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Friday, January 31, 2014

Daily Readings for Friday, January 31, Year II

Gen. 17:15–27; Psalm 6; Hebrews 10:11–25; John 6:1-15

As Abram’s name was change to Abraham, to mark this change in his future, so too is Sarai’s name changed to Sarah, which means “princess,” pointing to the fact that she will be the mother of kings. With this comes God’s promise that he will give Abraham a son with Sarah. Abraham doubles over in laughter at the thought of becoming a father at one hundred years of age and Sarah a mother at ninety. Rather, let Ishmael live in God’s sight and inherit the promise. But God says “No.” Sarah will bear him a son and he is to name the boy Isaac, which means “he laughed.” Every time Abraham calls his son or hears another call him by name, he will remember how he laughed in God’s face at this promise. Yet, God fulfilled it. It is with Isaac that God plans to fulfill the covenant promises that he has made to Abraham. As for Ishmael, God has heard Abraham’s plea for his firstborn son. God will bless him and make him fruitful and also exceedingly numerous—the father of twelve princes—and a great nation. But the covenant promises God will establish with Isaac, who Sarah will bear to him at this season next year. At that, God leaves Abraham. For his part, Abraham gathers his son Ishmael, and all of the male slaves born in his house or bought with his money—every male in Abraham’s house—and he circumcises them that very day, just as God had commanded. We are reminded that Abraham was ninety-nine and Ishmael thirteen, when this took place—ouch! But the coming child will be conceived within the mark of the covenant.

The psalmist pleads for God’s gracious care in what he perceives to be the result of God’s rebuking wrath. In the midst of his 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. Rather, he simply begs the Lord to turn, save his life, and deliver him for the sake of 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. But 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.

Continuing to emphasize the “once for all” nature of Christ’s sacrifice the author reminds his readers that the priest of the old covenant stands day after day at service, offering again and again the same sacrifice that can never take away sin. On the contrary, when Christ offered himself up for all time, a single sacrifice for sin, he then sat down at the right hand of God, never to be sacrificed again. It is from there that he waits until all of his enemies become his footstool—subservient to him and his Lordship. In his single offering, Christ has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And now, the author quotes the prophet Jeremiah once again (Jeremiah 31:33-34), including Jeremiah’s words about the new covenant’s power to write God’s law on our hearts, but emphasizing the conclusion of that passage which says, “I will remember their sins no more.” As a consequence, because of the forgiveness of sins brought about by Jesus' sacrifice, God no longer remembers our sin. Consequently, there is no longer any need for an offering for sin. And now, that argument made, the author turns to exhort his readers to take confidence in entering the sanctuary of God’s presence by this sacrifice (“the blood of Jesus”), for by it a new and living way into God’s presence has been opened for us “through the curtain” of his flesh. It is both an allusion to the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, shielding people from the power of God’s holiness, and the fact that, at Jesus death, that curtain was torn from top to bottom, giving everyone access to God’s presence. “Since we have this great high priest over the house of God, let us approach God with true hearts in the full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The author has deftly brought together images of assurance, faith and faithfulness, buttressed by a quotation from Ezekiel 36:25-26, in which God promises to sprinkle the people with water to so that they may be clean, as well as give them a new heart and a new spirit, a heart of flesh rather than stone. All of this is a part of their baptism when their bodies were washed with pure water. Therefore, they are to hold fast to this confession of hope without wavering, for God, who has promised, is faithful. And while holding to their confession, they are to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to come together for worship, as it seems has become the habit of some. Rather, they are to encourage one another all the more as they see the Day of Jesus' return coming on the horizon.

The sixth chapter of John is rich in symbolism and built around two miracles that then become the foundation for long discourses which are really sermons. Today the miracle is the feeding of the multitude of five thousand, with five loaves and two fish—the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. It too is a “sign,” and, it is because of the signs that Jesus has been doing among the sick that the multitude follow him. Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberius), and seeing the crowd coming after him, he goes up a mountain and sits down with his disciples to await the people. Turning to Philip, Jesus sets him up by asking, “Where are we to buy bread enough for these people to eat?” Notice that Jesus has assumed responsibility for their care and well-being, anticipating their need for food. It is, after all God’s nature to do so. But all of this is a context to speak about another kind of food that is Jesus’ to give. Philip simply witnesses to the impossibility of attempting to feed the crowd. Peter’s brother, Andrew, reports on a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that in this crowd? After having the disciples tell the people to sit down on the grassy slope, Jesus takes the boy’s loaves, gives thanks and gives them to the people, and does the same with the two fish. Notice the Eucharistic language—“took,” “gave thanks,” “gave it to them” (behind the word translated “distributed” is the Greek word for “handed over”). This language is not accidental, as we will see later in this chapter, where this sign is further amplified in its significance. Everyone has as much as they want, and when all are satisfied (again, the language is not accidental), Jesus tells the disciples, “Gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost.” They do, and they fill twelve baskets. It is not only a sign of the abundance at Jesus’ hand, but also a word to the church for whom this Gospel was written (signified by the number twelve): there is Eucharistic bread enough for them as well. At this sign, the people realize that this is the Prophet that Moses spoke of and move to acclaim him Messiah and make him king. But Jesus will have none of it, and withdraws higher up the mountain to be by himself.

Posted January 31, 2014
Thursday, January 30, 2014

Daily Readings for Thursday, January 30, Year II

Genesis 16:15–17:14; Psalm 81; Hebrews 10:1–10; John 5:30–47

The account of God’s covenants with Abram has come, thus far, from Yahwist sources, where the name for God is “the Lord.” Because the priestly writers believed that “the Lord” was not used as a name for God, until God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush, today’s lesson employs yet another name, El Shaddai, translated “God Almighty,” or more correctly still, “God of the Mountain.” Abram is ninety-nine. It has been thirteen years since Ishmael was born, and the Lord appears to Abram identifying himself by this second name—the third used within the last two chapters—evidently the writers’ way of trying to incorporate all of the known names for God in the tradition in order to make clear that all of these are “the Lord.” Abram is commanded to “Walk before me and be blameless.” God then repeats the covenant promise to make Abram “exceedingly numerous.” Abram falls on his face in obeisance, while God continues, telling Abram that he will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. And now, in accord with the near eastern custom of a name change when a new destiny or task is promised, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham. Abram means “exalted father,” as does Abraham, though it can also mean “father of a multitude,” and is here used to make the point that Abraham is the father of many nations, not just Israel. Abraham is to be “exceedingly fruitful, in that nations and kings will come from him. God will establish his covenant, not only with Abraham, but also among his offspring throughout their generations. It shall be an everlasting covenant from God to be God to Abraham and his offspring. In addition, the covenant promise once again mentions the gift of the land of Canaan, now as “a perpetual holding.” Abraham is now commanded to keep the covenant with a singular act that will be a sign of the covenant. He is to circumcise every male among his household, (including himself!), and not only his own male children, but every male slave either born or purchased as his possession. This is to take place on the eighth day after a child’s birth. As a consequence, God’s covenant will be cut into human flesh as an everlasting covenant, and a sign that is constantly remembered, even in the most intimate of human relationships. God ends with a warning: any male who is not circumcised, shall be cut off from Abraham’s people because he has broken the covenant. One final note: though this is the first time circumcision appears in the biblical record, we know that it was widely practiced in the ancient Near East, as can been seen in various hieroglyphics in Egypt whose culture predates Abraham.

The people are called to liturgical assembly on a festival day to sing, shout for joy, raise a song, sound the musical instruments and blow the shofar (ram’s horn) at the new moon (perhaps the feast of Passover, Pentecost or Tabernacles). The reference to Joseph may mean this was composed in the Northern Kingdom during a Levite reform. The psalm turns prophetic and introduces the voice of God remembering that he has “relieved [their] shoulder of the burden” of Egypt. They called and God answered. God tested them at the waters of Meribah (Exodus 17). Now, they are to listen, as God admonishes them. If only they would listen! There are to be no strange gods among them, nor are they to bow down to them. This is the Lord speaking, who brought them out of Egypt. If they would but open wide their mouths, the Lord would fill them. But the people did not listen and would not submit. And so, God gave them over to their stubborn hearts. Once again the Lord extends the plea: If only they would listen and walk in God’s ways. Then God would quickly subject their enemies; turn his hand against their foes, causing those who hate him to cringe. For their own part, God would feed them with the finest of wheat and honey from the rock. It initially seems quite remarkable how often these themes need to appear, causing one to wonder why the people did not respond. But then, think of how easily we are drawn away from trusting the Lord when other solutions seem to be at hand.

Hebrews continues to argue for the superiority of the covenant made in Christ by pointing out that the old covenant was but a “shadow of the good things to come, and not the true reality.” The author then turns to the sacrificial system in the law, pointing out that the sacrifices must be repeated, year after year, rather than cleanse once for all. More, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away human sins.” And now he turns to Psalm 40:6-8, using it as a biblical confirmation of what has just been said about the sacrifices proscribed by the law, but more, prophetic witness to Christ and the reason for his coming. God has given him a body with which to do God’s will—offer it in sacrifice for human sin. In doing so, Christ abolishes the first and establishes the second covenant—once again, we must exercise care lest we understand this as God abolishing his covenant relationship with Israel. Rather, it is by God’s will that the author and those to whom he writes, both Jewish and Gentile Christians, have been sanctified—made holy—through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ. And what makes this superior is it need take place only once, but is for all.

Jesus continues to talk about his relationship with his Father and the results of that relationship. He does nothing on his own initiative, but rather, seeks to do the will of his Father. What he hears from his Father he does, thus his judgment is just. He does not bear witness to himself; he has no need to do so. He reminds them that John has been a witness to him, and though John was a lamp burning and shining bright, and though they were willing to rejoice in his light, they have ignored the truth that John has announced about Jesus. No matter; Jesus does not need human witnesses, for the work he does is sufficient witness that he has been sent by the Father to them. The Father has born witness to him but they neither know nor hear the Father’s voice. Rather, they search the scriptures, thinking that will bring them eternal life, when in fact, the source of eternal life is among them, and scriptures all bear witness to him, yet they refuse to come to him. Jesus does not need the glory that comes from people who glory in one another, but do not receive the glory that comes from God. Returning to the theme of judgment, he tells them that he has no need to judge them; Moses himself will be their judge. They have read him and his witness to Jesus, but refuse to accept it. If they cannot believe his writings, how will they believe Jesus’ words? This conversation with the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem is over. He will be on his way to Galilee for there is still much work for him to do.

Posted January 30, 2014
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, January 29, Year II

Gen. 16:1–14; Psalm 125; Heb. 9:15–28; John 5:19–29

Ten years after the promise, Sarai is still barren, consequently, she proposes to give Abram and herself a child through her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar. Abram agrees, and he takes Hagar as a second wife—to assure legal relationship with the child, should one be born. They have sexual relations and Hagar becomes pregnant. From that moment on Hagar looks with contempt upon Sarai, so much so that Sarai complains to Abram saying, “May the wrong done to me be on you!” She did this out of concern for Abram; now what will he do with the arrogant Hagar? Nothing; rather, Abram tells Sarai to do with Hagar as she chooses; after all, Hagar is still Sarai’s slave. So Sarai deals harshly with Hagar to the point that Hagar runs away. But more is going on here than simply an internal domestic squabble. An angel of the Lord—the way the Yahwist writer talks about the presence of the Lord himself—searches out Hagar by a spring in the wilderness and asks where she has come from and where she is going. Hagar explains that she is running away from her mistress, and the Lord tells her to return and submit to her. The child that Hagar is carrying is destined to also be the father of a multitude of people beyond number. She is to name him Ishmael, which means “God hears.” God has given heed to her affliction. God continues to speak, describing Ishmael as “a wild ass of a man,” whose hand will be against everyone as theirs will be against him, even living at odds with his kin. Hagar does as the Lord says and names the Lord, El-roi, a God who sees, and then confesses, “I have really seen God and remained alive after seeing him.” The spring where the encounter takes place is a well, which she names Beer-la-hai-roi, which means, “The well of the Living One.”

This song of ascent is less a prayer than a wisdom hymn that extolls the Lord’s ability to care for those who trust in him. Like Mt. Zion, they will not be moved. Like the mountains that surround Mt. Zion, so the Lord surrounds his people, and will do so forever. The reigns of wickedness shall not fall on the land that has been allotted to the righteous, so that they may not stretch out their hand and do wrong. Finally, there is the petition: “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,” followed by the parallel refrain, “and to those who are upright in their hearts.” But for those who turn aside to walk in their own way, the Lord will lead them away with the other evildoers. The psalm ends invoking peace on Jerusalem, not unlike our politicians invoke God’s blessing on America.

Hebrews continues the argument of the superiority of the covenant through Jesus’ death, rather than the one made with Moses. Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant, “so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgression under the first covenant.” The word for covenant in Greek can also mean “will”, and so the author now uses this image to explain that for this second covenant (will) to come into effect a death must take place, for a will does not come into play until it’s maker dies. He goes on to reflect on how even the first covenant with Moses was made with blood, an image of death and symbol of purification for sins. Indeed, under the law “almost everything is purified with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” Thus, it was necessary that Jesus die in order that he might enter a sanctuary not made with hands, but the true one in heaven, where he presented himself on our behalf. But unlike the high priest, who must enter year after year with blood that is not his own, Jesus has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed to mortals to die only once and afterward receive judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time. But this time, it will not be to deal with sin, but to save those who are so eagerly awaiting him.

The Jewish leaders are shocked and angered by Jesus’ claim of relationship with God and consider it blasphemy, a sin punishable by death. Jesus, for his part, simply elaborates on what he means by having just said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” He can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; what the Father does, he does. The Father, for his part, loves the Son and, therefore, shows him all that the Father is doing. Greater works than these will Jesus do and they will see, to the point of their astonishment. Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father, rather than act as judge, has given that authority to the Son, so that the Son may be honored. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father. Their judgment against the judge is, in fact, judgment against themselves. But all who hear Jesus’ words and believe the One who sent him, have eternal life and do not come under judgment, for in believing, they have passed from death to life. And now, Jesus makes an even more astonishing claim: the dead hear his voice and as they do they live. The Father, who has such power, has granted it to the Son, along with the power to judge, because he is also the Son of Man. The two things understood to be only within God’s power—exercising judgment and giving life—the Father has given to the Son. More astonishing still, the hour is coming when those in the grave will hear the Son’s voice and they will come out of their graves, those who have done good, to resurrection and life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation. The religious leaders are convinced that he is blaspheming—dishonoring God—when in fact, he is revealing to them who he is, bringing God’s presence directly into their lives, but they can neither see nor hear it.

Posted January 29, 2014
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, January 28, Year II

Genesis 15:1–21; Psalm 28; Heb. 9:1–14; John 5:1–18

Abram has returned home and is settled in when the word of the Lord comes to him in a vision, promising to be his “shield” and that his reward will be very great. Abram protests that he and Sarai remain childless and it appears that his slave Eliezer, will become his heir. In the ancient Near East, a childless couple could adopt a slave to play the role of son to manage and inherit the couples’ household. The Lord responds that Eliezer will not be Abram’s heir; no one but his very own son will be his heir. At that, the Lord takes Abram outside his tent and directs him to look to the heavens and challenges him to count the stars. Of course, Abram cannot. The Lord promises that so shall Abram’s descendants be. The Yahwist editor then adds, “He believed the Lord and the Lord counted it as righteousness,” a text that Paul will quote several times in Romans and once in Galatian, in his argument for the superiority of faith over works of the law. The Lord makes a second promise. After again identifying himself as the one who called Abram out of Ur, he promises to give him the land in which he is living as a possession. Abram asks how he is to know that he is to possess it, and the Lord tells him to bring forth a heifer, a goat, a ram—all three years of age—a turtledove and a pigeon. Abram does, cutting the animals in two, but not the birds, and lays them out on the ground, driving off the birds of prey, and awaits what it is the Lord will do next. It is the prelude to an ancient covenant binding ritual in which the two participants pass between the cut up animals as a pledge, that if they break the covenant, the same shall happen to them. A deep and terrifying sleep falls on Abram. The Lord speaks, once again promising him the land, but inserting the word that Abram’s people will be slaves and aliens in a land that is not their own, and shall be oppressed for four hundred years. But the Lord will intervene, bringing divine judgment on the nation that has enslaved them, and afterward, they will come forth with great possessions and live in this land. As for Abram, he shall die and rest among his ancestors in peace, but live to a good old age. Abram’s heirs shall return to Canaan in the fourth generation and defeat the Amorites. By now the sun has gone down and it is dark. Abram sees a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch—signs of the Lord’s presence entering into the covenant—pass between the cut pieces of the animals. And now the Lord describes the extent of the land he is promising. It is from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in the east, and the nations therein are named. It is also a description of the extent of Israel’s borders under King Solomon’s reign.

The psalmist prays, “Listen Lord, listen, lest I be like those who go down to the pit! Hear the voice of my supplication when I cry to you for help, when I lift my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.” The prayer then turns to reflect on the wicked, pleading “do not drag me away with them!” It then calls on God to repay them for their evil work and the fact that they do not regard the works of the Lord. God’s judgment is invoked: “Break them down and build them up no more.” Then the psalm makes a shift and blesses the Lord, for he has heard the sound of the psalmist’s pleading (note the tense shift). Therefore, the Lord is blessed and a strength and shield in whom the psalmist’s heart trusts. Having been helped and given an exultant heart, the psalmist now sings songs of thanks and hints at the fact that he may be the king. The final hymn of praise ends with a call for God to save his people, bless his heritage and be their shepherd forever.

Hebrews continues to draw a distinction between the covenant provisions for worship made by God with Moses at Mt. Sinai, and with the new that has come in Jesus Christ. Detailing the structure and content of the tabernacle, with its outer and inner sanctums—the latter considered the dwelling place of God, that in Solomon’s temple contained the arch of the covenant and its contents of manna, Aaron’s rod, and the tablets of the covenant—the author describes the priestly actions as they go about the business of ritual duties. But only the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies, and that, only once a year, carrying the blood he has offered for his own sin and for the unintentional sins of the people (note: there was no sacrifice in the system for the forgiveness of intentional sin). All of this was a symbol of what continues to the time this letter is written, as gifts and sacrifices are offered daily, but cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper. Rather, the system only deals with outward things like ablutions, food and drink regulations and other bodily regulations imposed until “the time comes to set things right.” That time has come in Christ, who through a greater and perfect tent (one not made with human hands, that is, not of this created order), entered once for all, into God’s Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and bulls or the sprinkling of ashes of a sacrificed heifer, but with Christ’s own blood. And, if those former things are sanctified and purified, how much more then, does the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worshipping the living God?

Jesus leaves Galilee for Jerusalem, in order to observe the Passover feast, and enters into the city by the sheep gate next to which was a pool named Bethesda with its five porticos. The space was filled with invalids of many kinds, the lame, the blind, the sick, the withered, all waiting for the stirring of the waters. For when that happened, it was believed to be the work of an angel, so that whoever got into the waters first was healed. Jesus encounters a man who has been ill for 38 years and asks him if he wants to be well. The man replies, “Of course; but how, I have no one to put me into the water when it is stirred? Someone always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus responds, “Arise, take up you pallet and walk,” and immediately the man is healed, takes up his pallet and walks. It happens on the Sabbath. When the Jewish leaders see the man walking and carrying his pallet, they rebuke and remind him that it is not lawful to do so on the Sabbath. Are they blind to what has happened to the man, or simply so preoccupied with keeping the law that they have forgotten its greater purpose? The man responds, “The one who healed me told me to do so, and I did.” They ask him, “Who told you to take up your pallet?” For his part, the healed man does not know who Jesus is, as after the healing Jesus slipped away into the crowd. Later, Jesus finds the healed man in the temple—the first time the man has been permitted in the temple in 38 years—and Jesus tells him to be sure he sins no more so that no further afflictions befall him. In that exchange, the man recognizes Jesus as the one who has healed him, and goes away from the temple telling everyone who will listen that it was Jesus who had healed him. We are told that it was because Jesus was healing on the Sabbath that the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. When confronted for it, Jesus simply responds, “My Father is still working, as I myself am working.” And so, the persecution takes on new dimensions: now the religious leaders begin to look for ways to kill him because of his blasphemy: he is not only breaking the sabbath laws, but calling God his Father and making himself equal with God.

Posted January 28, 2014
Monday, January 27, 2014

Daily Readings for Monday, January 27, Year II
Genesis 14 (1-7) 8-24; Psalm 85; Hebrews 8:1-13; John 4:43-54

The lectionary steps over what happens after Lot and Abram go their separate ways: the Lord promises Abram the land of Canaan, and promises to make Abram’s offspring like the dust of the earth, so numerous no one can count. Abram is told to walk the length and breadth of the land. All of this the Lord will give him. Abram does and settles in the north, at Hebron, which will become the center of life for the nation that will come from him. Chapter fourteen breaks out of the pattern of intimate focus on Abram, and introduces a story of conflict between kings from across the land. It is so different from the rest of Genesis that scholars think it is from an entirely different literary tradition than the rest of the book. A coalition of four kings from Mesopotamia, under the leadership of King Chedorlaomer of Edom, comes west to attach a group of people on the Jordan highlands. Thereafter, they turn to attack another group of people in the Jordan valley, among them, the King of Sodom and the King of Gomorrah. In the battle that ensues, the Chedorlaomer coalition prevails, and the Kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee with their men. Many of them fall into bitumen pits that are in the valley, with the others fleeing to the hill country. So, the invading army takes Sodom and Gomorrah, sacks them, and carries off all of their provisions as the spoils of war, including Lot and all of his goods. When word of this comes to Abram, who is here called “the Hebrew”—the only place in scripture that is the case—he calls upon his neighbors, Mamre, Eshcol and Aner to join him as allies. They do, and Abram then gathers three hundred eighteen trained men from his own household, and they all go in pursuit of the enemy and Abram’s captured nephew, Lot. At Dan, in the north, Abram divides his forces against the enemy by night, and routes them, pursuing them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Abram recaptures all that had been taken from Sodom and Gomorrah, including his nephew Lot with his goods and family. Returning from his victory, the king of Sodom comes out to meet Abram in the King’s Valley. With him is the King of Salem, Melchizedek, who is also a priest, and so often mentioned in the book of Hebrews. Melchizedek brings forth bread and wine and blesses Abram “by God Most High” (el elyon), a name for God that is foreign to the Yahwist, or priestly traditions. However, in the encounter, Melchizedek names el elyon as “the maker of heaven and earth,” and Abram claims him as the same God he worships under the name of Yahweh. Melchizedek professes that it was God Most High who delivered Abram’s enemies into his hands. In response to the priestly blessing, Abram gives Melchizedek one tenth of all the spoil that he has gained in the battle—the roots of the tithe tradition. The King of Sodom asks Abram to give him the people but to take the goods for himself. Abram refuses, insisting that both must be returned to the King of Sodom. Abram says that he has made a vow to “the Lord, Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (note the conflation of the two names for God), that he would not take so much as a sandal thong or any other thing that belongs to the King of Sodom, lest the king be able to claim that he had made Abram rich. He will take nothing except what the men have eaten, and the share of the captured goods that belongs to the three men who marched out with Abram, Aner, Eshcol and Mamre.

This communal lament is preceded by reminding God of how he has been favorable to the people in the past, restoring the fortunes of Jacob, forgiving the people’s iniquity and pardoning all their sin, withdrawing his wrath and turning from his hot anger. And so the plea is now, “Restore us again.” Will you be angry forever? “Revive us again so that your people may rejoice in you. Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” Whether the psalmist himself or a priest in the temple, one now speaks prophetically and says, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,” and then promises, “God will speak peace to his people, to his faithful ones, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” For these, salvation is at hand. The result of this is that steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss; faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky. These four cardinal and classic attributes of God will be upon those who turn to him as a sign of God’s favor. The land will yield its increase, and righteousness will go before the Lord, making a path for his steps.

Hebrews comes to the center of its message: in Jesus Christ we have a high priest superior to all others.     He is seated at the right hand of “the throne of Majesty” (the way a pious Jew would avoid using God’s name), a “minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord has set up, not one pitched by mortals.  This is a reference to the tabernacle that Moses was instructed to construct in the wilderness wanderings that became the place where he and the Lord met, and the precursor to the temple in Jerusalem with its “Holy of Holies.” There, God was thought to dwell and once a year, the high priest would enter it to make supplication on behalf of the people. These priests were required to offer gifts and sacrifices before entering. Jesus is contrasted with that sacrificial system that seems to still be in place at this letter’s writing (ergo, it’s dating somewhere around 65 CE, but before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE). But that sacrificial system and worship space is but a “sketch and shadow of the heavenly one” in which Jesus now resides. Consequently, he has obtained “a more excellent ministry” and, thereby, has become the “mediator of a better covenant” which has been enacted through God’s promise. Had that original covenant at Sinai been faultless, there would be no need for this second one. But God, himself, found fault with the old covenant, and the text goes on in verses 8 through 12 to quote Ezekiel 31:31-34, in which God promises a new covenant with the house of Israel. The author concludes his argument, making the point that in speaking of a “new covenant” God has made the first one obsolete. And, what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. Several things need to be said at this point: first, this is one of the texts that gave rise to the dispensationalist heresy, claiming that God had abandoned his covenant with and relationship to Israel when establishing the new covenant (dispensation) with the church. Because of it, the church felt justified in persecuting Jews as those who killed Christ. But notice that the new covenant that God promised through Ezekiel is a covenant with Israel! Second, it is true that the old covenant did not include within it forgiveness of intentional sins.   This is another reason the new covenant is superior to the old. That the old “will soon disappear” is probably a reference to Jesus’ own words about the future of the temple. Finally, the major point the author is making to Jewish and Gentile Christians, probably in Rome, is that this new covenant includes both Jews and Gentiles, and is therefore vastly superior to the covenant God made with only Israel at Mt. Sinai. What reason would there be to return to it?

After two days in Samaria, Jesus continues his journey to Galilee, though he knows that prophets are not honored in their own land. When he gets to Galilee, he encounters people there who had been in Jerusalem at the feast and knew of the things he had done there. Moving on to Cana, where he had earlier turned the water into wine, we learn of a royal official from Capernaum, whose son is dying. Learning that Jesus has come up from Judea and is in Cana, he makes the journey to come to Jesus in order to ask him to come to Capernaum and heal his son. Initially, Jesus seems to rebuke the official, or is he simply expressing his frustration with what it takes for people to recognize truth and light, saying that unless they see signs and wonders, the people will not believe? The man pleads again, and Jesus tells him to go home, his son will live. Believing Jesus, and without any sign attached to the promise, the man leaves to return home. On his way he is met by a servant who has come to tell him his son has recovered. When the man asks at what time the boy began to be better, the servant identifies the very hour at which Jesus had told him that his son would live. The man recognizes it, and we are told that “he believed and his whole household.” This then is the second sign Jesus performed in Galilee.

Posted January 27, 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.

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