Daily Readings for Sunday, April 6
5th Sunday in Lent
Exod. 3:16–4:12; Psalm 32; Rom. 12:1–21; John 8:46–59
God sends Moses back to Egypt, to the elders of Israel, to tell them that the God of their ancestors has given heed to their groaning and has sent Moses to them to lead them out of Egypt and into the land promised to their ancestors long ago, a land flowing with milk and honey. “Take the elders and go to Pharaoh and tell him that their God has met with them.” Pharaoh is to let the Hebrews go three-day’s journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord their God. That said, the Lord tells Moses that he knows that Pharaoh will not allow them to go easily, and so the Lord’s hand will be heavy on Pharaoh; the Lord will “stretch out his hand and strike Egypt with all his wonders; after that Pharaoh will let them go. In addition, the Lord will bring the Israelites into such favor with the Egyptians that, when they go, they will not leave empty handed. Each Israelite woman will ask her Egyptian neighbor for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and they shall put them on the Israelite children—so shall they plunder Egypt upon their departure. Moses is less than thrilled with this and complains, asking what if the Israelites do not believe Moses and what he says about the Lord appearing to him. The Lord responds by telling Moses to throw his staff on the ground. Moses does, and suddenly, the staff becomes a serpent and Moses withdraws. The Lord now tells Moses to grasp the snake by the tail. He does, and the snake returns to being a staff. This is just the beginning of the powers the Lord will infuse in Moses’ staff. But still Moses complains. The Lord tells Moses to put his hand inside his cloak. Moses does, and upon withdrawing it, finds it leprous—white as snow. The Lord tells Moses to return his hand inside his cloak. Moses does, and upon withdrawing it finds it healed like the rest of his body. The Lord says, if they do not believe the first sign, they may believe the second. But if not, the Lord now gives a third: Moses is told to take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground; when he does the water will become blood on the dry ground. Almost out of excuses, Moses utters one more: he is not eloquent, but slow of speech and tongue—evidently he stammered. The Lord reminds Moses of who it is that gives speech to mortals in the first place; who makes them mute, or the seeing blind. Can not the Lord speak through Moses if he chooses to do so? Moses is to go, and the Lord will be in his mouth. Moses pleads, one last time saying simply, “Send someone else.” The Lord’s patience has been tried long enough, and now in anger he asks Moses about his brother Aaron—notice that Aaron is also carefully identified as a Levite. Aaron is eloquent; even now, Aaron is on his way to meet with Moses and when he sees Moses, Aaron’s heart will be glad. Moses is to speak with Aaron. The Lord will speak to Moses, and Moses is to speak to Aaron, and the Lord will be with their mouths to teach them what to do. Aaron shall speak to the people and be Moses’ mouthpiece, and Moses shall be as God to Aaron. With that, the Lord tells Moses to take his staff with him, and the “divine interview” comes to an end. So much is hidden within this incident that can easily be missed, simply because of the wondrous nature of the encounter. First, we are confronted with the absolute reluctance of Moses to respond to the Lord’s commands, and the persistence and patience of the Lord through it all, and his accommodation to Moses’ need for signs. Second, the staff turning to a snake: a serpent was one of Pharaoh’s protectors; it was fashioned upon the king’s head-dress as a sign of the serpent’s mysterious power. Moses’ staff turning into a snake symbolized the Lord’s sovereignty in that realm. The appearance of Aaron on the scene reflects the priestly tradition’s insistence on his role in all of this, but, at the end of the day, Aaron is simply Moses’ servant, as Moses is the Lord’s servant.
Psalm 32 is a wisdom psalm in which the psalmist gives thanks for the gift of forgiveness. “Happy are those whose sin is covered.” He acknowledges that while he kept silent about his sin, he wasted away for the Lord’s hand was upon him, and his strength was dried up as the heat of summer dries all things. But when he acknowledged his sin, when he no longer hid it but confessed it, the Lord forgave him his guilt. He then instructs all who are faithful to offer such prayers of confession, promising that in a time of distress and the rush of many waters, these will not reach or overwhelm them. Again, addressing the Lord, he confesses that God is his hiding place who preserves him from trouble and surrounds him with glad cries of deliverance. The psalm then turns to addressing others, instructing them in the way they should go: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near.” It concludes with one final double affirmation: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Therefore: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Paul has just completed his reflection on God’s redemption of his own people, Israel, and then has broken into doxology. Now, he turns to what is one of the “load stone” chapters of the book—what new life in Christ looks like. Paul begins by defining it, then describes its marks and, thereafter, exhorts his readers to behaviors that exhibit life transformed in Christ. Christianity is not a “head-trip.” It is bodily, in that we are to present all of ourselves—in everything we do—as an act of worship to God. Rather than be conformed to this world in our choices, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—in Christ! Only with such a mind can we discern God’s will—the good, the acceptable, and the perfect. Such renewed minds do not think of themselves as better than others; they do not indulge in comparison for the sake of self-congratulations. Rather, renewed minds in Christ remind us that all of us are part of his body and each of us has a role to play therein. We have different gifts that range from preaching [prophecy] to serving [ministry—actually, waiting on tables], to teaching, to encouraging [exhortation], to giving, to leading, to acts of mercy [compassion]—seven-fold in character and each essential to the health of any congregation. A mind renewed in Christ lives, less out of logic than out of the abundance of divine love (the word is agape). Like God, it hates what is evil and refuses to remain indifferent to it, but rather, holds fast to what is good. Holding one another in mutual affection, such love seeks to outdo the other in showing honor and respect. It does not lag in zeal, is ardent in spirit, serves the Lord, rejoices in hope, is patient in suffering, perseveres in prayer, contributes to the need of the saints (the gift for Jerusalem is clearly in mind), and extends hospitality to traveling missionaries who are strangers. Though these gifts can and should be extended to those beyond the Christian community, they are first and foremost the behavior expected of all in the church. That said, Paul reminds us of how we are to behave toward those who do not share in the mind of Christ. We are to bless them—even those who persecute us. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We are to live in harmony with all others, not simply those well thought of, but especially those of low esteem, and regardless, we are not to claim to be wiser than we are. We are to repay no one evil for evil. Rather, we are to take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. To the extent that it is possible, and that it depends upon us, we are to live peaceably with all, never avenging ourselves, but entrusting that to the wrath of God. Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, Paul reminds us that if our enemies are hungry, we are to feed them and if they are thirsty, we are to give them drink, thereby pouring burning coals on their heads. The function of the coals is not to punish them, but to call them to repentance. Whatever we do, never let ourselves be overcome by evil—never take up its game or strategies—for, in doing so, we have been co-opted and conquered by it. The only way to be victorious over evil is to meet it with good.
The confrontation in the temple between Jesus and the Jewish leaders continues as they contend over who Jesus is. Because he continues to identify himself as come from God, they accuse him of being a Samaritan (not only an outsider, but also a gross insult), who is demon possessed. Again, Jesus ignores their allegations and brings the conversation back to his own behavior: in all that he does he honors, not himself, but God. But then, Jesus escalates things by adding, “Whoever keeps my word will never see death.” It is a startling statement that convinces them that he is possessed. Abraham died, so did each of the prophets; is he greater than these; just who does he claim to be? But, Jesus will not answer that question, for in doing so, he would be glorifying himself. Rather, he trusts his Father to glorify him—the One they claim as their God. Yet, they do not know God as Jesus does, and for him to suggest otherwise would make him a liar. Rather, Jesus knows the Father and keeps the Father’s word. And now, again, Jesus increases the tension in the dialogue by telling them that Abraham rejoiced that he would see Jesus’ day (the rabbis taught that God had revealed the future to Abraham). Startled even further by Jesus’ astonishing claims, the Jewish leaders respond dismissively with a rhetorical question: “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” Jesus answers: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am! They have not missed it; Jesus has, until now, used the sacred name in relation to metaphors of light, water, good shepherd and so on. But now he has openly used it about himself. Such blasphemy produces the prescribed and predictable response (Lev. 24:13-16), and they pick up rocks to stone him to death. But, his hour is yet to come, so Jesus hides himself and then slips out of the temple.
Daily Readings for Saturday, April 5
Exodus. 2:23–3:15; Psalm 149; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Mark 9:14–29
Moses is safely living and flourishing in Midian. After a long time, the king of Egypt who sought Moses’ life dies. The new Pharaoh continues the program of slavery with the Israelites, and they groan under its burden. Notice that the groaning is not to God; there seems to be little awareness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the people simply groan. But God hears—a major theme in scripture; God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God “takes notice.” God is about to act. We return to Moses who is tending his father-in-law’s flocks in Midian and moves from the wilderness to the base of Mt. Horab (later named “Sinai), and we are told that it is “the mountain of God,” in all probability, so identified to Moses by Reuel, who is the priest in that land. An angel of the Lord (notice the insertion of the divine name), appears to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush. Is this “angel of the Lord” truly the Lord’s messenger (angel), or is this a veiled way of speaking of the Lord’s presence? Whatever, Moses is captivated by the sight of a bush burning but not being consumed and moves closer to examine it. When the Lord sees this we are told “God calls out to Moses from the bush calling Moses by name.” We probably skip over that fact this would have been astonishing to Moses—how does this entity hidden within the burning bush know his name? Moses responds with what will become a traditional response of obedience: “Here I am,” hinah in Hebrew. The voice out of the bush says, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It has been observed that the act of removing one’s sandals in the mountainous territory of Horab, surrounded by wilderness is a means of assuring that Moses will not be able to run away from this. He must attend to it. God then reveals himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. At this, Moses hides his face, for he is afraid to look on God, lest God’s fiery presence be consuming; a common response to being in the presence of true holiness. As Moses continues to shelter himself against divine holiness, we are told that it is “the Lord,” and he tells Moses that he has observed the misery of his people who are in Egypt. Notice, that already, they are the Lord’s people. The covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still in effect. The Lord has seen their taskmasters and has come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and bring them out into a land of abundance—rich with milk and honey—symbols of lavish abundance. The land is identified by the native tribes who currently live there and among whom the patriarchs had lived when God regularly appeared to them, reaffirming the covenant and promise of the land. Again, the Lord says he has seen the Israelites’ hardship and has come to free them from their oppressors. “So come…!” Suddenly this is about more than the Lord acting alone. As we will learn, again and again, this God works in and through people. Thus, the Lord is sending Moses back to Egypt, where there is probably still a price on his head! Is it any wonder that Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” It is not simply an expression of modesty, but one of self-preservation. The Lord simply says, “I will be with you.” That is enough, as hard as that is to hear. And the sign of his presence is one in the future: when Moses has brought the people out, he will bring them here to this mountain to worship God; not exactly a tangible sign, at least at this moment. Moses is still objecting and says, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, “What is his name?”’, what shall I say?” God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Say to them, “I AM has sent me to you.” The Hebrew word behind this is, of course “Yahweh,” which ever after appears in scripture as “The LORD,” out of deference, if not fear, of misusing God’s holy name (notice the difference in text between “the Lord” or “my Lord,” an address of respect used among people, and “The LORD,” this latter always an indication that behind it lies the sacred name of God—Yahweh. A few other things we need to observe about this name: It is the verb of being, and in this case absolute being. More, it can be translated three different ways: “I am who I am,” “I am who I have been,” and “I am who I will be.” The Lord is, was, and is to be, a phrase that will appear again and again in the Book of Revelation, in various patterns. God is not merely a territorial god, or a god of this or that, such as existed in the Egyptian pantheon of gods. This is the God of absolute being without beginning or end, who is, and in the present is consistent with who he has been in the past, and in the future will remain the same: one who hears, one who remembers, one who sees and one who acts on behalf of his covenant people. This is God’s name forever and God’s title for all generations. Moses is sent back to Pharaoh armed with the name of God, knowing who to call upon when things become dangerous.
Psalm 149 is another “Hallelujah” psalm that calls on the assembly to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Employing Hebrew parallelisms, Israel is called to be glad in its maker, and the children of Zion to rejoice in God their king, making melody with tambourine and lyre, and praising him with dancing. The Lord takes pleasure in his people, adorning the humble with victory. Let the high praises of God be in their throats as the two-edged battle sword is in their hands, executing God’s vengeance against their enemies, binding the defeated king in fetters and that king’s nobles in chains. This is less the people’s doing than judgment decreed by the Lord. It is glory for all of God’s faithful and ends as it begins with a Hallelujah—“praise the Lord!”
Paul has introduced love as the more excellent way for those within the Corinthian community, and now, remembering what he has said earlier about the body and various gifts as well as showing honor to all, especially the least among them, he becomes even more particular about what he means by love, using both positive and negative examples. Remember, in the Greek Paul is using, there are at least four (some argue five) words for love. The Greek word here is agape, and consistently used by Paul in this lyric hymn—a love that emerges and expresses itself out of fullness, its only regard being the beloved. This love of God, given by God, can and is to be shared within the body of Christ. It is patient, kind; not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices always in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things (the word here is that for faith), and hopes all things. And now Paul returns to those gifts he has been describing earlier and makes the point that love never ends. Prophesies, tongues, knowledge—they will all come to an end—but not love. For, after all, we know prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes at Jesus’ return, they will all end. Paul now uses a developmental model for the life of faith, speaking of himself as a child exercising childish ways. But, when he became a man, he gave up those childish ways—so must the Corinthians. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, the best that polished brass plates can replicate, but when Jesus returns, we will see “face to face.” For now, Paul acknowledges that even he knows “only in part.” But then, he will know fully, and now take note the remarkably hopeful twist, “even as he has been fully known.” He concludes with his beloved trilogy of “faith, hope and love”—all three abide, and the greatest of them is love.
Jesus, Peter, James and John return from their mountain-top experience and find the other disciples surrounded by a crowd that included some scribes who were arguing with the disciples. The moment the crowd sees Jesus, it responds with “amazement” and rushes up to greet him. Jesus asks them what they have been discussing, and someone in the crowd tells Jesus that he had brought his epileptic son to the disciples that they might heal him, but they could not. Jesus expresses annoyance at the unbelieving generation, wondering how long he is going to have to put up with them and asks the man to bring his son to Jesus. They bring the boy to Jesus and immediately upon seeing Jesus, the spirit in the boy throws him to the ground in convulsions. Jesus asks how long this has been going on and the man replies, “Since childhood. It throws him into the fire and into the water in an attempt to destroy him; help us if you can!” Jesus responds with an amazement of his own, “If you can?—all things can be done for the one who believes.” In admitted desperation fueling doubt the man cries out, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.” By now the crowd is gathering, and so Jesus says, “You deaf and mute spirit, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit throws the boy to the ground in one last attempt at mastery, throwing the boy into terrible convulsions, and then leaves. The boy is left on the ground so motionless that the crowd thinks he is dead. Jesus takes him by the hand and tells him to rise, and he does. Later, back in the house, the disciples ask Jesus why they had not been able to exorcise the demon, and Jesus says, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.”
Daily Readings for Friday, April 4
Exodus 2:1–22; Psalm 148; 1 Corinthians 12:27–13:3; Mark 9:2–13
The second chapter of Exodus introduces Moses into the story of God’s people. A Levite marries a Levite woman and she has a son. Aware of the ban and command to throw the Hebrew children into the river, she hides the child—yet unnamed—for three months. But when the secret can no longer be contained, she makes a papyrus basket, lines it with pitch so that is will not sink, puts the child in it and places the basket among the reeds in the river. The child’s sister, also unnamed, stands by to see what will become of her young brother. Soon Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the river to bathe, and seeing the basket, has one of her attendants bring it to her. Discovering the child who has begun to cry, Pharaoh’s daughter has pity on him. She rightly surmises that this is one of the Hebrew children. The child’s sister quickly appears and offers to get a wet nurse for the child, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, and pays the child’s mother to care for him. His mother nurses him until he is old enough to go to Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes him as a son and names him Moses, which means “drawn from the water.” What the story here steps over is the fact that Moses is raised as royalty as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, with all the privileges that suggests. Rather, the narrative moves over Moses childhood to two incidents as an adult. One day Moses sees an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew slave. Moses intervenes on behalf of the slave, who he recognizes as one of his own kin, killing the Egyptian slave master and hiding his body in the sand. The next day, Moses goes out and finds two Hebrew slaves fighting, and again he intervenes, asking the one who was in the wrong, why he was striking a fellow Hebrew. The aggressor asks, “Who made you a ruler and judge over me?—notice the irony, as that is precisely what Moses will become—and then asks, “Are you going to kill me the way you killed the Egyptian?” Moses now realizes that what he did is known. In fact, Pharaoh soon seeks to kill him because of it. Consequently, Moses flees Egypt to the Land of Midian (the Sinai). There, he sits down by a well, where the Priest of Midian’s daughters have come to water their flocks. Some bedouin shepherds appear, and drive the girls away from the well, but Moses intervenes and waters the girls’ flock. When the girls return to their father and tell him what took place—that an Egyptian helped them against the other hostile shepherds—their father Reuel, asks, “Where is he?” and chastises them for their lack of hospitality. “Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” They return to Moses and he agrees to stay with Reuel, who soon gives Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. Moses and Zipporah have a son who Moses names Gershom; the Hebrew word meaning “drive out,” which can refer either to his driving off the bedouin shepherds or to the fact that Moses is now an alien residing in an alien land, “driven out” of Egypt. The story is told swiftly, but hidden within it are additional truths about Moses: not only his royal childhood and upbringing, with all of the privileges and education for leadership that would involve, but his empathy for his people, his concern for what is fair, his willingness to intervene, his journey from Egypt to Sinai, which he will one day, in the not too distant future, make once again as he returns to Egypt, his relationship with Reuel, the Priest of Midian, whose name means "friend of God" and who is named in another literary source as Jethro, and finally, his knowledge that he is now an alien, as one translation put it, “living as a stranger in a strange land.”
Psalm 148, a “Hallel” psalm, calls upon all creation—the sun, moon, stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens—to shout, “Hallelujah!” The Lord commanded and each was created. Sea monsters and all deeps (the place of chaos), fire, hail, snow, frost and stormy wind are not blights of nature, but actually agents that fulfill God’s commands. The Lord is sovereign over all. Mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and all cattle, things that creep and things that fly, kings of the earth and all their people, young men and women alike, and old and young together are to praise the name of the Lord, for the Lord’s name alone is to be exalted. God’s glory (presence and power) are above both earth and heaven. Finally, all are to shout “Hallelujah” because the Lord has “raised up a horn for his people” (a symbol of deliverance and strength that is often used to speak of Israel’s kings). But now, the dignity, honor, and praise due the king are given not to the king, but to the people of Israel who are close to the Lord. Hallelujah!
Paul now applies the logic of the body’s constitution to the Corinthians, reminding them that they are the body of Christ and individually members of it. God, through the gifts of the Spirit, has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets (preachers), third teachers. Notice that these three offices are at the head of the list, in part, because of Paul’s continuing need to establish his authority where some think him an apostle, but others just a preacher or teacher. After these three come the lesser gifts: deeds of power, gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, and last of all, various kinds of tongue. Moving to a rhetorical mode, Paul makes the point that not all are apostles, or prophets or teachers. Not all have the gifts that give them power for miracles or of healing. The final question is, “Do all speak in tongues; do all interpret?” No. Rather than use tongues as a litmus test, they are to strive for the greater gift, which is the more excellent way—the gift of love for one another. And now, Paul begins his famous reflection on the characteristics of true love and its value in the life of the community, contrasting it with the gifts he has already listed above. Though Paul might speak with the tongue of the most eloquent of mortals or even angels, if he lacks love, he is nothing more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if he should have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have faith that would remove mountains (a direct reference to Jesus’ teaching, which has obviously been circulated in Corinth), but does not also love, he is nothing. If he gives away all of his possessions, and even hands over his body to be burned in martyrdom, but has not love, he gains nothing.
Fresh from Peter’s confession, six days later, Jesus takes him, along with James and John, and they go up a high mountain on a mini-retreat. Mountain-top experiences are a metaphor for what often happens there—thin places where the membrane between heaven and earth is almost non-existent. And this is the mountain-top of all mountain-top experiences. While there, suddenly, Jesus is transfigured (the Greek word is the one from which we get “metamorphous”) and he and his clothing become radiant and a level of white beyond anything one has ever seen. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses appear talking with Jesus. Peter suggests making three booths, one for Elijah, one for Moses and one for Jesus, for Mark tells us Peter was otherwise terrified and simply did not know what else to say. But the words are not out of Peter’s mouth when a cloud of glory descends upon all of them, and God’s voice says, “This is my son, the beloved; listen to him.” With that, the cloud is gone and so are Moses and Elijah. Peter’s instinct in confession had been right, and this has given him and the two other leaders within the inner circle confirmation of that. But the point is not only who they confess Jesus to be—something the demons have been proclaiming all along—but rather, they are listening to him and what he has to say. This is about more than them. Coming down the mountain, Jesus orders them to tell no one about this—not even their fellow disciples—until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. That, of course, leaves them further confused, and they fixate on what rising from the dead may mean. The three disciples’ thoughts turn to Elijah, who they have just seen. The scribe says that he must come first, how is that, if Jesus is the Christ, he has been here ahead of Elijah. Jesus tells them that Elijah does come first to restore all things. As for the Son of Man, he will be treated with contempt and suffer many things. Yes, Elijah has come, and they did to him as they wished, just as it was written of him.
Daily Readings for Thursday, April 3
Exodus 1:6–22; Psalm 102; 1 Corinthians 12:12–26; Mark 8:27–9:1
We move from the book of beginnings, with its ancestral history traced through Jacob and Isaac back to Abraham, to move forward as the children of Israel become a nation rather than just a people. Jacob and his generation have died, yet the Israelites, living in Goshen continue to be fruitful and multiply, growing exceedingly strong. They fill the land in such a way that a new Pharaoh, one who did not know Joseph, comes to the throne and decides he must deal shrewdly with the people, lest they overrun the Egyptians, or join with the Egyptian’s enemies, fight the Egyptians and escape from the land. It is clear that, by now, Egyptian economy has become dependent upon the presence of the Israelites. Consequently, Pharaoh sets task masters over the Israelites, forcing them to build supply cities, including Pithom and Rameses. But the more Pharaoh oppresses the people, the more they flourish, so that the Egyptians begin to dread the Israelites. Pharaoh calls the Hebrew midwives Shiphah and Puah, and commands that when a male child is born he is to be killed, but a female is to be allowed to live. In this way, Pharaoh can exercise population control over the Hebrews. Notice that the word “Hebrew” which has been used modestly until now, simply to identify a people from Canaan, now, increasingly becomes a term of derision, pointing to their nature as slaves. But the Hebrew midwives are God fearing women and ignore the command. When Pharaoh demands an accounting of Shiphah and Puah, they confess that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians, but strong, vigorous, and give birth before the midwives can arrive and intervene to keep Pharaoh’s command. God (the word is Elohim and this is its first appearance in the narrative all the way back to Abraham) blesses the Hebrew midwives with children of their own because of their faithfulness. Pharaoh now takes more drastic measures. He commands that every male Hebrew child be thrown into the Nile, there to die; but every Hebrew girl shall live. After all, he still needs slaves. The context is set for the birth of Moses.
Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to intercession as he pleads for God’s presence and compassion, not on himself, but on Zion. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm turns to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name may continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. Though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing, yet remains the Lord forever. A final note of affirmation and hope is spoken: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.
Paul now introduces his famous metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. And just as the body does not consist of only one member, repeated over and over again, so too the body of Christ recognizes the need for its diversity. Their unity is not in their good will, nor even in the purpose, but in the Spirit who has baptized them into Christ’s body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—for all of them were made to drink of the same Spirit. Moving further, he points out that one portion of the human body cannot say to the rest, “I have no need of you.” Doing so does not make it any less a part of the body. Expanding the metaphor, Paul asks if the ear insisted on being the body, how would it see, and if the eye made the same claim where would the sense of smell come from. But God has put the body together in such a way that all of its members work together for the sake of the whole. So too, should the Corinthians. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor the head say to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the weaker portions of the body seem to be given the greater honor and protection, and the less respectable members of it treated with greater respect. In fact, God has so arranged the body that the greatest honor is given to the weakest and most inferior members so that there may be no dissension within the body, the various members providing care of one another. For if one member suffers, the whole body suffers, whereas if one member is honored, all rejoice together with him.
Jesus leaves Bethsaida and the newly healed man behind and takes the disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and “on the way”—another favorite phrase in Mark’s gospel—he asks them who the people are saying that he is. Some say John the Baptist, others, Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. He then asks them who they say he is and Peter makes his great confession: “You are the Messiah.” Again, Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him. Rather, he goes on to say that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, chief priest and scribes and be killed, and after three days, rise again. The disciples are taken aback. They know he is talking about himself. Peter takes Jesus aside to rebuke and correct him. Jesus turns, looks at the other disciples and then dresses down Peter, calling him Satan, and telling him to get behind him. It is both a “Get out of my way,” and a command to “get back in line and follow.” Peter is setting his mind, not on divine things but human ones. Disciples are not there to tell the master how to behave. He has already been tempted by Satan. He does not need this from Peter. Jesus then turns to the crowd that has been following and calls them nearer. He tells them and the disciples that if they want to follow him, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow. Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. What then does it profit if they gain the whole world and lose their lives in the process? Furthermore, what can they give in return for their lives? Those who are ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them he will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father, with the holy angels. Jesus completes this sermon by telling them that there are some standing with him who will not see death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.
Daily Readings for Wednesday, April 2
Genesis 50:15–26; Psalm 51; 1 Corinthians 12:1–11; Mark 8:11–26
With Jacob buried, the brothers realize they could be in significant jeopardy with Joseph, who out of regard for his father, just may have been awaiting his time to get even with them for selling him into slavery. They come to Joseph saying that Jacob had given them instruction before he died, to plead with Joseph to forgive them their crimes against him. Joseph is reduced to tears, as are the brothers, and once again they fall before him offering to be his slaves, again, fulfilling the original dream. Joseph tells them not to be afraid—he is not God in this matter. And even though they meant it for evil against Joseph, God was at work in it for good, to preserve Jacob’s family. Herein is the beginning of a theological theme in scripture: God’s sovereignty over evil and ability to work to transform it into good. Paul will echo this theme in Romans 8:28, though most translations follow the incorrect rendering of the King James Version. It is not that “all things work together for good to those who love God,” but rather, “in all things, God works for good for those who love him.” Joseph reassures his brothers that they have no reason to fear him, and that he will care for them and their little ones. The book comes to a close with Joseph and the extended family of Israel in Egypt. Joseph’s days are numbered at one hundred ten, and we are told that he saw the children of Ephraim to the third generation, as well as the children of Manasseh. As Joseph’s life draws to an end, he gathers his brothers and tells them that, though he is about to die, God will surely come to them and bring them up out of the land of Egypt and back to the land that God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He makes them swear that when that day comes, they shall carry up Joseph’s bones from Egypt and take them with them back to Canaan. Joseph dies, is embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt to await that day. Thus the book of beginnings comes to its conclusion with the children of Israel living prosperously in Egypt.
Psalm 51 is a confession of sin without peer, and as appropriate today as when it was first uttered. Tradition attributes it to David, upon being challenged by his prophet, Nathan, concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent engineering of the military murder of her husband Uriah. However, it shows marks of having been written later than that, after the return from exile, especially the last two verses. The center of the psalm focuses on the human heart, which to the Hebrew mind is not the center of affections, but the center of one’s will. In pleading for a clean heart, the supplicant expresses the conviction that, without the gift of a new and right spirit, it is not possible to remain in obedience. The human heart is prone to pride and stubbornness. And so, he pleads for God’s holy spirit to sustain him—one of the few places in the Old Testament where the phrase “holy spirit” is used. But notice, it is not yet personified, but simply an expression of God’s presence. The point is, even right praise is God’s gift to us, motivated by God’s Spirit. We cannot offer it without God’s prompting. Consequently, the psalmist utters the phrase that has become a classic invitation to prayer, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” He then expresses the prophets’ recurring conviction that, rather than sacrifice what God truly desires in each of us, is an obedient heart committed to God and God’s ways. Sacrifices God may or may not accept. After all, God does not need them, and since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been none. Prayer itself has become the new form of sacrifice. And so, a heart in which stubbornness has been broken, and self-pride crushed, is a heart God will never despise or reject. The prayer ends with a plea for Zion and the rebuilding of its walls following its sack by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the restoration of the sacrificial system.
Paul now turns to answer the Corinthian’s question about “spiritual gifts”, which seemed to be part of the party spirit and division in the church there. He reminds them that in their pagan days they went off to various temples to idols that cannot speak. But, they are recipients of the spirit of God, and no one who has that Spirit is able to say, “Jesus be cursed.” A confession that “Jesus is Lord,” is the first gift of God’s Spirit. The Spirit brings other gifts and forms of service as well, and Paul names them, reminding the Corinthians that it is God who activates them all, placing manifestations of the Spirit among them for the common good of all. The list begins with wisdom, not surprising in that Greek culture, then knowledge—and there is a decided difference between the two. To another is given the gift of faith—there are those among us who remain absolutely unshakable in their faith no matter what; a gift of God indeed. The Spirit gives gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy—what today we would call proclamation or preaching—and to another, discernment of the Spirit. After all, there are many spirits in the world not simply the Spirit of God. Finally, to others the Spirit gives the gift of tongues, and to another the interpretation of those tongues. It seems that the gift of tongues was being used as a super-credential among some Corinthians. Notice that Paul lists tongues and their interpretation last. All of these are “spiritual gifts” given to people for the sake of building up the church, and are given to people each as the Spirit chooses.
The Pharisees come to Jesus to argue with him, and, in the process, asking for a sign from heaven to test him, not unlike he has been “tested” by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus responds with deep resignation to the stubbornness and inability of these, who were the most religious of the day, to see the reality of God’s reign breaking in. No sign will be given to them. He quickly gets into the boat and leaves them behind to sail to the other side. At sea, the disciples suddenly realize they have forgotten to bring any bread, and discover they have only one loaf. Jesus uses the occasion to warn them about the “yeast” of the Pharisees and the Herodians (see the note). Yeast is here an image of evil and its capacity to infect, spoil, distort, and destroy. The disciples are again clueless, and wonder what it is Jesus is talking about. Is it because they have no bread? With exasperation equal to that he felt with the Pharisees, Jesus challenges and chides them: They have eyes; can they not see? They have ears; can they not hear? Why do they not understand? Don’t they remember how he broke the bread and fed two crowds of people? How much was left over? The Pharisees are not the only ones to suffer from hardness of heart. The yeast has spread its way and done its work.
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.