Thursday, April 16, 2015
Daniel 2:31-49; Psalm 147:12-20; 1 John 2:18-29; Luke 3:1-14
Daniel describes the king’s dream. He saw a great statue of extraordinary brilliance standing before him, frightening in its appearance. The statue’s head was made of gold, its chest and arms were made of silver, its middle and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were partly iron and partly clay. Scholars identify the various metals of declining value as four successive kingdoms of declining power that dominated the Middle East from the Exile until the time of this book’s writing: Babylonia (Nebuchadnezzar), Media (Darius the Mede), Persia (Cyrus), and Greece (is it Alexander the Great, one of the kings of the Hellenistic wars, or, Antiochus?). Notice that Rome is not yet on the scene. A stone is cut out by divine hands and cast at the feet of the statue, shattering not only its feet, but causing the entire system of monarchs to collapse. The statue not only breaks into pieces, it becomes like chaff, which the wind drives away (Psalm 1:4). Not a trace could be found. But the stone, a Messianic figure described in Psalm 118, becomes a great mountain (Jerusalem) and fills the whole earth. Daniel now turns to interpret the dream. Nebuchadnezzar is the head, the king of kings to whom the God of heaven has given this reign with all its power, might and glory and all of its subjects, even the birds of the air. He is the head of gold. After Nebuchadnezzar there will rise up a kingdom inferior to his, made of silver, and after him, one more inferior still of bronze, but still, it shall rule over the whole earth. Then the fourth will be strong as iron, and, just as iron crushes things, this kingdom will smash everything. But the feet are made of iron and the toes of clay—a divided kingdom that is strong, but also brittle, a kingdom mixed together in marriage. But it will not hold. And just as the God of heaven sets up those kingdoms, each in their own days, they shall all come to an end by the stone cut from the mountain that crushed the statue’s feet, bringing it all down. Then, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor be left to another people. It will crush all the other kingdoms, bring them to an end and it will stand forever. Daniel concludes by telling the king that it is the great God who has informed the king of what shall come hereafter. Nebuchadnezzar falls on his face, worships Daniel and commands that a grain offering and incense be offered to him, for his God is the God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries. Daniel is promoted, given many gifts, and is made ruler over the whole province of Babylon. At Daniel’s request, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are appointed over the affairs of the province, while Daniel remains in the king’s court.
Psalm 147:12-20 calls on all of Jerusalem to praise the Lord, and is especially addressed with the parallel phrase following on: “Praise your God, O Zion!” God strengthens the bars of her gates and blesses the children within her. God grants her peace and fills her with the finest wheat. As God commands, the earth quickly responds, giving snow like wool. Frost is scattered like ashes. When he hurls down hail, who can stand before his cold? All of this is the creative force of God’s word, melting snow, making the wind blow and the waters flow. This word God has declared to Jacob, and his statutes to Israel. God has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know God’s ordinances. The psalm ends as it began, “Praise the Lord!”
As the epistle of 1st John unfolds, it becomes clear that the church from which it is written has experienced some of the same divisions with a disruptive group leaving them. Calling them “children” once again, the author announces that it is the last hour. Antichrists have come and gone, signaling the last hour. They went out from the author’s church as surely as they have gone out of the churches to whom he is writing. That, itself, reveals that they never belonged to them. They are now reminded that they have been anointed by the Holy One in their baptism, signed in holy oil as a sign of the Spirit’s presence in their lives. Each and every one of them has knowledge and knows the truth. (Here is the first signal that the controversy may have been over Gnosticism, a heresy that emerged in the church in the latter part of the first century.) He is writing to them, not because they do not know the truth, but because they do and they know that no lie can come from it. And who is the liar, the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist—those who deny the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father within them, while everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also—again, a hint that what is at issue is Gnosticism that denied Jesus was God incarnate. They are to remember what they heard from the beginning. If it abides in them, then they abide in the Father and the Son and are heirs of the promise of eternal life. He writes to remind them of this, lest they be deceived by the separatists who have left. The anointing that they have received from the One who abides in them is such that they need no one to teach them—simply to remind them to abide—for his anointing is true. Therefore, abide in him so that when he is revealed they all may have confidence and not be put to shame.
John the Baptist appears on the scene as “a prophet of God most High,” just as his father Zechariah had foretold (Luke 1:76). Luke is careful, as always, to place this event in the context of both Roman rule and the religious leadership of Jerusalem, as he continues to relate John and Jesus to one another at the beginning of this gospel. John comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Luke cites Isaiah 40 as warrant for his appearance. John has come to prepare for the restoration of Israel. John confronts those who come out to him for baptism, calling them a “brood of vipers” trying to escape God’s coming wrath. He reminds them of how far they have strayed from being God’s people. It is not enough to claim Abraham as their father. God is able to raise up from stones children to Abraham. The axe is lying at the root of the tree, ready to cut down and burn any who do not produce good fruit. The crowd asks what they should do. Interestingly enough, John does not tell them to be baptized, but to repent: those with two coats must share one with any who has none; so too with their food. To the tax collectors who have come for baptism John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers who have come out, he says, “Do not extort money by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Daniel 2:17-30; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 John 2:12-17; John 17:20-26
Daniel is granted time and goes home to his three companions who are named again, telling them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this great mystery, so that Daniel, his three companions, and all the wise men of Babylon might not perish. That night, the mystery is revealed to Daniel in a night vision, and Daniel blesses the name of God (notice it is not “the Lord” but “The God of heaven”) in a psalm of praise, acknowledging God’s sovereignty over time, season, kings and kingdoms, who gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the understanding. It is the God of his ancestors—not the gods of the Babylonians—who has given all this to Daniel. Now Daniel goes to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy all the wise men, and Daniel tells Arioch not to do so, but rather, “bring me in before the king and I will give the king the interpretation.” Arioch quickly does so, announcing that he has found among the exiles from Judah a man who can tell the king the dream and the interpretation. The king asks Daniel to speak. Daniel responds that no diviner, enchanter or magician can grant what the king is asking, but there is “a God in heaven” who reveals mysteries and has disclosed what is to happen to the king at the end of his days. Daniel then describes the dream: as the king lay in bed, thoughts of what would come hereafter came to him, and the revealer of mysteries disclosed to the king what is soon to be. But all this has not been revealed to Daniel because of any superior wisdom that he might have, making him greater than the other wise men (note the sarcasm on the part of the biblical writer!), but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that he may understand the thoughts of his mind that came through the dream..
Psalm 147 is a Hallel Psalm, beginning, as each of them does, with Hallelujah—“Praise the Lord!” The psalm celebrates God’s graciousness and calls for a fitting song of praise to be sung. The reason for praise is the Lord’s ability and willingness to forgive and restore, to build up and heal. The Lord builds up Jerusalem, gathers the outcasts of Israel, heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. The one who made the stars lifts up the down-trodden and casts the wicked to the ground, and delights, not in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner, but in those who fear him and hope in his steadfast love.
Affirming his care, the author of 1 John again calls the members of the troubled congregations “little children.” He first reminds them that their sins are forgiven on account of Jesus’ name. Now, John addresses, in descending order, members of the community in their various stages of faith maturation, giving a word of affirmation to each according to their situation. Fathers have known “him who is from the beginning,” young people have “conquered the evil one,” children “know the Father,” young people are strong and the word of God abides in them because they have overcome the evil one. They are now warned against “loving the world,” or things of the world—the realm of evil. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world. For all that is “worldly”—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride in riches—comes, not from the Father, but from the world. Because that world and its desire are passing away; those who do the will of God live forever.
Now Jesus’ prayer turns from concern for his immediate followers to all those who will come to believe in him through their witness to him, that they (we!) may be one as he and the Father are one, and that we, together, might be one with the two of them in order that the world may believe that the Father has sent him. Unity in the church is not for the sake of life within the church, but rather an essential for the church’s credible witness in the world. Not only does Jesus ask for unity in the coming church but also that his glory be given to it, again, for the sake of their unity with him and his Father. These believers who have yet to come have also been given to him by the Father, as surely as his initial followers were given to him, and so he asks that these too may be with him where he is, to see the glory that is and was his from the foundation of the world. Jesus concludes the prayer, summarizing what he has said earlier about his work in the world, making the Father’s name known, and asks that the love with which the Father has loved the Son may be in them so that he may be in them.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Daniel 2:1-16; Psalm 146; 1 John 2:1-11; John 17:12-19
Who are the true diviners in Babylon; the Chaldean magicians, enchanters and sorcerers, or Daniel? That question lies at the base of a story about King Nebuchadnezzar having a most troubling dream, one that so terrified him that he could no longer sleep. He calls all of his diviners to come and interpret the dream. They approach the king and address him in Aramaic (from here to the end of chapter 7 the book is written in Aramaic), saying, “O King, live forever!”—and then they ask about the dream. King Nebuchadnezzar wants to be sure that they are telling him the full truth, and so he demands that they not only tell him the dream’s meaning but also the dream itself. Then, to raise the ante, Nebuchadnezzar makes a public pronouncement: if they can do this, he will bestow riches and great honor upon them. But, if they cannot, he will have them torn “limb from limb and their households also shall be laid in ruins.” The Chaldean diviners object: “No one on earth can do this!” The king accuses them of buying time to save their heads and again demands an answer. The diviners respond that no king, however great or powerful has ever asked such a thing of a magician, sorcerer or enchanter. No one can do this except the gods, and they don’t dwell with mortals. At this, the king flies into a violent rage and demands that all of the wise men of Babylon be destroyed—including Daniel and his companions. Today’s lesson ends with Daniel asking the king’s chief executioner, “Why is the king’s decree so urgent?” When the matter is explained, Daniel steps forward with the request that the king give him time and he will tell the king the interpretation.
Psalm 146 is a Hellel psalm (one in which the opening and closing words are Hallelujah: “Praise the Lord”). It is one of my favorites. After full-throated praise to the Lord and a promise to continue to do so all of his life, the psalmist reminds us of who alone in life is worthy of trust. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Conversely, “Blest are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” There follows a recital of all of the good and marvelous things that come from God’s hand—creation, faithfulness, justice for the oppressed, food to the hungry, liberty to the captive, sight to the blind, exaltation for the lowly, love for the righteous. Notice that these are characteristic that the gospels regularly celebrate in Jesus. The Lord watches over the stranger, upholds the orphan and widow, but brings the way of the wicked to ruin. In this highly politicized country, we need to remember this psalm’s council concerning “princes,” regardless of the political party they represent. The one and only source of true justice in this world is the Lord; all other systems simply fall short, even when we “idolize” them, and, perhaps, precisely because we do!
Notice that what began in first person plural has become the sole voice of the author. “Little children,” is a phrase 1 John will use seven times in this letter, revealing both his affection and his sense of pastoral responsibility for the congregations in their troubles. The theme of walking in the light and remaining in it is demanding in a world where sin is ever-present and takes us captive, unaware. John is writing, not only to keep them from intentional sin, but unintentional as well, so that they may know when they do, that they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Notice that in John’s gospel, the Advocate is the Holy Spirit. Here, that word is applied to Jesus, though not as a title. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours alone, but for the whole world. That said, the way to know him is to obey his commandments. Those who say they know him but do not obey his commandments are liars. In such a one, no truth exists whatsoever. But, for those who do obey, in them the love of God reaches perfection. It is by this that we may be sure that we are in him. If we say, “I abide in him,” then we must walk as he walked. This is not new, but the old commandment, the word from Christ that they have already heard and heard from the beginning of becoming his followers. They are to love one another as he loves them (John 13:34; 15:12, 17). John will now elaborate, in light of what has been said about walking in the light, to the point that it is a new commandment. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.” The commandment here is directed to those within the community, not beyond it, and whoever hates another believer is in the dark, walks in the dark, and has been blinded by it.
As Jesus is no longer in the world, but coming to the Father, he asks that his disciples be protected in his name, so that they may be one as Jesus and the Father are one. While with them, not one of them has been lost, save the one who was destined to be lost. Now that Jesus is coming to the Father, he speaks these things openly so that their joy may be complete. He has given them the Father’s word and the world has hated them for it, just as it has hated Jesus for it. Jesus does not ask that the disciples be taken out of the world, but rather, he asks that the Father protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. Therefore, “Sanctify them in the truth”—God’s word is truth. As the Father has sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends his followers into the world. Both have been sanctified (set apart) to do God’s work. Jesus sanctifies himself (sets himself apart) so that they too may be set apart (sanctified) in God’s truth.
Monday, April 13, 2015
Daniel 1:1-21; Psalm 145; 1 John 1:1-10; John 17:1-11
We begin today with reading the book Daniel, whose name means “God is my refuge”, or “God is my judge.” This is really two books in one: the first half, a series of stories about a legendary hero named Daniel, who remains righteous in threatening situations and, with God’s help, prevails; the second half is a series of apocalyptic visions by a prophet named Daniel speaking to the foreign imperial threats of that time. Scholars think the first half is a series of independent stories and legends that were later gathered and compiled for the book, the first chapter being written last as the introduction to the whole. Because there are no reliable historical markers, it is very hard to date the first section of the book. Though the sequence of kings from Babylon to Media and Persia is consistent throughout, much of the information within the stories is incorrect, witnessing to the nature of the book as “historical fiction.” Estimates concerning its composition range from the return from exile in 537 BCE all the way through the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, for, though the opening story is written in Hebrew, the rest of the first half is written in Aramaic--a dialect spoken in Babylon that began to be used in Israel as early as its return from exile. That said, most scholars assume a time in the 3rd century BCE, after Alexander the Great had brought Greek power and cultural influence to bear upon Israel. This is especially true of the second half of the book that reflects circumstances under the tyrannical rule of Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” and his persecution of the Jews between 167 BCE and 165 BCE, during the era of the Maccabees. Today’s lesson opens with God allowing Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, to conquer Israel and take some of the temple vessels back to the land of Shinar (Babylon) and place them in his treasury. Thereafter, the king commands that some of the Israelite royal family and nobility—young men without blemish or physical defect, men who are handsome, versed in wisdom, and endowed with knowledge and insight—be brought to Babylon, to serve in the king’s palace. The king assigns these young men to a three-year training program to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans, giving them daily royal rations of food and wine. Among the young men brought to Babylon are the four heroes of the book, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, each of whom are given new names. Daniel is named Belteshazzer, Hananiah is named Shadrach, Mishael is named Meshach, and Azariah is named Abednego. Though the men accept the names, they reject the non-kosher food and ask to be allowed to eat only vegetables. The palace master fears what will happen should the king learn of this, for clearly they will not be as strong as the others and this will endanger the master’s head with the king. Daniel then asks the guard, who the master has appointed over the four, to allow them to secretly eat only vegetables and drink water for ten days (how Jews assure their food is kosher in non-kosher settings). Thereafter, the guard can observe the results. He agrees, and, at the end of ten days, the four men appear better and stronger than all the young men eating the royal rations. The guard continues to give them only vegetables, and God gives these four knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom. But to Daniel, God also gives insight into all visions and dreams, a gift highly treasured by the Chaldeans. When the three-year period is complete, all of the men in training are brought before the king and, of course, the four are clearly superior to the rest—ten times better than all of the magicians and enchanters in the whole kingdom!—and they are stationed in the king’s court. Daniel will continue there until the first year of Cyrus the Medes, almost seventy years. The moral of the story is clear: regardless of where you are deported, or under whatever situation you are living, maintain Jewish laws concerning food and you will be blessed with all you need because of your trust in and faithfulness to God.
Psalm 145 is the last of eight alphabetic, acrostic psalms, and a masterful hymn of praise that extols the Lord as God and King, focusing on all that God has done. Its emphasis is individual in nature rather than corporate, remembering less God’s acts of salvation for the nation, than God’s interventions and providence in personal life. The psalmist promises to bless God every day and praise his name forever and ever. The psalm is filled with some of the most memorable phrases of praise in all of scripture. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” One generation after another shall praise God’s name and celebrate his awesome deeds and his abundant goodness. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;” good to all. “His compassion is over all that he has made.” All God’s works give thanks and praise him; all the faithful shall bless him. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and his dominion endures throughout all generations. As the psalm moves to its conclusion, it identifies what it is the Lord uniquely does that makes God faithful in all his works and gracious in all his deeds: God upholds those who are falling, raises up all who are bowed down, gives food in due season, satisfies the desire of every living thing, is just in all his doings, near to all who call on him, fulfills the desires of all who fear him, hears their cries and saves them, watches over all who love him, while “all the wicked he will destroy.” The psalm ends like it began, promising to speak the praise of the Lord and announcing that “all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”
Whether a letter or a sermon, 1 John is addressed to churches living with theological divisions that have caused some to leave. The author writes to assure those who have remained that they are the ones who remain faithful. Whether written by the author of the Gospel of John or another who was a member of John’s community in Ephesus, the similarities in vocabulary and theology emerge immediately. Yet, there are also differences between this and the Gospel. The first four verses of today’s lesson can easily be a synopsis of the essentials or the prologue of John’s gospel. “We declare to you,” witnesses to the fact that this is written from a well-known community of faith, firmly established as true to the authentic traditions of the faith. What they have seen and heard they now declare to the struggling congregations to whom this is written. It is true and can enable the community to have fellowship, with not only the authors, but more, with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. They are writing so that their joy may be complete—a common phrase used by Jesus in John’s gospel—but whether this refers to the authors or the recipients of the letter is unclear due to textual variations. The first major theological theme emerges in the affirmation that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. One cannot claim to have fellowship with God and walk in darkness, as it appears those who had left the congregation were doing, claiming that their new exalted status in Christ enabled them to do whatever they pleased. Only as we walk in the light, as he, himself, is in the light, are we able to have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. From here the text transitions to the second theological issue—that of sin in the lives of the redeemed. Those who have left evidently believed that, because they were Christ’s, they could no longer sin. However, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”—we even make God a liar. But, “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” These are words we often use in Reformed worship to call a congregation to the corporate confession of sin.
Jesus’ conversation with his followers has come to a conclusion, and he now talks directly to his Father with the disciples listening in. The time has come for the Father to glorify the Son, so that he can make visible God’s presence in him and his ability to give eternal life. And what is eternal life? To know the Father and the Son whom the Father has sent. Jesus has glorified the Father by finishing the work the Father sent him to do, now it is time for the Father to glorify Jesus with the glory he initially had in the Father’s presence. Now, the prayer turns to concern for his followers. Jesus has made his Father’s name known to those the Father has given him from the world, and Jesus has given to them all that the Father sent him to give. They believe the Father has sent him to them. And so, Jesus now prays on their behalf, not only because they belong to him, but also because they belong to the Father. This section of the prayer closes with the affirmation of the unity of the Son and Father in all things—a major theme throughout this gospel. All that is Jesus’ is his Father’s, and all that is the Father’s is Jesus’. In all things, Jesus has been glorified.
Readings for the Second Week of Easter
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Isaiah 43:8-13; Psalm 150; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-7
After telling Israel that the Lord will redeem them, Isaiah’s oracle turns against the nations who are blind and deaf and trust in idols. They are called to stand trial and justify themselves. Witnesses are called: “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears.” This is a double reference. First, it points to Israel under the curse God leveled against it in Isaiah of Jerusalem’s call (6:9), “hear, hear, but do not understand; see, see, but do not perceive.” Second, it is the nations that, though not so cursed, still see and do not perceive and hear but do not understand—those who worship idols. Israel is called to witness against the nations and the nations against Israel. What have they seen or heard? As the Lord continues to speak, he asserts his sovereignty not only over Israel and the nations around her, but over the entire cosmos. There is none like him anywhere. “I, I am the Lord, and beside me there is no savior… I am God, and henceforth I am He; there is no one who can deliver from my hand.”
Psalm 150 brings the Psalter to a proper conclusion with a hymn of praise calling upon everything and everyone to shout “Hallelujah”—Praise the Lord! The hymn begins praising God within God’s heavenly sanctuary above the firmament and then moves to the firmament itself. Praise begins simply as the acclaim that befits God as God. Only then does it move to praising God for his mighty deeds and surpassing greatness as the source and sustainer of all that is. Musical instruments and dance are called upon to join and take up their part in worship, as each is reminded that their first and foremost purpose is simply to praise the Lord. Finally, everything that breathes is called to praise the Lord. And then, fitting to the whole collection, there is one last Hallelujah!
The letter of First Peter, one of the most beautiful in the New Testament, provides us with a profound understanding of the church viewed through the lens of a high Christology. After exhorting the readers—remember, this is a circular letter that was intended to be read in worship, not individually—to rid themselves of all malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander—those things that destroy community—the congregation is told to long for the pure spiritual milk. Thereby, they will grow into their salvation, assuming that they have tasted the goodness of the Lord. Then, employing the imagery of Psalm 118:22, they are invited to come to the living cornerstone, Jesus Christ, who, though rejected by mortals, was chosen and precious in God’s sight. They, themselves, are to become living stones, built into a spiritual house where they themselves are priests, after the order of the Levitic priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God. No one who comes to Jesus to be built into his household will be put to shame. To those who believe, he is precious. But for those who do not believe, he will make them stumble and fall, and he will become a rock that falls upon them. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they have been destined to do. Then, the author turns back to those built into this spiritual household telling them they are, in fact, what Israel was called to be in the first place, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Though once they were not a people, now they have received mercy and are God’s people.
Jesus has been trying to prepare his followers for his departure but they continue to misunderstand him. Gathered with them in the Upper Room, he has just foretold his betrayal and Peter’s denial. Now, he turns to comfort them telling them not to be troubled or afraid. As they believe in God, so, too, they are to believe in him. In his Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Were that not so, would he have told them that he is going away to prepare a place for them? Certainly not! And, if he goes—and he will—he will come again and receive them unto himself so that where he is, there, they may be also. Then, he tells them that they know the way to the place he is going. Thomas objects: they don’t know where he is going; how can they know the way? Jesus responds that he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him—he is the door into the heart of the Father. If they know him, then they know the Father, and having seen Jesus, they have seen the Father.
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.