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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hosea 7:8-16; Psalm 120; Acts 23:12-24; Luke 7:1-17

The charges against the Northern Kingdom, characterized by the name of Ephraim, one of the northern-most tribes of Israel, continue with the use of several of the metaphors. Israel is a cake half baked, when turned it will crumble. It has mixed itself with other peoples and alliances, and foreigners now devour his strength, but he does not yet know it. He is aging but does not recognize his failing strength, and his pride continues to witness against him. Like a silly dove Ephraim flits about, flying off to Egypt and Assyria for alliances that will never save them. Like the easily trapped dove, God will cast a net over them and bring them down, and discipline them according to the report about them. They have strayed from God, which will mean their destruction. God would redeem them, but they speak lies against him. Rather than call to him from the heart, they wail upon their beds in sexual pursuit of Baal, and ritually gash themselves, as Baal's prophets did in their contest with Elijah, worshipping Baal in hope of grain and wine. Though God trained and strengthened them, they plot against him and turn to things that will not bring profit. They have become a defective bow that is either broken or has lost its strength. Either way, they are not able to defend themselves and their officials will all fall. This is what their babbling in Egypt will bring them.

Psalm 120 is a prayer that seeks deliverance. It begins asking for relief from lies and deceitful slander and focuses upon the tongue and its ability to do great damage. The tongue is like the sharp arrows of a warrior or glowing hot coals, able to set things afire. The prayer is almost a curse against the tongue, whether one’s own or another’s, though, as the prayer ends, it appears to be a neighbor’s. The psalmist then tells us he is in a distant land living among those who hate peace. Meshech and Keder are places of great distance from Jerusalem, and the psalmist appears to be living there as an alien. Announcing his desire for peace, he acknowledges that there is no peace because his neighbors only want war. Every now and again we need this prayer, either to remind us of the need to guard our tongues, or, in another way, that there are some neighbors for whom, no matter what you do, their desire or disposition is to create trouble.

Though Paul is in the safety of the barracks, the Jews in Jerusalem are still enraged and now plotting his assassination. Forty of them take a vow to not eat or drink until they have killed Paul. They come to the council to announce their plan and involve the council in it, asking the Council to send word to the tribune that they want to examine Paul more fully. As he is being sent to the council, the forty will ambush and kill Paul. Fortunately, the son of Paul’s sister hears of the plan and runs to the barracks to tell Paul. When Paul hears the story, he asks that the boy be permitted to speak with the tribune. The centurion takes the boy to the commander who takes the boy aside to listen to what he has to say. Upon learning the plan, the tribune commands two centurions to prepare to leave for Caesarea by 9 pm that evening, taking two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen—possibly exaggerated for effect!—as well as a mount for Paul, and take him to the safety of Felix the Governor. One wonders what became of the forty who took the vow!

Jesus returns to Capernaum and a centurion in that village, whose slave is ill and near death, sends word to Jesus through some Jewish elders asking him to come and heal the slave. The elders appeal earnestly with Jesus, telling him the Centurion is an honorable man, worthy of this act, for he loves their people and has built their synagogue for them. Jesus goes with them, but not far from the centurion’s home they are met by the man’s friends through whom the centurion has sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not presume to come to you myself. Simply speak the word and my servant shall be healed.” The centurion knows himself to be a person of authority who speaks and things happen. Surely Jesus can do that. Jesus is astonished and says to the crowd, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Though Luke does not say what Jesus does next, he tells us that when the friends returned to the Centurion they find that his slave had been healed. Shortly thereafter, Jesus goes to a town called Nain, followed by a large crowd. As he approaches the city gates, a man who has died is being carried out for burial—his widowed mother’s only son. When Jesus sees it, he has compassion on the woman and tells her, “Do not weep.” He then approaches the bier, and the bearers stop in place. Jesus says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” and the young man sits up on the bier and begins to speak. Jesus gives him to his mother, while Luke tells us “fear seized all of them.” Beyond glorifying God, they say, “A great prophet has risen among us. God has looked favorably on his people.” Word begins to spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

Posted October 7, 2014
Monday, October 6, 2014

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hosea 6:7—7:7; Psalm 106:1-18; Acts 22:30—23:11; Luke 6:39-49

Hosea continues to catalogue Israel’s transgressions, which he traces back to their entry into the land in the Book of Joshua. Though God divided the waters of the Jordan at Adam, (Joshua 3:16), from that moment on, the people began to violate the covenant. Gilead is the tribe that led revolts against fellow Israelites in the hill country, and Shechem is where the revolt of the Northern tribes took place to divide the kingdom. All of them are corrupt, from the priests, who indulge in murder while on their way to perform religious duties, to all the whoring people of Ephraim (a metaphor now for the Northern Kingdom). They deal falsely with one another, with thieves breaking in and bandits raiding on the outside, all of which seems to make their king glad. Or, alternatively, they have gotten the king and his officials drunk in preparation for an attempted assassination (the text here is complex and can be read two ways). We now encounter four metaphors; hot oven, half-baked cake, silly dove and defective bow, whose rhetorical significance is obscure, at best. Heated oven seems to speak of their hot passion, but is it sexual, political, condemnation of the corrupt priesthood, or simply inebriation? The king’s court has become sick with wine and he has joined the mockers. Whatever the heat is, it is kindled as their hearts burn within them, smoldering through the night and erupting in full flame in the morning, its fire designed to devour their rulers. And, even as they fall, their kings fail to call upon the Lord.

Psalm 106:1-18 seems to be a counterpoint to Psalm 105, which recounts all of God’s acts on behalf of Israel from Abraham, to their entering the land of promise. Whereas Psalm 105 is silent on the people’s response, Psalm 106 is an extended confession of the people’s faithless response. Though it begins with the familiar refrain, “Hallelujah [“Praise the Lord”]! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” It quickly turns into a corporate confession of sin, remembering the numerous ways the people have sinned been stubborn and untrusting in the face of God’s steadfast love and care. “We and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” The recital of sins begins in Egypt, where they ignored God’s wonderful works. Liberated from Egypt, they rebelled against God at the Red Sea, not trusting God to deliver them from the Egyptians. When God did save them from their foe, they rejoiced and sang God’s praise, but then quickly forgot God’s works and counsel. Their cravings for food and water, their murmurings and various rebellions in the wilderness are recounted, as well as their jealousies of Moses and Aaron, and God’s judgments on them. Today the psalm ends at verse 18, with the judgment against Dathan and Abiram and their families for challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16).

The Roman Commander wants to know what it is Paul is being accused of by the Jews and so releases him, he orders the chief priests and council to convene and brings Paul to stand before them. Paul begins his self-defense, and, as he does, the chief priest orders that he be struck on the mouth. At this, Paul retaliates, threatening the chief priest with God’s judgment and calling him a whitewashed wall—a form of Jewish curse. When told that Paul has insulted the high priest, he stops, saying he did not realize he was the high priest. Then Paul notices that the council is made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees, and he uses the opportunity to start a theological argument among them which turns into a minor uprising. Paul tells them he is a Pharisee and on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection, something the Sadducees denied because they could not find it in Torah. The assembly breaks out with the two groups contending with one another, the Pharisees siding with Paul, and the Sadducees becoming all the more set on doing away with him. As the scene becomes increasingly violent, the tribune orders the soldiers to rescue Paul, lest the council tear him to pieces. The soldiers do and bring Paul, once again, to the barracks—this time for safety. That night Paul has a third reassuring vision, as the Lord appears and stand by him, telling him to keep up his courage. As he has testified to Jesus in Jerusalem, so too, he will bear witness to him in Rome. This hardship has a divine purpose and opportunity for continued faithful witness, as innocent hardships often do.

Jesus brings his sermon on the plain to a conclusion with three parables: the blind leading the blind, a tree and the fruit it produces and the two men who built houses, one with a firm foundation, the other with none. Disciples are not above their teachers—free to avoid and ignore his teaching and discipline—but everyone who is fully qualified is like the teacher and his teachings. So, care for the boulder in your own eye before trying to remove the speck in your neighbors, lest you become a hypocrite. Notice that good trees produce good fruit, whereas bad do not. Good is produce out of the treasury of a good heart, whereas evil comes out of the treasury of an evil heart, and the mouth is simply what attests to the abundance of what is in the heart, be it good or evil. Then Jesus brings the sermon to its climax by asking the pointed question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord. Lord,’ and not do what I tell you to do?” Those who come to him and do as he teaches are like the man who, when building a house, digs deep until hitting rock and then builds his house on that foundation. When the flood comes, the house remains because it is well built. But those who come to him but do not act on his words are like a man who built his house on the ground with no foundation at all. When the river rose and overflowed its banks, it not only flooded the house, it washed it completely away.

Posted October 6, 2014
Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hosea 5:8—6:6; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16; Matthew 14:1-12

Blow the trumpet to sound the alarm that God’s vengeance is coming on Israel for her unfaithfulness. Their political alliances with Assyria and Egypt reveal that they no longer trust the Lord to protect them. In addition, Judah has been using the political turmoil as an attempt to expand its boundaries, a violation of Torah (Deut. 19:14). The cities named all have historic import in Israel and Judah’s past. It is a warning that the trouble is coming, not from the outside by an invader, but rather from the Lord, and will issue from the temple in Jerusalem. God is going to pour out his wrath like water. The imagery of the ravaging lion for Ephraim and the destruction of the young lion, in Judah, speaks of the ferocity of the coming judgment—tearing and carrying them away like a lion’s kill. God will then withdraw until they acknowledge their guilt and seek God’s face. That is followed by a plea for the people to return to the Lord. Though he has struck down he will bind up. After two days, he will revive and, on the third day, raise up, that they may live before him—a phrase early Christians saw as a prophetic reference to Jesus’ resurrection, but here a sarcastic phrase employing Canaanite imagery that claimed Baal brought the rain rather than the Lord. God responds with a plaintive question: “What shall I do with you O Ephraim? What shall I do with you O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.” Repeating the judgment that is coming, Hosea ends with a word that is virtually universal among the prophets: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Religious behavior—sacrifices and offerings—are not a substitute for faithfulness, compassion and mercy with one’s neighbors.

Psalm 118 opens with the familiar words: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” With these words the psalmist—possibly the king—calls the people to a hymn of praise that remembers the ways God has blessed and intervened on his behalf. The Lord has responded in the psalmist’s distress and so he confesses, “The Lord is with me, I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Consequently, he can look at his enemies with satisfaction; the Lord is among those who support him. Therefore, it is better to take refuge in the Lord than in men, in the Lord than in princes. The king now reflects that though the nations surrounded him to destroy him, in the name of the Lord he cut them off. He was pushed violently to the point of falling, but the Lord intervened. At this, we have a psalm within a psalm—the king’s own words of praise directed to the Lord. “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become the source of my salvation. There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous.” In victorious joy he continues, “I shall not die, but I shall live to tell of the works of the Lord. He punished me severely, but did not give me over to death.” Herein, the early church heard the words of Christ speaking to them in and through the psalm, which is why it is appointed both for Palm Sunday and Easter Day liturgies. Finally, the psalmist prepares to go to the temple to pay his vows: “Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and pay my vow. This is the gate of the Lord, only the righteous shall enter through it. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. This is marvelous in our eyes.” Again, phrase after phrase of this psalm has worked itself into the treasury of the Gospels and Christian prayer. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The people shout, “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord (Hosanna!)” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” All of this is the language of the worshipper in the temple, confessing loyalty and trust in God: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God and I will extol you.” The prayer concludes as it began: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Paul has just reminded the Corinthians that when he initially came to them proclaiming the mystery of God, he did not do so with lofty words of wisdom but with the demonstration of the Spirit and power. He now speaks to them about two forms of wisdom: the world’s—for which the Greeks were famous—and God’s which is “not of this world.” He tells them that among the mature he does speak wisdom, though it is not the wisdom “of this age.” Rather, Paul speaks God’s wisdom, which is hidden and secret, decreed by God for our glory before the ages. None of the rulers of this world have comprehended it or they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. God has revealed this through the Spirit, who searches everything, including the human heart—even the depths of God. Humans can comprehend only what is human, and cannot fathom what is God’s except by the Spirit of God. But that is precisely what has been given to us so that we may speak spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for these things are foolishness to them. But those who are spiritual discern all things because they have been given the mind of Christ.

Matthew tells us that Herod hears reports about Jesus and thinks that John the Baptist, who he had beheaded, has returned from the dead and this is the reason Jesus has the power manifesting itself in his work. The text then digresses to tell of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. John had been publically critical of Herod for his incestuous relationship with his brother’s wife Herodias, who was also Herod’s niece. Herod had wanted to kill John, but, because John was so popular with the people, Herod simply placed him in jail. But on his birthday, at a banquet, Herodias’ daughter dances for the guests and Herod is so pleased that he promises her whatever she asks of him. At her mother’s prompting, she asks for John’s head on a platter, and though grieved (though we are really not told why, as Herod had initially wanted John dead anyway), he complies. John’s head is given to the girl, who presents it to her mother. Then some of John’s disciples came and took John’s body and buried it. They then went to Jesus to tell him about John’s death.

Posted October 5, 2014
Saturday, October 4, 2014

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hosea 5:1-7; Psalm 107:33-43; Acts 22:17-29; Luke 6:27-38

Hosea continues to level charges against the people of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, especially indicting its priests, prophets and king. All are responsible, as all have gone after the god Baal. None of this is hidden from God. Their deeds keep them from returning to the Lord, for the spirit of whoredom dominates and controls their lives. The phrase concluding verse 4 has a powerful pun: the verb for “to know” (yada) can mean sexual intercourse or acquisition of knowledge. In their sexual behavior in the temples of Baal, they are actually depriving themselves of true knowledge of the Lord. Their arrogance witnesses against them, and their stumbling in guilt has even had an impact on Judah. Yet, with the sacrifices of flocks and herds the Israelites will seek the Lord but not find him (the Israelites were not simply whoring after Baal, they were also making sacrifices to the Lord, hedging their bets). Why? Because the Lord has now withdrawn from them. Having dealt falsely with the Lord, their children are illegitimate, just as the children born to Gomer are illegitimate. Their new moon feast shall ultimately devour their children and their fields.

Psalm 107:33-43 continues the theme of extolling and praising the Lord, but now the theme turns from salvation history with the nation to God’s actions with evil doers. The Lord not only creates great rivers and springs in the desert, as the psalm has previously said, but also turns rivers into deserts! Springs of water dry up due to thirsty ground as God’s providence and sovereignty over creation reverses itself in the face of evil. Rich fields are turned into barren land, because of the wickedness of its people. Conversely, God turns wastelands into rich inhabitable places so that the hungry might dwell there. They build cities, sow fields, plant vineyards, and God blesses them with fruitful harvests. But, the Lord brings down princes who abuse their power while lifting up the needy. The righteous see it and are glad while the unrighteous look on with shut mouths. The psalm ends, exhorting us, saying, “Let those who are wise give heed to these things and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”

Paul continues to make his defense before the crowd as he explains what happened following his baptism. He returned to Jerusalem and, while in the temple, fell into a trance, in which the Lord appeared to him and told him to leave Jerusalem at once, for the people there would not accept his testimony about Jesus. Paul demurred, saying surely they will listen to him, who heretofore was a persecutor of those who believe in Jesus, even standing by with approval as they stoned Stephen, something the crowd would well remember. But when he tells them that Jesus told him, “Go! I will send you far away to the Gentiles,” that is too much for the crowd, and it again erupts in an uproar, people throwing their cloaks and dust in the air. The commander takes Paul to the Barracks where it is determined that they will beat the truth out of Paul in order to discover what is really afoot. Remember, such uprisings occurred in Jerusalem somewhat regularly and were a significant threat to Roman control. The commander has reason to be concerned. As they are stretching Paul out across the beating block, tying him hand and foot with thongs, Paul asks the Centurion if it is lawful for them to beat a Roman Citizen who is not yet condemned. Startled, the Centurion asks if Paul is a Roman citizen and hearing Paul’s answer, goes to his Commander, the tribune, to tell him and ask, “What shall we do?” The Commander rushes to Paul and asks if, indeed, he is a Roman citizen, admitting that he himself had paid a huge sum of money to buy his citizenship. Paul tells him that he is not only a Roman citizen, but was born so. Immediately, everyone assigned to the scourging detail release Paul and step back from him. Even binding him in chains is a violation of his citizenship, something that will trouble the Commander.

Jesus’ sermon on the plain continues: having been through the blessings and woes which challenge the way most people think in the world, Jesus begins a series of new and startling commandments: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek, give not only your coat to whoever asks for it, but also your shirt, give to all who beg, and when something is taken from you, do not ask for it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. What credit is it that we love those who love us? Even sinners behave that way. And if you lend to someone, expecting to receive more in exchange, what credit is there in that? Again, sinners behave that way. Rather, love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great: you will be children of the most high. As God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, you too must be merciful. If you judge others, you will be judged; if you condemn others you will be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you, in measure far beyond what you have given or forgiven. At a minimum, you will be given back what you have given. A people who receive grace must live out of it in grace-filled ways.

Posted October 4, 2014
Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Hosea 4:11-19; Psalm 102; Acts 21:37—22:16; Luke 6:12-26

Hosea continues to describe conditions in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as the people continue to prostitute themselves, participating in other cults of worship; going to diviners, using idols, and sacrificing at places of worship designated for the Canaanite gods. Israel’s daughters have played the whore. Yet, in a flash of unusual gender equality, God announces he will not punish them, because it is the men who have also gone after the Baal prostitutes, sacrificing at their temples. Consequently, none of the people have any understanding, and all will come to ruin. Then there is a plea that this not spread to Judah. “Do not enter Gilgal” is a reference to the ancient sanctuary north of Jericho, from the time of Joshua entering into the land(Joshua 3—5). “Bethaven” means, quite literally, “house of falsehood” and is a reference to Bethel, the site where Jacob, in his flight from his brother Esau, had the dream of the ladder into heaven, and that later became the center for worship in the Northern Kingdom after it split off from Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Israel has become like a stubborn heifer that is beyond anyone’s control. Ephraim, one of the northern tribes, is now a metaphor for the Northern Kingdom, Israel, itself, who worships idols, drinks to excess and then engages in sexual orgies. They love lewdness more than glory. The judgment ends with the plaintive phrase, “A wind has wrapped them in its wings,”—there is no going after them to try and catch them.

Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to a psalm of trust and intercession. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm takes another turn, this time to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name could continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. And now, the psalm returns to lament: though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago, God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing, yet remains the Lord forever. The psalm ends on a final note of affirmation and hope: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.

As Paul is being hauled off to the Roman barracks he asks the commander of the cohort something in Greek. Startled, the commander recognizes Paul is not who he thought he was—an Egyptian who had led a previous insurrection and revolt—and allows Paul to speak to the crowd. Paul does, in Hebrew, and, in the process, stirs up an even greater uproar as he tells his personal story about his past as a persecutor of “the way,” his experience on the Damascus road of meeting the Risen Christ, being struck blind and led by the hand to Damascus. He tells of Ananias coming to him to restore his sight, and deliver a message from God: Paul has been appointed to know “the righteous one,” to hear a word from his mouth, and to be a witness to him among all people. At Ananias’ command, Paul was baptized. Paul continues his speech tomorrow. For now, the crowd listens.

Jesus leaves behind the conflict over his healing on the sabbath and goes to the mountain to pray through the night. Then, Luke recounts the calling of the disciples, naming each—the only place this full list occurs. Twelve are chosen as apostles, one for each of the tribes of Israel, to restore and provide leadership to God’s people. Coming down off the mountain Jesus encounters a huge crowd that has come after him, and, turning to his disciples, he delivers “the sermon on the plain,” essentially Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. And like Matthew, notice, this is preached to the disciples, not to the large crowd. It is the disciple’s marching orders as leaders of the restoration.

Posted October 3, 2014
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