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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Job 42:1-17; Psalm 119:73-96; Acts 16:16-24; John 12:20-26

As God’s speech comes to an end, Job does answer. He does not disagree with God’s majesty, power, or sovereignty. Who is this that disregards counsel without knowledge? Someone who has uttered what he did not understand—things too wonderful, which he did not know. Job seems to acknowledge that even the answer he seeks he would not be able to understand. Heretofore, he had only heard of God by the ear, but now Job sees God and, in that seeing, recognizes that what he asked for—an explanation—will never come—it is simply beyond him. Verse 6, as it is traditionally translated, portrays Job confessing the sin of challenging God’s justice. But the Hebrew is capable of being translated another way. Job does not despise himself, and he does not repent, if such a word means “apologize,” “regret” or “feel sorry for his actions.” More correct is the translation “therefore I retract, recant and regret, being nothing more than dust and ashes,” or, “I retract and recant and regret these dust and ashes.” The Lord now responds, not to Job, but to Elihu and his friends, with words of wrath. They have not spoken what is right about God or Job, as Job has! (Notice that God says this twice to make the point.) They are told to prepare a sacrifice for Job and offer up a burnt offering for themselves and Job will pray for them, and God will accept Job’s prayer and not deal with them according to their actions. As for Job, he was right! The story ends “Happily ever after…” with all of Job’s fortune and prosperity not only restored, but increased. Though his property is restored two-fold, his new children number the same as before—seven sons and three daughters. Interestingly enough, only the daughters are named, each symbolically named after some aspect of beauty: dove, cassia perfume, and eye cosmetic, respectively, and we are told that “no women were found so fair as Job’s daughters.” Also, notice that contrary to patriarchal culture, Job’s fortunes are shared equally with his daughters as well as well as his sons, each of whom is given an inheritance. And so the book ends. And between the bookends of Job’s prosperity is the result of the wisdom tradition of Israel struggling with the ancient question of evil, and the role of suffering in the lives of the just, righteous, or innocent—what theologians call “Theodicy.”

Psalm 119:73-96 continues to meditate upon God, God’s ways and word (Torah), using the acrostic literary form, each of its three sections beginning with a descending letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and consisting of separate two-lined strophes, suitable for memorization. It opens on Yod (Y), with the affirmation that God has made and fashioned him like a master-builder and pleads for understanding in order to learn God’s commandments. Verses 73 through 80 are an acknowledgement of the justice of God’s ways and a prayer that he may ever walk within them, ending, “May my heart be blameless in thy statutes, that I may not be ashamed.” Verses 81 through 88, beginning with Kaf (K) turn to a two-fold lament. On the one hand, life seems to simply be wasting away as he waits for God’s word and its comfort. He has become like a dried up, heat-worn wineskin, yet he does not forget God’s statutes. On the other hand, this is more than physical, as enemies, described as “the arrogant” have dug pits and other traps for him, persecuting him with lies. In the midst of this he cries out, simply, “Help me!” They have almost destroyed him, and yet he has not abandoned God’s precepts. Therefore, the plea that God revive him according to his loving kindness. Why? So that he may keep the testimony of God’s mouth! The third section of today’s reading begins at verse 89, with the Hebrew letter Lamed (L), declaring the universal and eternal nature of God’s word, revealing God’s faithfulness through all generations. It returns to themes of creation, now less about the psalmist than the physical world, still affirming that central and foremost in all of this is God’s ordinances. Had God’s law not been his delight, he would have perished long ago. Rather, he will never forget them, for by them he is revived. Thus, follows a vow: “I am yours;” with the plea for salvation. Again, though the wicked seek to destroy him, rather than engage them in their evil, he will diligently consider God’s testimonies. After all, the psalmist has seen that there is a limit to all perfection, but not to God’s commandments. They are, like God himself, forever. One can do no better than to read, ponder, meditate on and memorize God’s statutes and commandments. In them is life and salvation.

Paul, Silas and Timothy continue their ministry in Philippi where there is a young slave girl with “the spirit of divination” who is owned by men exploiting her gifts for their own living. As the ministry team makes its way through the streets of Philippi, the young girl follows and keeps announcing to all who will listen, that Paul, Silas, Timothy and their companions are “bond servants of the most-high God who are announcing the way of salvation.” After many days of this, and no marked sign that her words were having any impact on anyone, but simply becoming a problem to the ministry team, Paul demands, in the name of Jesus Christ, that the spirit leave her, and it does. This so infuriates her owners that they seize Paul and Silas, drag them before the city magistrates, in the city market place, and charge them, not with casting out the spirit, but of being Jews disturbing the city and advocating customs that are not lawful for Romans—what customs, we are not told. Soon the crowd is drawn into the controversy and adds its voice to the attack on the three outsiders. The magistrates order Paul and Silas stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown in jail. Ordered to keep the two prisoners secure, the jailer places them deep within the prison and places their feet in stocks.

The festival of Passover gathers Jews and Jewish proselytes from all over the dispersion. Greeks, from we know not where—remember the Pharisee’s comment that the whole world was going after him?—approach Phillip, whose name is Greek, asking to see Jesus. Phillip tells Andrew and, together, they go and tell Jesus. The arrival of the Greeks triggers for Jesus the awareness that “the hour has come” for him to be glorified. But it will be in a most unexpected way. Using language that must have had heavy resonance in a church experiencing persecution, suffering and death, Jesus tells his followers that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He is not only foretelling his own death and resurrection, but assuring those who follow who also face persecution and death for his sake, that loving their own life will cause them to lose it, but those who “hate” their lives in this world on his behalf will keep them in the next. Whoever serves him must follow him, and where he is thereafter, so will his servants be. Whoever serves him, the Father will honor. Suddenly, following Jesus has taken on a deeper meaning and more profound commitment than simply a confession of faith.

Posted September 17, 2014
Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Job 40:1; 41:1-11; Psalm .61; Acts 16:6-15; John 12:9-19

God continues a diatribe about his majesty and power, this time referring to Leviathan, the mythical creature of chaos from the deep who no human could control. God is not only its maker and master, but actually plays with it. Can Job do any of the things that God does with Leviathan? Then who is he to stand and demand an answer?

Psalm 61 is a prayer of intercession from the psalmist who calls out to God from the ends of the earth. When his heart is faint, the cry goes up: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you are my refuge a strong tower against the enemy.” The psalm expresses trust in God’s sovereign power and protection, seeking to abide under the shelter of God’s wings, and in God’s tent and protecting presence forever. Acknowledging that God has heard his vow and has given the heritage God gives to all who fear God’s name, the prayer turns to invoking long life for the king. Whether this is another praying for the king, or the king himself speaking in the third person, the notion of being enthroned forever before God speaks of the special relationship between God and the king in Israel, and will develop into deeper Messianic consciousness among the people as time passes and there is no king. The psalm prays for steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over the king. The final verse, gives hint that it might be the king himself who is offering this prayer. Christians pray this with a different view, knowing that the risen Lord is enthroned with God forever, and is “the rock higher than I,” who is our refuge and strong tower against the enemy.

The second missionary journey expands beyond visits to previously established churches as Paul, Silas and Timothy attempt to move north and more deeply into what is now Turkey, but the Spirit forbids them to speak the word in Asia. Instead they continue to move northwest until coming to Mysia (near contemporary Istanbul), and, from there, attempt to move eastward up into Bithyina on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Again, the “Spirit of Jesus” does not allow them to do this. Consequently, they turn south, possibly headed to Ephesus, while during the night in Troas, Paul has a vision of a man standing in Macedonia, pleading with him to come and help. The text adopts a subtle but important change at this point, saying, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over into Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” This is the first of four such “we sections” in the book generally considered to be from a diary of one of Paul’s companions on the journey. It could also have been from a travel diary of one of Paul’s companions on his voyage from Caesera to Rome that later came into Luke’s possession, or simply Luke’s own addition for literary effect (less likely, because there are so few). The point, however, is that after several failed attempts to preach elsewhere, it finally becomes clear to them that God is calling this missionary journey to leave Asia and move into Europe. They immediately head to Macedonia by ship, passing Samothrace and on to Neapolis, where they disembark and move on to Philippi. Philippi was a large colony of retired Roman soldiers, located on the Egnatian Way that linked by ship to the Appian Way. There, they settle in. On the sabbath, they go outside the city gate, at the riverside, searching for a place to worship as there seemed to be no synagogue in Philippi. There they discover a group a women, among whom is Lydia, a business woman from Thyatira, who was also “a worshipper of God.” Was she Jewish or Gentile? We don’t know, but probably a Gentile God-fearer, given the fact that she was a business woman. Paul engages her in conversation and the Lord opens her heart to receive the gospel. She and her entire household are immediately baptized. Thereupon, Lydia urges Paul, Silas and Timothy to come and reside in her home, which becomes the site of the first church in Europe. This is more than an act of hospitality. Lydia becomes the first woman in leadership in the church and the elder-overseer of that Philippian congregation.

When word that Jesus is staying with Lazarus in Bethany reaches Jerusalem, those who had been looking for Jesus in Jerusalem, rush out to Bethany, though we are told that some went, not to see Jesus, but to simply see Lazarus, who Jesus has raised from the dead. Consequently, the Jewish leaders’ deadly plot expands to include Lazarus as well, in order to erase whatever evidence there might be about who Jesus claims to be. Those in the multitude that go out from Jerusalem take palm branches—symbols of national triumph—and greet Jesus with the ancient words of Psalm 118:26, welcoming him as the King of Israel: the one they expect will wrest control from Rome and restore the nation and people’s sovereignty. Jesus responds by mounting a young donkey, acting out the words of Zephaniah 3:14-18, that announces that their king is in their midst. And so, the Palm Sunday procession makes its way from Bethany into Jerusalem. We are told that the disciples did not understand all of this until after Jesus was “glorified,” (after his death and resurrection). As the crowd that had seen him raise Lazarus and those who had seen the other signs in Jerusalem continued to testify, the Pharisees recognize there is nothing more than can be done; “the whole world has gone after him.”

Posted September 16, 2014
Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

Job 40:1-24; Psalms 58; Acts 15:36-16:5; John 11:55-12:8

Job is addressed by God for the first time, and, notice, there is no whirlwind mentioned. But also notice the name for God has reverted back to “the Almighty.” Does a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Whoever does, must respond. Job is overwhelmed. He has heard what the Lord said to Elihu and his friends, and so he is now speechless. Confronted directly with the Lord, what can he say? God is not amused—this time the whirlwind is again mentioned—God is looking for an answer and calls Job to stand like a man prepared for confrontation, even battle, and answer: will Job put God in the wrong; will Job condemn God in order to justify himself? Notice, Job has done neither! All he has done is asked “Why?” and sought vindication. What follows is often overlooked: God tells Job that if he has the courage to call upon and now stand in God’s presence, it is time to pour out his anger on the proud who have surrounded him with false counsel and bring them low. It is time to tread down the wicked where they stand and hide them in the dust. Thereafter, God will acknowledge that he has gotten victory by his own hand. But for now, Job lacks the capacity to do anything but listen. He is directed to consider the Behemoth—a word in the ancient world that probably referred to the hippopotamus, and may also be a generic term for cattle, or the mythical animal of all animals. This one, created by God just as Job was, has the strength to stand, is fearless before all others in the animal kingdom, and only God can approach it, sword in hand, to tame or capture it. Job knows that he is in trouble.

Psalm 58 ponders what one does with the frustration and anger that emerges in us when we see the innocent suffer and the wicked continue to prosper, especially when much of that violence seems condoned or even created by those in charge. Do the gods of the earth—those who rule, govern or control others—do so fairly? No; they too in their hearts work unrighteousness and weigh out violence from their hands. The wicked go astray from the womb, are like deadly serpents that respond to no one. What recourse does the psalmist have but to call upon God for vengeance? In much the same manner that psalm 137 ends, this psalm’s entire focus is upon God executing justice in a land where it is absent, breaking teeth, tearing out fangs, causing the wicked to vanish like water that is absorbed into dry ground, or grass that disappears when trodden under too many feet. When God acts to sweep them away, the righteous will rejoice. “Bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked,” is the Bible’s hyperbole for complete victory over the foe (Deuteronomy 32:42, Psalm, 68:23, Revelation 14:18-21; 16:3-4; 19:2). Surely there is a reward for righteousness for there is a God who judges the leaders (gods) of the earth. In anger, the righteous call on God to act and wait, for God’s wrath to vindicate and set right. It is a word as appropriate now as then, but no easier to hear, and, harder still, to obey, as watching innocent suffering, whether here in this country or in the Middle East, we want to do something. Pray! Otherwise we simply add to the suffering.

After a period of time, Paul asks Barnabas to come with him to visit the churches that they had established on their first missionary journey. Barnabas wants to bring John Mark along with them, but Paul objects because John Mark had abandoned them on the first journey in Pamphylia, and had not been part of their work thereafter. The argument grows sharp, and, in the end, the two missionaries separate, Barnabas taking John Mark with him westward to the Island of Cyprus (where John Mark had been a fellow missionary), and Paul taking with him the emissary from Jerusalem, Silas. The two of them head in the opposite direction. Paul and Silas head first to visit the churches in Syria and Cilicia, and then to the main body of the previous journey, Derbe, Lystra and Iconium—whether by sea or overland, we do not know, but the latter seems more likely. In Lystra they come upon a young disciple named Timothy, whose mother is a Jew but whose father is Greek, and who has been raised as a Greek rather than Jew (he had not been circumcised), but now is a believer. Paul wants to take Timothy as part of their missionary group, but he has not been circumcised and that is well known—he is the son of a Greek. Though circumcision was no longer required, yet, because of the challenges an uncircumcised male would present in their missionary endeavors among the Jews, Paul has Timothy circumcised. They take this action because the mission is more important than the controversy—something it would be well for the contemporary church to remember. As they repeat the steps of the first journey, they read the decrees of the council in Jerusalem concerning Gentile Christians not needing to be circumcised or maintain the law, and that word is received with joy. The churches continue to be strengthened in faith and increase in number.

In the commotion following the raising of Lazarus, Jesus has withdrawn to Ephraim, but as Passover approaches, it is time to return to Jerusalem. Many of the pilgrims who have returned there are asking about Jesus, who is not there. The Chief Priest and other Jewish leaders have issued an order that, should Jesus appear during the festival, he be arrested. It is part of their plot to kill Jesus. Six days before Passover (the third Passover mentioned in John’s gospel, signifying a three year ministry rather than one, as it is set forth in the other gospels), Jesus and his disciples leave Ephraim and go to Bethany to stay with Lazarus. While there, at dinner, Mary abandons her serving duties and takes a pound of costly nard and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. This act of humble service and devotion is not missed by any, but as the aroma fills the room, Judas becomes indignant: why has this nard not been sold and the money given to the poor? Judas has missed the point altogether, but we are told that he is not only a betrayer but also a thief, his motivation less for the poor than his own pocketbook. Jesus silences Judas and tells him to leave Mary alone. She bought the nard for the day of his burial, and in this action she has anticipated it. As for the poor, they will always be among them; there is plenty of time to care for their needs. Jesus will soon not be among them. Though the author has told us that Judas was the one to betray him, one wonders how much that public rebuke in the midst of the inner circle had an impact on what Judas ultimately did.

Posted September 15, 2014
Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Job 38:1, 18-41; Psalms 24; Revelation 18:1-8; Matthew 5:21-26

The Lord’s contemptuous and disdainful attack on Elihu and his friends continues with question after question that reveals both their hubris and their ignorance. Were they present at creation? Do they have the capacity to control it? What about the heavens? Are they the founder of wisdom who plants it in the human heart? Are they able to satisfy the hunger of the lion or provide prey for the raven, when its young are wandering about in search of food?

Psalm 24 is a creation psalm joined to a liturgy of entrance to the temple to praise God, but also to remind worshippers that the qualification for being in God’s presence are clean hands and a pure heart, not sacrifice. It begins less in praise than simply acknowledgment that the Lord possesses all that is and is sovereign over it. The Lord not only possesses the earth, but also founded it on the primordial sea and rivers, the cosmology of that day believed rested beneath the earth. Then the temple entrance liturgy is invoked. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord (Mt. Zion, where the temple is located)? Who shall stand in God’s holy place? Those whose lives are moral, who avoid falsehood and do not swear deceitfully; these will receive blessing from the Lord. Finally, the temple doors are commanded to open so that the King of Glory—the Lord—might enter and take his rightful place. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord is the King of Glory, who is described as both warrior, strong and mighty in battle, and the Sovereign and Lord of all the heavenly hosts.

Fallen is Babylon the great! The heavenly messenger comes, illumines the entire world and announces God’s judgment on Rome for its blasphemous, unjust, avaricious, and murderous, self-indulgent ways. “Babylon” is the ancient symbol for domination and exile, and used here as code for Rome—as much of the book of Revelation is in code—for if spoken openly, what is said would be treason. In a moment, God’s judgment will fall on Rome (and all the Romes that have followed in its wake, demanding total loyalty from its subjects), and it will be no more. All the nations have “drunk of her wine,” and danced to her tune—“doing well while doing good” with her. In such circumstance, the word from heaven to the faithful is “Come out of her.” The messenger continues to speak for God promising to “Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds.” Initially, this sounds quite contrary to the Christian ethic of “turning the other cheek,” or “not returning evil for evil.” However, here, it is not an injunction to vengeance or personal vindication, but rather, an announcement, using classic Old Testament terms, for the wrath of God being poured out upon Rome in judgment for its abuse of privilege, gifts and people.

Ethics within the community of faith becomes the subject of the Sermon on the Mount; behavior appropriate to living in the reign of God. The first subject is anger; what do Jesus’ people do with it, since it falls upon us all? After all, whenever two or three are gathered together, someone always “spills the milk.” However, when that happens, the faithful refuse to act upon it but find another way to be freed from it. Anger acted upon is liable to God’s judgment, just as an insult against a fellow believer makes one liable to the discipline of the church’s governing body. The ultimate insult seems to be calling another believer “fool”—the Greek word means “empty-headed—a good-for-nothing one.” Doing so makes one liable to the fires of hell itself. Notice where the responsibility lies for reconciliation: if you are on your way to worship and you realize a sister or brother has something against you, it is your responsibility to take the first step to resolution of the conflict. Do that first, then come, worship, and offer your gift. So too, when you have committed an injustice; set things straight. Go to your accuser and be reconciled with him or her before you get to court, lest you be handed over to sit out your days in jail.

Posted September 14, 2014
Saturday, September 13, 2014

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Job 38:1-17; Psalm 55; Acts 15:22-35; John 11:45-54

God arrives in a whirlwind, an ancient means in which God appears. It was in a whirlwind that God took Elijah to heaven. But it is also a traditional symbol for God appearing in agitation and anger; and by now God is really angry! Also, notice that for the first time, God is called “the Lord,” rather than “the Almighty.” This is the first time the Hebrew word for the divine name—YHWH—appears since the introduction in chapters one and two, which ties the entire book together. But the Lord’s anger is not directed at Job. Rather, it is directed at Elihu and his friends. Elihu was the last to speak and so the Lord asks him, “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” It is God’s judgment on the uses of the wisdom tradition to explain Job’s suffering, condemn him and justify themselves. God is not amused. With withering examination, God asks Elihu and his friends just who they think they are to speak for the Lord, and enters into a series of questions dealing with creation and its ordering. It is magnificent creation poetry that identifies God as master architect, contractor and creator, One from whom all came and who continues to rule and command the ways of the universe. It is the Lord who has done all this, including “shaking out the wicked,” withholding light from them and breaking their uplifted arms (their prayer and praise). The Lord is making it clear that the three friends are among those being described as wicked. Do they even have the capacity to understand, much less control the forces of creation?

Psalm 55 is a prayer of supplication. Distraught by the noise of one’s enemy and the clamor of the wicked, the psalmist is driven to complaint which is directed, not at the enemy, but to God! After all, God has the capacity to do something about it—he must act! Four imperatives mark the psalmist’s plea: give ear, do not hide, attend, and answer—the appropriate pleas of all who turn to God in similar distress. The psalmist may well be a woman, as the beautiful feminine image of the dove is used to express the desire to fly away and flee to the protection of the wilderness and there be at rest. There, shelter and refuge from the raging wind and tempest could be found. New imperatives appear: “confuse” and “confound,” as God’s intervention in the invidious speech and violent action of the enemies is sought. But now the perpetrator is described, not as a distant, nameless enemy, but as one who was formerly her equal, companion and familiar friend. They kept pleasant company as they walked the courts of the temple and made their pilgrimages with fellow friends. “Let death come upon them,” dragging them to Sheol, for evil resides not only in their homes, but in their hearts. Morning, noon and evening—the three times of day marked for prayers—the psalmist calls upon the Lord to save her. God will hear and humble them because they have refused to hear or change, but, rather, have violated their covenant with her. Words smoother than butter and softer than oil have been used to mask a heart set on war. The psalm comes to its height with “Cast your burden on the Lord, who will sustain you, who will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Trust in the One who has power to cast them out, and will do so. How much time do we waste contending with those who seek our harm, when we should be going to the one place we can find help? The former only wastes our strength and draws us deeper into the conflict, while “casting” such burden on the Lord places it in the hands of the One who can and will do something about it.

The council has officially resolved the conflict about circumcision under the leadership of James—though it will continue to rage in Jewish churches for another hundred years!—and decides to send men from their number to accompany Paul and Barnabas back home bearing a letter from them addressed to the believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. First, the people who came among them from Jerusalem did not do so on instruction from the apostles and elders there, but acted on their own to disturb and unsettle them. The letter introduces two new names from the Jerusalem leadership, Judas and Silas, who have come as part of the entourage and who act as the necessary two outside witnesses to the veracity of the letter. Then the letter turns to its central message: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled (as it still has the blood in it) and from fornication.” When the entourage arrives with the four in Antioch and the letter is read, it produces great rejoicing. Judas and Silas are now identified as prophets (the New Testament designation for those through whom the Holy Spirit preaches). Their words edify, encourage and strengthen the believers in that region. After a period of time, the Jerusalem cohort is sent home “in peace,” Paul and Barnabas, continue to teach and proclaim the word of the Lord. (Note: some translations include verse 34 with its word about Silas remaining there as well, while other older manuscripts do not include the verse, making it appear a latter addition.)

Raising Lazarus from death brings more who believe in Jesus, but also results in Jesus’ death sentence by the Jewish leadership. Jesus’ signs are such that soon everyone will believe in him. If that happens, it stands a very good chance that Rome will remove the current Jewish leadership from power for not being able to control the people or keep the not-so-easy peace with Rome. More, if the emerging group centered around Jesus as Messiah, create further uprising, Rome will come and destroy their city and its temple, as, in fact, it did in the 70 C.E. uprising. Therefore, something must be done. Caiaphas, the sitting High Priest for that year, unwittingly prophesies what must happen: one man must die to save the entire people. He thinks it for the preservation of their power and relationship with Rome, when, in fact, it will be the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission. And so, they begin to plot for Jesus’ death. As a consequence, Jesus no longer walks openly in Jerusalem, but rather, withdraws to Ephraim.

Posted September 13, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

Author: The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.

© 2014