Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Numbers 11:1-23; Psalm 42; Romans 1:16-25; Matthew 17:22-27
It does not take long for some among the Israelites to begin grumbling about their situation and blame it on Moses. Their initial complaints are met with fires on the edge of the camp, understood as God’s judgment on the malcontents. But soon, the complaining has spread across all the people. Tired of the miraculous manna, they want meat. Moses, in exasperation, announces to God that he has had enough. He pleads with God to take his life. God has other ideas. Instructing Moses to choose seventy from among the elders of Israel, God will take a portion of the spirit that has been given to Moses and place it upon these seventy as well so that they may share in the work of leadership. As for the people’s complaint—it is not against Moses, but against God. The people will have meat—meat in such abundance that they will come to loathe it. Moses wonders how such a thing could be possible. God says, “Wait and see whether my word will come true for you or not.”
Psalm 42 opens the second of five sections of the Psalter that scholars generally view 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.
Paul announces two things foundational to his gospel: it is the power of God for salvation, and it is for everyone. In it God’s righteousness is revealed. “From faith to faith”—from God’s faithfulness to our trust in it. But God’s righteousness has another side—God’s wrath. It reveals itself when it encounters the ungodliness and injustice of those who suppress the truth. And though God’s presence, nature and power have been clearly revealed to all humanity, in and through the created order, and though people have known God, they have chosen neither to honor nor give God thanks, but rather, entered into their own speculations about God and the world. Supposing they are wise, they have actually become fools, and have ended up offering to idols made with their own hands, the glory and worship that belongs solely to God. Consequently, God has given them over to their own pursuits, quests that lead them into the impurity, corruption and dissipation that such behavior inevitably brings. Exchanging truth for a lie, they have chosen to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. This is Paul’s sweeping condemnation of Roman-Greco culture that all but worshipped the body, whose symposiums often degenerated into sexual orgies, and where, in Rome, the Emperor was worshiped as a god! The foundation of all ungodliness and unrighteousness is the human compulsion to worship ourselves and the work of our hands, make gods out of things and then worship them, and ignore the One who made us. But the gospel brings power to change that and do so for everyone.
Gathered again in Galilee, Jesus tells his disciples that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him and on the third day he will be raised.” The words of suffering and death are so unsettling to the disciples that they seem to miss the language about resurrection. As they reach Capernaum, which has been their home base, the collectors of the temple tax come to Peter and say, “Does you teacher not pay the temple tax?” Peter replies that he does. When Peter returns to his home, Jesus speaks up first and asks him, from whom do the kings of the earth extract a tax, toll or tribute—from their children or from others? Peter rightly says, “From others.” Jesus then says, “Then the children are free from this obligation. However, lest they give offense to them, he sends Peter back to the sea to cast a hook. He is told to take the first fish that comes up, and open its mouth. In it he will find a coin. Take that coin and give it to the collectors of the temple tax for both Peter and Jesus.
Monday, June 16
Numbers 9:15–23; 10:29–36; Psalm 5; Romans 1:1–15; Matthew 17:14–21
The day the tabernacle was completed, the cloud of God’s glory (presence) settled upon it, confirming God’s presence among them. Thereafter, the cloud and its movements became signals for continuing the encampment or taking up departure to another place. Sometimes the sojourn was brief—but a few days. At other times it could be as long as a year. The point was that the Lord was in their midst, commanding when they camped or decamped, and leading them out as they moved from place to place. With the necessary organizational structure in place and the Law in hand, to provide a foundation for the people’s life, they were ready to leave Sinai and move on to the Land that God has promised. In preparation, Moses encourages his father in law to come with them. After initially demurring, Hobab agrees. On their first three-day journey, with the Ark of the Covenant leading the way, the cloud of God’s glory is at hand, assuring them that God is not only in their midst, but leading them to their new home.
Psalm 5 is traditionally used in the service of Morning Prayer. It pleads for God’s protection and care against one’s 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 now, he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit, and have rebelled against God. He ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care.
Today we begin to read Paul’s greatest theological work, his letter to the church at Rome, and its central theme: salvation by grace through faith. The Roman church was established in the capital of the empire long before Paul began his missionary work. Though tradition traces the church’s roots to Peter, there is no evidence of Peter in Rome until the 50s, and Christianity was present in Rome well before that. The church was initially made up of Jewish converts who may well have been among the pilgrims in Jerusalem at Pentecost. As these returned to proclaim Christ in the synagogues of Rome, riots broke out among the Jews, so severe that in 49 AD, the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Upon Claudius’ death five years later, Jews began to return to Rome and to their church, which in their absence had grown but become Gentile. The return created significant tensions, of which Paul was aware. Much of the book will address issues of the Law, circumcision, the role and fate of Israel—questions that were being hotly debated in the struggling church. Paul writes to them about the reconciling power of the Gospel of God, in Christ, first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile. Today, Paul sets forth his credentials to those he does not know first-hand but has heard about through his co-worker Priscilla and Aquila, who had been active leaders in the Roman congregation until forced to leave by the Imperial edict. They had come to Ephesus and taken up work with Paul. Paul reveals his motivation for coming: to strengthen and be strengthened by the Romans, to assist them: to preach the Gospel among them, a Gospel he has been commissioned to preach to all Gentiles, whether the sophisticated in Rome or the barbarians beyond it. Stay with us as we plumb the depths and riches of this book that is first among the Epistles and is foundational to Christian faith and life.
As Jesus and the disciples continue south they encounter a crowd and in it, a man who comes to Jesus, kneels before him and says, “Lord, have mercy on my son.” The boy is an epileptic, perceived by many as a lunatic—the word in Greek is literally, “moon struck”—thought to be possessed by demons from the moon god. The boy suffers terribly, for the spirits cast him into the fire and often into the water to destroy him. The man brought his son to the disciples but they were unable cure him. Jesus’ anger reveals his frustration with his disciples. After all, he had given them authority to cast out and to heal; why have they been faithless. It is the sign of the entire generation. Jesus rebukes the demon and it comes out of the boy, who is cured instantly. Later, the disciples ask Jesus why it is they were unable to cast out the demon and Jesus says, “Because of your little faith.” He then goes on to tell them faith even as small as a mustard seed, when employed in faith can move mountains, and nothing will be impossible to them.
Sunday, June 15
Job 38:1–11; 42:1–5; Psalm 103; Rev. 19:4–16; John 1:29–34
God appears to Job in a whirlwind, an ancient means of "theophany"--sign of God's presence--now to answer Job's questions. It was in a whirlwind that God took Elijah to heaven. But it is also a traditional symbol for God appearing in agitation and anger; and by now God is really angry! Also notice that for the first time, God is called “the Lord,” rather than “the Almighty.” This is the first time the Hebrew word for the divine name—YHWH—has appeared since the introduction in chapters one and two, which ties the entire book together. But the Lord’s anger is not directed at Job. Rather, it is directed at Elihu and his friends. Elihu was the last to speak and so the Lord asks him, “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” It is God’s judgment on the uses of the wisdom tradition to explain Job’s suffering, condemn him and justify themselves. God is not amused. With withering examination, God asks Elihu and his friends just who they think they are to speak for the Lord, and enters into a series of questions dealing with creation and its ordering. It is magnificent creation poetry that identifies God as master architect, contractor and creator, One from whom all came and who continues to rule and command the ways of the universe. It is the Lord who has done all this, including “shaking out the wicked,” withholding light from them and breaking their uplifted arms (their prayer and praise). The Lord is making it clear that the three friends are among those being described as wicked. Do they even have the capacity to understand, much less control the forces of creation? As God’s speech comes to an end, Job does answer. He does not disagree with God’s majesty, power, or sovereignty. Who is this that disregards counsel without knowledge? Someone who has uttered what he did not understand—things too wonderful, which he did not know. Job seems to acknowledge that even the answer he seeks he would not be able to understand. Heretofore he had only heard of God by the ear but now, Job sees God, and in that seeing recognizes that what he asked for—an explanation—will never come—it is simply beyond him.
Psalm 103 is frequently quoted in blessings. “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 lists the many ways God is good, merciful, gracious and generous. In spite of the fleeting nature of human life, God’s steadfast love endures forever. The psalm ends calling on all in heaven to join in the song of blessing.
Twenty-four elders and the four living creatures in heaven fall down in worship, saying, “Amen, Hallelujah!” A voice from the throne commands: “Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him small and great.” Out of a voice of a thunderous multitude comes another “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God reigns.” The kingdom for which Jesus has taught his followers to earnestly pray has now come. The marriage of the lamb to his bride, the church, is now to be complete. “She is dressed in the fine linen of the righteous deeds of the saints. Blessed are all who are invited to this feast. The angel turns to John and says, “These are true words of God,” and at that, John falls at the angel’s feet to worship. But John is warned, “You must not do that!” The angel is but a fellow servant with John and his friends who hold the testimony of Jesus. “Worship God!” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy—God’s very word! It is why the church can say, “Hallelujah!” in Jesus’ name. After all of the “Hallelujahs,” the book turns to seven visions of the consummation. The heavens open and there is a white horse (white being a symbol of victory, with the addition that he is also pure) mounted by one called “Faithful and True” who, in righteousness, judges and makes war. It is the Christ, whose first appearance upon the earth was as a lowly servant who healed, taught, proclaimed the kingdom and welcomed sinners. At this, his second appearing, he comes as a divine warrior decked out in apocalyptic finery—eyes of fire, many diadems reflecting his wide-ranging sovereignty, a secret name that only he knows, and a robe dipped in his own blood—this is the Living Word of God—who has come to wage war on all the enemies of heaven. All of the armies of heaven—the heavenly hosts—follow him, also mounted on horses of triumph. A sharp, two-edged sword issues from his mouth striking down the nations. As with a word he created, with but a word he now destroys! He rules them with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:9). He is “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” (This is where Julia Ward Howe found the imagery for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”) It is the wrath of God the Almighty. And on the blood-soaked robe and on his thigh his name is inscribed: “King of kings, and Lord of Lords.”
Having heard John’s denial that he, himself, is the Messiah, and word that “one is coming after [him],” today we hear John identify Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Continuing to refute those who thought John Jesus’ equal (and remember, at the time this gospel was written, there was a large religious community rivaling the church, who believed John was the long promised “prophet” ). John confesses that this one who “comes after me, ranks ahead of me, because he is before me.” John himself did not know who he was. For his part, he came baptizing with water in order that the “coming one” might be revealed to Israel. He then confesses that he saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Jesus. Again, John insists that he did not know him. However, the One who sent him to baptize with water said, “he on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And now John himself confesses that “this is the Son of God.
Saturday, June 14
Numbers 3:1–13; Psalm 63; Galatians 6:11–18; Matthew 17:1–13
We take up the Book of Numbers, so named because of the several censuses that take place within the book, tracing the lineage of the people back through the sons of Jacob. Today the focus is upon the descendants of Jacob’s son, Levi, from which the brothers Moses and Aaron come. Aaron, now High Priest, had anointed his four sons into his priesthood. His first two sons died in priestly service, because of the abuse of their privilege as servants before the Lord (Lev. 10:1). God now instructs Moses to bring the rest of the men of their tribe and “set them before Aaron”—a term of ordination—to assist Aaron and his descendants with their duties before God. The Levites are to be God’s own, a substitute for the first born that by ancient law was understood to belong solely to God. They will be God’s servants, doing the work of caring for the Tabernacle, including all the hard labor of striking and rebuilding the Tent of the Meeting as Israel moves from place to place through the wilderness. They are also a marker between God and the people, a buffer between the Holy and the profane—and so must keep themselves holy—the ones who will be intermediaries between the people and God.
Psalm 63 blesses God for his loving kindness and mercy—better than life itself! It is attributed to David while in the Judean wilderness, remembering the joy of having been in the temple and the presence of the Lord. It contains some of the most beautiful language in the psalter, texts often used in formal prayer: “O God, you are my God, earnestly will I seek you.” “My soul thirsts for you in a dry and barren land,” “because your love is better than life itself, my lips will speak your praise,” “in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy,” “my soul clings to you, your right hand supports me,” and so on. Each is suitable as opening words of prayer and prepares and centers the soul for conscious contact with God.
Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by say, “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” as a means of authenticating his letter (evidently he had trouble reading). He reminds the Galatians that those who have come to Galatia from the Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, who insist that one must first be Jewish to enjoy the benefits of Christ, do not even keep the law themselves. Rather, they are simply trying to enforce circumcision on Gentile Christians in order that they may boast of their accomplishments among them and avoid persecution among other Jews themselves. For Paul, he will boast in nothing but the cross of Christ, through which he has died to such outside influences and accomplishments. What is important now is not this or that regulation but living into being a new creation in Christ, living by the power of the Spirit. He ends by reminding them of the suffering he has borne for the sake of Christ, and bids them farewell invoking the grace of Christ upon each of them.
Six days after the argument between Jesus and Peter, Jesus takes Peter, James and John—his inner circle—up a high mountain by themselves. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured before them and they see his face shining like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Immediately, two other figures appear. Notice that they are not transfigured, but immediately knowable—it is Moses and Elijah—who talk with Jesus. Peter speaks up and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Two things are important here: first, Peter, in calling for the building of booths or tents for each of the three, is recalling the exodus experience in the wilderness, which Jews are to remember and re-enact by living in booths during the Feast of tabernacles. Second, Peter does clearly know who the other two are, Moses, the law-giver and Elijah, the prophet of all prophets. Here then, Jesus is in conversation with the law and the prophets—the whole of Israel’s redemptive history. While Peter is still speaking, suddenly, a bright cloud overshadows them—again a reference to the exodus where God’s presence was visible in a cloud—and out of this cloud, the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! Hearing this, the three disciples fall to the ground, overcome by fear. Jesus comes to the three, touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” As the disciples look up from the ground, they see no one but Jesus. The other two visitors have now returned to the heavens. Coming down the mountain, Jesus orders the three to remain silent about that until after “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The three ask Jesus, why then, do the scribes say that Elijah much come first? Jesus replies that Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but, in fact, has already come, but they did not recognize him, but did to him as they pleased. So, continues Jesus, will they do to the Son of Man who is about to suffer at their hands. Now the disciples understand: Jesus was talking about John the Baptist.
Friday, June 13
Ecclesiastes 11:9–12:14; Psalm 84; Galatians 5:25–6:10; Matthew 16:21–28
The Teacher brings his lesson to a close with counsel to young people: rejoice in your childhood and youth, in your strength and joy, pursue the impulses of your heart and desire of your eyes, remembering that God will bring all things under judgment. Put away grief and anger, they are a waste of life. Remember your creator in the days of your youth. Then comes one of the most poignant and beautiful allegories in scripture: a description of the burdens of aging: trembling hands, stooped posture, loss of hearing, failure of sight, restless sleep, limited mobility, hair turned white (almond tree blossoms are white), loss of sexual desire. The book ends with a critique of wisdom itself, no matter how delightful. “Of the making of books, there is no end;” always, someone comes along who professes to be wiser. Yet, when every book has been written and all is said and done, the essence of wisdom is this: fear God and keep God’s commandments—this is everyone’s duty. For God will bring every deed into judgment—even the secret things—whether good or evil.
Psalm 84 is a reflection on the wonders and gifts of abiding in God’s dwelling place, and one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire collection of one hundred fifty. The well-known psalm, set so masterfully by Brahms in his German requiem, written for the occasion of his mother’s death, celebrates the beauty of the temple as God’s dwelling place among the people, as well as the psalmist’s longing and desire to be in God’s presence there. In the temple all are cared for—even the lowly sparrow and swallow are welcome at God’s altar. It is worth the dangerous and difficult journey as they go from “strength to strength” on their pilgrimage to Zion and its temple, for a day there in its courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. Better a life of modest service at God’s threshold, than a life of luxury and ease among the wicked. For, the Lord is light and protection, the source of all good for those who walk in God’s ways, and the source of happiness for all who trust in him.
Since living out of the Spirit gives life, let us walk that way daily, giving up the search for vain glory, competition and boasting, for those things only lead to challenging one another and living in envy and division. Paul now turns to his ethical exhortations. If a sister or brother is caught in a trespass, those “who are spiritual” are to correct them, but in a spirit of gentleness, taking care to assure that they themselves are not also so tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, for in so doing, they fulfill the law of Christ. Maintain a position of humility, examining one’s own status and work in its own light rather than in comparison to that of others. Let each bear their own load. Yet, the one who is taught is to share his goods with the one who teaches—the earliest record of controversy over what the pastor is paid! And remember, God is not mocked. Whatever you sow you will reap. Those who sow to the flesh will reap corruption, while those who sow to the Spirit will reap eternal life. Do not lose heart in doing good, for in due time, they will reap a harvest if they do not grow weary. So, while they have the opportunity, do good to all people, especially the people in the household of faith.
Peter has just made his great Christological confession, and Jesus has acknowledged it is true, but commanded the disciples to remain silent on the subject. He now tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes—the religious establishment in Judaism. He will be killed, and on the third day be raised. The notion of Messianic suffering and dying are so shocking to the disciples that they do not hear “and be raised.” Instead, Peter, now commissioned the leader of the infant community, takes Jesus aside and begins to object saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus turns and rebukes Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Peter is setting his mind on human, rather than divine, things, and cannot see the mystery of redemption unfolding in what Jesus has described. So, Jesus now tells all of them that if they want to be his disciples, they must deny themselves and take upon their own crosses and follow him. Note that all but one of them will die a martyr on his behalf. Those who try to save their lives at the cost of denying him will lose them eternally, while those who lose their lives for his sake will find them eternally. What profit is there in gaining the world in this way and losing your life in the process? What can they give in return for their lives? And to this Jesus adds that the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and when they do, they will repay everyone for what has been done. Notice that the image of “Son of Man,” which Jesus has so frequently used as a symbol for himself, is now changed from that in Daniel to one who comes to earth as judge. To this he adds, there are some standing among the disciples who will not have died before they see the Son of Man coming into his kingdom. This is not a reference to the kingdom in its completeness, but the beginning of Christ’s eternal reign following his resurrection, which of course, all of them--except Judas--will see.
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.