Monday, November 10, 2014
Joel 1:14-2:2; Psalm 79; Revelation 18:15-24; Luke 14:12-24
The alert is sounded: “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord and cry out.” The aftermath of the locust swarm is a desolate land. Everyone complains, even the animals groan, domestic and wild alike. Formalize the alert: “Blow the ram’s horn in Zion.” The Day of the Lord is here, and as in Amos and Zephaniah, it is a day of judgment—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. A great and powerful army comes the likes of which has never been seen before nor will be seen again.
Psalm 79 is a communal lament that reveals the horror in and around Jerusalem when Babylon finally came and destroyed it in 587 BCE, burning the temple to the ground, slaughtering its people and taking its leaders into exile. The psalmist pleads for God to give up his anger and jealous wrath at the people and stop all of the violence. Rather, pour forth that anger on the nations that have plundered Israel, those who do not know the Lord or call upon the Lord’s name. The psalmist now offers an oblique confession of sin, pleading that God not remember against them the sins of their ancestors, but, instead, respond speedily with compassion and help. The Lord is addressed as “The God of our salvation,” and asked to do so for the glory of his name. “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” Rather, give the nations what they have given us. Avenge us and let the nations know it is your vengeance, and let that be known among them before our eyes—vindicate us! Prayers are offered for God to preserve the prisoners carried off to Babylon who are doomed to die. The psalmist then turns bitter and requests that those around them who taunted them and refused to come to their aid, while they watched Jerusalem under siege, receive seven-fold the taunts with which they taunted the Lord as Jerusalem fell. Notice that it is only after this complete retaliation is accomplished that the psalmist promises to give thanks to the Lord. “Then, we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” The bitterness of the survivors of Jerusalem, and their hatred of those around them who took advantage of their defeat, is clearly resonate in this very human expression of grief and despair. Yet, it is a grief and despair that is still addressed to God. This, too, is the glory of the Psalter and its ability to cast all of life under the sovereignty and mercy of God.
The merchants who have made great wealth selling to the city will stand afar in fear and weeping. In one hour, all this wealth has been laid waste—so fast will be the judgment on her. Shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all who trade will do the same. They will throw dust on their heads in grief. On the other hand, the heavens with the saints and the apostles are called to rejoice over her destruction. The vengeance that belongs to God alone has now come in judgment upon her. A great millstone is thrown into the sea as a symbol of all that will go down and no longer be found: the musicians, the artists, the artisans of any trade, the joy of ongoing life symbolized by the bride and bridegroom, the merchants and magnates of the earth, all who were deceived by the city’s sorcery will be no more. All of that falls with the fall of Babylon, for in her was found the blood of the prophets and saints and all who have been slaughtered. The judgment is more comprehensive than simply Rome. This is about every nation that rises up against the meek of the earth, and others of God’s people, and pursues power for its own purposes, abusing its subjects rather than serving them.
Jesus is still at the dinner hosted for him by the Pharisee and says to all at table that when they put together a dinner party; who should they invite; the rich, the powerful, the important, all who will be compelled to return the favor? No. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind—all who are outcasts and cannot repay the favor—and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. Having heard these instructions on hospitality, one of the dinner guest says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God,”—a pious statement that all can affirm. Jesus uses it to tell a parable of a great banquet, and does so in such a way that it can be construed as a description of the banquet at the consummation of the kingdom the pious guest has just alluded to, making the point that none of those initially invited will be there, because they have all allowed the cares of the world to get in the way of their obedience and discipleship (remember, these stories are being read aloud in churches gathered in dinner settings). Or, it can be read as a description of someone who has heard and is not acting out the rules for hospitality that Jesus has described earlier in verses 12-14.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
Joel 1:1-13; Psalm 34; 1 Corinthians 14:1-12; Matthew 20:1-16
We begin reading the prophet Joel who is a bit of an enigma to biblical scholars in that there are no historical records of him. He is clearly well versed in Israel’s literary tradition and will reference a number of citations, sometimes even having the courage to twist them to produce new meaning. In addition, he is a gifted writer himself, utilizing various stylistic forms in his work. We have no historical record, but internal evidence would suggest that it dates sometime in the 5th century BCE, after the return from Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It begins with the classic, “The word of the Lord that came to Joel,” whose name means “The Lord is God.” There has been a national disaster, a locust infestation that has brought extraordinary devastation, which Joel interprets as God’s judgment, though he does not name it as such here. Rather, he begins in lament calling on the people to repent. The locusts came in stages, like an invading army and have destroyed everything eatable; grain, grapes, figs, olive and other fruit trees. The elders and others are called to “Wake up!” “Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.” It is a particularly poignant image—a virgin’s betrothed has died and left her a widow even before her wedding. All, from the priests ministering in the temple to the vine dressers and field workers are called to put on sackcloth—signs of repentance—and offer prayers of lament.
Psalm 34 is attributed to David, when he feigned madness before king Abimelech so that the king drove David out, allowing David to escape. It is a wisdom psalm built on an acrostic pattern, each new section beginning with a word that begins with the successive letter of the alphabet and focuses on God’s goodness. It uses a number of Hebrew parallelisms, the first phrase making a statement that the second phrase repeats with different language: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be continually in my mouth.” “O magnified the Lord with me, and let us exalt in his name together.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” These, of course, have been solidly incorporated in the liturgical language of the church as the Psalter was its first prayerbook. The psalm is testimonial through and through: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me…, look to him and be radiant. …. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” The young are then summoned to listen and learn the fear of the Lord and what it means for their lives. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in sprit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. …. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
One of the problems vexing the church in Corinth was various manifestations of the Spirit among them that they saw as signs of spiritual superiority. None, then or now, has been more troubling than the gift of tongues, a form of ecstatic prayer that is unintelligible but leaves the one doing the praying on an emotional high. In chapter twelve, Paul has identified spiritual gifts, among them the gift of tongues—notice that he does not deny that they are a spiritual gift—but he then urges them to seek the higher gifts, tongues being among the lowest. Paul then cites the hymn on love, pointing to it as the greatest of spiritual gifts. Now, Paul continues to encourage the Corinthians to pursue not only love, but prophecy—what today we call preaching the word—and sets prophecy over tongues as being far superior, because prophecy edifies everyone whereas tongues only edify the one praying. Tongues build up the person, prophecy builds up the church. Paul then does something interesting, saying he wants them all to pray in tongues but, he wants them to prophesy even more. Then, indulging in a musical analogy, he notes that the flute and harp, though lovely, do not give the distinct note of a bugle that gets one ready for battle. So, if all they do is speak in tongues, how will others know what they are saying? If they are eager for spiritual gifts they should strive to excel in those that build up the church. Spirituality is not intended to be personal only, but given for the greater purpose of drawing all people into the love of God in Christ.
Jesus tells the familiar parable about the laborers in the vineyard, some who came at the break of day, others at nine, some at noon, others at three and even some at five in the afternoon. All are sent to the vineyard to work with the promise that, at the end of the day, they will be paid “whatever is right,” and so they go. When the owner of the vineyard returns at the end of the day, he instructs the manager to pay the workers, beginning with those who had come to the field last. Starting there and continuing through all the workers, to those who have worked since sunrise, each is given a day’s pay. Those who have worked all day are outraged believing the owner is not being fair. Well, it is a question of fair from whose perspective! The landowner replies that he has given them what he promised—a day’s wage—what they need for life. Take it and go. Is he not allowed to do what he chooses to do with what is his? Or, are they envious because he is gracious? The last will be first and the first will be last.” Behind this lies the grumbling of those in the church—yes, even the early church had grumblers who complained because of the attention being given to newcomers, and who thought that having been there from the beginning warranted them some special merit. The tragedy is manifold: clearly, they have never understood the blessing of being in the vineyard in the first place, much less the fact that they serve someone committed to seeing that everyone gets what they need—even them! Behind such notions of meritocracy in the church lies a loathing of God’s grace. God is too good to give us what we have earned, but rather, what we need!
Saturday, November 8, 2014
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 76; Revelation 18:1-14; Luke 14:1-11
Zephaniah concludes his prophecy by breaking into a song of salvation: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion, shout, O Israel! Rejoice O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” Not only that, God has turned away her enemies and is now in the midst of her. She shall fear disaster no more. God’s presence is now an assurance of salvation rather than judgment. Now God exults over Jerusalem rather than grieves for her. God will deal with all of her oppressors, gather the lame and other outcasts, change their shame into praise, and bring them home. This has not yet happened; it lies in Jerusalem’s future as a time of salvation and restoration. This is the text that forms the basis of Handel’s “Rejoice, Greatly” from his master choral work “Messiah.” And thus, Zephaniah ends with a prophetic word of hope turning “the Day of the Lord,” from one of judgment into one of salvation.
Psalm 76 is a hymn of praise to God that begins with the generic name for God and not until its next to last verse does it name God as “the Lord.” It is an announcement to the nations as to who God is—the One who is sovereign over all. God is known in Judah, God’s name is great in Israel, God’s dwelling place (tabernacle or temple) is in Salem (ancient name for Jerusalem), paralleled by its other name: “Zion.” It is there God has broken the implements of war, driven back the stouthearted and quelled the hands of the nations’ troops. God is then directly praised as “Awesome!” Who can stand before God, especially when God’s anger is roused? From heaven, God utters judgments on behalf of all of the oppressed, and all the earth responds. God is so marvelous that even human wrath, unleashed for its own questionable purposes, ends up serving and praising Him. And now, God’s name is finally revealed, as worshippers are called upon to make their vows to “the Lord, your God.” Let all bring gifts to this awesome one who cuts off princes and inspires holy fear in the kings of the earth.
Another angel appears in heaven singing the song of Babylon’s fall. Cast as a lament, it is filled with Old Testament prophetic imagery and judgment against “the nations” that have oppressed God’s people. All the nations have drunk of her wine of wrath and fornication. Kings and merchants have participated and grown rich in her whoredom. Another voice from heaven calls out to God’s people, “Come out of her; do not take part in her,” lest they finally participate in her plagues. Then, there is the call to render to her double punishment for her deeds and give her measure of torment and grief in proportion to the way she glorified herself and lived in luxury. The queen is becoming a widow and she will be burned by fire. It is the mighty One, the Lord God who is judging her. All the kings of the earth will stand afar and, in fear, say, “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon—in one hour your judgment has come!” It is swift and sure. All the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her as well. To whom will they sell their goods? This is not a hymn about personal vindication for the saints, so much as it is a declaration of the ultimate justice of God being acted out against a power that was thought to be the greatest in the world.
Once again, Jesus sets the Pharisees up. He is at a sabbath meal hosted by one of the leaders of the Pharisees and among them is a man with dropsy. Dropsy, in Jesus’ world was what we today call edema, a condition in which the body swells as it retains fluid, while the person, vexed with an insatiable thirst, continues to take in fluid. It became a metaphor labeling people who are greedy, whether for money, power, position or esteem. Jesus finds himself among such people and asks if it is lawful to cure people on the sabbath. The Pharisees remain silent. After healing the man and sending him away, Jesus asks the Pharisees, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day? Again, they remain silent. As he observes the guests jockeying for places of privilege at the table, Jesus goes on to reveal their own “dropsy”, telling them to give others the places of honor rather than grab them for themselves, lest someone come and embarrass them by telling them to move from the privileged seat to the lowest place. Rather, take the lowest seat and wait to be asked to move higher. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled in God’s reign, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. So too, when you put together a dinner party; who do you invite, the rich, the powerful, the important, all who will be compelled to return the favor? No. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind—all who are outcasts and cannot repay the favor—and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Friday, November 7, 2014
Zephaniah 3:8-13; Psalm 73; Revelation 17:1-18; Luke 13:31-35
Zephaniah’s oracle is now directed to all the nations. “All the earth will be devoured by the fire of [God’s] will.” The function of the fire, however, is less punishment than it is purification. God will cleanse the lips of the nations so that they may rightly call on him and serve him “shoulder to shoulder.” Then the word comes that the disbursed ones beyond the rivers in Ethiopia shall return and bring offerings for worship. They shall no longer feel shame for their former rebellious ways because God will have removed their proud and haughty ones from among them, and never again shall they be arrogant or rebellious on God’s holy mountain. God will leave a remnant of humble and lowly ones who will take refuge in the name of the Lord. There will be no lying or deceitful tongues among them, and they will lie down and feed in safety with no one to cause them to tremble.
Psalm 73 is a prayer of confession by one who almost gave up on the Lord whose feet nearly slipped. When seeing the prosperity of the wicked, he became envious. When seeing that their proud and arrogant ways seemed only to bring them success, and that they were filled with an abundance of good things, he asked himself, “Why, why should I maintain my integrity before the Lord, when all it is doing is bringing me hardship?” It is a question the faithful ask over and again in the face of what seems the wicked’s prosperity. Pride is their necklace; violence is their way. They speak wickedly and oppress, and even mock the heavens, saying to themselves, “God does not see.” They seem to have no pain in death, are always at ease, and only increase in their wealth. The psalmist laments, “It is in vain that I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence!” Stricken all day long, he is chastened every morning. And so, in an attempt to understand this, he pondered it and found it deeply troubling to him. But then, he entered the Lord’s sanctuary. It was there that he perceived the wicked’s end; destroyed in a moment and swept away by sudden terrors. Therefore, he confesses that when he was embittered by what he saw among the arrogant, he was himself pierced within and behaved like a senseless beast. But now, he realizes that even then, in his moments of vulnerability, the Lord was with him, holding his right hand. Verse 24 is a classic: “With your counsel you will guide me, and afterward, you will receive me into your glory.” Who then does he have in heaven or earth but the Lord? Beside him, there is no one else. Though the psalmist’s heart and his flesh may fail, God is his strength and portion forever. Those far away from God will perish; God destroys all who are unfaithful to Him. But for the psalmist, the nearness of God is his good. He has made the Lord God his refuge that he may tell of God’s works.
An angel comes to John to say, “Come and see the judgment against the great harlot that sits on many waters” (the rivers of Rome), with whom the kings of the earth have participated in her fornications and immorality (notice that this is traditional prophetic language for those who have worshiped other gods, and the emperors of Rome required its subjects and nations to worship the emperor). John is carried away and sees the harlot seated on a scarlet beast with blasphemous names, and amid her pomp with her name inscribed on her forehead: “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, and the abomination of the earth.” She was drunk on the blood of the saints and with those who were witnesses to Jesus (the saints here are the saints of Israel). The beast who was and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit, is a reference to the emperors. The seven mountains with its seven emperors, five of which have already fallen with two to come, the last of the two with a short reign is Rome. The eighth king is one of the seven who died but has come back; it is probably a reference to Nero returned as Domitian, since the latter took up persecution of Christians as an official agenda the way Nero did. (Persecution of the church by Rome was not a constant, but ebbed and flowed within the empire according to other influences.) They will make war on the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them for he is Lord of lords and King of kings. The ten horns (emperors) and the beast will ultimately devour the whore and make her desolate in their reigns—as indeed they ultimately did—for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose. God is in charge of even the beast! Finally, the woman is identified: “The great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
Luke now gives us an unusual moment to contemplate: the Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Is it a warning, is it a threat, or is it well intentioned by a group of Pharisees still open to Jesus and what he is doing? They were not uniformly opposed to him. Whatever, Jesus calls Herod a “fox,” a term of derision that ranges in symbolism from craftiness to sleuth, to viciousness, to cruel intelligence, to maliciousness and vicious destructiveness. It is possible that Jesus meant all of that! But, he tells the Pharisees that he is up to his work today and tomorrow and on the third day he will finish it. It will soon be over. But until then, he must fulfill it, for it is not possible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem—a massive indictment against the religious and political capital. Jesus then laments over Jerusalem, remembering how often he has tried to gather it as a hen gathers her brood, but it was not willing. And so, its house (whether the temple or the people and their fate) is left to it. Jerusalem will not see him again until the time when its people say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” as will happen when Jesus makes his triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
Zephaniah 3:1-7; Psalm 70; Revelation 16:12-21; Luke 13:18-30
The judgment on the nations now turns to Jerusalem itself. The city is soiled and defiled and listens to no one. It neither trusts nor draws near to the Lord. All of its leadership—judges, prophets, priests and other officials are included in the indictment—all but the king. Each has failed and proven false in their allotted tasks. The Lord is in the midst of them, and morning by morning God renders His judgment, but the unjust are shameless and ignore it. The Lord has cut off the other nations. One would think the leadership of Jerusalem would learn; but they do not. They will not accept correction. They lose sight of what God has brought upon them simply because of their eagerness to continue with their corrupt deeds.
Psalm 70 is a short lament with petitions for help. It is one of the few laments in the Psalter that does not end with words of praise and triumph indicating that the Lord has already acted. The prayer opens on a word of urgency: “Make haste to help me!” The enemy is personal, and is trying to bring shame and dishonor to the petitioner. Their taunts and jeers are described as “Aha, Aha!” It then pleads that all who seek God may be glad and rejoice and all who love and trust in God’s salvation shall be able, evermore, to say, “God is great!” Confessing her need, she again pleads for God to “hurry up and help!” and then concludes with the confession that God is her help and her deliverer; and for the first time, God is named as “the Lord,” and asked not to delay. This psalm, almost verbatim is also found as the last five verses of Psalm 40.
The sixth bowl is poured on the great river Euphrates, and its water is dried up in order to prepare for the invasion for the Parthians from the east. Three foul spirits like frogs come from the beast’s mouth and from the mouth of the false prophet. These go about performing signs and assembling their armies to prepare for the great battle against God, the Almighty. Then God speaks: “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed (in their baptismal garments), rather than running about naked and exposed to shame. The name where they assemble for battle is “Harmagedon,” which is rendered “Armageddon” in the King James. In fact, there are a variety of names given to this place in various manuscripts of this book. And, in spite of the fact that tradition has identified this as Megiddo, in the valley Mt. Gilboa and Mt. Carmel—a site where Israel lost two major battles and two of its kings—the name is not intended to refer to a specific locale. John is using symbolic language here, not predicting the future of Christians in our day. Notice that the battle is not described. Rather, the seventh angel pours out its bowl into the air and a loud voice from the throne in the temple announces “It is done!” All the cosmos shakes at that word, with quakes on the earth greater than any heretofore experienced. The great city is split into three parts and all of its other major cities fall. The earth responds to God’s wrath and victory with both its islands and mountains disappearing. Massive hailstones fall from heaven and form the last plague, which, rather than bring repentance, only causes the people to curse God more.After two parables of the kingdom, both using the image of small things that become great, one to provide shelter to the weak and vulnerable and the other to express the kingdom’s potency (three measures of flour would be enough to feed ten to twenty households), Jesus is back on the road teaching as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Asked if the saved will be few, he responds that we must strive to enter through the narrow door, for though there are many who will try, only a few will be able, and when the owner of the house finally locks the door, it will remain locked. No matter how hard those on the outside knock, the owner will say to them, “I do not know where you come from.” And though they say, “But we ate and drank with you,” (again, Eucharistic language), and you taught in our streets,” he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me you evildoers.” Again, we hear Luke’s emphasis on not simply hearing but doing, with now the added dimension that simply being a part of the Christian assembly and its worship does not mean on has entered through the narrow door, but may still remain "outside". Those outside will weep and gnash their teeth when they see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the patriarchs of Israel), along with the prophets at table in the kingdom and themselves thrown out. Then “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Yes, some of the last will be first, and some who were first to come to him will be last. It is not about when we came or how long we have been at table with Jesus and his fellowship, but about how completely we live out his teachings. But also notice the broader inclusion of Luke, who uses “some will be first…” whereas in Matthew and Mark, it is simply a statement that the first will be last and the last first. (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31)
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.