Sunday, August 31, 2014
Job 11:1-9, 13-20; Psalm 150; Revelation 5:1-14; Matthew 5:1-12
Zophar the Naamathite now speaks, and his words are more harsh that those of either Eliphaz or Bildad, for Zophar attacks Job directly and calls him a babbler and one who mocks God with his insistence that his “conduct is pure and clean in God’s sight.” If God would only speak to Job and tell Job the secret of wisdom, Job would understand how wrong he is. Further, God is exacting from Job far less than Job’s guilt deserves! Zophar then enters into a series of rhetorical questions about God that remind Job that no one can fully understand God’s ways nor comprehend the rationale for God’s punishment. However, if Job will direct his hand toward God, put away his iniquity and reject the wicked from his tents, then surely he will be able to lift his face in God’s presence without fear. He will be able to forget his misery. He will be secure and more prosperous and revered than before. Zophar then concludes with a traditional condemnation of the wicked: they are destined to fail, have lost all way of escape, and their only hope is death.
Psalm 150 brings the Psalter to a proper conclusion with a hymn of praise calling upon everything and everyone to shout “Hallelujah”—Praise the Lord! The hymn begins praising God within God’s heavenly sanctuary above the firmament and then moves to the firmament itself. Praise begins simply as the acclaim that befits God as God. Only then does it move to praising God for his mighty deeds and surpassing greatness as the source and sustainer of all that is. Musical instruments and dance are called upon to join and take up their part in worship as each is reminded that their first and foremost purpose is simply to praise the Lord. Finally, everything that breathes is called to praise the Lord. And then, fitting to the whole collection, there is one last Hallelujah!
In the midst of the vision of worship in heaven, God is seen, seated on the throne with a sealed scroll in hand. Interpretation as to what the scroll actually is differs: the Law, the Prophets, the table of destiny revealing God’s future plans, the Book of life, the record of human deeds, God’s last will and testament for the world—or perhaps all of this. Regardless, the scroll is central to all that is taking place, and an angel appears asking who is worthy to open it. No one appears and John weeps bitter tears of disappointment. However, one of the elders interrupts him, saying the Lion of Judah has conquered; he can open the scroll. Immediately, John sees between the throne and the four living creatures one standing among the elders—a Lamb, once the Lion of Judah, but now slaughtered but again alive, who through his death has conquered and possess all power (seven horns), all knowledge (seven eyes), and all spiritual authority. He takes the scroll from the hands of God and as he does, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall in worship before him, offer their incense (prayers) and sing a song of the New Creation. The Lamb alone is worthy to open the scroll, for by his blood he has ransomed all people for God, and made them a kingdom of priests who will forever serve God as they reign upon the earth. Suddenly, the angels join in the song—thousands upon thousands—singing, full voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Then all creation is drawn into the song, singing praise to the One on the Throne and to the Lamb, drawing the scene to a close, portraying God’s act of redemption of all creation. Hymns play a large role in the Book of Revelation. It may well be that they are the very hymns that were sung in the worshipping community John served. We know these hymns at a popular level because of how their texts were incorporated into Handel’s “Messiah.”
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, begins with these words of blessing. The context is that news has spread about Jesus throughout all Syria, and people are bringing to Jesus all who are ill, suffering from various diseases, demon-possessed, paralytic and so on, and Jesus has healed them. Consequently, large crowds follow him wherever he goes. They come from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Back in the region of Galilee, just north of the lake, a crowd gathers. Jesus, on seeing the crowd, goes up a mountain slope, sits down (the traditional teaching pose for rabbis of the day), and teaches his disciples who have come from the crowd with him. Remember, at this time they are only four in number. But, by the time these words were written down, they were understood to be addressed to all who follow Jesus. Each announces God’s favor (blessing) on people in less than life’s ideal conditions: the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for their righteousness, and all reviled or persecuted because of their commitments to Jesus. The kingdom Jesus comes proclaiming, is an “upside-down” one that reverses all that the worldly powers embrace as important.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Job 9:1, 10:1-9, 16-22; Psalms 20; Acts 11:1-18; John 8:12-20
Job continues to lament his life; he loathes it but now will give free utterance to his complaint, speaking out of the bitterness of his soul with a series of questions. Why does God condemn him? Why does God despise the work of his hands while favoring the schemes of the wicked? God knows he is not guilty. God knows that he has no one to deliver him from God’s hand. God fashioned him and blessed him, why has God now turned to destroy him and return him to dust? Did God bless him only to destroy him? Is God taking perverse pleasure in all of this? Like a lion, God hunts Job, constantly renewing the divine witness against him. Why? Why bring Job to birth in the first place? And now, he returns to his earliest theme: best he had not been born at all. Cannot God leave him alone and give him a little respite and comfort before he goes to the land of gloom and deep darkness? Whereas death, earlier on, seems a relief, now even death is no longer a source of release but of dread.
Psalm 20 initially seems addressed to anyone. It is an intercessory blessing: “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May God give you support from Zion, remembering your sacrifices and burnt offerings. May God grant you your heart’s desire, fulfill all your plans and give you victory when you set up your banner in God’s name.” Only in verse six does it become clear that this is ultimately addressed to the king, the anointed of the Lord. Where other monarchs take pride in their chariots and horses, the king is reminded that “our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. Others will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright." It ends with one final petition: “Save us, O Lord! Deliver us,” as it continues with its intercessions for the king. But it can also be read as, “Answer us, O King (a reference to God’s sovereignty), when we call.” Though originally a Royal Psalm, it is to be prayed in confidence by all of God’s anointed.
Word of the Gentiles inclusion reaches the apostles and believers throughout Judea. Peter and the six men, who had accompanied him from Joppa to Caesarea, return to Jerusalem and are severely criticized for going to “uncircumcised men” and eating with them. Peter responds, “step by step” all that had taken place, beginning with his vision of the sheet filled with animals the Jews considered unclean, the voice and heavenly command to eat, the demand that nothing the Lord has cleansed must be called unclean or unholy, the arrival of the men, the instruction of the Spirit, their journey to Caesarea, his preaching to the household, and finally the descent of the Holy Spirit just as it had fallen on them at Pentecost. It was then, says Peter, that he remembered Jesus’ words, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God has given the Gentiles the same gift God has given to the Apostles and other Jews when they believed in “the Lord Jesus Christ,” who was Peter that he could “hinder God?”
The lectionary skips over John 8:1-11, because it is not found in the oldest manuscripts of John’s gospel and seems to have more in common with the stories of the controversies between Jesus and the Temple authorities that we read in the other three gospels, whereas John is a series of extended conversations and debates in sermonic form, and the story interrupts this section of “I am” sayings. This does not make the story any less valid or true, but does interrupt the flow of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, and seems to be a later insertion of an event in Jesus’ ministry remembered only here. Today our lesson begins with verse 12 of chapter 8 and falls on the heels of Jesus’ announcing his gift of life-giving water. Now, his “I am” sayings take up another image—light—a common metaphor for the presence of God and itself an important element in the Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life. The Pharisees challenge him for testifying on his own behalf, a testimony that is therefore not valid. Jesus does not deny it, but says, “even so, it is valid, because I know where I have come from and where I am going, while you know neither!” Further, the Pharisees judge by human standards; Jesus judges no one, but simply does what his Father tells him. But if he did, it would be valid for it is not Jesus alone who judges, but the Father who sent him. Quoting “your law” back to them, he reminds them of the Torah’s requirement of two witnesses to make something valid. He then says that he and his Father are those two witnesses. The Jewish leaders respond by asking where his father is. Jesus tells them that they know neither him nor his Father, for if they knew him they would know his father. To know Jesus is to know the Father and vice versa. It is open testimony to who he is, but they cannot hear it. The lesson closes by telling us that he continued to teach this openly in the temple, but no one arrested him, because “his hour had not yet come.” Whereas in the other three gospels, Jesus’ identity is a secret (Mark), or not fully disclosed until the trial before the Sanhedrin or Pilate (Matthew and Luke), in John, Jesus speaks very openly about his identity as God’s Son, and as the gospel continues to unfold, that becomes even more apparent. It is one of the reasons that John has been a favorite among people involved in evangelistic missions and ministries.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Job 9:1-15, 32-35, Psalms 16; Acts 10:34-48; John 7:37-52
Job responds directly to Bildad and agrees with what he has to say about God’s treatment of the blameless, but then he asks Eliphaz’s question: how can mortals be blameless before God? How can they contend with God? He then utters a creation psalm, praising and acknowledging God’s power over all things; who then, can stop him or ask, “What are you doing?” If God is thus, and Job is innocent, still, Job is in a box—he cannot answer. Rather, he must simply appeal for mercy. After verses that recognize God’s superiority in all things as well as the futility of contending with him, Job laments the injustice of it all: God destroys both the blameless and the wicked and mocks the calamity of the innocent, giving the earth into the hands of the wicked, while covering the eyes of its judges. If this is not so—if it is not God who is doing this—who then is it? Given all of this, what can Job do? Human life is short; would that he could simply put on a happy face and get on with it, but he cannot. Would that God were mortal, as Job is, so that they could have a fair contest with an umpire between them, then Job could speak without fear, for he knows that he is not what his friends think him to be—guilty of some secret sin for which God is punishing him. Notice that how, amid all of Job’s troubles, God is still at the center, and that sustains him.
Psalm 16 is a psalm of trust acknowledging the Lord as not only a refuge, but the source of all good in life. The psalmist looks to the holy ones—the saints—for guidance and fellowship while not willing even to speak the names of those who serve and worship other gods. With the Lord at the center of life—the chosen portion—the dimensions of life have fallen in “pleasant places,” delivering a goodly heritage. Therefore, the psalm blesses the Lord who gives constant counsel. Keeping the Lord always at the center means not being overcome or defeated. Rather, heart, soul and body rejoice, are glad and rest secure, for God does not give up His faithful ones to Sheol or the Pit. Rather, God reveals the path of life. In God’s presence there is fullness of joy and pleasures, forever more.
Peter confesses that he now understands that God shows no partiality; anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable—an astonishing statement for a Jew of Peter’s day! Peter then turns to proclaiming Jesus as the source of peace (not Rome or its emperor) and the good news of Jesus—anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, and his going about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Jesus is Lord of all, not just Israel, another astounding claim. Peter has been a witness to that, as well as to what came next. In Jerusalem, Jesus’s own people put him to death by hanging him on a tree. But God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to everyone, but to those who were chosen by God as witnesses. As those who ate and drank with Jesus after he rose from the dead, Peter and his companions have been commanded to preach and testify that Jesus is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. As the prophets foretold, all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins in his name. As Peter continues to speak, the Holy Spirit falls upon all of them and Cornelius and his household and friends begin to speak in tongues, extolling God. The Jewish believers who have accompanied Peter to Cornelius are astonished—the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out, even on Gentiles! Peter then asks the Ethiopian eunuch’s question: What is to prevent these, who have received the Spirit, from being baptized? And so, they are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They then invite Peter and his companions to stay with Cornelius several days, which they do. The boundaries continue to come down.
On the last day of the festival, as the priests are pouring fresh water on the altar as an offering to God, Jesus stands and cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let those who believe in me drink,” and with allusions to Isaiah 44:3, 55:1 and 58:11, he proclaims himself the source of new life. As his body is the manna of Passover, he is also the life-giving water celebrated in the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). The author quickly reminds us that Jesus is talking about the gift of the Spirit, which believers will receive after Jesus’ glorification. When the crowd hears Jesus' words, some say, “He really is the prophet.” Others say, “This is the Messiah.” But the skeptics in the crowd return to the theme of his origin—Galilee. The scriptures are clear; the Messiah is from David and will come from Bethlehem. And so, a division occurs among them. The temple police return to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed, so overwhelmed were they by Jesus’ words and the people’s response. The Pharisees accuse them of having been deceived, like the rest of the crowd, and then ask a self-incriminating question: “has any one of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” After all, the crowd is both accursed and ignorant of the law—what do they know? But Nicodemus, who in chapter 3 went to Jesus by night, is among them and, knowing the law, challenges them with it: the law does not allow them to judge people without first giving them a hearing. Angered and embarrassed, they try to shame Nicodemus with the deprecating question, asking him if he is a Galilean as well, and challenge him to search the scriptures. If he does, he will learn that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Job 8:1-10, 20-22; Psalm 18:1-20; Acts 10:17-33; John 7:14-36
Now it is Bildad the Shuhite’s time to speak, and he turns out to be even less sensitive to Job and his plight than Eliphaz was. In fact, Bildad decides Job’s speech is nothing but a great wind and decides that it is his task to defend God in all of this. After all, God does not pervert justice. Job’s children’s plight was simply God’s wrath at work against their transgressions. Obviously, the same is true for Job’s suffering now. If he will but seek God and repent, all will work itself out. After an excursus on the ways of the wicked, utilizing images from nature, and the futility of plants trying to survive without sufficient soil or water, Bildad again repeats his conventional wisdom: God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evildoers. If Job will simply repent of his sin, God will respond with forgiveness, restore him, and fill his mouth with laughter. Those who hate him, however, will be put to shame—a foretelling of what is to become of Bildad for his conventional wisdom counsel. Remember, this book is a challenge to all of the religious platitudes and conventional wisdom of its day.
Psalm 18:1-20 is introduced as a psalm of David, uttered when the Lord had rescued him from the hand of Saul. Scholars classify this as a “Royal Psalm of Thanks for Victory.” But without the elaborate introduction between “To the leader…,” and “I love you, O Lord…,” this is a classic psalm of thanksgiving and praise for God’s intervention in one’s life, regardless of the circumstances or whether or not one is king. Notice how general the psalmist’s troubles are: “cords of death encompass, torrents of perdition assail, cords of Sheol entangle, the snares of death confront.” They could apply to anyone. There is simply unabashed love expressed for the Lord because of God’s deliverance and salvation. From the temple in Jerusalem, the Lord has heard the psalmist’s cry. The central portion of this reading uses the familiar storm image to speak of God’s presence and sovereignty. Such language was common in the religious language of the Canaanites as well, and may well have been appropriated from a Baal liturgy to make the point that it is the Lord who is sovereign even over those deities. Remember, at this stage, Israel was not monotheistic, but convinced that their God was the God of gods. Today’s reading concludes with the psalmist expressing the conviction that all this has taken place because God has rewarded God’s own integrity—it has nothing to do with what the psalmist has done. It then returns to the theme of the blessings of keeping the ways of the Lord. This is the third longest psalm in the collection, fifty verses in all. Only in that final verse do we learn that the psalmist is the king, the Lord’s anointed.
While Peter is sorting through the meaning of the vision and this new word, that what God has made clean Peter must not call profane, the Spirit tells him three men will soon arrive looking for him. He is to go with them and do so without hesitation, for the Spirit says, “I myself have sent them.” Soon the three from Cornelius arrive, asking for Peter. He asks why they have come and they tell him about Cornelius, repeating that he is a God-fearer, generous, and highly respected by the Jews and has had a vision of an angel directing him to send for Peter to come to Cornelius’ house in order to hear what Peter has to say. Peter invites them to stay the night—welcoming Gentiles under his roof—things are changing! The next day he leaves with the men for Cornelius, taking some of the believers from Joppa with him. When they get to Caesarea, Cornelius is waiting for them and has called together his relatives and friends. When Peter arrives, Cornelius falls to his knees to worship Peter, who immediately rejects it, demands that Cornelius stand up, and reminds him that he, Peter, is only human. Engaging them in conversation, Peter reminds them that as a Jew he is not permitted to associate with Gentiles. However, God has shown him that what God has made clean should not be called profane or unclean. (Notice the assumption that has emerged out of “what God has made clean (vs.15): the Gentiles must not be called ‘common’ or ‘unclean.’ Peter now assumes that God has done something in Christ to make all people acceptable.) This is why, when the men came for him, Peter came without objection. But why have they sent for him? Cornelius explains what took place four days earlier when the angel appeared to him, instructing him to send for Peter, describing precisely where Peter was staying, and now says, “You have been kind enough to come ....” Tell us “all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Jesus remains back in Galilee until the middle of the festival and then goes up to Jerusalem and to the temple and begins to teach there in its treasury, where people gather to give their temple tax. The people, especially the Jewish leaders, are astonished at Jesus’ teaching since he has obviously had no formal training like that of the Pharisees or chief priests. Jesus responds that his teaching is not his own but the One who sent him, (repeating the theme of 5:19-30), and that anyone resolved to do the will of God will recognize and accept his teaching for that. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory, but Jesus does not speak on his own, but for the Father and seeks the glory of the One who sent him, not his own. Consequently, there is nothing false in him or what he teaches. Jesus then cites Moses giving them the law—teaching from God—but observes that none of them keep it. If that is so, why are they now looking for an opportunity to kill him? They accuse him of being possessed by a demon and ask who is trying to kill him. Jesus ignores their question and turns the conversation to their central objection—his having healed the man at the pool on the sabbath (5:1-18), and points out that even on the sabbath they circumcise a child if the 8th day happens to fall on that day. Why then are they angry that he has healed on the sabbath? Are they so preoccupied with their own religious and cultural concerns and their judgment so poor that they cannot see the presence of God at work in that act? Some in the crowd recognized that Jesus is the man their leaders are trying to kill; why then, have they done nothing, not even arrested him? Can it be that they know he is the Messiah? Yet, they know where he comes from; on the other hand, no one is to know where the Messiah comes from. Jesus uses that to play on the notion that, not only do they not know where he comes from, more, they do not know the One who sent him. Jesus knows him because “I am from him,” another use of the sacred name for his own identity, “he sent me.” They understand that well enough and now try to arrest him, but they can’t—his hour has not yet come. Many in the crowd believe in Jesus, and ask, “When the Messiah comes he will not do more signs than those which this man has done, will he?” The Pharisees hear the crowd’s “mutterings”, and, so, with the chief priests, they send the temple police to arrest Jesus. Jesus tells them he will be among them only a short time more and then he will go to a place they cannot come. As is often the case in this gospel, such words are misunderstood by the hearers, which sets up more opportunity for Jesus to explain himself. They think he is talking about leaving Jerusalem to go among the Jews of the dispersion in Greece to continue his teaching among them. He, of course, is talking about his return to the Father.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Job 6:1, 7:1-21; Psalm 119:1-24; Acts 10:1-16; John 7:1-13
Job turns his words directly on God: why is life such hard service, allotted with months of emptiness and nights of misery? Any who have tossed and turned through the night, hoping that, with the coming of dawn, life will be better, know what Job is going through. But with the dawn, nothing changes; there is not even a respite, let alone any peace. Knowing that life is but a breath and that soon his will be over in death, Job abandons restraint and demands that God respond to the bitterness of his soul. Why is God tormenting him so; why is God paying so much attention to him? Notice the ironic twist on Psalm 8:4, which Job mocks as he asks, “Why me?” What are humans that you pay this much attention to us? “Even when I sleep, you terrify me with dreams. Strangling and death are better than this. Look away, just for a while; give me some relief, let me swallow, take a deep breath and then let me die. Why have I become your target?” And then, as the ultimate concession, though he knows, full well, that he has no sin to confess or iniquity to be removed he asks, “Why don’t you simply forgive my sin, take away my iniquity, and let me die?” Job is innocent; yet he suffers. He simply wants to die.
Psalm 119:1-24 is the beginning of a wisdom psalm, the longest chapter in the Bible, an acrostic, alphabetic in structure, celebrating the goodness of God’s instruction (Torah) and is interesting counterpoint to our lesson today from Job. Blessed are those who walk in the law of the Lord; they are blameless! (The NRSV’s “Happy,” is also a fair translation of the Hebrew, but far weaker, as “blessed’ has the connotation of it being something received rather than created.) And so, the psalmist continues by asking for God’s help in keeping God’s way. For the psalmist’s part, God’s words are treasures that will be committed to memory, so they may be deeply embedded in the heart, quick to come to his lips, always available for meditation, and never to be forgotten. But such discipline was no more easily achieved or sought then than now. Notice how he feels like an alien in his own land, because of his longing for God. He knows that those who are insolent and wander from the commandments receive God’s rebuke. Yet, he lives among them, and prays that their scorn and contempt of him for his zeal in keeping God’s ways will be removed. Even though princes plot against him, he will focus on God’s statutes, for they are both his delight and his counselor. One postscript: we could do worse than spend time memorizing portions of scripture; they might become our counselors. Loss of the pedagogy of memorizing scripture has left us a church that is biblically illiterate. Little wonder then, that our values, even in the church, are shaped by a culture of consuming and competing, where success is valued more than faithfulness.
With Saul in Tarsus, residing with Simon the tanner, the narrative shifts to Caesarea, Herod’s seaport north of what is today Tel Aviv. A Roman officer, Cornelius, commands the Italian Cohort there, and is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household.” In all probability, he was what scholars call a “God fearer”—a Gentile attracted to the monotheism and ethics of Judaism, who practiced as much as possible without full conversion—who gave alms generously and was constantly in prayer. During the afternoon hour of sacrifice, while in prayer, Cornelius has a vision in which an angel comes to him, announcing that his alms and prayers have ascended before God. Therefore, he is to send men to Joppa for a man named Simon Peter, who is still living with Simon the tanner, in his seaside home. Cornelius does and now the scene shifts to Peter, who is on the roof praying. As he does, he becomes hungry. While his meal is being prepared, Peter falls into a trance in which he sees the heavens open and something like a large sheet coming down, which is filled with all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds of the air, while a voice says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter objects: “No Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Torah forbids the eating of ritually unclean animals (Lev. 11:1-47 and Deut. 14:3-20). The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” So challenging is the notion to Peter’s sensibilities, that the event must take place two more times. Then, it is suddenly gone. But it has set the stage for what is about to happen.
Jesus remains in the region of Galilee, teaching, healing and working his signs, staying away from Judea because the Jewish leaders there are on the lookout for him and an opportunity to kill him. As the festival of Booths (Feast of Tabernacles, Lev 23:39-43) approaches, a harvest festival commemorating God’s care for Israel in the wilderness, Jesus’ brothers, still not convinced about him, test him by urging Jesus to join the pilgrim festival in Jerusalem, so that his disciples can see what he is up to, and to make himself more widely known. Hear the sarcasm in their voices saying to him, “…for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret.” Jesus refuses, saying his time has not yet come, but theirs is always here. They are not hated by the world as he is hated, for he continues to testify against it that its works are evil. And so, Jesus sends them to the festival by themselves, himself remaining in Galilee, because his hour for glorification has not yet come. After they leave, he also goes, but in secret, knowing that the Jewish leaders are expecting him to be at the festival and are asking, “Where is he?” There is considerable disagreement about Jesus within the crowd, some complaining that he is deceiving people while others were saying, “He is a good man,” but everyone doing so quietly because of their fear of the Jewish authorities.
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.