Sunday August 3, 2014
Judges 6:1-24; Psalm 108; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Mark 3:20-30
Today, we begin the story of Gideon. Again, the Israelites are under bondage to another country, because they have worshiped other gods; this time, the gods of the Midianites. The Midianites are in league with the Amorites and other peoples east of Israel and continue to invade the land and, like locusts, strip it of its produce and livestock, intentionally denying the Israelites food. Equipped with camels, their raids come swiftly. The first time the people cry out to the Lord, God sends only an unnamed prophet to announce why it is they are in such bondage. Then, beginning in verse 11, God speaks directly to Gideon. Notice how the text will vacillate between “Angel of the Lord,” and “the Lord” himself. Generally, in the older Testament, when an “Angel of the Lord,” appears it is the writer’s way of saying it is the Lord himself, but veiled because of the prohibition of seeing God face to face. God says, “The Lord is with you” (singular) and names Gideon a mighty warrior. Gideon protests: if the Lord is with him, why has all this happened to us? Gideon asks, “Where are your mighty deeds of protection and care our people remember?” The Lord (notice it is the Lord now, and not an “angel of the Lord”), turns to him, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.” Gideon again protests: and says, “How; I am the least in my weak clan?” The Lord responds, “I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites.” Gideon needs to know more and asks the visitor not to depart until he returns with a present—an offering. He prepares a rich meal and sets it before the heavenly visitor to see what comes of it; will it simply be eaten as a meal, or consumed as a sacrificial offering? Now the visitor is again referred to as an angel of God, who instructs Gideon to take the meat and unleavened cakes and place them on a rock (it is to become an altar), and pour the broth upon it. Gideon does so, and the angel reaches out with his staff, touches the food offering and it is consumed by fire, and the angel vanishes from sight. It has been the Lord, and now Gideon knows it, and cries out in fear and despair: “Help me Lord God! For I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face.” The Lord responds, “Peace, you shall not die.” Gideon adds additional stones to the one upon which the meal was laid, to turn it into a true altar, and names it Yahweh-shalom—the Lord’s peace.
Psalm 108 is a psalm of praise attributed to David, and speaks of waking the dawn with his praise of the Lord because God’s loving kindness is great above the heavens and his truth reaches the skies. Then the psalm lists the lands that were Israel’s enemies—Moab, Edom, Philistia—that have become subservient to David. Yet he is besieged and feels that the Lord may have rejected him. In reaching out to God, he confesses God’s faithfulness to him. It is God who has granted him his former military success. But has God now abandoned them; will he not go out with David’s army? He pleads for God to intervene with the adversary, recognizing that seeking human is in vain. Yet, in God he will do valiantly, for God shall tread down his adversaries.
Paul is writing to the Corinthians concerning the gift that he is collecting among Gentile Christians for the church in Jerusalem that is experiencing severe financial hardship. The Corinthians were initially excited about participating in the gift, but their ardor has faded away, in part, because of some disagreement they seem to have had with Paul. Here, Paul outlines his theology about giving: there is a direct relationship between our generosity and our prosperity, because God loves cheerful givers. Those who sow little out of a begrudging spirit, receive little, while those who in gratitude and joy sow bountifully reap in that same measure. More important than the gift is the heart. The gift is to come from a joyful, thankful, generous heart, and not reluctantly nor from outside coercion or manipulation. Paul, quoting Proverbs 11:24, goes on to explain that the source of all abundance is God alone, who is able to provide abundantly for them with every blessing as they share abundantly, not only in this offering, but in every good work. Expanding the agricultural image, Paul says that not only does God provide the seed for sowing and bread to the sower to insure that they have what they need, but God supplies and multiplies their generosity and good deeds into another kind of harvest—a harvest of righteousness—so that they will be enriched in every way, spiritually as well as materially. This, of course, is the foundational truth that lies at the heart of Christian stewardship. Not only will their gift help with the needs of the Saints in Jerusalem, the trust behind it will lead to their own prosperity, but more, it will overflow in thanksgiving to God, who is the source of all things. In other words, not only does God give in great abundance to those who give generously from the heart, trusting that God will always see that we have enough, but God also turns such generosity into a spiritual harvest as well, in which we understand to foundational things: who the source of all things really is, and that having enough is best.
Jesus returns home from a healing mission, and when the people learn of it they rush to his home in droves so large that many people are left waiting outside. Among those outside are Jesus’ family members who have come to take custody of him, because they fear he is demented. The scribes who have come from Jerusalem certainly think so and announce that he is possessed by Beelzebul (Satan), and it is by Beelzebul’s power that he is casting out demons. Jesus challenges the assertion with a proverbial question: How can Satan cast out Satan? A kingdom or royal power so divided against itself is doomed to fall. If Satan is casting out Satan, he is finished. Shifting the image, he indulges in another truism, “No one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he has first entered the house and bound the strong man.” And that is precisely what is happening: Jesus is entering Satan’s house and plundering it because Satan is bound against Jesus and his power. What those who accuse him of being possessed do not understand is that he is, indeed, possessed. However, he is possessed by the Spirit of God, and those who blaspheme against him are engaging in unpardonable sin. Every sin and blasphemy that people commit will be forgiven, save one: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit—the Spirit who possesses Jesus. Whatever one thinks about Jesus, do not discount or deny that what he does is the direct result of being possessed and empowered by God’s Spirit.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
Judges 5:19-31; Psalms 122; Acts 2:22-36; Matthew 28:11-20
The Song of Deborah continues, but now, after shaming the four tribes that did not appear, and lauding Zebulun and Naftali, the poem turns to the battle itself. In dramatic and picturesque language, typical of poetic accounts of epic events, God is in absolute command. The stars in heaven and the torrents join God’s forces against the enemy. The thunder of hoof beats is remembered, while Meroz is cursed for having failed to join in the battle for the Israelites. And now the ode turns to Jael to celebrate her part in the victory. Compare this with yesterday’s report of the event and discover the difference between prose and poetry when celebrating a victory—one is spoken, the other sung. Graphic language describes the destruction of the enemy general Sisera. Here there is no mention of hiding under a rug, but rather while he is sitting at table before a giant bowl of curds, Jael destroys him with the tent peg and mallet and he falls lifeless at her feet. The scene then shifts to Sisera’s mother, looking out the lattice of her window, wondering why her son is late in returning from battle. Her wisest ladies dare not speak of defeat, while she herself answers her own question: they are dividing the spoil, two women each for the victorious soldiers, the dyed and richly embroidered cloth and other spoils for her own neck. But against her hope, they have all perished. The song ends with an acclamation and a prayer that all of the Lord’s enemies perish, while God’s friends may be like the sun as it rises in its might.
Psalm 122 is a song of ascent, as a pilgrim makes his way to the temple in Jerusalem. Joy and expectation come together in, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’” This psalm was sung by visitors as they made their way to Jerusalem and the Temple, especially for one of the four annual pilgrimage festivals. Some description of the geography will help here, as Jerusalem is situated on Mt. Zion, the highest of the mountains in Judah, and the temple rested at the very top of the mountain. Therefore, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem, regardless of the direction from which one comes. Jerusalem is identified as built and established by God and its Temple as God’s dwelling place. Its plaintive plea, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” has been answered by innumerable pilgrims to Jerusalem to this very day, and is as important now as it has ever been. May all who love Jerusalem—Jew, Christian and Muslim—learn to live together in peace and prosper within its walls. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the peace of that entire tortured land and its peoples. For until there is peace between the Jews and the Palestinians, there will be no peace in Jerusalem.
Peter continues to preach in response to the crowd’s reaction to the outpouring of the Spirit upon the disciples, and in this sermon we hear the earliest understanding of how it is Jesus was handed over and what his death and resurrection mean. Jesus the Nazarene, appeared among them with deeds of power and wonder—signs that God was at work in him among them. This one they handed over. But this was neither an accident nor solely their own doing. It was God’s design. Yes, they crucified Jesus, doing so through those outside the Law—the Romans. But it all occurred with God’s foreknowledge and design. Consequently, God raised Jesus up, freeing him from death, because it was impossible for death to hold him. Peter quotes as witness, Psalm 16:8-11, a personal lament that confesses trust in God’s power to deliver from the power of Sheol (which by now is identified as Hades), and the assurance that God will not allow his body to decay into corruption, but rather, save him and make known to him the way of life, giving him the gladness of being in God’s presence. Peter then quotes Psalm 132:11 which cites God’s promise to David that one of his own descendants would sit on his throne forever. Standing near the site of David’s tomb (the Upper Room in which they had been staying and David’s Tomb are a stone’s throw away from one another), Peter declares David a prophet who through these words was speaking of the resurrection of the Messiah, now alluding to Psalm 16:10. David did not rise again and ascend into heaven; his tomb is right here. Rather it is Jesus that God raised up—Peter and his 120 companions are witnesses of that. Jesus has been exalted to sit at God’s right hand—the seat of honor. Having been so exalted and having received the Father’s promised Spirit, Jesus has poured out that Spirit upon them, giving them power to speak languages foreign to them, in order that all Jews gathered in Jerusalem might hear and believe. Again, quoting David (Psalm 110:1), and the text Jesus himself had earlier used against the Pharisees, (Matthew 22:41-46), Peter proclaims that Jesus is to remain at the Father’s right hand until the Father defeats all of Jesus’ enemies—making them his “footstool.” Peter concludes, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know that God has made the one they crucified Lord and Christ.” “Jesus is Lord,” is the earliest confession in the Church. It quickly added that he was and is “the Christ—God’s anointed.” Soon, the two were conflated into “Jesus Christ,” shorthand for “Jesus, the Lord, is God’s Christ, God’s anointed means of salvation. At this point “Lord” probably means “Sovereign” or “Master,” and has not yet taken on the connotation that he is also the God the Israelites call The Lord.” That will, however soon be the case.
The women tell Jesus’s words to the other disciples, and while they are going to Galilee, Matthew tells us of the cover-up conjured by the chief priests once the guards told them all that had happened that morning. The chief priests bribe the soldiers into saying that in the middle of the night, while they were sleeping (an astonishing admission for a soldier on guard duty!), some of Jesus’ disciples came and stole the body. If the governor hears of it, they will intervene on the soldier’s behalf to keep them out of trouble. The soldiers take the money and own the story, which, Matthew notes, is commonly told among disbelieving Jew to his own day (remember, Matthew’s gospel is written for a Jewish church surrounded by Jews). Matthew closes his gospel with the disciples and Jesus reunited in Galilee on a mountain, where again, they worship Jesus, though Matthew is forthright in saying “some doubted.” Then Jesus gives them their commission, now known as “The Great Commission.” First, all authority in heaven and on earth now belongs to Jesus—the Father has given it to him. Therefore, they are to go and make disciples of all nations. By the time Matthew writes this gospel, the inclusion of the Gentiles within the church is an accepted fact. They are to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—the three ways they have experienced and known God. As of yet, that has not formed into the notion of One Triune God, but it soon will begin to do so. For now, they are to go forth as Jesus’ envoys, making disciples of all people and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has taught them, and note, this gospel is full of those teachings. Most of all, they are to remember that he is with them always—to the end of the age. And so they did, and so we too are charged to do.
Friday, August 1, 2014
Judges 5:1-18; Psalm 88 Acts 2:1-21; Matthew 28:1-10
Today we hear yesterday’s story told in its older poetic form (prose chronicles were a much later addition and initially not thought as trustworthy as poetic odes), and the text we are reading is some of the earliest in the older Testament, dating to the 12th century BCE. It is called the Song of Deborah (not unlike the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15:21, which is probably the oldest fragment of scripture in the Bible). It celebrates the Lord’s victory over Sisera, and is a classic war victory hymn to be sung to the entire populace. It is to be retold from the most elite (the chief priests who ride on white donkeys, through the ruling class seated on rich carpets, to the lowest class—those who walk. “Locks were long,” and “offered themselves freely,” probably refers to the war locks worn by men who offered themselves freely for battle. Deborah’s battle cry is repeated and Barak’s valiant march and victory are recounted and celebrated. Thereafter, verses 14 through 18 record the responses of each of the tribes to the call to battle, six who came and the four who did not. Finally, Zebulun and Naphtali are singles out for special honor because of their leading role in the battle reported in the previous chapter. Notice that Jael is mentioned only in passing.
Psalm 88 is the lament of one at death’s door, pleading with God for recovery. The psalmist complains that God has not only abandoned him to his detractors and tormentors, but actually is behind the fact that his friends and neighbors are hunting him. He reasons that after death, the Lord will not be able to help. Will God’s loving kindness be proclaimed from the grave, and his wonders be known in darkness? It is both a question and an argument for the Lord to act for his own name’s sake. How can the psalmist sing the Lord’s praises in Sheol? And so, he pleads for rescue from death for his own sake as well as the Lord’s reputation. Interestingly enough, this psalm is one of the few laments that does not end on a note of triumph as do so many laments, but, rather, leaves the psalmist waiting for God to come and act.
The Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, was an agricultural pilgrimage festival for Israelites, a day on which the faithful from far and wide returned to Jerusalem. By now, the community of Jesus’s followers has grown to 120 or so disciples. They are gathered in that same common room where they had gathered after Jesus’ crucifixion and where he had appeared to them. They have been meeting, praying and waiting, as Jesus had told them to do, and, suddenly, the Holy Spirit descends upon them endowing them with the ability to speak foreign languages. We are then told of the devout Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, and the countries from which they have come as part of the diaspora, who are astonished to hear Galileans speaking to them in their native languages. All are perplexed, but the cynical among the people think the disciples are drunk, having imbibed in too much new, sweet wine. That sets the context for Peter’s first sermon, the prologue, which is today’s lesson, explains that they are not drunk; it is much too early in the day for that! (More than one reader has mused about what Peter would have said if this had occurred in the evening!) No, they are drunk on the Spirit, just as the prophet Joel had promised (Joel 2:22-28). Peter quotes Joel telling his listeners that this is a sign of the last days—God is pouring out his Spirit on all flesh just as God promised to do.
The Sabbath past, Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary return to the tomb to hold vigil at Jesus’ grave. Is this “other Mary” Jesus’ mother or another—we do not know, though clearly the readers of this gospel did, for Matthew feels no need to identify her beyond her name, giving support to the argument that the “other Mary” is indeed, his mother. As they approach the tomb, an earthquake erupts as an angel of the Lord descends from heaven. He comes, rolls back the stone from the door of the cave, and sits down upon it. The guards are terrified and fall, silent, fainting in fear and become like dead men. The angel says to the women, “Do not fear…,” almost always the first words out of the mouth of any heavenly messenger sent to God’s people. Yes, they are looking for Jesus who was crucified, but look; “he is not here, he has been raised, just as he said he would!” That said, the angel invites the women to come to the tomb to see where Jesus’ body had been placed, just as they had seen from afar on Friday evening as the day was drawing to a close. Then the angel commissions them to return to the others with the message of his resurrection and promise to meet them in Galilee. The women rush away from the tomb and to the disciples, in a mixture of joy and fear, but on their way, suddenly Jesus meets them with his familiar greeting. They fall to the ground, take hold of his feet to assure that this is more than a vision, and they worship him, the first time anyone has done so. Jesus’ next words to them are, “Do not fear," and drawing them back to their feet he charges them to tell his brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see him.
Thursday, July 31
Judges 4:4–23; Psalm 143; Acts 1:15–26; Matthew 27:55-66
Deborah was a prophet, one of the few women to occupy that role in Israel’s life. She sat daily at a palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim, delivering oracles to those who came to her with questions and giving judgments when there were differences between families, tribes and so on. But, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor.” The commander of Jabin’s army was Sisera. Jabin’s city-state “kingdom” was located on the trade route that crossed from the sea over and up into what is now Damascus. Sisera was prosperous and strong. Nine hundred chariots of iron speaks of Sisera’s tremendous military superiority—Israel is trapped under Jabin’s cruel rule. But Deborah, in her prophetic role, delivers word from the Lord to Barak from the tribe of Naphtali. He is to gather 10,000 men from his own tribe and 10,000 from the neighboring tribe of Zebulun and encamp on Mt. Tabor, awaiting God to draw out King Jabin’s army, under the leadership of Sisera. God will give them into Barak’s hand. Barak says he will do so, but only if Deborah goes with him. This is not cowardice on Barak’s part, but rather his recognition that he needs Deborah’s divine guidance if the battle is to be a success. She agrees, but also tells him that when the day is over, the glory will not be his, but will belong to a woman. Barak does as he is told, summons the men (the 10,000 is probably an exaggeration, and more likely represents “ten military units” similar to squadrons or companies; the ancient biblical writers tend to use number more symbolically than factually). In the mist of the drama, we have an interlude to introduce Heber the Kenite. Descendants of Moses’ father in law, the Kenites were metal smiths, and as such, were politically neutral so as to be able to provide military weapons to all sides. The story resumes with Sisera being told that Barak has taken to Mt. Tabor with troops, and so Sisera pursues him. As Sisera and his troops approach, Deborah announced “Up! The Lord has given him into your hands.” That is precisely what happens. Just as at the Red Sea, the Lord throws the chariots and army into a panic before Barak. In the midst of the battle, as Barak is pursuing the chariots, Sisera dismounts his and flees on foot to the tents of Heber the Kenite, and approaches Heber’s wife, Jael, standing at the door of her tent. She sees him fleeing and invites him into the safety and protection of her tent (such hospitality in the middle east of that age was not simply expected, but demanded between neighboring people who lived peaceably together—Sisera has a right to expect such help.) Jael agrees: she will hide him. Telling Sisera to lie down she covers him with a rug. He asks for a drink and she gives him milk from a skin. Thereupon, he asks her to stand at the door of her tent and if anyone asks of him, say “No, he is not here.” Appearing to agree, she goes to get a tent peg and hammer (women in that day were responsible for setting up the tents), then comes softly to the rug under which Sisera lays, and drives the tent peg through his temple, killing and pinning him to the ground. When Barak, who is pursing Sisera, arrives at the tent, Jael comes forth from her tent and invites Barak in to see his enemy lying dead. The chronicler ends the story attributing not only this victory to God, but also the ultimate destruction of King Jabin of Canaan by the Israelites.
Psalm 143 is the cry of one who has suffered defeat and turns to the Lord for help, recognizing that no one is righteous before the Lord, yet the Lord is merciful. He remembers the old days of victory, the days when the Lord was at hand. And so he stretches out his hand in search of God, lest he go down to the Pit. Pleading for God’s steadfast love, he has asked God to deliver him from his enemies, teach him his ways, and let God’s Spirit lead him on level paths. He is but God’s servant, and pleads no right of his own. Rather, he asks God to do all this because of God’s righteousness and steadfast love--God's name’s sake.
In the interim between Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension, Jesus’ followers have grown tenfold, from the women and twelve who had hidden behind locked doors, until he appeared in the midst of them, into a group of some 120 followers, with the men of the original twelve clearly in leadership. Peter now steps forward to give a theological read on Judas, what he did and why, and what became of him. The account of Judas’ death is quite different than the one reported in Matthew, and, of course, Luke does not include the account in his gospel. Quoting Psalm 109:10 he then lays out the criteria for apostleship: a man (the Greek word is aner, meaning male), who had accompanied them with Jesus from the beginning until he was taken up from them—one of these must join the other eleven in being witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Two are proposed: Joseph called Barsabbas, also known by his Roman name, Justus, and Matthias. They pray and then cast lots for who is to join them in “this ministry and apostleship” from which Judas turned aside. The lot falls on Matthias, about whom, by the way, we never hear another thing. On the other hand, there will be another, named Saul, who does not fit Peter’s criteria who is also “sent” (the foundational notion behind the word apostle), and who will be joined by others, including not only the Twelve in Jerusalem, but also Jesus’ brother James and then a host of others whose names appear in Paul’s correspondence, both Jews and gentiles and at least one woman.
All have abandoned Jesus except for the many women who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and who have been looking on from afar. Among them are the three Marys: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joseph and James (is this Jesus’ mother or are Joseph and James not Jesus’ brothers), and Mary the mother of the sons of Zebedee—James and John. They look on as Joseph of Arimathea, who Matthew names as a disciple of Jesus, goes to Pilate and receives permission to take the body down and bury it. He does so, wrapping it in a clean linen cloth and placing it in his own new tomb. Rolling a large stone over the mouth of the cave, he goes away while the three Mary’s continue to look on. That next day, the chief priests and Pharisees return to Pilate—on the sabbath! Remembering that Jesus had said, “after three days I will rise again,” they ask Pilate to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise, some of Jesus’ disciples might come and steal the body and tell people he had risen, creating an even greater deception. Pilate grants the guards permission to do this, and so the chief priests and Pharisees go, and with the guards, seal the tomb. Notice that this time, the chief priests and Pharisees quote Jesus correctly, whereas in the trial, they had twisted his words to say that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. They know that he said he would rise on the third day and want to do all they can to stop it. The other interesting thing about this is that what they fear—Jesus’ dead body being stolen and developed into a rumor of his resurrection. It is precisely one of the stories that the synagogues will spread to deny Jesus’ resurrection.
Wednesday, July 30
Judges 3:12–30; Psalm 65; Acts 1:1–14; Matt. 27:45–54
“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord….” This is the Deuteronomic school’s historian’s way of saying the people have fallen into idolatry and worshipping the gods of the people who were not driven from the land. And notice that when judgment comes, it comes at the hand of the Lord through one of Israel’s enemies—whether Ammonites, Moabites, Jebusites, and so on, the people they had initially conquered to enter the land. In this case, it is the Moabites whose King Eglon the Lord strengthens to make him an instrument of God’s judgment against Israel. Eglon, who in an alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalikites, subjugate Israel, take “the city of palms,” (probably Jericho), and force the Israelites to serve him. After 18 years of this servitude, the people cry out to the Lord, who hears, determines their punishment has lasted long enough and “raises up” someone to rescue them. In this case it is a left-handed man from the tribe of Benjamin named Ehud. King Eglon is “a very fat man.” Ehud fashions a double-edged sword a cubit long (about the length of a forearm), and straps it on his right leg, under his clothing, so as to appear unarmed (armed men would have a sword visibly strapped to the left side of their body). The Israelites send Eglon a tribute through Ehud, and in the ensuing interaction, after the tribute has been paid, Ehud and those that brought the tribute with him, are sent away. As they pass by the “carved stones,” probably the memorial Joshua set up after crossing the Jordan, Ehud leaves the men and returns to tell Eglon he has a secret message for him from God. Eglon dispatches his guards and draws near to Ehud who uses his right hand to cover his voice and whisper in the king’s ear, while drawing his sword with his left hand and thrusting it so deeply into the king that the hilt disappears under his layers of flesh. Thereupon, Ehud escapes, locking the door behind him. He is long gone by the time the King’s servants discover the dead king. Back among the Israelites, Ehud uses the same language we would expect from Joshua: “The Lord has given them into your hands,” and he leads the Israelites in battle against the Moabites, blocking the crossing at the ford of the Jordan so the Moabites cannot flee to their home country east of the Jordan. None do, about 10,000 are destroyed and Israel is freed from their oppressors for about the next eighty years.
Psalm 65 celebrates God’s abundance as it appears on the earth; but first, this is the God who forgives all our transgressions! This is the God who invites people into his presence to bless them. This is the God who welcomes them in his holy temple; this is the One who answers prayer and is abundant in forgiveness. Now the works of God are rehearsed: this is the God who is known to the ends of the earth—the one who makes “the dawn and the sunset shout for joy!”—what a marvelous phrase for the glory of the sunrise and sunset! God’s sovereignty over creation is remembered, almost to the point of this being a creation psalm. The psalm turns to bless God for God’ lavish acts of provision: abundant rain and water for a plentiful crop of grain, the hills dripping with the fatness of the flocks. Even the pastures of the wilderness drip with such abundance. And so, the psalm blesses God’s deliverance as well as God’s good provision and abundant blessings from the earth. All praise is due to the Lord.
We begin our journey through the Book of Acts, the second book of Luke’s two volume Church history, the first being his gospel. It is addressed to Theophilus, which literally means “God-lover.” Thus begins the transition from the basic story of Jesus and his gospel to the spread of the good news from Jerusalem, to the outer edges of the Empire. Luke begins by telling of the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection until the day when he “went up into heaven." During that time Jesus continues to reveal himself to the disciples by “many convincing proofs.” In other words, he was not with them on a 40 day retreat but continued to come and go and make himself known in ways that were irrefutable. Finally, he gathered them and told them not to leave Jerusalem but wait there for what the Father has promised. “John baptized with water;” he tells them, but they are “to be baptized with the power of the Holy Spirit.” Something totally new is about to take place. The disciples can’t stand it and ask, “Is this the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” That, of course, is what they have been expecting from the Messiah from the very beginning. Jesus tells them that this is not something they are to know. The Father has set a time, but for now, they are going to receive power to become his witnesses, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the utter ends of the earth. This is bigger than restoring the kingdom to Israel. God has grander things in mind, and they are to be a part of it. Having said this, Jesus is lifted up, out of their sight, while they are left—mouths hanging open—wondering where Jesus has gone and when he will be back. This is evidently the first time he has disappeared out of their sight in this way. After all, he has come and gone before, but never quite like this. Suddenly, “two men dressed in white” are standing next to them asking, “Why are you wasting your time sky-gazing. Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven from you will come in the same way you have seen him go. And so, the disciples return from the Mt. of Olivet to Jerusalem and to the room where they had met on Thursday evening for the Lord’s Supper and where they have been staying since. Now of one mind (the first time that has been said about them!), they devote themselves to prayer as they wait. The eleven are named, and with them are the women who had followed and served Jesus, as well as “Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
At noon, darkness falls over the whole land and for the next three hours all wait in silence. About 3 pm, Jesus calls out in the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those standing by misunderstand and think him calling for Elijah to come and save him. One of them runs to get a sponge of wine to give him a drink, but others say “Wait; let’s see if Elijah comes.” Jesus gives one last cry and is dead. At that very moment, the curtain in the temple that veiled the Holy of Holies shielding its sacred presence from the profane is suddenly torn in two from the top to the bottom. Matthew is doing more than reporting on events; he is making a theological statement. God is no longer veiled behind a curtain, and access is no longer limited only to the High Priest once a year on the “Day of Atonement.” “Top to bottom,” means that it took divine action to do this. The darkness that covered the earth for those three hours is now gone, and in the earthquake that accompanies Jesus’ death, rocks are split and tombs are broken open. It is reported that many of the saints (Jewish martyrs) were raised back to life and walked the streets of the city that night, for Jesus’ death has meant their release from captivity. In the midst of the chaos, the Roman Centurion in charge of the crucifixion detail cowers in fear saying, “Truly this man was God’s son.”
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.