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Proper 21 / Pentecost 16 / Ordinary Time 26, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
God takes charge of things. As the texts testify to the fact that nothing gets in the way of God’s aims we explore the doctrine of Sin and Justification by Grace.

Psalm 78:1-4
This is a Maskil of Asaph, that is, an artful song that is the work of a professional Levitical musician or his tradition (see 2 Chronicles 29:30). This set of Psalms was composed for use at major festivals. The poet addresses the congregation in the style of Wisdom writers. The Psalm as a whole recounts the story of God’s care of Israel. It begins with a reference to dark/hidden sayings [chidah, or riddles, in the sense of the riddle of how Israel could rebel against God; cf. Proverbs 1:6] from the ancestors. The reference to a parable connotes a didactic poem (vv. 1-3). These sayings regarding the glorious deeds of Yahweh and his might [ezuz] are not to be hidden (v. 4).

Application: The Psalm affords occasion to proclaim how God is in charge of the faithful despite the riddle of our sin. His might overcomes our rebelliousness (Justification by Grace).

OR

Psalm 25:1-9
This is a lament prayer for deliverance from personal enemies. It is traditionally attributed to David. We need again to be reminded that psalms attributed to David are not likely written by the king. In fact, many scholars have concluded that references to David in the psalms 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 expectation that all the faithful encounter trials and cry for deliverance.

The Psalm is acrostic. Every successive verse begins with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It begins with a cry for help that the psalmist not be put to shame [bosh] (vv. 1-3). It includes a confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness by Yahweh whose love [racham, compassion] and mercy [chesed] are extolled (vv. 6-7). The affirmation of Justification by Grace includes a concern with the practice of the religious life (Sanctification). It seems that the forgiven sinner is led by God. He is said to guide and make the meek/humble [anav] to what is right (vv. 4-5, 8-9).

Application: The text opens the way for sermons that explore what our real enemies in life are (Sin) with the good news that deliverance by a loving God is a sure thing (Justification by Grace). This is an opportunity to preach on the Christian life as something that follows from forgiveness, as we become humble in our awareness of sin.

Exodus 17:1-7
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. In this lesson we consider the story of water in the wilderness (which has a parallel version in Numbers 20:2-13), perhaps in the wilderness of Paran, which is just northeast of the wilderness of Sin. Sin was probably fifty miles west of Mount Sinai in modern-day Saudi Arabia. The lesson is again likely the work of the ninth/tenth-century BC oral tradition called J for its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God.

Continuing to travel by stages (making various stops in the Exodus) (v. 1), camped in the wilderness the people had no water and quarreled with Moses to receive it (v. 2). They wonder why he had brought them out of Egypt to such suffering (v. 3). Moses is reported to have accused the people of testing [the Hebrew word nasah is more properly translated try, implying a court hearing for] the Lord (v. 2). He pleads with Yahweh, asking what he is to do with the people (v. 4). (They had complained earlier about the need for water and been delivered with both water and bread from heaven [15f:22ff].) The Lord replies that he is to take leaders with him along with the staff with which Moses had stuck the Nile (v. 5; 7:20). Unlike in the version in Numbers, this earlier literary strand tells the story without a reference to a shrine from which to seek divine counsel. The Lord promises to be standing in front of Moses on the rock at Horeb and commands Moses to strike the rock so the people would receive the drink (v. 6). Water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai. The place was called Massah and Meribah (meaning “test” and “find fault” in Hebraic; see the preceding paragraph for more on the location of these wilderness areas), because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord (v. 7).

Application: The text makes clear that all things are in God’s hands (Providence and Creation) in the midst of our unfaithfulness (Sin). We are totally dependent on God, for God provides the good things of the earth even to those who deny him (Justification by Grace).

OR

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian captivity. Some oracles predate the fall of Jerusalem. This text, likely the words of the historical prophet, is a discourse on individual responsibility. The word of Yahweh comes to the prophet asking why he uses the proverb concerning Israel that the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge (vv. 1-2; cf. Jeremiah 31:27-30). It should no more be used, he directs. Only the person who sins dies (vv. 3-4). After illustrating this principle in detail (vv. 5-24), Yahweh responds to charges that his way is not fair. In fact, it is the ways of Israel that are not fair (vv. 25, 29). When the righteous [tsaddiq] turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it (v. 26). And when the wicked turn from wickedness [rishah] to do what is lawful they save their life (vv. 27-28). Yahweh says he will judge [shaphat, connoting a magistrate's judgment] the house of Israel according to their ways [derek]. He calls them to repent and turn from all their transgressions. They are to get themselves a new heart [leb] and a new spirit [ruach] (vv. 29-31). The idea of a new covenant (like Jeremiah 31:34) seems implied. God says he has no pleasure in the death of anyone (v. 32).

Application: The text affords opportunities to remind the flock of individual responsibility and Sanctification. But the behavioral expectations seem related to repentance and in particular to God transforming the faithful, providing them with a new heart and new spirit (Justification by Grace construed as Union with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Good works follow from this transformation, it seems. We might stress that it is a God of love portrayed here, one who takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.

Philippians 2:1-13
The lesson is part of a letter written by Paul while a prisoner, to Christians in a province of Macedonia (present-day Greece). There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters. Paul is concerned to urge persistence in faith in the face of opposition. This lesson is a reflection and early Christian hymn on humility and the example of Christ.

Reference is first made to the consolation, love, sharing the Spirit, compassion, and sympathy encouraged (made to transpire) by Christ (v. 1). Paul says that this news will make joy complete. He would have the faithful be of the same mind, having love (v. 2). As a result, he urges the faithful to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility to regard others as better than themselves (v. 3). It is best, Paul claims, if each look not to his/her own interests but to the interests of others (v. 4). Then he urges the faithful to be of the same mind as Christ (v. 5). He illustrates this point by citing the ancient Christian hymn about Christ, who though in the form [morpse] of God is said not to have regarded it robbery to be equal to God but emptied [ekenose] himself in the form of a slave, born in human likeness, humbled himself, and became obedient to death on a cross (vv. 6-8). The hymn continues: God therefore exalted Christ highly and gave him a name [onoma] above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord (vv. 9-11)! With the hymn ended, Paul would have the faithful work out their own salvation [soteria] in fear and trembling (humbly and with constant dependence on God), just as they always obeyed the apostle in the past (v. 12). He claims it is God who is at work in the faithful, enabling them to work for his good pleasure [eudokias] (v. 13).

Application: Focusing on Jesus’ humble sacrifice reveals our pride and sin. It is not that we work out our own salvation alone, but only when in constant dependence on God (in fear and trembling) does salvation happen (Justification by Grace). Another option might be to preach on Christ’s atonement and sacrifice as the way salvation happens.

Matthew 21:23-32
Again we read from the most Jewish-oriented of the gospels, an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The lesson describes challenges to Jesus’ authority and the parable of the two sons. The parable is unique to Matthew.

The lesson begins with Jesus returning to the temple where the chief priests and elders came to him as he was teaching. They ask by what authority he is proceeding (v. 23), and unlike the Markan version of the text (11:27), Matthew’s Jesus is challenged on his authority to teach in the Jerusalem Temple. (He had never been ordained as a rabbi.) Jesus poses a question for the interrogators first, asking whether John’s baptism was from heaven or of human origin (vv. 24-25a). This creates consternation among those questioning Jesus, for they do not want to concede the heavenly origin of the baptism and yet fear an uprising if they do not (vv. 25b-26). Finally the chief priests and elders claim not to know, and so Jesus refuses to tell them his authority (v. 27).

The parable follows, of one son refusing to work in the vineyard for his father but eventually doing so while the other promises to undertake this task but never does so (vv. 28-30). Jesus asks his followers which of the sons did the father’s bidding, and they answer the first. So Jesus claims that tax collectors and prostitutes (that is, moral and social outcasts) will enter the kingdom of God ahead of Jewish leaders (v. 31). This criticism of establishment Judaism nicely fits with the gospel author’s concern to address an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). John is said to have come to the Jews in the way of righteousness [hodow dikaiosunes] but was not believed, while the tax collectors and prostitutes believe him. But the Jewish leaders have not changed their minds (v. 32).

Application: This text offers an occasion to point out how, like the dishonest son in the parable, we talk big but often do not walk that walk (Sin). Yet God does not abandon us but gets to us working outside the box (Justification by Grace and God’s providential working through lowly, ordinary means). An alternative might be to note how often the leaders of community, the powerful and even rich have it wrong about God, but that those on the margins (society’s outcasts) are often more likely to be in line with the Lord’s plans (Social Ethics, a preferential option for the poor).

Proper 22 / Pentecost 17 / Ordinary Time 27, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The surprising places grace sends us. These texts focus us on how grace (Justification and Providence) moves the faithful away from sin to service (Sanctification) and Social Justice.

Psalm 19
This is a hymn to God as Creator of nature and giver of the law. It has been traditionally attributed to David, though not likely written by the king. As we have previously noted, many scholars have concluded that references to David in the psalms 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 praise the faithful give to the creating God. The sky and succession of days are said to praise God like a choir, and yet they cannot be heard (vv. 1-6). Parallelism (repeating the same point in different words), rather than rhyme, is employed poetically in these verses. The verses that follow may be a later addition, praising the revelation of God’s will in the Mosaic Law [torah] (vv. 7-10). The psalmist prays to avoid sin so he can be innocent [naqah] (vv. 12-13). This leads to the awareness that only with God’s grace can we keep the law. The psalmist concludes with the famous prayer that our words and meditation may be acceptable to Yahweh, our rock and redeemer [gaal] (v. 14).

Application: The text invites reflections on God’s goodness to us in nature (implying a sermon on ecology or the majesty of Creation or Providence) or in making possible that we can do his will (Sanctification).

OR

Psalm 80:7-15
This lesson is a prayer for deliverance. The psalm’s reference to the leader entails that instructions are being given to the director of temple musicians. The meaning of the direction to recite the psalm on Lilies is uncertain, but it may refer to a particular melody. The reference to the psalm as a covenant may also be translated “testimony.” Asaph, to whom the psalm is attributed, seems to have been one of the Jerusalem Temple’s worship leaders appointed by David (1 Chronicles 6:31-32, 39). The tribes mentioned in verse 2 may suggest that the psalm is a product of the Northern Kingdom (Israel).

The lesson begins with a plea for restoration by the God of hosts (v. 7), originally to be shepherd [raah] (v. 1). Israel is said to be a vine once carefully tended by God in Egypt and then sending out its branches (vv. 8-11). This latter point refers to Israel’s settlement in the Holy Land or to the extent of David’s empire. But the psalm continues to lament that now its walls have been broken down and are ravaged, the psalmist proclaims (vv. 12-13). The prayer for deliverance then commences (vv. 14-15).

Application: Sermons on the goodness of God to the faithful are most appropriate (Providence). But the psalm seems more clearly to invite sermons of assurance and deliverance in face of hard times (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
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. In this lesson we read the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments. This is likely the product of a combination of the J strand (the ninth/tenth-century BC oral tradition characterized by its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God) and the E strand (an eighth-century BC oral tradition characterized by its use of the name Elohim when speaking of God). The editor bringing these oral traditions was then possibly the P strand (so named because it was the work of priests dating from the sixth century BC).

The prologue identifying God and what he has done (v. 2) summarized the previous chapter. In this sense the law and the historical narrative are related. We also find this happening in verse 11b, as the sabbath observance finds justification in the Lord resting from creation on the seventh day. The name Yahweh used in verse 2 may be significant. It means “I am who I am,” but can also be translated “he lets be” (i.e., creates) or “I will be who I will be.” This is a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (34:6-7). Each commandment is explicated (vv. 3, 7-9, 12-17). People witness thunder and lightning, trumpets and a smoking mountain, so all tremble (v. 18). They ask Moses to speak but do not want to hear God, lest they die (v. 19). They are seeking a mediator, so they need not hear God’s Law directly. Moses gives reassurance, claiming that God has only come to test the people and put fear of him in them that they not sin (v. 20).

Application: A number of related sermon directions are opened by the text. It is good to be reminded that the law [torah] for the Jewish faith is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but as instruction or guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). Thus the commandments could be proclaimed as guides to life. If this approach is employed it is well to direct the congregation to Psalm 19:12-13, which makes clear that the law can only be observed because God (grace) makes it possible. Other alternatives include an analysis of any of the commandments to make clear that we have failed to observe its demands (Sin). If this approach is taken the final word must be the First or Second Lesson’s message of forgiveness (Justification by Grace through Faith). Another possibility is to focus on the contemporary social issue implied by any of the commandments, noting how God wills justice on that theme (Social Ethics), again complemented by the hints of the need for God to bring this about in Psalm 19.

OR

Isaiah 5:1-7
The book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in the later period immediately before the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC). In view of close stylistic similarities to chapters 40-55, a hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) may have been written by Second Isaiah (author of the chapters from 40 on) or by one of his disciples. But the last eleven chapters begin at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity and are likely written after the restoration of the exiled in Judah, expressing some disappointment about what has transpired since the exiles’ return.

This Complementary First Lesson is drawn from the historical prophet’s song of the vineyard, a didactic poem that may have been composed for a celebration of the Festival of Booths (a seven-day festival of harvest held in the fall) during the eighth-century BC king of Judah Jotham’s reign. It begins with the prophet asking to sing a love song for his beloved concerning the vineyard [kerem] he has planted (v. 1). He cleared the land well and expected it to yield grapes, but instead it yielded wild grapes (v. 2). Judah is asked to pass judgment on itself, as Yahweh asks why the vineyard planted has not yielded grapes (vv. 3-4). Yahweh says that he will remove the hedge around the vineyard; it will be devoured and made waste, overgrown with thorns (vv. 5-7). This vineyard is identified as Israel (cf. 27:2-6; Ezekiel 19:10-14), and the people of Judah are the Lord’s pleasant planting [neta]. He expected justice [mishpat, properly translated "judgment"] and righteousness [tsedeq], but instead saw bloodshed and heard cries (v. 7). We must keep in mind that to be righteous in Hebraic thinking is not so much a demand for morality as it is the expectation of being in right relation with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And likewise the ancient Hebrew term translated “justice” refers not so much to legal rubrics as to the faithful application of God’s will to daily living or when translated as “judgments” may connote a sense of comfort. There are clear similarities between this version of the First Lesson and the gospel.

Application: References to Israel’s faithlessness and failure to practice justice or offer comfort might be related to the faithlessness of the tenants in the Gospel Lesson, and their failure to practice justice toward the poor might entail a sermon stressing Social Ethics. Focusing on Sin and Justification by Grace is also a valid sermonic use of the text.

Philippians 3:4b-14
The lesson is part of a letter written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia (present-day Greece). There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (as early theologian Polycarp, Philippians, 2.3, spoke of Paul’s letters to this church). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30) who had brought these gifts to Paul. His main purpose is to urge persistence in faith in face of opposition. This lesson is a warning that righteousness is not by the law and a confession of hope.

Paul first notes that if any Jew has reason to be confident in the things of the flesh it is him — circumcised, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, righteous under the law, and a persecutor of the church (vv. 4b-6). Certainly Paul was also fluent in Hebrew (Acts 21:40). Whatever gains he had by these standards, they should be regarded as a loss in light of Christ (v. 7). Indeed, everything is loss in light of the surpassing value of knowing Christ. For his sake Paul says he now regards all this as rubbish [skubala] so that he can gain Christ, be found in him, not having a righteousness [dikaiosune] of his own from the law [nomos] but only the righteousness of God that comes through the faith of Christ based on faith [epi ta pistei] (vv. 8-9; Romans 3:20-27). This way of phrasing his point makes clear that Paul understood the righteousness of faith much as the Reformation traditions and Augustine have, not as our own characteristic but as a gift of God properly belonging to him since righteousness is about a proper relationship. Paul proceeds to add that he wants to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death by attaining resurrection from the dead (vv. 10-11). The apostle adds that he has not obtained this already but is pressing on to make it his own, because Christ has made him his own (v. 12). He also observes that he does not consider yet to have made the life of faith he describes his own, but he presses on for the prize [brabeion] of the heavenly call of God in Christ (v. 14). The prize seems to be to share the glory of God (Romans 5:2).

Application: The text provides an excellent occasion to proclaim that we cannot earn salvation by works but only through the work of Christ (explaining the Pauline concept of Justification by Grace through Faith). Or this point could be made and then the sermon could move on to make clear that faith also leads us to identify with Christ and his sufferings, though not perfectly (Sanctification).

Matthew 21:33-46
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). This book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson is Jesus’ parable in the vineyard, sometimes called the parable of the wicked tenants (which has parallels in the other synoptic gospels [Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19]). Isaiah 5:1-7 seems to be in the background of this parable.

Jesus first tells of a landowner planting a vineyard putting a fence around it and building a watchtower. He then leased it to tenants (v. 33). When harvest time came the landowner sent slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. The tenants seized his slaves, beating one, killing one, and stoning another (vv. 34-35). Other slaves sent received the same treatment (v. 36). The slaves/servants [doulos] were the lowest social strata in the Roman empire, indentured servants ranking below the tenants. The slaves likely function here in the parable to signify prophets and the tenants the people of Israel. Then the landowner sends his son, feeling he will be respected. But the tenants (presumably representing Jewish leaders) kill him, feeling they can get his inheritance (vv. 37-39).

Jesus then asks the chief priests and Pharisees what will the owner of the vineyard do, and they claim that the tenants will be put to death and the produce given to other tenants (vv. 40-41). He asks if they had ever read scripture. He quotes Psalm 118:22-23, regarding the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone [kephalen gonias] (v. 42). In a passage unique to Matthew, Jesus adds that the kingdom will be taken away from them and given to people who produce fruits. The Jesus of this book adds that the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces (vv.43-44; cf. Isaiah 8:14). The chief priests and Pharisees hearing this are said to have realized that the parables were about them. Thus they wanted to arrest Jesus, but it is reported that they feared the crowds who regarded Jesus as a prophet [prophetes] (vv. 45-46; cf. 21:11).

Application: The text provides opportunities to proclaim the Atonement and so Justification by Grace but also Social Ethics (how the poor often best serve God and how good, decent tenants like us often fail to heed their claims and needs). Another possibility is to stress God’s surprising ways in Christ, how this text is a prophecy of how though rejected, Christ is now the cornerstone of faith.

Proper 23 / Pentecost 18 / Ordinary Time 28, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Celebrations with an awesome God! These texts focus on the ways of God, who defies our expectations but always to the surprising good of his people (Providence and Justification by Grace).

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
A song of the story of God’s great deeds; in contrast to Psalm 105, with which it is usually paired, this one is more somber with stress laid on the perversity of the people. The goodness of the Lord and his steadfast love [chesed, also translated as "mercy"] are noted (vv. 1-2). Those who observe justice [keep God's judgment (mishpat)] are said to be blessed [ashere] (v. 3). (For the Hebrew mind, blessedness includes happiness, an English word that can also be used to translate the Hebrew term.) The psalmist prays for a share in Israel’s blessings when it (the chosen nation) is restored, so he may rejoice in its gladness (vv. 4-5). He confesses the iniquity and sin of people and their ancestors (v. 6). The story of the golden calf erected by the Hebrews and how they forgot what God had done in Egypt and at the Red Sea is recounted (vv. 19-22; cf. Exodus 32). They would have been destroyed had not the chosen one [bachir], Moses, stood in the breach before God (v. 23).

Application: The psalm invites serious reflection on our Sin, Justification by Grace, and the joy that accompanies this experience (Sanctification).

OR

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 and not bound to its historical point of origin (Ibid., p. 523).

The image of Yahweh as shepherd [raah] 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 [magal, a broad path or road]. Reference to the soul [nephesh] here does not entail endorsement of Greek philosophical dualism. Rather this is a mere reference to human vitality (v. 3). As a result of being led in this way, we need fear no evil (v. 4). We have been invited to the Lord’s home to be treated as honored guests (v. 5). Surrounded by goodness [tob] and mercy [chesed, also translated "kindness"], 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/mercy.

Application: Sermons on God leading us as our shepherd are of course appropriate (Providence, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification). But we could focus on the comments pertaining to verse 5, noting how the psalm implies our status as honored guests of God (Justification by Grace).

Exodus 32:1-14
Again we read from the book of liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. It is good to be reminded that the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. The lesson is a story of Israel’s breaking the covenant and Yahweh’s forgiveness. It seems likely to be the work of the ninth/tenth-century BC oral tradition called J for its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God.

The account begins with a report of the people gathering around Moses during Moses’ delay on Mount Sinai and seeking to have him make gods for them, as it was not clear what had become of Moses (v. 1). Aaron has the people bring all their golden earrings to him (vv. 2-3). He molds the gold into the image of a calf, proclaiming it to be gods who delivered Israel (v. 4). The calf or young bull was a symbol of fertility in the nature-religions of the ancient Near East. He builds an altar and proclaims a festival of dedication where sacrifices are performed. The people’s reveling [making merry] might have sexual connotations (vv. 5-6). Yahweh directs Moses to return, instructing him about the people’s idolatry (vv. 7-8). He speaks of their being stiff-necked (v. 9). Yahweh further directs Moses to leave him, so his wrath might consume Israel (v. 10). Moses begs for mercy, reminding Yahweh of his good works of deliverance on their behalf. He invokes God’s promises to the ancestors (vv. 11-13). The Lord changes his mind/purpose and does not punish (v. 14).

Application: This text afford opportunities to indict our faithlessness and spiritual whoredom, our efforts to harmonize God with our experience and expectations (Sin), but also to comfort with an appreciation of the compassion of our awesome (Transcendent) God (Justification by Grace and Providence).

OR

Isaiah 25:1-9
The two or three distinct written traditions which comprise the book have been reviewed and are well known. This lesson is the work of the historical prophet, who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. The text is a psalm of thanksgiving (employing the Hebraic literary technique of parallelism, repeating the same point in consecutive lines though with different words), followed by an eschatological section.

The prophet proclaims that Yahweh is his God and that he will exalt and praise his name for the wonderful things done, executing plans formed long ago (v.1). Yahweh is said to have made the city (which one spoken of is uncertain) a heap, never to be rebuilt (v. 2). Thus strong peoples glorify him, and cities of ruthless nations fear the Lord (v. 3). Yahweh is said to have been a refuge [machseh] for the poor [dal], stilling the songs of the ruthless (vv. 4-5). On the mountain of the Lord (the highest and oldest place in Jerusalem) it is said that Yahweh will make a feast [mishteh] for all (v. 6). And on that mountain the sheet spread over all nations will be destroyed. Death will be swallowed up forever (v. 7). Every tear will be wiped away and the disgrace of Yahweh/Elohim‘s people will be taken away, for Yahweh speaks (v. 8). It will be said on this day that we have waited for God who might save us (v. 9). This may be interpreted as a messianic expectation.

Application: This Complementary Version of the First Lesson invites sermons on the better times that lie ahead and the promise of overcoming death (Eschatology). Also God’s love (Justification by Grace) and his concern for the poor (Social Ethics) are viable directions for a sermon on this text.

Philippians 4:1-9
The lesson is part of a letter written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia (present-day Greece). There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters. The apostle is concerned with urging persistence in faith in face of opposition. The epistle is also a kind of last will and testament by Paul, offering the church a witness on living faithfully even when he is no longer present. This lesson is a final appeal urging rejoicing, harmony, and prayer. Paul begins by exhorting the beloved to stand firm in the Lord (v. 1). He proceeds to urge that two women in the church, Eudoia and Synthyche, who had been bickering resolve their dispute (v. 2). A number of women seem to have been in leadership positions in churches related to Paul’s ministry (Romans 16:3-4, 6; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philemon 2). Paul asks his “loyal companion” (some leader of the church in Philippi, perhaps named Syzgus, a name resembling the Greek word for “companion”) to help the women. Together with Clement all of them have labored with Paul in the work of the gospel, and their names must be in the book of life (v. 3). He then calls for rejoicing [chairo] in the Lord (v. 4). This is a recurring theme in the epistle (1:18; 2:28; 3:1; 4:10).

Paul further urges the church to be known for gentleness, for the Lord is near (v. 5; Psalm 119:51). There is no need to worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving it is good to let God know their requests (v. 6). The apostle then offers the benediction (a blessing of peace surpassing all understanding) (v. 7). Speaking to the recipients of the epistle, whom he terms “brothers” [adelphoi], Paul urges them to reflect on all that is good and worthy of praise and to continue doing things they have learned and received, for God will be with them (vv. 8-9).

Application: This text provides occasion to proclaim a life of rejoicing for what God has done, thereby facilitating attention to the importance of prayer and harmony among the faithful (Sanctification). Attention could also be given to the importance of the role of women in the early church and today (Social Ethics and Church).

Matthew 22:1-14
We read again from the most Jewish-oriented of the gospels, an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The text recounts the parable of the marriage feast. Although much of the parable appears in Luke (14:15-24), verses 11-14 have no parallels in any of the other gospels.

The text begins with Jesus still teaching in parables in Jerusalem during Holy Week (v. 1). He introduces the relationship between the kingdom of heaven and a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son (v. 2). The phrase “kingdom of heaven” [basileia tov ouranos] is more dominant in Matthew. In this way this Jewish Christian author could avoid naming God. Jesus reportedly claimed that the king sends his slaves to call [kaleo, translated "invited" literally means "called"] those who had been invited to the banquet but would not come (v. 3). These slaves probably represent Hebraic prophets. The slaves are sent again to tell those who had been invited that the food had been prepared, but the guests make light of it, each going to their own businesses or killing the slaves (vv. 4-6). This second action by the slaves probably represents the reaction to Christian apostles.

Enraged, the king sends his troops to destroy and burn their city (v. 7). The king instructs his slaves that since the wedding is ready and those invited/called were not worthy, these slaves are to go into the streets and invite everyone (vv. 8-9). The slaves proceed and find enough guests (good and bad) to fill the wedding hall (v. 10). Some New Testament scholars think that what follows to the end of the lesson was a distinct parable added by the writer of Matthew (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 416-417). These additional verses commence with the king coming to see the guests and noting that one man was not wearing a wedding robe. The king asks the man how he had gotten into the hall not properly attired (vv. 11-12). The king then tells the attendants to bind the guest and throw him out in darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 13). (This is a phrase used on a number of occasions in Matthew’s gospel [8:12; 13:42; 24:51; 25:30] to evoke horror and fear of God’s final judgment.) For many are called but few are chosen (v. 14; cf. 7:13-14). The last verse may be a warning against self-righteous arrogance by Christians.

Application: Sermons on this lesson can proclaim the joy of Christ’s relationship with us (that it is like a marriage, as per the concept of Justification by Grace construed as Union with Christ in a marriage). Attention to Sanctification is also entailed by such an approach, since it is in celebration with the union with Christ that spontaneous joy emerges. The text also reminds us that we do not deserve involvement in the marriage ceremony, in consequence of our lives or position, but are truly not worthy of the invitation, and yet we still need to be properly prepared — clothed in right manner with the robes/righteousness of Christ (Sin and Repentance). There is also an eschatological dimension to the text which can be introduced, an awareness that God’s final judgment is in the background and so we need to be prepared. (Also recall, though, given Matthew’s Jewish roots, that the ancient Hebrew term for “judgment,” mishpat, may connote a sense of comfort, not just terror.)

Proper 24 / Pentecost 19 / Ordinary Time 29, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Making sure God is correctly known and gets the credit he deserves. The themes of this Sunday are centered on God (his transcendence and sovereignty [Providence]) with an awareness of how he uses his power to save and/or protect us (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics).

Psalm 99
This is a hymn celebrating God’s kingship, one of the so-called enthronement psalms. All peoples are to tremble at God’s enthronement on the cherubim [kerubim]. This likely refers to the Lord’s invisible abode on the cherubims (carvings of winged-like creatures) on the Ark of the Covenant. This is clear testimony to his exaltation over all peoples (vv. 1-3). He is said to be a lover of justice, who has established fairness [mesharim, properly translated "uprightness"] and justice [mishpat, also translated "judgment" ] (v. 4). (It is good to remind ourselves again that that Hebrew term mishpat may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, not just the threat of punishment. This would link with the subsequent testimony to the Lord’s forgiving nature, and the fact that Yahweh is said to seek fairness in Jacob [in Israel] might suggest the validity of understanding his judgments as pertaining to social interactions [justice].) The Lord’s holiness [qadosh] and faithfulness to his people are next extolled, as his prophets, communication with them, forgiveness [nasa, to "lift up or lift away"], and punishment of wrongdoings are remembered (vv. 5-8). The Lord is said to be a forgiving God. Finally the praise of God is exhorted (v. 9).

Application: A sermon on this text provides an occasion to make clear that God’s kingly rule includes compassion/love (Justification by Grace) and may include a Social Ethical dimension (concern with justice). Both of these themes include attention to the doctrine of Providence.

OR

Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)
This is another enthronement psalm celebrating God’s kingship while speaking of him as Yahweh. Along with psalms 47, 93, 95, 97-99, this may be an enthronement psalm originally used on a festival occasion when God was declared to be a king. Much of the psalm reflects the Hebraic poetic style of parallelism (in which rather than rhyming lines, successive lines of the poem repeat the same idea in different words, the succeeding line intensifying the previous one). This song is said to be a new one, sung by all the earth and so by all nations (v. 1). After exhortations to praise God (vv. 2-3), the Lord is extolled as a powerful Creator above all the gods, who are but idols [elil] (vv. 4-6). We are called to ascribe all the glory [kabod, also translated "honor"] due God (vv. 7-8). All the nations and the universe join this praise (vv. 7-13). Yahweh is said to come to judge the world with righteousness [tsedq] and truth/steadfastness [emeth] (v. 13). Although in its original Hebraic context this could connote legal, judgmental actions on the Lord’s part or a legalism, most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about relationship. Indeed, it has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us, and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God construed as something bestowed on the faithful (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff) in a manner not unlike Paul teaches happens to Christians in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). This point along with the reference in verse 13 to the Lord coming and the reference in verse 1 to singing a “new song” could also be interpreted as pointing to Christ.

Application: Sermons on this text might generally focus on God’s righteousness as explained above (Justification by Grace) and/or on how this warrants praise from all the nations. Or we might more specifically stress how this is a new song which only happens in Christ (Christology and Atonement).

Exodus 33:12-23
Again we read from the book of liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. It is good to be reminded that the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. The lesson is a report of Moses’ intercession and preparation for a renewal of the Lord’s covenant with Israel as they prepare to leave Mount Sinai to journey to the Promised Land. It is likely the work of the ninth/tenth-century BC oral tradition called J for its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God.

The lesson begins with Moses asking Yahweh regarding whom he would send with him to the Promised Land. Moses expresses satisfaction in having found favor in God’s sight [ayin, literally "eye"] (v. 12). Moses asks to know the Lord’s way so he might know him and find favor in his sight. Moses would have Yahweh know that Israel is his people (v. 13). The Lord promises his presence [panim, also translated as "face"] and pledges to give Moses rest (v. 14). This may refer to the promise of Yahweh’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant.

Moses adds that if Yahweh were not to go with the people it would be better to allow them to remain at Mount Sinai, for then the people would not know that Moses had found favor with the Lord. It is this favor [chen, or grace] that makes Israel distinct (vv. 15-16). Yahweh consents to do all that Moses has requested, for he has found favor in the Lord’s sight (v. 17). Moses requests that the Lord would show him his glory. Yahweh consents, making his goodness [tub] pass before Moses, even proclaiming his name Yahweh (tantamount to knowing the character and identity of God) and promising to be gracious and to show mercy on those to whom he will show mercy (vv. 18-19). However, Yahweh adds, it will not be possible for Moses to see his face [panim], for no one can see his face and live (v. 20). But Yahweh says that there is a place near him and Moses is to stand there on a rock while Yahweh passes by, and he would cover Moses as he passes by, so Moses only sees the Lord’s back and not his face (vv. 21-23).

Application: This lesson offers an opportunity to proclaim Lord’s transcendence, but that he cannot be known apart from a mediator (Christ and Christology) as the good and merciful God that he is (Justification by Grace).

OR

Isaiah 45:1-7
The book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in the later period immediately before the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC). A hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) may have been written by Second Isaiah (author of the chapters from 40 on) or by one of his disciples in view of close stylistic similarities to chapters 40-55. But the last eleven chapters begin at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity and are likely written after the restoration of the exiled in Judah, expressing some disappointment about what has transpired since the exiles’ return. Our lesson emerges in the period while the exiles were still in Babylon. It is part of the prophetic charge to Cyrus, the sixth-century BC Persian emperor who would conquer Babylon and set the captives free. He is the only non-Israelite referred in the Old Testament as Messiah.

Yahweh says to his anointed [mashiach, or Messiah] Cyrus to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, and the gates will not be closed (v. 1). Yahweh promises to go before Cyrus, leveling the mountains, breaking the doors and bronze, cutting through bars of iron (v. 2). He will receive the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that he might know it is Yahweh who calls [qara] him (v. 3). He has been called for the sake of Jacob and Israel the chosen of Yahweh. Cyrus is called by his name (v. 4). Yahweh proclaims that there is no other god besides him, and Cyrus is called that all may know that Yahweh is Lord (vv. 5-6). He forms light [or] and creates darkness [chosek], making peace [shalom] and creating evil [ra] (v. 7). We should be reminded that for the ancient Hebrews, peace was not merely the absence of conflict but designates a state in which things were balanced out, where the claims of a society are satisfied, for justice governs (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 372).

Application: The Complementary First Lesson also testifies to a transcendent God who works both good and evil, who can even use an unbeliever to achieve his good aims (Providence). God’s role in making peace has Social Ethical implications (see above), which might be explained in a sermon. Identifying Cyrus the unbeliever with the Messiah opens the way to explaining the concept of the cosmic Christ (his presence in all of God’s works) in a sermon.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written in the early 50s to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The lesson is basically Paul’s salutation and thanksgiving. Paul is joined by Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy in addressing the Thessalonians, offering grace and peace (conventional Greek and Hebrew greetings) in the Father and Christ (v. 1). Thanks are given for the Thessalonians and they are mentioned in their prayers, constantly remembering before the Father their work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope (vv. 2-3). He claims that the beloved Thessalonians have been loved by God, elect [ekloge], for the gospel came to them not in word only but also in the power [dunamis] of the Holy Spirit. (Israel’s privileges have been transferred to the church.) They know the kind of people Paul and his colleagues have proven to be (vv. 4-5). The Thessalonians are reported to have become imitators [mimetai] of Paul and the Lord, for in spite of persecution they received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit (v. 6; Acts 17:5-9 refers to the persecution of the first Thessalonian Christians). Thus they have become an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia [the rest of Greece] (v. 7). The word of the Lord is said to have sounded forth not just in these regions but in every place that the faith of the Thessalonians is known (v. 8). People in these regions report the excellent welcome Paul and his disciples had among them and how they turned from idols to serve God and wait for his Son to return from heaven — the one risen by God from the dead to rescue us from the coming wrath of God (vv. 9-10). This reference to Christ’s imminent return is a theme that appears elsewhere in the epistle (4:13ff).

Application: The text opens the way for sermons aiming to help parishioners realize that any good they do is a work of God’s grace. Sanctification (construed in terms of the spontaneity of good works) should be the focus. But in making this point, Justification by Grace, the Holy Spirit, and Predestination must also receive attention. Realized Eschatology might be introduced in order to communicate the urgency of the moment, for with a sense of Christ’s imminent presence good works will more likely flow spontaneously.

Matthew 22:15-22
We read again from the most Jewish-oriented of the gospels, an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The lesson concerns Jesus’ response to whether taxes should be paid to Caesar. The text has close parallels in Mark (12:13-17) and Luke (20:20-36). The Pharisees try to entrap Jesus, and so they send their disciples and some Herodians (supporters of Herod) to Jesus to question him about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. Jesus is said by them to be a sincere teacher seeking the way of God and not regarding people with partiality (vv. 15-17). The aim of this question was either to discredit Jesus in the eyes of nationalistic parties if he advocated paying taxes or to sow seeds for suspicions of his disloyalty to the Roman empire should he advocate not paying them. Aware of the illicit aims of those posing this question, Jesus calls them hypocrites and asks why they put him to the test (v. 18). Taking a coin he asks whose head is on it, and the critics respond it is the emperor (vv. 19-21a). Jesus then claims to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s (v. 21b). When his critics hear this they are amazed and leave him (v. 22).

Application: This lesson opens the way to sermons that can help parishioners appreciate that the separation of church and state can be good for the practice of the Christian life (Sanctification) and also contribute to the health of our political life, as we recognize that the political realm is not of no interest to our Lord, for he took a political position (the need to pay taxes) in this political dialogue (Social Ethics).

Proper 25 / Pentecost 20 / Ordinary Time 30, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
It’s what God does, not what we do, that counts! Sermons on these texts will focus on our sin, but only insofar as that makes clearer the texts’ real agenda of how God (through grace and the Holy Spirit) works all good in us (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). These themes nicely relate to the insights of the Reformation, which may be celebrated this week.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
This psalm is a prayer of deliverance from national adversity, in the genre of a group lament. It is traditionally attributed to Moses (the only psalm so designated), but does not likely trace its origins to him. The psalm begins with a hymn-like introduction declaring God’s eternity and the transience of human life. In God’s time a thousand years are said to be like an evening, a brief period of the night (a watch) [layil]. Our lives are swept away like a dream. But God is said to be our dwelling place [maon, or "habitation"] (vv. 1-6). The actual prayer for deliverance follows, asking that God would satisfy us with his mercy [chesed, also translated "kindness" and "loving kindness"], make the people glad/rejoicing [sameach] as many days as he afflicted them, and establish/form [kun] the work of their hands (vv. 13-17).

Application: Several sermon topics are suggested by this psalm. Preachers might focus on God’s compassion/mercy (Justification by Grace), Providence and God’s use of suffering to make good through us, as well as on eternity as the reality in which all events are simultaneous (God and Eschatology).

OR

Psalm 1
A Wisdom psalm (a song conveying practical knowledge of the laws of life), which contrasts the fate of the righteous and the wicked. Along with Psalm 2, it was probably added to this collection of psalms late in the editorial process of the book, in order to provide the book with an introduction from the theme of the psalm. Our lesson begins with a hymn-like introduction contending that those who avoid sin are happy, delighting in the law [torah] of Yahweh and meditating on it (vv. 1-2). They are like trees planted in water, which yield fruit. They prosper in all they do (v. 3). It is good to be reminded at this point that for the Jewish faith the law is not considered a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but is deemed as instruction or a guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). The wicked are said to be like chaff that the wind drives away. They will not stand in the judgment (vv. 4-5). Yahweh watches over the way of the righteous [tsaddiq], but the wicked will perish (v. 6). It is important at this point to be reminded that for the ancient Hebrews righteousness is not so much a demand for morality as the expectation of being in right relation with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371).

Application: The psalm provides preachers with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of true happiness, delighting in the Torah and then making clear that the Torah for Hebrews is not a demanding law but a way of describing God’s teaching. Adherence to the ways of God makes us happy (Sanctification). But of course first we must become righteous, and even the Hebraic faith agrees that that only happens because of God’s work in restoring our relationship, as per Psalm 23:3 and 90:17 (Justification by Grace).

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
This book is the product of writings that emerged during the sweeping religious reform under King Josiah in the late seventh century BC. This literary strand also influenced the histories of the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The basic theme of this piece of literature is evidenced by the meaning of its title (“Second Law”). Portrayed in the form of Moses’ farewell address, it is the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel.

Our lesson is the account of the death of Moses. It appears to resume the story from the end of Numbers 36. Leaving the plains of Moab (east of the Salt Sea) north to Mount Nebo (located in the Transjordan region, east of Jericho) to the top of Pisgah (a peak in that mountain range), Yahweh shows Moses the whole land — Gilead, Naphtali, Ephriam, Manasseh, Judah, the Negeb, and the Jericho valley (vv. 1-3). References to the two mountains on which Moses is said to have died may indicate that the editor of Deuteronomy has woven together two distinct oral traditions regarding Moses’ death. All these regions, Yahweh claims, were promised to the patriarchs (v. 4a). But Moses is only permitted to see the land and not cross into it (v. 4b). Moses the servant of the Lord then died, at Yahweh’s command (v. 5). He was buried in a valley in Moab, but no one knows his burial place (v. 6). He was 120 when he died and still vigorous (v. 7).

The Israelites mourn in the plains of Moab for thirty days (v. 8). Joshua the son of Nun is full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid hands on him, and the Israelites obey him as the Lord had commanded Moses (v. 9). Never since has a prophet arisen like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face-to-face (intimately) (v. 10). He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform (vv. 11-12; cf. Numbers 12:6-8).

Application: The story of Moses’ death, the giver of the law, is a reminder that the law of God does not have the final word. The law is overcome by God’s underserved gift (Justification by Grace).

OR

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Like all of the first four of the books of the Bible, this book is likely the product of three distinct oral traditions. It is primarily dependent on the so-called P source, the work of temple priests dating from the sixth century BC. The book is mostly of worship. Its English title, derived from Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible, refers to Levitical priests. Though relying on earlier oral traditions, there is independent material in the book, the so-called holiness code, a purported speech by Moses outlining a vision for life as a holy people separated for divine service in the world. The lesson is drawn from this section. It begins with Yahweh speaking to Moses that the people of Israel are to be holy since Yahweh/Elohim is holy [qadosh] (vv. 1-2). After a number of strictures on idolatry, theft, mandates to revere parents, and how to perform sacrifices as well as how to harvest (vv. 3-14), it is commanded that unjust judgments not be rendered against the poor in favor of the great, that justice [mishpat, literally "judgment"] must be rendered, that slander be avoided, as well as standing still [amad] against the blood of one’s neighbor [presumably one must not remain passive in defending one's neighbor], hatred of kin, or taking vengeance against anyone. We are to love [aheb] our neighbors as ourselves (vv. 15-18; cf. Mark 12:31).

Application: This Complementary First Lesson affords opportunity to make clear that the Golden Rule is found in the Old Testament. Thus, points made in the Gospel Lesson about our inability to fulfill the law on our own (Sin) and our dependence on God to achieve this, as per the Psalms of the Day above (Justification by Grace), are appropriate. Also see the comments about the nature of the law in Judaism in the analysis of Psalm 1.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
The book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The book may contain fragments of several letters. This lesson is part of Paul’s description of his life and work in Thessalonica. This was in response to the claims of his critics that he had practiced heresy, immorality, trickery, and greed. Using language of philosophers of his day, Paul effectively presents himself as an ideal philosopher. He begins by noting that the Thessalonians know that his coming to them was in vain (v. 1). Though suffering at Philippi, he had the courage in God to declare the gospel to them in spite of opposition (v. 2). He insists that his appeal does not spring from impure motives, but that he has been entrusted by God to speak not to please [aresko] mortals but to please God who tests the hearts (vv. 3-4; cf. Proverbs 17:3). Pleasing God is a fundamental moral criterion for the apostle (4:1). Paul claims that God is his witness that he never came with flattery or with a pretext for greed, nor did he seek praise (vv. 5-6). He does concede that he might have made demands as an apostle [apostolos] of Christ, but always in a gentle way like a nurse [trophos] cares for children (v. 7). This is the only biblical reference by Paul to his apostleship. He concludes by noting how he deeply cares for the Thessalonians and is determined to share the gospel [euaggelion] and himself with them, for they are very dear to him (v. 8).

Application: Several possibilities for sermons emerge. One might preach on ministry (and Christian life [Sanctification]) as being like a caring nurse with children. Or these points could be made in order to condemn our sin, and help us make clear that we need this chiding to hear the gospel of Justification by Grace (see Applications of the Psalms of the Day and First Lessons, above).

Matthew 22:34-46
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees about the Great Commandment and David’s son. Matthew’s version most closely parallels Luke’s (10:25-28, 41-44), and there are some parallels with Mark’s version (12:28-37) as well.

The lesson begins when after the Pharisees having heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees [regarding the resurrection] (vv. 22-33), they gathered together and a lawyer among them raises a question to test Jesus regarding what the greatest commandment [entole] is (vv. 34-36). He cites Deuteronomy 6:5, that we are to love [agapao] the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and mind (vv. 37-38). But he adds that a second commandment like it is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18) (v. 39). On these commandments, Jesus adds, hang all the law and the prophets (v. 40). It seems that for Matthew’s Jesus the law is merely a set of suggestions for applying in life the principle of love. While the Pharisees were gathered, Jesus asks them a question of what they think of the Messiah, whose son he is (vv. 41-42a). The Pharisees say that the Messiah is son of David (v. 42b). Then Jesus asks how it is that David by the Spirit calls the son lord [kurios], citing Psalm 110:1 (vv. 43-44). Only by the Spirit is the confession of faith that saves possible. Jesus proceeds to ask how David could logically call the Lord his son (reiterating the miraculous character of this confession). The Pharisees fail to respond and from then on dare not ask further questions (vv. 45-46).

Application: Sermons on this text will proclaim our inability to fulfill the law and the Great Commandment on our own (Sin), but that the Holy Spirit forgives us and inspires us to do spontaneously what God demands (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Proper 18 / Pentecost 13 / Ordinary Time 23, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
God keeps us together. The texts for this Sunday are about how in all God does he aims to keep us in communion with each other and with him (Justification by Grace, Sanctification, Church).

Psalm 149
This is a hymn to accompany a festival dance. It directs that the Lord is to be praised [tehillah] in a new song in the assembly (v. 1). It also directs Israel to be glad in its maker and the children of Zion [the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem, a term poetically used to connote the whole city] to rejoice in their king (v. 2). We are to praise his name with dancing (v. 3). Yahweh is said to take pleasure in his people, ordaining the humble/afflicted [anav] with victory [yeshua, literally safety or salvation] (v. 4). The faithful are exhorted to exult in glory and sing for joy on couches (perhaps a ritual action that was part of the festival) (v. 5). High praises of God should be in their throats with swords in hand to execute vengeance on the nations, bringing their kings and nobles, executing them on the judgment decreed (vv. 6-9a). The dance that accompanied the music and lyrics may have been war-like in character. All this is said to be glory for the faithful. Yahweh is to be praised (v. 9b).

Application: A sermon on this text will link with its original theme of celebrating how God takes those in need with their afflictions and who know their needs and brings them to safety (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But insofar as the celebration is communal and dancing which is tied to the Psalm is communal, God’s salvation that is celebrated is communal, for God is said to take pleasure in his people (Social Ethics, and if read prophetically, this could refer to the Church).

OR

Psalm 119:33-40
The Psalm is acrostic, with each stanza of eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter. The 22 stanzas use all the letters of the alphabet in turn (accounting for the significant length of the hymn). Almost every line contains the word “law” or a synonym. These verses are part of a meditation on the law, specifically a prayer to understand the law.

The psalmist pleads to be taught the way of Yahweh’s Law [torah] and pledges to observe it to the end (vv. 33-34). Petitions are offered to be led in the path of the commandments/statutes [mitzvah], for in them is delight [chaphets] (vv. 35-36). They give life (v. 37). We need to remind ourselves here that references to the law in the Hebraic faith of the Old Testament should be construed in terms of the Hebraic concept of torah, which is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but regards the law as instruction or a guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).

Pleas are made that Yahweh’s promise [dabar, literally word] for these who fear him [in the sense of devotion] be confirmed (v. 38). His ordinances are said to be good [tob], and pleas are offered to turn away disgrace. The psalmist notes a longing for the law, so that in God’s righteousness [tsedaqah] he would receive life (vv. 39-40). We note again that in the Hebrew Bible righteousness does not connote judgmentalism on God’s part but is about right relationship or deliverance [Psalm 71:2] (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371ff). This is made clear in this song as the psalmist claims that God’s righteousness gives life (v. 40), a theme most reminiscent of Romans 3:21-25.

Application: Although the devotion of the psalmist to the law could be taken as an occasion to point out how a life lived under the law leads to despair (Sin), a sermon more in line with the original intention of the Psalm will talk about how good life is when we are guided by God, in right relationship with him, but that he is the one who delivers us into this right relationship (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Exodus 12:1-14
This 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. Like Genesis, the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. This lesson is the version of the Passover from the Priestly oral tradition (the P strand of the Pentateuch, probably composed in the sixth century BC). It follows the account 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 designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of the 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 [tamim] (v. 5). Instructions are given to put the blood [dam] of the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel [mashqoph, or upper doorpost] of the houses of the people (these were the holy places of a house). The lamb is to be eaten the night it is killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9). 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 have when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). The hurry with which to eat the meal is in commemoration of Israel’s hasty exodus. Passover is explained, how Yahweh would strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts would be a sign for him to pass over [abar] the house so the plague would not destroy them. The gods of Egypt will also be judged (vv. 12-14). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance/memorial [zikkaron], a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).

Application: This lesson is a story of freedom, how God set the people of Israel free and so sets us free today (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics). It is crucial to note that the people as a whole, the community, are saved, not just individuals (an opportunity to highlight the importance of the Church). Or the Passover event might be interpreted Christologically, that as the lamb’s blood sets the people free, so Christ’s blood makes our exodus possible (Atonement).

OR

Ezekiel 33:7-11
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian Captivity. Some oracles pre-date the fall of Jerusalem. This lesson is part of a series of Oracles of Restoration. The verses pertain to God’s charge to the prophet regarding his responsibility. First Ezekiel is reminded that he is a sentinel [tsaphah, literally watchman] for Israel, that whenever he hears a word [dabar, can also mean thing] from the Lord he is to give Israel warning (v. 7). Not to proclaim God’s judgment of death on the people entails that they will die in their sin and their blood [dam] will be required at Ezekiel’s hand (v. 8). But if warned and they do not turn [shub] from their ways, they will die (v. 9). Thus he is to condemn them for their sins but assure the people that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants the wicked to turn from their ways and live [chayah] (vv. 10-11).

Application: Several options for preaching emerge from this text. The call to turn back from sin is an opportunity to develop the theme of repentance, made possible by the God of love who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. A focus on prophecy, its character as a critic of society, properly emerges from this text and from this point a sermon condemning problematic local or national social trends might be developed. This theme of condemning sin might be related to the theme of the Power of the Keys which emerges in the Gospel Lesson.

Romans 13:8-14
Paul begins to terminate his letter of introduction to the Roman church with a discussion of love fulfilling the law and the imminence of Christ’s second coming. The apostle first urges the Romans to owe nothing to anyone except for love [agapao] to one another, for whoever loves fulfills the law [nomos] (v. 8). The commandments, it is said, are fulfilled by love (vv. 9-10). Now is the time to awake, for salvation [soteria, also meaning safety] is near [egguteron], Paul proclaims (vv. 11-12a). The faithful are urged to lay aside works of darkness, putting on the armor of light [phos], living honorably and not in sin (vv. 12b-13). He urges the faithful to put on [enduo, literally "clothe"] Christ, making no provisions for the flesh (v. 14). Clearly Paul here indicates belief that the Esachaton (or Christ’s second coming) is near at hand.

Application: This text also opens the way for a number of possible sermons. Concern about nurturing community through love is an option in line with the Theme of the Day (Church and Sanctification). But this is only possible when we are clothed in Christ (Justification by Grace construed as being united with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Other themes (which might be linked to those just noted) include Realized Eschatology (the urgency of acting because Christ’s coming into our lives is on the immediate horizon) or condemning sin (that the Law of God is not fulfilled unless we practice selfless love).

Matthew 18:15-20
We continue to consider the most Jewish-oriented of all the gospels, addressing an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). This is an account of Jesus’ discussion of discipline among followers. Except for verse 15 the account is unique to Matthew. This is not surprising, for of the gospel writers Matthew alone concerns himself with matters of the church and how Christians are to live together.

The lesson begins with Jesus claiming that if another member of the church sins against a believer the aggrieved is to go and point out the fault to the offender in solitude. If this succeeds, this one has been regained (v. 15). If there is no reconciliation, then one or two other Christians should accompany the one offended in order that there be confirmation of what transpires by witnesses (v. 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). If this fails, the church [ekklesia] should be told, and if the offender still refuses to listen he or she is to be treated as a non-member (a Gentile or tax collector) (v. 17). Jesus awards the Power of Keys to all the disciples (whatever they bind or loose is bound or loosed in heaven) (v. 18; cf. 16:19). If two agree on earth about anything requested, Jesus promises it will be done by the Father in heaven (v. 19). Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name he agrees to be present to them (v. 20). This point suggests the vicarious presence of the risen Christ (28:20).

Application: The most obvious sermon emerging from this text is to proclaim forgiveness, how Christ has granted us the Power of the Keys, and the virtues of his mode of discipline — the virtues of private confrontation with those in the wrong before public reprimand (Sanctification). The fact that when we are in communion with each other Christ is present provides an excellent occasion to reflect on the church. And the promise of Christ’s presence among us is also a comforting word to proclaim.

Reformation Sunday, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Freedom! The texts and the festival invite consideration of our freedom from the law (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Psalm 46
A Korah Psalm (one of the songs attributed to professional temple singers [see 2 Chronicles 20:19]). The reference in the psalm’s preface to Alamoth is uncertain. We do know that this is the psalm (especially v. 1) that inspired Martin Luther’s famed hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

God is said to be our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble. We need not fear [yare], for he subdued all others (vv. 1-3). This may be a reference to what God will do in the last days. The promise is made that Jerusalem will endure forever (vv. 4-7). Reference to the river making the city glad is an image for the service of blessing. Reference to Selah after verse 3 probably is a direction to insert an instrumental interlude at that point in the psalm. The establishment of God’s kingdom will bring peace (vv. 8-9). We are urged to be still and know that the Lord is God (v. 10). These words may be a divine oracle of salvation, giving God praise for his observance of help against enemies.

Application: Sermons on this hymn might examine our fears and troubles (Sin) with the assurance that God is still our refuge (Justification by Grace). Opportunities are also provided to consider the atonement (the Classic View, whereby Christ and God defeat the forces of evil).

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The lesson is drawn from a book of prophecies of the late seventh/early eighth-century BC prophet of Judah, dictated to his aide Baruch during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah through the era of the Babylonian captivity. Some of the prophet’s criticism of the house of David and the temple, giving more attention to the Sinai covenant or a new covenant, may relate to his being an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the Jerusalem Temple and was finally banished (1 Kings 2:27). This text is part of the Book of Consolation (30:1–31:40), words of homecoming promising a restoration of Israel, probably written just before the Babylonian captivity.

The lesson prophesies that the Lord will establish a New Covenant [berith], replacing the one given on Mount Sinai that had been broken (vv. 31-32). The New Covenant will involve putting the law in the hearts [leb] of people and renewing Israel’s status as God’s people (v. 33). All will know him and the people’s sin will be forgiven [salach, or sent away], for God will remember [zakar] their sin no more (v. 34; cf. Ezekiel 11:19).

Application: Sermons on this text do well to proclaim the good news in the midst of the chaos and strains of modern life (Sin) that we are affirmed, for God has sent away our sin (Justification by Grace), along with an awareness that he unites us to him, so we become people who just cannot help but spontaneously do God’s thing (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Romans 3:19-28
This letter of introduction was written by Paul between 54 AD and 58 AD to a church that to date he had never visited. The lesson is a transition from Paul’s discussion of the world’s need for redemption to a discussion of God’s saving act in Christ. Paul begins by contending that the law [nomos] of God silences us, for no human may be justified by works. The law, it is said, gives knowledge of sin (vv. 19-20; cf. Psalm 143:2). The righteousness of God is revealed apart from the law, though it is attested to be the law and the prophets (i.e., Hebrew scriptures) (v. 21). Paul refers here to the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory but are now justified by God’s grace through the redemption [apolutrosis, or "loosing away"] in Christ as a gift (vv. 22-24a).

There has been much dispute in New Testament scholarship about the meaning of the righteousness of God [dikaiosune tou theou] and how it relates to the teaching of Justification [dikaiosis] by Grace through Faith. Of course the similar related Greek roots of Justification and righteousness are indisputable. But some contend that the Protestant reformers totally overlooked the Jewish roots of Paul in their interpretation of the concept. Certainly in its original Hebraic concept, righteousness [tsedeq] could connote legal, strongly judgmental actions on God’s part or a legalism. Yet most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about relationship. It has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us, and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God construed as something bestowed on the faithful, as it is in verse 25 of this lesson (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff). So whether we continue to employ a judicial metaphor for understanding the concept of righteousness (God declaring us righteous) or regard it as God’s faithfulness to the covenant in restoring his relationship with the faithful, it does not ultimately matter. Either way, righteousness and so Justification is a gift of God.

Paul proceeds to note that all this transpires through Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation [hilasterion] or sacrifice of atonement by his blood. This shows God’s righteousness, because in his forbearance he passed over sins committed (vv. 24b-25). It proves that God himself is righteous, justifying the one who has faith in Christ (v. 26). This excludes boasting, for a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (vv. 27-28).

Application: The text affords another opportunity to proclaim that we have been affirmed by God (Justification by Grace) and also have been changed (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works). Another possibility might be to address the controversy of what the righteousness of God means (see the second paragraph of the interpretation of the text above).

John 8:31-36
John is the last gospel to be written, probably not until late in the first century in a sophisticated literary style (and so not likely the work of the apostle John), perhaps written for a Jewish Christian community actually expelled from the synagogue and consequently particularly concerned to assert Jesus’ divinity, that he was Son of God (20:31). In the first post-biblical church history text, Eusebius of Caesarea claimed that John had perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and been inspired by friends and the Spirit to compose a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2/1, p. 261).

The lesson begins just after Jesus had been proclaiming himself as one from above [ano], perhaps a prophecy of his ascension (vv. 21-30). He proclaims to Jews who had believed in him that if they continue in his word they are truly his disciples (v. 31). The truth [aletheia], he claims, will make them free (v. 32). Elsewhere he identifies truth with himself (14:6). The Jews who are addressed object, contending that as descendants of Abraham they have never been slaves (v. 33). Jesus responds, claiming that any who sin are slaves to sin (v. 34). The slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the Son has a place there forever (v. 35). So if the Son makes us free we are free [eleutheros] indeed (v. 36; cf. Galatians 4:1-7).

Application: With this lesson preachers can remind us of our bondage to sin, focusing on freedom (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works) with a reference to Justification as Intimate Union. The implications of this freedom for Social Ethics might also be explored.

Proper 26 / Pentecost 21 / Ordinary Time 31, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The marvelous things God’s word does. The texts permit us to focus on what God does (Providence and Justification by Grace) and how that changes us and our world (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Some of these themes permit attention to the celebration of All Saints Day commemorated just the previous day.

Psalm 107:1-7
This psalm is a group thanksgiving for pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for a festival. God is first praised for his love (v. 1). The redeemed [gaal] of the Lord should concur, for they were gathered from north, south, east, and west (vv. 2-3). Reference is made here to the Babylonian exiles. Then groups of verses follow offering thanks for deliverance from various dangers. Verses 4-9 are thanks for deliverance for those who traveled across the desert. In their hunger and thirst (v. 5), those traveling in the desert cried out to Yahweh, and he delivered [natsal] them (v. 6).

Application: With this song, preachers have occasion to examine ways in which we are endangered (Sin) as well as tragedies of hunger locally and nationwide (Social Ethics), along with the proclamation of God’s love (Justification by Grace) and Atonement (the Classic View, whereby Christ and God defeat the forces of evil).

OR

Psalm 43
This is a prayer in which the psalmist petitions that by being healed from a disease he might be vindicated as righteous, that is, in right relationship with God. First the psalmist pleads for vindication and deliverance from ungodly and unjust people (v. 1). God is the one in whom the psalmist can take refuge. He asks why he must walk about mournfully because of oppression (v. 2). God is petitioned to send out his light and truth [emeth, also translated "steadfastness"] that they may lead to God’s presence (the “holy hill” referred to in the text is probably the temple in Jerusalem that was set on the hill called Mount Zion), where we can joyfully praise him (vv. 3-4). The psalmist wonders why his soul [nephesh, more properly breath or life-force, not the Greek conception] is cast down. He would hope in God and praise him (v. 5).

Application: This text is an opportunity to preach on how God delivers us (Classic View of the Atonement and its affirmation of God’s conquest of evil), his providential care, and the strength it provides to follow him, as well as the joyful praise that follows these insights.

Joshua 3:7-17
This book is part of the Deuteronomistic strand that gave rise not just to Deuteronomy but also the histories in 1 and 2 Samuel as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The strand emerged in the seventh century BC during the reign of the religious reformer King Josiah of Judah. This book tells the story of Joshua’s leadership of Israel. There is a tension in the book between an apparently unified assault against Gentile inhabitants of the land, which succeeded under Joshua (11:23; 18:1), and the more piecemeal victory by the various tribes as represented in the book of Judges. This may be deemed eschatologically as a proclamation of what is to come if the Hebrews remain obedient (22:1-4).

The text is the story of the Hebrews’ crossing of the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership. First Yahweh is reported to tell Joshua of his plan to exalt the prophet in the sight of Israel so that they might know him as their leader. Joshua is ordered to command the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant to come to the edge of the Jordan (vv. 7-8). Joshua tells the people that by these actions they will know that God is living and will drive out the Gentiles in the region (vv. 9-10). He prophesies that when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the waters of the Jordan, the river will divide. In fact that transpires (vv. 11-17). The waters flowed as far as Adam (eighteen miles north of Jericho) and Zarethan, a city further north.

Application: Sermons on this text can proclaim that God never compromises his promises and is consistent in his loving aims for us. (Note parallels between the events reported in the Jordan River and Moses’ leading the people across the Red Sea in the Exodus.) Providence and Justification by Grace are emphasized.

OR

Micah 3:5-12
The superscription of this book (1:1) indicates that the prophet worked during the reign of three eighth-century BC Judaic kings. But in fact he probably only worked in the last quarter of the eighth century BC during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah. And it is also possible that only the first three chapters are actually the work of the prophet for whom the book is named. A younger contemporary of Isaiah who came from an aristocratic background, Micah was a member of the laboring class in a rural area. He did not espouse the Davidic tradition and its belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem. He was primarily concerned with ethical issues, prophesying that the sins of Judah had led to punishment with Assyria acting as God’s instrument. Like Amos who lived earlier, Micah inveighs against social and economic injustices. But there is a word of forgiveness and the restoration of the temple in the book.

In this lesson, wicked prophets and rulers are denounced. Yahweh criticizes prophets who lead the people astray by crying peace when they have something to eat but declare war against those who feed them (v. 5). The sun will go down on these prophets, and they will be disgraced (vv. 6-7). Micah, by contrast, claims to be filled with power, the Spirit of Yahweh, and with justice [mishpat, literally "judgment] to declare Israel’s transgression (v. 8). (It is good to remind ourselves again that that Hebrew term mishpat may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, as per Psalm 72:2; 76:9, not just the threat of punishment.) Rulers who abhor justice/judgment [mishpat] are to hear, for they build Zion with blood (vv. 9-10).

Application: This condemnation of religious and political leaders can be linked to the Gospel Lesson, proclaiming both judgment (Sin and Social Ethics) and forgiveness (Justification by Grace). The comfort offered by God’s judgment is the source of this good and comforting news.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
The book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written in the early ’50s to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. Responding to criticisms that he had practiced heresy, immortality, trickery, and greed, the lesson is a continuation of Paul’s description of his life and work in Thessalonica. He notes how he worked day and night (on his trade [Acts 18:8]) among the people so as not to burden them (v. 9). They are witnesses to how blameless his conduct was (v. 10). He claims to have dealt with the Thessalonians like a father [pater] with his children, urging them to lead lives worthy of God who calls them into his kingdom (vv. 11-12). Paul notes that he constantly gives thanks to God that in receiving God’s word the people accepted it not as human works but as his word [logos], which is at work in them (v. 13).

Application: At least two possible sermon directions are suggested. The focus could be on the nature of the word of God; it is more than just information about God but God’s actual presence to us, changing people’s lives (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). Or the focus could be on the character of ministry and leadership (Sanctification), as like a father to the flock.

Matthew 23:1-12
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). It may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus proclaiming woe to the scribes and Pharisees. Much of the lesson is unique to this gospel, partly because of its anti-Pharisaic orientation no doubt a function of its being addressed to Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (21:25; 23:39).

The lesson begins with Jesus telling the crowds and his disciples that they should realize the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat and so his followers should do whatever these teachers of the law teach. But Jesus advises the faithful not to live as the scribes and Pharisees do for they do not practice what they teach (vv. 1-3). It seems that the scribes and Pharisees place heavy burdens on people without helping them (v. 4). They do their deeds to be seen by others. Reference is made to the broad phylacteries [phulak] and fringes they wear (v. 5). Phylacteries were leather boxes worn on the left and forehead; they contained strips of parchment bearing the text of Exodus 13:9, 16 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:18-20. To have them be broad would be to announce one’s superior faithfulness to the Torah. Likewise, fringes were blue twisted threads at the four corners of male garments functioning as reminders to obey God’s commandments.

The Pharisees and scribes are said to seek places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues and also to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called rabbis (vv. 6-7). Jesus in turn tells his followers not to accept the title rabbi, for they are but students of his, the one teacher. Nor are they to call others father, for their one Father is in heaven (vv. 8-9). Likewise they should not accept the title “instructor” [kathegetes, or "leader], for they have the Messiah, the one true instructor/leader (v. 10). The greatest among them will be their servant [diakonos] (v. 11). (We observe here one of the biblical roots for the office of deacon.) All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble [tapeinoo] themselves will be exalted [hupsoo] (v. 12).

Application: This text also affords opportunity to condemn our sinful pride and belief that we are faithful people (Sin), but to assure us that in humble faith and service God makes us great (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Proper 27 / Pentecost 22 / Ordinary Time 32, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The difference relating to God makes. In keeping with the theme of the Pentecost season, we are led to examine the implications of our relationship with God for living the Christian life (Sanctification and Social Ethics).

Psalm 78:1-7
The lesson is part of a long story/song of God’s great deeds (especially the giving of the law) and his people’s faithfulness (or lack of it). This Maskil (an artful song composed with aesthetic skill) of Asaph (one of David’s chief musicians, see 1 Chronicles 6:39; 15:17; 16:5-7) is a psalm composed for one of the major festivals. In the style of wisdom writings like 49:1-4, the psalm calls the people to listen to the teaching of a parable [mashal, or "proverb"] or dark/hidden sayings [chidah] of old (vv. 1-2). These are things heard of old from the ancestors (v. 3). It is noted that this will not be hidden from the children but will be told to coming generations — the glorious deeds [maalal] of the Lord (v. 4). Yahweh is said to have established a decree (probably the covenant) and a law [torah] in Israel that he commanded the ancestors to teach their children, and the next generations might know to set their hope in God and keep his commandments [mitsvah] (vv. 5-7). It is good to be reminded at this point that for the Jewish faith the law is not considered a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but is deemed as instruction or a guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).

Application: God’s faithfulness to his plans and covenant (the essence of his righteousness [see Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 372]) might be the subject of a sermon on this song. Or one might also combine this theme or just focus on what difference this makes in the lives of the faithful. They are given a guide for life (Sanctification).

OR

Psalm 70
This psalm, practically identical with Psalm 40:13-17, is a prayer/lament for deliverance from personal enemies. It is said to be a memorial offering of David. Keep in mind that many scholars have concluded that references to David in the psalms 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 praise the faithful give God for rescuing us. The psalm begins with petitions to God to deliver the psalmist (v. 1). The psalmist then requests that those who seek his life be put to shame (v. 2). Petitions are offered that all who seek Elohim rejoice and be glad in him. Those who love [aheb] his salvation [yeshuah, also translated "safety" or "ease"] are exhorted to say forevermore that “God is great” (v. 4)! The psalmist adds that he is poor [ani, which also means "oppressed"] and needy, and so God is petitioned to hasten, for he is our help [ezer] and deliverer [palat] (v. 5).

Application: The text invites sermons on the atonement (the Classic View and its idea that God overcomes the evils in our lives), but also on how he rescues the poor (Social Ethics and the idea of God’s preferential option for the poor).

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
We have noted that this book is part of the Deuteronomistic strand that gave rise not just to Deuteronomy but also the histories in 1 and 2 Samuel as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The strand emerged in the seventh century BC during the reign of the religious reformer King Josiah of Judah. This book tells the story of Joshua’s leadership of Israel. There is a tension in the book between an apparently unified assault against Gentile inhabitants of the land, which succeeded under Joshua (11:23; 18:1), and the more piecemeal victory by the various tribes as represented in the book of Judges. This may be deemed eschatologically as a proclamation of what is to come if the Hebrews remain obedient (22:1-4).

This text is an account of the covenant at Shechem, a fuller report of the events narrated in 8:30-35. Joshua is said to have gathered all the tribes at Shechem in Canaan (not far from Samaria and near Mount Ebal, the site of the covenant renewal reported in chapter 8). They presented themselves before God (v. 1). After summarizing God’s actions in locating the people of Israel in Egypt and liberating them, including how God gave them conquest of the Promised Land (vv. 2-13), the people are told to revere Yahweh and faithfully serve him and to put away other gods (v. 14). Joshua insists the people decide that day whom they will serve. He confesses that he has chosen Yahweh (v. 15). The people answer that they will not forsake Yahweh Elohim who brought them out of slavery and protected them from all the people they passed, even driving out the Amorites who lived in the Promised Land (vv. 16-18). Joshua tells the people that they cannot serve Yahweh, for he is a holy [qadosh] and jealous/zealous [qanno] God who will not forgive [nasa, meaning literally "lift up"] their sins (v. 19). If he is forsaken for other gods [elohim], he will do them harm (v. 20). The people insist they will serve Yahweh, and Joshua gets them to concede that they are their own witnesses about this (vv. 21-22). Joshua tells them to put away all foreign gods, inclining their hearts only to Yahweh. The people affirm that they will serve and obey him (vv. 23-24). Joshua then makes a covenant [berith] with Israel, along with statutes [choq] and ordinances [mishpat, literally "judgments"] (v. 25).

Application: Several related sermon options are offered with this lesson. On one hand, the focus could be on the various forms of idolatry in the modern world (Sin) and the need to be loyal to the true God. We could then make clear how this is a countercultural lifestyle, as it was for the Hebrews (Sanctification). It is good to remind ourselves again that the Hebrew term mishpat associated with the covenant at Shechem in our lesson may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, as per Psalm 72:2; 76:9, not just the threat of punishment. And so the lesson is an occasion to focus on the comfort relating to God above all else provides (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

OR

Amos 5:18-24
The book is a collection of the oracles and visions of the eighth century BC prophet to the Northern Kingdom during its greatest pinnacle of national prosperity, which was perceived by the people as the result of its military might. Amos denounces Israel and its neighbors for reliance on military might, the social injustices it had permitted, its immorality, and its shallow piety. Though many of the writings were probably by Amos himself, written in Judah after his expulsion from the royal sanctuary of Israel, segments of the book are the work of a later third-party editor of these prophecies. This lesson is part of the prophet’s indictment of Israel for its sin and injustice.

Amos challenges those who desire the day [yom] of Lord (which was thought by ancient Hebrews to be a time of vindication from their enemies). For his testimony is that it is a day of darkness not light, a day of doom (vv. 18-20). Yahweh is said to despise the Israelites’ festivals and assemblies, and will not accept their burnt offerings (vv. 21-22). Rather than hear the people’s songs, God proclaims that he wants justice [mishpat, or judgment] rolling down like waters and righteousness [tsedeq, which has to do with the quality of relationships and can also mean justice] like an ever-flowing stream (vv. 23-24). This is a common preoccupation for Amos. We need to clarify once again the concepts of justice and righteousness for the ancient Hebrews. Most Old Testament scholars agree that these are not concepts merely about legal, judgmental actions on God’s part, but are more about relationships with Yahweh, something he bestows on the faithful. But an important aspect of this relationship is God’s will for justice, being a guarantor of all who are deprived of their right (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 322, 373, 376ff; Vol. 2, pp. 134-135). And so that is to be an agenda for God’s people in right relationship with him.

Application: The text’s reference to the Eschaton (Day of the Lord) entails that a sermon on this Complementary First Lesson should give hope. It is a word about hope for justice (Social Ethics) which God wants, but also about the false piety that too often gets in the way of the quest for justice and quality relations (Sin).

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
As we have previously noted, the book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The book may contain fragments of several letters. In this lesson Paul addresses questions concerning the coming of the Lord. He begins by noting that he does not want people uninformed about those who have died. He wants them to have hope [elpis] (v. 13). He reminds them that as Jesus died and rose again, so through Jesus God will bring with him those who have died (v. 14). Paul then declares by the word of the Lord (presumably a special revelation to him) that those still alive and left until the Lord [kurios, a title reserved for rulers] comes (he seems here to reflect the belief that some of his contemporaries would live to see Christ’s second coming) will not precede those who have died (v. 15). The Lord himself will descend from heaven with the archangel’s call and sound of a trumpet (a common announcement of a ruler’s arrival), and then the dead in Christ will rise first (v. 16). Then he teaches those alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (v. 17). Paul finally urges the faithful to comfort [parakaleo] each other with these words (v. 18).

Application: This text suggests sermons for engaging doubts about the second coming and our own resurrections with assurances that (in the big sweep of cosmic and evolutionary history [millions of years]) it will not be long, along with attention to the implications of this hope for living everyday life. Sanctification and Eschatology are special foci for these homiletical directions.

Matthew 25:1-13
We note again that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, a story peculiar to this gospel.

We begin with Jesus comparing the kingdom of God to ten bridesmaids/virgins [parthenos] who went to meet the bridegroom (v. 1). Five were foolish and five were wise (v. 2). A distinction can be made between the second coming of Christ and coming of the kingdom. The foolish are reported to have taken no oil, but the wise reportedly had flasks of oil with their lamps (vv. 3-4). When the bridegroom was delayed, everyone slept (v. 5). Then there seems to have been a shout at midnight that the bridegroom was coming (v. 6). All the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish asked the wise for some oil (vv. 7-8). But these women replied that there will not be enough for everyone and those without oil had to go to dealers to buy more for themselves (v. 9). While the foolish women were gone the bridegroom came and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet and then the doors were shut (v. 10). The foolish bridesmaids came to ask the lord to open the door for them, but he replied that he does not know them (vv. 11-12). Jesus adds that we must keep awake [gregoreo, literally "watch"], for we know neither the day nor the hour (v. 13).

Application: Sermons on this parable should be devoted to the issue of clarifying priorities about what is important in life, pointing out how too often we seek comfort in the wrong things (Sin). It should be made clear that our relation to Christ is the right priority and how that changes things (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). An element of urgency (Realized Eschatology) about the need to sort out our priorities could be introduced.

Proper 28 / Pentecost 23 / Ordinary Time 33, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Serving God his way. In preparation for the celebration of Christ’s kingship and God’s majesty next week, the lessons proclaim how God sometimes works out of the box (defying the world’s expectations) and that Christians are called to be open to these surprises. The primary themes of the day are Justification by Grace, Providence, Sanctification, and Social Ethics.

Psalm 123
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies in the form of a lament. It is a Song of Ascents, entailing that it could also have been a pilgrim song for those climbing the hill (Zion) to the temple in Jerusalem. The people lift up their eyes to God like servants look to the hand of their master until mercy [chanan] is conferred (vv. 1-2). Prayers for mercy are offered, for the people have endured much contempt [buz] (vv. 3-4). The speakers of these verses may represent all of Israel, but they could be intended only as the voices of those who have been oppressed.

Application: The psalm inspires sermons on God’s loving mercy in face of hard times (Justification by Grace) or an expression of confidence in God’s will for justice for the oppressed (Social Ethics).

OR

Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11) 12
We have previously noted that this psalm is a prayer of deliverance from national adversity, in the genre of a group lament. It is traditionally attributed to Moses (the only psalm so designated), but does not likely trace its origins to him. The psalm begins with a hymn-like introduction declaring God’s eternity and the transience of human life. In God’s time a thousand years are said to be like an evening, a brief period of the night (a watch) [layil]. Our lives are swept away like a dream. But God is identified as our dwelling place [maon, or "habitation"] (vv. 1-6). The people are said to be consumed by God’s anger [aph], for their secret sins are exposed (v. 7). All their days pass away under his wrath, and they come to an end with a sigh (vv. 8-9). The brevity of life, its character as toil and trouble, are noted (v. 10). Few consider the power of God’s wrath and the fear/reverence [yirah] due him. Prayers to God to teach us the wisdom to count our days that we might gain a wise heart [iebab] are offered (vv. 11-12).

Application: Sermons emerging from this psalm need to contrast the eternity of God to the brevity of our lives. From this starting point preachers can focus on seeing all our years as dwelling in God like their habitation (that all time is located in God, so that all events in history are simultaneous in his point of view, much like Einstein described time at the speed of light), entailing that in God we are not separated from our deceased loved ones, for from God’s perspective the time in which we live is their time too (Eschatology and Providence). This has implications for how we live (Sanctification), for what we do is done in the presence of and for our elders as well as for God. Another sermon direction emerges from the lesson’s final verses, as we are urged to make every day count, in living and serving God (Realized Eschatology and Sanctification).

Judges 4:1-7
This book is probably a compilation of ancient stories of tribal experiences under local leaders in the period from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. These stories were collected for didactic purposes perhaps by the mid-eighth century BC. One hundred years later they were edited by the D strand, part of the religious revival during the reign of King Josiah. This lesson is part of the story of Deborah.

The lesson begins by noting that after the previous Judge Ehud’s death, the Israelites sinned again in Yahweh’s sight (v. 1). They were sold to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Jazor, a city of Galilee. The Israelites cry out for help. Reference to the iron chariots of Israel’s enemies reminds us that ironworking knowledge was just being brought to Canaan in the period of the judges of the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC (vv. 2-3). Deborah is noted as a prophetess [nebiah], wife of Lappidoth. She becomes a judge and many Israelites submitted to her (vv. 4-5). She summons Barak, son of Abinoam, to take possession of Mount Tabor. She prophesies conquest of Jabin’s army (vv. 6-7), and eventually the king was subdued (vv. 23-24).

Application: Focusing on God’s use of Deborah, her leadership, and her ecstatic insight opens the way for sermons on God’s use of women and others outside the structures of power to achieve justice and other good things. Social Ethics, Providence, and Sanctification are the themes receiving most attention.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
The collection of sayings by this prophet may date to the era just prior to or early in the reform of Josiah in Judah late in the seventh century BC. Zephaniah may have been a contemporary of Isaiah. This chapter arranges a series of oracles around the theme day of Yahweh, belief that a judgment of Judah for its religious syncretism lies ahead and yet with the expectation of restoration (3:8ff).

The day [yom] of the Lord is said to be at hand. The Lord is said to have prepared a sacrifice/slaughter [zebach] (v. 7). Punishment/inspecting [paqad] of Jerusalem is promised (v. 12). Wealth is to be plundered and houses laid waste (v. 13). This day is said to be near, a day of distress [metsuqah] (vv. 14-15). Distress will be brought on the people for their sin (v. 17). Neither silver nor gold will save anyone from Yahweh’s wrath, for in the fire of his passion the whole earth will be consumed (v. 18). Not just Judah, but all human beings will endure this judgment. In a way, this prophecy broke with religious-cultural suppositions about the day of Yahweh in this period. Rather than expecting the Lord to come to destroy Israel’s enemies, the lesson teaches that God’s punishment would be visited on the Hebrews, not a rescue of them.

Application: This Complementary Version of the First Lesson forces us to recognize that our vision of the second coming and the thinking of many of us that God will get all those bad guys and save us is not the word. We need to recognize that God’s way is to condemn us for our sin, that we deserve such judgment (Sin and Eschatology). But this harsh word should then be combined with the Second Lesson’s promise that in the end God has destined us for salvation (Justification by Grace).

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We note again that the book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The book may contain fragments of several letters. In this lesson Paul addresses further questions about the coming of the Lord. Paul first notes that concerning the times and seasons an eschatological timetable is not necessary (v. 1). For the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (v. 2). Paul uses the common image of a pregnant woman to illustrate the suddenness of Jesus’ return (v. 3; cf. Isaiah 13:8; Jeremiah 6:24). The faithful are not in darkness about this matter. They are said to be children of light [phos], not of darkness [skotos, which also means "gloom"] (vv. 4-5; cf. Luke 16:8; Essenes used this contrast between children of light and children of darkness [Dead Sea Scrolls, "War Scroll"]). Paul proceeds to urge that we keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep do so at night.

Likewise with drunkenness (vv. 6-7). In being sober, the faithful are to put on the breastplate [thora ] of faith and love and hope of salvation [soteria] as a helmet (v. 8). This reference to armor suggests Christian life must be a struggle. Paul then adds that God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Christ who dies for us, so that whether awake or asleep we may live with him (vv. 9-10). Paul urges mutual encouragement in closing (v. 11).

Application: Sermons on this text remind us that we do not know when Christ will come again, but we need to be prepared. But we do know salvation lies ahead, though there will be struggles to live as God’s people. Eschatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification are all emphasized.

Matthew 25:14-30
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the talents, a teaching that only appears also in very similar parallel account in Luke (19:12-17). The account begins with Jesus telling of a man going on a journey who gave five talents (a talent [talanton] was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer) to one of his slaves/servants [doulos], two to another, and one to a third, each according to his ability (vv. 14-15). (The image of a journey may suggest a foreshadowing of Jesus’ pending absence from the disciples.) The one who received five talents went and traded with them, making five more talents. The one with two talents did the same, earning two more (vv. 16-17). But the slave with one talent dug a hole, hiding the master’s money (v. 18). After a long time the master returns and settles accounts with them (v. 19). (This may be a reference to the delay in Christ’s second coming.) Those who had raised more talents report the results and are praised (vv. 20-23). But the one who buried the talent comes forth to report, noting how harsh the master was (vv. 24-25). The master calls this slave wicked and lazy, for he is accustomed to reap where he did not sow. At least this slave should have invested the mater’s money in the bank (vv. 26-27). The master takes the slave’s one talent and gives it to the slave with ten. He claims that to all who have, more will be given, but from those with nothing, that will be taken away (vv. 28-29). The slave who had just one talent is said to be worthless and is thrown into outer darkness [skotos] where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30).

Application: The parable gives rise to sermons condemning our sin (sloth and cowardice) and proclaiming the good news of Justification and Sanctification (a life devoted to using and sharing our talents).

Christ the King (Proper 29) / Pentecost 24 / Ordinary Time 34, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The good news of the reign of Christ. This last Sunday of the church year is clearly a day to take stock, to contemplate the power and authority of Christ, not just in our lives but throughout the created order to the end (Creation, Providence, Christology, Eschatology).

Psalm 100
This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving, probably a doxology for a collection. While the song does not refer specifically to God as king, its mood is similar to the alternative kingship psalm that follows. We are exhorted to make a joyful noise [rua, meaning "to shout"] to the Lord and to worship with gladness [simchah] and singing [shir] (vv. 1-2). Reminders are given that Yahweh is God who made us and that we are his people (v. 3). Exhortations are then given to enter his presence [shaar, literally "gates"] with thanksgiving and praise (v. 4). We confess that Yahweh is good [tob] and that his steadfast love [chesed, or "mercy"] and faithfulness [emunah] endure forever (v. 5).

Application: A sermon on this psalm needs to involve praise of God for his majesty that is filled with love (God, Providence, Justification by Grace). Another possibility for the sermon is to focus on the nature of worship as joyful praise.

OR

Psalm 95:1-7a
This text is part of a liturgy of God’s kingship. These verses are part of a brief outline of a worship service, opening with a hymn and perhaps a processional. The congregation is exhorted to come to Yahweh, singing with a joyful noise to the rock [tsur, referring to a sharp rock] of our salvation [yesha, meaning "safety" or "ease"] (v. 1). They are urged to come into his presence [panim, literally "face"] with thanksgiving and with a joyful noise of hymns and praise (v. 2). Yahweh is said to be a great God, a great king above all gods. The depths of the earth, the mountain’s heights, the sea, and the dry land are his, for he made them (vv. 3-5). More exhortation is given to worship and kneel before Yahweh the Creator, for he is said to be our God and we his sheep (vv. 6-7).

Application: This psalm would also inspire sermons devoted to praising God for his majesty and the way he gives us safety and ease in life (God and Providence). In this case as well, another possibility would be to focus on the nature of worship as joyful praise. But focusing on the majesty of the created order and helping the flock recognize that God’s rule is related to the fact that he made the cosmos (Creation) is another alternative.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
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 pre-date Jerusalem’s fall. The original collection of prophecies was rewritten and expanded by an editor. This lesson is a prophecy on the shepherds of Israel. Yahweh Elohim declares that he will himself search for his scattered sheep (vv. 11-12). He promises to bring them back to their own land where they will be fed (vv. 13-14). The Lord promises to be their shepherd [raah]. He will seek the lost, bring back the stray, and strengthen the weak (vv. 15-16). Yahweh Elohim proceeds to claim that he will judge [shaphat] between fat sheep and lean sheep, saving those who will no longer be ravaged (vv. 20-22). He will set over them one shepherd, his servant David, who will feed them and be their shepherd (v. 23). It is promised that the Lord will be the God of the people and David their prince (v. 24).

Application: A sermon on this text could provide occasion to proclaim God’s care for the poor despite our sinful resistance, and the forgiving, empowering grace we need in order to do this (Social Ethics, Sanctification, and Justification by Grace). Or more focus could be placed on God and Christ as our shepherd (Justification by Grace).

Ephesians 1:15-23
This book is a circular letter, written either by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had had a hand in gathering the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics which are markedly different from the Pauline corpus. Either way, the epistle seems to have been written to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15). This is a lesson offering thanksgiving reflections and prayer. It begins with the author claiming to have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love toward all the saints. Thus he gives thanks for them, remembering them in his prayers (vv. 15-16). He proceeds to pray that the God of Jesus Christ may give the Ephesians a spirit of wisdom and revelation enlightening their hearts [dianoia, which properly translates "mind"], so that they may know the hope [epis] to which he has called them and the riches of this inheritance among the saints (vv. 17-18). The author then speaks of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power [kratos] for all who believe (v. 19). God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him and seated him at his right hand, far above all earthly powers (vv. 20-21; cf. Psalms 110:1). God is said to have put all things under Christ’s feet, making him the head over all things for the church. It is said to be his body [soma] and fullness of him who fills all in all (vv. 22-23).

Application: This lesson invites sermons on the cosmic Christ (how the Logos permeates all the structures of creation and subdues them, most especially in the church). The implications of this insight about Christology and Creation for everyday life (a sense of Christ’s presence in everything) may be explored.

Matthew 25:31-46
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]), a book perhaps written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ proclamation of the great judgment.

Jesus begins by claiming that when the Son of Man [huios tou anthropou] comes with all the angels he will sit on the throne of glory (v. 31). All the nations will be gathered before the Son, it is noted, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats (v. 32). Then the king will tell those he puts on his right that they are blessed and may inherit the kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world (v. 34). This idea underlines the certainty of promise, endorsing the Hebrew idea that something we expect in the future is already present in God. Jesus then proceeds to comment that the reason for this separation was because those placed on his right fed him when he was hungry, welcomed him as a stranger, clothed and cared from him when he was naked and sick (vv. 35-36). The righteous will answer with surprise that they served him, Jesus notes (vv. 37-39). The king will answer that they have served him when they served the least of those who are members of his family, for then these deeds were done to him (v. 40). Next those placed by Jesus on his left hand will be told by him that they are cursed and must go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil (v. 41). For they have not served him when he came in the form of a stranger, or as one who is naked, sick, and in prison (vv. 42-43). The cursed will answer that they did not see Jesus come to them as hungry, thirsty, as a stranger, as naked, and the like (v. 44). Then Jesus, it is prophesied, will answer that as they did not do it to the least of these they have not done it to him (v. 45). And then they will go away to eternal punishment, while the righteous [dikaios] go to eternal life (v. 46). Scholars have argued that this lesson’s emphasis on works must be held in tension with Matthew’s stress on grace in 20:1-6 (Eduard Schweizer, Good News According to Matthew, p. 480).

Application: This lesson affords opportunity to proclaim how and why the last judgment is good news. Justification by Grace and Eschatology should be emphasized, with attention to Social Ethics and Sanctification. Another approach might be to focus on what it is like to find Christ in our poor neighbor.

Thanksgiving Day, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
What thankfulness does to us. The texts push the issue of thankfulness on us (Sanctification) as we explore the things to be thankful about (Creation, Providence, and Justification by Grace).

Psalm 65
The Psalm is a thanksgiving for good harvest. It is traditionally attributed to David and addressed to the leader (a worship leader in the Jerusalem Temple). We should be reminded that many scholars have concluded that references to David in the psalms 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 praise and thanksgiving the faithful offer.

The psalm begins with a reference to Elohim deserving praise for answering prayer. Reference to praise due in Zion refers to God’s presence on Mount Zion in the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 1-2). He is said to forgive sin (v. 3). Those whom he chooses to bring near are happy/blessed [ashere]. In keeping with the song’s purpose of calling for a gathering at the temple, it is proclaimed that those giving thanks will be satisfied with the goodness of the temple [hekal] (v. 4). As the psalm is addressed to one said to be the God of salvation, the psalmist expresses confidence in receiving an answer from God in righteousness [tsedeq]. Although in its original Hebraic context this reference to God’s righteousness could connote legal, judgmental actions or a legalism on the Lord’s part, most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive, but more about relationship. Indeed, it has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God is construed as something bestowed on the faithful (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff) in a manner not unlike what Paul teaches happens to Christians in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

As the text proceeds, God is identified as the hope/confidence [mitbach] of all the earth (v. 5). He is praised as Creator and the one who administers the earth (vv. 6-7). We are awed by his signs (v. 8). God is said to provide rain and water. Reference to the “river of God” is just a way of referring to God’s protection (v. 9; cf. 46:4), crowning the year with bounty. Reference in this verse to God’s “wagon tracks” is imagery referring to God riding clouds in a chariot or a poetic way of speaking of his providential presence (v. 11; cf. 68:4). Pastures then overflow with good crops. The meadows and valley should shout and sing for joy (vv. 12-13). God is said here to be the one who makes the earth fertile.

Application: The text invites sermons celebrating God’s role in making the earth fertile (Creation and Providence). But this can be related to or the focus of the sermon might merely be on God’s commitment to honoring his promises (what it means to say that he is righteous) (Justification by Grace). With either or both themes, there is much for which to give thanks (Sanctification).

Deuteronomy 8:7-18
We note again that this book is the product of writings that emerged during the sweeping religious reform under King Josiah in the late seventh century BC. This literary strand also influenced the histories of the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The basic theme of this piece of literature is evidenced by the meaning of its title (“Second Law”). Portrayed in the form of Moses’ farewell address, it is the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel.

Our lesson is a report of Moses warning the people that success in Canaan will tempt them to pride and to forget the wilderness lesson of complete dependence on God. Moses begins by speaking of Yahweh Elohim bringing the people into a good land, one with flowing springs, a land of wheat and barley, or olive trees and honey, a land where bread might be eaten without scarcity and nothing is lacking (vv. 7-10). He urges the people not to forget the Lord by failing to keep his commandments [mitsvah] and ordinances (v. 11). When they have eaten their fill and have fine houses with many herds, then they must not exalt themselves forgetting the Lord God who brought them out of slavery (vv. 12-14). The people are reminded that God has brought them through the wilderness with all its hazards, making water flow from flint rock and giving them manna in the wilderness (vv. 15-16). Moses warns against the people thinking they have gotten what they have through their own power (v. 17). For it is Yahweh Elohim who gives the power to get wealth [hon], so that he confirms his covenant [berith] which he swore to the ancestors (v. 18).

Application: This text invites reflection on our sinful preoccupation with self and forgetfulness of God’s covenant with us, and how thankfulness and appreciation that all we have is of God sets us free from such self-centeredness (Sin and Justification by Grace).

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Probably written by Saint Paul, the epistle was written to address relations with the church in Corinth which he had established (Acts 18:1-11). The context for the letter was that relations between the church and the apostle had further deteriorated during the period after 1 Corinthians had been written. Chapters 10-13 are so different in style and tone from the first chapters (including this lesson) as to lead scholars to conclude that those chapters are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. The lesson is part of Paul’s discourse on the collection he was raising for Christians in Jerusalem, leading him to offer exhortations on helping the poor.

Paul claims that one who sows sparingly reaps sparingly, but one who sows bountifully reaps bountifully (v. 6). Each must give as he/she has made up his/her mind to do so, not reluctantly. God loves a cheerful giver (v. 7). God is said to be able to provide every blessing in abundance so that we might share abundantly in every good work (v. 8). Paul does not seem to be negative about possessions at this point, seeing them as blessings. The great evangelist then quotes Isaiah 55:10 and its statement that God gives to the poor [penasen] and his righteousness [dikaiosune] endures forever (v. 9). No matter how one interprets God’s righteousness in this verse, the point seems clear that God will not change his behavior toward human beings, whether that means he will continue to be faithful to his covenant, will not change his commitment to maintaining our relationship with him, or will continue to make the faithful righteous. As God supplies the seed for the sower and bread for food, Paul states, he will also increase the harvest of righteousness (v. 10). The faithful will be changed, it seems, by God’s righteousness. The Corinthians, it is said, will be enriched in every way for their generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God (v. 11). The rendering of this ministry [leitourgia, a term used to describe free public service], Paul notes, not only supplies the needs of saints, but also overflows with many thanksgivings [eucharistia] to God (v. 12). Through the rendering of this ministry God is glorified by their obedience to the confession of the gospel [euaggelion] and by the generosity of their sharing with others, who in turn pray for the Corinthians because of the grace [charis] given to them (vv. 13-14). Thanks are given to God for his indescribable gift [presumably a reference to Christ] (v. 15).

Application: A sermon on this text can readily proclaim that the more thankful and focused on God we are, the more likely it is that good (including care for the poor) will happen spontaneously as God’s grace and righteousness come to manifest in our lives. Justification by Grace, Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works, and Social Ethics are the main emphases of the lesson.

Luke 17:11-19
This is one of the Synoptic gospels, the first installment of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the church (Acts 1:8). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful.

This is the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the ten lepers, an account unique to Luke perhaps because of the universal thrust of his message, making clear that Jews are not the only faithful people. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus is reported to have wandered through the region between Samaria and Galilee (v. 11). Ten lepers [lepros] approach him, keep their distance, and they plead for mercy (vv. 12-13). In keeping their distance from Jesus they observe the sanitary regulations of Leviticus 13:45-46. Jesus instructs the lepers to show themselves to the priests, and as they went they were made clean (v. 14). One returns to Jesus to thank him. He was a Samaritan [whom the Jews of Judah regarded as lapsed and impure followers of Yahweh] (vv. 15-16). Jesus asks about the other nine [presumably Jews] and whether they were made clean, noting that none returned to praise him save the foreigner (vv. 17-18). Then Jesus tells the thankful healed leper to rise and go on his way, because his faith [pistis] has made him well (v. 19). The Greek word (the perfect active indicative form of sodzo) translated “made well” in this verse might also be translated “saved.”

Application: Several sermon options present themselves in this text. We have an opportunity to condemn our ingratitude and lack of thanksgiving (Sin), to remind us of all the reasons to give God thanks (Grace and Providence), but also entailing a healthy cynicism about the lack of gratitude we can expect to receive from those to whom we do favors (Sanctification). Another possibility is to highlight that often the most faithful among us are those who are outside the mainstream and removed from the social classes of churchgoers (Social Ethics).

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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