Monday, March 30, 2015
Jeremiah 11:18-20; 12:1-17; Psalm 119:73-80; Philippians 3:1-14; Luke 20:1-19
Jeremiah’s life has been threatened. The Lord has shown him his enemies’ evil deeds. Like a gentle lamb he was led to slaughter, but did not know that their evil schemes were against him. He now laments to God about the ways of the people asking, “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruits; you are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts.” As always, it is easier to speak words of faith than live into them. After affirming his own faith and his heart’s faithfulness, Jeremiah pleads, “Pull them out like sheep for slaughter,” “How long will the land mourn for lack of faithfulness and the grass of every field wither?” because of the wickedness of those who live in it. Even the animals and the birds are swept away because the people think the Lord is blind to their ways. God responds with words of challenge and warning that have become classic in ministry: “If you have raced with the foot-runner and he has wearied you, how will you compete with the horse?” Yes, even his own family deals treacherously with him. Though they speak fondly to him, do not believe them. In other words, Jeremiah has not seen anything yet. The Lord has forsaken his house, abandoned his heritage, and given his beloved into the hands of their enemy. God’s heritage has become like a lion in the forest roaring against him. Many kings have deserted the Lord and destroyed God’s beloved vineyard, trampling on God’s prized possession, turning the Lord’s pleasant portion into a desolate wilderness. The land mourns for the Lord, but no one takes it to heart. Spoilers are on the high places ready to invade. They have the sword of the Lord in hand to devour the land from one end of it to the other and no one will be safe. Having sown wheat they will reap thorns; tiring themselves out, they profit nothing and shall be ashamed of their harvest. The poetry now shifts to a prose section that warns the nations on the high places: “I am about to pluck [Judah] up from their land.” After that, God will again have compassion on them and bring them back to their heritage. Then they will diligently learn the Lord’s ways and swear by his name, saying, “As the Lord lives,” as once they taught the people to swear by Baal’s name. When that happens, the Lord will again build them up.
Psalm 119:73-80 is a portion of the longest work in the psalter and acrostic in its construction, each section built on a word beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, unfolding in its descending order and rendered in two line strophes. The psalmist opens this section on Yod (Y), with the affirmation that God has made and fashioned him like a master-builder and pleads for understanding in order to learn God’s commandments. Verses 73 through 80 are an acknowledgement of the justice of God’s ways and a prayer that he may ever walk within them. Those who fear the Lord rejoice in him. They know God’s judgments are right, and, even in moments of humbling, recognize it is God’s faithfulness at work. God’s steadfast love, promise and mercy are our comfort as we delight in God’s law. As for the arrogant, let them be put to shame. As for us, let us be blameless, saying, “May my heart be blameless in thy statutes, that I may not be put to shame.”
Paul warns his beloved congregation in Philippi against the Jewish-Christian missionaries who have been following him, discrediting his preaching, and teaching converts that they must first become Jews to be inheritors of the gospel’s promises. Paul argues that the Philippians are the “true circumcision,” for they worship in the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and place no confidence in the flesh, even though he, as a circumcised Jew, has every reason to place confidence in the flesh. Paul then states his credentials as a faithful Jew: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews (not a convert); as to the law, a Pharisee (the most scrupulous of Jews); as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. They are, frankly, astonishing credentials. Yet, whatever gain Paul had in all that, he regards them as nothing because of Christ. And not only that, but he regards everything—even his apostolic ministry—as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. He regards all that he has lost as so much rubbish, he is glad to be rid of so he can be found in Christ that is, not claiming a righteousness that comes from keeping the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. Paul wants to know nothing more than Christ and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his suffering by becoming like him in his death, if only, somehow, Paul may attain the resurrection from the dead. Paul’s longing for martyrdom may well reflect the conviction of the Book of Revelation that it is only the martyrs who are immediately joined to the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). Or, is Paul not being tentative here, but about to introduce the next theme—the need to continue in life to press on in faith, striving to make Christ his own? Faith is not there to give us such assurance that we fall into lax living; faith creates faithful living. But lest this sound like a Christian form of works righteousness, Paul quickly adds, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Yet, Paul does not think he has arrived. Rather, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
As Jesus is teaching in the temple, the chief priest, scribes and elders (the religious leadership in Jerusalem) arrive and demand to know by what authority he is teaching. Jesus responds that he will tell them if they tell him by what authority John was baptizing—was it from heaven or of human origin? That throws the religious leaders into a quandary. If they say “From heaven,” they know Jesus will challenge them for not having believed John—obviously, they resisted John as much as they are resisting Jesus—and if they say, “from human origin,” the people will stone them, for the people are convinced John was a prophet. When they answer, “We don’t know,” Jesus responds, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” He then turns to the people and tells a parable about wicked tenants who, when the master sent a servant to gather his share of the vineyard’s produce, the tenants beat the servant and sent him away empty handed. So too, with the next servant who was sent to the vineyard tenants. Finally, the owner sent his beloved son, but when the tenants saw him, they killed him so that everything would belong to them. “What,” asks Jesus, “will the owner of the vineyard do to those wicked tenants when he returns? He will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Their response of, “Heaven forbid!” gives expression to the religious authorities’ conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem and its religious establishment, would also mean the destruction of Israel. But Jesus has separated the vineyard from the tenants—only they will be destroyed. Knowing they understand full well that this parable is about them, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and challenges them to discover what it means when it says, “for everyone who falls over that stone will be broken to pieces and all upon whom that stone falls will be crushed into dust.” When the religious leaders hear this, they know he is talking about them. Enraged, they want to kill him right then and there, but they fear the people.
Sunday, March 29, 2015 Passion/Palm Sunday
Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 84; 1 Timothy 6:12-16; Matthew 21:12-17
Zechariah is a complex book—two distinct works—made up of many authors. The first wrote at a time when return from exile was taking place and prior to the rededication of the second temple in 515 BCE, and the second from about 450 BCE during the Greco-Persian wars when Israel was a vassal of Persia. Today’s lesson comes from the second part of Zechariah and falls on the heels of an oracle from the Lord that obviously is from an earlier, pre-exilic time when Israel’s enemies were those surrounding her. Our lesson opens with what is the best known text from Zechariah and calls on the daughters of Zion to rejoice, for her king is coming to her. (Handel used this for the magnificent soprano aria “Rejoice” from Messiah.) The image is of a triumphant Messiah who, in spite of being victorious, comes in humility, which is symbolized in the animal he is mounted upon. With his arrival, God will rescue Israel and restore her to full autonomy and power. Israel is addressed as “prisoners of hope,” and told to return to her stronghold, for God is going to restore her double and be her constant guardian. “On that day...;” reminds us that this is still a prophetic oracle; it has yet to happen. It reminds us that the return from Babylon to Israel, when Cyrus set the Jews free, was not a mass exodus, but a slow process and it took considerable time for the returning people to re-establish their lives, their economy and religious life.
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.
Having been warned that those who seek riches have fallen into many destructive and senseless traps, bringing great harm upon themselves, Timothy is charged to shun all of that for righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. He is to “fight the good fight of faith” and take hold of the eternal life to which he was called when he first made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. This is followed by another confessional extract ending with “Amen.” Just as Jesus made the good confession before Pilate, so too, Timothy is charged to “keep the commandment without spot of blame until “the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which [God] will bring about at the right time.” God is then named confessionally as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, and who no one has ever seen or can see. The lesson ends with an ascription of praise, ascribing honor and eternal dominion to God. The section closes with an “Amen,” giving witness to the fact that, in all probability, Paul is quoting a well-known confession and ascription of praise rather than creating this himself.
Jesus enters the temple, sees what is taking place and drives out those “selling and buying”—those exchanging Roman coins for shekels so the temple offerings could be made in the required form of currency. He disrupts both their business and their worship, quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, and labels the religious establishments corrupt. He then turns to those whose physical infirmities have kept them from the house of prayer—the lame and the blind—and cures them, restoring their temple rights. The children respond, crying out, “Hosanna, Son of David”, which angers the chief priests and scribes who infer that Jesus should stop them. Instead, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2 as justification for their praise and withdraws to Bethany.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 31; Romans 11:25-36; John 11:28-44
The Lord promises the restoration of Israel and Judah. He will sow it with the seed of humans and animals. Just as the Lord has plucked up and destroyed the people, so too, the Lord shall one day soon plant and watch over them. When that happens, never again will they complain that they are suffering for their parents’ sins. Rather, each shall die for their own sin, and all who eat the sour grapes of sinful behavior shall have their own teeth set on edge. Then, the Lord promises a new covenant that will not be like the first covenant the Lord established through Moses, which the people broke even though the Lord remained their husband through it all. This is the only place in the Old Testament the term “new covenant” is used, and is the touch-stone for the church’s theology about the covenant God has made with the world in Jesus Christ. Unlike the old, this covenant will be written, not on stone tablets, but on the peoples’ hearts—the center of human volition—and the Lord will be their God, and they shall be God’s people. Never again will people need to say to one another, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know the Lord from the least of them to the greatest. The Lord will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
Psalm 31 is both petition and praise and, though identified as a “Psalm of David,” is a composite, echoing phrases from other well-known psalms (Psalm 4:1; 18:19; 27:14; 33:18, 22; 38:15; 69:3; 71:1-3; 115:17; 118:5). It begins with a confession of faith: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me be put to shame;” virtually identical with 71:1-3. God is to respond, not because of the psalmist’s virtue, but for God’s own name’s sake—to preserve God’s reputation! Verse 4 begins to list the reasons for praise and trust: you are my rock, fortress, guide, and redeemer. It then moves to an expression of trust, confessing that God has placed him “in a broad place.” (See Psalm 18:19 and 118:5.) It is followed by a plea for deliverance, followed by an exhortation to wait for the Lord, (See psalms 27:14.) Verse 5 appears on the lips of Jesus as he is dying in Luke 23:46. Images and phrases from other psalter sources abound: “Let your face shine upon me.” “Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord.” “Blessed be the Lord who has shown his steadfast love to me.” It ends with wisdom’s counsel: “The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.” It then adds these injunctions: "Be strong, let your heart take courage," to the one so dominant in the psalms: "all you who wait for the Lord.”
Paul now reveals the mystery of God’s ways in Jesus Christ: “A hardening has come upon a part of Israel ….” The passive voice is Paul’s way of avoiding saying that God has done this, yet, what the hardening has done is to allow the Gentiles access to the Gospel. When “the full number of Gentiles has come in,” that hardening will be lifted; the Deliverer will appear and banish all ungodliness from Jacob, and “all Israel will be saved.” This will happen less for Israel’s sake than for the sake of the promise God first made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, for the promises, gifts and calling of God are irrevocable! Once again disobedience has served God’s purposes, and now mercy in Christ can be shown to the Jews just as it has been shown to the Gentiles. God imprisoned all in disobedience in order that God could be merciful to all. The language here is all-encompassing. With nothing more to say, Paul breaks into one of his doxologies, praising God’s wisdom.
After Martha confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the One they have been awaiting, she returns to her sister Mary, and tells her privately, “The Teacher is here and calling for you.” When Mary hears this, she quickly gets up and goes to Jesus. The friends and relatives who have come to console Mary and Martha think Mary is going out to Lazarus’ grave to continue her grieving, and so, they quickly follow her. When Mary comes to Jesus, she kneels at his feet and repeats her sister’s words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus hears this the second time, and sees the grief and weeping around him, John tells us Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The Greek behind those words connote irritation, anger and frustration even more than compassion. He says, “Where have you laid him?” When they show Jesus the grave and he too begins to weep, it is as much in anger and frustration at the work of death as it is love for Lazarus or compassion for his sisters. Though some in the crowd see this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, others use it as an occasion for criticism. After all, if he opened the eyes of the man born blind, as he had done earlier in the temple, certainly he could have healed Lazarus and kept him from dying. Still irritated and angry, Jesus approaches the tomb, a cave with a stone over its mouth, and says, “Take the stone away.” Martha is shocked; her brother has been dead for four days and his body has begun to decay—there will be a stench. Driven by the same emotions that have brought him to tears, Jesus says to her (and hear it as a stern word of his intention, not one of comfort), “Did I not tell you that if you believed you should see the glory of God?” She has already professed her belief in him; he is ready to act. As others take the stone away, Jesus engages in audible prayer, thanking his Father for having heard him. It is clearly his way of giving expression to the fact that what is about to happen is the work of his Father in and through him, and he says as much in the prayer. The prayer over, Jesus cries out in a loud voice and commands Lazarus to come out of the cave and Lazarus does, his body still constrained by the strips of cloth used to wrap his body and cover his face in burial. It is the same clothing that Jesus will leave behind in the tomb at his resurrection. Notice Lazarus is not called by name, but only “the dead man,” lest there be some suggestion that he had not been dead, or that this was only for Lazarus. Jesus then says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Friday, March 27, 2015
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-13; Psalm 105; Romans 11:13-24; John 11:1-27
Jeremiah’s role as a prophet is not limited to the people of Jerusalem. In the period between 597 and 587 BCE, he writes to the leadership of Jerusalem that has been sent into exile in Babylon and speaks God’s word to them. God has sent them there. They are to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce, take wives, have children and give their children in marriage. They are to settle there and not only multiply, but seek the welfare of Babylon, for, in doing so, they will be fostering their own welfare. They are not to listen to the words of the official prophets and diviners among them. God has not sent those false prophets. This exile is God’s doing and it will be for a long time—for many, longer than their lives. Not unlike the wilderness wandering that claimed the faithless generation that came out of Egypt, so this exile will claim the lives of most of those whose apostasy and faithlessness brought it on, especially the prophets, priests and other leaders of the nation. But when that period is over—again, represented by the symbolic number of seventy years—God will bring them back. And when God does, it will be for their welfare and not their harm. God has plans for them that is a future of hope. When they call, God will answer. When they seek God, he will reveal himself to them. God will restore their fortunes and gather them from all of the places God has driven them. For now, settle in and seek the welfare of the city.
Psalm 105 is a psalm of praise that calls everyone to make known God’s deeds among the people. The reading is divided with the first six verses dominated by the language of praise—“Give thanks,” “call,” “sing,” “glory” and “rejoice.” Sing praise to him and speak of all of his wonders. Seek the Lord and his strength continually. It then recounts the reasons for this praise: God’s faithfulness to Israel, beginning with God’s initial covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the children of Israel—a covenant made forever—making them God’s “chosen ones” with the promise of the Land of Canaan as their inheritance. It then remembers their past: few in number and of little account and nomads in the land, often oppressed by the kings of other nations, and how God reproved their kings for his people’s sake. They are, after all, the Lord’s anointed ones—prophets who speak for the Lord. The famine that ultimately sent the children of Israel to Egypt is recalled. But for now, the focus is upon Joseph being sold into slavery, then imprisoned until the time that the Lord’s word was to come to pass. (As the author of Hebrews reminds us, it can be a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Lord, as Joseph well learned! [Hebrews 10:31]. How much have we attempted to domesticate the Lord for our own purposes?) But the Lord was faithful and the Pharaoh set Joseph free and made him lord of Pharaoh’s house and ruler over all of his possession, giving Joseph power to “imprison [Pharaoh’s] princes at will in order to teach the Egyptian elders wisdom.” There then follows a litany praising God for all that God has done among the children of Israel beginning with Abraham, through Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s chief officer and lord of his household. That portion of the psalm remembers that, because of Joseph’s success (and the famine), Israel came to Egypt and lived there as aliens. It was there that the Lord made the people very fruitful and strong—so much so that the Egyptians came to hate them. Then, God sent them Moses and Aaron and the plagues in Egypt to free the people. Remembering the ultimate woe—the striking down of all first born—God brought Israel out of Egypt with its silver and gold, so glad were the Egyptians to be rid of them, for dread of the Jews had spread across Egypt. God spread the covering of fire by night and cloud by day to lead them. When asked, God fed them with quail and gave them bread from heaven, opened the rock to produce water in the wilderness, and did so because God remembered the covenant he had made with Abraham. The psalm concludes, remembering that God has brought the people out with joy and into the lands of the nations in Canaan. God gave them these lands and the wealth of all of their inhabitants, so that they might be a people who keep his statutes and observe his laws. The psalm ends with one final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
Having addressed the Jews in the church in Rome, Paul now turns to its Gentile members and reminds them that all of this is the mysterious grace of God working itself out. Consequently, they, of all people, have no reason to boast. (Can you imagine the jockeying for positions of spiritual superiority in that church based on ethnic background? The Gentile members were, after all, Romans!) Continuing with the theme of making the Jews jealous, Paul talks about how he glorifies his ministry among the Gentiles for just that purpose, in the hope that some Jews will be saved. For, if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ, their acceptance will certainly mean their redemption (life from the dead). There is a holy remnant leavening the whole batch. He then takes up the image of the olive tree to summarize his argument thus far. God has broken off many of the natural branches from the tree of Christ to be able to graft into it the wild branches of the Gentiles. Do not boast about this, but in faith, stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, what is to keep God from sparing them—the wild branches? Rather, note both the kindness and severity of God; remember, even those broken off, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted back into the natural olive tree—Christ himself.
Jesus has been talking about giving eternal life to those who believe in him. Today’s lesson begins the story of the raising from the dead his dear friend Lazarus and unites his previous teachings and statements in the temple to what follows. The village of Bethany lies just east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live there. They are Jesus’ dear friends and we are told beforehand that it was Mary who later anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, not the woman who in Luke is the notorious sinner who bathes Jesus’ feet with tears (Luke 7:34-48). Lazarus has fallen ill and the sisters send a message to Jesus in the expectation that he will come and heal their brother. Instead, Jesus intentionally delays. He tells the disciples that this illness is not one that leads to death, but rather exists for God’s glory to be further revealed through him. And so, though Jesus loves all three, he remains behind for two days. Then he says, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples rightly object. After all, the people in Jerusalem are trying to stone Jesus, and they remind him of that. Jesus responds that there is work to do and only twelve hours of daylight in which to do it, and returns to the theme of him being the light of the world; those who walk in him do not stumble like those who are of the night. To further clarify, Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” Misunderstanding Jesus’ words, the disciples reply that if he is asleep he will be alright. Consequently, Jesus has to be more specific with them: “Lazarus is dead.” But, for the disciples’ sake, he is glad that he was not present to heal him, for something significant is about to happen—a revelation that will strengthen their own belief. Thomas simply says, “Let us go with him that we may die with him.” Jesus and the disciples approach Bethany and discover that Lazarus is dead and buried. His body has been in the tomb four days. Consequently, friends and loved ones from Jerusalem have come out to Bethany to sit shiva with the sisters, to console Mary and Martha over their brother’s death. Martha—always the more aggressive and active of the two—hears that Jesus is coming, and quickly gets up to go off to meet him, while Mary stays behind. When Martha gets to Jesus she chides him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then she says something more astonishing, “But even now I know that God will give you what you ask of him.” Has she heard of his raising Jairus’ daughter? We don’t know, for that story is not included in John’s Gospel. However, to her request Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” In spite of her request that he do something, Martha seems to have no frame of reference for what Jesus has just said and thinks that he is talking about the general resurrection that is to take place “on the last day.” Correcting her, Jesus says, “I am (there is the divine name once again) the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha makes her full confession with the formal, “I believe ….” Her words are an echo of the profession of faith made by all who entered the church for which this gospel is written: “I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the One God has sent into the world.”
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Jeremiah 26:1-16; Psalm 126; Romans 11:1-12; John 10:19-42
We enter into the second half of the Book of Jeremiah, often called “the second scroll of the book.” Whereas prophetic oracle in the form of poetry has dominated the first scroll, prose will dominate the second, and events in Jeremiah’s life will be a more dominant part of the narrative. We are given a second version of Jeremiah’s temple sermon (7:1—8:3) which takes place at the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim (608 BCE). The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah telling him to stand in the court of the Lord’s house (temple) and speak to all “the cities of Judah” that come to worship there. He is not to hold back one word, but speak all that the Lord commands in hope that some may listen and turn from their evil ways. If so, the Lord may change his mind about the disaster that he intends to bring on them. The sermon itself is straight forward and is condensed from what is reported in chapters seven and eight, and calls the people to walk in God’s law and heed the words of the prophets that the Lord has sent to them and that they have ignored. Otherwise, the Lord will make the temple like Shiloh—a place in the northern kingdom where the Lord’s name once dwelled, but that has now become desolate with Israel’s fall. Jerusalem will become a curse for all the nations of the earth. The temple priests and prophets and all others who hear Jeremiah speak the word the Lord has given him, take hold of him and threaten him with death for prophesying against the temple and city. When the officials of Judah hear about this, they come from the king’s palace to the temple and take their seats at the entry gate to sit in trial. The priests and prophets lay their case before the officials, demanding a sentence of death. In response, Jeremiah tells the officials and people that, “It is the Lord who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard.” He calls on them to amend their ways and obey the voice of the Lord who, if they do, will change his mind about the pronounced disaster against them. As for him, they may do as seems right to them. Only, they are to know that, if they put him to death, innocent blood will be on their hands and upon the city and its inhabitants, for “in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.” The judgment of the officials and the people is that Jeremiah does not deserve death because he has spoken in the name of the Lord. The trial is over; the officials have intervened against the priests and prophets on Jeremiah’s behalf.
Psalm 126 is a pilgrim song, sung to the song of ascents, as worshippers make their way to the temple. It remembers the initial joy experienced by the people upon their return home to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. They were like those who dream: their mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with shouts of joy. As the Lord had promised, the nations said among themselves, “The Lord has done great things for them.” In affirmation, they declare it themselves: the Lord has done great things for us,” and in them they rejoiced. They have been saved. But now, home, there are new challenges. The second half of the psalm falls into a petition for God to bless them, to come and restore their fortunes, like water rushes through the watercourses in the Negeb. When the rain comes, those flat, dry riverbeds suddenly become awash with torrents of water. May the restoration come as suddenly so that those who sow in tears—planting season in the Ancient Near East was associated with sorrow for many reasons, not the least being that the summer drought was drawing near and it threatened to destroy the seed—will reap with shouts of joy because the crop has been abundant beyond belief.
Has God rejected Israel? Absolutely not! After all, Paul himself is an Israelite; many of the members of the church in Rome are Jews. That alone should make it clear. God has not rejected them, but as God did during the people’s apostasy in the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, God has preserved a remnant, chosen not by their works but by grace. Clearly, the Jews in the church at Rome are hearing these words directed to them—they are part of that remnant. Yet, the law is of no use; they have been chosen by God’s grace. Citing the law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Paul makes the point that Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking because God “hardened them,” giving them, as Isaiah said, a “sluggish spirit.” (Isaiah 29:10) But is this an eternal condition? Absolutely not! The Jews’ “stumbling” and failure to embrace the gospel have been the means of the gospel coming to the Gentiles. Further, its divine design is to make Israel jealous and provoke it to embrace the gospel as well. If their stumbling rejection has resulted in the reconciliation of the Gentile world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean?
The division about Jesus and who he is continues among the Jews who are gathered in the temple, some claiming that he is demon-possessed, while others disagree, saying his words are not the words of a demon. Furthermore, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” This closes the encounters in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. The next section takes place several months later at the festival of the Dedication of the Temple. Jesus is still in Jerusalem and seems to have been there since the fall. As the scene opens, Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon. The people gather around him and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus responds that he has told them but they refuse to believe him. The works he does in his Father’s name testify to him, but still, they do not believe them or him. And why is this so? They do not believe in him because they do not belong to his sheep. His sheep hear his voice and follow him. He knows them and they know him, and they follow and he gives them eternal life. Furthermore, no one will snatch them out of his hand. For what has been given to him has been given by the Father, and no one can snatch that out of the Father’s hand. He and his Father are one in their work. When those gathered about him hear this, they take up stones once again to kill him for his blasphemy. Jesus, rather than run, confronts them further: for which of the works of the Father that he has shown them will they stone him? They respond that it is not for the works but rather, though a human being, he makes himself out to be God. Jesus then appeals to scripture, quoting Psalm 82:6 and saying that if scripture makes the claim that they “are gods and sons of the most high,” how can they take up stones against one that God has sent into the world who claims to be God’s son? Returning to the theme of his work, he tells them to examine them. If he is not doing the works of his Father, then do not believe in him. But, if he is doing the Father’s works, even though they don’t believe him, believe the works in order to understand that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. That enrages them further, and now they try to arrest him. But again, he slips through their hands. It is time to leave Jerusalem, and so he crosses the Jordan to the site where John had been baptizing. Many come out to him saying, John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man is true,” and many believe in Jesus.
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.