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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Judges 13:15-24; Psalms 101; Acts 6:1-15; John 4:1-26

Manoah asks to prepare a meal for “the man,” not knowing it is the Angel of the Lord (who in reality is God—“Angel of the Lord” is the way the biblical writer tries to avoid saying that God has shown up in person). “The man,” refuses Manoah’s request, but says that Manoah may make a burnt offering to the Lord. Manoah asks “the man’s” name and the angel responds, “Why do you ask since my name is wonderful?” (the Hebrew of which means “beyond comprehension.”) Manoah prepares the burnt offering of a goat and grain and offers it on a rock, and as he does, the Lord performs wonders, including the Angel of the Lord ascending in and with flame to consume the offering. As that happens, Manoah and his wife fall on their faces in obeisance and fear. Manoah now understands that he has seen the Angel of the Lord and, thus, fears that they will die. His wife knows better: why would the Angel have gone to all this trouble if he meant to kill them? No, they will live, and she will give birth to the promised child. And so, she does and names him Samson, which means “deliverer of Israel.” The Spirit of the Lord begins to stir in him as the Lord blesses him.

The psalm can be read either as a royal psalm, in which the King is making an oath concerning his office and promising to root out the evil and perverse from the community, or it may be read as a wisdom psalm that is a model for instructing the young. The language is harsh for effect, and not meant to be taken literally. “Morning by morning” is not a daily call to destroy all the wicked in the land. Soon the land would be desolate! Rather, it is an expression of the need for wisdom’s vigilance daily.

The number of believers continues to increase, including not only many of the priests in Jerusalem, but also Gentile proselytes who had become Jews, who now have responded to the gospel. The mixture of ethnic groups within the infant church brought with it growing pains, which led to the emergence of a new ministry within the church—the deacons. The custom was for the believers to gather each evening in someone’s home, for worship—the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper (breaking of bread), and fellowship—and do so during the evening meal. Once that was complete, whatever food and drink were left over from the meal became part of a daily distribution to the widow and orphans among them. It was not long before the Gentile proselyte Christians began to complain that their widows and orphans were either being neglected altogether or receiving less than the Jewish Christians’ widows and orphans. They take the complaint to the twelve who announce that it is not right for them to abandon the preaching of the Word to “wait on tables.” And so, they decide to choose seven among them to oversee the daily distribution. It is the emergence of the ministry of deacons who ever after will be responsible for what John Calvin will call “the ministry of sympathy and service,”—the care for the poor and others in need. The seven are a mixed group of Jews and Gentile proselytes, including Stephen, a Greek convert. Though they have been set aside to “serve at tables” that is not all they do. Soon, Stephen is preaching and debating with Jews about Jesus as the Christ and also begins performing many wonders and signs among the people. When some men from the Synagogue of Freedmen enter into debate with Stephen, they are overwhelmed by his Spirit-filled speech and the power of his logic, and so they conspire to accuse him of blasphemy and discrediting Moses. They then stir up the people and drag Stephen away to the Council where they set up false witnesses against him and claim that Jesus had proclaimed and threatened to destroy the temple and change their customs. As all look on Stephen, his face begins to take on the countenance of an angel.

Word reaches the Pharisees in Jerusalem that someone besides John is baptizing out in the wilderness. When Jesus realizes they know what he is doing, he withdraws from Judea and heads north back home. To save time, or is it in order to have some “cover” from whatever Pharisees might try to follow him, he heads straight through Samaria. Samaria was “no man’s land” for Jews. The Samaritans and the Jews, who shared the first five books of Moses as their religious authority, had little else in common and a long history of theological disagreement, primary among them, where to worship, at the ancient worship site, Gerizim, in the north, or in Jerusalem.  That disagreement broke into open hatred when the Samaritans helped the Babylonians in their siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and, later, harassed the returning Jews in 540 BCE as they tried to rebuild the city. Jesus and his entourage enter Samaria and approach Sychar about noon. As the disciples go on into the city to look for food, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well for rest and refreshment. As he does, a woman from Sychar approaches to draw water. (The author’s note that it is the sixth hour is his way of saying this is an unusual time for her to come to the well, unless there are reasons she prefers not to associate with the rest of the women of the village who would normally draw water in the morning and evening.) As she approaches, Jesus asks her for a drink. She is shocked for two reasons: first, Jews did not speak to Samaritans, and second, men did not speak to unknown women unless looking for a sexual favor. He has violated a cultural taboo and also put her on her guard. Hear that in her voice as she asks, “How is it, that you, a Jew, asks me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Jesus responds, “If you knew the gift of God and who it was that is asking, you would be the one asking, and he would give you living water (running water, not the stale water of a cistern or this seepage well). She responds, “And just how, sir, would you get living water, you have nothing to draw it with and the well is deep. Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?” Jesus tells her that everyone who drinks Jacob’s well water will thirst again, but those who drink of the water he gives will find it welling up into a spring of eternal life. This has become a much different conversation than she had expected, and though now, more open to it, she still does not know what is in store for her with this Jewish stranger. Immediately, she asks that he give her such water, not only so that her thirst may be quenched, but so she does not need to come back to the well again. Now that she is engaged in conversation, Jesus shifts the subject from water to husbands and tells her to go, get her husband, and bring him back. She says she has no husband; end of subject! Unsurprised and undaunted, Jesus says, “Indeed, what you say is true; you have had five husbands and the one you are now with is not your husband.” Stunned, and not sure where this is going, still, she thinks she is in the presence of a prophet. Consequently, she tries to shift the focus of the conversation away from herself and to matters theological: “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain (Gerizim, the old center of worship in the north before and after the United Kingdom moved it to Jerusalem), but your people say the place to worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus responds that the hour is soon coming when people will worship neither on Gerizim nor in Jerusalem. The Samaritans worship what they do not know; the Jews what they do know, for salvation is from the Jews. But, the hour is not only coming but is now when the true worshipper will worship the Father in Spirit and truth—precisely the kind of worship the Father seeks. God, after all, is Spirit, and those who worship God must do so in Spirit and in truth. More comfortable with this conversation, she presses her side of the argument further, saying, in effect, “I don’t know about that, but I know that the Messiah is coming, he who is called, ‘The Christ.’ When he comes he will clear all of this up and declare all things to us. Jesus simply responds, “I am he.” Not only is he announcing to her that he is the Christ, he is doing so using the ineffable name for God—ego eimi—the first of a series of times Jesus will do so in this gospel. But this, his first use of “I am,” is not connected to a metaphor like “good shepherd,” “gate to the sheepfold,” etc., but directly to the central question of his identity: he is the Christ of God.

Posted August 13, 2014
Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Judges 13:1-15; Psalms 97; Acts 5:27-42; John 3:22-36

Today we begin the story of one of the most famous and unreliable judge of all, Sampson. Again, the Israelites have done what is evil in the sight of the Lord and this time they are captive to the Philistines. Philistia was a sea-faring culture on the coast between Israel and Egypt, with vastly superior weapons (steel chariots), and who continually vexed Israel for the next several hundred years. The story opens with an angel of the Lord (God) visiting the wife of Manoah (notice that we don’t know her name, only that she is Manoah’s barren wife). God tells her that she is to bear a son. Consequently, she is not to drink or eat any fruit of the vine or any other strong drink or eat any food that is unclean. This is not heavenly pre-natal medical advice; this child is to be a nazirite, separated (what the word means) and dedicated to God from birth. A nazirite was someone who had taken special vows to set him or herself apart for the Lord, to be holy, and not to be in any way defiled. Nazirites were to abstain from all strong drink, from any fruit of the vine, were not to cut their hair and were to have no contact with death. Even if their own parents died during the vow, they could not attend to them. Nazirites came to be understood as symbols of spiritual strength and vitality, born of their consecration to God. The entire structure of the life and vow can be read in Numbers 6:1-21. Notice that there,the vow is understood to be for a limited period of time, with rituals for bringing the vow to an end. In this case, the child is to be a Nazirite all of his life (as was Samuel). Manoah’s wife tells him of the encounter. He asks God to send the messenger again, and God does, again, while she is sitting alone in the field. She goes to her husband and leads him back to “the man” to inquire for himself. Again, the command is given: his wife must not eat the fruit of the vine, drink strong drink or eat unclean food until the child is born. He is to be a nazirite from conception through his entire life. The lesson ends with Manoah asking permission to prepare a meal for the visitor, just as Gideon prepared a meal for God that was ultimately consumed by fire.

Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizing material from other psalms as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), creates a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as not only Israel's King, but sovereign over all creation. References to lightning and storm challenge the notion that those were the works of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth, but the heavens as well, proclaim God’s glory. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”

The apostles have been led back into the presence of the council where the High Priest demands to know why their order that the apostles stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus has been disobeyed. Peter responds, “We must obey God and not men,” and uses it as an opportunity to again proclaim the good news of Jesus, as well as the fact that they, the council, are the very people responsible for executing the one God sent as leader and savior, to give repentance to Israel, and who has now been raised and exalted to God’s right hand. This is the one they have been called and equipped to proclaim. More, they are not his only witnesses; the Spirit of God is also witness to him, and has been given to them and to all who obey God in this regard. The apostles’ response “cuts [the council members] to the quick,”—enraging them to the point that they are ready to put the apostles to death. In the midst of this chaos, a certain Pharisee among them, Gamaliel (a rabbi renowned in Judaism and one of Paul’s teachers [Acts 22:3]), asks that the apostles be put outside so the council can confer. Once that happens, he gives his sage advice. After mentioning several other uprisings led by charismatic figures, he notes that this has happened before and nothing has come of it. His counsel is to leave this alone. If this is of “man” it too will come to nothing. But, if it is of God, then nothing can stop it, and, in fact, they might just find themselves standing in God’s way! The council heeds Gamaliel’s advice. Instead, they have the apostles flogged (no small form of punishment), order them to no longer speak in Jesus’ name, and release them. The apostles, for their part, take the beating, rejoicing that God has considered them worthy of bearing shame on behalf of Jesus. And, of course, they continue to bear witness to him as the Christ.

The encounter with Nicodemus complete, for now, Jesus and his disciples move on to the region of Judea where Jesus spends time with his disciples baptizing new followers. Note that this is one of the few places in the gospel narratives where we know of Jesus baptizing followers in much the same way as John did. And, of course, this is in the same region where John is baptizing, which again, brings John back into the story as witness. One of John’s disciples comes to him to report that Jesus, to whom John himself bore witness, is now baptizing “all who come to him.” John responds that Jesus can do nothing that has not been given to him from heaven. He then again reminds them that he is not the Christ but rather, one who was sent ahead of him. “The bridegroom has the bride,” is his way of identifying Jesus as the “coming one,” and himself as forerunner and “the friend of the bridegroom.” As his friend, John rejoices, knowing that Jesus must increase while John must decrease. There follows a series of sayings about Jesus and John: Jesus from above, John from the earth, and the affirmation that the one who has come from heaven speaks the word of God and gives God’s Spirit without measure. He is the Son of God to whom God has given all things. Those who believe in him have eternal life; those who do not obey him will find the wrath of God abiding on them.

Posted August 12, 2014
Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014

Judges 12:1-7; Psalm 89:1-18; Acts 5:12-26; John 3:1-21

Until now, the Israelites have been oppressed from without, but today, internal conflict between the tribes begins. Jephthah’s military success has produced jealousy from the tribe of Ephraim: he crossed the Jordan to fight the Ammonites and did not invite Ephraim into the battle. They consider Jephthah and his men fugitives among them and the neighboring tribe Manasseh, and threaten to “burn his house down over him.” Jephthah responds that he did call them, but they did not deliver him from the Ammonites, so he took his own life in his hands, crossed over to engage them, and the Lord gave them into his hands. So the men of Gilead, under Jephthah’s command, fought and defeated the Ephraimites and took control of the fords of the Jordan. Whenever a fugitive from Ephraim fleeing the battle tried to cross over, the Gileadites ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” and ask them to pronounce the password “shibboleth.” Ephraimites could not produce the “schi” sound, in shibboleth, which came out “sibboleth,” thereby betraying their true identity and condemning them to death. The “forty-two thousands” who fell under this strategy is clearly the chronicler using exaggerated numbers to make his point. Jephthah “judged” Israel for six years and then died and was buried in Gilead. Ever after “shibboleth” has been a synonym for establishing authentic identity.

The first eighteen verses of Psalm 89 celebrate not only God’s sovereignty over all, it remembers God’s covenant with David and prays that God will continue to preserve and protect David and his reign forever, and re-establish David’s royal line. In all probability, this psalm was written while Israel was in exile (587-538 BCE). It is filled with longing for the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty and return to its land. The first eighteen verses begin with words of praise for God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. It then remembers the covenant God made with David, focusing on the Lord as the One who created all that is and who is still sovereign over all. The clear implication is that God, who is a mighty warrior, and whose reign is based on righteousness and justice, must act to keep his word. “Rahab” in verse 10 is not a reference to the prostitute in Jericho, but rather to the sea dragon who was the Canaanite god of chaos. The Lord is sovereign over chaos as well as all creation; therefore, even sovereign over Babylon who has them in subjugation.

The “infant” church is growing quickly. The apostles come daily to Solomon’s Portico of the temple to teach and heal. Signs and wonders continue to be performed, as God answers their requests for power to remain faithful, and their number continues to increase. So great was their witness and power, that people began to bring their sick, infirmed and those afflicted with unclean spirits into Jerusalem in hopes that Peter’s shadow might fall over them and heal them. However, so does the rift between believing and non-believing Jews. Tensions appear to be such that most of the new believers were “highly esteemed among the people,” though they did not accompany the apostles. As the apostles’ witness and popularity increases among the people it creates jealousy among the high priests and the Sadducees. Exercising their authority, they have the apostles thrown into the public prison to make an open spectacle of them in an attempt to discredit them. However, in the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord appears to them and leads them back to Solomon’s Portico with instructions to continue to preach “the message of this life;’ and they do. That next morning, the high priests send for the jailed apostles to question them, but when the guards dispatched to recover them return, they report that though the jail doors were securely locked with posted guards, somehow, the apostles were not there. Perplexed, they try to understand what is going on, only to have others arrive to announce that the apostles are back in the portico, teaching the people. The captain of the guard leaves to go bring them back, but, once there, realizes that the crowd is so supportive of the apostles that he must bring them back, not by force or command, but by invitation, without violence, lest taking more aggressive action against the apostles will result in the crowd stoning the officers.

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the best known but often the most misunderstood story in John’s gospel, and, within it, is probably the best known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, which Luther called “the gospel in miniature." Nicodemus is a religious leader and teacher (rabbi) and member of the Pharisee party—a group of laymen who represented the liberal wing of Judaism—who comes to Jesus “by night.” The gospel writer is not only telling us the time of day, but that he is seeking out Jesus secretly, and, for the most part, is “in the dark.” Nicodemus is genuine in his approach and questions, but simply unable to comprehend what Jesus is saying. He recognizes Jesus as a fellow teacher but one sent from God, for no one could do the signs Jesus is doing unless sent from God—so far, so good—the light is breaking in! Jesus embraces and affirms what Nichodemus has said: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless born anothen, and here is where the confusion begins. The Greek word “anothen” can be translated “again,” or “from above.” In fact, Jesus seems to be saying to Nichodemus, “Yes, you are seeing the kingdom breaking in because you are being born from above—given this insight by God.” But Nichodemus is “in the dark,” about such things, hears Jesus say “born again,” misses what Jesus has just said, and in his confusion asks, “How can one enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Jesus answers, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It is meant to clarify the difference between natural and spiritual birth, but, again, Nichodemus is in the dark about such things and misses it. Jesus is talking about two kinds of birth: one natural, “by water” and the other, heaven sent, “spiritual.” (Note that later the church will take the phrase “by water” and apply it to baptism. But here, it is clearly a reference to the water that accompanies the natural birth of a child.) “So,” Jesus continues, “do not be amazed that I tell you that you must be born anothen (now read Jesus’ intended meaning:again, from above!).The Spirit of God blows, like the wind, where it will, and clearly, it is blowing in Nichodemus’ life, or, to follow the metaphor shift that Jesus makes, the light is shining on him, but as yet, he does not recognize its source. And so, in confused exasperation, Nicodemus becomes Jesus’ “straight man” asking, “How can this be?” That sets the context for Jesus to preach a sermon. (This pattern will happen again and again in this gospel: there will be an encounter with Jesus, a question or incident that will set a context, Jesus will respond, but whereas he began in the second person singular, he shifts to the second person plural, and you realize he is talking to a much larger audience.  Another alternative, held by some scholars is, that when the shift from first to second person occurs, it is a sign that it is no longer Jesus talking, but the gospel writer expanding on what Jesus has said.) Beginning at verse 11 the text shifts to the second person plural and uses Nichodemus as a platform to spring into a sermon. Nicodemus is a teacher in Israel but doesn’t know this. Whether the “We” Jesus uses is collective of his small group of followers, the gospel writer’s own identification mark in the sermon (if he is speaking rather than Jesus), or, if Jesus, him speaking of himself and the One who sent him, the point is that Jesus is bearing witness to what he knows and has seen because of who he is—the Son God has sent into the world as Savior—the Son of Man sent from heaven as human witness and redeemer. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to be a means of healing for those dying of the serpents’ bites, (Numbers 21:8-9) so too, must Jesus be “lifted up,” that all who look to him in belief may have “eternal life,”—itself less a condition of immortality than a quality of life that is full, abundant and vital because it is lived out of relationship with the one who is and gives life. All of this is the result of God’s love for the world. God so loves this world that God has taken on human flesh in Jesus to reveal the dimensions of divine love and to invite and welcome humans into the divine life (eternal life). As St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man that man could become God.” The light of God has pierced the darkness of the world (remember the prologue), but, the world loves darkness because of the way it covers evil deeds. Light reveals, darkness hides, and given who we are and what we know about ourselves, we prefers darkness to light (who of us want everything about us exposed to the light?!) But therein is the judgment. God’s invitation to light and life are rejected for a life a darkness that finally leads to death. The necessary judgment of God’s love is simply this: it requires a choice. The irony is that “the judgment” is, in the end, not God’s judgment at all, but one we pronounce upon ourselves in choosing darkness rather than light. The sermon ends in verse 21 with the notion that coming to the light is itself a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into one’s life. For now, Nichodemus has dropped out of the scene but, he has not dropped out of the drama completely. Yes, he is still “in the dark,” but the wind is still blowing in his life; the birthing process is still at work within him. He will be back, and in the end, he too will discover he has been born again from above. But for now, Jesus has yet to be “lifted up;’’ his hour has not yet come.

Posted August 11, 2014
Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday,  August 10, 2014

Judges 11:1-11, 29-40; Psalms 66; 2 Corinthians 11:21b-31; Mark 4:35-41

We skip over two minor judges, Tola and Jair, and the repeat of the Israelites turning again to the gods of the nations around them, causing the Lord to refuse to come to their aid. Rather, the Lord says, “Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” The Israelites repent, put away their foreign gods and worship the Lord, and we hear the touching word, “[the Lord] could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” The Ammonites are now called to arms against the Israelites in Gilead, and the question is, “Who will begin in the fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Enter Jephthah, the son of Gilead, born not of the mother of the rest of Gilead’s sons but of a prostitute, and, therefore, shunned by the rest of his brothers who disinherit him and drive him out. Jephthah flees to the land of Tob, north in what is today Syria, where a group of outlaws gather about him to go raiding with him. When the Ammonites begin to make war against Israel, the elders of Gilead go to Jephthah and ask him to become their commander. After initial resistance Jephthah agrees, but, on the provision that if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites, he will become their head. They agree, promising in the name of the Lord, as does Jephthah. The lesson skips over Jephthah’s arguments with the King of Ammon who wants him to restore land lost as the Israelites tried to pass through Ammon in the Exodus, and turns straight to the central issue—Jephthah’s rash and sinful vow. As we pick up the story in vs. 29, we are told that the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah as he passed through the northern tribes and on to Ammon. But then, rather than trust the providence of the Lord whose spirit has come upon him, Jephthah feels the need to force the issue. He makes a vow in order to insure his victory: the first one to come out of the door of his house, upon his victorious return, will be offered to the Lord as a burnt offering. Of course, he is victorious, inflicting “massive defeats in twenty towns." But, as he returns and approaches his home, his only child—a young daughter—runs out to greet him. Tearing his clothes in anguish, Jephthah knows he is trapped: he must keep his vow to the Lord, not for the Lord’s sake, but for his own. Explaining to his daughter that he cannot take his vow back, she is the real hero of the story and exhibits her own integrity. She simply asks that her father delay the sacrifice for two months so that she and her companions can bewail her virginity. She has not yet fulfilled her role within the family by bearing children, and without children, she is destined to be completely forgotten. Jephthah sends her away, and at the end of two months she returns and he keeps his vow. Notice how silent the text is on that question. The tragic story ends with an epilogue: his daughter is not forgotten. Rather, we are told that for four days, every year, the daughters of Israel went out to lament the daughter of Jephthah, the Gileadite.

Psalm 66 calls upon the entire earth to make a joyful noise and sing to the glory of God’s name, telling God how awesome he is. Even his enemies fain obedience and honor to him because of the power and greatness of his name. The whole earth is called to worship God. Then, all are invited to “come and see what God has done among mortals.” The psalm then remembers God’s acts of redemption out of Egypt and deliverance at the Red Sea. God has kept us among the living and does not allow our feet to slip. But, God also tests. And so, the people have known the burdens that come with faithlessness that resulted in their subjugation by other peoples. But, in the end, God “brought us out into a broad and spacious place.” The psalmist now vows to enter the temple with burnt offerings to fulfill the promise that his lips have made, making an offering of bulls and goats. Finally, the psalmist calls on all who fear God to listen as he tells them what God has done for him. He cried aloud and extolled God and God listened because the psalmist was innocent. Had he cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not have heard his voice. But truly, God has listened. Blessed be God, who has neither rejected his prayer nor removed his steadfast love.

In arguing with the Corinthians over the integrity of his own apostleship, Paul allows himself to be drawn into a boasting contest to compare himself with the so-called “super apostles” who have arrived in Corinth, probably from Jerusalem, challenging the gospel Paul has preached among the Corinthians and challenging Paul’s credentials to speak as an apostle. However, Paul will not boast of his accomplishments, but of his moments of weakness and suffering on behalf of the gospel. After establishing equal footing with his Jewish opponents—he is, after all, also a Jew who is a minister of Christ—Paul turns to a record of his hardships as he has pursued his apostolic ministry—an astonishing record of difficulty with both physical and mental suffering. If he must boast, it will be in these things that show his weakness, for his ultimate boast is in the Lord.

Jesus has spent the day sitting in the stern of one of the disciples’ boats, teaching the crowds that have gathered about him. When evening comes, he asks to go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Leaving the crowds behind, the disciples hoist anchors and take Jesus, just as he is in the one boat, and, with their small flotilla, head out into the night sea—a most dangerous thing to do! Jesus quickly falls asleep on the cushion in the stern where he had been sitting. Out in the deep, a storm arises that threatens to swamp the boat; yet, Jesus remains asleep through it all. As the disciples struggle with the boat, bailing and trying to keep it upright and afloat, they wake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are about to die?” Jesus shakes himself awake, and with the same voice of command that he has previously used to rebuke and cast out evil spirits, so he rebukes the wind and the sea. “Peace, be still,” is prosaic, but hardly what Jesus says! A more colloquial and literal translation of his words is, “Shut up! Put a muzzle on it! Silence; calm down!” Immediately, the wind and sea fall to a dead calm. The demon that was in the storm has been cast out, and the disciples know it. Jesus turns to them and in effect says, “Don’t you yet understand? Why are you afraid; do you still have no faith?” And, of course, their faith is like ours, it comes and goes and seems the weakest in the moments of greatest trouble. How good it is that our rescue is not dependent upon the strength of our faith, but upon the One who is in the boat with us, the One in whom we place our faith! We are not saved by our faith, but by God’s grace that we access through faith and trust in him. With the trouble passed, the disciples are again filled with awe and begin to wonder among themselves just who this is that even the wind and sea obey him.

Posted August 10, 2014
Saturday, August 9, 2014

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Judges 9:22-25, 50-57; Psalm 63; Acts 4:32-5:11; John 2:13-25

After Jotham’s curse, he goes into hiding in Be-er, while his half-brother Abimelech rules over Israel for three years. Then the Lord sends an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem, who begin to deal treacherously with Abimelech. It is the Lord’s vengeance against Abimelech for the murder of his father Gideon's (Jerubbaal’s) other sons, and upon the lords of Shechem who assisted him in doing so. But now the hostility between the lords of Shechem and Abimelech lead the lords to set up ambushes and robberies in Abimelech’s territory, thereby denigrating his rule and disrupting the economy. Today’s lesson skips the incident with Gaal who moves to Shechem and tries to incite the lords against Abimelech in order to make him king (vs. 26-49) and all that transpires out of that, leading to the destruction of Shechem. Today we pick up the story at vs. 50 that tells of Abimelech’s death. When he seeks to take the city of Thebez, the townspeople take to a strong tower for refuge. Abimelech comes to the tower to burn it down, just as he did in Shechem—which now lies in ruin—but a woman at the top of the tower throws a mill stone down on Abimelech, crushing his head. As he lies dying, Abimelech pleads with his armor bearer to draw his sword and kill Abimelech, lest his legacy be that he was killed by a woman. The young man does and Abimelech dies, with the chronicler telling us, “Thus God repaid Abimelech for the crimes he committed against his father,” and his other sons, as well as bringing to fulfillment the curse of Jotham against the lords of Shechem for their part in all of it.

Psalm 63 blesses God for his loving kindness and mercy—better than life itself! It is attributed to David while in the Judean wilderness, remembering the joy of having been in the Lord’s sanctuary and presence. It contains some of the most beautiful language in the psalter, texts often used in formal prayer: “O God, you are my God, earnestly will I seek you,” “My soul thirsts for you in a dry and barren land,” “because your love is better than life itself, my lips will speak your praise,” “in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy,” “my soul clings to you, your right hand supports me,” and so on. Each is suitable as opening words of prayer and prepares and centers the soul for conscious contact with God.

The lesson from Acts continues to speak of the quality of fellowship [koinonia] and life that existed in the infant church--the concord, mutual generosity and trust that they exhibited with one another, no one claiming private ownership, but holding all things in common in order to care for everyone’s needs. At the same time, the apostles continued to give their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus with great power, Great grace rested upon all of them, and there was not one person among them who was in need, for those who owned houses and lands would sell them and bring the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. A Levite, named Joseph, later named Barnabas –“son of encouragement”—by the apostles, who will much later accompany Paul, is listed as one who did so. But then the story turns to Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Ananias also sold a piece of property, but, with the consent of Sapphira, they held back a portion of the sale for themselves, bringing only the balance of the sale to the apostles for distribution. Peter confronts Ananias, not simply for his deception, but for the root of it: allowing Satan to fill his heart so that he would lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back a portion of the proceeds of the Land. Notice, he is not lying to the apostles or to the community, but to the Spirit of God—God himself! Upon hearing that, Ananias drops dead in his tracks. Some young men come, wrap Ananias’ body in a sheet and carry him out and bury him. Three hours later, Sapphira arrives unaware of what has happened. Peter confronts her, asking if Ananias had been paid the price he had handed over for the sale of the land, and she says, “Yes.” Peter then asks how it is that the two of them could agree to put the Spirit to the test. Pronouncing judgment against her, he announces that the feet of those who have just buried Ananias now stand at the door to do the same for her, and immediately she falls dead at Peter’s feet.  The young men carry her out as well and bury her next to Ananias. Great fear seizes the whole church (the first time Luke has used the word “church” in either his gospel or this epistle), and all who heard of these things. And, is it any wonder?  I have often jokingly said this is the best text for a stewardship sermon that I know of, if one wants to build a theology of giving in a congregation on fear rather than gratitude. Surely, it put the fear of God in the infant church in Jerusalem and reinforced the importance of not allowing anything—especially possessions—to put their common life in jeopardy. A footnote may be appropriate here: the commitment in the Jerusalem church to holding all things in common ultimately led to it becoming destitute, a condition Paul will strive to alleviate with his collection for the Jerusalem church from the Gentile churches in Asia and Asia Minor. One wonders just how much this incident with Ananias and Sapphira reinforced the notion of holding all things in common and helped contributed to that poverty.

Today’s story of Jesus cleansing the temple is told in all four gospels, but never as explicitly as it is told here. As Passover approaches, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. Entering the temple, he encounters those selling animals to be used for sacrifice as well as the money changers. Pilgrims coming to the temple from the countryside, as well as many others who came to the temple to worship, needed not only to purchase animals for sacrifice but to exchange Roman for Hebrew coin as the temple tax must be paid in shekels. Jesus fashions a whip of cords, driving the merchants out. He overturns the tables with their coins, scattering them across the stone and demands that those selling doves (the least expensive sacrifice intended for use by the poor), take them outside. The temple is his father’s house—notice his claim of special relationship—it is not “the Father’s house,” or “our Father’s house” but, “my Father’s house.” The temple is not to be a marketplace! Suddenly, the disciples are reminded of Psalm 69:9—“Zeal for your house has consumed me and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” Only the first half of that verse is quoted, but the second part fully explains Jesus’ rage. The Jews demand a sign to justify his rage. (Note that this gospel uses the phrase “the Jews” in two ways: sometimes it simply stands for the people as a whole; at others for the Jewish religious leaders that the other three gospels name “priests, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees.”) The Jewish leaders in the temple want a sign; Jesus will give them a sign above all signs: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rise it up.” The Jews are astonished; the temple has been under construction for almost fifty years; he would rebuild it in three days? They, of course, have missed the sign, thinking he is talking about the building itself when, in fact, he is talking about himself as the place where God is dwelling among them. In the other gospels, this is a charge the religious leaders try to bring against Jesus to justify killing him. It is only in this gospel, where Jesus is far more forthright and transparent, and he speaks the words himself. It will only be after his resurrection that his disciples will truly understand what he was saying, and believe the scriptures and the word that Jesus had spoken. The scene ends, telling us that while Jesus was in Jerusalem for that Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing. Yet, Jesus would not entrust himself to them, not simply because he needed no one to testify to him—he, the Father, the Spirit and the signs were witnesses enough—but because he knew the people better than they knew themselves and knew how unreliable they would be at the end. Pastoral post script: How is it the contemporary church so quickly forgets this incident when planning its turkey suppers, Christmas bazaars, gift shops, thrift shops and the like, almost always a poor substitute for better stewardship discipline within the congregation, turning the church from a house of prayer to just one more institution in the community's culture? The fact that the proceeds are being given to support a particular ministry or cause does not lessen Jesus’ condemnation of such activity.

Posted August 9, 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