Sunday, October 26, 2014
Jonah 1:1-17a; Psalm 98; 1 Corinthians 10:15-24; Matthew 18:15-20
We begin today with Jonah, one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. On the other hand, it is among the least well understood. Scholars consider it an allegory, a legend, a novel, a parable, or a satire. All of those dimensions are present. What it is not is a literal account of the prophet’s life and adventure, but a work of fiction to make a point. Of the twelve minor prophets, this is the only one in which the prophecy being made is not written or spoken by the book’s name sake, but rather, by the prophets actions and responses to God’s word. The word of the Lord comes to Jonah: “Go to Nineveh, that great, evil city, and cry out against it.” Jonah immediately responds; he heads in the opposite direction! Boarding a ship for Tarshish, he seeks to sail “away from the presence of the Lord.” (Notice, the notion of God’s omnipresence is not yet understood; God is still localized to a place.) God hurls a great wind on the sea putting the ship at great risk. The mariners toss everything they can overboard in an attempt to save the ship, but to no avail. Jonah, on the other hand, is in the ship’s hold, fast asleep. When the ship’s captain discovers Jonah, he awakens him and demands that Jonah pray to his god for rescue. In the meantime, the sailors have cast lots to see who it is among them that is the object of the god’s wrath, and the lot falls on Jonah. Consequently, they interrogate Jonah in order to discover what he has done to anger his god. Jonah tells them he is a Hebrew and worships the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, who made the sea and the dry land. When they hear this, the men are even more frightened—this is the god who made the sea! They ask Jonah what they should do to him to make the sea quiet down, and Jonah tells them to throw him overboard—he is indeed the problem. They do, but only after calling out to the Lord themselves, asking that they not perish on account of Jonah, and that in tossing him into the sea that they not become guilty of innocent blood. Once Jonah is in the sea it settles down, causing another kind of fear to come over the sailors who immediately offer sacrifices to the Lord and make vows. A group of pagan sailors has been converted in the process. God has used even Jonah’s unfaithfulness for God’s purposes. But Jonah is not yet off the hook. God provides a large fish (it is not a whale, though it is “a whale of a story!”) to swallow Jonah to keep him from drowning in the sea. Jonah spends the next three days and nights in the belly of this great fish.
Psalm 98 exhorts us to “Sing to the Lord a new song!” But the imperative is about more than us; all creation is called on to sing joyfully for what the Lord has done—marvelous things! Israel is called to remember the way the Lord has gotten victory for them in the midst of the nations. In their distress, the Lord remembered his steadfast love for them and his faithfulness to them, and vindicated them in the sight of their captors. All the ends of the earth have seen God’s victory on Israel’s behalf. The earth is especially called to join in the song of praise using all the musical instruments at hand: lyre, lute, trumpets and horns. The personification of aspects of creation is rich and expressive: let the sea roar, and all who live in it; let the floods clap their hands and the hills together break into song at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. And when he comes, he will judge the entire world with righteousness, and its peoples with equity. Joy to the world! Isaac Watts paraphrased this psalm into that well-known and deeply loved hymn. Though most think it was written as a Christmas carol, it is really a metrical setting of this psalm.
Paul continues to use sacramental language to help the Corinthians deal with the controversies among them, in this case, whether it is permissible to eat meat that has previously been offered to pagan gods. In the midst of that argument we hear his theology of the Lord’s Supper: the cup of blessing in the supper is actually the blood of Christ, just as the bread that they break in the supper is the body of Christ. As there is one loaf in the Eucharistic meal that they partake of, so they are one, not only with Christ, but also with one another. Their unity is a given, for it is effected in their eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Supper. Paul then uses the sacrificial practice of the Israelites to further strengthen his point. They offered sacrifices to the Lord and then ate the meat of the animal offered to God as part of the sacrifice itself, in order to make themselves partners in the sacrifice. So too, intentionally eating meat offered to a pagan god makes one a partner in that sacrifice and is forbidden. One cannot partake of the Lord at his table and also partake of the table of demons (false gods). Otherwise, they are provoking the Lord to jealousy, which will bring judgment. Though all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial. In the arguments they are having about this among themselves, they must stop seeking their own advantage and rather, seek to mutually find the truth. The function of debate in the church over issues is not for one side to win over against the other, but rather, together, through such debate and reflection, to discern God’s truth--something all too often forgotten in ecclesiastical councils and debates.
How are disputes, misunderstandings and other differences between church members to be resolved? If your brother or sister in the faith sins against you, go and point it out to them in private so the two of you can resolve it. If they listen, you have regained the one from whom you were estranged. But if they refuse to listen, then take one or two others with you so that the conversation can be witnessed in accordance with the standards of the law—at least two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). If the member still refuses to listen, then bring the issue before the whole faith community. And, if the member refuses to listen to the church, then treat them as you would a tax collector or Gentile—exclude them from the assembly. For what we, as the church, bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, for where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he is there in the midst of them. Here is one of the foundational texts for the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of the powers of the priest to forgive sins (the other is the “keys to the kingdom” that have been given to Peter, “to lock and unlock”). For Protestants, with our conviction of the priesthood of all believers, it means we all have that power. One other thing: notice that this standard of Jesus being present when two or three are gathered in his name is, first and foremost, about church discipline, though it is also true about worship.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Micah 7:1-7 (8-20); Psalm 32; Revelation 10:1-11; Luke 11:1-13
The prophet falls into deep lament; there are no righteous among the people of Jerusalem. As the hungry search for food in vineyards after they have been harvested, the prophet looks for someone to trust. But, as the vineyards and orchards have been stripped bare, rather than leaving some for the poor as the law requires, there is no fig to be eaten; neither is there anyone to trust. The faithful have disappeared from the land. Everyone lies in wait to ambush or trap a neighbor. Their hands are skilled at evil. Officials and judges ask for bribes, and dictate justice to fit their own desires. Even the best of them is like a thorn. Then comes the dreadful warning: put no trust in a friend, not even a loved one—not even your spouse! All will betray and rise up against you. Your enemies are members of your own household. But, for Micah, he will look to the Lord, and wait for the God of his salvation, confident that God will hear his lament. This is where our daily reading of Micah comes to an end, but note there are an additional 13 verses to the book. This last section is Jerusalem’s recognition that the judgment is not the work of her enemies, but comes from the Lord on whom she must now wait, who will ultimately “bring [her] out to the light” where she shall see her vindication. This is followed by a prophecy of restoration—the rebuilding of her walls, the extension of her boundaries, the nations once again being ashamed and themselves turning to “the dread of the Lord” and standing afar in fear of Jerusalem. The book ends with a reflection on God’s ultimate compassion and pardon. Though the Lord has tread Jerusalem’s iniquities underfoot in the time of judgment, he has also cast out her sin, thrown them into the depths of the sea, and will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, just as he swore to her ancestors of old.
Psalm 32 is a wisdom psalm in which the psalmist gives thanks for the gift of forgiveness. “Happy are those whose sin is covered.” He acknowledges that, while he kept silent about his sin, he wasted away, for the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him, and his strength was dried up as the heat of summer dries all things. But when he acknowledged his sin, when he no longer hid it but confessed it, the Lord forgave him his guilt. The psalmist then instructs all who are faithful to offer such prayers of confession, promising that in a time of distress and the rush of many waters, these will not reach or overwhelm them. Again, addressing the Lord, he confesses that God is his hiding place who preserves him from trouble and surrounds him with glad cries of deliverance. The psalm now turns to addressing others, instructing them in the way they should go: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near.” It concludes with one final double affirmation: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Therefore: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
There is an interlude between the sixth and the seventh trumpet, as an angel descends from heaven wrapped in a cloud with a little scroll open and in its hand. He places one foot on the sea and the other on land, demonstrating his sovereignty over the earth, and when he opens his mouth to speak, it is like the roar of a great lion. In response to his shout, the seven thunders sound. Whatever it is John hears in that thunderous moment, he is told not to write it down. Then, the angel raises his right hand to heaven, in oath, and swears by God’s name that there will be no more delay. With the blowing of the seventh trumpet, the mysteries of God will be fulfilled as it had been announced through the prophets. John is then instructed to go to the angel and take the open scroll from his hand. As he does, the angel tells him to eat it. (See Ezekiel 2:8-3:3) Though it will be sweet in his mouth, it will be bitter in his stomach, and, indeed, it was. He is then told that he must prophesy again as a warning to peoples, nations, languages and kings—to the whole world. Notice the continuing theme of the delay of the announced coming judgment so that people can repent, but they do not.
Luke shifts the scene and subject to prayer. Jesus is praying “in a certain place,” and, after he is finished, one of his disciples asks (notice the anonymity—the question is being asked for all of Jesus’ disciples, not just one of the twelve), “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Jesus responds with the Luken version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Father;” it is Jesus’ favorite name for God. Just verses before (21-22), Jesus said that all things had been handed over to him by “my Father,” –the only one who really knows who Jesus is. Similarly, no one knows who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. And so, this lesson on prayer is far less about petitions for this and that, and more about how to develop an appropriate relationship with the Father. Prayer is how we do that. “Hallowed be your name;” the word means to make holy, to hold as sacred and consecrated to holy purpose, it is the name the commandments instruct us not to use in vain. Your kingdom come;” is a plea for God’s reign to be present in and to everyone, and sooner than later. “Give us each day the bread that we need for that day—and that day alone.” If God can do that for us, day by day, as God did for the Israelites in the wilderness, we will have no want. “Forgive us our sins—our transgressions against God and God’s ways—as opposed to “debts which we owe to one another, “for” we forgive everyone indebted to us.” Luke has made it clear that the expectation in the communities of Jesus is that forgiveness of sins is God’s work, and our requests for God’s forgiveness of our transgressions against him emerge out of our commitments to forgive others indebted to us. This is not a quid pro quo arrangement for us. Rather we forgive, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35), because of whose we are and what we know about his forgiveness of us. “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Following Jesus brings test enough in this life; this is a plea to be excused from the ultimate test, such as Jesus himself will face in the garden. These brief instructions are followed by direction to be persistent in our prayer, as the needful neighbor is persistent with the friend who will not respond to his reasonable request, but finally gives in less he himself risks dishonor. If that neighbor knows how to finally respond, then how much more does God know how to meet our needs? Therefore, “Ask, and it will be given you, search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Who, if their child asks for a fish will give her a snake or a scorpion if she asks for an egg? If we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, then how much more will our heavenly Father give, not only what we ask of him, but also, much more—the Holy Spirit.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 35; Revelation 9:13-21; Luke 10:38-42
The Lord is taking the people to court for their infidelity and calls upon the mountain and foundations of the earth to be witnesses. With the plaintive, “O my people, what have I done to you?” the text begins a series of rhetorical questions remembering how the Lord has intervened again and again on Israel’s behalf. The court scene then turns to judgment on their worship, asking what it is the Lord most needs from the people. “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?” Not burnt offerings, not calves a year old, not a thousand rams or ten thousand rivers of oil—the massive numbers are exaggerations for effect. “My first born,” is the condemnation of the practice of child sacrifice that was practiced by people surrounding the Israelites, and took place in Israel on occasion (Judges 11:29-40; 2 Kings 3:26-27; 16:1-4; 21:6). The text then reaches its zenith with its resounding “No!” “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what the Lord requires: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” Some suggest that the last phrase is better translated, “walk wisely with your God.” This is the hallmark of the book of Micah and one of the high-water marks of all biblical prophecy regarding the religious life the Lord expects of his people.
Psalm 35 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies and is filled with petitions for the Lord to rise up, to act, to see, to put to shame and to dishonor those who seek the psalmist’s life. “Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers” is a vivid request, not only for protection, but for the enemy to be utterly destroyed. The language is familiar in the way it describes the psalmist’s distress and enemies, and it falls into three broad categories: those who plan evil in secret against him, those who lie and bear false witness maliciously against him, and those who are treacherous and hate him. Each of these sections ends with a petition: “let ruin come on them unaware,” “How long, O Lord? Rescue me.” “Put to shame all those who rejoice in my calamity.” Then each petition is followed by a vow of loyalty and praise. The psalmist even includes his supporters in his petition, asking that they be able to shout for joy and be glad, evermore able to say, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant.” As is often the case with such psalms of petition, it ends promising that, upon deliverance, his tongue shall tell of God’s righteousness and sing God’s praise all day long.
The sixth trumpet is blown and a voice from the horns of the altar tells the angel to release the four angels of death that are bound at the great river Euphrates. Having been held at the ready for this moment, they are released and kill a third of humankind. Their cavalry is massive in number, and they are portrayed with vivid images of destruction: breastplates of the color of fire, their horses’ heads like those of devouring lions breathing smoke, sulfur and fire, the horses’ tails like serpents inflicting harm. Behind this lies the empire’s fear of the Parthian barbarian hordes east of the Euphrates that the Romans were never able to conquer. But the remaining two-thirds of humanity do not repent or give up worshipping demons and idols, or turn away from their murdering, sorceries, fornications or thefts. Notice that throughout this judgment section of the book, the judgment comes creating opportunities for those spared to repent, but they do not; their evil only increases.
Luke introduces us to the sisters, Mary and Martha, who welcome Jesus into their home. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet in deep devotion, while Martha scurries about the household attending to matters of hospitality. In utter frustration at being left to do all the work by herself, Martha complains to Jesus, clearly expecting him to tell Mary to join her in preparation for a meal. Jesus replies that while Martha has allowed herself to become distracted and worried by many things, only one is needed—devotion to him. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her. This story is not about the value of the contemplative life over the active one, as it has so often been misinterpreted, but rather, is told to warn the readers of this Gospel about the worries and distractions that get in the way of their devotion to Jesus. Also notice the sub-theme of women as Jesus’ disciples.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Micah 5:1-4; 10-15; Psalm 37:18-40; Revelation 9:1-12; Luke 10:25-37
Jerusalem is under siege, its king being humiliated. But from Bethlehem, David’s birthplace, will come a new ruler, like David, who will liberate Israel and restore its strength and prosperity. He will be an authentic shepherd (recurring image for faithful king ruling on behalf of the Lord), and his name will be great throughout the earth as a man of peace. When this was not ultimately fulfilled upon return from the exile, this became one of the texts that fueled messianic expectation. Matthew cites it when the Magi come to Herod looking for the new king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-7). Today’s reading skips two sections which scholars believe to be later additions: verses 5b-6, appear to be a war hymn asserting Judah’s triumph over Assyria, and 7-9 portrays Israel as a remnant, surrounded by nations, yet having the ravenous strength of a lion, enabling its hand to be lifted over all its enemies. The reading picks up in verse 10 with “In that day...,” the prophet’s way of shifting to future fulfillment. It best falls directly on verse 5a, and the prophecy of the new Davidic king. When that monarch arrives, all of the false things Israel has depended upon for strength and security: horses, chariots, stronghold, sorcerers, soothsayers, idols, and sacred poles, will be put away and destroyed. God will cut them off, because they are not necessary. Israel’s strength will be the Lord, who will execute vengeance upon all of Israel’s enemies. The prophets regularly challenged reliance on military might as a sign that the people did not trust the Lord to protect them. The reference to idols and sacred poles reveals the same mixture of Baalism with Yahwism that brought down the Northern kingdom.
Psalm 37:18-40: This wisdom psalm continues, affirming that the blameless will not be put to shame, but ever supported and defended by the Lord. The psalm continues in its acrostic structure to contrast the wicked from the righteous in a series of proverbs. The wicked borrow and do not pay back, the generous give and keep giving. Our steps are firm when the Lord delights in our way, and though we stumble we will not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand. Other memorable proverbs complete the theme of the Lord giving prosperity, life and generosity to those who love him and walk in his ways, while the wicked will be cut off forever. “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing. …. Depart from evil and do good; so you shall abide forever. For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. …. Wait for the Lord, and keep his ways, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked. ….The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord, he is their refuge in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked and saves them because they take refuge in him.”
The fifth trumpet is blown and the first woe unfolds. A heavenly messenger is dispatched to open the gates of the underworld, so that its plagues and wickedness can invade the earth and do its damage. The image is that of the locusts in the Egyptian plague, devouring vegetation, but also locusts with a sting in their tail, like that of a scorpion, inflicting pain and suffering so great that the people will long for death, but death will flee from them. Only those sealed with God’s mark upon them will escape this horror. The imagery is vivid, with a mixture of vicious metaphors. The locusts are servants of Abaddon—the Destroyer, the king of the bottomless pit—but their power and time of destruction is limited. With that the first woe is past, but there are two yet to come.
Jesus has been talking about hearing and doing the word, and Luke inserts an episode in which a lawyer interrupts and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the Law of Moses, and the lawyer responds with what we know as the summary of the Law: love the Lord with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commends him for his correct answer and says, “Do this and you will live.” But unable to live with that, the lawyer equivocates and seeks to justify himself by asking, “But who is my neighbor?” It sets the context for the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus begins, “A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho….” The man is nameless, as an expression of all humankind. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infamous for its dangers, and the man succumbs to robbers who strip him, beat him and leave him half dead. A priest comes along and, seeing the man, crosses over to the other side and passes him by. Commentators wonder if this was his way of protecting his status as one free from the taint of anything unclean, for the man certainly appears dead, but Jesus does not comment on it. So, likewise, the Levite, for perhaps the same reasons, but again, that is not Jesus’ concern. He is simply pointing to the fact that two of the most respected people within the community do nothing. When a Samaritan comes along—among the most despised people in Judah—he intervenes. Moved with pity, he goes to the nameless man, pours wine on the wounds to cleanse them and oil to help them heal, and then bandages them. Then, placing the man on the Samaritan’s animal, he brings him to an inn for care, staying the night. When the Samaritan leaves, he pays the innkeeper two days wages and says, “Care for him, and when I return I will repay you for whatever you spend.” Jesus then responds to the lawyer’s question with an oblique question of his own: who of the three behaved like a neighbor? Of course, the one who had pity and showed mercy. Jesus tells him to go and do likewise and shifts the definition of neighbor from that of someone living in close proximity, within one’s family or clan, to one who behaves in mercy toward others, whoever they may be.
Wednesday: October 22
Micah 3:9—4:5; Psalm 119:25-48; Revelation 8:1-13; Luke 10:17-24
Repeating his indictment against the rulers and the priests in Jerusalem, Micah reminds them that they are deceiving themselves when they say, “the Lord is in our midst,” simply because the temple is on Mt. Zion. The judgment is that because of their corruption, Jerusalem will be plowed as a field and become a heap of ruins, its mountain (the temple mount), a wooded height. But in the midst of all that condemnation comes a word of hope: “in the days to come,” more often translated “in the last days” (KJV or, “in the latter days,”—turning this into prophecy about consummation—the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains). All the nations will come saying, “let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that we may learn his ways and walk in his paths.” From this comes the conviction that, in the end, all nations shall recognize Israel’s God is the only God, and shall come to them to learn the Lord’s ways. It is why Judaism has never been invested in evangelism or proselytizing. The deep conviction remains that ultimately all people will see the truth in Zion. Then, words appear in verses one through three that are also on the lips of Isaiah of Jerusalem: “The Lord shall judge between the nations. They shall beat their swords into plow shares and their spears into pruning hooks.” War shall cease, with all of its calamity. None shall be afraid. Each shall enjoy the work of one’s hands and the fruit of one’s own vines. The curious phrase, “for all people shall walk in the name of its god while Israel walks in the name of the Lord forever,” is a recognition that this time has not yet come and still lies on the distant horizon. For now, only Jerusalem will walk in the way of the Lord, but it shall be forever.
Psalm 119:25-48 is the second portion of this, the longest psalm in the Bible, a wisdom psalm composed using the acrostic pattern. Verse 25 begins with the letter D (dalet) with the theme of “the way” of the Lord, praying, “Teach me your statutes. Make me understand the way of your precepts.” As the psalmist’s soul melts away in sorrow, she pleads for God’s word to strengthen her and put “false ways” far away from her. She speaks of clinging to God’s decrees lest she be put to shame. The psalm is filled with rich liturgical language: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” This theme is repeated in various expressions using verbs like “lead,” “turn,” “confirm,” culminating in the psalmist reminding God that she has longed for his precepts and is pleading, “in your righteousness give me life.” The psalm then turns to letter W (Vav) and two new themes emerge: God’s steadfast love comes through the keeping of God’s law, and, rather than restrict, the law brings full life. Its statutes create liberty, delight and reverence, and, so, she meditates on them continually.
The seventh seal is broken, and all falls silent in heaven for about thirty minutes. Seven angels stand before God’s throne and are given seven trumpets. There is in this book a series of “sevens”—the complete number, in which one expects the culmination with the seventh event, such as the breaking of the seventh seal. But, rather than seeing the culmination, it folds into another series of sevens, as the seventh seal folds into seven trumpets. It is the book’s way of saying the culmination is near, but not yet here. In the silence, prayers are being offered by the saints, symbolized by the abundant smoke of incense rising before God’s throne from the golden altar. The silence is broken by the blowing of the first four trumpets (four being the earth number), revealing the troubles on the earth: fire consuming a third of the trees and vegetation, great mountains burning (volcanos?) exploding and dissolving into the sea, stars falling from heaven drying up rivers and streams, and a third of the cosmic lights being extinguished. These seven trumpets are announcing and unleashing seven plagues. As God used plagues to free the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, these plagues are God’s forerunner to the redemption of the world. At the end of the four, there is a brief interlude as an eagle (symbol of wisdom and high intelligence), flies to and fro crying, “Woe, woe, woe” (the number three being the heavenly number, making this a heavenly warning), to the inhabitants of the earth for what is to come as the three angels blow their trumpets.
The seventy return, rejoicing in what has been happening through them in Jesus’ name. Even the demons submit to them! Jesus responds that, as they did their work, he watched Satan fall from heaven, marking the beginning of the decisive defeat of him and all of his forces of evil. Satan no longer stands in God’s presence making accusations against humankind. The limitation of his power in Jesus’ name has already been demonstrated in his own healing work, and now in their own. Jesus then explicates the authority he has given over to them. However, they are not to rejoice in this power, but rather, that their names are written in heaven. And now, Jesus himself turns to rejoicing, offering a prayer of thanksgiving to his Father, that what has heretofore been hidden from human eyes—especially the wise and the intelligent—has now been revealed to infants—such is God’s gracious will. All that is the Father’s has been handed to the Son, and no one knows the Son except the Father or the Father except those the Son chooses to know him. Concluding his thanksgiving, Jesus turns to the disciples and blesses them, telling them many prophets and kings have longed to see what they are now seeing and hearing.
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.