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Transfiguration Sunday, Cycle A

The unifying theme for this occasion is obviously the Transfiguration of our Lord. The Exodus 24:12-18 and Psalm 2 texts were used in the composition of the Transfiguration accounts within the Synoptic Gospels. The writer of 2 Peter 1:16-21 probably used the Transfiguration account from one or more of the Synoptic Gospels as a literary source. These Series A selections, therefore, are the most fully integrated texts within the three-year series of texts for this occasion.

Psalm 2
In its setting within the Israelite Scriptures, Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm in which it is proclaimed that the Israelite king is the adopted son of the Lord God of Israel, to whom the Lord gives great powers. The Markan tradition, followed by the Matthean and the Lukan, included a short segment of Psalm 2 in the voice from heaven in the accounts of Jesus’ Baptism and of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Our Christian tradition can and may, of course, interpret this portion of Psalm 2 in this way and apply its words to Jesus. It is important, however, that we realize that Psalm 2 was originally intended to apply to a king in ancient Israel and that Jews today retain its original intention.

Exodus 24:12-18
It is obvious that Exodus 24:12-18 is included in this lectionary selection because of the references in Exodus 24 to Moses on a mountain, to six days, to the covering by the cloud, and to the giving of the Torah, or at least to the giving of the Decalogue. Each of these items is used in some way in the Transfiguration accounts in the Synoptic traditions. Each of these items provides an important clue to the intentions of the writers of the Synoptic traditions.

2 Peter 1:16-21
This text is a fascinating example of pseudonymous authorship. The author writes in the name of Peter, making extravagant claims to be Peter himself, present with our Lord Jesus Christ on the holy mountain of Transfiguration. Nevertheless, the basis of the author’s claim is “the prophetic word of Scripture,” which is not simply based on human experience and human interpretation of the significance of events, but is produced when persons moved by the Spirit of God speak from God. There is no better description than 2 Peter 1:16-21 anywhere else in our Scriptures of the nature and substance of the prophetic word. Certainly what we have in the accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are excellent examples of inspired creativity that validate the words of Jesus in each of the Synoptic Gospels themselves.

Therefore, the author of 2 Peter depended on the authority of the prophetic word of Scripture in the Synoptic Transfiguration accounts, and at the same time was being moved by the Spirit of God to speak from God. We who proclaim the prophetic word of Scripture are basically in the same situation as was the pseudonymous author of 2 Peter. We too are moved by the Spirit of God to speak from God, and our own names also are not what is most important in our proclamation.

Matthew 17:1-9
This well-known account, which has only minor redactional modifications when compared to the earlier Mark 9:2-10 account, is considered by most Christians to be simply a written record of something that occurred just as it is recorded. Much more, however, than simply a written record of an event is involved here. If this were simply a written record of an important event during the public ministry of Jesus, why does John — who according to this viewpoint wrote the Gospel According to John — have no mention of this astonishing event, even though according to this account he was present for this most astonishing experience on a mountain while Jesus was talking with two men who had died many hundreds of years previously, while Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who are not said to have been present, include this account? We must do more, therefore, this coming weekend than merely tell this story of the account of the Transfiguration and ask our hearers to accept it as a marvelous and very unusual event. These Transfiguration accounts are extremely important proclamations about Jesus. They are literally packed full of meanings that we can only begin to perceive.

Let us consider, therefore, these questions: Who is Moses in biblical symbolism? Is not Moses the great personal symbol of the Torah? Who is Elijah in biblical symbolism? Is not Elijah the great personal symbol of the Prophetic Traditions? Do not Moses and Elijah together symbolize the Torah and the Prophetic traditions, the Sacred Scripture for most Jewish people and early followers of Jesus at the time of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels? We see, therefore, that the Transfiguration accounts proclaim that Jesus is in the same league with Moses and Elijah, who talk with him. The alert reader/hearer will recognize the intended proclamation that in these accounts Jesus and his words and work are being validated as on the same level of authority as the Sacred Scriptures — the Torah and the Prophetic Traditions — as they were then known. (The Writings had not been accepted as canonical. The Writings were accepted as canonical by the rabbis at Jamnia in 89-90 CE.)

Jesus as a person and Jesus as a symbol of faith are proclaimed as validated in these Transfiguration accounts by God by means of the impressive “voice from heaven,” God saying, “Listen to him!” We see also that after the cloud moved away the disciples are reported to have seen no one there except Jesus. Moses and Elijah (the personal symbols of the Torah and Prophetic Traditions) have faded away. Only Jesus is seen, and the voice of God from heaven has proclaimed Jesus to be God’s beloved Son whom his disciples are commanded to hear.

The people to whom these accounts are proclaimed are commanded by God to accept the authority of Jesus and of his words and actions that are now in written form, first in the Gospel According to Mark and later extended to the other Synoptic Gospels.

The climax of our Epiphany season proclamation each year is, therefore, that Jesus our Lord and Savior is God’s greatest manifestation of God’s self to us and to the world. Let us listen to him and to his words in written and in oral form in our lives!

Ash Wednesday, Cycle A

As we ponder the meaning of the season of Lent and the significance we would like for it to have this year for us and for the people with whom we live, we begin with these Ash Wednesday texts.

We see that in Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 the emphasis is on appropriate behavior. In Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 the Lord God commands the people to fast, weep, mourn, repent, and return to the Lord. In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 the guidelines are to help those who are in need, pray, fast, and to store up your treasures in heaven where they will never be lost. It is obvious that for those who selected these texts for use on Ash Wednesday the behavior commanded in these texts from Joel and from Matthew were very important, especially for the season of Lent. They then selected a portion of one of the best known penitential psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 51) to indicate appropriate prayer to accompany appropriate behavior. Finally, the grace of God was brought into this series of texts with the inclusion of the Apostle Paul’s passive imperative verb katallagete (“be reconciled” to God) in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and in Paul’s entreaty in 2 Corinthians 6:1 not to receive the grace of God in vain. The 2 Corinthians reading provides for us, therefore, a very important addition to the appropriate behavior emphasis of the Joel and Matthew texts. The inclusion of the 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10 reading suggests that we emphasize the grace of God along with appropriate behavior during Lent each year and perhaps once each three years make it the primary focus.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, many of us found in Isaiah 58 a message that resonated very well with us. It was that unless we are actively involved in social justice, in addressing the conditions in which people suffer economic and political oppression, as well as in being engaged in immediate and continued direct assistance to the oppressed, our fasting is no way acceptable to the Lord God. As a result, Isaiah 58:1-12 is now an alternative reading to Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 on Ash Wednesday. This inclusion of Isaiah 58:1-12 brings a very important dimension to our observance of Lent.

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Let us look more closely, first of all, at Paul’s passive imperative verb katallagete in 2 Corinthians 5:20. From a theological perspective, the passive imperative is one of the most significant grammatical constructions in Indo-European languages. Paul exhorts the followers of Jesus in Corinth and, because his exhortation here is sacred Scripture for us, also exhorts us to be reconciled to God by the grace of God. We believe that God makes this reconciliation possible by means of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, through the great atonement proclaimed by Paul and elaborated upon by other Christian theologians later.

What, then, is our role in this reconciling action? According to the grammatical construction, we are passive. God in Christ is the active one. We are to be passive, to have this done to us. “Be reconciled to God!” we are told. We can, of course, choose to reject this reconciliation, but Paul urges his readers and hearers to permit it to be done, to be forgiven, to become a new creation in Christ, as described in the 2 Corinthians 5:20a portion that precedes this text. All are strongly urged to accept this grace of God from God and to live in this grace. In 2 Corinthians 6:3-13 and continuing in 7:2-4 Paul claims that he and his co-proclaimers are trying to put no obstacles in anyone’s path. He wants no obstacles of any kind to keep this message of passive reception of the grace of God from anyone who might want to hear it.

Our work, therefore, on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten season, in accordance with this 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10 text, is to prevent any and all obstacles from hindering God’s action of reconciling us and others to God through Jesus as the Christ.

Let us look now at the other texts appointed for us for this day in the light of Paul’s admonition to us that we should “Be reconciled to God by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let us, as Martin Luther insisted, interpret Scripture by the use of Scripture. In this way, we shall be letting the “gospel” — which in the texts chosen for this day is in the “epistle” — shed light on the other texts selected.

Psalm 51:1-17
The portion of Psalm 51 selected here puts emphasis on the penitential prayer. The obstacles to be removed in this instance are the psalmist’s sins (and our sins). These sins are great, but the appeal is that God’s mercy is greater than our sins. From our Christian standpoint, the forgiveness of our sins is accomplished by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus perceived as the Christ. We recognize, however, that the Israelites and Jewish people prior to, during, and after the development of Christianity called upon the mercy of God with no reference to Jesus, and we can and should assume that God has been able to forgive them. To assume anything less would be to limit God.

In the portion of Psalm 51 that follows verses 1-13, the psalmist shows an awareness that God does not need burnt offerings and other sacrifices in order to be able to forgive sins. God is interested in our broken and contrite hearts. When our hearts are contrite, the offerings and sacrifices will have value.

Has this changed since the time the psalmist wrote and sang this psalm? Which is the more inclusive concept, atonement or forgiveness? Do we today always require atonement of each other (of our children for example) before we will forgive them? Within our cultural milieu is it possible that an overemphasis on atonement theology places an unnecessary limitation upon God and upon our perception of God?

Atonement theology is useful and valuable within our understanding of God’s grace, but perhaps it should be seen as only one of the ways in which we may perceive God’s action in Christ and in history. Atonement theology was a way in which some of the followers of Jesus after the crucifixion of Jesus saw some very important good that God had brought about after that tragic event. Atonement theology is one of the ways in which we continue as Christians to see the crucifixion of Jesus, but it is only one of the ways in which we understand the crucifixion of Jesus. Considered together with the resurrection of Jesus, we see the action of God as a vindication of Jesus and of his life. God did not prevent the Romans from crucifying Jesus, but we believe that God vindicated Jesus and made the Romans powerless via the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. For more about this, see Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 419-436.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
This text elaborates on the ideas of Psalm 51 beautifully and even more vividly. Again in relation to this text, let us consider the issues and questions raised above about atonement and forgiveness. Atonement is very important in “classical” Christian theology. There is no subject, however, in which Jews and Muslims are more significantly different from Christians than on the subject of atonement. Jews and Muslims understand and teach that no person, even God, can atone for the sins of someone else. For Jews and for Muslims, each person is totally responsible and accountable for that person’s own sins.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is very important for Jews and for Muslims, as well as for Christians. We agree within these three religions that we should always seek forgiveness from people whom we have harmed and then also from God, asking God to spare God’s people, as this Joel 2 text indicates.

For more about the understanding among Jews and among Muslims that no one can atone for the sins of someone else, see Hassan Hathout, Reading the Muslim Mind (Plainfield: American Trust, 1995), pp. 33-35, and my Blessed to be a Blessing to Each Other: Jews, Muslims, and Christians as Children of Abraham in the Middle East (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, Revised edition, 2010), pp. 51-54.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
A glance at the Synoptic parallels shows that except for Matthew 6:19-21 the components of this pericope are peculiar to Matthew. We can say, therefore, that the materials in Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-18 are best understood as teachings of the leaders of the Matthean community in Jesus’ name. The positive aspects of these teachings are certainly applicable for us today as Christians. We should help those who are in need, we should pray to God, and we should fast, but we should do none of these in order to be praised. The negative anti-Jewish aspects that condemn the Jews and their leaders in these verses have no positive value.

Isaiah 58:1-12
As indicated above, the inclusion of Isaiah 58:1-12 as a text to be read and reflected upon on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten season brings a very important dimension to our observance of Lent. It reminds us that if want to do something that is truly important during Lent or at any other time, we should help people who are in need, especially those who are oppressed economically, politically, socially, and in any other way. That is what the inspired speaker and writer in this Isaiah tradition text said and apparently did. That is what the Jesus of history said and that is what the Jesus of history did. There can be no doubt about that.

Lent is the season of the Church Year in which we focus in our study and reflection upon the Jesus of history. There are a multitude of texts in the Four Gospels that are evidence of words and actions of the Jesus of history in support of those who were oppressed during that time. There is very little evidence in support of Jesus himself fasting, other than at the beginning of his public service in the Synoptic Gospels, and nothing about his giving up for a few weeks a bad habit that was obviously harmful to himself or to others. If we want to be like Jesus during Lent, or better yet throughout the year and during our entire lives, let us do whatever we can to change systems that rob the oppressed and give excess bounty to the rich, within our own nation and throughout the world.

First Sunday in Lent, Cycle A

God’s gifts of life and free will, humankind’s choice of sin and disobedience, humankind’s need for forgiveness and redemption, and God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness, especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ who resisted evil and temptation and was obedient to God — these are the great themes of the texts selected for the First Sunday in Lent, Series A.

Except for the specifically Christian solution in Jesus as the Lord and Savior, these are the great themes within all of the major religions that had their origin in the Ancient Near East (Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and their various derivatives). It will be well for us, therefore, on the First Sunday in Lent to look at the big picture that shall be elaborated upon during the entire Lenten season and not become bogged down in minor details on this occasion.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
If we insist that this group of readings contains a record of precisely what happened in terms of actions and conversations between God, Adam and Eve, and the serpent, we shall have some very serious theological problems. We might even have to say that it appears that God set a trap for these young, innocent, idyllic people, Adam and Eve, using the tree of knowledge of good and evil and, with only slight prodding from the clever serpent, Eve and then Adam fell into the trap that God had set for them. Once this had occurred, God had to condemn them to death as God had threatened to do. Since God must know everything, God must have known that they would fall into sin. If God had been certain that they would sin, why did God set them up in a situation such as this? If this group of readings contains a record of precisely what happened, what kind of God is God?

On the other hand, if we have some awareness of the nature of religious language and of the use of storytelling to convey a theological message, differences in genres, life situations, and so on, we can approach the great subject under consideration here in a much different manner. Then we can see that perceptive early Israelites, believing in God as Creator-Redeemer to whom they were accountable, reflected theologically on the human situation as they saw it, and claiming the inspiration of God to validate their explanations, with inspired creativity developed these stories about the first man and the first woman, of good and evil in pristine form, of the serpent, and of their own struggles and mortality. These stories — so familiar to us now that we can practically visualize every detail, even (thanks to movies and videotapes) of a snake crawling in a tree — express the human condition over against God as the early Israelites and their Jahwistic folk tradition perceived it. The stories that they told to their children and grandchildren were expressed so well that even small children could and still can gain understanding from them. Children then and now can perceive it in the form of a fascinating fable in which there is actual fruit and a snake that talks in Hebrew, English, and/or any other language as needed. Adults can recognize in these stories what these early People of God believed about their origins and their present situations. These stories are true, valid, and even historical in the best sense of compressed history, oral and literary gems in the messages that they convey. Then we ask not, “Why did God set such a trap for that poor, simple, young woman Eve?” but “Is this not the way that it is for me today also?” Then we can say, “God permits me to sin, and I sin. I cannot blame God for that. I can, however, thank God that God provides grace and forgiveness, particularly in Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”

Psalm 32
The psalmist begins with a beatitude, “Blessed is the person whose sin is forgiven.” The wicked are contrasted with the righteous and shown to be foolish for not turning to the Lord; they are like a mule, without understanding. The psalmist then demonstrates how reasonable it is to acknowledge one’s sin to the Lord and to receive forgiveness and peace. As an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, Psalm 32 is most persuasive; those who hear can hardly fail to respond.

Romans 5:12-19
Paul provides a specifically Christian solution to the problems that we face in our human condition. Unlike Genesis 2 and 3 and unlike Matthew 4:1-11, Paul did not use a vivid story to express his message and to share his good news. Paul used what he considered to be a persuasive, logical argument in comparing the one man Adam who sinned to the one man Jesus Christ who was obedient to God. We note how freely Paul adapted the Genesis 2 and 3 materials in the presentation of his message of good news here and in Philippians 2:1-11. Paul did not blame the woman Eve here for the sin that spread to all people. Therefore, once again on this occasion the gospel is in the epistle!

Matthew 4:1-11
In the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark) it is merely stated that Jesus had been driven by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by Satan. The Matthean and the Lukan redactors (and possibly Q traditions before them) chose to go farther to provide a vivid story complete with Satan in human form leading Jesus around and quoting Scripture texts to him. Is there any new religion among those that have their origin in the Ancient Near East in which the primary founder of the religion is not acclaimed as the hero of faith who triumphantly overcame every human temptation? The stories differ in their details, but the stories are always there, and they are helpful to us, especially when we recognize them as stories that have great theological significance for us.

Transfiguration of Our Lord (Last Sunday of Epiphany), Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
God in all his glory is too good to miss! Dwelling on the majesty of God revealed in the Transfiguration reminds us of our sin and provides the assurance that evil has no chance to prevail over Christ (Providence, Justification by Grace, and Eschatology).

Psalm 2
A royal Psalm composed for a coronation of a king, about Yahweh giving universal dominion to his king. The Psalm could be interpreted as a messianic prophecy. The psalmist begins by asking why plans are being hatched by nations and their kings plotting against Yahweh and his anointed (Maschiach, a title for the Messiah and also for a Hebrew king) (vv. 1-2). The Lord in heaven is said to laugh at these plans. It is asserted that he will speak in wrath to these plotters, noting that he has set his king on the highest point in Jerusalem (Zion) (vv. 4-6). The psalmist then announces a decree of the Lord that the anointed one is his Son, begotten by God (v. 7). This may be a royal protocol to be proclaimed at the time of the king’s coronation. God further proclaims that the anointed one will have all the nations to the ends of the earth as his possession, for the king will conquer them (vv. 8-9). As a result all the kings should be wise and be warned. The Lord will be served with fear and trembling, or he will be angry and they will perish. His wrath is quickly kindled, but happy are all who take refuge in the Lord (vv. 10-11).

Application: A sermon on this text (understood as a prophecy of Jesus Christ, for in a way he was enthroned at the Transfiguration no less than the Hebraic king for whom the song was written) has an opportunity to proclaim the eternality of God’s plans, so that the events of Jesus’ life (including the Transfiguration) are not accidents of history. For in referring to the Transfiguration long before his incarnation, the Psalm testifies that the events of Jesus’ life were intended by God from the beginning; his power and glory are then clearly revealed in this Psalm (Providence). Another possible direction is to proclaim the futility of our sin and selfish schemes, for ultimately God will prevail over them. This also can provide an occasion to offer comfort to the flock in the midst of despair.

OR

Psalm 99
This is a Hymn of Praise for God’s holy and righteous rule, sometimes called an Enthronement Psalm, which was used on festivals like the Festival of Booths (Leviticus 23:33ff). The Psalm begins with the proclamation that Yahweh is king, and the people may tremble (v. 1a). He is said to sit upon the cherubim [kerubim, spiritual beings, known in other religions of the ancient Near East who serve God] (v. 1b). The Lord is then said to be great in Zion (the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem), exalted over the people (v. 2). All are to praise his awesome name, his holiness (vv. 3, 9). He is said to be a mighty king, a lover of justice, who executes justice and righteousness (v. 4). Directives are given to extol Yahweh and worship him, for he is holy (v. 5). He is praised for answering the petitions of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, who kept his decrees (vv. 6-8a; cf. Exodus 32:11-14; Deuteronomy 9:26-29; Numbers 6:22-26; 1 Samuel 7:9). He is proclaimed as a forgiving God, always faithful to his people, but also an avenger of wrongdoing (v. 8).

Application: The alternate Psalm also provides an occasion to proclaim God’s providence — his control of the events of world history and thankfully to praise and celebrate this. It is also an opportunity to remember that this omnipotent God never gives up on his people and is always ready to listen to our prayers and forgive our indiscretions (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Prayer/Sanctification).

Exodus 24:12-18
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 text we have a second tradition of Moses receiving the tablets of stone on which the Decalogue was written. (This version is probably the work of a tenth/ninth-century BC strand called J, because it refers to the Lord as Yahweh.) The first version appears in verses 3-8. In this account Yahweh summons Moses to receive the tablets on the mountain (v. 12). But note that in verse 9 Moses and the elders are reported to have already climbed Mount Sinai. This may indicate that we deal here with a literary or oral tradition distinct from verses 3-8. Moses sets out with Joshua and went onto the mountain of God, instructing the elders to wait until he and Joshua returned. If disputes emerged the people were to go to High Priest Aaron and Hur, a notable leader of the tribe of Judah who functioned to resolve legal challenges (vv. 13-14). At the top of the mountain, covered with a cloud, the glory of Yahweh settled there. For six days the cloud covered it, until on the seventh day he called Moses out of the cloud (vv. 15-16). The glory of Yahweh is reported to be like a devouring fire, an image for God used elsewhere in Exodus (v. 17; 13:21; cf. Isaiah 30:30; Ezekiel 1:4). Moses entered the cloud, went up on the mountain, and remained there forty days and nights (v. 18). Of course the number forty is a stereotypical number used in the biblical era to indicate a full period (16:35; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9-11, 18, 25; Matthew 4:2). This encounter with God introduces priestly material in chapters 25-31 regarding things like how the tabernacle is to be built, priestly vestments, and the like, which may have replaced the early tradition about Moses making the Ark of the Covenant (see Deuteronomy 10:1-5).

Application: The text makes clear that we need God and Christ (his illumination) in order to make sense of the Ten Commandments. One direction might be to note that until we see the commandments illuminated by the devouring fire who is God and also revealed in all his glory in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2, 6), we may think we are capable of keeping these commandments. We can no longer hold such self-righteousness about ourselves in light of the glory of God. Such an awareness of sin prepares us to hear the gospel of God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness. Another possibility is to focus on the Hebraic understanding of the law [torah]. Recall that it is not intended to connote judgmental, condemnatory decrees. Rather for the Jewish heritage the law is instruction or guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). But here we can remember Matthew’s Jesus claims that he came not to abolish the law but fulfill it (5:17). And so a sermon might develop the theme that in Christ, but only in him, the law may be kept or fulfilled (Sanctification and Christology).

2 Peter 1:16-20
This is a book presented as Peter’s testament, an account of the teaching as he wished it to be remembered (1:1, 14-15). Probably written in the last two decades of the first century, if not early in the second century, it is not likely the work of the apostle himself. Perhaps it was written from Rome claiming Peter’s authority. There is a close relationship between the letter and Jude. In fact, 2:1-18 and 3:1-3 may have adapted material from Jude. The reference to a previous letter (3:1) may have been to Jude and not 1 Peter, which addresses a different social setting.

In the lesson, the author, in the persona of Peter, claims not to have followed cleverly devised myths/fables [muthois] in making known the power of Christ’s coming, but claims to have been an eyewitness of his majesty (v. 16). He seems to be responding to charges that the apostles’ prediction of Christ’s second coming was a result of their invention. The author reports on events that seem to be the Transfiguration — seeing his majestic glory and hearing the proclamation of his sonship in a voice from heaven (vv. 17-18). In a sense this event is presented to critics of the Christ’s second coming as a foretaste of what Christ will be like when he comes again. The author closes with a reference to the prophetic message and advises that no prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation (vv. 19-20).

Application: There are many myths and fables about life and the future circulating in modern American society like there were in the Roman empire. The lesson makes clear that in the apostles’ testimony and in Jesus’ Transfiguration in particular we have assurance of what lies ahead — that a glorified Christ and omnipotent God ultimately overcomes the chaos and meaninglessness of our myths about life (Providence, Christology, and Sanctification, and Eschatology).

Matthew 17:1-9
The lesson is the most Jewish-oriented version of all the gospels on the story of the Transfiguration. The gospel reports that six days after his lesson on discipleship (16:24-28) or after Peter confessed him to be Christ (16:13-23), Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John to a high mountain (v. 1). (These three seem to be Jesus’ inner circle of disciples [26:37].) He is transfigured and his face became like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white (v. 2). Then it is reported that Moses and Elijah appeared, entering into conversation (v. 3). (These prominent Old Testament figures could represent the law, indicating that there is a conversation/compatibility between Jesus’ gospel and the law, a theme most compatible with Matthew.) Peter observes it is good to be present and offers to make dwellings/tents [skaynas] for Jesus and guests (v. 4). (Some scholars speculate that Peter’s suggestion either represents his attempt to prolong this vision, or it could be the author’s attempt to relate this event to the Hebraic Festival of Booths, a thanksgiving celebrated at harvest time [Leviticus 23:33-34].) While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice announcing that Jesus was his beloved Son was heard (v. 5). Hearing this, the disciples fell on the ground, overcome with fear (v. 6). Next Jesus touches them, assuring them not to fear. The disciples then only see Jesus (vv. 7-8). Coming down the mountain it is reported that Jesus orders his companions to tell no one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead (v. 9).

Application: The Transfiguration’s testimony to Christ’s glorification (Christology) can be related to the upcoming preparation for the celebration of the resurrection on Easter. This can become an opportunity to reflect on how God ultimately overcomes death, evil, and chaos (Justification by Grace, Providence, and Eschatology). The engagement of Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration might also permit reflections on the compatibility between Jesus’ gospel and the law (if understood as torah, described and with the stipulations noted in the application for the First Lesson).

Ash Wednesday, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Sorrow for sin and the way out. The occasion for the day and its assigned lessons serve to stimulate our awareness of sin as well as the need for repentance (its urgency, which relates to Sanctification and Realized Eschatology) and God’s forgiveness (Justification by Grace).

Psalm 51:1-17
A lament Psalm for healing and moral renewal traditionally ascribed to David after being condemned by Nathan for sexual transgressions with Bathsheba. Of course as we have previously noted, it is unlikely that David is the author of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). In fact some scholars conclude that references to David in the Psalms may be a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects, and so of all the faithful (Ibid., p. 521). In that sense this lament and plea for healing and renewal is our song.

The psalmist urges God to have mercy and cleanse our sin (vv. 1-4, 7, 9). Reference to being purged with hyssop in verse 7 suggests a ceremony of sprinkling such as those reported in Exodus 12:22 and Leviticus 14:51. God has no interest in sacrifice, as the psalmist notes (vv. 16-17). He adds that sin is only sin if committed against God (v. 4). Presumably ordinary guilt is not sin. A reference is made to being born in sin (suggesting the Christian doctrine of Original Sin) (v. 5) and also to being rejected by the Holy Spirit (v. 11). The psalmist proceeds to note that God desires inward truth and wisdom (v. 6). After reiterating the plea for deliverance and mercy (even from physical distress), the psalmist pleads for joy and gladness (vv. 7-9; cf. v. 12). This leads to hope for transformation that the forgiven sinner be given a new and right heart and a willing spirit. Reference to the Holy Spirit [ruach qodesh] given to the believer seems to be a reference even in this Old Testament context to God’s sustaining presence (vv. 10-11). Such a transformation will lead to evangelism (v. 13) and praise of God (vv. 15, 17).

Application: The lament invites at least two possible directions. One could focus on David’s life as a model for our own — despite the appearance of respectability he is a sinner, just like the flock (exploring our sinful sexual proclivities), and yet God used him to do great things for the kingdom and so we have the hope of doing great things (though perhaps not as great as David) for God (Sin and Sanctification). Other possibilities include helping the flock to recognize that mere guilt is not a consciousness of sin until we realize that what we have done to produce the guilt is an insult to God, and also focusing on the Holy Spirit (God’s presence), without whom forgiveness and the desire to do good, including evangelism (vv. 10-13), are worthless and will not happen (Pneumatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The book reports on the ministry of a cultic prophet who did his work in the Jerusalem Temple, probably during the period of Persian domination after the return of the Babylonian exiles (539 BC–331 BC). (Some speculate that the concluding sections of the book [2:28ff] may be the work of an editor of the period of the Maccabees in the second century BC.) The book’s historical theme is the plague of locusts that had destructively descended on Israel (1:4). It is also characterized by apocalyptic/eschatological elements — references to the Day of the Lord (2:1-11, 28-32; 3:1-3, 9ff). There is an evolution in this concept from being a day of judgment, not one of salvation, to the suggestion that it is a theme of hope and salvation (3:1ff).

The text is a cry of alarm since the cataclysmic day of the Lord is coming. Reference to a great and powerful army and to the clouds of thick darkness is probably a way of talking about the plague of locusts ravaging the land (though they might just symbolize the eschatological cataclysm) (vv. 1-2). Yahweh even seems at the head of this plague in verse 11, but then the prophet abruptly changes to a more gentle tone. He proceeds to make a call to repentance by which the calamity might be averted (vv. 12-17). Fasting, weeping, mourning, and offerings in the temple are commended, but above all a repentance of the heart is exhorted (vv. 12-13, 15). Yahweh is said to be gracious and merciful (a phrase often attributed to the Lord as it is rooted in Israel’s ancient formulations of faith [Exodus 34:6; cf. Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:5]). An assembly to sanctify the people is called (vv. 15-16). These verses and the one continuing to the end of the lesson take the form of a traditional liturgy. Priests (also called “ministers [sharath] of the Lord”) are called on to weep for the people in the temple (especially in the inner court reserved for priests — between the vestibule and the altar) and urge God to spare the people, so that the truth of their commitment to Yahweh will no longer be questioned by Gentiles (v. 17).

Application: The text affords a good opportunity to call the congregation to repentance and to explain why confession of sins is part of worship, and why they both are driven by grace (the gracious and merciful God Joel describes) (Sin and Justification by Grace). There is an urgency in such repentance (Realized Eschatology).

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
This epistle was written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church that had further deteriorated during the period after 1 Corinthians had been written. Chapters 10-13 of the book are so different in style and tone from the first chapters as to lead scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. In this text Paul is either responding to critics or writing part of a letter of reconciliation.

Paul begins the lesson by urging the Corinthians for Christ’s sake to be reconciled [katallasso, to be changed thoroughly] to God (5:20b); Christ, it is noted, became sin (assumed our sinful nature [Romans 8:3]) so that we might become the righteousness of God (5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30). Justification and righteousness [dikaiosune] are here woven together. They have a similar Greek root, for justification [dikaioma] resembles the Greek equivalent for the term “righteousness.” You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.” There is much controversy in New Testament scholarship about what Paul means by “righteousness of God,” a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as not having to do with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). And so it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, and it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373). The concept of “reconciliation” in verse 20b as entailing, being thoroughly changed supports this idea. God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22.

The apostle proceeds to urge that we not accept God’s grace in vain (6:1). Citing Isaiah 49:8 about God listening at an acceptable time, helping the faithful on the day of salvation, Paul notes that now is the moment to act (the end is near) (6:2). No obstacle will be put in the way of any believer, and so no one can rightly criticize his ministry (6:3). He accounts the suffering and persecution he has experienced in ministry (6:4-7). In antiquity, hardship and virtue were closely linked. The apostle concludes with seven antithetic clauses illustrating the hiddenness of the gospel — under dishonor, death, suffering, sorrow, and poverty (vv. 8-10).

Application: The text exhorts the faithful to appreciate the urgency of repenting, interpreted as God’s work in Christ (Realized Eschatology and Justification by Grace). Other possibilities include a sermon on the Atonement (on how Christ’s work on the Cross taking on our sin restores our relationship with God [thoroughly changes us]) or on how the Christian life is hidden (not a smooth life of prosperity, but one prone to ups and downs, to persecutions and hardships [Sanctification and Theological Method]).

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This lesson reports another segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, teaching practical piety. Most of the text is peculiar to Matthew and his efforts to address Jewish Christians in Antioch who were no longer in communion with the synagogue. Jesus begins with a warning against a hypocritical piety (especially doing merciful deeds; Matthew usually has the Pharisees in mind when referring to “hypocrisy”) that aims for others to notice one’s faith (v. 1). Likewise it is said to be better to give alms (gifts of charity in synagogues, the foremost act of piety in the eyes of first-century Jews) without fanfare, so that “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing” (vv. 2-4). In a similar manner, it is said to be better to pray privately than ostentatiously in public (vv. 5-6).

After a critique of long public prayers (vv. 7-8), teaching the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13), and exhorting forgiveness (vv. 14-15), Jesus urges that fasting not be done ostentatiously so that only the Father knows (vv. 16-18). (In this era, pious Jews fasted twice a week.) Here we observe Matthew’s anti-Pharisaism coupled with a moral strategy. Jesus critiques trust in worldly goods, which are prone to destruction (vv. 19-20). In ancient times a large part of wealth consisted of costly garments liable to destruction by moths. Then Matthew has Jesus add that one’s treasure is indicative of one’s heart [kardia] (v. 21), i.e. one’s moral priorities (see 9:4; 12:34; Psalm 24:3-4).

Application: This lesson affords an opportunity to condemn the sin of hypocrisy and works righteousness that often infects the faithful. Opportunity is also given to critique the mad quest for wealth that characterizes American life (Sin and Social Ethics). By helping parishioners recognize their sin, they will be prepared for the call to repentance of the First Lesson and the word of forgiveness in the Second Lesson (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Lent 1, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The focus on Original Sin again makes us sense our own unworthiness and need for God’s forgiving grace (Justification by Grace). In some of the texts the consequences of this grace for daily life are also considered (Sanctification). These emphases emerge from the tradition of commemorating the First Sunday in Lent in relation to its roots as the beginning of a period of religious instruction preparing those who would be baptized on Easter to confess their faith.

Psalm 32
A Psalm of thanksgiving for healing attributed to David. It is a Maskil Psalm, which is an artful or didactic song composed with artistic skills, though with didactic elements. Since it is unlikely that David wrote the Psalm or had a role in collecting Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it is difficult to determine the date of the lesson.

The psalmist begins by singing that those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered [kasha], are happy [ashar, which also connotes being blessed, for one cannot be happy apart from the things of God, see Psalm 1] (vv. 1-2). This concept of having sins covered is language most consistent with Pauline thinking, and also is present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 85:2; Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16) teaching that God’s righteousness covers our sin or at least makes salvation happen (Romans 3:21-26, 4:6-8, 5:18-19; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21). Healing seems to be involved in this happiness, as reference is made by the psalmist to his body wasting away and that the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him (vv. 3-4). Disease was commonly regarded as punishment for sin in Old Testament times. The Hebrew word Selah appearing in the text after verse 4 and other verses refers to the introduction of musical interludes at these points.

Following the acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness, it is noted that healing came (v. 5). The Psalm proceeds to observe that all who are faithful offer prayers at a time of distress and will be preserved, for the Lord is a hiding place (vv. 6-7). (The reference to “the rush of mighty waters” in v. 6 is a common Old Testament image for terrible distress that threatens to overwhelm the one suffering.) The Lord’s word is introduced and he assures us that he will teach us the way to go, always with his eye on us (v. 8). We are warned against being like a horse or mule without understanding, for steady love surrounds those who trust in the Lord (vv. 9-10). Consequently we (the righteous [tsaddiq], not just those who are good but those who are in right relation with the Lord [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371]) are exhorted to be glad in Yahweh and rejoice (v. 11).

Application: The song affords an occasion to reflect on how sin seems to overwhelm us at times, putting us in the deepest distress. After exploring this kind of empathy with the congregation, the Psalm also encourages opportunities to proclaim the good news that God has forgiven us (Justification by Grace). But we also learn from the song of the happiness that follows from this awareness, for we are surrounded by God’s love (Sanctification). A sermon on the text could also be an occasion to explore how happiness is related to living with and among the things of God (a crucial theme of the book of Psalms) (Sanctification).

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Like all of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is the account of the story of the fall into sin. This version is probably the work of a tenth/ninth-century BC strand called J because it refers to the Lord as Yahweh.

The story begins with the testimony that Yahweh Elohim gave man the Garden of Eden to keep and till, allowing man to eat of every tree in Eden except the tree of knowledge [ets daath] (2:15-17). It may be useful to consider the narrative parallel in 1:29, written by the priestly oral tradition composed in the sixth century BC. The serpent (nachash, a creature craftier than any wild animal God made) tempts the woman. The role of a serpent here is reminiscent of the snake in the ancient Mesopotamian story The Epic of Gilgamesh (11.287-289), who steals from Gilgamesh a plant conferring immortality. Returning to the Genesis account, the serpent then asks her if God forbade eating of any tree in the Garden, and she responds that only the tree in the middle of the Garden may not be touched (3:1-3). The serpent responds that she would not die, for God knew that eating of the tree’s fruit would open her eyes, and like God (or the gods, for the Hebrew term used in the account, elohim, is plural) she would know good and evil (3:4-5). So the woman seeing the tree a delight to the eyes and that the tree made one wise, ate of its fruit and gave some to her husband (3:6). The idea that eating from the tree would give wisdom links with the Hebraic Wisdom [chokmah] of the book of Proverbs (which seems to make that link in 3:18). Consequently it seems that the disobedience involved in eating of this tree not only involved trying to be like God but also that now behavior is no longer spontaneous obedience, but because of our exercise of freedom and self-reflection we must now be taught through wisdom, and we must be instructed by others (often by existing law and custom) in order to know what is good. Doing good no longer comes naturally.

The narrative continues. Eating from the tree, the eyes of both the woman and the man were opened, and they knew they were naked; then they covered themselves with loincloths — losing innocence (3:7). Sin also seems to make us ashamed of the body (see 2:25).

Application: Although the Jewish community does not read the text as Christians do, this is an excellent text for proclaiming and explaining Original Sin. Focus may be placed on sin as idolatry (trying to become like God or exercise the divine privileges) and how in our state of sin we are now no longer able to do good spontaneously (as the first human beings did), but now with our ability to choose and discern right from wrong, with all the behavioral options presented to us, doing good is hard work, a burden against which we rebel. Embarrassment about the body, resulting from self-awareness, which is really burdensome and the cause of much anxiety, might also be noted as a consequence of sin. Awareness of our unhappy state makes us more eager to hear the word that we are forgiven (as proclaimed in the Second Lesson below and the Psalm above), the gospel’s proclamation that Christ overcomes all temptations, fear, and death.

Romans 5:12-19
Continuing to write his letter of introduction to a church, which to date he had never visited, Paul offers in this text a contrast between Adam and Christ. Sin came into the world through one man, Paul contends, and death through sin spread to all because all sinned and were reckoned sinful by the law (vv. 12-13). Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam. Adam is said to be a type [tupos, that pattern or model] of Christ who is to come (v. 14). By contrast, Paul notes, the free gift is not like the trespass, for if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more will the grace of God in the gift of grace of the one man Jesus Christ abound for many (v. 15). The free gift is not like the effect of one man’s sin. The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification (v. 16). If because of one man’s trespass [Adam] death exercises dominion [basileuo, reigns] through that one [Adam], so much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness [dikaiosune] exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus (v. 17). As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification [dikaiosin] and life for all (v. 18). Just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience many were made righteous (v. 19).

Application: This is another text for helping people see how they are mired in Original Sin. Use insights from the application for the First Lesson. Also note the idea of how, because of Adam’s sin, death and so sin now reign in us, dominate in us. The law (commandments of God) now condemns us, for we need these commands to direct our behavior amidst all the choices, and it functions as a mirror now again and again to show us how far short we fall.

In articulating the free gift of forgiveness, it is important to sort out the role of Christ’s righteousness in saving us or justifying us. Both terms have a similar Greek root, for justification resembles the Greek equivalent of righteousness (see above). You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.”

We have previously noted the controversy in New Testament scholarship that exists about what Paul means by the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as having to do not with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). Therefore it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, that it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373).

God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22. The righteous one, Christ, restores the relationship of the faithful with God by sharing with us the wholeness and healthiness (righteousness) of his relationship with us (Justification by Grace). The text also provides occasion to proclaim and teach Christ’s atonement. He breaks the dominion of death and of the consequences of Adam’s fall over us. But this in turn entails that the faithful are now under the dominion of Christ. We cannot but do his thing (live righteously in right relation with God) (Sanctification).

Matthew 4:1-11
In a manner most consistent with Jewish expectations in the first century about the Messiah, the text reports Jesus’ temptations by the devil. (All the Synoptic Gospels include an account like this [Mark 1: 12-13; Luke 4:1-13].) The Jewish orientation of this gospel focuses again in the author’s efforts to root the events in Old Testament prophecies. It is reported that after Jesus’ baptism he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil [diabolos, tempter or accuser] (v. 1). He fasts forty days and was famished (v. 2). The forty days in the wilderness are another example of linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament precedents. Both Moses and the prophet Elijah spent forty days in a wilderness experience (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8). The tempter came and said to Jesus that if he is Son of God, he should command the stones to become loaves of bread (vv. 2-3). This temptation was a function of Jewish expectations in Jesus’ day, as they had come to expect the Messiah to repeat the miracles of the Jews’ time in the wilderness with Moses (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 58-60, 65-66). In accord with Matthean concerns to relate Jesus to Hebrew scripture, he is recorded as responding with Deuteronomy 8:3 and its teachings that one does not live by bread alone, but by the words of the Lord (v. 4; this citation also appears in Luke 4:4, but not in Mark).

The devil next took Jesus to the holy city [Jerusalem] and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, daring him if he is the Son of God to throw himself down. Jesus cited Psalm 91:11-12, which speaks of God commanding his angels (vv. 5-6). Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16, which speaks against putting the Lord to the test (v. 7). Finally the devil took Jesus to a high mountain, promising to give him all the nations that could be seen if he would worship him (vv. 8-9). Jesus responds that Satan should go away, citing Deuteronomy 6:13 that only the Lord God is to worshiped and served (v. 10; cf. Luke 4:8). Then the devil is reported to have left Jesus, and angels came to serve him (v. 11). Elijah was also served by angels at the end of his wilderness experience (1 Kings 19:5-8).

Application: The temptations endured by Jesus can be used to help clarify and enlighten the ones we face (Sin). References to the wilderness experiences of Moses and Elijah can aid in making these points.

Jesus overcomes the devil and evil indicates that because the faithful are in him, these realities cannot prevail over them (Justification by Grace).

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Charged with Grandeur:Sermons and Practices for Delighting in God's Creation by Christopher Keating
     
    SermonSuite
    Chris Keating
    Cloud Theology

    Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
    Imagine Transfiguration Sunday a few decades from now. The congregation -- half of whom are robots -- gather for worship. Two ushers quip about finding signs of intelligent life.
         A liturgist reads the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, while worshipers adjust virtual reality devices which place them on the summit with the disciples. Light floods their eyes, and they are overcome by the fear that also fills Peter, James, and John.
         There on the mountain they see Elijah, Moses, and maybe even Watson, IBM’s supercomputer. Meanwhile, Pastor ART -- a cutting-edge cyborg who just graduated from Princeton -- begins the sermon. He’s a bit soft-spoken for some, but ART (short for Artificial Reformed Theologian) is programmed to produce quality sermons guaranteed to challenge but not offend, enthrall but never bore.
         Far-fetched? Maybe not as much as you think.
         As AI develops, the world will face economic, moral, and even theological questions never considered. Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly reflects on what he calls the “serious spiritual question” we may be overlooking: “If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur.”
         It’s possible to consider God as the prototypical cloud server whose glory emerges in unimagined and dazzling ways. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the cloud envelopes the disciples and changes Jesus, preparing him for the passion that awaits. God draws nearer to human beings, calling them to deeper faithfulness....more
    On Turning On The Lights In The Church Building

    Whenever I read from the book of Exodus, especially a text which includes a visit by Moses to the mountaintop to be in the presence of God, I get an image in my mind of Charlton Heston in the movie version of The Ten Commandments. I'll bet you have that problem too, don't you? It doesn't matter if you were born a decade or two since that movie was first released. It gets a lot of play on television, especially during "holy seasons" of the year like Easter.
         The movie, which I must confess I actually enjoy, takes a few liberties with the biblical text. I guess Moses and the other biblical authors would not make very good screen writers. One of the problems with the image of Charlton Heston in that role is that it takes away the mystery of the encounter that Moses has with God....more
    Mark Ellingsen
    Revealing the divinity of Christ
    Transfiguration is a celebration of God’s glory and how that glory is revealed in Christ when he was transfigured. The festival was observed as early as the sixth century in Eastern Christianity, but did not become a festival in the Catholic Church and its Protestant heirs until just 70 years prior to the Reformation. Sermons in line with this festival will aim to focus the flock on coming to appreciate a bigger, more majestic picture of God and Christ than what they brought to church. Assurance will be provided that this majestic God overcomes all evil. All the lessons considered collectively also link Christ and the gospel to the Law (the ten commandments)....more
    Peter Andrew Smith
    Down from the Mountain
    Matthew 17:1-9

    Jessica took the tray of dishes from in front of Martha and put them on the cart.
         “Thank you,” Martha said.
         “You’re very welcome. How was everything today?”
         “It was lovely. Please tell Keith that I appreciated his homemade jam on the bread. It made the lunch extra special today.”
         “I’ll let him know.” Jessica paused. “If I see some of the jam left over would you like me to put it to one side for you?”...more
    Janice Scott
    Testimonies
    For many people, testimonies in which someone relates the story of how they came to Christianity, still seem to be one of the most powerful means of hearing the Christian message. There's something about the sincerity of the person who stands to speak, which usually shines through their words. And to hear the words of someone who has had a profound religious experience can be very moving....more
    Mary Kay Eichelman
    A Peep Hole
    Object: A picture covered with another piece of paper that has a small square cut out of it. (a "peak hole")
    I have something to show you today BUT... you only get to see a little bit of my picture -- a peep hole.  (Show picture covered over with piece of paper with a small square cut out.)  Does it make you wonder what the whole picture might look like?...more

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

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