The Day of Pentecost: Isaiah 11:1-9; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 2:1-13; John 14:21-29
Isaiah of Jerusalem prophesies the coming of a new king within the line of David upon whom the spirit of the Lord shall rest. The gifts of that spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. It is this last gift that is the most important: the new king’s delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. The oracle continues to describe the benefits of the spirit in the new king’s reign: he will judge—especially the poor—with righteousness, and insist on equity for the meek, abandoning the power politics, patronage and favor for the wealthy that so often characterized monarchies. The wicked shall perish and righteousness and faithfulness shall be the characteristics of his reign. As a result, the nation will turn into the peaceable kingdom; ancient enemies living together in peace and all sorts of danger put at bay. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (Jerusalem); for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This oracle has been viewed as messianic, when, in fact, it is really about what happens when the spirit of the Lord rests on leadership, something important for us to remember on this Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit to the church.
This psalm, a creation hymn, is one of the “load stones” of the psalter and speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God creates each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds nes, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is, fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order parceled out by God’s wisdom that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last to be written and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those that appear in the book of Job.
Paul’s theology of the Spirit of God emerges in today’s lesson to remind us that it is the power of God at work in the world. The Spirit is God’s wisdom, and the means by which God searches all things. Responding to the critics at Corinth who thought Paul not philosophically eloquent enough, he reminds them that he decided to know nothing among them save Jesus Christ, and him crucified—something that to the Corinthians seemed foolish. Yes, he came to them in weakness and in fear (the sarcasm behind Paul’s playing to his critics here is amusing, given what we know of Paul in other places), and without “plausible words of wisdom,” but with a demonstration of the Spirit of Power, so that their faith might not rest on human words, but upon the power of God. Paul continues to defend himself and the gospel he has preached among them, reminding them that among the mature—those who have come to perfection, and a not so subtle reminder that the Corinthians have not!—he does speak of wisdom, though not a wisdom of this age or belonging to the rulers of this age (Greek philosophers) who are doomed to perish. This is God’s wisdom that none can understand unless God gives it to them. Why else would the rulers of this world have crucified the Lord of glory? No one who was truly wise, or knew the ways of God, would have done such a thing. The human heart is not capable of conceiving the things of God. Only God’s Spirit, who searches everything, even the very depths of God’s own self, knows all things. It is this knowledge, rather than that of the world, that Paul and his companions have received, so that they might understand the gifts that God has given them. And so, Paul speaks by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. One other thing on this Day of Pentecost: for Paul, it is having received the Spirit of God that marks the difference between being children of God and children of this age (Romans 8:14-17).
Our text from John follows on Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples, his reminding them that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that to see him is to see the Father. He has promised that he will not leave them orphaned, but in going, will send the Counselor (“Advocate” in the NRSV). Now he reminds them that in keeping his commandments, they reveal their love for him, and likewise, he and the Father will love them. Judas (not Iscariot), asks him how it is he is going to reveal himself to them, but not to the whole world. Jesus responds that he and the Father will come to those who love him and keep his commandments, and the Father and the Son will make their home in them. This will not be the case for those who do not love him or keep his word. This, by the way, is not from Jesus, but directly from the Father. All of this he has told them while still with them, but the Holy Spirit, who is Advocate, Counselor, Helper, Comforter and Guide (the Greek word paraclete used here can mean all five), whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name, will teach them everything and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them. Jesus then speaks about the peace he leaves with them—not as the world gives, but the peace of God that surpasses understanding. Rather than be troubled or afraid at his departure, they are to rejoice, for he is going to the Father. On Pentecost, among the many things in this passage to remember, we need to be reminded that one of the tasks of the Holy Spirit is to lead and keep us in the truth, and that one of the ways the Spirit does this is to constantly remind us of what Jesus has said. In the controversies that have swirled in the church from the beginning, and will continue to disrupt the church until Jesus’ return, it is the Spirit who is to be sought and relied upon to keep us in the truth by reminding us of what Jesus has said.
Saturday: Ezekiel 43:1-12; Psalm 92; Hebrews 9:1-14; Luke 11:14-23
Beginning in chapter 40, the Lord gives Ezekiel a vision of a restored temple, with emphasis upon God’s residence in its central chamber, but also the numerous provisions to assure that the people’s sin not be able to reach the Lord there. Once the Lord sets Ezekiel “on a very high mountain,” with what appears a city to the south of it, a man appears, whose appearance is like bronze, and he has a measuring rod in his hand. He will be Ezekiel’s guide in the vision of the restored temple. In elaborate detail the vision is sketched out on this mountain (not necessarily Jerusalem), all of which is to be holy. Having toured the temple in the vision, the guide brings Ezekiel to the east gate of the temple. As Ezekiel looks east he sees the glory of the Lord approaching from the east, accompanied by the sound of many waters with the whole earth radiating God’s glory. As in the former visions of God’s presence, Ezekiel falls on his face. The glory of the Lord enters the temple and the spirit stands Ezekiel on his feet, and God’s glory fills the temple. With the man still standing beside him, Ezekiel hears the voice of the Lord speak to Ezekiel announcing that this is to be the place of God’s throne; God’s feet shall reside among the people of Israel forever. They shall never again defile God’s name, neither they nor their kings by whoring after other gods, as they did in former times when, though placed next to the Holy of Holies, they continued to defile his name with their abominations. They are to put all of that away, and the Lord will reside among them forever. God addresses Ezekiel and tells him to describe the temple to the house of Israel and let them measure out its footprint. As they do, let them be ashamed of their iniquities. Once they are sufficiently ashamed, Ezekiel is to make known to them the plan of the temple, its arrangements, its exits and entrances and its whole form, including its ordinances and laws. This is to be written down in their sight so that they may observe and follow its entire plan and all its ordinances. And this is the law: the whole territory of the top of the mountain is to be most holy, not just the sanctuary. A new level of holiness is being demanded of the people.
This psalm of thanksgiving is identified in its header as a song for the sabbath and is perfectly suited for remembering and praising the Lord in sabbath rest, when the worshipper is to reflect on God’s goodness. The hours of prayer are cited, as well as the music to accompany such prayer in the temple. The Lord has made the psalmist glad by God’s work. At the sight of it, the psalmist sings for joy. He then turns to reflect upon what God has done. The dullard cannot know and the stupid cannot understand the ways of God. Though the wicked sprout like grass, they are doomed for destruction forever, for the Lord will destroy his enemies. In addition, the Lord has exalted the psalmist’s strength (horn), like that of a wild ox, and poured fresh oil upon him in blessing. His eyes have seen the downfall of his personal enemies and his ears have heard of the doom of his assailants. The psalm ends in typical wisdom tradition with the affirmation that the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar of Lebanon planted in courts of the house of the Lord. In old age, they continue to be fruitful, full of strength and sexual potency—showing that the Lord is upright and a rock to those who fear him. “There is no unrighteousness in him.”
Hebrews continues to draw a distinction between the covenant provisions for worship made by God with Moses at Mt. Sinai, and with the new that has come in Jesus Christ. Detailing the structure and content of the tabernacle, with its outer and inner sanctums, the latter the dwelling place of God that contained the arch of the covenant and its contents of manna, Aaron’s rod and the tablets of the covenant, the author describes the priestly actions as they go about the business of ritual duties. But only the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies, and that but once a year, carrying the blood he has offered for his own sin and for the unintentional sins of the people (note: there was no sacrifice in the system for the forgiveness of intentional sin). All of this was a symbol of what continues to the time this letter is written, as gifts and sacrifices are offered daily that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper. Rather, the system only deals with outward things like ablutions, food and drink regulations and other bodily regulations imposed until “the time comes to set things right.” That time has come in Christ, who through a greater and perfect tent (one not made with human hands, that is, not of this created order), entered once for all into God’s Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and bulls or the sprinkling of ashes of a sacrificed heifer, but with Christ’s own blood. And if those former things sanctified and purified, how much more then, does the blood of Christ who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worshipping the living God?
Jesus has just cast out another demon, this one from a man that was mute. With the demon gone, the man begins to speak and the crowd is, typically in Luke, “amazed.” But some in the crowd doubt Jesus intentions and authority and accuse him of casting out the demons by the power of Beelzebul (the Lord of the Flies—a name for Satan). Other want more than exorcisms; they want signs from heaven. Jesus, knowing exactly what they are thinking, tells a brief parable about a kingdom divided against itself; how can it stand? If Satan is divided against himself, he is doomed, for they accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Satan’s power. Jesus then adds yet another twist: if he is casting out demons by Satan’s power, by whose power are their own exorcists casting out demons—Jesus was not the only healer in the land? Those exorcists will be their judges. But, if by the finger of God Jesus casts out demons, then know that the Kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his house, it and its contents are safe. But when someone stronger attacks him, over powers him, and takes away his armor and divides his plunder, then that man is doomed. Satan is doomed; but more: whoever is not with Jesus is against him, and whoever does not gather with him scatters—the very opposite of what Jesus has said about those who would follow him in Luke 9:50.
Friday: 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 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. “Therefor, 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.”
The psalm celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and is a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, and will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.
Hebrews 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 and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” The tent is a reference to the tabernacle that Moses was instructed 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, he has obtained “a more excellent ministry” and thereby 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! Second, that the old 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.
Thursday: 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.”
The psalm 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.
Wednesday: 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 officials of the people who have been leading them into iniquity with their wicked counsel. 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 again give to 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 leave him, and Ezekiel tells 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.
This psalm of praise 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.
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.
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.