Monday, June 29, 2020Psalm 47; Genesis 22:15-18; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Psalm 47 is one of the ‘royal psalms’ which glorifies Yahweh’s rule as King (see Psalms 47, 93, 96, 97, 98, and 99). It is a unified and consistent Psalm calling people to praise and proclaiming the universal rule of God.

The structure of the Psalm is built around two imperatives, the calls to worship and praise of vss 1 and 6. Each of these calls is then followed by a description of the reasons we should worship Yahweh. Vss 2-4 recount the historical actions of the Lord: a summary statement of the Kingship of Yahweh (vs 2), Yahweh’s actions in defeating the enemies of Israel (vs 3) and allocating them the lands in which they live (vs 4). 

The reference in vs 3b has a rather sombre contemporary reference. The global #Black Lives Matter movement has arisen in response to the death of George Floyd after a policeman knelt on his neck. Vs 3b refers to an ancient practice of putting one’s feet on the neck of a subdued enemy as a sign of dominance (cf. Numbers 29.1). This is what is meant by ‘making your enemies your footstool’ (Psalm 110.1).  The symbolic meaning of this act is humiliation. This background element of ritual humiliation and dominance has coalesced with outrage at George Floyd’s homicide (I use the word homicide as that is how the policeman has been charged) that has resulted in a deep social response. 

For those who have followed recent developments in US race relations, there is a profound irony in the fact that the symbolic protest of ‘taking a knee’ (kneeling on one knee during the playing of the US national anthem, started by footballer Colin Kaepernick) was slowly spreading – and strongly criticised in some quarters – but the action of the policeman (Derek Chauvin) in ‘taking a knee’ on George Floyd has boiled over in protest and anger. Protestors and police now sometimes together ‘take a knee’ in solidarity, in the triumph of Kaepernick’s symbolic action over Chauvin’s violent act.

To what does vs 5 refer?  Trumpets are still a part of coronations around the world – a deeply symbolic act.  So is the solemn ‘shout’, such as God save the Queen!   The Ark of the Covenant, the mysterious symbol of the presence of the Lord, who was ‘enthroned above the cherubim’ (the figures that were atop the ark), was brought into Jerusalem with the sound of trumpets (2 Samuel 6.15). Was there a festival in Israel in which the trumpets were blown (cf Numbers 29.1) as this ‘ascension’ (going up) of the Lord to the temple was re-enacted? Psalm 132 may well be a liturgy for such an enthronement festival (see especially Ps 132.8-9). Or was such an event associated with the Festival of Trumpets of Numbers 29?

The enthronement theme is clear in in vss 5, 8. Here the Psalm works at two levels: whatever was happening in the cultic act (clapping, shouting, trumpets, processing, praising) there was a parallel affirmation of God’s actions in both history (vss 2-3) and in the cosmic and political ordering of the world (vss 7-8). If this was a solemn gathering at which the Ark was again taken up into the Temple in a symbolic enthronement of Yahweh, it is likely that those who were the ‘ambassadors’ or representatives of other nations would have come to such an assembly. This would be reflected in vs 9a the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. The final affirmation affirms that the shields of the earth (the powers of war and military might) belong to God; he is highly exalted.

Genesis 22:15-18 repeats the promise of the Lord to Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore (vs 17). The promise follows the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, one of the challenging ethical and spiritual passages of the Old Testament that has engaged theologians and philosophers over the centuries. Personally, I have learnt much from the reflections of both Søren Kierkegaard and Jacques Derrida on this passage. It also forms a deep background to some interpretations of the doctrine of Atonement and the death of Jesus – but (as they say in the classics) that’s another story!

The promise of offspring to Abraham and it’s shaping in the form of a covenant emerges through Genesis Chapters 12.1-3, 7; 13.14-18; 15; 17; 18.9-15; and finally here at 22:15-18.  The various expressions of promise and covenant are sometimes associated with different places where Abraham lived (Shechem, the oaks of Mamre, Beersheba etc). 

It can be a personally illuminating spiritual exercise to reflect upon where one has lived over one’s life, what was happening in the world generally and to you personally during those years, and how that impacted your sense of God and what God was promising/calling you to do!

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 comes from what many scholars believe to be the first book of the NT to be  written. This conclusion arises from such passages as 4.13 ff. which deal with the pastoral challenge of how do we understand the tragedy of people who have died. This reflects a very early view that some Christians clearly had that the return of Jesus would be very soon: when someone died, did this mean they had ‘missed out’ (cf. Mark 9.1)? 

Our passage today is general moral teaching about loving one another (vss 9-10), living quietly and minding one’s own business (vs 11a – cf. Psalm 131!), working with your own hands (vs 11b) and behaving properly toward outsiders and being dependent on no-one.

The theme of independence and the exhortation to work with your own hands possibly reflects a community in which the return of Christ was thought to be imminent – ‘any day now’! In such a situation the rich might be more willing to share their goods (I can’t take them with me!) and the poor very happy to cease work and wait, living on the generosity of the sisters and brothers. Such general attitudes persist in our social discourse today – all that talk about ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. 

There is a very valid conversation to be had in our society about how ‘social responsibility’ and ‘mutual obligation’ work alongside our obligation to care for the poor and the vulnerable. These considerations are not only political (for in two-party states there is often a fault line between the parties on this issue) but also deeply spiritual. And, as in many issues, both perspectives have elements of truth and wisdom in them. Within the Christian community we should engage in respectful dialogue about these issues.

For those of us who receive the Australian Aged pension, the dignity of ‘working with your own hands’ is reflected in the Work Bonus policy: you can receive so much in a year from investment or other passive income sources without impacting your Aged pension – but you can also earn twice as much again by ‘working with your own hands’ (called ‘personal exertion’). Who would have thought that Centrelink read 1 Thessalonians so assiduously?

Paul, of course, also worked with his own hands (see Acts 20.34), and for those of us in ‘professional ministry’ (i.e. those of us ‘paid to preach’) these verses pose challenges also. As a visiting preacher from a very poor country asked me quite pointedly in the 1980’s: “How can you preach the gospel with any integrity to people who pay you?” I still ponder that question, trying to balance Paul’s model for ministry with the words of Jesus in Luke 10.7 and Mt 10.10 (the labourer is worthy of his hire, cf 1 Tim 5.18). 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020Psalm 47; 1 Kings 18:36-39; 1 John 4:1-6

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Kings 18.36-39:  Elijah was one of the great prophets of Israel and this passage is the ending of perhaps his greatest triumph – his victory over the prophets of Baal by alone successfully calling fire to fall from heaven and consume his soaking sacrifice after Baal had failed to respond to his prophets (all 450 of them along with 400 prophets of Asherah vs 19). He also then ends the drought by his word bringing rain (vss 41-46).

It’s a wonderful story. I suspect every preacher and spiritual leader would like to have such ‘signs and wonders’ attend their ministry. Not quite so edifying is the consequent massacre of those 450 priests (vs 40), although perhaps there are preachers who secretly might long for that too. 

What puts all this in perspective after Elijah’s courage and blazing (literally!) success of chapter 18 is his depression and flight in chapter 19, and his re-commissioning by God on the holy mountain to further ministry and to the anointing of Elisha to carry on his work. Yes, I have sometimes been tempted by chapter 18 – but I have always been inspired and encouraged by chapter 19!

1 John 4.1-6 is all about discernment. Discernment is a critical spiritual discipline that is not celebrated and taught as much as we should in the modern church. In a society where the shout of ‘Fake news!’ is thrown at things that are uncomfortable or embarrassing for us, spiritual discernment is a critical skill that I believe is part of the gift of Jesus Christ and his church to the world.

Vs 1 names the category of false prophets. Not every ministry is of equal value and not every minister preaches truth. This important fact needs to be held and valued by Baptists who hold strongly to the freedom of individual conscience. We need to discern what is true, not just accept what is said to us, or ‘preached at us’. That goes for our understandings of the faith and for the ways we see the world, and the two go together. 

The test here of the true and the false prophet is whether they confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (vs 2) or whether they do not so confess (vs 3). There is a variant reading in the footnote where those who do not confess Jesus becomes those who dissolve Jesus. Now the balance of evidence of the manuscripts strongly supports the first reading, but the second reading is a useful commentary on what it suggests was at issue in this community: it had to do with whether Jesus lived physically, was incarnated among us, or whether he was some kind of spiritual presence or ‘emanation’. This contrasts, for instance, with Romans 10.9 where the test of a sound confession is that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead

It is helpful to be reminded that the marks of orthodoxy and ‘right belief’ might be different in differing social contexts and different ‘frameworks of knowledge’. What are the temptations to false belief in our own day, and what does faithfulness to Jesus mean?

Vs 3 is a warning, and vss 5-6 an encouragement. Vs 6 is a key insight into a ‘theology of truth’ on which I preached some months ago.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020Psalm 47; Isaiah 51:1-3; Matthew 11:20-24

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The three verses of Isaiah 51.1-3 introduce the charming metaphor of us having been hewn from rock or dug from a quarry – that like a statue, the meanings we carry are ingrained even in the raw material from which we have been made.  We see again the way that Abraham and Sarah have shaped so much of the OT as the fountainhead of identity and the ‘grain’ of our meanings. The inclusion of Sarah makes it clear that this oracle is intended for Israel, not the other surrounding nations that Abraham might have ‘fathered’.  In vs 2b there is another reference to the call of, and covenant with, Abraham (cf. Monday’s reading on Genesis 22).

Vs 3 is the oracle of redemption, consistent with the other prophetic oracles of Isaiah 40ff. where the return from Exile through the desert highway back to Israel is prophesied and celebrated. The note of comfort is reiterated (cf Is 40.1) and the restoration of waste places and the blooming of the desert.

But this is likened to a new act of creation, a new Eden (vs 3) and a society of joy, gladness and songs of thanksgiving is prophesied. 

Matthew 11.20-24 contains the woes addressed to unrepentant cities. A parallel version occurs in Luke 10.13-16 with almost exactly the same wording. However, this denunciation of the three cities has been placed in different contexts.

In Matthew it follows Jesus’ teaching about the John the Baptist (11.2-19) and is followed by Jesus exultant prayer to the Father (11.25-27) and the invitation to all who labour and are heavy burdened (11.28-30).   

Luke places this passage between the sending out of the 70 disciples on mission (linking it to the command to shake the dust off your feet as you leave an unrepentant city – vs 10.12) and their joyful return – after which ‘Jesus rejoices’ in his prayer to the Father.

The passage raises the question as to what extent the ministry of the people of Jesus is a mission of announcing the judgement of God, to what extent we warn people and call them to repentance and change. This too is matter for Christian discernment (see yesterday’s notes).

Thursday, July 2, 2020Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 25:19-27; Romans 7:1-6

Interestingly, in Psalm 45.10-17 the Lectionary again has given us only half the text! It is another Royal Psalm, but this time not a Psalm of enthronement, but of a royal marriage! Vss 1-8 describe the royal groom, and vs 9 is a transition verse announcing a king’s daughter is coming to meet you.

Our text addresses the royal bride with exhortations deemed entirely appropriate to a wedding: forget your people and your father’s house (vs 10b), and the king will desire your beauty (vs 11a – a fascinating theory of marital desire!) Since he is your lord, bow down to him (vs 11b – referring to the new husband, of course. I hope all wives are listening …)   You get the picture.

Was this a psalm for an actual royal wedding? Some have suggested it may have been for the wedding of Ahab and Jezebel – because of the references to Tyre in vs 12 (Jezebel was a princess of Tyre). Others wonder whether it was part of an annual ancient ceremony in which the marriage of the king and queen were re-enacted as part of the structure of public life – perhaps to undergird fertility and the reliability of rains and crops. Lest we discount such theories too lightly, let us remember that in enlightened modern Australia we still celebrate the Queen’s Birthday!!

Whatever its origin the big question is, why was it brought into the Psalter, into the sacred book of Israel? What purpose does it have now?  We have various love songs in Scripture, most notably the Song of Songs. Interpreting these passages has often involved various forms of allegorisation. Perhaps we have become too coy and should just enjoy such love poems (however politically incorrect to modern sensibilities).

Two matters worthy of note are, firstly, the mention earlier in the Psalm of ‘ivory palaces’ (vs 8b). It is in another love poem (Song of Songs 7.4) that the beloved is described thus: your neck is like an ivory tower.  Just how the phrase ‘ivory tower’ came into English and its association with academia may, or may not, be connected with these texts. Another suggested origin of the phrase comes from Alan Turing of Bletchley Park fame that the tower of Graduate College Princeton was called the ivory tower because the university had been endowed by William Cooper Procter, the manufacturer of Ivory Soap and the founder of the Procter and Gamble Company!  Personally, I prefer the ivory palaces and towers of the ancient Hebrew love poets!

The second is the poet’s humble observation on what has been achieved through his writing: 

I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
    therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.  (vs 17)

Maybe that is why it is included in the Psalter?

The Old Testament readings have been exploring the history of the patriarchs and Genesis 25.19-27 brings us to Esau and Jacob. The narrative is straightforward. Rebekah is pregnant with twins and finds it so difficult she wonders whether its worth living (vs 22). We are told that Rebekah was the sister of Laban, a handy telegraphing of the future plot because Jacob will return to Paddan-aram in chapter 29 and marry Laban’s daughters – his cousins.

The struggle of the babies in the womb is interpreted by the word of the Lord as to their enduring struggle (vs 23). Even in the act of birth, they were wrestling (vs 26).  Their characters are sketched early, Esau red and hairy (vs 25) and a hunter, an outdoorsy type, while Jacob was a homebody (vs 27).

Romans 7.1-6 continues Paul’s reflections on the power of sin, and the role of law in ‘arousing’ sin (vs 5). Paul here is linking together the two arguments of chapter 6 where in vss 2-14 he used the metaphor of ‘baptism as death’ to argue that we have died to sin, and ‘the end of law’ explored through the metaphor of slavery and changing slave-owners in vss 16-23.

Here the metaphor changes: law is limited by death. When your partner dies, you are released from the law (of marriage). As we have now died to the law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another (vs 4), so we are now discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (vs 6).

What is clear in this passage is Paul’s quite negative view of the law: it ‘arouses’ our sinful passions in a way that leads to death (vs 5), it held us captive (vs 6). In the rest of the chapter he will explore the complex relationship between law and sin.

Friday, July 3, 2020Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 27:1-17; Romans 7:7-25

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 27.1-17 is the well-known story of Jacob stealing his brothers blessing – a blessing already ‘sold’ in cavalier fashion by Esau in Genesis 25.29-34 for a bowl of stew. As a teenager I sailed in the 1970’s on a ship where the first mate had the same surname as the owner of the shipping line for which we worked. I asked a colleague whether they were related. It turned out that they were brothers, and the first mate had staked his share of the family company (worth millions of dollars) on a hand of cards in a ‘friendly’ poker game – and lost!  But his brother gave him job afterward….

The story reveals the key role of Rebekah in favouring one son and planning the deception.

The importance of blessing from parents to children has, I suspect, been very much overshadowed in modern societies. Focussed so much on material things which are dealt with through wills and the legal process, we have not encouraged or found social forms for the vital process of blessing our children and grandchildren. How often have I pastorally cared for a dying person and encouraged them to share their words of love and encouragement with their children and partner only to have them say, “No, not yet!  There will be time…” Sometimes they find that time has gone and the powers of speech and communication have slipped away before they can speak. Isaac was wise enough to know that he could not control or predict his death (vs 2) and he took steps to do what he wanted to do – which makes the deception practised by Rebekah and Jacob so cruel.

I have shared in some wonderful experiences of blessing of others by a dying person. As we get older and our strength departs, one of the last powers left to us is the power to bless. It should not be wasted! Early in my ministry a wise older woman encouraged me to change things in our church. She said, “You’ve just got to change things. (pause) Now you’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming every inch of the way, but you’ve just got to do it!”  She was giving me her blessing – but also communicating just how costly that blessing would be. 

In every church and every community, changes come and have to be made. Sometimes they are deeply painful. We are living now through a time of deep and painful change in so many ways. We wonder what the future of the church might be and we feel so powerless and unqualified before all of the challenges of the age. For those who are older and sense that they do not have the enrgy or time for what tomorrow may require, they still have the power to bless! To say to a rising generation: here is my blessing, go and do what you need to do!

Romans 7.7-25 is a fascinating argument. For those of us who live after Freud and the great pioneers of psychology, who live in a world where we have carefully delineated separate moral and legal frameworks, it is easy to misunderestimate (to quote the wonderful George W Bush) just what Paul achieves in these  verses.

It is clear that Paul has a very tentative view about law as a principle (see yesterday’s notes).  Again, he expresses the objections people feel to his argument as a question: What then should we say? That the law is sin? (vs 7) What follows is both clever and wise. No, law teaches us what sin is (vs 7), but also inflames our desire to sin (vs 8). Apart from the law, sin lies dead (vs 8b).

Vss 9-12 explore the complex triangular relationship of sin, law and death. Sin seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me (vs 11). Yes, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good (vs 12) – but through it, sin will kill me (vs 11).

It’s a very subtle argument, and in vs 14-25 he tries to reconcile these almost contradictory statements.  He contrasts the spiritual nature of the law and the bodily nature of our experience. He contrasts our intention and will (shaped and informed by the law) with our capacity for action (which is in slavery to sin). Vs 21 expresses this psychological reality of temptation very eloquently: So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. Vss 22-23 express this principle, contrasting the law of my mind (a good thing) at war with the law of sin that dwells in my members. 

Vs 25 expresses a very powerful psychological insight – this double sense of the law which is at once an abstract positive thing that reveals sin to me, and a power to temptation and evil that dominates and controls me: So then, with my mind I am slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Saturday, July 4, 2020Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 27:18-29; Luke 10:21-24

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 27.18-29.  The trap is sprung! Jacob presents himself to his father dressed as his mother has organised, carrying the food his mother has prepared. Against the repeated doubts and questioning of the old man (vss 18, 20, 21, 22, 24) the deception is carried through with lies and disguise.

How poignant is the eventual blessing! Surrounded by lies and deceit and betrayal, Isaac cries out “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.” Some people mired deep in trickery and corruption just have the smell of the new-mown hay about them! The blessing is given, and cannot be taken back, and the history of these two brothers enters a new phase!

Luke 10.21-24: As noted in reflecting on Matthew 11 on Wednesday, Luke also reports the Woes against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, but uses them as an introduction to this passage. It is unusual in the synoptic gospels for it embodies a clear trinitarian theology, linking Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It almost sounds like the gospel of John.  

The earliest strands of the Christian tradition were still resolving and agreeing what the relationships within the Trinity were all about. It actually took hundreds of years for the church to resolve some of the questions about the nature of the Trinity, and also about how the human and divine natures ‘worked within’ the life of Jesus (to use a clumsy phrase that reflects the complexities involved).

Passages in the Scripture such as this are important for what light they can throw upon early Christians understandings of the Trinity. Here the emphasis is on the revelation of truth, not to the wise and intelligent, but to infants (cf Matthew 21,16) as an expression of the will of the Father. ‘All things’ have been handed by the Father to the Son, no-one knows the Son except the Father, or knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. It is essentially a set of revelatory relationships stressing the internal knowledge of and closeness between the Father and the Son (and the Spirit??)  Note that the relationship of the Holy Spirit to Father and Son is less clearly established. Indeed, there is some confusion in the manuscripts as to whether the earliest manuscripts had the Holy Spirit or just the spirit. This would be consistent with an emerging or developing understanding of just how the persons of the trinity are to be understood.

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