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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Job 6:1, 7:1-21; Psalm 119:1-24; Acts 10:1-16; John 7:1-13

Job turns his words directly on God: why is life such hard service, allotted with months of emptiness and nights of misery? Any who have tossed and turned through the night, hoping that, with the coming of dawn, life will be better, know what Job is going through. But with the dawn, nothing changes; there is not even a respite, let alone any peace. Knowing that life is but a breath and that soon his will be over in death, Job abandons restraint and demands that God respond to the bitterness of his soul. Why is God tormenting him so; why is God paying so much attention to him? Notice the ironic twist on Psalm 8:4, which Job mocks as he asks, “Why me?” What are humans that you pay this much attention to us? “Even when I sleep, you terrify me with dreams. Strangling and death are better than this. Look away, just for a while; give me some relief, let me swallow, take a deep breath and then let me die. Why have I become your target?” And then, as the ultimate concession, though he knows, full well, that he has no sin to confess or iniquity to be removed he asks, “Why don’t you simply forgive my sin, take away my iniquity, and let me die?” Job is innocent; yet he suffers. He simply wants to die.

Psalm 119:1-24 is the beginning of a wisdom psalm, the longest chapter in the Bible, an acrostic, alphabetic in structure, celebrating the goodness of God’s instruction (Torah) and is interesting counterpoint to our lesson today from Job. Blessed are those who walk in the law of the Lord; they are blameless! (The NRSV’s “Happy,” is also a fair translation of the Hebrew, but far weaker, as “blessed’ has the connotation of it being something received rather than created.) And so, the psalmist continues by asking for God’s help in keeping God’s way. For the psalmist’s part, God’s words are treasures that will be committed to memory, so they may be deeply embedded in the heart, quick to come to his lips, always available for meditation, and never to be forgotten. But such discipline was no more easily achieved or sought then than now. Notice how he feels like an alien in his own land, because of his longing for God. He knows that those who are insolent and wander from the commandments receive God’s rebuke. Yet, he lives among them, and prays that their scorn and contempt of him for his zeal in keeping God’s ways will be removed. Even though princes plot against him, he will focus on God’s statutes, for they are both his delight and his counselor. One postscript: we could do worse than spend time memorizing portions of scripture; they might become our counselors. Loss of the pedagogy of memorizing scripture has left us a church that is biblically illiterate. Little wonder then, that our values, even in the church, are shaped by a culture of consuming and competing, where success is valued more than faithfulness.

With Saul in Tarsus, residing with Simon the tanner, the narrative shifts to Caesarea, Herod’s seaport north of what is today Tel Aviv. A Roman officer, Cornelius, commands the Italian Cohort there, and is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household.” In all probability, he was what scholars call a “God fearer”—a Gentile attracted to the monotheism and ethics of Judaism, who practiced as much as possible without full conversion—who gave alms generously and was constantly in prayer. During the afternoon hour of sacrifice, while in prayer, Cornelius has a vision in which an angel comes to him, announcing that his alms and prayers have ascended before God. Therefore, he is to send men to Joppa for a man named Simon Peter, who is still living with Simon the tanner, in his seaside home. Cornelius does and now the scene shifts to Peter, who is on the roof praying. As he does, he becomes hungry. While his meal is being prepared, Peter falls into a trance in which he sees the heavens open and something like a large sheet coming down, which is filled with all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds of the air, while a voice says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter objects: “No Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Torah forbids the eating of ritually unclean animals (Lev. 11:1-47 and Deut. 14:3-20). The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” So challenging is the notion to Peter’s sensibilities, that the event must take place two more times. Then, it is suddenly gone. But it has set the stage for what is about to happen.

Jesus remains in the region of Galilee, teaching, healing and working his signs, staying away from Judea because the Jewish leaders there are on the lookout for him and an opportunity to kill him. As the festival of Booths (Feast of Tabernacles, Lev 23:39-43) approaches, a harvest festival commemorating God’s care for Israel in the wilderness, Jesus’ brothers, still not convinced about him, test him by urging Jesus to join the pilgrim festival in Jerusalem, so that his disciples can see what he is up to, and to make himself more widely known. Hear the sarcasm in their voices saying to him, “…for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret.” Jesus refuses, saying his time has not yet come, but theirs is always here. They are not hated by the world as he is hated, for he continues to testify against it that its works are evil. And so, Jesus sends them to the festival by themselves, himself remaining in Galilee, because his hour for glorification has not yet come. After they leave, he also goes, but in secret, knowing that the Jewish leaders are expecting him to be at the festival and are asking, “Where is he?” There is considerable disagreement about Jesus within the crowd, some complaining that he is deceiving people while others were saying, “He is a good man,” but everyone doing so quietly because of their fear of the Jewish authorities.

Posted August 27, 2014
Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Job 6:1-4, 8-15, 21; Psalms 6; Acts 9:32-43; John 6:60-71

Job responds with a justified rage; Eliphaz has been anything but a comfort, and, in fact, has been totally insensitive to Job’s plight. He then continues to lament his “calamity” and “vexation”—heavier than the sea. He has had enough of life; would that God would simply take it from him and end his suffering. That would be a consolation. He could even exult in the pain, for he has not denied the word of the Holy One. But he has no more strength—his flesh is not bronze or his strength that of stones. In his despair, he should receive kindness from his friends so that he does forsake the fear of the Almighty. But his friends have withheld kindness, and instead, been treacherous and deceitful, like riverbeds in the wilderness—running wild with water of advice in the flash-flood, but dry and waterless places in the heat of his suffering. He has not asked them for anything but an explanation as to why he suffers. But, they look upon a terror and are themselves afraid.

Psalm 6 is a plea for God’s gracious care in what the psalmist believes to be the result of God’s rebuking wrath—a psalm most appropriately paired with our lesson from Job. In the midst of the psalmist’s languishing need, he begs for healing of body and soul, for both shake in terror. “How long, O Lord—how long?” It is the cry of all who suffer unjustly or without reason. In such a state, he begs the Lord to return, to save his life and deliver him for the sake of nothing more than God’s steadfast love. Notice that at no time does the psalmist admit guilt or confess sin, only that he is on the verge of death and that, in death, there is no remembrance or praise of God. It is as though he is saying to God, “Do not let me die, for if I die I will not be able to remember you or praise you.” He has spent too many nights flooding his bed with tears, his days, likewise, drenching his couch and he is wasting away with grief. Now, for the first time, he mentions foes—workers of evil--and demands that they leave him. And suddenly, the psalm turns from grief to strength, from fear and lament to confidence, for the Lord has heard the sound of his weeping. The Lord has heard his supplication and accepted his prayer. All his enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror. In a moment they shall turn back and be put to shame.

The Acts narrative now turns away from Saul, who will be “off stage” in Tarsus for some time, and turns to Peter and to miracles at his hand, the healing of the bedridden man Aeneas in Lydda, with the result that all the residents “turned to the Lord,” and the raising of Dorcas from the dead, again, with many believing in the Lord. The incident ends with Peter staying in Joppa for some time with Simon, a tanner—someone whose profession put him in daily contact with death, and therefore, was considered ritually unclean. But, then, Peter had already defiled himself when he took Dorcas by the hand to raise her from death. The old ways are slipping away as the power of God’s Spirit continues to make itself known and leads them in new directions.

It is not simply the Jews in the synagogue who take issue with what Jesus has said about his body being flesh that must be eaten to have eternal life, even many of his disciples have been offended by it, and so carp, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” Aware of their grumbling, Jesus asks, “Does this offend you? Then, what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” But the words he has spoken to them are spirit and life. Yet, among them are some who do not believe, as surely, in the church for which this was written, there were complaints about calling the bread and the wine his body and blood, and the notion that in eating and drinking they were receiving Christ himself. Is it any wonder that one of the early accusations against Christians was that they were cannibals who ate the flesh and drank the blood of their Lord in worship? But Jesus well knows that there are some among his followers who do not believe in him, as from the beginning he has known who would not believe, and who it was that would betray him. But as he has said from the beginning, no one can come to him unless it is granted by the Father. Consequently, there will always be those who come for the wrong reason and who soon cannot believe or simply find his words too hard, and fall away. And so, we are told that many who had been following him now turned back and no longer went with him. As the crowd thins out, Jesus turns to the initial twelve and asks, “Do you also want to go away?” Peter speaks for at least eleven of them: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter then confesses that Jesus is the Holy One of God (some ancient manuscripts read “The Christ, the Son of the living God.”) Jesus then reminds them that though he has chosen them, yet, even among them is one who is a devil and is going to betray him—Simon Iscariot.

Posted August 26, 2014
Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Job 4:1, 5:1-11, 17-21, 26-27; Psalms 1; Acts 9:19b-31; John 6:52-59

Eliphaz continues with his rhetorical questions, expressing the conviction that it is futile for Job to appeal to heaven to justify his righteousness. The high irony, of course, is that heaven already knows of Job’s righteousness, and it is being proven as he suffers! But Eliphaz is oblivious to all that and simply repeats the wisdom of the day, and with a certain piety that surely was as offensive then as it is now, tells Job to seek and commit his cause to God “who sets on high the lowly” and lifts to safety those who mourn. After a hymn of praise celebrating God’s mysterious goodness, Eliphaz offers what could easily be a wisdom psalm: “Happy are those whom the Lord reproves…, God wounds but God binds up; God strikes but God’s hands heal,” insisting that whatever trouble Job may be receiving at God’s hand at the moment will be not only rectified, but turned to blessing. He is, like the well-meaning person who, when looking on at tragedy can only say, “It is God’s will,” or, “All things work together for good,” and at the end you will be blessed and secure, many times over. Eliphaz’s final words sound more like he is trying to reassure himself than Job, something we must guard against when trying to comfort one who is suffering, whether innocently or otherwise. In this case, it would have been best for Eliphaz to simply sit in silence with Job. Instead, now, Eliphaz has become a part of the problem.

Psalm 1 begins the entire collection of psalms with a celebration of God’s gift of Torah and is a reflection on two ways of life: one centered and nurtured by the “law of the Lord,” the other surrounded by scoffers and sinners, one righteous, the other wicked. The former are like trees planted near streams of water, deeply rooted, richly nurtured, and produce good fruit in its season. The latter are like chaff during threshing; the wind simply drives it away because it has no substance. The wicked will not withstand the judgment or be among the congregation of the righteous, because the Lord watches over the righteous, while the wicked perish.

Saul stays with the disciples in Damascus as he regains his strength, and, in that time, boldly proclaims Jesus as the Son of God. It astonishes all who hear him, for they have known him as a persecutor of the followers of the way. Saul increasingly proves to Jews that Jesus is the Christ, confounding them so much that they plot to do away with him, watching the city gate so that he may not escape their plans to kill him. But Saul learns of their scheme, and so his disciples in Damascus—notice that already Paul has begun to have a spiritual following—let him down through a window in the city wall in a basket, and he escapes the trap, going back to Jerusalem. But once in Jerusalem, none of the disciples there will have anything to do with him. It is only after Barnabas intervenes, taking Saul to the apostles to explain to them what had happened to Saul on the road to Damascus, and how Jesus has spoken to him, and how, thereafter, Saul was boldly proclaiming Jesus, that Saul is welcomed into the fellowship of the Jerusalem church. While there, Saul testifies and argues with “the Hellenists,” (Greek-speaking Jews, or, Greek converts to Judaism), and does so with such conviction that they too try to kill him. When word of this reaches the church, they quickly dispatch Saul to Caesarea, and from there, by sea to his home in Tarsus. Luke concludes this segment by telling us that the church throughout Judea, Samaria and Galilee is at peace, being built up and living in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Spirit, increasing daily in number.

As the Jews dispute among themselves how Jesus can give them his flesh to eat, Jesus’ words now turn fully Eucharistic. He identifies himself as the true bread that has come down from heaven to give eternal life. More, unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood (the language used in the Supper) they will have no life in them. But those who do eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him as he abides in them, and have eternal life. Just as the Father has sent Jesus, and he lives because of the Father, so whoever eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks his blood—the bread and wine of the Supper—will live because of him. The language being used here is intentionally graphic and directly out of the church for which this gospel has been written, where the meal was central to each act of worship and a realized moment of atonement with the risen Christ. Though there is no formal “institution” of the supper in John’s gospel, as there is in the other three, the Eucharistic meal is assumed throughout, and here, in the sixth chapter, Jesus “institutes” the Supper by saying, “I am the bread of life,” this gospel’s version of “This is my body, given for you.” Central to this gospel is the message that if we do not eat his body and drink his blood there will be no life within us, but when we do, he abides with us—dwells within us—and gives us life, life that is eternal. All of this Jesus said openly in the courtyard in his synagogue in Capernaum.

Posted August 25, 2014
Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Job 4:1-6, 12-21; Psalms 111; Revelation 4:1-11; Mark 6:1-6a

After a week of silence, Job’s friend Eliphaz is the first to speak; he can no longer restrain himself and remain quiet. Eliphaz reminds Job of how, over the years, Job has readily admonished and strengthened others who are suffering, strengthening weak knees and helping the tottering to stand. How is it that now that hardship has come to Job, he is impatient? Is not his fear of God, his confidence and the integrity of his ways, his hope? After reflection on his experience of “we reap what we sow,” and God’s judgment “on those who plow iniquity,” Eliphaz moves more deeply into contemplation on a night vision he has had, in which a spirit passed before him that he could not see, but caused him to tremble in dread. It spoke an awful word: Can humankind ever be just before God; can they be pure before their maker? After all, God does not even trust his heavenly servants; even his angels are held accountable for their errors, how much more then, for human beings—those who are dust and dwell in houses of dust? Day by day they perish, unnoticed. Their life is taken from them and they die without wisdom.

Psalm 111 calls on everyone to praise and thank the Lord from the heart—the soul of wisdom—and do so in the midst of the assembly, in the company of the upright. It then turns to reflection on the works of the Lord, majestic and splendid, righteous and enduring forever. Yet the Lord is also gracious and compassionate, giving food to those who fear him, and remembering his covenant forever. He has made all of this known to his people and has given them the heritage of the nations. Truth and justice are the works of his hands, and his precepts are forever sure. Upheld forever, those precepts are the soul of righteousness. Sending redemption to his people, the Lord has ordained his eternal covenant with them—holy and awesome is his name. The psalm, which is, in fact a Wisdom Psalm, crafted in acrostic style (each half verse begins, in descending order, with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with alef and ending with tav, which accounts for some of its unevenness in narrative), ends quoting Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It then adds, “a good understanding have those who do, for the Lord’s praise endures forever.

The lectionary interrupts the continuous reading from Acts to move to the 4th chapter of Revelation to give us a vision of what worship is like in heaven? John, while in the Spirit, is given a vision of that worship and sees God enthroned over the whole creation as Lord and Sovereign of the entire cosmos. The passage is rich with symbolic imagery that is biblical to its core: 24 elders, twelve for the tribes of Israel, 12 for the apostles of the church, dressed in white (symbol more of victory than purity), golden crowns reflecting their exalted status (it was Caesar alone who wore a golden crown in the empire that was persecuting them), the flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, witness to God’s sovereignty over even the elements of nature, and the sea, the ancient symbol of demonic chaos, is now smooth, like glass, before God’s throne. But it is not just the elements of creation that do obeisance; all living things, represented by the four creatures, constantly sing the praise of God that Isaiah overheard in his vision of God (Isaiah 6). It is the trisagion—Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God Almighty (the three names for God in the Old Testament), who was and is and is to come (the full meaning of the word God gave to Moses at the burning bush when asked for his name, Exodus 3:14). As the living creatures offer their worship, so, too, the 24 elders fall down before God, casting their crowns back to the one who has given them, singing the hymn of creation: “Worthy are you Lord, God, to receive glory, honor and praise, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.” This is the text that was the inspiration for the last phrase of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Once again, we are reminded that prophets are not without honor except in their own home towns. Jesus has returned to his home base, Capernaum, and, on the Sabbath, is in its synagogue teaching in the Rabbi’s courtyard. The people are astonished: where did he get this; is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary? Notice that no father is mentioned here as would be normal in that culture. Rather, the phrase used to identify him is denigrating, suggesting that he was illegitimate, as one of the rumors circulated in the first century suggested he was the bastard son of a Roman soldier. Notice also the identification of his four brothers by name, though mention of his sisters leaves them unnamed. Yet, all are well known to the townspeople. But soon, all of them—not just the townspeople, but his brothers and sisters as well—wonder out loud, “Who does he think he is?” and, in spite of the deeds of power they see in him, they take offense at him. Mark tells us that in that setting of unbelief, Jesus could do no deeds of power, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. Jesus left, amazed at their unbelief. His touch is not enough to heal; it must be received and welcomed in faith.

Posted August 24, 2014
Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Job 3:1-26; Psalms 137:1-6(7-9); Acts 9:10-19a; John 6:41-51

In bitter lament, Job curses the day he was born as well as the night he was conceived, invoking harsh consequence on the days, wanting them covered in darkness, abandoned by God and wiped from memory. Better that the day had shut his mother’s womb and he had died at birth. Then, he would have been free from all of this trouble and at rest with kings, counselors and princes as well as all who are weary and in death, know rest. In death there are no distinctions; both great and small are there. So, too, there is no toil; even the slave is free from the command of the master. Why is light permitted to shine on those who suffer, those whose soul is bitter and long for death and rejoice greatly when they find their grave? At the sight of food Job groans; his cries pour out like water. What Job fears is not death, but life, as dread begins to descend upon him. There is no ease, there is no quiet, there is no rest—turmoil comes!

Psalm 137 is an imprecatory psalm of lament that was composed during the Babylonian exile (587-540 BCE) while the Jews remembered Jerusalem. Their captors tormented them by asking them to sing their pilgrimage psalms of ascent as they made their way to the temple, which, of course, no longer existed. It had been totally destroyed in the sack of Jerusalem. And so, the psalmist responds, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” But refusing to sing does not mean forgetting, and so a vow is taken to never forget what has happened. And the memory of Jerusalem’s destruction and the psalmist’s captivity also invokes a curse on those who destroyed the city and put them in bondage, both the Babylonians and Edomites (descendants of Jacob’s disinherited brother, Esau, who helped the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem). Here is where the reading for the day stops, but in doing so, sidesteps the curse invoked in verses 8 and 9. These startling words of imprecation against Babylon invoke destruction, not only upon the city, but also upon the city’s children. Notice how those who designed the lectionary put these final verses in brackets, as if to avoid them. However, it was Dietrich Bonheoffer, who insisted that the psalm be prayed in its fullness. Sitting in his Nazi cell, awaiting execution, he observed that praying this psalm somehow brought him peace, allowing him to hand over to God all desire for vengeance.

While Saul fasts and prays, Jesus appears in a vision to Ananias, a disciple of the Way in Damascus, and tells him to go to the street called “Straight,” to the house of Judas who is hosting a man from Tarsus named Saul. Saul is praying and has had a vision of Ananias coming to lay hands upon him so that he might regain his sight. Ananias objects, having heard about Saul and all the evil he has done to the church, now called “your holy ones (saints) in Jerusalem.” He knows that Paul has authority from the Chief Priest to bind all who invoke Jesus’ name. But Jesus insists, telling Ananias that Saul is Jesus’ chosen vessel (instrument) to bear his name before the Gentiles, kings and the people of Israel. Jesus will, himself, show Saul just how much he must suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name. And so, Ananias goes, lays hands on Saul and says, “Brother Saul (notice, already the relationship has changed), the Lord Jesus (again, notice the title), who appeared to you on your way here has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, Saul’s sight is restored. He rises and is baptized and begins taking food so he can regain his strength.

Jesus’ words about himself as the bread of life that has come down from heaven causes the people to grumble against him, not only because of the audacious claim it makes, but also because Jesus has used the ineffable name of God in doing so. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask. “We know both his father and mother, how can he say he has come down out of heaven?” Jesus overhears and tells them to stop grumbling; no one can come to him unless the Father who sent him—and they know he is not talking about Joseph!—draws them to him. These he himself will raise up on the last day. And now the stakes get higher and his claims about himself more extraordinary still. Quoting the prophets he reminds them that the promised time when they would be taught by God has come to them in him. Everyone who learns from the Father comes to him. Not that they have seen God. No one has seen God except “the One” who is from God—he has seen the Father. Whoever believes (in him) has eternal life for he is the bread of life. Their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness but died, this bread that has come down from heaven has been given so that they may eat of it and never die. And now, lest someone has not yet understood what he is saying, Jesus makes it starkly clear: he is the living bread that has come down from heaven, if anyone eats it, they shall live forever. This bread which he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. We have moved more deeply from Jesus’ description of himself and his mission, to a discourse on the nature of bread which is received in his supper. Jesus’ words will become even more plainly Eucharistic in the remainder of this chapter.

Posted August 23, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

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.

© 2014