Monday, May 18, 2020Psalm 93; Genesis 9:8-17; Acts 27:39-44

Psalm 93 is about ‘the kingship of Yahweh’. Scholars have placed this Psalm in three different contexts: the first was a ‘festival of the enthronement of Yahweh’ (i.e. ‘the Lord is King’ in the sense of ‘the Lord is becoming King’). A second view (held by a small minority of scholars) holds that it is an eschatological Psalm about the enthronement of the Lord at the end of time. A third view (and one that I think is most persuasive) sees this as a Psalm associated with the Feast of Tabernacles (the Jewish autumn festival) in which the abiding Kingship of Yahweh (The Lord) from the earliest times, a kingship grounded in the act of Creation and the stability of the natural realm, is celebrated and reaffirmed.

This Psalm is set for the whole week, and the reason for this can be seen on Thursday, the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord – which celebrates Jesus’ Ascension to his role of kingly power at the right hand of the Father.

Within the context of the ancient Near East, in many cultures, there were two forms in which the chaos that threatened the fundamental stability of the universe was manifested: earthquakes and out of control waters – either in the sea (the primal source of chaos in early Jewish myth) or in great floods (cf Genesis 7-8). Here in this Psalm, the Lord is praised as the one who has overcome these twin threats:  indeed, the world is established, firm and secure (vs 1c) and 

mightier than the thunder of the great waters, 

mightier than the breakers of the sea –

the Lord on high is mighty.  (vs 4)

For those who are keen surfers, or know the Australian coastline very well, there is a lovely poetic note in vss 3 and 4. My father, a sea captain who had learned to read the behaviour of the sea as a key professional skill, once pointed out to me that you will usually only ever see a maximum of three white-topped waves cresting or breaking on any Aussie beach. Behind them will be smooth swells still building up, in front of them the foam of the waves that have broken, but usually only two or three waves with white crests in the process of breaking. Good artists know this, but you can spot a poor beach painting by too many waves!

The Psalmist also knew this, and the threefold, repeated structure of both vs 3 (the floods have lifted up, O Lord /the floods have lifted up their voice/ the floods lift up their roaring) is describing the waves crashing on the beach and mirrors them in form, as does vs 4 (above) which is the three-fold assurance of God’s dominion even over the chaos of the mighty sea. It is supremely poetic, bringing together the sight and the sound of waves crashing on a beach into the very structure of the language.

Vs 5 affirms Your decrees are very sure (vs 5a) which cleverly suggests both the Lord’s commands which ordained the Creation, and his commands to humankind in the law, before affirming that holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore (vs 5b).

In its calm assurance of the stability of nature and the conquering of chaos, this Psalm spoke to the fears and anxieties of ancient peoples. In our age, when the fragility of nature and its devastation (through human activity driving increasing climate instability) is known to us, can we sing this Psalm in quite the same way as the ancients? How is our faith in the Lord’s decrees that govern nature expressed, when we have risen in rebellion and caused the chaos that now threatens us?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020Psalm 93; Deuteronomy 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:8-12

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The book of Deuteronomy (from Latin for ‘the Second Law Book’) might be associated with the ‘rediscovery’ of the law by Hilkiah in the reign of Josiah and the resulting religious reform (2 Kings 22.2-20). Whatever its origin, it has a distinctive form in which Moses ‘narrates’ to the people of God their story and recalls them to obedience and faithfulness. If it were a movie we would call it a sequel, even though it covers much the same story as Exodus. 

This passage (5.22-33) reflects that overall structure. The key to understanding this passage (and Deuteronomy as a whole) is to remember at all times who is speaking, and to whom they are speaking. So much of the narrative is actually re-narration, set in the past tense. When the voices from the past are quoted (as in vss 24-27) the language moves into the present tense, only to return to the past tense when the re-narration resumes. Occasionally we hear hortatory speech or commandments that are directed to the current reader in the present tense. Thus vss 32-33. It is vital to distinguish who are the speakers and listeners, and whether a present tense passage is reportage of an older strand of the narrative (such as vss 24-26 in this passage) or teaching addressed to the current readership (as in vss 32-33).

1 Peter 3.8-12 is the immediate precursor of the passage on which we reflected in yesterday’s worship service. As discussed there, 1 Peter is addressed to a community that is marginal to the mainstream of their society, perhaps a group of migrant workers or refugees, striving to find a place in a new land. Vs 8 is addressed to relations within their migrant community which will be strengthened through unity, sympathy, love and humility. Vs 9 reflects the relationship of oppression from the surrounding society, and their need to not retaliate. Vs 9b is interesting in this context of social marginality: It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. So much of the ‘calling’ of the migrant or the refugee is about what will be received in the future – finding acceptance, peace and prosperity. Such promises as these are not abstract and solely spiritual. To the people addressed in 1 Peter such a promise is tangible, very real and greatly encouraging.

  Vss 10-12 are an exhortation to good living drawn from Psalm 34.12-16a.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020Psalm 93; Deuteronomy 31:1-13; John 16:16-24

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Deuteronomy 31 includes the end of Moses long speech to the children of Israel. There are three main themes in successive sections of this passage following an introductory statement that expresses that Moses’ time of leadership is ending (vss1-2).

Vss 3-6: From recounting the events of the past, Moses moves to a predictive mode, speaking of what will happen ‘in the future’ (from the perspective of the narrative – but probably already in the past for the first hearers of this text). The success of the possession of the land is predicted and the people exhorted to be strong, bold and courageous.

Vss 7-8: Moses commissions Joshua as his successor (cf. Deut 31.23 where the Lord commissions Joshua and also Joshua 1).

Vss 9-13: A summary of the transmission of the law, from Moses to the sons of Levi (the priests), the Ark of the Covenant and the elders of Israel (vs 9) and how the law is to be commemorated and taught to the people (vss 11-13).

John 16.16-24 is part of the long 4-chapter passage from John 13-17 in which Jesus gives extensive teaching to the disciples. It is in didactic style with Jesus repeating the point in different ways. There are some themes woven through the long dialogue of these chapters including the leaving / returning and sorrow / joy

Vss 23-24 (… ask anything of the Father in my name…) has been a difficult and problematic text that (in my opinion) has caused much misunderstanding about prayer and led to great difficulties for some Christians. There is a range of similar texts across the gospels (e.g. Mk 11.24, Mt 18.19, Mt 21.22, Jn 14.13-14 and here). A full exploration of the issues is beyond the scope of these notes, but I do point out that in this text Jesus says that on that day you will ask nothing of me (vs 23a emphasis added) and Until now you have not asked for anything in my name… (vs 24a). Given the parallel construction of these two verses contrasting not asking (in the first part of each verse) with asking and receiving (in the second part of each verse), this passage should not be treated as a straightforward guarantee that some kind of verbal formula (..ask in my name …) will always lead to prayer being granted.

Thursday, May 21, 2020Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Acts Chapter 1 is a key passage in the New Testament. It endeavours to ‘bridge the narrative gap’ between the life and death of Jesus (told in the four gospels) and the beginning of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2). Vss 1-11 can be broken into parts thus:

Vss 1-2 makes clear the linkage between the gospel of Luke and Acts  (read Luke 1.1-4 alongside Acts 1.1-2 to see the obvious connection between the two books).

Vss 3-5 summarise what happened after the Resurrection. Note especially the elegant structure of 4b-5 in which Jesus in a single statement links John the Baptist’s teaching and ministry with Jesus’ own ministry and practice and the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit.

Vss 6-11 describe the Ascension (cf. Luke 24.50-53). Matthew’s gospel also ends with Jesus and the disciples on a mountain but there is no mention of Ascension, but rather the commissioning of the disciples (Mt 28.16-20). The Ascension is therefore a distinctively Lucan theme and it has passed into Christian theology and into Western art.

Vs 8 holds the key to the narrative structure of Acts: the story of the church as told in Acts unfolds in exactly the way Jesus describes as the Apostles bear witness to him in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

The Ephesians reading (1.15-23) is included today because of the wonderful and high Christology of verses 20-23. These verses are the cosmic outworking of the Ascension of Christ: God has exalted Jesus far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come (vs 21).  This immeasurable greatness of his power is for us who believe (vs 19) and the church finds it proper place in this new cosmic order as his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (vs 23). 

This passage is a closely structured foundation for some of the later and much-loved passages in Ephesians about the cosmic role of the church (2.15, 2.19-22, 3.9-10) and her spiritual battle (6.10-17).

Luke 24.44-53 is the conclusion to Luke’s gospel, included today for the description of the Ascension in vs 51. 

Vss 44-47 summarise the meaning of Jesus life, teaching and death using words very reminiscent of the Emmaus Road story earlier in the chapter (while I was with you / opened their minds to understand the scriptures/ thus it is written.

Beginning at vs 47 are a series of statements that become foundational for the work of the church as depicted in the book of Acts:

  • The work of the church beginning from Jerusalem (vs 47)
  • You are witnesses of these things (vs 48)
  • The promise of the Spirit (what my Father promised / clothed with power from on high) (vs 49)
  • The centrality of the Temple to the early church in Luke’s telling of the story (and they were continually in the temple blessing God – vs 53). 

Friday, May 22, 2020Psalm 93; 2 Kings 2:1-12; Ephesians 2:1-7

For the Psalm, see Monday.

2 Kings 2.1-12 tells the story of the succession from Elijah to Elisha, probably included because of the ascension of Elijah in a whirlwind after a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them in vs 11. It’s a lovely story because of the devotion and commitment of Elisha, and the thrice repeated pattern of Stay here / I will not leave you, on each occasion with a ‘company of prophets’ to act as a Greek chorus!

The company of prophets is attested in this time of Israel’s history. Sometimes translated a band of prophets or a school of prophets it seems to have been a kind of religious collective with a social function around ‘prophecy’ (whatever the content of that term meant in the early days of ‘prophecy’) and possible service to ‘the community’ (see 2 Kings 6). We don’t know very much about them as their work appears to be related to diverse towns and places rather than the centre of worship, scholarship, learning and chronicle writing (!) in the temple at Jerusalem.

The role of Elijah’s mantle (vs 8) as the tool that parted the Jordan (evoking the crossing of the Red sea and the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the people) is established. 

Ephesians 2.1-7 follows on directly from yesterday’s reading. The climax is in vss 6-7 in which it is stated that we too have been raised up and seated with him in the heavenly places. The passage begins with our ‘dead’ state under the ruler of the power of the air (vs 2 – again note the framing of the cosmic powers that is so much a feature of Ephesians). The decisive action of deliverance is described in vss 4 -5 leading to the exalted outcome of vss 5-6.

Saturday, May 23, 2020Psalm 93; 2 Kings 2:13-15; John 8:21-30

For the Psalm, see Monday.

In 2 Kings 2:13-15 Elisha retraces the steps of his master and re-enacts the crossing of the Jordan. Note that that Elijah’s mantle is not technically passed but has fallen and is taken up (vs 14a). This has not stopped ‘the passing of the mantle’ becoming a metaphor for the (usually friendly)  act of succession in the English language!

Ascension and succession (complete with the mention of a succession of ‘spirit’ in vs 15) are the themes of this chapter of second Kings – themes also appropriate to the Christian festivals of both Ascension and Pentecost (May 31st this year).

John 8.21-30 presents a prediction of his death by Jesus. It includes some of the recurring themes of Jesus teach as presented in John’s gospel (I am going away / you cannot come; I am not of this world; Jesus’ relationship with the Father; many believing in him).

The ‘I am going away / you cannot come’ motif probably reflects aspects of the gnostic worldview common around the turn of the first century. In this worldview there was a gradual and stepped series of ‘emanations’ linking the earthly and spiritual realms. In contrast, Jesus stresses i) a coming radical separation between himself and his followers, and ii) his complete union with the Father.

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