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Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday, July 14

Joshua 2:1–14; Psalm 5; Romans 11:1–12; Matthew 25:1–13

Before entering the land, Joshua sends two men to spy it out. They cross the Jordan just north of where it enters the Dead Sea and then make their way to Jericho. There, they go to the house of a prostitute named Rahab and spend the night with her. Whether or not this is a sexual liaison—and the Hebrew suggests that it might have been—still, it is a perfect cover for their espionage. The word of their presence in the city gets to the king who sends word for Rahab to turn the men over to him. Having hidden the spies, she lies about their presence. True, they came to her as men do, but she did not know where they were from. And, when their business was done with her they left, just as the gate of the city was being closed; pursue them and you will find them. The king’s men are dispatched and Rahab returns to the roof to bargain with the spies. In the course of it, she reveals that the town is terrified by Israel’s presence across the Jordan, has heard all that God has done for them, and dreads what is coming. There is no courage among any of them, for they know that surely the Lord will give Jericho into the Israelites’ hands. Notice that Rahab knows God’s name and what God has done. She has dealt kindly with them and now she pleads that they do likewise and spare her life and the lives of her father’s household when they come. The spies enter into an oath: “Our life for yours!” promising to do so if she keeps their presence a secret.

Psalm 5, traditionally used in Morning Prayer, pleads for God’s protection and care against his enemies. Knowing that God abhors wickedness and the boastful, the psalmist expresses the certainty that because of God’s steadfast love, he will again be able to enter God’s house to worship, even as he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit and their rebellion is really rebellion against God. Let them bear the fruit of their guilt, and fall by their own counsel. On the other hand, let all who take refuge in the Lord rejoice. Let them sing forever. Pleading for the Lord to spread his protection over all who take refuge in him, he ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care for those who are righteous (in a right relationship with God and one another). Cover them with divine favor as a shield.

Has God rejected Israel? Absolutely not! After all, Paul himself is an Israelite; many of the members of the church in Rome are Jews. That alone should make it clear. God has not rejected them, but as God did during the people’s apostasy in the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, God has preserved a remnant, chosen not by their works but by grace. Clearly, the Jews in the church at Rome are hearing these words directed to them—they are part of that remnant. The Law is of no use to them, for they have been chosen by God’s grace. Citing the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Paul makes the point that Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking because God “hardened them,” giving them, as Isaiah said, a “sluggish spirit.” (Isaiah 29:10) But, is this an eternal condition? Absolutely not! Their “stumbling” and failure to embrace the gospel has been the means of the gospel coming to the Gentiles. And now, the Gentiles in the Roman church hear themselves being addressed. Further, God’s design is to thereby make Israel jealous and provoke it to embrace the gospel as well. If Israel’s stumbling rejection has resulted in the inclusion of the Gentiles and the reconciliation of the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean?

Jesus tells another parable about maintaining vigilance while he is away—the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five who were wise and five who were foolish. To more fully understand what on the face of it seems fairly obvious, it is important to remember that “oil” here represents faithful discipleship in all sorts of conditions. Every believer starts out with enough. But, as the time wears on, the oil is spent—faithfulness gives way to foolishness—while the wise maintain an abundant supply. The difference between the two is their commitments to obedient service to the bridegroom as they wait on him. That kind of “oil” cannot be borrowed or lent. At the Bridegroom’s return the wise are prepared, light their lamps, and enter the joy of the wedding banquet. The foolish scurry off to town in search of oil, but when they return they find themselves locked out. “Keep awake therefore,” is Jesus’ word to remain faithful in all times and seasons, and not let his delay cause us to become lax or abandon or deplete our faithfulness.

Posted July 14, 2014
Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday, July 13

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Joshua 1:1–18; Psalm 103; Acts 21:3–15; Mark 1:21–27

The occupation of the Land of Promise begins: God charges Joshua to take up his role as leader and promises that every place Joshua sets his foot on shall be given to the Israelites. Once again, the land is described in terms of the boarders of David’s kingdom at the time of his death. God repeats the charge initially given to Joshua through Moses: “be strong and courageous,” and get on with it now (do not turn to the right or the left). Remember the Book of the Law; meditate on it day and night and let it be your guide. The charge is repeated yet again, this time with a promise: “I am with you.” Joshua assembles the leaders of the tribes and tells them to prepare to take possession of the land that God will give them. He reminds Gad, Ruben and the half-tribe of Manasseh that though they have been given the land in which they now dwell, it is dependent upon the men of military age joining in the taking of the land of Canaan. With one voice the tribes respond: “All that you have commanded we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” Their promise to obey Joshua as they had obeyed Moses must have been a bit unnerving to Joshua, given Israel’s track record! Yet, they now understand that as God was with Moses so they must pray that God will be with Joshua as well and promise to destroy any among them who rebel against him. They have learned and are ready. Now they repeat God’s charge to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous!”

Psalm 103 is a meditation on God’s goodness and steadfast love that is forgiving and everlasting. It starts with the psalmist calling upon himself to “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits.” The psalmist then lists the many ways God is good, merciful, gracious and generous: forgiving iniquity, healing all our diseases, redeeming our lives from the pit, crowning us with steadfast love and mercy, and satisfying us with good things as long as we live, so that our strength is renewed like that we had in our youth. The psalm then turns to address the entire community, reflecting on the Lord’s merciful and gracious nature. The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, removing our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. In spite of the fleeting nature of human life, God knows that we are dust and our days short in the span of divine time. Yet, the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever—from everlasting to everlasting. The psalm ends calling on all in heaven—God’s angels and heavenly hosts to join in this song of blessing.

The Epistle for Sunday comes from Acts, not Romans, and reports on Paul’s journey back to Jerusalem, bearing the gift of the Gentile churches to provide relief for the Jerusalem church. At each stop along the way (remember ships generally did not venture far from shore, but hugged the coast land, port to port), Paul revisits churches. And, at each point he is warned that arrest and persecution at the hands of the Jews awaits him in Jerusalem. In Caesarea, they stay with the Evangelist Phillip, where the prophet Agabus takes Paul’s belt and binds Paul’s hands and feet with it, declaring in this way the Jews will bind Paul and deliver him into the hands of the Romans. And so, once again, the people beg Paul not to go to Jerusalem, whereupon Paul announces that he is not only willing to be bound, but to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. He is a man on a mission and is not to be dissuaded; the Lord’s will be done.

Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel does not begin until John the Baptist is arrested. Jesus then appears, repeating John’s message: “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Thereafter, Jesus moves to the Sea of Galilee and calls his first disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and Zebedee. Today’s lesson opens as on the sabbath they go to the Synagogue in the brothers’ home town, Capernaum, and Jesus begins to teach. Those in the Synagogue are amazed at the authority with which Jesus speaks. Suddenly, a man with an unclean spirit sees Jesus and the spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, have you come to destroy us?” The spirit identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God,” whereupon Jesus not only silences the spirit, but commands that he come out of the man. The unclean spirits cast the man to the ground in convulsions, but do come out with a loud cry. All standing and seeing it marvel even more, asking the question Mark wants all of his readers to ask: “What is this; a new teaching? What authority!” The answer is what Jesus has earlier said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

Posted July 13, 2014
Saturday, July 12, 2014

Saturday, July 12

Deuteronomy 34:1–12; Psalm 63; Romans 10:14–21; Matthew 24:32–51

Moses climbs Mt. Nebo to Pisgah, and there, opposite Jericho, God shows him all the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob [Israel] (the trio of names is important for it ties the promise to the children of Israel [Jacob] and their descendants. Moses dies at age 128, full of strength, vision, energy and sexual vitality. He did not die of old age—God took him! God buries him in an unmarked grave in Moab, so that no one knows where Moses’ body lies, lest it become a place of enormous veneration and, ultimately, idolatry. (There is a second, extra biblical tradition that says God took Moses up into heaven without his dying, like God took Enoch and Elijah.) The people grieve for Moses thirty days. The transition in physical and spiritual leadership with Joshua is complete. He will lead the Israelites into the land. Deuteronomy ends with a eulogy to Moses, God’s leader and spokesperson, who, alone among all the prophets, knew God face to face.

Psalm 63 blesses God for his loving kindness and mercy—better than life itself! It is attributed to David while in the Judean wilderness, remembering the joy of having been in the temple and the presence of the Lord. It contains some of the most beautiful language in the psalter, texts often used in formal prayer: “O God, you are my God, earnestly will I seek you.” “My soul thirsts for you in a dry and barren land,” “because your love is better than life itself, my lips will speak your praise,” “in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy,” “my soul clings to you, your right hand supports me,” and so on. Each is suitable as opening words of prayer and prepares and centers the soul for conscious contact with God.

Paul continues his review of Israel’s rejection. With skillful rhetoric he builds phrase upon phrase, the verb of the previous clause becoming the subject of the next, from call, to believe, to hear, to proclaim, to send, to obey, all to make it clear that the gospel has been proclaimed to Israel. He then cites a series of Old Testament texts to confirm that this rejection has long been foretold; though they have heard, yet they have not believed. God is innocent of any charge in this regard for “All day long [God] has held out [his] hand to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Isaiah 65:2)

As to Jesus’ coming (return), you know how to judge when summer is coming by watching a fig tree begin to spout leaves; so too, read the signs around you. But, as to the day or the hour, no one knows, not even Jesus—only the Father. He turns to four examples of people being surprised by God breaking into life, beginning with Noah, and ending with the thief breaking in to the house at night because the owner was asleep. Vigilance is necessary, because the hour of the Son of Man’s coming will be a surprise. He ends with the parable of the wise and the wicked slave, and their behavior while the master is away—a warning to the disciples and to the church for which this Gospel was written. The longer the master is gone, the more vigilant his servants must become.

Posted July 12, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday, July 11

Deuteronomy 31:7–13, 24–32:4; Psalm 84; Romans 10:1–13; Matthew 24:15–31

The section between yesterday’s lesson from Deuteronomy and today’s is the recitation of all that has taken place. Having finished his farewell to the people, Moses now prepares Joshua in front of the people, telling him and the people that Joshua is the Lord’s choice to take Moses’ place. There follows a charge to Joshua to be strong, bold and undismayed, for the Lord God goes with them and will not forsake them. The transition in leadership complete, Moses makes one last preparation: he writes the law down and puts it in the hands of the priests and elders with the command that once every seven years, when Israel gathers at the appointed place for the feast of tabernacles (booths), they are to assemble all the people, including children and the aliens, and read the Law so that all may hear and learn to fear the Lord. Whereas the responsibility for the worship of God was to be conducted by adult men (see Deut. 16:16), the Law is to be kept by all, and read to all, so that all can learn to keep it. Consequently, the book of written law is to be placed beside the Ark of the Covenant, in which the tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept, as witness against the people. There can be no claiming ignorance of what God expects of them as God’s people. But knowing the people well and how easily they turn from God’s ways and fall back into idolatry through the “work of their hands,” Moses assembles all of the elders and other officials of each of the twelve tribes to utter one final warning with what is called “The Song of Moses”—a recitation of the people’s past degenerate and disloyal ways that is set in the form of a lawsuit between God and the people.

Psalm 84 is a reflection on the wonders and gifts of abiding in God’s dwelling place and is one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire collection of one hundred fifty. The well-known psalm, set so masterfully by Brahms in his German requiem, written for the occasion of his mother’s death, celebrates the beauty of the temple as God’s dwelling place among the people, as well as the psalmist’s longing and desire to be in God’s presence there. In the temple all are cared for—even the lowly sparrow and swallow are welcome at God’s altar. It is worth the dangerous and difficult journey as they go from “strength to strength” on their pilgrimage to Zion and its temple, for a day there in its courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. Better a life of modest service at God’s threshold, than a life of luxury and ease among the wicked. For, the Lord is light and protection, the source of all good for those who walk in God’s ways, and the source of happiness for all who trust in him.

Paul’s heart’s desire is for his people to turn and be saved. He recognizes their unenlightened zeal for God that in its ignorance has placed confidence in keeping the law rather than embracing God’s righteousness, Christ. It is, in fact, his story before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ is the end of the law—the fulfillment and completion of law and the one who brings its custodial role to an end. Paul then quotes two texts from the law to make his point. The first, Leviticus 18:5 places responsibility for life on the right behavior of people. The second, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 says that what is impossible for us to do, obtain Christ by ascending to heaven or descending to the abyss, is, in fact, as near as the word on our lips and in our hearts, the word of faith that Paul is proclaiming. To confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord (the earliest confession of faith in the church and certainly pre-Paul) and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead is, in fact, the means of life and righteousness that saves. Then, quoting Isaiah’s words about the Lord laying a foundation stone in Zion who when believed in saves (Isa. 28:16), Paul declares this gift open to all—Jew or Greek (Gentile)—the Lord is Lord of all and generous to all who call on him. The final verse is from Joel 2:32, affirming that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord—here a reference to Jesus—shall be saved.

Jesus continues to answer the disciples’ questions about signs and times beginning with “the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place.” In 160 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanies placed an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, (Daniel 8:9-27). The time is at hand; it has begun. Yet greater tribulation is to come, false messiahs will continue to emerge along with false prophets—as indeed they did. The last brought down Jerusalem and brought on the destruction of the temple. Do not be deceived when some go after them. When the Son of Man returns, there will be no doubt or question about it, just as when lightning strikes there is no confusion about what it is, and it is seen to the distant reaches. The appearance of the Son of Man will be like a lightning strike that defeats the Imperial power that oppresses God’s people. The quote from Amos 5:20 and Ezekiel 32:7-8 simply recall those images of darkness, lights falling from heaven and other cosmic phenomenon, which are simply signs of God’s judgments being enacted against those who have oppressed God’s people. As surely as vultures gather around a carcass, so certain is this coming judgment and victory of God. As the Son of Man appears, God’s trumpet shall sound and angels will be disbursed to gather all God’s people—Jew and Gentile alike—from the four corners of heaven and earth.

Posted July 11, 2014
Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thursday, July 10

Deuteronomy 3:18–28; Psalm 116; Romans 9:19–33; Matthew 24:1–14

Moses reports God’s command to move across the Jordan to inhabit the land. As God has given the kings of Moab and Ammon into their hands, so God will give the kings of Canaan into their hands. The men are to go over to fight, but the women, children and livestock are to remain in the fortified cities on the east of the Jordan. After the land is secured, the men from Gad and Benjamin can return to their homes east of Jordan. Moses expresses further wonder and awe at God’s ways, and, while doing so, also pleads with the Lord to be given permission to cross over, just to see the land. God’s anger is kindled against Moses, and after saying, “Speak to me no more of this,” God instructs him to ascend Mt. Pisgah where he will be able to survey the land to the north into Lebanon, to the west to the sea, to the south in the Negev, and to the east into trans-Jordan. But Moses is not to cross over Jordan. That task belongs to Joshua. Even Moses bears judgment for the people’s faithlessness, not to mention his own. It is Joshua who is to lead the people into the land.

Psalm 116 asks, What shall we give to the Lord for all of God’s goodness to us?” This psalm professes love for the Lord who hears our cries, who is gracious, righteous and compassionate, and who preserves the simple (the naïve), who keeps our stumbling feet on God’s path, preserving our lives. The psalmist had been surrounded by the snares of death; the pangs of dying were upon him as he suffered anguish and distress. As is often the case, the emotional side of his encounter with death was even more traumatic than the physical reality of it. In that anguish, he called out to the Lord to save him and the Lord did. “What then,” he asks, “shall I offer to the Lord in return for all of God’s goodness?” What can one give to God for all God’s goodness? The psalmist will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. He is promising to go to the temple to offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the midst of God’s people. The psalmist makes a final vow: “I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.” He seals this promise with a pledge. Lifting the cup of salvation, in much the way we would offer a “toast” to another in tribute, he simply says, “Hallelujah!”

Continuing his reflections on the state of his people, the Jews, Paul asked if God is being unfair to them for their unbelief, and its resultant alienation, since God seems to have destined it to be so. Paul quickly reminds us that this is God we are talking about, who is not accountable to our own systems of justice, but is Justice Himself. Putting things in context he asks, does not the potter have the right to determine what to do with his clay, to make of one clump of it a vessel for special use and another for common use, one for preservation and one for destruction? What if God has done this in order to reveal his glory and mercy to those He has called from both the Jews and the Gentiles? And just how long has God endured vessel of wrath—both Jews and Gentiles—destined for destruction? This thought about Israel is not new. It is as old at the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, who Paul quotes. And, had not God preserved a remnant among the people, who would have been left? Rather, they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah. And so, the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness through works of the Law have come to righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, while Israel pursued righteousness through the Law but did not arrive at it. Rather, they stumbled over the rock that the Lord has placed in Zion. On the other hand, those who believe in that rock shall not stumble.

Leaving the Temple precincts, some of the disciples are awed by the magnificence of the Temple. In response, Jesus predicts its destruction: not one stone will be left upon another. And, in fact, in 70 A.D. that is precisely what Rome did. To this day, there is no physical trace of where the Holy of Holies stood. Later, across Kidron valley looking west to the Temple Mount, the disciples ask him privately when it will be and the signs of his coming he has predicted in verse 39. In response, Jesus warns against being led astray by false signs: religious and military conflict, natural disasters and the like, things many a false prophet has pointed to along the way to warn that we were living in “the last days.” These are not signs of the end but the birth pangs of the beginning! In addition, there will be turmoil among his followers: persecution, martyrdom, apostasy, betrayal and deep divisions among those who believe in him—all of which has been and remains true. Because of this, many will fall away. But those who endure to the end will be saved. In answer to their question, the end will not come until the gospel is proclaimed throughout the world as a witness to all people.

Posted July 10, 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