Monday, April 27, 2020Psalm 134; Genesis 18:1-14; 1 Peter 1:23-25

Psalm 134 is a beautiful little Psalm comprised of two parts. Vss 1-2 are a hymnic call to worship set at night. If you have ever lived in, or visited a place where there is no electric light, where people live with candles or small oil lamps, you will know how limited night-time activities are. In ancient Israel there is some evidence of night worship (see Isaiah 30.29, or Psalm 8.3ff which suggests a night setting) but we have very few Biblical liturgies or prayers for the night like this psalm. 

The structure of the Psalm is unusual in that it has a clear invocation of worship addressed to the priests by the people (vss 1-2) and then a blessing of the people by the priests invoking the Lord as ‘the maker of heaven and earth’ (vs3). There is no recounting of personal trials, no extended praise of the Lord – just a simple and very beautiful invocation or call to worship, followed by a blessing. There is a purity and simplicity of worship in this sparse but powerful form. 

For several years as a young man I worked as a truck driver on permanent night shift. I memorised this Psalm and would often repeat it as I drove through the dark and deserted streets of Melbourne or the forested hills of the outer eastern suburbs. Whenever I saw another night worker – a milkman or security guard – I would repeat vss 1-2 to myself as a quiet invocation and greeting.

Genesis chapter 18, set near the evocatively named ‘oaks of Mamre’, is the beginning of a cycle of stories running through Genesis Chapters 18, 19 and 20 and centred on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the escape of Lot and his family, the shameful beginnings of Moab and Ammon as nations, and the unedifying story of Abraham and Sarah at Gerar (chapter 20). What ‘frames’ this cycle is the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah in 18.1-15 and the birth of Isaac (21.1-7). 

Note the ambiguity of whether Abraham was visited by ‘the Lord’ (vs 1) or three men (vs. 2). The forms of address slide between singular and plural throughout the story. Later in the chapter there is reference to ‘the men’ and ‘the Lord’ as separate actors (vs 22) and by 19.1 ‘the Lord’ has been with Abraham and then ‘went his way’ (18.33) while ‘the two angels’ have gone into Sodom (19.1).

In ‘choosing’ the verses to include in today’s reading, the Lectionary has ‘peeled away’ vs. 15 (on ‘peeling’ watch the Bible Chef 1 video on the church website). I love verse 15, where Sarah denies that she laughed, only to have the one who promised her a son (the Lord? an angel? one of the ‘three men’?) gently rebuke her as one rebukes a lying child: “I didn’t laugh” says Sarah. “Oh yes, you did!” comes the answer.  I love the thought of God’s gentle rebuke whenever we deny something about our ourselves – and we do this all the time. We deny the truth about ourselves and our actions: to other people, to ourselves and we even try it on with God. There is no hint of condemnation in that rebuke, just a chuckle of recognition, and a reminder that we should own our own laughter and disbelief in the face of the wonderful promises and gifts of God.

1 Peter 1.23-25. The lectionary readings from 1 Peter are not presented in a consistent sequence through the Easter period. This ‘chopping and changing’ is a bit of a problem. We offer two resources for your readings in 1 Peter. One is these daily notes and the other is the Bible Chef podcasts on the church website.  The Bible Chef series is really exploring a bible study method using cookery as a metaphorical framework. The first Bible Chef episode explores how we ‘peel away’ parts of the text. The second (to be posted this week) deals with how we ‘cut up’ or structure parts of the text in the way we read it. 

A good way to start is to set aside 20-30 minutes and read the whole book at one sitting – it’s only five chapters. That will give you a sense of the whole as we explore the text from two approaches: Bible Chef exploring a Bible study method applied to 1 Peter; and these daily readings exploring smaller sections of the text. Bible Chef 2 will give an overview of the structure of 1 Peter which will help situate the small readings we will be exploring day by day.

Today’s reading comes from the end of chapter 1. After an initial salutation and greeting (1.1-2), a blessing and description of their faith (1.3-12), Peter moves to an exhortation to live a holy and faithful life (1.13ff). Today’s reading is small declaratory or descriptive passage that follows a section that is hortatory (do these things…. live this way… behave thus…. Vss 13-22).  The difference between the declaratory and exhortatory modes can be seen together in vs 22: “Now since you have purified your souls (descriptive/declaratory) … love one another deeply from the heart (hortatory)”.

Vss 23-25 returns to the descriptive/declaratory mode with a declaration of our new birth through the word, a quote from the Old Testament which is then linked clearly to the gospel that has been proclaimed to his hearers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020Psalm 134; Proverbs 8:32-9:6; 1 Peter 2:1-3

For the Psalm, see Monday.

To understand Proverbs 8.32-9.6 we need to know that there is a genre of Old Testament literature called the Wisdom literature. Found across Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and Job, this literature extols and explores the role of Wisdom (with an intentional capitalisation) as an element of godly life. Within the Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity, Wisdom has been interpreted through the Greek term Sophia and is understood almost as a form of the divine presence. The ancient church in Constantinople/Istanbul called Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom – now a mosque) reflects this perspective. This view of Wisdom underlies Proverbs 8 & 9 where Wisdom has been personified as a mother calling to her human children (8.32-36). In 9.1-6 Wisdom is presented in the third person either as a deity who has established her temple, slaughtered the sacrifices etc, or as a hostess who is setting a banquet. The invitation is offered to the simple and the senseless (vs 4). On the form of the invitation to eat and drink, see the similarities with Isaiah 55.1-3.  

Another fascinating motif in this passage is 9.1 and ‘the seven pillars’. This concept has passed into Islamic thought with the five pillars of Islam, or (in Shia Islam) the seven pillars of Islam. Lawrence of Arabia in his autobiography drew on this verse in the book’s title ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.

1 Peter 2.1-3 continues in the hortatory mode and introduces one of the richest passages of the NT when it comes to describing the church (1 Peter 2.4-10). Perhaps because it is so well known the lectionary seems to ignore vss 4-8 and picks up again on Thursday at vs 9!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020Psalm 134; Exodus 24:1-11; John 21:1-14

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The OT reading takes us back into Exodus (see Thursday and Friday). Chapter 24 presents many challenges to the reader, not least that it would appear that there are two stories here rather clumsily brought together. Moses has been up on the mountain alone since chapter 20, but here is called to ‘Come up to the Lord’ (vs 1) with 73 other people. This event then doesn’t happen until vs 9. In vss. 3-8 Moses ‘came and told the people all the words of the Lord’ (vs 3) and leads a covenant ceremony in which the covenant is ratified by the people (vs 7) in a blood-sacrifice (vss 6, 8). This is the only place in the OT in which the covenant with the Lord is actually ratified.

Then a very different ceremony (commanded in vss 1-2) occurs. Moses and the 73 he was commanded to take, ‘went up, and they saw the God of Israel’. The epiphany happens complete with a sapphire pavement, clear blue like the sky (vss 9b-10). That they beheld God is rather clumsily repeated and there is mention of eating and drinking, with the overtones of a sacral meal.

This an important OT text stressing the ratification of the covenant, but it raises some questions. The presence of the book of the covenant (vs 7) and reading it in the presence of the people is more characteristic of a later stage in Israel’s history. The ‘book of the covenant’ is mentioned here in Exodus 24, but the stone tablets of the law, do not appear in the narrative until 31.18.

The appearance of God to a large gathering of leaders would appear to contradict the strong tradition that whoever looks on God will die. When Moses begs to see God’s glory (Ex 33.18-23) the Lord places him in a cleft of the rock and he only sees the back side of God as he passes by.

We can only conclude that here we have two ancient ceremonies that were central to the ratification of the covenant (complete with ‘the book of the covenant’) that have been placed within the wider narrative of Exodus, the giving of the law in the stone tablets, and the first apostasy of Israel in the worship of the golden calf (Ex 32).

John 21.1-14 is the story of Jesus’ appearing by the lake and the recommissioning of Peter and the disciples. Central to understanding this passage is vs 3: when Peter says “I am going fishing” he uses the Gk aorist tense. This is an unusual tense that describes an action that happens once but has continuing effect into the future. You cannot get married (in Greek!) in the present tense: you can only do it in the Aorist tense. It happens today, but it will continue tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that. So when Peter says “I am going fishing” he is not having a day off or taking some recreation: he is saying “I am going back to my old life, becoming a fisherman again. I’m forgetting all this discipleship business”. When the other disciples say “We will go with you”, the entire Jesus project has collapsed!

Jesus comes to meet them and in the miraculous catch of fish they recognise their Lord, their calling, and are re-commissioned to their discipleship.

There is a fascinating parallel to John’s story of the miraculous catch found in Luke 5.1ff. Here the context is different. Jesus is already a popular preacher but has not yet called the disciples. He ‘borrows’ a boat to preach to the great throng on the beach and afterward tells Peter to ‘put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch’. The same dialogue about a fruitless night is found in both stories and then the recognition of Jesus and response in following him. It’s just that one is set at the very beginning of Jesus’ human ministry and one at the beginning of his risen ministry. Perhaps discipleship is a matter of many new beginnings and recommitments over the course of time and changing circumstance?

Thursday, April 30, 2020Psalm 23; Exodus 2:15b-25; 1 Peter 2:9-12

Psalm 23 is the best known, and most loved psalm in the English-speaking world and perhaps beyond. Commentary is almost superfluous. And yet…. have we ‘misunderestimated’ (as George W Bush might say) this text? Understanding the setting is critical to interpreting the Psalm. We have tended to read the context as a kind of rural idyll, which sentimentalises the text. As my favourite commentator on the Psalms (Hans-Joachim Kraus) writes:

Psalm 23 is not tangled up in the bliss of trust which is here displayed in idyllic and lovely pictures of pious submission. This lyric-romantic understanding of the song is determinative in most of the interpretations. The background of the psalm of trust represents a definite danger. The petitioner has enemies (vs 5), his life is threatened and persecuted.

The setting of the Psalm is the ancient practice of transhumance, the seasonal movement of stock from winter to summer pastures and back again. In Australia this has deep resonance in the mustering and droving of sheep, and especially cattle, over long distances in dry and dangerous country. I remember reading of one of the early cattle barons who drove a mob of cattle from Victoria to central Queensland, rested them for a year and then drove them ‘across the top’ to the Kimberley. The first time they tried it, all the cattle died on the drive north, then the horses died, but the men kept walking, carrying their saddles, to learn more of the landscape and be better prepared for the next time they attempted it. This is the context of Psalm 23.1-4.

In vss. 5-6 the metaphor changes. From green pastures and quiet waters, we find ourselves translated to a banquet ‘in the presence of my enemies’ (vs 5). Some scholars see this as a victory celebration after a successful legal judgment in the temple (remembering that in ancient Israel there were no law courts – the administration of justice was a function of the temple). This would accord with the final verse celebrating the lasting blessing of goodness and mercy (consequences of justice being delivered) and the desire to ‘dwell in the house of the Lord’ for one’s whole life (vs 6).

From yesterday’s Exodus reading we jump back to the early part of Exodus. Exodus 2 presents what cinema might call the ‘backstory’ of Moses. The ‘it’ of which Pharaoh heard (vs 15a) was the murder of an Egyptian by Moses (2.11-12). Moses fled and settled in the land Midian where he married Zipporah one of the daughters of Reuel. Vss 23-25 is in many ways the heart of the Exodus message – that God hears the people’s suffering and God acts to save them.

1 Peter 2.9-12 as the daily reading jumps across 1 Peter 2.4-8 which we would have expected after Tuesday’s reading. 1 Pet 2.9-10 is one of the well-known texts within the church – a powerful statement of the church and its mission. Vss 11-12 raise a number of exegetical issues that will be addressed in the Bible Chef podcast 3: what does the description of his readers as ‘aliens and exiles’ (vs 11) mean for Peter? In Bible Chef 1 we saw that the lectionary ‘peeled off’ the opening verses of the letter which also included ‘exiles’. Does this word ‘exiles’ hold the key to understanding 1 Peter?

Friday, May 1, 2020Psalm 23; Exodus 3:16-22, 4:18-20; 1 Peter 2:13-17

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 3 (the call of Moses) is one of the great turning points of the Bible story. Today’s reading is the Lord’s commission to Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites from their captivity. The commission predicts what will happen in Egypt, down to the details of Pharaoh’s intransigence and the ‘plundering of Egypt’ and its wealth. Perhaps the most important part of the commission is vs 16 ‘I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you…’ which expresses what the narrative places at the centre of God’s intervention: ‘I have observed the misery of my people …  and have heard their cry. … I know their sufferings’ (Ex 3.7) This is the heart of the message of Exodus.

Note in 4.18-20 the small detail of Jethro, Moses father-in-law, previously identified by the name Ruel (Ex 2.18). Jethro plays a significant (if somewhat cameo) role in the unfolding story of the Exodus. See, for example, the role of Jethro is shaping Moses’ practice of delegating the judging of the people (Ex 18) and making known ‘the statutes and instructions of God’ (Ex 18. 16, 20). This description of the ‘statutes and instructions of God’ appears to predate the giving of the law (Exodus chapters 20-35). The Druze religion (primarily found in Lebanon) looks to Jethro as its ancestral figure.  

Moses had three cultural influences that formed him as a leader: his Egyptian childhood and formation as a member of Pharaoh’s household; his adult life under Jethro’s authority and protection in Midian (where Moses married and had several children – probably a sojourn of some decades); and his Hebrew identity. Note the later part of Exodus 4 with the ancient and very unusual story of Zipporah’s intervention (vss 24-26), Aaron’s journey to meet Moses, and the ‘clincher’ for the people’s acceptance: that God had given heed to their suffering and seen their misery (vs 31).

1 Peter 2.13-27 is in many ways similar to Romans 13.1-7. Both are passages urging submission to duly constituted authority. However, the context may be very different. Rome was the centre of Empire and of power. Here we have a dispersed group of ‘exiles’ who have been exhorted to ‘conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles’ even though they (his readers) will be called ‘evildoers’ (vs 12). They are then urged to live ‘as free people’ (vs 16), with the overtone perhaps that they are not free? A marginal group scattered across the fringes of empire is in a very different position to those near the centre of power. Yet the teaching is very similar.

Saturday, May 2, 2020Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:1-16; Luke 15:1-7

As we move toward Sunday, where the lectionary readings revolve around Jesus’ teaching about shepherds, bandits, sheepfolds, and sheep (John 10.1-10) we have three passages today that engage with the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep.

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ezekiel 34 is an eloquent and even blistering attack on the contemporary ‘shepherds of Israel’ (vs 1). The heart of the accusation is vss 3-4 (you eat their fat, shear their wool, slaughter them for meat and don’t feed them!) and the result is vss 5-6.  In these verses (5-6) we hear strong echoes of Jesus’ preaching and teaching (sheep scattered without a shepherd, wandering on the mountains, shepherd not going searching for the sheep). If there is any OT passage that was close to Jesus’ heart it is this one!

Vss 7-10 announce judgement on the shepherds.

Vss 11-16 announce a new role for God as the shepherd of Israel who will care for and deliver the scattered sheep. It is a powerful description of salvation – but do not overlook the tone of judgement in 16b: I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (emphasis added).

Luke 15.1-7 is the parable of the lost sheep with strong emphasis on the joy of finding the lost sheep. It is one of three parables in Luke 15 that share a common theme of great joy in finding that which was lost. The parables have been called the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.

One of the striking elements of this parable is that any farmer or shepherd in any age works with an expectation of acceptable losses. Losing 1 out of a 100 would be pretty good shepherding. A 1st century shepherd surely would not leave the 99 at risk ‘in the wilderness’!! (vs 4) and scoot off hoping to find the one? 

The parable has been placed within a ‘frame’ of the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus hanging out with sinners (vss 1-2) as the opening, and Jesus’ pointed rebuke to them about the heavenly joy over even one sinner who repents (vs 7) at the close. If the righteous majority are indeed the flock of the Pharisees, is Jesus taking a dig when he suggests that the main flock is abandoned in the wilderness?

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