Monday, January 5, 2015, 12th Day of Christmas
Joshua 1:1-9; Psalm 96; Hebrews 11:32—12:2; John 15:1-6
Moses has died (or has been taken to heaven alive, as an extra-biblical account says), and Joshua, heretofore Moses’ assistant, is now in charge. The Lord speaks to Joshua and tells him it is time to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land that the Lord has promised. Every place the soles of their feet tread upon, the Lord will give to them, just as the Lord promised Moses. The dimensions of the land are identified: from the wilderness of Lebanon to the river Euphrates, and from the land of the Hittites to the great sea in the west. These are, in fact, the boarders of the kingdom under Solomon’s reign. The Lord tells Joshua that he will be with him as he was with Moses; he will not fail or forsake him. And then the Lord says, “Be strong and courageous….” Repeating the charge, the Lord reminds Joshua of the need to keep the book of the law, and turn neither to the right nor the left, from it. Joshua is to “meditate upon it day and night.” If he does, he and the people will be prosperous and Joshua will be successful. This charge from the Lord to Joshua, will appear some twenty-eight times, in various forms, across the pages of scripture, from Deuteronomy 31:6, when Moses first speaks the words to Joshua, to 2 Timothy 2:1 when Timothy is charged to find strength in the grace of Jesus Christ. For Joshua, it is the reminder that God’s ways are recorded in the books of Moses that he has been given. He is not to depart from them. It is the charge that David will give to his son Solomon at the end of David’s reign as it transitions into Solomon’s, reminding Solomon that he cannot lead on his own or out of his own resources. It is the culmination of Psalm 27 that begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear?” For the church it is the same reminder: “Be strong in the Lord and the strength of his power.” Ephesians 6:10. Strength and power belong to the Lord, who gives them to those who wait in trust on him.
Psalm 96 celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and is a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, and will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.
Hebrews continues its roll-call of the faithful, remembering some of the great judges who appear in the book by that name: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah. It then moves on to Samuel and David and the prophets, who through faith accomplished mighty things. The list includes allusions to the biblical heroes of faith from Sampson to Daniel and beyond, the miraculous works of Elijah, raising the widow’s dead son back to life, Elisha, and into the period of the Maccabees. These suffered greatly under the Greek rule of Antiochus Epiphanies. They were flogged, imprisoned, stoned, even “sawn in two,” others killed by the sword. They wandered destitute, dressed in the skins of sheep and goats, being persecuted, living in caves and holes in the ground. Yet, through faith they persevered—the world was not worthy of them. But even as great as their faith was, they did not receive the promise, because God was awaiting something even greater. They were not, apart from “us,”—the author’s readers—to be made perfect. Having built his case for the foundational role of faith, the author uses those models of faith as witnesses, and calls upon those who read and hear his words to join them by laying aside every weight and sin that they so closely cling to. Rather, with perseverance they are to run the race that is set before them, looking to Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of faith”. For the sake of the joy that was to be ultimately his, he endured the cross, disregarding it shame, and has now taken his seat of honor at God’s right hand. All that had come before, in that great roll-call of faith, has been brought to perfection in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. Therefore, let us lay aside anything that would keep us from following him.
In one of his many “I am” saying, in which Jesus uses the ineffable name of God as a designation for himself, he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser.” The image of the vine was a strong one in the Old Testament for the people of Israel. Jesus tells his followers that he is the true vine and they are the branches. Every branch that does not bear fruit, the Father takes away. Every branch that does bear fruit, the Father prunes so that it may be even more fruitful. After reminding them that they are clean because they belong to him, he tells them that no branch can bear fruit unless it is connected to the vine, therefore, they are to abide in him, and he in them, that they may bear much fruit, for apart from him they can do nothing. Those who do not abide in him will be broken off, gathered up and thrown into the fire and burned.
Sunday, January 4, 2015, 11th Day of Christmas
Exodus 3:1-5; Psalm 20; Hebrews 11:23-31; John 14:6-14
Guilty of murder, Moses has escaped Egypt and been on the run, until finally finding what he thinks is cover with his father-in-law Jethro, Priest of Midian, in the Sinai wilderness. Having settled in, marrying one of Jethro’s daughters, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks in the western hillside of Mt. Horeb—the Mountain of God (also known in other traditions as Sinai). There, Moses comes upon a bush that is burning but is not being consumed and decides he must investigate. Already, we have been told that it is “the angel of the Lord” appearing to him. As Moses approaches the bush, the angel, who is really the veiled presence of God, speaks, calling Moses by name. Moses responds, “Here am I”—a phrase loaded with much more than simply identifying himself as the one addressed; it signals open to a command. Moses is told to take off his sandals, for the place he is standing is holy ground.
Psalm 20 initially seems addressed to anyone. It is an intercessory blessing: “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May God give you support from Zion, remembering your sacrifices and burnt offerings. May God grant you your heart’s desire, fulfill all your plans and give you victory when you set up your banner in God’s name.” Only in verse six does it become clear that this is ultimately addressed to the king, the anointed of the Lord.” Where other monarchs take pride in their chariots and horses, the king is reminded that “our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. Others will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright. It ends with one final petition: “Save us, O Lord! Deliver us,” as it continues with its intercessions for the king. But it can also be read as, “Answer us, O King (a reference to God’s sovereignty), when we call.” Though originally a Royal Psalm, it is to be prayed in confidence by all of God’s anointed.
Hebrews continues the roll-call of the faithful, today focusing upon Moses, the exodus, and the taking of the land of promise. Faith, here, recognizes dangers attendant to trusting God’s promises. Moses is hidden by his parents because Pharaoh, fearing the exponential growth of the Hebrews in his land, has ordered that all male Hebrew children be killed at birth. Yet, by faith, Moses’ parents were not afraid of the King’s edict, or more correctly, trusted God in the time of trial. By faith, when an adult, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but rather, identified with the hardship, and chose to share in the ill treatment of God’s people, rather than enjoy “the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Here, Moses’ encounter, breaking up a fight between an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave by killing the Egyptian, which made him a wanted man in Egypt—Pharaoh’s adopted grandson or not—is given a spiritual twist and is seen as something that he “suffered for the Messiah.” Moses is portrayed as looking forward to what was to come. By faith, Moses left Egypt, not fearing the King’s anger, but rather, persevering because he saw “him who is invisible.” By faith, Moses kept that first Passover, sprinkling blood on the door posts so that the angel of death would not strike any of the first born of Israel. By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea as though it were dry land, but when the pursuing Egyptians tried to follow after them, they were drowned. The Exodus accounted for, the author moves to describe the beginning in the taking of the land of promise: the siege and destruction of Jericho, and the role the prostitute Rahab played in it. All of it was done by faith, but none of it was easy.
Jesus has been trying to prepare his followers for his departure. Then he tells them that they know the way to the place where he is going. Thomas objects: they don’t know where he is going; how can they know the way? Jesus responds that he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him—he is the door into the heart of the Father. If they know him, then they know the Father, and having seen Jesus, they have seen the Father. Phillip, not understanding what Jesus means, says, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responds, “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father?” Jesus again affirms that he and the Father are one; the words he speaks are not his own but those of the Father who dwells in him and is doing his work through Jesus. Again Jesus says it, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not believe it, then believe me because of the works that the Father is doing through me.” But more, truly, those who believe in Jesus will do the works that he is doing and, in fact, will do greater works than these. Why? Because he is going to the Father, and, from there, Jesus will do whatever they ask in his name so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. Again he says it: “If, in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Saturday, January 3, 2015, 10th Day of Christmas
Genesis 28:10-22; Psalm 111; Hebrews 11:13-22; John 10:7-17
The covenant promise made to Abram has passed on to his son Isaac, and Isaac has just blessed Jacob and sent him back to his grandfather’s homeland in Haran to find a bride. Having left Beersheba on his way to Haran, Jacob stops as “a certain place” for the night, the very place his grandfather Abram had stopped earlier and worshiped the Lord (Genesis 12:8), though Jacob seems unaware of it. Jacob takes a rock for a pillow and falls asleep. In his sleep, he has a dream of a ladder or stairway (see the footnote) into heaven with God’s messengers ascending and descending, and standing next to it the Lord God himself, who identifies himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. The Lord tells Jacob that the land on which he is resting the Lord will give to him and his offspring. More, his offspring shall be like the dust of the earth and spread abroad to the east, west, north and south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed by these offspring. More, the Lord promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes and will bring him back to this land. The Lord will not leave him until he has done what has been promised. Jacob awakens with a sense of fear and awe, realizing that this is none other than the house of God, lying at the very gate of heaven. Early the next morning, Jacob rises, takes the stone that has been his pillow and anoints it with oil, naming the place Beth-el—“house of God”—though the biblical writer identifies the site by its older name, Luz. Jacob also makes a vow in response to the Lord’s promise: If God will be with him and keep him in this way that he goes, giving him bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that he is able again to come to his father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be Jacob’s God, and the anointed stone, set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And, of all that the Lord shall give to Jacob, a tenth of it he will return to the Lord. The covenant promise has made its transition to the third generation. The land is claimed and named, and Bethel becomes a marker, not only of the event, but thereafter, a place of worship for Jacob and his offspring.
Psalm 111 calls on everyone to praise and thank the Lord from the heart—the soul of wisdom—and to do so in the midst of the assembly, in the company of the upright. It then turns to reflection on the works of the Lord, majestic and splendid, righteous and enduring forever. Yet the Lord is also gracious and compassionate, giving food to those who fear him, and remembering his covenant forever. He has made all of this known to his people and has given them the heritage of the nations. Truth and justice are the works of his hands, and his precepts are forever sure. Upheld forever, those precepts are the soul of righteousness. Sending redemption to his people, the Lord has ordained his eternal covenant with them—holy and awesome is his name. The psalm, which is, in fact, a Wisdom Psalm, crafted in acrostic style (each half verse begins, in descending order, with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with alef and ending with tav, which accounts for some of its unevenness in narrative), ends quoting Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It then adds, “A good understanding have those who do, for the Lord’s praise endures forever.
The theme of faith and faithfulness continues as Hebrews reminds us that all who had come before Jesus died in faith, without having received the promises, but rather, only saw them from a distance. Yet, they still welcomed them, confessing to being strangers and foreigners on earth, seeking for a better homeland, rather than return to the one they had left behind. And that better country they sought is a heavenly one. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them.” The theme of faith returns, as the text recites for us the pattern of the Patriarchs’ faith: Abraham being put to the test and found to be willing to offer up Isaac, though Isaac was the son and link to God’s promise. We are told that Abraham did so because he was convinced that God could raise someone from the dead, and in that trust, received Isaac back. By the same faith, Isaac invoked the promised blessing on his sons Jacob and Esau, which Jacob, when dying, passed on to the sons of Joseph. By the same faith, Joseph, as he came to the end of his life in Egypt, foretold the exodus and gave the people instructions for his burial.
Jesus continues to teach in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles, now taking up the image of the shepherd from Ezekiel 34, who in Israel’s life had been the king. The king was understood to have been chosen and commissioned by God to care for the people, who were God’s flock. God’s reign was the sheepfold and God himself the gatekeeper. But with the loss of a king in 587 BCE, increasingly God was looked to as the shepherd and keeper of the sheep (Psalm 23). Jesus announces himself as the “Good Shepherd,” as well as the gate to the sheepfold. The sheep know his voice and follow him. All who have come before him as messiahs have been thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. He is the gate: whoever enters by him will be saved, and whoever comes in and goes out through him will find pasture. He is a shepherd who not only cares for his sheep, but actually lays his life down for them—unheard of! The hired hands (religious leaders of the day—the Pharisees and chief priests) do not own the sheep, so, when the wolf comes, they leave the sheep behind and run away. Jesus on the other hand, knows his own just as they know him, in precisely the same way that he and the Father know one another. He lays down his life, but does so in order to take it up again.
Friday, January 2, 2015, 9th Day of Christmas
Genesis 12:1-7; Psalm 48; Hebrews 11:1-12; John 6:35-51
Today’s lesson is the hinge between the “prehistory” of the Book of Genesis and the biblical narrative of God’s selection of a people, to be at work among them—the call of Abram. After the episodes of prehistory and a genealogy that traces Abram’s lineage back to Shem, one of the sons of Noah, the Lord says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God then issues what has been called “the covenant of blessing.” Those who bless Abram, God will bless. Those who curse Abram, God will curse; and in Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” At age seventy-five—remember the numbers are fluid and more symbolic than arithmetic—Abram gathers up Sarai and his nephew Lot and all their possessions, including their servants acquired in Haran, and they leave, setting out for the land of Canaan. When they get there, they pass through it to a place named Shechem, an urban site where Joshua will later form a covenant that binds together the twelve tribes of Israel into a nation. This will be the northern edge of the land of promise. There, near the Oak of Moreh, a sacred tree whose name in Hebrew means “teacher” or “oracle giver,” which was probably an older Canaanite site of worship, the Lord appears to Abram saying, “To your offspring I will give this land.” In response, Abram builds an altar to the Lord. The story of God starting over has begun and takes root in Abram and Sarai.
Psalm 48 is a classic psalm of praise that celebrates the Lord’s greatness and presence on Mount Zion, the site of the temple and another name for Jerusalem, the city of God that is the psalmist’s joy. It is probably a pilgrim’s psalm: “As we have heard so have we seen,” and remembers God’s presence in the city, setting the kings of the earth to panicked flight and smashing them as the east wind drives ships against the rocks of Tarshish. Standing within the temple, the pilgrim is struck with a moment of transcendence—this is a “thin place” in life where heaven and earth overlap. And so, the psalmist ponders God’s steadfast love, proclaiming that God’s praise reaches the very ends of the earth. Walk about Zion, go all around it. Count its towers, consider its ramparts. Go through its citadels so that you can tell of its greatness to future generations. Most of all, remind them that God is our God forever and ever and will forever be our guide.
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews addresses the subject of faith and what faith looks like. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” It was through such faith that our spiritual ancestors received their approval, and it is by faith that we understand that the worlds were created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things not seen. The author then begins a recitation of the heroes of faith, beginning with Abel and culminating in Abraham, reminding us that God took Enoch because he “pleased God,” and we are told that without faith it is impossible to please God. For, whoever would approach God must believe that God exists and that God rewards those who seek him. It may seem a statement of the obvious, but it is the fundamental difference between faith and agnosticism—a conviction of things not seen. Next, we are reminded of the faith of Noah who was warned of a phenomenon he had never seen—a catastrophic flood—yet he believed God, becoming “an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.” Then, the text moves to Abraham, beginning with his response to God’s call to “Go!” and the promise of an inheritance. That faith took him to unknown places and events, as he dwelled in the land God has promised to him, living among its inhabitants in tents, as he looked forward to a city whose builder and maker was God. Finally, it was by faith that Abraham received the power of procreation, when he and Sarah were old and well beyond the age of child-bearing. Nonetheless, he had faith that God would fulfill his promise, and through such faith came descendants, as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the sand of the sea. Faith is not hope in hope; it is trust in God, who remains faithful to his promises, even when those promises seem beyond reason.
Jesus begins to speak of himself as the bread of life, the true bread of heaven, using the sacred and ineffable name of God, “I am,” saying “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That said, yet, though they have seen him, they do not believe in him. Why have they yet to respond? Everything that the Father gives him will come to him, and anyone who does come to him he will not send away, for he has come from heaven, not to do his own will but the will of the Father. And what is that? That he should lose nothing of all that the Father has given to him, but raise them up on the last day. Notice that the “eternal life” he promises has now taken on a new dimension. The Jewish leaders begin to complain because he has said this, asking, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” How can he say that he has come down from heaven? They are grumbling against him, not only because of the audacious claim he has made, but also because Jesus has used the ineffable name of God in doing so. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask. “We know both his father and mother, how can he say he has come down out of heaven?” Jesus overhears and tells them to stop grumbling; no one can come to him unless the Father who sent him draws them to him—and they know he is not talking about Joseph! These he himself will raise up on the last day. And now, the stakes get higher and his claims about himself more extraordinary still. Quoting the prophets, he reminds them that the promised time when they would be taught by God has come to them in him. Everyone who learns from the Father comes to him. Not that they have seen God. No one has seen God except “the One” who is from God—he has seen the Father. Whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life for he is the bread of life. Their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness but died. This bread that has come down from heaven has been given so that they may eat of it and never die. And now, lest someone has not yet understood what he is saying, Jesus makes it starkly clear: he is the living bread that has come down from heaven; if anyone eats it, they shall live forever. This bread which he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. We have moved more deeply from Jesus’ description of himself and his mission to a discourse on the nature of bread which is received in his supper. Jesus’ words will become even more plainly Eucharistic in the remainder of this chapter.
Thursday, January 1, 2015 8th Day of Christmas
Genesis 17:1-16; Psalm 99; Colossians 2:6-12; John 16:23b-30
On this first day of the New Year, we turn to the covenant God made with Abraham, reading the priestly tradition of that event. We are told that Abram is 99 years old when the Lord appears to him, using the name El Shaddai—“the Lord Almighty” or “God of the Mountains.”—for in the Priestly tradition the Lord’s name is not known until revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Abram is commanded, “Walk before me and be blameless.” The covenant God is making with him will make him exceedingly numerous (remember, Abram is 99 and childless). Abram falls on his face as God continues to speak, promising to make Abram the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Consequently, Abram’s name, which means “exalter ancestor” is now changed to Abraham, which means “ancestor of a multitude.” Kings will come from him, and God will establish this covenant to his offspring after him throughout generations as an everlasting covenant. In addition, God will give to Abraham and his offspring after him the land where he and Sarai are currently living as aliens—“all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding.” The promise is followed by the command to circumcise every male among them, for this is to be the sign of the covenant that God has made with Abraham and all of his descendants. It is to be administered on the eighth day of the child’s life and is to be done not only to male members of the family, but also to slaves, whether born in Abraham’s household or bought with money. Any male not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be “cut off” from his people. And now, God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, which means “Princess” for she is to be the mother of kings. For now, the promise is that God will bless her and give Abraham a son by her, and from this child shall rise nations and their kings. To this, the faithful Abraham falls on his face in laughter asking himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety bear a child? But this is no joke, as Abraham and Sarah are to learn. The covenant promise will unfold in ways that will continue to test them, but it will unfold and be fulfilled in ways they could never imagine, and not just because they are beyond the age of child-bearing.
Psalm 99 is a psalm of praise that extolls the Lord’s holiness and sovereign power—the mighty King of the universe—who is also a lover of justice. The Lord is enthroned on the cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the temple; let the whole earth quake. For God is not only sovereign in power, but has also established equity, justice and righteousness among Jacob’s people. This, the last of the psalms that praise God as King, was and continues to be used in the church as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and triumphant reign. Because the church of the New Testament regarded the psalms as the work of the prophet David, it quickly understood him to be writing about his greater son, the Messiah. As Moses, Aaron and Samuel all went before the Lord on Israel’s behalf, so also did Christ go into heaven on our behalf. This psalm then blesses God for being forgiving, but also remembers God’s need to avenge wrong-doings. The psalm ends, calling on everyone to extoll, praise and worship the Lord at his holy mountain.
Paul urges the Colossians to remain steadfast in Christ, rooted and built up in him, remaining in the faith they were taught, rather than being distracted and drawn away by the deceptive philosophy and empty deceits of human traditions being taught concerning the “elemental spirits of the universe” and not according to Christ. After all, in Christ, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Why, then, even concern themselves with these other notions? They have come to fullness in Christ, who is sovereign over every ruler and authority. It sounds as though the Jewish-Christian circumcision party is in town as well, for Paul reminds the Colossians that they have already been circumcised with a spiritual circumcision in Christ, in which they have “put off the body of flesh” in him. All of this took place in their baptisms, in which they were buried with Christ and also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised Christ from the dead. From this text, Calvin will come to speak of circumcision as prefiguring the sacrament of baptism.
Jesus has been talking with the disciples about his departure and the sorrow they will know, but how, upon his return, their sorrow will be turned to joy. Now he tells them that on that day of his return, they will ask nothing of Jesus. Until now, they have not asked the Father for anything in Jesus’ name. But, after Jesus returns to the Father, they are to ask and they will receive, and their joy will be complete. Until now, Jesus has only spoken to them in figures of speech. But, the hour is coming when he will speak to them plainly of the Father. On that day, they will ask the Father directly. The Father loves them because they believe Jesus has come from him. Jesus repeats it again to affirm their belief in him, saying, “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” This plain speech the disciples can understand. Knowing that Jesus knows all things, the disciples believe he has come from God.
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.