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Friday, March 6, 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015
Jeremiah 5:1-9; Psalm 130; Romans 2:25-3:18; John 5:30-47

God sends Jeremiah into the streets of Jerusalem looking for just one righteous person so that the city can be spared God’s judgment against it. But searching the streets and the squares, Jeremiah can find none who act justly or seek truth. Yes, they all swear by the name of the Lord, saying “As the Lord lives…,” but they do so falsely. Jeremiah wonders aloud, “Lord, you have struck them but they feel no anguish; you have consumed them but they refuse to take correction.” Is it because they are poor, have no sense, and do not know the law of God? If that is the case, then Jeremiah will go to the rich and speak with them. Surely they know the ways of the Lord. But no; they all have broken the yoke of their partnership with God and burst out of its bonds. Therefore, they will be consumed the way a lion, wolf or leopard track and consume their prey. All who go out of their cities shall be so consumed—torn to pieces because of their transgressions and great apostasies. The word “apostasies” is used only in Jeremiah and means to intentionally turn away, to be wayward or faithless. God now laments, speaking directly to the people, “How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me and sworn by those who are no gods.” While God fed them to the full, they committed adultery (with the Baal), and trooped to the houses of his prostitutes (the priests and priestesses who engaged in ritual intercourse with other participants as part of worshipping Baal). But more, they have violated their own marriage covenants, and, like lusty stallions, “neigh for their neighbors’ wives.” How can God not punish these things? Less in anger than in sorrow God asks himself aloud, “Shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?”

Psalm 130 is a classic lament for those living “in the depths” of life, whether physical or emotional, waiting on God to come and save. Notice that it is also a “psalm of ascent.” It is being used by a pilgrim who has come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God in the midst of despair. Out of the depths he has been crying to the Lord with no response. Now he pleads again for the Lord to hear his voice and supplication. Notice that the psalmist has moved beyond self-recrimination. This is about more than personal sin. The pit is not God’s punishment, for if God counted sin and thus punished, who would stand? No one—we would all find ourselves in the pit of God’s judgment! No; with God there is always forgiveness. And so, the psalmist continues to hold tenaciously to God’s word and wait and watch with an intensity that exceeds that of the watchmen waiting for the morning. The psalmist knows that when God comes it will be with steadfast love, healing and redemption. He prays, “Come, Lord; redeem all Israel!” This is a prayer for all who wrestle with depression, all with chronic or terminal illness, all who spend sleepless nights in anxiety and worry, and for any who find themselves in the pit of life for whatever reason.

Paul turns to a second issue of contention—circumcision—the mark of God’s covenant with Israel. The issue is not who is or who is not circumcised, but rather, who is living that way—according to the covenant of the law, of which circumcision is an outward sign? As a sign of God’s covenant promise, it must be lived into to have its effect. Having denounced the power of the Law and circumcision—the two identifying marks of a first century Jew—Paul then asks, “What advantage is there to being a Jew?” Quickly answering his own question he says, they have been entrusted with the oracles and sayings of God. It matters not that some have been unfaithful, for their faithlessness cannot nullify the faithfulness of God—God must be true to God’s self. But if that is true, then does our unfaithfulness actually serve God’s purposes and reveal God’s truth and faithfulness? And if that is so, why are we liable to judgment? Is not God being unjust? Rather, why not permit us to continue to do evil so that good may come from it (as Paul’s detractors have been claiming that he is preaching)? The argument is dense: if human sinfulness reveals God’s holiness, why should we be judged for being sinners? It is not unlike those who blame God for the presence of sin in life because God created us with the power of choice. Why should we be blamed for our bad choices? The power of sin is such that, when we cannot find others to blame for our failure, we blame God for having made us as we are. Paul condemns such reasoning as nothing less than the fruit of our sinfulness. Again, he asks, “Are Jews any better off?” Quickly, he says “No, not at all;” for as he has already said, both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin. Paul then quickly laces together a series of biblical quotes to make his point: Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isaiah 59:7f, and Psalm 36:1, concluding with an allusion to Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one!”

Jesus continues to talk about his relationship with his Father and the results of that relationship. He does nothing on his own initiative, but rather, seeks to do the will of his Father. What he hears from his Father he does, thus his judgment is just. He does not bear witness to himself; he has no need to do so. He reminds them that John has been a witness to him, and, though John was a lamp burning and shining bright and though they were willing to rejoice in his light, they have ignored the truth that John has announced about Jesus. No matter; Jesus does not need human witnesses, for the work he does is sufficient witness that he has been sent by the Father to them. The Father has born witness to him but they neither know nor hear the Father’s voice. Rather, they search the scriptures, thinking that will bring them eternal life, when in fact, the source of eternal life is among them, and scriptures all bear witness to him, yet they refuse to come to him. Jesus does not need the glory that comes from people who glory in one another but do not receive the glory that comes from God. Returning to the theme of judgment, he tells them that he has no need to judge them; Moses himself will be their judge. They have read him and his witness to Jesus but refuse to accept it. If they cannot believe Moses’ writings, how will they believe Jesus’ words? This conversation with the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem is over. He will be on his way to Galilee for there is still much work for him to do.

Posted March 6, 2015
Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015
Jeremiah 4:9-10, 19-28; Psalm 102; Romans 2:12-24; John 5:19-29

Repentance has not been forthcoming, and now there are warnings of the coming battle. In verse five, the trumpet sounds to signal the warning. Evil is coming from the north and it is God’s judgment. The Lord speaks and says that the kings, priests, officials and prophets shall all be appalled. They have been deceiving the people, telling them “all will be well with you,” at the very moment the sword is at the throat. Verses eleven through eighteen rehearse the various battle warnings concerning the hot wind that will descend upon Jerusalem, not to winnow or cleanse but to destroy. All of this has come upon them because of their ways; it is their doom and it has reached their very hearts. The daughters of Zion cry out in anguish as the sights and sounds of war approach. It is always the women and children who most suffer in warfare, even to this day. Rapidly beating hearts, the noise of battle trumpets, and disaster after disaster overtakes the land, as tents are consumed and they ask, “How long must I see the [battle] standard or hear the trumpet?” The Lord responds, “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; stupid children, they have no understanding.” They are “skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” There is a shift in voice as an observer watches the devastation of creation being undone and returned to its chaotic void. The heavens are dark, the mountains quake, there are no longer birds in the air; the fruitful land has become a desert, and the earth a desolation. All are in mourning as God has spoken in judgments and is enacting his purpose. God is not about to turn back nor will he relent. The remainder of the chapter paints, in vivid terms, the evacuation of the city, and again accuses the daughter of Zion of her investment in lovers other than the Lord.

Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to a psalm of trust and intercession. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm takes another turn, this time to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name could continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. And now, the psalm returns to lament: though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago, God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing, yet remains the Lord forever. The psalm ends on a final note of affirmation and hope: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.

Paul now turns to his discussion about the law, something that was a source of significant contention in the Jewish-Gentile congregation in Rome. Was it the Law that caused people to sin or something deeper than the law? It is not the law that is the problem, but sin within us that causes us to break the law. In language aimed at those in the congregation championing the value of the Law, Paul asks a series of incriminating questions. Using images that were common among Jews by which they distinguished themselves as morally superior to Gentiles, Paul continues to press the point that the issue is not knowing what the law says, but living by it. Those who espouse living by the law and boast in it but do not live by it are only condemning themselves. Vested with the law and called to live by it in order to be a light to and among the Gentiles, in their violation of it they are actually blaspheming against God, right in the midst of Gentiles! Practice what you preach, lest you become a blasphemer and discredit none other than God! How much of the agnosticism and secularism of contemporary culture is the result of the church not practicing what it preaches? We are long on personal reconciliation with God in Christ, but short on it with one another!

The Jewish leaders are shocked and angered by Jesus’ claim of relationship with God and consider it blasphemy, a sin punishable by death. Jesus, for his part, simply elaborates on what he means by having just said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” He can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; what the Father does, he does. The Father, for his part, loves the Son and, therefore, shows him all that the Father is doing. Greater works than these will Jesus do and they will see, to the point of their astonishment. Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father, rather than act as judge, has given that authority to the Son, so that the Son may be honored. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father. Their judgment against the judge is, in fact, judgment against themselves. But all who hear Jesus’ words and believe the One who sent him have eternal life and do not come under judgment, for in believing, they have passed from death to life. And now, Jesus makes an even more astonishing claim: the dead hear his voice and, as they do, they live. The Father, who has such power, has granted it to the Son, along with the power to judge, because he is also the Son of Man. The two things understood to be within God’s power alone—exercising judgment and giving life—the Father has given to the Son. More astonishing still, the hour is coming when those in the grave will hear the Son’s voice and they will come out of their graves, those who have done good, to resurrection and life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation. The religious leaders are convinced that he is blaspheming—dishonoring God—when in fact, he is revealing to them who he is, bringing God’s presence directly into their lives, but they can neither see nor hear it.

Posted March 5, 2015
Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Jeremiah 3:6-18; Psalm 51:1-11; Romans 1:28-2:11; John 5:1-18

Jeremiah recalls the faithlessness of Israel (the northern kingdom) and how she “went up to the hills and under every green tree played the whore”—a reference to the fertility worship of the Baal cult that worshipped on various high places in the land. The result of Israel’s faithlessness was its destruction by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. Jeremiah understands this to have been God’s judgment against Israel, who he was divorcing as his wife. Yet, Judah is worse than Israel, and has learned nothing from Israel’s destruction. Judah has taken her own whoredom so lightly that she has polluted the land, “committing adultery with stone and tree”—religious objects used in the Baal cult. And when Judah did worship the Lord, it was only in pretense. The Lord now tells Jeremiah that “faithless Israel” has shown herself less guilty than her false sister Judah. The Lord tells Jeremiah to face the north and say, “Return, faithless Israel, I will not look on you in anger for I am merciful.” The plea is a call to repentance, imploring Israel to return to a changed life. If she will acknowledge her guilt and that she has scattered her favors among strangers under every green tree—about as flagrant and faithless as it gets—the Lord will take her back. After all, the Lord is her master. There is a pun here; the Hebrew behind “master” is the word “Baal”—the name of the Canaanite fertility God. It can also mean “husband.” The Lord is Israel’s true master and husband, not the false god with whom she has played the whore in the high places. If she will turn and return, her true husband will welcome her home and bring her back to Mount Zion. When she does, God will give her shepherds after his own heart—kings who will feed them with knowledge and understanding. They will multiply and flourish. No longer will they long for the Ark of the Covenant, which rested in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, for they will have such an intimate knowledge of their Husband that the Ark will be no longer missed, in fact, it will be forgotten. Then Jerusalem will be known as God’s throne. The nations will gather to it and no longer stubbornly follow their evil ways. Judah and Israel shall be reunited and come back to the land of their heritage, the land the Lord promised their ancestors.

Psalm 51 is a confession of sin without peer and as appropriate today as when it was first uttered. Tradition attributes it to David, upon being challenged by his prophet, Nathan, concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent engineering of the military murder of her husband Uriah. However, it shows marks of having been written later than that, after the return from exile, especially the last two verses. The center of the psalm focuses on the human heart, which, to the Hebrew mind, is not the center of affections but the center of one’s will. In pleading for a clean heart, the supplicant expresses the conviction that, without the gift of a new and right spirit, it is not possible to remain in obedience. The human heart is prone to pride and stubbornness. And so, he pleads for God’s holy spirit to sustain him—one of the few places in the Old Testament where the phrase “holy spirit” is used. But notice, it is not yet personified, but simply an expression of God’s presence. The point is, even right praise is God’s gift to us, motivated by God’s Spirit. We cannot offer it without God’s prompting. Consequently, the psalmist utters the phrase that has become a classic invitation to prayer, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” He then expresses the prophets’ recurring conviction that, rather than sacrifice, what God truly desires in each of us is an obedient heart committed to God and God’s ways. Sacrifices God may or may not accept. After all, God does not need them, and since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been none. Prayer itself has become the new form of sacrifice. And so, a heart in which stubbornness has been broken, and self-pride crushed, is a heart God will never despise or reject. The prayer ends with a plea for Zion and the rebuilding of its walls following its sack by Babylon in 587 BCE, and for the restoration of the sacrificial system.

The lectionary has “stepped over” the previous two verses in which Paul deals with the sexual behavior taking place in the symposia in which men chase after men and women after women, both such slaves to their sexual passions that they have abandoned the “natural” for “the unnatural.” What is so often missed in this text is that the behavior is not a choice on their parts, but what God has given them up to; they don’t have a choice! On four occasions in as many verses, Paul makes the point that the fundamental problem in not the sexual one, but that humanity has exchanged the truth for falsehood and the authentic for the inauthentic, with the result that God finally “gave them up” to things that should not be done, all because they worship the creature rather than the Creator. Paul quickly steps beyond the sexual sins to those that are even more destructive: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander and so on. More than simply a catalogue of the vices of the day, Paul is identifying the behaviors that emerge in human life when we fail to acknowledge God as Lord and sovereign of life. It is a wide-ranging catalogue of vices and evils. Yet, the depraving power of sin is such that even knowing them to be sins, we still participate in them, whether wittingly or unwittingly. And, for those who think one form of sin more grievous than another—the sexual more heinous than the economic, and gossip less corrosive than stealing—Paul points out that, in judging another, we are really judging ourselves as well—for we are equally guilty, if not of the same sin, than one that is no less corrupting. For those who want to cover this with a blanket of grace, Paul reminds us that the kindness of God is meant to lead to repentance on behalf of everyone. When it does not, we simply store up for ourselves God’s wrath—tribulation for everyone who does any of the evils he has listed, whether Jew or Gentile, and glory, honor and peace, for those who do good. God is not partial in this regard.

Jesus leaves Galilee for Jerusalem in order to observe the Passover feast and enters into the city by the sheep gate next to which was a pool named Bethesda with its five porticos. The space was filled with invalids of many kinds, the lame, the blind, the sick, the withered, all waiting for the stirring of the waters. For when that happened, it was believed to be the work of an angel, so that whoever got into the waters first was healed. Jesus encounters a man who has been ill for 38 years and asks him if he wants to be well. The man replies, “Of course; but how, I have no one to put me into the water when it is stirred? Someone always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus responds, “Arise, take up you pallet and walk,” and, immediately, the man is healed, takes up his pallet and walks. It happens on the Sabbath. When the Jewish leaders see the man walking and carrying his pallet, they rebuke and remind him that it is not lawful to do so on the sabbath. Are they blind to what has happened to the man, or simply so preoccupied with keeping the law that they have forgotten its greater purpose? The man responds, “The one who healed me told me to do so, and I did.” They ask him, “Who told you to take up your pallet?” For his part, the healed man does not know who Jesus is, as after the healing Jesus slipped away into the crowd. Later, Jesus finds the healed man in the temple—the first time the man has been permitted in the temple in 38 years—and Jesus tells him to be sure he sins no more so that no further afflictions befall him. In that exchange, the man recognizes Jesus as the one who has healed him, and goes away from the temple telling everyone who will listen that it was Jesus who had healed him. We are told that it was because Jesus was healing on the sabbath that the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. When confronted for it, Jesus simply responds, “My Father is still working, as I myself am working.” And so, the persecution takes on new dimensions: now the religious leaders begin to look for ways to kill him because of his blasphemy: he is not only breaking the sabbath laws, but calling God his Father and making himself equal with God.

Posted March 4, 2015
Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Jeremiah 2:1-13; Psalm 91; Romans 1:16-25; John 4:43-54

God sends Jeremiah to Jerusalem with questions that form words of indictment. God remembers Israel’s devotion in the wilderness wanderings and speaks of it as a honeymoon time. God led them through places no other could go, kept them safe and cared for them. They were holy to him, the “first fruit of his harvest” and any who “ate of it”—stood against them—experienced disaster. But upon entering the land of promise, things changed. They began to chase after worthless things (the Baal), forgetting the One who brought them out of Egypt. Their priests stopped calling on the Lord, the custodians of the law did not know him, the rulers transgressed against him and the prophets prophesied in the name of Baal. These are God’s accusations against them and their ancestors, as well as their children and their children’s children. God tells them to search to the most distant country to see if any other people have acted as stupidly as they have done, abandoning their God for another—even though there is no other. God’s people have exchanged their glory (their relationship with the Lord) for something that does not profit. They have committed two major evils: they have forsaken the fountain of living water, and instead, dug out cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Psalm 91, a song of trust and confidence, is one of the most assuring in the entire collection of 150 psalms. Though it reflects the theology of the wisdom tradition, insisting that those who remain righteous shall have the constant protection of the Lord, it is even richer in its imagery and promises. The opening line, “He who,” can as equally be translated “You who,” or “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High (“Elyon”—one ancient name for God), who abide in the shadow of the Almighty (“El Shadday”—a second name for God), will say to “the Lord” (Yahweh—God’s personal name given to Moses at the bush), “My refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” All three names are included to make this as inclusive as possible, with the primacy given to the name Yahweh. Various forms of protection are mentioned, including the presence of God’s angels to defend in times of warfare or pestilence, and all other forms of danger. Under God’s wings we will find a refuge, whose faithfulness is a buckler and a shield, so that we need not fear anything night or day. Making the Lord our refuge assures protection. It is from this psalm that the devil quotes as he tempts and challenges Jesus to throw himself off the tower of the temple, trusting that God will save him. The psalm concludes with God’s own speech: “You who love me I will deliver. You who know my name I will protect. When you call (the importance of knowing God’s name, knowing who to call upon), I will answer; when in trouble, I will rescue and honor you. With long life I will satisfy you and show you my salvation.” Is it any wonder this has been the byword and hope of Jews, Christians and Muslims? This psalm is a favorite of military chaplains, frequently read before a group of soldiers facing battle. It is also regularly read at funeral and memorial services and times of grave national distress.

Paul announces two things foundational to his gospel: it is the power of God for salvation, and it is for everyone. In it, God’s righteousness is revealed. “From faith to faith”—from God’s faithfulness to our trust in it. But God’s righteousness has another side—God’s wrath. It reveals itself when it encounters the ungodliness and injustice of those who suppress the truth. And though God’s presence, nature and power have been clearly revealed to all humanity, in and through the created order, and, though people have known God, they have chosen neither to honor nor give God thanks, but, rather, have entered into their own speculations about God and the world. Supposing they are wise, they have actually become fools and have ended up offering to idols made with their own hands, the glory and worship that belongs solely to God. Consequently, God has given them over to their own pursuits, quests that lead them into the impurity, corruption and dissipation that such behavior inevitably brings. Exchanging truth for a lie, they have chosen to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. This is Paul’s sweeping condemnation of Roman-Greco culture that all but worshipped the body, whose symposiums often degenerated into sexual orgies, and where, in Rome, the Emperor was worshiped as a god! The foundation of all ungodliness and unrighteousness is the human compulsion to worship ourselves and the work of our hands, make gods out of things and then worship them, and ignore the One who made us. But the gospel brings power to change that and to do so for everyone.

After two days in Samaria, Jesus continues his journey north, but rather than stopping in his home town of Nazareth, he moves further north to Cana, for Jesus knows that prophets are not honored in their own land. When he gets to Cana, he encounters people there who had been in Jerusalem at the feast and who know of the things he had done there. While there, a royal official from Capernaum, whose son is dying, learns that Jesus has come up from Judea to Cana. The official makes the journey west to come to Jesus in order to ask him to come to Capernaum and heal his son. Initially, Jesus seems to rebuke the official, or is he simply expressing his frustration with what it takes for people to recognize truth and light, saying that, unless they see signs and wonders, the people will not believe? The man pleads again, and Jesus tells him to go home, his son will live. Believing Jesus, the man leaves to return home. On his way, he is met by a servant who has come to tell him his son has recovered. When the man asks at what time the boy began to be better, the servant identifies the very hour at which Jesus had told the official that his son would live. The man recognizes it, and we are told that “he believed and his whole household.” This then is the second sign Jesus performed in Galilee.

Posted March 3, 2015
Monday, March 2, 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015
Jeremiah 1:11-19; Psalm 6; Romans 1:1-15; John 4:27-42

Jeremiah is given a vision to validate what he has heard: the branch of an almond tree. The Lord responds, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.” This has nothing to do with almond rods and everything to do with the word play that is hidden in the Hebrew. The word for almond rod (shaqed) and watch over (shoqed), sound all but identical. Jeremiah has recognized the rod and is seeing (and hearing) rightly. Moreover, the Lord is watching over his word to assure that it comes to fulfillment. The words that Jeremiah are told to speak are God’s words, and God will “perform them.” Jeremiah is given a second vision: a boiling pot tilting away [in/from] the north. It is a vision of the disaster that is to come as peoples and kings from the north descend upon Jerusalem, set up their thrones at the city gates, against its walls and the cities that surround it. Disaster is about to befall Judah, because they have worshiped other gods and bowed down to idols made by their own hands. The Lord tells Jeremiah to “gird up your loins,” a common call to bravery in battle, and stand before the leadership of Judah and tell them what the Lord has said. He is not to flinch, bend or break before them, but to stand firm, because the Lord has today made him a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall against all of them: the king, the land, the priests, the princes, and all the people of the land. Though they will fight against Jeremiah, they will not prevail, because the Lord is with him. In many ways, Jeremiah’s life is to be a symbol of Israel’s unfolding life—what he goes through they will go through, with redemption coming at the end. But it is much too soon for that now.

Psalm 6 is a plea for God’s gracious care in what the psalmist believes to be the result of God’s rebuking wrath. In the midst of his languishing need, he begs for healing of body and soul, for both shake in terror. “How long, O Lord—how long?” It is the cry of all who suffer unjustly or without reason. In such a state he begs the Lord to return, to save his life, and deliver him for the sake of nothing more than God’s steadfast love. Notice that at no time does the psalmist admit guilt or confess sin, only that he is on the verge of death and that, in death, there is no remembrance or praise of God. It is as though he is saying to God, “Do not let me die, for if I die I will not be able to remember you or praise you.” He has spent too many nights flooding his bed with tears, his days, likewise, drenching his couch and he is wasting away with grief. Now, for the first time, he mentions foes—workers of evil and demands that they leave him. And suddenly, the psalm turns from grief to strength, from fear and lament to confidence, for the Lord has heard the sound of his weeping. The Lord has heard his supplication and has accepted his prayer. All his enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror. In a moment they shall turn back and be put to shame.

Today we begin to read what many consider Paul’s greatest theological work, his letter to the church at Rome, with its central theme: salvation by grace through faith. The Roman church was established in the capital of the empire long before Paul began his missionary work. Though tradition traces the church’s roots to Peter, there is no evidence of Peter in Rome until the 50s, and Christianity was present in Rome well before that. The church was initially made up of Jewish converts who may well have been among the pilgrims in Jerusalem at Pentecost. As these returned to proclaim Christ in the synagogues of Rome, riots broke out so severely among the Jews that in 49 AD, the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Upon Claudius’ death five years later, Jews began to return to Rome and to their church, which, in their absence, had grown but become Gentile. The return created significant tensions, of which Paul was aware. Much of the book will address issues of the Law, circumcision, the role and fate of Israel—questions that were being hotly debated in the struggling church as it strove for faithfulness. Paul writes to them about the reconciling power of the Gospel of God, in Christ, first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile. Today, Paul sets forth his credentials to those he does not know first-hand but has heard about through his co-worker Priscilla and Aquila, who had been active leaders in the Roman congregation until forced to leave by the Imperial edict. They had come to Ephesus and had taken up work with Paul. Paul reveals his motivation for coming to Rome: to strengthen and be strengthened by the Romans, to assist them: to preach the Gospel among them, a Gospel he has been commissioned to preach to all Gentiles, whether the sophisticated in Rome or the barbarians beyond it. Stay with us as we plumb the depths and riches of this book that is first among the Epistles and one of the foundational texts for Christian faith and life.

The disciples return from their search for food and are startled to find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, but none of them dare ask him why. In the interruption, the woman takes the opportunity to depart, leaving her water jar behind. Is it simply an oversight or something she did in haste? Hardly! No woman would leave her water jar behind unless she no longer felt a need for it. The author wants us to know that she has drunk from a different well and her thirst has been satisfied. She returns to her town and tells all who will listen that she has met a man that has told her everything she has ever done; can he be the Christ? And so, those she talks to leave the city and, with her, return to the well. Meanwhile, the disciples try to get Jesus to eat something, which gives him a context in which to talk about the work he has been sent to do as “food,” and the fact that they too are being incorporated into that work. Another has sowed, now it is time for them to reap. The harvest is rich and ready. In the midst of this conversation, the woman returns with the people from the city, some of whom already believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony—speaking of rich harvest beyond expectation—and they ask Jesus and his companions to stay with them (the cultural and religious barriers are coming down), and they do so for two days. Consequently, many more Samaritans believe in Jesus “because of his word.” The story ends with the people confessing that their belief is no longer based upon what the woman said, but rather by what they have seen and heard. Now they know that he is not simply “the Christ,” but “the Savior of the World.” Yet another title has entered the lexicon that seeks to define Jesus.

Posted March 2, 2015
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.

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