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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015
Isaiah 46:1-13; Psalm 117; Ephesians 6:10-24; Mark 5:1-20

The Lord returns to the theme of ridiculing those who trust in idols, this time those of the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo. Whether this is a reference to the Babylonians taking their statues out of the temples to hide them before the coming devastation of Cyrus II’s invasion or simply the cultic practice of parading them through the streets of the city in a religious festival is unclear. The point is this: they cannot save and they, too, will go into captivity. The Israelites are again reminded that God has been carrying them from birth and will continue to do so through their old age. The Lord made them, will bear, carry and save them. Now God asks, “To whom will you liken me and make me equal?” He is not like the gold and silver they take to the smiths to fashion into idols that they then lift to their shoulders and carry about. Remember, consider, and call to mind the former things. Again God’s sovereignty is confessed in the recurring monotheistic refrain: “I am God, and there is no other.” There is no one like the Lord who declares the end from the beginning and from ancient times, things not yet done, promising, “My purpose shall stand; I will fulfill my intension.” God is calling a bird of prey from the East—Cyrus II. God has spoken; it will come to pass. A final exhortation is leveled at the “stubborn of heart,” not only among the exiles in Babylon, but those who have remained in Jerusalem and from all over: God is bringing deliverance—it is not far off. God’s salvation will not tarry. God will put salvation in Zion, for Israel is God’s glory.

Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the collection of 150, is a call to worship addressed to everyone, followed by a brief hymn of praise. It easily comports with the theology of Second Isaiah: the Lord is God, there is no other. But more, the Lord is steadfast love and faithfulness, and endures forever. Hallelujah!

Ephesians comes to an end with one final exhortation: be strong in the Lord and the strength of his power. The struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of darkness, the spiritual forces of evil exercising their power in the world. Consequently, they are to take up the whole armor of God so that they may withstand “on that evil day”—a reference to the final apocalyptic battle between good and evil; God and the power of darkness. Though the image is a military one, it is clear, the warfare is spiritual, for so is the armor of God. Wrap yourself in a belt of truth. Let righteousness be your breastplate. Put on shoes that will equip you to run and proclaim the gospel of peace. Let faith be your shield and keep your head ever secure in the knowledge of your own salvation. Your only weapon is the sword of the Spirit—God’s word. It alone will defend and protect you. Therefore, pray in the Spirit at all times. This is a constant refrain in Paul’s letters (Rom 1:9-10; Col 1:3; 4:12; Phil 1:4; 4:6; 1 Thess 5:17). “In the Spirit,” is simply the recognition that all of our communication with God is via God’s Spirit, regardless of its form or shape, and is the conduit through which we receive God’s power. It is to be offered not only for themselves but “for all the saints,” a reminder that life in Christ is communal and cannot be lived on one’s own. “Pray also for me.” The focus now turns to the author. The prayers of the saints have sustained Paul in the past, even affecting his release from prison. Now, he does not expect release. Rather, the request is that he be given a message “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” for which he is in chains. Pray that he can declare it boldly, for he must speak. The letter closes with personal remarks about his own well-being. He is sending Tychius to them, a “brother and faithful minister of the Lord,” and probably the bearer of the letter. He will let them know, first-hand, how they are doing and seek to encourage them. The final blessing differs a bit from what we normally hear from Paul—“grace to you and peace from God the Father…,”—and is here reversed so that “peace” is invoked on the community first, then love with faith, and finally grace for all who have “an undying [incorruptible] love for our Lord Jesus Christ.” Though different than the conclusions of the letters Paul writes to communities he knew well, this may be a reflection of the fact that the letter was originally a circular letter to the churches in Asia Minor that Paul did not know. One wonders, if someone was writing pseudonymously in Paul’s name, why more care was not taken to make it consistent with what we know are his authentic letters? But the themes are still the same, and given how the letter has ended on the theme of spiritual warfare, it makes sense to begin as this does—Peace! “Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is then invoked on all who have an undying, imperishable, incorruptible love for “our Lord Jesus Christ”—for all who have read this letter from its inception until now.

The storm quelled, the disciples and Jesus reach their destination, the Gentile country of Gerasenes, and are immediately met by a demon-possessed man who is living among the tombs. The unclean spirits within him are such that he has super strength and, in spite of numerous attempts to constrain him with chains, he has always broken free. He has spent his days and nights howling and bruising himself among the tombs. Upon seeing Jesus, he runs to him, bows to the ground and shouts at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” This last phrase is the demon’s attempt to invoke spiritual help to keep Jesus from casting him out, for we are told that Jesus has already told the unclean spirit to leave the man. Jesus asks the spirit its name, and it replies “Legion, for we are many.” He begs Jesus not to send them out of the country—the territory where they have some authority and power. In Jesus’ day, spiritual beings were believed to be connected to particular places and lost their power when displaced. A herd of swine are feeding on the hillside near them, and so he begs, “Send us into the swine.” Jesus gives them permission to do so. Notice the absolute authority he is exercising over this legion of demons. They do and, thereupon, about two thousand swine rush down the steep bank, fall into the sea and drown. They have returned to what was believed to be one of sources and homes of evil and chaos—the sea. As the wind and the sea had obeyed him, so too, now, the legion of demons have obeyed. Those who had been tending the swine rush into the city and wider countryside to tell people what has happened. When they come out to see Jesus, they find the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they are filled with fear and begin to beg Jesus to leave them. As Jesus and the disciples get back into their boats, the man who had been possessed begs to come with them. Jesus refuses—one of the few instances in the gospel where he turns someone away who wants to follow. Why? For one thing, the man was probably a Gentile. What would a Gentile be doing in Jesus’ entourage? But, there is more to this than, at first, meets the eye. Jesus tells the man to go home to his friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for him, and what mercy has been shown to him. The man goes away and begins to proclaim throughout the ten Greek cities of the Transjordan known as the Decapolis, not what God has done for him, but how much Jesus has done for him! What appears at first to be Jesus’ rejection of the man and his request turns out to be a means of spreading Jesus’ fame and message among the Gentiles.

Posted January 24, 2015
Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015
Isaiah 45:18-25; Psalm 86; Ephesians 6:1-9; Mark 4:35-41

The Lord continues to assert both divine sovereignty and sole authority, both as creator of all and savior of all. God did not create the world in chaos and did not and does not intend to be sought in chaos. God did not speak in secret, saying to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in darkness.” “Rather,” says the Lord, “I speak the truth, I declare what is right.” The people are summoned—whether the survivors of Israel or the survivors of all the nations is not clear—but no matter. None of those carrying idols have any knowledge. They carry them and pray to them, but the idols cannot save. Again, the people are called to court to present their case. Who told all of this to them long ago? Was it not the Lord himself who did so? There is no other god beside the Lord who is a righteous God and Savior, and there is no righteousness or strength except in the Lord. After another reminder that there is no one beside the Lord, the people are called to turn and be saved. The invitation is not simply to exiled Israel, but to all the nations. After all, the Lord is their sovereign and savior as well. God has sworn by himself—made an oath that only God can insure—and has spoken words from which righteousness will endlessly go forth: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue swear,” the language used in the Christ hymn of Philippians (2:6-11). It shall then be said that only in the Lord is there righteousness and strength. Those who have been set against him shall come to him and be ashamed of their former resistance. The passage ends with the affirmation that, in the midst of all this, the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.

Psalm 86 is an individual’s plea for God’s help that is classic in its structure and content. It begins calling on God to listen, knowing that it is God’s disposition to hear and to answer. The psalmist is “poor and needy,” for whatever reason, as yet, we do not know. The plea to preserve his life is coupled with a reminder of his devotion to God, followed by the same plea in a different form: save your servant who trusts in you. The plea continues, always issued out of a confession of God’s character: gracious, good, forgiving and abounding in steadfast love for all who call upon him—as the psalmist is now calling. After the initial plea, the psalmist sings a hymn of praise that echoes the themes we also hear in Second Isaiah. The Lord alone is God; there is no other like him. He has made everything, including the nations, and all are his. They shall all come and bow before the Lord and give glory to God’s name. Now there comes another petition, this less focused on a pressing danger and more a general plea for the gift of faithfulness: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart…,” a marvelous phrase expressing the desire to have the capacity to live in total orientation to God and God’s ways. Confessing again the greatness of the Lord, as well as God’s steadfast love that he has already delivered him from the depths of Sheol, he now comes to the point of present need: a band of insolent ruffians has risen against him and seeks his life, a people who do not serve or observe God’s ways. The Lord’s mercy, grace, resistance to anger and steadfast love and faithfulness are all affirmed as a context for seeking it now as expressed in a classic Hebrew parallelism: “Give strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.” It is a request not only for help, but so that those who hate him, may see it and be put to shame, because they have seen the Lord helping and comforting him. As always, the act of prayer draws the petitioner into a relationship with God that, in and of itself, provides much of what is being sought—an experience of help and comfort.

Having dealt with the implications of our union in Christ for husbands and wives, the author now turns to other members of the household: children and their fathers, servants and their masters. Much misuse has emerged out of this section of Ephesians as has the distortion of the former exhortation for wives to be submissive to their husbands. So, once again, we must remember that all of this is in the context of the household’s prior unity in Christ. Everything said here must be tempered by that. Children are simply reminded of what the sixth of the Ten Commandments says, but with a slight twist: they are to obey their parents “in the Lord!” This last phase is missing in some manuscripts. Is it a later qualifying condition, so that if the father is not Christian it does not apply? Or is it a reminder that they are in the Lord and, thereby, have the capacity for obedience that was appropriate to the well-regulated household of the day? Whatever, it points out that this is the first commandment of the ten that has a promise attached to it. Conversely, fathers are warned against behavior that would provoke their children to anger. Rather, they are to nurture and rear them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. That leads us to the portion of Ephesians that was so badly abused in American culture to justify the institution of chattel slavery. First, what is translated “slaves” and “masters” can equally be translated “servants” and “lords.” More, the slavery of the first century was not the chattel slavery of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Servants were members of the household. They are instructed to be obedient to their earthly lords with fear, trembling and singleness of heart as acts of obedience to Christ. They are to do so, not because they are being watched, but because they are first and foremost faithful slaves of Christ. Therefore, they are to render their service not only with enthusiasm, but as to Christ himself rather than to their earthly masters. Masters, on the other hand, are to treat their servants, first and foremost, as servants of Christ who belong less to them than to Christ. They are to give up threats and other abusive or coercive behavior that “lords it over them,” remembering that, at the end of the day, they both have one and the same Master in heaven. That Master does not show partiality to anyone but expects the same quality of faithfulness and integrity from each and everyone in the household. Regardless of their standing within their society, from God’s perspective, they are all one in Christ, and that is the perspective that most matters.

Mark wants us to know that what follows is not a disassociated excerpt, but still a part of the whole context of what Jesus has been up to that day, which began with him teaching the crowd by the sea from a boat pushed off shore. The line from there, through the parable of the sower, to his comments about teaching in parables, as well as revealing to the disciples in secret what they mean, and the importance of listening to him all stand in background and help interpret what follows. “On that day when evening had come,” Jesus wants to cross over the sea to the other side in order to leave the crowds behind. The disciples take him with them in the boat and begin the crossing. A great windstorm arises to the point that the boat is about to be swamped, but Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the stern. The disciples awaken him and call on him for help. Does he not care that they are about to go down? Jesus rises and rebukes the wind and the sea, demanding their silence. “Peace, be still!” is prosaic, but what Jesus literally says is “Silence! Put a muzzle on it!” The wind and sea respond as obediently as the demonic spirits have responded. He then turns to them and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The answer is: no, of course not—not that kind of faith! They still do not understand who he is. But seeing this, they are filled with a combination of fear and awe and begin to ask themselves, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They are not yet the soil in which the seeds of the kingdom can take deep root. Some rocks need discarding and some thorns uprooted within them, which will happen as, indeed, it does happen as we follow him.

Posted January 23, 2015
Thursday, January 22, 105

Thursday, Jan 22, 2015
Isaiah 45:5-17; Psalm 85; Ephesians 5:15-33; Mark 4:21-34

Reaching back to verse five of yesterday, we are again reminded that the Lord has chosen Cyrus II as the means of Israel’s redemption and release. Though Cyrus does not know the Lord by name, there is no other God besides the Lord, and he is sovereign, not only over the cosmos, but over the affairs of peoples, kings and nations. Though Cyrus does not know him, it is the Lord who arms Cyrus so that all may know, from the furthest points in the east to the most distant points in the west, that “the Lord” is God and there is no other. The heavens are called upon to acknowledge the Lord’s sovereignty as are people. Through a series of three rhetorical questions God is compared to a potter, a father and a mother. This is not the first maternal reference to God in Isaiah, where they appear frequently (27:11; 42:14; 46:3-4; 49:15; 66:13), though rarely elsewhere. After reasserting divine sovereignty over both nature and humankind, and that it is the Lord who has “aroused Cyrus in righteousness” to bring the people home, the Lord tells the people that the wealth of Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba will come to it in obeisance because those nations, too, will come to realize that the Lord is God. Finally, even Cyrus will discover that God has been hidden among the people but with them all this time, and that there is no other. The mystery of God’s ways is again confessed, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, God of Israel, the Savior.” Once again, those who make and worship idols are mocked, but Israel is saved by the Lord with “everlasting salvation.” They shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.

Psalm 85 is a communal lament of petition that is preceded by reminding God of how he has been favorable to the people in the past, restoring the fortunes of Jacob, forgiving the people’s iniquity and pardoning all their sin, withdrawing his wrath and turning from his hot anger. And so the plea is now, “Restore us again.” Will you be angry forever? “Revive us again so that your people may rejoice in you. Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” Whether the psalmist himself or a priest in the temple, one now speaks prophetically and says, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,” and then promises, “God will speak peace to his people, to his faithful ones, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” For these, salvation is at hand. The result of this is that steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss; faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky. These four cardinal and classic attributes of God will be upon those who turn to him as a sign of God’s favor. The land will yield its increase, and righteousness will go before the Lord, making a path for his steps.

This injunction to ethical behavior moves from obedience to worship, as the Ephesians are told that rather than be filled with wine that leads to debauchery, they are to be filled with the Spirit. As a means to that they are encouraged to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody to the Lord in their hearts—one of the few places in the New Testament that openly acknowledges what was a significant portion of early Christian worship. This is how they are to give thanks to God the Father in the name of Jesus. The text now turns to further ethical injunctions, now specifically addressing relationships between husbands and wives. This section has become quite controversial since the rise of the woman’s movement and needs some clarification. Is the author simply telling the Ephesian women they must not violate the household code of the day and norms for relationship between husbands and wives in first century Asia Minor? There, the husband exercised absolute authority over all in the household. Is this instruction to “behave and obey your husband” so as not to subject the church, and especially the husbands in it, to the mockery of others? It was common for philosophers of the time to give such household instruction. Or, is there something more important being said here? Scholars like to point out that in the earliest manuscripts available, the word “subject” does not appear. Rather, the Greek says, literally, “Wives to your husbands as to the Lord.” It seems that translators have added the word “subject” in order to keep the injunction parallel to what is said in verse 24, “just as the church is subject to Christ…,” and there the word “subject” does appear in the Greek text. First century readers would have found that expectation quite normal. Women were to defer to their husbands. What would have surprised them, however, is the admonition to husbands that follows and the constraints on their behavior, especially given the authority husbands had over everyone in their household. Consequently, the longest admonition is the one given to the husband about the treatment of his wife. He is to be self-sacrificing in his love for her, just as Christ gave himself up for the church. At this, the text falls into parenthetic reflections, using baptismal imagery, on Christ making the church holy by cleansing it with his word that it might be presented holy and without blemish. This is not implying that somehow the husband makes the wife holy. She is holy already because Christ dwells in her. Therefore, as Christ gave himself for the church, so husbands should give themselves sacrificially to their wives and love them as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Nourish and tenderly care for her as Christ does for the church, because both husband and wife are members of Christ’s body, and Christ dwells in them. The author then quotes Genesis 2:24, the same text Jesus quoted on marriage when asked about the lawfulness of divorce (Mark 10:7-8). But here, rather than a prohibition of divorce, the union of husband and wife is not only a mystery that points to the union of Christ with his church, but a mystery that points back to God’s hidden intention in the marital union itself. The man and the woman were made for one another and their union with one another in Christ fulfills God’s intentions for the both of them as they live into it. It requires submission, but more, self-sacrifice on the part of both, always in ultimate obedience to the Lord. This remains as revolutionary today as it was when it was first written, and every bit as true. A word of thanks to the women’s movement for causing us to take a much more careful look at what the text actually says.

Jesus continues his teaching to his inner circle. One does not light a lamp and then put it under cover, but places it on a stand where it can shed light for all. His good news of the kingdom is not to be hidden, but to be light for all. So too with what at first seems secret: it is to be disclosed so that everything comes to light. Even the secret about who Jesus is will ultimately be revealed, but at the right time. Pay attention then; the measure you give to these things, living into them, is the measure you will receive, and, as you do, more will be given to you. To those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Put that in the context of what Jesus has said about the different kinds of soil, and it makes perfect sense. It is not a curse, but simply an observable truth. The seeds of the gospel that fall on hard paths do not take root and are taken away. But for those places where the soil is receptive, the seed is scattered and it sprouts, takes root, grows into fullness and produces grain ripe for harvest in multiples that exceed understanding. The harvest for all of this has come in Jesus and is beginning in him. Finally, the seeds of the kingdom are like the mustard seed. Though tiny, when it does take root and grows, it becomes the largest of all shrubs, providing shade and a nesting place for birds. And so, this section comes to a close with Jesus placing emphasis upon listening to what he says about the kingdom of God, and the power of his words that scatter its seeds. Publically, he speaks in parables so that only those who can hear do so. Privately, he explains everything to his disciples. Mark takes pains to be sure his listeners know not only the parable, but its meaning, so that they too can bear such a harvest.

Posted January 22, 2015
Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Isaiah 44:24-45:7; Psalm 82; Ephesians 5:1-14; Mark 4:1-20

The theme of God’s sovereignty and the redemption of Israel continues. God’s sovereignty is such that even foreign nations serve him and his purpose and become instruments of his redeeming power. The Lord will bring her out of exile and restore her in Jerusalem. As God dried up the deep of the Red Sea to enable Israel to leave its bondage in Egypt, so God has taken Cyrus II of Persia by the hand, called him by name and empowered him to conquer Babylon and set the Israelites free. In keeping with Second Isaiah’s monotheism and universalism, Cyrus is actually the Lord’s shepherd who will carry out the Lord’s purpose. Jerusalem shall be rebuilt and the foundation of the temple shall be laid. Cyrus is actually called God’s Messiah—God’s anointed one—to subdue the nations. Though Cyrus does not yet know God’s name, he will come to know it through God’s people, Israel, and come to worship the Lord as God. The lesson ends with the Lord asserting sovereignty over all creation and again reminding them that he is God and there is no other.

Psalm 82 sounds less like a hymn than it does an oracle of judgment against the rulers of the earth. God has assembled the leaders of the peoples and is holding court in the midst of “the gods,” not the gods of the foreign nations, but the angelic beings that form the heavenly court and are the Lord’s servants. He passes judgment on the rules of the peoples: how long will they judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? They are appointed to give justice to the weak and the orphan and maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. All rulers in the Bible are regularly reminded that the measure of their faithfulness is how they care for the poor and the destitute, something it would be well for our elected officials to remember. They are accountable to One sovereign over both their electorate and their constitution! But, the problem is not new: the rulers assembled before God do not get it, they do not understand and walk around in darkness so that the foundations of earth are shaken. God then addresses them again: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” It is a startling statement in scripture. “Nevertheless, [they] shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” They have been appointed to govern on God’s behalf and failed. Though thought of as gods by their people, they shall die like every mortal, and fall like any prince. And now the psalm turns to prayer, as the psalmist calls on God to rise up and judge the earth and bring the justice God desires in all places, for all the nations of the earth belong to God. The universal theology behind Second Isaiah is clearly woven deeply into this psalm.

Imitate God as his beloved children. In the time in which this was written, imitation of one’s father or teacher were foundational to ethical training and a sign of a child’s devotion. The Ephesians are to imitate their heavenly father and live in love as Christ has loved them and given himself up for them. Again, this is followed by ethical injunctions calling them away from the practices and standards of pagan Gentile culture. Fornication and greed, here identified as “idolatry”—the love of money, are not even to be mentioned among them as possibly acceptable. They are not. Neither is vulgar, obscene and silly talk. Instead, let their language be filled with thanksgiving. Beware of being deceived by the empty words of some to tell them otherwise. Because of this, the wrath of God is coming upon them. Do not even associate with them. Once you were like them—darkness. But now, in the Lord, you are light. So, live as children of the light, producing fruit that is good, right and true. Seek to discover what is pleasing to the Lord and take no part in the works of darkness. Rather, expose them. For it is shameful to even mention what some do secretly in darkness. Let everything be exposed by light so that it becomes visible. The author then quotes a hymn fragment common in the first century church; perhaps even words spoken as one emerged from the baptismal waters: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Mark cuts away from the crowed house in Capernaum, back to the Sea of Galilee, and we are told that such a large crowd has gathered about Jesus on the shore that he is forced to get into a boat, push out a bit, and teach from there, while the crowd sits on the shore and hill that emerges north of it. Modern tour guides regularly take their groups to a place on the northern shore of the lake that is a natural amphitheater and identify it as this place. This sets the stage for a series of discourses that include several parables, beginning with the parable of the sower. “Listen!” This is urgent and important; pay attention. A sower went forth to sow. There follows the various types of soil upon which the seed falls and the result. Jesus is, of course, talking about his own ministry and how his words are or are not taking root, and whether it will last in the heat of the day. “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.” Though the parable seems clear enough on the surface of it, the twelve seem not to get it. That sets up a context for Mark to present Jesus’ “private teaching” to his inner circle—the secrets of the kingdom of God, reserved for those on the inside. Those who do not get it—those on the outside—are simply fulfilling the prophecy God made to Isaiah at his calling (6:9-11). They see and see but do not perceive; they hear and hear but do not understand. Does that include his mother and brothers who came looking for him? For now, it seems so. But to these whom he has chosen to be insiders, he says, “Listen up!” and then asks, “If you don’t understand this parable, how will you understand the others?” At that, Jesus enters into a very specific explanation of what he means. Some never hear at all. They are such hard, well-worn ground that the seed sits there until Satan takes it away. Others are rocky soil—perhaps a hint of the rocky nature of what is to come. The seed quickly takes root, but equally quickly dies out. Some falls on good soil, but it also hosts thorns—things that compete with Jesus and his gospel and choke it out. Some falls on good soil, takes deep root and produces a harvest in such abundance that it makes up for the failure of the other three. In other words, at least three out of four people out there on the hillside will fall away, probably more. But think of the harvest that emerged from this inner circle of believers.

Posted January 21, 2015
Tuesday, January 20, 2014

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Isaiah 44:9-20; Psalm 79; Ephesians 4:17-32; Mark 3:19b-35

The diatribe against idol worship that we skipped over yesterday is the focus of today’s reading from Isaiah. Idols are nothing; what is their profit? Their makers are merely human. Why would they do such a thing, since the idols can do no good? Those who worship them and those who make them will be put to shame. The artisans who fashion the idols are portrayed in all of their human frailty. They cast their work in human form, with the attributes of human beauty and set them within shrines. They are made with wood, from the very same log that is burned in the fire to warm oneself or bake one’s bread. But at the same time, they bow down to things made of the same wood and say, “Save me, for you are my god?” Ridiculous! Those who do this do not know, they do not comprehend; their eyes are shut so they cannot see; so too are their minds, so they do not understand. It is just as God had said it would be (Isaiah 6:9-11). Half of the wood they use for heat, for baking bread and roasting meat, the other half they use to fashion an abomination before which they fall down in worship. They feed on ashes, for a deluded mind has lead them astray to the point that they cannot see or say, “This thing in my hand is a fraud.”

Psalm 79 is a communal lament that reveals the horror in and around Jerusalem when Babylon finally came and destroyed it in 587 BCE, burning the temple to the ground, slaughtering its people and taking its leaders into exile. The psalmist pleads for God to give up his anger and jealous wrath at the people and stop all of the violence. Rather, pour forth that anger on the nations that have plundered Israel, those who do not know the Lord or call upon the Lord’s name. The psalmist now offers an oblique confession of sin, pleading that God not remember against them the sins of their ancestors, but, instead, respond speedily with compassion and help. The Lord is addressed as “The God of our salvation,” and asked to do so for the glory of his name. “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” Rather, give the nations what they have given us. Avenge us and let the nations know it is your vengeance, and let that be known among them before our eyes—vindicate us! Prayers are offered for God to preserve the prisoners carried off to Babylon who are doomed to die there. The psalmist then turns bitter and requests that those around them who taunted them and refused to come to their aid, while they watched Jerusalem under siege, receive seven-fold the taunts with which they taunted the Lord as Jerusalem fell. Notice that it is only after this complete retaliation is accomplished that the psalmist promises to give thanks to the Lord. “Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” The bitterness of the survivors of Jerusalem and their hatred of those around them who took advantage of their defeat is clearly resonant in this very human expression of grief and despair. Yet, it is a grief and despair that is still addressed to God. This is, of course, one of the glories of the Psalter: its ability to cast all of life, even its darkest moments of suffering and anguish, under the sovereignty and mercy of God.

Ephesians continues to move from its theological foundation to practical applications in believer’s lives. The Ephesians must abandon the pagan ways they lived before becoming Christian. Union with Christ means we must abandon those things we were united to in the past that are not of Christ. Those ways are described as “futility of the mind,” darkened in understanding and alienated from the life of God, either because of ignorance or simply hardness of heart. Having lost all sensitivity, the Gentiles have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greed, and every kind of impurity. This is what comes from darkened minds. But this is not what they have learned in Christ, or what they have been taught, for “truth is in Jesus.” Consequently, they are to put away their former ways of life, their old self, corrupt and deluded by lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of their minds (very close to what Paul writes in Romans 12:2). New minds produce new behavior; minds centered in Christ produce Christ-like behavior. Therefore, they are to clothe themselves in their new self—Christ. They are to put him on as intentionally as they otherwise clothe themselves each day. Drilling down even deeper, the instructions become more frank and direct: put away falsehood, speak the truth. Be angry, but do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your anger, do not make room for the devil. Thieves, stop stealing; find another way to live that is honest and can contribute to the good of the body. Guard your mouths against evil talk, and speak only that which builds up. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, with which you were marked in baptism as the seal (guarantee) for the day of redemption. Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Forgive others their sins as your sins have been forgiven. Be Christ with and to one another for the sake of Christ.

Jesus returns home, in all probability, to Capernaum, his base of operations in Galilee. His fame and popularity have spread, and people now crowd in upon him and the twelve so that they cannot even eat. When his family learns that he is back at his home, they go out to restrain him. They have heard what some are saying about him: he is demented and is doing the work of the devil. Chief among these are the scribes from Jerusalem who have seen Jesus violating Torah again and again. How can he be from God? But from whence comes his power? It must be the devil. And so, they claim that his exorcisms are being done by none other than Beelzebul, the chief or Lord of the demons. Knowing this, Jesus calls the crowd and challenges the scribe’s notion by telling two parables, one dealing with political realities, the other household matters. A kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, casting himself out, then his end has come. Shifting to another metaphor, Jesus says no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder it without first tying up the strong man. But this is precisely what is happening. The demons are not only recognizing Jesus as God’s Son, but responding to Jesus’ superior commands. They come out when commanded to do so and remain silent. Satan is bound, his house is being plundered. Then Jesus adds these formidable words: people will be forgiven whatever blasphemies they utter except those against the Holy Spirit; these can never be forgiven. The scribes’ allegations that he is possessed are true—but not by Satan. He is possessed by the Holy Spirit, and misnaming and failing to see that is unforgivable. By now his mother and brothers have come, but are unable to get into the house because of the crowd. Standing outside they send word to him. “Outside” here, is more than Mark’s desire to locate them in the scene. They too are on the outside and think he might be demented. This is why they have come to take him home. When he is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for him, he redefines the nature of family in the kingdom of God. The connection is no longer biological, but rather, those who do the will of God. Looking around at his followers he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters—those who do the will of God. “Sisters” here is not an editorial gloss to make the text inclusive. The word appears in the Greek and is witness to the fact that there were women among Jesus’ earliest disciples and followers.

Posted January 20, 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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