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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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.

Posted August 20, 2014
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

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.

Posted August 19, 2014
Monday, August 18, 2014

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.

Posted August 18, 2014
Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Judges 16:15-31; Psalm 118; 2 Corinthians 13:1-11; Mark 5:25-34

We reach the conclusion of the Samson saga, as Delilah pleads, pesters and begs Samson to stop lying to her and tell the truth about the source of his strength. Finally, Samson relents and confesses that he is a nazirite, that no razor has ever touched his head and that his strength resides in his hair. If it is cut, he will be as any other man. Delilah tells the lords of the Philistines and then makes a plan for Samson’s capture. She lulls him to sleep on her knee and then calls a man to shave Samson’s head as he sleeps. As the seven locks fall away so does Samson’s strength. When she discovers that his strength really is gone, once again she announces, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you.” Samson rises expecting to be victorious once again, but without his hair he is overwhelmed and captured. The Philistines, rejoicing in finally capturing their enemy, gouge out his eyes, then take him to Gaza and put him to the grain wheel. Time passes. During one of their religious festivals to their god Dragon, they gather in Dragon’s temple and decide to make sport of Samson by bringing him in for their amusement. The room is filled with lords, priests and women all mocking Samson. But what they have forgotten is that while at the grain wheel, his hair has grown back. Asking the slave boy who leads him into the room to direct him to the central pillars upon which the building rests, the boy does. Then Samson offers a prayer asking God to remember him and grant him his former strength. God does, and Samson pulls the house down upon himself, killing himself and all the Philistines therein. We are told that in that event, Samson killed more Philistines than all of those he formerly slaughtered. The story ends repeating what has earlier been said: Samson ruled as a judge in Israel twenty years. The cycle of stories has clearly been shaped for telling and teaching—especially to children—and contains lots of exaggerations as to numbers, to glorify Samson, and makes the point that a life or portion of it dedicated to God as a nazirite gives one great strength, which comes from the Lord. There are other nazirites in the Bible: Samuel and John the Baptist the most notable among them, but Samson remains the most romantic of them all, though anything but upstanding, and perhaps the most memorable of the judges in this book.

Psalm 118 opens with the familiar words: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” With these, 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 closes this second letter to the Corinthians reminding them that his forthcoming visit will be the third time he has come to them. And so he tries to make preparation for that visit so that it may not be as painful as the last, but one that builds them up in the faith. There have been disagreements, allegations and questions about his credentials as an apostle, and even the gospel he preaches. He warns that this time he will not be lenient with them, quoting the law which requires two witnesses to substantiate any allegation. The so called “super apostles” that have been resident in Corinth since his initial visit, and who seem to have been behind the accusations and upheaval, have ridiculed Paul for his weaknesses. Paul, for his part, has chosen to embrace those weaknesses as sources of strength through Christ in him, knowing that when he is thus weak, then he is truly strong in Christ, for though Christ was crucified in weakness, he was raised in power, but more—Christ now lives within them! When he is “in Christ” he is strong. After his warning, Paul charges them to examine and test themselves—do they not know that Christ dwells in them as well?—unless, of course, they have failed the test. And now Paul prays that they may know Christ’s strength and abstain from evil, not so that he may be approved, but so that they may do what is right, even though, to them, Paul has failed to meet the same test. But then, after a word of warning about the standards and authority he bears from Christ for the building up of the church, Paul turns to a final section of exhortations: rejoice, be complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace and the God of love and peace will be with them.

A woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years, who has spent all that she has on physicians and suffered much at their hands without any cure, decides that she has nothing more to lose and she risks going into a crowd in order to try to get near enough to Jesus to touch the hem of his robe. She has heard about him and believes that if only she can do that, she will be healed. (A brief word about what her condition has done to her, not simply physically, but emotionally. Because of the constant flow of menstrual blood, this woman has been “unclean” for twelve years. That means that she could not have contact with others without rendering them unclean as well. She could not move within her family, she could not have contact with people in her community. Beyond what touch she might have experienced at the hands of doctors, there were no other forms of physical contact in her life. She was isolated and dying as much emotionally as physically. The judgment that would fall on her for rendering others unclean was significant. Yet, she risks it.) As Jesus accompanies Jarius, the ruler of the local synagogue, to his home to heal his dying daughter, the woman pushes into the crowd and, as Jesus passes by, she reaches out and touches his garment. Immediately, two things happen: first, she feels the power of God surge into her body and instantly, the flow of blood stops within her; she has been healed; second, and equally as instantly, Jesus also feels that same power move through and out of him and stops in his tracks and demands to know who touched him. Is he angry; what is his motivation in asking the question? The disciples, for their part are flabbergasted that he is even asking. Doesn’t he realize the crowd that he has drawn and how everyone is jostling and jockeying to get near him? How can he ask, “Who touched my robe?” But the woman hears his question and knows precisely what he means. Cowering in fear and trembling she falls at his feet and confesses what she has done and what has happened to her. Jesus looks at her and simply says, “Woman, your faith has healed you—made you whole.” Thereupon, he turns and continues to go with Jarius on to his house. In your mind’s eye, what do you see the woman doing next? She is not only healed of her infirmity, she has been made whole: she can return to her family and to her community and to a life she has not known for twelve years. One other thing: it was not her faith that healed her, regardless of what Jesus said. It was the power of God moving through Jesus into her life that healed her. Faith, for her, was simply acting on what she believed. Faith is not thinking this or that about Jesus or God. Faith is acting in a particular way because of what we think and believe. As James said in his epistle, “Faith without action is dead.”

Posted August 17, 2014
Saturday, August 16, 2014

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Judges 16:1-14; Psalms 107:33-43; Acts 7:30-43; John 5:1-18

The chronicle of Samson’s escapades among the enemy Philistines continues, this time with what results from his weakness for women, first with a prostitute from Gaza. When the men of Gaza realize he is with her, they gather at the closed city gates, prepared to block his way and capture him. At midnight Samson arises and, upon recognizing the city gates locked against him, simply pulls the doors and doorposts off the wall, puts them on his shoulders and carries them to the top of an adjoining mountain. Now, we turn to his adventures with the woman from the valley of Sorek—Delilah—with whom Samson falls in love. When the lords of the Philistines discover this, they come to Delilah offering a huge sum of money if she will entice Samson to tell her the secret of his great strength, in order that they may finally overcome and be rid of him. She agrees, and thus begins three incidents in which she tries to discover his secret (which, of course is no secret to any child in Israel listening to these heroic episodes—he is a nazirite, and dedicated to God, his source of strength). And so, she manipulates Samson’s affections for the information. But notice that Samson is not the fool they think him to be. Three times he gives her false information: bind him with seven fresh bow-strings not yet dried; bind him with new ropes never before used; weave his hair into a web and tie it up and pin him to a loom. Each time she tries to thus bind him and then announces that the Philistines are upon him, the lie reveals itself and Samson prevails. But Sampson is smitten, and continues to play her game, soon to his detriment.

Psalm 107 opens the fifth book of the Psalter with, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” Verse after verse examines the way God’s steadfast love has been expressed and experienced in Israel’s life and salvation history. Today we are at the conclusion of the psalm. Verses 33 through 43 focus upon God’s providence and sovereignty over creation. God changes rivers and springs into waterless wasteland and rich fields 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. The Lord brings down princes who abuse their power and lifts up the needy. The righteous see it and are glad while the unrighteous look on with shut mouths. If you are wise, give heed to these things and consider the loving kindness of the Lord.

Stephen continues to review salvation history, picking up the story with Moses in the Sinai wilderness, where, after forty years, the Angel of the Lord appears to him to send him back to Egypt to be the one through whom God liberated his people. In rich narrative, Stephen tells the story of Moses and God at the burning bush. In doing so, he adds a spin: God chose Moses, who the people rejected, to be their liberator. He will build on this theme. Moses leads the people forth from Egypt, through the Red Sea and to Mt. Sinai, where he converses with God and receives the oracles passed on from God through him to the people. Moses promised that God would raise up among them yet another prophet like him, (Stephen is setting the groundwork for introducing Jesus as the culmination of God’s plan for the people’s liberation). Yet the people rebelled, repudiated Moses’ work and leadership, asked to return to Egypt, and turned to Aaron who made for them a calf of gold. Stephen also reminds them of other incidents of idolatry and apostasy, bringing along with them the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, as well as their idols to which they offered sacrifices while in the wilderness wandering. For this, God would remove them to Babylon.

Jesus leaves Galilee for Jerusalem, in order to observe the Passover feast, and enters into the city by the sheep gate next to which was a pool named Bethesda; it had five porticos. The space was filled with invalids of many kinds, the lame, the blind, the sick, the withered, all waiting for the stirring of the waters. For when that happened, it was believed to be the work of an angel, so that whoever got into the waters first was healed. Jesus encounters a man who has been ill for 38 years and asks him if he wants to be well. The man replies, “Of course; but how, I have no one to put me into the water when it is stirred? Someone always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus responds, “Arise, take up you pallet and walk,” and immediately the man is healed, takes up his pallet and walks. It happens on the sabbath. When the Jewish leaders see the man walking and carrying his pallet, they rebuke him and remind him that it is not lawful to do so on the sabbath. Are they blind to what has happened to the man, or simply so preoccupied with keeping the law that they have forgotten its greater purpose? The man’s response is a classic of obedience: “The one who healed me told me to do so, and I did.” Their response is equally classic but in its obtuseness: “Who told you to take up your pallet?” They seem oblivious to the fact that the man has been healed and are only concerned with the sabbath violation. Either way, the healed man does not know who Jesus is, as after the healing Jesus slipped away into the crowd. Later, Jesus finds the healed man in the temple—the first time the man has been permitted there in 38 years—and Jesus tells him to be sure he sins no more so that no further afflictions befall him. In that exchange, the man recognizes Jesus as the one who has healed him, and goes away from the temple telling everyone who will listen that it is Jesus who has healed him. We are told that it was because Jesus was healing on the sabbath that the Jewish leaders began to persecute him but, when confronted for it, Jesus would respond, “My Father is still working, as I myself am working.” And so the persecution takes on new dimensions: now they look for ways to kill him because of his blasphemy: he is not only breaking the sabbath laws, but calling God his Father and making himself equal with God.

Posted August 16, 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.

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