Friday, August 22, 2014
Job 2:1-13; Psalms 140, Acts 9:1-9; John 6:27-40
Job faithfully withstood the test of the accuser and remained faithful, even with the loss of his children and all his property. After some time, the Lord once again receives the angelic heavenly beings (in the Hebrew, literally the "sons of God") in his courts, and among them is the satan. Once again, the Lord asks the accuser what he has been up to, and we hear that he has been moving to and fro on the earth doing his work bringing accusations. Again the Lord asks, “Have you considered my servant Job,” and in that boast opens the door for the accuser to level another challenge: “Skin for skin.” Touch him personally with physical pain and suffering and he will do anything to save his life. Again, the Lord accepts the wager, giving complete control over Job to the accuser, with one condition: he may not take Job’s life. We know it; Job does not. So the satan leaves the Lord’s courts and inflicts Job with loathsome sores from head to foot. Still sitting on ashes, now scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery, Job is the personification of abject misery. To make matters worse, the only family member still alive—his wife—adds to his despair by challenging him to end it all, to “curse God and die.” A careful look at your translation will reveal the word she uses is "Bless God, and die." It is a euphemism that can be translated either way. If "bless" it seems she is still convinced of Job's integrity, but given Job's suffering, she is giving him permission to end it. If "Curse," as tradition has translated the text, she is mocking Job's professed integrity and tenacity, and simply wants it over. Job’s deprecating rebuke reflects not only the sexism of the day, but also his sense of her rebuke--if not mocking--and issues again a variation of his answer the first time: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not the bad?” Still, Job has not sinned. Enter three of Job’s friend, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar; they have come to console him, but as they approach, Job’s malady is such that it has changed his appearance. When they realize this, they raise their voices in loud lamentation, tear their robes, throw dust in the air and upon their heads, and sit with Job seven days and seven nights without uttering a word; so great is Job’s suffering.
Psalm 140 is a plea for the Lord to deliver the supplicant from an enemy (NRSV has made it plural in accord with its commitment to inclusive language, but this is a single foe), who is violent, who constantly plans evil against him, whose language is as poisonous as a viper, and now has planned the psalmist’s downfall. After describing the foe, the psalm turns to affirming confidence in God’s willingness to hear this plea and respond to this supplication that God not grant the desires of the wicked one. Rather, the psalmist asks the Lord to see to it that the foe’s planned mischief fall on upon the foe himself and that he then be flung into the pit, never to rise again. Finally, the psalmist includes himself among the poor, the needy and the righteous, all those whose causes the Lord maintains. For this, surely the righteous will give thanks to the Lord’s name; the upright will dwell in the Lord’s presence. This is a psalm that Job could well have prayed as he sat on the ash heap, and is, in many ways, an expansion of the phrase, “save us from the time of trial,” in the Lord’s Prayer.
We return to an account of Saul’s murderous rage against the followers of “The Way”—the phrase that was initially used to describe the members of the infant church, recalling John’s “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Paul goes to the High Priest and asks for credentials to go to the synagogues in Damascus, in order to root out any followers of Jesus he might find among them and bring them bound, back to Jerusalem for trial. As he approaches Damascus, suddenly a blinding light from heaven flashes around him and he falls to the ground as a voice calls him by name and asks, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul replies, “Who are you, Lord?”—Lord here simply being a title of respect to someone obviously one’s superior. The voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” To persecute one of Jesus’ followers is to persecute Jesus himself! Jesus tells Saul to get up and go into Damascus where he will be told what to do. The men who are traveling with Saul stand speechless because they too have heard the voice, providing the mandatory two witnesses scripture demands to verify an event, but they see no one. Saul gets up, but now the encounter has left him blind, both physically and spiritually, so that his companions must lead him by the hand to Damascus. For the next three days, Saul neither eats nor drinks as he lives in and struggles with his personal darkness and the meaning of all of this.
“Work, not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to life eternal, which the Son of Man gives to you, for upon him, God the Father has set his seal.” This sets the context for a sermon on Jesus as the bread of life, the true bread of heaven, which, like the manna in the wilderness, the Father has sent to them that they may eat and live. “Work,” here is defined not as an activity, but rather believing in Jesus whom the Father has sent. Ironically, they ask yet for another sign—did they not know that the feast they had on the hillside came from five barley loaves and two fish? Whatever, they ask about the work and sign that Jesus is doing so they might believe. Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses who gave them the manna in the wilderness, but his Father, who now gives them the true bread from heaven—bread that gives life to the world. They plead for that bread always, not yet recognizing that he is in their midst. And so, Jesus says, again using the sacred and ineffable name of God, “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 is 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—and here the dynamic of life eternal takes on a new dimension—raise them up on the last day. The hard word to hear in this dialogue is that unless the Father has “given” us to the Son, we cannot believe in him. The good news is the Father has given all of us to him.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Job 1:1-22; Psalms 131; Acts 8:26-40; John 6:16-27
We begin reading our way through the book of Job. This is the high-water mark of wisdom literature in the Bible as it takes on the question scholars call "theodicy": why evil and suffering exist in this world if God is truly Sovereign and a God of justice? This massive poem challenges the “conventional wisdom” of much of the Old Testament that says, if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, no ill will come your way. Rather, it plumbs the depths of the question of why the righteous suffer. And a word of warning: it will not answer that question! The book is a composite of a legendary folk tale of a man named Job, who becomes the innocent victim of a wager between God and Satan, who suffers terribly, but refuses to curse God and die, yet, insists on his own righteousness and demands that God appear and account for himself. Between the initial wager and the end of the story, both told in prose narrative, we have chapter after chapter of sophisticated Hebrew poetry as four of Job’s friends visit him and argue about the nature of God’s ways, revealing the religious convictions and cross-currents of the time in which it was written. The story opens proclaiming Job blameless and upright, describing his prosperity and piety. Then, we hear about the wager between God and Satan. (“Satan” as it is translated here is not the demonic character we encounter in the New Testament sometimes called “the Devil” and sometimes “Satan.” A more appropriate translation of the Hebrew satan is “the accuser,” or “adversary,” for that is precisely what he does and is, with regard to Job.) The Lord looks upon Job with great pleasure, delighting in his righteousness and piety, and the satan utilizes that pleasure as an opening to issue his challenge, “Does Job fear God for nothing? After all, you have built a fence about him to shield him from all evil and you have blessed everything that he does. Why shouldn’t he remain righteous and pious? But take that away from him and see what happens.” And thus, the wager is on. God puts Job into the satan’s hands to do with as he likes. There is only one limitation: do not touch Job physically. What follows are the series of disasters within the family that leave Job sitting on the ash heap in torn robes and with shaven head—signs of intense mourning—yet, still worshipping God, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job will not blame the Lord for this. In that, he remains blameless. But also notice, it is not the Lord who is doing this to Job. Nonetheless, it leaves us with the haunting question of why God would permit it.
Psalm 131, though brief, is lovely and filled with quiet confidence in God’s ability and commitment to care. Its female imagery suggests that its author may have been a woman. It gives us a wonderful and lyric picture of someone who knows that pride leads to the fall, and contemplation of matters beyond one’s capacity for understanding leads to frustration, at best, and anguish, doubt and even denial, at worst. Rather, she calms and quiets her soul, like a weaned child does, resting securely in her mother’s embrace. So, too, she will do what she calls all Israel to do: hope in the Lord, and rest in God’s embrace. The juxtaposition between her quiet trust and Job’s aggressive desire to probe the depths of meaning is strikingly refreshing. You may want to come back to this psalm again and again as we work our way through the Book of Job.
The infant church continues to expand and become more diverse. Philip has returned with the others from the Samaritan mission and is now dispatched by the Spirit to Gaza where he comes upon an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official for the Queen of Ethiopia, returning home from having been in Jerusalem, where he was worshipping in the temple. Whether he is a Jew whose ancestors were scattered into Egypt at the time of the Babylonian exile, or is a proselyte, is unclear. What is certain is that he is a Jew and has been to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, though as a eunuch, he would have been permitted no closer than the temple courtyard. As he rides along in his chariot, he is reading out loud, as was the custom of the day, the Prophet Isaiah’s fourth suffering servant poem (Isaiah 52:13—53:12). The Spirit prompts Philip to approach the eunuch and ask him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch’s response has ever-after been one that undergirds the importance of preaching, teaching and bearing witness: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” It also bears witness to the fact that, as a eunuch, he probably had not been permitted into the full Jewish assembly where scripture was read and interpreted (Deuteronomy 23:1), and so had no background for what he was reading. Asking who the prophet is writing about, himself or another, is a question that gives Philip his entré to proclaim the good news about Jesus. As they travel and engage in further conversation, they come to some water and the eunuch says, “Look, water; what is to prevent me from being baptized?” Notice that some translations include a verse 37, which has been omitted because it is clearly a much latter addition to Luke’s text. The answer to the eunuch’s question is, of course, nothing! In the Messianic age, both eunuchs and foreigners are welcome (Isaiah 56:4-7). What kept him from the assembly will not keep him from inclusion within the church. Philip baptizes him, and, immediately, the Spirit snatches Philip away and the eunuch sees him no more, but goes on his way rejoicing. Though we do not hear more about him in the Book of Acts, we know that the church in North Africa traces its origins to this court official of the Queen of Ethiopia who was introduced to the good news of Jesus on his way back from Jerusalem and shared that news with his own people upon his return home. And so, the church continues to increase and welcome all who will come, but as yet, it is still a Jewish sect.
Jesus had withdrawn from the crowd and the disciples after the miraculous feeding when the crowd wanted to make him king by going further up the mountain and leaving everyone behind. As evening comes, the disciples head back home, rowing their way east to Capernaum. About four miles into their journey across the lake a storm arises. In the midst of it, suddenly, they see Jesus walking on the water and they are rightfully terrified. Approaching them he says, “Do not be afraid,” that word which so often precedes a moment of God’s self-revelations, and then he says, “I am!” which, of course, is God’s name. Unfortunately, the NRSV translation “It is I,” misses the point altogether. In the midst of the storm, Jesus reveals his glory—he is Lord of the storm and the sea. As the disciples urge him to join them in the boat, they suddenly discover they have reached home. The next morning, the crowd that had been left behind on the mountain side and had seen the disciples leave without Jesus wonder about him and decide to go looking for him. Some boats arrive from Tiberias and transport the people to Capernaum. When they arrive there, they find Jesus, and they ask how it is that he got there. Jesus ignores their question and reminds them that they have come, not because they have seen and understood the signs of his feeding them, but because they ate their fill and are once again hungry. He then tells them to stop working for the food that perishes, but rather work for the food that endures for eternal life—food that endlessly brings them into the life-giving presence of God in Jesus. That is the food that he has to give them, if they will receive it.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Judges 18:16-31; Psalm 119:145-176; Acts 8:14-25; John 6:1-15
Six hundred Danites armed with weapons stand at the gate of Micah's city, while the five men who had spied out the land enter Micah’s house and take the ephod, molten and graven images and idols. When the Levite asks what they are doing, they encouraged him to join them and come and be their priests. He happily agrees and helps them take Micah’s images, ephod and idols. They leave the city, putting the “little ones,’ and their flocks in front of them as they go—they have come to stay in Laish! When the men near Micah’s house discover what has happened, they set out and catch up with the Danites. When the sons of Dan see them coming, they ask “What is it with you?” and they reply, “You have taken our ephod, our graven images and idols.” The sons of Dan demand their silence lest the warrior among them hear them, turn on them and destroy them, and having said that, the Danites continue on their way. When Micah and his men realize the Danites are much too strong for them, they return home without their idols or priest. The sons of Dan and the Levite move on to Laish, and they discover it just as the five had said: peaceful, quiet and secure, but without any defense. They invade the city, putting its people to the sword and burning Laish to the ground. Though there is no mention of this being a holy war, the Danites behave as though it is—the Lord is giving Laish into their hands. They rebuild the city, inhabit it and name it Dan after their ancestral father who was one of Israel’s sons, and set up the graven image that had belonged to Micah, and install Jonathan son of Gershom, and his sons thereafter, to be priests among them. Finally, we know the Levite’s name. With this, we leave the reading from the book of Judges behind. The last three chapters are a gruesome story of extreme violence, rape, dismemberment, inter-tribal warfare and the vengeance taken against the tribe of Benjamin for its abuse of and crime against the Levite’s concubine. The story witnesses, not only to the fact that the Israelites were still a lose confederacy of tribes--living out of tribal loyalty at its worst and leading to violence that all but obliterated the tribe of Benjamin--but to the abuses of power that were possible within the patriarchal social structures of the day. Why it is included in the book is something of a mystery until you reach the last verse of chapter 21, which again tells us that in those days there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes, which, of course, links it to the first verse of the story in chapter 19. The bookend verses is the editor’s way of preparing for the need for, and emergence of the monarchy to bind the twelve tribes together into one people, with one rather than twelve identies, lest they destroy one another and God’s covenant people cease to be.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the entire collection of 150 (151 if you are Roman Catholic), and the longest chapter in the entire Bible. It is an acrostic poem: each eight-line stanza starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with the first (Alef), and continuing in order to the last (Tav). The central theme is praise for God’s Law (Torah) and, though it contains mini-psalms of praise, petition, lament, meditation, trust and confidence, it is, in the whole, a wisdom psalm. Notice how the two-line statements often function like a proverb: “The sum of your word is truth; and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever.” (v. 106), or, “Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.” (v. 173) Today’s portion, verses 145-176, brings the psalm to a close and reveals the psalmist in distress at being under attack by his enemies, yet confident that because he keeps God’s commandments and entrusts himself to God’s steadfast love, he shall prevail. Professing love for God’s commandments, he pleads for his own revival. With a series of short one-verse statements, he professes his love, his loyalty, his faithfulness in worship (seven times a day he praises the Lord), his observance of God’s precepts and testimonies. The Lord can see all of this; therefore, he asks that his prayer be heard and that he be given understanding according to God’s word. Promising service with his lips, his tongue and his hands, he longs for the Lord’s salvation that he might continue to praise him, something of a reversal of the frequent question that appears in other places: “How can the dead praise you, O Lord?” Penitent to the end, he finally confesses that he has “gone astray like a lost sheep” and asks God to seek him out, for he does not forget the Lord’s commandments.
Word of Philip’s mission, announcing the good news in Samaria, reaches Jerusalem, and Peter and John are dispatched to assure that all is in keeping with the word of God they are proclaiming. When they get to Samaria they discover that the people have not yet received the Holy Spirit, which is explained by saying that they have been baptized in the name of Jesus only (by the time Acts is written, the three-fold name of God has become the standard for baptism). And so, Peter and John lay hands on them (notice that they are not re-baptized!), and they receive the Spirit. Simon the magician has been a witness to this, but has, himself, not yet received the laying-on of hands, and so he goes to John and Peter and offers them money to lay hands on him so that he too might receive that power and pass it on to any he might lay his hands on. He receives not only a severe rebuke for thinking that God’s power can be purchased, but more, a curse! But rather than seal the curse as they did with Ananias and Sapphira, they demand that Simon repent of his wickedness and pray that the Lord will forgive him. Simon responds by asking for their prayers to keep the curse from taking place. We do not know what happened to Simon, but ever-after, any attempt to buy or sell any religious service in the church, especially baptism and communion, has been called “simony.” The grace of God is freely given and to be freely received. Peter and John remain in Samaria long enough to testify and speak the word of the Lord, and then return to Jerusalem proclaiming “the good news” to many villages of the Samaritans. The church is becoming larger than a sect of Jews, though still limited to those whose touchstone and way of life is shaped by Torah.
The sixth chapter of John is rich in symbolism and built around two miracles that then become the foundation for long discourses which are really sermons. Today the miracle is the feeding of the multitude of five thousand, with five loaves and two fish—the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. It too is a “sign,” and, it is because of the signs that Jesus has been doing among the sick that the multitude follows him. Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberius), and seeing the crowd coming after him, he goes up a mountain and sits down with his disciples to await the people. Turning to Philip, Jesus sets him up by asking, “Where are we to buy bread enough for these people to eat?” Notice that Jesus has assumed responsibility for their care and well-being, anticipating their need for food. It is, after all, God’s nature to do so. But all of this is a context to speak about another kind of food that is his to give. Philip simply witnesses to the impossibility of attempting to feed the crowd. Peter’s brother, Andrew, reports on a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that in this crowd? After having the disciples tell the people to sit down on the grassy slope, Jesus takes the boy’s loaves, gives thanks and then distributes the bread and the fish to the people. Notice the Eucharistic language—“took,” “gave thanks,” “gave it to them” (behind the word translated “distributed” is the Greek word for “handed over to them”). This language is not accidental, as we will see later in this chapter, where this sign is further amplified in its significance. Everyone has as much as they want, and when all were satisfied (again, the language is not accidental), Jesus tells the disciples, “Gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost,” and they fill twelve baskets. It is not only a sign of the abundance at Jesus’ hand, but also a word to the church for whom this Gospel was written (signified by the number twelve), that there is bread enough for them as well. At this sign, the people realize that this is the Prophet that Moses spoke of, and move to acclaim him Messiah and make him king. But Jesus will have none of it, and withdraws higher up the mountain to be by himself.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Judges 18:1-15; Psalm 123: Acts 8:1-13; John 5:30-47
Of all of the tribes of Israel, Dan had not been given an allotted portion in the land of Canaan, and so now seeks one for itself. They select five of their most able men from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out a place to settle, and these men travel through Judah on their way up to the northern hill country and arrive in Ephraim and Micah’s city. There, they encounter the Levite who has become Micah’s priest and they ask him to inquire of the Lord as to the success of their venture. The Levite comes back to them with a positive answer, and so they continue north to Laish, a quiet, peaceful place far enough north to be free of other Israelite tribes’ domination and far enough southeast to be free of the reach of Sidon. It is so secure that it needs no walls to protect its city. The men return to Zorah and Eshtaol and report on what they have found and declare that “the Lord has given it into our hand,” rallying 600 men to join them to go take Laish and make it their own. The men travel through Judah, camping along the way, and then back to Ephraim where Micah and the Levite live. The five who had spied out the land say to the others that there is within the house of this city an ephod, graven image, molten image and idols, and so they turn aside to see.
Psalm 123 is the plea of a supplicant coming before the Lord in humility asking for God’s gracious mercy in helping her contend with the scorn and contempt of her enemies. Notice that it is entitled “A Song of Ascents,” meaning it was used by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem to worship in the temple. As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master and as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress for help, so the psalmist looks to the Lord for mercy amid the abuse and degradation of the proud. Those who live in ease, remain not only oblivious to the psalmist’s need, but actually blame her for it as justification for their doing nothing to help. Does that sound familiar?
Paul not only consented to Stephen’s stoning, but wholeheartedly agreed and took up the persecution of the young church with great zeal, going into people’s houses and dragging them off to prison. The oppression scattered the church in all directions, save for the apostles who remained in Jerusalem. But as the church scattered, it also continued to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, and so the faith expanded from Jerusalem outward in direct proportion to its maltreatment. Phillip goes into Samaria; a place of refuge, for Jews had no dealing with Samaritans, and while there proclaimed Christ. The multitude listens to him—do they remember their two-day encounter with Jesus and the woman who named him the Christ? (John 4) They also see the marvelous signs that were taking place at Phillip’s hand, as many demons were cast out and many paralyzed and lame people were healed, resulting in great rejoicing. In that city there is a man named Simon who has practiced magic among them and claims to be a great, and the people of the city have regarded what he does as the great power of God. But, as they listen to Philip and see what he is doing, they believe and are baptized, women and men alike. Even Simon is baptized and follows Phillip, constantly amazed at the things that he is seeing at Phillip’s hand.
Jesus continues to talk about his relationship with his Father and the results of that relationship. He does nothing on his own initiative, but rather, seeks to do the will of his Father. What he hears from his Father he does, thus his judgment is just. He does not bear witness to himself; he has no need to do so. He reminds them that John has been a witness to him, and though John was a lamp burning and shining bright, and though they were willing to rejoice in his light, they have ignored the truth that John has announced to them about Jesus. No matter; Jesus does not need human witnesses, for the work he does is sufficient witness that he has been sent by the Father to them. The Father has born witness to him but they neither know nor hear the Father’s voice. How does he know that they have neither heard his voice nor seen his form? They do not believe him who has sent Jesus. Rather, they search the scriptures, thinking that doing so will bring them eternal life, when in fact, the source of eternal life is standing among them. The scriptures all bear witness to him, yet they refuse to come to him. Jesus does not need the glory that comes from people who glory in one another but do not receive the glory that comes from God. He knows that they do not have the love of God in them, because he has come in his Father’s name and they have not accepted him. Ironically, if another were to come in his own name, they would accept him. How can they believe, when they accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Returning to the theme of judgment, Jesus tells them that he has no need to judge them; Moses himself will be their judge. They have read him and his witness but refuse to accept it. If they cannot believe his writings, how will they believe Jesus’ words? This conversation with the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem is over. He will be on his way to another place in Galilee; there is work for him yet to do.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Judges 17:1-13; Psalm 106:1-18; Acts 7:44-8:1a; John 5:19-29
As we take up these final chapters of Judges, the pattern changes. No longer do we hear the formula that the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and the Lord handed them over to an enemy. Rather, now the focus is on the dissolution of the nation as tribe rises up against tribe, and ultimately, civil war breaks out between them--they have become their own enemies! Today we hear about that transitional time, before the temple in Jerusalem, when the Levites became the resident priestly class, and when, lacking a Levite in one's midst, priestly duties could be carried out by any Israelite male. The story begins in the northern hill county occupied by the tribe of Ephraim: a man named Micah, which means, “One who is like the Lord,” who tells his mother that the eleven hundred pieces of silver that were taken from her, and about which she uttered a curse in his own hearing, is in his possession; he took them, but is now returning them to her. At that, the mother reverses her curse and turns it into a blessing and consecrates the silver to the Lord, so that her son can make an idol of it. Though all idols were forbidden by the law, it is instructive to see how easily that law was disregarded and how prevalent idols were in the Israelite cultures of this time, considered a “necessary evil,” to facilitate their worship. Of the eleven hundred pieces returned, the mother takes two hundred to a silversmith who makes it into an idol that is then set up in Micah’s house. Micah then builds a shire for the idol, including fashioning an ephod and teraphim (human figurines used in divination and other magic, to secure the prosperity of the household—remember the ones Rebecca took with her, and sat on as she, Jacob and Leah fled her father’s household?). Micah then installs one of his sons as priest. The chronicler then makes the editorial comment that, because there was no king in the land, people did what they thought was right in their own eyes. It is the editor preparing the way for the need and establishment of the monarchy in Israel. The story now shifts to a young man from Bethlehem in Judah, who is a Levite, who leaves there and moves to the north in search of priestly work and a new home, and ends up residing with Micah, who employs him to be his religious “father” and priest. The Levite agrees and becomes like a son to Micah. Now that Micah has someone from the priestly tribe as his own priest, he is certain that the Lord will bless him.
Psalm 106 begins with the familiar refrain, “Hallelujah [“Praise the Lord”]! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” However, rather than a psalm of praise, it is a corporate confession of sin, remembering the numerous ways the people have remained faithless 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).
Stephen continues to stand before the Council on trial, as he chronicles the works of God among the Israelites, today remembering the tabernacle given them in the wilderness that was brought into the land with Joshua, as God drove out the nations before them until the time of David. Though David wanted to build a house for the Lord, that was not his to do, but that task fell to his son Solomon. And now Stephen cuts the history short and turns to his point: God does not dwell in buildings made of hands, and then quotes the prophet Isaiah as God asks, “What kind of house will you build for me…? Did not my hand make all these things?” And from there, Stephen levels his judgment against the Council: they are stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ear, forever opposing the Holy Spirit just as their ancestors did. Which of the prophets did their ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, but now, they have actually become the Righteous One’s betrayers and murderers. Though they received the law ordained by angels, they have refused to keep it. Such criticism and denouncement, no matter how true, cannot go unchallenged and, so, the Council members are even more enraged. Stephen, rather than defend himself, is now further filled by the Holy Spirit and announces that he can see into heaven and is looking at God’s glory (presence), and he sees, standing next to God, at God’s right hand, Jesus, the Son of Man. Willing to listen no more, the Council members rush Stephen, drag him out of their chambers to the edge of the city and begin to stone him. Standing by as witness is a young Pharisee named Saul, at whose feet they lay their cloaks, as they continue to hurl their stones. Stephen receives the hail of rocks in prayer, asking Jesus to receive his spirit, and then kneels over to turn his back to their blows while crying out in a voice loud enough for them to all hear, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” With that, he dies, while Saul stands by approving of what is being done. Thus, Stephen becomes the first martyr for Jesus. Commentators note how Luke has told this story in a way that reveals Stephen as a reflection of Jesus and his own behavior before his captors and executioners. The persecution of the church has begun, and with it, the fruit that such persecution always brings—renewed faithfulness and growth.
The Jewish leaders are shocked and angered by Jesus’ claim of relationship with God and consider it blasphemy, a sin punishable by death. Jesus, for his part, simply elaborates on what he means by having just said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” He can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; what the Father does, he does. The Father, for his part, loves the Son and therefore shows him all that he is doing. Greater works than these will he do and will they see, to the point of their astonishment. Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father, rather than act as judge, has given that authority to the Son, so that the Son may be honored. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father. Their judgment against the judge is, in fact, judgment against themselves. But all who hear Jesus’ words and believe him who sent him have eternal life and do not come under judgment, for in believing, they have passed from death to life. And now, Jesus turns to even more astonishing claims: the dead hear his voice and, as they do, they live. The Father, who has such power, has granted it to the Son, along with the power to judge, because he is also the Son of Man. The two things understood to be only within God’s power—exercising judgment and giving life—the Father has given to the Son. More astonishing still, the hour is coming when those in the grave will hear the Son’s voice and they will come out of their graves, those who have done good, to resurrection and life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation. They think him blaspheming—dishonoring God—when in fact, he is revealing to them who he is, bringing God’s presence directly into their lives.
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.