Monday, January 5, 2015, 12th Day of Christmas
Joshua 1:1-9; Psalm 96; Hebrews 11:32—12:2; John 15:1-6
Moses has died (or has been taken to heaven alive, as an extra-biblical account says), and Joshua, heretofore Moses’ assistant, is now in charge. The Lord speaks to Joshua and tells him it is time to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land that the Lord has promised. Every place the soles of their feet tread upon, the Lord will give to them, just as the Lord promised Moses. The dimensions of the land are identified: from the wilderness of Lebanon to the river Euphrates, and from the land of the Hittites to the great sea in the west. These are, in fact, the boarders of the kingdom under Solomon’s reign. The Lord tells Joshua that he will be with him as he was with Moses; he will not fail or forsake him. And then the Lord says, “Be strong and courageous….” Repeating the charge, the Lord reminds Joshua of the need to keep the book of the law, and turn neither to the right nor the left, from it. Joshua is to “meditate upon it day and night.” If he does, he and the people will be prosperous and Joshua will be successful. This charge from the Lord to Joshua, will appear some twenty-eight times, in various forms, across the pages of scripture, from Deuteronomy 31:6, when Moses first speaks the words to Joshua, to 2 Timothy 2:1 when Timothy is charged to find strength in the grace of Jesus Christ. For Joshua, it is the reminder that God’s ways are recorded in the books of Moses that he has been given. He is not to depart from them. It is the charge that David will give to his son Solomon at the end of David’s reign as it transitions into Solomon’s, reminding Solomon that he cannot lead on his own or out of his own resources. It is the culmination of Psalm 27 that begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear?” For the church it is the same reminder: “Be strong in the Lord and the strength of his power.” Ephesians 6:10. Strength and power belong to the Lord, who gives them to those who wait in trust on him.
Psalm 96 celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and is a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, and will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.
Hebrews continues its roll-call of the faithful, remembering some of the great judges who appear in the book by that name: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah. It then moves on to Samuel and David and the prophets, who through faith accomplished mighty things. The list includes allusions to the biblical heroes of faith from Sampson to Daniel and beyond, the miraculous works of Elijah, raising the widow’s dead son back to life, Elisha, and into the period of the Maccabees. These suffered greatly under the Greek rule of Antiochus Epiphanies. They were flogged, imprisoned, stoned, even “sawn in two,” others killed by the sword. They wandered destitute, dressed in the skins of sheep and goats, being persecuted, living in caves and holes in the ground. Yet, through faith they persevered—the world was not worthy of them. But even as great as their faith was, they did not receive the promise, because God was awaiting something even greater. They were not, apart from “us,”—the author’s readers—to be made perfect. Having built his case for the foundational role of faith, the author uses those models of faith as witnesses, and calls upon those who read and hear his words to join them by laying aside every weight and sin that they so closely cling to. Rather, with perseverance they are to run the race that is set before them, looking to Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of faith”. For the sake of the joy that was to be ultimately his, he endured the cross, disregarding it shame, and has now taken his seat of honor at God’s right hand. All that had come before, in that great roll-call of faith, has been brought to perfection in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. Therefore, let us lay aside anything that would keep us from following him.
In one of his many “I am” saying, in which Jesus uses the ineffable name of God as a designation for himself, he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser.” The image of the vine was a strong one in the Old Testament for the people of Israel. Jesus tells his followers that he is the true vine and they are the branches. Every branch that does not bear fruit, the Father takes away. Every branch that does bear fruit, the Father prunes so that it may be even more fruitful. After reminding them that they are clean because they belong to him, he tells them that no branch can bear fruit unless it is connected to the vine, therefore, they are to abide in him, and he in them, that they may bear much fruit, for apart from him they can do nothing. Those who do not abide in him will be broken off, gathered up and thrown into the fire and burned.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014, 7th Day of Christmas
Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 98; 2 Corinthians 5:16—6:2; John 8:12-19
We are still in the apocalyptic section of 1st Isaiah, and, here, a hymn of victory has been inserted. It is a celebration of God’s victory in and for Judah whose city (Jerusalem) is strong, because the Lord “sets up victory like walls and bulwarks.” The command is given to “open the gates so that the righteous nations that keep faith may enter in.” Here is Isaiah’s theme of Zion as the center of the world, to which all the righteous, not just of Israel, but of the world, will come by nature because it is God’s home. Notice that those of steadfast mind from everywhere the Lord keeps in peace because they trust in him. The song urges trust in the Lord forever, for in him is “an everlasting rock”—an image that appears again and again in the Psalter, that Isaiah uses for God several other times (Isaiah 17:10; 30:29, 31:16, 44:8, and 51:1). The Lord has brought low the inhabitants of the heights, laying the unnamed lofty city that had been Jerusalem’s oppressor low, so that the feet of the poor and needy trample on it.
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 has been writing about the love of Christ who died and was raised for all. The consequence of this is that we are to no longer view others “from a human point of view,” using the standards of the world by which such judgments are made, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, but we know him thus no longer. Paul now unfolds his theology of God’s new creation initiated in Christ being raised from the dead—the new point of view we have on Christ. So, if anyone is in Christ, they are part of God’s new creation; the old has passed away and everything has become new. All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us (Paul, the Corinthians, the church), the message of reconciliation. Consequently, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal to the world through us. Paul quickly adds the basic challenge of the gospel: “be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ!” It was “for our sake that God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Returning to the controversy in Corinth, Paul reminds them that they are working together with God in Christ; Paul urges them not to accept the grace of God in vain. Here, he quotes Isaiah 49:8, reminding them that God has promised to listen to them at “an acceptable time,” and on a day of salvation, to help. Paul then adds, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” It is upon this portion of 2 Corinthians that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Confession of 1967 was written.
Jesus is in the treasury of the temple, teaching at the Feast of Tabernacles, and employs his “I am” sayings to take up another image—light—a common metaphor for the presence of God and itself an important element in the Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life. The Pharisees challenge him for testifying on his own behalf, a testimony that is therefore not valid. Jesus does not deny it, but says, “even so, it is valid, because I know where I have come from and where I am going, while you know neither!” Further, the Pharisees judge by human standards; Jesus judges no one, but simply does what his Father tells him. But if he did judge, it would be valid, for it is not Jesus alone who judges but the Father who sent him. Quoting the law back to them, he reminds them of the Torah’s requirement of two witnesses to make something valid. He then says that he and his Father are those two witnesses. The Jewish leaders respond by asking where his father is. Jesus tells them that they know neither him nor his Father, for if they knew him they would know his father. To know Jesus is to know the Father and vice versa. It is open testimony to who he is, but they cannot hear it. The lesson closes by telling us that he continued to teach this openly in the temple, but no one arrested him, because “his hour had not yet come.” Whereas in the other three gospels, Jesus’ identity is a secret (Mark), or not fully disclosed until the trial before the Sanhedrin or Pilate (Matthew and Luke), in John, Jesus speaks very openly about his identity as God’s Son, and as the gospel continues to unfold, that becomes even more apparent. It is one of the reasons that John has been a favorite among people involved in missionary and evangelistic ministries.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014, 6th Day of Christmas
Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:9-20; John 7:53—8:11
We are in the apocalyptic section of First Isaiah, leading scholars to think it was written by Second or Third Isaiah and later inserted here. It begins as a hymn praising God for having fulfilled ancient plans by destroying the enemy (who that might be is uncertain), leaving those who are strong absorbed in praise and the ruthless nations surrounding Israel standing in awe and fear. God has been a refuge and shelter for the needy. Now the poem turns to the future, following God’s intervention. On this mountain (Zion), the Lord will make a feast of rich foods and well-aged wines to celebrate its redemption. He will destroy the shroud cast over the people and swallow up death forever, wiping away the tears from all faces. On that day it will be said, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us rejoice in his salvation.” This text had profound impact on both Paul, as he wrote to the Corinthians about the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54), and John of the Apocalypse (Revelation 7:17).
Psalm 93, probably used during the annual enthronement of Israel’s king, has been appropriated by the church for Easter, because, in his resurrection, Jesus has become King of kings and Lord of lords. The psalmist praises the majesty, strength and holiness of the Lord—Israel’s true king—and recalls how all creation has been fixed by God and shall not be moved. So, too, is God’s throne firmly fixed from of old and is “until everlasting.” Even the floods join their voices in praising God’s majesty. God’s reign is eternal, God’s decrees are sure, and only holiness is suitable for God’s house. In the enthronement, this psalm reminds Israel’s king of who it is who truly reigns in Israel, and to whom he is accountable—the Lord.
John identifies himself as his readers’ brother in the faith, who shares with them the persecutions, the kingdom and the patient endurance called for from them during this time. He has been exiled to the tiny island of Patmos, because of his preaching and teaching the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. It is Sunday, the Lord’s day, and as John sits praying (in the Spirit), he hears a voice like a loud trumpet behind him, commanding him to write down in a book all that he is about to see and then send it to the seven churches of Central Asia, which are named: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. As John turns to see whose voice it is, he sees seven golden lamp stands—sources of light among the people and symbols of the seven churches. In the midst of the lampstands, he sees “one like the son of man,” the risen Christ. The churches are not left to themselves in this time of trouble. The risen Christ stands among them. John, well versed in his Hebrew scriptures, uses verse after verse to describe Christ in glorious composite, cosmological terms. He wears a long robe with a royal golden sash across his chest. His head and hair are white as snow, like the ancient of days. His eyes are flames of fire like those of the one who sits on the throne of God, and his feet refined, burnished bronze. His voice is like the sound of many waters. In his right hand are the seven stars (total sovereignty over creation), and from his mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword, which we recognize as the word of God. His face shines like the sun shining with its full force. John has drawn together biblical images from Judges 5:31, Ezekiel 1:24, 26; 9:2, 11; Daniel 7:9; 10:6 (the son of man texts) and Isaiah 49:2. It is an image that defies any attempt at portrayal, and for good reason—this is apocalyptic literature revealing the coming one—recognizable, but totally new in his otherworldly glory. Seeing this, John falls at the risen Christ’s feet as though he were dead. Christ places his right hand on John and says those familiar biblical words, “Do not be afraid.” Again the image of first and last is used, but now the emphasis is upon Christ as “the living one.” He was dead, but he is now alive forever, and has the keys of Death and of Hades; he is Lord of them as well. John is told to write what he has seen and what is to take place after this. The mystery of the seven stars is explained as the angels assigned to guard the seven churches.
This story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery does not appear in the very earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel and appears to be a later addition. That is why it is placed in double brackets in the NRSV text, as the footnote will attest. However, the theme of Jesus returning to the temple from the Mount of Olives, early in the morning, fits the chronology of what we have been reading in Luke. The story is well known and beloved. Jesus is teaching. The scribes and the Pharisees haul before him a woman who has been caught in adultery, and, again, in an attempt to test Jesus, they quote the Law of Moses, which says she should be stoned. They ask Jesus what he has to say about it. Jesus says nothing. Rather, he bends to the ground and writes with his finger in the dirt—we know not what; this appears to be a symbol of his disengagement. When the religious leaders continue to demand an answer, he stands and responds with his well known, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he bends to the ground and writes as the accusers all fall away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. Standing again, Jesus addresses her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.” Neither will he; rather, he sends her on her way with the injunction to not sin again. Forgiveness is intended to enable us to live into new life. Whether or not it appeared in the earliest manuscripts of John or was a story from a different tradition that was later added by an editor, its message is gospel through and through.
Monday, December 29, 2014, 5th Day of Christmas
Isaiah 12:1-6; Psalm 96; Revelation 1:1-8; John 7:37-52
Immediately before today’s lesson, Isaiah has announced the restoration of Israel by the messianic shoot that shall come forth out of the stump of Jesse. In response, it appears that editors have inserted this five-verse psalm of praise introduced by a verse that acknowledges that though the Lord was angry, God has turned that anger away and brought comfort. Thus, “Surely God is my salvation,”—notice how personal this psalm is and not a communal word of thanksgiving: “I will trust.., the Lord is my strength and my might, he has become my salvation.” The God speaks in promise again: “You will draw water from the wells of salvation.” “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the nations—proclaim that his name is exalted.” The psalmist concludes calling for everyone to sing praises to the Lord, and to let his glorious deeds be known throughout the earth. It concludes calling on “Royal Zion” to shout aloud and sing, for “great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
Psalm 96 celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, but will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.
We begin to read the opening section of the Revelation that was given to John—not the apostle John, nor even the evangelist John, but one who is a brother in the faith and a servant of Jesus Christ. It is a revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Jesus to show to his servants concerning what must take place. All of this is made known by God, sending his angel to his servant John who now testifies to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ. What follows is what John has seen and heard. That introduction is followed by a blessing upon the lector of the congregation who is reading the letter to the people in worship, along with a blessing on those who keep what is written in it; “for the time is short.” Scholars believe that the letter was to be read in worship at one sitting. John now addresses the seven churches that are in Asia with words of grace and peace from “him who is, who was and who is to come”—a frequently recurring phrase, not always in the same order, to speak of God who was, is and is to be. John mentions the seven spirits before God’s throne (seven being a symbolic number for completion), and from Jesus Christ, now named, “faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” With that short phrase John has encapsulated the sovereignty of Christ and his purpose. This is followed by a lovely ascription of praise to Jesus, “who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests, serving his God and Father, to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever. The ascription ends with an “Amen,” and quickly jumps to “Look, he is coming soon with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all of the tribes of the earth will wail.” So it is to be. And now God speaks the final word to this section, utilizing the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to affirm his fullness: “the God who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
On the last day of the festival, as the priests are pouring fresh water on the altar as an offering to God, Jesus stands and cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let those who believe in me drink,” and with allusions to Isaiah 44:3, 55:1 and 58:11, he proclaims himself the source of new life. As his body is the manna of Passover, he is also the life-giving water celebrated in the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). The author quickly reminds us that Jesus is talking about the gift of the Spirit, which believers will receive after Jesus’ glorification. When the crowd heard this, some said, “He really is the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But the skeptics in the crowd returned to the theme of his origin—Galilee. The scriptures are clear; the Messiah is from David and will come from Bethlehem. And so, a division occurs among them. The temple police return to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed, so overwhelmed were they by Jesus’ words and the peoples’ response. The Pharisees accuse them of having been deceived, like the rest of the ignorant crowd, and then ask a self-incriminating question: “Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” After all, the crowd is both accursed and ignorant of the law—what do they know? But Nicodemus, who in chapter 3 went to Jesus by night, is among them and, knowing the law, challenges them with it: the law does not allow them to judge people without first giving them a hearing. Angered and embarrassed, they try to shame Nicodemus by accusing him of being a Galilean as well, and challenge him to search the scriptures. He will learn that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.
Sunday, December 28, 2014, 4th Day of Christmas
Isaiah 49:13-23; Psalm 110; Isaiah 54:1-13; Matthew 18:1-14
An oracle of restoration of Jerusalem is preceded by a psalm of praise, calling on the heavens and the earth to break forth into singing: “The Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.” Zion had believed itself to be forsaken. To that the Lord asks, using feminine imagery, “Can a woman forget her nursing child?” or, in the parallel phrase, “show no compassion for the child of her womb?” Yet, if even these forget, the Lord will not, for God has inscribed Zion on the palms of his hands. Promising that her builders outdo her destroyers, the poem goes on to challenge the people of Jerusalem to look around and see the signs of God’s deliverance and coming blessing. What was waste and barren will soon be unable to host the abundance of people who will come to her. Even kings and queens will come to be foster parents, heads bowed low in obeisance, to “lick the dust off [her] feet.” Then Zion will know that “I am the Lord; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”
Psalm 110 is a royal psalm that is an assurance to the King that he is the Lord’s anointed. It was probably used as a new king was crowned, or on the anniversary celebration of his ascension to the throne. It is cast as a prophetic oracle announcing the Lord’s favor. Notice, “The Lord says to my lord”—the court prophet is delivering God’s word to his lord, the king. It is a promise that all of the king’s enemies shall be defeated by the Lord, who will send out from Zion the king’s scepter (symbol of royal power and reign) over all his foes. His people will volunteer to serve rather than be conscripted and will emerge as will the power of his youthful days, which will continue. The prophet continues, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.” And now, the king is installed not only into royal but priestly office, being designated “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” the mysterious king of Salem that Abraham encountered (Gen 14) on his return from battle. Some suggest that this psalm was first used when David was installed as king in Jerusalem. Whatever, the psalm assigns both royal and priestly power to the king, setting the stage for its later use in messianic thought. The psalm ends with traditional language about triumph over the nation’s foes and concludes that he shall drink from the stream by the path, refreshed and firmly established as God’s sovereign servant on the earth. This psalm is quoted in the New Testament some fourteen times, a witness to the fact that Jesus is David’s messianic descendent and God’s son and priestly king. It is the psalm Jesus makes reference to when asking the religious leaders in the temple, how is it the Messiah is David’s son, when David calls him Lord? (Luke 20:41-43)
This oracle promising the restoration of Zion is addressed to those in exile. The “barren one” is told to burst into song and shout, “for the children of the desolate one will be more than of her that is married.” Jerusalem is to enlarge the site of her tents, stretch out her curtains, lengthen her tent cords and strengthen her stakes. Her household is about to expand dramatically. She is not to fear or be discouraged, for she will not suffer disgrace. The Holy one of Israel who is her Redeemer is also her husband. Though she had thought herself widowed, like a wife forsaken and grieved, and though, for a moment, the Lord had abandoned her, with great compassion he will now gather her to himself. Though overflowing wrath caused God to hide his face from her, now, with everlasting love, the Lord comes to have compassion on her. As God swore after the waters of Noah, “Never again!” so too now, the Lord swears not to be angry or rebuke her ever again. The mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but the Lord’s steadfast love shall not depart from her. The city shall be adorned in jewels like a new bride, her children shall be taught by the Lord, and she shall not fear oppression; it shall be far away from her.
Some of Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus places a child in front of them. These children, who in Jesus’ day were considered a nuisance and burden, are God’s beloved. More, they are a symbol of what it means to live in God’s reign. To become like them, in trust, dependence and humility, is the path to the kingdom. Receiving one of them is nothing less than receiving Jesus. Putting a stumbling block in their path will mean reaping severe judgment. What follows are a series of injunctions against those things that cause us to stumble and the hyperbole of cutting off one’s hands and plucking out one’s eye, if it causes stumbling into sin. Better to enter life without them than to let them lead you into the fires of Gehenna. Jesus tells us those we marginalize or despise are of such value that God is like the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to search for the one who has gone astray—behavior unthinkable for a shepherd! To be told that God would go to such lengths must have been astonishing. Is it not still so? It is God’s will that none should perish.
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.