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Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday, July 21

Joshua 7:1–13; Psalm 135; Romans 13:8–14; Matthew. 26:36–46

The temptation to take booty was too great for Achan, of the tribe of Judah (note the care with which he is identified), who took some of the devoted things for himself. Later it is identified as “stealing what is the Lord’s.” Joshua makes plans to take Ai, the next city in their campaign, and sends spies to determine how large a group of soldiers will be needed. The spies return to say it will be an easy capture; not all should go, just two or three thousand. Joshua sends about three thousand, but they are beaten back, “turn their back” on the men of Ai and flee in retreat. Thirty-six Israelites are killed as they are chased by the men of Ai. They are not invincible after all. Fear falls upon the camp—now it is their hearts that melt within them and turn to water. In despair, Joshua and the elders fall before the Ark of the Covenant, clothing torn and ashes on their heads in acts of remorse and repentance, asking God “Why?” What is God up to; why this defeat? When the Canaanites hear of it, they will be encouraged, rise up and destroy Israel, cutting them off forever. Then, what will God do for his great name?”—Joshua has learned a thing or two from Moses! In response, the Lord reveals the reason for his anger: the covenant has been transgressed. Notice that the judgment is against all of the people, not just Achan, and thereby they become a kherem themselves—a thing devoted for destruction. Threatening to withdraw from them unless they destroy the booty that has been taken, God commands that they sanctify themselves—take part in a ritual cleansing that includes the destruction of the “devoted things”—or they will not be able to withstand their enemies. There is no such thing as private sin—sin, even when personal, always has wider ramifications.

Psalm 135 calls on everyone within the precincts of the temple to praise the Lord and praise his name, for the Lord is good and gracious, and has chosen Israel as his own possession. God’s sovereignty is celebrated over all the other gods. At this point, the Israelites were not yet a monotheistic people, but henotheistic, practicing what is called “monolatry” (the restriction of worship to one god alone), recognizing many, but taking the Lord as their own tribal god. That subsequently transitioned into the belief that the Lord is the God of gods, as is expressed here. Only later, during the period of the latter prophets of the Exile and following, would that fully develop into monotheism, the Lord saying, “there is no other beside me” (Isaiah 45:5,8). Here, the struggle against worshipping other gods is still present, and so the psalmist confesses that the Lord is sovereign over all creation (not Baal!), “doing whatever God pleases.” God’s action on behalf of Israel is recalled, beginning with striking down the first born in Egypt to God’s actions in the conquest of Canaan. The temple in Jerusalem was unique in antiquity in that it possessed no representation of God, only the ark of the covenant in its Holy of Holies. The psalm, therefore, mocks the silver and gold idols of the gods of other nations—their ears that do not hear, their eyes that do not see, and their lips that do not speak, and mouths that have no breath in them—and warns that those who trust in them shall become like them. It concludes, calling on all of Israel, beginning with the priestly families of Aaron and Levi, to bless the Lord who resides in Jerusalem.

In the midst of civic indebtedness, owe no one anything but agape, for such love fulfills the Law, especially those regulating behavior among people. More, the time is short; the Day of Christ is at hand. Therefore, they are to put away any and all behavior related to darkness, those that require the cover of darkness to continue, and instead, live honorable lives suitable for all to see, armored in the light of Christ. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and abandon the desires and behaviors of sinfulness that always emerge from darkness and self-absorption.

Leaving the Passover table, and knowing what is to come, Jesus leads the disciples to Gethsemane—an olive grove—to keep vigil with him while he prays. Arriving there, he leaves nine behind as a sort of rear guard, and takes his inner circle—Peter, James and John—with him a bit further. As he does, he begins to be agitated and filled with anguish and grief. He begs all of them to stay awake with him and watch over him. Then, he goes a bit further and falls on the ground in prayer. There he pleads with his Father that things not go forward as he knows they must. Is there not some way this cup can pass from him? He wants to remain obedient, but is there not some other way? Returning, he finds all of them asleep. Pleading more than rebuking, Jesus asks Peter, James and John why they cannot stay awake with him for just an hour. Pray, in the words that he taught them to pray, that he not “come into the time of trial.” The temptation is already descending upon him. Going away to pray a second time, again he pleads for an alternative, but resigned to what is coming, asks that his Father’s will be done. Going back to the three, who are asleep once again, he does not bother to wake them. Rather, he returns to his place of prayer and makes the request one more time. The answer, of course, is “No!” Knowing that, Jesus returns his disciples, awakens all of them and tells them it is time to be going. He is being given over into the hand of sinners and his betrayer is at hand.

Posted July 21, 2014
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday, July 20

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Josh. 6:15–27; Psalm 19; Acts 22:30–23:11; Mark 2:1–12

“And the walls came a’tumblin down!” Rahab and her family are preserved and initially moved to outside Israel’s camp, but later they settle with the Israelites. She has a future yet in Israel. The instructions for taking and disposing of the city are gruesome to modern ears. Behind them is the notion of kherem, which means “devoted to destruction” and is central to the notion of “Holy War.” No, Islam did not invent it; Holy War is as old as the taking of the land in 1200 BCE, and was used by the Moabites as well as the Israelites and probably other peoples as well. Foundational to Holy War is the conviction that it is God who is leading the people in battle as a “Divine Warrior” and God who brings victory. Consequently, everything belongs to God; there is to be no plundering or taking of booty. To do so would be to bring God’s wrath upon you and your people. All that is taken in battle is to be consecrated to the deity. The way that this is done is the way any sacrifice on an altar was offered: slaughtered and then burned complete—given totally to God. Everyone and everything, save the objects of gold, silver, bronze and iron, is utterly destroyed, the latter being put into the divine treasury. In addition, Joshua pronounces a curse on anyone trying to rebuild the city, a curse that is fulfilled in 1 Kings 16:34. Holy War will appear frequently in Joshua as the chronicler of his deeds, writing many years after the fact when Holy War was no longer being practiced, is less interested in presenting the facts historically (in a modern sense) than describing events through a theological lens, confirming that it is the Lord who has given the people the land and the Lord who has brought about the victory. Joshua, whatever his fame, is but the Lord’s servant.

Psalm 19 begins celebrating the glory of God in creation, and then shifts, mid-point, to praising God for the gift of the Law—the two ways God has made himself known to people. It concludes with a double petition: to be cleansed of hidden faults and kept from presumptuous sins and their power to dominate life, especially sins of the mouth. It was from verse 11 that John Calvin developed his theology of the third use of the law: to lead us into righteous living.

Paul has returned to Jerusalem, visited James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, and then goes to the Temple to worship. While there, Jewish agitators from Asia who have followed Paul assume he has brought a Gentile into the Temple and instigate a riot in an attempt to kill him. The Tribune hears of it, takes soldiers and centurions and arrests Paul as the perceived troublemaker. Later, discovering Paul is a Roman citizen, the Tribune orders the chief priests and the entire council to meet in order to sort out what it is Paul is being accused of. Paul recognizes the divided council and exploits the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees—himself a Pharisee—to evoke another riot. The Tribune, fearing they will kill Paul this time, again has him taken by force and returned to the barracks, this time for Paul’s safety. That night, the Lord Jesus appears to Paul and says, “Keep up your courage,” promising that Paul will testify to him in Rome as well as in Jerusalem.

Jesus returns to his home in Capernaum where word about him is such that people surround his house in an attempt to get near to hear his teaching. Four men attempt to bring a paralyzed friend to him for healing but find the crowd has jammed the door and they cannot get in. Undeterred, they climb the outside staircase to the roof, remove some of its planking and thatch, and lower their friend down into Jesus’ presence. Seeing their faith, Jesus turns to the paralytic and says “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Some scribes sitting nearby hear it and silently wonder who this is speaking such blasphemy—only God can forgive sin. Jesus perceives what they are thinking and asks, “Which is it easier to do, forgive sin or heal the man?” Remember, in Jesus’ day, any illness or malady was understood to be punishment for sin, doing one was a sign of having done the other. Before the scribes can open their mouths, Jesus responds. Referring to himself with the designation Mark frequently uses for Jesus—the Son of Man—Jesus turns to the paralytic and says, “Take up your bed and walk;” and he does! Yes, Jesus has authority they cannot imagine. Mark reports that, “All were amazed and glorified God,” but probably none more so than the man walking out the door with the mat on his back.

Posted July 20, 2014
Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday, July 19

Joshua 6:1–14; Psalm 104; Romans 13:1–7; Matthew 26:26–35

It is time to take Jericho, which is locked down in fear of the Israelites camped beyond them at Gilgal. But, they will not take Jericho by military might; the Lord will give it to them by his own hand. God gives Joshua the instructions for a six day siege. Warriors, followed by priests blowing rams’ horns, followed by the Ark of the Covenant, followed by a rear guard of warriors, circle the city walls in silence, save for the blowing of the shofars. The circle complete, they camp for the night, and do so for six days in a row.

Psalm 104 is a creation hymn and one of the “load stones” of the psalter. It speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also of God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God creates each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds to nest in, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is, fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order parceled out by God’s wisdom that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last to be written and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those that appear in the book of Job.

Paul moves from interpersonal ethics to the relationship of the believer to the state, reminding the Romans that there is no legitimate authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God, therefore, to resist established authority is to resist God. The government has been established to promote justice and to curb violence and bring wrath and judgment upon those who do wrong. It should not be a source of fear to those who do what is good. Be subject, therefore, not only out of fear, but out of a good conscience, knowing that in doing good you are serving God. Pay taxes and tolls to whom money is due and respect and honor to whom it is due. It is, of course, advice that many a “Christian King” abused over the following years, leaving the faithful struggling about what to do. It was a major challenge to the Lutheran Church in Hitler’s Germany, and led to the corrective notion that where governments abuse their authority, they become illegitimate and can and should be resisted. But reading Paul’s words here, it is important to remember that Paul was a Roman citizen and enjoyed the privileges of such citizenship. It is also important to remember the context in which he wrote these words to Christians in Rome. Since the second century B.C., Jews had been in various forms of revolt in an attempt to restore their own autonomy in Israel. Just a few years before Paul writes this, the Jews—certainly some within the church there in Rome—had been expelled from Rome because of their rioting. They had only recently been allowed to return. That said, I have often wondered how Paul felt about his advice here as he faced his own death at the hand of Rome.

In the midst of the Passover meal (in John’s gospel this takes place the night before Passover, so that Jesus is being crucified as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered), Jesus takes a loaf of bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to the disciples, saying “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then, doing the same with a cup of wine, he commands them all to drink of it, identifying it as his blood of the covenant poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. Notice Jesus does not say “new covenant” as Paul reports in 1 Corinthians 11:25, though Paul’s tradition is certainly the older of the two documents. Matthew is, after all, writing to a Jewish church that saw itself as the bearer of God’s covenant. Consequently, Matthew ties all of this to God’s initial covenant with Israel, where blood is that which gives life, the sign on door posts in Egypt that brought liberation, and that which when poured upon the altar was a means of cleaning it (expiating) of sin in order to be able to again bear God’s presence. Then Jesus vows never to drink it again until that day he drinks it with them in his Father’s kingdom. Thereafter, they sing a hymn and depart for the Mount of Olives. There, Jesus warns that they will all desert him this night, but after he is raised up he will go ahead of them back to Galilee, from whence they had come. Peter makes the most emphatic denial, promising even to die with Jesus, if need be, and the others join him in this false pledge of loyalty.

Posted July 19, 2014
Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday, July 18

Joshua 4:19–5:1, 10–15; Psalm 51; Romans 12:9–21; Matthew 26:17–25

Crossing Jordan into the Land of Promise is another Red Sea experience; one only Joshua and Caleb had known first-hand. Now, the entire nation has again experienced God’s power on their behalf in a mighty way. It has been done, not simply to allow them to enter the land—the Jordan could have been crossed in less dramatic ways—but so that “all the people of the earth” may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so the so that the Israelites will fear the Lord. The word is out; the kings of the land begin to tremble as their hearts melt and their spirit for warfare departs. Camped at Gilgal, Joshua has the twelve stones from the riverbed set in a pillar as a memorial to the crossing. He then has all of the male children born during the wilderness wanderings circumcised, and all rest until they are healed. They celebrate their first Passover in the land, using the produce of the land, and on that day, the manna ceases. Standing opposite Jericho, contemplating his next move, Joshua encounters an angel, the Commander of the army of the Lord. Falling on his face in obeisance and worship, Joshua asks what he is to do, and like Moses in the Lord’s presence at the bush, he is commanded to remove the sandal from his feet, for the ground on which he stands is holy. (Exodus 3:5)

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 convict 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.

What does new life in Christ look like? Paul now turns from theology to Christian ethics which begin with love that is genuine, neither hypocritical nor based on emotion, but upon selfless commitment to what is good for the other (agape, the Greek word used to describe God’s selfless love for us), holding fast to what is good in all circumstances. The virtues of the Christian life are set forth with clarity that is irrefutable and should drive all of us to our knees praying psalm 51 as our own. What would the world look like today if the church had and did live this way? Vengeance is categorically ruled out: it belongs only to the Lord (Deut. 32:35) who alone has the capacity to deal with such things justly. Notice too, that as important as peace is it is not to be sought at the expense of what is good. The highest virtue is agape love in pursuit of the good. It alone has the power to overcome evil.

It is time for Passover to be celebrated. Jesus dispatches the disciples to secure a place where they can gather and to make preparation for the meal, and they do so. Seated at table during the meal, Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him. The disciples all express consternation at such a thought, each, save one, saying, “Surely not I, Lord? Jesus says it is one who has dipped his hand in the bowl with him—it is one of them! Yes, all is unfolding just as it has been written of him, but woe to the one who betrays him. Judas responds, “Surely, not I, Rabbi?”—violating Jesus’ teaching to call no one “rabbi” (Matthew 23:7-8)—and thereby identifies himself as the betrayer, as Jesus so acknowledges.

Posted July 18, 2014
Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday, July 17

Joshua 3:14–4:7; Psalm 97; Romans 12:1–8; Matthew 26:1–16

Did it really happen; were the waters of the Jordan stopped so that the people could cross over into the land? Take a look at that pile of stones taken from the center of the Jordan’s riverbed! The moment the priest carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the water—not the river, mind you, but its overflow—the waters ceased flowing south and backed up to the north. The priests carrying the Ark walked down into the riverbed and stood at its middle while the people passed over on dry ground. The allusion to Moses and the people at the Red Sea is unmistakable; Joshua is leading the people as Moses did. Once the nation is across, God tells Joshua to choose a man from each tribe who is to return to the riverbed and select a stone so large it must be carried on the shoulder, one for each tribe, and take it to where they will camp that night to build a stone memorial so that in a later day, when children ask, “What is that and what does it mean?” they can be told of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan at God’s hand.

Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizes material from other psalms, as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), to construct a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as King—justice and righteousness are his throne. “Fire goes before him,” remembers the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness. References to lightning and storm challenge the notion that those are the work of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth proclaims God’s glory, but the heavens as well. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but the God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”

Having made the scope of his argument, Paul returns to his concern for the church in Rome and the challenges they are facing as the returning Jews reintegrate back into a congregation that, in their absence, had become Gentile. Imagine the arguments! And so he makes his appeal, not on the basis of his own authority, but upon the authority of the mercy of God—none of them have reason to boast. Grace is grace. Rather, they are to present themselves (he introduces the word “bodies” here to set up his next metaphor) as living offerings—that is what the word “sacrifice” means—holy and pleasing to God. It is the only logical response to God’s grace once it is embraced. Rather than be conformed to the world in which they live in Rome, they are to be transformed by the renewal of their minds—their understanding of what God’s grace means in day to day life. Thereby, they are to “prove,” as in “test” or “discover,” what God’s will is for them, things good, acceptable and perfectly fulfilled. In that vein, they are to live the life God has assigned and has equipped them to live. Returning to the image he used for the church in writing to Corinth, Paul again uses the metaphor of the body with its many members each playing out its role for the whole. Their gifts differ, not according to their own ability and skill, but according to the grace God has given to each of them. Paul then lists seven ministries, each essential to the life of the church. In other words, this is about more than them as individuals, this is about the church.

The gospel now turns to Jesus’ passion and death. Having completed his teaching in the Temple, Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for what is coming: at the Passover he will be handed over to be crucified. Even as he speaks the words, the religious leaders gather to plot his death. While at table in Simon the leper’s home, a nameless woman anoints Jesus with a very costly ointment. It causes an argument to break out among the disciples who think it wasteful—why was the ointment not sold and the money given to the poor? Something more important than our obligation to the poor is taking place here. Clearly, they have neither heard nor do they see what is taking place before their very eyes. The one who is rich is becoming poor for their sakes. Is it Jesus’ rebuke that sends Judas to the chief priests with an offer to betray Jesus to them? Or, is this Judas’ attempt to force Jesus’ hand? We don’t know his motive. All we know is that he receives the 30 pieces of silver and begins to look for the right time to betray Jesus.

Posted July 17, 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