Friday, November 7, 2014
Zephaniah 3:8-13; Psalm 73; Revelation 17:1-18; Luke 13:31-35
Zephaniah’s oracle is now directed to all the nations. “All the earth will be devoured by the fire of [God’s] will.” The function of the fire, however, is less punishment than it is purification. God will cleanse the lips of the nations so that they may rightly call on him and serve him “shoulder to shoulder.” Then the word comes that the disbursed ones beyond the rivers in Ethiopia shall return and bring offerings for worship. They shall no longer feel shame for their former rebellious ways because God will have removed their proud and haughty ones from among them, and never again shall they be arrogant or rebellious on God’s holy mountain. God will leave a remnant of humble and lowly ones who will take refuge in the name of the Lord. There will be no lying or deceitful tongues among them, and they will lie down and feed in safety with no one to cause them to tremble.
Psalm 73 is a prayer of confession by one who almost gave up on the Lord whose feet nearly slipped. When seeing the prosperity of the wicked, he became envious. When seeing that their proud and arrogant ways seemed only to bring them success, and that they were filled with an abundance of good things, he asked himself, “Why, why should I maintain my integrity before the Lord, when all it is doing is bringing me hardship?” It is a question the faithful ask over and again in the face of what seems the wicked’s prosperity. Pride is their necklace; violence is their way. They speak wickedly and oppress, and even mock the heavens, saying to themselves, “God does not see.” They seem to have no pain in death, are always at ease, and only increase in their wealth. The psalmist laments, “It is in vain that I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence!” Stricken all day long, he is chastened every morning. And so, in an attempt to understand this, he pondered it and found it deeply troubling to him. But then, he entered the Lord’s sanctuary. It was there that he perceived the wicked’s end; destroyed in a moment and swept away by sudden terrors. Therefore, he confesses that when he was embittered by what he saw among the arrogant, he was himself pierced within and behaved like a senseless beast. But now, he realizes that even then, in his moments of vulnerability, the Lord was with him, holding his right hand. Verse 24 is a classic: “With your counsel you will guide me, and afterward, you will receive me into your glory.” Who then does he have in heaven or earth but the Lord? Beside him, there is no one else. Though the psalmist’s heart and his flesh may fail, God is his strength and portion forever. Those far away from God will perish; God destroys all who are unfaithful to Him. But for the psalmist, the nearness of God is his good. He has made the Lord God his refuge that he may tell of God’s works.
An angel comes to John to say, “Come and see the judgment against the great harlot that sits on many waters” (the rivers of Rome), with whom the kings of the earth have participated in her fornications and immorality (notice that this is traditional prophetic language for those who have worshiped other gods, and the emperors of Rome required its subjects and nations to worship the emperor). John is carried away and sees the harlot seated on a scarlet beast with blasphemous names, and amid her pomp with her name inscribed on her forehead: “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, and the abomination of the earth.” She was drunk on the blood of the saints and with those who were witnesses to Jesus (the saints here are the saints of Israel). The beast who was and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit, is a reference to the emperors. The seven mountains with its seven emperors, five of which have already fallen with two to come, the last of the two with a short reign is Rome. The eighth king is one of the seven who died but has come back; it is probably a reference to Nero returned as Domitian, since the latter took up persecution of Christians as an official agenda the way Nero did. (Persecution of the church by Rome was not a constant, but ebbed and flowed within the empire according to other influences.) They will make war on the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them for he is Lord of lords and King of kings. The ten horns (emperors) and the beast will ultimately devour the whore and make her desolate in their reigns—as indeed they ultimately did—for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose. God is in charge of even the beast! Finally, the woman is identified: “The great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
Luke now gives us an unusual moment to contemplate: the Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Is it a warning, is it a threat, or is it well intentioned by a group of Pharisees still open to Jesus and what he is doing? They were not uniformly opposed to him. Whatever, Jesus calls Herod a “fox,” a term of derision that ranges in symbolism from craftiness to sleuth, to viciousness, to cruel intelligence, to maliciousness and vicious destructiveness. It is possible that Jesus meant all of that! But, he tells the Pharisees that he is up to his work today and tomorrow and on the third day he will finish it. It will soon be over. But until then, he must fulfill it, for it is not possible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem—a massive indictment against the religious and political capital. Jesus then laments over Jerusalem, remembering how often he has tried to gather it as a hen gathers her brood, but it was not willing. And so, its house (whether the temple or the people and their fate) is left to it. Jerusalem will not see him again until the time when its people say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” as will happen when Jesus makes his triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
Zephaniah 3:1-7; Psalm 70; Revelation 16:12-21; Luke 13:18-30
The judgment on the nations now turns to Jerusalem itself. The city is soiled and defiled and listens to no one. It neither trusts nor draws near to the Lord. All of its leadership—judges, prophets, priests and other officials are included in the indictment—all but the king. Each has failed and proven false in their allotted tasks. The Lord is in the midst of them, and morning by morning God renders His judgment, but the unjust are shameless and ignore it. The Lord has cut off the other nations. One would think the leadership of Jerusalem would learn; but they do not. They will not accept correction. They lose sight of what God has brought upon them simply because of their eagerness to continue with their corrupt deeds.
Psalm 70 is a short lament with petitions for help. It is one of the few laments in the Psalter that does not end with words of praise and triumph indicating that the Lord has already acted. The prayer opens on a word of urgency: “Make haste to help me!” The enemy is personal, and is trying to bring shame and dishonor to the petitioner. Their taunts and jeers are described as “Aha, Aha!” It then pleads that all who seek God may be glad and rejoice and all who love and trust in God’s salvation shall be able, evermore, to say, “God is great!” Confessing her need, she again pleads for God to “hurry up and help!” and then concludes with the confession that God is her help and her deliverer; and for the first time, God is named as “the Lord,” and asked not to delay. This psalm, almost verbatim is also found as the last five verses of Psalm 40.
The sixth bowl is poured on the great river Euphrates, and its water is dried up in order to prepare for the invasion for the Parthians from the east. Three foul spirits like frogs come from the beast’s mouth and from the mouth of the false prophet. These go about performing signs and assembling their armies to prepare for the great battle against God, the Almighty. Then God speaks: “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed (in their baptismal garments), rather than running about naked and exposed to shame. The name where they assemble for battle is “Harmagedon,” which is rendered “Armageddon” in the King James. In fact, there are a variety of names given to this place in various manuscripts of this book. And, in spite of the fact that tradition has identified this as Megiddo, in the valley Mt. Gilboa and Mt. Carmel—a site where Israel lost two major battles and two of its kings—the name is not intended to refer to a specific locale. John is using symbolic language here, not predicting the future of Christians in our day. Notice that the battle is not described. Rather, the seventh angel pours out its bowl into the air and a loud voice from the throne in the temple announces “It is done!” All the cosmos shakes at that word, with quakes on the earth greater than any heretofore experienced. The great city is split into three parts and all of its other major cities fall. The earth responds to God’s wrath and victory with both its islands and mountains disappearing. Massive hailstones fall from heaven and form the last plague, which, rather than bring repentance, only causes the people to curse God more.After two parables of the kingdom, both using the image of small things that become great, one to provide shelter to the weak and vulnerable and the other to express the kingdom’s potency (three measures of flour would be enough to feed ten to twenty households), Jesus is back on the road teaching as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Asked if the saved will be few, he responds that we must strive to enter through the narrow door, for though there are many who will try, only a few will be able, and when the owner of the house finally locks the door, it will remain locked. No matter how hard those on the outside knock, the owner will say to them, “I do not know where you come from.” And though they say, “But we ate and drank with you,” (again, Eucharistic language), and you taught in our streets,” he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me you evildoers.” Again, we hear Luke’s emphasis on not simply hearing but doing, with now the added dimension that simply being a part of the Christian assembly and its worship does not mean on has entered through the narrow door, but may still remain "outside". Those outside will weep and gnash their teeth when they see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the patriarchs of Israel), along with the prophets at table in the kingdom and themselves thrown out. Then “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Yes, some of the last will be first, and some who were first to come to him will be last. It is not about when we came or how long we have been at table with Jesus and his fellowship, but about how completely we live out his teachings. But also notice the broader inclusion of Luke, who uses “some will be first…” whereas in Matthew and Mark, it is simply a statement that the first will be last and the last first. (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31)
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Zephaniah 2:1-15; Psalm 72; Revelation 16:1-11; Luke 13:10-17
The oracle of judgment on the Day of the Lord now turns against the nations that surround Judah: Gaza, Ashkelon, Asdod, Ekron, Assyria, Moab, extending all the way to Ethiopia and even Nineveh. This list is like a biblical atlas, each, the name of a nation that has stood against Israel before its division into two kingdoms and against Judah after the fall of the northern one--Israel. The coastland cities of the Philistines will become pasture land for the remnant of Judah. The reason for their uprooting and destruction is that they have taunted the Lord’s people and made boasts against their territory. The desolation of cities is described in terms of being destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, turned to salt pits and covered with nettles and reduced to ghost towns inhabited only by raven and owls. Those who once said, “I am and there is no one else,” will become desolate and a lair for wild animals. Yet, within the oracle there remains a word of hope to those who are the “humble of the land, who do [the Lord’s] commands. “ Seek him;” seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Psalm 72 is a royal psalm that prays for the king, the son of a king, and may have been used as part of an annual enthronement liturgy. The attribution in the heading: “Of Solomon” suggests that its roots are in the reign of King Solomon, King David’s son, at the height of Solomon’s reign. It describes the boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom: dominion from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. It recalls the tributes paid to him by kings from Sheba, Tarshish and the isles. It extols the king’s goodness, delivering the needy, having pity on the weak, saving the oppressed from violence and holding them precious in his sight. The psalm intercedes, asking for long life and all of its blessings, and that he may continue to judge God’s people with righteousness and justice. It ends, blessing the Lord as the God of Israel, who does wondrous things. It is not the king, but the Lord who stands behind the king’s righteousness. May the Lord’s name and glory fill the whole earth, “So be it; let it be!”
The bowls of wrath are now poured out upon the earth, recalling the plagues in Egypt. Those who serve the beast are afflicted with foul and painful sores, the sea turns to blood and all in it die, the rivers and springs of water become blood. Between the third and fourth bowl of wrath, there is an interlude blessing God as just, the one who is and was, who is judging Babylon (Rome) because it has shed the blood of the saints and prophets and given them blood to drink. This is just judgment. The fourth bowl is poured on the sun that scorches people with its fire, but the people continue to curse the name of God and fail to repent. The fifth bowl brings darkness on the beast and its kingdoms, so that the people “gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pain and sores,” and yet, still, they did not repent.
The scene shifts to a synagogue on the sabbath, where Jesus is teaching. In the crowd is a woman, bent over, who has been crippled for eighteen years. Upon seeing her, Jesus calls her over, tells her she is “set free” from her ailment, lays his hands on her and immediately she stands upright and begins to praise God. The leader of the synagogue is outraged that Jesus has done this work on the sabbath and cries out to the astonished crowd, quoting the law: “There are six days on which to work (Exodus 20:9, Deuteronomy 5:13). Come on those days to be cured but not the sabbath.” Jesus derides him as a hypocrite reminding him that the law he has quoted also extends to animals (Deuteronomy 5:14), yet they untie their working animals from their mangers on the sabbath and lead them to water. Why? To keep them alive! Is not this woman of more value than their animals? She is, after all, a daughter of Abraham. Satan has bound her for eighteen years. Ought not she be set free on the sabbath? The sabbath is about more than rest; it is about being set free from any kind of bondage, not just work. At this, Jesus’ opponents are put to shame while the entire crowd rejoices at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing.
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Zephaniah 1:14-18; Psalm 68:1-20 (21-23) 24-36; Revelation 14:14-15:8; Luke 13:1-9
Zephaniah’s oracle against the people of Judah continues, warning that the Day of the Lord, which was believed to be the time when the Lord would return to Judah all of the fortunes, power and majesty of the Davidic kingdom, will not be a day of salvation and restoration but a day of deep clouds and thick darkness, judgment and doom. With rich imagery, he portrays the siege and battle against Jerusalem (fortified cities with high corner towers) with men reeling in the streets, their blood poured out like dust and their flesh like dung in the streets. This is God’s wrath against their sin. Their silver and their gold will not help them. Is it all the earth, or all the land that is to be devoured? The Hebrew word eretz can be translated either way. Zephaniah is clearly speaking to Jerusalem, but probably enjoyed the ambiguity. It is the ambiguity that allowed this text to be picked up in apocalyptic literature to see the Day of the Lord as a day of judgment against all the earth.
Psalm 68 is a battle hymn remembering and celebrating the victories of the Lord on behalf of his people. It is complex in that it uses virtually all of the biblical names for God: Elohim, El, Yah, Adonai, El Shaddai, Yah Elohim and Yahweh. It opens with the plea that those who hate the Lord will be driven out like smoke driven by the wind, as wax melts before a fire, that the wicked may perish. The righteous will be glad and rejoice in God and will sing to the Lord a new song. The prayer then turns to extolling God’s justice and righteousness—a father to the orphan, an honest judge for the widow, a home for the lonely, one who leads prisoners to freedom. It is a mixture of high praise for the Lord who dwells in his sanctuary among his people executing justice. It is also a description of various moments in Israel’s life when the Lord has intervened to give them victory—from their release from captivity in Egypt, their travels through the wilderness, to their settling into the land of promise and various wars and skirmishes thereafter. The land quaked at Sinai at the presence of the Lord. Rain clouds opened to give drink to his people. Kings fled before the Lord, giving the people peace and prosperity among the sheepfolds. The mountains of Bashan are celebrated (a place in the Transjordan, famous for raising cattle). The number of God’s chariots is myriad—thousands upon thousands—and the Lord leads the people and is among them, while he imprisons those who have been taken captive. Ascribed to David, the psalm recalls a moment when the Lord has given the enemy into his hand. Verses 21 to 23 indulge in that language of battle that is graphic (evidently why those who developed the daily lectionary excluded it from today’s reading), but it reminds us of the brutality of war in any age. It then returns to blessing the Lord, as a festival procession makes its way to the temple to celebrate God’s presence in Jerusalem. Envoys come from far and wide to pay tribute. The kingdoms of the earth sing praises to the Lord who rides above Israel with strength and victory. The psalm ends with one final ascription of praise: the Lord gives strength and power to his people. Blessed be God.
The vision of one, like a Son of Man, dominates this lesson and sets forth preparation for the final judgment of God. Three angels announce God’s coming judgment with vivid imagery. Sickle in hand, they reap the earth of its harvest. The grapes of wrath are harvested and thrown into the press to be trodden outside the city, and blood flows from the press as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of two hundred miles—so great is God’s wrath. Then begins the last plagues that will come after the wrath of God is spent. Here, the imagery of Egypt is used as a metaphor for Rome as the plagues of Egypt are poured out on Rome. The redeemed, who have been numbered and signed, stand beside a sea of glass—notice that what, heretofore, has been the place of chaos, is now like glass. The redeemed stand before the throne of God, with harps in hand to sing a victory hymn to God as well as the song of the Lamb—the Song of Moses. The scene shifts to the temple in heaven, out of which come seven angels with the seven plagues dressed in the garb of victory. They are given the seven golden bowls of God’s wrath. The temple is filled with the smoke that accompanies the presence (glory) of God and all are excluded from God’s presence until the seven (complete) plagues of the angels are ended.
The subject turns to repentance as a change of heart (behavior, not feelings of remorse) and a life that is henceforth given to living in a new way. Jesus is told about an incident in which Pilate extracted swift punishment on Galilean Jews. The crowd assumes this is unusual punishment for unusual and great sin. Jesus responds, challenging their notion that such people were being punished because they were great and infamous sinners, reminding them that, unless they repent, they will perish in the same way. When reminded of the people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, he says, “Do not think they were worse offenders than others in Jerusalem? But if you do not repent, you will perish as they did.” He then tells the parable of the man who planted a fig tree and waited for fruit. When none came, he told the gardener to cut it down. The gardener pleaded for the tree, asking time to dig around it, put manure on it, and see if it would produce. The man agrees, but says, if it does not bear good fruit next year, cut it down. There is, after all, a limit to the time set aside for repentance.
Monday, November 3, 2014
Zephaniah 1:7-13; Psalm 64; Revelation 14:1-13; Luke 12:49-59
The second oracle begins with a priestly call to worship: “Silence, the Lord is about to enter; his day is at hand.” The Lord has prepared a sacrifice—is it to purify the people, or is it the people who are to be sacrificed to purify the land? Both are possible readings and both should be taken seriously. The object of God’s wrath are those in positions of leadership—kings, princes and priests—who have imported foreign customs, and, with them, their gods and worship practices. The result of the deadly attack aimed at them is that all of the traders are cut off. There is no commerce. But it is not just the leaders who are culpable; the Lord appears with a lamp in hand to search out the city for others as well. The text reveals Zephaniah’s intimate knowledge of Jerusalem and its various quarters and gates. The Lord searches after those who say that God does not care enough to act, as well as the rich who rest complacently on their dregs, who in their luxury have no concern for the poor—it is, after all, the poor’s own fault! The lamp in God’s hand not only casts light to reveal those hiding in dark places, but also serves as a reminder that God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path and is ignored at our own peril. The wealthy are judged for their indolence with a futility curse from Deuteronomy 28: They shall build houses but not live in them and plant vineyards but not drink from them. Their wealth shall be plundered.
Psalm 64 pleads for God’s protection from those who plot against her life, from those whose tongues, sharp as swords, devise lies and aim bitter words like arrows shot from ambush at the blameless. They are cunning in their plots and lying ways. Their treachery lies deep within their hearts. They are convinced that no one sees or cares—especially God! And so, the psalm cries out for God to shoot his own arrows at them, to wound them suddenly and bring them to ruin because of their tongues. When that happens, all will fear; they will tell what God has brought about and will create pondering among the people. The psalm ends with a call for the righteous to rejoice in the Lord and take refuge and glory in him.
From the vision of the beast named 666, the scene shifts to a vision of the Lamb standing on Mt. Zion. With him are 144,000 (12x12x1000—the numbers for the people of God squared and multiplied by the number of fullness and completion) who have his and his father’s name on their foreheads. These men stand in contrast to those who have followed and served the beast. (The image of men who have not defiled themselves with women is an Old Testament image of warriors who renounced sexual relations in preparation for battle in order to preserve the potent life-force within them for the ensuing battle. So too, those in temple service gave up sexual activity for their time of service in order to ensure their service and powers were fully focused on God. It has nothing whatsoever to do with women or human sexuality being “defiling,” but, rather, reveals the profound understanding and respect the Israelites had for the power of human sexuality and its purposes.) The heavens are filled with a beautiful and captivating voice, portrayed as the sound of “many waters,” “loud thunder,” and the “sound of the harp,” and it sings a new song before the throne of God (Psalms 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144, etc.). Then, an angel appears flying in mid-heaven with an eternal gospel, proclaiming it to those on earth: “Fear God and give him glory (not the emperor!) for the hour of God’s judgment has come; worship him who made the heaven and the earth.” That angel is followed by another who announces the destruction of Babylon (the Roman Empire). She has made all the nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication. Then, there comes a third angel with words of judgment on those who have born the mark of the beast; they too will drink the wine of God’s wrath and will be tormented with fire in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb forever and ever. There will be no rest for them. The images are symbolic and not meant to be seen as literal events. Rather, they are what the text calls them, “calls for the endurance of the saints.” Finally, a voice from heaven commands John to write: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” This is the blessing for all who live, serve and die worshiping God and serving the Lamb.
Those who look to Jesus to be a bringer of peace will be disappointed as he has come not to bring peace but, first, to cast a fire to the earth to cleanse it, as John the Baptist had said he would (Luke 3:17). Yes, Jesus has a baptism with which to be baptized that keeps him under stress until it is completed. The text then goes on to describe the divisions that Jesus brings, speaking directly to the conflicts, divisions and tribulation created within families in the church for which this gospel is written because they have followed Jesus. This is but a sign of what is to come. Speaking to the crowd, Jesus says they are hypocrites; they know how to read the signs of the weather, why not the kingdom as well? With the breaking in of the kingdom, it is time for repentance and changed hearts that produce lives worthy of him.
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.