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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, April 9

Exodus 7:8–24; Psalm 5; 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:6; Mark 10:1–16

The lectionary steps over chapter 6:2 through 7:7 because it is a second tradition of the call of Moses, the revelation of God’s name—identifying the Lord as the same God who appeared to Abraham as El Shaddai, the commission to go back to Egypt, Moses’ frequent objections, the introduction of Aaron into the narrative and the genealogy of Aaron. The section concludes with Aaron and Moses going to Pharaoh, as the Lord has commanded, and tells us that Aaron was eighty-three and Moses eighty years of age. The narrative resumes with the encounters with Pharaoh. The Lord tells Aaron and Moses that when Pharaoh says, “Perform wonders,” then Moses is to tell Aaron to thrown down his staff before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake. They do. But Pharaoh sends for his sorcerers and wise men, and they do the same through their secret arts. However, the snake from Aaron’s staff swallows all of the other snakes. Yet, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he will not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord has said. Then the Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh in the morning, when he walks along the Nile. Meet him there with staff in hand—the staff that was turned into a snake—and again, demand that he free the Hebrews. Tell him, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness,’ but you have not listened.” Moses adopts prophetic speech once again, declaring, “Thus says the Lord, by this you shall know that I am the Lord.” Moses is to strike the water of the Nile with the staff and it will turn to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river will stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile. More, they are to stretch out their staff over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, canals, pond and pools of water—so that they too become blood, even the water in vessels of wood and stone. They do as the Lord commands in the sight of Pharaoh. But his magicians do the same thing “by their secret arts;” so Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, and he does not listen, just as the Lord had said. Pharaoh returns to his house, while the rest of the Egyptians are left having to dig wells along the Nile in order to find water to drink, for they could not drink from the river.

Psalm 5 is traditionally used in the service of Morning Prayer as it pleads for God’s protection and care against one’s enemies. Knowing that God abhors wickedness and the boastful, the psalmist expresses the certainty that because of God’s steadfast love, he will again be able to enter God’s house to worship, even as now, he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit, and have rebelled against God. He ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care. 

Paul employs the language of triumphal military processions, in which conquering heroes return to their home cities, to speak not only of the sense of triumph he felt in Macedonia upon hearing Titus’s message about the Corinthians, but to note that Christ always leads them in triumph, and through them spreads the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ. Then, becoming more inclusive still, he uses “we” to include the Corinthians themselves, reminding them that together “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” To the latter, they are the fragrance of death to death. To the former, they are the fragrance of life to life. But who is sufficient for these things? They are, after all, not like so many “peddlers of God’s word,” but in Christ, speak as persons of sincerity, people sent from God, people standing in God’s presence. Paul then reminds them that he is not writing this letter to them as a means of commending himself to them. He needs no letter or recommendation, for the Corinthians are his letter of recommendation, and it is written on Paul and Timothy’s hearts; an expression of their affection for the Corinthians. They, themselves, are letters of Christ, who were prepared by Paul and Timothy, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts. They are his letters of recommendation. Such is the confidence Paul has in the Corinthians through Christ to God, who made Paul and his companions competent to be “ministers of a new covenant,” not one formed by dead letters on stone tablets, but one formed by the Spirit. For, though the letter of the law kills, the Spirit gives life.

Jesus moves more deeply into Judea and the crowds continue to gather around him. As was his custom, he teaches them. The Pharisees arrive once again to test Jesus, this time asking him if it is permitted (lawful) for a man to divorce his wife. Irritated by their motivation and assumption that he does not know what they are up to, Jesus answers with a question: “What did Moses command you?” They respond that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her (Deut 24:1-4). Notice, only the man could divorce his wife; there were no grounds for a woman to seek divorce from her husband, not even adultery. Further, the law also prohibits taking a previously divorced wife, who subsequently remarried, back if she is again divorced, or if her second husband had died. Jesus’ response gives them what they want—he refutes Moses! Moses gave them this commandment because of the hardness of human hearts. Jesus goes on to remind the Pharisees that from the beginning, again quoting Moses, “God made them male and female,” and it is for this reason that a man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh. “So, they are no longer two but one.” Jesus now steps even further, superseding Moses with this command: “What God has joined together let no one separate.” This is so startling to the disciples that when they are alone with Jesus, they ask him about this. Jesus then adds the new dimension to the marriage code, saying, “whoever divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against her.” And, expanding the circle further still, revealing the Roman-Greco audience for which this is written, where a woman could divorce her husband for appropriate grounds such as adultery, Jesus says, “If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This second answer has led ecclesiastical nitpickers to conclude that Jesus was not speaking so much against divorce itself, as he was against remarriage after divorce, once again demonstrating the perversity that creeps in when we try to parse Jesus’ words to avoid their hard edge. Mark interrupts the scene with the entrance of people bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch them, and the disciples sternly object. At this, Jesus becomes indignant with them saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Then elaborating further on what he means, he says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child—without warrant, right or claim—will never enter it.” Remember, children were powerless in that culture. At this, Jesus takes the children up in his arms, lays hands on them and blesses them.

Posted April 9, 2014
Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, April 8

Exodus 5:1–6:1; Psalm 34; 1 Corinthians 14:20–33a, 39–40; Mark 9:42–50

Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh, where Moses functions as a prophet saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” Pharaoh is unimpressed; he does not know the Lord, why should he heed him and let the people go? Then Aaron and Moses say, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us.” Again they make the request to go three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord. If they do not, he will fall upon them with pestilence or sword. Pharaoh is still unimpressed and now simply convinced that Moses and Aaron want to take the people away from their work as brick-makers. He tells them to get back to work, but more, commands the taskmasters of the people, as well as their Hebrew supervisors, to no longer give straw to the people for their brick-making. Rather, they must gather the straw themselves. But, the daily count of brick, as well as the quality of them, is not to diminish. Again, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy, and using the idea of worship as a ploy to escape their work. Therefore, their workload is increased. The taskmasters and the supervisors do as they are told, and the people must now forage for straw. As they do, the taskmasters remain urgent, demanding the work be complete, beating the Hebrew supervisors set over the people when they fall short of the daily requirement of bricks. At that, the Hebrew supervisors go to Pharaoh and cry out to him, asking why it is he is treating them—his servants—in such a way? Why are they being beaten? Notice that the they are now claiming to be not only Pharaoh’s servants, but also his people? No straw is given them for brickmaking, yet bricks are demanded, and the people continue to be beaten. They now are bold enough to tell Pharaoh that he is being unjust to his own people. Pharaoh again replies that they are simply lazy; they are using the request to go sacrifice as a means of getting out of work. Pharaoh sends them away, again insisting that they be given no straw, while the daily requirement of bricks will remain the same. As the supervisors leave Pharaoh, they come upon Moses and Aaron and issue an accusation: “The Lord look upon you and judge.” They have brought this misery on the Hebrew people by creating “a bad odor” with Pharaoh and his officials. Pharaoh’s officials now have swords in their hands to kill them. At that, Moses turns to the Lord to ask why it is he has mistreated the people in this way; why did he send Moses in the first place? From the day Moses first spoke with Pharaoh, he has been mistreating the Israelites, while the Lord has done nothing to deliver his people. At that, the Lord responds: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go—God’s mighty hand; a point emphasized in its being repeated. It is the Lord’s mighty hand that will drive the Hebrews out of the land, as Moses drove off the Bedouin shepherds.

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 magnify 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 prayer-book. 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. ….

Paul challenges the Corinthians to “grow up” in their thinking. If they are to be infants, let it be in matters of evil. They are to behave as thinking adults. Quoting Isaiah 28:11-12, which Paul calls “the law” he makes the point that tongues are not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is for believers. If the church is filled with tongues and someone infant in the faith (“outsiders” is misleading), or more, unbelievers enter, will they not think that the Corinthians are simply out of their minds? But if they hear prophecy, they will be reproved and called to account. In the prophecy, the “secrets of the unbeliever’s heart” will be disclosed and result in that person bowing down and worshipping God, declaring, “God is really among you.” Paul now turns to instruct the Corinthians on the nature of their worship. When they come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, yes even a tongue as long as it has an interpretation. In other words, all things are to be done in order to build up the community. Tongues are limited to no more than two or three, and always require interpretation. If there is no interpreter, then the one caught in the spirit praying in tongues must do so silently and speak to God by themselves. There should be two or three prophets allowed to speak (prophecy here being what today we call preaching), and let them weigh what others have said as well as their own prophecy. If a revelation comes forth while another is prophesying, the revelation takes precedence over prophesy, and the prophet is to remain silent. All can eventually prophesy, one by one, so that everyone may learn and be encouraged. Paul adds the ancient adage that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, in much the same way we say scripture must be read and interpreted in light of scripture. All is to be done orderly, for God is the God of peace, not disorder. Next comes one of the most contested sections of all of Paul’s writing, verses 33a through 36, in which Paul demands that women remain silent in church and not be permitted to speak, even to ask questions, but be subordinate “as the law says.” Let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Because this section is so contrary to Paul’s own practice and experience, as he again and again names women as his colleagues in ministry and even one as an “apostle,” most contemporary scholars believe this is a later addition to Paul’s letter, written at a time when women speaking in the assembly had become a scandal, because it was so contrary to the cultural standards of the time. To add additional authority, whoever added the rhetorical question, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Clearly, by this time in the church, the cultural standards of women maintaining silence, as they did in the synagogues of the day, is trumping the freedom for which Paul writes, Christ has set us free, where there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Take out the section prohibiting women from speaking and what follows makes perfect sense. Having laid down the rules for worship, he makes the point that anyone who claims to be a prophet or have spiritual powers must acknowledge that what Paul is saying is not Paul’s command, but the Lord’s! Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. So then, they are to focus on prophecy, but not forbid tongues, “but all things should be done decently and in order.”

Within these short, eight verses, Mark has packed what most scholars think were originally separate sayings of Jesus, linked here by various word associations. They follow on the rewards for caring for Jesus’ “little ones”—not just children, but all of his followers who do not rank among the “great” of the community. It is, in all probability, a warning to church leaders about their vested responsibility for the members of the community. It would be better to have a huge grinding wheel tied about one’s neck and then be cast into the sea than to be the cause of a member stumbling into sin. Jesus then addresses the various things that cause us to stumble—hand, foot and eye—offering radical cures if we are unable to control such impulses. The cures are radical because of what is at stake—our participation in the Kingdom of God. It is better to go through life maimed, yet a member of the kingdom, than full bodied yet excluded from that realm and ultimately thrown into the hell-fire of Gehenna. Gehenna was the site in the Valley of Hinnon, just southwest of Jerusalem’s wall, where the pagan cults had practiced child sacrifice. By the time of Jesus, it was a smoldering trash-heap and a metaphor for the place the unrighteous would be sent on judgment day to experience eternal punishment, a place where the fire was eternal and the flesh consuming worm never dies. This is followed by an enigmatic saying about being “salted with fire,” and is found only in Mark. Salt was both seasoning and preservative in Jesus’ world. Is he saying that his followers are to be preserved through the various fires of life burning out our dross? Is he saying that followers should expect such fire in a world that rejects him, and that in enduring the fire we will be seasoned and preserved? The phrase, “salted with fire” also leads to the association of believers maintaining their zest and disciplined fire for the gospel. Salt, after all, does not lose its “saltiness” but rather, becomes polluted with other things, and is therefore no longer of any use. Do not let the salt and fire for the gospel become polluted and diluted with other cares of concerns. “Have salt in yourself”—preserve and persevere—but in doing so, be at peace with one another. With this final saying, we are brought back to the argument among the disciples that set off this entire conversation.

Posted April 8, 2014
Monday, April 7, 22014

Daily Readings for Monday, April 7

Exodus 4:10–20 (21–26) 27–31; Psalm 119:73-80; 1 Corinthians 14:1–19; Mark 9:30–41

Moses continues to complain that he is not eloquent enough to speak to the people or to Pharaoh. The Lord’s patience has been tried long enough, and now in anger, he asks Moses about his brother Aaron—notice that Aaron is also carefully identified as a Levite. Aaron is eloquent; even now, Aaron is on his way to meet with Moses and when he sees Moses, Aaron’s heart will be glad. Moses is to speak with Aaron. The Lord will speak to Moses, and Moses is to speak to Aaron, and the Lord will be with their mouths to teach them what to do. Aaron shall speak to the people and be Moses’ mouthpiece, and Moses shall be as God to Aaron. With that, the Lord tells Moses to take his staff with him, and the “divine interview” comes to an end. So much is hidden within this incident that can easily be missed, simply because of the wondrous nature of the encounter. First, we are confronted with the absolute reluctance of Moses to respond to the Lord’s commands, and the persistence and patience of the Lord through it all, and his accommodation to Moses’ need for signs. Second, the staff turning to a snake: a serpent was one of Pharaoh’s protectors; it was fashioned upon the king’s head-dress as a sign of the serpent’s mysterious power.  Moses’ staff turning into a snake symbolized the Lord’s sovereignty in that realm. The appearance of Aaron on the scene reflects the priestly tradition’s insistence on his role in all of this, but, at the end of the day, Aaron is simply Moses’ servant, as Moses is the Lord’s servant. The interview over, Moses returns to Jethro, his father-in-law, and asks permission to return to Egypt to see if his kindred there are still alive. Jethro sends Moses forth in peace. We learn that the Lord had told Moses that those seeking his life in Egypt were now dead. And so, Moses takes his wife and his sons (another has evidently been born to them), places them on a donkey and begins the journey back to Egypt, Moses carrying what is now called “the staff of God” in his hand. The Lord now tells Moses that when he gets to Egypt he is to perform before Pharaoh “all the wonders that I have put into your power,” but that, in spite of this, the Lord will harden Pharaoh’s heart and not let the people go. At that, Moses is to tell Pharaoh that the Lord has said that “Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’” The narrative again focuses on Moses and his family as they travel to Egypt. One night, the Lord meets Moses and the family and tries to kill one of them—it is not clear whether the “him” here is Moses or his firstborn son Gershom. Whether Moses or Gershom, the attack illustrates the Lord’s claim on the firstborn, for Moses is the firstborn of the new people that will emerge under his leadership, just as Gershom is Moses’ firstborn son. Zipporah quickly takes a flint knife and cuts off Gershom’s foreskin and then touches Moses’ penis with it (“feet” here is a euphemism for sexual organs). As she does she says, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” Commentators range in their interpretations of this. Is this the unleashed holiness of the Lord breaking out against Moses as the Lord wrestled with Jacob that night? Is this an ancient understanding of circumcision as a means of protecting the firstborn against God’s claim that this one’s life belongs to the Lord? Or, is this witness to the power of blood to ward off the destroyer in the Lord? Circumcision in that culture was often delayed until marriage, when the father-in-law would perform the act. Coming from Egypt, where circumcision was practiced, Moses may well have already been circumcised, but simply as a matter of hygiene. Cutting off Gershom’s foreskin and touching the head of Moses’ penis may well have been a way of sanctifying both Moses and his son, solidifying their relationship and that of their progeny with the Lord. For thereafter, it is clear that the Lord is bound to Moses. Never again will the Lord break out against him. Now, we learn that the Lord has appeared to Aaron and sent him into the wilderness to meet Moses at “the mountain of God.” The two meet and kiss, and Moses tells Aaron all that the Lord has said to him and the signs with which he has given Moses this charge. The narrative now cuts away to Egypt, where Moses and Aaron go and assemble all of the elders of the Israelites. Aaron speaks to them all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses. Text reports that it is Aaron and not Moses who performs the signs in the sight of the people, probably witness to the fact that this comes from the priestly narrative source. The people believe, and when they hear that the Lord has heard and given heed to their misery, they bow down and worship the Lord.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic that praises the Lord for the gift of Torah. This portion of it begins with the letter yod (y), recognizing God as the one who has created him and fashioned the psalmist as he is, giving him understanding of God’s commandments. Those who fear the Lord rejoice in him. He knows God’s judgments are right, and even in moments of humbling it is God’s faithfulness at work. God’s steadfast love, promise and mercy are his comfort as he delights in God’s law. As for the arrogant, let them be put to shame. As for him, let him be blameless.

Paul returns to the discussion of tongues within the context of other spiritual gifts and encourages the Corinthians to pursue love and strive for the higher spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For it is prophecy that build’s the church. Tongues, as authentic an expression of the Spirit as they may be, are of no use to a congregation, but only to the one speaking. No one understands them because they are, in Paul’s words, speaking mysteries in the Spirit. That may build up the one praying, but not the congregation. And in this instance, it is even creating division. It is prophecy that builds the church. However, Paul will not deny tongues as a Spiritual gift, only that it is not appropriate in worship, unless, of course, there is an interpreter. He says he would be happy if all of them could speak in tongues, but even more for them to prophesy, for the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongue. Paul again uses himself as a hypothetical example to make his point. He speaks in tongues more than all of them. But what if he had come among them simply speaking in tongues? Would it have been any benefit to them? Unless he speaks to them of some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching, they cannot benefit. When in tongues, they utter speech that is unintelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? Rather, they are simply speaking in the air. He ends his illustration of the futility of speaking in tongues for building the church, urging them, in the eager desire for spiritual gifts, to strive to excel in them for the building of the church rather than their own status. Paul continues with his instructions concerning the use of tongues in worship. Those who are speaking in tongues in worship should pray for the power to interpret those tongues. For if he prays in a tongue, he is praying in the spirit and his mind is unproductive, while no one else understands and only the one praying is edified. Paul asks, “What should I do then?” He answers, pray with the spirit if you will, but pray with the mind also. Otherwise, as they offer a blessing only in the spirit, others will not understand it, much less be able to add their “Amen.” How can anyone who is not as gifted or mature, (the word “outsider” is far better translated “unlearned,” or “unskilled” or “untrained,”) know what they are saying? The blessing in tongues may build up the one praying, but not others. Paul again reminds them that he speaks in tongues far more than any of them—he will not deny the gift. But that gift is out of place in the assembly, where Paul would rather speak only five words with his mind in order to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in tongue that are meaningless to others.

From Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples travel through Galilee on their way to Capernaum, but doing so as secretly as possible for Jesus does not want the crowds interrupting his teaching the disciples about what is to happen to him. Again, he tells them plainly that, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Yet, once again, the disciples fail to understand him, but are now afraid to ask him more. When they reach Capernaum and are in Peter’s house, he asks them what it was they were arguing about on the way. The disciples fall silent, afraid to tell him it was about who was the greatest. Mark is not clear here. Is this an argument about who among them is the greatest, or is this about making distinctions between Moses, Elijah and Jesus? Probably not, as only Peter, James and John have been party to that experience; or, have they disobeyed Jesus, told the others, and set the context for the argument? Or, is this a question of who is greater, Jesus or John the Baptist? All are possible subjects for the argument. Still aware of how unaware the disciples are, Jesus sits down and calls the twelve around him and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” It seems this argument may have been a jostling for position among them! Jesus takes a little child, who in that culture was about the lowest of the low, and places the child in the midst of them. Then he takes the child up in his arms and says to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” John shifts the subject, telling Jesus that they have seen someone casting out demons in his name—something they had just been unsuccessful in doing—and they tried to stop him. After all, he was not a part of Jesus’ inner circle and was not following them. Notice the “them” rather than “you;” clearly, John and the others want no competition and are jealous of their special relationship with Jesus, just as many Christians seems jealous of their “personal relationship with Jesus” today. Jesus replies, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” And now he casts the net of faith much wider than we are usually accustomed to thinking of it: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to someone because they bear Christ’s name will receive their suitable reward.

Posted April 7, 2014
Sunday, April 6, 2014

Daily Readings for Sunday, April 6

5th Sunday in Lent

Exod. 3:16–4:12; Psalm 32; Rom. 12:1–21; John 8:46–59

God sends Moses back to Egypt, to the elders of Israel, to tell them that the God of their ancestors has given heed to their groaning and has sent Moses to them to lead them out of Egypt and into the land promised to their ancestors long ago, a land flowing with milk and honey. “Take the elders and go to Pharaoh and tell him that their God has met with them.” Pharaoh is to let the Hebrews go three-day’s journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord their God. That said, the Lord tells Moses that he knows that Pharaoh will not allow them to go easily, and so the Lord’s hand will be heavy on Pharaoh; the Lord will “stretch out his hand and strike Egypt with all his wonders; after that Pharaoh will let them go. In addition, the Lord will bring the Israelites into such favor with the Egyptians that, when they go, they will not leave empty handed. Each Israelite woman will ask her Egyptian neighbor for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and they shall put them on the Israelite children—so shall they plunder Egypt upon their departure. Moses is less than thrilled with this and complains, asking what if the Israelites do not believe Moses and what he says about the Lord appearing to him. The Lord responds by telling Moses to throw his staff on the ground. Moses does, and suddenly, the staff becomes a serpent and Moses withdraws. The Lord now tells Moses to grasp the snake by the tail. He does, and the snake returns to being a staff. This is just the beginning of the powers the Lord will infuse in Moses’ staff. But still Moses complains. The Lord tells Moses to put his hand inside his cloak. Moses does, and upon withdrawing it, finds it leprous—white as snow. The Lord tells Moses to return his hand inside his cloak. Moses does, and upon withdrawing it finds it healed like the rest of his body. The Lord says, if they do not believe the first sign, they may believe the second. But if not, the Lord now gives a third: Moses is told to take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground; when he does the water will become blood on the dry ground. Almost out of excuses, Moses utters one more: he is not eloquent, but slow of speech and tongue—evidently he stammered. The Lord reminds Moses of who it is that gives speech to mortals in the first place; who makes them mute, or the seeing blind. Can not the Lord speak through Moses if he chooses to do so? Moses is to go, and the Lord will be in his mouth. Moses pleads, one last time saying simply, “Send someone else.” The Lord’s patience has been tried long enough, and now in anger he asks Moses about his brother Aaron—notice that Aaron is also carefully identified as a Levite. Aaron is eloquent; even now, Aaron is on his way to meet with Moses and when he sees Moses, Aaron’s heart will be glad. Moses is to speak with Aaron. The Lord will speak to Moses, and Moses is to speak to Aaron, and the Lord will be with their mouths to teach them what to do. Aaron shall speak to the people and be Moses’ mouthpiece, and Moses shall be as God to Aaron. With that, the Lord tells Moses to take his staff with him, and the “divine interview” comes to an end. So much is hidden within this incident that can easily be missed, simply because of the wondrous nature of the encounter. First, we are confronted with the absolute reluctance of Moses to respond to the Lord’s commands, and the persistence and patience of the Lord through it all, and his accommodation to Moses’ need for signs. Second, the staff turning to a snake: a serpent was one of Pharaoh’s protectors; it was fashioned upon the king’s head-dress as a sign of the serpent’s mysterious power. Moses’ staff turning into a snake symbolized the Lord’s sovereignty in that realm. The appearance of Aaron on the scene reflects the priestly tradition’s insistence on his role in all of this, but, at the end of the day, Aaron is simply Moses’ servant, as Moses is the Lord’s servant.

Psalm 32 is a wisdom psalm in which the psalmist gives thanks for the gift of forgiveness. “Happy are those whose sin is covered.” He acknowledges that while he kept silent about his sin, he wasted away for the Lord’s hand was upon him, and his strength was dried up as the heat of summer dries all things. But when he acknowledged his sin, when he no longer hid it but confessed it, the Lord forgave him his guilt. He then instructs all who are faithful to offer such prayers of confession, promising that in a time of distress and the rush of many waters, these will not reach or overwhelm them. Again, addressing the Lord, he confesses that God is his hiding place who preserves him from trouble and surrounds him with glad cries of deliverance. The psalm then turns to addressing others, instructing them in the way they should go: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near.” It concludes with one final double affirmation: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Therefore: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Paul has just completed his reflection on God’s redemption of his own people, Israel, and then has broken into doxology. Now, he turns to what is one of the “load stone” chapters of the book—what new life in Christ looks like. Paul begins by defining it, then describes its marks and, thereafter, exhorts his readers to behaviors that exhibit life transformed in Christ. Christianity is not a “head-trip.” It is bodily, in that we are to present all of ourselves—in everything we do—as an act of worship to God. Rather than be conformed to this world in our choices, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—in Christ! Only with such a mind can we discern God’s will—the good, the acceptable, and the perfect. Such renewed minds do not think of themselves as better than others; they do not indulge in comparison for the sake of self-congratulations. Rather, renewed minds in Christ remind us that all of us are part of his body and each of us has a role to play therein. We have different gifts that range from preaching [prophecy] to serving [ministry—actually, waiting on tables], to teaching, to encouraging [exhortation], to giving, to leading, to acts of mercy [compassion]—seven-fold in character and each essential to the health of any congregation. A mind renewed in Christ lives, less out of logic than out of the abundance of divine love (the word is agape). Like God, it hates what is evil and refuses to remain indifferent to it, but rather, holds fast to what is good. Holding one another in mutual affection, such love seeks to outdo the other in showing honor and respect. It does not lag in zeal, is ardent in spirit, serves the Lord, rejoices in hope, is patient in suffering, perseveres in prayer, contributes to the need of the saints (the gift for Jerusalem is clearly in mind), and extends hospitality to traveling missionaries who are strangers. Though these gifts can and should be extended to those beyond the Christian community, they are first and foremost the behavior expected of all in the church. That said, Paul reminds us of how we are to behave toward those who do not share in the mind of Christ. We are to bless them—even those who persecute us. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We are to live in harmony with all others, not simply those well thought of, but especially those of low esteem, and regardless, we are not to claim to be wiser than we are. We are to repay no one evil for evil. Rather, we are to take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. To the extent that it is possible, and that it depends upon us, we are to live peaceably with all, never avenging ourselves, but entrusting that to the wrath of God. Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, Paul reminds us that if our enemies are hungry, we are to feed them and if they are thirsty, we are to give them drink, thereby pouring burning coals on their heads. The function of the coals is not to punish them, but to call them to repentance. Whatever we do, never let ourselves be overcome by evil—never take up its game or strategies—for, in doing so, we have been co-opted and conquered by it. The only way to be victorious over evil is to meet it with good.

The confrontation in the temple between Jesus and the Jewish leaders continues as they contend over who Jesus is. Because he continues to identify himself as come from God, they accuse him of being a Samaritan (not only an outsider, but also a gross insult), who is demon possessed. Again, Jesus ignores their allegations and brings the conversation back to his own behavior: in all that he does he honors, not himself, but God. But then, Jesus escalates things by adding, “Whoever keeps my word will never see death.” It is a startling statement that convinces them that he is possessed. Abraham died, so did each of the prophets; is he greater than these; just who does he claim to be? But, Jesus will not answer that question, for in doing so, he would be glorifying himself. Rather, he trusts his Father to glorify him—the One they claim as their God. Yet, they do not know God as Jesus does, and for him to suggest otherwise would make him a liar. Rather, Jesus knows the Father and keeps the Father’s word. And now, again, Jesus increases the tension in the dialogue by telling them that Abraham rejoiced that he would see Jesus’ day (the rabbis taught that God had revealed the future to Abraham). Startled even further by Jesus’ astonishing claims, the Jewish leaders respond dismissively with a rhetorical question: “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” Jesus answers: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am! They have not missed it; Jesus has, until now, used the sacred name in relation to metaphors of light, water, good shepherd and so on. But now he has openly used it about himself. Such blasphemy produces the prescribed and predictable response (Lev. 24:13-16), and they pick up rocks to stone him to death. But, his hour is yet to come, so Jesus hides himself and then slips out of the temple.

Posted April 6, 2014
Saturday, April 5, 2014

Daily Readings for Saturday, April 5

Exodus. 2:23–3:15; Psalm 149; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Mark 9:14–29

Moses is safely living and flourishing in Midian. After a long time, the king of Egypt who sought Moses’ life dies. The new Pharaoh continues the program of slavery with the Israelites, and they groan under its burden. Notice that the groaning is not to God; there seems to be little awareness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the people simply groan. But God hears—a major theme in scripture; God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God “takes notice.” God is about to act. We return to Moses who is tending his father-in-law’s flocks in Midian and moves from the wilderness to the base of Mt. Horab (later named “Sinai), and we are told that it is “the mountain of God,” in all probability, so identified to Moses by Reuel, who is the priest in that land. An angel of the Lord (notice the insertion of the divine name), appears to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush. Is this “angel of the Lord” truly the Lord’s messenger (angel), or is this a veiled way of speaking of the Lord’s presence? Whatever, Moses is captivated by the sight of a bush burning but not being consumed and moves closer to examine it. When the Lord sees this we are told “God calls out to Moses from the bush calling Moses by name.” We probably skip over that fact this would have been astonishing to Moses—how does this entity hidden within the burning bush know his name? Moses responds with what will become a traditional response of obedience: “Here I am,” hinah in Hebrew. The voice out of the bush says, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It has been observed that the act of removing one’s sandals in the mountainous territory of Horab, surrounded by wilderness is a means of assuring that Moses will not be able to run away from this. He must attend to it. God then reveals himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. At this, Moses hides his face, for he is afraid to look on God, lest God’s fiery presence be consuming; a common response to being in the presence of true holiness. As Moses continues to shelter himself against divine holiness, we are told that it is “the Lord,” and he tells Moses that he has observed the misery of his people who are in Egypt. Notice, that already, they are the Lord’s people. The covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still in effect. The Lord has seen their taskmasters and has come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and bring them out into a land of abundance—rich with milk and honey—symbols of lavish abundance. The land is identified by the native tribes who currently live there and among whom the patriarchs had lived when God regularly appeared to them, reaffirming the covenant and promise of the land. Again, the Lord says he has seen the Israelites’ hardship and has come to free them from their oppressors. “So come…!” Suddenly this is about more than the Lord acting alone. As we will learn, again and again, this God works in and through people. Thus, the Lord is sending Moses back to Egypt, where there is probably still a price on his head! Is it any wonder that Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” It is not simply an expression of modesty, but one of self-preservation. The Lord simply says, “I will be with you.” That is enough, as hard as that is to hear. And the sign of his presence is one in the future: when Moses has brought the people out, he will bring them here to this mountain to worship God; not exactly a tangible sign, at least at this moment. Moses is still objecting and says, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, “What is his name?”’, what shall I say?” God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Say to them, “I AM has sent me to you.” The Hebrew word behind this is, of course “Yahweh,” which ever after appears in scripture as “The LORD,” out of deference, if not fear, of misusing God’s holy name (notice the difference in text between “the Lord” or “my Lord,” an address of respect used among people, and “The LORD,” this latter always an indication that behind it lies the sacred name of God—Yahweh. A few other things we need to observe about this name: It is the verb of being, and in this case absolute being. More, it can be translated three different ways: “I am who I am,” “I am who I have been,” and “I am who I will be.” The Lord is, was, and is to be, a phrase that will appear again and again in the Book of Revelation, in various patterns. God is not merely a territorial god, or a god of this or that, such as existed in the Egyptian pantheon of gods. This is the God of absolute being without beginning or end, who is, and in the present is consistent with who he has been in the past, and in the future will remain the same: one who hears, one who remembers, one who sees and one who acts on behalf of his covenant people. This is God’s name forever and God’s title for all generations. Moses is sent back to Pharaoh armed with the name of God, knowing who to call upon when things become dangerous.

Psalm 149 is another “Hallelujah” psalm that calls on the assembly to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Employing Hebrew parallelisms, Israel is called to be glad in its maker, and the children of Zion to rejoice in God their king, making melody with tambourine and lyre, and praising him with dancing. The Lord takes pleasure in his people, adorning the humble with victory. Let the high praises of God be in their throats as the two-edged battle sword is in their hands, executing God’s vengeance against their enemies, binding the defeated king in fetters and that king’s nobles in chains. This is less the people’s doing than judgment decreed by the Lord. It is glory for all of God’s faithful and ends as it begins with a Hallelujah—“praise the Lord!”

Paul has introduced love as the more excellent way for those within the Corinthian community, and now, remembering what he has said earlier about the body and various gifts as well as showing honor to all, especially the least among them, he becomes even more particular about what he means by love, using both positive and negative examples. Remember, in the Greek Paul is using, there are at least four (some argue five) words for love. The Greek word here is agape, and consistently used by Paul in this lyric hymn—a love that emerges and expresses itself out of fullness, its only regard being the beloved. This love of God, given by God, can and is to be shared within the body of Christ. It is patient, kind; not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices always in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things (the word here is that for faith), and hopes all things. And now Paul returns to those gifts he has been describing earlier and makes the point that love never ends. Prophesies, tongues, knowledge—they will all come to an end—but not love. For, after all, we know prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes at Jesus’ return, they will all end. Paul now uses a developmental model for the life of faith, speaking of himself as a child exercising childish ways. But, when he became a man, he gave up those childish ways—so must the Corinthians. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, the best that polished brass plates can replicate, but when Jesus returns, we will see “face to face.” For now, Paul acknowledges that even he knows “only in part.” But then, he will know fully, and now take note the remarkably hopeful twist, “even as he has been fully known.” He concludes with his beloved trilogy of “faith, hope and love”—all three abide, and the greatest of them is love.

Jesus, Peter, James and John return from their mountain-top experience and find the other disciples surrounded by a crowd that included some scribes who were arguing with the disciples. The moment the crowd sees Jesus, it responds with “amazement” and rushes up to greet him. Jesus asks them what they have been discussing, and someone in the crowd tells Jesus that he had brought his epileptic son to the disciples that they might heal him, but they could not. Jesus expresses annoyance at the unbelieving generation, wondering how long he is going to have to put up with them and asks the man to bring his son to Jesus. They bring the boy to Jesus and immediately upon seeing Jesus, the spirit in the boy throws him to the ground in convulsions. Jesus asks how long this has been going on and the man replies, “Since childhood. It throws him into the fire and into the water in an attempt to destroy him; help us if you can!” Jesus responds with an amazement of his own, “If you can?—all things can be done for the one who believes.” In admitted desperation fueling doubt the man cries out, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.” By now the crowd is gathering, and so Jesus says, “You deaf and mute spirit, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit throws the boy to the ground in one last attempt at mastery, throwing the boy into terrible convulsions, and then leaves. The boy is left on the ground so motionless that the crowd thinks he is dead. Jesus takes him by the hand and tells him to rise, and he does. Later, back in the house, the disciples ask Jesus why they had not been able to exorcise the demon, and Jesus says, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.”

Posted April 5, 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