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Friday, March 14, 2014

Daily Readings for Friday, March 14

Gen. 40:1–23; Psalm 105:1-22; 1 Cor. 3:16–23; Mark 2:13–22

Many days pass with Joseph exercising administrative supervision of the jail where he is imprisoned, and, one day, both the king’s cupbearer and baker displease Pharaoh, and they end up in jail and under Joseph’s care. One evening, both the cupbearer and baker have dreams that disturb them. The next morning, Joseph recognizes that they are troubled and asks what it is. They tell him they have had disturbing dreams and there is no one in the jail to interpret them. Joseph responds confessionally: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” And so, he asks the two servants of the king to tell him of their dreams. The cupbearer tells of seeing a vine with three branches, each of which blossom and then produce grapes, which he squeezes in to Pharaoh’s cup and places the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. Joseph responds that the three branches are three days, and following that, the cupbearer will be released from prison and restored to serving Pharaoh. Then Joseph pleads with the cupbearer that once he has been restored to Pharaoh, that he remember Joseph. For Joseph has done nothing deserving prison. He was stolen from the land of the Hebrews and sold into slavery, and has done nothing to deserve this. When the baker hears the cupbearer’s good news, he decides to tell Joseph his dream as well. Three baskets of baked goods are on his head, but the birds keep coming and eating from the top basket. Joseph replies that the baskets are three days, and thereafter, Pharaoh will lift up his head—take it from him!—and hang him on a pole where the birds will come and eat his flesh. Sure enough, three days later, Pharaoh has prepared a great feast for his servants, and “lifts up the heads” of his cupbearer and his baker, the former returned to his role as chief cupbearer to the king, the latter hanged, just as Joseph had said. However, the cupbearer, now restored to his station, forgets Joseph, who remains in prison.

The first portion of Psalm 105 is a hymn of praise that calls everyone to make known God’s deeds among the people. The language of acclaim dominates the first portion of it: “give thanks,” “call,” “sing,” “glory” and “rejoice.” It then recounts the reasons for this praise: God’s faithfulness to Israel. It begins citing God’s initial covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the children of Israel—a covenant made forever—making them God’s “chosen ones.” Then the psalm remembers their past: few in number and of little account and nomads in the land.  A famine took them to Egypt, where God had, beforehand, sent Joseph. Joseph’s trials are remembered until he gained the king’s pleasure and became Lord over all of Pharaoh’s house, not only to govern, but to teach his elders wisdom.

Paul continues to use the image of building, but now applies it to the Corinthians. They are God’s temple—God’s dwelling place, for the Spirit of God dwells in them. Though this has, in later interpretation, been personalized to make the point that each of us is a temple and bearer of God—something Paul would not disagree with—Paul here is not talking about individuals so much as the church collective in Corinth. If anyone attempts to destroy that temple of the faithful, God will destroy that person—especially one who teaches or preaches. God is the protector of the church, for it is holy, and they are God’s holy gathering. However; and now he returns to his theme of the two wisdoms in the world, they are not to deceive themselves by thinking themselves or seeking to be wise with the worldly wisdom of “this age.” Rather, they are to become “fools,” so that they may become wise in the ways of God. For the wisdom of this world, which they are warned against seeking, is foolishness with God. Quoting Job 5:13, Paul harkens back to the things dividing them—their loyalties to their leaders. Let no one boast about human leaders, for “all things” are the Corinthians, regardless of whether they came to faith through Paul or Apollos or Cephas. All things—the world, life, death, the present or the future—belong to them, because they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God, and all of that, of course, is God’s.

Jesus goes back to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and sees Levi sitting in his tax collecting booth, calls him to follow, and Levi does. The scene shifts to Levi’s house where Jesus and his disciples are dinner guests, along with a larger group of tax collectors. When the scribes and Pharisees discover this, they ask why he is eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus responds that those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are ill do. Jesus has come to call, not the righteous, but sinners. Mark shifts again to the subject of fasting. Is it the Pharisees asking the question at the same dinner party? Probably not. This is simply Mark’s style. But the issue is why is it that John the Baptist and his followers fast, as do the Pharisees, but Jesus and his disciples do not. Jesus responds that, while the bridegroom is present, the wedding guests do not fast. But the day will come when he is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Mark is reinforcing the practice of fasting in the infant church). Mark follows this with two well-known sayings of Jesus—first, one does not sew a patch of un-shrunk cloth on an old garment. For if one does, when the garment is laundered, the patch will shrink and tear the garment. Likewise, one does not put new wine into old wineskins. For if they do, when the new wine begins its fermentation, it will expand and split, destroying the old wineskins. Notice the compression of events and sayings that are part of Mark’s rapid style.

Posted March 14, 2014
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Daily Readings for Thursday, March 13

Genesis [38:1-30] 39:1–23; Psalm 102; 1 Cor. 2:14–3:15; Mark 2:1–12

[The lectionary steps over chapter 38 and the humorous story of Judah and how he gets involved with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar. The story interrupts the flow of the Joseph narrative, and is included here because this is a story involving the house of Judah, from which king David will come. Judah’s oldest son marries Tamar, but is wicked and so the Lord punishes him with death. Judah then orders his second son, Onan, to perform the obligation of levirate marriage, and have a child with Tamar that will not only be hers but also regarded as Er’s son rather than Onan’s. Onan resists, but still, goes to Tamar to have sexual relations with her, but always withdrawing before ejaculation, thereby preventing Tamar from becoming pregnant. God is displeased and strikes Onan dead. There is yet another son, Shelah, but still young. Judah promises him to Tamar and asks her to remain a widow until Shelah grows up, but in truth, has no intention of giving him to Tamar. Shelah, for his part, grows up, but is afraid of Tamar. After all, her two former husbands have both died. He does not want to be given to Tamar as a husband. After a time, Tamar returns to her father’s house. When she learns that Judah is coming to Timnah to sheer his sheep, she abandons her widow’s clothing, dresses and puts a veil over her face, and sits on the side of the road awaiting Judah. When Judah, now a widower himself, sees her, he assumes she is a prostitute and propositions her for sex. She asks what he will give her in return and he promises a kid. They have sex, and as Judah is leaving, she asks for some form of security until the kid arrives, taking Judah’s signet, cord and staff. Tamar goes her way with the pledge and returns to her widow’s clothing, but she has conceived. Judah sends a friend with the kid to pay Tamar, but she is no longer there. Judah says, “Let’s keep this to ourselves, lest we become a laughing stock among the people.” Three months later, Judah learns that his unwed, widowed daughter-in-law is pregnant and assumes she has played the whore. Therefore, he demands that she be brought forth and burned. As Tamar is brought out, she brings the signet, cord and staff with her, and tells Judah that the father of her child is the owner of these. Judah acknowledges them and that Tamar is more right then he, for Judah should have given his son Shelah to her. But Judah does not go to Tamar again. When Tamar gives birth, it is twins. The humorous story of the two struggling to emerge first becomes the source of their names, Perez, named for the breech birth and the first born who will be the line through which king David comes, and Zerah, named after the crimson cord on his finger.]

Joseph has been purchased by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Because the Lord was with Joseph, all that he did was successful and soon Potiphar recognizes this and puts Joseph in charge of his household and all else that Potiphar has. God continues to bless Joseph, and therefore Potiphar. Not only was Joseph skillful and a good manager, he was handsome and strong, and after a while, Potiphar’s wife invites Joseph into her bed. Joseph refuses, reminding her that his master trusts him in all regards and he will not violate that trust. Everything that is Potipher’s has been given to Joseph except his wife; how can Joseph participate in this great sin against Potiphar, and more, against God? Yet, day after day, in Potiphar’s absence, his wife tries to seduce Joseph, who continues to refuse. The day comes when she is absolutely alone with Joseph, and approaches him, taking hold of his garment and imploring him to have sex with her. Joseph refuses, and runs out of his garment, leaving it in her hands. When she realizes she has evidence in hand, circumstantial though it might be, she runs outside to tell all the members of her household that her husband has brought among them “a Hebrew to insult [them].” She accused Joseph of approaching her to have sex, but she cried out with a loud voice, and when Joseph heard it, he fled, leaving his garment beside her. (The legal difference between rape and consensual sex was whether or not the woman cried out in resistance or remained silent—the latter being understood as consensual.) Having done this, she returns to the house and keeps Joseph’s garment until Potiphar returns, when she tells him the same story. When Potiphar hears her story, he becomes enraged and takes Joseph and places him in the prison where Pharaoh’s prisoners were confined, and there Joseph remained. But still, the Lord was with Joseph which quickly becomes apparent to the chief jailer who befriends Joseph. Soon, the jailer has committed all of the prisoners to Joseph’s care, and he ends up supervising the place. The chief jailer pays no heed to anything in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him and was causing him to prosper.

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 intercession as he pleads for God’s presence and compassion, not on himself, but on Zion. 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 turns 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 may continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. 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. A final note of affirmation and hope is spoken: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.

Paul continues with his themes of wisdom and Spirit by making the point that, by nature, humans cannot comprehend the work of the Spirit of God, whose ways seem foolish to them—even though they may think their thoughts about God make them “spiritual!” Humans, on their own, simply do not have the capacity to understand God or God’s ways, because they are discerned only through the gift of God’s Spirit. Those who are truly spiritual—who have been given the gift of God’s Spirit—discern all things and, as a result, are subject to no one’s scrutiny. Quoting Isaiah 40:13, Paul concludes by reminding the Corinthians that with him they, too, now have the mind of Christ. However, as true as this is, initially, Paul could not speak to the Corinthians as “spiritual people,” but rather as people of the “flesh”–Paul’s encompassing term for those who cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit or seek them. Rather, Paul spoke to the Corinthians as infants in Christ, and fed them, like all infants, with milk rather than solid food, for they had not yet matured to the point of being able to digest the solid food of spiritual wisdom. Even now, some of them are not yet ready and still reveal their “fleshly” rather than spiritual readiness. And now, Paul illustrates his point by subtly introducing another issue on his agenda: their jealousy and quarreling. They are behaving according to the flesh—their human nature and inclinations. When they argue over who baptized them, when they contend over belonging to one or another of the apostles or other evangelists as a means of claiming unique status, they are revealing their human rather than spiritual nature. “What is Apollos? What is Paul?” They are both merely servants of Christ through whom the Corinthians came to believe, and did so precisely as the Lord had assigned it to each one of them. This was not the Corinthian’s own doing any more than it was Apollos’ or Paul’s doing. It was the Lord’s doing, just as the Lord had designed it. And now, Paul puts his and Apollos’ ministry in chronological order making the point that he planted and Apollos watered, but through and behind it all was God, giving the growth. “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Paul and Apollos have a common purpose, and each receive their wages according to their labor. He and Apollos are God’s servants, working together, and the Corinthians are God’s field, and now, shifting metaphors, Paul says they are “God’s building.” Preacher that he is, Paul will now work with this image, telling them that he worked among them according to the grace given to him like a “skilled master builder." He laid the foundation, and like the various construction specialists, it fell to another to come and build upon it. Each builder must use care, for no one can build on any other foundation than the one that has been laid—Jesus Christ. Now, if another builder comes along and “builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible. The Day of Christ will disclose it. How? With fire! That which is precious will not only survive, but be tempered and refined, while the wood, hay and straw will be consumed. And, if what has been built on the foundation survives, that builder will receive a reward. If the work laid on the foundation is consumed, the builder will suffer the loss of his work. That builder, however, because of God’s grace, will be saved, but only through fiery testing.

Jesus returns home from his missionary road trip (probably back to Peter’s house), and when word gets out that he is back, he is besieged, so much so that people cannot get in to see him but stand around outside just to listen. Some people have come, bringing with them a man paralyzed in hope of Jesus healing him. Unable to get into the house, they carry the man up the outside staircase to the flat roof, remove the tiles and thatch that form the flat roof/top floor, and lower the man down into Jesus’ presence. Jesus must have been quite amused, while all others were a bit astonished. Seeing their faith he turns to the paralytic and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” When it comes to healing and Jesus, first things first! The scribes that were inside witnessing this begin to question within themselves—notice, they have not yet started grumbling to one another—“Why does he speak this way? This is blasphemy!” Only God can forgive sins. Jesus, of course, knows precisely what they are thinking and so asks, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’ But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin….” And now, he turns to the paralytic and says, “Stand up, take up your mat and go home,” and the man does! The crowd goes wild with excitement as well as confusion, amazed and glorifying God, they say, “We have never seen anything like this.” Just as they had not heard teaching with the authority that Jesus taught, even authority over the unclean spirits, they have never seen anything like this. For now, the miracle has obscured the truth that Jesus is forgiving sin, something only God can do. Slowly, that will dawn on the religious leaders and they will move from being curious about Jesus, to being critics and finally openly hostile to him. For now, Capernaum is awash in excitement that Jesus is living among them.

Posted March 13, 2014
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, March 12

Genesis 37:25–36; Psalm 51; 1 Cor. 2:1–13; Mark 1:29–45

Having thrown their youngest brother, Joseph, into the pit, planning on leaving him there to die, the brothers sit down to eat, and looking up, see a caravan of Ismaelites coming from Gilead on the trading route, headed toward Egypt. That suggests a plan to Judah who proposes that they can as easily be rid of Joseph by selling him into slavery as kill him and that, in doing so, not only will they avoid being guilty for his death, they will also gain a profit. And so, the brothers agree, all but Ruben, who is not present at the time. When Midianite traders pass by, the brothers draw Joseph out of the pit and sell him to the traders for twenty pieces of silver, and the Midianites take Joseph off to Egypt. When Ruben returns to the pit, evidently planning to rescue Joseph, he discovers the pit empty and tears his clothes as an act of sorrow and grief. Returning to his brothers he tells them that Joseph is gone; what is Ruben to do? What will he say to their father? Remember, Ruben, being the oldest, is the one responsible. Consequently, they take Joseph’s robe, which had been stripped from him, slaughter a goat and dip the robe in the goat’s blood, and then take the robe to their father asking if it is, indeed, the robe he gave to Joseph. Recognizing it, Israel says that it is Joseph’s robe, and then concludes that some wild animal has devoured Joseph. He assumes that Joseph has been “torn to pieces.” The brothers remain silent as their father tears his clothing, and dons a breechcloth of sackcloth in order to mourn for Joseph “many days.” All of Israel’s sons and daughters (in law) seek to comfort Israel, but he refuses to be comforted, saying, instead, that he shall go down to Sheol to where Joseph now is, mourning the loss of his son. In the meantime, the Midianites have arrived in Egypt and sold Joseph into the service of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials—the captain of his guard.

Psalm 51 is a confession of sin without peer, and as appropriate today as when it was first uttered. Tradition attributes it to David, upon being challenged by his prophet, Nathan, concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent engineering of the military murder of her husband Uriah. However, it shows marks of having been written later than that, after the return from exile, especially the last two verses. The center of the psalm focuses on the human heart, which to the Hebrew mind is not the center of affections, but the center of one’s will. In pleading for a clean heart, the supplicant expresses the conviction that, without the gift of a new and right spirit, it is not possible to remain in obedience. The human heart is prone to pride and stubbornness. And so, he pleads for God’s holy spirit to sustain him—one of the few places in the Old Testament where the phrase “holy spirit” is used. But notice, it is not yet personified, but simply an expression of God’s presence. The point is, even right praise is God’s gift to us, motivated by God’s Spirit. We cannot offer it without God’s prompting. Consequently, the psalmist utters the phrase that has become a classic invitation to prayer, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” He then expresses the prophets’ recurring conviction that rather than sacrifice, what God truly desires in each of us is an obedient heart committed to God and God’s ways. Sacrifices God may or may not accept. After all, God does not need them, and since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been none. Prayer itself has become the new form of sacrifice. And so, a heart in which stubbornness has been broken, and self-pride crushed, is a heart God will never despise or reject. The prayer ends with a plea for Zion and the rebuilding of its walls following its sack by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the restoration of the sacrificial system.

Paul’s theology of the Spirit of God emerges in today’s lesson to remind us that it is the power of God at work in the world. The Spirit is God’s wisdom and the means by which God searches all things. Responding to the critics at Corinth who thought Paul not philosophically eloquent enough, he reminds them that he decided to know nothing among them save Jesus Christ, and him crucified—something that to the Corinthians seemed foolish. Yes, he came to them in weakness and in fear (the sarcasm behind Paul’s playing to his critics here is amusing, given what we know of Paul in other places), and without “plausible words of wisdom,” but with a demonstration of the Spirit of Power, so that their faith might not rest on human words, but upon the power of God. Paul continues to defend himself and the gospel he has preached among them, reminding them that among the mature—those who have come to perfection, and a not so subtle reminder that the Corinthians have not!—he does speak of wisdom, though not a wisdom of this age or belonging to the rulers of this age (Greek philosophers) who are doomed to perish. This is God’s wisdom that none can understand unless God gives it to them. Why else would the rulers of this world have crucified the Lord of glory? No one who was truly wise, or knew the ways of God, would have done such a thing. The human heart is not capable of conceiving the things of God. Only God’s Spirit, who searches everything, even the very depths of God’s own self, knows all things. It is this knowledge, rather than that of the world, that Paul and his companions have received, so that they might understand the gifts that God has given them. And so, Paul speaks by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. One other thing: for Paul, it is having received the Spirit of God that marks the difference between being children of God and children of this age (Romans 8:14-17).

Jesus and his four disciples cross the street from the synagogue to Peter and Andrew’s house, where he finds Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up and the fever leaves her. She is so well she begins to serve them. Word of this has quickly spread through the city and, as the sabbath comes to an end, people begin to bring to Jesus their sick and all possessed by demons. “The whole city was gathered around the door.” Jesus spends the night curing the sick and casting out many demons, which he silences, not permitting the demons to speak, because they know who he is and he does not want the people to know. Early the next morning, while it is still dark, Jesus gets up and goes out to a deserted place, as will be his custom, so that he can pray. Simon and the other three come looking for Jesus, and when they find him say, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus responds, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” He travels throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Somewhere in those travels, Jesus is approached by a leper, who comes to him, kneels and begs Jesus saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the leper saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leper is made clean. Jesus then “sternly warns” the leper to tell no one how this happened, but simply show himself to the priest for inspection and offer in the temple what the law requires for his cleansing, thereby ascribing the cleansing to God. But the man goes forth and tells anyone and everyone who will listen, what Jesus did, so that Jesus can no longer move in and out of towns freely. Consequently, he stays in the countryside. Yet, even there, the people come to him from every quarter.

Posted March 12, 2014
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, March 11

Genesis 37:12–24; Psalm 91; 1 Corinthians 1:20–31; Mark 1:14–28

Israel sends Joseph off to find his older brothers who are pasturing Israel’s flocks in Shechem. Joseph is to visit and then bring back a report to Israel. Joseph sets off, and when he arrives in Shechem, wanders the fields in search of his brothers tending his father’s flocks, but they are not there. A man in the fields sees Joseph wandering and asks what it is he seeks, and Joseph tells him. The man says that his brothers and the flocks have moved on to Dothan. Joseph moves on toward Dothan, and as the brothers see him coming, they conspire to kill him, saying, “Then let us see what becomes of his dreams.” They will kill Joseph, throw his body into a pit, and then tell their father that a wild animal killed him. Ruben, the eldest, intervenes and insists they not kill Joseph, but simply throw him into a pit and leave him there to die. The brothers agree. We are told, however, that Ruben’s intention was then to later rescue Joseph and return him to his father Israel. When Joseph arrives, they overpower him, strip him of his robe and throw him into a waterless pit.

Psalm 91, a song of trust and confidence, is one of the most assuring in the entire collection of 150 psalms. Though it reflects the theology of the wisdom tradition, insisting that those who remain righteous shall have the constant protection of the Lord, it is even more rich in its imagery and promises. The opening line, “He who,” can as equally be translated “You who,” or “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High (“Elyon”—one ancient name for God), who abide in the shadow of the Almighty (“El Shadday”—a second name for God), will say to “the Lord” (Yahweh—God’s personal name given to Moses at the bush), “My refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” All three names are included to make this as inclusive as possible, with the primacy given to the name Yahweh. Various forms of protection are mentioned, including the presence of God’s angels to defend in times of warfare or pestilence, and all other forms of danger. Under God’s wings we will find a refuge, whose faithfulness is a buckler and a shield, so that we need not fear anything night or day. Making the Lord our refuge assures protection. It is from this psalm that the devil quotes in his tempting Jesus to throw himself off the tower of the temple. The psalm concludes with God’s own speech: “You who love me I will deliver. You who know my name I will protect. When you call (the importance of knowing God’s name, knowing who to call upon), I will answer; when in trouble, I will rescue and honor you. With long life I will satisfy you and show you my salvation.” Is it any wonder this has been the byword and hope of Jews, Christians and Muslims? This psalm is a favorite of military chaplains, frequently read before a group of soldiers facing battle. It is also regularly read at funeral and memorial services.

Paul challenges the Corinthian’s love for wisdom, poetry and philosophic debate, saying that God has made all of that foolish in what God has done in Christ and his cross. In God’s wisdom, the world did not, through its own wisdom, come to know God. Rather, God decided to save those who believe it, through the foolishness of the apostles’ proclamation of Christ and his cross. The proclamation is foolishness in this regard: in this world Jews demand signs from God and Greeks desire wisdom. But, the proclamation of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews, for whom anyone hung on a cross was believed to be cursed by God. To the gentiles, a crucified God was simply absurd—how could a god suffer, much less die? Yet, to those who are called to salvation, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God—the sign the Jews are looking for and the wisdom of God that the Greeks seek. Notice, though Paul is accused of not being sophisticated, just how subtle his argument is: this is God we are talking about, one who is beyond human categories of comprehension—a truth that remains as frequently forgotten today as it was then. As Calvin famously said, God accommodated himself in order to be known by humanity. As we heard Paul write to the Philippians, Christ divested himself of his divine prerogatives in order to become human. God is God, whose foolishness is wiser than the best of human wisdom and whose weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. And now Paul uses his illustration in application to the Corinthians themselves. Further, how many of them were wise or strong by the human standards of their day? How many of them were powerful because of noble birth? But, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing, things that are. Herein, Paul has addressed the challenges of both the Jews and the Greeks, and made his audience the application of the principle—pretty crafty rhetoric for one not thought to be eloquent or wise! God has done all of this for one reason: so that no one might boast in the presence of God. God is the source of life in Christ—the life the Corinthians are now living. Christ became for us wisdom from God. Notice Paul’s use of “us” here to include himself in what he is saying. Christ became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. And now, Paul has introduced a more expanded conception of salvation. Not only is salvation being put in a right relationship with God now, it produces a new kind of person, one being made holy, who has been redeemed from slavery to sin by another for that One’s own good reasons, and to whom the redeemed slave is now indebted. In other words, all of this is from God, leaving no one—not even Paul!—a reason for boasting. Paul wraps this up, alluding to Psalm 34:23, saying, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

John has been arrested and is now off the scene. Only then does Jesus emerge from Galilee proclaiming “the good news of God.” There is no suggestion of how long that interval might have been. But, though Jesus’ message appears the same as John’s, it is slightly different. “Repent” is still at the heart of it, but the reason is that the kingdom of God is drawing near—at hand! Believe the good news. Jesus then calls the fishermen brothers, Simon and Andrew, promising henceforth that they will fish for people. Shortly thereafter, he calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were also fishermen. “Immediately,” he calls and they follow.. The scene shifts to Capernaum. It is the Sabbath and Jesus goes to the synagogue to teach. Folks receive his teaching with astonished amazement, for he taught with an authority they had heretofore not experienced in their religious leaders. Suddenly, a man with an unclean spirit appears and cries out in recognition, “What have you to do with us (note the plural of demons—not just this one but the whole company of demons), Jesus of Nazareth. Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (the term used by Isaiah and Daniel has now morphed into a term for the coming Messiah). Jesus rebukes the man, silences him, and then exorcises the unclean spirit, demanding that it too remain silent and come out of him. The spirit convulses the man, and crying with a loud voice, comes out of him. The people witnessing this are amazed and begin to ask one another what this is, a new, authoritative teaching? Though Torah says much about purging evil from among the community, it says nothing about casting out evil spirits. This one commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him. “At once,” another of Mark’s images of immediacy, Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Again, in thirteen short verses, Jesus’ ministry has emerged. He has called disciples, taught with authority and demonstrated his sovereignty over the powers of evil. Mark’s ability to tell this story with such brevity and clarity is remarkable.

Posted March 11, 2014
Monday, March 10, 2014

Daily Readings for Monday, March 10

Genesis 37:1–11; Psalm 6; 1 Corinthians 1:1–19; Mark 1:1–13

We return to Genesis, and the ongoing story of the Patriarchs, today hearing the familiar story of Joseph and his dreams and the trouble that brought for him with his brothers. Jacob has now settled in the land of Canaan. His son Joseph is now seventeen and tending the flocks in the fields with his half-brothers Dan and Naphtali, children Jacob had with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, and Gad and Asher, children his father had born through Leah’s maid, Zilpah. When Joseph returned from the field, he brought his father a bad report about the four. We then are told that Jacob, now Israel, “loved Joseph more than any other of his children because he was the son of his old age.” Israel had made Joseph a long robe with sleeves, but when his brothers saw it, they realized he was their father’s favorite, and so hated him for it, so much so that they could not speak peaceably with him. We then learn about a dream Joseph has had that he tells his brothers, which causes them to hate him even more. For in the dream, they were all binding sheaves in the field, and suddenly Joseph’s sheaf stood upright and the brother’s sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s sheaf. The brothers have not missed it; Joseph is telling them that he is to have dominion over them, and so they hate him even more. Joseph is either clueless, or egging them on, for he tells them of yet another dream in which the sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to him—the eleven being his brothers. This time Joseph tells it not only to his brothers but to his father as well, who rebukes him, asking if, indeed, he (the sun), his mother (the moon), and eleven brothers shall come and bow down to Joseph. Consequently, Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him. For his part, Israel “kept the matter in mind,” for by now he has learned much about the workings of the Lord, and it is just possible that more is to come of this than any of them expect.

In Psalm 6, the supplicant pleads for God’s gracious care in what he perceives to be the result of God’s rebuking wrath. In the midst of his languishing need, he begs for healing of body and soul, for both shake in terror. “How long, O Lord—how long?” It is the cry of all who suffer unjustly or without reason. Rather, he simply begs the Lord to turn, save his life, and deliver him for the sake of God’s steadfast love. Notice that at no time does the psalmist admit guilt or confess sin, only that he is on the verge of death and that in death, there is no remembrance or praise of God. It is as though he is saying to God, “Do not let me die, for if I die I will not be able to remember you or praise you.” He has spent too many nights flooding his bed with tears, his days, likewise, drenching his couch and he is wasting away with grief. Now, for the first time, he mentions foes—workers of evil. But suddenly, the psalm turns from grief to strength, from fear and lament to confidence, for the Lord has heard the sound of his weeping. The Lord has heard his supplication and accepted his prayer. All his enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror. In a moment they shall turn back and be put to shame.

Today, we begin the continuous reading of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. If Philippi was Paul’s most supportive church, Corinth was his most factious one. Paul had arrived in Corinth approximately 50 CE, twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, preaching the gospel with significant success and a sizable church was formed. Corinth was a prosperous sea port south of Athens and the capital of the Roman province of Acacia. Like any prosperous seaport city, it was a mixture of all sorts and classes, with every sort of behavior one finds in such places, and the church there seems to have reflected that, though Paul will remind them that most of them were not from the upper class of the city, not wise, powerful or of noble birth. Paul stays in Corinth approximately 18 months, preaching, teaching and nurturing the infant church before moving on to Ephesus in the summer of 51 CE, where Paul had another prosperous missionary effort. It is from Ephesus that Paul writes this letter. He alludes to having written an earlier letter, though it is now lost to us, evidently dealing with the matter of holiness. In response to that, the Corinthians seem to have written back to Paul with several questions. This is one of the longest letters we have in the New Testament, and its value lies in the number of issues Paul addresses—issues that have continued to emerge in the church over the centuries. Paul opens with a traditional salutation in which he identifies himself as “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” attesting to the authenticity of his call to apostleship—a thing that, from time to time by some, will be contested in Corinth. He also mentions Sosthenes, someone we hear no more of in this or any of Paul’s other letters, obviously a companion known to the Corinthians who is working with Paul in Ephesus. Paul calls Corinth, “the church of God”—the word we translate as “church” meaning “assembly.” He then defines that assembly as “those made holy in Christ Jesus, called to be saints,” not only those in Corinth, but the members of churches in other places who call on the name of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Unless you read carefully, you will miss Paul affirming not only the Corinthian’s relationship to God in Christ, but also their common relationship with others who do so, as he says, “both their Lord and ours.” This is about Corinth, but also about more than Corinth. Paul adds what has hereafter become a classic Christian greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is not simply a pleasantry; it is the foundation of Paul’s whole theology. Paul gives thanks that this grace has been so lavishly given to the Corinthians, so that they are enriched in Christ in speech and knowledge of every kind, so that they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they await the revealing—the coming of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” For all of its diverse membership, many from questionable backgrounds, Paul affirms that, within them, is “every spiritual gift.” He then confirms that until Christ returns, Christ will strengthen them so that they are blameless on the day of his coming. This will be so because God is faithful. They were called by God into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ. Notice how often Paul uses the phrase, “our Lord,” as not only a confessional, but also pastoral device to affirm their inclusion in Christ. At verse ten, Paul turns to the issues, the first of which is disagreements and divisions among them which results from their attempts to outdo one another in spiritual status. Paul has received a report from relatives of Chloe—a member of the Corinthian congregation—about their quarrels over status on the basis of who baptized them. Some claim superiority because it was Paul, others because it was Apollos, a later preacher who followed Paul, popular because of his wisdom and rhetorical gifts, and others because it was Cephas, using the Aramaic name for Peter.  Some, probably those baptized by neither of the former three, simply insist it was Christ himself. Paul then asks his famous question: “Has Christ been divided?” It is, of course, a rhetorical question whose obvious answer is “No!” Unfortunately, the Corinthian’s have lost sight of that and, as a consequence, they have allowed such divisions to arise. Part of this letter’s value is that it addresses what will ultimately become one of the major problems that will plague Christ’s church and weaken its witness—its divisions over leadership and theology. For now, Paul drives the point home by asking additional rhetorical questions: “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He gives thanks that he baptized none of them, then, quickly remembers Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanas, who Paul did baptize. Yet, he reminds them that it was not in his name they were baptized but in the name of Christ. But more, Paul was not sent to baptize but to proclaim the gospel. Paul is not playing down the importance of baptism, but rather, making the point that its power is not in who does the baptism—another frequent source of upheaval in congregations—but in whose name the baptism takes place. And now a second issue behind the divisions emerges as Paul writes about his preaching: “and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of his power.” The Corinthians were, after all, Greeks, who loved their philosophy and their poets, and one of the things that seems to lie in the background here is their criticism over Paul’s lack of eloquence in proclaiming the gospel. We will hear more about this, for the criticism gives Paul an opportunity to talk about true wisdom and power in his preaching.

We also begin today with a continuous reading of the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels and the shortest. It is written in the simple, straightforward koine Greek of the day, probably so that everyone, especially those for whom Greek was not a primary language, might understand it. It was not written to be read by individuals, as many of the early Christians were not literate, but to a community in worship. Though some scholars debate the intended church, generally it is thought to have been written for the church in Rome during the reign of Nero, and the beginning of real persecution of Christians for their faith, sometime between 65 and 75 CE. It has been called “a passion story with an extended introduction.” Who wrote it is also a question of scholarly debate over which there is little consensus. As the first of a new form of writing for the church (until now, it had been letters from Paul), this gospel forms the outline for two others: Luke and Matthew, though both include far more material with slightly different theological views and audiences—Matthew for Jewish Christians and Luke for Gentiles. John’s Gospel is written from a different perspective and from different materials. Also, Mark seems to be in a hurry. One of his favorite words is “immediately.” He is also writing to people known more as “followers of the Way,” than “Christians.” And so again and again, we will hear, “on the way.” There is no birth narrative, or any interest in it. Rather, its interest is precisely what the first verse says: telling the “good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” Second Isaiah is invoked as the prophetic context to introduce John the Baptist (who, you will remember, was also the head of a large a popular religious movement) as subordinate to Jesus, yet part of God’s plan of preparing the way for the coming of his Son. John’s popularity and success is acknowledged but his purpose more elaborately described, given the shortness of this gospel. He is a prophetic witness to “the one who is more powerful than [John who] is coming after [John].” John is no more than a house slave to this coming one. John baptizes with water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. With that, Jesus appears in full manhood, coming from Nazareth and is baptized by John in the Jordan. Mark then tells us that as Jesus came up out of the water Jesus saw the heavens “torn apart” and the Sprit descending like a dove on him. The voice from heaven announces Jesus’ identity: God’s Son, God’s beloved, with whom God is pleased. “Immediately,” that same descending Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where for forty days, Jesus is tempted by Satan. And though he was with wild beasts, angels waited on him. In these few thirteen verses, Mark has introduced Jesus, dealt with John and his community, portrayed Jesus as subject to, but triumphant over, Satan, and the one through whom God is at work.

Posted March 10, 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