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.
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Zephaniah 1:1-6; Psalms 29; 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13; Matthew 18:21-35
We begin reading the prophet Zephaniah, who wrote during the reign of King Josiah (649-609 BCE) to Judah, long after the fall of the Northern Kingdom and during the destruction of Assyria by Babylon. Zephaniah is a “writing prophet” whose words were meant to be read both personally and aloud to all who could not read. The central figure in the prophecy is “the Day of the Lord,” and the question is: Is that a day of salvation or a day of judgment? We begin today with the opening oracle of destruction. It is “the word of the Lord,” and God says, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth (it can also be translated “land” localizing the judgment to Judah)—everything: humans, animals, birds, and fish. The Lord is stretching out his hand against Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the remnant of Baal, which continues to vex the Jews. In addition, the judgment is against idolatrous priests (those who cause the wicked to stumble?), who worship the stars and planets on their roof-tops, who bow down and swear to the Lord, but also swear to “Milcom,”the god of the Ammonites. (This last word is troublesome to scholars—is it really “Milcom;” or is it the name of their king, as some texts have, meaning “but also swear to their king?” Some even suggest the word Molech, the Canaanite god to whom human sacrifice was made).
Psalm 29 appears to be the appropriation of a Canaanite hymn to Baal, who was believed to be a warrior god whose voice was heard in the thunder and other aspects of the storm. However, here, Israel has taken all of the attributes of the storm and attributed it to the voice of the Lord. It thunders, is sovereign over the waters, is powerful and full of majesty. It’s lightening and wind break the cedars of Lebanon and its flashes cause the land to skip like a calf and a young wild ox. The Lord’s voice sends for flames of fire that shake the wilderness. It causes the oaks to whirl in a wind that strips the forest bare. And to all of this, the heavenly beings are called to ascribe “Glory, strength and holy splendor” to God’s name. As the storm continues to break forth, terrifying others, those in the temple shout “Glory!” The psalm concludes, remembering that the Lord is God of the storm and the flood, and sits enthroned as king forever, giving strength to his people. It ends with a prayer for God’s blessing of peace. Any who have come through a hurricane or other great storm have some sense of the majesty and power of the sea, flood and wind. Remembering that God is Lord of all of this, how can we but not join in shouting “Glory!”
Paul’s magnificent hymn on love has a context: life in the church. For one full chapter previous to this, he has been reminding the Corinthians of their need for one another, and that, for them to function effectively, they must appreciate and support one another (using the metaphor of the body as his chief example). Today he reminds them that they are the body of Christ, and each one of them, individually members of Christ. In that body, God has appointed various people to specific tasks and given them gifts for accomplishing them. He begins with apostles, then prophets (preachers), then teachers, then deeds of power, gifts of healing, etc. Interestingly enough, the more miraculous gifts, as well as those that have to do with caring (various forms of assistance), leadership and tongues, all come after those that have to do with announcing the good news. And, of course, it is the more spectacular gifts—miracles and tongues—that have divided the Corinthian community. And so, regardless of the gift one has, if it is not accompanied by love, is it nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Even giving up one’s body to martyrdom, without love, gains nothing. Love is then defined, not as an emotion, but as behavior: it is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude, and does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful and does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. It never ends. Among the triad of “faith, hope and love,” the greatest of these is love. The hymn is magnificent, so much so that it seems unattainable. However, it was written to a very gifted church in conflict over those gifts, and is a reminder to all of us, that, first and foremost, we are to be filled with and share the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, a love that is action for the other.
Peter asks how often he must forgive a sister or brother in Christ: as much as seven times? Peter is being extraordinarily generous, or so he thinks. Jesus responds, “Not seven, but seventy times seven (or seventy-seven as some manuscripts indicate—it matters not; the number is symbolic). We must forgive as we are forgiven. Who of us has not already exceeded that number in what we have been forgiven? Jesus then tells the parable of the unforgiving servant who himself had been forgiven, and what comes of such abuse of forgiveness. Forgiveness must produce forgiveness in us; pity received must issue in pity extended; and mercy welcomed must be shared in mercy lest we end up having to pay the full price for all of our misdeeds. In light of that seventy-seven times, seven is still not enough!
Saturday, November 1, 2014
Nahum 3:8-19; Psalm 138; Revelation 13:11-18; Luke 12:32-48
God continues to mock Nineveh: “Are you better than Thebes?” the powerful Egyptian city that fell to the Assyrians. She had Ethiopia and Egypt, Put and the Libyans as her helpers, but she went into captivity to Assyria. But what the Assyrians did to them—dashing their infants into pieces at the head of every street—will be done to them. Their nobles will have lots cast for their slavery, they will all go into hiding, seeking refuge from the enemy. Their fortresses shall fall like ripe figs falling from the tree when shaken, their troops are women—filled with fear and running from conflict—and the gates to their city will be wide open to the foe, with fire devouring the bar of their gates that they may never be locked. All of their defenses will be cut off, all of their preparations will be as useless as a locust shedding its skin and flying away in the heat of the day. Their kings are asleep, their nobles slumber, and the people are scattered on the mountain with no one to gather them back. There will be no assuaging their hurt, for their wound is mortal. All who hear about this will clap their hands in rejoicing, for who has escaped Assyria’s endless cruelty? And thus the book ends. Though this looks like unvarnished gloating over the destruction of Assyria by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BCE, the deeper message is that Judah’s fate will be Nineveh’s if she does not turn from her sinful ways. God can be counted on to defeat her enemies if she will trust him to do so, but if not and she trusts in herself or other alliances, no amount of military might will save her. It is a theme deeply woven into the prophets: when we trust in ourselves and our own might, rather than in God and God’s power over all nations, we put ourselves at peril.
Psalm 138 is a psalm of thanksgiving that celebrates the Lord’s intervention on the psalmist’s behalf. The language is rich in the action of praise and worship, and the recognition that in all of this God has again demonstrated his steadfast love and faithfulness—the qualities that most regularly describe the Lord in the psalter. Thereby, the Lord has again exalted his own name. The psalmist called and the Lord answered, increasing the strength of the supplicant’s soul. The psalm is attributed to David, and clearly has royal overtones as it notes that all the kings of the earth shall praise the Lord, for they have heard the words of God’s mouth. They too shall sing of the ways of the Lord. Though high, the Lord regards the lowly, but the haughty, God perceives from far away—keeps them at arms-length but still under surveillance! As God has cared for, and intervened in the past, so God shall continue to do so. Consequently, the psalmist confesses, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies.” The psalm ends with a final affirmation of security: “the Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” Then, confessing that God’s steadfast love endures forever, there is one final plea: “Do not forsake me, for I am but the work of your hands.”
A second beast (Roman ruler) arises out of the earth with two horns and speaks like the dragon. It exercises the authority of the first beast and causes the people of the earth to worship the first beast whose mortal wound has been healed—in all probability, Nero. The beast performs great signs and, by those signs, deceives the inhabitants of the earth, telling them to make images for the beast. It then is allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that it can speak and cause those who refuse to worship it to be killed. In addition, it causes all: great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or forehead, so without that mark—the name of the beast or its number—none can buy or sell. The number of the beast is the sum of the numerical value of its letters—six hundred sixty-six. Before Arabic numbers—the time when this is being written—each letter of the alphabet of a language had a numerical value assigned to it. The best and most likely name behind these numbers is “Nero Caesar.” Remember, Nero was the first Roman emperor to persecute the church.
Do not be afraid, little flock—Jesus’ way of identifying his friends—it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It is a given. Therefore, sell your possessions and give alms and thereby make heavenly purses for yourselves that do no wear out. (This is not found in the other gospels and reflects Luke’s continuing concern that the church be at the service of the poor and the outcast, the alien, widow and orphan. The church that cares for the poor, no matter how confused its theology, is doing the work of its Lord.) Such behavior stores up treasure in heaven, where it cannot be stolen from you and where it cannot be destroyed, as possessions here can so easily be destroyed. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” Treasure the kingdom and you will find yourselves living in it. Set your heart on the treasures of this world and that is the kingdom you will inherit. Dress yourselves for action—gird up your loins with lamps lit—awaiting your master to return from the wedding banquet so you can open the door to him when he comes. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he returns. He will put on an apron (an alternate way to translate “fasten his belt”) and sit you down to eat at his table, and he will wait on you and feed you. (Notice the reversal: we expect the servant to wait on the master, but instead, the master feeds the faithful servant. Do not miss the Eucharistic implications here, because Luke is writing this for a church that gathers at night in its Lord’s presence to be fed by him at table in the Lord’s Supper.) What matter is the time of his arrival if you are ready for him to come? But know for sure, that, if the owner of the house had known the hour the thief was coming, he would have been prepared. So too, you must be prepared, for the Son of Man is coming at such an unexpected hour. Peter interrupts: “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” Jesus answers with a question: Who is the faithful household manager, the sensible one or the profligate one, the one who is expectant, or the one who thinks the master’s delay allows all sorts of aberrant or undisciplined behavior? Of course, the expectant, prudent and faithful one who has known and done the desire of the master (here is Luke’s theme of hearing and doing being expressed once again). To whom much is given, Peter, much is required, and even more from those to whom much has been entrusted. In other words, these words are for everyone, but even more important and demanding for those in positions of leadership like Peter.
Friday, October 31, 2014
Nahum 2:13—3:7; Psalm 54; Revelation 13:1-10; Luke 12:13-31
The Lord of Hosts speaks to Nineveh announcing its destruction. That is followed by a woe against Nineveh for her deceitful and plundering ways. The language of intense warfare is used to described human devastation—flashing sword, glittering spear, piles of dead bodies, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end, so many that the soldiers stumble over them in combat. All of this is because of Nineveh’s prostitution. She shall be disgraced, the hem of her skirt lifted about her head to expose her nakedness to the nations—a common prophetic means of describing disgrace and humiliation. To be found naked was as abhorrent then as it is now. The Lord announces, “I am against you.... I will throw filth at you, treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle….Then all who see you will shrink back and say, ‘Nineveh is devastated, who will grieve for her?’” No one; she shall have no comforters, for the Lord of Hosts is doing this.
Psalm 54 records a prayer of trust from David when Saul was seeking his life (1 Samuel 23:19), and offers a model of prayer for any who are in trouble. “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.” The insolent have risen against him, the heartless seek his life; their disdain for God and God’s ways and judgments enables them to pursue the psalmist with such ruthlessness. Then, the psalm voices its faith and trust in God—“Surely, God is my helper, the upholder of my life.” Vengeance is left to God—“Surely he will repay my enemies for their evil.” Notice that this conviction is based upon God’s faithfulness! God not only rescues; God cuts off the enemy—the deliverance is complete. The psalm ends with the promise of a freewill offering in the temple, giving thanks to the Lord, for he is good. And now, what the psalmist sought has taken place: The Lord has delivered him from every trouble. The psalmist’s eye has looked in triumph on his enemies, for deliverance is not deliverance until it includes vindication.
The beast arises out of the sea with ten horns, seven heads and ten diadems, and on its heads blasphemous names—it is clearly the Roman Empire, whose emperors were worshiped as Dominus Deus—Lord and God. The various savage animals that make up the composite of “the beast” emphasize its vicious and voracious nature. The dragon gives its power and throne and authority to the beast. One of the heads has a mortal wound but appears to have been healed (Nero took his own life, but it was rumored that he was still alive). All the earth followed in amazement, thinking they were worshipping the beast when, in fact, they were really worshipping the dragon. “Who can fight against it?” The question echoes the dejected cry of nations who fell under Rome’s oncoming armies. The beast then engages in haughty and blasphemous speech, and is allowed to exercise authority for a short time (forty-two months = 3&1/2 years). It blasphemes against God, God’s dwelling, and those who dwell in heaven, and makes war on the saints. It is given authority over the entire world, and all who worship it, save those whose names have been written, from the foundation of the world, in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. Then comes the solemn warning: if you are to be taken captive, to captivity you shall go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you will be killed. (Remember, those in the early church were pacifists). This is actually a word of encouragement and warning to those who are captured and to those who will die: they belong to the Lamb and have conquered all of this in him; there is no need to take up the sword.
Of what does life consist—possessions? Then why do we waste so much of life seeking to acquire them? A man shouts out of the crowd, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” The children squabble over what was their parents’; this is not new, and seems to have been as equally destructive then as now. Jesus deflects the request by asking who has established him as an arbitrator between the two of them. But that sets a context for him to warn about the corrosive nature of greed and the desire for things. He then tells the story of the rich fool, who used all of his life to make more and more, when enough should have been sufficient, and upon acquiring it, lost his life—also something that is as contemporary as the story is ancient. The “You fool!” is not simply a description of his lack of wisdom or prudence. In the Bible, it is reserved for those who deny God or God’s ability to act in their lives. The issue with life is to store up treasure in God. Then Jesus turns to another contemporary subject—worry. Quit worrying about what you will eat, or about your body, or what you will wear. Life is more than these things. Consider the ravens—God feeds them. Are you not of much more value to God than the birds? What can worry earn you—can it add a single hour to your life? (No; but it can certainly take them from us.) Consider the lilies: they neither toil nor spin yet are clothed in a glory that exceeds that of Solomon. If God so clothes the things of nature, then how much more will God clothe you—you of little faith? Quit striving for what you eat and drink, and give up worrying about it. That is how the pagan nations operate. Your Father knows that you need them and will give them to you. Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and the rest of these things will be given to you as well.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Nahum 1:15-2:12; Psalm 59; Revelation 12:7-17; Luke 11:53-12:12
Chapter one ends with a hinge verse in 15, announcing the feet of a messenger on the mountains bringing good tidings—proclaiming peace! (This same image is later borrowed by the Prophet Isaiah (53:7), that is, in turn, used by Paul in Romans 10:15—an example of how biblical images develop lives of their own in various portions of the tradition.) But, peace will come only after that battle portrayed in chapter two; therefore, Judah is to celebrate its festival and pay its vow, remembering that never again will the wicked invade, for they are utterly cut off (God has spoken, it is already a fact). Then, the text addresses the people of Nineveh with a vivid description of the attack being led by none other than the Lord, who is restoring the majesty of Jacob and Israel. Nineveh will be drained like a pool whose waters run off and leave it dry, with its warriors staggering in the streets. With the devastation, desolation and destruction (imperatives that call the action into being) their hearts faint and knees tremble. What was once a lion’s den has done its damage long enough. Plunder the silver, plunder the gold! There is no end of treasure and abundance of everything for the victor’s taking. The lion will be a danger no more.
Psalm 59 is named a psalm of David which he prayed when king Saul had ordered his house watched in order to kill him, (1 Samuel 19:11), and though this prayer for deliverance from enemies may well have originated with David, (notice the royal dimension, for the enemies are national as well as personal), it takes a turn after verse four to have much wider application. From pleading for protection from personal enemies who lie in wait, and whose violence is not retribution for his sin, but simply their attempt to stir up strife against him, he cries out “Rouse yourself, come to my help and see! You, Lord God of hosts (the ancient warrior name for God), are also the God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations that rise against Israel.” Then, the enemy is characterized as “howling dogs” (objects of derision in Israel), that come back each evening to prowl the streets, to bark and terrorize, howling sharp words, thinking, “Who will hear us?” But God does hear and laughs at them, holding the nations in derision (Psalm 2:4), and from that affirmation comes a confession of trust in God as a personal strength and defender because of his steadfast love, who will let the psalmist look in triumph over his enemies, a pleasure he wants. He asks God not to kill them, but simply to strip them of all power that they will totter and fall, so others can know the power of the God of Jacob to be their shield. The refrain returns to the howling dogs, roaring about in search of food, growling because they do not get their fill. But for the psalmist, he will sing of God’s might, sing aloud of the Lord’s steadfast love in the morning. God has been his fortress and refuge in the day of distress, a fortress of steadfast love.
War breaks out in heaven: the Arch Angel Michael and his hosts fight against the dragon, who with his angels fight back but are defeated, and the dragon and his hosts are driven out of heaven. Satan and his minions are no longer in heaven to test, accuse and testify against humanity. Then, another loud voice is heard from heaven, singing of the salvation, victory, power and reign of God, and the authority of God’s Messiah. The accuser has been thrown down, never again to accuse the saints, for he has been conquered for them by the blood of the lamb and by their own testimony. Because they did not cling to their lives, even in the face of death, they are now the victors. It is a word intended to be both comfort and encouragement to the suffering church. Another call goes out to those in heaven to rejoice, and it is quickly followed by a word of woe to the earth and sea: the devil has come down to them with great wrath because he knows his time his short. So, the dragon pursues the woman who had given birth to the male child. She, the church, is given the two wings of the great eagle so she can fly from the serpent into the wilderness for “time, times and half a time” (3 & ½)—a limited time. Remember, in the Bible, the wilderness is the place of God’s nurturing and wooing. The serpent continues to pour forth floods from his mouth in order to wash her away, but the earth comes to her help and opens its mouth and swallows up the dragon’s flood. And so, the dragon, in his anger, goes off to make war with the rest of the woman’s children—those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. The scene ends with the dragon standing on the edge of the sea—the source of chaos that is thought of as the abyss—awaiting the emerging of the beast from the sea. The war fought in heaven defeating Satan, must now be enacted on earth.
From their dinner party on, the Pharisees turn hostile to Jesus, cross-examining him whenever they can, and lay in wait to catch him. Meanwhile, the crowds are gathering “by the thousands” even trampling on one another. Jesus speaks first to his disciples warning of the yeast of the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. Everything is going to come to the surface and be known, so that what they say in the dark will come to light, and what they whisper behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops. Hypocrisy simply will no longer do and must be abandoned. But do not fear those who kill the body, and thereafter can do you no real harm. Fear the one who, after he has killed, has authority to cast you into hell—fear him! Remember, even the sparrows that fall to the earth are noted by God, but more, the hairs of the disciples’ heads are all counted. They are not to fear, they are far more precious to God than sparrows. All who acknowledge Jesus before others, he—the Son of Man—will also acknowledge before God’s angels. But whoever denies Jesus before others will themselves be denied by him before God. Whoever speaks a word of insult against the Son of Man, as the Pharisees are doing, will be forgiven. There is still time to repent and acknowledge who Jesus is. But, whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, in that final moment of accountability will not be forgiven. When they haul you before the synagogue to try you about your loyalty to Jesus, do not worry about how to defend yourselves. The Holy Spirit will give you, in that moment, the words that you are to speak.
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.