The Sunday readings (May 3rd) included Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) and John 10.1-10 (Jesus’ teaching on the sheepfold). The Biblical metaphor of the sheep provides the integrating theme for the readings for the first half of this week. In the second part of the week the focus is the controversies of Jesus and Stephen with their Jewish opponents over who are the genuine inheritors of the legacy of Abraham and Moses.

Psalm 100 is well known to worshippers in the English tradition through the hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’, often sung to the tune Old Hundredth. This was also a common tune for the Doxology, sung to open Baptist services in a previous generation. It is a Psalm calling forth praise and thanksgiving. The setting can be discerned from vss 2 and 4 which call the worshipping community to enter the gates of the sanctuary in sung praise and worship. It is in every sense a ‘processional hymn’. 

There is a heading to the psalm (A Psalm of Thanksgiving (NRSV) or ‘A psalm for the presentation of thanksgiving’) which confirms that it is a ‘call to thanksgiving’. We often glide over the headings of the Psalms and do not read them out in public worship, which is a pity, for they are the ‘production notes’ that open a window on how the psalms may have functioned in the earliest layers of Israel’s worship tradition. 

Sometimes the headings are elaborate. Psalm 56, for instance, has this heading: To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath. While we cannot be certain as to the meaning, it appears that this is a direction to the worship leader indicating the tune to which it should be sung (The Dove on Far-off Terebinths), that David wrote it, that the form is a Miktam (an unknown form attributed to Psalms 16 and 56-60) composed after David’s capture in Gath by the Philistines.  

Other headings are more cryptic. A recurring heading is simply To the leader: Do not destroy. My view is that a liturgist is here speaking to the Temple musicians and simply saying, ‘Please don’t murder this one, guys!’ Whether he wanted it faster, or slower, or with more feeling, or greater solemnity, we cannot be sure, but anyone who has spent decades in worship in various churches will have identified with these words from time to time – although never, of course, at Box Hill Baptist with our fine team of musicians!!!

Vs 3 brings two themes together, the covenant that stood at the heart of Israel’s identity (I will be your God, and you will be my people) and the motif of being ‘the sheep of his pasture’. This verse affirms that the people are the creation of God, the flock for which he cares and shepherds.

Vs 4 reprises the call to thanksgiving and worship and vs 5 reiterates a common theme of the Psalms, that God’s love and faithfulness endure for all generations.

Ezekiel 34 is a series of prophetic oracles all themed around the motif of the shepherd. Vss 1-10 is a denunciation of the false shepherds of Israel. Vss 11-16 is an oracle of God, the true shepherd, who will gather and protect his flock. 

Today’s reading (vss 17-23) presents God as the judge of ‘my flock’ (vs 17). The judgment between ‘sheep and sheep, between rams and goats’ (vs 17) is directed at those who literally ‘muddy the waters’ and trample the pasture (vs 18). Vs 19 identifies those who must eat the trampled pasture and drink the fouled water as ‘my sheep’, which suggests God is choosing a subset of ‘my flock’ for the divine favour.

Vss 20-22 make this a little clearer with God’s judgment between fat and lean sheep – between the strong and the weak (vs 21). It is clear that God is judging within the house of Israel to save ‘my flock’ and the key theme of ‘judging between sheep and sheep’ is re-iterated (vs 22).

Vs 23 presents the shepherd not as God (cf. vss 11-16) but ‘my servant David’.

One of the questions this passage raises is whether the people of God are sufficiently zealous in ‘judging between sheep and sheep’ – that is, managing the internal discernment and discipline of the flock of God so that fat sheep do not exploit lean sheep, and strong sheep do not perpetrate violence against weak sheep. A recent Royal Commission might suggest that the churches have not taken this passage (and vss 1-10) to heart nearly as much as we should have!

1 Peter 5.1-5 is addressed to the Elders of the community named at the outset as ‘the Exiles of the Dispersion’ (1 Peter 1.1-2). The metaphors of the flock (vss 2, 3) and the chief shepherd (vs 4) are invoked. It is interesting here that the metaphor is the chief shepherd, suggesting a continuity of authority and ministry between the Elders and Christ himself. In particular, the Elders are invoked to lead willingly, not as those under compulsion, and eagerly, rather than for sordid gain (vs 2).

Note the reference to Christ’s suffering (vs 1) which appears to echo the suffering of the people. In my ministry experience I have worked with or visited various communities that are marginalised or in some form of ‘exile’ and I believe there are particular challenges and temptations for the leaders of such communities – especially the temptation to ‘lord it over those in your charge’, a temptation often shared by communities willing to be lorded-over by their own, rather than someone from the dominant culture.

Given that ‘migrant’ communities are increasingly understood as ‘diaspora communities’, there is much to be gained from deep reflection on these five verses within the whole context of first Peter, both for leaders of diaspora communities (any congregation with a specific linguistic or cultural identity) and those like Box Hill Baptist Church that try to integrate within one congregation a diversity of languages and cultures.

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The Ezekiel reading repeats vs 23 from yesterday, using ‘David the shepherd’ as a link between the two passages. The first half of the covenant is reiterated (I, the Lord, will be their God vs 24) and given shape in vss 25-29.   Note that they, the house of Israel are my people, … You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture – the second part of the covenant – is not stated until vss 30-31.

Between these two statements of covenant come promises of the divine action in banishing wild animals (vs 25), blessing the holy mountain and sending showers of blessing (vs 26), abundance of harvest, security and national deliverance from the nations that oppress them (vs 27-29).

Hebrews 13.20-21 is a beautiful and widely used benediction that weaves together an invocation of peace, a declaration of the Resurrection, Jesus as the great shepherd, the ‘blood of the eternal covenant’, our ethical and spiritual completeness in Christ, with a closing ascription of eternal glory.

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jeremiah 28.1-8 shares a context with Ezekiel 34. Again, the wicked shepherds are named, but here the charge is that they have failed to protect the flock which has been scattered into foreign lands. This is consistent with Jeremiah’s preaching of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians as the judgement of God on Israel’s wickedness (see vss 1-2). It is God who will restore the flock (vs 3) and who will raise up shepherds to shepherd them (vs 4). Vs 5 reiterates the Ezekiel theme of David as the archetypal shepherd – but not David himself, rather a righteous branch [for David] to execute justice and righteousness in the land. This would refer to the time after the Exile and the function of this ‘shepherd’ is clearly indicated by the name given to this righteous branch: The Lord is our righteousness [or The Lord is our justice] (vs 6). That this refers to the return from Exile is made clear in vs 7-8 where the news of the Lord’s action in leading Israel’s offspring ‘out of the land of the north and all of the lands where he had driven them’ will replace the ancient story of the Exodus, how ‘the Lord brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’.

Matthew 20.17-28 follows closely Mark 10.32-45. The point of the story is the kind of leadership or shepherding that is appropriate in the Jesus community (vss 25-28). Note the theme of lording it over someone, cf 1 Peter 5.3 on Monday). In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus declares for the third time his prediction of the Cross and the Resurrection, and for the third time his disciples show how little they understand. In both passages this sombre word of the Cross is met by the selfish (and outrageous!) request for the places of honour for James and John.  A major difference is that Matthew protects James and John from the charge of self-aggrandisement and the anger of their colleagues (very clear in Mark) by placing this obnoxious request for power and honour in the mouth of their mother, rather than ‘the boys’.  

What a wonderful gift God gave us in mothers – and how often and how cogently can we blame them for our own dysfunctional personalities and stupid mistakes! And how willingly and lovingly a mother will sometimes accept that blame! I can preach you a long series of sermons from Genesis 3 on through the whole Bible where mothers, wives, sisters, daughters or any available by-standing woman is held responsible for a man’s idiocy, faithlessness or violence.

How appropriate that the lectionary offers us this edifying story just 4 days before Mother’s Day! Thank you, mum, (literally) for everything!!

In this period of quarantine, remember women at increased risk of domestic violence, of being unfairly blamed and scapegoated for the tensions and discontents of this disrupted and stressful time.

Psalm 31 is simply headed To the leader. A Psalm of David. The Psalm is 24 verses long from which the Lectionary selects 7 verses. The psalm expresses lament, trust and thanksgiving. The psalm as a whole contains petitions, descriptions of distress and statements of trust. The verses selected emphasise the statements of trust and prayers for protection.

From the metaphor of ‘the flock of his pasture affirming their creator’ which dominated Psalm 100, here we have a different metaphor, the rock of refuge (vs 2), the strong fortress (vs 3). Such defences are needed because of the trap of the net that is hidden for me (vs 4) by the hand of my enemies and persecutors (vs 15).  That the singer is being hounded or persecuted by these enemies can be seen in other verses of the Psalm not in our reading: (see vss 8, 11, 13, 18, 20).

The selection for our reading emphasises neither lament, nor the description of the dangers faced, nor the enemies behind those dangers, but trust and confidence in the reliability and grace of God.

Genesis 12.1-3 can be understood as the beginning of the Bible, for here the narrative of the Old Testament as a connected storyline begins to take shape. The first 11 chapters tell the ancient foundational myths and stories of the various tribes who came together to form Israel. In Chapter 12 their shared ancestor Abram hears the call of God to leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you (vs 1). Here in a nutshell is the commission of Israel. Attendant upon this commission is the promise of blessing and greatness, not just for Abram but for all the families of the earth (vs 3). Why this text is read today is to provide background and counterpoint to the Stephen story in Acts 6.8-15.

Acts 6 marks a significant turning point in the story of the Jesus community. Up until Acts 6, all of the action by Jesus and his disciples has been focussed upon Israel, on the Jewish people. Although people of every land heard the gospel at Pentecost and were converted (Acts 2), they remained within the culture and practice of the Temple (Acts 2.46). It is not until Acts 6 that issues between the Jewish believers (the Hebrews) and those of Gentile background (the Hellenists) (Acts 6.1) led to the formation of a new leadership group with the church – the Deacons – all of whom had Greek names! (Acts 6.5) The first of these new leaders was Stephen. We can begin to see here the promise of in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12.3) coming to fruition.

Then, after the disagreement between the Hellenists and the Hebrews had been resolved, a second dispute arose between Stephen’s group (the Hellenist Christians) and the synagogue of the Freedmen (foreign – that is, Hellenist – Jews). By trumping up charges that Stephen had spoken against Moses and God (vss 12-14) this Hellenist Jewish group were able to take the dispute back into the court of the Jewish Council (vs 15).

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 3 – the call of Moses – echoes yesterday’s OT reading of the call of Abram, primarily as a dual background to the Acts 6-7 reading of Stephen’s dispute with the synagogue of the Freedmen and then the Council. 

Acts 7.1-16 is the opening of Stephen’s long and powerful sermon that leads to his martyrdom. Vss 1-4 show how closely Stephen knew Genesis – read the end of Genesis 11 and the beginning of Genesis 12 and see the subtle differences between Stephen’s proclamation and a straightforward reading of Genesis 12.1-3.  Vss 4-5 are ‘a deconstruction’ of the idea that Abram was given the land as an inheritance (this land in which you are now living… He did not give him any of it as a heritage vss 4b, 5). Stephen stresses that the Jewish people had lived as ‘resident aliens’ (vs 6) and the patriarchs had died in Egypt and their bodies carried back in the time of Exodus (vss 15-16).

A careful reading of the well-known narratives of Abram and Moses, alongside the way Stephen presents them in his sermon, reveals just what a subversive reading Stephen gives to the whole of Jewish self-understanding, well before he delivers his blistering denunciation of You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do (Acts 7.51). Whatever else we may say of Stephen’s preaching, it is clear he was not a follower of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Today we have a subtle extension or development of yesterday’s readings. Just as Stephen attacked the Abram and Moses traditions of Israel in Acts Chapter 7, today in John 8.48-59 we have Jesus in dispute with ‘the Jews’ (vs 48). After denouncing him as both a Samaritan (that is, a foreigner) and demon-possessed (charges Jesus answers in vss 49-51), a second series of charges is levelled that Jesus places himself above Abraham and the prophets (vs 53). Like Stephen debunking the Jewish ‘ownership’ of the traditions of Abraham and Moses, Jesus claims that he is the true inheritor of Abraham’s authority (vs 56). As the dispute unfolds Jesus makes a claim that places himself superior to both Abraham and Moses when he says ‘before Abraham was’ (that is, before the one who began your history was) ‘I am’, echoing the call of Moses AND invoking the mystical name of God revealed in Exodus 3. In five words Jesus places himself above Abraham, and Moses, and suggests that he is God: is it any wonder that they picked up stones to throw at him? But his time was not yet, and Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (vs 59)

Jeremiah 26.20-24 picks up a theme common to Jeremiah that underlies the whole of the argument of the readings of the last three days: how do you distinguish true prophets from false prophets, and how do true prophets survive to do their work? The prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah, (not to be confused with Uriah the Hittite of 2 Samuel 11) prophesied in words exactly like those of Jeremiah (vs 20), so he was a true prophet. Faced with the anger of king Jehoiakim, Uriah fled to Egypt (vs 21 – perhaps similar to Jesus hiding and then leaving the temple?) but Jehoiakim ‘extradited’ him (vs 23), killed him, and threw his body into a mass grave. 

Vs 24 tells us that the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah and thus he was protected. Shaphan was a priest, part of the Jewish power structure under Josiah and subsequent kings. Despite periodic repression, imprisonment and threats, Jeremiah survived to carry on his prophetic work.

One of the great sub-themes of Scripture is the well-connected or powerful officials – or even rulers – who play a hand in protecting Joseph, or Daniel, or the prophets, or David, or Esther, or Jesus or Peter. Who of those prominent in the current power structures of our world serve God, and the kingdom of God, in hidden but strategic ways?

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