Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Isaiah 44:24-45:7; Psalm 82; Ephesians 5:1-14; Mark 4:1-20
The theme of God’s sovereignty and the redemption of Israel continues. God’s sovereignty is such that even foreign nations serve him and his purpose and become instruments of his redeeming power. The Lord will bring her out of exile and restore her in Jerusalem. As God dried up the deep of the Red Sea to enable Israel to leave its bondage in Egypt, so God has taken Cyrus II of Persia by the hand, called him by name and empowered him to conquer Babylon and set the Israelites free. In keeping with Second Isaiah’s monotheism and universalism, Cyrus is actually the Lord’s shepherd who will carry out the Lord’s purpose. Jerusalem shall be rebuilt and the foundation of the temple shall be laid. Cyrus is actually called God’s Messiah—God’s anointed one—to subdue the nations. Though Cyrus does not yet know God’s name, he will come to know it through God’s people, Israel, and come to worship the Lord as God. The lesson ends with the Lord asserting sovereignty over all creation and again reminding them that he is God and there is no other.
Psalm 82 sounds less like a hymn than it does an oracle of judgment against the rulers of the earth. God has assembled the leaders of the peoples and is holding court in the midst of “the gods,” not the gods of the foreign nations, but the angelic beings that form the heavenly court and are the Lord’s servants. He passes judgment on the rules of the peoples: how long will they judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? They are appointed to give justice to the weak and the orphan and maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. All rulers in the Bible are regularly reminded that the measure of their faithfulness is how they care for the poor and the destitute, something it would be well for our elected officials to remember. They are accountable to One sovereign over both their electorate and their constitution! But, the problem is not new: the rulers assembled before God do not get it, they do not understand and walk around in darkness so that the foundations of earth are shaken. God then addresses them again: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” It is a startling statement in scripture. “Nevertheless, [they] shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” They have been appointed to govern on God’s behalf and failed. Though thought of as gods by their people, they shall die like every mortal, and fall like any prince. And now the psalm turns to prayer, as the psalmist calls on God to rise up and judge the earth and bring the justice God desires in all places, for all the nations of the earth belong to God. The universal theology behind Second Isaiah is clearly woven deeply into this psalm.
Imitate God as his beloved children. In the time in which this was written, imitation of one’s father or teacher were foundational to ethical training and a sign of a child’s devotion. The Ephesians are to imitate their heavenly father and live in love as Christ has loved them and given himself up for them. Again, this is followed by ethical injunctions calling them away from the practices and standards of pagan Gentile culture. Fornication and greed, here identified as “idolatry”—the love of money, are not even to be mentioned among them as possibly acceptable. They are not. Neither is vulgar, obscene and silly talk. Instead, let their language be filled with thanksgiving. Beware of being deceived by the empty words of some to tell them otherwise. Because of this, the wrath of God is coming upon them. Do not even associate with them. Once you were like them—darkness. But now, in the Lord, you are light. So, live as children of the light, producing fruit that is good, right and true. Seek to discover what is pleasing to the Lord and take no part in the works of darkness. Rather, expose them. For it is shameful to even mention what some do secretly in darkness. Let everything be exposed by light so that it becomes visible. The author then quotes a hymn fragment common in the first century church; perhaps even words spoken as one emerged from the baptismal waters: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Mark cuts away from the crowed house in Capernaum, back to the Sea of Galilee, and we are told that such a large crowd has gathered about Jesus on the shore that he is forced to get into a boat, push out a bit, and teach from there, while the crowd sits on the shore and hill that emerges north of it. Modern tour guides regularly take their groups to a place on the northern shore of the lake that is a natural amphitheater and identify it as this place. This sets the stage for a series of discourses that include several parables, beginning with the parable of the sower. “Listen!” This is urgent and important; pay attention. A sower went forth to sow. There follows the various types of soil upon which the seed falls and the result. Jesus is, of course, talking about his own ministry and how his words are or are not taking root, and whether it will last in the heat of the day. “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.” Though the parable seems clear enough on the surface of it, the twelve seem not to get it. That sets up a context for Mark to present Jesus’ “private teaching” to his inner circle—the secrets of the kingdom of God, reserved for those on the inside. Those who do not get it—those on the outside—are simply fulfilling the prophecy God made to Isaiah at his calling (6:9-11). They see and see but do not perceive; they hear and hear but do not understand. Does that include his mother and brothers who came looking for him? For now, it seems so. But to these whom he has chosen to be insiders, he says, “Listen up!” and then asks, “If you don’t understand this parable, how will you understand the others?” At that, Jesus enters into a very specific explanation of what he means. Some never hear at all. They are such hard, well-worn ground that the seed sits there until Satan takes it away. Others are rocky soil—perhaps a hint of the rocky nature of what is to come. The seed quickly takes root, but equally quickly dies out. Some falls on good soil, but it also hosts thorns—things that compete with Jesus and his gospel and choke it out. Some falls on good soil, takes deep root and produces a harvest in such abundance that it makes up for the failure of the other three. In other words, at least three out of four people out there on the hillside will fall away, probably more. But think of the harvest that emerged from this inner circle of believers.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Isaiah 44:9-20; Psalm 79; Ephesians 4:17-32; Mark 3:19b-35
The diatribe against idol worship that we skipped over yesterday is the focus of today’s reading from Isaiah. Idols are nothing; what is their profit? Their makers are merely human. Why would they do such a thing, since the idols can do no good? Those who worship them and those who make them will be put to shame. The artisans who fashion the idols are portrayed in all of their human frailty. They cast their work in human form, with the attributes of human beauty and set them within shrines. They are made with wood, from the very same log that is burned in the fire to warm oneself or bake one’s bread. But at the same time, they bow down to things made of the same wood and say, “Save me, for you are my god?” Ridiculous! Those who do this do not know, they do not comprehend; their eyes are shut so they cannot see; so too are their minds, so they do not understand. It is just as God had said it would be (Isaiah 6:9-11). Half of the wood they use for heat, for baking bread and roasting meat, the other half they use to fashion an abomination before which they fall down in worship. They feed on ashes, for a deluded mind has lead them astray to the point that they cannot see or say, “This thing in my hand is a fraud.”
Psalm 79 is a communal lament that reveals the horror in and around Jerusalem when Babylon finally came and destroyed it in 587 BCE, burning the temple to the ground, slaughtering its people and taking its leaders into exile. The psalmist pleads for God to give up his anger and jealous wrath at the people and stop all of the violence. Rather, pour forth that anger on the nations that have plundered Israel, those who do not know the Lord or call upon the Lord’s name. The psalmist now offers an oblique confession of sin, pleading that God not remember against them the sins of their ancestors, but, instead, respond speedily with compassion and help. The Lord is addressed as “The God of our salvation,” and asked to do so for the glory of his name. “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” Rather, give the nations what they have given us. Avenge us and let the nations know it is your vengeance, and let that be known among them before our eyes—vindicate us! Prayers are offered for God to preserve the prisoners carried off to Babylon who are doomed to die there. The psalmist then turns bitter and requests that those around them who taunted them and refused to come to their aid, while they watched Jerusalem under siege, receive seven-fold the taunts with which they taunted the Lord as Jerusalem fell. Notice that it is only after this complete retaliation is accomplished that the psalmist promises to give thanks to the Lord. “Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” The bitterness of the survivors of Jerusalem and their hatred of those around them who took advantage of their defeat is clearly resonant in this very human expression of grief and despair. Yet, it is a grief and despair that is still addressed to God. This is, of course, one of the glories of the Psalter: its ability to cast all of life, even its darkest moments of suffering and anguish, under the sovereignty and mercy of God.
Ephesians continues to move from its theological foundation to practical applications in believer’s lives. The Ephesians must abandon the pagan ways they lived before becoming Christian. Union with Christ means we must abandon those things we were united to in the past that are not of Christ. Those ways are described as “futility of the mind,” darkened in understanding and alienated from the life of God, either because of ignorance or simply hardness of heart. Having lost all sensitivity, the Gentiles have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greed, and every kind of impurity. This is what comes from darkened minds. But this is not what they have learned in Christ, or what they have been taught, for “truth is in Jesus.” Consequently, they are to put away their former ways of life, their old self, corrupt and deluded by lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of their minds (very close to what Paul writes in Romans 12:2). New minds produce new behavior; minds centered in Christ produce Christ-like behavior. Therefore, they are to clothe themselves in their new self—Christ. They are to put him on as intentionally as they otherwise clothe themselves each day. Drilling down even deeper, the instructions become more frank and direct: put away falsehood, speak the truth. Be angry, but do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your anger, do not make room for the devil. Thieves, stop stealing; find another way to live that is honest and can contribute to the good of the body. Guard your mouths against evil talk, and speak only that which builds up. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, with which you were marked in baptism as the seal (guarantee) for the day of redemption. Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Forgive others their sins as your sins have been forgiven. Be Christ with and to one another for the sake of Christ.
Jesus returns home, in all probability, to Capernaum, his base of operations in Galilee. His fame and popularity have spread, and people now crowd in upon him and the twelve so that they cannot even eat. When his family learns that he is back at his home, they go out to restrain him. They have heard what some are saying about him: he is demented and is doing the work of the devil. Chief among these are the scribes from Jerusalem who have seen Jesus violating Torah again and again. How can he be from God? But from whence comes his power? It must be the devil. And so, they claim that his exorcisms are being done by none other than Beelzebul, the chief or Lord of the demons. Knowing this, Jesus calls the crowd and challenges the scribe’s notion by telling two parables, one dealing with political realities, the other household matters. A kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, casting himself out, then his end has come. Shifting to another metaphor, Jesus says no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder it without first tying up the strong man. But this is precisely what is happening. The demons are not only recognizing Jesus as God’s Son, but responding to Jesus’ superior commands. They come out when commanded to do so and remain silent. Satan is bound, his house is being plundered. Then Jesus adds these formidable words: people will be forgiven whatever blasphemies they utter except those against the Holy Spirit; these can never be forgiven. The scribes’ allegations that he is possessed are true—but not by Satan. He is possessed by the Holy Spirit, and misnaming and failing to see that is unforgivable. By now his mother and brothers have come, but are unable to get into the house because of the crowd. Standing outside they send word to him. “Outside” here, is more than Mark’s desire to locate them in the scene. They too are on the outside and think he might be demented. This is why they have come to take him home. When he is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for him, he redefines the nature of family in the kingdom of God. The connection is no longer biological, but rather, those who do the will of God. Looking around at his followers he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters—those who do the will of God. “Sisters” here is not an editorial gloss to make the text inclusive. The word appears in the Greek and is witness to the fact that there were women among Jesus’ earliest disciples and followers.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Isaiah 44:6-8,21-23; Psalm 74; Ephesians 4:1-16; Mark 3:7-19a
The Lord again identifies himself as the King of Israel and his Redeemer, as well as “the Lord of Hosts”—commander of the squadron of heavenly warriors—and says, “I am the first and the last,” an image that appears earlier in 41:4 and will again appear in 48:12, and is a dominant image in the book of Revelation. Also “Who is like me?” is found early in a slightly different form in 40:18 and will appear again in 46:5. What might initially sound repetitious on God’s part is actually a major breakthrough, for in it God also says “beside me there is no other god.” That makes this the earliest affirmation of monotheism in the Bible, a revolutionary idea. The God of Israel, is not only their God, and is not simply sovereign over the non-gods of other nations, he is the Lord, Sovereign of all nations, is God—period! There is no other. Therefore, they are not to fear or be afraid. The Lord called them from of old and has repeatedly told them that they belong to God—they are the Lord’s witnesses. Their election is not for privilege, but for servant-hood. The question is asked again: “Is there any god beside [the Lord?]” No! “There is no other rock.” Those idols represent nothing! After a passage again denouncing the illogic of idolatry and the delusion of those who participate in it, Israel is again commanded to remember that it is God’s servant, and they will not be forgotten. The Lord has swept away her transgressions like a cloud and her sins like a midst. Therefore, she is to return to him, for the Lord has redeemed her. There follows a one verse hymn in which all of creation is called to sing, shout and break forth into praise because the Lord has redeemed Jacob.
Psalm 74 laments, Lord, how is it that you have allowed your people to be overwhelmed, and your sanctuary to be destroyed by foreigners? How is it you have forgotten the people you acquired for yourself? How is it your foes have been allowed to roar within your holy place, setting up their own banners and emblems, destroying everything in your sanctuary, setting it afire? How long, O Lord, is the enemy to scoff and to revile your name? This psalm is the lament of those who have been left behind in Jerusalem after 587 BCE, when Babylon finally sacked it and destroyed the temple and led not only Israel’s political leader but also its intelligentsia away into exile. God is reaffirmed as Israel’s king from of old, who works salvation on their behalf through the earth. The exodus is remembered as well as acts of sovereignty over the mythic creature of chaos and destruction, Leviathan. God’s work as creator and Lord is affirmed with the lyric, “Yours is the day; yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you have made summer and winter.” The Lord is then called on to remember how the enemy scoffs and reviles God’s name and to it is added the plea: “Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals; do not forget the life of your poor forever.” God is reminded of his covenant promises and asked to not let the downtrodden be put to shame in order that the poor and needy might praise God’s name. The psalm ends with the plea: “Rise up, O God:” act! Make your case with the impious who scoff all day long, whose clamor and uproar goes up continually.
The letter to the Ephesians now turns to the practical implication of what has been said thus far. They are to lead a life worthy of their calling and live with one another in all humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love, and making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Why does this not appear in church mission statements? They are, after all, the body of Christ in whom Christ dwells fully. There is but one body, one Spirit, one call, one hope, one Lord one faith, one baptism—notice the list of seven reasons for their unity. But there is an eighth, the one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all—is in them! There follows the list of gifts that have been given to them, introduced by a brief digression and reflection on the gifts of Christ’s work, including a quotation of psalms 68:18 that now becomes a reference to Christ’s descent into hell to take even it captive, a theme that also appears in 1 Peter 3:18ff. The list of gifted callings among them includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. All of these have been given to them by Christ for the purpose of building them up in the faith, until they all come to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full measure of Christ. Christ is the goal and belonging to him, they are to become like him. Let them speak the truth in love as they grow into him who is their head, who joins them together in one body, each portion working perfectly as they promote the body’s growth in love. Paul’s theology of the church as the body of Christ is no longer a static image, but now a full-blown, living, dynamic organism.
We have an interlude between the controversy in the synagogue, over Jesus’ healing on the sabbath, and his official call of the twelve apostles. Jesus’ fame is spreading, so much, so that people are coming to him, at the Sea of Galilee, from every corner of Palestine and as far north as Sidon and Tyre, and as far south as Idumea (now Gaza), bringing their sick and demented with them. He cures many. And when the unclean spirits that are the source of illness see him, they fall at his feet shouting, “You are the Son of God!” but Jesus silences them. Because of the press of the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to have their boats ready in case he needs to get away from the crowd, lest it crush him. The scene shifts, curiously, not to the sea or the boats, but to Jesus going up the mountain, probably because mountains were “thin places” of revelation and divine action. He calls to himself “those whom he wants, and they come to him.” The twelve are named “apostles”—the word means “sent out with a commission” and appears only once again in Mark 6:30—sent out to proclaim the message with him. To them he gives authority to cast out demons (which also means authority to heal). The twelve are named. Simon is listed with the note that Jesus also gave him the name Peter (for the event is not otherwise reported in Mark). He also gives a nickname to John, the brother of James, “Son of Thunder.” Is he giving us an insight into John’s temperament? Interestingly enough, Levi son of Alphaeus, the tax collector, who Jesus called in 2:13 is not included within the list of the twelve apostles unless he is the one now named “James son of Alphaeus,” nor is Nathanael from John's Gospel. Commentators differ as to whether Levi was included in the twelve or part of the larger circle of those following Jesus. Nathanael, "the Israelite in whom there is no guile" may be representative of all the Jews who came to Jesus as disciples, and a part of Jesus' larger circle. Finally, Judas is named for the first time and is identified as the one who will betray him. There is no need for the use of suspense on Mark’s part, even regarding Jesus’ use of the term, “Son of man.” Mark has already told us who Jesus is—the Son of God—and that this is good news. He wants us to know, right up front, that somehow, Judas’ betrayal will be a part of that.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
Isaiah 43:14—44:5; Psalm 44; Hebrews 6:17-7:10; John 4:27-42
After asserting his sovereignty over all the cosmos, the Lord again announces himself as Israel’s Redeemer, “The Holy One of Israel” and promises to tear down Babylon, break the bars of its doors and turn its peoples’ jubilant shouts of victory into lamentations. Asserting again his identity as their Creator and King, the Lord promises to make a way through the sea, and invokes images of Israel’s initial release from Egypt. This new exodus will be more miraculous than the first. Therefore, they are not to remember those former things, or consider the things of old, for God is about to do a new thing. It springs forth; can they perceive it? God will make rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor him and not be a danger to them. He will give drink to his chosen people, those he has formed for himself, so that they might declare his praise. That said, we are suddenly back to the courtroom, and the trial begins. God sets forth Israel’s sins and the reasons she has been punished with exile. In an oracle that is quite atypical for Second Isaiah, the people are castigated over their sacrifices, whether the lack of them or their lack of sincerity in offering them. There is a problem here: how could the Israelites sacrifice to the Lord in exile? Scholars have puzzled over this and concluded that this is really polemic against their false worship of God in Babylon. Or, is this God simply reiterating what seems to have always been the case: they have burdened him with their sin and wearied him with their iniquities. Despite this, God says, “I; I am he who blots out your transgressions, and do so for my own sake.” It is a theme that will appear a bit later in Isaiah as well (48:11), and behind it lies God’s steadfast love, what the Apostle Paul will call the grace of God. God will remember their sins no more—nothing can be more gracious than that. That said, the Israelites are again called to trial to argue it out. The Lord says, “Lay your case before me; prove yourselves right.” Their first ancestor sinned (a reference to Jacob) and their interpreters sinned, probably their priests, therefore, the Lord profaned the princes of their sanctuary and delivered them to utter destruction and reviling. That said—it is almost as though the Lord has had to get all of this off his chest—now the judgment against Israel is over. “Hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel, my chosen: do not fear.” The Lord will pour water on her thirsty land, his spirit upon her descendants and blessings on her offspring. One will say, “I am the Lord’s,” another will be called by the name of Jacob, and yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s” and will adopt for themselves the name of Israel.
Psalm 44 is a national lament, the first to appear in the Psalter, and was occasioned by some severe military defeat that was understood as having happened because God had abandoned them. Why? At this time of humiliation and great distress, it calls on God to rouse himself and come to the nation’s aid. The psalmist begins by remembering what they had been told about God by their ancestors, the deeds he performed for them early on, driving out the nations, planting them in the land, afflicting those who oppressed them, keeping their own people free. It was not with their own swords that they took the land, or by their own arm that they were victorious. It was God’s right hand and arm and the light of his countenance that did this for them because he delighted in them. Having recounted their history, the psalm now reminds God that he has been the nation’s King and God, and, as such, commanded victories for Jacob. It was through him that they pushed down their foes and tread down their assailants. Neither their bow nor their sword was the source of their victory, but God who put those who hate them into confusion and saved them. In this and the rest of God’s works they have continually boasted, giving thanks to God’s name forever. But even so, now, they have been rejected, abandoned and abused by God. God has not gone out with their armies, but has made them turn back from their foes, making them like sheep to be slaughtered and scattered among the nations. They have become the taunt of their neighbors, a byword of scorn among the nations, and a laughingstock among the peoples. And though all of this has come upon them, yet, they have not forgotten God nor been false to God’s covenant. Their hearts have not turned back nor their steps departed from God’s ways. Still, God has broken them in the haunt of jackals and covered them with deep darkness. Special appeal is made to God’s ability to know all things as a means of establishing their innocence. Had they forgotten God’s name, had they worshiped a strange god, would not God know that? God even knows the secrets of hearts. It is because of God that they are being killed all day long and accounted as sheep for the slaughter—God is permitting it (a verse Paul quotes in Romans 8:36 to speak of the young churches’ own hardships). Having said all of this, the psalmist utters this demand: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Notice, that for the first time, God is named. “Awake; do not cast us off forever. Rise up; come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.” Remarkably and quite uncharacteristically, the psalm ends here. There is no resolution or divine response, as is so often the case with personal lament. This is God’s fault and only God can fix it. And so, the psalmist waits for the Lord.
This lesson from Hebrews should really begin with verse sixteen that explains how oaths work. The point is, we swear by someone greater than ourselves. God, on the other hand, cannot do that. In order to show more clearly that we are heirs of God’s promise and the unchanging character of God purpose, God guaranteed it by an oath. That gives us two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to prove false: God’s word and God’s oath. God has done so in order that we might seize the hope he has set before us. We have this hope, a sure anchor for our lives—Christ himself—who has entered the inner shrine behind the curtain (into God’s own presence on our behalf) as a forerunner and high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. The text now turns to remind us of who King Melchizedek is—king of Salem (ancient name of Jerusalem), and priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham on his return from defeating the kings who had raided Sodom and Gomorrah and taken his nephew Lot captive (Genesis 14:5-20.) Melchizedek was so great that, upon meeting him, Abraham gave him a tenth—a tithe—of all the spoils from his defeat of the kings. Extending the logic of tithes through the law that requires tithes be given to priests to sustain them, the author returns to the fact that the superior receives tithes from the inferior, and conversely, the inferior is blessed by the superior. The fact that Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek and in turn received a blessing from him reveals that Melchizedek was superior even to Abraham. In addition, Melchizedek still lives. As the Levites are descendants of Abraham, it is as though they themselves paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham’s gifts to him. In other words, Jesus, a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, is superior to Abraham and all the Levitic sacrificial system.
The lesson from John breaks in on Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. The disciples have been in town looking for food and return to the well and are astonished that Jesus is talking with a woman, a Samaritan no less. But none of them have the courage to ask him why. At their arrival, the woman departs, leaving her water jug behind—she has received the living water he promised to give, and her thirst has been quenched. She goes back into the city to tell the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he? And so, the people of the city rush out to the well to see for themselves. In the meantime, the disciples keep urging Jesus to eat some of the food they have brought back from town, but Jesus says to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Confused, they do not understand that he means that doing God’s work sustains him more than even food. Jesus will say this again, later in this gospel (5:30, 36; 6:38; 10:37-38). Then, quoting an agricultural adage about the coming harvest, he tells them to look around—the fields are ripe for harvest right now—even among the Samaritans! The reaper is already receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together. One sows, another reaps. They are being sent forth to reap what another has sown and enter into that labor. The townspeople arrive and we are told that many of them believed in him, simply because of the woman’s testimony—the power of witness. But when they actually meet him themselves, they invite him to stay with them, and he does. This is not simply Middle Eastern hospitality. This is witness that they have been part of the harvest and now have been gathered in as well. Staying with them, many more come to believe in him. And so, they say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World. Witness leads people to Jesus, but that witness is confirmed in our own interactions with him, as he lives with us, wherein we learn who he is for ourselves.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
Isaiah 43:1-13; Psalm 104; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 2:23-3:6
God continues to speak to Israel in her exile, promising release and a new relationship. “Do not fear,” is a refrain from earlier words of comfort (41:1-16). God is going to act. The imagery recalls the exodus, passing through the waters. The Holy One of Israel is their Savior and Redeemer. She is so loved and precious in God’s sight that God will give up others to ransom her from slavery. Again, “Do not fear,” this time affirming God’s continuing presence. It is followed by a promise to gather her disbursed people from east, west, north and south and bring them from the ends of the earth—all who are called by God’s name, who God has created for his own glory. The oracle then turns against the nations who are blind and deaf and who trust in idols. They are called to stand trial and justify themselves. Witnesses are called: “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears.” This is a double reference. First it points to Israel under the curse God leveled against it in Isaiah of Jerusalem’s call (6:9), “hear, hear, but do not understand; see, see, but do not perceive.” Second, it is the nations that, though not so cursed, still see and do not perceive and hear but do not understand—those who worship idols. Israel is called to witness against the nations and the nations against Israel. What have they seen or heard? As the Lord continues to speak, he asserts his sovereignty not only over Israel and the nations around her, but over the entire cosmos. There is none like him anywhere. “I, I am the Lord, and beside me there is no savior…. I am God, and henceforth I am He; there is no one who can deliver from my hand.”
Psalm 104 is a creation hymn and one of the “load stones” of the psalter. It speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also of God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God creates each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds to nest in, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is, fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order, parceled out by God’s wisdom that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last to be written in the Bible and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those creation psalms that appear in the book of Job.
This prayer for the Ephesians asks that they may be blessed according to the riches of God’s glory, be granted strength in their “inner being” through God’s Spirit, and that Christ will dwell in their hearts through faith, as they are rooted and grounded in love. Some think this is part of a baptismal liturgy blessing, and it may well have become that. The author continues to pray that they may have the ability to comprehend, with all the saints, the power and extent of God’s work in them and the world, and know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge and understanding. He prays that they may be filled with all the fullness of God. The theology of the incarnation of Christ within believers is rich and speaks of “the God in us,” which would be blasphemous, except for the fact that it is the work of God. It is not that we are each a God, but that God is within us in Christ. That is startling and mind-stretching. And so, he concludes with a doxology, blessing God for having the power to do what he promises, as astonishing and unbelievable as it might sound. He again affirms what he has said before, this time in doxological language: “To him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations.” Who cannot say “Amen” to that?
Having spoken of the danger of putting the new in the old, Jesus and his disciples are now walking through a grain field on the sabbath, on their way to synagogue, and his disciples begin to pluck the heads of wheat, roll them in their hand to remove the chaff, and eat the grain. The Pharisees see this and complain that his disciples are violating the Torah’s prohibition against working on the sabbath. Jesus reminds them of the time David violated holy sanction surrounding the bread of the presence in the tabernacle, which only the priests were permitted to eat. Famished, David took the bread and gave it to his companions to eat. There is something more important than religious sanctions—life, and when the sanctions get in the way of it, they are to be violated. The sabbath sanctions were, after all, made for the sake of humans, not the other way around. In light of that, “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” He has come to give and restore life. But, see how this new thing among them is tearing up the old? He then enters the synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand. Everyone is watching to see what Jesus will do. If he cures on the sabbath, that will not be a self-preservation action that is allowed on the sabbath, but real work. Jesus seems to know what they are thinking and asks the man to come forward. Turning to those scrutinizing him, Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? Everyone remains silent. Filled with anger, Jesus looks around at them, and grieved by the hardness of their hearts says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man does and as he does, his hand is restored. That is too much for the on-looking Pharisees. Immediately they go out and conspire, together with the Herodians, an unknown group of Jews who seem to have been another religious party allied with Herod—ruler in Galilee—as members of both religious parties look for a way to destroy Jesus before he and his new ways destroy them.
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.