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Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday, July 11

Deuteronomy 31:7–13, 24–32:4; Psalm 84; Romans 10:1–13; Matthew 24:15–31

The section between yesterday’s lesson from Deuteronomy and today’s is the recitation of all that has taken place. Having finished his farewell to the people, Moses now prepares Joshua in front of the people, telling him and the people that Joshua is the Lord’s choice to take Moses’ place. There follows a charge to Joshua to be strong, bold and undismayed, for the Lord God goes with them and will not forsake them. The transition in leadership complete, Moses makes one last preparation: he writes the law down and puts it in the hands of the priests and elders with the command that once every seven years, when Israel gathers at the appointed place for the feast of tabernacles (booths), they are to assemble all the people, including children and the aliens, and read the Law so that all may hear and learn to fear the Lord. Whereas the responsibility for the worship of God was to be conducted by adult men (see Deut. 16:16), the Law is to be kept by all, and read to all, so that all can learn to keep it. Consequently, the book of written law is to be placed beside the Ark of the Covenant, in which the tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept, as witness against the people. There can be no claiming ignorance of what God expects of them as God’s people. But knowing the people well and how easily they turn from God’s ways and fall back into idolatry through the “work of their hands,” Moses assembles all of the elders and other officials of each of the twelve tribes to utter one final warning with what is called “The Song of Moses”—a recitation of the people’s past degenerate and disloyal ways that is set in the form of a lawsuit between God and the people.

Psalm 84 is a reflection on the wonders and gifts of abiding in God’s dwelling place and is 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.

Paul’s heart’s desire is for his people to turn and be saved. He recognizes their unenlightened zeal for God that in its ignorance has placed confidence in keeping the law rather than embracing God’s righteousness, Christ. It is, in fact, his story before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ is the end of the law—the fulfillment and completion of law and the one who brings its custodial role to an end. Paul then quotes two texts from the law to make his point. The first, Leviticus 18:5 places responsibility for life on the right behavior of people. The second, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 says that what is impossible for us to do, obtain Christ by ascending to heaven or descending to the abyss, is, in fact, as near as the word on our lips and in our hearts, the word of faith that Paul is proclaiming. To confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord (the earliest confession of faith in the church and certainly pre-Paul) and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead is, in fact, the means of life and righteousness that saves. Then, quoting Isaiah’s words about the Lord laying a foundation stone in Zion who when believed in saves (Isa. 28:16), Paul declares this gift open to all—Jew or Greek (Gentile)—the Lord is Lord of all and generous to all who call on him. The final verse is from Joel 2:32, affirming that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord—here a reference to Jesus—shall be saved.

Jesus continues to answer the disciples’ questions about signs and times beginning with “the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place.” In 160 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanies placed an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, (Daniel 8:9-27). The time is at hand; it has begun. Yet greater tribulation is to come, false messiahs will continue to emerge along with false prophets—as indeed they did. The last brought down Jerusalem and brought on the destruction of the temple. Do not be deceived when some go after them. When the Son of Man returns, there will be no doubt or question about it, just as when lightning strikes there is no confusion about what it is, and it is seen to the distant reaches. The appearance of the Son of Man will be like a lightning strike that defeats the Imperial power that oppresses God’s people. The quote from Amos 5:20 and Ezekiel 32:7-8 simply recall those images of darkness, lights falling from heaven and other cosmic phenomenon, which are simply signs of God’s judgments being enacted against those who have oppressed God’s people. As surely as vultures gather around a carcass, so certain is this coming judgment and victory of God. As the Son of Man appears, God’s trumpet shall sound and angels will be disbursed to gather all God’s people—Jew and Gentile alike—from the four corners of heaven and earth.

Posted July 11, 2014
Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thursday, July 10

Deuteronomy 3:18–28; Psalm 116; Romans 9:19–33; Matthew 24:1–14

Moses reports God’s command to move across the Jordan to inhabit the land. As God has given the kings of Moab and Ammon into their hands, so God will give the kings of Canaan into their hands. The men are to go over to fight, but the women, children and livestock are to remain in the fortified cities on the east of the Jordan. After the land is secured, the men from Gad and Benjamin can return to their homes east of Jordan. Moses expresses further wonder and awe at God’s ways, and, while doing so, also pleads with the Lord to be given permission to cross over, just to see the land. God’s anger is kindled against Moses, and after saying, “Speak to me no more of this,” God instructs him to ascend Mt. Pisgah where he will be able to survey the land to the north into Lebanon, to the west to the sea, to the south in the Negev, and to the east into trans-Jordan. But Moses is not to cross over Jordan. That task belongs to Joshua. Even Moses bears judgment for the people’s faithlessness, not to mention his own. It is Joshua who is to lead the people into the land.

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!”

Continuing his reflections on the state of his people, the Jews, Paul asked if God is being unfair to them for their unbelief, and its resultant alienation, since God seems to have destined it to be so. Paul quickly reminds us that this is God we are talking about, who is not accountable to our own systems of justice, but is Justice Himself. Putting things in context he asks, does not the potter have the right to determine what to do with his clay, to make of one clump of it a vessel for special use and another for common use, one for preservation and one for destruction? What if God has done this in order to reveal his glory and mercy to those He has called from both the Jews and the Gentiles? And just how long has God endured vessel of wrath—both Jews and Gentiles—destined for destruction? This thought about Israel is not new. It is as old at the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, who Paul quotes. And, had not God preserved a remnant among the people, who would have been left? Rather, they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah. And so, the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness through works of the Law have come to righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, while Israel pursued righteousness through the Law but did not arrive at it. Rather, they stumbled over the rock that the Lord has placed in Zion. On the other hand, those who believe in that rock shall not stumble.

Leaving the Temple precincts, some of the disciples are awed by the magnificence of the Temple. In response, Jesus predicts its destruction: not one stone will be left upon another. And, in fact, in 70 A.D. that is precisely what Rome did. To this day, there is no physical trace of where the Holy of Holies stood. Later, across Kidron valley looking west to the Temple Mount, the disciples ask him privately when it will be and the signs of his coming he has predicted in verse 39. In response, Jesus warns against being led astray by false signs: religious and military conflict, natural disasters and the like, things many a false prophet has pointed to along the way to warn that we were living in “the last days.” These are not signs of the end but the birth pangs of the beginning! In addition, there will be turmoil among his followers: persecution, martyrdom, apostasy, betrayal and deep divisions among those who believe in him—all of which has been and remains true. Because of this, many will fall away. But those who endure to the end will be saved. In answer to their question, the end will not come until the gospel is proclaimed throughout the world as a witness to all people.

Posted July 10, 2014
Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wednesday, July 9

Deuteronomy 1:1–18; Psalm 96; Romans 9:1–18; Matthew 23:27–39

The word “Deuteronomy” means “second law,” in Greek, and is a second recitation of the law by Moses to the Children of Israel as they prepare to enter the Land of Promise. Forty years have passed, their wanderings are over and God says it is time for them to occupy the land. They have defeated the kings east of the Jordan and taken their lands and are now to settle more expansively into the land from the sea in the west to the Euphrates in the east, from the wilderness in the south to the height of Lebanon and Syria in the north. The boundaries cited appear to be those of the nation during the height of King David’s reign. Moses reminds the people of how he set up structures for governance and courts for the deciding of disputes (Exodus 18). Some other interesting details are here for us to understand as we begin reading Deuteronomy. Here, the mountain on which Moses encountered the Lord and received the law is always named “Horab” whereas in Exodus it is “Sinai.” Some have suggested that Horab is a general name for the mountain and Sinai the designation of the highest point of the mountain. Whether this is true, Horab and Sinai are one in the same. Notice too that here the people are no longer “the congregation of the Lord,” but “Israel.” Again, the two are not in opposition to one another, but one in the same. However, it is important for the writers of Deuteronomy to continually emphasize the fact that the people are one nation, as opposed to twelve different tribes. As Deuteronomy unfolds, we will hear much that we have previously read in Exodus and Numbers. However, the laws are often elaborated with commentary, and some additional appear. The transition from the people as a “congregation” to a “nation” is in process, and the book is portrayed as a prolonged speech by Moses as he prepares them to enter the land of promise without him.

Psalm 96 celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates God’s sovereignty over all things; the Lord is “the God of gods,” the one who made even the heavens. But more, the psalm celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and is a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, and one who will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.

Paul now turns to the question of the fate of his own people, the Jews, and speaks of the sorrow and anguish that are his, because they have not embraced Jesus as the Christ. He even contemplates trading places, giving up his salvation if it would mean their belief. Why Israel’s rejection, and what is to become of them because of it? Has the word of God failed? No; rather, not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are truly his descendants, at least as far as God’s promises are concerned. It is not through the flesh that we become God’s children, but through the promise embraced in faith. The emphasis here is on God’s purposes rather than human actions. Remember Jacob and Esau, struggling with one another in the womb, Esau emerging first, but God choosing Jacob? Election emerges out of God’s mercy and compassion, and is God’s to do as God so chooses. It is not a matter of human will or exertion, but a matter of God acting out of his will, having mercy on some and hardening the hearts of others, just as God raised up Pharaoh in Egypt, then hardened his heart, in order to demonstrate his power and have his name proclaimed throughout the earth.

Jesus continues to pronounce his curse upon the religious leaders. They are white-washed tombs, attractive to the eye but filled with death and filth, hypocrisy and lawlessness. They build monuments to martyred prophets, insisting that if they had lived in those days, they would not have taken part in the shedding of their blood, yet they continue to persecute and kill the prophets among them, and are busy plotting Jesus’ death. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to gather its children to him as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they are not willing. Their house will be left desolate—a reference to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. And they will not see him again until the day of God’s restoration, as he comes in the name of the Lord.

Posted July 9, 2014
Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tuesday, July 8

Numbers 35:1–3, 9–15, 30–34; Psalm 12; Romans 8:31–39; Matthew 23:13–26

As our readings in Numbers come to a close, the text focuses on how to deal with a person who takes the life of another, and what such killing can do to a community. The taking of human life is forbidden by the 6th commandment (Ex. 20:13). Willful killing of another is prohibited and brings a sentence of death. The single exception to this is for the “blood avenger”—a close relative of the victim who is allowed to take vengeance. The land and community must be cleansed of such pollution, lest a chain reaction of killing follows completely, desecrating the land. In order to limit such violence, there is provision that the intentional murderer shall die. But, there is also provision for one who accidently kills another. For this latter person there are the six cities of refuge—three east of the Jordan and three within Canaan itself, all cities belonging to the Levites—to which the unintentional killer must flee in order to live. Therein, they are safe from the retaliation of the blood avenger. However, should they step out of a city of refuge, so long as the reigning High Priest is still alive, they are subject to the blood avenger’s right to kill them. After the death of the High Priest, they may safely return to their home town and family. Behind all of this is the provision for keeping the land and community safe from the polluting dynamics of revenge and retaliation for accidental death. In addition, herein is the beginning of the notion of “sanctuary” associated with places dedicated to worshipping God. The Levites were the priestly tribe, and their cities of refuge and all who lived within them understood to be under God’s special protection. On the other hand, the intentional murderer is to be killed, less as an act of punishment than that the killer’s own blood might purify the land that has become polluted by the murderer’s action. But, there must be two witnesses to the killing in order to carry out the sentence. In addition, there is to be no ransom for a murderer subject to the death penalty. Neither shall there be a ransom for the unintentional killer.

Psalm 12 is the prayer of one in the midst of a people whose hearts are given to evil and insanity, where the wicked are always on the prowl and vileness is exalted. In such a culture, the psalm pleads the case of the poor and oppressed and trusts that God will act on their behalf. God’s promises are purer and more trustworthy than the finest refined silver. The psalmist’s entreaty then turns personal, pleading for help in dealing with those who have been spinning lies against him. May God cut off their lips! God responds, “I will rise up” to give the poor, the needy and the despoiled the safety they need. The lies of the deceitful are contrasted with the promises of the Lord, and God is blessed as protector against all who are wicked, but more, the defender of all in need, a promise more pure than silver refined in a furnace seven times.

If God is for us, who can be against us? More, if God did not withhold his son, but gave him up for all of us, will God not give us every other thing that we need? God has chosen us, who can condemn us? Satan accuses, God justifies, and Christ, who died and was raised, now sits at the Father’s right hand continuing to intercede for us. Can anything separate us from such love? Nothing; not even death! We belong to God in Christ and nothing can change that—ever!

Jesus begins leveling seven woes—curses, actually—against the religious leaders of Jerusalem. They lock people out of the kingdom but do not go in themselves. Their extensive efforts to make converts actually make them children of hell, like themselves. They are blind guides, considering the gold of the sanctuary more important than the One who dwells in it to make it holy. They insist on the tithe of dill, mint and cumin—things that are easy—while neglecting the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith. They strain out gnats but swallow camels. Their scrupulous concern for the cleanliness of their utensils does not match their internal lack of cleanliness, for they are filled with greed and self-indulgence. Clean up the inside first and the outside will follow.

Posted July 8, 2014
Monday, July 7, 2014

Monday, July 7

Numbers 32:1–6, 16–27; Psalm 62; Romans 8:26–30; Matthew 23:1–12

The children of Dan and Gad, two of the twelve tribal patriarchs, come to Moses and ask permission to settle in the land where they are living east of the Jordan. It is a land suitable for livestock and they are cattlemen. Let them settle there rather than cross over into the new land. Moses, knowing what will be required to take the new land, asks why they should be allowed to sit out the battles that their brothers will face. In the excerpted section of verses 7 through 15, Moses says that to allow them to do so would be to discourage the other ten tribes. Just as the spies who had been sent into scout out the land returned and discouraged the people from going in, and God brought judgment on everyone from the age of 20 over, their request will have the same result. Dan and Gad respond that they are not trying to avoid war; they really want to settle in this land. Let them build sheep folds, fortified cities and other things necessary to leave their wives, little ones and cattle behind, and they will cross over to fight. But when the land is won, they will return to their new homes east of the Jordan, in the land of Gilead.

Psalm 62 expresses the blessing of waiting on God, who alone is our rock and salvation and who alone can protect. This is a dominant theme throughout the Psalter. Those who scheme for rank and position are, at worst, nothing and, at best, a lie. In the scales of balance they are “lighter than a breath.” Hope not in things, whether by ill or honesty gained. Hope in the Lord, who is power and loving kindness and who rewards each of us according to our deeds.

Waiting in hope with eager perseverance, we are not left to ourselves alone; the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Things are such that, often, we do not even know what to pray for. Sometimes, things are so bad that we cannot even find the words. No matter: the Spirit is praying for us all of the time, searching the hearts of those whose mind is set on God and interceding with God on our behalf. Verse 28 is frequently misquoted. It does not mean “All things work together for good,” as the old Authorized Version initially translated it, and from whence the mis-quote comes. All things do not work together for good, in and of themselves. Evil and sin are still afoot in this world doing their work. Rather the text says, “In all things, God is at work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.” God is so extraordinary, so marvelous and good that God is able to take the most heinous and treacherous things of life, in the lives of those God loves and has called, and transforms them to serve his purposes. Remember what Joseph said to his brothers: “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” (Gen 50:20) The zenith of such divine work is nothing less than the cross, where God transforms a curse into a means of redemption. And note that this is for those called “according to his purposes.” Then, Paul reminds us that none of this is an accident or happy happenstance. Rather, those called are those God has known and predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son—the first born among God’s new creation. And predestined, called and justified, they have also been glorified; notice that all of this is past tense—action which God has taken and is complete, yet now unfolding in our lives.

Jesus, having bested the chief priests, Sadducees and Pharisees in their entrapping encounters, now turns to the crowds and issues this warning about them: they have seated themselves in Moses’ chair, therefore, listen to what they say. But do as they say and not as they do. For they love the privileges of their positions, their long robes and symbols of religious observance, and in the execution of their office lay heavy burdens on others they themselves are not willing to bear. They do all of this for show and to be honored by others. It is Jesus’ classic critique and warning for all who are professionally religious and the snares of begin called “Reverend” or “Doctor” or whatever. “Teacher,” “Father,” “Leader” are terms best left to Jesus and his Father (which is why I do not use the term “teaching elder” that has been reintroduced into the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s new form of government—someone was not listening!) Those whose energy is devoted to self-exaltation will find themselves, sooner or later, humbled. Those who humble themselves in their service will, in fact, be exalted. Please don’t call me a “teaching elder.” I am what I was ordained, “a Minister of the Word,” and whatever you do; do not call me “Reverend!”

Posted July 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