Saturday, June 30:
Numbers 20:14-29; Psalm 56; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 21:1-11
Two transitional events take place in this reading: the King of Edom refused Moses and the Israelites passage through his land, forcing them to further wandering, and Aarons’ ministry and life come to an end with the priesthood being transferred to Aaron’s son Eleazar. The reference by Moses to “your brother Israel,” points back to the conflict between Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, Jacob later becoming Israel, and Esau moving to the land of Moab and becoming the father of the Moabites. Hereafter, the ancient hostility will be further reinforced by the King’s refusal. The King’s Highway was a major caravan route running from the Gulf of Aqaba in the south to Syria in the north and passing east of the Jordan.
The psalm is a hymn of praise and trust in God in the midst of persecution, and most helpful when one is being intentionally besieged by others.
Does this free gift of redemption in Christ mean that it makes no difference whether or not we sin, and that if we do sin, we simply cause God’s grace to abound all the more? This is more than a rhetorical question for Paul. It was the criticism that had been leveled against him because of his insistence that the law was no longer applicable to those who are in Christ. His “By no means” means “Absolutely not!” How can we, who have been baptized into Christ, and in that baptism, died to sin, go on living in it? Rather, as Christ was raised to new life, so too we have been raised to walk in the new life Christ makes possible. We are no longer slaves to sin, but rather, dead to it in Christ and in him, alive to God as God continues to pour his love and Spirit into our lives to make us holy. The references here to baptism reveal just how important this sacrament was in the infant church.
Matthew continues Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and recounts his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. Jesus comes on a donkey not a warhorse, and as the Kings of Israel have traditionally come into Jerusalem for coronation. Misunderstanding Zechariah’s poetic use of repetition to strength his phrase, Matthew reports both a donkey and her colt as part of the procession, with the rather awkward image of Jesus as a circus performer, sitting astride both at the same time! Verse 6 is more correctly translated, “and he sat on the cloaks,” the word in Greek for “them” being a reference to the cloaks not the animals. The crowd sings fragments from Psalm 118:25-26, which means “Save us,” and identifies Jesus as the “Son of David.” But once in the Temple precincts and asked who he is, they only dare call him “the prophet from Nazareth.” The crowd continues to reveal its confusion about who Jesus is and what he has come to Jerusalem to do.
Friday, June 29:
Numbers 20:1-13; Psalm 130 Romans 5:12-21; Matthew 20:29-34
The wandering stops for a time in the Wilderness of Zin, at Kadesh where Moses’ older sister Miriam dies and is buried. Though the wandering stops, the complaining does not. This time the issue is water. Failing to recognized God’s lead in their travels, they again blame Moses and say it would have been better had they died with their brothers at the Tent of the Meeting. Moses and Aaron withdraw and return to the Tent where the Lord appears (“the glory of the Lord” being a pious way of not saying “God appeared.”) Again, God will demonstrate his power and ability to care for the people through his chosen leaders, Moses and Aaron. They are instructed to assembly the people before a rock and command it to bring forth water. Moses and Aaron do so, except that rather than speak to the rock, Moses becomes a bit more dramatic and decides to strike it with his staff. Water does come forth, as promised. But his failure to trust God in this case means that they too will be denied entrance into the promise land.
The psalm is a classic lament for those living “in the depths” of life, whether physical or emotional, waiting on God to come and save. Notice that the psalmist has moved beyond self-recrimination. This is about more than personal sin and is not God’s punishment, for if God counted sin and thus punished, no one would stand. No; with God there is always forgiveness. Rather the psalmist will hold tenaciously to God’s word and wait and watch with an intensity that exceeds that of the watchmen waiting for the morning, knowing that when God comes it will be with steadfast love, healing and redemption. This is a prayer for all who wrestle with depression, all with chronic or terminal illness, for all who find themselves in the pit.
Sin entered life through Adam’s deliberate disobedience and brought with it death for everyone, whether with or without the Law and whether their sin was deliberate or inadvertent. Death reigned in life for everyone. But now, grace, justification and life have entered the scene through the obedience of one man—Jesus Christ. And the free gift of his work, though for everyone, is even much more than that of Adam, for it has power to redeem all from sin and death. Paul has set up the Adam/Christ typology in parallel, to show that both come from willful action—Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience—and both have consequences, one death and one life. But, that is where the parallel ends, for the grace that has emerged out of Christ’s obedience is “much more” than the sin that has come from Adam’s disobedience, and that grace leads to “justification and life for all.”
Leaving Jericho, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus is being followed by a large crowd. Two blind men are sitting by the roadside as he passes and cry out to him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.” The crowd is annoyed but Jesus responds. Notice the language the two men use; though blind, they see who Jesus really is, while those in the crowd with sight haven’t a clue what they are seeing. Also notice that when healed, the two men follow Jesus, and rightly so—they know who he is, the power of his mercy, and what it means to call him “Lord.”
Thursday, June 28:
Numbers 17:1-11; Psalm 105:1-22; Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 20:17-28
God sets out to stop the jealous grumbling and tribal fighting among the Israelites once and for all. Each tribe is told to present a staff inscribed with the name of its ancestral head, Aaron’s name on the staff of the tribe of Levi. The staffs will be placed before the Lord in the Tent of the Meeting. Twelve staffs were placed before the Lord, Aaron’s among them. When Moses returned the next day, Aarons had not only sprouted, put forth buds and borne blossoms, but also bore ripe almonds. Moses brought them out for the people to see, each man taking back his own staff. But God instructed Moses to take Aarons staff back and place it in the Tent of the Meeting as a warning to the rebels to end their complaints about Moses, Aaron and God and God’s ways with them or they will die.
The psalm of praise recounts God’s faithfulness to Israel from the initial covenant with Abraham, the sojourn in Egypt, his work for their liberation from slavery, his provision for them in their wilderness wanderings, to his gift of the land, all so that they might keep his statues and observe his laws.
Whatever alienation existed between us and God because of the power of sin has been undone in what God has done in Jesus Christ. When embraced in faith we are “justified”—put in a right relationship with God—where we experience peace with God and God’s gift of true life. We boast then, not in our faith, but in what God has done in Christ and our hope of sharing the glory of God in Christ. And to the extent that we know suffering, we boast in that also, not because suffering is good; it is not! Rather, we can boast in it because of what it leads to: a chain reaction from suffering, to endurance, to character, then to hope. And unlike all other human hope, this hope does not disappoint. Why? Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (this is the first Paul has spoken of either). By faith, we live in a state of grace—a condition as life-giving as the state of sin is deadly. And notice that it is completed action that continues into the future! Back to what God has done in Christ: while humanity was still captive to sin, Christ died. And notice, it was not for the righteous or the Godly. It was for the ungodly! Why would anyone, much less God, do that? So God could prove God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death on the cross was not an accident, nor the result of things getting out of control. It was God’s way of dealing with the condition of sin that kept us from God’s presence, revealing God’s love for us and enabling us to be reconciled to God. In Christ, God filled the breech so that we can now live out of God’s love and power, sanctifying us—the word means “making us holy.” Notice that it too is an ongoing action. The life of faith is one in which the love and power of God are making us holy and fit to be God’s people at work for God’s purposes and able, at last, to live in God’s eternal presence.
Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and now speaks as clearly and forthrightly as he has spoken about what is to happen to him there. It is an astonishing announcement, but clearly lost on all of his followers, all, that is, except the mother of James and John. Sensing that Jesus is talking about establishing his kingdom she comes and asks a favor for her boys: let them sit at his right and left hand. Jesus asks James and John if they are able to drink the cup that he will drink in Jerusalem. Obviously, they have not been listening or comprehending what that means, and so enthusiastically say, “Yes, we are able!” Jesus then tells them that indeed, they will drink the same cup. But to sit in the two primary positions of power next to him is not his to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by his Father. The other ten overhear the conversation, especially the Zebedee family request and are outraged. Jesus gathers them and sets the standard for leadership within his community—servanthood, according to the manner of his own.
Wednesday, June 27:
Numbers 16:36-50; Psalm 101; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 20:1-16
The bronze censers—round bowls containing hot coals upon which incense was place to raise an pleasing aroma to the Lord—used by the rebels who have now been destroyed are recycled, and transformed into a covering for the altar, to be a warning: only the Levites who are the descendants of Aaron can approach the altar and live. The next day, rebellion breaks out again against Moses and Aaron who return to the Tent of the Meeting to see the glory of the Lord appear. For a second time God threatens to destroy the entire camp, but quick action by Moses, dispatching Aaron into the midst of the people with incense to make atonement, limits the plague’s destruction.
The psalm can be read either as a royal psalm in which the King is making an oath concerning his office, and promising to root out the evil and perverse from the community. Or, it may be read as a wisdom psalm that is a model for instructing the young. The language is harsh for effect, and not meant to be taken literally. “Moring by morning” is not a daily call to destroy all the wicked in the land. Soon the land would be desolate! Rather, it is an expression of the need for wisdom’s vigilance.
Paul continues to make the point about the superiority of faith over the observance of the law. He argues that God’s promise to Abraham that he would inherit the world, did not come through the law but though Abraham’s faith based upon God’s grace, a grace guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, not only the Jews (adherents of the law) but also those who share the faith of Abraham (Gentile believers). Even when all of the external signs pointed away from the fulfillment of the promise, Abraham hoped against hope, trusting that God was able to do what God had promised and that it would be fulfilled. Such unwavering hope is faith in action that put Abraham in a right relationship with God who consequently reckoned Abraham righteous. Such righteous is also reckoned to those who believe God raised Jesus from the dead—the one who was handed over to death for our sin, and raised for our own justification. None of this was accomplished by keeping the law, but by faith that believes God keeps God’s word.
Jesus tells a parable about a generous landowner who welcomes workers into his field at any hour of the day, but at the end of the day gives each one a day’s pay, regardless of the hour at which they began their work. Those who labored from the beginning are angered at the owner’s behavior—it is not fair! They think that having worked longer they should be given more. Reminding them that they were given precisely what they bargained for, he sends them away, telling them that because he is the owner, he is allowed to do as he pleases with what belongs to him, whether or not they think it fair. The good news here, of course, is that the landowner is none other than God who gives us what we need rather than what we deserve.
Tuesday, June 26:
Numbers 16:20-35; Psalm 94; Romans 4:1-12; Matthew 19:23-30
The rebellious group of Levites gathers at the Tent of the Meeting. The Lord appears, angered by their rebellion, and is prepared to wipe out the entire nation. Moses pleads forbearance: should an entire people be destroyed for one man’s sin? God consents, but warn, “Get back from the tents of the three elders, Korah, Datham, and Abiram, God is about to act. The scene is dramatic: Moses warns the people, who withdraw. Datham and Abiram appear at the door of their tents surrounded by their families. Moses pronounces God’s judgment on their rebellion and the ground opens up beneath them swallowing them, their households, and all their possessions. It is a vivid demonstration that God has chosen him to lead the people. At the same time, fire descends upon and consumed the 250 Levites that had gathered at the Tent of the Meeting to hear God’s adjudication of their complaint against Moses.
The psalmist asks, “Fools, when will you be wise? Do you not remember that the Lord rises up against the arrogant?” The One who made the ear and the eye, do you think he does not hear or see? The Lord stands against the wicked, and disciplines and chastises nations so that justice may return to the widow, the orphan and the outsider. In the midst of those who oppress, the psalmist gives thanks that the Lord is his avenger, stronghold, rock and refuge, whose consolations cheer the downcast soul.
Paul illustrates his point about justification through faith rather than works of the law by pointing out that Abraham was justified by his trust in God and God’s promise before he was circumcised. His circumcision was simply a sign of the righteousness that came to be through his faith. Now if Abraham could be made righteous by faith before he was circumcised, so too can the Gentiles. For God’s promise that Abraham would be the heir of the nations (Gentiles) came not through his keeping the Law—it did not yet exist—but through his trust in the One who made the promise. Thereafter, Abraham received circumcision as a sign of his righteousness, so that he might be the father of both those who believe without circumcision as well as those who believe with it. Both are brought into right relationship with God through faith.
Jesus continues his teaching on the burden of wealth with his famous illustration of the impossibility of a camel getting through the eye of a needle. Forget the tourist’s guide’s explanations that “the eye of the needle” was an opening in the door of the western gate of the temple that a camel, stripped of any baggage, might get through if it knelt down. Yes, I have heard guides give such explanations as they point to a small opening in the massive door. But it misses the point Jesus is making. It is impossible! The disciples get the point and ask “Who then, can be saved?” Jesus says, only God can do such a thing, and is, in fact, doing it with those who follow him. And whatever of value they have given up to follow him will be restored “at the renewal of all things”—a wonderful image of the coming kingdom—when it will be theirs to be the heads and rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
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.