Saturday, December 13, 2014
Isaiah 8:1-15; Psalm 43; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18; Luke 22:31-38
Jerusalem is still under the Syro-Ephraim threat, and King Ahaz is still dithering and contemplating an alliance with Assyria. God tells Isaiah to write the name “Maher-shalal-hashbar”—“The spoil speeds, the prey hastens”—on a writing tablet for all to see and have it notarized by the priest. He does, and then goes to his wife, “the prophetess”, and together they have a son they so name. The point: before the child is old enough to utter “momma” or “daddy” the wealth of the two opposing nations—Samaria (capital of Ephraim) and Damascus (capital of Aram) will have been swallowed up by Assyria. There is no need to enter into league with Assyria. However, because the people have not listened and because they have ignored the security God provides (they rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and melted in fear before the northern alliance of Rezin and the son of Remaliah), the Lord will unleash the flood waters of the Euphrates. The king of Assyria and all his power will overflow and flood the land of Judah, right up to the neck of Jerusalem. But, the prophet reminds them they are Immanuel—God is with them. He calls on them to band together, gird themselves and not be dismayed; they are to remember that God is with them. Finally, Isaiah warns against the rumor-mongering in the halls of power that sees conspiracy everywhere. Rather, fear the Lord of hosts and regard him as holy; let him be their dread. The Lord will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against. Both houses of Israel will stumble over him—north and south—even those leaders in Jerusalem. While many stumble, the Lord will remain Jerusalem’s sanctuary.
Psalm 43 is a wonderful little psalm that is a petition for God’s help in times of trouble, asking for God’s vindication against the ungodly ones who have behaved in deceitful and unjust ways against her. Affirming her trust in God, she asks why this has happened: “Why have you cast me off?” Then she prays, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me!” Isn’t that what we most need when besieged by deceit and injustice? Once led through the treachery of injustice, let God’s light and truth bring her to God’s holy hill in Jerusalem and to God’s dwelling there, the temple. There she will worship God with exceeding joy and praise him with the harp. After reaffirming her commitments to God, the psalmist turns reflective and asks herself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Her counsel is that universal word that continues to resound throughout scripture: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Yes, this is a difficult time, but God is present within it as her help and will be triumphant. There will come a time beyond this when she will again be filled with joy and praise.
Some in the Thessalonica church have decided that since the Lord is returning soon, it is useless to work. They have fallen into not only idleness, but have become busybodies as well—idleness’ companion! With strong words, the church is told to imitate the practice of Paul, Timothy and Silvanus, all of whom worked to earn their own bread as they labored among the Thessalonians night and day, doing so that they would not become a burden to any of them. Certainly, they had a right to expect support and payment, but they wanted to establish an example for the rest of the community to imitate, lest some begin to try to take advantage of the community’s generosity, as it appears, some are now doing. The church is commanded—strong words!—to stay away from those believers who do not work and to practice the rule that “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Rather, they are to exhort such people, in the Lord Jesus Christ, to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. All of them are never to grow weary in doing what is right. As for those who do not obey, take note of them and shun them so that they may become ashamed and repent. But do so, not as enemies, but as believers in need of correction. Herein is the root of discipline within the church: it is always restorative in its intent. The letter ends with another blessing, asking for the Lord’s peace among them, and then it includes a final closing signature, claiming to be marked by Paul’s own hand. Evidently, at the time this was written, there were questions about it being truly Paul’s letter. However, the practice of the one dictating the letter finally signing the manuscript personally was common in the Hellenistic world. The signature is followed with one final blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
Jesus continues to try to prepare his inner circle for what is to come. Until now, the crowds have welcomed them. Their only resistance has been from the religious establishment. But, all of that is about to change. He turns to and addresses Peter as their leader, but, in what he says, he is speaking to and about each of them. This is about more than public resistance. Satan has demanded, as he demanded of God with regard to Job (Job 1 &2), that they be sifted as wheat. That said, Jesus has prayed for them and they will prevail, though for a while, they will stumble and run. Peter objects and vows, not only to go to prison with Jesus, but to die with him. Jesus meets Peter’s enthusiastic love with a dose of reality and, painfully, tells him that before this night is over Peter will have denied him three times. Now turning to the group, Jesus reminds them of how he initially sent them out without purse, bag or sandal and they lacked nothing. But now things have changed. His former missionary instructions require modification, because of the hostility that they will meet. They now must have purse, bag, sword and cloak, and if not, buy them, because the lawlessness portrayed in scripture against him and because of him, will soon be turned against them. It is about to unfold and be fulfilled. The instructions concerning the sword to respond to hostility are confusing, because of what Jesus has said in the sermon on the plain (6:20-38) and what he will soon say about it during his arrest (22:49-51). Is he telling them to take up the sword in self-defense (highly unlikely, as he has counseled against other forms of preparation for self-defense elsewhere), or, is he using the issue of “sword bearing” as a metaphor to prepare them for the violence that will come upon them? The disciples seem equally as confused and quickly produce two swords from among them—not a great deal for those who would rely on them. Jesus seems to respond to their taking him literally with exasperation of his own: “Enough of this!” The Passover meal is over.
Friday, December 12, 2014
Isaiah 7:10-25; Psalm 31; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5; Luke 22:14-30
Ahaz is resistant to Isaiah’s prophetic message—what king wouldn’t be? So, Isaiah is dispatched again, this time to tell Ahaz to ask for a sign to ensure that Isaiah’s word to him is truly God’s word. The king, whether truly pious and unwilling to test God, or, more likely still, irritated by Isaiah and wanting to side-step him says, “Far be it from me to put the Lord to the test.” All that does is anger Isaiah even more who addresses the king as “house of David,” and asks, “It is too little for you to weary mortals [Isaiah!], that you weary my God also?” This is not simply Isaiah’s word, but God’s! Therefore, the Lord himself will give the king a sign: a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall call him Immanuel—“God is with us.” And by the time that child is old enough to express his desires, refuse evil and choose the good, the land of the two kings Ahaz dreads will be deserted, and the child will know the luxury of eating curds and honey. But if Ahaz refuses to listen, then the Lord will permit Egypt and Assyria to form an alliance against Judah. The king of Assyria will come with a razor and shave the hair of the heads and feet (euphemism for genitalia) as well as the beards of the people, subjecting them to ultimate subservience and humility. God will whistle for the fly in Egypt and the bee in Assyria and they shall settle in the land. The devastation will be such that all farming and herding will be destroyed and a family will be sustained simply by owning one cow and two sheep and living off the abundance of the milk they alone give. (The Hebrew word translated “young woman” means just that. It was the Septuagint that translated “young woman,” using a Greek word meaning “virgin,” that led to the notion that Isaiah was predicting Jesus’ virgin birth. Actually, Isaiah is referring either to his own wife and child or the king’s wife and the birth of their child Hezekiah.) The point here is that God is with them; trust God and reject the alliances.
Psalm 31 is both petition and praise, and though identified as a “Psalm of David,” is a composite, echoing phrases from other well-known psalms (Psalm 4:1; 18:19; 27:14; 33:18, 22; 38:15; 69:3; 71:1-3; 115:17; 118:5). It begins with a confession of faith: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me be put to shame;” virtually identical with 71:1-3. God is to respond, not because of the psalmist’s virtue, but for God’s own name’s sake—to preserve God’s reputation! Verse 4 begins to list the reasons for praise and trust: you are my rock, fortress, guide, and redeemer. It then moves to an expression of trust, confessing that God has placed him “in a broad place.” (See Psalm 18:19 and 118:5.) It is followed by a plea for deliverance, followed by an exhortation to wait for the Lord, (See psalms 27:14.) Verse 5 appears on the lips of Jesus as he is dying in Luke 23:46. Images and phrases from other psalter sources abound: “Let your face shine upon me.” “Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord.” “Blessed be the Lord who has shown his steadfast love to me.” It ends with wisdom’s counsel: “The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.” It then adds the injunction so dominant in the psalms: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”
Leaving apocalyptic imagery behind, the letter turns to reminding the Thessalonians that they are, “beloved by the Lord because God chose [them] as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” It is a bit of a theological mouthful, which means that God is at work in them making the Thessalonians holy by God’s Spirit as they continue to believe the truth of the gospel. God called them through Paul’s proclamation of the good news—some sources say “our gospel”—so that they may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Notice a subtle change taking place here. The promise is no longer simply eternal life, but rather transformation into the fullness of Jesus himself in all of his eternal glory. They are therefore to “stand firm and hold fast.” But where one would expect Paul to say “to Christ,” or “to your faith in Christ,” they are instructed to hold fast to the traditions that they were taught. This is what gives some scholars the conviction that 2 Thessalonians is probably written much later than Paul, when apostolic teaching and preaching had become “tradition”—that which was handed on to them. The author then falls into a prayer of blessing invoking God’s eternal comfort and hope upon their hearts to strengthen them in every good work and word. This is followed by a request for the Thessalonians to pray for them that their work that the “word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among [them.]” Pray that they [those behind the writing of this letter, be it Paul, Timothy and Silas, or second or third generation associates] be rescued from the forces named in the earlier apocalyptic section, for not all have faith. This latter phrase should be a correction for those who look upon the infant church as some pristine time of faith—it was no more pristine than today. After an affirmation that the Lord is faithful and will strengthen and guard the Thessalonians from the evil one, and a word of confidence in the Thessalonians’ faithfulness, the section offers yet another brief blessing, praying that the Lord direct their hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.
The upper room having been prepared, Jesus takes his place at table among his “apostles”—note the distinction; this is the inner circle of the twelve rather than the larger group of disciples who have been following him. Jesus tells them how eagerly he has desired to eat this Passover with them before he suffers. There is much he needs to tell them before this meal is over. This is not merely a Passover meal; this is a covenant meal initiating the coming of the kingdom. He takes one of the two cups of wine at the beginning of the meal, offers thanks, and gives it to them to divide it among themselves, telling them he will not drink of the fruit of the vine again until the kingdom of God comes—it is imminent! He then takes a loaf of bread, gives thanks, breaks it, gives it to them and says, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Though the meal unfolds, and Jesus continues his teaching, Luke takes time, almost as an afterthought, to tell us that at the end of the meal, Jesus also took one of these two cups of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The institution of the covenant meal recorded, the action quickly returns to the table conversation. There is one at the table among them who will betray Jesus. But all is happening to the Son of Man as it has been determined. Nevertheless, woe to him by whom he is betrayed! Startled, they ask which of them it might be. At this point Luke inserts Jesus’- words on servanthood. The argument that breaks out on the road in Mark (9:33-37; see also Luke 9:46 and Matthew 18:1) over who is the greatest, is placed here in the context of the Upper Room during the Lord’s Supper. The word is the same: they are to reign, not as the Gentiles do, lording it over their people, but as servants, the greatest becoming like the youngest, the leader as one who serves, for there is one at table who is greater than all of them, and they are called to serve him. Yet, even he is among them as one who serves. His life is to be the model for their own lives of service. And now there comes another blessing: they have stood with him in his trials; so now he confers upon them what has been conferred upon him—a kingdom. They will eat and drink at his table in his kingdom, and sit on thrones reigning over the twelve tribes of Israel. They are part of his reign and have been given central leadership within it; let it be like his own. Let those who have such leadership in the church do likewise.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Isaiah 7:1-9; Psalm 37:1-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; Luke 22:1-13
Shortly after becoming king of Judah, Ahaz is confronted by Pekah, King of Israel, and Rezin, King of Damascus to form a three-part alliance against Assyria. When Ahaz does not initially agree, the two kings from the north march on Jerusalem to take it by force. Word of that sends terror through Jerusalem, and the people “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” The Lord sends Isaiah to meet Ahaz, telling Isaiah to take with him his son, who Isaiah has given the symbolic name Shearjashub—“a remnant shall return”—and confront the king in public. Tell him, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands,” because they will not prevail against you. They have come to take your throne, but it will not be. Within sixty-five years Ephraim (Israel), the northern kingdom, will no longer stand. Rather than rely on a military alliance, rely on God. “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” And thus begins Isaiah’s meddling in Judah’s politics. Whether the symbol of Shearjashub means “only a remnant of Israel will remain,” or “a remnant of Judah and your kingdom will always remain,” is not clear; it could mean either. What is clear is God’s word through Isaiah to Ahaz: trust God here or fall. “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all." It is a word not only for kings, presidents and prime ministers, but for us all.
Psalm 37:1-18 is an instruction acrostic from the wisdom tradition that counsels, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.” With this and other such injunctions the psalm encourages patient trust in the Lord in the face of the prosperity of the wicked. It is from the Yahwist tradition, with the name “Lord” used for God again and again, constantly exhorting: “Trust in the Lord.” Its purpose is to instruct and encourage people in the face of watching the wicked prosper. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” “Be still before the Lord, and patiently wait for him;” Abandon anger, wrath and fretting, for they only lead to doing evil. Remember, “The evildoers will be cut off while the Lord knows the days of the blameless, whose heritage will abide forever. In a little while, you will look for the wicked but find that “they are no more.” “The enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish like smoke.” The Lord laughs at them, knowing their day of judgment is coming. Their drawn swords and bent bows will be turned upon themselves and become their undoing, as evil always ends up being turned on itself. “Those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,” “Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way.” “The Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.” “The Lord will not abandon [the righteous] to the powers of the [wicked].” Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land and rescue you from the wicked.” Better the little the righteous have than the abundance of the wicked, for the Lord knows the day of the blameless; their heritage will abide forever.
It appears that someone has come among the Thessalonians announcing that “the Day of the Lord” has already occurred. The letter turns to its central subject and falls into apocalyptic language and imagery from verse 3 through 10 to make its point. Central to apocalyptic language—as bizarre as it can be—is the message that God is firmly in control of history and nothing happens that God does not ordain. The time before the day of the Lord will be a time of rebellion, lawlessness and evil, which mysteriously will find itself ultimately serving God’s purposes. Typical of apocalyptic imagery, it is difficult to assign historical personages to images with certainty unless you are in the midst of the calamity. “The Lawless One with power, signs and evil deeds, who sets himself up as a god, is obviously an instrument of Satan (but not Satan himself). Some think this a reference to Caligula, who attempted to set up a statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem. Who is doing the “restraining,” is not clear; some think it the emperor, some the entire Roman state, some think it Paul preaching the gospel. Whatever, when the “lawless one” is finally unleashed, the Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of his mouth (similar to the sword coming out of his mouth in the book of Revelation (19:15, 21). Those who succumb to Satan’s work do so because they refuse to love the truth and to be saved. This too is a power delusion, sent from God. Those who do not believe the truth will be condemned. In other words, no matter how bad it may seem, God is still in control—trust God.
As Passover draws near, the chief priests and the scribes realize that they must find a way to kill Jesus. Their fear of the people has to do with the fact that at Passover huge numbers of pilgrims thronged to the city that could quickly be stirred to Messianic, revolutionary fever. Jesus clearly had the capacity to do that and must be stopped. Luke now reintroduces Jesus’ real opponent, not the religious authorities, but Satan himself, who enters Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, who goes away to confer with the religious authorities about how to betray Jesus to them. (Scholars disagree over whether this is true betrayal simply for money, or an attempt by Judas to force Jesus’ hand to come forth as Messiah and reign; either way, Judas is under the sway of Satan who is fond of demonic plots, and often uses what seems good as a means for evil—such is his genius.) The religious authorities gladly agree to give Judas money for the deed, and so Judas consents and begins to look for a time when no crowd is present. The story now turns to preparation for Jesus and his inner circle to celebrate the Passover. Jesus sends Peter and John to do so, telling them to look for a place where they see a man carrying a jar of water. Jesus tells them to follow him to his house and ask for the guest room. (Note that in that culture, carrying water was a woman’s task. The only place men carried water was in monastic communities, leading some to believe that this man comes from the community of the Essenes and that it was within the guestroom of that community that the commemoration of Passover and the institution of the Lord’s Supper took place.) Peter and John do as Jesus says, find the man and follow him, ask for the room in “the teacher’s name,” and are shown a large room upstairs, already furnished. And so it is here that they prepare for the Passover meal.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 38; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12; John 7:53-8:11
After five chapters of oracles, Isaiah describes for us his prophetic call. It was in the year that King Uzziah died (742 BCE). He was in the temple worshipping and saw the Lord sitting on his throne “high and lifted up,” with the hem of his robe filling the temple. Above God’s throne are the heavenly creatures calls seraphim, with three pairs of wings, one set coving the seraph’s face, one covering its feet (euphemism for reproductive organs), and one set of wings keeping it aloft. God’s holiness is such that it cannot be looked upon nor exposed to the essentials of creatureliness—sight and reproduction. The seraphs cry to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are filled with his glory.” (Yes, this is where the “Sanctus” in the communion liturgy comes from as the appropriate response when in God’s holy presence.) At the sound of their voices, the door posts in the temple shake and the house is filled with smoke. Isaiah is overwhelmed by what he is witnessing and cries out, “Woe is me, for I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” At that, one of the seraphs flies to Isaiah, having taken a burning coal from the brazier for incense with a set of tongs, and, in an act of purification, he touches the coal to Isaiah’s mouth saying, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away and your sin is purged.” Thus prepared, Isaiah will now be able to speak to, as well as for, God. As this is happening, he hears God’s voice asking, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us.” (“Us” here is not a Trinitarian reference, as it was once thought to be, but simply God speaking to those in the heavenly court.) Isaiah says, “Here am I! Send me.” God says, “Go,” and tell this people to hear but not understand, to see but not perceive. Make their hearts dull, their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see, hear, understand, and return to be healed. Isaiah is being called to a prophetic task which the people are already destined to reject. He is doomed to preaching to people with deaf ears. In fact, his preaching will do precisely that! Voicing his dismay over this, Isaiah responds with the classic, “How long, O Lord?” God answers, “Until the cities are laid waste without inhabitants and the land is utterly desolate.” It is a foretelling of the coming judgment; the Lord is removing them from the land and forsaking them. (This is later understood as the foretelling of Jerusalem being sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians in 587.) Yet, the purpose of the judgment is not punishment alone, but cleansing, and, the judgment is not without a word of hope. A tenth will return, just as the stump of a tree, once it is cut down and burned puts forth shoots again and returns. The last phrase, “The holy seed is its stump,” is thought by scholars to be a later addition, following the Babylonian exile that confesses that there is within the exiles a remnant who will return.
Psalm 38 is the third of seven penitential psalms (6; 32; 51; 102; 130 & 143) and is a challenge to modern sensibilities, because of the way it makes a direct connection between sin and sickness and understands the latter as God’s wrath unleashed against humankind. It was, of course, common in Old Testament times to attribute everything to God and that nothing took place outside of the scope of God’s permission. There was no concept of a power of evil at work in the world, demons or devils, a much later solution to the problem of evil. Rather, there was divine purpose in suffering and affliction and it ranged from punishment to instruction, to purification. All of this we see reflected in the counsel of Job’s friends, while Job remains resolute in affirming his innocence and rejecting their counsel. This psalm is the prayer Job’s friends are urging on him. A closer analysis reveals that it has been carefully composed (twenty-two lines, the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet), rather than an impromptu expression of personal failure. It was written to be used by those who were sick and seeking recovery and is a prayer of confession from one who knows that his “foot has slipped.” As a result, the psalmist is bearing the pain of divine wrath: God’s arrows have sunk deep within him; God’s hand is heavy upon him—he is physically ill as well as sick at heart. Repentant through and through, the prayer does not deny culpability; all of this is because of his own foolishness. He describes the effect of his illness and the bodily suffering he endures. But, beyond his physical pain and isolation is the alienation that he feels, not only from loved ones and friends (it may well be a skin disease that has caused him to be quarantined), but more, the isolation his sin has caused with God. And so, the psalm is addressed to God who knows his longing and asks more for the removal of the isolation than other physical interventions. Though, to make matters worse, his enemies are using this to seek his ruin as they continue to mediate on their treachery. Yet, he will remain deaf and blind to that; it is God he seeks, it is the Lord who is his only hope in this and he knows it. And so, he confesses his iniquity, sin, and sorrow, and his desire for God’s presence. His final plea is for God not to forsake him, but to come quickly as his only source of salvation. Unlike laments that almost always end in a note of triumph that celebrates God’s intervention, this psalm simply leaves the supplicant “waiting,” as Job waits. And, it was in order to refute the theology behind this psalm that the book of Job was written. A final thought concerning his psalm: we must exercise care in using it. This is not a universal statement that all sickness is God’s punishment for specific sin. Rather, when used in the larger context of scripture it can be helpful as a confession of sin or an expression of the general sinful condition in which all of us live. But, it is also there for the full-blown reprobate, now convicted, as a means of re-entering a relationship with God.
Though 2 Thessalonians is attributed to Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, since the late 18th century, when the disciplines of scriptural criticism first emerged, scholars have increasingly concluded that it is a letter written in the style and general outline of 1 Thessalonians by a later disciple of Paul, wanting to update the apostle’s teaching on the return of Christ. Such a practice was not uncommon in the Hellenistic world and was generally thought to be a way of honoring one’s mentor. First generation Christians had expected Christ back within their lifetime. This is clearly written to a later generation of Christians. In addition, the letter lacks the expressions of affection and dynamism of Paul’s authentic letters. Though it opens with an almost identical salutation as 1 Thessalonians and it proceeds to give thanks to God for them and their faith, notice how the tone is different and quickly turns to the Lord’s righteous judgment, intended to make them worthy. However, God will repay those who afflict them through fiery vengeance when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven. This introduces extra-Pauline themes of eternal destruction and separation from the presence of the Lord for those who have not obeyed his gospel. The day of the Lord’s coming is less a day of transformation of heaven and earth than a day of salvation for those who believe, but a day of destruction for those who have not. The author is using Paul’s understanding of Christ’s Lordship, not as one who transforms all things, but rather, who comes to avenge those who have persecuted his people. Clearly, this is written to a church that is suffering for its faith. The lesson ends with word of the authors’ constant prayers that God make them worthy of his calling, and introduces the theme of “the name of our Lord Jesus” being glorified. In other words, Jesus’ presence is to be evident and manifest in the lives of those who claim him as Lord, especially in their suffering and hardship, so that Jesus’s name may be glorified in and through them. All of this is “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, the tone and emphasis here does not sound like Paul, but a second or even third generation disciple of Paul.
Why the lectionary makes the abrupt move to John 7:53ff is a mystery; especially since this story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery does not appear in the very earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel and appears to be a later addition. That is why it is placed in double brackets in the NRSV text, as the footnote will attest. However, the theme of Jesus returning to the temple from the Mount of Olives, early in the morning, fits the chronology of what we have been reading in Luke. The story is well known and beloved. Jesus is teaching. The scribes and the Pharisees haul before him a woman who has been caught in adultery, and, again, in an attempt to test Jesus, they quote the Law of Moses which says she should be stoned. They ask Jesus what he has to say about it. Jesus says nothing. Rather he bends to the ground and writes with his finger in the dirt—we know not what; this appears to be a symbol of his disengagement. When the religious leaders continue to demand an answer he stands and responds with his well known, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he bends to the ground and writes as the accusers all fall away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. Standing again, Jesus addresses her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.” Neither will he; rather, he sends her on her way with the injunction to not sin again. Forgiveness is intended to enable us to live into new life. Whether or not it appeared in the earliest manuscripts of John or was a story from a different tradition that was later added by an editor, its message is gospel through and through.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Isaiah 5:18-25; Psalm 36; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28; Luke 21:29-38
Though the Lord looks for and exults in justice, what he finds in Jerusalem is a people persistent in their sin, “dragging iniquity along with cords of falsehood.” They mock God’s work, saying “Let us see it; bring it to fulfillment so we may know it.” Their duplicity extends to all things. Though they think of themselves as wise, they are really self-righteous. Their drunken behavior, their corruption and greed are signs that they are anything but righteous. They acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of their rights. As fire devours stubble, so shall they be devoured. They have rejected the instruction of the Lord and despised the word of the Holy One. Therefore, the anger of the Lord was kindled against this people. (Note the shift in tense; the last line of this woe, in the past tense, is repeated several times in 9:10-10:4 and suggests that this was originally a part of that passage and has been inserted here.) The point is that the Lord will no longer stand for this behavior and is stretching his hand out against the people.
Psalm 36 reflects on the difference between those who take pride in their transgressions and those who trust in the loving kindness of the Lord. It begins addressing the capacity for wickedness deep within the human heart. Is it the psalmist speaking, reflecting on the ways of the wicked, or is the one speaking transgression itself speaking to the wicked, deep in their hearts? Both are possible. Yes, the wicked have no fear of God. There is no end to the way they flatter themselves in their own eyes, thinking that their iniquity is hidden. They have ceased to live wisely and spend their time in plots of mischief and embrace evil rather than reject it. Suddenly, in contrast, as if to keep one from despair, the psalm turns to praise for the Lord’s steadfast love, which extends to the heavens. God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains and judgments like the great deep. The Lord saves humans and animals alike. The psalm lauds the preciousness of God’s steadfast love and confesses that all take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings. It goes on to speak of the abundance and goodness of God’s house, where God gives drink from the river of delights. God is the fountain of life; in his light we see light. The prayer concludes by asking for God’s continued steadfast love to those who know him. As for the arrogant with whom this psalm began, do not let their foot tread on him or the hand of the wicked drive him away. Rather, let the Lord continue his salvation. As for evildoers, let them lay prostrate, thrust down, unable to rise.
Before concluding this, his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul issues a series of exhortations concerning conduct within the community of faith. They are to respect “those who labor among them,” as their spiritual leaders, evidence to the beginning of a group within the church that will later become pastors and bishops of the congregations. They are to admonish one another, not as acts of criticism, but as the means of building up and encouraging one another into more faithful living. Yet, they are to have patience with the weak in faith among them and those who are fainthearted in the midst of troubles. They are not to return evil with evil, but always seek to do good, not simply with one another, but to all. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” These words are appropriate for every congregation in any time or circumstance. The words of the prophets they are being warned against despising are the words of the preachers among them (the word “prophecy” in the NT refers to the gift of preaching), nor are they to quench the Spirit. Rather, they are to test everything, holding fast to what is good, abstaining from every form of evil. Paul then offers a prayer that has become a standard blessing within the Christian household, reminding us that the “one who calls [us] is faithful, and he will do this.” Thereafter, there is a request for prayer, some final personal greetings with the injunction to greet one another with “the holy kiss” (the precursor of “the peace” in Christian liturgy), and Paul’s final benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree as a means of reminding his listeners that they do have the ability to discern the signs of the times. When they see the things taking place that Jesus has warned them about, they will know that the kingdom of God is near. And then he says to them, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” It is Jesus’ way of saying that all of this is taking place around them—they are in the midst of it. But, the final day of its coming is not the concern here, as scholars regularly insist there is nothing here about temporal time tables. “This evil generation,” is a reference to every generation that continues to resist Jesus’ words. In addition, much of what is described here has already taken place. Rather, these words are less warning than pastoral care: they are not to get weighed down with the worries of this life or spend their days in dissipation and drunkenness. Rather, they must remain alert at all times, praying for strength to endure when these things take place and they too find themselves standing before the Son of Man. With these words, Luke brings to a close Jesus’ teaching in the temple, adding that Jesus did this daily, spending his evenings on the Mount of Olives. And each day, the crowds got up early to be able to listen to him teach in the temple.
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.