THEME OF THE DAY
Jesus is our All-In-All.
The theme of God and Christ as Shepherd underlies the texts, and so sermons stressing God’s grace and how in all we do and have we are dependent on Him (Justification By Grace and Sanctification) should be prepared.
The famous Psalm is a Psalm attributed to David. We are again reminded that references to David in the Psalms are not likely indicative of the famed King’s authorship of the piece. Rather such identifications 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 we can say that all the faithful like us may share the Psalmist’s confidence in God the Shepherd’s [raah, literally “feeder of the sheep”] 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). 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: Sermons on this Psalm can stress how there is no food for the flock without God, that living in right relationship with Him only happens because of His mercy and action (Justification By Grace and Sanctification). These themes link with The Good Shepherd Parable of the Gospel. Gratitude to God will certainly reflect in any sermon on the text.
Again we turn to the second half of the two-part early history of the Church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate, Luke (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). It is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the Church (1:8). This story is an account of Peter and John appearing before the Sanhedrin (Jewish Council) after their arrest in Jerusalem. The author recounts Peter’s response to questions with a sermon.
First the gathering before the Sanhedrin is reported. The presence of the High Priest Annas is noted. Others mentioned include his subsequent high priest successors (vv.5-6). Actually by the time of the incident (after 33 AD) his son-in-law Caiaphas probably had succeeded him.
The question posed to the prisoners is by what power or name [onoma] they undertake their preaching (v.7). Peter is said to be filled [pletho] with the Holy Spirit [pneumatos hagios] in responding. He questions if the arrest was on account of the healing of the lame man before The Temple (v.8-9; cf. 3:1-10). The Apostle proceeds to claim that the healing was done in the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom the Jewish powers crucified and who was raised from the dead (v.10). Jesus is identified with the reference in Psalm 118:22 of the stone [lithos] rejected (counted worthless) [exouthenhetheis] which has become the head [kephale] of the corner [gonia] (v.11). And the claim is made that there is no salvation [soteria, also connoting safety] save in His Name (v.12).
Application: With this Lesson, sermons can be developed to affirm that Christ is the cornerstone of faith and life (Justification By Grace and Sanctification). The concept of salvation as safety could also be developed.
1 John 3:16-24
Once again, this Lesson emerges in a treatise or sermon by an unknown teacher of the Johannine tradition, probably aiming to clarify the proper interpretation of the Gospel of John. It may have been written to oppose a movement which had departed from the community’s beliefs about Jesus (2:24). Since the end of the 2nd century the Epistle has been recognized as written by the author of the fourth Gospel or by another member of his circle. The Lesson is a discourse on love. Its very definition is said to find that the Son of God laid down His life for us, and so we ought to lay down our lives for each other (v.16). The focus on Christ is in line with the Book’s efforts to address doubts about whether Jesus was truly a human being and whether His death on the Cross was a sacrifice for sin (1:1-3,7; 2:2; 3:16; 3:2,10; 5:6).
The author challenges the possibility that one could claim to have God’s love [agape] abide if unwilling to share with [lay down our souls for] bothers (v.17). Love is known through Christ’s love in laying down his life for us (v.16). The Johannine author proceeds to exhort such love in action, not just in works (v.18). By this we can be reassured that we are in the truth [aletheia] (v.19). When we feel condemned, the author notes the comforting Word that God is greater than our hearts, and knows [ginosko] everything (v.20). And if our hearts do not condemn/accuse [kataginoske], we may have boldness/ confidence [parrhesia] before God (v.21). Elaborating on such boldness, the author notes that we receive from God whatever we ask because we obey His Commandments [entole] and do what pleases Him (v.22). The Commandment is that we should believe in the Name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love [agapao] one another as commanded (v.23). The Son is said to abide/remain [meno] in all who obey His Commandments and abide in Him. We know that the Son abides in us by the sign of the Spirit [pneuma] that He gave (v.24).
Application: Sermons on this Lesson highlight that God’s love gives us boldness and confidence even when we feel guilty and condemned (Sin and Justification By Grace). But Sanctification issues are also addressed. The spontaneity of good works is suggested by the fact that Christ dwells in the faithful, brought to us by the Spirit and that this leads to love each other. However, these works depend on Christ, Who is All-in-All.
Again we note that this Book is the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) Gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier Gospels. The Book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the Disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early Church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-Biblical Church Historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the Book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the Gospel and so John is a “spiritual Gospel” (presumably one not based on eye-witness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.1, p.261). More recently, as we have observed, scholars have rediscovered the assessment of another early writer of the Church, Papias, who claimed that John was an eyewitness. This has led such scholars to suggest that this Gospel may have been eyewitness testimony after all (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp.423ff.; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, pp.154-155). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).
The Lesson is the Parable of the Good Shepherd, appearing only in John. Identifying Himself as The Good Shepherd [poimen ho kalos], Jesus says He is not like the hired hand, for He is willing to lay down His life for the sheep (vv.11-12; for Old Testament precedents, see Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 23:1-6). He knows [ginosko] His own and they know Him, just as the Father knows Him, and He the Father. Jesus then stresses again how He lays down His life for the sheep (vv.13-15). He notes that there are other sheep not belonging to this fold (perhaps a reference to Gentiles). Jesus says that He must bring them too, so there will be just one flock/fold [poimne] and one Shepherd (v.16). The Father loves [agapao] Him, He adds, because He lays down [tithemi] His life for the sheep (v.17). No one takes His life from Jesus, He adds, for He lays it down of His own power/authority [exousia]. But He can take it up again (v.18).
Application: To preach on this Parable will entail proclamation of the unconditional love of God that never forsakes us (Justification By Grace). But the text also testifies to how Jesus creates community (Sanctification, Church, Social Ethics), that without Him and His sacrifices for us (Atonement) we are not fed (see Psalm of the Day).
Among the John 10 texts selected in this pericope series for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (the Great Shepherd of the Sheep Sunday), we have this year in Series B the central text. It is the only one of the three (John 10:1-10 in Series A, John 10:11-18 in Series B, and John 10:22-30 in Series C) that focuses clearly on the Johannine Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. It is therefore the premier text among these three.
Although it is certainly the Johannine Jesus rather than the Jesus of history who speaks here, in the deepest sense we are confronted by the Jesus of history in this text, since there is much evidence within our tradition that the Jesus of history functioned as a great shepherd of the sheep among his fellow oppressed Jews who because of his courageous advocacy for God and for people — particularly for people who were in need of much help and protection — was tortured and crucified by the Romans. Jesus could have avoided that torture and crucifixion if he had discontinued his work or possibly if he could have explained carefully to Roman authorities that he was in no way encouraging his fellow oppressed Jews to try to use force or violence to improve their condition.
Once Jesus had been delivered over to the Roman crucifixion squad by the group of bodyguards (goons) who were employed by Caiaphas, there was no opportunity for Jesus to explain anything to the Roman authorities. Jesus’ followers also could not rescue him at that point, at least not short of a planned, concerted suicidal massive frontal attack on the Roman garrison, and there is no reason for us to think that the Jesus of history would have desired such an attack and the heavy loss of life that would have occurred in such an attempt to rescue him. He would have continued his work after such a rescue, and a second arrest would have been inevitable.
Actually, what Jesus was doing by proclaiming that soon the Lord God would in some way come and that after that only the Lord God would be ruling over the oppressed Jews in Galilee and in Judea was giving hope for freedom that did pose a threat to the Roman security forces in Jerusalem. What Jesus was doing before he was seized, tortured, and crucified was “liberating” in every way. Whenever the oppressed have hope of being set free, their oppressors are unavoidable threatened. It cannot be otherwise. In that sense, the Jesus of history did put down his life for the sheep, did go to the cross, or, as we say in our time, did “go to the wall” for them, and for us. It seems that the best people in every age “go to the wall” for us!
Of course, in a different sense it is not the Jesus of history during his work prior to his crucifixion who speaks in this John 10:11-18 text. Instead, it is the Sovereign Lord of the Johannine community who voluntarily put down his life for his sheep (the members of the Johannine community) and has the power to take it up again who speaks in this text. Actually, it is leaders in the Johannine community, inspired by God, who speak in this text and throughout the Fourth Gospel. For the Johannine community and its leaders, Jesus as the Risen Christ was the Sovereign Lord with divine power. The Fourth Gospel is an expression of what the members of the Johannine community believed about Jesus raised from the dead as the Sovereign Lord, but, true to the “gospel” genre, this expression is in a “ministry of Jesus” framework. The events of the Gospel According to John chapters 1-19 are presented as pre-Easter events, but actually in terms of what the community and its leaders believed about Jesus as the Sovereign Lord the entire Fourth Gospel is post-Easter. The Fourth Gospel reveals more about what happened to the people who became the Johannine community after the crucifixion of the Jesus of history than it reveals about what happened to the Jesus of history before he was crucified by the Romans. For the members of the Johannine community, Jesus as the Risen Christ was the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, the Light of the World, the True Bread from Heaven, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, etc., even though it is not likely that the Jesus of history ever made such claims for himself. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels never talks that way. John 10:16 in this text and John 17:20-23 in the “High Priestly Prayer” are indications of the desire of the members of the Johannine community to draw the “other sheep” from the Synoptic communities into the Johannine fold where there would be one flock with one shepherd.”
1 John 3:16-24
The writer of 1 John made believing in God’s Son Jesus the Christ and loving one another within the Johannine community of faith a commandment of God. It is consistent with much of the thought of the Fourth Gospel to consider faith and love to be commandments. Perhaps as a result of the experiences of the leaders of the Johannine community with the people of the Johannine community, it appeared to them to be necessary to command faith and love rather than merely to exemplify faith and love in their own lives as appropriate responses to our gracious God. Shall we exemplify faith and love or shall we command faith and love where we are as leaders in the Church and in our congregations today?
In this text the Lukan writer brilliantly portrays the belief that God has raised Jesus from the dead. It is entirely proper for us along with the Lukan writer to emphasize that we are saved from sin and from eternal suffering in the name of Jesus as the Christ. We can emphasize this belief today without making the exclusivist “one way” claim that God acts only in Christ or only in us. There is, of course, only “one way” for us, and that is God’s way!
We should always proclaim that God provides salvation for us in Christ. That is “good news” for all of the people of the world. There is no necessity for us to proclaim that there is salvation only in Christ, for that is “bad news” for most of the people of the world. The exclusivist “one way” claim made here by the Lukan playwright and by the leaders of the Johannine community in John 14:6 comes across to many people, including many Christians, as irrational, arrogant, and imperialistic. It causes many people not to want to be associated with people who make that claim. Therefore, it hampers rather than enhances the effectiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a minority claim within the New Testament documents, made in only two verses, John 14:6 and Acts 4:12, which become the favorite Bible verses of some Christians, often of Christians who want to assert their control and their understanding of Christianity over all other Christians and over all other people who live in this world. Let us respond to them in Christian love with the suggestion that, yes, there is indeed only one way, God’s way, and let us seek that way together with them and with all of the other people of the world.
It is most interesting to compare the psalmist’s perception of “the Lord” as “my shepherd” with the Johannine community’s perception of Jesus raised from the dead as its “Great Shepherd of the Sheep.” The Risen Christ in the New Testament texts for this Fourth Sunday of Easter is essentially what “the Lord” is for the psalmist in Psalm 23.
Within the “Farewell Discourses” of the Fourth Gospel, John 15:1-8 is quite harsh and demanding. According to this text selected for our use next Sunday, every branch that is not bearing fruit is summarily taken away to be thrown into the fire and burned (and anyone who has ever burned a compacted mass of grapevines knows how flammable grapevines are and how quickly and intensely they burn and are consumed). The obvious implication is that anyone who does not remain within the Johannine community will be destroyed by an intense fire.
The words of this John 15:1-8 text, therefore, indicate that at the time when these words were written and incorporated into the Fourth Gospel tradition the Johannine community had many of the distinguishing characteristics of a religious cult. For various reasons, not all of which can be discerned today, the leaders of the Johannine community had isolated the community and themselves even from closely related other groups of followers of Jesus. They were claiming that they alone were composed of fully productive “pruned” branches of the “true vine,” i.e., of the Johannine Jesus. Other branches, such as those of the members of the extended Markan communities that had produced the Gospels According to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, were not, in the opinion of the leaders of the Johannine community, yet “pruned” and fully productive. The leaders of the community-fellowship of the Johannine Jesus considered themselves to be already “pruned” because of the words that the Johannine Jesus had spoken to them and because of their fidelity to Jesus as they perceived Jesus during the time when many who had been among them had departed and were therefore “pruned” from their community. Through the words of this John 15:1-8 text they were admonishing each other to remain within their community and its fellowship, the community and fellowship of the Johannine Jesus. They state that only if their members remain in the community and fellowship of the Johannine Jesus would the Johannine Jesus remain in community and fellowship with them. If they remain, they will be given whatever they ask. Their fruit and productivity is tied very closely to their being accepted as disciples of the Johannine Jesus. Unless they are producing fruit, they are not disciples. It is apparent that “church discipline” and more than “church discipline” is involved here. There is also an exclusiveness in which the leaders of the community claim in the name of Jesus the authority to “prune away” all who do not conform to the beliefs and practices of these leaders.
We may ask, “Why is this text so harsh and demanding in comparison to John 14:1-31 that immediately precedes it?” “Has a shadow come over the Jesus of history on his last fateful night of freedom and of life, causing him to set aside the comforting and pastoral words that he had just employed in John 14:1-31?” That is possible, of course. In view, however, of what appears to be a conclusion of the farewell discourse in John 14:31c with the words, “Get up. Let us go away from here,” and other considerations within the Fourth Gospel that are indications that the document went through several editions and incorporated the work of several writers during the course of its development, it is more likely that John 15:1-8 is material from a stage in the formation of the Johannine tradition that is different from that of John 14:1-31. The branches cut away from the true vine that is the Johannine Jesus and community almost certainly refer to the many disciples who in John 6:66 are said to have left the Johannine Jesus and no longer were walking in the group with him. The branches cut away from the true vine are described as follows by the writer of 1 John 2:19. “Those people who left our community went away from us. Actually, they were never truly members of our community. For had they truly been members of our community, they would have remained with us. They went away, in order that it might be revealed that they had never truly been members of our community.”
We know from sociology of religion studies that participants in a religious cult become in many respects harsh and defensive in their interactions with those who have left their group and increasingly demanding and controlling of their own members. It is important for us to realize this about the community that through inspiration by God produced this Fourth Gospel. It helps us to have a more adequate understanding of this John 15:1-8 text, of the entire Fourth Gospel, and of the congregations in which we serve.
In our proclamation of the gospel this coming Sunday we should emphasize the positive aspects of John 15:1-8 and the grapevine analogy as an illustration of our relationship with God through Jesus our Lord. We are dependent upon God. We are accountable to God. Apart from God we wither and die. We are expected to be productive, to produce good grapes.
There are many ways in which we can be productive. We know that our situation is not identical to the situation of the members of the Johannine community who wrote John 15:1-8. We should be open and receptive to whatever new things God may be saying to us today, together with what God is saying to us through this John 15:1-8 text.
1 John 4:7-21
This text continues the emphasis of John 15:1-8 on the necessity of being fruitful. It urges the members of the community to show their love for each other by what they do for each other, not merely to show their love by speaking words of love. 1 John 4:7-21 is an early commentary on John 15:1-8 and on similar texts in the Gospel According to John. We might consider it to be a brief sermon or homily on John 15:1-8. Therefore, it provides a helpful model for us as we prepare our sermon or homily for next Sunday.
In this vivid scene in the Acts of Apostles literary drama about Philip and the Ethiopian court official, the Lukan playwright utilized a portion of the Suffering Servant Song (Isaiah 53:7-8), applied it to Jesus, and dramatized the spread of the new Christian movement to African lands, as well as along the Mediterranean coast of Judea.
By using this final portion of Psalm 22 along with the Acts 8:26-40 account, we associate the psalmist’s suffering with the suffering of Jesus. In this way, we are able to make the psalmist’s song of praise our song of praise within our present context in a very meaningful way. We are challenged to apply these Acts 8:26-40 and Psalm 22:25-31 elements of our biblical tradition to our own new situation is such a way that, by our being inspired by God as the Lukan playwright and the psalmist were inspired by God, new tradition is formed within and for the people of God. We welcome and embrace that challenge!
Few texts within the Fourth Gospel reveal more about the way in which the Johannine community and its leaders perceived themselves than does this pericope. The text is principally about the relationships of the members of the Johannine community to each other and to their Johannine Jesus.
According to this text, the members of the Johannine community in this portion of their “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus reflected about the significance of the life and of the death of Jesus and expressed their belief that Jesus had put down his life for them (John 15:13). Elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, such as in John 3:16-17, there are indications that some within the community, or perhaps the community at an earlier stage in its development, had perceived that God had sent Jesus because of God’s love for “the world” (a concept that is much broader than that of the community itself). Here, however, in John 15:9-17, Jesus’ death is said to have been for the members of the Johannine community, for Jesus’ much loved “friends.” The members of the Johannine community were obviously very proud of this designation of themselves as hoi philoi (“the friends”) of Jesus. The leaders and members of the Johannine community, inspired by God, were affirming that Jesus had put down his life for them! For the members of the Johannine community, this was their basic statement of faith.
At one time they had considered themselves to have been “servants” of Jesus, but now they considered themselves to be Jesus’ much loved “friends.” They were his much loved friends, “the Disciple whom Jesus loved,” because Jesus had revealed to them (so they claimed) everything that Jesus had heard from his Father (John 15:15). According to these accounts within the Fourth Gospel, Jesus may have revealed some things to people in other groups, but to the members of the Fourth Gospel community Jesus had revealed everything that Jesus had heard from the Father. In this sense, the leaders and members of the Johannine community were similar to the Gnostic and Gnosticizing Christians in their claims that they had been chosen to have within themselves knowledge of everything about God. Nevertheless, the claims of the Johannine community as we have them in the Fourth Gospel were not as absolute as were the claims of the Gnostic Christians. The claims of the members of the Fourth Gospel community and their relationship with Jesus were still somewhat conditional. They stated that they would be Jesus’ much loved friends if they would continue to do the things that Jesus was commanding them to do (John 15:14). What they believed that Jesus was commanding them to do most of all, according to John 15:9-10, 12-13, 17, was to continue to love each other. The admonition to love each other became so important (and apparently so necessary!) within the Johannine community that it even became a “new commandment” of the Johannine Jesus to the community in John 13:34-35, as well as here in this John 15:9-17 text. This “new commandment” to love each other was reiterated many times elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel and in 1 John and in 2 John.
From a superficial reading of the Fourth Gospel and of 1 John and 2 John, we get the impression that the people by whom and for whom these documents were written were members of a most loving and congenial community of faith. A closer look, however, indicates that they were, in effect, “protesting too much” about their love for each other. Love for one another was apparently greatly needed within this community, so needed that they were in the process of making love for each other a requirement and of perceiving love for one another legalistically. If they would love each other, then the Johannine Jesus would be happy with them and their joy would be completed, perfected, fulfilled (John 15:11). Then they would go and bear fruit that would remain. Then whatever they would ask the Father in the name of the Johannine Jesus would be given to them (John 15:16).
1 John 5:1-6
According to this text, Jesus is the Christ because he came not only with the water of baptism but also with the blood of the cross. The person who believes that Jesus is the Christ shall demonstrate that the person is a child of God by keeping God’s commandments. Because the person who has been and is “born of God” has overcome the temptations of the world, it is not a burden for that person to keep the commandments of God.
Although the view of the writer of this 1 John 5:1-6 text regarding our ability to keep the commandments of God differs greatly from the view of the Apostle Paul as expressed in chapters 1-5 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Church included both documents within its developing New Testament canon and has lived under the authority of both documents for many centuries. The inclusion of these differing views illustrates the ongoing, creative tension that exists in Christian theology and practice and in the theology and practice of other theistic religions between the importance of adequate faith and right living. Both adequate faith and right living are important within a theistic religion. We should not raise one of these factors above the other, nor should we exclude one in favor of the other. Both factors are firmly imbedded within the New Testament documents and, of course, within the Old Testament documents as well. We see them also throughout the Qur’an of Islam. Both should be emphasized in their ongoing, creative tension in our proclamation and in our parenesis.
This text was particularly important during the latter years of the first century of the common era and later as a validation of the inclusion of non-Jewish background followers of Jesus as full participants in the new religion along with those who were of Jewish background. Today this text is significant as a biblical basis, together with other texts in Acts of Apostles, for the claims of some Christians that they have received special gifts from the Holy Spirit of God. All of us have the right to claim special gifts from the Holy Spirit of God and the responsibility to note that these gifts are intended for the entire Church and not only for a few gifted individuals and groups.
The struggles and anxieties apparent within the three New Testament texts chosen for our use next Sunday seem to melt away in the words of this psalm, “Let us sing to the Lord a new song!” In this psalm, rather than in the three texts from the Newer Testament, the “gospel” is expressed most joyfully. In this psalm the texts for this day reach their highest point of love, joy, and acclamation of God. Therefore, we may wish to alter the sequence of the readings so that this psalm is read last among the texts used on this occasion.
The Ascension of the Lord texts in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11) accomplish four major objectives. First, they provide an explanation of where the Risen Christ is now. Second, they provide an explanation of why the Risen Christ was seen by many followers of Jesus during the first few weeks after his crucifixion and resurrection but is being seen in the same way no longer. Third, they provide assurance that the Risen Christ is still with us spiritually and that the Risen Christ will return. Finally, they establish more clearly the responsibilities of the followers of Jesus to be witnesses of the Risen Christ throughout the world.
These are very important objectives, and we miss our opportunity to follow through with a dramatic culmination of our forty-day Lenten season and of our forty-day Easter season if we do not have a meaningful and memorable worship service on Ascension Day each year.
Our use of this psalm on our Christian Ascension Day is an indication that we consider the Risen Christ to be our Lord and God in a way that is quite similar to the way that the ancient Israelites perceived the Lord God for them. They perceived the Lord God to be the one who had won the victory for them over their enemies and over all evil and as the one who was, as it is stated in the picturesque language of this psalm, “sitting on the holy throne of God” the “Most High King over all of the earth.” As Christians, we perceive Jesus the Risen Christ in much the same way as the Lord God was and is perceived and acclaimed by Israelites and by Jews in Psalm 47.
There are numerous similarities between Psalm 47 and Psalm 93. The Lord is acclaimed in Psalm 93 as the king clothed with power and majesty, whose throne is established eternally. The Lord’s rule is holy and just and will be for ever.
Since the principal literary antecedent of Acts 1:1-11 is the Septuagint text of 2 Kings 2:1-18, it is helpful to review the 2 Kings text in preparation for a Christian Ascension Day worship service. Genesis 5:21-24 and Deuteronomy 34:1-7 should also be read to provide the Enoch and Moses analogies.
We note that the inspired Lukan writer linked the Ascension account closely to the Lukan empty tomb account by having “two men clothed in white robes” interpreting the significance of the ascension of the Risen Christ in Acts 1:10-11 just as the Lukan writer had “two men in dazzling apparel” interpret the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in Luke 24:4-7. Perhaps we could benefit from the use of this Acts 1:1-11 drama best if we would begin the Ascension Day service outside the church building with the reading of this Acts 1:1-11 text. It would not be necessary for anyone to play the role of the Risen Christ, but it would help to dramatize the event to have two of the men of the congregation dressed in white robes appear from around a corner somewhere at the point of Acts 1:10 in the reading while the rest of those gathered for the worship service are standing together “gazing up into the heavens.” The two men should appear and say to the group, “Why are you all standing here, looking up into the heavens? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come again as you have seen him going into the heavens!” The worship service can then continue with the people entering into the sanctuary, singing an Ascension Day hymn, and using an Ascension Day liturgy.
At least once during our three-year cycle in the lectionary that we are using, it would be effective to utilize this Ephesians 1:15-23 reading as the primary text for the Ascension Day message. This text articulates what is desired for the People of God in the Church on Ascension Day. It refers specifically to the thought that the Risen Christ is sitting at the right hand of God in “the heavenly places.” It uses the analogy of the ancient throne scene to depict how some people in the early Church late in the 1st century perceived the Risen Christ. What is said here about the power of the Risen Christ over the Roman Emperor and all of the political authorities who are persecuting and threatening the early Christians should be emphasized as we consider this text.
The Lukan themes of understanding the Scriptures and of claiming that everything about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection written in the Israelite Scriptures has now been fulfilled are prominent in this text. What the Lukan writer did not say in this text about the expected return of Jesus as the Risen Christ is supplied in the Acts 1:1-11 reading. What Luke 24:44-53 does stress is the great joy of the followers of Jesus and their constant worship and blessing of God. Let us continue this joy and this worship and blessing of God for the Risen Christ now and always!
How shall we put together a well constructed worship service based upon Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Psalm 126 with their liberation theology for Zion, the Magnificat from Luke 1:47-55 with its emphasis on God bringing down those who are mighty and exalting those who are lowly, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 regarding appropriate behavior for the Thessalonians as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and John 1:6-8, 19-28 with its depiction of John the Baptizer as a man sent from God to be a witness to the Light, one who was much less worthy than was Jesus? How shall we do this when in many congregations the children are already presenting their Christmas program, people want to sing the Christmas carols in church because they have been hearing them in the department stores and discount stores since long before Thanksgiving, and many families are getting ready to leave soon so that will be able to travel to other places to be together with their extended families for Christmas? Our task as worship leaders on the Third Sunday in Advent is never easy.
There is obviously a point of contact with the Second Sunday in Advent through the person of John the Baptizer. One week earlier we heard about John from the perspective of the Markan narrative; now we have John from the vantage point of the Fourth Gospel. (Although we are in the Markan cycle in Series B, we shall not see Markan texts again until the First Sunday after the Epiphany, one month away. Our three year lectionary Series B is constructed in this way because in the Markan narrative there is no annunciation to the Virgin Mary, no virgin birth from the Virgin Mary, and Mary as the human mother of Jesus worries about the safety of her son as he becomes a significant political as well as religious leader. In Mark, Jesus was “adopted” by God as the Son of God when the voice of God announced this as Jesus was being baptized by John.) The Fourth Gospel perspective of John the Baptizer is also different from that of the Markan narrative in important aspects. Unlike Mark and its Synoptic parallels, the Fourth Gospel does not emphasize the Baptizer’s role as one who condemns those who come to him for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins and baptizes Jesus along with many others. Perhaps this is because the Fourth Gospel tradition with its high Christology could not and would not perceive Jesus as participating in a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, even in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the exalted “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” If we as worship leaders gently maintain the integrity of the Advent season and utilize Advent hymns and texts within an Advent worship service, we can focus the service primarily on the John 1:6-8, 19-28 text and use the other texts chosen for this day in doing this.
One of the ways in which we can utilize these Advent texts is to use the extended comparison “just as.” We see that just as John the Baptizer was “sent from God” (John 1:6), we too are “sent from God.” Just as John the Baptizer came not as the Light but to bear witness to the Light (John 1:7-8), we have not come as the Light but to bear witness to the Light. Just as John the Baptizer was not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet” (John 1:19-21), we today are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet.” Just as John the Baptizer is presented as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord’ ” (John 1:23), we too are voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Just as John the Baptizer baptized with water and said that he was not worthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (John 1:26-27), we today baptize with water and are not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.
This extended comparison can and should be continued in a similar manner with the other texts chosen for this day in order to construct a cohesive message that will have an impact and be remembered, while being true to the Advent theme. Just as Mary, according to the Magnificat canticle that the inspired Lukan writer skillfully constructed on the Song of Hannah model of 1 Samuel 2:1-10, sang that her soul (her entire being) magnifies the Lord and her Spirit rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:47-55), we also should sing that our soul magnifies the Lord and that our Spirit rejoices in God our Savior. Just as a leader within the Isaiah tradition at the end of the Israelite period of exile in Babylon proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord God was upon that person because the Lord had anointed that person to bring good news to the afflicted (Isaiah 61:1ff.), we too can and should proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us. Just as the writer of Psalm 126 rejoiced with shouts of joy, we also should rejoice with shouts of joy on this Third Sunday in Advent. Just as the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, saying, “Rejoice always, pray, and give thanks as you wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), we can and should say the same.
When we do this, we proclaim the message of these texts, we identify ourselves with the message of these texts, and we demonstrate audibly and visibly that we today are what John the Baptizer, the Lukan writer, Mary, the Isaiah tradition prophet, the Israelite psalmist, and the apostle Paul were in their times, i.e., instruments of God’s grace, bearers of God’s Word, people being used by God, and, just as they were, joyful to be used by God.
It will be especially effective if we use simple drama, or at least dramatic readings of these texts by a variety of people within the congregation, in presenting this message and in showing that both clergy and lay people are bearers of these messages now as in the past. Biblical storytelling in which various persons memorize and tell the stories dramatically will be especially effective. A bit of sweeping dance as the stories are told will add beauty to the Advent presentation.
If we concentrate on the Luke 1:26-38 Gospel account exclusively or even primarily, we will probably emphasize the person of Mary along with her relationships with God, with the angel Gabriel, and with Elizabeth. On the other hand, if we utilize all of the texts appointed for this day, we will probably in some way apply to our own life situation the Jewish and the Christian “Messianic expectations” regarding the promise of the Lord of an everlasting throne of David, a house, a kingdom that will endure forever.
It would be appropriate to take the latter of these two paths, since we have most likely heard many sermons and homilies, including some of our own, in which Mary’s experiences as developed within the Lukan Gospel’s creative drama were further expounded from the preacher’s own supply of interpersonal relationships, experiences, and inspired imagination. There is, of course, much value in continuing the Lukan Gospel’s process of thorough research of the subject, the gathering of oral and written traditions, and the use of earlier biblical style in the formation of a new literary or homiletical product. The Lukan playwright used effectively the references to the angel figure Gabriel in Daniel 8:15-17 and Daniel 9:21-23 in formulating the scene that we know as Luke 1:26-38, our Gospel text for this occasion. The Lukan writer also used the same type of terminology that is included in the Zoroastrian account of how the “Holy Spirit of God” (Ahura Mazda’s Spirit) had come over the mother of Zoroaster and had caused her to conceive Zoroaster without any interaction with a man. (The concept of the Spirit of God as the agency of conception of the Savior figure was also used in the Matthean tradition. Therefore, both of the Newer Testament traditions that developed a virgin conception explanation of how Jesus could be truly divine and truly human share terminology with the Zoroastrian tradition.)
By using all of the texts appointed for this day, however, we have an opportunity to explore an area with much broader implications for our own faith and lives today than that of the virgin conception accounts and to this we now turn.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
This text is a very important component of the suspense-filled “Succession Document” or “Court History of David” narrative that extends from 2 Samuel 6 through 1 Kings 2. It contains the delightful pun regarding the “house” that David had wanted to build for the Lord God but instead the Lord God would build for David. The “house” that the Lord God will build for David will be a structure made not with timbers and adornments but with the lives of people, for it will be a dynasty, a Davidic dynasty intended to last forever. This is the “Messianic expectation” within the Succession Document, and it became a dominant theme in much of the Older Testament, as well as later within Judaism where it provided a new phase of the promise of land, people, nationhood, and blessing to the patriarchs that had served its purpose and would be continued by being blended into this new Messianic expectation.
We can perceive a measure of how vitally important and relevant this Messianic expectation of continuity on the “throne of David” must have been for the remnant among the exiles from Jerusalem who remained faithful to the Lord God during many decades of relocation in Babylon where many among them accepted the religion and culture of the Babylonians and worshiped Marduk, the Lord of the Babylonians. We note the importance of this Messianic expectation with its Zionist hopes for Jews who were deprived of basic human rights in country after country throughout the centuries. We see also the related use of this Messianic expectation within the developing traditions of many of the followers of Jesus, as in this Luke 1:32-33 text, and continuing for us as Christians since that time. Jews have intensely wanted continuity as a People of God and have struggled valiantly to maintain their identity as a people and as a culture. The striving for continuity of life within the “kingdom of God” has dominated and shaped oral and written traditions within apocalyptic Judaism and within apocalyptic Christianity. As Christians, we ride upon this Jewish Messianic expectations vehicle within a somewhat modified Christian model. Certainly we shall want to acknowledge with great respect the Israelite-Jewish origins of this Christian vehicle in which we ride in accordance with the Word of God in these texts selected for this day. As the Christmas season approaches, what can be more appropriate than to acknowledge this in order to inform and to sensitize our own people and help them and ourselves to appreciate the heritage that we have received from the Jewish people. If we do this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year will be a good time to have Jewish guests within our worship services.
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
In this context we concentrate on these few verses of this fascinating psalm. Psalm 89 should be taken seriously in its own setting, with its expectation that the descendants of David will be established forever, the throne of David built for all generations to come. The best of our Christian theology in harmony with the views of the apostle Paul that he expressed in Romans 11:28b-29 has held that the gift and calling of God are irrevocable for Israel and for the church. For the sake of our Christian covenant, we must respect the irrevocable nature of the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant. We must realize that if we reject the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant, it is only right and just that someday our derivative Christian covenant may also be rejected. For more about this, please see, among others, Norbert Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 1991); Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist, 2000); and Mary C. Boys, “The Enduring Covenant,” in Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. by Mary C. Boys (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, 17-25).
If this text is used on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, the emphasis should be focused on the final summation two verses 54 and 55 of the Magnificat in which the emphasis is on God’s enduring covenant with Israel, an emphasis easily overlooked within Christian Bible studies and worship services. With the texts selected for the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent in Series B, the emphasis is on the enduring covenants of God, which, while they may and indeed often are broken by us as people, are according to these texts, never revoked by God. Our Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, at their best, are always fully aware of this and find comfort in this. What better way than this can we as Christians prepare to celebrate during the coming Christmas season!
May this beautiful benediction with which the apostle Paul concluded his momentous letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome be ours also, together with the entire People of God! And with this benediction, shall we not let God define the extent of “God’s People”?
As followers of Jesus, we have every right to claim that the Lord God has given to Jesus the “throne” of David, so long as we realize that this is a theological throne and not a political or physical throne. Other necessary qualifications are that we understand the process by which some of the followers of Jesus made this theological claim, and that we openly recognize and continue to acknowledge the continuing validity of Jewish spirituality, Jewish life and faith, and of Jewish Messianic expectations. We know that we as Christians have taken the Jewish Messianic expectations into a new extended phase and in doing this we have given to them a somewhat different Christian Messianic expectation meaning through the Christian claim that Jesus in his life fulfilled the Messianic “prophecies” of the Older Testament. But what we have done is alongside the Jewish use of these expectations and in no way replaces or excludes the ongoing and dynamic Jewish use for which Jews have the primary claim. What we as Christians have done and are doing with these Messianic expectations must be seen as in a sense secondary to the Jewish use and in continuity with and congruent to the ongoing Jewish hope and expectations. It would be most appropriate for us as Christians to remember this and to acknowledge it at all times and especially here at the conclusion of our Advent season. Then perhaps we could invite Jews to be our guests in our Christian worship services and to hear our understanding of the Messianic expectations that we share, even as we are invited to be their guests and to hear their understanding of their Messianic expectations. When we have done all of this, we are truly “ready” for Christmas, prepared to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.
2 Kings 2:1-12
This account is evidence that there was a tendency in the direction of the deification of Elijah within some Israelite traditions, just as there may have been with regard to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) and earlier within some Semitic traditions with respect to Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24). The accounts of the ascension of Jesus within the Luke-Acts corpus provide the most extensive biblical evidence of the more complete theological development of this nature among early Christians with regard to Jesus.
As we look at 2 Kings 2:1-12, we see that according to this account after a certain point in time Elijah was seen no more, but that he was perceived to be alive with God. This was the basis, of course, for the expectation that developed among some of the Israelites — an expectation that is still evident within the Passover liturgy for Jews — that Elijah would return to the earth in a visible form some day. This expectation was used by early followers of Jesus with respect to the person and function of John the Baptizer and it was certainly used in the development of the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that is the dominating text among the four that are selected for our use on this day.
In 2 Kings 2:1-12 the whirlwind and the chariot of fire were the means of transportation in lifting Elijah from the earth and its gravitational force. In the Luke-Acts account Jesus was taken up within a cloud. A cloud was also the setting for the voice from the cloud in the Markan Transfiguration account.
Reference to God as speaking and summoning the earth, reference to a devouring fire, and most of all reference to the words, “Gather to me my faithful ones!” link this portion of Psalm 50 to the 2 Kings 2:1-12 text.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
For Paul, the face of Christ was apparently seen more vividly in the good news of the crucified Jesus being raised by God from the dead as Lord and Savior than in the face of the Jesus of history whom Paul had not seen. That is to say that for Paul the Risen Christ was in a sense transfigured perpetually. Paul saw the glory of God in the face of the Christ. This was for Paul the light that shines unceasingly out of the darkness of death. The face of the Christ was seen, however, only by those who would believe. We who live more than nineteen centuries later are basically in the same position as Paul was. For us also Jesus is in a sense perpetually transfigured.
This Transfiguration story, along with its parallels in Matthew and in Luke, is considered by the great majority of Christians to be a record of an event that occurred just as it is recorded here. It is likely, however, that much more is involved in these texts than simply a record of an event. If these are simply records of an important, spectacular event that occurred during the public ministry of Jesus, we may wonder why there is no mention of such an astonishing occurrence within the Fourth Gospel. According to popular understanding, the Fourth Gospel was written by John, and John is said to have been present with Jesus on the mountain at the time of this event. How could the writer of the Fourth Gospel have forgotten this profound experience of seeing and hearing men who had lived and died hundreds of years earlier and who remained prominent in Jewish thought?
Although the Fourth Gospel has no mention of this event, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who are nowhere said to have been present on the mountain, all include this story.
With our understanding of biblical symbolism, we can see that in these Synoptic Gospel Transfiguration stories Moses and Elijah function as symbols for the Torah and for the Prophetic Traditions respectively. The Torah and the Prophets together constituted the sacred Scriptures for most Jews and for the earliest Christians during the time in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Symbolically, these Transfiguration stories may have been intended to proclaim that Jesus is in the “same league” with Moses and Elijah. By means of these stories Jesus and the words of Jesus are validated as on the same level of authority as the sacred Scriptures as the Scriptures were known at that time. (The so-called Writings had not yet been canonized.) From the standpoint of those who first heard or read the Transfiguration account in Mark, Jesus’ words and Jesus as a person were validated within these accounts by God God’s self by means of the very impressive voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him!” In the story after the cloud moved away, the three awe-stricken disciples are said to have seen no one there except Jesus. Moses and Elijah were gone.
Symbolically, therefore, both the Torah and the Prophetic traditions were also no longer to be seen nor heard. At this point the message intended almost certainly was to indicate vividly that Jesus and the words of Jesus have replaced the Torah and the Prophets as sacred authorities for followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration account in Mark 9:2-9, therefore, served to validate the entire “Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark) much as the “Burning Bush” account in Exodus served as a validation of the entire book of Exodus or even of the entire Torah. When the Matthean and Lukan redactors included the Markan Transfiguration account in their expanded Gospels, the Transfiguration accounts served the same purpose in those documents as validation stories for those documents.
The writers of the Fourth Gospel chose to validate their account also, but not by using the Markan Transfiguration account. Instead, they validated the Fourth Gospel by their use of the great “I Am” statements that they have the Johannine Jesus express in key places in their document.
Thus we have the Four Gospels validated as “words of Jesus” and actually as “Word of God” that God God’s self directly and indirectly is said to have commanded us to hear as we transition from the Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday and to the Lenten season.
The series of passion-resurrection predictions during these Series B Lenten texts continues here with a third text (John 3:14-21), and it is extended further with a fourth text (John 12:20-33) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. All three of these Johannine Jesus passion-resurrection predictions (John 2:13-22 on Lent 3, John 3:14-21 on Lent 4, and John 12:20-33 on Lent 5) are expressed in similar Johannine style, obscure and symbolic, in contrast to the straightforward Mark 8:31-32a with which this series of passion-resurrection predictions began in the Gospel account for Lent 2.
In typical Fourth Gospel style this passage begins with a setting (in this instance a meeting involving Jesus and Nicodemus) for which is provided an extended dialogue and here eventually changing into a monologue. Nicodemus fades out of the picture somewhere around the place where our 3:14-21 text begins. Within 3:14-21 it is actually the Johannine writers and community who collectively are speaking about Jesus as “the Son of man” being lifted up, as “God’s only-begotten Son,” and as “the Light of the world.” It is virtually impossible to discern where the Johannine Jesus stops speaking here and the Johannine writers and community begin. Red-letter editions of the Newer Testament generally code all of John 3:14-21 as words of Jesus. Actually, throughout the entire Fourth Gospel it is the Johannine writers and community who are speaking. True to the gospel genre, these writers and this community of believers say what they believe about God, about Jesus, and about themselves and others in words of Jesus within a ministry of Jesus vehicle.
What these writers and community have provided for us can become for us to share a three-part message about Jesus as (1) the Son of man being lifted up, (2) God’s only-begotten Son, and (3) the Light of the world. The passion-resurrection prediction about the Son of man being lifted up to provide life for all who believe in him just as Moses was said to have lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to preserve life for all who look at it is largely a vaticinium ex eventu, an interpretation of the significance of the death of Jesus after that death had occurred and an expression of belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Is that not what we also do (especially during the Lenten and Easter seasons), i.e., we provide interpretations of the death of Jesus and of the significance of that death for all people, and we proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us also with Jesus into a glorious life? John 3:15-18a (especially John 3:16, which is so important to us) is “gospel” in positive, non-judgmental terminology. John 3:18b-21, however, brings in condemnation of all who do not follow this Johannine “one way.” Which of these shall we emphasize next Sunday? What are we called to proclaim, good news, or condemnation, or both?
It is somewhat surprising that this account was incorporated by the Israelites into the Torah, since the serpent was a Canaanite symbol. Perhaps the most satisfactory commentary on this text is provided in Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-12 in the Old Testament Apocrypha, in which the bronze serpent is described as a symbol of salvation, and in which it is said that those who looked at the serpent were saved from the effects of the poisonous snake bites not by the power of the bronze snake but because they were obedient to the word of the Lord given through Moses.
Theologically, the account in Numbers 21:4-9 says that the people had sinned by speaking against God and against Moses. God punished them. The people repented and asked Moses to intercede for them. Moses interceded in behalf of the people. God forgave them and provided a tangible way in which they could now be obedient to God and receive healing benefits from God.
The details of the account were undoubtedly based on experiences with poisonous snakes within the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern Negev region and upon the popular belief that the creature that caused pain and death should also be the creature through which deliverance from pain and death could be accomplished. This is a principle that is similar in some ways to what occurs in medical immunizations.
In this summary of Paul’s message elsewhere, the writer here presents those who will read and hear as already figuratively raised up with Christ by God and caused to sit with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places. What shall we say about this? Was this bordering on Gnostic Christian perceptions? What the writer apparently wanted to stress was the certainty of the salvation that God provides through Christ. In our own ways we too should express this conviction.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This psalm of thanksgiving to God for the salvation in this life of deliverance from the devastating effects of serious illnesses is an appropriate complement of the other texts selected for this occasion. Together with the Numbers 21:4-9 text, it places its emphasis on salvation within this life here and now, providing for us a balance against the other-worldly emphases in the John 3:14-21 and Ephesians 2:1-10 texts.
THEME OF THE DAY
God keeps us together. The texts for this Sunday are about how in all God does he aims to keep us in communion with each other and with him (Justification by Grace, Sanctification, Church).
This is a hymn to accompany a festival dance. It directs that the Lord is to be praised [tehillah] in a new song in the assembly (v. 1). It also directs Israel to be glad in its maker and the children of Zion [the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem, a term poetically used to connote the whole city] to rejoice in their king (v. 2). We are to praise his name with dancing (v. 3). Yahweh is said to take pleasure in his people, ordaining the humble/afflicted [anav] with victory [yeshua, literally safety or salvation] (v. 4). The faithful are exhorted to exult in glory and sing for joy on couches (perhaps a ritual action that was part of the festival) (v. 5). High praises of God should be in their throats with swords in hand to execute vengeance on the nations, bringing their kings and nobles, executing them on the judgment decreed (vv. 6-9a). The dance that accompanied the music and lyrics may have been war-like in character. All this is said to be glory for the faithful. Yahweh is to be praised (v. 9b).
Application: A sermon on this text will link with its original theme of celebrating how God takes those in need with their afflictions and who know their needs and brings them to safety (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But insofar as the celebration is communal and dancing which is tied to the Psalm is communal, God’s salvation that is celebrated is communal, for God is said to take pleasure in his people (Social Ethics, and if read prophetically, this could refer to the Church).
The Psalm is acrostic, with each stanza of eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter. The 22 stanzas use all the letters of the alphabet in turn (accounting for the significant length of the hymn). Almost every line contains the word “law” or a synonym. These verses are part of a meditation on the law, specifically a prayer to understand the law.
The psalmist pleads to be taught the way of Yahweh’s Law [torah] and pledges to observe it to the end (vv. 33-34). Petitions are offered to be led in the path of the commandments/statutes [mitzvah], for in them is delight [chaphets] (vv. 35-36). They give life (v. 37). We need to remind ourselves here that references to the law in the Hebraic faith of the Old Testament should be construed in terms of the Hebraic concept of torah, which is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but regards the law as instruction or a guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).
Pleas are made that Yahweh’s promise [dabar, literally word] for these who fear him [in the sense of devotion] be confirmed (v. 38). His ordinances are said to be good [tob], and pleas are offered to turn away disgrace. The psalmist notes a longing for the law, so that in God’s righteousness [tsedaqah] he would receive life (vv. 39-40). We note again that in the Hebrew Bible righteousness does not connote judgmentalism on God’s part but is about right relationship or deliverance [Psalm 71:2] (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371ff). This is made clear in this song as the psalmist claims that God’s righteousness gives life (v. 40), a theme most reminiscent of Romans 3:21-25.
Application: Although the devotion of the psalmist to the law could be taken as an occasion to point out how a life lived under the law leads to despair (Sin), a sermon more in line with the original intention of the Psalm will talk about how good life is when we are guided by God, in right relationship with him, but that he is the one who delivers us into this right relationship (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).
This book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like Genesis, the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. This lesson is the version of the Passover from the Priestly oral tradition (the P strand of the Pentateuch, probably composed in the sixth century BC). It follows the account of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11).
The month of Nissan (March-April) is designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of the month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish [tamim] (v. 5). Instructions are given to put the blood [dam] of the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel [mashqoph, or upper doorpost] of the houses of the people (these were the holy places of a house). The lamb is to be eaten the night it is killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10).
Instructions are given on the attire one is to have when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). The hurry with which to eat the meal is in commemoration of Israel’s hasty exodus. Passover is explained, how Yahweh would strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts would be a sign for him to pass over [abar] the house so the plague would not destroy them. The gods of Egypt will also be judged (vv. 12-14). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance/memorial [zikkaron], a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).
Application: This lesson is a story of freedom, how God set the people of Israel free and so sets us free today (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics). It is crucial to note that the people as a whole, the community, are saved, not just individuals (an opportunity to highlight the importance of the Church). Or the Passover event might be interpreted Christologically, that as the lamb’s blood sets the people free, so Christ’s blood makes our exodus possible (Atonement).
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian Captivity. Some oracles pre-date the fall of Jerusalem. This lesson is part of a series of Oracles of Restoration. The verses pertain to God’s charge to the prophet regarding his responsibility. First Ezekiel is reminded that he is a sentinel [tsaphah, literally watchman] for Israel, that whenever he hears a word [dabar, can also mean thing] from the Lord he is to give Israel warning (v. 7). Not to proclaim God’s judgment of death on the people entails that they will die in their sin and their blood [dam] will be required at Ezekiel’s hand (v. 8). But if warned and they do not turn [shub] from their ways, they will die (v. 9). Thus he is to condemn them for their sins but assure the people that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants the wicked to turn from their ways and live [chayah] (vv. 10-11).
Application: Several options for preaching emerge from this text. The call to turn back from sin is an opportunity to develop the theme of repentance, made possible by the God of love who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. A focus on prophecy, its character as a critic of society, properly emerges from this text and from this point a sermon condemning problematic local or national social trends might be developed. This theme of condemning sin might be related to the theme of the Power of the Keys which emerges in the Gospel Lesson.
Paul begins to terminate his letter of introduction to the Roman church with a discussion of love fulfilling the law and the imminence of Christ’s second coming. The apostle first urges the Romans to owe nothing to anyone except for love [agapao] to one another, for whoever loves fulfills the law [nomos] (v. 8). The commandments, it is said, are fulfilled by love (vv. 9-10). Now is the time to awake, for salvation [soteria, also meaning safety] is near [egguteron], Paul proclaims (vv. 11-12a). The faithful are urged to lay aside works of darkness, putting on the armor of light [phos], living honorably and not in sin (vv. 12b-13). He urges the faithful to put on [enduo, literally "clothe"] Christ, making no provisions for the flesh (v. 14). Clearly Paul here indicates belief that the Esachaton (or Christ’s second coming) is near at hand.
Application: This text also opens the way for a number of possible sermons. Concern about nurturing community through love is an option in line with the Theme of the Day (Church and Sanctification). But this is only possible when we are clothed in Christ (Justification by Grace construed as being united with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Other themes (which might be linked to those just noted) include Realized Eschatology (the urgency of acting because Christ’s coming into our lives is on the immediate horizon) or condemning sin (that the Law of God is not fulfilled unless we practice selfless love).
We continue to consider the most Jewish-oriented of all the gospels, addressing an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). This is an account of Jesus’ discussion of discipline among followers. Except for verse 15 the account is unique to Matthew. This is not surprising, for of the gospel writers Matthew alone concerns himself with matters of the church and how Christians are to live together.
The lesson begins with Jesus claiming that if another member of the church sins against a believer the aggrieved is to go and point out the fault to the offender in solitude. If this succeeds, this one has been regained (v. 15). If there is no reconciliation, then one or two other Christians should accompany the one offended in order that there be confirmation of what transpires by witnesses (v. 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). If this fails, the church [ekklesia] should be told, and if the offender still refuses to listen he or she is to be treated as a non-member (a Gentile or tax collector) (v. 17). Jesus awards the Power of Keys to all the disciples (whatever they bind or loose is bound or loosed in heaven) (v. 18; cf. 16:19). If two agree on earth about anything requested, Jesus promises it will be done by the Father in heaven (v. 19). Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name he agrees to be present to them (v. 20). This point suggests the vicarious presence of the risen Christ (28:20).
Application: The most obvious sermon emerging from this text is to proclaim forgiveness, how Christ has granted us the Power of the Keys, and the virtues of his mode of discipline — the virtues of private confrontation with those in the wrong before public reprimand (Sanctification). The fact that when we are in communion with each other Christ is present provides an excellent occasion to reflect on the church. And the promise of Christ’s presence among us is also a comforting word to proclaim.
THEME OF THE DAY
Rejoice: God saves us by his grace! The texts for this Sunday, in accord with the historic emphasis on rejoicing [Laetare Sunday], testify to God’s love and grace (Justification by Grace).
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This lesson is part of a group thanksgiving for pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for a festival. The Psalm begins with a call for everyone to give thanks. God is praised for his goodness [tob] and love/
mercy [chesed], gathering together his people (vv. 1-3). These verses may have in mind the exiles who have been freed from Babylonian captivity and returned home. Some of the pilgrims were sick due to sin but were saved [yasha, or given safety] or healed by the Lord; God’s love is extolled (vv. 17-21, 1). The correct response is to offer a sacrifice [zebach, a sacrifice of animals] and to tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy (v. 22).
Application: Sermons on this lesson quite obviously lead us to focus on God’s goodness and love in the tough times of life (Justification by Grace). Understanding salvation in terms of safety, as the Hebrews did could entail developing a Social Ethical viewpoint on salvation, how safety from social evil is God’s will. The proper response to God’s love (Sanctification) is another homiletical alternative. If the reference to sacrifice is read prophetically we might speak of the response to God’s love as a life of joyful praise and self-denial.
The title of this book is related to the census of people reported in chapters 1-4, 26. We have previously noted that like all five books of the Pentateuch, this Book of Origins is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. This lesson is the story of Israel’s faithlessness immediately after defeating the Canaanites at the Battle of Hormah (vv. 1-3). Reference to the Red Sea which the Hebrews pass is “Reed Sea” in Hebrews. The people complain of their situation, speaking against God and Moses (vv. 4-5). God punishes them with a plague of poisonous serpents (v. 6). The people repent, and God has Moses build a bronze serpent which when the people look at it can save them (vv. 7-9). (The phrase “serpent of bronze/copper” [nachash nechosheth] is a pun in Hebrew, both words deriving from the same root.) Also from this root is Nehustan, the bronze serpent King Hezekiah destroys because it had become an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4], a reminder how widespread serpent worship was in the Ancient Near East.)The Hebrew word for “repentance” [nacham] also means “comforted” or “eased.” Thus repentance in this Old Testament context does not so much connote sorrow as joyfully finding oneself at ease in the comforting assurance that comes in a relationship with God.
Application: The text opens the way for sermons to help people appreciate God’s ingenuity in saving and caring for us (Justification by Grace and Providence), often in hidden, surprising ways. Sermons in repentance (understood as comfort or ease) could also be proclaimed (Sanctification).
The lesson is drawn from a circular letter either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul 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 characteristic different from the authentic Pauline corpus. It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15). The lesson is a discussion of Christ’s benefits. The author notes that we were dead through sins, following the course of the world and Satan (the ruler of the power of the air) (vv. 1-2). He relates the death of sin to passions/lusts [epithumia]of the flesh [sarx] (v. 3). God who is rich in mercy [eleos] is said to out of love have made us alive and by grace [charis] saved [sozo] us and raised up with him (vv. 4-5, 7-8). We are created [ktizo] in Jesus Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand (v. 10).
Application: Several alternatives for sermons emerge from this lesson. The text invites sermons on our bondage to sin, on Christ’s conquest of evil (Classic View of the Atonement), Justification by Grace, or the Spontaneity of Good Works (Sanctification).
Again we read from the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John.
Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first and early second-century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155). Regardless of the circumstances of its composition, there is agreement that the book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). This lesson is Jesus’ discourse following his dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus (vv. 1-10). This is uniquely Johannine material.
Jesus claims to be discoursing about heavenly things, as only he (the Son of Man — huios to anthropou) has ascended to the Father (vv. 11-13). The use of this title here by John suggests that the title is employed here and in the Synoptic Gospels as a way to describe Jesus’ present ministry on earth. Jesus proceeds to note that as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert (reported in the First Lesson, Numbers 21:9) in order to provide a remedy to those made ill by the bites of poisonous snakes, which were sent to punish the Hebrews for their sin, so the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believe in him will have eternal life (vv. 14-15). The cross is here foretold.
God’s love [agape] for the world [kosmos] in giving his only Son that all who believe may have eternal life is proclaimed (v. 16). This theme echoes elsewhere in the gospel (5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26). God did not send his Son to judge [krpinai] the world, but those not believing are already condemned because they have not believed (vv. 17-18). The judgment is that the light [phos, who is Christ] has come into the world and people loved darkness/evil [skotos] more than light. Those who do evil [poneros] hate the light, rejecting it so their deeds not be exposed (vv. 19-20). Those who do what is truth [aletheia] come to the light, so it is seen that their deeds have been done in God (v. 21).
Application: The text provides occasions to proclaim God’s love and grace for the world (Justification by Grace). But attention may also be given to the implications of this for living the Christian life (Sanctification).