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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Isaiah 5:18-25; Psalm 36; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28; Luke 21:29-38

Though the Lord looks for and exults in justice, what he finds in Jerusalem is a people persistent in their sin, “dragging iniquity along with cords of falsehood.” They mock God’s work, saying “Let us see it; bring it to fulfillment so we may know it.” Their duplicity extends to all things. Though they think of themselves as wise, they are really self-righteous. Their drunken behavior, their corruption and greed are signs that they are anything but righteous. They acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of their rights. As fire devours stubble, so shall they be devoured. They have rejected the instruction of the Lord and despised the word of the Holy One. Therefore, the anger of the Lord was kindled against this people. (Note the shift in tense; the last line of this woe, in the past tense, is repeated several times in 9:10-10:4 and suggests that this was originally a part of that passage and has been inserted here.) The point is that the Lord will no longer stand for this behavior and is stretching his hand out against the people.

Psalm 36 reflects on the difference between those who take pride in their transgressions and those who trust in the loving kindness of the Lord. It begins addressing the capacity for wickedness deep within the human heart. Is it the psalmist speaking, reflecting on the ways of the wicked, or is the one speaking transgression itself speaking to the wicked, deep in their hearts? Both are possible. Yes, the wicked have no fear of God. There is no end to the way they flatter themselves in their own eyes, thinking that their iniquity is hidden. They have ceased to live wisely and spend their time in plots of mischief and embrace evil rather than reject it. Suddenly, in contrast, as if to keep one from despair, the psalm turns to praise for the Lord’s steadfast love, which extends to the heavens. God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains and judgments like the great deep. The Lord saves humans and animals alike. The psalm lauds the preciousness of God’s steadfast love and confesses that all take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings. It goes on to speak of the abundance and goodness of God’s house, where God gives drink from the river of delights. God is the fountain of life; in his light we see light. The prayer concludes by asking for God’s continued steadfast love to those who know him. As for the arrogant with whom this psalm began, do not let their foot tread on him or the hand of the wicked drive him away. Rather, let the Lord continue his salvation. As for evildoers, let them lay prostrate, thrust down, unable to rise.

Before concluding this, his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul issues a series of exhortations concerning conduct within the community of faith. They are to respect “those who labor among them,” as their spiritual leaders, evidence to the beginning of a group within the church that will later become pastors and bishops of the congregations. They are to admonish one another, not as acts of criticism, but as the means of building up and encouraging one another into more faithful living. Yet, they are to have patience with the weak in faith among them and those who are fainthearted in the midst of troubles. They are not to return evil with evil, but always seek to do good, not simply with one another, but to all. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” These words are appropriate for every congregation in any time or circumstance. The words of the prophets they are being warned against despising are the words of the preachers among them (the word “prophecy” in the NT refers to the gift of preaching), nor are they to quench the Spirit. Rather, they are to test everything, holding fast to what is good, abstaining from every form of evil. Paul then offers a prayer that has become a standard blessing within the Christian household, reminding us that the “one who calls [us] is faithful, and he will do this.” Thereafter, there is a request for prayer, some final personal greetings with the injunction to greet one another with “the holy kiss” (the precursor of “the peace” in Christian liturgy), and Paul’s final benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”

Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree as a means of reminding his listeners that they do have the ability to discern the signs of the times. When they see the things taking place that Jesus has warned them about, they will know that the kingdom of God is near. And then he says to them, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” It is Jesus’ way of saying that all of this is taking place around them—they are in the midst of it. But, the final day of its coming is not the concern here, as scholars regularly insist there is nothing here about temporal time tables. “This evil generation,” is a reference to every generation that continues to resist Jesus’ words. In addition, much of what is described here has already taken place. Rather, these words are less warning than pastoral care: they are not to get weighed down with the worries of this life or spend their days in dissipation and drunkenness. Rather, they must remain alert at all times, praying for strength to endure when these things take place and they too find themselves standing before the Son of Man. With these words, Luke brings to a close Jesus’ teaching in the temple, adding that Jesus did this daily, spending his evenings on the Mount of Olives. And each day, the crowds got up early to be able to listen to him teach in the temple.

Posted December 9, 2014
Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014
Isaiah 5:8-17; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Luke 21:20-28

Isaiah denounces the practices of the wealthy who devour others’ property by taking it as debt and adding it to their own until all the land belongs to them and its inhabitants are mere vassals. (Land, in Judah, was to stay within families and was not to be transferred for payment of debt because that land was the means of one’s living.) Those who own many houses through such practice shall find them desolate because of God’s coming judgment on them. Their vast lands shall not produce for them, but render very little yield. Judgment is pronounced on those whose wealth gives them leisure and who spend it on nothing but drinking and idle deeds and do not regard the deeds of the Lord. The oracle of judgment continues naming the nobility of Jerusalem. Because of them the people are bowed down, everyone is brought low, and their own haughty eyes are humbled. The central prophetic theme is in verse 16: “The Lord is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.” When that happens, lambs shall graze in pastures and fatlings and kids shall feed among their ruins.

Psalm 25 is a prayer in which the psalmist pleads for God’s protection, guidance, mercy, instruction, pardon and grace. A wisdom psalm, it is acrostic in structure—the first word of each line beginning with a descending letter of the Hebrew alphabet—and repeats the convictions that those who wait upon the Lord and who walk in God’s ways (Torah), will never be put to shame, while the wantonly treacherous will end in disgrace and defeat. Seeking for the wisdom ever to know God’s ways, the psalmist asks to be led in God’s truth and taught God’s ways. She pleads for God’s mercy and steadfast love and asks that the sins of her youth be forgotten. She blesses the Lord as good and upright, who instructs sinners and leads the humble in the paths of steadfast love and faithfulness. In the midst of many foes, she asks that they not prevail or put her to shame, for she has taken refuge in the Lord. May that integrity and uprightness be a source of strength and preservation as she waits on God. Finally, the scope of this petition is expanded beyond personal concerns to pray that God will redeem all Israel out of its troubles.

Paul turns to the second major question of the Thessalonians: When will the Lord return? He reminds them that this is impossible to know because it will come like a thief in the night—a common phrase for a sudden, unexpected intrusion. Precisely at the moment people feel the most secure and at ease it will come upon them, like labor pains suddenly come on a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape. But the Thessalonians have no reason to fear for they are not in darkness that the day should surprise them like the thief surprises, but rather they are children of the day. Therefore, they are not to fall asleep or lose their watchfulness. Rather, they are to remain sober in their living, as opposed to those around them who get drunk at night, only further adding to their darkness. Paul writes, “We belong to the day.” Therefore, beyond sober, watchful living, they are to clothe themselves with the breastplate of faith and love, and for their helmet, the hope of salvation. God has destined them, not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. And then Paul adds a further word of assurance that is often overlooked in this lesson: “So that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. In the end, salvation is dependent not upon whether we are awake or asleep but upon the Lord who is coming as Savior!

After describing the persecution that will fall to those who follow him, Jesus describes the fall of Jerusalem with words of warning. If you are in the city, flee—it will fall. Run to the countryside and away from the center of the conflict. Woe to those who cannot run: the pregnant and those who are nursing. Luke has the advantage of knowing that this is precisely what happened and that his readers are still living in “the times of the Gentiles” as Rome totally destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE after a period of devastating siege. After this, there will be the coming of the Son of Man, preceded by cosmic signs in the heavens, distress among the nations of the earth, the roaring of the sea, stirring up its chaos, with people fainting in fear and foreboding for what is coming. He will come in great power and glory. But then, out of this fearsome picture Jesus adds this curious word: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The coming of the Son of Man is a day of redemption as well as the dreaded Day of the Lord’s judgment!

Posted December 8, 2014
Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 114; 2 Peter 3:11-18; Luke 7:28-35;

Isaiah sings the song of the vineyard, one of Isaiah’s favorite images for Israel, who is God’s beloved. God planted them on a very fertile hill (Jerusalem). God cultivated the vineyard, planted it with choice vines and built a watchtower in the middle of it, fitting it with all that was necessary for it to produce choice grapes. Instead, it has produced wild grapes. God calls upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the people of Judah to judge between God and his vineyard. What more was there that God could do for them that God has not done? Why then, when God expected choice grapes, did it produce wild ones with their bitter taste? Therefore, God will give the nation over to destruction, removing its hedge, breaking down its wall so that it is trampled underfoot. It shall become a waste, neither pruned nor hoed, and overgrown with briers and thorns. Rain shall no longer fall on its ground. The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah—his pleasant planting. God expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness but heard the cry of the oppressed.

Psalm 114 is a hymn praising God’s power and recounts the wonders God did in claiming the house of Israel as his own when bringing them out of Egypt to make them God’s own dwelling place in the land of promise. The psalm uses various images from creation to emphasize God’s sovereignty at critical points in Israel’s life—the sea looked and fled; the river Jordan turned back to allow the people to cross over. At God’s presence, the mountains skipped like rams and the hills like lambs. Why? Because it is the Lord, the one who turns rocks into pools of water and flint into a gushing spring, a reference to Moses striking the rock in the wilderness. The hymn is a remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and was later sung at Passover on the 8th day of that celebration, just as it still is today.

2 Peter comes to its conclusion with an exhortation to holy and godly living as the faithful await the coming day of the Lord and the emergence of the new heaven and new earth, where righteousness will finally have a home—be at home! As they wait, they are to strive to be found at peace with one another. They are to regard the patience of the Lord as salvation—God continues to be at work in it. Then the author cites Paul’s letters as authoritative witness corroborating his own thoughts, though he acknowledges that some portions of Paul’s thought are “hard to understand.” He also expresses concern that some have twisted Paul’s words and distorted their meaning, in all probability, Paul’s words on Christian freedom. Those who have done this do so with other scriptures as well but do so to their own destruction. Therefore, the recipients of this letter are to be forewarned, lest they be carried away by the error of such lawlessness and lose their own footing. Rather, they are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The letter ends with a final ascription of praise: “To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen!”

Jesus has been talking about John the Baptist, and tells the crowd that among those born of a woman no one is greater than John. Yet now, even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John! The kingdom has arrived and is reversing all worldly standards. The tax collectors and all others who had gone out to John for baptism were acknowledging this in their response to him. But the Pharisees and lawyers, who refused John’s baptism, were actually rejecting God’s purposes for themselves. Jesus then employs an illustration from a popular child’s game, “Dancers and Mourners,” and says that the religious authorities are like children playing a game, who simply cannot take God’s “yes” for an answer. John came as an ascetic and they said he was possessed. Jesus has come eating and drinking, and they call him a glutton, drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners. They simply cannot be satisfied, so distorted have they become in their religious self-satisfaction and ways. But, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” God’s work and purposes are being revealed in both John and Jesus. The religious leaders need to hear that in their opposition to John and to Jesus, they are actually opposing God.

Posted December 7, 2014
Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday, December 6, 2014
Isaiah 4:2-6; Psalm 110; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Luke 21:5-19

An oracle of salvation and restoration has been inserted into the text at this point to provide the reader some hope in the midst of Isaiah’s doomsday speech. “On that day;” prophetic formula for pointing to the coming “Day of the Lord,” the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and its fruit the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. This “branch” is a righteous remnant; those who belong to it, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy—those who have been recorded for life in Jerusalem. This notion of “recorded for life in Jerusalem,” will give rise to the idea of a ‘Book of Life” in which God keeps the names of those to be redeemed (Dan 12:1; Rev 20:12). But none of this will take place until the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and burned out the blood stains of Jerusalem. But once that has taken place, the Lord will create over the entire mountain, especially its temple, a cloud of smoke by day and fire by night—sign of God’s presence among them. It is a remembrance of the cloud and pillar of fire that led the children of Israel through their wilderness travels during the exodus. God’s presence will be a refuge and shelter to all who are there in Jerusalem “on that day.”

Psalm 110 is a royal psalm that is an assurance to the King that he is the Lord’s anointed. It was probably used as a new king was crowned, or on the anniversary celebration of his ascension to the throne. It is cast as a prophetic oracle announcing the Lord’s favor. Notice, “The Lord says to my lord”—the court prophet is delivering God’s word to his lord, the king. It is a promise that all of the king’s enemies shall be defeated by the Lord, who will send out from Zion the king’s scepter (symbol of royal power and reign) over all his foes. His people will volunteer to serve, rather than be conscripted, and he will have the power of his youthful days, which will continue. The prophet continues, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.” And now, the king is installed not only into royal but priestly office, being designated “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” the mysterious king of Salem that Abraham encountered (Gen 14) on his return from battle. Some suggest that this psalm was first used when David was installed as king in Jerusalem. Whatever, the psalm assigns both royal and priestly power to the king, setting the stage for its later use in messianic thought. The psalm ends with traditional language about triumph over the nation’s foes, and concludes that he shall drink from the stream by the path, refreshed and firmly established as God’s sovereign servant on the earth. This psalm is quoted in the New Testament some fourteen times, a witness to the fact that Jesus is David’s messianic descendent and God’s son and priestly king. It is the psalm Jesus makes reference to when asking the religious leaders in the temple, how is it the Messiah is David’s son, when David calls him his Lord? (Luke 20:41-43)

Paul now turns to address a question that has come back to him, through Timothy, from the infant congregation. Evidently some of its members have died in the interim, and Jesus has not yet returned. Does this mean that they will be excluded from his triumphal return and reign? Paul gives expression to the earliest development of the church’s theology concerning the dead: “As Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In fact, these will even precede those who are still alive on that day. Paul then utilized the apocalyptic imagery of the day to describe how this will be. The Lord himself, with a cry of triumphal command and the sounding of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will be the first to rise from their graves. Notice, there is not yet the notion of the dead being in the presence of the risen Lord, as will emerge later. For now, the dead in Christ are dead. But they will rise, and they and all who are alive, who are left until he comes, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air. Thereafter, they will be with the Lord forever. They are to encourage one another with these words. They are to do their grieving over lost loved ones sustained by this hope. One other thought: they will not reign forever “in the air,” as though “in heaven.” This is apocalyptic language and must be read as such, rather than as “swoop down to rescue” theology. The point Paul is making is that at Jesus’ final appearing, those who have died in him—those the Thessalonians are concerned about—will appear with him. They are not being excluded from Christ’s triumphant reign. And, at his appearing with them, the risen Lord will be met by his own who are still living, who have been expecting him momentarily. All shall be a part of Christ’s eternal reign on and in a renewed and perfected humanity and creation.

Standing in the temple precincts, the pilgrim crowd is awed by its majesty. Jesus uses this as an occasion to foretell the destruction of the temple, thought of by them as not only the center of their religious, social and political world, but the dwelling place of God. We can hardly imagine the shock of Jesus’ words. Startled, they ask, “When will this be, and what will be the sign that it is taking place?” Jesus warns against false prophets and goes on to describe a series of calamities and heavenly portents that will take place first. Further, before all of this occurs, they will be arrested and persecuted, handed over to synagogues and prisons, and brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’ name. This is, in the mystery of God’s ways, an opportunity to testify to the truth. They need not prepare their defense in advance, for Jesus himself (note the assumption that he will be risen and present to them in that time), will give them words and a wisdom that none of their opponents will be able to withstand. They will be betrayed by family, and some will be put to death. They will be hated by all because of Jesus’ name. But not a hair of their heads will perish. By their endurance they will gain their souls. This is, of course, precisely what the Book of Acts describes, and Luke’s readers know it. This is Luke’s way of Jesus commenting on and providing courage and hope to those experiencing the hardship of persecution and martyrdom because of their commitment to him.

Posted December 6, 2014
Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014
Isaiah 3:1-15; Psalm 22; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12; Luke 20:41-21:4

The oracle now turns upon the Southern Kingdom. The Sovereign Lord will take away support and staff: bread, water, soldier, prophet, diviner, elder, captain of fifty, dignitary, counselor and so on, and make boys their princes with babes ruling over them. That will bring confusion and oppression to the point that none will want to reign over Judah. Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen because their speech and deeds defy the Lord’s glorious presence. They are like the people of Sodom, they know no shame; their faces reveal it. Woe to these who have brought evil upon themselves. Tell the innocent how fortunate they are for they shall eat the fruit of their labor while the guilty shall have done to them what they have done to others. Verse twelve can be read two ways: “Children are their oppressors, and women rule over them,” or, “gleaners rule over them and creditors are their oppressors,” this latter is the sense in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). Whichever, the point is that their leaders will mislead and confuse the people and become an embarrassment to them. Consequently, the Lord rises to argue his case and stands to judge the people.

Psalm 22 is the best known lament in the Psalter, primarily because it contains the words that are on the lips of Jesus’ hanging on the cross and is all but prophetic concerning what takes place there. It is a lengthy plea for help that describes the psalmist’s troubles. Day and night he calls for help with no answer. Yet, God is the Holy One enthroned on the praises of Israel; the One his ancestors trusted and he delivered them. But the psalmist does not ask on the basis of his own righteousness. He is but a worm, not human, and scorned by others who despise and mock him. “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver,” is repeated in the passion (Matthew 27:43 ) with the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees using these words to mock Jesus in his dying. In the midst of suffering, the psalmist remembers that God has cared for him since his birth and from that time the Lord has been his God. Again he pleads, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” Vivid language follows to describe the psalmist’s condition: surrounded by strong and destructive bulls, poured out like water, a heart melted like wax, bones out of joint, mouth dried like a potsherd, and his tongue cleaving to his jaw. The psalmist understands this as God’s judgment against him: “you lay me in the dust of death,” circled by dogs ready to devour his flesh. His enemies likewise stare and gloat over his suffering and divide his clothing among them by casting lots—another image Matthew includes at the cross. After one final plea for the Lord’s presence and aid to save him from the power of the dog and the mouth of the lion, suddenly there is a shift in the second half of verse 22: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” God has acted. The rest of the psalm is one of praise to God for not hiding his face, for answering and for coming to the psalmist in his distress. The psalm is exultant and filled with promises to testify to the Lord’s goodness among his brothers and sisters in the midst of the congregation. His rescue is such that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship him.” For, dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. Even those yet unborn will be told about the Lord and proclaim him. It is easy to see why the infant church found in this psalm prophetic witness to Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection and eternal rule, and how its influence found its way into the passion narratives.

Paul continues with the theme of holiness as he urges the Thessalonians to continue, as they are doing, to live lives that please God. They are to excel in honoring and loving one another. Yet, they are not to exploit or take advantage of those special bonds of relationship or abuse another by falling into fornication with them, as indeed, their Gentile neighbors are famous for doing in their own symposiums. Rather, the Thessalonians are to lead holy lives, controlling their sexual urges in honor of one another and the Lord who is the avenger of any who are exploited. For God has not called them to impurity but to holiness. Whoever rejects this is rejecting, not human authority, but God himself who has given his Holy Spirit to them. In addition, they are to continue in their expressions of love and concern for one another, not only within the Thessalonian congregation, but with the other sisters and brothers throughout Macedonia. No one congregation can live to itself alone but is a part of the whole. Consequently, they are to do “more and more” of what they are already doing. In addition, aspire to live quietly, mind your own affairs, work with your hand, behave properly with outsiders and be dependent on no one. This last sentence is not only instructive to the Thessalonians but also Paul describing his and his companion’s behavior as they carry out their missionary work.

Jesus turns to the question of the Messiah: How is it they say he is David’s son, when David himself, in Psalm 110:1 says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” If David calls the Messiah “my Lord,” how can he be David’s son? Jesus is claiming more for the Messiah than simply a return to Davidic rule—the Messiah is also “the Lord.” They, of course, miss it altogether. And so, Jesus turns to the crowd and warns them of the avarice of the scribes—those who are the interpreters of the Law and who love to be honored and recognized, yet devour widow’s houses and, for the sake of appearances say long prayers. The condemnation is leveled amid the scribes themselves and in the temple, a place intended to extend God’s merciful and gracious presence but which, under the religious authorities’ leadership, has become corrupt. Luke uses a well-known incident, the story of the widow who gives her last two copper coins here, as an illustration not of stewardship, as it is so often interpreted, but of the temple’s corruption under the religious leaders’ influence. The temple treasury makes no exceptions and takes the widow’s last two copper pennies regardless of that fact that she has nothing more. Notice that in this usage, Jesus’ comment that she has put in all she has to live on is not a commendation of her, but a judgment on the temple establishment. The system is abusing the very ones who should be the recipients of its expressions of God’s care.

Posted December 5, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

Author: The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.

© 2014