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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tuesday: Judges 2:1-5, 11-23; Psalm 54; Romans 16:17-27; Matthew 27:32-44

We begin today with the book of Judges, which continues the history of Israel as it occupies the land. We have skipped the first chapter, which is essentially a chronicle of each of the tribes occupying their own land. The important thing to note there, if you read the chapter, is that the heads of the tribes often do not completely drive the Canaanites out of the land as they were commanded to do, but allow them to stay, often with the rationale that they will serve them. Doing so, they make themselves vulnerable to precisely what Joshua warned them about: the impact of foreign wives, intermarriage, and ultimately incorporating other gods and worship practices into Israel’s life, violating the covenant that God has made with them. In the book of Judges, there is a familiar pattern that is outlined in today’s lesson: the Israelites “do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” a formulaic saying which means that they begin to worship the Canaanite god Baal and Astarte (goddess), as well as the Lord, sometimes abandoning the Lord altogether. The Lord’s anger is “kindled against Israel,” and God gives them over into the hands of the Canaanites who oppress them. After a period of oppression, the people cry out in repentance to the Lord, who relents and sends them a “Judge”—a military champion who delivers them out of the power of the Canaanites and leads them back into covenant faithfulness. As long as that Judge “rules,” the people remain faithful. But once that Judge passes from the scene, the cycle returns with people falling even more deeply into apostasy. The book chronicles the period of time between entrance into the land around 1150 BCE and the people evolving from tribes into a “state” that demands a king in 1020 BCE. The book contains some of the most dramatic and heroic episodes of life as Israel transitions into the land.

The psalm records a prayer of trust from David’s when Saul was seeking his life, and offers a model of prayer for any who are in trouble.

Paul brings his letter to a close. First he warns the Romans about the destructive power of dissensions, especially those that will emerge from people coming in and teaching in opposition to what Paul has taught. He then reaffirms their obedience, and his joy in them, reminding them that their faithfulness is known throughout the Empire. As they remain faithful, God will “crush Satan” under their feet—they will remain victorious over these temptations. Paul then turns to naming those who are with him: Timothy, his companion on the second and third missionary journeys and others in the community. Notice that Tertitus, the secretary to whom Paul is dictating this letter, inserts his own greeting, before Paul names his host and other officials in the city. The book closes with a final majestic doxology which incorporates many of the themes of the book. Scholars debate over whether this was written by Paul, or was a post-Pauline addition as it doesn’t appear in some of the earliest manuscripts. It speaks of the gospel as the revelation of the mystery of God, to “bring about the obedience of faith, through Jesus Christ,” and ends on the note of worship: “to whom be the glory forever, Amen!”

The cohort leads Jesus out to be crucified. Because Jesus no longer has the strength to carry his own cross, a man from Cyrene, name Simon, does so for him. They reach the public site for execution, and offer Jesus wine mixed with a pain killer but upon tasting it, he refused to drink. After crucifying him, the soldier sit down, divide among themselves what is left of Jesus’ clothing and keep watch. Crucifixion was Rome’s way of intimidating the people and suppressing revolt, and so, attached to the cross above Jesus head, is a placard listing his offense: “Jesus, King of the Jews.” Matthew includes the other two men crucified with Jesus, naming them “bandits” and quickly turns to the crowd of Jews mocking their king. Ironically, the charges they hurl at him speak the truth: in destroying the temple of his body, he will rise up again in three days. He can save himself, but he won’t. For if he does save himself he will not save others, and the entire purpose of his life will be lost. Their faux pleas for him to entrust himself to God’s care turn out to be precisely what is taking place: he does trust God to deliver him, and God will, but in a way none—from the highest religious official, to the bandits on either side of him—could possibly imagine. For now, a righteous man dies in the midst of the unrighteous, and does so for their sake.

Posted July 31, 2012
Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday: Joshua 24:16-33; Psalms 57; Romans 16:1-16; Matthew 27:24-31

The people respond to Joshua’s warning and challenge by affirming that they will serve the Lord alone, they will put away the idols of foreign gods that they have among them, and they will remain true to the Lord and his ways. Joshua warns them a second time: they cannot serve the Lord for he is holy and demanding and unforgiving of those who abandon him. Yet again, the people insist on their fidelity. And so, Joshua makes a covenant with them, gives them statues and ordinances and names them witnesses against themselves. He sets up a large stone in their place of worship as a memorial to the moment. He then sends them home, to the portion of the land that they have inherited (“their inheritance,”) and the narrator simply tells us that Joshua died. He was 110—ten years younger than Moses, who, you will note, has slipped decidedly into the background by now. It is almost as though Joshua is the law giver. The chronicler now ties up loose ends, recording the burial of Joseph’s bone in the plot that Jacob had purchased, and concludes that the people did keep the covenant throughout all the days that the elders who were Joshua’s contemporaries, lived. Eleazar, Aaron’s son and Chief Priest also dies. The people are in the land as God promised, and the transition generation is gone. The stage is set for a new era and new challenges.

The psalm of trust finds someone in the midst of personal trouble, as others seek his life, who finds his only sure refuge is the Lord, and so lifts his soul by praising God. It is attributed to David when he was fleeing Saul’s murderous rage, and contains lovely and classic expressions of trust and praise for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. God is exalted as merciful, and will catch the psalmist’s enemies in their own trap.

As Paul brings his letter to a close he sends greetings to fellow workers who are in the church in Rome, 27 by name, of which a third are women! Phoebe is listed first as she is the one who has brought the letter to Rome from Paul’s hand in Corinth. Phoebe appears to have been a woman of substance as there was a house church in her home. Several of the women are listed as deacons, and at least one—Junia—Paul speaks of as an apostle! She and her husband were “in the Lord” before Paul and had been fellow prisoners with him. It is quite possible that they were contemporaries of Jesus and eyewitness of his ministry given the fact that they are spoken of as “among the apostles. (Some older English translations still include the masculine form of Junia’s name [Junias], a change made to the text by copyist at a later date when, because the issue of women in leadership was considered scandalous by the culture, women had ceased to be in such positions. The change was probably less a cover-up than a copyist thinking he was correcting an error. Prisca and Aquila had come from the Roman church when the Jews had been exiled, and worked together with Paul in Corinth and Ephesus, and “risked their own necks” for him in the riot at Ephesus. Greet one another with a holy kiss—the ancient sign of Christ’s peace among early Christians.

Pilate washes his hands of the whole thing; unable to control the crowd’s lust for Jesus’ blood, he will not have it on his own hands. Then he releases Barabbas, has Jesus scourged—the preparation for crucifixion—and hands him over to the soldiers for crucifixion. After the scourging, the soldiers take Jesus back to Pilate’s headquarters, and engaged in some cruel pastime to while away the hours with soldier’s games until the sun comes up. They mock this King of the Jews with scornful symbols of royalty. Note that in this time of contempt, the soldiers were clueless as to what was going on here between Jesus and the religious leaders. This was simply their way of dealing with the enemy, not unlike soldiers in other times and places have taunted and abused their own prisoners—it is what warfare does to us. This was, after all, in their eyes, another would be pretender to Caesar’s throne—their enemy. When they had tired of their games, and the sun was up, they lead Jesus off to be crucified.

Posted July 30, 2012
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday: Joshua 24:1-15; Psalms 67; Acts 28:23-31; Mark 2:23-28

Joshua now gathers the tribes at Shechem. Located in the central hill country of the land, it was a natural center for gathering and became a place of worship and covenant making in Israel prior to King David. This is the first mention of it. Joshua rehearses the people’s history with the Lord, telling the story in the voice of the Lord—note that the “I” in the text is God speaking. It begins with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, accounts for Esau and his people, the Edomites living in the hill country east of the Jordan River, and continues the chronicle through the taking of the land. Interestingly enough, the account at the Red Sea speaks only of God destroying the Egyptians by bringing the sea upon them. There is no talk of the division of the sea and walking through it. And though the wandering in the wilderness is described as “for a long time,” there is no mention of the covenant at Sinai or the giving of the Law. Joshua calls the people to renew their faithfulness to the Lord, and to abandon the gods their people served “beyond the River” east of the Euphrates, as well as in Egypt. But if they are unwilling to do this, they need to choose just who they will serve. He concludes with the iconic pledge, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Psalm 67: A classic psalm of praise, it invokes God’s blessing and calls on the entire nation to praise the Lord for his blessings, among them, God’s judging with equity among the other nations. The language here recalls the Aaronic benediction (Numbers 6:24-26) and may have been used as a priestly blessing of the people as they came to or left the Temple at various agricultural festivals, remembering, “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.” Interestingly, the Hebrew word for God’s name, given to Moses at the burning bush, and rendered in English as “LORD,” is missing here. Instead, the broader term for God, elohim, is consistently used. Central to the psalm is the conviction that the God who has blessed “us” (Israel is never mentioned but assumed), is the God of all, and “all the ends of the earth” are called upon to revere, fear, and stand in awe before him.

Paul has arrived in Rome and is now allowed to live by himself, accompanied only by a Roman guard. After getting settled he calls together the local leaders of the Jews (not the Roman church), to explain himself to them, why he is there, what he has and has not done, and most importantly, to have an opportunity to share with them the gospel, which is what today’s lesson is about. As has been the case from the beginning, some are convinced and some are not, and a dispute breaks out. Frustrated by their response, Paul recalls the words God spoke to Isaiah at his call, and how the people would resist God’s word of salvation spoken through him (Isaiah 6:9-10) to the nation. So too, the Spirit now speaks the same word. “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles,” who will listen. It is Paul’s way of putting them on notice that they are now responsible for their rejection. Paul has fulfilled his responsibility to them; the judgment is now upon them. The book concludes with Paul still in Rome, two years later, still with his house guard, but welcoming all who come, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about “the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness and without hindrance.” The expectation is that he will be going on to Spain once his difficulties arising from his appeal to the Emperor are resolved.

Passing through a grain field on the Sabbath, Jesus’s disciples begin to pluck the heads off the plants and eat them. The Pharisees see it and protest—Jesus’ disciples are working on the Sabbath—it is not lawful. Jesus respond by recounting how David, when in dire need, violated the provision of the Law, taking the bread of the Presence, reserved only for the High Priest, and gave it to his companions to meet their need (1 Samuel 21:1-6). His point: the Law (in this case the Sabbath regulations for rest), was made for humanities’ sake, not the other way around. But more important still, Jesus is master and Lord of the Sabbath (and therefore the Law), something no faithful Jew would dare claim.

Posted July 29, 2012
Saturday, July 28, 2012

Joshua 23:1-16; Psalm 56; Romans 15:25-33; Matthew 27:11-23

There is a huge gap between yesterday’s events, with God stopping the sun and the moon, to conquer the five kings of the south, and today’s lesson that begins to draw the Book of Joshua to a close. Between them is the story of the continuing conquest of the land, the extraordinary battles in which the Lord is a participant, a list of the kings of cities taken, the expansion of the territory both east and west, north and south, the allotment of a portion of the land to each tribes, and the establishment of the cities of refuge. The taking of the land complete, Joshua sends the warrior from the tribe of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh back to their families, cattle and land east of the Jordan. As today’s lesson begins, it is many years later and Joshua is facing his own natural death. He draws the people to him to remind them of their history and who it was that won them victory. Yet, there are still unconquered people in the land who must be dealt with. The Lord will deal with them so long as the Israelites remain steadfast to the Law of Moses. But if they “turn to the right or to the left,” if they intermarry, if they serve other gods (as well as the Lord), which will become inevitable because of intermarriage, or swear by, bow down to them, the Lord will abandon them. The Israelites must remain steadfast to the Lord or they will incur God’s anger and wrath and they will perish quickly from the good land God has given them.

This psalm of trust in the face of persecution is attributed to David when he had been captured by the Philistines at Gath (1 Samuel21:10-15). Its central theme is: “I put my trust in you, O God, whose word I praise and trust. What can flesh do to me?” Continually surrounded by enemies, the psalmist recounts his turmoil, and notes that God is watching and keeping count so as to respond on the day when called upon. And so he exclaims “This I know, that God is for me!” In trusting God he finds his fear removed and his soul delivered.

Paul’s work in Asia and Greece complete, he is returning to Jerusalem with the gift he has collected from the Gentile churches intended to bring relief to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. The Gentile churches have seized this opportunity in gratitude, for the gospel emerged out of Jerusalem, and the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings. Therefore, it is only right that they make this gift to care for those to whom they are indebted. Once Paul has delivered the gift, he plans to set out for Spain, by way of Rome, and expects to come and be with the Romans and share together with them in the fullness of the blessing of Christ and his gospel. Saying this, Paul appeals for prayers on his behalf, for he knows that in going to Jerusalem, he will encounter believers who see him as an enemy and his ministry a distortion of the gospel. He asks the Romans to pray that he may be rescued from them, that his ministry and gift may be acceptable to the church, and that by God’s will, he may then come to them in Rome to be refreshed by their company. In closing, he invokes God’s peace upon them.

Jesus now stands before Pilate accused of claiming to be King of the Jews (the Messiah). It is how the religious authorities plan to do away with him, for Caesar, who was king of the empire, entertained no rivals. Pilate asks, ‘So, are you a king?” and Jesus replies. It is, as all of his answers have been thus far, illusive and can be translated several ways: “You say so!” “You have said so,” “It is as you say.” The New International Version’s, “Yes, it is as you say,” is more guided by the translator’s theology of who Jesus is than by the text itself. There is no “yes” in Jesus’ answer; it is intentionally deceptive and misleading. What is different here is that Jesus is now speaking. The chief priests and the elders continue to level charges against Jesus. Consequently, Pilate seeks to engage Jesus further, asking him about the charges brought against him, but Jesus reverts, once again, to silence; he will not take part in this sham of a trial. Pilate is astonished at Jesus’ silence. But something much larger than the charge of sedition is going on here, and Pilate seems to know it. Seeking a way out of the situation, Pilate invokes the Roman tradition of releasing to the Jews one of their own who has been imprisoned, in recognition and honor of the Jewish festival. (The Romans did not deny people their own religious practices so long as they also paid obeisance to the Emperor, something the religious establishment in Jerusalem had carefully worked out in order to preserve themselves, which was one of Jesus’ charges against them.) “Whom do they want,” Pilate asks the people, “Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” As Pilate ponders what it means to be caught between the religious establishment and the man standing in front of him, his wife sends word to have nothing to do with the man or any of it. The man is righteous (innocent is too weak a word for what the Greek text says). She has learned it in a dream and has suffered much because of it. But as Pilate has been pondering, the chief priests and the elders have been at work and have persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas. Consequently, when Pilate again asks his question, the people shout “Barabbas.” When Pilate asks them what he should do with Jesus who is called the Messiah, they shout “Let him be crucified.” Pilate objects, asking what evil Jesus has done, but the crowd refuses to answer his question and simply continues to shout “Crucify him!”

Posted July 28, 2012
Friday, July 27, 2012

Joshua 9:22-10:15; Psalms 130; Romans 15:14-24; Matthew 27:1-10

Joshua summons the leaders of the Gibeonites and demands to know why they deceived the Israelites by claiming to be a people from far away, when, in fact, they were living in the land among them. The leaders reply that they have heard that the Lord, through Moses, had given the command that the Israelites occupy the land and kill all the inhabitants thereof. Out of fear for their lives they entered into the ruse. Joshua replies that they may live but will ever-after they will serve as slaves among the Israelites, cutting their wood and drawing their water, not only for the people but also for the altar of the Lord. This may account for the fact that later, there were non-Israelites working as servants in the Temple. Word continues to spread throughout the land, chilling the inhabitants and challenging their kings. Five from the Amorite cities in the south of the land form an alliance to invade Gibeon because of its peace treaty with Israel, which is camped at Gilgal. The Gibeonites call on Joshua for help, who assembles the Israelites, and marches the 20 some miles all night to reach Gibeon. As he does, the Lord speaks to Joshua, saying not to fear, the Amorites have been handed over to him, and not one of them is to stand. The armies of the five kings are caught by surprise at the Israelite’s arrival, are thrown into panic (note it is the Lord who does this), and Israel inflicts a great slaughter, with considerable intervention on the part of the Lord. Not only does God send great hail stones that strike the fleeing soldier dead, but God stops the sun and the moon, which were worshiped as gods by the Amorites, in order to give the Israelites time to finish the destruction of them, as well as to demonstrate his sovereignty over both. This extraordinary event has acquired various explanations: naturalistic, militaristic, and religious, but the point is, the Lord is fighting for Israel as they take the land, and his is sovereign over the other people’s gods. The narrator somewhat overstates the case that “there has been no day like this before or since,” but the point is still the same, God is at work through Joshua as God was at work through Moses giving them the land.

Out of the depths of life, the psalmist cries out to the Lord with a classic lament for those living in places of deepest despair in 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.

Emerging from the euphoria of his blessing, Paul pulls back and now speaks to the Romans in a more conciliatory tone. He assures them that he is convinced of their goodness and ability to admonish one another in love as he has been urging them to do. He has written to them as boldly as he has only to be faithful to the stewardship of Gospel which God entrusted to him to take the gospel to the Gentiles, serving as a minister and priest among them that they might be sanctified and made acceptable through the Holy Spirit. Realizing that he may sound boastful in this regard, Paul insists that the work, signs, wonders and power that he has done in and about Jerusalem all the way to Illycrium, have not been his own work, but the work of Christ within him as he aspired to preach the gospel, not in places where it had been previous preached—lest he build on another’s work—but where the gospel has yet to be heard. It was for this reason that he has been prevented from coming to Rome. But now, having exhausted the untapped regions, he longs to come to see them, stopping off to enjoy their company and to be “helped along the way” by them as he makes his way to Spain.

The night of interrogation over; the chief priests and elders now conspire how to put Jesus to death. They bind him and take him off to the regional Roman Governor, Pilate. Judas, having seen that Jesus has been condemned, is filled with remorse. Had he entered into this hoping to force Jesus’ hand and take the kingdom by violence? We do not know. But, his act of repentance, returning the thirty pieces of silver, may, in fact, suggest just that. Regardless, the deed is done and beyond his hands; the priests will have none of it. Casting the silver into the Temple treasury, Judas goes out, and in the depths of despair, hangs himself. The priests recognize that the 30 pieces of silver Judas has returned is blood money, it has no place the treasury. Consequently, they take the money to buy a potter’s field and turn it into a place of burial for strangers. Matthew concludes this section, as is his pattern, with a quote from Jeremiah (actually, it is Zechariah 11:12-13), to show that all of this is the unfolding of what the prophets have foretold about the Messiah.

Posted July 27, 2012
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.

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