Friday, March 27, 2015
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-13; Psalm 105; Romans 11:13-24; John 11:1-27
Jeremiah’s role as a prophet is not limited to the people of Jerusalem. In the period between 597 and 587 BCE, he writes to the leadership of Jerusalem that has been sent into exile in Babylon and speaks God’s word to them. God has sent them there. They are to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce, take wives, have children and give their children in marriage. They are to settle there and not only multiply, but seek the welfare of Babylon, for, in doing so, they will be fostering their own welfare. They are not to listen to the words of the official prophets and diviners among them. God has not sent those false prophets. This exile is God’s doing and it will be for a long time—for many, longer than their lives. Not unlike the wilderness wandering that claimed the faithless generation that came out of Egypt, so this exile will claim the lives of most of those whose apostasy and faithlessness brought it on, especially the prophets, priests and other leaders of the nation. But when that period is over—again, represented by the symbolic number of seventy years—God will bring them back. And when God does, it will be for their welfare and not their harm. God has plans for them that is a future of hope. When they call, God will answer. When they seek God, he will reveal himself to them. God will restore their fortunes and gather them from all of the places God has driven them. For now, settle in and seek the welfare of the city.
Psalm 105 is a psalm of praise that calls everyone to make known God’s deeds among the people. The reading is divided with the first six verses dominated by the language of praise—“Give thanks,” “call,” “sing,” “glory” and “rejoice.” Sing praise to him and speak of all of his wonders. Seek the Lord and his strength continually. It then recounts the reasons for this praise: God’s faithfulness to Israel, beginning with God’s initial covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the children of Israel—a covenant made forever—making them God’s “chosen ones” with the promise of the Land of Canaan as their inheritance. It then remembers their past: few in number and of little account and nomads in the land, often oppressed by the kings of other nations, and how God reproved their kings for his people’s sake. They are, after all, the Lord’s anointed ones—prophets who speak for the Lord. The famine that ultimately sent the children of Israel to Egypt is recalled. But for now, the focus is upon Joseph being sold into slavery, then imprisoned until the time that the Lord’s word was to come to pass. (As the author of Hebrews reminds us, it can be a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Lord, as Joseph well learned! [Hebrews 10:31]. How much have we attempted to domesticate the Lord for our own purposes?) But the Lord was faithful and the Pharaoh set Joseph free and made him lord of Pharaoh’s house and ruler over all of his possession, giving Joseph power to “imprison [Pharaoh’s] princes at will in order to teach the Egyptian elders wisdom.” There then follows a litany praising God for all that God has done among the children of Israel beginning with Abraham, through Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s chief officer and lord of his household. That portion of the psalm remembers that, because of Joseph’s success (and the famine), Israel came to Egypt and lived there as aliens. It was there that the Lord made the people very fruitful and strong—so much so that the Egyptians came to hate them. Then, God sent them Moses and Aaron and the plagues in Egypt to free the people. Remembering the ultimate woe—the striking down of all first born—God brought Israel out of Egypt with its silver and gold, so glad were the Egyptians to be rid of them, for dread of the Jews had spread across Egypt. God spread the covering of fire by night and cloud by day to lead them. When asked, God fed them with quail and gave them bread from heaven, opened the rock to produce water in the wilderness, and did so because God remembered the covenant he had made with Abraham. The psalm concludes, remembering that God has brought the people out with joy and into the lands of the nations in Canaan. God gave them these lands and the wealth of all of their inhabitants, so that they might be a people who keep his statutes and observe his laws. The psalm ends with one final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
Having addressed the Jews in the church in Rome, Paul now turns to its Gentile members and reminds them that all of this is the mysterious grace of God working itself out. Consequently, they, of all people, have no reason to boast. (Can you imagine the jockeying for positions of spiritual superiority in that church based on ethnic background? The Gentile members were, after all, Romans!) Continuing with the theme of making the Jews jealous, Paul talks about how he glorifies his ministry among the Gentiles for just that purpose, in the hope that some Jews will be saved. For, if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ, their acceptance will certainly mean their redemption (life from the dead). There is a holy remnant leavening the whole batch. He then takes up the image of the olive tree to summarize his argument thus far. God has broken off many of the natural branches from the tree of Christ to be able to graft into it the wild branches of the Gentiles. Do not boast about this, but in faith, stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, what is to keep God from sparing them—the wild branches? Rather, note both the kindness and severity of God; remember, even those broken off, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted back into the natural olive tree—Christ himself.
Jesus has been talking about giving eternal life to those who believe in him. Today’s lesson begins the story of the raising from the dead his dear friend Lazarus and unites his previous teachings and statements in the temple to what follows. The village of Bethany lies just east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live there. They are Jesus’ dear friends and we are told beforehand that it was Mary who later anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, not the woman who in Luke is the notorious sinner who bathes Jesus’ feet with tears (Luke 7:34-48). Lazarus has fallen ill and the sisters send a message to Jesus in the expectation that he will come and heal their brother. Instead, Jesus intentionally delays. He tells the disciples that this illness is not one that leads to death, but rather exists for God’s glory to be further revealed through him. And so, though Jesus loves all three, he remains behind for two days. Then he says, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples rightly object. After all, the people in Jerusalem are trying to stone Jesus, and they remind him of that. Jesus responds that there is work to do and only twelve hours of daylight in which to do it, and returns to the theme of him being the light of the world; those who walk in him do not stumble like those who are of the night. To further clarify, Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” Misunderstanding Jesus’ words, the disciples reply that if he is asleep he will be alright. Consequently, Jesus has to be more specific with them: “Lazarus is dead.” But, for the disciples’ sake, he is glad that he was not present to heal him, for something significant is about to happen—a revelation that will strengthen their own belief. Thomas simply says, “Let us go with him that we may die with him.” Jesus and the disciples approach Bethany and discover that Lazarus is dead and buried. His body has been in the tomb four days. Consequently, friends and loved ones from Jerusalem have come out to Bethany to sit shiva with the sisters, to console Mary and Martha over their brother’s death. Martha—always the more aggressive and active of the two—hears that Jesus is coming, and quickly gets up to go off to meet him, while Mary stays behind. When Martha gets to Jesus she chides him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then she says something more astonishing, “But even now I know that God will give you what you ask of him.” Has she heard of his raising Jairus’ daughter? We don’t know, for that story is not included in John’s Gospel. However, to her request Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” In spite of her request that he do something, Martha seems to have no frame of reference for what Jesus has just said and thinks that he is talking about the general resurrection that is to take place “on the last day.” Correcting her, Jesus says, “I am (there is the divine name once again) the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha makes her full confession with the formal, “I believe ….” Her words are an echo of the profession of faith made by all who entered the church for which this gospel is written: “I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the One God has sent into the world.”
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Jeremiah 26:1-16; Psalm 126; Romans 11:1-12; John 10:19-42
We enter into the second half of the Book of Jeremiah, often called “the second scroll of the book.” Whereas prophetic oracle in the form of poetry has dominated the first scroll, prose will dominate the second, and events in Jeremiah’s life will be a more dominant part of the narrative. We are given a second version of Jeremiah’s temple sermon (7:1—8:3) which takes place at the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim (608 BCE). The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah telling him to stand in the court of the Lord’s house (temple) and speak to all “the cities of Judah” that come to worship there. He is not to hold back one word, but speak all that the Lord commands in hope that some may listen and turn from their evil ways. If so, the Lord may change his mind about the disaster that he intends to bring on them. The sermon itself is straight forward and is condensed from what is reported in chapters seven and eight, and calls the people to walk in God’s law and heed the words of the prophets that the Lord has sent to them and that they have ignored. Otherwise, the Lord will make the temple like Shiloh—a place in the northern kingdom where the Lord’s name once dwelled, but that has now become desolate with Israel’s fall. Jerusalem will become a curse for all the nations of the earth. The temple priests and prophets and all others who hear Jeremiah speak the word the Lord has given him, take hold of him and threaten him with death for prophesying against the temple and city. When the officials of Judah hear about this, they come from the king’s palace to the temple and take their seats at the entry gate to sit in trial. The priests and prophets lay their case before the officials, demanding a sentence of death. In response, Jeremiah tells the officials and people that, “It is the Lord who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard.” He calls on them to amend their ways and obey the voice of the Lord who, if they do, will change his mind about the pronounced disaster against them. As for him, they may do as seems right to them. Only, they are to know that, if they put him to death, innocent blood will be on their hands and upon the city and its inhabitants, for “in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.” The judgment of the officials and the people is that Jeremiah does not deserve death because he has spoken in the name of the Lord. The trial is over; the officials have intervened against the priests and prophets on Jeremiah’s behalf.
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 us,” 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 it threatened to destroy the seed—will reap with shouts of joy because the crop has been abundant beyond belief.
Has God rejected Israel? Absolutely not! After all, Paul himself is an Israelite; many of the members of the church in Rome are Jews. That alone should make it clear. God has not rejected them, but as God did during the people’s apostasy in the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, God has preserved a remnant, chosen not by their works but by grace. Clearly, the Jews in the church at Rome are hearing these words directed to them—they are part of that remnant. Yet, the law is of no use; they have been chosen by God’s grace. Citing the law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Paul makes the point that Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking because God “hardened them,” giving them, as Isaiah said, a “sluggish spirit.” (Isaiah 29:10) But is this an eternal condition? Absolutely not! The Jews’ “stumbling” and failure to embrace the gospel have been the means of the gospel coming to the Gentiles. Further, its divine design is to make Israel jealous and provoke it to embrace the gospel as well. If their stumbling rejection has resulted in the reconciliation of the Gentile world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean?
The division about Jesus and who he is continues among the Jews who are gathered in the temple, some claiming that he is demon-possessed, while others disagree, saying his words are not the words of a demon. Furthermore, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” This closes the encounters in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. The next section takes place several months later at the festival of the Dedication of the Temple. Jesus is still in Jerusalem and seems to have been there since the fall. As the scene opens, Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon. The people gather around him and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus responds that he has told them but they refuse to believe him. The works he does in his Father’s name testify to him, but still, they do not believe them or him. And why is this so? They do not believe in him because they do not belong to his sheep. His sheep hear his voice and follow him. He knows them and they know him, and they follow and he gives them eternal life. Furthermore, no one will snatch them out of his hand. For what has been given to him has been given by the Father, and no one can snatch that out of the Father’s hand. He and his Father are one in their work. When those gathered about him hear this, they take up stones once again to kill him for his blasphemy. Jesus, rather than run, confronts them further: for which of the works of the Father that he has shown them will they stone him? They respond that it is not for the works but rather, though a human being, he makes himself out to be God. Jesus then appeals to scripture, quoting Psalm 82:6 and saying that if scripture makes the claim that they “are gods and sons of the most high,” how can they take up stones against one that God has sent into the world who claims to be God’s son? Returning to the theme of his work, he tells them to examine them. If he is not doing the works of his Father, then do not believe in him. But, if he is doing the Father’s works, even though they don’t believe him, believe the works in order to understand that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. That enrages them further, and now they try to arrest him. But again, he slips through their hands. It is time to leave Jerusalem, and so he crosses the Jordan to the site where John had been baptizing. Many come out to him saying, John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man is true,” and many believe in Jesus.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Jeremiah 25:30-38; Psalm 51; Romans 10:14-21; John 10:1-18
The Lord’s judgment is poured out on the other nations of the earth. Judah is not alone in experiencing God’s wrath. The nations that refuse to drink from the cup Jeremiah offers them will not escape. They must realize that, if the Lord is bringing disaster upon the city that bears his name, how can they possibly escape God’s coming judgment? They will not go unpunished. Jeremiah is now told to prophesy against all the nations, telling them, “The Lord will roar from on high, and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will roar like a lion, mightily against his fold, and shout, like those who tread grapes against all the inhabitants of the earth.” Disaster is spreading from nation to nation, with the slain lying in the streets, unlamented, ungathered, unburied—like dung. The shepherds—the nations’ rulers—are commanded to wail, cry out, and roll in ashes for the day of their slaughter has come. They shall all fall, with none of them escaping. Like a ravenous lion, the Lord is descending upon them. This section of the Book of Jeremiah comes to a close, showing the foretold end coming to be. In spite of God’s frequent calls for repentance and a return through Jeremiah’s prophecies, and, in spite of his frequent warnings that if the people did not return to the Lord, they would be destroyed, the people have refused to listen or return. Consequently, they have brought this judgment upon themselves. The Lord did not want to bring disaster to them or destroy them, and he takes no delight in divorcing his chosen wife Judah, but the people have consistently rejected him and he must now act—his justice demands it.
Psalm 51 is a confession of sin without peer and is as appropriate today as when it was first uttered. Tradition attributes it to David, upon being challenged by his prophet, Nathan, concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent engineering of the military murder of her husband Uriah. However, it shows marks of having been written later than that, after the return from exile, especially the last two verses. The center of the psalm focuses on the human heart, which to the Hebrew mind is not the center of affections, but the center of one’s will. In pleading for a clean heart, the supplicant expresses the conviction that, without the gift of a new and right spirit, it is not possible to remain in obedience. The human heart is prone to pride and stubbornness. And so, he pleads for God’s holy spirit to sustain him—one of the few places in the Old Testament where the phrase “holy spirit” is used. But, notice, it is not yet personified, but simply an expression of God’s presence. The point is, even right praise is God’s gift to us, motivated by God’s Spirit. We cannot offer it without God’s prompting. Consequently, the psalmist utters the phrase that has become a classic invitation to prayer, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” He then expresses the prophets’ recurring conviction that, rather than sacrifice, what God truly desires in each of us is an obedient heart committed to God and God’s ways. Sacrifices God may or may not accept. After all, God does not need them, and, since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been none. Prayer itself has become the new form of sacrifice. And so, a heart in which stubbornness has been broken, and self-pride crushed, is a heart God will never despise or reject. The prayer ends with a plea for Zion and the rebuilding of its walls following its sack by Babylon in 587 BCE and for the restoration of the sacrificial system.
Paul continues his review of Israel’s rejection. With skillful rhetoric he builds phrase upon phrase, the verb of the previous clause becoming the subject of the next, from call, to believe, to hear, to proclaim, to send, to obey, all to make it clear that the gospel has been proclaimed to Israel. He then cites a series of Old Testament texts to confirm that this has long been foretold (Ps 19:4; Deut 32:21; Isa 65:1): though they have heard yet, they have not believed. God is innocent of any charge in this regard for “All day long [God] has held out [his] hand to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Isaiah 65:2)
Jesus continues to teach in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles, now taking up the image of shepherd from Ezekiel 34, who in Israel’s life had been the king. The king was understood to have been chosen and commissioned by God to care for the people, who were God’s flock. God’s reign was the sheepfold and God himself the gatekeeper. But with the loss of a king in 587 BCE, increasingly God was looked to as the shepherd and keeper of the sheep (Psalm 23). Jesus announces himself as the “Good Shepherd,” as well as the gate to the sheepfold. The sheep know his voice and follow him. All who have come before him as messiahs have been thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. He is the gate: whoever enters by him will be saved, and come in and go out and find pasture. He is a shepherd who not only cares for his sheep, but actually lays his life down for them—unheard of! The hired hands (religious leaders of the day—the Pharisees and chief priests) do not own the sheep, so, when the wolf comes, they leave the sheep behind and run away. Jesus on the other hand, knows his own just as they know him, in precisely the same way that he and the Father know one another. He lays down his life, but does so in order to take it up again. His life is not taken from him—remember, in John, Jesus is in full control from beginning to end—but he lays it down in order to take it up again. All this Jesus has received as a command from his Father.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Jeremiah 25:8-17; Psalm 25; Romans 10:1-13; John 9:18-41
Chapter twenty-five begins with a narrator’s voice setting the context and date: it is the fourth year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah and the first of King Nebuchadrezzar’s in Babylon, 605 BCE, when, again, Jeremiah speaks to the people of Judah. For twenty-three years Jeremiah has been warning the people but they have not listened. Yet, even now, if they will turn from their worship of other gods and their other evil ways, the Lord will not bring destruction upon them. But still, they do not listen. Our lesson today opens with Jeremiah proclaiming that the Lord is going to send for the tribes of the north and his servant Nebuchadrezzar and bring them against the people of Judah and the nations around Judah. Notice first that Nebuchadrezzar is not doing this on his own initiative, but is actually serving the Lord, who is sovereign over all. In addition, it is not really Nebuchadrezzar who will destroy them, but the Lord himself through Nebuchadrezzar. The Lord will make them an object of horror and hissing, and an everlasting disgrace. The traditional symbols of rich, full life will be banished from the land: the voice of the bridegroom and his bride, the sound of the millstone faithfully grinding grain into flour, and lamps alight at night. Rather, the whole land will become a ruin and a waste, and they shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years for their iniquity. Thereafter, God will bring upon Babylon a similar waste and divine punishment to repay them for their deeds. For now, the Lord has given Jeremiah a cup of wine that is God’s wrath. Jeremiah is to make the nations drink from it, beginning with Judah. As they drink, they shall stagger and go out of their minds, not because of the strength of the wine but because of the intensity of God’s anger. And so, Jeremiah reports that he has taken the cup from the Lord’s hand and has made all the nations to whom the Lord has sent him drink from it. One historical note: the exile did not last seventy years, but rather fifty. Because this text has been edited after the people’s return, the number seventy has a symbolic rather than quantitative significance. Seven is a number that in apocalyptic literature represents completion or fullness and here has been multiplied by the number ten, a means to extending the fullness in time. The exile will be a long time as the fullness of God’s purpose in it must work itself out. Therefore, the exiles are to know this and not abandon hope.
Psalm 25 is a prayer in which the psalmist pleads for God’s protection, guidance, mercy, instruction, pardon and grace. A wisdom psalm, it is acrostic in structure—the first word of each line beginning with a descending letter of the Hebrew alphabet—and repeats the convictions that those who wait upon the Lord and who walk in God’s ways (Torah), will never be put to shame, while the wantonly treacherous will end in disgrace and defeat. Seeking for the wisdom ever to know God’s ways, the psalmist asks to be led in God’s truth and taught God’s ways. He pleads for God’s mercy and steadfast love and asks that the sins of his youth be forgotten. He blesses the Lord as good and upright, who instructs sinners and leads the humble in the paths of steadfast love and faithfulness. In the midst of many foes, he asks that they not prevail or put him to shame, for he has taken refuge in the Lord. May that integrity and uprightness be a source of strength and preservation as he waits on God. Finally, the scope of this petition is expanded beyond personal concerns to pray that God will redeem all Israel out of its troubles.
Paul’s heart’s desire is for his people to turn and be saved. He recognizes their unenlightened zeal for God that, in its ignorance, has placed confidence in keeping the law rather than embracing God’s righteousness, Christ. It is, in fact, his story before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ is the end of the law—the fulfillment and completion of law and the one who brings its custodial role to an end. Paul then quotes two texts from the law to make his point. The first, Leviticus 18:5, places responsibility for life on the right behavior of people. The second, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, says that what is impossible for us to do, obtain Christ by ascending to heaven or descending to the abyss, is, in fact, as near as the word on our lips and in our hearts, the word of faith that Paul is proclaiming. To confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord (the earliest confession of faith in the church and certainly pre-Paul) and to believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead is, in fact, the means of life and righteousness that saves. Then, quoting Isaiah’s words about the Lord laying a foundation stone in Zion, who when believed in saves (Isa. 28:16), Paul declares this gift open to all—Jew or Greek (Gentile)—the Lord is Lord of all and generous to all who call on him. The final verse is from Joel 2:32, affirming that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord—here a reference to Jesus—shall be saved.
The man born blind who Jesus has just healed is now being cross-examined by the Jewish officials. Unhappy with his answer that Jesus is a prophet, and still not convinced that the man had been blind since birth, they turn to his parents to question them. Notice how their question is highly skeptical: “who you say was born blind.” The parents answer carefully: “He is our son; he was born blind, but we don’t know who opened his eyes. He is of age, ask him.” Hear behind this the parent’s fear of being implicated and themselves judged for being involved with Jesus and, therefore, being put out of the synagogue. It is an echo of precisely what was happening to Jews embracing Jesus at the time this gospel was written. And so, the officials go to the healed man a second time, and the dialogue becomes almost comical as they ask him to give glory to God and at the same time proclaim Jesus a sinner. The healed man takes the upper hand in the conversation saying, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner, but this I know: though I was blind, now I see!” Hear in this not only physical vision, but spiritual vision as well; sight the religious officials lack. They ask, “What did he do to you?” Now irritated with their obstinacy, the man sarcastically says, “I’ve already told you, but you will not listen. Why do you want to hear again; do you also want to become his disciples?” Notice the suggestion that in what has happened the man has already become Jesus’ follower; certainly the Jewish officials think so. And so, they respond in anger, condemning him as Jesus’ disciple, while they take refuge in being Moses’ disciples. God has, after all, spoken to Moses, but as for “this man, we do not know where he comes from.” Remember the former argument about from where the Messiah is to come? Now the healed man is filled with courage, and, unlike his frightened parents, challenges the authorities with the absurdity of their position. “Here is an astonishing thing: you don’t know where he comes from but he opened my eyes.” He goes on to make the point that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to all who worship him and obey his will. Further, never, since the world began, has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of someone born blind. If “this man were not from God he could do nothing.” Stung by his rebuke, the leaders resort to the fact that he is a sinner, he was born in sin, for he was born blind. At that, they drive him out because of his confession of belief in Jesus. Again, hear “out” as “out of the synagogue.” The scene ends with Jesus seeking out the man he has healed and completely revealing himself to him as the “Son of Man.” When Jesus does, the man worships him, and notice that Jesus does not reject the worship, but accepts it. The incident ends with Jesus’ comment that he came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. The Pharisees overhear and say, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” Their question reveals not only their blindness, but the judgment against them because of it—their sin remains. Imagine the comfort this story brought to those Jews who had been put out of the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus.
Monday, March 23, 2015
Jeremiah 24:1-10; Psalm 121; Romans 9:19-33; John 9:1-17
After King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken Judah’s King Jehoiakim and other Jerusalem leaders into exile in 597 BCE, God gives Jeremiah a vision of two baskets of figs in the temple—one filled with ripe, edible figs, the other filled with rotten ones. Then, the Lord tells him the good basket of figs is the exiles who have been taken away to Babylon. The Lord will set his eye upon them for good, bring them back to Jerusalem and build them up. He will plant them firmly in the land once again and give them a heart to know him, reaffirming the covenant relationship. As for the basket of bad figs, these are those who have been left behind in Judah, including King Zedekiah, and those who have fled to Egypt. These, the Lord will make a horror, an evil thing to all the kingdoms of the earth—a disgrace, a byword of shame, and a taunt in all of the places that the Lord will drive them. They shall die by sword, famine and pestilence until they are utterly destroyed from the land God gave to their ancestors.
Psalm 121, written to be sung to the Song of Ascents, was sung by pilgrims making their way to the Temple to worship. Lifting their eyes to the hills (remember Jerusalem is the highest mountain in that portion of the land), they reaffirm that help comes only from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He shall assure their security, keep them established and ensure that their feet to do not slip from the path. For the Lord never slumbers or sleeps, but is ever watchful. A shade on their right hand, the sun shall not smite them by day nor the moon by night. The Lord shall keep them and guard their coming and going, both now and forever.
Continuing his reflections on the state of his people, the Jews, Paul asked if God is being unfair to them for their unbelief, and the resultant alienation from God that it has brought, since God seems to have destined it to be so. Paul quickly reminds us that this is God we are talking about, the One who is not accountable to our own systems of justice, but is Justice Himself. Putting things in context, he asks, “Does not the potter have the right to determine what to do with his own clay, to make of one clump of it a vessel for special use and another for common use, one for preservation and one for destruction?” What if God has done this in order to reveal his glory and mercy to those he has called from both the Jews and the Gentiles? And, after all, just how long has God endured those vessels of wrath—both Jews and Gentiles—destined for destruction? This thought about Israel is not new. It is as old at the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, who Paul now quotes. And, had not God preserved a remnant among the people, would any have been left? Rather, they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah. And so, the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness through works of the law, have come to righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, while Israel pursued righteousness through the law but did not fulfill it. Rather, they stumbled over the rock that the Lord has placed in Zion. On the other hand, those who believe in that rock shall not stumble or be put to shame.
The blindness of the Jewish leaders is extended into the next incident, which is told in all four gospels, as Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind, and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” It was assumed in those days that such maladies were the result of sin. Jesus refutes that notion and says, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; rather, he was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him.” Jesus then comments about his need to be about the work of the One who sent him. While it is day, he must work. Soon, night will be upon them when no one can work. But for now, it is day; for as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world. Notice all of the images about sight and light, each a metaphor for the presence of God in him. Jesus then spits on the ground, gathers up the moist mixture of soil and spittle, kneads it into clay and places it on the blind man’s eyes. He then sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash. The man does and comes back seeing, thus becoming an immediate sensation among his neighbors, some thinking he has been miraculously healed, others thinking he is not really the man born blind but someone who simply looks like him. In the midst of the hubbub, the man keeps saying, “I am the man!” Finally, they respond, “But how were your eyes opened?” He tells them what Jesus did and how he received his sight. They ask where Jesus is, and the man replies, “I don’t know.” He has never seen him! So they take the man to the Pharisees, and now we learn that it was on the sabbath that Jesus healed him. The Pharisees begin their inquisition, wanting to know how he received his sight. The man tells them, and, speaking of blindness, the Pharisees fixate on the fact that it was on the sabbath when Jesus did this, rather than on what has happened and that the man once blind can now see. Because it was a violation of the sabbath, they insist that Jesus cannot be from God. Others in the crowd ask, “But how could a sinner perform such a sign?” And so, again, we have a controversy over who Jesus is. Turning to the man born blind, they ask him what he thinks and has to say about it. The man replies, “He is a prophet.” The story is not yet over—the man can see, but those around him are becoming increasingly blind.
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.