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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Jeremiah 25:8-17; Psalm 25; Romans 10:1-13; John 9:18-41

Chapter twenty-five begins with a narrator’s voice setting the context and date: it is the fourth year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah and the first of King Nebuchadrezzar’s in Babylon, 605 BCE, when, again, Jeremiah speaks to the people of Judah. For twenty-three years Jeremiah has been warning the people but they have not listened. Yet, even now, if they will turn from their worship of other gods and their other evil ways, the Lord will not bring destruction upon them. But still, they do not listen. Our lesson today opens with Jeremiah proclaiming that the Lord is going to send for the tribes of the north and his servant Nebuchadrezzar and bring them against the people of Judah and the nations around Judah. Notice first that Nebuchadrezzar is not doing this on his own initiative, but is actually serving the Lord, who is sovereign over all. In addition, it is not really Nebuchadrezzar who will destroy them, but the Lord himself through Nebuchadrezzar. The Lord will make them an object of horror and hissing, and an everlasting disgrace. The traditional symbols of rich, full life will be banished from the land: the voice of the bridegroom and his bride, the sound of the millstone faithfully grinding grain into flour, and lamps alight at night. Rather, the whole land will become a ruin and a waste, and they shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years for their iniquity. Thereafter, God will bring upon Babylon a similar waste and divine punishment to repay them for their deeds. For now, the Lord has given Jeremiah a cup of wine that is God’s wrath. Jeremiah is to make the nations drink from it, beginning with Judah. As they drink, they shall stagger and go out of their minds, not because of the strength of the wine but because of the intensity of God’s anger. And so, Jeremiah reports that he has taken the cup from the Lord’s hand and has made all the nations to whom the Lord has sent him drink from it. One historical note: the exile did not last seventy years, but rather fifty. Because this text has been edited after the people’s return, the number seventy has a symbolic rather than quantitative significance. Seven is a number that in apocalyptic literature represents completion or fullness and here has been multiplied by the number ten, a means to extending the fullness in time. The exile will be a long time as the fullness of God’s purpose in it must work itself out. Therefore, the exiles are to know this and not abandon hope.

Psalm 25 is a prayer in which the psalmist pleads for God’s protection, guidance, mercy, instruction, pardon and grace. A wisdom psalm, it is acrostic in structure—the first word of each line beginning with a descending letter of the Hebrew alphabet—and repeats the convictions that those who wait upon the Lord and who walk in God’s ways (Torah), will never be put to shame, while the wantonly treacherous will end in disgrace and defeat. Seeking for the wisdom ever to know God’s ways, the psalmist asks to be led in God’s truth and taught God’s ways. He pleads for God’s mercy and steadfast love and asks that the sins of his youth be forgotten. He blesses the Lord as good and upright, who instructs sinners and leads the humble in the paths of steadfast love and faithfulness. In the midst of many foes, he asks that they not prevail or put him to shame, for he has taken refuge in the Lord. May that integrity and uprightness be a source of strength and preservation as he waits on God. Finally, the scope of this petition is expanded beyond personal concerns to pray that God will redeem all Israel out of its troubles.

Paul’s heart’s desire is for his people to turn and be saved. He recognizes their unenlightened zeal for God that, in its ignorance, has placed confidence in keeping the law rather than embracing God’s righteousness, Christ. It is, in fact, his story before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ is the end of the law—the fulfillment and completion of law and the one who brings its custodial role to an end. Paul then quotes two texts from the law to make his point. The first, Leviticus 18:5, places responsibility for life on the right behavior of people. The second, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, says that what is impossible for us to do, obtain Christ by ascending to heaven or descending to the abyss, is, in fact, as near as the word on our lips and in our hearts, the word of faith that Paul is proclaiming. To confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord (the earliest confession of faith in the church and certainly pre-Paul) and to believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead is, in fact, the means of life and righteousness that saves. Then, quoting Isaiah’s words about the Lord laying a foundation stone in Zion, who when believed in saves (Isa. 28:16), Paul declares this gift open to all—Jew or Greek (Gentile)—the Lord is Lord of all and generous to all who call on him. The final verse is from Joel 2:32, affirming that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord—here a reference to Jesus—shall be saved.

The man born blind who Jesus has just healed is now being cross-examined by the Jewish officials. Unhappy with his answer that Jesus is a prophet, and still not convinced that the man had been blind since birth, they turn to his parents to question them. Notice how their question is highly skeptical: “who you say was born blind.” The parents answer carefully: “He is our son; he was born blind, but we don’t know who opened his eyes. He is of age, ask him.” Hear behind this the parent’s fear of being implicated and themselves judged for being involved with Jesus and, therefore, being put out of the synagogue. It is an echo of precisely what was happening to Jews embracing Jesus at the time this gospel was written. And so, the officials go to the healed man a second time, and the dialogue becomes almost comical as they ask him to give glory to God and at the same time proclaim Jesus a sinner. The healed man takes the upper hand in the conversation saying, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner, but this I know: though I was blind, now I see!” Hear in this not only physical vision, but spiritual vision as well; sight the religious officials lack. They ask, “What did he do to you?” Now irritated with their obstinacy, the man sarcastically says, “I’ve already told you, but you will not listen. Why do you want to hear again; do you also want to become his disciples?” Notice the suggestion that in what has happened the man has already become Jesus’ follower; certainly the Jewish officials think so. And so, they respond in anger, condemning him as Jesus’ disciple, while they take refuge in being Moses’ disciples. God has, after all, spoken to Moses, but as for “this man, we do not know where he comes from.” Remember the former argument about from where the Messiah is to come? Now the healed man is filled with courage, and, unlike his frightened parents, challenges the authorities with the absurdity of their position. “Here is an astonishing thing: you don’t know where he comes from but he opened my eyes.” He goes on to make the point that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to all who worship him and obey his will. Further, never, since the world began, has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of someone born blind. If “this man were not from God he could do nothing.” Stung by his rebuke, the leaders resort to the fact that he is a sinner, he was born in sin, for he was born blind. At that, they drive him out because of his confession of belief in Jesus. Again, hear “out” as “out of the synagogue.” The scene ends with Jesus seeking out the man he has healed and completely revealing himself to him as the “Son of Man.” When Jesus does, the man worships him, and notice that Jesus does not reject the worship, but accepts it. The incident ends with Jesus’ comment that he came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. The Pharisees overhear and say, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” Their question reveals not only their blindness, but the judgment against them because of it—their sin remains. Imagine the comfort this story brought to those Jews who had been put out of the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus.

Posted March 24, 2015
Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday, March 23, 2015
Jeremiah 24:1-10; Psalm 121; Romans 9:19-33; John 9:1-17

After King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken Judah’s King Jehoiakim and other Jerusalem leaders into exile in 597 BCE, God gives Jeremiah a vision of two baskets of figs in the temple—one filled with ripe, edible figs, the other filled with rotten ones. Then, the Lord tells him the good basket of figs is the exiles who have been taken away to Babylon. The Lord will set his eye upon them for good, bring them back to Jerusalem and build them up. He will plant them firmly in the land once again and give them a heart to know him, reaffirming the covenant relationship. As for the basket of bad figs, these are those who have been left behind in Judah, including King Zedekiah, and those who have fled to Egypt. These, the Lord will make a horror, an evil thing to all the kingdoms of the earth—a disgrace, a byword of shame, and a taunt in all of the places that the Lord will drive them. They shall die by sword, famine and pestilence until they are utterly destroyed from the land God gave to their ancestors.

Psalm 121, written to be sung to the Song of Ascents, was sung by pilgrims making their way to the Temple to worship. Lifting their eyes to the hills (remember Jerusalem is the highest mountain in that portion of the land), they reaffirm that help comes only from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He shall assure their security, keep them established and ensure that their feet to do not slip from the path. For the Lord never slumbers or sleeps, but is ever watchful. A shade on their right hand, the sun shall not smite them by day nor the moon by night. The Lord shall keep them and guard their coming and going, both now and forever.

Continuing his reflections on the state of his people, the Jews, Paul asked if God is being unfair to them for their unbelief, and the resultant alienation from God that it has brought, since God seems to have destined it to be so. Paul quickly reminds us that this is God we are talking about, the One who is not accountable to our own systems of justice, but is Justice Himself. Putting things in context, he asks, “Does not the potter have the right to determine what to do with his own clay, to make of one clump of it a vessel for special use and another for common use, one for preservation and one for destruction?” What if God has done this in order to reveal his glory and mercy to those he has called from both the Jews and the Gentiles? And, after all, just how long has God endured those vessels of wrath—both Jews and Gentiles—destined for destruction? This thought about Israel is not new. It is as old at the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, who Paul now quotes. And, had not God preserved a remnant among the people, would any have been left? Rather, they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah. And so, the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness through works of the law, have come to righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, while Israel pursued righteousness through the law but did not fulfill it. Rather, they stumbled over the rock that the Lord has placed in Zion. On the other hand, those who believe in that rock shall not stumble or be put to shame.

The blindness of the Jewish leaders is extended into the next incident, which is told in all four gospels, as Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind, and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” It was assumed in those days that such maladies were the result of sin. Jesus refutes that notion and says, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; rather, he was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him.” Jesus then comments about his need to be about the work of the One who sent him. While it is day, he must work. Soon, night will be upon them when no one can work. But for now, it is day; for as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world. Notice all of the images about sight and light, each a metaphor for the presence of God in him. Jesus then spits on the ground, gathers up the moist mixture of soil and spittle, kneads it into clay and places it on the blind man’s eyes. He then sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash. The man does and comes back seeing, thus becoming an immediate sensation among his neighbors, some thinking he has been miraculously healed, others thinking he is not really the man born blind but someone who simply looks like him. In the midst of the hubbub, the man keeps saying, “I am the man!” Finally, they respond, “But how were your eyes opened?” He tells them what Jesus did and how he received his sight. They ask where Jesus is, and the man replies, “I don’t know.” He has never seen him! So they take the man to the Pharisees, and now we learn that it was on the sabbath that Jesus healed him. The Pharisees begin their inquisition, wanting to know how he received his sight. The man tells them, and, speaking of blindness, the Pharisees fixate on the fact that it was on the sabbath when Jesus did this, rather than on what has happened and that the man once blind can now see. Because it was a violation of the sabbath, they insist that Jesus cannot be from God. Others in the crowd ask, “But how could a sinner perform such a sign?” And so, again, we have a controversy over who Jesus is. Turning to the man born blind, they ask him what he thinks and has to say about it. The man replies, “He is a prophet.” The story is not yet over—the man can see, but those around him are becoming increasingly blind.

Posted March 23, 2015
Sunday, March 22, 105

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Jeremiah 23:16-32; Psalm 150; 1 Corinthians 9:19-27; Mark 8:31-9:1

The Lord speaks to the people, warning them not to listen to their prophets who are speaking falsely to them, telling them no calamity shall befall them, while despising the true word of the Lord. Then, the Lord asks who of their prophets has stood in his council to see and to hear his word? None of them! God did not send them, yet they ran to the people to speak; God did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. Had they stood within God’s council they would have turned the people from their evil ways. God then asks, “Am I not nearby,” and able to see what is going on? Do I not fill both heaven and earth? Are there secret places I cannot see? God has heard the lies of those who prophesy in his name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long will this go on? Will they not turn back from these deceits of their own hearts? They plan to make the people forget the Lord’s name, just as their ancestors forgot it as they pursued Baal. Let the prophets dream, but let the one who truly hears the Lord’s voice speak that word faithfully. What have straw and wheat in common? The Lord’s word is like a fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks in pieces. The Lord is against those prophets who steal one another’s words, who say, “The Lord says,” but speak their own lying dreams and lead the people astray by their fabrications and recklessness. The Lord did not appoint or send them, so they are of no benefit whatsoever to the people.

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!”

Paul is caught up in an argument with the Corinthians over his call and role as an apostle and how he has lived out that commission. He is under obligation to proclaim the gospel, and, though free with respect to all, he has made himself a slave to all; he has done so that he might win more of them. And now he turns to describe his missionary strategy. To Jews, he behaves as a Jew. To those under the law he became as one under the law, though himself free from it, all in order that he might win those under the law. He, of course is not free from God’s law, but more, under the law of Christ which has fulfilled God’s law. To Gentiles—those outside the law—he became as one outside the law, again, so that he might win those outside the law. To those who were weak, he became weak so that he might win them. In his missionary efforts, Paul has explored all avenues and become all things to all people, so that by all of these means he might win some. He does all of this for the sake of the gospel in order to take up his partnership, as well as experience its blessings himself. Paul then employs an athletic illustration, reminding the Corinthians that in their games the runners all compete but only one wins the prize. Therefore, they are each to run in such a way that they may win it. Like athletes in training, they are to exercise self-control in all things. Athletes do this to receive a perishable prize—the victory wreath—whereas, and now, Paul includes himself, saying, “We run for an imperishable one.” Consequently, he is not running aimlessly, nor flailing about like one shadow-boxing. Rather, he has punished and disciplined himself, so that, after proclaiming the gospel to others, he himself should not be disqualified.

Peter has just made his confession that Jesus is the Christ. After sternly warning the disciples to tell this to no one, Jesus goes on to explain that, as the Son of Man, he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leadership, be killed, and after three days rise again. Mark makes the point that Jesus has said this as plainly as that; there should be no confusion. And it is clear that Peter has heard at least the part about rejection and being killed, for he draws Jesus aside, away from the others, in order to rebuke and correct him. Jesus pulls away from Peter in anger and turning to look at the others says, “Get behind me Satan!” Peter’s mind is not set on God’s ways and interests but those of human beings. Jesus then calls the crowd that has been following him to come near. He then says to them, “If you want to become my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. For those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” What profit is there in gaining the whole world and losing one’s life in the process? What, after all, can one give in return for one’s life? Whoever is ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them will he, the Son of Man, be ashamed when he comes into the glory of his Father with the holy angels. These words, spoken on the road to Jerusalem took on even more import when read in Rome in the church whose members were being persecuted, crucified and beheaded for following Jesus and their witness to his gospel. It is no accident that the word “witness” in Greek lies behind the English word “martyr.”

Posted March 22, 2015
Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015
Jeremiah 23:9-15; Psalm 149; Romans 9:1-18; John 6:60-71

Jeremiah cries out over the anguish he experiences in proclaiming God’s word: his heart is crushed within him and his bones shake. God’s word has made him like a drunkard; one filled with too much wine. The land is filled with adulterers—both priests and prophets—and because of this curse the land mourns and the pastures dry up. They are ungodly in their acts. “Even in my house I have found their wickedness,” says the Lord. Therefore, they are consigned to walk a slippery path in the darkness, where they shall fall, and where the Lord will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment. The prophets of Samaria, who prophesized by the Baal and lead Israel astray, are nothing compared to the prophets of Jerusalem who are likened to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah—filled with wanton and intentional wickedness. Thus, they walk in lies and strengthen the hands of the evildoers. No one turns from their wickedness. Therefore, the Lord is going to make them eat the noxious wormwood plant and give them poisoned water to drink; for from the prophets of Jerusalem, ungodliness has spread throughout the land.

Psalm 149 is another “Hallelujah” psalm that calls on the assembly to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Employing Hebrew parallelisms, Israel is called to be glad in its maker, and the children of Zion to rejoice in God their king, making melody with tambourine and lyre and praising him with dancing. The Lord takes pleasure in his people, adorning the humble with victory. Let the high praises of God be in their throats as the two-edged battle sword is in their hands, executing God’s vengeance against their enemies, binding the defeated king in fetters and that king’s nobles in chains. This is less the people’s doing than judgment decreed by the Lord. It is glory for all of God’s faithful and ends as it begins with a Hallelujah—“praise the Lord!”

Paul now turns to the question of the fate of his own people, the Jews, and the sorrow and anguish that are his because they have not embraced Jesus as the Christ. He even contemplates trading places, giving up his salvation if it would mean their belief. Why Israel’s rejection, and what is to become of them because of it? Has the word of God failed? No; rather, not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are truly his descendants, at least as far as God’s promises are concerned. It is not through the flesh that we become God’s children, but through God’s promise embraced in faith. The emphasis here is on God’s purposes rather than human actions. Remember Jacob and Esau, struggling with one another in the womb, Esau emerging first, but God choosing Jacob? Election emerges out of God’s mercy and compassion, and is God’s to do as God so chooses. It is not a matter of human will or exertion. It is a matter of God acting out of his will, having mercy on some and hardening the hearts of others, just as God raised up Pharaoh in Egypt, then hardened his heart, in order to demonstrate God’s power and have his name proclaimed throughout the earth.

It is not simply the Jews in the synagogue who take issue with what Jesus has said about his body being flesh that must be eaten to have eternal life, even many of Jesus’ disciples have been offended by it, and so complain. Aware of their grumbling, he asks, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” But the words he has spoken to them are spirit and life. Yet, among them are some who do not believe, as surely, in the church for which this was written, there were complaints about calling the bread and the wine his body and blood and the notion that in eating and drinking they were receiving Christ himself. Is it any wonder that one of the early accusations against Christians was that they were cannibals who ate the flesh and drank the blood of their Lord in their worship? This too, Jesus knows, as from the beginning he has known who would not believe, and who it was that would betray him. But, as he has said from the beginning, no one can come to him unless it is granted by the Father. Consequently, there will always be those who come for the wrong reasons and who soon cannot believe or who find his words too hard and fall away. And so, we are told that many who had been following him now turned back and no longer went with him. As the crowd thins out, Jesus turns to the initial twelve and asks, “Do you also want to go away?” Peter speaks for at least eleven of them: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life,” and then he confesses Jesus to be the Holy One of God (some ancient manuscripts read “The Christ, the Son of the living God.”) Jesus reminds them that he has chosen them, and, yet, even then, among them is “one who is a devil.”

Posted March 21, 2015
Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday, March 20, 2015
Jeremiah 23:1-8; Psalm 148; Romans 8:28-39; John 6:52-59

The Lord speaks woes against the faithless kings of Judah. They have failed as shepherds of their people and have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture. So too will the Lord destroy and scatter them. Then, the Lord himself will gather the remnant of his flock out of all the lands where he has driven them and will bring them back to their fold, where they shall be fruitful and multiply. Then the Lord will raise up faithful shepherds over them and they shall no longer live in fear or dismay, and none shall be missing. The days are coming when the Lord will raise up for David a righteous Branch who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his reign, Judah will be saved and all Israel will live in safety. He will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.” So great is the restoration that it will outshine Israel’s liberation from Egypt. Rather, it will be said, “As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north (Babylon), and out of all the lands where he had driven them. Then, they shall live in their own land.”

Psalm 148 calls upon all creation—the sun, moon, stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens—to shout, “Hallelujah!”—“Praise the Lord!” The Lord commanded and each was created. Sea monsters and all deeps (the place of chaos), fire, hail, snow, frost and stormy wind are not blights of nature, but actually agents that fulfill God’s commands. The Lord is sovereign over all. Mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and all cattle, things that creep and things that fly, kings of the earth and all their people, young men and women alike, old and young together, are to praise the name of the Lord, for the Lord’s name alone is to be exalted. God’s glory (presence and power) are above both earth and heaven. Finally, all are to shout “Hallelujah” because the Lord has “raised up a horn for his people” (the horn a symbol of deliverance and strength that is often used to speak of Israel’s kings). But now, the dignity, honor, and praise due the king are given not to the king, but to the people of Israel who are close to the Lord. Hallelujah!

Read verse 28 carefully and look at the footnote in your English translation. The old Authorized Version rendered it “All things work together for good,” and seems to have controlled the editorial decisions of the NRSV when, in fact, all things do not work together for good, in and of themselves. Evil and sin are still afoot in this world doing their work. Rather, the text says, “In all things, God is at work for good,” or, “God makes all things work together for good,” for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.” God is so extraordinary, so marvelous and good that God is able to take the most heinous and treacherous things of life that erupt in the lives of those who love God, whom God loves and has called, and transforms them to serve God’s purposes. Remember what Joseph said to his brothers: “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” (Gen 50:20) The zenith of such divine work is nothing less than the cross, where God transforms a curse into a means of redemption. And note that this is for those called “according to his purposes.” Then, Paul reminds us that none of this is an accident or happy happenstance. Rather, those called are those God has known and predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son—the first-born among God’s new creation. And predestined, called and justified, they have also been glorified; notice that all of this is past tense—actions which God has taken and are complete. What more, then, can be said? If God is for us, who can be against us? More, if God gave up his own son for us, will God not give us every other thing that we need? God has chosen us, who can condemn us? Satan accuses, God justifies, and Christ, who died and was raised, now sits at the Father’s right hand continuing to intercede for us. Can anything separate us from such love? Nothing; not even death! We belong to God in Christ and nothing can change that.

As the Jews dispute among themselves how Jesus can give them his flesh to eat, Jesus’ words turn fully Eucharistic. He identifies himself as the true bread that has come down from heaven to give eternal life. More, unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood (the language used in the supper), they will have no life in them. But, those who do eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him as he abides in them, and they have eternal life. Just as the Father has sent Jesus, and he lives because of the Father, so whoever eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks his blood—the bread and wine of the Supper—will live because of him. The language being used here is intentionally graphic and directly out of the church for which this gospel has been written, where the meal was central to each act of worship. Though there is no formal “institution” of the supper in John’s gospel, as there is in the other three, the Eucharistic meal is assumed throughout this gospel, and here, in the sixth chapter, Jesus “institutes” the Supper by saying, “I am the bread of life,” this gospel’s version of “This is my body, given for you.” Central to John’ gospel is the message that, if we do not eat his body and drink his blood, there will be no life within us, but when we do, he abides with us—dwells within us—and gives us life, life that is eternal. All of this Jesus said openly in the courtyard in his synagogue in Capernaum.

Posted March 20, 2015
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

Author: The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.

© 2014