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Friday, December 26, 2104

Friday, December 26, 2014, 2nd Day of Christmas
Wisdom of Solomon 4:7-15 (2 Chronicles 24:17-22); Psalm 116; Acts 6:1-7; Acts 7:59-8:8

The Wisdom of Solomon is not included in the Protestant Bible because it comes from the Apocrypha, that collection of writings that come from a period after 300 BCE through 70 CE, that were written in Greek and reflect the history and theology emerging as Greek became the official language of the lands conquered by Alexander the Great. It is sometimes called “inter-testamental literature.” Though the Reformers recognized that these books were written by “Godly men” and recommended them for reading, they did not regard them as equally as inspired as the rest of the Old and New Testaments. It was the Westminster Assembly that finally rejected the Apocrypha as canonical when it listed the books of the Bible in its confession. Today’s lesson, from the Wisdom of Solomon, is first century wisdom literature (probably written between 70 BCE and 70 CE), and is cast in the name of the wisest of Israel’s kings, Solomon. It is the same kind of writing we find in Proverbs and reflects the wisdom tradition as it existed in Jesus’ day. Today’s lesson, with its focus on children and early death, suggests that it is being written at a time of persecution when people were questioning the historic assumption that length of days was a sign of God’s favor. What about those who die too early? It asserts that rather than length of days and gray hair, God honors understanding and a blameless life. Those who have died early lived among sinners. They were “taken up”—notice, the righteous dead no longer go to Sheol, the land of the dead, but are taken up to God—lest the influence of the wicked changes their understanding and deceives their souls. They were pleasing to the Lord, and so he took them quickly from this world’s wickedness. (This is the source of the notion that “the good die young.”) Those who see it and do not understand fail to realize that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect, and that he watches over his holy ones. 

In 2 Chronicles, Jehoiada, the priest, had served king Joash well (also spelled Jehoash who reigned from 837 to 800 BCE), working to install the boy, who was a descendant of David, as Judah’s true king, even though Joash was still a seven-year old boy. Jehoiada enlisted the priests and the Levites in the plan and sequestered the boy-king in the temple until his reign was safely established. This resulted in Joash supporting Jehoiada’s work to restore the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, by now, some 130 years old, but by also driving out the Baalistic objects, symbols and practices that had crept into its use. Jehoiada lived a long faithful life, but, at his death, the officials of the land came to the king, now an adult, and persuaded him to abandon the house of the Lord in order to worship at the sacred poles and idols of Baalism. And so, the Lord’s wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for their guilt. Nonetheless, the Lord sent prophets to the king and people to call them back to the Lord, testifying against the people’s practices, but the people would not listen. So it is that the spirit of the Lord took possession of Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, and sent him to prophesy before the people, saying, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.” The people react as most of humankind reacts to such rebuke, and look for a way to silence him. The king, who has forgotten the kindness of Jehoiada, enters into league with the people, giving them permission to stone Zechariah, which they do. As Zechariah is dying he says, “May the Lord see and avenge!” Read on to see how the Lord took vengeance against them for Zechariah’s death. But here lies the seed of the tradition that Jerusalem kills the prophets the Lord has sent to it, a tradition Jesus affirms when he weeps over Jerusalem.

Psalm 116 asks, “What shall we give to the Lord for all of God’s goodness to us?” This psalm professes love for the Lord who hears our cries, who is gracious, righteous and compassionate, and who preserves the simple (the naïve), who keeps our stumbling feet on God’s path, preserving our lives. The psalmist had been surrounded by the snares of death; the pangs of dying were upon him as he suffered anguish and distress. As is often the case, the emotional side of his encounter with death was even more traumatic than the physical reality of it. In that anguish, he called out to the Lord to save him and the Lord did. “What then,” he asks, “shall I offer to the Lord in return for all of God’s goodness?” What can one give to God for all God’s goodness? The psalmist will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. He is promising to go to the temple to offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the midst of God’s people. The psalmist makes a final vow: “I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.” He seals this promise with a pledge. Lifting the cup of salvation, in much the way we would offer a “toast” to another in tribute, he simply says, “Hallelujah!”

The first lesson from Acts today tells the story behind the development of the diaconate within the church. The church of the New Testament met for worship in the evenings over a common meal. Food for the meal was brought by the worshippers as they had it at hand. When worship was over, whatever food remained was distributed among the poor in the church. As the church was increasing in number, the Hellenists (those Jewish Christians who spoke Greek) complained against the Hebrews (those Jewish Christians who spoke Hebrew and Aramaic), that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. Consequently, the twelve apostles called the whole community together to resolve the dispute. Understanding themselves to be called to “serve the Word,” the apostles did not have time to be occupied with “serving at table”—attending to the pastoral duties of caring for the poor among them. So, they told the churches gathering in various homes to choose from among themselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom the apostles could appoint to the task. (Note, the apostles are still exercising authority, but delegating the workload). This pleased the community, and so they chose the seven listed there. They then brought the seven before the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them—the act of ordination whereby they were “set aside,” which is the meaning of “ordain,” appointed to a particular ministry within the church—the diaconal ministry that would emerge as one of sympathy and service to those in need. Luke then tells us that it worked. The word of God continued to spread with the number of disciples increasing greatly in Jerusalem. Even a number of the priests were becoming disciples.

Among those ordained to diaconal service was Stephen. No sooner is Stephen ordained to wait on tables and care for the poor than he gets himself in trouble in his synagogue by preaching about Jesus (remember, the disciples still attended their synagogues as well as their evening worship gatherings), and before it is over, the leaders of the synagogue drag him to the council. Stephen uses the occasion as an opportunity to preach about Jesus again and is now officially convicted of blasphemy. The council members cover their ears as men drag Stephen out of the city to stone him, laying their coats at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul (Chapter 6:7—7:58). Our lesson opens with Stephen kneeling down while being stoned and praying that his death not be held against those stoning him, thereby introducing the theme of forgiveness that is to dominate the lives of disciples. Saul is reported to approve of this stoning, and it becomes the beginning of a “severe persecution” against the church in Jerusalem by the synagogues there. Everyone but the twelve scatters throughout the countryside of Judah and Samaria, and thus begins the expansion of the church through its ministry of evangelism in the places to which they have been dispersed. Devout men bury Steven and make the appropriate lamentation over him. However, Saul is inspired and begins to “ravage the church” by entering the households where the young congregations meet, dragging off both men and women and having them imprisoned. Now the details of the scattering are reported. Phillip goes off to Samaria and preaches the Messiah to them. The Samaritans listen eagerly to what he says, hearing his words and seeing the signs and wonders Phillip is working, casting out unclean spirits and healing many. So, the gospel has spread beyond Jerusalem into Samaria. The stage is now set for it to move even further into Gentile territory.

Posted December 26, 2014
Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thursday, December 25, 2014—Christmas Day
Zechariah 2:10-13; Psalm 2; 1 John 4:7-16; John 3:31-36

This short oracle from Zechariah announces God’s coming to dwell among his people. It is no wonder that it took on further messianic dimensions as time went by and it remained unfulfilled, finally finding its place among the prophetic texts promising the coming of the Christ. Notice the universal nature of the salvation that is implied in the “many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day.” The Lord will possess Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem as his own. All flesh is called to silence as God rouses himself from his holy dwelling in heaven to come among the people.

Psalm 2 is the first of a series of Royal Psalms, probably used at the annual re-enactment of the King’s enthronement, reminding him that he is God’s viceroy, God’s anointed, and God’s own adopted son. The nations can rage and conspire against him, but the Lord, for whom he reigns, sits in heaven laughing at them. God will speak to the king’s enemies in wrath reminding them that the king who reigns in Zion (Jerusalem) is there at God’s hand and doing. Then the king repeats what the Lord has said to him, “You are my son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” It is from this psalm that came the idea that Israel’s king was the Lord’s adopted son. The psalm then turns to the other rulers of the earth warning them to hear and be wise. They, too, are called upon to serve the Lord with fear. All rulers of the earth are called on to reign under God’s sovereign rule or experience God’s judgment themselves. Happy are all who take refuge in him. After the loss of the monarchy in Israel, following the Babylonian captivity, the idea of the king as God’s anointed (meshiach), began to develop into the notion of an ultimate Messiah-King who would appear and return God’s reign to God’s people. He would be known as “God’s son” because he had inherited David’s throne. The New Testament capitalized on this psalm as a means of identifying Jesus as that Messiah, but a Son of a different order than all of the other of Israel’s kings—an ontological one—therefore the capitol “S” in Son—

This letter of John, whether the author of the Gospel, or a younger disciple of John’s, is written to churches in the latter part of the first century that are being torn apart by the work of false teachers. As has been said many times, “there is no fight like a church fight!” In the midst of that John states most emphatically that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” In other words, the fighting, name calling and other acts of division that come from schismatic behavior are not of God and, consequently, those who indulge in it are not of God—a severe warning to those churches and church leaders who want to fight and separate over issues, theological or otherwise. A casual reading of this lesson makes its logic seem circular. But read more closely, it is as profound a statement about love as God’s essential and ultimate nature as one will find in the Bible—equal to Paul’s hymn on love in 1 Corinthians 13. The point here is that all love in this world emerges from God, and all who are infused with that love are infused with none other than God—regardless of the creed or name they bear. We love because God first loved us. The ultimate expression of this love was God sending his Son to expiate sin and open the way for us to be vessels of God’s Divine love. God abides in whoever welcomes this love in Christ and confesses him God’s Son. Notice, this last phrase is particular to those who confess Jesus as God’s Son, but does not exclude God abiding in others who do not so confess or believe in Jesus, but nonetheless, live lives that bear and reveal God’s love.

The beginning of chapter 3 of John’s gospel reports the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus and culminates in what Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell”—John 3:16—and Jesus’ further comments that conclude in verse 21. Between now and then, Jesus and John have been exercising their ministries, Jesus in the south, John in the north, both teaching and baptizing. John’s disciples have asked about Jesus and his work and John has witnessed to Jesus as the bridegroom (Messiah). Though the NRSV translation stops John’s address to his disciples at verse 30, turning what follows into the gospel author’s comments, the lesson today makes more sense to see them as John the Baptist’s continuing words about Jesus rather than John the Evangelist. “The one who comes from above [Jesus] is above all; the one who is of the earth [John] belongs to the earth and speaks about things of the earth.” The one who comes from heaven is above all—clearly superior to John (remember, he is talking to his own disciples). “[Jesus] testifies to what he has seen and heard [in heaven] but no one accepts his testimony”—“no one” here is hyperbole on John’s part, an expression of the general condition of sinful people. For, whoever has accepted Jesus’ testimony certifies that God is true. Though “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God,” could, in fact, also apply to John himself as well, John is clearly talking about Jesus. Jesus speaks the words of God and gives the Spirit without measure, for the Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. John ends by saying that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life. Though one would expect the opposite of “believe” to be “not believe,” John uses the word “disobey” and sees unbelief as a willful act of disobedience that if indulged in long enough will bring upon the disobedient the wrath of God—what John has been warning the people to flee from.

Posted December 25, 2014
Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 90; Revelation 22:12-21; Luke 1:67-80

The Book of Isaiah, as we have it in the Bible today, is the work of editors taking the prophecies of two or three people named “Isaiah” and arranging them in their current order. Today’s lesson is from 2nd Isaiah, the 6th century prophet whose main body of work appears between chapters 40 and 55. However, chapters 34 and 35 are his as well. Today’s lesson announces the redemption and restoration of the nation that has been in exile in Babylon. It is an oracle of salvation set as a psalm of praise. The Lord is coming; the desert shall rejoice and the crocus shall blossom abundantly; the glory of Lebanon shall be restored as well as the majesty of Carmel and Sharon, when they see the glory of the Lord. The word overwhelms the people and leaves them faint. Therefore, strengthen weak hands, make firm feeble knees, and say to those of fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” He comes with vengeance and terrible recompense, for he comes to save you. All of the Jews, from the weakest to the strongest and the youngest to the oldest, are to be included. The traditional maladies of old age—blindness and lameness—will be removed. Even the speechless will sing for joy. The wilderness will be teaming with water sufficient for the journey; the haunt of wild and dangerous animals will be removed. Rather, there shall be a highway—the Holy Way—suitable for God’s people. No danger shall lurk there. On it, the redeemed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy shall be theirs and all sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Psalm 90 reflects on the majesty and awesomeness of God and the frailty and limitedness of human beings, as it ponders life’s meaning. Where God has existed from everlasting to everlasting and for whom a thousand years is but a moment, our days are short, like grass that sprouts in the morning, flourishes midday, and by evening fades and withers. Our days pass away under God’s wrath. Wrath here is both a symbol of God’s anger or disapproval at the ways of humanity, and also a symbol of God’s constant plea for humanity to return to the purposes for which we were first brought into being. Our days are lived out under that watchful eye and then come to an end, like a sigh. They are seventy, perhaps eighty years with good health, but still, they are filled with toil and trouble, and too soon gone. Given all this, the psalmist asks for wisdom to count our days, and therein to gain some wisdom. Finally, the Lord is called on by name and asked to turn from wrath to compassion. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” God is asked to make us as glad as the many days God has afflicted us. More, let God’s work be manifest in our own work, thereby giving it meaning and purpose. The concluding benediction is bold in its request that life be good and meaningful: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us.” The psalm concludes with this final, direct and bold request: “Prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands.”

The Risen Christ now speaks directly to the churches in which this letter is read: “See I am coming soon; my reward is with me to repay according to everyone’s work.” Here is one of the reasons Luther was so uncomfortable with this Book. It is less an expression of the grace of God than God’s wrath at work in a chaotic world. However, in such a world, one expects texts to exhort people to faithfulness, and that is what lies behind this. After further identifying himself as the beginning and the end, a blessing is pronounced on all who have washed their robes so that they have a right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. A further warning is issued against unfaithful behavior that will bar one from the Holy City. Again, Jesus identifies himself as the one who has sent the angel to John with this word for the churches. He is the root and descendant of David and the bright morning star—all messianic titles. Then, there is yet another invitation to come. In spite of what has been said above about “works” and sinful behaviors, everyone is finally invited to come and take of the waters of life as a gift. The book then includes in it a warning against anyone altering the words of this prophecy, complete with a curse on those who do—a practice that was common in ancient documents. Again, Jesus says he is coming soon, to which John responds, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus! The book ends with the final blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen!

Zachariah sings a psalm of thanksgiving on the birth of his son John. It falls in three parts. The first stanza blesses God for having looked favorably on his people Israel and redeemed them. The act of redemption is spoken of in the past tense, because it has already begun to unfold in the birth of his son. God has raised up a mighty savior for the house of David in the babe coming to birth in his wife’s cousin, Mary. All of this is God acting to fulfill the ancient promise made to Abraham and Sarah, to bring forth from them a covenant people who might worship and serve God without fear, and do so in holiness and righteousness all their days. And now, the hymn takes up its second stanza as Zachariah lifts his son into his arms to prophesy concerning him. John is to be the prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way for the Son of the Most High, giving the knowledge of salvation to the people—the forgiveness of sins. Stanza three tells us that all of this is the result of the tender mercies of our God. The “dawn” breaking from on high is the promised Messiah, who comes to give light to those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. His way is the way of peace. As the psalm comes to an end, Luke takes John off stage to the wilderness. But, he tells us that the child was strong in the Spirit of God as he grew into who he was sent to be.

Posted December 24, 2014
Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Isaiah 33:17-22; Psalm 102; Revelation 22:6-20; Luke 1:57-66

Isaiah’s oracle against the king of Assyria and its threat to Jerusalem continues by telling the people of Jerusalem that they will see the king in his beauty. Is this a reference to the king of Judah—in this case Hezekiah, once again restored to his absolute sovereignty—or is this a messianic reference, or simply the affirmation that the Lord is king? We cannot know. But regardless, they will see their king and behold their land stretching far away. The Assyrian threat will be no more. In the wake of it, they will muse on the terror they felt. They will ask, “Where is the one who counted? Where is the one who weighed the tribute? Where is the one who counted the towers?” These insolent foreigners who had invaded, who spoke an obscure language that was difficult and who demanded tribute are no more. Rather, look on Zion, the city of Judah’s appointed festivals. Jerusalem is a safe, quiet habitation, a tent that shall not be moved, whose stakes will never be pulled up and whose ropes will not be broken. There, the Lord in majesty will be, making it a place of abundance—“broad rivers and streams”—yet one where not a galley with oars or other stately ship can pass. Jerusalem’s security is because the Lord is not only king—a common theme in Isaiah—but also Jerusalem’s judge and ruler, terms which are not otherwise used by first Isaiah. It is the Lord who will save them.

Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to a psalm of trust and intercession. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm takes another turn, this time to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name could continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. And now, the psalm returns to lament: though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago, God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing, yet remains the Lord forever. The psalm ends on a final note of affirmation and hope: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.

The angel now issues final warnings to John along with exhortations. First, he is told “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the prophets has sent the angel to show John and his people what must take place soon. Then comes the promise, “Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed are those who keep the words of prophecy of this book.” John then himself testifies to the veracity of what he has written: he is the one who heard and has seen these things. He then falls at the feet of the angel who showed all this to him, in order to worship, but the angel tells him, “You must not do that!” The angel is a fellow servant, along with John and his comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of the book. The point is: Worship God, not another! Having been given the book he is told not to seal it, for the time is near. For now, let the evil do evil, the filthy be filthy, and the righteous do right and the holy be holy. The end of the age is so near it is too late to change. The Risen Christ now speaks directly to the churches in which this letter is read: “See I am coming soon; my reward is with me to repay according to everyone’s work.” Here is one of the reasons Luther was so uncomfortable with this Book. It is less an expression of the grace of God than God’s wrath at work in a chaotic world. However, in such a world, one expects texts to exhort people to faithfulness, and that is what lies behind this. He is the Alpha and the Omega (beginning and ending letters of the Greek alphabet), the first and the last, the beginning and the end. A blessing is pronounced on all who have washed their robes, so that they have a right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. A further warning is issued against unfaithful behavior that will bar one from the Holy City. Again, Jesus identifies himself as the one who has sent the angel to John with this word for the churches. He is the root and descendant of David and the bright morning star—all messianic titles. Then, there is yet another invitation to come. In spite of what has been said above about “works” and sinful behaviors, everyone is finally invited to come and take of the waters of life as a gift. The book then includes in it a warning against anyone altering the words of this prophecy, complete with a curse on those who do—a practice that was common in ancient documents. Again, Jesus says he is coming soon, to which John responds, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

Three months later, Elizabeth gives birth to her son. The neighbors and relatives rejoice with the parents and want to name the boy Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth knows better. Her husband seems to have communicated to her that the child is to be named John. On the eighth day, when the boy is to be circumcised and named, there is a bit of a ruckus in the community. After all, no one in their family has been named John. The crowd turns to the still silent Zechariah to find out what he wants to name the boy, and Zechariah scribbles on his writing tablet, “His name is John.” Immediately, Zechariah is able again to speak and praises God for all of these things. Fear falls over the neighbors as they ask, “Who is this child to become?” It is clear that the hand of the Lord is with him.

Posted December 23, 2014
Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014
Isaiah 31:1-9; Psalm 18:1-20; Revelation 21:22—22:5; Luke 1:39-48a

Assyria has invaded the north and has now moved south against Judah, threatening Jerusalem with siege. Judah’s king, Hezekiah, has formed an alliance against Assyria with Egypt and is warned by Isaiah that this is not only foolish, but actually an insult and affront to God. How is it Hezekiah is willing to trust in Egypt’s chariots and horsemen but not trust the Lord—the Holy One of Israel? The Egyptians are human, the Lord is God. Isaiah warns that when the Lord “stretches out his hand” even the helper will stumble and the one helped will fall, and they will perish together. Hezekiah had best divest himself of the alliance; it will mean his own destruction. Isaiah goes on to quote the Lord, saying that when young lions growl over their prey, they are not terrified by the shouts of the shepherds sent out against it. So the Lord is not terrified by the Assyrian shouts, but rather, will come down and fight on Mt. Zion to protect it, deliver it, spare and rescue it. Herein lies Isaiah’s conviction of the inviolability of Jerusalem, because it is Mt. Zion—the Holy One’s home. Therefore, the king and his people are told to “turn back to him whom you have deeply betrayed.” It is not simply the alliance that is their betrayal. They are also to rid themselves of the idols of silver and gold that they have sinfully fashioned with their own hands. Then “the Assyrian” will fall, not by human sword but by the sword of the Lord, which will devour "him and those he leads" among the Assyrians. They shall flee, with the young men put into forced labor. The one who is “his rock” among the Assyrians shall pass away in terror, his officer’s desert the Assyrian standard in panic, for it is the Lord whose fire is in Zion, and whose consuming furnace is in Jerusalem.

Psalm 18:1-20 is introduced as a psalm of David, uttered when the Lord had rescued him from the hand of Saul. Scholars classify this as a “Royal Psalm of Thanks for Victory.” But, without the elaborate introduction between “To the leader…,” and “I love you, O Lord…,” this is a classic psalm of thanksgiving and praise for God’s intervention in one’s life, regardless of the circumstances or whether or not one is king. Notice how general the psalmist’s troubles are: “cords of death encompass, torrents of perdition assail, cords of Sheol entangle, the snares of death confront.” They could apply to anyone. There is simply unabashed love expressed for the Lord because of God’s deliverance and salvation. From the temple in Jerusalem, the Lord has heard the psalmist’s cry. The central portion of this reading uses the familiar storm image to speak of God’s presence and sovereignty. Such language was common in the religious language of the Canaanites as well, and may well have been appropriated from a Baal liturgy to make the point that it is the Lord who is sovereign even over those deities. Remember, at this stage, Israel was not monotheistic, but convinced that their God was the God of gods. Today’s reading concludes with the psalmist expressing the conviction that all this has taken place because God has rewarded God’s own integrity—it has nothing to do with what the psalmist has done. It then returns to the theme of the blessings of keeping the ways of the Lord. This is the third longest psalm in the collection, fifty verses in all. Only in that final verse do we learn that the psalmist is the king, the Lord’s anointed.

John now looks more closely at the New Jerusalem and discovers that there is no longer any temple within it, for the city itself is the temple of the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. The city has no need for sun or moon, for the Glory of the Lord is its light, and the Lamb is its lamp. Finally, the nations will walk by its light and all the kings of the earth will bring their glory. But again, it is stressed, that nothing unclean will be there; only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The angel now shows John the river of the waters of life that are flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. The water pours down through the middle of the street, and on the other side of the stream is the tree of life, each producing its twelve kinds of fruit (one for each month). Not only does it produce fruit to eat, but its leaves are for the healing of the nation. Never again will there be international conflict. The nations will live together in peace. Again, we are reminded that nothing accursed shall be there. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and the Lamb’s servants will worship him and they shall see him “face to face,” and his name shall be inscribed on their foreheads (the chrismation cross of baptism). There will be no more night or need of light of either lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

We don’t know how much time passed between Gabriel’s visit and Mary’s departure to visit her cousin Elizabeth, but it must not have been long for Luke tells us, she set out with haste to a Judean town in the hill country to see her cousin. Is she going to confirm that Elizabeth is, indeed, six months pregnant, or, is she leaving Nazareth to a different kind of seclusion so that her emerging belly will not be an embarrassment to her and a scandal to Joseph? Both are quite possible. However, entering the house of Zechariah she and Elizabeth exchange greetings, and upon hearing Mary’s words, the child within Elizabeth leaps for joy. Filled with the Spirit—for otherwise, Elizabeth knows nothing about Mary being pregnant—Elizabeth exclaims in a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. How is it that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Explaining herself, Elizabeth tells Mary that as soon as she heard the sound of Mary’s greeting, the child within her womb leaped for joy. To this Elizabeth prophetically adds, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” As though this is a confirmation of what has been told taking place within her, Mary responds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the humble state of his servant.

Posted December 22, 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