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Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014

Judges 12:1-7; Psalm 89:1-18; Acts 5:12-26; John 3:1-21

Until now, the Israelites have been oppressed from without, but today, internal conflict between the tribes begins. Jephthah’s military success has produced jealousy from the tribe of Ephraim: he crossed the Jordan to fight the Ammonites and did not invite Ephraim into the battle. They consider Jephthah and his men fugitives among them and the neighboring tribe Manasseh, and threaten to “burn his house down over him.” Jephthah responds that he did call them, but they did not deliver him from the Ammonites, so he took his own life in his hands, crossed over to engage them, and the Lord gave them into his hands. So the men of Gilead, under Jephthah’s command, fought and defeated the Ephraimites and took control of the fords of the Jordan. Whenever a fugitive from Ephraim fleeing the battle tried to cross over, the Gileadites ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” and ask them to pronounce the password “shibboleth.” Ephraimites could not produce the “schi” sound, in shibboleth, which came out “sibboleth,” thereby betraying their true identity and condemning them to death. The “forty-two thousands” who fell under this strategy is clearly the chronicler using exaggerated numbers to make his point. Jephthah “judged” Israel for six years and then died and was buried in Gilead. Ever after “shibboleth” has been a synonym for establishing authentic identity.

The first eighteen verses of Psalm 89 celebrate not only God’s sovereignty over all, it remembers God’s covenant with David and prays that God will continue to preserve and protect David and his reign forever, and re-establish David’s royal line. In all probability, this psalm was written while Israel was in exile (587-538 BCE). It is filled with longing for the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty and return to its land. The first eighteen verses begin with words of praise for God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. It then remembers the covenant God made with David, focusing on the Lord as the One who created all that is and who is still sovereign over all. The clear implication is that God, who is a mighty warrior, and whose reign is based on righteousness and justice, must act to keep his word. “Rahab” in verse 10 is not a reference to the prostitute in Jericho, but rather to the sea dragon who was the Canaanite god of chaos. The Lord is sovereign over chaos as well as all creation; therefore, even sovereign over Babylon who has them in subjugation.

The “infant” church is growing quickly. The apostles come daily to Solomon’s Portico of the temple to teach and heal. Signs and wonders continue to be performed, as God answers their requests for power to remain faithful, and their number continues to increase. So great was their witness and power, that people began to bring their sick, infirmed and those afflicted with unclean spirits into Jerusalem in hopes that Peter’s shadow might fall over them and heal them. However, so does the rift between believing and non-believing Jews. Tensions appear to be such that most of the new believers were “highly esteemed among the people,” though they did not accompany the apostles. As the apostles’ witness and popularity increases among the people it creates jealousy among the high priests and the Sadducees. Exercising their authority, they have the apostles thrown into the public prison to make an open spectacle of them in an attempt to discredit them. However, in the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord appears to them and leads them back to Solomon’s Portico with instructions to continue to preach “the message of this life;’ and they do. That next morning, the high priests send for the jailed apostles to question them, but when the guards dispatched to recover them return, they report that though the jail doors were securely locked with posted guards, somehow, the apostles were not there. Perplexed, they try to understand what is going on, only to have others arrive to announce that the apostles are back in the portico, teaching the people. The captain of the guard leaves to go bring them back, but, once there, realizes that the crowd is so supportive of the apostles that he must bring them back, not by force or command, but by invitation, without violence, lest taking more aggressive action against the apostles will result in the crowd stoning the officers.

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the best known but often the most misunderstood story in John’s gospel, and, within it, is probably the best known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, which Luther called “the gospel in miniature." Nicodemus is a religious leader and teacher (rabbi) and member of the Pharisee party—a group of laymen who represented the liberal wing of Judaism—who comes to Jesus “by night.” The gospel writer is not only telling us the time of day, but that he is seeking out Jesus secretly, and, for the most part, is “in the dark.” Nicodemus is genuine in his approach and questions, but simply unable to comprehend what Jesus is saying. He recognizes Jesus as a fellow teacher but one sent from God, for no one could do the signs Jesus is doing unless sent from God—so far, so good—the light is breaking in! Jesus embraces and affirms what Nichodemus has said: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless born anothen, and here is where the confusion begins. The Greek word “anothen” can be translated “again,” or “from above.” In fact, Jesus seems to be saying to Nichodemus, “Yes, you are seeing the kingdom breaking in because you are being born from above—given this insight by God.” But Nichodemus is “in the dark,” about such things, hears Jesus say “born again,” misses what Jesus has just said, and in his confusion asks, “How can one enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Jesus answers, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It is meant to clarify the difference between natural and spiritual birth, but, again, Nichodemus is in the dark about such things and misses it. Jesus is talking about two kinds of birth: one natural, “by water” and the other, heaven sent, “spiritual.” (Note that later the church will take the phrase “by water” and apply it to baptism. But here, it is clearly a reference to the water that accompanies the natural birth of a child.) “So,” Jesus continues, “do not be amazed that I tell you that you must be born anothen (now read Jesus’ intended meaning:again, from above!).The Spirit of God blows, like the wind, where it will, and clearly, it is blowing in Nichodemus’ life, or, to follow the metaphor shift that Jesus makes, the light is shining on him, but as yet, he does not recognize its source. And so, in confused exasperation, Nicodemus becomes Jesus’ “straight man” asking, “How can this be?” That sets the context for Jesus to preach a sermon. (This pattern will happen again and again in this gospel: there will be an encounter with Jesus, a question or incident that will set a context, Jesus will respond, but whereas he began in the second person singular, he shifts to the second person plural, and you realize he is talking to a much larger audience.  Another alternative, held by some scholars is, that when the shift from first to second person occurs, it is a sign that it is no longer Jesus talking, but the gospel writer expanding on what Jesus has said.) Beginning at verse 11 the text shifts to the second person plural and uses Nichodemus as a platform to spring into a sermon. Nicodemus is a teacher in Israel but doesn’t know this. Whether the “We” Jesus uses is collective of his small group of followers, the gospel writer’s own identification mark in the sermon (if he is speaking rather than Jesus), or, if Jesus, him speaking of himself and the One who sent him, the point is that Jesus is bearing witness to what he knows and has seen because of who he is—the Son God has sent into the world as Savior—the Son of Man sent from heaven as human witness and redeemer. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to be a means of healing for those dying of the serpents’ bites, (Numbers 21:8-9) so too, must Jesus be “lifted up,” that all who look to him in belief may have “eternal life,”—itself less a condition of immortality than a quality of life that is full, abundant and vital because it is lived out of relationship with the one who is and gives life. All of this is the result of God’s love for the world. God so loves this world that God has taken on human flesh in Jesus to reveal the dimensions of divine love and to invite and welcome humans into the divine life (eternal life). As St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man that man could become God.” The light of God has pierced the darkness of the world (remember the prologue), but, the world loves darkness because of the way it covers evil deeds. Light reveals, darkness hides, and given who we are and what we know about ourselves, we prefers darkness to light (who of us want everything about us exposed to the light?!) But therein is the judgment. God’s invitation to light and life are rejected for a life a darkness that finally leads to death. The necessary judgment of God’s love is simply this: it requires a choice. The irony is that “the judgment” is, in the end, not God’s judgment at all, but one we pronounce upon ourselves in choosing darkness rather than light. The sermon ends in verse 21 with the notion that coming to the light is itself a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into one’s life. For now, Nichodemus has dropped out of the scene but, he has not dropped out of the drama completely. Yes, he is still “in the dark,” but the wind is still blowing in his life; the birthing process is still at work within him. He will be back, and in the end, he too will discover he has been born again from above. But for now, Jesus has yet to be “lifted up;’’ his hour has not yet come.

Posted August 11, 2014
Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday,  August 10, 2014

Judges 11:1-11, 29-40; Psalms 66; 2 Corinthians 11:21b-31; Mark 4:35-41

We skip over two minor judges, Tola and Jair, and the repeat of the Israelites turning again to the gods of the nations around them, causing the Lord to refuse to come to their aid. Rather, the Lord says, “Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” The Israelites repent, put away their foreign gods and worship the Lord, and we hear the touching word, “[the Lord] could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” The Ammonites are now called to arms against the Israelites in Gilead, and the question is, “Who will begin in the fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Enter Jephthah, the son of Gilead, born not of the mother of the rest of Gilead’s sons but of a prostitute, and, therefore, shunned by the rest of his brothers who disinherit him and drive him out. Jephthah flees to the land of Tob, north in what is today Syria, where a group of outlaws gather about him to go raiding with him. When the Ammonites begin to make war against Israel, the elders of Gilead go to Jephthah and ask him to become their commander. After initial resistance Jephthah agrees, but, on the provision that if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites, he will become their head. They agree, promising in the name of the Lord, as does Jephthah. The lesson skips over Jephthah’s arguments with the King of Ammon who wants him to restore land lost as the Israelites tried to pass through Ammon in the Exodus, and turns straight to the central issue—Jephthah’s rash and sinful vow. As we pick up the story in vs. 29, we are told that the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah as he passed through the northern tribes and on to Ammon. But then, rather than trust the providence of the Lord whose spirit has come upon him, Jephthah feels the need to force the issue. He makes a vow in order to insure his victory: the first one to come out of the door of his house, upon his victorious return, will be offered to the Lord as a burnt offering. Of course, he is victorious, inflicting “massive defeats in twenty towns." But, as he returns and approaches his home, his only child—a young daughter—runs out to greet him. Tearing his clothes in anguish, Jephthah knows he is trapped: he must keep his vow to the Lord, not for the Lord’s sake, but for his own. Explaining to his daughter that he cannot take his vow back, she is the real hero of the story and exhibits her own integrity. She simply asks that her father delay the sacrifice for two months so that she and her companions can bewail her virginity. She has not yet fulfilled her role within the family by bearing children, and without children, she is destined to be completely forgotten. Jephthah sends her away, and at the end of two months she returns and he keeps his vow. Notice how silent the text is on that question. The tragic story ends with an epilogue: his daughter is not forgotten. Rather, we are told that for four days, every year, the daughters of Israel went out to lament the daughter of Jephthah, the Gileadite.

Psalm 66 calls upon the entire earth to make a joyful noise and sing to the glory of God’s name, telling God how awesome he is. Even his enemies fain obedience and honor to him because of the power and greatness of his name. The whole earth is called to worship God. Then, all are invited to “come and see what God has done among mortals.” The psalm then remembers God’s acts of redemption out of Egypt and deliverance at the Red Sea. God has kept us among the living and does not allow our feet to slip. But, God also tests. And so, the people have known the burdens that come with faithlessness that resulted in their subjugation by other peoples. But, in the end, God “brought us out into a broad and spacious place.” The psalmist now vows to enter the temple with burnt offerings to fulfill the promise that his lips have made, making an offering of bulls and goats. Finally, the psalmist calls on all who fear God to listen as he tells them what God has done for him. He cried aloud and extolled God and God listened because the psalmist was innocent. Had he cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not have heard his voice. But truly, God has listened. Blessed be God, who has neither rejected his prayer nor removed his steadfast love.

In arguing with the Corinthians over the integrity of his own apostleship, Paul allows himself to be drawn into a boasting contest to compare himself with the so-called “super apostles” who have arrived in Corinth, probably from Jerusalem, challenging the gospel Paul has preached among the Corinthians and challenging Paul’s credentials to speak as an apostle. However, Paul will not boast of his accomplishments, but of his moments of weakness and suffering on behalf of the gospel. After establishing equal footing with his Jewish opponents—he is, after all, also a Jew who is a minister of Christ—Paul turns to a record of his hardships as he has pursued his apostolic ministry—an astonishing record of difficulty with both physical and mental suffering. If he must boast, it will be in these things that show his weakness, for his ultimate boast is in the Lord.

Jesus has spent the day sitting in the stern of one of the disciples’ boats, teaching the crowds that have gathered about him. When evening comes, he asks to go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Leaving the crowds behind, the disciples hoist anchors and take Jesus, just as he is in the one boat, and, with their small flotilla, head out into the night sea—a most dangerous thing to do! Jesus quickly falls asleep on the cushion in the stern where he had been sitting. Out in the deep, a storm arises that threatens to swamp the boat; yet, Jesus remains asleep through it all. As the disciples struggle with the boat, bailing and trying to keep it upright and afloat, they wake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are about to die?” Jesus shakes himself awake, and with the same voice of command that he has previously used to rebuke and cast out evil spirits, so he rebukes the wind and the sea. “Peace, be still,” is prosaic, but hardly what Jesus says! A more colloquial and literal translation of his words is, “Shut up! Put a muzzle on it! Silence; calm down!” Immediately, the wind and sea fall to a dead calm. The demon that was in the storm has been cast out, and the disciples know it. Jesus turns to them and in effect says, “Don’t you yet understand? Why are you afraid; do you still have no faith?” And, of course, their faith is like ours, it comes and goes and seems the weakest in the moments of greatest trouble. How good it is that our rescue is not dependent upon the strength of our faith, but upon the One who is in the boat with us, the One in whom we place our faith! We are not saved by our faith, but by God’s grace that we access through faith and trust in him. With the trouble passed, the disciples are again filled with awe and begin to wonder among themselves just who this is that even the wind and sea obey him.

Posted August 10, 2014
Saturday, August 9, 2014

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Judges 9:22-25, 50-57; Psalm 63; Acts 4:32-5:11; John 2:13-25

After Jotham’s curse, he goes into hiding in Be-er, while his half-brother Abimelech rules over Israel for three years. Then the Lord sends an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem, who begin to deal treacherously with Abimelech. It is the Lord’s vengeance against Abimelech for the murder of his father Gideon's (Jerubbaal’s) other sons, and upon the lords of Shechem who assisted him in doing so. But now the hostility between the lords of Shechem and Abimelech lead the lords to set up ambushes and robberies in Abimelech’s territory, thereby denigrating his rule and disrupting the economy. Today’s lesson skips the incident with Gaal who moves to Shechem and tries to incite the lords against Abimelech in order to make him king (vs. 26-49) and all that transpires out of that, leading to the destruction of Shechem. Today we pick up the story at vs. 50 that tells of Abimelech’s death. When he seeks to take the city of Thebez, the townspeople take to a strong tower for refuge. Abimelech comes to the tower to burn it down, just as he did in Shechem—which now lies in ruin—but a woman at the top of the tower throws a mill stone down on Abimelech, crushing his head. As he lies dying, Abimelech pleads with his armor bearer to draw his sword and kill Abimelech, lest his legacy be that he was killed by a woman. The young man does and Abimelech dies, with the chronicler telling us, “Thus God repaid Abimelech for the crimes he committed against his father,” and his other sons, as well as bringing to fulfillment the curse of Jotham against the lords of Shechem for their part in all of it.

Psalm 63 blesses God for his loving kindness and mercy—better than life itself! It is attributed to David while in the Judean wilderness, remembering the joy of having been in the Lord’s sanctuary and presence. It contains some of the most beautiful language in the psalter, texts often used in formal prayer: “O God, you are my God, earnestly will I seek you,” “My soul thirsts for you in a dry and barren land,” “because your love is better than life itself, my lips will speak your praise,” “in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy,” “my soul clings to you, your right hand supports me,” and so on. Each is suitable as opening words of prayer and prepares and centers the soul for conscious contact with God.

The lesson from Acts continues to speak of the quality of fellowship [koinonia] and life that existed in the infant church--the concord, mutual generosity and trust that they exhibited with one another, no one claiming private ownership, but holding all things in common in order to care for everyone’s needs. At the same time, the apostles continued to give their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus with great power, Great grace rested upon all of them, and there was not one person among them who was in need, for those who owned houses and lands would sell them and bring the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. A Levite, named Joseph, later named Barnabas –“son of encouragement”—by the apostles, who will much later accompany Paul, is listed as one who did so. But then the story turns to Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Ananias also sold a piece of property, but, with the consent of Sapphira, they held back a portion of the sale for themselves, bringing only the balance of the sale to the apostles for distribution. Peter confronts Ananias, not simply for his deception, but for the root of it: allowing Satan to fill his heart so that he would lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back a portion of the proceeds of the Land. Notice, he is not lying to the apostles or to the community, but to the Spirit of God—God himself! Upon hearing that, Ananias drops dead in his tracks. Some young men come, wrap Ananias’ body in a sheet and carry him out and bury him. Three hours later, Sapphira arrives unaware of what has happened. Peter confronts her, asking if Ananias had been paid the price he had handed over for the sale of the land, and she says, “Yes.” Peter then asks how it is that the two of them could agree to put the Spirit to the test. Pronouncing judgment against her, he announces that the feet of those who have just buried Ananias now stand at the door to do the same for her, and immediately she falls dead at Peter’s feet.  The young men carry her out as well and bury her next to Ananias. Great fear seizes the whole church (the first time Luke has used the word “church” in either his gospel or this epistle), and all who heard of these things. And, is it any wonder?  I have often jokingly said this is the best text for a stewardship sermon that I know of, if one wants to build a theology of giving in a congregation on fear rather than gratitude. Surely, it put the fear of God in the infant church in Jerusalem and reinforced the importance of not allowing anything—especially possessions—to put their common life in jeopardy. A footnote may be appropriate here: the commitment in the Jerusalem church to holding all things in common ultimately led to it becoming destitute, a condition Paul will strive to alleviate with his collection for the Jerusalem church from the Gentile churches in Asia and Asia Minor. One wonders just how much this incident with Ananias and Sapphira reinforced the notion of holding all things in common and helped contributed to that poverty.

Today’s story of Jesus cleansing the temple is told in all four gospels, but never as explicitly as it is told here. As Passover approaches, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. Entering the temple, he encounters those selling animals to be used for sacrifice as well as the money changers. Pilgrims coming to the temple from the countryside, as well as many others who came to the temple to worship, needed not only to purchase animals for sacrifice but to exchange Roman for Hebrew coin as the temple tax must be paid in shekels. Jesus fashions a whip of cords, driving the merchants out. He overturns the tables with their coins, scattering them across the stone and demands that those selling doves (the least expensive sacrifice intended for use by the poor), take them outside. The temple is his father’s house—notice his claim of special relationship—it is not “the Father’s house,” or “our Father’s house” but, “my Father’s house.” The temple is not to be a marketplace! Suddenly, the disciples are reminded of Psalm 69:9—“Zeal for your house has consumed me and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” Only the first half of that verse is quoted, but the second part fully explains Jesus’ rage. The Jews demand a sign to justify his rage. (Note that this gospel uses the phrase “the Jews” in two ways: sometimes it simply stands for the people as a whole; at others for the Jewish religious leaders that the other three gospels name “priests, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees.”) The Jewish leaders in the temple want a sign; Jesus will give them a sign above all signs: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rise it up.” The Jews are astonished; the temple has been under construction for almost fifty years; he would rebuild it in three days? They, of course, have missed the sign, thinking he is talking about the building itself when, in fact, he is talking about himself as the place where God is dwelling among them. In the other gospels, this is a charge the religious leaders try to bring against Jesus to justify killing him. It is only in this gospel, where Jesus is far more forthright and transparent, and he speaks the words himself. It will only be after his resurrection that his disciples will truly understand what he was saying, and believe the scriptures and the word that Jesus had spoken. The scene ends, telling us that while Jesus was in Jerusalem for that Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing. Yet, Jesus would not entrust himself to them, not simply because he needed no one to testify to him—he, the Father, the Spirit and the signs were witnesses enough—but because he knew the people better than they knew themselves and knew how unreliable they would be at the end. Pastoral post script: How is it the contemporary church so quickly forgets this incident when planning its turkey suppers, Christmas bazaars, gift shops, thrift shops and the like, almost always a poor substitute for better stewardship discipline within the congregation, turning the church from a house of prayer to just one more institution in the community's culture? The fact that the proceeds are being given to support a particular ministry or cause does not lessen Jesus’ condemnation of such activity.

Posted August 9, 2014
Friday, August 8, 2014

Friday, August 8, 2014

Judges 9:1-16, 19-21; Psalms 84; Acts 4:13-31; John 2:2-12

The people had wanted to make Gideon their king and establish a stable reign through a succeeding dynasty of his sons. Gideon refused, knowing that the Lord alone was King in Israel. But at Gideon’s death, his son Abimelech, whose name means “my father is king,” steps into the vacuum to take power unto himself, and does so by exploiting the differences between himself and his 70 half-brothers born to Gidion through his many other wives. He turns to his own mother’s people and asks what they would prefer: a king from their own bone and flesh, or one of the seventy sons of Gideon who are not of their own clan. Clearly, the people of Shechem prefer one of their own—he is their brother—and they promptly give him 70 pieces of silver from the temple treasury of Baalberith (Baal of covenant) with which to hire mercenaries to follow and support him. Abimelech goes to Ophrah, to his father’s house (clan), and kills all but one of his seventy half-brothers. Only Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son survives, and he goes into hiding. Upon Abimelech’s return to Shechem, the lords and leaders of the land gather at the land-fill temple (Beth millo means “House of Fill”), and there, in that pagan temple, by the sacred oak—fertility symbol of the goddess Ashereth—they make Abimelech their king. When Gideon's youngest son, Jotham, learns all of this, he climbs to the top of Mt. Gerizim, just south of Shechem, and shouts out a condemnation on the notion of a king itself and a condemnation on Abimelech's clan for having made Abimelech king. The wonderful, anti-monarchy allegory, not only makes satire of the notion of an institutional monarchy, but also makes the point that they have chosen not the best of the “trees” to rule over them, but a worthless bramble. The olive and fig tree and the vine all have better things to do and to contribute than to sit in palaces and make wars. It is only the worthless bramble that desires such power. If they have done this in good faith, then let them take comfort in what little shade he has to offer. If not in good faith, fire will break forth from him and devour the cedars of Lebanon. But, they have not acted in good faith with Jotham’s father, Gideon, in making Abimelech king, but rather, have risen against his house, destroying all of his other sons. They have taken one of Abimelech, born to Gideon through a slave rather than wife, and made him king over Shechem because they are of the same clan. So, let fire come forth from the bramble king and devour the lords of Shechem, and let fire from Shechem devour the bramble king.

Psalm 84 is a reflection on the wonders and gifts of abiding in God’s dwelling place, and one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire collection of one hundred fifty. The well-known psalm, set so masterfully by Brahms in his German requiem, written for the occasion of his mother’s death, celebrates the beauty of the temple as God’s dwelling place among the people, as well as the psalmist’s longing and desire to be in God’s presence there. In the temple all are cared for—even the lowly sparrow and swallow are welcome at God’s altar. It is worth the dangerous and difficult journey as they go from “strength to strength” on their pilgrimage to Zion and its temple, for a day there in its courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. Better a life of modest service at God’s threshold, than a life of luxury and ease among the wicked. For, the Lord is light and protection, the source of all good for those who walk in God’s ways, and the source of happiness for all who trust in him.

The religious leaders are astonished at the boldness of Peter and John, especially since they are people with no formal religious or legal training, yet their speech is clearly authoritative and informed, not unlike that of Jesus with whom they now recognize Peter and John to have been associated. More, seeing the man who had been cured standing beside them, it was clear—here was a miracle at their hand that was substantive and could not be easily dismissed. What to do? They order Peter and John out of the room while the council (Sanhedrin) confers to determine precisely how to proceed. A “notable sign has been done through them. All who live in Jerusalem will know about it.” They decide the best thing to do is to curtail things and forbid Peter and John to speak again in Jesus’ name. Calling them back into the room, they deliver their judgment, but Peter and John will have none of it. Acting in full respect of the religious leaders, Peter issues his famous, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,” speech, and then announces that, as for them, they will not keep silent, no matter how severely threatened by the Council. The Council, for its part, is unable to find any reason to further detain them, and so, upon warning and threatening them further, they let Peter and John go. Not only can they not deny what has happened, but more, the people are praising God for it. After all, the man who was healed had borne the affliction for his entire life and is now completely healed. Upon their release, Peter and John return to the other disciples and report on what had happened. Immediately, all break into prayer, using Psalm 2:1-2, praising God for his sovereignty over all the powers of the earth. They recognize that in and through the raging of the Gentiles, their own people have colluded together against God’s holy child Jesus, but, in doing so, have ended up doing precisely what God has planned from the beginning. It all serves God’s greater purposes. The lesson concludes as they pray that God will, in the midst of their being threatened, grant the disciples boldness to speak God’s word, as well as continue to stretch out his hand to heal, and perform other signs and wonders in Jesus’ name through them. And as they pray thus, the place where they are gathered is shaken and all are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to speak the word of God with boldness.

Jesus now has Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael as his followers, who are referred to, for the first time, as ‘his disciples.” The next day they attend a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and Jesus’ mother is with them. The wine gives out; a huge social embarrassment to the host. Jesus’ mother (never referred to as “Mary” in this gospel, but only as “the mother of Jesus,” perhaps to avoid confusion because of too many Marys), turns to Jesus and says, “They are out of wine.” Jesus responds, “Woman, what is that to you and to me?” In effect, Jesus is saying, “That is not our problem but the host’s. He then adds, “My hour has not yet come.” (“Hour,” in this gospel, is the time of Jesus’ glorification, which, of course, is a long way away.) Addressing his mother as “Woman,” Jesus is distancing himself from what otherwise might seem a reasonable request from a mother to a son, and making it clear that family ties are now secondary to his mission. He will not let them deter him from it. But, it seems that his hour is beginning to unfold after all, as this will be the first of a series of signs that begin to reveal who he is. She, on the other hand, is his mother, and ignoring what he said, simply turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” The story cuts away to tell us of the six, huge stone jars filled with water to enable the wedding guests to wash their hands before eating. This is either a very large wedding, or, the quantity of water has been exaggerated to enhance the meaning of the sign; whatever, the jars are no longer full. Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water, and they do. He then tells them to take some of it to the chief steward to test its appropriateness for the guests. They do, and when the chief steward tastes it, he is astonished: not only is it wine, it is, by far, the best wine yet! He goes to the bridegroom and in awe says, “Everyone else serves the best wine first and, when everyone’s ability to tell the difference between the good and the inferior has been destroyed by too much wine, they serve the cheap stuff. But you; you have reserved the best for last.” And, notice the abundance! Jesus dropped out of the story when he sent the servant to the unsuspecting chief steward. The narrator simply tells us that Jesus did this as the first of his signs—signs that reveal his glory—and his disciples believed in him. There will be more signs—events that reveal a power that can only be God present in and at work through him. At that, Jesus and his entourage depart for Capernaum. But read carefully, it is not simply his mother and disciples who are with him, but also his “brothers.” His hour has not yet come, but, it certainly has begun.

Posted August 8, 2014
Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Judges 8:22-35; Psalms 116; Acts 4:1-12; John 1:43-51

The Israelites ask Gideon to rule over them and set up a dynasty through his sons and grandsons. Not only does Gideon know where the victory came from, he will not seek to displace the Lord, who in Israel’s life is “King.” Rather, he requests tribute from the soldiers, one of the gold earrings each soldier had taken as booty. They comply, and the amount of gold is enormous. Gideon has it fashioned into an ephod—whether a garment, as in later years was worn by the high priest, or an object of veneration is unclear. Here it would seem to be the latter, for he sets it up in Orpha, where upon, the people begin to worship it (“prostituted themselves to it” is the Deuteronomic writer’s way of characterizing their apostasy). We are told that it became “a snare” to Gideon and his family. Yet, Midian remains subdued and is no longer a problem for the Israelites. The land had rest for forty years under Gideon. The lesson concludes with the record of Gideon’s days, wives, children and grandchildren, recording the blessings and prosperity that were his, with an injected comment about one son, Abimelech, born to him by a concubine (a slave who is also a secondary wife with whom the master has children) who lived in Shechem. Upon Gideon’s death, he is buried with his father at Ophrah, and again, the Israelites relapse, and again prostitute themselves with the Baals, making them their covenant god rather than the Lord. Not only did they forget the Lord their God who had rescued them, they no longer maintained or exhibited loyalty to the house of Gideon in return for what he and done for them.

Psalm 116 asks, “What shall we give to the Lord for all of God’s goodness to us?” This psalm professes love for the Lord who hears our cries, who is gracious, righteous and compassionate, and who preserves the simple (the naïve), who keeps our stumbling feet on God’s path, preserving our lives. The psalmist had been surrounded by the snares of death; the pangs of dying were upon him as he suffered anguish and distress. As is often the case, the emotional side of his encounter with death was even more traumatic than the physical reality of it. In that anguish, he called out to the Lord to save him and the Lord did. “What then,” he asks, “shall I offer to the Lord in return for all of God’s goodness?” What can one give to God for all God’s goodness? The psalmist will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. He is promising to go to the temple to offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the midst of God’s people. The psalmist makes a final vow: “I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.” He seals this promise with a pledge. Lifting the cup of salvation, in much the way we would offer a “toast” to another in tribute, he simply says, “Hallelujah!”

The commotion in Solomon’s Portico has caught the attention of the officials and so the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees arrive, the latter angry that Peter and John are teaching that in Jesus there is resurrection from the dead (remember, the Sadducees denied there was a resurrection, because they could not find it mentioned in the Torah.). They arrest Peter and John who spend the night in custody in the temple jail. Yet, Luke reports that many who heard Peter’s words believed, so that, by now, the infant church numbers about 5,000. The priests, elders and scribes assemble the next morning to hear more, and among them are four high priests, Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander—those who reigned as High Priest from 6 through 37 CE, roughly the time of Jesus’ life. The initial argument had been over their teaching about the resurrection, but now, the priests have a different concern—power! By whose power have they healed this man? It is a perfect set-up, and Peter, filled once again with the Holy Spirit, boldly proclaims that the healing has been done in the name of Jesus Christ (note that by now, the joining of the two names means that “Jesus is the Messiah”), whom they crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. And now, Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 as a means of personalizing and explaining their continuing rejection of a truth unfolding before their very eyes: “the stone which you builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And then Peter, filled with the courage, boldness and frankness that the Spirit can give, adds one more thing: “There is salvation in no one else!”

Another day passes, and Jesus goes to Galilee where he encounters Philip and issues his summons, “Follow me,” and Phillip does. And in keeping with the evangelistic pattern of the newly called in turn calling others to Jesus, Phillip searches out Nathanael and tells him that they have found the Messiah written about by Moses and the prophets—it is Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth. Nathanael is neither impressed nor persuaded. Nazareth? That hick village miles southwest from the sophistication of Bethsaida—can anything good come from there? Surely not! But Nathanael has forgotten how God works. Notice that Philip does not argue. Evangelism is not arguing people into God’s reign; it is simply a matter of issuing the invitation, “Come and see.” Nathanael does and as he approaches, Jesus says, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”—quite astonishing praise coming from Jesus. Nathanael, still not convinced, asks how it is that Jesus could make such a judgment; he does not know him. Jesus’s replies that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree before Phillip called him. Nathanael is stunned, and in a moment, his doubt is turned to faith as he proclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” You are the king of Israel.” Embracing Nathanael’s confession, Jesus adds yet another promise: “You will see greater things than these. And then, combining the prophecy of Daniel (7:3) about the coming of the Son of Man with the vision of Jacob’s ladder (Gen 28:12), Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see the angels of God descending upon the Son of Man, revealing Jesus as even more than Messiah and King of Israel—he is the one in whom heaven and earth meet, making the title “Son of God,” that Nathanael used in his initial confession, even more than he now realizes.

Posted August 7, 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