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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday, July 17

Joshua 3:14–4:7; Psalm 97; Romans 12:1–8; Matthew 26:1–16

Did it really happen; were the waters of the Jordan stopped so that the people could cross over into the land? Take a look at that pile of stones taken from the center of the Jordan’s riverbed! The moment the priest carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the water—not the river, mind you, but its overflow—the waters ceased flowing south and backed up to the north. The priests carrying the Ark walked down into the riverbed and stood at its middle while the people passed over on dry ground. The allusion to Moses and the people at the Red Sea is unmistakable; Joshua is leading the people as Moses did. Once the nation is across, God tells Joshua to choose a man from each tribe who is to return to the riverbed and select a stone so large it must be carried on the shoulder, one for each tribe, and take it to where they will camp that night to build a stone memorial so that in a later day, when children ask, “What is that and what does it mean?” they can be told of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan at God’s hand.

Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizes material from other psalms, as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), to construct a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as King—justice and righteousness are his throne. “Fire goes before him,” remembers the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness. References to lightning and storm challenge the notion that those are the work of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth proclaims God’s glory, but the heavens as well. 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 the 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!”

Having made the scope of his argument, Paul returns to his concern for the church in Rome and the challenges they are facing as the returning Jews reintegrate back into a congregation that, in their absence, had become Gentile. Imagine the arguments! And so he makes his appeal, not on the basis of his own authority, but upon the authority of the mercy of God—none of them have reason to boast. Grace is grace. Rather, they are to present themselves (he introduces the word “bodies” here to set up his next metaphor) as living offerings—that is what the word “sacrifice” means—holy and pleasing to God. It is the only logical response to God’s grace once it is embraced. Rather than be conformed to the world in which they live in Rome, they are to be transformed by the renewal of their minds—their understanding of what God’s grace means in day to day life. Thereby, they are to “prove,” as in “test” or “discover,” what God’s will is for them, things good, acceptable and perfectly fulfilled. In that vein, they are to live the life God has assigned and has equipped them to live. Returning to the image he used for the church in writing to Corinth, Paul again uses the metaphor of the body with its many members each playing out its role for the whole. Their gifts differ, not according to their own ability and skill, but according to the grace God has given to each of them. Paul then lists seven ministries, each essential to the life of the church. In other words, this is about more than them as individuals, this is about the church.

The gospel now turns to Jesus’ passion and death. Having completed his teaching in the Temple, Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for what is coming: at the Passover he will be handed over to be crucified. Even as he speaks the words, the religious leaders gather to plot his death. While at table in Simon the leper’s home, a nameless woman anoints Jesus with a very costly ointment. It causes an argument to break out among the disciples who think it wasteful—why was the ointment not sold and the money given to the poor? Something more important than our obligation to the poor is taking place here. Clearly, they have neither heard nor do they see what is taking place before their very eyes. The one who is rich is becoming poor for their sakes. Is it Jesus’ rebuke that sends Judas to the chief priests with an offer to betray Jesus to them? Or, is this Judas’ attempt to force Jesus’ hand? We don’t know his motive. All we know is that he receives the 30 pieces of silver and begins to look for the right time to betray Jesus.

Posted July 17, 2014
Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday, July 16

Joshua 3:1–13; Psalm 89:1-18; Romans 11:25–36; Matthew 25:31–46

The intelligence assimilated, the command to move forward heeded, Joshua prepares the people to cross the Jordan. After a three-day encampment at the river’s edge, the officers move through the camp giving instructions for how to move out. They will follow the Ark of the Covenant, symbol of God’s presence in their midst, but at a safe distance, about half a mile behind it. One does not get too close to this God! As this takes place, God again addresses Joshua, promising to exalt him among the Israelites as God had previously exalted Moses. In fact, the rest of this book will continue to draw parallels between God’s work through Moses and God’s work through Joshua. The first will be the separation of the waters so the people can pass over on dry land. The priests are instructed to go and stand in the waters of the Jordan, carrying the ark. When the soles of the feet of the priests, carrying the ark, rest in the waters, the Jordan will be divided, with that flowing from above cut off, standing in a single heap.

This first half of Psalm 89 celebrates not only God’s sovereignty over all creation, calling on it to praise God, it remembers God’s covenant with David and prays that God will continue to preserve and protect David and his reign forever. Because it prays for God to 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 foundation of God’s reign (throne) is justice and righteousness and steadfast love and faithfulness go before him into the world. The clear implication here 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, even sovereign over Babylon who has them in subjection.

Paul now reveals the mystery of God’s ways in Jesus Christ: “A hardening has come upon part of Israel….” The passive voice is Paul’s way of avoiding saying that God has done this, yet, what the hardening has done was to allow the Gentiles access to the Gospel. When “the full number of Gentiles has come in,” that hardening will be lifted, the Deliverer will appear to banish all ungodliness for Jacob, and “all Israel will be saved.” This will happen, less for Israel’s sake than for the sake of the promise God first made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel; for the promises, gifts and calling of God are irrevocable! Once again disobedience has served God’s purposes, and now mercy in Christ can be shown to the Jews just as their disobedience has allowed it to be shown to the Gentiles. God imprisoned all in disobedience in order that God could be merciful to all. The language here is all encompassing. With nothing more to say, Paul breaks into one of his more beautiful and profound doxologies praising God’s wisdom.

Jesus concludes his teachings on “last things,” with a description of the judgment of the nations that will occur upon his return as the Son of Humanity. The division between sheep and goats, right and left, blessed and cursed, the vindicated righteous and the condemned accursed, is based on how they have lived within God’s reign. Have they lived lives of mercy among those in need—the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned, or have they ignored such need in pursuit of their own welfare and pleasure? For as they served or ignored those in need, so they served or ignored him. The latter will be dispatched to the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. Disciples are not vindicated by what we believe about Jesus, but by how our lives have borne witness to his Lordship.

Posted July 16, 2014
Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tuesday, July 15

Joshua 2:15–24; Psalm 42; Romans 11:13–24; Matthew 25:14–30

As the spies leave Rahab’s house, being let down by rope through the window of her house located in the outer wall of the city, they agree on how to keep the vow that they have made: she is to gather her family with her into her house and tie a red cord in that window, to identify her and her household to the invaders. All within the house will be saved; those who venture out will do so at their own peril and are not covered by the oath of protection. She then tells the spies to head to the hill country and hide there for three days until those searching for them return. The two spies flee to the hills and she ties the red cord on the window. Three days later, after the spies pursuers have returned to Jericho, the two return to Joshua with their report: “The inhabitants melt in fear before us; truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands.”

Psalm 42 opens the second of five sections of the Psalter. Scholars generally view this second “book” as a collection of psalms to instruct the community on how to live as it faces exile in Babylon after 587 BC. Its plaintive longing for contact with God (note, the divine name “the Lord” is absent here, and instead the Hebrew word for God, elohim, and variations of it are used throughout). God’s presence is sought and remembered, and God’s absence lamented. Has God forgotten the psalmist? Has God forgotten the people in Babylon? Why do his enemies persist with their taunts: “Where is your God?” What is the psalmist to say? Throughout the prayer, the persistent question is asked, “Why are you cast down, O my soul,” as if to keep himself from falling into despair, “and why are you disquieted within me?” In answer to his own question, the psalmist offers this refrain: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Troubles come and go, and within them, God may seem distant. But remembering God’s acts and support in the past, and hoping in God for the future, draws us near to God in the present through the conversation of prayer, and reveals that God is not only present, but a rock who is unchanging and worthy of our trust and praise.

Having addressed the Jews in the church in Rome, Paul now turns to its Gentile members and reminds them that all of this is the mysterious grace of God working itself out. Consequently, they, of all people, have no reason to boast. (Can you imagine the jockeying for positions of spiritual superiority that must have been taking place in that church based on ethnic background?) Continuing with the theme of making the Jews jealous, Paul talks about how he glorifies his ministry among the Gentiles for just that purpose, in the hope that some Jews will be saved. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ, their acceptance will certainly mean their redemption (life from the dead). There is a holy remnant leavening the whole batch. Paul then takes up the image of the olive tree to summarize his argument thus far. God has broken off many of the natural branches from the tree of the Messiah (Christ) to be able to graft into it the wild branches of the Gentiles. Do not boast about this, but in faith, stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, what is to keep God from sparing them—the wild branches? Rather, note both the kindness and severity of God. Remember, even those broken off, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted back into the natural olive tree—Christ himself.

Jesus turns to the parable of the master who entrusts his property to his slaves, giving each an enormous amount of money—a “talent” was equal to fifteen years of a labor’s wages—giving according to the ability of each to manage it. The master goes away. The two with the most go to work and double their value, whereas the slave with the single talent, out of fear, buries it. Upon the master’s return, accounts are settled. The two who have utilized their gifts to make even more are praised, blessed and put in charge of much more. The one who played it safe out of fear and buried the gift is condemned and judged. The message is clear: while Jesus is gone, disciples are to be at work with the gift of the gospel, multiplying its worth—casting seed that will produce even more fruit. Those who, out of fear, simply sit on it as personal insurance will have even that taken from them and face his judgment. This is not about economics but living active lives of faith as we await his return.

Posted July 15, 2014
Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday, July 14

Joshua 2:1–14; Psalm 5; Romans 11:1–12; Matthew 25:1–13

Before entering the land, Joshua sends two men to spy it out. They cross the Jordan just north of where it enters the Dead Sea and then make their way to Jericho. There, they go to the house of a prostitute named Rahab and spend the night with her. Whether or not this is a sexual liaison—and the Hebrew suggests that it might have been—still, it is a perfect cover for their espionage. The word of their presence in the city gets to the king who sends word for Rahab to turn the men over to him. Having hidden the spies, she lies about their presence. True, they came to her as men do, but she did not know where they were from. And, when their business was done with her they left, just as the gate of the city was being closed; pursue them and you will find them. The king’s men are dispatched and Rahab returns to the roof to bargain with the spies. In the course of it, she reveals that the town is terrified by Israel’s presence across the Jordan, has heard all that God has done for them, and dreads what is coming. There is no courage among any of them, for they know that surely the Lord will give Jericho into the Israelites’ hands. Notice that Rahab knows God’s name and what God has done. She has dealt kindly with them and now she pleads that they do likewise and spare her life and the lives of her father’s household when they come. The spies enter into an oath: “Our life for yours!” promising to do so if she keeps their presence a secret.

Psalm 5, traditionally used in Morning Prayer, pleads for God’s protection and care against his enemies. Knowing that God abhors wickedness and the boastful, the psalmist expresses the certainty that because of God’s steadfast love, he will again be able to enter God’s house to worship, even as he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit and their rebellion is really rebellion against God. Let them bear the fruit of their guilt, and fall by their own counsel. On the other hand, let all who take refuge in the Lord rejoice. Let them sing forever. Pleading for the Lord to spread his protection over all who take refuge in him, he ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care for those who are righteous (in a right relationship with God and one another). Cover them with divine favor as a shield.

Has God rejected Israel? Absolutely not! After all, Paul himself is an Israelite; many of the members of the church in Rome are Jews. That alone should make it clear. God has not rejected them, but as God did during the people’s apostasy in the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, God has preserved a remnant, chosen not by their works but by grace. Clearly, the Jews in the church at Rome are hearing these words directed to them—they are part of that remnant. The Law is of no use to them, for they have been chosen by God’s grace. Citing the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Paul makes the point that Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking because God “hardened them,” giving them, as Isaiah said, a “sluggish spirit.” (Isaiah 29:10) But, is this an eternal condition? Absolutely not! Their “stumbling” and failure to embrace the gospel has been the means of the gospel coming to the Gentiles. And now, the Gentiles in the Roman church hear themselves being addressed. Further, God’s design is to thereby make Israel jealous and provoke it to embrace the gospel as well. If Israel’s stumbling rejection has resulted in the inclusion of the Gentiles and the reconciliation of the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean?

Jesus tells another parable about maintaining vigilance while he is away—the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five who were wise and five who were foolish. To more fully understand what on the face of it seems fairly obvious, it is important to remember that “oil” here represents faithful discipleship in all sorts of conditions. Every believer starts out with enough. But, as the time wears on, the oil is spent—faithfulness gives way to foolishness—while the wise maintain an abundant supply. The difference between the two is their commitments to obedient service to the bridegroom as they wait on him. That kind of “oil” cannot be borrowed or lent. At the Bridegroom’s return the wise are prepared, light their lamps, and enter the joy of the wedding banquet. The foolish scurry off to town in search of oil, but when they return they find themselves locked out. “Keep awake therefore,” is Jesus’ word to remain faithful in all times and seasons, and not let his delay cause us to become lax or abandon or deplete our faithfulness.

Posted July 14, 2014
Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday, July 13

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Joshua 1:1–18; Psalm 103; Acts 21:3–15; Mark 1:21–27

The occupation of the Land of Promise begins: God charges Joshua to take up his role as leader and promises that every place Joshua sets his foot on shall be given to the Israelites. Once again, the land is described in terms of the boarders of David’s kingdom at the time of his death. God repeats the charge initially given to Joshua through Moses: “be strong and courageous,” and get on with it now (do not turn to the right or the left). Remember the Book of the Law; meditate on it day and night and let it be your guide. The charge is repeated yet again, this time with a promise: “I am with you.” Joshua assembles the leaders of the tribes and tells them to prepare to take possession of the land that God will give them. He reminds Gad, Ruben and the half-tribe of Manasseh that though they have been given the land in which they now dwell, it is dependent upon the men of military age joining in the taking of the land of Canaan. With one voice the tribes respond: “All that you have commanded we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” Their promise to obey Joshua as they had obeyed Moses must have been a bit unnerving to Joshua, given Israel’s track record! Yet, they now understand that as God was with Moses so they must pray that God will be with Joshua as well and promise to destroy any among them who rebel against him. They have learned and are ready. Now they repeat God’s charge to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous!”

Psalm 103 is a meditation on God’s goodness and steadfast love that is forgiving and everlasting. It starts with the psalmist calling upon himself to “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits.” The psalmist then lists the many ways God is good, merciful, gracious and generous: forgiving iniquity, healing all our diseases, redeeming our lives from the pit, crowning us with steadfast love and mercy, and satisfying us with good things as long as we live, so that our strength is renewed like that we had in our youth. The psalm then turns to address the entire community, reflecting on the Lord’s merciful and gracious nature. The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, removing our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. In spite of the fleeting nature of human life, God knows that we are dust and our days short in the span of divine time. Yet, the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever—from everlasting to everlasting. The psalm ends calling on all in heaven—God’s angels and heavenly hosts to join in this song of blessing.

The Epistle for Sunday comes from Acts, not Romans, and reports on Paul’s journey back to Jerusalem, bearing the gift of the Gentile churches to provide relief for the Jerusalem church. At each stop along the way (remember ships generally did not venture far from shore, but hugged the coast land, port to port), Paul revisits churches. And, at each point he is warned that arrest and persecution at the hands of the Jews awaits him in Jerusalem. In Caesarea, they stay with the Evangelist Phillip, where the prophet Agabus takes Paul’s belt and binds Paul’s hands and feet with it, declaring in this way the Jews will bind Paul and deliver him into the hands of the Romans. And so, once again, the people beg Paul not to go to Jerusalem, whereupon Paul announces that he is not only willing to be bound, but to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. He is a man on a mission and is not to be dissuaded; the Lord’s will be done.

Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel does not begin until John the Baptist is arrested. Jesus then appears, repeating John’s message: “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Thereafter, Jesus moves to the Sea of Galilee and calls his first disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and Zebedee. Today’s lesson opens as on the sabbath they go to the Synagogue in the brothers’ home town, Capernaum, and Jesus begins to teach. Those in the Synagogue are amazed at the authority with which Jesus speaks. Suddenly, a man with an unclean spirit sees Jesus and the spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, have you come to destroy us?” The spirit identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God,” whereupon Jesus not only silences the spirit, but commands that he come out of the man. The unclean spirits cast the man to the ground in convulsions, but do come out with a loud cry. All standing and seeing it marvel even more, asking the question Mark wants all of his readers to ask: “What is this; a new teaching? What authority!” The answer is what Jesus has earlier said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

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

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

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

© 2014