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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Jeremiah 32:36-44; Psalm 9; Romans 13:1-14; Luke 8:16-25

Between yesterday’s reading and today’s, the Lord has responded to Jeremiah and confirmed that God is, indeed, bringing this disaster upon Jerusalem, and details why: Israel’s deliberate faithlessness—worshipping Baal on their rooftops, setting up abominations in God’s house, and burning their children in sacrifice to Molech in the high places in the valley of the son of Hinnom. Today, God tells Jeremiah that after giving them to Babylon in punishment, the Lord will again gather Israel from all the lands to which he has driven them in his anger, wrath and indignation—notice that it is not just to Babylon. Exiles were driven to Egypt as well as to places in the north. But, in safety, the Lord will bring them back and again settle them in their land. They shall be God’s people, and he shall be their God. The Lord will give them “one heart and one way” that they may fear him for all time, for their own good, and for the good of their children after them. The Lord will make an “everlasting covenant” with them, never again to draw back from doing good to them. How will the covenant stand? The Lord says, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” The image of “fear of the Lord,” is a dominant one in the wisdom literature of Israel (especially Proverbs, Sirach and wisdom Psalms 19, 24 and 111), and essentially means living out of a right relationship with God—what later will be called “righteousness.” The result is that God will rejoice in doing good to them and plant them again in their land in faithfulness, doing so with all of God’s heart and soul—a phrase used for God only here, and normally applied to humans as a description of their total orientation and obedience to God (Deut.4:29, 6:5, 11:18 and 13:3). Returning to Jeremiah’s prophetic action of redeeming the field, the Lord will redeem the fields of Israel. Though it is to become a desolation when given into the hands of the Chaldeans, once again fields shall be bought for money, deeds signed, sealed and witnessed in the land of Benjamin, in the places around Jerusalem, and in all of the cities of Judah, indeed, all of the land. In the midst of Jeremiah’s commission to proclaim God’s judgment, he is also commissioned to proclaim that after the people’s punishment in exile, the Lord will restore their fortunes.

Psalm 9 is an acrostic psalm that gives thanks to the Lord for continuing protection and salvation. Though it might appear a royal psalm, the enemies being other nations, we never hear the voice in the prayer identified as the king’s, as it would be in a royal psalm. Rather it simply focuses on God’s ability to respond, whether “present” or afar, to scatter the wicked and maintain the just person’s cause. The text moves from thanksgiving for God’s wonderful deeds, to thanks for deliverance from particular enemies, to praise for the rebuke of other nations and the wicked, to the affirmation that the Lord is enthroned forever and his throne is a throne of judgment. Then, it affirms that the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed who seek him. These he will not forsake. After calling for praise in Zion, the psalmist turns to personal intercession and deliverance from those who hate him. Again, there is recollection of God’s judgment on the nations that have been caught in their own net. The wicked are consigned to Sheol while the needy shall “not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor taken away,” one of the high and memorial phrases from this psalm. Finally, God is called upon to “Rise up,” judge the nations, and put them in their place—they are only human. “Se’lah,” is a word that appears to now call upon a musical chorus of praise, whether instrumental or vocal, from the temple musicians. Because this is an acrostic psalm, beginning each successive section with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the flow of ideas can seem a bit jumbled. It can seem that two psalms have been joined into one: the first, a psalm of thanksgiving; the second, a petition for help. And because Psalm 10 has no introductory material, some believe Psalm 9 and Psalm 10 were originally one. In fact, they appear as one in both the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Roman Catholic Vulgate Bible, which used the Septuagint to make the Latin translation.

We turn to thoughts from Paul to the church at Rome that subsequently vexed Christians for generations—remaining subject to the governing authorities. The context for this is essential. Paul does not want the spirit of rebellion and revolt that led to previous Jewish uprisings from the Maccabeans in the 2nd century BCE and the Zealot party in Jesus’ own day, to cause the church in Rome to be seduced into similar sympathies that still exist in Jerusalem. Already, an emperor has banished Jews from Rome because of their disruptive behavior—probably hostilities within the Jews between those who had become Christian and those who had not. Now that they have been allowed to return, they are to behave as good citizens. Paul begins with the logic that, since all authority comes from God, those who exist in authority do so at God’s institution, and those who resist it are actually resisting God. Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. In order not to fear the authorities, do what is good and they will receive their approval, for the government is God’s servant for their own good. Only in doing wrong should they fear the authorities. So, too, they are to pay taxes. In all things, they must give the authorities what is their due—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, and honor to whom honor is due. The real debt Christians owe everyone is love. This, above all else, is the command we are to obey. Paul then quotes the second table of the law—that dealing with interpersonal relationships—reminding them that love fulfills all of these commandments. Beyond this law of love, they need to be reminded that the day is at hand for them to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to them now than when they all became believers, and here Paul included himself. As the Day of Christ approaches, they are to put on the garment of light and lay aside all works of darkness. They are to live honorably, as in daylight, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, they are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify the desires Paul has just identified as works of darkness. This text only makes sense in its Roman-Jewish context, for within less than ten years of Paul writing this, there would be yet another Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem that would cause Rome to destroy it and its temple, leaving not one stone upon another. If one adds the words “authentic,” or “good” before Paul’s words about authority and rulers, it does make sense. It is from this text that Luther built the theology of God’s right and left hand—the right the church, and the left the civil authorities—to exercise just rule over all people. However, I have always wondered how Paul felt about this when finally condemned to death by Rome—assuming he was. If so, in all probability he saw it as God working out his will and using Paul’s martyrdom as witness. But, we remember how problematic these words were for German Christians as Hitler rose to power, and not only for German Christians, but all who have lived under despotic rulers who claimed their authority came from God. It is the reason the Barmen Declaration has been included in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions. It reminds us that we must discern the spirits and always and only serve God in Christ-like ways, and that those who govern in other ways do not rightly claim our respect or obedience.

Jesus’ parable about lamps not being placed under jars, once again, makes the point that the word of the kingdom is being scattered widely with revealing light. Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor anything secret that will not come to light. Consequently, they are to pay attention to how they listen. To those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away. This is less about wealth and possessions and more about understanding the ways of kingdom life and their place in it. In the midst of this, Jesus’ family arrives but cannot get to him because of the crowd. There is no suggestion here that his family has come to take him away, or that there is somehow alienation between Jesus and his family, as there is in Mark’s report of this event. Rather, Jesus simply uses the word that his family is here to make the point that membership in his own family is not a matter of blood relationship, but fidelity to hearing the word of God he is proclaiming and doing it. They appear to have come to listen to him as well. The scene now shifts to moving away from the crowd and sailing across the lake to the region of Gerasene. In route, Jesus falls asleep, and soon, they encounter the famous storm at sea, with the boat increasingly swamped, threatening them all. The disciples awaken Jesus with a shout, insisting he do something. Jesus gets up, rebukes the wind and the raging waves in precisely the same way he has rebuked the demonic in other places in the gospel (remember, the sea was thought to be the home of chaos and the demonic), and the storm becomes a dead calm. Turning to his disciples he asks, “Where is your faith?” Haven’t they been listening and watching? Don’t they know who he is? And, of course, they don’t. Rather, like the crowds thus far, they respond with both fear and amazement, and ask, as the crowds have been asking all along, “Who is this that even the winds and the water obey him?”

Posted May 6, 2015
Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Jeremiah 32:16-25; Psalm 66; Romans 12:1-21; Luke 8:1-15

The Babylonian siege is on—the ramps have been built to traverse the city walls, the people have already begun to experience famine and pestilence, and it is obvious that Jerusalem is going to fall to Babylon. In the midst of this, Jeremiah offers a prayer that blesses the Lord for all that God has done on Israel’s behalf from the beginning. In spite of that, the people have failed to obey God’s voice or follow God’s laws. Of all God commanded, they did nothing. And so, Jeremiah sees this event as God fulfilling what he has promised the people for their faithlessness. The Lord is giving the people into the hands of the Chaldeans. Yet, despite all of this, the Lord has commanded Jeremiah to buy a field for money and get witnesses to his purchase. Why would God do such a thing? Yet, God has the power to do as God pleases. Jeremiah has purchased the field and made it public.

Psalm 66 calls upon the entire earth to make a joyful noise and sing to the glory of God’s name, telling God how awesome he is. The whole earth is called to worship God. Then, all are invited to “come and see what God has done among mortals.” The psalm then remembers God’s acts of redemption out of Egypt and deliverance at the Red Sea. God has kept us among the living and does not allow our feet to slip. But, God also tests. And so, the people have known the burdens that come with subjugation by other peoples. But, in the end, God “brought us out into a broad and spacious place.” The psalmist now vows to enter the temple with burnt offerings to fulfill the promise that his lips have made, making an offering of bulls and goats. Finally, the psalmist calls on all who fear God to listen as he tells them what God has done for him. He cried aloud and extolled God, and God listened because the psalmist was innocent. Had he cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not have heard his voice. But truly, God has listened. Blessed be God, who has neither rejected his prayer nor removed his steadfast love.

Paul has completed his reflection on God’s redemption of his own people, Israel, and then has broken into doxology. Now, he turns to what is one of the “load stone” chapters of the book—what new life in Christ looks like. Paul begins by defining it, then describes its marks and, thereafter, exhorts his readers to behaviors that exhibit life transformed in Christ. Christianity is not a “head-trip.” It is bodily, in that we are to present all of ourselves—in everything we do—as an act of worship to God. Rather than be conformed to this world in our choices, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—in Christ! Only with such a mind can we discern God’s will—the good, the acceptable, and the perfect. Such renewed minds do not think of themselves as better than others; they do not indulge in comparison for the sake of self-congratulations. Rather, renewed minds in Christ remind us that all of us are part of his body and each of us has a role to play therein. We have different gifts that range from preaching [prophecy] to serving [ministry—actually, waiting on tables], to teaching, to encouraging [exhortation], to giving, to leading, to acts of mercy [compassion]—seven fold in character and each essential to the health of any congregation. A mind renewed in Christ lives, less out of logic than out of the abundance of divine love (the word is agape). Like God, it hates what is evil and refuses to remain indifferent to it, but rather, holds fast to what is good. Holding one another in mutual affection, such love seeks to outdo the other in showing honor and respect. It does not lag in zeal, is ardent in spirit, serves the Lord, rejoices in hope, is patient in suffering, perseveres in prayer, contributes to the need of the saints (the gift for Jerusalem is clearly in mind), and extends hospitality to traveling missionaries who are strangers. Though these gifts can and should be extended to those beyond the Christian community, they are first and foremost the behavior expected of all in the church. That said, Paul reminds us of how we are to behave toward those who do not share in the mind of Christ. We are to bless them—even those who persecute us. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We are to live in harmony with all others, not simply those well thought of, but especially those of low esteem, and, regardless, we are not to claim to be wiser than we are. We are to repay no one evil for evil. Rather, we are to take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. To the extent that it is possible, and that it depends upon us, we are to live peaceably with all, never avenging ourselves, but entrusting that to the wrath of God. Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, Paul reminds us that, if our enemies are hungry, we are to feed them and if they are thirsty, we are to give them drink, thereby pouring burning coals on their heads. The function of the coals is not to punish them, but to call them to repentance. Whatever we do, never let ourselves be overcome by evil—never take up its game or strategies—for in doing so, we have been co-opted and conquered by it. The only way to be victorious over evil is to meet it with good.

Jesus continues his ministry in Galilee, not only proclaiming the word of God through his teaching, but actually bringing the good news of the kingdom of God through his healing. In addition to the twelve who are with him—as they will be henceforth—there are also other disciples. Luke takes time to identify specifically the presence of women among the disciples, who are not only following but also providing for Jesus and his disciples out of their own resources. Among the women, Luke singles out three—Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna—each of whom has been cured by Jesus of evil spirits and other infirmities: Mary, from the town of Magdala, had seven demons cast out of her. Tradition has too easily tried to identify her as the unnamed sinful woman Jesus forgave in the previous lesson. There are no grounds for that except the proximity of the two lessons. Joanna was the wife of Herod’s senior administrator, Chuza. Both Mary and Joanna will follow Jesus all the way to his crucifixion, death and burial, and they will be among the women at the tomb who are told that he has risen. They will be the first witnesses to that. Crowds continue to form about Jesus as he moves from town to town, and Luke uses this as occasion to tell us a series of additional parables Jesus used with such crowds. The first is the well-known parable of the sower whose seed falls on four types of soil: a path worn hard by being trampled upon, soil filled with rocks, earth dominated by thorns and weeds, and good soil. Naturally, only the good soil bears fruit, producing “a hundredfold” and more than making up for the seed that landed on the other types of soil. Jesus then says to the crowds, “If you have ears to hear, listen!” It is the first step to responding to the kingdom in faith. The disciples have heard, but almost as Luke’s straight-men, they must ask what the parable means. Do they not have ears to hear? Their question provides the context for Jesus to assure them that it has been given to them to know the secrets of the kingdom of God. But to all others, he speaks in parables, and alluding to Isaiah 6:9, Jesus says that he does so in order that they may look and not perceive, and listen and not understand. First of all, the seed is the word of God that he is proclaiming, and it is being proclaimed to all. But why does God’s seed not always bear the fruit of faith? To answer that, Jesus gives an analysis of those in the crowd, through a soil by soil evaluation, thereby explaining the parable to the disciples. Those who are the path have the word stolen from them by the devil, lest they believe and be saved. Those who are rocky soil receive the word with joy and it springs up in them, but lacking sufficient moist soil for the word to take root, they believe for only a short time, and when testing comes, they fall away. The thorny soil is those who hear and respond and the seed takes root, but as they go their way they become distracted by the cares, riches, pleasures and other thorns of life, all of which choke out the word so that it never becomes mature faith. But those who are good soil hear and hold the seed fast in a beautifully honest and good heart—what Hellenistic world thought a noble character—bearing fruit with patient endurance. This final phrase is used better than some twenty times throughout the New Testament as a description of a faithful response under the pressures and hardships of belonging to and following Jesus, especially in the churches for whom the New Testament is written.

Posted May 5, 2015
Monday, May 4, 2015

Monday, May 4, 2015
Jeremiah 32:1-15; Psalm 115; Colossians 3:18-4:18; Luke 7:36-50

Jeremiah is in jail, in the court of the palace guard, at the order of King Zedekiah of Judah. Jeremiah has been prophesying that King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, who has set up a siege against Jerusalem, is going to take the city. It will be the Lord’s doing, not Nebuchadrezzar’s might. More, Nebuchadrezzar is going to bring King Zedekiah captive to Babylon. There they will see and speak with one another “face to face and eye to eye.” King Zedekiah shall remain in Babylon, and though Judah fights against the Chaldeans (the people of Babylon), Judah shall not succeed. This is sedition, and King Zedekiah is not amused; he locks up Jeremiah to silence him. (Normally, a king would kill someone seditious, but this is a prophet, and the king is wise enough to know that.) While Jeremiah is under court guard the word of the Lord comes to him in a dream, telling him that his cousin Hanamel is going to come and offer him an opportunity to redeem a family field held for debt in Jeremiah’s hometown. As next of kin, it is Jeremiah’s right to redeem it—purchase it as his own and bring it back into the family, debt free—the fundamental biblical meaning of “redemption.” And, that is precisely what happens. Hanamel comes and asks Jeremiah to redeem the field in Anathoth, in the land of Benjamin. Jeremiah does, weighs out the silver, signs two deeds, one opened and one sealed, and does this in the sight of witnesses, Hanamel and the court guards and officials. Jeremiah gives the deeds to Baruch his scribe, telling him to place them in a jar for safekeeping and preservation (not unlike the jars that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls). Baruch does this in the presence of all the people. But this is more than simply the redemption of a family field being held for debt. This is prophetic action, signifying that there will again come a time when the land of Judah and Benjamin, indeed all of Israel, will be free of Babylon’s reign. Consequently, Jeremiah announces, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’”

Psalm 115 was probably written for use communally and reflects on the greatness of God as the Sovereign One in heaven who rules over the earth. The psalm calls on God to act on the worshippers’ behalf, lest their enemies, the foreign nations, say, “Where is your God?” Where? In heaven, and he does whatever he pleases! The psalm then levels an attack on the idolatrous enemies, probably fellow Jews who worship idols—things of silver and gold, made of human hands that have mouths, but do not speak; have eyes, but do not see; have ears, but do not hear and so on. Those who make them are exactly like the sightless, deaf and speechless idols they craft; so too are those who worship and place their trust in them. The psalm then calls on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord! The Lord is their help and shield. The exhortation is repeated, probably antiphonally, another two times, followed by a reminder that the Lord has been mindful of his people and will bless them all, great and small—all who fear the Lord. There is then a blessing, perhaps offered by the priest, praying that the Lord give them and their children increase. The heavens are the Lord’s, the earth has been given to humans, and the netherworld belongs to the dead. There, the dead do not praise the Lord. The psalm concludes with the communal affirmation and promise to bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore, ending with “Hallelujah!”

Paul sets forth rules of behavior for Christian households: wives are to be subject to their husbands, as it is fitting in the Lord—as opposed to how women were subject to husbands in that culture! Husbands are to love their wives and never treat them harshly. (I’ve always told brides and grooms that, of the two commands, the husband’s is more challenging. He must love his wife regardless!) Again, that was radically different from the marriage standards of the day. Children are, of course, to be obedient. This is their duty to the Lord. Fathers are not to provoke their children; again, a different standard. Slaves are to obey their masters in everything, not simply while being watched, but as an act of obedience to the Lord. Remember, slavery in that world was more like employment than the chattel slavery we knew in America. All of this is because of the change of status and relationship that are theirs, because they belong to the Lord and will receive his inheritance as a reward for their service. Those who do wrong will be paid back for the wrong they have done—there is no partiality with the Lord. Masters are to treat their slaves justly and fairly, for they, too, have a Master in heaven who is watching. That said, they are all to devote themselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. Then, Paul asks them to pray that God will open to him and his companions the door of his prison, so that they may continue to declare the mystery of Christ. The Colossians are to conduct themselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of this time and opportunity. Their speech is to always be gracious, seasoned with salt—compelling rather than routine or religiously formulaic—knowing how to respond in all situations. Tychicus, a brother in Christ and fellow minister of the Lord, who is also Paul’s slave, is bringing this letter to them, and will tell them other news about Paul. Paul hopes that he and Onesimus, the Colossian’s own beloved brother, will tell them everything taking place with Paul. The letter ends with a series of other references to those with him: Aristarchus, a fellow prisoner, Mark, Barnabas’ cousin over whom Paul and Barnabus had a falling out at the beginning of the second missionary journey, but to whom Paul has now been reconciled, and, Jesus, who is called Justus. As if to again stress the need to resist the “Judaizers” from the party in Jerusalem insisting on circumcision, Paul reminds the Colossians that these Jews are the only ones among his colleagues who are, like Paul, circumcised. Epaphras is again mentioned; he wrestles in his prayers on the Colossians’ behalf and has worked hard for them, as well as for the saints in Laodicea and Hierapolis. Luke is mentioned and named “the beloved physician.” Also named is Demas; both send greetings. Paul sends greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, mentioning especially Nympha, and the church in her house where she is evidently the elder and overseer. When this letter has been read in Colossae, it is to be read in Laodicea. In addition, tell Archippus, Onesimus’ master, to complete the task he has received in the Lord from Paul—to welcome his runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in Christ (see Philemon 2). Paul ends this letter he has dictated by signing it with his own hand, concluding, “Grace be with you.”

Jesus has been having ever-increasing confrontations with the Pharisees, and one of them named Simon invites Jesus to a banquet to learn more for himself. In that culture, banquets were all but public affairs, the invited guests reclining around a low table or mat set forth with food, the guests and host lying on their left sides (in order to use their right hands for eating) with their feet stretched out behind them. Around the room were all sorts of people from the town, and, on this occasion, there is a woman among them renowned for being a sinner, in all probability, a prostitute, though that is never mentioned here. Clearly, she has either heard about Jesus’ treatment of sinners or has had an actual encounter with him herself—again, we don’t know. However, she comes filled with gratitude, makes her way behind Jesus and begins weeping, her tears falling on his feet. She then lets down her hair and begins using it to wipe Jesus’ feet dry. Next, she kisses his feet and, taking an alabaster jar of ointment she has brought for the occasion, anoints Jesus feet. Simon, the host, says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” And, indeed, in that culture, what she was doing was sinful; a woman letting down her hair in a man’s presence was a sexual invitation. So, too, was touching his feet, let alone kissing them. And, if she is a prostitute, she is ritually unclean and has thereby rendered Jesus unclean as well. Simon has plenty of reason to question Jesus’ credentials. If he were a prophet, why would he allow this? Jesus, of course, knows precisely what Simon is thinking and, so, in the midst of table conversation, poses a riddle, common in such cultured table talk. Two are in debt to a creditor. One owes five hundred days wages and another fifty. The creditor forgives them both. Who of the two will love him more? Simon answers correctly, even casually, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” In responding so, Simon has stepped into Jesus’ trap. Confirming that Simon has “judged rightly,” Jesus turns to the woman, but continues speaking to Simon of what she has done for Jesus that Simon did not. Simon, in his guarded hospitality, has done none of the things that a guest might expect upon entering a host’s household. She has gone beyond all expectations, even violated norms of behavior, that leave Simon and others in the room scandalized, all because of her enormous gratitude to Jesus. Yes, her sins were many. But they have been forgiven. Simon, who does not consider himself a sinner, knows nothing of forgiveness and clearly demonstrates that—in the riddle, his sins, though less, had also been forgiven! Now, Jesus turns to the woman and says to her directly, “Your sins are forgiven.” That is even a greater scandal than the others, and everyone who is at table with Jesus who has heard his teaching and seen his acts of healing, now begin to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The question will continue to be contemplated in the next two chapters, with the answer becoming ever-more clear. For now, Jesus turns to the woman and says for the first time in this gospel, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Saving faith is not simply trusting in God’s forgiveness, but living in gratitude that is expressed by lavish acts of love.

Posted May 4, 2015
Sunday, May 3, 2015

Readings for the Fifth Week of Easter

Sunday, May 3, 2015
Isaiah 32:1-8; Psalm 117; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; Matthew 7:7-14

Because it is Sunday, we leave the pattern of continuous reading throughout the week, returning to those books tomorrow. Today, we return to the Prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem, who utters an oracle about a righteous king and the blessings of such a king’s administration. Filled with Hebrew parallelism, the second line repeating what the first has stated in slightly different language, it almost sounds like a wisdom psalm. The righteous king is a shelter against all sorts of hardships and difficulties ranging from windstorm and tempest, drought and heat, to the burdens of the fool and villain. When the king is righteous, even those who are rash have good judgment and the stammerers are able to speak clearly. Though villains plot evil at the expense of the poor and the needy, the noble plan and do noble things and, in those things they stand.

Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the collection of 150, is a call to worship addressed to everyone, followed by a brief hymn of praise. It easily comports with the theology of Second Isaiah: the Lord is God, there is no other. But more, the Lord is steadfast love and faithfulness, and endures forever. Hallelujah!

This second thanksgiving from Paul blesses God for the Thessalonians’ call to faith as the first fruits of salvation. In a theologically compact, yet long single sentence, the theme of grace being conferred by the Spirit through faith in the truth is given expression. It is the Spirit who makes them holy as they continue to believe. God called them to this through Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s proclamation of the gospel while they were among them, so that the Thessalonian believer might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Issuing from the thanksgiving, Paul exhorts his brothers and sisters in the Lord to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that they were taught by the three of them, whether by mouth or by their first letter. The exhortation is followed by a benediction blessing that is all but Trinitarian, given what has been said earlier about the role of the Spirit in their sanctification, invoking God’s comfort and strength in the Thessalonians’ lives as they continue in every good work and word.

This reading from Matthew is a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that comes near its end with a series of three exhortations about how to live into God’s realm and purposes. First, we are to ask, knowing we will receive; search, knowing we will find; and, knock, knowing the door will be opened to us. After all, is there a parent among us who when our children ask for bread would give them a stone, or if the child asks for fish, give a snake? If we know how to give good gifts to our own children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him? What follows has come to be called the golden rule, and was far from original with Jesus as it was found in many ancient cultures. Here, Jesus uses it as a summary “the law and the prophets,” though interestingly enough, the “rule” incorporates only the second table of the law—that which has to do with our relationships with one another. Clearly, the first—our relationship with God—is assumed, and his point in the comparison is that we are to treat others as generously as God treats us. Third, we are reminded of the discipline required to stay on the path that leads to life—the wide gate and easy road lead to destruction, whereas the narrow gate with its hard road leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Posted May 3, 2015
Saturday, May 2, 2015

Saturday, May 2, 1015
Jeremiah 31:23-26; Psalm 114; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 7:18-28(29-30)31-35

Jeremiah has a dream of a restored Jerusalem, with the Lord’s promise that, once more, its inhabitants will say, “The Lord bless you, O abode of righteousness, O Holy Hill.” Judah (the old Southern Kingdom) and all its towns shall live there together. Even the farmers and the Bedouin shepherds who wander, tending their flocks as they move about looking for new grazing land, shall live together in peace—something most unusual! Jerusalem shall be the woman who “encompasses a man,” bringing stability and new life into the community (Jer. 31:22b). The Lord adds this promise: “I will satisfy the weary; and all who are faint I will replenish.” Thereupon, Jeremiah awakes from his sleep, and tells us just how good a sleep it was!

Psalm 114 is a hymn praising God’s power, and recounts the wonders God did in claiming the house of Israel as his own, when bringing them out of Egypt to make them God’s own dwelling place in the land of promise. The psalm uses various images from creation to emphasize God’s sovereignty at critical points in Israel’s life—the sea looked and fled; the river Jordan turned back to allow the people to cross over. At God’s presence, the mountains skipped like rams and the hills like lambs. Why? Because it is the Lord, the one who turns rocks into pools of water and flint into a gushing spring, a reference to Moses striking the rock in the wilderness. The hymn is a remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and was later sung at Passover on the 8th day of that celebration, just as it still is today.

Paul continues with the image of being clothed, now calling on them to put on particular qualities of life that emerge out of life in Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness. This last quality is, as Jesus taught, the requirement of having been forgiven. Above all of this, they are to clothe themselves in love, which binds everything together (1 Corinthians 13). The word about the peace of Christ ruling in their hearts is an imperative and is addressed to the community, as they teach and admonish one another, both in wisdom, and out of gratitude. The reference to singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God is not only a description of their worship, but also an indication of what was being used to teach and admonish. Remember that right after Paul’s greeting, he had employed a hymn text to make his point about who Christ is. And, it remains as true today as it was then—hymn texts are one of the church’s greatest instructional resources for helping shape our faith. Whatever the Colossians do, whether in word or deed, they are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Here is one of the injunctions for praying always in Jesus’ name. Whatever we say or ask of God, we do so in Jesus’ name, remembering his promise that whatever we rightly ask in his name will be done for us (John 14:13; 16:26).

Though John had born witness to Jesus and, according to Luke, seems to have been in prison at the time of Jesus’ baptism, the imprisoned John appears to be having second thoughts about Jesus. Consequently, John summons to his prison two of his own disciples and then dispatches them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus, who has been healing many, instructs the two to go back and tell John what they have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. These are all signs of God’s messianic reign breaking into life in Jesus. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at him. And, of course, it is the religious leaders who are most offended. After John’s disciples have left Jesus to return to John, Jesus begins to talk about John, asking the people what it was they went out into the wilderness to see. All that follows is a reference to Herod and his palace located in the wilderness where John is being held—the reed was part of Herod’s crest, the soft robes and other luxurious clothing and palace, symbols of Herod’s reign. Was that what they went out to see, or, did they go out in search of a prophet? Yes, a prophet; but John is more than a prophet. He is the messenger Isaiah promised who is preparing the way for the Lord. (Remember that, in Luke, John is never called “the Baptist.” Rather, his sole role is that of witness to who Jesus is.) Jesus says that among those born of women there is none greater than John, yet even the least of those born in the kingdom of God are greater than John. Luke now inserts a parenthetical statement about those who have responded positively to John—the tax collectors and others who have experienced God’s justice through their baptisms at John’s hand, as opposed to those who have rejected God’s justice and righteousness by refusing John’s baptism—the Pharisees and lawyers (scribes). Jesus then employs the phrase: “to what shall I compare them,” which is regularly used by him to introduce a parable. This generation to whom he and John have come are like children sitting in the street yelling at one another as they play the game of flutes and funerals. One plays the flute but no one dances; another wails, but no one weeps. The religious leaders simply cannot be satisfied. John came with his ascetic ways and they claimed he was demon-possessed. The Son of Man has come, eating and drinking, and they have called him a glutton, drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Nonetheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children. It is clear who has been born in the kingdom: those who have recognized John as a great prophet and have responded to his message, and those who recognize in Jesus God’s power breaking into life to redeem and restore it.

Posted May 2, 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.

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