Writer Mark Ellingsen
Mark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more
Proper 25 | OT 30 | Pentecost 20, Cycle A
THEME OF THE DAY
It’s what God does, not what we do, that counts! Sermons on these texts will focus on our sin, but only insofar as that makes clearer the texts’ real agenda of how God (through grace and the Holy Spirit) works all good in us (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). These themes nicely relate to the insights of the Reformation, which may be celebrated this week.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
This psalm is a prayer of deliverance from national adversity, in the genre of a group lament. It is traditionally attributed to Moses (the only psalm so designated), but does not likely trace its origins to him. The psalm begins with a hymn-like introduction declaring God’s eternity and the transience of human life. In God’s time a thousand years are said to be like an evening, a brief period of the night (a watch) [layil]. Our lives are swept away like a dream. But God is said to be our dwelling place [maon, or "habitation"] (vv. 1-6). The actual prayer for deliverance follows, asking that God would satisfy us with his mercy [chesed, also translated "kindness" and "loving kindness"], make the people glad/rejoicing [sameach] as many days as he afflicted them, and establish/form [kun] the work of their hands (vv. 13-17).
Application: Several sermon topics are suggested by this psalm. Preachers might focus on God’s compassion/mercy (Justification by Grace), Providence and God’s use of suffering to make good through us, as well as on eternity as the reality in which all events are simultaneous (God and Eschatology).
A Wisdom psalm (a song conveying practical knowledge of the laws of life), which contrasts the fate of the righteous and the wicked. Along with Psalm 2, it was probably added to this collection of psalms late in the editorial process of the book, in order to provide the book with an introduction from the theme of the psalm. Our lesson begins with a hymn-like introduction contending that those who avoid sin are happy, delighting in the law [torah] of Yahweh and meditating on it (vv. 1-2). They are like trees planted in water, which yield fruit. They prosper in all they do (v. 3). It is good to be reminded at this point that for the Jewish faith the law is not considered a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but is deemed as instruction or a guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). The wicked are said to be like chaff that the wind drives away. They will not stand in the judgment (vv. 4-5). Yahweh watches over the way of the righteous [tsaddiq], but the wicked will perish (v. 6). It is important at this point to be reminded that for the ancient Hebrews righteousness is not so much a demand for morality as the expectation of being in right relation with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371).
Application: The psalm provides preachers with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of true happiness, delighting in the Torah and then making clear that the Torah for Hebrews is not a demanding law but a way of describing God’s teaching. Adherence to the ways of God makes us happy (Sanctification). But of course first we must become righteous, and even the Hebraic faith agrees that that only happens because of God’s work in restoring our relationship, as per Psalm 23:3 and 90:17 (Justification by Grace).
This book is the product of writings that emerged during the sweeping religious reform under King Josiah in the late seventh century BC. This literary strand also influenced the histories of the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The basic theme of this piece of literature is evidenced by the meaning of its title (“Second Law”). Portrayed in the form of Moses’ farewell address, it is the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel.
Our lesson is the account of the death of Moses. It appears to resume the story from the end of Numbers 36. Leaving the plains of Moab (east of the Salt Sea) north to Mount Nebo (located in the Transjordan region, east of Jericho) to the top of Pisgah (a peak in that mountain range), Yahweh shows Moses the whole land — Gilead, Naphtali, Ephriam, Manasseh, Judah, the Negeb, and the Jericho valley (vv. 1-3). References to the two mountains on which Moses is said to have died may indicate that the editor of Deuteronomy has woven together two distinct oral traditions regarding Moses’ death. All these regions, Yahweh claims, were promised to the patriarchs (v. 4a). But Moses is only permitted to see the land and not cross into it (v. 4b). Moses the servant of the Lord then died, at Yahweh’s command (v. 5). He was buried in a valley in Moab, but no one knows his burial place (v. 6). He was 120 when he died and still vigorous (v. 7).
The Israelites mourn in the plains of Moab for thirty days (v. 8). Joshua the son of Nun is full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid hands on him, and the Israelites obey him as the Lord had commanded Moses (v. 9). Never since has a prophet arisen like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face-to-face (intimately) (v. 10). He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform (vv. 11-12; cf. Numbers 12:6-8).
Application: The story of Moses’ death, the giver of the law, is a reminder that the law of God does not have the final word. The law is overcome by God’s underserved gift (Justification by Grace).
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Like all of the first four of the books of the Bible, this book is likely the product of three distinct oral traditions. It is primarily dependent on the so-called P source, the work of temple priests dating from the sixth century BC. The book is mostly of worship. Its English title, derived from Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible, refers to Levitical priests. Though relying on earlier oral traditions, there is independent material in the book, the so-called holiness code, a purported speech by Moses outlining a vision for life as a holy people separated for divine service in the world. The lesson is drawn from this section. It begins with Yahweh speaking to Moses that the people of Israel are to be holy since Yahweh/Elohim is holy [qadosh] (vv. 1-2). After a number of strictures on idolatry, theft, mandates to revere parents, and how to perform sacrifices as well as how to harvest (vv. 3-14), it is commanded that unjust judgments not be rendered against the poor in favor of the great, that justice [mishpat, literally "judgment"] must be rendered, that slander be avoided, as well as standing still [amad] against the blood of one’s neighbor [presumably one must not remain passive in defending one's neighbor], hatred of kin, or taking vengeance against anyone. We are to love [aheb] our neighbors as ourselves (vv. 15-18; cf. Mark 12:31).
Application: This Complementary First Lesson affords opportunity to make clear that the Golden Rule is found in the Old Testament. Thus, points made in the Gospel Lesson about our inability to fulfill the law on our own (Sin) and our dependence on God to achieve this, as per the Psalms of the Day above (Justification by Grace), are appropriate. Also see the comments about the nature of the law in Judaism in the analysis of Psalm 1.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
The book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The book may contain fragments of several letters. This lesson is part of Paul’s description of his life and work in Thessalonica. This was in response to the claims of his critics that he had practiced heresy, immorality, trickery, and greed. Using language of philosophers of his day, Paul effectively presents himself as an ideal philosopher. He begins by noting that the Thessalonians know that his coming to them was in vain (v. 1). Though suffering at Philippi, he had the courage in God to declare the gospel to them in spite of opposition (v. 2). He insists that his appeal does not spring from impure motives, but that he has been entrusted by God to speak not to please [aresko] mortals but to please God who tests the hearts (vv. 3-4; cf. Proverbs 17:3). Pleasing God is a fundamental moral criterion for the apostle (4:1). Paul claims that God is his witness that he never came with flattery or with a pretext for greed, nor did he seek praise (vv. 5-6). He does concede that he might have made demands as an apostle [apostolos] of Christ, but always in a gentle way like a nurse [trophos] cares for children (v. 7). This is the only biblical reference by Paul to his apostleship. He concludes by noting how he deeply cares for the Thessalonians and is determined to share the gospel [euaggelion] and himself with them, for they are very dear to him (v. 8).
Application: Several possibilities for sermons emerge. One might preach on ministry (and Christian life [Sanctification]) as being like a caring nurse with children. Or these points could be made in order to condemn our sin, and help us make clear that we need this chiding to hear the gospel of Justification by Grace (see Applications of the Psalms of the Day and First Lessons, above).
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees about the Great Commandment and David’s son. Matthew’s version most closely parallels Luke’s (10:25-28, 41-44), and there are some parallels with Mark’s version (12:28-37) as well.
The lesson begins when after the Pharisees having heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees [regarding the resurrection] (vv. 22-33), they gathered together and a lawyer among them raises a question to test Jesus regarding what the greatest commandment [entole] is (vv. 34-36). He cites Deuteronomy 6:5, that we are to love [agapao] the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and mind (vv. 37-38). But he adds that a second commandment like it is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18) (v. 39). On these commandments, Jesus adds, hang all the law and the prophets (v. 40). It seems that for Matthew’s Jesus the law is merely a set of suggestions for applying in life the principle of love. While the Pharisees were gathered, Jesus asks them a question of what they think of the Messiah, whose son he is (vv. 41-42a). The Pharisees say that the Messiah is son of David (v. 42b). Then Jesus asks how it is that David by the Spirit calls the son lord [kurios], citing Psalm 110:1 (vv. 43-44). Only by the Spirit is the confession of faith that saves possible. Jesus proceeds to ask how David could logically call the Lord his son (reiterating the miraculous character of this confession). The Pharisees fail to respond and from then on dare not ask further questions (vv. 45-46).
Application: Sermons on this text will proclaim our inability to fulfill the law and the Great Commandment on our own (Sin), but that the Holy Spirit forgives us and inspires us to do spontaneously what God demands (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).