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Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday, May 1, 2015
Jeremiah 31:15-22; Psalm 138; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 7:1-17

God struggles, out loud, over what to do with his people. Rachel weeps inconsolably for her lost children. Ephraim is both troubled and a troublesome son who has worn his father’s patience thin. Israel is a wife who has betrayed her husband’s trust and has been unfaithful to him. What is the Lord to do? Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife and is here used symbolically as the mother of the nation. The Lord hears her crying and says, “Stop; wipe your tears; there is a reward for your longing for your children.” They will come back from the land of the enemy where they have been taken. There is hope for Rachel’s children’s future. Ephraim was Rachel’s grandson and the ancient patriarch of the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel. It settled in the northern portion of the country and the name became synonymous for the Northern Kingdom after the division between Israel and Judah following Solomon’s death. The disobedient son pleads for relief from harsh discipline, confesses that as a youth he was wild, like an untrained calf. But after his rebellion he repented and turned back, ashamed and dismayed by the failures and follies of his youth. The Lord asks, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?” As often as God has spoken against Ephraim, still he remembers him. Can a parent forget his child? Like Rachel, the Lord longs to have Ephraim back, and will welcome him in mercy. Finally, the Lord speaks to his estranged wife Israel, asking her to consider the road by which she left and to prepare for a journey home. The Lord is prepared to welcome her as a virgin bride, but asks how much longer she will waver in her faithlessness. It does not matter. The Lord has created a new thing on the earth—a new beginning with his people. The phase “a woman encompasses a man” is, as the textual footnote indicates, unclear in the Hebrew. The word here translated “encompasses” can also mean “protect” or “surround.” Is this reference to Rachel’s “encompassing a man” sexually, to give birth to a new nation; is this Rachel’s embrace of her wayward son Ephraim to welcome him back with protection; or, is this Jerusalem receiving, welcoming, “encompassing” and protecting the returning exiles? Whatever it means, its context seems to promise an entirely new thing that the Lord is doing for his people.

Psalm 138 is a psalm of thanksgiving that celebrates the Lord’s intervention on the psalmist’s behalf. The language is rich in the action of praise and worship and the recognition that in all of this God has, again, demonstrated his steadfast love and faithfulness—the qualities that most regularly describe the Lord in the psalter. Thereby, the Lord has again exalted his own name. The psalmist called and the Lord answered, increasing the strength of the supplicant’s soul. The psalm is attributed to David and, clearly, has royal overtones as it notes that all the kings of the earth shall praise the Lord, for they have heard the words of God’s mouth. They too shall sing of the ways of the Lord. Though high, the Lord regards the lowly, but the haughty, God perceives from far away—keeps them at arms-length but still under surveillance! As God has cared for and has intervened in the past, so God shall continue to do so. Consequently, the psalmist confesses, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies.” The psalm ends with a final affirmation of security: “the Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” Then, confessing that God’s steadfast love endures forever, there is one final plea: “Do not forsake me, for I am but the work of your hands.”

Paul reminds the Colossians of their new status in Christ. Having been raised with him in baptism, they are encouraged to seek the things that are “above,” with him, as he is seated at the right hand of God—the place of honor and authority. They have died and their lives are “hidden with Christ in God.” When Christ, who is their life, is revealed, they also will be revealed with him in glory. Until then, they are to live as citizens of the heavenly realm, putting to death whatever is earthly—whatever is “of this world.” Paul then lists a catalogue of evils, half of which are sexual in nature. It is for these that the wrath of God is coming on those who participate in them, as indeed, they once did themselves, before their baptisms. The other half of the things of which they must rid themselves are the sins that destroy human community: anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. Given the fact that they have stripped off the old self and have now clothed themselves in Christ, and are being renewed in his image, they must not lie to one another. In that renewal there is no longer Jew or Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Seythian, slave or free, but simply Christ who is all and in all.

Jesus returns to Capernaum. The centurion who is vested with responsibility for the town is much respected by the people, not only for his generosity—he actually built their synagogue for them—but also his love and good will toward them. The centurion’s highly valued slave is ill and close to death. The centurion, hearing that Jesus has returned, goes to several Jewish elders, asking that they urge Jesus to come and heal the slave. The elders go to Jesus, who responds. But as they are on the way to see the slave, the centurion dispatches friends to say to Jesus, “Do not trouble yourself; I am not worthy to have you under my roof. Simply say the word and my servant shall be healed.” Jesus is astonished by this Roman soldier’s expression of faith, something he has not seen among his own people in Israel. When the centurion’s friends return to him, they discover that the slave has been healed. Such faith has been met with a faithfulness that stretches across great distances to do its work. Soon thereafter, Jesus goes to a town called Nain and, upon approaching the city gates, sees a man who has died, being carried out for burial, followed by his widowed mother. Jesus approaches the men carrying the corpse, places his hand on the bier and says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sits up and begins to speak. Jesus returns him to his mother while all who observed what Jesus has done are “seized with fear.” They glorify God saying, “A great prophet has risen among us. God has looked favorably upon his people.” Indeed, God has, though just how “favorably” they have yet to understand.

Posted May 1, 2015
Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Jeremiah 31:1-14; Psalm 113; Colossians 2:8-23; Luke 6:39-49

In a three-stanza poem, God announces the restoration of his people. Those scattered as they fled the sword shall be gathered home. The Lord has loved Israel with an everlasting love, which is the reason for God’s faithfulness to them in this return. They shall be glorious beyond all expectation. Israel will be restored to her virginal status as a bride for the Lord—her adulterous past forgotten. There shall be songs and dancing. Vineyards shall again be planted in the former northern kingdom of Samaria, and those who plant shall eat the produce of their vines. If sentinels call from Ephraim, it will not be to warn of war but to call people to prayer in Zion. The second stanza of the poem is actually a psalm sung by the Lord, with the announcement that he is bringing a remnant of the people of Israel from the north and from the farthest places of the earth, and they shall come home a great company of people. Even the most vulnerable among them—the lame, the blind, those who are pregnant, even women in labor—shall return with weeping and consolation, as the Lord leads them home. They will walk by brooks and on straight paths, with none stumbling, because the Lord has become a father to Israel, with Ephraim his first born son. In the third stanza, God calls on all the nations to declare that, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd [keeps] a flock.” The Lord has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from hands too strong for him. The people of Jacob shall be radiant over the Lord’s goodness—the grain, the wine, the oil, the young of the flock—and they shall be as fruitful and beautiful as a watered garden, never to languish again. The young women will dance and the men, young and old, shall be merry as the Lord turns their mourning into joy, comforts them, and exchanges gladness for their sorrow. Even the priests will have their fill of fatness as the people are satisfied with the Lord’s bounty.

Psalm 113 is a psalm of praise that blesses God’s name—“the Lord”—as sovereign of the entire earth and calls upon all God’s servants to praise the name of the Lord from “this time on and forever more. From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised. But the Lord is more than “high and mighty.” And so, the psalmist asks. “Who is like the Lord our God…,” who though seated high above the heavens, nonetheless, looks down from afar to raise the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash heap? The psalm continues to extoll the Lord for his concern for all of the creatures of his creation. Not only does the Lord come to its rescue, he makes the poor and needy sit with princes. The Lord has compassion on all in need and does something about it. God does this, not by bringing the mighty “low,” as is the case in other places that extoll the Lord for his concern for the poor and needy, but rather, by raising those in need to the status and conditions of nobility. He gives the barren woman both a home and children—a place to live in safety and a heritage to care for her in her days of need. Hallelujah!

Paul continues to warn the Colossians about the deceptive philosophy and empty deceits of human traditions being taught concerning the “elemental spirits of the universe” and not according to Christ. After all, in Christ, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Why, then, even concern themselves with these other notions preached by his opponents? The Colossians have come to fullness in Christ, who is sovereign over every ruler and authority. It sounds as though the Jewish-Christian circumcision party is in town as well, for Paul reminds the Colossians that they have already been circumcised with a spiritual circumcision in Christ, in which they have “put off the body of flesh” in him. All of this took place in their baptisms in which they were buried with Christ and also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised Christ from the dead. From this text, Calvin will come to speak of circumcision as prefiguring the sacrament of baptism. Before their spiritual circumcision in baptism, they were dead in their flesh. But God has made them alive in Christ, forgiving us our trespasses (notice Paul’s use of the first person plural as he identifies himself with them), erasing the record against us and its legal demands. That record, God nailed to the cross in Christ, disarming the rulers and authorities—even the “elemental spirits of the universe!” God has made a public example of all of them. So, too, for those missionaries among them teaching about matters of food, drink, festivals, new moons or sabbaths—again, the agenda of the Jewish-Christians. All of this is but a shadow of what is to come. Their substance belongs to Christ, so focus on him. Do not let anyone attempt to disqualify you by insistence on abstinence from this or that, or insisting that you have visions or participate in other false religious practices. Rather, hold onto the head—Christ himself, in whom God is nurturing and maturing the body. Once again he warns them: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” Do not submit to their regulations, which are simply human commands and teachings. Though those dictates have the appearance of wisdom to promote piety, they are of absolutely no value in checking self-indulgence, and all too easily can become another form of it.

The Sermon on the Plain turns to the use of parable to make Jesus’ point about the danger of judging one another. Can a blind man lead one who is blind? Will not both fall into the pit? Can one with a beam in her own eye really help a neighbor remove a speck in his? Stop the play-acting (hypocrite). Take the beam out of your own eye first, then attend to your neighbor. Have you ever seen a good tree bear bad fruit, or a bad tree good fruit? You don’t gather figs from thorns, or grapes from brambles. Good or evil emerge out of the hearts of those who are good or evil. It is from the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks, whether good or evil. Why call him “Lord, Lord,” and fail to do what he says? Those who come to him, listen to him, and then do as he says are like the man who, setting out to build a house, dug deep to lay the foundation on rock. When the flood arose, the house stood because it had been well built. Those who hear but do not act are like the man who built a house on the ground with no foundation. “When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

Posted April 30, 2015
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Jeremiah 30:18-22; Psalm 118; Colossians 1:24-2:7; Luke 6:27-38

Jeremiah’s book of consolation, which the Lord told him to write, continues with an oracle of restoration. Now the Lord speaks directly to Jacob and tells him about the restoration of his people. God will have compassion on their tents, and the city shall be rebuilt on its mount—Jerusalem—set on its rightful site. The sound of joy, merrymaking and thanksgiving will come from them again. God shall make them many, not few. They shall be honored rather than disdained. Their children shall gather in assemblies that the Lord will honor, while all who attempt to oppress them shall be punished. No longer will the prince of another people rule over them, but their king shall come from among them. The Lord will draw the king near, and the king will respond and approach the Lord, fearlessly accepting the Lord’s invitation. The poem comes to its grand climax with these words: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

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

In the Christ Hymn, Paul began to reveal one of the challenges facing the Colossians, which seems to be a Gnostic form of Christianity. The Gnostics denied Christ’s incarnation—he only appeared to be human—and, therefore, also denied Christ’s saving death. They viewed Christ only as a heavenly messenger of secret knowledge, which, when attained, assured their own spirits would return to the realm of the eternal, free from bodily constraint. It was a popular movement, especially in Greek saturated culture that held the physical in low esteem, and one Paul continued to confront and preach against throughout his ministry. Notice how often he makes use of physical imagery like blood and flesh and death when talking about Christ. And so, Paul keeps vigilant in the struggle, even from prison, and views his imprisonment as somehow integral to Christ’s own suffering. He even makes the astonishing assertion that, in his suffering, he is making up for what was lacking in Christ’s affliction and doing so for the sake of the church. Paul is not suggesting that his sufferings are redemptive as Christ’s were. He has already made the point of the full sufficiency of Christ and his work—all things were reconciled in him. Rather, Paul is talking about the travails and hardships Paul is enduring on behalf of Christ as Paul has been appointed by God to be the suffering apostle to the Gentiles. Remember, Paul is writing to a church he did not form and has not had a relationship with, and so this is as much missionary activity as pastoral concern. Paul simply sees himself as bearing these hardships as Christ did and doing so on Christ’s behalf, as part of his charge to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles and to guard and build up the church that has emerged from that proclamation. Therefore, he is doing this for the church. He returns to the subject of “mystery”—a cardinal issue for Gnostics—and proclaims that, though it was hidden throughout the ages, it has now been fully revealed to Christ’s saints. God has chosen to reveal among the Gentiles the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The gospel is about more than forgiveness and it is about more than secret knowledge that brings salvation. It is about the astonishing reality of Christ in us! This, not mysterious knowledge, is our hope. Paul now turns to his concerns for the neighboring church in Laodicea, as he wants to encourage them as well—clearly, this was intended to be a circular letter. Continuing with the theme of Christ in us, Paul expands it to remind us that hidden in Christ are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge—the things the Gnostic missionaries claimed essential, and that only they possessed. Paul wants to assure the churches to whom this is written that they already have this in Christ, in order that they not be deceived and drawn away into a gnostic gospel. As they have received Christ Jesus the Lord, they are to continue to live their lives in him, just as they were taught, rooted in the faith and abounding in thanksgiving, for Christ lives in them.

Beyond the blessings and woes, Jesus’ sermon begins to define behaviors that emerge from living within God’s reign—actions so radically different from that of the world that they still astonish us and leaving us asking, “But what if …?” Jesus is unconditional: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If struck on the cheek, offer the other. If someone takes your coat, offer them your shirt as well. Give to all who beg, and, if someone takes away your goods, do not ask for them back. So astonishing is this command that we almost miss his conclusion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is the other side of forgiving others as we have been forgiven. He continues to draw a distinction between those who belong to him and “sinners.” Sinners love only those who love them, do good to only those who do good to them and lend to those they know can return the loan with interest. What value is there in that kind of behavior? Life is about more than reciprocity, and the “tit for tat” ethic that dominates the lives of sinners. Behavior that will change this world means loving our enemies, doing good and lending with no expectation of return. For, this kind of behavior is grounded in God’s behavior toward all of us—yes, everyone, even the sinner. When we behave that way, we reveal that we are children of God who know that life amounts to imitating God in all of our relationships—with both our friends and our enemies.

Posted April 29, 2015
Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Jeremiah 30:10-17; Psalm 116; Colossians 1:15-23; Luke 6:12-26

In this mixed oracle, the Lord begins by assuring Jacob not to fear, telling Israel not to be dismayed, for the Lord is going to save them from afar and their offspring from captivity. They shall return from the lands to which the Lord has dispersed them and they shall be at ease, but those lands shall be chastised in just measure. Suddenly, the poem shifts, and the one addressed is a woman who, as in earlier oracles, is presented as an unfaithful wife whose wounds are incurable and beyond the help of any medicine. All of her lovers have proved false and care nothing for her. In restitution for her numerous sins and great guilt, the Lord has dealt her a blow as though he were her enemy. Yet, those who devour her shall be devoured, and all of her foes shall go into captivity. The plunderer shall be plundered, and those who make her prey shall become prey. The Lord promises to restore her health and heal her wounds. Though Zion is an outcast, the Lord has not abandoned her and will heal her.

Psalm 116 asks, “What shall we give to the Lord for all of God’s goodness to us?” This psalm professes love for the Lord who hears our cries, who is gracious, righteous and compassionate, and who preserves the simple (the naïve), who keeps our stumbling feet on God’s path, preserving our lives. The psalmist had been surrounded by the snares of death; the pangs of dying were upon him as he suffered anguish and distress. As is often the case, the emotional side of his encounter with death was even more traumatic than the physical reality of it. In that anguish, he called out to the Lord to save him and the Lord did. “What then,” he asks, “shall I offer to the Lord in return for all of God’s goodness?” What can one give to God for all God’s goodness? The psalmist will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. He is promising to go to the temple to offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the midst of God’s people. The psalmist makes a final vow: “I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.” He seals this promise with a pledge. Lifting the cup of salvation, in much the way we would offer a “toast” to another in tribute, he simply says, “Hallelujah!”

The Christ Hymn from Colossians makes the gospel’s astonishing claim that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the one through whom all things were created and the one in whom “all things hold together.” Not only were all things created by him, but also for him. In other words, he is the Sovereign God in human flesh; in Calvin’s words, “God’s accommodation to us,” so that we could know who God is, what God is like and what it is God desires. Paul employs these words in his letter to the Colossians (scholarly consensus is that Paul did not write this hymn himself, but appropriated a hymn or confession commonly used in the liturgy of the churches of Central Asia, to make his homiletic point) to challenge the worship of spiritual beings and astral bodies that seemed to have been creeping into the churches’ worship and, therefore, its faith. Christ is not only the Sovereign Lord, he is also head of his church and the firstborn of the dead. All of this is so that he might come to have first place in all things—especially human lives. But Christ is not a remote ruler of the universe unconcerned with creation. Rather, in him, not only was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell, but through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s-self all things, thereby making peace through the blood of the cross. More was taking place on the cross than a demonstration of God’s love for the world. In the mystery of God’s ways, all things were being reconciled to God—notice that it is past tense; God has done it! Having quoted the hymn, Paul now makes the personal application with the Colossians. Though they were once “estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” Christ has now reconciled them and the rest of creation in his human body through death, in order to present them holy, blameless and irreproachable before God, provided—and here is Paul’s point—they continue securely established and steadfast in the faith. God in Christ has done his part. Our part is to respond in faith with lives of gratitude. In addressing an error in the church’s worship in Colossae, Paul has given us witness to the faith of the church enshrined in the hymnody of the mid-first century of the Christian era, a faith it would take another two-hundred sixty years to hammer out into an official creed of the church. What was ultimately confessed at Nicaea in 321 CE actually was being confessed by followers of Christ around 60 CE.

Until now, Jesus has gathered followers. We know the dramatic stories of Peter, James and John, of Levi’s conversion and so on, but now Jesus officially calls twelve to a particular role in his ministry. But, before doing so, he withdraws to a mountain to pray. Luke makes the point that Jesus spent the night in prayer, and only thereafter chose twelve who he names apostles. The name comes from the Greek verb apostello, which means “to be sent with a commission.” These have been commissioned by Jesus to a particular task. Their number is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, chosen in the context of prayer, to be those who will be the leaders of a restored community of God’s people. Yet, even in the midst of the twelve, chosen after significant thought and prayer, one of them will become a traitor—an ever-present witness to the ability of the power of evil to co-opt good intentions. Having chosen the twelve, Jesus comes down the mountain, stands in a level place, surrounded not only by the apostles but also other disciples and a great multitude from not only Judea, but also from the coastal Gentile areas of Tyre and Sidon. They have brought with them their sick, diseased and demented to be healed, and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. So strong was the healing power emanating from Jesus that all in the crowd were trying to touch him. In this context, Jesus begins to preach an extended sermon, in Luke known as “the Sermon on the Plain.” It is similar to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5:1 – 7:28), but here, rather than beginning with ten beatitudes, Jesus begins with a series of blessings and woes. The blessings are addressed to his disciples who are poor, hungry, weeping, reviled and excluded because of their relationship to him. The series of complementary woes are addressed to those who are rich, full, laughing, and highly regarded, very much unlike those to whom Luke is writing. This sermon is as much for Jesus’ disciples in the church where this was later read, as for those gathered there in the plain that day. Behind it lies the question: what does life look like lived under and in obedience to God’s reign?

Posted April 28, 2015
Monday, April 27, 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015
Jeremiah 30:1-9; Psalm 115; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 6:1-11

In the midst of Jeremiah proclaiming God’s judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, God brings a different oracle to the prophet and tells him to write the words down in a book—words of God’s love for his people and their ultimate restoration. These words lie at the center of the weeping prophet’s proclamation and portray a time when the exiled communities shall be returned to the land promised to them long ago, so that they may take possession of it. The Lord speaks directly, revealing the panic, terror and lack of peace the people now experience. These words have been spoken before, especially about the people being like a woman in labor, racked by uncontrollable pain that cannot be stopped until new life is brought forth. But now, the object of that pain is not God’s people, but those who hold them in bondage. God will break the yoke on his people’s neck; burst the peoples’ bonds so that they are no longer held as servants of strangers. When that day takes place, God’s people shall serve the Lord their God, and David shall again be raised up for them as their king. Thus, begins a hint of messianic expectation.

Psalm 115 was probably written for use communally and reflects on the greatness of God as the Sovereign One in heaven who rules over the earth. The psalm calls on God to act on the worshippers’ behalf, lest their enemies, the foreign nations, say, “Where is your God?” Where? In heaven, and he does whatever he pleases! The psalm then levels an attack on the idolatrous enemies—probably fellow Jews—who worship idols—things of silver and gold, made of human hands that have mouths, but do not speak; have eyes, but do not see; have ears, but do not hear and so on. Those who make them are exactly like the sightless, deaf and speechless idols they craft; so too are those who worship and place their trust in them. The psalm then calls on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord! The Lord is their help and shield. The exhortation is repeated, probably antiphonally, another two times, followed by a reminder that the Lord has been mindful of his people and will bless them all, great and small—all who fear the Lord. There is then a blessing, perhaps offered by the priest, praying that the Lord give them and their children increase. The heavens are the Lord’s, the earth has been given to humans, and the netherworld belongs to the dead. There, the dead do not praise the Lord. The psalm concludes with the communal affirmation and promise to bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore, ending with “Hallelujah!”

Today, we begin a continuous reading of the Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is in prison, probably in Rome though possibly Ephesus, and is writing to the churches in and around the city of Colossae. Though Paul did not know the Colossians personally, he knew enough about them to write in order to support and encourage them in their devotion to Christ. On the other hand, Paul is concerned with some questionable practices that are seeping into their worship—possibly angel or astral worship. The letter opens in standard epistolary style, with Paul identifying himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” He is accompanied by Timothy. After greetings of “grace and peace from God our Father,” Paul reminds them of his prayers of thanksgiving for them, having heard of their faith in Christ and their love for all the saints. This is because of the hope laid up for them in heaven, hope they have heard in the word of truth—the gospel that has come to them. That word is bearing fruit throughout the world, just as it is bearing fruit among them. Paul mentions Epaphras, the founder of the church in Colossae, whom he calls his beloved fellow servant and faithful minister of Christ on their behalf. It is Epaphras who has made the Colossian’s faith and love known to Paul. It is for this reason that, from the day Paul first heard these words, he has not ceased to pray for them, asking that they be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as they bear fruit in every good work while they grow in the knowledge of God. He also prays that they may be strengthened in order to enable them to endure everything with patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued all of them—Paul and Timothy included—from the power of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom they have redemption—the forgiveness of sins.

Walking to the synagogue on the sabbath, Jesus and his followers make their way through a grain field, and, on the way, some of the disciples take the heads of grain in hand, rub them to remove the chaff, and eat the grain. The Pharisees see this and quickly point out that this is a violation of the law which prohibits work on the sabbath. Jesus asks them if they have forgotten how David, when he and his men were at the point of starvation, entered the tabernacle where the table held the Bread of the Presence, given to the Lord and only later eaten by only the priests, took it, ate it, and also gave some of it to his men. His historical point made, Jesus again ups the ante saying, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” That must have left the Pharisees’ heads spinning, wondering what he meant. On another sabbath, Jesus enters the synagogue to teach and there finds a man with a withered right hand—the right one being the acceptable hand for eating, greeting and other public activity. The Pharisees and their scribes have now taken up watch against Jesus and are waiting to see whether he will cure on the sabbath, so that they may finally bring an accusation against him. Jesus, of course, knows precisely what they are thinking and asks the man with the withered hand to approach him. As the man does, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and scribes and asks, “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath, to save life or destroy it?” Which is their piety producing? Looking around the room, Jesus tells the man to hold out his hand, and as he does, it is restored. We can be sure the man rejoiced, and others in the synagogue responded in amazement and wonder, as they always do in Luke’s gospel when Jesus heals. But, the Pharisees are filled with fury and begin discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus. Jesus, for his part, knows that in their so-called religious scrupulosity, the Pharisees and scribes continue to miss God’s redemptive and healing purposes in giving the sabbath in the first place—it is to restore life, not restrict it.

Posted April 27, 2015
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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