Monday, March 30, 2020Psalm 143; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Acts 20:7-12

Psalm 143 is a personal prayer by an individual persecuted by nameless ‘enemies’ (vss. 3, 12). Vss 1-2 frame the address to God, and vss 3-6 describe the suffering of the one praying. Does vs 3 hint at having been imprisoned (‘…making me sit in darkness…’)?

Despite the distress, bordering on despair, experienced by the Psalmist, vs 5 declares the encouraging role of memory (‘I remember the days of old’) and the sustaining power of ‘meditating on the works of your hands’.

Vss 7-12 list the petitions, what the pray-er is asking for: answers and encouragement (vss 7-8a), teaching and guidance (vss 8b, 10), refuge and deliverance (vss 9, 11, 12).

This is a Psalm that shapes well our prayers in this time of pestilence, where the ‘enemy’ is not human, but a pandemic disease. While the original setting of the Psalm may have been a prison, it lends itself to framing our experience of self-quarantine and the importance of encouragement ‘in the morning’ and some framework of wisdom and encouragement to structure the passing days.

The OT and NT readings deal with the untimely deaths of two youths, one through disease (that robbed him of his breath! – 1 Kings 17.17) and one through an overly-long sermon (Acts 20)! It invites comparison of the health risks of respiratory disease (short-windedness) and overly enthusiastic preaching (long-windedness). In each story the intervention of the prophet (Elijah) and the apostle (Paul) leave both youths alive and well (and with memorable stories to tell in later life). 

In our context, one matter for thanksgiving and celebration is that, unlike the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, young people do not seem to be at particular risk from Covid-19 (although the disease can still be very serious). Those of us who are parents and grandparents will be grateful for this, even though we ourselves may be at increased risk.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020Psalm 143; 2 Kings 4:18-37; Ephesians 2:1-10

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The other readings for the day both deal with the transition from death to life, the reverse of the usual journey of human experience. The Shunammite woman is a significant figure from the Hebrew Bible, wealthy and powerful in her own right. Although she is married, her husband is nowhere named and she is never identified as ‘his wife’. She takes the initiative in becoming a patron of the prophet. Her interactions with Gehazi and Elisha after her son dies, show intelligence and faith (read vss 26, 28, 30).

The Ephesians passage reflects the language of the spiritual powers that breathes through the epistle (‘the ruler of the power of the air’ – vs 2, ‘children of wrath’- vs 3, ‘the heavenly places’ – vs 6). The idea of the ‘ruler of the power of the air’ refers to a pervasive spiritual force that is omnipresent in the earth. This worldview does not see ‘the air’ as benign or pleasurable, but as an inherent spiritual threat. While our current fear of invisible contagion through close sharing of ‘air’ with others is entirely medical and physical, it does give us an insight into a spiritual worldview that sees evil at work in all of the environment around us. Just how we might integrate such a view of pervasive and inimical spiritual power with an appreciation of the beauty and goodness of creation is a matter for careful reflection and prayerful wisdom.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020Psalm 143; Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41; Matthew 22:23-33

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jeremiah 32 describes one of the truly great prophetic acts of the whole of the Bible. For many years Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be besieged and destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar (as he is named in this text). This story is doubly dated (vs 1) to the reigns of both Zedekiah of Judah and Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. The setting here is that the fall of Jerusalem (‘… by sword, by famine and by pestilence’ – vs 36) is imminent. Those who had mocked, harassed and imprisoned Jeremiah for years were starting to realise he had been right and they and their city were doomed. At the moment of personal triumph, when all around him were cashing out their assets and buying jewellery and gold for the hard times ahead (just as we are seeing with the stock markets and the gold price today), Jeremiah is told by God to buy a field. It is an act of hope, a sign that on the other side of the disaster there will be sowing and harvest, weddings and children, building of houses and singing of songs! Jeremiah has been libelled as a ‘prophet of doom’: yes, he saw clearly, and prophesied faithfully, the shape of the coming disaster; but even more faithfully, he prophesied the goodness of God and pointed to the restoration of the nation on the other side of the terrible circumstances of today.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees (who did not believe in the future Resurrection of any human being) tried to corner Jesus with a trick question, using the legal principle of levirate marriage. Jesus answers that the heavenly experience is of greater blessedness (an angel-like state) that exceeds human categories such as marriage. As Jesus draws near to his own death and Resurrection in Matthew’s telling of the story, this is part of his teaching that prepares the disciples for the surprise and challenge of the empty tomb.

Thursday, April 2, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; 1 Samuel 16:11-13; Philippians 1:1-11

The Lenten Psalms are quite fitting for our current circumstances. Psalm 31 brings together petitions, descriptions of distress and statements of trust. The passage for today is the middle section of the Psalm but it can stand alone in its literary integrity and spiritual meaning. The whole Psalm describes the suffering of an individual but ends confidently with an address of encouragement to the worshipping group (vss 23-24). Vss 9-12 suggest the cause of distress is some form of illness, but vss 13, 15 introduce the theme of enemies conspiring against the singer’s life. Vss 14-16 are an expression of trust in God and an affirmation of God’s goodness.

The 1 Samuel passage is a section of the narrative of the anointing of a new king to succeed Saul. Omitted is the long description of the succession of sons that Jesse presents for Samuel’s approval.  The act of anointing is a deeply subversive act, a symbolic blow against the existing order and a de-legitimation of the king in the name of God. Samuel was deeply aware of this. He protested to the Lord that if he did as he was commanded Saul would kill him (1 Sam 16.2). That Samuel’s mission was perceived more widely as rebellious and dangerous can also be seen in the fear shown by the elders of Bethlehem when he arrived (1 Sam 16.4). While it would be many years before David ascended the throne, this act of anointing effected a transformation in David – the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward (vs 13). Social change often begins with small symbolic acts that plant the seeds of future action. What ‘anointings’ that will shape the future are occurring in our own time?

The personal and tender introduction to Paul’s letter to the Philippians reveals an intimate and loving relationship with the church. That the church is well established can be seen in the reference to bishops and deacons (or overseers and helpers) in vs 1. What is lovely is the textual ambiguity of vs 7: does Paul feel close to them ‘because you hold me in your heart’ or ‘because I hold you in my heart’? The text does not make it clear, and the manuscript tradition reflects both readings. This delightful ambiguity is found in other NT letters (e.g. 2 Cor 3.2). Far from being a weakness, this reflects the double principle that churches should love their leaders, and leaders should love their churches!

Friday, April 3, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; Job 13:13-19; Philippians 1:21-30

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

The book of Job is a profound exploration of human suffering and divine justice. Against all the advice of his pious friends that suffering is the result of sin and Job should repent, Job asserts his innocence and demands an answer from God. These verses follow the first cycle of ‘advice’ offered by Job’s friends. Here Job expresses his determination to present his case to God, whatever the risks. The language is startling (‘I take my flesh in my teeth’ vs 14). His call for silence in vs 13 is almost “Silence in court!” as he prepares to offer his defence. Note the variant reading of vs 15a ‘Though he kill me, yet I will trust in him’ which is more in keeping with Job’s confidence in God.

Just as Job is prepared to run the risk of death in his desire to engage with God, so Paul in the Philippians passage muses about whether it is better to live or die. To Paul, both living and dying have advantages and he is happy with either. Because his continuing to live would be to the benefit of his readers, Paul believes that is what will happen.

The second part of the Philippians reading teaches that we must live in a way worthy of the gospel. Vs 28 indicates that the church is engaged in conflict ([you] ‘are in no way intimidated by your opponents’) and shares ‘the same struggle that you saw I had’ (vs 30).

Saturday, April 4, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; Lamentations 3:55-66; Mark 10:32-34

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Lament (a passionate expression of grief or sorrow) is a form of literature that has not found a ready place in our religious expression or in our culture (with the possible exception of the musical tradition of ‘the blues’). Lamentations 3.55-66 follows a long list of sufferings and disasters, and affirms that God listens, God acts and has taken up the writer’s cause. The passage ends with a call for God to give ‘pay back’ and asks God to curse the writer’s enemies (vss 64-66). There is a genre of Psalms (imprecatory Psalms) that call for the punishment, destruction or cursing of one’s enemies. Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, around 20 are imprecatory or cursing psalms. If a culture of ‘optimism and positivity’ has inhibited our engagement with lament, has a culture of ‘niceness’ stopped us from engaging with those Psalms that express anger and a passionate thirst for, if not revenge, than at least a sense of personal vindication?

The gospel reading (Mark 10.32-34) is a high point of Mark’s gospel and the beginning of the transition into the Passion. Mark has structured the central part of his gospel around three predictions of his death and resurrection (8.31-38, 9.30-32 and here). The tension in the disciples and crowd is palpable (‘they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid – vs 32). The third prediction is the most detailed.  This text is followed by the selfish request of James and John for the places of honour in the coming Kingdom and then the miraculous healing of blind Bartimaeus, followed immediately by Jesus’ triumphal (?) entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

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