affirmation that, in the midst of all this, the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.
Psalm 86 is an individual’s plea for God’s help that is classic in its structure and content. It begins calling on God to listen, knowing that it is God’s disposition to hear and to answer. The psalmist is “poor and needy,” for whatever reason, as yet, we do not know. The plea to preserve his life is coupled with a reminder of his devotion to God, followed by the same plea in a different form: save your servant who trusts in you. The plea continues, always issued out of a confession of God’s character: gracious, good, forgiving and abounding in steadfast love for all who call upon him—as the psalmist is now calling. After the initial plea, the psalmist sings a hymn of praise that echoes the themes we also hear in Second Isaiah. The Lord alone is God; there is no other like him. He has made everything, including the nations, and all are his. They shall all come and bow before the Lord and give glory to God’s name. Now there comes another petition, this less focused on a pressing danger and more a general plea for the gift of faithfulness: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart…,” a marvelous phrase expressing the desire to have the capacity to live in total orientation to God and God’s ways. Confessing again the greatness of the Lord, as well as God’s steadfast love that he has already delivered him from the depths of Sheol, he now comes to the point of present need: a band of insolent ruffians has risen against him and seeks his life, a people who do not serve or observe God’s ways. The Lord’s mercy, grace, resistance to anger and steadfast love and faithfulness are all affirmed as a context for seeking it now as expressed in a classic Hebrew parallelism: “Give strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.” It is a request not only for help, but so that those who hate him, may see it and be put to shame, because they have seen the Lord helping and comforting him. As always, the act of prayer draws the petitioner into a relationship with God that, in and of itself, provides much of what is being sought—an experience of help and comfort.
Having dealt with the implications of our union in Christ for husbands and wives, the author now turns to other members of the household: children and their fathers, servants and their masters. Much misuse has emerged out of this section of Ephesians as has the distortion of the former exhortation for wives to be submissive to their husbands. So, once again, we must remember that all of this is in the context of the household’s prior unity in Christ. Everything said here must be tempered by that. Children are simply reminded of what the sixth of the Ten Commandments says, but with a slight twist: they are to obey their parents “in the Lord!” This last phase is missing in some manuscripts. Is it a later qualifying condition, so that if the father is not Christian it does not apply? Or is it a reminder that they are in the Lord and, thereby, have the capacity for obedience that was appropriate to the well-regulated household of the day? Whatever, it points out that this is the first commandment of the ten that has a promise attached to it. Conversely, fathers are warned against behavior that would provoke their children to anger. Rather, they are to nurture and rear them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. That leads us to the portion of Ephesians that was so badly abused in American culture to justify the institution of chattel slavery. First, what is translated “slaves” and “masters” can equally be translated “servants” and “lords.” More, the slavery of the first century was not the chattel slavery of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Servants were members of the household. They are instructed to be obedient to their earthly lords with fear, trembling and singleness of heart as acts of obedience to Christ. They are to do so, not because they are being watched, but because they are first and foremost faithful slaves of Christ. Therefore, they are to render their service not only with enthusiasm, but as to Christ himself rather than to their earthly masters. Masters, on the other hand, are to treat their servants, first and foremost, as servants of Christ who belong less to them than to Christ. They are to give up threats and other abusive or coercive behavior that “lords it over them,” remembering that, at the end of the day, they both have one and the same Master in heaven. That Master does not show partiality to anyone but expects the same quality of faithfulness and integrity from each and everyone in the household. Regardless of their standing within their society, from God’s perspective, they are all one in Christ, and that is the perspective that most matters.
Mark wants us to know that what follows is not a disassociated excerpt, but still a part of the whole context of what Jesus has been up to that day, which began with him teaching the crowd by the sea from a boat pushed off shore. The line from there, through the parable of the sower, to his comments about teaching in parables, as well as revealing to the disciples in secret what they mean, and the importance of listening to him all stand in background and help interpret what follows. “On that day when evening had come,” Jesus wants to cross over the sea to the other side in order to leave the crowds behind. The disciples take him with them in the boat and begin the crossing. A great windstorm arises to the point that the boat is about to be swamped, but Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the stern. The disciples awaken him and call on him for help. Does he not care that they are about to go down? Jesus rises and rebukes the wind and the sea, demanding their silence. “Peace, be still!” is prosaic, but what Jesus literally says is “Silence! Put a muzzle on it!” The wind and sea respond as obediently as the demonic spirits have responded. He then turns to them and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The answer is: no, of course not—not that kind of faith! They still do not understand who he is. But seeing this, they are filled with a combination of fear and awe and begin to ask themselves, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They are not yet the soil in which the seeds of the kingdom can take deep root. Some rocks need discarding and some thorns uprooted within them, which will happen as, indeed, it does happen as we follow him.
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.