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Fourth Sunday in Lent, Cycle A

In the Older Testament texts of Psalm 23 and of 1 Samuel 16:1-13 the Lord God overcomes the darkness of the “valley of the shadow of death” and provides hope for all of our days. In the Newer Testament texts of Ephesians 5:8-14 and John 9:1-42 the Lord Jesus overcomes basically the same “darkness” and provides the same “hope.”

Psalm 23
Psalm 23 is certainly for us an effective psalm of hope. When we are confronted by the death of loved ones or by the reality of our own impending death, we turn individually and as the Church corporately to this Israelite song of trust. It may even be accurate to state that Psalm 23 is one of the few texts within the Israelite Scriptures that has greater use among Christians than it has among Jews. For us, of course, the Lord is not only the Lord God as perceived by the ancient Israelites, but also the Lord Jesus, who for us is the “Good Shepherd,” and “all the days of our life” are perceived to include not only life in this time and space, but also eternal life beyond the limits of this time and space.

1 Samuel 16:1-13
According to this text, “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily over David” from the moment Samuel anointed him. The shepherd boy became the chosen one of the shepherd God, the designated king over Israel, the People of God. From grief and despair over the old, disappointing king Saul, the prophet Samuel turns with hope and gladness to the new destined-to-be king, the shepherd lad David. Even so, we also are called to turn from grief and despair to hope and gladness repeatedly during this Lenten season and always.

Ephesians 5:8-14
The non-Jewish background followers of Jesus addressed by the Pauline writer of Ephesians 5:8-14 are told that although they were once blind and in darkness, they now can see with the light of their Lord Jesus the Christ. A source that probably came from some gnosticizing Christian document unknown to us is quoted in Ephesians 5:14 as an indication of how the Christ will shine on these non-Jewish followers of Jesus. They, and we, are admonished to honorable conduct, as is appropriate for children of light.

John 9:1-41
When we are not so heavily distracted by the unnecessary anti-Jewish polemic of this Johannine mini-drama, we see also how we who are “blind” from the day of our birth are to be led by stages into full sight. Like the man in this text, we also are expected to look up, to recognize in Jesus first a prophet, then the Son of man, and finally in the Johannine Jesus fully revealed to us, the divine figure of the Risen Christ to be worshiped. There is no necessity, however, for Jews or for anyone else to be blinded while we do this.

For additional comments on this most elaborate success story of all of the Four Gospel accounts, see Norman A. Beck. Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (Expanded and revised edition, New York: Crossroad, 1994), pp. 302-303.

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Cycle A

Probably the most important common factor in these four texts is the concept of restoration to life. Of course, each text depicts restoration to life in a specific situation, and the situation of each of us is unique and different from each of the situations in these biblical texts. Therefore, we have rich resources available for use in our proclamations this coming weekend of the message that God restores life also among us in our times.

Since in the northern hemisphere these texts are used during the season of spring, we can use nature as an illustrative aid in our presentations. We see in addition, with their theme of restoration to life, these texts bring a “little Easter” message this Fifth Sunday in Lent. They provide a foretaste of the Easter message.

Ezekiel 37:1-14
This proclamation of restoration to life to the people and nation of Israel must have been highly significant to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. Many of us, within our political situations that are so different from the political situation of the Israelite exiles in Babylon, may find it difficult to perceive how this message must have been appreciated by the people to whom it was initially addressed. Those of us who are ourselves — or who identify closely with — remnants of scattered, forsaken Native American tribes, and black people torn from proud African national cultures by slave traders and slave owners can relate most closely to this message, as the black spiritual “Dem Bones” indicates. Jewish people throughout more than twenty centuries of having no nation could relate most of all to these texts, and Jewish people today can see in the nation of Israel evidence that God through intense struggle has given them new life and hope in their ancestral home. Their faith and their hope are celebrated in this text, and we as Christian proclaimers of the gospel can witness to their faith in the midst of our congregations also. Therefore, this Ezekiel text should have a prominent place in our proclamation this coming weekend. It sets the tone for the other readings through its vivid reversal of death and decay as scattered dry bones are brought together and given new life by the power of God.

Psalm 130
From the depths of despair, the psalmist cries to the Lord, asking for forgiveness and waiting for the morning. Both for the individual and for the nation, restoration is something that only God can bring. With the psalmist, we believe that only God, in God’s steadfast love, can restore our lives, both now and eternally. We believe that only God can accomplish our redemption. This is the Lenten message for us.

Romans 8:6-11
Paul does not distinguish clearly in Romans 8:11 whether he is referring to God making alive the mortal bodies of his readers after their physical death or during their present existence. The context, however, suggests that Paul was referring primarily to the present existence of his readers. The Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ provide life now, not only in the future after physical death. We are called to demonstrate that life in our situation, just as Paul was called and demonstrated it in his.

John 11:1-45
Next to the dramatic vision of the restoration to life of the people of Israel in the Ezekiel 37 account and the restoration of life of Jesus in the resurrection accounts in our Four Gospels, this John 11 story is the most spectacular restoration to life story in our biblical texts. Through it the Johannine tradition carries the proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead a step farther. It asserts that God has given to Jesus power to restore to life even people who have been in the tomb longer than Jesus himself was, and whose bodies have already undergone considerable decay. Lazarus is said to have been in the tomb not three days as Jesus had been, but four (John 11:17, 39), and unlike the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection we are shown in this story the dead man actually walking out of the tomb. Decaying, foul-smelling flesh has become sound, healthy, beautifully restored flesh. Truly this is a “Little Easter” text within Lent.

Passion Sunday / Palm Sunday, Cycle A

As we become increasingly aware of the oppressive political and economic situation in which the Jesus of history and the other Jews of his time and place lived, we recognize that when Jesus called upon his fellow Jews to believe that soon the Lord God would be coming to them in some wonderful way, and that when the Lord God would come to rule over them (in the kingdom of God) the oppressive Romans would be gone, he became not only a religious leader but also a prominent political leader of his people and a significant political threat to the Roman occupational forces and to the small number among his fellow Jews who were cooperating fully with the Romans. We realize, therefore, that his final entry into Jerusalem, before he was seized, tortured, and crucified by the Romans as a political threat to their security in that land, was a religious and a political pilgrimage, a procession of hope. It was a procession of hope for the oppressed, a bold and joyous demonstration for the Lord. When we understand this, we perceive that our own observance of the culmination of our Lenten season cannot be complete unless we also in some way participate in a joyous celebration of hope on the Sunday prior to Good Friday each year. For us also, it is a hope for liberation from oppression, a hope that for us also will include experiences of despair before we and others who are oppressed in any way are truly set free. Let us see how the texts appointed for us for this occasion will help us to experience the various emotions of this joyous celebration.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
This beautiful Hallel Psalm was one of several used in ancient Israel during entrance to the temple processions associated with one or more of the great cultic festivals. During the time of the Jesus of history, it was very likely sung by Galileans as they approached the city of Jerusalem and the temple on festival occasions. Many Jews today continue to read all or portions of Psalms 113-114 prior to the Seder meal and of Psalms 115-118 after the meal.

These Psalms, and most of all Psalm 118, are appropriate also for Christian use, especially on Palm Sunday. Attention should be given to the parts of the psalm portions spoken or sung by various individuals and groups. Verses 1, 2, and 19 should be spoken or sung by someone “outside the gates” (perhaps in the narthex), verse 20 by a choir, some other group, or the entire worshiping congregation, verses 21 and 22 by the person who has read or sung verses 1, 2, and 19 as this person now enters the sanctuary, verses 23-27 by a choir or the entire congregation as the person who has entered from the narthex approaches the altar area, verse 28 by that person at the altar, and verse 29 by everyone present.

“The stone that the builders rejected” in verse 22 is widely used in our Newer Testament in reference to Jesus. Within the context of Psalm 118, however, it is an expression of the grace of God with many possible applications over the course of time.

Matthew 21:1-11
Comparison of the texts within the Four Gospels that depict an entry into Jerusalem by Jesus just prior to his suffering and death indicates the freedom and the inspired creativity with which this story was developed within the various traditions. The Matthean account exhibits typical Matthean tendencies. Along with many other accounts in Matthew, this Matthew 21:1-11 text shows that the writers within the Matthean tradition were most interested in demonstrating ways in which the life of Jesus fulfilled expectations expressed within the Israelite Scriptures and recapitulated the experiences of the earlier Israelites. It also shows that some of the Matthean writers may not have been of Jewish background, or at least may not have been familiar with the Hebrew language. That they alone among the writers of the Four Gospel traditions portrayed Jesus as sitting and riding on two beasts of burden, rather than on one, suggests that some of these writers may have lacked even a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew poetry with its heavy use of parallelism. They seem to have followed the poetic parallelism of Zechariah 9:9 literally, and as a result they presented Jesus as riding two animals simultaneously as he entered the city.

In order to reactualize the Palm Sunday event as much as possible, it would be appropriate, if the congregation is not dramatizing the Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 account as suggested above, to read Matthew 21:1-11 during a clergy and choir (and perhaps entire congregational) procession on Palm Sunday this year. The reading should be interrupted after 21:9 so that everyone may sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty,” or a similar hymn that will amplify our reading and proclamation. If we wish to do more than this, we can borrow or rent a donkey somewhere and dramatize the processional further with someone each year having the honor of representing Jesus on the donkey along the paths and through the fields or streets to the sanctuary. (The donkey should not be brought into the church building, for rather obvious reasons, not the least of which is that the biblical accounts do not have Jesus ride into the temple but have him chasing animals out of the temple court.) Regardless of how we stage the processional, it should provide a memorable event, especially for the children of the congregation and community.

Liturgy of the Passion, Cycle A

The texts selected for the observance of the Sixth Sunday in Lent as Passion Sunday each year obviously emphasize the suffering of those who are obedient to the Lord. In these Series A texts, the psalmist suffers scorn and ridicule even though the psalmist is obedient to the Lord. The Servant of Isaiah 50:4-9a suffers shame and reproach even though the Servant’s ear is always open to hear the commands of the Lord, and of course Jesus is said to have been obedient to God even to the point of suffering the most shameful death on the cross in Philippians 2:5-11 and in Matthew 26:14–27:66. Our lives are consistent with these texts because even today where we are and in the congregations and communities in which we live and serve, we are people who are still suffering scorn and ridicule, reproach and death. In the very best of our religious tradition, therefore, we can and should proclaim on Passion Sunday that together with the psalmist, the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50:4-9a, and Jesus the Son of God in Philippians 2:5-11 and in the Matthew 26:14–27:66 text God also suffers with us, since if God’s People suffer and the Son of God suffers, certainly God also suffers with us.

Psalm 31:9-16
Our use of this Israelite individual lament within our Christian worship services on Passion Sunday is an indication that we perceive that deliverance from human suffering is still a future expectation for us at the Easter appearance of Jesus Christ our Lord and at our own “Easter” resurrection appearance. Along with the psalmist, we also cry to the Lord for deliverance from our suffering.

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Most of us who participate in Christian worship services and hear this text on Passion Sunday probably associate the claims of daily direct inspiration, of suffering at the hands of ruthless tormentors, and of confident trust in the Lord in this portion of the third Servant Song of the Isaiah tradition with Jesus the Christ as we perceive him. As Christians, we can certainly interpret the Israelite Scriptures in any way that we wish, and it is quite understandable that we think about Jesus as we read and as we hear this text. It would be helpful, however, if we would share in some way with the congregation that the Suffering Servant Songs in the Isaiah tradition have a meaning and a context of their own in which they portray not Jesus but the Israelite prophetic tradition in its ideal form. In the suffering of God’s chosen Servant, God also suffers. In this sense, the Older and the Newer Testaments, the Israelite and the Christian Scriptures, and we ourselves as Jews and Christians are brought closer together and together closer to God.

Philippians 2:5-11
Probably no other text in our Bible other than the Lord’s Prayer is used as frequently and in as many different situations of the Church Year as is this text, this great Christ-hymn. It can be and is used as an Advent text, a Christmas text, an Epiphany text, a Lenten text, and a text for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. In each of these situations we should place the emphasis on the most appropriate aspect of the text for each occasion. For this Passion Sunday, we should focus on the suffering of Jesus in human form and his courageous willingness to go to Jerusalem, even though he knew that the oppressive Roman military forces there would probably seize, torture, and crucify him because they feared that Jesus’ oppressed fellow Jews, who were filled with hope by Jesus’ public proclamation that the Lord, rather than Caesar, would soon be ruling over them, would revolt against them. Through our use of this Philippians 2:5-11 Christ-hymn, we proclaim that in the suffering of Jesus the Christ we are proclaiming the suffering of God and in our proclamation of the glorification of Jesus we are proclaiming the glorification of God.

Matthew 26:14–27:66
Not only is this prescribed text too lengthy to be effective as a reading within the context of a well-rounded worship service; more seriously, its use on the Sixth Sunday in Lent covers the entirety of Holy Week and presupposes that the congregation need not and will not assemble again until Easter Sunday. Therefore, it would be much more appropriate if the reading on the Sixth Sunday in Lent would be limited to 26:6-13, the thought-provoking account about Jesus and his interactions with the woman who poured the expensive perfume from an alabaster flask upon Jesus’ head in the house of the man Simon who had been afflicted by leprosy. In this text Jesus defends the action of the woman when his own disciples had been indignant about the “waste” of the perfume on Jesus. Jesus affirms her and her action by saying she has been showing kindness to him and wherever this account “is proclaimed throughout the whole world that which she has done will be spoken about favorably in memory of her.” This Matthew 26:6-13 text, which is not utilized anywhere within the three-year lectionary that so many Christians are using, along with its parallel text in Mark 14:3-9 provided the title for the very significant critique of biblical texts by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (First edition, 1983, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Crossroad, 1994).

If worship leaders and congregations use the extensive Matthew 26:14–15:66 texts, they should be aware that even a brief comparison of Matthew 27 with its antecedent in Mark 15 indicates a very significant tendency within the Gospel traditions to exonerate the oppressive Roman authorities and to transfer to the Jewish people culpability for the suffering and death of Jesus. The following are the most notable additions in Matthew 27 to the Mark 15 text that transfer blame from the Romans to the Jewish people.

1. The account in Matthew 27:3-10 has Judas Iscariot throwing down the thirty pieces of silver in the temple. The Jewish temple authorities are portrayed as callously lacking in compassion even for Judas who supposedly had helped them.

2. Matthew 27:19 adds to the Markan account the incident of Pilate’s wife alerting him to avoid judgment of the righteous man Jesus. She has been inspired to do this in a dream, a Matthean theme as the dream revelation to Joseph in Matthew 1:20-24 indicates. In this text God is said to have given the revelation to the wife of the cruel Roman official; God is not said to have provided a revelation for any of the Jewish people.

3. Only Matthew 27:24-25 among the Four Gospels has Pilate wash his hands of the responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Only Matthew 27:24-25 has all of the Jewish people take the responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus upon themselves and upon their children. Although it is not inherently impossible that Pilate might have washed his hands to signify his non-culpability after he had given the order to have Jesus crucified, it is hardly conceivable that he would have made a public spectacle of the impotence of Roman justice when pressured by the demands from a group of people within a subjected population. Also, it would have been physically impossible for the entire Jewish nation to have spoken with one voice as if in unison, except in a literary drama. Even if the entire Jewish nation could have spoken in unison, it is in no way plausible that it would have requested for itself in perpetuity the full responsibility for the death sentence imposed by an oppressive occupational force on a popular leader from among its own oppressed people. For a more extensive discussion of the anti-Jewish polemic in Matthew 27, see Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (New York: Crossroad, 1994), pp. 194-196.

4. Only Matthew 27:43 has the Jewish leaders add the words, “He has put his trust in God? Let God rescue him now, if God wishes to acknowledge him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ “

5. Only Matthew has in 27:62-66 the intensely anti-Jewish story about the guard detachment at the tomb of Jesus.

As responsible Christian leaders, we have an obligation to reject and repudiate the tendency within the Four Gospel traditions to exonerate the oppressive Roman authorities and to place the blame on all of the Jewish people for the suffering and death of Jesus. Since we are not in danger, as the early followers of Jesus were, that the oppressive Roman officials will seize, torture, and crucify us if we say anything openly against them, we can now in our proclamation of the gospel transfer the blame for the suffering and death of Jesus after nineteen centuries back where it belongs, from the oppressed Jewish people to the oppressive Roman Empire officials. There is no time that is more appropriate for this than the Sixth Sunday in Lent this year, especially if we have the entire Matthew 26:14–27:66 text, rather than the shorter 26:6-13 selection that has been recommended here, read within our worshiping congregations.

Easter Day, Cycle A

More than on any other day during the Church Year, our Easter Day message must be subjective and personal. The message that we share on Easter is not an objective, impersonal report of a historical incident or philosophical concept. Instead, it is a vitally important statement of our faith. The heart of our message must be “I believe!” More specifically, it must be “I believe that God raised Jesus from being dead and I believe that God will raise me and will raise you from being dead!” No Easter message is adequate unless it includes this personal statement of faith. It is not sufficient to say that others believe, or even that we believe. We must say “I believe!” This is the Easter message people have come to hear. It is the message that attracts them on Easter Day and that attracts them also on every other day that it is proclaimed.

Our personal statement of faith, “I believe!” should be followed by the invitation “I invite you also to believe that God raised Jesus from being dead and that God will also raise you and me from the dead!” This invitation must be explicit. It must be direct. It is with this invitation and the response to it that God produced the Christian Church and has maintained it over the centuries. Without this invitation and the response to it the Christian Church will wither and die.

Our statement of faith and our invitation to believe should then be followed by parenesis, guidelines about how to life in response to this proclamation. People who believe will want to live in ways appropriate to their belief. The texts selected for our use on Easter Day provide the resources we need as we follow through with our expressions of faith.

Acts 10:34-43
As we increasingly become aware of the religious, economic, and political situation in the Roman Empire during the first century of the common era, we continue to increase our appreciation to God for the skills of the inspired Lukan playwright. The drama in Acts 10:34-43 is not only an indication of the spread of the developing Church beyond people who have a Jewish background to people who have a background that is other than Jewish; it amazingly depicts a Roman military officer embracing the faith of the oppressed early Christians. The Lukan playwright has provided for us a scene in which a high-ranking officer among the Roman oppressors is being baptized in the name of Jesus, a man who had been crucified by the cruel, oppressive Romans and is now immortal and all powerful as the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ!

While doing this, the Lukan playwright may have included very skillfully within this scene a daring, subtle cryptogram directed against the Roman Emperor within Peter’s speech in the home of the Roman officer Cornelius in Acts 10:38-39. The Lukan playwright depicts Peter as describing the Jesus of history as having gone from place to place doing good among his people and healing all who were being oppressed by “The Devil.” “The Devil” here may subtly have been intended by the Lukan playwright to be a reference to Caesar and his minions, a code that would have been readily understood by followers of Jesus during the latter decades of the first century (especially during the last seven years of the reign of the oppressive Emperor Domitian, 90-96 CE), but so subtle that Roman officials who might read this document would think that “The Devil” here was merely theological jargon.

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Jeremiah 31:1-6 is provided here for use by congregations and their leaders who desire to have as the First Lesson on Easter Day a text from the Older Testament. Jeremiah 31:1-6 is an excellent choice for this, since it proclaims the resurrection and restoration of the people and of the nation of Israel, while at the same time is a link to the theme of going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord God that we have in the Psalm 118 selection to be used on this Easter Day. Therefore, on this Easter Day, within the context of the announcement of God’s resurrection and restoration of the people and of the nation of Israel, we have the announcement of God’s resurrection and restoration of Jesus now as the Risen Christ, making all things new.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
This Psalm 118 exhortation to give thanks to the Lord, this proclamation of God’s mercy, this celebration of the gracious act of God in restoring life to the psalmist is very appropriate for use in a Christian Easter Day worship service. The psalm should be sung or spoken with gladness, for it ties us to other people of God in antiquity (the Israelites), and to other people of God now (the Jews), within this Christian Easter Day celebration in which we express our faith in God and rejoice in God’s redeeming power and love in raising Jesus and us from the dead.

Colossians 3:1-4
With its words, “Therefore, if you have been ‘raised from the dead’ with Christ, you should seek the things that are above,” in 3:1 this text comes rather close to the Gnostic Christian teaching that for the person who believes in Jesus the resurrection of that person has already occurred. What the inspired writer of Colossians 3:1-4 intended, apparently, was that those who are “in Christ” have already been delivered from the authority of the powers on this earth (the Roman State, Caesar, and Roman Civil Religion whose advocates make ultimate claims) and have been established in God’s kingdom by baptism in the name of Jesus and by faith in the Risen Christ, who is “the image of God who is invisible, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Along with Colossians 3:1-4 and 1:15 we should consider 1:13-14, “For God has rescued us from the authority of darkness and has moved us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction, Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 2001).

John 20:1-18
It would be entirely appropriate to emphasize within our Easter proclamation this year that the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the first proclamation of the Easter message according to all Four Gospels were women, and that Mary Magdalene is prominent in all four accounts. The fact that it is written in Luke 8:2 and in Mark 16:9 that Jesus had cast out seven demons that had been in Mary Magdalene may be an indication in the form of a cryptogram that Jesus and his closest followers had rescued Mary from being held in bondage as a sex slave to seven off-duty Roman soldiers who were the “demons” who had “possessed” her. For more about exorcism stories as anti-Roman cryptograms, see Richard A. Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008); Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003); and Norman A. Beck, Anti-Roman Cryptograms in the New Testament: Hidden Transcripts of Hope and Liberation, Revised Edition (New York: Peter Lang, 2010; as well as the movie script “Jesus, the Man,” Revised Edition [Texas Lutheran University, 2010]).

At any rate, it is ironic that even though our Gospel accounts clearly indicate that it was Mary Magdalene and other women who were the first to proclaim the Easter message, large and powerful Christian denominations and their leaders choose to make a literalistic, uncritical interpretation of texts such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 their standard in denying women equal leadership opportunities within the Church, or accept the leadership of women only very reluctantly, while ignoring the implications of the proclamation of the Easter message by women in all of the Four Gospels.

In John 20:14-18 it is written that Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Jesus and clung to him. The writer of 20:17 did not write that Mary Magdalene did not touch the Risen Christ. The use of the negative particle with the Greek present imperative form haptou in John 20:17 indicates that her action of touching the Risen Christ could not continue, not that it should not begin. If the intention had been to indicate that the action of Mary Magdalene touching Jesus should not begin, the negative particle with the Greek aorist subjunctive would have been used. Therefore, the expression in 20:17 should be translated into English carefully as “Do not cling to me any longer. For I must return now to my Father,” not as “Do not touch me!” When Mary Magdalene could no longer cling to Jesus, the writer of John 20:14-18 said that she went to a group of male disciples of Jesus to make her glorious Easter expression of faith, “I have seen the Lord!” Mary’s expression of faith is the prime model for our own expression of faith on this Easter Day.

Matthew 28:1-10
We can easily see that, compared to its antecedent in Mark 16:1-8, the account in Matthew 28:1-10 was embellished by the Matthean redactors to make it considerably more dramatic. The sensory effects of the mighty earthquake, the change from the young man in white in Mark to an angel in white in Matthew, being able to see the angel roll the stone from the entrance of the tomb and sit on it, the Roman guards becoming so impotent that they were like dead men all add very effectively to the drama. We wonder why Christmas pageants featuring children or adults with manger scenes are so popular, while we rarely see Easter scenes depicting the drama of Matthew 28:1-10. Is there any reason why we should not have children and/or adults depicting the drama of Matthew 28:1-10 in our churches this year, playing the roles of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the angel, and the Roman soldiers? We may not be able to stage an earthquake of mammoth proportions, but we could do the earthquake with electronic sound effects. Why are we not taking advantage of the memorable benefits of presenting the Easter message dramatically in this way this year?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Cycle A

The selection for this Fifth Sunday of Easter begins the transition from Easter to Ascension and Pentecost activities, or perhaps, in Fourth Gospel terminology, we should say to Jesus’ absence and anticipated return. With Gospel texts selected from the Gospel According to John and According to Luke, supported by texts from Acts of Apostles and 1 Peter, we have not had a Gospel selection from the Gospel According to Matthew in this Series A year of Matthew since Easter Day itself, and we will not have a Matthean Gospel account again until Trinity Sunday, still four weeks away.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Psalm 31 might be said to be actually two psalms, two individual laments: 31:1-8 and 31:9-24. In each there is the theme of not only the suffering and deliverance of the psalmist, but also of the absence and the return of the Lord. When the Lord is absent, the psalmist is in distress. When the Lord is present, the psalmist is delivered. It is this relationship between the psalmist’s condition and the absence and return of the Lord that makes Psalm 31, and every other individual lament psalm, appropriate for use with Fourth Gospel reflections over the absence and presence of Jesus as Lord.

Acts 7:55-60
Through this use of Acts 7:55-60 on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, separate from the distractions of the vicious, defamatory name-calling of 7:51-54, we have a preview of the Ascension theme of Jesus at the right hand of God and of the Christian Pentecost theme of followers of Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit. In this text, the Lukan playwright also introduced Paul as a Jewish character Saul into this literary drama, unfortunately presenting him as a young man who was watching approvingly while Stephen was being stoned to death.

1 Peter 2:2-10
Isaiah tradition and Psalm tradition texts are used in this selection in order to draw attention to Jesus the Christ as the living stone of great value for those who believe in him. As in other uses of 1 Peter texts, it would be helpful if we would explain to the congregation that the people to whom this epistle was addressed apparently were predominantly of non-Jewish background, even though the writer was probably a Jewish background follower of Jesus. The message of 1 Peter 2:9-10 is most appropriate for Christians who are “first generation” Christians, rather than for those who were born into Christian families. This text, therefore, is most applicable in places where the Church is growing rapidly and where Christians are being persecuted.

John 14:1-14
Even though these verses may have been at one time primarily intended as instructions for followers of Jesus who had gnosticizing tendencies, as we see in the names of those (Thomas and Philip) who question the Johannine Jesus in this account, the text remains instructive and comforting also for us, especially verses 1-3. The place to which Jesus will go and from which Jesus will return is depicted in this text in rather tangible ways as spacious and well-prepared, though nevertheless in somewhat vague terms. We may be grateful that the contention between the leaders of the Johannine community and the gnosticizing Christians generated much of this text. We certainly prefer the situation depicted here to the non-physical expectations of the gnosticizing Christians, even though we deplore the killing of gnosticizing Christians by “orthodox” Christians soon after the latter could utilize the power of the Roman Empire and its oppressive capability during the fourth century.

In retrospect, we must say that it is unfortunate that the claim is made in John 14:6 that no one can go to the Father except through the Johannine Jesus. Most Christians who use this verse today as biblical justification for their “one-wayism” posturing do not realize how narrowly sectarian was the community that provided John 14:6 for us. It is apparent that the members who were the leaders of the Johannine community did not think that other followers of Jesus such as the much more numerous members of communities that developed and used the Synoptic Gospel traditions could “go to the Father.” Their exclusivistic claim was not made for the Jesus of history, or for Jesus as Jesus was perceived by followers of Jesus within the Synoptic communities. Their exclusivistic claim was made for the Johannine Jesus. For them, the Johannine Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Gate into and out of the Sheepfold, the Light of the World, and so forth. As the members of the Johannine community broke fellowship with those who would not tolerate their narrow exclusiveness, the Johannine community’s claims for their view of Jesus were further exaggerated, as even a superficial comparison of how Jesus is portrayed in the Fourth Gospel compared with how Jesus is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels indicates. Then, in their isolation, the Johannine community leaders and writers desired oneness with the followers of Jesus who were in the communities that had produced the Synoptic Gospels, but on the terms of the Johannine community and its claims of exclusiveness, as we see in the “High Priestly Prayer” of the Johannine Jesus in John 17.

How, then, shall we proclaim Jesus on this Fifth Sunday of Easter this year? Perhaps we would do well to go back to the Jesus of history who pointed to God rather than to himself, rather than to go back to the Johannine Jesus, who is depicted by the Johannine community as having pointed to himself, saying “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Or at least we should recognize and proclaim that the Johannine Jesus is God, and, that God, is, of course, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, for us, and for all who are Christians.

Lent 4, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Seeing the light! Historically this Sunday in Lent was called Laetare (Rejoicing Sunday), a time to relieve the austerities of Lent with a mood of celebration. Consequently, although the themes of Sin and Repentance are evident in the texts, the focus is on hope (Realized Eschatology), complimenting Providence as well as Justification and Sanctification by Grace.

Psalm 23
This famed Psalm expresses confidence in God the shepherd’s protection, extolling the comfort of providence. This is a Psalm attributed to David, but as we have noted he is not likely the author or even the collector of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). Consequently we cannot be sure when this Psalm was written. This inability to pin-point the place or time of origin of the Psalm indicates that the Psalm is properly read as a living voice for the present, not bound to its historical point of origin (Ibid., p. 523).

The image of Yahweh as shepherd or the faithful as sheep is not unique to this Psalm; see 95:7; 100:3; Ezekiel 34:11-16. The Lord is said to lead us in right paths (v. 3). Thus we need to fear no evil (v. 4). Surrounded by goodness and mercy, the psalmist pledges regular worship in the temple (v. 6). This is a Psalm about gratitude to God. The believer is pursued not by enemies, but by God’s love.

Application: This is a great opportunity to rejoice (Sanctification), for we are pursued by God’s love (Providence and Justification by Grace). The Psalm also invites us to help the faithful see themselves as sheep, as followers, and not as autonomous as we think (Sin and Sanctification).

1 Samuel 16:1-13
This book’s origin as a distinct literary work derives from the original Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (The Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). This book is probably the result of two or three sources: 1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; 2) editor-molded materials into a connected history implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so maintaining that Israel should be set under the rule of God and his prophet Samuel; and 3) incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic history (which is a product of the sweeping religious reforms under Davidic King Josiah in the late seventh century BC).

The lesson is the story of the anointing of David. The account begins with Yahweh asking Samuel how long he will grieve over Saul (as a result of Yahweh’s rejection of Saul as king due to his disobedience [ch. 15]). He sends Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem, from whose sons he has provided a new king (v. 1). Samuel fears he will be killed by Saul if he undertakes such a mission. The Lord instructs him to take a heifer with him, claiming Samuel has come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord (v. 2). The idea then is to invite Jesse to the sacrifice, at which time Yahweh plans to show Samuel whom to anoint as the new king (v. 3).

Samuel follows the command. In Bethlehem he is met by elders, to whom he assures his peaceful intention. He sanctifies Jesse and his sons and invites them to the planned sacrifice (vv. 4-5). Seeing Jesse’s son Eliab, Samuel first thinks he is the chosen king, as he has impressive size and stature. But Yahweh claims to have rejected this young man (vv. 6-7). Then Jesse calls his sons Abinadab and Shammah to pass by Samuel, and he responds that the Lord has not chosen them (vv. 8-9). Next Jesse makes seven of his sons pass before Samuel with the same judgment (v. 10). Finally Jesse indicates that Samuel has seen all his sons, except for David the youngest who is keeping sheep. Samuel asks that he be summoned (v. 11). David is reported to have been ruddy and handsome. Yahweh directs that he be anointed. Samuel does so and from then on the Spirit of the Lord was on David, and then Samuel departs (vv. 12-13).

Application: This is a story of God finding a way to help his people out of a difficult situation by providing new leadership. This invites reflection on what is wrong with the nation (Sin and Social Ethics) as well as a confidence that God will not abandon his people and will find a new way (Providence).

Ephesians 5:8-14
It has been noted that this letter portrays itself as having been written by Paul from prison, late in his career. But in view of the fact that the book includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the rest of the Pauline corpus, some scholars have concluded that it may be the work of a follower of Paul who had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. The fact that Paul’s salutation in 1:1 does not appear in many ancient manuscripts suggests the non-Pauline origin of the work.

Ultimately the book’s origin really does not seem to matter, because the purpose of the letter appears to have been addressed to later generations of Christians (1:15). It is a book for each succeeding new generation of the faithful, not tied to its original historical context. (For a similar assessment, see Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, pp. 324-328.)

This text is part of an appeal to the faithful to renounce pagan ways. It is noted that the Ephesians had been in darkness [skotos -- obscurity] but now are in light, and so are light [phos -- radiance]. (The author borrows Gnostic concepts at this point or else images common of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such a metaphor has no precedence in the Old Testament.) Readers are urged to live as children of light — whose fruit is all that is good, right, and true, taking no part in the unfruitful works of darkness (vv. 9-11). It is shameful to mention what people do secretly, the author notes. But light exposes everything (vv. 12-13). An ancient Christian hymn (based on Isaiah 60:1) is cited, urging sleepers to wake up from the dead, for Christ will shine on them (v. 14).

Application: The text affords opportunities to reflect on how we are mired in darkness/obscurity (Sin), but now are illumined/radiant with grace (Justification by Grace) which transforms us (Sanctification). Calls for waking up (repentance) may also be joyfully issued.

John 9:1-41
We have already noted that this gospel, the last of the four to be written, likely by a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, had as its target audience a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue from which they had been expelled. This story of Jesus’ healing of a blind man fits nicely with the gospel’s characteristic distinctions between light and darkness (1:5; 3:19-21; 8:12). The account is unique to this gospel.

Encountering a blind man, Jesus is asked by his disciples whose sin (his own or his parents’) had made him blind; Jesus responds it is neither, for the man was born blind in order that God’s works might be revealed in him (vv. 1-3). This was a somewhat startling perspective since the average Hebrew in Jesus’ lifetime regarded suffering as a consequence of sin (cf. Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Psalm 109:13-15). Jesus claims that the works of the one who sent him must be done while it is day, for night is coming when no one can work, and that as long as he is in the world he is the light of the world (vv. 4-5). Jesus then spits on the ground, makes mud with saliva, spreads it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the pool of Siloam (a pool in Jerusalem fed by underground waters, whose name means “sent”). The man does see (vv. 6-7)! (It should be noted that in ancient times saliva was thought to have medicinal value.)

The healed man responds to neighbors and others who knew him, and they wonder if the man who could not see is the same blind man who had begged (vv. 8-9). To further questions he recounts the miracle (vv. 10-11). To inquiries regarding where Jesus was, he cannot respond (v. 12). People bring the healed man to the Pharisees, since the healing had transpired on the Sabbath, and again he gives an account of the healing (vv. 13-15). The Pharisees are divided about Jesus, some certain he could not be from God since he had not observed the Sabbath, and others wonder how a man of a sinner could perform such deeds (v. 16). They ask the healed man whether Jesus was a prophet (v. 17).

Jews then challenge the healed man about whether he had in fact been born blind, calling on his parents to authenticate this, but they claim that they do not know how the miracle had transpired (vv. 18-21). The parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews’ plans to put followers of Jesus out of the synagogue (excommunicate them) (vv. 22-23). Jesus’ followers were not put out of the synagogue until well after his lifetime, perhaps not until 80 AD, a fact which says something about the date of this gospel’s composition. The healed man is recalled to testify before the Pharisees and will not conclude that Jesus is a sinner (vv. 24-25). He then asks them if they would become Jesus’ disciples (vv. 26-27). The Pharisees revile the man, calling him a disciple of Jesus. They continue to take the position that they do not know from whom the healer comes (vv. 28-29). The healed man claims to be astonished that the Pharisees cannot see that since God does not listen to sinners the miracle performed on him must be of God (vv. 30-33; cf. Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 15:29). Pharisees respond by claiming the healed man must be born in sin and drive him from their presence (v. 34).

Hearing the story, Jesus finds the man and asks him if he believes the Son of Man. In a previous analysis of the gospel we noted the gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way — that is, as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). The healed man asks who that is. Jesus responds that the man has seen the Son of Man, he is the Son, and the man responds with a confession and worships Jesus (vv. 35-38). Jesus proceeds to teach that he has come into the world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind (v. 39). It is not that Jesus comes to judge us, but his presence leads to judgment with regard to how we respond to him. Pharisees nearby hear this and say to Jesus that they are not blind. He responds that if they were blind they would not have sin, but since they see their sin remains (vv. 40-41).

Application: The story provides an occasion to consider our human blindness (Sin) and how Christ heals us (Justification by Grace). The Christian who is healed by Christ in this way is set free from the old rules to serve God (Sanctification construed as freedom from the law). As Christ’s presence implies judgment (for we must decide for or against him) there is an urgency about Jesus’ presence in our lives (Realized Eschatology).

Lent 5, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
With God you get a new way up ahead. Looking ahead to Easter, these texts focus us on Sin, Atonement, Justification by Grace, Sanctification, and Eschatology.

Psalm 130
This is a prayer of lament for deliverance from personal trouble. It is also one of the Songs of Ascent, a collection of Psalms referring to the ascent of pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem and its sanctuary.

The Psalm begins with a cry out of the depths [maamaqqim, deep places] to Yahweh to hear the psalmist’s supplication (vv. 1-2). It is acknowledged that if the Lord marks [shamar, observes] sin, none can stand. Yet the psalmist proceeds to assert that there is forgiveness in him (vv. 3-4). He resolves to wait for Yahweh (v. 6). Israel is advised to take a similar attitude, recognizing that with Yahweh there is hope and love, for he will redeem [padah, connoting free] the people (vv. 7-8).

Application: The Psalm affords an opportunity to reflect on the trials of life in our sinful condition, but also to offer comfort that God wipes the slate clean, and out of his love he sets us free from all the anxieties and despair (Justification by Grace). The way in which the psalmist’s confidence in the love of God has implications for the nation of Israel and opens the way to reflect on the implications for Social Justice is the word we have for America today.

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Ezekiel was a prophet from a priestly family whose ministry to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian Captivity extended from 593 BC to 563 BC. Some oracles predate Jerusalem’s fall. The original collection of prophecies was rewritten and expanded by an editor.

This text recounts the famed vision of the reviving of the dry bones. These bones represent the exiles and the hope of Israel’s resuscitation (vv. 11-13). For use of the image of dry bones as a description of physical malaise, see Psalm 31:10; 35:10. Ezekiel’s response to whether the bones can come back to life bespeaks an affirmation of God’s power (v. 3). The word of the Lord is the means of giving new life (v. 4). References to the “breath” to be put on the bones (vv. 5, 9-10) use the same Hebrew word ruach as is translated “the Lord’s Spirit” (v. 14), bringing the bones to life. The Spirit of God gives life. Note how the Hebraic holistic view of persons, not a Greek view of the immortal soul, operates here. It is promised that the Hebrews will return to the land (v. 14; cf. 36:27-28). There is a continuity here with the old covenant, as a reference is made to obedience to the law even after the resuscitation of the people (v. 24). The lesson also prefigures anticipation of the resurrection from the dead embodied by Jesus in Holy Week.

Application: This is another text for reflecting on the trials of life in our sinful condition (perhaps with special attention to the injustices in society and how they drain minorities and the poor of hope), but also combined with the hope that now and in the future God comes to give new life to those who are suffering (Justification by Grace and Eschatology).

Romans 8:6-11
In this text Paul is beginning to conclude his discussion of life in Christ for his readers in Rome to whom he was introducing himself. His specific topic in this lesson is a consideration of life in the flesh [sarx] and in the spirit [pneuma]. The term “flesh” connotes sinfulness, living under the domination of selfish passions, not merely the bodily character of human beings, when the term is contrasted with “spirit” in order to imply that humans set their minds on the things of the flesh and live in a way that is only oriented by the things of the created world (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 239ff). Paul teaches that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace [eirene] (v. 6). It is helpful to note again, as we have previously, that insofar as Paul was Jewish it seems appropriate to understand his comment here to align with the Hebrew equivalent shalom, so that the peace brought about by justification is a state of well-being and thriving, including social justice. The apostle adds that the life set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s Law. Indeed, it cannot do so and so cannot please God (vv. 7-8).

Paul reminds the Romans that they are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in them. Reference is made to the Spirit of Christ. Anyone without the Spirit does not belong to God (v. 9). If Christ is in us, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness [dikaiosune] (v. 10). If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus lives [oikeo] in us, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies through the Spirit which dwells in us (v. 11). It is important here to keep in mind that righteousness for Paul, like most Jews, had to do not with justice but right relationships (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). To have the Spirit of Christ living in us entails that our relationship with him is secure.

Application: Another text for focusing on our sinful condition (especially clarifying what the Bible means by flesh and how our focus on the things of the world leads to death and makes us unable to keep God’s law). This would also be an opportunity to reflect on death and the fear of death. Like with the previous texts, the Second Lesson also affords occasion to proclaim a word of good news that we have been given the Spirit of Christ, who brings Christ to live in us and restore our relation with him (Justification by Grace). To have Christ in us entails a life of peace. Elaborate on the Pauline, Old Testament vision of peace above (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Other sermon possibilities might be to reflect on how the Spirit gives comfort in the face of death (Justification and Sanctification) or to explore the Trinity (the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Christ entailed by calling him the Spirit of Christ).

John 11:1-45
The story of the raising of Lazarus, another account unique to this, the last of the four gospels to be written. This was probably not written until late in the first century and so not by the disciple John; some speculate that one of his disciples was the author. Hints of that possibility are apparent in a document of the early church by Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the gospel was written on the basis of the external facts and so is a “spiritual gospel” (not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). If we can assume this spiritual character, then it makes sense that the narratives would have a deeper meaning, pointing to other realities. This seems evident in this lesson; the raising of Lazarus by Jesus points us to his own resurrection. The result of Jesus giving life in the story is a reference Jesus’ own death and resurrection (vv. 45-53).

The account begins with a report that Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Martha and Mary (who had anointed Jesus with perfume [Luke 10:38-42]), is ill. (This is not the Bethany across the Jordan River where John had baptized Jesus, but a town just east of Jerusalem.) Lazarus is their brother (vv. 1-2). One of the sisters sends Jesus a message, and receiving it he notes that the illness does not lead to death but is for God’s glory that the Son of God may be glorified through it (vv. 3-4). Consequently, though he loves the family, Jesus stays two days longer in his location (vv. 5-6). As elsewhere in this gospel, Jesus acts on his own time (2:3-4; 7:1-10). But Jesus then decides to return to Judea, even though the disciples warn him that the Jews are trying to stone him. (He is referred to as “rabbi.”) Jesus responds that those who walk in the day do not stumble, because they see the light of the world, but they who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them (vv. 7-10). This distinction between darkness [skotos, obscurity] and light [phos, radiance] is characteristic of John’s gospel.

Jesus then tells the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, but he resolves to go to revive his friend. The disciples do not understand that this means Lazarus had died. Then Jesus tells them plainly (vv. 11-14). He expresses gladness that he was not present for the death, so now the disciples can believe. Thomas the Twin tells his fellow disciples that they should all go, to die with Jesus (vv. 15-16). Arriving in Bethany, Jesus finds that Lazarus has been in the tomb for days (v. 17). The city is only two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews have come to Martha and Mary to console them (vv. 18-19). When Martha hears Jesus is coming she goes to meet him while Mary stays home. She laments that had Jesus been present Lazarus would not have died, noting she is sure that God will give Jesus whatever he asks (vv. 20-22).

Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again (v. 23). Martha responds that she knows that he will rise on the last day (v. 24). (This was a common Pharisaic teaching.) Jesus identifies himself as the resurrection [anastasis] and the life [zoe, motion or activity], so that those who believe in him will live though they die, and everyone who believes in him will never die. Jesus asks Martha if she believes this, and she confesses him to be Messiah, the Son of God (vv. 25-27). Martha returns home to report to Mary, who goes with others to meet Jesus before he comes to the village, telling him when they meet that had he been present Lazarus would not have died (vv. 28-32). Jesus is disturbed by the displays of grief, asks where the body has been laid, and weeps (vv. 33-35). Jews remark about Jesus’ love for Lazarus, but others claim he could have kept Lazarus from dying (vv. 36-37). Arriving at the tomb (a cave with a stone lying against it), Jesus has the stone removed. Martha reports there was a stench from the corpse (vv. 38-39). (Rolling a stone in front of a cave was a common burial practice in Jesus’ lifetime.) He responds that if she believes she would see the glory of God. The stone is removed and Jesus looks upward, thanking the Father for hearing him (vv. 40-41). He calls Lazarus to come out, and the dead man comes out with his hands bound and face wrapped in cloth. Jesus commands that he be unbound (vv. 43-44). (Such binding and wrapping of the corpse was a common burial practice.) Many of the Jews who had come with Mary and see what Jesus does, believe (v. 45).

Application: This is another text offering an opportunity to reflect on death and how Jesus overcomes death, foreshadowing the Easter-event to come (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Eschatology). A sermon could be developed on the light-darkness theme in John (see above), and how having Jesus in our lives overcomes the obscurities of daily life in sin (Justification and Sanctification). Another possible option is to focus on Jesus’ compassion, his weeping, which gives us a glimpse of God feeling our emotions.

Maundy Thursday / Holy Thursday, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
In the presence of Christ! The focus of the texts is on the sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper), Repentance, and Sanctification.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
This is a thanksgiving for healing and/or deliverance. God is praised for healing us, a witness made amidst the whole congregation in the temple (vv. 1-2, 18-19). Reference is made to lifting the cup of salvation (v. 13). This is probably a libation offered in fulfillment of the vow made by the psalmist when suffering (Exodus 29:40). But for Christians, the reference reminds us of the saving cup from which we drink in the Lord’s Supper. The psalmist identifies himself as a servant of the Lord, the child of a servant girl, yet he has been set free [pathach moser, loosed bonds] (v. 16). If read in relation to the New Testament this could also be applied to Jesus (especially the v. 15 reference to how precious the death of the faithful is to the Lord as well as the comment about the sacrifice in v. 17). Or it could be that the psalmist speaks for the faithful and is celebrating how precious Jesus’ death is.

Application: Several options for sermons present themselves. Because we do not know the historical context for the Psalm (it appears not to have been important to the biblical editors), it seems reasonable to interpret this song as a voice of praise in the present, as a song all the faithful can sing. The work of Christ has indeed healed and delivered us, set free mere servants like us, and so prayers of thanks and praise are appropriate (Sanctification). Also the Psalm might be interpreted as prophecy of what Christ would accomplish, prefiguring the institution of the Lord’s Supper and his atoning death which saves. Sermons either on how the atoning sacrifice saves (vv. 15, 16b-17) or on how the Lord’s Supper saves (v. 13) are appropriate.

Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
We have previously noted that like all of the first five books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. The book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “these are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. This lesson, describing the establishment of the Passover, is probably the work of the P (Priestly) strand of the Pentateuch, an oral tradition dating from the sixth century BC transmitted by temple priests or those inclined to regard the Jewish faith primarily in terms of temple sacrifice. Some Old Testament scholars contend that P reinterpreted an earlier nomadic spring festival, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, as a memorial of the Lord’s deliverance of the people from Egypt. Also see verses 14-20; Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Numbers 9:1-14; Ezekiel 45:21-28.

The account in this chapter follows the description of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11). The month of Nissan (March-April) is to be designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of that month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish (v. 5). Instructions are then given to put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel in the houses of the people (there were the holy places of a house). The lamb was to be eaten the night it was killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9).

The blood that is on the doorposts represents a kind of sacrifice to Yahweh, most appropriate since it functions for the Hebrews as a symbol of life (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11), and as such must be returned to God (Leviticus 17:3-6; Deuteronomy 12:16). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10). Instructions are given on the attire one is to wear when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). Presumably this is because the people must be ready for the march in commemoration of Israel’s hasty Exodus after the angel of death passed over [abar] the people of Israel.

Passover explains how the Lord will strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts will be a sign for him to pass over that house so the plague will not destroy them (vv. 12-13). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance, a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).

Application: The text provides an occasion to remind Christians of the origins of the Lord’s Supper in the Passover meal. In so doing Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and how its celebrants are prepared for pilgrimages into the wilderness entails that the sacrament is also a meal for nurturing freedom for those who have been enslaved and feeding us in our wilderness treks, driving us into the affairs of the world (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Another possibility is to focus on the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, how its blood protects the faithful. We are thereby reminded of the sacrifice of the Christ the Lamb (John 1:29; Revelation 5:6-8) which protects us from death (Atonement).

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
In a letter to a troubled church in Corinth, which Paul had established (Acts 18:1-11), he critiques certain reportedly aberrant practices pertaining to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, addressing those practices that were exacerbating factions in the church (vv. 17-22). He begins to do this by claiming to report what he received from the Lord (v. 23). This may be a reference to the fact that Jesus himself did not directly teach Paul, but what he has learned is from the traditions of Christ, the church’s liturgical heritage. The Words of Institution for the sacrament are cited. We are to remember Christ [anamesis] (vv. 24-25). Of course, the Hebrew equivalent zakar entails that when we remember someone they are really present, as remembrance at Shechem summoned God to engage Israel in covenant (Joshua 24). Paul proceeds to testify that as often as the bread and cup are eaten and drunk we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes (v. 26). There is a testimony here to Christ’s Atoning Work.

Application: Paul’s concern to put an end to practices in Corinth that exacerbate factions in the church provides an excellent opportunity to preach on how the sacrament can enhance unity in the church insofar as an occasion is provided for all recipients to share Christ equally (Sanctification). Another option would be to emphasize verse 26 and relate the sacrament to Eschatology, pointing out that the sharing we do in the meal with Christ and with each other is a sign of what life will be like in heaven or when Christ comes again.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We consider the most recent of the accounts of events surrounding the first Lord’s Supper. In fact, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, this account offers no report of the actual words of Institution for the Sacrament, but instead recounts preparation for the supper with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and then predicting his betrayal. This retelling of the story in terms of speeches by Jesus is typical of this gospel, written late in the first century, probably not by John the son of Zebedee but perhaps by a disciple of his who, according to the writer of the earliest history of the church Eusebius of Caesarea, perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and inspired by friends and by the Spirit composed a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261).

The account begins with the claim that before the Passover festival Jesus knew it was time for him to depart and go to the Father. Loving those who were his, Jesus is said to have loved them to the end (v. 1). This failure to relate the Last Supper to the Passover meal is unique to John’s gospel. It is noted that the devil had already put the idea of betraying Jesus in Judas Iscariot’s heart (v. 2). Jesus is said to come from God, receiving all things from the Father, and knowing he is to return (v. 3). He proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet (vv. 4-5). Hosts did not undertake such tasks among the Jews in the first century. In so doing, Jesus makes clear that he recognizes himself to be assuming the role of a servant (R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, p. 118).

Peter protests against his Lord washing his feet. Jesus responds that unless one is washed they will have no share of him (vv. 6-9). The Atoning Work of Christ on the Cross is here prophesied.

Jesus says the disciples are clean, but not all of them, indicating his knowledge of his betrayal (vv. 10-11). Some New Testament scholars (notably Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship) contend that the reference to being cleaned by water connotes Christian baptism as preparation for receiving the Eucharist. For a discussion of this controversy, see James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, pp. 168-169. Pertinent texts for adjudicating the viability of this identification with baptism include John 2:1-11; 4:7-15; 5:2-9; 7:37-39; 9:7; 13:1-16; 19:34.

Jesus explains the significance of his washing the disciples’ feet, though he himself is their teacher and lord. It is an example to the disciples (vv. 12-15). Servants are not greater than their master, nor messengers [apostolos] greater than the one who sent them. If these things are known there are blessings if they are done (vv. 16-17). These comments by Jesus are also unique to John’s gospel, and where parallels exist in the other gospels, they are not uttered like they are here at the Last Supper.

After further discourse and the identification of Judas as his betrayer (vv. 18-20), Jesus leaves the room of the supper. He notes that now the Son of Man has been glorified and God glorified in him (vv. 31b-32). In a previous analysis we noted the gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way — that is, as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). This understanding of the title certainly fits the themes of this lesson, especially the teaching of Christ’s Saving Work (his exaltation) and Eschatology.

Jesus then adds that he will only be with the disciples a little longer. They cannot go with him (v. 33). He gives them a new commandment — to love one another as he has loved them (v. 34). By this everyone will know who his disciples are (v. 35).

Application: The text affords an opportunity to proclaim the virtues of humility and how it adequately prepares us to receive the Lord’s Supper. Of course such humility or repentance (Sanctification) is not an act of holiness on the part of the believer but is nothing more than renouncing his or her privilege and authority, fully depending on God (Justification by Grace). Other issues that might be addressed include Christology (see the discussion of the Son of Man above), an outline for Christian living (to love as Christ loves us), and the nature of the ministry as nothing more than being a messenger of God.

Good Friday, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
How the Cross changes everyday life. The texts and the nature of Good Friday direct us to the doctrines of Christology (the suffering of Jesus and how he then identifies with us in our suffering), Sin, Atonement, Justification by Grace, and to some extent Sanctification.

Psalm 22
The Psalm is a lament prayer for delivery from mortal illness attributed to David. The superscript’s designation to the leader according to the deer of the dawn is probably a set of instructions to the music leader in the temple about the melody to be used.

The Psalm begins with a cry for help and defense from forsakenness (vv. 1-2), quoted by Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34). This suggests that the Psalm can be read as applying to Jesus’ Passion, an especially appropriate reading since this is labeled one of the Psalms traditionally attributed to David, Jesus’ ancestor through Joseph’s lineage. Other references foreshadowing the crucifixion are provided, such as the experience of being scorned, despised, and mocked (vv. 6-7), being forsaken (v. 11), as well as being poured out like water as enriched by evildoers (vv. 14-16) and clothes being divided (v. 18). The psalmist also confesses that God has kept Israel and him safe since birth and that Elohim has been his God since then, a remembrance inspiring the psalmist’s prayer (vv. 3-5, 9-10).

A prayer for healing follows, pleading for Yahweh’s presence and deliverance (vv. 19-21). He concludes with a vow of the sick one to offer a formal thanksgiving in the temple on recovery (vv. 22, 25). The hymn to be sung follows (vv. 23-31). Reference to fear [yare] of the Lord (v. 23) does not connote being terrified by God but is just a term for worship and obedience to him, and the comment that God did not hide his face (v. 24) is a Hebraic phrase for “remaining in relationship” with us. Among this hymn’s other references to praising God include acclamation and affirmation of his hearing cries of the afflicted (v. 24), caring for the poor (v. 25), as well as receiving praise from the whole earth (v. 27), from the dead (v. 29), and from posterity (vv. 30-31). This praise could be applied to the God who raised Jesus.

Application: A least two general directions are suggested. The Psalm can be interpreted as a lament over our own mortality or other crises, pleading for God’s healing with confidence, based on what he has done for Old Testament people and in our own lives, so he is ready to hear and respond to the cries of the afflicted, including the poor (Sin, Providence, Justification by Grace, and Social Ethics). Or if interpreted Christologically, the Psalm offers occasion to focus on the suffering of Christ on the cross, how the events we commemorate were not random and accidental but all part of the divine plan (Providence). This focus on the suffering of Christ makes us feel closer to him and to God, for this suffering reveals that the Lord truly understands our pain because he has actually experienced it.

Isaiah 52:13–53:12
This lesson is derived from Second Isaiah, the second of three distinct literary traditions that comprise the book and were edited into one after the Hebrew people had returned from exile in Babylon in the second half of the sixth century BC. This lesson does not seem to have been written by the historical prophet to Judah for whom the book is named. Rather, it was likely generated soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. It is a portion of the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. This particular text is the so-called Fourth Servant Song. We have previously noted that there is much dispute about the identity of the servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6: 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the church has claimed that the referent of these texts is an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer to the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.

The first ten verses of chapter 53 are a congregational reflection on the servant [ebed]. Other verses in chapter 52 and the last two of chapter 53 purport to be God’s word.

This lesson is a song of God’s exalting his disfigured servant (52:13-15; 53:12b). Although in its historical context the song is intended to depict Israel’s restoration, several passages (see below) can be read canonically (in relation to the New Testament and commemoration of this day) as prefiguring Christ’s Atoning Work. The servant is said not to have a desirable appearance (53:2). He was despised and rejected (53:3). He is said to bear our infirmities and was wounded for our transgressions. He took the punishment that made us whole (53:4-5). He was oppressed and afflicted, like a lamb led to slaughter (53:7). His death is said to have been a perversion of justice (53:8). Reference to the servant’s tomb being with one who is rich is most suggestive of Jesus’ burial in the tomb of the rich man Joseph of Arimathea (53:9; cf. John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:57). Yet it is noted that it was the will of the Lord to crush the servant; it was an offering for sin (53:10), for he makes many righteous, bearing the sins of many (53:11-12).

Application: At least two general directions for sermons are suggested by the text, differing depending on who the preacher understands the servant described in this text to be. If Israel, it is an opportunity to proclaim how God has used the Jewish people to do great things, and despite all the afflictions they have endured, through them and their traditions salvation has come in Christ. Likewise we can be servants of God, despite all the tragedies we endure, offering our lives to God. If the servant is understood as Christ the Messiah, a sermon on these texts does well to focus on the Atonement (Christ’s offering for sin and the suffering he undertook on our behalf, a reminder of God’s forgiving love for us [Justification by Grace]).

Hebrews 10:16-25
The book is an anonymous treatise which, given its argument for the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to those of Levitical priests, was likely written prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Remarks in 2:3-4 suggest it was written by a member of a generation of Christians after the apostles. Modern scholars are inclined to regard the book as a sermon, perhaps modified after it was delivered to include travel plans, greetings, and a closing (13:20-25). The Christians addressed are thought to have been in danger of falling away from their confession (3:1; 4:14; 10:23). They had endured persecution (10:32-36).

In this text, after a brief citation from Jeremiah (31:33-34) concerning the New Covenant ushered in by Christ the high priest (vv. 16-18), exhortations to the faithful are offered. Forgiveness of sin and writing the Lord’s laws on the hearts and minds of the people are said to be the essence of the New Covenant (vv. 16-18). Reference is then made to the blood of Jesus giving confidence to enter the sanctuary [the presence of God] through the curtain (which is said to refer to his flesh) (vv. 19-20). In accord with the book’s agenda, Jesus is said to be a great priest (v. 21). As a result, the faithful can approach a public confession in full assurance [plerophoria, full conviction], for their hearts are clear from an evil conscience [suneidesis, a knowing with oneself] and so may hold fast in hope (vv. 22-23).

The text then calls for those addressed to provoke [paroxusmos, literally "excite"] each other to love and good deeds (v. 24). The author would have the faithful not neglect meeting together (unlike some who do), for the Day of the Lord (the end time) is approaching (v. 25). This eschatological orientation had been anticipated by the Hebrew prophets (Isaiah 2:12; Joel 1:15, 3:14; Amos 5:18, 8:9).

Application: The lesson offers an opportunity to reflect not just on the Atonement (how Christ’s blood gives us access to God) (vv. 19-20); we can also explain how his sacrifice, in leading God to forget our sins (v. 17), makes us worthy of standing in God’s presence. But along with or in addition to this agenda, the text permits sermons on how we have been changed by the Cross (either in the sense of becoming part of a New Covenant in which the law is not something we must act on or as a reality in our hearts which by grace leads us to do good). In this connection we can proclaim how Christ’s death gives us confidence by clearing our hearts from an evil conscience (sense of oneself) (Justification by Grace), gives us hope (Eschatology), and provokes (excites) us to love (Sanctification).

John 18:1–19:42
We continue to examine the newest account of the Passion, a gospel, which as we have noted, was probably not written by the apostle John but by a disciple of his seeking to present a spiritual gospel that places a strong emphasis on Christ’s divinity. Following his high priestly prayer (chapter 17), Jesus and the disciples reportedly journey across the Kidron Valley, between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives (18:1). Judas leads Roman soldiers, temple police, and Pharisees to arrest Jesus (18:2-3). (Of the four gospels, only John mentions a role for Roman soldiers in the arrest.) Jesus asks them, though he already omnisciently knows the answer, whom they seek — and when his name is mentioned he uses a phrase suggestive of his identification with God (with the name Yahweh), claiming “I am he” (Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10-11, 25). John’s version of Jesus regularly identified himself this way (8:12; 12:46; 14:6; 15:1, 5). With this identification of himself, Jesus’ arresters fall to the ground in honor of the name (18:4-8a). He urges that his followers be released in order to fulfill earlier prophecies that he would lose no one (18:8b-9; cf. 6:39; 17:12).

Jesus stops Peter from taking arms to free him (though Peter did cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s men [vv. 18:10-11]). He is brought before Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas, who had advised that it would be better to have Jesus killed as representative of the people of Israel than to have the people and the temple attacked by Roman authorities (18:13-14). Meanwhile, Peter seems to have denied Jesus outside the gate of the high priest’s courtyard. Another disciple known by the high priest enters the courtyard with Jesus (18:15-18). Unlike the other gospels where Jesus first sees the Sanhedrin (in John’s account he had already been judged by this body [11:47-53]), Jesus simply is judged by the High Priest Annas. In the interrogation Jesus claims that all know or have heard his teaching (18:19-21). He is struck for insubordination and sent to Caiaphas for formal trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin (the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes, and elders, presided over by the high priest) (18:22-24), but as noted, we never receive a report of such a trial. Meanwhile, Peter denies Jesus again after being accused of being a follower by a relative of the one whom he had injured defending Jesus (18:25-27).

Jesus is brought to Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Jews do not enter headquarters lest they become unclean for Passover by interaction with Gentiles (18:28). Pilate tries to have the Jews punish Jesus themselves, but they note that they are not permitted to inflict capital punishment (18:29-32). In response to Pilate’s questions, Jesus notes that his kingdom is not of the world and that his followers are not defending him (18:33-36). (John’s Jesus does not emphasize the kingdom of God as much as other gospels, so these references to Jesus’ kingship may be the result of John’s dependence on Mark and other gospels or a way to assert the divinity of Jesus as this gospel aims to emphasize. Yet in John’s version of the trial, John emphasizes more than the other gospels the political accusation that Jesus claims to be king.) After more exchanges with Jesus, during which Jesus claims to have come into the world to testify to the truth [aletheia], Pilate surmises that Jesus has claimed to be a king but failed to comment on the truth of his testimony. He then offers Jesus’ release to the Jews, but the crowd prefers the release of Barabbas the bandit/robber [lestes, a Greek term sometimes identified with political revolutionaries] (18:37-40).

Pilate then has Jesus flogged and mocked by clothing him in purple robes, which were king-like attire. (Flogging in the Roman empire was generally reserved for those sentenced to death.) Others mockingly call him king of the Jews (19:1-3). Pilate claims to find no case against Jesus regarding alleged political insurrection, but chief priests and police call for his crucifixion, contending he should die for he has claimed to be Son of God (19:4-7). After this exchange Pilate is fearful. (While the translation says “more fearful,” the Greek term mallon might be translated as “rather,” so this is best translated as “rather fearful.”) Jesus refused to answer further questions (19:8-9). Angered, Pilate threatens Jesus with the power he has over him, but Jesus responds that Pilate’s power depends on God. The one who handed Jesus over is said to be guilty of greater sin (19:10-11). Pilate then tries to release Jesus, but Jews claim he is the enemy of the emperor. Pilate finally announces Jesus as king of Jews; asking if he should be crucified, Pilate hands Jesus to the crowd at noon (19:12-16). Jewish custom was to slaughter Passover lambs on the day of preparation at noon for the festival.

Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull”). He is crucified between two others, with an inscription on the cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (not precisely the same wording as in the other gospel accounts [cf. Luke 23:38; Mark 15:26]) (19:17-20). Chief priests try to have the inscription changed to make clear that Jesus only claimed to be king of the Jews. Pilate refuses (19:21-22). At the crucifixion Jesus’ clothes are divided by soldiers and they cast lots for his tunic, fulfilling Psalm 22:18 (19:23-24). In the presence of his mother, her sister Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, Jesus speaks to the disciple he loved (identity uncertain, though in the tradition it is said that this is John), asking him to care for his mother (19:25-27). Knowing the end is near, Jesus seeks to fulfill scripture (Psalm 69:21) by receiving sour wine on a hyssop (a shrub whose branches are too short for this purpose, but which is used in connection with the Passover) in response to his thirst (19:28-29; cf. Exodus 12:22). He then proclaims it is finished/completed [tetelestai] and dies (19:30).

Because the Sabbath (and with it the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, an ancient spring festival) would dawn in the morning and Jews did not allow bodies to be left on a cross, Pilate orders the legs of the crucified to be broken (19:31-32). There’s no need to do that in Jesus’ case for he is already dead; instead his side is pierced. Eyewitness testimony is claimed (19:33-35). Scripture is thereby fulfilled, with reference to not breaking the bones of God’s chosen (as Passover sacrifices cannot have bones broken, as per Exodus 12:46) (19:36). Jesus being pierced is said to fulfill Zechariah 12:10 and its claim that the one pierced will be mourned at the end (19:37).

Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, gets permission from Pilate to take his body. With a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (see 3:1-15), they embalm the body and lay it in a tomb (19:38-42).

Application: The lesson’s length affords several alternatives. Opportunity is provided to identify the sins causing Jesus death, noting that they are our sins — the fickleness of the crowd, Pilate’s lack of courage to buck social consensus, Peter’s lack of courage, the misunderstanding of all about the nature of Jesus’ messiahship, that it is not of this world. This opens the door for a proclamation of the forgiving love of Christ and God so evident in our Lord’s gentle concern about the welfare of his mother before his own death. The question of what truth is, posed in the dialogue with Pilate, could also be explored (the truth being that Jesus is the Messiah). The apparent affirmation by Jesus of his divinity (see the use of the phrase “I am” described above) opens the way for a sermon regarding why it is important for him to be divine if his word on the Cross is to save us, for only God can save us (Christology). Finally the Atonement itself could be proclaimed and explained, how it involves not only Jesus’ sacrifice to God but also his conquest of the forces of evil operating in this story, along with the implications of how this awareness can bring comfort as we face our anxieties over whether we are worthy of God and whether the evils in life are prevailing.

Proper 6 | Ordinary Time 11, Cycle B (2015)

THEME OF THE DAY: A way out of no way. This is a Sunday for reflecting on how when things look bad, God is always available and present, ready to restore us to thriving (Providence, Justification By Grace, and Sanctification).

Psalm 20
This is a prayer for the king’s victory in battle, purportedly by David.  It was likely composed to accompany a sacrifice offered before a battle had begun (v.3).  It seems useful to reiterate the conclusion of many scholars that references to David in the Psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p.521).  In that sense this song is about how all Christians do well to pray to God for victories in life.  

God’s actual Name [shem, also translated “renown”] is deemed a sanctuary (v.1).  Prayers are offered that God would send help, remember all our offerings and grant our hearts’ desire (vv.2-5).  The reference to Selah after v.3 is a liturgical direction instructing that there be a musical interlude at this point in the Psalm.  The Psalmist calls for the Lord to help His anointed, answering Him with mighty victories (v.6).  The term anointed [mashiach] refers to Messiah for the Hebrews.  Rather than taking pride in armies, the Psalmist claims to take pride in the Name of Yahweh (v.7).  Those taking pride in their armies, it is said, will collapse and fall, but those taking pride in Yahweh will stand aright (v.8).

Application: Sermons on this Psalm might explore with congregants the battles and struggles in life, that the resources we bring to those struggles are not nearly as useful, not as likely to succeed (Sin), as when we go into them with God and Christ (Providence and Atonement).  The sermon might also highlight how for the Jews the Anointed One is the Messiah.

or

Psalm 92:1-4,12-15
The alternative Psalm is a thanksgiving after deliverance from personal enemies.  This is the only Psalm designated as a Song for the Sabbath Day.  The introductory hymn praises God for His steadfast love [chesed, literally mercy] and faithfulness [emunah, or stability] (vv.1-3).  By the Lord’s Word the Psalmist is made glad [someach] (v.4).  The Lesson skips on to a discussion of the rewards and fruits of righteousness [tsaddiq].  We have noted on a number of occasions that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm.  It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.370-371).  The Hebrew term for judgment in ancient Hebrew, mishpat, can refer to a sense of comfort, not just to punishment (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, p.358).  The righteous are said to be planted in the house of the Lord where they will flourish in God’s court (v.13).  The implication is that God is the Agent of righteousness.  Note that reference to the palm tree and the cedars in v.12 connoted prosperity and longevity to the ancient Hebrews.  In old age, fruit is said to be produced (v.14).  This suggests that works follow spontaneously from righteousness/justification.  The works of the righteous show God’s righteousness (v.15).  It is good to remind ourselves at this point that Christian scholarship on the Old Testament largely agrees that God’s righteousness is not so much about a punitive attribute of God as it is about relationship, concerning God’s loyalty to His Covenant in saving us.  Sometimes the righteousness of God is even construed, as perhaps in this Psalm, as something bestowed on the faithful (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol., pp.373,376ff.).

Application: A sermon on this Psalm might focus on its character as a Sabbath song, that every Sunday we come to sing praises to God for His mercy, love, and stability – His faithfulness to His Promises never to abandon us, even in the midst of the enemies and evils that come our way (Providence).  Another angle for sermons might be to elaborate on the themes of righteousness in the Psalm, how when things look bleakest (Sin), God puts us in right relationship with Him and we may flourish (Justification By Grace and Sanctification).

1 Samuel 15:34–16:13
We have previously noted that this Book has its origin as a distinct text derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings).  This Book is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; (2) Editor-molded materials brought together into a connected history, implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so must be set under the rule of God and Samuel His Prophet; (3) Incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic (D) history (the result of sweeping religious reforms under King Josiah in 621 BC).  This is the story of Samuel’s anointing of David to succeed Saul as king.

Having confronted Saul, it is reported that Samuel returned to his home Ramah (about seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem) and never saw Saul again.  He is said to have grieved over the king’s plight (15:34-35).  The Lord challenges Samuel not to grieve indefinitely, but charges him to go to Jesse (of the tribe of Judah, a grandson of Ruth and Boaz) in Bethlehem, as the next king will be from among his sons (16:1).  As Samuel fears consequences if Saul learns of these actions, the Lord responds to the Prophet that he is to offer a sacrifice to the Lord and invite Jesse.  Further instructions are to be received (16:2-3).  Samuel complies and invites all the elders to join him in the sacrifice after ceremoniously sanctifying themselves through ritual washing.  Among them are Jesse and his sons (16:4-5). 

Samuel meets Jesse’s eldest son Eliab, who was tall and handsome.  Samuel thinks that he must be the one the Lord has chosen, but Yahweh reveals that Eliab is not the one, for the Lord does not look on human beings as they appear outwardly, but considers their heart (16:6-7).  We have already noted in the exposition of Psalm 20 that reference here to the Lord’s anointed is the Hebrews term mashiach, which is linguistically related to the term for Messiah.  Already connections between the (Davidic) king of Israel and the Messiah are being drawn.  Jesse’s second son Abinadab and third son Shammah (elsewhere called Shimeah [2 Samuel 13:3,32] or Shimei [2 Samuel 21:21] are summoned, and Samuel notes that they as well as the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh sons of Jesse are not the chosen one (16:8-10).  Samuel asks to see all of Jesse’s sons; only the youngest (David) who is tending sheep has not been seen.  Samuel would have him be summoned, claiming he would not sit down (not eating the part of the sacrifice not reserved for God) until he sees David (16:11).  Although David is the eighth son in this account, according to I Chronicles 2:13-15 he is seventh son of a seventh son, a widespread Hebrew folklore.  David is said to be ruddy [admoni, either a reference to his complexion or red hair] and quite handsome.  Yahweh directs that he be anointed, and he is given the Spirit [ruach] of the Lord (as Saul and other religious leaders in the Old Testament received) (16:12-13).  See Judges 6:34.

Application: This text readily lends itself to sermons proclaiming a Word of hope (Justification By Grace, Providence, and Social Ethics [esp. for the poor and powerless]) in the midst of despair about present American economic, social, and political realities.     

or

Ezekiel  17:22-24
We have previously noted that Ezekiel was a Prophet from a priestly family whose ministry to his fellow Exiles during the Babylonian Captivity extended from 593 BC to 563 BC.  Some of the oracles pre-date Jerusalem’s fall.  The original collection was rewritten and expanded by an editor.  The Book includes judgment of Judah for its idolatry and defilement of the sanctuary, the proclamation of God’s abiding Presence among the people, consolation and hope expressed in a proclamation of God’s unconditional care.  This Lesson is the Allegory of the Cedar – a Messianic allegory (reminiscent of Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Zechariah 3:8).  Essentially Yahweh Elohim refers to taking a sprig/branch [porah] from the top of a cedar, breaking off a tender one from the top of its twigs, and planting it on a high and lofty mountain [har] (v.22).  Jeremiah (23:5-6) also refers to the Messiah as a branch.  This twig will be planted on the mountain height of Israel, Ezekiel proclaims (presumably the highest point of Jerusalem – Mt. Zion) in order that it may bear fruit [peri] and become a noble cedar on which all birds will live in the shade of its branches (v.23).  This reference to a mountain height in Jerusalem may be consistent with the hope of a restoration of the Davidic monarchy.  All the trees of the field will know then that God is the Lord. But then the tree will be brought low by God, and He will make high [gaboah] the low tree, drying up the green tree and making the dry tree flourish (v.24).   
      
Application: Understood Messianically, this Complementary First Lesson opens the way to sermons on what God does in Christ, in hopeless situations creating from what seems like a little twig (Christology and the lowliness of Christ) and using it and Christ to bring shade and relief to us all (Atonement).  We flourish as we live in Him (Sanctification).

2 Corinthians 5:6–10 (11-13), 14-17
We continue this week again to consider an Epistle written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church which had further deteriorated during the period after I Corinthians was written.   As previously noted, Chapters 10-13 are so different in style and tone from the first chapters as to lead many scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4.  This Lesson is Paul’s articulation of confidence when facing death.  The middle three verses of the Lesson (vv.11-3) launch the Apostle on a further defense of his ministry and its relation to the Word of Christ.

Paul’s confidence seems to be a function of having experienced the burden of our earthly bodies and the longing for the heavenly dwelling through the Holy Spirit.  Yet there is also an awareness that while at home in our bodies [soma] we are away from the Lord (vv.6,4-5).  As a result, Paul notes that we must walk by faith, not by sight (v.7).  There is a preference in the faithful to be with the Lord away from the body (v.8).  Whether at home with the Lord or away, it is the aim of Christians to please Him (v.9). 

Reference is made to the fact that all will be judged [bema, appear before a tribunal] by Christ for what they have done (v.10).  It is useful at this point to remember that Paul was a Jew, and for the ancient Hebrews the term mishpat (judgment) refers both to punishment and also a sense of comfort for the faithful, and that this sense of comfort may be what Paul has in mind here.  The Apostle speaks of knowing the fear [phobon, a concept which implied reverence for the Biblical-era Hebrews] of the Lord and makes efforts to persuade the Corinthians, not by boasting about himself, but so that the Corinthians might be loyal to him in face of critics who proclaim themselves in their ministry (vv.11-12).  As a number of Paul’s critics had claimed ecstatic experiences of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12), he seems to contend to be undergoing such an experience [ekestemen, besides ourselves] (v.13).  The love [agape] of Christ controls/constrains [sunekei] us, he claims, for we are convinced that Christ has died for all (vv.14-15a).  As a result of Christ’s Work, those who live no longer live for themselves, but for Christ Who died and was raised for them (v.15b).  Consequently, Paul claims to regard no one from a human point of view [kata sarka], though Christ was once known from such a point of view (v.16).  Judging from such a perspective involves merely noting the outward appearance of what people do.  As a result, anyone who is in Christ is said to be a new creation [koina ktisis], for all that is old has passed away and become new (v.17; cf. Isaiah 43:18-19; 65:17; 66:22; Galatians 6:1-5; Ephesians 2:15).

Application: This is a text for proclaiming how we have been made new (people who live for others and are no longer chained by the past) by Christ.  Preachers can make clear that God’s love constrains us to do good, that we can do no other (Justification By Grace, Sanctification, and Realized Eschatology).

Mark 4:26-34
Once again we consider a text in the first of the Synoptic Gospels to be written, a Book that was perhaps the source of other Gospels, perhaps based on oral traditions of the Passion narrative and accounts of Jesus’ sayings (the so-called Q-source).  Probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, this anonymous work is traditionally ascribed to John Mark, perhaps referred to as an associate of Paul (Acts  12:12-25; 15:37; Colossians 4:10) or as Peter’s scribe (I Peter 5:13).  Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (esp. Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4,31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians.

The Lesson reports Jesus’ Parables of the seed growing secretly (vv.26-29) and of the mustard seed (vv.30-32).  The first Parable, with no parallels in the other Gospels, sends the message that the Kingdom of  God [Basileia tou Theou] grows and sprouts while we sleep, is produced by the earth, but when ripe is harvested.  References to the use of the sickle and harvest in v.29 may suggest the Final Judgment, as eschatological orientation typical of Mark (see Joel 3:13; Revelation 14:14-20, for the eschatological use of these images).  One’s life depends totally on God’s act, not on our own. 

The Mustard Seed Parable has close parallels in the other Synoptic accounts (Matthew 13:31-33 and Luke 13:18-19), especially to the Matthean version.  The Parable reminds us that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds becoming the greats of shrubs.  It gives shelter to the birds.  The reference to shelter for birds suggests Daniel 4:21 (or Ezekiel 31:6), entailing that the Kingdom includes all nations (also see 13:10).  The pericope concludes with a description of Jesus teaching all things in Parables [parabole], telling them only as much as they could understand, though He did explain them privately to His Disciples (a point not made in the parallel Matthean version (vv.33-34; cf. Matthew 13:34-35).  Only the Presence of Jesus, it seems, can clarify such matters.
     
Application: This is a text for sermons on the unexpected character of the Work of God and Gospel and of the good things life (Providence, Justification By Grace, and Sanctification).   

Proper 10 | Ordinary Time 15, Cycle B (2015)

THEME OF THE DAY:  It’s all in God’s hands.  The texts invite us to celebrate our being lost in grace in all our undertakings (Justification By Grace, Sanctification, Church, Worship, and Social Ethics).

Psalm 24
This Psalm has been attributed to David.  It is a liturgy on entering the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple, perhaps in connection with a procession of the Ark of the Covenant.  It seems useful to reiterate the conclusion of many scholars that references to David in the Psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p.521).  In that sense this song is about the mandate that all the faithful worship Yahweh, with confidence that He is Present in worship.  At two points in the Psalm the word Selah appears, suggesting times when musical interludes were to be played.        

The Psalm begins with an acknowledgement of the Lord as Creator, that the earth is Yahweh’s.  Reference to His founding the earth on the seas is suggestive of the Creation Account in Genesis (1:2,6) (vv.1-2).  The Psalmist grapples with the question of who should be admitted to the sanctuary (v.3).  The answer to the question is given: Only those with clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift themselves to what is false (vv.4-6).  Whether this entails one must have sufficient moral qualities or simply travel with God is an open question (perhaps it is both).  In another Psalm concerned with worthiness to enter the sanctuary (132:9), righteousness [tsedaqah] is deemed essential.  We should highlight once again that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm.  It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.370-371).  In the Psalm’s final verses, the choir outside the gate requests entrance, so that the God of Israel in the Ark may enter.  He is praised as the King [melek] of Glory [kabod] (vv.7-10).           

Application: A sermon on this Psalm affords an opportunity to reflect on worship, on how God is Present in our sanctuaries, and so worship is in His hands.  Even our worthiness to worship is not a matter of what we do, but the relationship He creates with us.  It is His Presence that makes us worthy to worship (Justification By Grace and Sanctification). 

or

Psalm 85:8-13
This is prayer for deliverance from national adversity. It is a Psalm of the Korahites (a group of professional Levitical musicians).  Thus the verses seem to have origins in The Jerusalem Temple.  The opening reference to God’s favor to His land and its people (v.1) could be occasioned by the return of the Exiles from captivity in Babylon.  But it could also be taken as Messianic Prophecy, describing all Christ will do.  The bulk of the Lesson (vv.8-13) includes an oracle of assurance, likely delivered by a priest.  A message of salvation/safety [yesha] (v.9) is  delivered.  Righteousness [tsedeq] and peace [shalom] are said to kiss each other (v.10).  We should highlight once again that the concept of “righteousness” even in the Old Testament has to do primarily with living in right relationship with God.  See the discussion of the concept above in the preceding Psalm.  Thus the term in this case could refer to a vision of a just society or merely to what happens to faithful people through God’s justifying grace.  And peace [shalom] in this Jewish context refers not just to a state in which there is no combat, but to a state of well-being and thriving, to social justice (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, p.130).  Right relationship with God leads to a state of well being (Justification By Grace, Sanctification, and Social Ethics).  Likewise mercy [chesed, or loving kindness] and truth/faith [emeth] are said to meet.  Love and faith go together.  Salvation [yesha , also translated “safety”] and these new realities are said to be close at hand for those who fear [yare, that is “reverence”] Yahweh (v.9).   Thus there is a clear eschatological dimension at this point in the text, which fits the viability of interpreting the text as a Prophecy of Christ’s Coming.  Yahweh, it is said, will give what is good [tob], and this gift is related to the righteousness (restored relationship He will work out with us) going before Him like a herald before a king and also to the faithfulness [emeth, properly translated “truth”] which will spring from it (vv.11-13).  Again it seems clear that when God acts with righteousness (faithful to the Covenant relationship with the His people), faith and all good follow (Sanctification As Spontaneous Good Works).

Application: The Psalm gives occasion to celebrate God’s forgiving love and goodness (Justification By Grace and Providence), but also to relate this to what God is about to do in Christ the Coming One.  Not only do we find a loving God described here in the Old Testament, but also a vision of the Christian life (Sanctification and Social Ethics) springing spontaneously from God’s righteous actions.  The future and even our good works are in God’s hands.

2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19
We have already noted that the origin of this Book as a distinct text derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings).  This Book is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; (2) Editor-molded materials brought together into a connected history, implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so must be set under the rule of God and Samuel His Prophet; (3) Incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic (D) history (the result of sweeping religious reforms under King Josiah in 621 BC).  The role of this last source not surprisingly entails that a central theme in the Book is the struggle to remain obedient to Torah, to be God’s covenant people, and to inherit divine blessings.  This Book especially relates to the reign of David as King of Israel.  This is the story of David’s bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in order to add to the city’s prestige as the new capital and Saul’s daughter Michal’s negative reaction to it.

The account begins with David gathering the chosen men of Israel to go to Baale-juhad (an error or another name for Kiriath-jearim) where The Ark of the Covenant (where Yahweh was thought to reside) was enthroned in order to bring it to Jerusalem (vv.1-2).  This would add to the prestige of David’s capital, as with the Ark present in the city it would become not just the military and political center of Israel, but also its religious center.  Uzzah and Ahio are charged with transporting the Ark.  They were sons of Abinadab who had been guarding the Ark (vv.3-4; I Samuel 7:2).  David and many in Israel celebrate with dance (v.5).  As the Ark came to Jerusalem, one of David’s wives Michal, the daughter of Saul, saw the new king dancing [karar] a ritual and despised him (vv.12,14-15).  She may have been angered over having been torn away from her husband Paltiel (3:15-16) so David could claim more legitimacy for assuming the throne.  Or she may have been embarrassed by the scant clothing he wore while dancing (v.20).  Even David assumed the priestly task of offering a sacrifice [alah] (vv.17-18a).  He then blessed [barak] the people in Yahweh’s Name and distributed food (vv.18b-19).     

Application: This is a great text for extolling the joy of worship, an even that takes us out of ourselves and into God’s hands.

or

Amos 7:7-15
The Complementary First Lesson is drawn from a collection of teaching and traditions concerning a Prophet who may have written during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II in Israel (786 BC – 746 BC).  From Judah, Amos did his prophesying in the Northern Kingdom, but then after The Babylonian Exile may have returned to Judah to write a summary of his proclamation.  Some scholars contend that his addresses were gathered and combined by others to form the book.  This Lesson is a portion of the five visions of God’s judgment and restoration given to Amos and his confrontation with Amaziah, the official priest of the Northern Kingdom’s royal sanctuary in Bethel (v.10).  Yahweh reveals a wall with a plumb line to symbolize that Israel is warped beyond correction and so must be destroyed (vv.7-9).  Amaziah reports to King Jereboam that Amos was conspiring against him (vv.10-11).  Amaziah admonishes Amos to flee to Judah and cease prophesying in Bethel (vv.12-13).  Amos responds that he is no Prophet [nabi] (not part of a prophetic order common in Israel and Judah), but a herdsman summoned by Yahweh to prophecy (vv.14-15).

Application: This Lesson offers opportunities to speak out prophetically against injustices in America (Sin and Social Justice), critiquing the Church for its cooption by the establishment, but to proceed with confidence that we have been summoned by God to these undertakings, that all we can co it dependent on Him (Providence and Sanctification).

Ephesians 1:3-14
The Book is a circular letter, either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of the Apostle who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his Epistles.  These conclusions follow from the fact that the Letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the Pauline corpus.  It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15).

This Lesson is a thanksgiving for the blessing God has showered on the cosmos.  The blessings are related to our being elected [eklego, literally “chosen”] in Christ destined for adoption as children (vv.3-5,11).  He is said to be the Beloved [agapao] (v.6).  In Christ redemption [apolutrosiss – a loosing away] through His blood is given by grace [charis] lavished/abounded [perisseuo] on us (vv.7-8).  Reference is made to this being a mystery [musterion], an age-long purpose discussed now in the fullness of time [pleromatos ton kairon -- an eschatological image] (vv.9-10).  All things are gathered up [anakefalaiosasthai, to head up] in Christ.  This could refer to the Church as the Body of Christ or to all the world redeemed in Christ.  The Holy Spirit, said to be given to seal [chatham] or as a pledge [arrhaban, literally “earnest”] of our redemption, is given with faith in Christ (vv.13-14; cf. 1:22).

Application: This Lesson invites sermons explaining (Single) Predestination and its implications for our unity in Christ (Church) as well as the comfort this insight provides (Justification By Grace).

Mark 6:14-29
As is well known, this Book is likely the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels.  It was probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and was the source of other Gospels.  It is likely based on oral traditions of the Passion narrative and accounts of Jesus’ sayings (the so-called Q-source).

Although an anonymous work, the tradition of ascribing authorship to John Mark  is largely accepted, but his identity is not always clear – whether this is the John Mark referred to as an associate of Paul (Acts 12:12,25; 15:37; Colossians 4:10) or as Peter’s scribe (I Peter 5:13).  There is an extra-Biblical source (Eusebius of Caesarea, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2/1: 115-116) who designates Mark as the Apostle to Africa.  Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (esp. Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4,31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians.  In this Lesson the beheading of John the Baptist is recounted along with Herod’s fears about Jesus.  The Markan version has more details than the other Gospels with only Matthew 14:3-12 providing the actual account of John’s death. 

Herod Antipas (the Roman tetrarch of Galilee, reigning during Jesus’ adulthood) is reported to have heard of Jesus’ Ministry and those of His Disciples.  Some say Jesus is a reincarnation of Elijah or one of the other Prophets.  Others believe that John the Baptist had risen.  Herod becomes convinced of the latter, for he had beheaded John (vv.14-16).  The account of John’s beheading follows.  Only here and in Matthew (14:1-12) are such details provided.  John is put to death by Herod for critiquing him for marrying a niece, Herodias, also the wife of his brother (vv.17-18; cf. Leviticus 18:16; 20:21).  Herodias is especially desirous of John’s death (v.19).  Herodias’ daughter [named Herodias, but actually named Salome] provides an opportunity to have her wish fulfilled, as Herodius has her dance before Herod and guests at a party in such a way as to please the ruler and in gratitude to her and her mother anything she wished David pledges to grant.  Guided by her mother she asks for John the Baptist’s head (vv,21-25).  The king is grieved [perilupos], but grants the request out of duty.  John is arrested and killed (vv.26-28).  John’s disciples claim the body and bury it (v.29).

Application: Sermons on this text can help the congregation appreciate the need for and risks involved in prophetic courage, focusing either on a pressing congregational issue or pressing social concern (Social Justice and Sin), proclaiming our total dependence on God (Justification By Grace).

Proper 8 | Ordinary Time 13, Cycle B (2015)

THEME OF THE DAY:  God delivers: There’s lots of reasons to be grateful!  Texts for this Sunday remind us that God forgives us and overcomes all evil, that suffering is not His Will and that He gives us the true riches in life (Providence, Justification By Grace, and Sanctification as a life of gratitude for all He gives us).

Psalm 130
As previously noted, this is a lament prayer for deliverance from personal trouble.  It is one of the Songs of Ascent (or Pilgrim Psalms).   Recall that such Psalms are so-named for referring to the ascent of pilgrims to Jerusalem on the way to the Temple, which required of them an ascent up a mountain.  (Some instead claim that these Psalms are so named because they have an ascending style of poetic form.)

The Psalmist cries out for help out of the depths [maamaqqim] (vv.1-2).  He notes that though none are worthy to stand before God, yet He is forgiving [selchah, a sending away], not marking [shamar, literally observing] iniquities (vv.3-4).  God is portrayed as a God of steadfast love [the Hebrew term chesed is used here, and so can be translated “loving kindness” or “mercy”].  Comments in v.6 suggest that ancient Hebrews believed that God’s help often came in the early morning after a night of prayer.  Finally, the Psalmist assures that He will redeem [padah, also meaning “free”] Israel, presumably from all its national difficulties (vv.7-8).

Application: This Psalm invites sermons on God’s love, how He overlooks our Sin, even as we wallow them and the despair we often experience (Justification By Grace), or how He delivers or sets our nation free from destructive patterns like the growing poverty and racial injustice.

or

Psalm 30
This is a thanksgiving for healing (or restoration).  It is said to be a Song at the dedication of The Jerusalem Temple, which may indicate that it was used at the Feast of Dedication (Hannukkah) after Judas Maccabeus cleansed The Temple in 164 BC.  The Psalm is attributed to David.  It seems useful to reiterate the conclusion of many scholars that references to David in the Psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p.521).  In that sense this song is about how all the faithful are to give thanks.

The Psalm begins with praise [rum, extolling] for God not letting the Psalmist’s foes/enemies [oyebh] to rejoice over him (vv.1-2).  These foes could be those who claimed that the illness the Psalmist endured was a deserved punishment of God.  Yahweh is said to have brought the Psalmist up from Sheol [the Pit, or abode of death removed from God’s Presence].  (Mention of the soul [nephesh] at this point is a reference to the breath of life, not indicative of the Hebrews’ belief in a distinct eternal entity like the ancient Greeks and many Christians teach.)  The Psalmist noted that before enduring his trial he had felt secure (vv.6-7a).  Then with illness, as God hid His face [panim] from the Psalmist (cf. 10:1), he turns to God, noting that God gains nothing with his death since dust cannot praise God (vv.8-10), and God restores health, clothing the Psalmist with joy/gladness [simchah].  Reference to the Psalmist taking off his sackcloth refers to removing the clothing of mourning or penitence (vv.11-12).  Another testimony to a strong doctrine of Providence emerges.  God’s wrath seems subordinate to His love (v.5).

Application: A sermon on this text allows preachers to explore how God heals when we least expect it, when things seem worst (Providence).   This insight helps make the Christian life a little less secure, but one filled with rejoicing (Sanctification).  We have a God of love Who works to deliver us, often in surprising ways.

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
The origin of this Book as a distinct text derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings).  This Book is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; (2) Editor-molded materials brought together into a connected history, implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so must be set under the rule of God and Samuel His Prophet; (3) Incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic (D) history (the result of sweeping religious reforms under King Josiah in 621 BC).  The role of this last source not surprisingly entails that a central theme in the Book is the struggle to remain obedient to Torah, to be God’s covenant people, and to inherit divine blessings.  This Book especially relates to the reign of David as King of Israel.  This particular text is David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

The scene is set after Saul’s death while David’s army had just defeated the Amalekites.  Informed by a messenger (vv.2-4), David offers laments over Saul and his son Jonathan.  He orders that the Song of the Bow from a lost book of Jashar (a collection of poetry praising Israel’s military victories) be taught in Judah (vv.17-18).  This may be the oldest song in the Bible and is the one most likely to have been an authentic composition of David.  The song begins with a lament concerning how the mighty [Israel’s beauty] have fallen (vv.19,27).  The news is not to be shared with the Philistines.  (Gath and Ashkelon were Philistine cities.) (v.20).  Saul and Jonathan are praised (vv.22-23).  The daughters of Israel are urged to weep, for Saul had clothed with luxury and expensive jewelry (v.24).  David expresses deep love for Jonathan, a love [ahobah] more wonderful than the love of women (v.26).

Application: Sermons in this Lesson will proclaim God’s gracious Providence in leading to the good things we have in life, in order that we may come to gratitude toward Him and to those we have encountered along the way (Sanctification).

or

Lamentations 3:22-33    
This Book is a small psalter of communal laments over Jerusalem followings its destruction by the Babylonians in 577 (586) BC.  Traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah (because of 2 Chronicles 35:25) the thought and diction are sufficiently unlike that of the Prophet to make his authorship unlikely.  The first four chapters are alphabetic acrostics (with a stanza for each of the twenty letters of the Hebrew alphabet). In this Chapter the sadness of the people are voiced by an individual.  In this Lesson the psalmist counsels penitence in acknowledgment of God’s righteousness and mercy.

God’s steadfast love [chesed, or mercy], it is proclaimed, never ceases (v.22).  His mercies are said to be new every morning, His faithfulness great.  Yahweh is said to be His portion, in Whom we can hope [yachal] (vv.23-24).  Yahweh is good [tob] to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him (v.25).   The writer states that it is good to wait quietly for the [teshuah, literally “safety”] salvation of the Lord, to bear the yoke it youth and it alone in silence, to put one’s mouth in the dust [to abase oneself] that there may be hope [tiguah] (vv.26-29).  It is good to take the insults (v.30).  Yahweh will not reject forever, we are assured.  For although He causes grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love [chesed] (vv.31-32).    It is added that God does not willingly [from His heart] afflict/lower [anah] or grieve [yagah] anyone (v.33).

Application: Preaching on this Complementary First Lesson leads to sermons proclaiming God’s abundant and steadfast love, that suffering and bad times are not His will (Providence and Justification By Grace).   

2 Corinthians 8:7-15
We continue this week again to consider an Epistle written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church which had further deteriorated during the period after I Corinthians was written.   As previously noted, Chapters 10-13 are so different in style and tone from the first chapters as to lead many scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4.  

The Lesson is an exhortation to support the collection Paul was organizing for relief of the Jerusalem church.  Praising the Corinthians’ faith in view of love for them, he urges their involvement in this collection as a test [dokimazo, literally “proving”] of the genuineness of their love, but not as command [epitogen] (vv.7-8).  Paul speaks of Christ’s generosity, that though rich [ploutizo] He became poor [ptochos] so that by His poverty we become rich (v.9).  He notes that the offering begun in the previous year (presumably interrupted due to strained relations with the Corinthian church) should be completed (vv.10-11).  The Apostle refers to eagerness to give, regarding a gift as acceptable, not according to the amount.  He proceeds to speak of the Corinthians’ abundance [perisseuma] compared to other churches (vv.12-14).  He cites Exodus 16:18, that one who had much did not have too much, and one with little did not have too little (v.15).

Application: This is a good Lesson for preaching on how the Word of God makes us rich (Justification By Grace and Sanctification), though not in terms of material blessings we “deserve” (a condemnation of our Sin), but by gaining an appreciation of Christ.  God’s propensity to confound reason and the ways of the world is also implicit (Providence).    Distinctions between proving ourselves as Christians and the Christian life as a response to Commandments (Sanctification) might also receive attention.

Mark 5:21-43
As is well known, this Book is likely the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels.  Some speculate that this Gospel’s original audience was the church in Rome (esp. Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4,31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians.  This Lesson is the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter.  More details are provided in Mark’s account than in the other Synoptic equivalents (cf. Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 8:40-56).

Jesus and the Disciples land their boat on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.  He meets Jairus, a leader of a local synagogue, who pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter (vv.21-23).  The request that Jesus heal by laying on hands was not characteristic of Jewish healing in this era, but was typical of Jesus’ style (6:5; 7:32; 8:22,25).  On the way to Jarius’ house, a healing of a woman suffering from hemorrhages [puseihaimatus, flow of blood] transpires when she touches Jesus’ clothes (vv.24b-29).  When confronted by Him she concedes in fear and trembling that she was the one healed and shows Him homage.  He praises her for her faith (vv.30-34).  The Semitic farewell “go in peace” [hupage eis irenen] suggests a wholeness involved in Jesus’ healings.  For peace in ancient Jewish culture refers not just to a state of no combat, but to a state of well-being, of justice (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, p.130).

Jairus is next informed that his daughter had died.  Jesus hears the report and assures Jairus (vv.35-36).  Only Peter, James, and John the brother of James proceed to accompany Jesus (v.37).  Mourning had already begun for the daughter when Jesus and His followers arrive.  When He claims that she is merely sleeping He is mocked (vv.37-40a).  Jesus proceeds to raise the girl “immediately/instantly” [eutheos] (vv.40-42a).  Only in the Markan version are Jesus’ actual Semitic/Aramaic words in the healing reported.  All are said to be amazed [exestesan] (v.42b).  But Jesus orders them to keep the healing secret (v.43).  (Matthew’s version [13:58] does not include this reference to the Messianic Secret – the Markan theme [1:33,44; 3:11-12; 7:36; 9:9,30] that Jesus’ Messiahship is to remain a secret except among the faithful until the Resurrection.)    

Application: With this text preachers might proclaim the comfort of the Gospel when facing the trials of life and death (Justification By Grace) and the hope of life eternal (Future Eschatology), helping the flock to appreciate that if we are confident that death is conquered the other trials of life (including injustice) are overcome.  (See the discussion of peace above.)  Another possibility might be to focus on the Messianic Secret, on how Jesus is not fully known    
by people (why so many reject Him) apart from God’s deliverance of Him and us on Easter (Apologetics and Atonement).  

Proper 9 | Ordinary Time 14, Cycle B (2015)

THEME OF THE DAY:  God and His people get in the trenches.  Providence, Social Justice, Justification By Grace, and Sanctification are the doctrines which best express this theme, implicit in all the texts.

Psalm 48
This Korahite Psalm is a song celebrating the beauty and security of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion (the oldest and highest part of the city).  Recall the Korahites were a group of Temple singers (2 Chronicles 20:19).  They may have collected and transmitted a number of Psalms attributed to them.

The Lord is praised as the God of Jerusalem, its sure defense in providing refuge (vv.1-4).  The text’s claim that the city’s Mount Zion is the joy of all the earth.  Reference to the mountain being in the north is a Hebrew play on words for Canaanite Mount Zaphon, a divine dwelling place in Canaanite mythology.  The Hebrew word for “North,” tsaphon, resembles the Canaanite name of the mountain (v.2).  When in the last days Gentile kings unite to attack the city, it is prophesied that they will be routed.  The ships of Tarshsish to be shattered refer to the Phoenician colony of Tarshish (vv.4-8).  The appearance of the term Selah after v.8 is a liturgical directive likely calling for an instrumental interlude at that point.  This insight regarding the steadfast love [chesed, or mercy] of God causes rejoicing in the ceremonies of The Temple (vv.9-11).  A call for a procession about the city’s walls concludes the Psalm.  God is said to be our guide forever [nahaq] (vv.12-14).       

Application: This text suggests sermons on God’s involvement in our cities and other political realities – a most appropriate Word in view of the recent July 4 celebrations.  He is our loving guide in all things in life.  Providence, Sanctification, and Social Ethics might get attention when guided by the Psalm.  

or

Psalm 123
This is a prayer for deliverance from enemies, a group lament.  The Psalm is also a Song of Ascent (a pilgrim song [or plea by an oppressed class in Israel], so named because one needed to ascend Mount Zion to get to the Temple in Jerusalem).  It begins with an act of submission to God’s Will.  The group pledges to look to the Lord until He has mercy [chanan] (vv.1-2).  The actual prayer follows: God is petitioned for mercy in view of all the contempt and scorn experienced by the people from the contempt [buz] of the proud [yannah, or those who oppress] (vv.3-4).

Application: Sermons on this Psalm might focus on submitting to God’s Will (Sanctification and Providence).  Prayerfully anticipating God’s special concern and mercy for the oppressed, this is an excellent opportunity to proclaim God’s preferential option for the poor (Social Ethics).

2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10
The origin of this Book as a distinct text derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings).  This Book is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; (2) Editor-molded materials brought together into a connected history, implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so must be set under the rule of God and Samuel His Prophet; (3) Incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic (D) history (the result of sweeping religious reforms under King Josiah in 621 BC).  The role of this last source not surprisingly entails that a central theme of the  Book is the struggle to remain obedient to Torah, to be God’s covenant people, and to inherit divine blessings.  This Book especially relates to the reign of David as King of Israel.  And so it is appropriate that in this text David is anointed king over all Israel and makes Jerusalem the capital.

With the death of the last of Saul’s heirs (4:1-12), the tribes of Israel reportedly came to Hebron (about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem) to make David (already king of Judah [2:1-11]) king of the whole nation of Israel.  They note his military victories and the Lord’s Will.  Yahweh has designated him as the one to feed them, they claim (vv.1-2).  David makes a covenant [berith] with the people before the elders anoint him (v.3).  This seems to have been a covenant not like the one between God and Israel, which is an agreement between parties of unequal status, but in this case one among equals (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.129-130).  He is said to have been thirty years old at the time and to have reigned forty years (a Biblical expression for “a long time”).  Seven of these years are reported as his reign in Hebron only over Judah and the remaining 33 in Jerusalem over Judah and Israel (the Northern Kingdom) (vv.4-5).  Several intervening verses (6-8) describe David’s conquest of Jerusalem, defeating resident Canaanites (the Jebusites) (see I Chronicles 11:4-9).  David’s interest in the city seemed to be a function of its neutral position between Judah and Israel, and so was an ideal capital for the united Hebrew nation.  It is reported that he occupies the whole city and calls the stronghold the City of David (v.9).   It is also said that because Yahweh was with him he became greater and greater (v.10).

Application: Several sermon options emerge from this Lesson.  David offers a model for leadership, with his willingness to covenant with the people, to subordinate his authority (Ministry, Social Ethics).  Also we are reminded that the more we are with God, take Him into the trenches with us, the greater we become (Sanctification).

or

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Ezekiel was a Prophet from a priestly family whose ministry to his fellow Exiles during the Babylonian Captivity extended from 593 BC to 563 BC.  Some of the oracles pre-date Jerusalem’s fall.  The original collection was rewritten and expanded by an editor.  The Book includes judgment of Judah for its idolatry and defilement of the sanctuary, the proclamation of God’s abiding Presence among the people, consolation and hope expressed in a proclamation of God’s unconditional care.  This text is the first of five commissions given to the Prophet.

Yahweh says to the Prophet, calling him son of man (ben, meaning mortal man], to stand on his feet and speak with the Lord.  These words lead to the Spirit [ruach] entering into him which places Ezekiel on his feet (vv.1-2).  Yahweh sends him to the people of Israel, a nation of rebels [marad] who with their ancestors have transgressed against Him (v.3).  They are said to be impudent and stubborn, and Ezekiel is charged to say to them, “Thus says the Lord.” (v.4).  Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a Prophet [nabi] among them (v.5).

Application: This is text for preaching prophetic condemnations of injustices in America, helping the flock see that we have become a nation of rebels (Social Ethics).  Like Ezekiel, however, we can only proceed in such a ministry with the Holy Spirit and an awareness that there is hope in God’s Providential care (Justification By Grace).    

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
We continue this week again to consider an Epistle written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church which had further deteriorated during the period after I Corinthians was written.   As previously noted, Chapters 10-13 are so different in style and tone from the first chapters as to lead many scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4.

In this Lesson we read an even stronger defense by Paul of his ministry.  He boasts by way of making the case for his paradoxical strength in weakness.

Paul begins by seeming to refer to his Damascus Road experience, being caught up to the third heaven ([triptois ourances] an expression for the highest ecstasy) (vv.2-4).  He wants to boast about these revelations but take no credit for them, boasting only about his own weaknesses (vv.5-7a).  He refers to his thorn [skolops] in the flesh (what it is, is not clear).  He concludes that it was given to him to keep him from being too elated and to have him boast of his weaknesses so the power of Christ [dunamis tou Christou] may dwell [episkiazo, or overshadow] in him (vv.7b-9).  This enables Paul to be content with weaknesses, insults, and persecutions.  For when he is weak, he is strong [dunatos, or powerful] (v.10).

Application: This text can lead to sermons that offer hope and comfort for those who feel weak and powerless, stressing that grace overshadows our weaknesses and inadequacies (Sin), that God gets in the trenches with us and takes charge of our lives.  Both Justification By Grace and Sanctification are themes to be stressed. 

Mark 6:1-13
As is well known, this Book is likely the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels.  Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (esp. Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4,31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians.  The account is the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown, after sparking some astonishment [ekplessomai] in the synagogue by His teaching [sophia, literally wisdom] (vv.1-2).  He is demeaned for merely being a carpenter, the son of Mary and his brothers and sister known in town (v.3).  (No reference is made to Joseph.  But He is said to be a carpenter’s son in the parallel account in Matthew 13:55.)  Jesus responds by claiming a prophet [prophetes] is without honor in his hometown (v.4).  Only in Mark is it reported that Jesus could do no deeds of power [dunamin], except cure a few who were sick through the laying on of hands (v.5).  He is reportedly amazed [thaumazo, literally “marvelled’] at the unbelief of those who were present (v.6).  Apparently God can be thwarted, but not entirely, by our lack of faith.  He is concealed in the commonplace things of life.  (Many more details are given in the parallel Lukan account [4:16-30], and it is not as clearly stated that Jesus’ power was limited by unfaith.) 

What follows is a report of the instruction of the Twelve Disciples and their commissioning (vv.7-12).  The parallel accounts in Matthew (9:35; 10:1,9-11,14) and Luke (9:1-6) do not like Mark follow the story of His rejection.  Jesus urges them to shed extra belongings (including money) (vv.8-9), presumably so they depend solely on God.  The Twelve are commissioned to take up ministries two-by-two, with authority over unclean spirits [eksousian ton pneumaton], and they succeed in curing many (vv.7,13).  They are to preach repentance [metanoeo] (v.12).  Instructions are also given regarding the hospitality they should expect and the pointed disapproval they are to show (shaking the dust off their fee) to those who reject them (vv.10-11). 

Application: Several sermon options emerge from this text.  One possibility is to focus on Jesus’ rejection in His hometown, how often we take Him and God for granted since we have known them our whole lives, because they are always in the trenches with us (Sin).  And yet Jesus is still involved in curing us, even when we take Him for granted (Justification By Grace).  Another possibility is to note that Jesus and God take the consequences of our Sin, that our unfaith can thwart for a time the good He would do.  Evil is not caused by God (Providence).  Or preachers might focus on the call of the Disciples, how like them we have been called to get in the trenches with Him, to leave behind what we have and so will receive both the curses as well as the blessings others give to Jesus (Sanctification and Evangelism).    

Proper 11 | Ordinary Time 16, Cycle B (2015)

THEME OF THE DAY:  All are one.  In making clear that this unity is God’s Work, sermons will focus on Justification By Grace, Christ’s Work, and Providence.

Psalm 89:20-37 
The Psalm is identified as a Maskil, an artful song composed with artful skill, composed by Ethan the Ezrahite.  He was either a wise man of Solomon’s court (I Kings 4:31) or a Temple musician (I Chronicles 15:17,19).    This is a hymn extolling God’s power and faithfulness; it has its origins as part of a king’s prayer for deliverance from his enemies.  It is considered a Royal Psalm, for it portrays itself as a prayer of a king for deliverance, a national lament.

Having been defeated in battle (vv.38-45), the Psalmist refers to the anointment of David by Yahweh (v.20), the Lord’s faithfulness [emunah] is extolled (v.24), and his unalterable covenant  [berith] with David is remembered.  It is God’s Promise that David’s descendants be established forever (vv.19-26).  David is considered the Lord’s firstborn [bekov], the highest of all the kings of the earth (v.27).  The Lord pledges steadfast love [chesed or lovingkindness] for David and His covenant with him forever (vv.28-29).  If David’s heirs forsake God’s Law [torah] , Yahweh says that He will punish them, but will not remove His steadfast love (vv.30-33).  The eternity of the covenant with David is reiterated (vv.34-37).          

Application: This Psalm links nicely with the first option for the First Lesson in highlighting    the eternality of the covenant with David and his line, proclaiming God’s faithfulness and love.  Sermons might develop the theme of Justification By Grace, that God never leaves us alone or abandons us, or that God has been faithful to His Promise in the work of David’s heir Jesus (Christology).

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Psalm 23
The famous Psalm expresses confidence in God the Shepherd’s [raah] protection.  It extols the comfort of Providence.  God is said to lead us in the paths [magal] of righteousness [tsedeq] (v.3).  It is good to remind ourselves again that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm.  It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.370-371).  As a result, the Psalm continues, we need fear no evil [ra] (v.4).  Yahweh is compared to a gracious host (v.5).  Surrounded by goodness [tob] and mercy [chesed], the Psalmist pledges regular worship in The Temple (v.6).  This is a Psalm about gratitude to God.   

Application: The Lord as Shepherd and the comfort that brings, how like a Shepherd He keeps us together, is a sermon theme that logically grows out of this Psalm (Justification By Grace and Providence).  

2 Samuel 7:1-14a
We note again that the origin of this Book as a distinct text derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings).  This Book is probably the result of two or three sources, culminating with the work of the Deuteronomistic (D) strand (the result of sweeping religious reforms under King Josiah in 621 BC).  The role of this last source not surprisingly entails that a central theme of the Book is the struggle to remain obedient to Torah, to be God’s covenant people, and to inherit divine blessings.  This Book especially relates to the reign of David as King of Israel.      

The Lesson accounts the story of David’s desire, expressed to the Prophet Nathan, to build a temple (vv.1-3) and what follows regarding this dream.  The Lord appears to Nathan indicating His contentment with continuing to dwell in a portable tent (vv.4-7).  This overlooks that the Ark of the Covenant had earlier been housed in a building in Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:7; 3:3).  Scholars tend to conclude that the entire pericope is a later addition to older sources, based on Psalm 89.  Others argue that, insofar as vv.6-7 seem to give no permission of the Tabernacle to be placed in a permanent building, these passages are in fact part of the earlier source. 

The Lord instructs Nathan instead to recount to David how the Lord had brought him to power, from the life of a shepherd [literally, “one who follows sheep”] to an internationally known uncontested leader (vv.8-9).  Yahweh claims that He will appoint a place for Israel from which they will no longer be disturbed and afflicted (v.10).  The establishment of a permanent Davidic dynasty is promised (vv.11b-12).  Reference is made to a Davidic offspring who would build the house of Yahweh’s Name [shem] and the throne would be established forever (v.13).  (Only in the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 28:6 is Solomon expressly designated as the one who will build the Temple.)  Yahweh promises to be a Father to the Davidic ancestor and his status as Yahweh’s Son [ben] is proclaimed (v.14a).  The promise and the desire to build a temple have close parallels to ceremonial texts of the royal house in Israel.

Application: This Lesson opens to door for sermons on the Christological implications of the Lord’s establishment of the Davidic line and also that God is not fully contained in any church.  A bigger God entails all people have some fellowship with Him (Providence).  In getting hearers of the sermon to recognize that God had greater plans in mind than David did, efforts can be made to help them appreciate that God is still in the business of giving us more than we can ever imagine (Providence).

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Jeremiah 23:1-6
The Book is a collection of prophecies of a late seventh or early sixth century BC Prophet of Judah from the reigns of Josiah through the era of The Babylonian Captivity.  He dictated these prophecies to his aide Baruch.  Some of the Prophet’s criticism of the house of David and The Temple, giving more attention to the Sinai Covenant, may relate to his being an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the Temple and was finally banished. (I Kings 2:26-27).  Three sources of the Book have been identified: (1) An authentic poetic strand; (2) Biographic prose; and (3) Deuteronomistic redaction.  The interplay of these strands suggests that the final editors construed Jeremiah’s past prophecies as relevant in the new context.

This Complementary Lesson is a Messianic Oracle, probably part of a sermon.  The Prophet proclaims woe the shepherds who have destroyed and scattered the sheep (a reproach of Judah’s rulers (v.1).  Yahweh threatens to attend to their evil ways (v.2).  He promises to gather a remnant [sheerith] of the flock out of all the lands where he has driven them, bring them back and allow them to multiple (v.3).  He then pledges to raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, so that they need no longer fear or be dismayed, and none shall be missing (v.4).  Yahweh then proclaims that He will raise up for David a righteous [tsaddiq] Branch [tsemach], who will reign as king and deal wisely and execute justice [tsedaqah, literally “rightness”] in the land (v.5; cf. 33:15-16).  In making this point it is good to be reminded that the ancient Hebrew term for judgment can refer to a sense of comfort, not just to punishment [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, p.358].)  In calling the Lord righteous, we also need to recall that Christian scholarship on the Old Testament largely agrees that God’s righteousness is not so much about a punitive attribute of God as it is about relationship, concerning God’s loyalty to His Covenant in saving us.  Sometimes the righteousness of God is even construed, as perhaps in this Psalm, as something bestowed on the faithful (von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.373,376ff.).  It is in this sense that Jeremiah can proclaim that in the Messiah’s days Judah will be saved, Israel will live in safety, and God will be called by the Name, “The Lord is our righteousness.” (v.6)

Application: A sermon on this Prophecy of Jesus might expound the concept of God’s righteousness, but it also affords an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus repairs the brokenness we all experience in Sin (Justification By Grace).

Ephesians 2:11-22
As noted last week, this Book is a circular letter, either written by Paul from prison late in his career of by a follower of the Apostle who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his Epistles.  These conclusions follow from the fact that the Letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the Pauline corpus.  It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15).  This Lesson is an exposition of Christ’s benefits, bringing together Gentile and Jew, with special attention to implications for Justification By Grace and Ecclesiology.

Paul notes that though the Gentiles were originally aliens [enos, literally “strangers”] from Israel, in Christ they have been brought near (vv.11-13).  Christ is said to be our Peace [eirene], breaking down the wall that had divided Jew and Gentile (v.14).  In His abolition of the Law [nomos], Christ is said to create a new humanity [anthropos] in order to reconcile the group into one Body [soma] through the Cross (vv.15-16).  Through Christ, then, we have access to the one Spirit and Father.  None are aliens, but members of the household [oikeios] of God built on the foundation [themelios] of the Apostles with Christ the cornerstone (vv.17-20).  Paul next speaks of the Church as a holy temple [katoiketerion, dwelling-place] of the Lord in which we are all joined together in the Spirit (vv.21-22).

Application: This Lesson offers an opportunity to proclaim the unity of the Church and its implications for fully including all through Christ’s breaking down the Law all barriers and bringing us near the Father (Justification By Grace).  In becoming a dwelling place of Christ, we become One with Him as well.

Mark 6:30-34,53-56
We continue again to consider a text in the first of the Synoptic Gospels to be written, a Book that was perhaps the source of other Gospels, perhaps based on oral traditions of the Passion narrative and accounts of Jesus’ sayings (the so-called Q-source).  Probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, this anonymous work is traditionally ascribed to John Mark, perhaps referred to as an associate of Paul (Acts  12:12-25; 15:37; Colossians 4:10) or as Peter’s scribe (I Peter 5:13).  Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (esp. Gentiles), as the Book presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4,31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians.  In this pericope we hear the beginning of The Feeding of the Five Thousand, with the actual miracle omitted.  All four of the Gospels include this narrative, except the final verses have no parallel in Luke.

The Lesson begins with the Disciples, having returned from their commission to preach and heal (vv.7-13), returning to Jesus, reporting, and retreating with Him to a deserted place (vv.30-32).  Many are said to have seen Jesus and His followers and followed them on land, meeting them when they docked their boat.   Going ashore Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion on them, as they were like sheep with no shepherd (vv.33-34).  The actual feeding of the 5000 account follows (vv.35-44), along with a story of Jesus walking on water (vv.45-52).  Both accounts are omitted from the Lesson.  The account resumes with Jesus and His followers landing their boat at Gennesaret.  The crowd recognizes Him and brings the sick to Him, begging that they might touch the fringe [kraspedos] of His cloak [himation, literally “garment”] to be healed [esodzonto].  All touching His cloak were healed (vv.53-56).  (It was common belief in the Ancient Near East at the time to expect holy people to have magical powers, and so touching them to gain blessings was common.  Fringes were blue twisted threads at the four corners of male garments, intended as reminders to obey God’s Commandments [Numbers 15:38-40].)

Application: Several sermon options are suggested by this text.  One possibility is to proclaim that God’s grace and compassion heals, gives life, and gives guidance (Justification By Grace) in the midst of chaos, loneliness, and meaninglessness of our sinful reality.       

  • Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!: Cycle A Gospel Sermons for Lent and Easter
     
    SermonSuite
    Beth Herrinton-Hodge
    See the Light, Live the Light, Shine the Light

    John 9:1-41; Ephesians 5:8-14
    We are not strangers to dichotomies. The world seems easier to get our head around as we construct dichotomies: male and female; voters and non-voters; old and young; haves and have-nots.
         We can align ourselves with one side or another. We find kinship among those who are on “our” side.
         What implications do these dichotomies have for God’s people, for Christ’s followers, for us?
         The writer of Ephesians has an answer: Live as children of light. Fully embrace it. Let the light that is yours in Christ shine -- try to find what is pleasing to God, what is good and right and true...more
    A Man Born Blind

    This is the story of a miracle that is important mostly as the beginning of the real action of the story. Most often the miracle itself is the centerpiece of the story, but in this instance the focus is on people's reaction to the man who was healed, not the healing itself.
         This can make the lesson easier as a subject for a sermon by providing an alternative to a miraculous healing which can easily be dismissed. A focus on the reactions of the audience can translate quite easily into a contemporary view of modern reactions to Jesus and the stories we hear of his actions....more
    David Kalas
    And there was light
    The significance of light and darkness is evident from the very beginning of scripture. Indeed, from the very beginning, period. “Let there be light” is, famously, the first thing we have a record of God saying. It is the essential first act of creation. And as we continue to read, we discover that it is just the first blow in God’s ongoing combat against darkness.
         Later, the gospel writer picked up on what God did at creation and built upon it. John saw yet another divine victory over darkness in the person and work of Christ. “In him was life,” John wrote, “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4 NRSV)....more
    C. David McKirachan
    Your Staff Comforts Me
    Psalm 23
    There were four of us, American teen aged boys, living in an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery near Addis Ababa. We were there for three months helping to build a school for the local children. There were a dozen or so Ethiopian young men, around our age living with us. It was called an ecumenical encounter....more
    Janice Scott
    How to wake up to a life of radiance
    Anyone who lives in the country will know that there's a particular quality to the darkness of night in the country. For those who live in the town, total darkness is rarely if ever experienced, but in the country the quality of blackness during night hours can be almost absolute. Country people who go out during evening hours in the winter soon get into the habit of carrying a torch, for without some source of light they would be utterly blind....more
    Mary Kay Eichelman
    Mean Lies
    Object: small pieces of poster board that say "Stupid," "Ugly," "Can't do anything right!," "Cheater"
    Let's imagine that there is a new student that comes to your school. They don't have any friends so you invite them to play with you at recess.  But when your other friends see you do that they say things like what are on my cards.  Can you read them with me.  (Read off the cards together.)  It could really be painful hearing these words and you may feel like giving up doing the kind deed....more

Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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