Friday: Isaiah 24:14-23; Psalm 141; 1 Peter 3:13-4:6; Matthew 20:17-28
The twenty-fourth chapter of Isaiah is an oracle of doom upon the whole earth and its people, because of their perverse ways. The oracle even judges the sun and the moon that have competed with the Lord as false deities. Consequently, the judgment has cosmic dimensions to it. Though the people lift up their voices and sing for joy over the majesty of the Lord, and do so from east to west, it is just lip service to God’s glory. It does not reveal itself in their daily living. The Lord pines away and says, “Woe is me! The treacherous deal treacherously.” Therefore, the Lord is bringing terror, snare and pit upon the peoples of the earth. Those who flee the terror shall fall into the pit, and those who climb out of the pit will be caught in the snare. God is going to open the windows of heaven and flood the earth as he once did, and use earthquake and its destruction as a tool of judgment. The Lord laments, “The earth is utterly broken, torn asunder and violently shaken so that it staggers like a drunkard under the people’s transgressions.” “On that day,”—again we hear the theme of the day of the Lord—God will punish not only the people but also the hosts of heaven in the heavens—the sun and moon—and the kings upon the earth. They will be gathered together in the pit and there be judged and punished. The moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed for allowing themselves to usurp what belongs solely to the Lord. The Lord will then reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders he will maintain his glory. One cannot pray to the Lord in worship and then prey on one’s neighbor. The Lord cannot be bribed with such flattery, and there is a limit to his patience.
This wisdom psalm is a personal petition that calls on God for protection from the lures of evil and alternates between “the way of life” and “the way of death”—the traditional “two ways” theme of wisdom literature. It opens with a call to prayer that has, ever after, been used in communities gathered for evening prayer: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense; the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” It recalls the incense burning in the Temple as a symbol of the prayers of the faithful. God is called upon to “Set a guard over my mouth, and keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not turn my heart to any evil.” God is asked to keep the psalmist from the company of those who work iniquity. “Do not let me eat of their delicacies.” It is a plea to be kept from the company of those who walk in the way of evil and rather, be kept in the way of good, even to the point of, “Let the righteous strike me....” This is an expression of continual openness to correction on the way, especially by those who are more wise than themselves. This is followed by the plea that “the oil of the wicked never anoints my head.” The imagery quickly shifts to violence that befits the wicked. But, just as quickly, the psalmist returns her focus upon the Lord and addresses God directly: “O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless. Keep me from the trap that the wicked have laid for me; let them fall into their own nets, while I escape.
The framers of the daily lectionary step over the section in which the author encouraged his readers to live, not only in obedience to the emperor, but also to obey and live by the household codes of the day. They do so because of the ways the texts have subsequently been abused and presented as God’s eternal will for women in marital relationships. It is not; it is simply an accommodation to the cultural standards of the day in order to strive to make life easier for women believers. But much is lost in stepping over the texts. Wives are encouraged to accept the authority of their husbands, even if they are not believers, for their husbands may be won over by their wives’ conduct. Modesty and a gentle, quiet spirit are encouraged as the beauty that is precious in God’s sight. Husbands, in the same way, must show consideration for their wives, paying special honor to the one who was considered “the weaker sex”—a phrase that was badly misused well into the mid-20th century. But notice, they must be honored for they, too, are heirs of the gracious gift of life. The text then turns to encouraging all of them to have “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” They are not to repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary, they are to repay with a blessing. It is to this that they have been called, that they, too, may inherit a blessing. This is buttressed with a quotation from Psalm 34:13-17. Now we turn to the portion appointed for the day and the rhetorical question of who will harm them if they are eager to do good? Rather, they should always be ready to make their defense to anyone who demands it, giving an accounting for the hope that is in them, yet with gentleness and reverence—the biblical model for evangelism. No one was ever argued, shouted or threatened into the kingdom! They are to keep their consciences clear so, that if others malign them, they can be put to share for the believers’ good conduct in Christ. Even so, it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will for them, than to suffer for doing evil. There seems to have been great pressure on the members of the church to continue to indulge in the pagan and immoral patterns of the cultures in which they were living. They are reminded that Christ also suffered for sins, one for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. Now the illustration takes on deeper theological meaning as he continues to write, “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, which enabled him to go and make proclamation to the spirits in the prison of Hades—even those who formerly did not obey, when God waited patiently, such as in the days of Noah, when he was building the arc so that just a few, that is eight people, were saved through water. The notion of water then turns the author to speak of baptism, noting that the flood prefigured it as a means of salvation, not simply by removing dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience that trusts in what God has done in Jesus Christ through his resurrection from the dead. He is now in heaven, at the right hand of God—the place of authority—and with angels, authorities and powers having been made subject to him.
As Jesus, the disciples and his other followers go up to Jerusalem, he takes the twelve aside and again foretells his suffering, death and resurrection once they have gotten to Jerusalem. At that, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, comes to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling before Jesus, asks for a favor. Jesus asks what it is she wants, and she asks him to declare that her two sons will sit, one at Jesus’ right and the other at his left hand when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus responds that she does not know what she is asking. Are they able to drink the cup of suffering that he is about to drink? The two respond, “We are able.” Jesus tells them that they will indeed drink that same cup, but to sit at his right hand and left is not his to grant. That is the prerogative of his Father. It is for those for whom it has already been prepared. But the event does not stop there. When the other ten hear of the request, hostilities break out at they become angry with James and John—did they put their mother up to this? Jesus calls all of them together and reminds them that this is precisely the way the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over one another, making their great ones tyrants. It is not to be some among the twelve or any who come thereafter. Whoever among them wishes to be great among them must become their servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be their slave. To seal the point, he reminds them that this is precisely why the Son of Man has come: not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.
Thursday: Zephaniah 3:1-13; Psalm 134;1 Peter 2:11-25; Matthew 20:1-16
The word of the Lord comes to Zephaniah during the reign of King Josiah, the last of Judah’s great religious reformers, and its central theme is the great day of the Lord, in which judgment will come, not only on Judah’s enemies, but also on Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. In Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord is both a day of judgment and a day of restoration. Our lesson today begins with a recitation of the wickedness of Jerusalem and her people. They listen to no one, certainly not Zephaniah. They take no correction and fail to trust in the Lord, much less draw near to him. The officials are roaring lions and their judges, wolves, devouring all in their path. The prophets are reckless—faithless in their oracles—and their priests profane what is sacred, and do violence to the law. Yet, among the people are some who are righteous, and the Lord is within them. Daily, the Lord renders his judgments, but still, the unjust know no shame. The Lord now speaks, recounting for Jerusalem the nations that have been cut off and their battlements left in ruin. The Lord has laid waste in their streets to the point that they are empty. The nations’ cities have been made desolate—without people or habitation. In doing so, the Lord said, “Surely the city (Jerusalem), will fear me, it will accept correction, it will not lose sight of all that I have brought upon it.” Yet, they were more eager to make their corrupt deals. Now the judgment turns directly to the nations. “Wait and watch,” says the Lord, for he has made a decision to gather the nations and assemble the kingdoms (remember the function of Hebrew parallelism in poetry), and pour out upon this his indignation, “all the heat of [his] anger.” In the fire of the Lord’s passion, all the earth shall be consumed. (A more moderate reading is also possible, exchanging “land” for “earth” and the Hebrew word means both, meaning the Lord purging the land of promise.) But now the judgment issues in a refined and purified remnant of the faithful. Their speech shall become pure; they will call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. The Lord will bring his scattered ones, those who call upon him, and they shall bring the Lord an offering. “On that day…,” a phrase that regularly points to the day of God’s judgment; in spite of their deeds of rebellion, they shall not be put to shame. For on that day, the Lord will remove from among them their proudly exultant ones, the haughty and rebellious. No longer shall they be son on the Lord’s holy mountain, Zion. Rather, the Lord will leave in the midst of Judah a people who are humble and lowly, who will seek refuge in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall do no wrong, utter no lie or speak with a deceitful tongue. They will pasture and lie down in peace, and no one will make them afraid. There is a necessary judgment in God’s love for his people, whereby his punishment purges the wicked, the proud and the self-sufficient, but a remnant remains who he purifies, and who learns to live in humility and trust in him.
This psalm, the last of the “Songs of Ascent,” concludes the section of such psalms that began with Psalm 120. It is short and is both a call to worship and a word of blessing. Some think it is a liturgical blessing that was invoked upon a new “shift” of priests coming to take up their service in the temple, a charge and blessing on the “changing of the guard” within the temple personnel. Others think it is simply a word of priestly blessing invoked over pilgrims as they come to the temple to bless God, make sacrifice, and dwell, for a time, in the presence of the Lord. Its tri-form structure is built around the invitation to “Come, bless the Lord….” “Lift your hands,”—the posture of prayer—and the priestly blessing: “May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.” Zion, of course, is God’s holy mountain, Jerusalem, but also a reference to the temple which was at the very top of the mountain and was understood to be the Lord’s dwelling place on earth.
After a grand theological soliloquy, the author returns to the subject of behavior. The readers are “aliens and exiles” in the land—never fully accepted, and never fully at home. They must conduct themselves honorably and not indulge in the desires of the flesh that identify “the Gentiles” that live around them. This is not a distinction between Jews and non-Jews, but a metaphor that will increasingly be used to identify those who do not belong to the faith. Believers must live, even when being maligned as evildoers, so that when Christ comes to judge, they will be seen to have been honorable, and will give honor to God. They are to accept the authority of human institutions, whether the emperor, as supreme, or governors who are sent to punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right. It is God’s will that, by their doing right, they will silence the ignorance of fools. As servants of God, they are to live as free people, but are not to use that freedom as a context for evil. They are to honor everyone and love the family of believers. They are to fear God and honor the emperor. Those among them who are slaves are to accept the authority of the masts with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh—a text that was sadly abused in the American church in the south during the days of chattel slavery. It was pointed to as evidence for God’s sanction of slavery. The point here is that such unjust suffering, borne patiently, becomes a credit to them. If they are punished for doing something wrong, what credit is that? But if they endure when they do right and suffer for it, they have God’s approval. It is to this that they have been called. And now, in a somewhat astonishing turn, the author identifies their innocent suffering with that of Christ, who suffered for them, in order that he might be an example for them in their suffering. Quoting a portion of one of the suffering servant texts of Isaiah (53:9), they are reminded that when Jesus was abused he did not return abuse, and when he suffered, he did not threaten. Rather, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. This leads to a New Testament text that interprets Jesus’ suffering and death as vicarious, cleansing, and redemptive. “He bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness. Again, the author bases his thoughts on the suffering servant poem of Isaiah as he tells them, “By his wounds you have been healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) Until Christ, they were going astray like sheep (Isaiah 53:6), but now they have returned to the shepherd and guardian of their souls.
Jesus now tells the well-known and often misunderstood parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The vineyard is, of course, a common symbol for God’s kingdom. A day’s wage in Jesus’ day was sufficient for all of one’s needs. A landowner goes out early in the morning to find laborers for his field. After agreeing with them for the usual day’s wage, he sends them into the vineyard. The landowner goes out again about nine o’clock and sees workers standing idle in the marketplace. He tells them, “Go to the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” And so they go. The owner goes out again at noon and again about three, and he does the same. About five in the afternoon, he finds others standing around and asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They respond, “Because no one has hired us.” And so he sends them into the vineyard as well. When evening comes, the owner gathers all of the workers in order to pay them for their labor, beginning with those who came to the field last and ending with those who came early in the morning. To those who came last, at five o’clock, the owner gives a full day’s wage. When those who had been first see this, they assume they will receive more than they initially bargained for, but no; he pays them a day’s wage as well. At that, the workers from the first morning shift begin to grumble saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong: did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I gave to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am gracious. Again, the parable closes with those same challenging words: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” There is no special reward for getting to the kingdom first beyond that of living in it, and that should be sufficient. There is no special payoff for seniority. God gives life to all who enter the kingdom, no matter when they do it, and those who have gotten their earlier than others and stand around grumbling about this, probably have never really experienced the joy and power of living in the kingdom and having everything that they need. Why is it they want more? Why is it we thirst after more than we need? But notice: what the first workers were promised is given to them. It is not taken away.
Wednesday: Obadiah 15-21; Psalm 128; 1 Peter 2:1-10; Matthew 19:23-30
This is the shortest book of the Old Testament and one that pronounces judgment on a neighbor because of betrayal in time of need. The context is the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylonia between 597 and 587 BCE. Edom, a neighbor southeast of the Dead Sea, had been where Jacob’s brother, Esau had settled. The Edomites were more than neighbors; they were distant family. Yet, during Jerusalem’s days of siege and fall, the Edomites cooperated with Babylon, captured fleeing Jews and turned them over to Babylon at great profit. After it fell, Edom joined others in taking part in the plunder of Jerusalem. Scholars think that Obadiah, whose name means, “servant of the Lord,” lived in Jerusalem after its fall and witnessed Edom’s betrayal. And so, this is an oracle of judgment pronounced on a family member for its treachery and disloyalty. Its theme is God’s punishment of Edom for its deeds on the Day of the Lord. It is near against all the nations, but especially Edom. As they have done so it shall be done to them. As they drank on God’s holy mountain, Zion, so shall the nations drink them; it shall be as though they have never been. But there shall be restoration for the house of Jacob, who will take possession of those who dispossessed them. Jacob shall be a fire, the house of Joseph a flame and Esau’s house stubble that is burned and consumed until none are left. Then the land of Israel shall be repossessed and settled by the Jews. Those from the southern Negeb will possess Mount Esau, those from the southwest shall inhabit the land of Ephraim and Samaria, and Benjamin shall possess Gilead. The exiles of the Israelites shall return and inhabit the places in the north as far as Phoenicia. The exiles of Jerusalem shall settle in the Negeb. All who have been saved and resettled shall go up to Mount Zion where the Lord remains king, and shall rule over all of Esau. Once again, the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
Named “A Song of Ascents” that tells us this was part of an entrance liturgy to the temple that was employed as men made their three annual compulsory visits to Jerusalem, to worship during one of the three major feasts. It is a wisdom psalm whose message is very much like Psalm 1: those who walk in God’s ways receive God’s blessing—the negative is not even considered! It may have been offered by the pilgrim himself, or, it may have been invoked on the pilgrim as he entered the temple. But, whereas Psalm 1 is general in its application, this one is more personal, expressing the blessings and their impact on one’s wife and children. It concludes with a series of general blessings, first on the pilgrim worshipper, then on Jerusalem, and finally on all of Israel itself.
After challenging his readers to rid themselves of all forms of malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander, the author exhorts them, like new born babes (an image of their new life in Christ) to long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that they may grow into their salvation—if, indeed, they have tasted that the Lord is good. Now the writer moves to the center of his theological and Christological convictions, utilizing the image, from Psalm 118:22, of the rejected stone which has become the cornerstone. Christ is that living stone, to whom they are invited. And though he was rejected by mortals, he was chosen and precious in God’s sight. Therefore, they too are to become like living stones, built into a spiritual household in Christ, to become a holy priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. The church is not simply a group of people who have been saved. The church is a holy priesthood, ordained in baptism and joined to Christ to continue to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in its daily ministry in the world. Now the author quotes Isaiah 28:16, in which the Lord promises to lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame—one who trusts in him will have no need to panic. So, to those of them who believe he is precious, but for those who do not believe, but have rejected him, he has become the rock over which they stumble and fall. Picking up another theme from Isaiah, this stumbling is something they have been destined to do. But returning to his readers, the author now turns to soaring language to remind them that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [they] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Once they were nothing—no people. Now they are God’s people. Once they had not received mercy, but now they have. This letter has had a profound impact on the church and its understanding of itself and its mission, and moved the church from being an enclave of ‘the saved,” hunkered down against the world, to a community of priests commissioned to act in the world, mediating the presence and power of God as they offer their lives as spiritual sacrifices in Christ’s name.
As the young man Jesus invited to follow him goes away sorrowful because of the many possessions he is not prepared to part with, Jesus warns about how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom. Using the well-known image of the difficulty of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, he makes the point that divesting oneself of the things that claim the allegiance that rightfully belongs only to God is what it means to enter the kingdom. The disciples hear this and are as shocked as they were at his words about divorce, and so they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus simply says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” We do no save ourselves—even by selling all that we have and giving it to the poor. Salvation is God’s gift. Peter speaks for the rest of them, reminding Jesus of what it is they have left to follow him. What then will they have? Jesus responds that “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory,” those who have followed Jesus will sit on the twelve thrones of Israel—one for each of its tribal heads. Anyone who has made the ultimate sacrifice of leaving family or fields for his name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and will inherit eternal life—words that should be encouraging to the disciples. But to this, Jesus adds these words: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first—words that must have been troubling to those following him to Jerusalem, but comforting to those reading Matthew’s gospel many years later, who were also leaving family and field behind for Jesus’ sake.
Tuesday: Nahum 1:1-13; Psalm 124; 1 Peter 1:13-25; Matthew 19:13-22
Nahum is one of the most difficult books of the Old Testament to date, as well as to identify its author and the circumstances of its writing. It is also difficult in another way: it is filled with a theology of God and God’s vengeance that is highly questionable from a Christian perspective. However, within the context of the day, among a people who have suffered humiliating defeat and the multiple horrors of war, at least the vengeance is attributed to God’s judgment, and not something taken into the people’s own hands. The book appears to have been written sometime after 663 BCE, when the Assyrian empire reached the zenith of its expansion in the Middle East. Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, was destroyed in 612 BCE by the Babylonians and the Medes. Scholars think that because of the vividness of the rejoicing portrayed in the book, it must have been written at some time shortly thereafter, as a means of confessing that it was the Lord who was at work through the Babylonians and the Medes, neither of whom had yet become a threat to Judah. The text is included in this week’s readings because of the continuing theme of the Day of the Lord, preparing us for Advent. The opening oracle is against Nineveh. The Lord, who is slow to anger but great in power, is not about to clear the guilty, and Nineveh is very guilty. The Lord’s power is described in terms of his sovereignty over the element of nature: the sea dries up, the mountains quake and the earth heaves before him. After asking who can stand before such indignation and anger, the text again affirms the goodness of the Lord, who is a stronghold in the day of trouble, who protects those who take refuge in him. Yet, the Lord will make a full end of his adversaries, pursing his enemies even in darkness. The oracle then asks, “Why do you plot against the Lord?” Whether what follows is addressed to Assyria or to some in Judah who insist that the Lord has forgotten them or is unable to stand against Assyrian power, is a biblical scholar’s debate. In fact, the warning may be directed both ways. It insists that whoever the addressee may be, from them one “has gone out who plots evil against the Lord,” one who counsels wickedness. Then come the words of comfort for Judah: though its enemy is full of strength and many, they will be cut off and pass away. More, though the Lord has afflicted Judah through them, the Lord will afflict Judah no more. Rather, he will break off Assyria’s yoke and snap their bonds by which they have bound Judah.
“Had not the Lord been on our side—now let Israel say—had it not been the Lord who was with us when our enemies rose up against us, we would not have survived.” This is a communal psalm of thanksgiving, following a war that was just barely won, in which Israel survived in spite of its lack of strength or might, and now gives thanks where it understands thanks is due. It rightly is appointed for this day when we hear the words of Nahum promising God’s vengeance against Assyria. The Lord is blessed for not giving his people into the enemies’ teeth as prey. Israel escaped destruction as the bird escapes the fowler’s broken snare. The psalm ends with the theme recurrent, not only in the psalms, but throughout the Bible: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” A paraphrase of this psalm was sung in Coventry Cathedral in England, at the conclusion of World War II, as recognition of the country’s own deliverance by the Lord.
The author of 1 Peter now turns to his purpose in writing: to exhort, strengthen and encourage his readers by additional teaching. They are to prepare themselves for action, disciplining their minds, and setting all their hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring when he returns (is revealed). They are to be obedient children and not conform to desires that they formerly had while they were in ignorance. Instead, the author quotes Leviticus 19:2 and tells them that they are to be holy in all of their conduct, as the one who has called them is holy. They are reminded that the one they call “Father” is a judge who is impartial, therefore, they are called to live in reverent fear during this time of “exile.” They are reminded of the futile ways of their ancestors from which they have been ransomed, not with perishable things like gold or silver, “but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Once again, the image of the sacrificial lamb offered in the temple is used in reference to Jesus and his death. But now the author writes a blockbuster of a thought: this was neither an accident nor last minute fix for things gone wrong. Rather Christ was destined “before the foundation of the world” for all of this, but revealed at “the end of the ages” for their sake. Notice that the conviction is that they are living at the end of the age and that a new one is unfolding in Christ. It is through Christ that the readers have come to trust in God, who raised Jesus from death and gave him glory, so that their faith and hope are set on God. Following upon the appeal to holy living, the author now presses for a community that is not simply purified by obedience to the truth, but by its genuine mutual love. They are to remember that they have been “born anew”—quite literally “begotten once again,” not by perishable human seed, but through the living and enduring word of God. Quoting Psalm 34:8, as a means of reminding them that all earthly things perish, and that it is only the word of the Lord that endures forever, they are reminded that the word is the good news that was announced to them.
Little children are brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands upon them, but the disciples sternly order those who brought the children not to do so. Jesus interrupts and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” This is less an affirmation of children’s innocence than recognition that in that culture, they were considered the lowest of the low. It is to those who have no status, those the culture casts aside as without worth that the kingdom belongs. And so, Jesus laid his hands upon them in blessing. At that, someone in the crowd calls him “Teacher,” and asks what good deed he must do to have eternal life.” The word “good” riles Jesus who asks why the man has asked him about what is good, since only one is good. He then says that if the man wishes to enter eternal life, he must keep the commandments and quotes the second table of the law—the one dealing with interpersonal relationships—adding also, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Astonishingly, the young man claims to have kept all these; what else is lacking? Jesus tells him that if he wishes to be perfect, to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.” It is one of the few times in the gospel when someone who Jesus has not already chosen is invited to follow. But, we are told, the man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Monday: Joel 3:1-2,9-17; Psalms 106:19-48; 1 Peter 1:1-12; Matthew 19:1-12
The Valley of Jehoshaphat is an imaginary place chosen for the meaning of its name: “The Lord will judge.” The prophet Joel, whose name means, “The Lord is God” is not known to us historically, and it is hard to pin-point the date of his prophecy. But most scholars identify it as sometime in the 5th century BCE, primarily because of the way the daily life in the temple, with all of its cultic apparatus is identified. It appears this week because of the theme of the Day of the Lord, which Joel announces as a day of judgment on the nations for the way they have treated Judah. God will, on that day, restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem. God will gather the nations and bring them to the valley of judgment (Jehoshaphat), and judge them because they have scattered God’s people, divided their land, cast lots over them, and sold the children into slavery: the boys for prostitutes and the girls for wine. And so, Joel calls for an announcement among the nations: they are to prepare for war and stir up their warriors. Joel calls on God to bring down his heavenly warriors on all the nations. The issue is so important that evening the implements of agriculture must be turned into weapons; plowshares beat into swords and pruning hooks into spears (Micah 4:3 will reverse that image as he talks about the day of the Lord). The nations are called to come to the valley, for there the Lord will put in the sickle and reap a ripe harvest, and treat the full winepress of the nation’s wickedness. The day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The elements of the cosmos withdraw their light while the Lord roars from Zion and the earth shakes. God is redeeming his people. The Lord is a refuge for them, a stronghold for the people of Israel.
This confession of sin continues, recounted Israel’s apostasy at Mt. Horab, making and worshiping the golden calf, exchanging the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass and forgetting that it was the God who was their savior. For that, God was ready to destroy them all. Had it not been for Moses’ intercession, God’s wrath would have been poured out upon them. But still, they despised the pleasant land that was reported to them by their spies, and having no faith in God’s promise, they grumbled in their tents and disobeyed God’s voice. Consequently, God consigned them to the wilderness, there to wander and die, and only then will place their descendants in the land of promise. But even in their wanderings, they attached themselves to foreign gods, and sacrificed to the dead. God’s anger was stoked and plagues broke out among them until Phinehas interceded on their behalf and the plague was stopped (Numbers 25). The people argued with the Lord at Meribah to the point that even Moses was implicated, became rash and spoke bitter words. The Israelites did not destroy the nations, as God had commanded, and instead, mingled with them, taking up their religious practices, sacrificing their children to demons and the idols of Canaan, so that the land was polluted with their children’s blood. Thus, the people became unclean and prostituted themselves. Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against them and he gave them into the hand of the nations who ruled over them. Many times the Lord raised up judges to liberate them, but the people remained rebellious in their iniquity. Nevertheless, God remembered his covenant and showed compassion and steadfast love, so that those who held them captive pitied them. The psalm of confession ends with a plea for redemption and salvation: “Gather us from among the nations that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” After a final blessing of the Lord as their God from everlasting to everlasting, the people say “Amen!” The psalm ends with a final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
We begin reading one of the most influential small letters of the New Testament, the first letter of Peter. The book, which probably originated in Rome, is sophisticated in its use of Greek—some of the most beautiful in the New Testament and one of the reasons scholars believe it was written by a disciple of Peter in Peter’s name. It’s theology of Jesus as the Christ is some of the most important in the New Testament. Whether or not Peter wrote this letter, or it was written by someone in the circle of Peter’s followers, the letter is a profound expression of the Christian gospel. It begins with a greeting, similar to those we are accustomed to reading in Paul’s letters. It is written to the “exiles of the Dispersion” in Asia, who the author names as “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ, and to be sprinkled with his blood”—an act of purification in the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, in which the worshipper was make holy and suitable for God’s presence by being sprinkled with the blood of the animal that had been sacrificed and its blood offered to God. The greeting ends with a blessing-prayer calling for grace and peace in abundance. What follows is one of the most beautiful blessings in the New Testament. It sets the context for the themes what will come forth in the letter, in much the same way Paul’s blessing outlined his writings. God has, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, given new birth into a living hope and an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven” for the reader, who is being protected by the power of God through faith for salvation, which is ready to be revealed “at the last time.” This is their source of joy, even though, for a little time, they must suffer trials. Suffering is given new meaning. It is understood to be a means of revealing the genuineness of their faith, more precious than gold that is being tested by fire. Withstanding such tests will result in praise, glory and honor to them when Jesus Christ returns. The readers of the letter are a generation of Christians who are converts to the faith, who never saw or knew Jesus, but nonetheless have loved and believed in him, and rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy because they are receiving the outcome of their faith—the salvation of their soul. All of this was announced beforehand, through the writings of Hebrew prophets, who testified in advance of the sufferings destined for Christ and his subsequent glory. One of the characteristics of this letter is that it will cite the Hebrew scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament, as warrant for the Christian gospel, and do so in a way that sees those scriptures as a preparation for the good news, especially Christ’s suffering and glory as a means for our salvation, that, by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, has given to the readers. It is as though all of the Old Testament is but a preparation for revealing the gospel.
Matthew gives us his version of Jesus’ words on divorce and introduces a new concept: eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. After a normal Matthean transition: he departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, where a large crowd was following him, and he healed those among them who were sick--we read about another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, again testing Jesus, come to him asking if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus quotes to them the narrative from creation in which the husband and wife become “one flesh,” (Gen 2:24), and then says that since they are no longer two but one, what God has joined together must not be divided. The Pharisees respond by asking, why then, did Moses give them permission to give a wife a writ of divorce (Deut 24:1-4)? Jesus responds that it is because of the hardness of their hearts that the law includes this provision. But from the beginning it was not this way. He then goes on to say that whoever divorces his wife, except for “immorality,” in other places named “adultery”—the Greek word means “fornication, sexual immorality or unchastity”—and then marries another, commits adultery. Notice that Matthew has included this broader provision. Many scholars think that Jesus’ original statement did not include this provision. That helps better understand the disciples’ response that, if this is the case, it is better for men not to marry—a number of whom already were married, Peter in particular. Matthew now includes a saying of Jesus, unique to his gospel. Jesus says that not all men can understand this, but only those to whom understanding has been given. Some are born eunuchs, others are made eunuchs by men, and finally, there are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Here is the text that the church has historically pointed to as the foundation of celibacy for monks, nuns and priests.
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.