Monday, July 13, 2020Psalm 142; Micah 1:1-5; Romans 8:12-25

Psalm 142 is a prayer song of an individual who calls to Yahweh in great distress. It is a very appropriate Psalm for those of us in the first full week of a long quarantine lockdown. Many of the feelings of this Psalmist will be felt by Victorians at the moment!

The heading links the Psalm to David’s experience ‘in the cave’, a reference to 1 Sam 22.1 or 1 Samuel 24.4, although neither life-setting seems to resonate with the deep distress and exhaustion evidenced in this Psalm. Vss 1-2 call upon the Lord in both the second and third person voices. Vss 3a and 6a make clear that the singer is quite exhausted. They also feel quite alone: only Yahweh sees their condition and remembers their life (vss 3a, 4). The loneliness of vs 4 is powerful and haunting.

Vs 5 is a poetic echo of the place of the Levites and priests in the temple. Just as they were excluded from the division of the land in the settlement under Joshua (they were to live on the offerings in the temple – ‘The Lord is my portion’) so the singer makes the point that she has been cut off from the heritage of Israel and has only the Lord as their portion and their heritage.

Vs 3b and 6b indicate that enemies have laid a trap for the singer. Vs 7a is key: is this a poetic reference or has the singer indeed been imprisoned, awaiting a ‘word from the Lord’ to vindicate their innocence?

In the current social climate I am sure many people will resonate with this powerful Psalm. The last words have a particular poignance for those of us who have not been able to meet with friends: then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

The Prophet Micah was active in the late 8th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. As vs 1 makes clear, he prophesied during the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, a period covering approximately 737 BCE to 696 BCE. His prophetic work was directed mainly towards Jerusalem. The opening oracle of the book is vss 2-5 in which the Lord is announced as coming out of his place to tread upon the high places of the earth (vs 3). The ‘high places’ were mountaintop shrines or sacred pillars that were part of Canaanite pagan religions. The prophet however names Samaria (the centre of the northern kingdom of Israel) and Jerusalem (the capital of Judah) as the ‘high places’ that the Lord intends to destroy!

Romans 8.12-25 continues Paul’s reflection on life in the Spirit and the radical separation between this life in the Spirit and living according to the flesh (vss 12-13). The contrast of life in the flesh / life in the Spirit then transitions into the metaphor of being children of God. The contrast here is between a spirit of slavery (an echo of the slavery to sin argument of 6.15-23) and a spirit of adoption (vs 15).  The adoption motif is mentioned in this passage in vss 15 and again in vs 23 where it is linked specifically with the redemption of our bodies. A third mention of this adoption metaphor is found in Romans 9.4 where it is applied to Israel: They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises….

This word adoption then, is used by Paul to describe a relationship between God and human beings initiated by the gracious action of God. An interesting parallel is found in Romans 1.3-4 where Paul describes Jesus in terms which some have understood as an ‘adoption’ Christology: Jesus is described as descended from David according to the flesh and … declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead…  This reflects the current passage in the contrast between the flesh (1.3 cf. 8.12-13) and the Spirit (1.5 cf. 8.14-15) and what it is that each bears witness to. 

The spiritual adoption results in the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (vs 16) which then leads on to us being joint heirs with Christ in both suffering and glory (vs 17).

The passage takes a decisive turn in vs 18 as Paul begins to expound what that glory is about. Vss 18-25 is one of the most closely argued passages on the NT. It is difficult to interpret, partly because it is clearly eschatological in focus – looking to a future time (vs 18b). The single long sentence that comprises vss 19-21 introduces a series of remarkable statements that build upon one another. To separate and identify these statements gives a sense of just how much is being asserted in this sentence:-

  1. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 
  2. for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will 
  3. but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 
  4. that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay 
  5. and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

This sentence does invite extended reflection on the theology of creation. The first statement asserts that redeemed humanity is some form of model for the future of the whole created order. The second describes the overarching structure of creation as marked by ‘futility’. The third attributes this ‘subjection to futility’ as the will of God, but then also asserts that this is ‘in hope’. The fourth asserts that one of the basic structures of nature (its bondage to decay) will be overcome and replaced by (fifth statement) the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Whichever way you look at it, this is an amazing series of assertions!

It invites reflection on the connections between redeemed humanity and the world of nature. We have tended to see ‘nature’ as either the raw stuff upon which human ingenuity and technology are brought to bear, or as the context and the model for how we understand human being. There are various forms  of the latter: the Romantic vision of ‘the noble savage’ (Rousseau), or a standard of truth found in natural beauty (Keats); Hobbes’ view of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as the framework of human social organisation; Peter Kropotkin’s analysis of co-operation in nature as the model of Mutual Aid in economic and political organisation. 

Paul here reverses all this:  nature is not the model for humanity – redeemed humanity is the model for what nature ‘longs’ to be. Now, we must remember that this is an eschatological statement – reflecting the future – but in a season of deep crisis of Creation it does call for reflection and response. In next Sunday’s service we will engage more with this theme.

The early part of chapter 8 and the second half of chapter 7 of Romans put the case for a profound freedom in Christ. Here that freedom is put forward as the future not just of the people of God, but for the whole creation.

Vss 22-23 use the metaphor of birth and labour pains to describe the situation of both redeemed humanity and the whole creation, before vss 24-25 close with a reflection on the nature of hope as essentially an investment and trust in what cannot be seen (cf. Hebrews 11.1-3).

Tuesday, July 14, 2020Psalm 142; Jeremiah 49:7-11; Ephesians 4:17-5:2

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jeremiah 49.7-11 is an oracle directed against Edom. It compares closely in some respects with the book of Obadiah, from which tomorrow’s reading comes. To understand this passage and the oracles in the little ‘book’ of Obadiah (it’s only 21 verses in total) we must recognise that the nation of Edom was descended from Esau, making the House of Jacob and the House of Esau brothers. The land of Edom was to the south of Israel, comprising the Negeb or Negev, the central region of the Sinai Peninsula and the south-western part of the modern Kingdom of Jordan. 

The rhetorical questions to Teman (vs 7) and Dedan (vs 8) identify Edomite towns. The destructive judgement of the Lord that is prophesied will be total (vs 10), in contrast with the process of grape harvesting where some is left for the gleaners (vs 9a), or with the actions of thieves who only take what they want (vs 9b).

There is something ironic and bitter, even savage, in the bleak consolation of vs 11 after the destruction promised in vs 10.

Ephesians 4.17-5.2 builds upon the same structure of ‘old life – new life’ that Paul has used in Romans 8 in yesterday’s reading. While differently expressed in various parts of the NT, the basic distinction between old and new ways of living is a basic way of expressing what Christian life is about. Note here the terms associated the old way of life: futility / darkened / alienated / ignorance / hardness of heart / licentiousness / impurity (vss 17-19).  The new life, in contrast, involves renewal / reclothing / recreation / righteousness and holiness (vss 23-24).

Vss 25-29, 31-32 outline the shape of what that new life is like. Vs 30 is a warning to not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. In early baptismal liturgies the candidate was immersed in water in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but then anointed with oil as a sign of the seal of the Holy Spirit upon their lives. Again, we see that redemption is a future reality for which we wait with patience and confidence.

Vss 5.1-2 sum up this teaching in the pithy phrase be imitators of God, as beloved children. 

One of the peculiarities of the Greek language is that the words for ‘you’ and ‘us’ have the same letters and are distinguished only by little breathing mark over the first letter. In hand copying it is easy to misread. You can see from the footnotes in that we cannot be sure whether in vs 4.29 and again in vs 5.1 the writer refers to ‘you’ or to ‘us’. There are various places in the NT where this same question arises (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3.2). One of the joys of Christian life is that it doesn’t really matter – whether its ‘you’ or ‘us’ will change the reading of the passage, but both readings will make sense and bring to our hearts and minds nuances of truth. In the end, there is no ‘you’ or ‘us’ in the community of faith, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.28).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020Psalm 142; Obadiah 15-21; Matthew 13:10-17

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Obadiah 15-21:  The little book of Obadiah is the shortest in the OT. It is rarely preached upon! (I cannot remember having heard a single sermon on Obadiah.)  The book – a single chapter – presents another oracle against Edom, similar to that of Jeremiah we read yesterday. If you read all of Obadiah and Jeremiah 49.7-11 you will see significant similarities and overlap.

The reason for Obadiah’s complaint against Edom is found in vss 10-11: For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots over Jerusalem, you too were like one of them. All we know about Obadiah (which means Servant of Yahweh) comes in vs 1 so the precise date is disputed. The scholarly consensus is that this fits best with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE when Edom stood by in the long siege and then assisted the enemy in the looting of the city.

Vss 15-16 predict the same fate will befall Edom: as Edom have drunk on my holy mountain [a reference to the looting of Jerusalem], all the nations around you shall drink, they shall drink and gulp down…  Vs 17 predicts the survival of Jacob, and vs 18 the destruction of Edom, the house of Esau. Vss 19-20 outline the geography of the restored nation of Israel (following the return from Exile) and vs 21 prophesies the return to Mount Zion and its dominance over ‘Mount Esau’.

Matthew 13.10-17 presents Jesus’ teaching on the pedagogy of the parables. This is commentary on Jesus’ method of teaching as distinct to the content of his teaching. There are parallels in Mark 4.10-12 and Luke 8.9-10, 18. Matthew had developed this methodological commentary more than either Mark or Luke, but each gospel should be examined on its own merits to explore just how the writer is presenting the parables.

The synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk) are the main source for the parables and present the parables as Jesus’ principle teaching method. The parables are a distinctive form of teaching and have been widely told and taught in cultures touched by the gospel all around the world.

As Matthew here presents Jesus’ strategy, there is a form of teaching for the ‘inner group’ (vs 11). This inner group is especially privileged (vs 12) The saying for to those who have more will be given (vs 12) also occurs in a different context in Mt 25.29 (the Parable of the Talents) and in Mark 4.25 where it may, or perhaps may not, be related to the method involved in the parables.

The quote from Isaiah is more extended in Matthew than in either Mark or Luke, and verse 15 includes a note of judgement against the listeners whose hearts are dull and whose ears do not hear and whose eyes are closed.

Where Matthew includes in this passage the saying about how blessed are the eyes and ears of the disciples (vs 16-17), Luke has separated this out and presents it in Luke 10.23-24 in the context of Jesus ‘exulting’ or rejoicing after the Seventy he has sent out on mission return.

Thursday, July 16, 2020Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Isaiah 44:1-5; Hebrews 2:1-9

Researching Psalm 139 was a delight for me, not just for the beauty and power of the poetry of this magnificent Psalm, but for the erudite and profoundly moving commentary provided by my principal guide to the Psalms, Hans-Joachim Kraus. Kraus himself quotes sensitively from a range of great Old Testament scholars and theologians (including von Rad, Gunkel, Schmidt, Rudolf Kittel, Karl Barth and others) to create a buffet of wisdom and insight into one of the great Psalms of the Hebrew tradition.

Again, the lectionary has partitioned the Psalm, but in a way that reflects its structure. So many of the Psalms open with a lament expressing the circumstances of the Psalmist, call vigorously for the Lord to ‘answer me!’ or ‘vindicate me!’, and then tell of how the Lord did answer the singer’s prayer. This Psalm very artfully reverses that order: it opens with the conclusion – the declaration of the Lord’s action (O Lord, you have searched me and known me. / You know when I sit down and when I rise up  vss 1-2a) – and closes with the petition or appeal for the Lord to act (Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts./See if there is any wicked way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting. vss 23-24) It’s a structure worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie, or the quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”.

Here the beginning is in the middle (Vss 19-22 – the lament and naming of the problems facing the singer – removed from our reading). The middle (the request for God to act) is at the end (vss 23-24) and the end is at the beginning (vss 1-6).

The omniscience of God and especially God’s knowledge of the individual is the theme of vss 1-6. In vss 7-12 this is extended into a reflection on the omnipresence of God – that fleeing from or hiding from God is impossible. Vss 13-16 (deleted from our reading) bring a profound reflection on the Lord’s creation, and intimate knowledge, of the singer.

Vss.  17-18 hymn the wisdom and greatness of God’s knowledge – and the corresponding limitations of that of human beings!

The note of lament and accusation is almost jarring in vss 19-22 and has led some to conclude it is an interpolation, a misplaced fragment. But if our suggestion above – of an artful structure that starts at the end, and ends somewhere near the start – is correct, the change in tone makes more sense and can be seen to be consistent with the whole.

In the themes of divine knowledge encompassing all human life and the whole globe, Ps 139 shares elements with other ancient Near Eastern religious texts and even with ancient Hindu texts from India.  Was the Psalm originally part of a juridical process or ritual in which an individual was ‘tried’ and their guilt or innocence discerned through some kind of invoked divine response (vss 23-24)? Some scholars see in the psalm a ‘doxology of judgement’ in which the accused person offered praise to the Lord’s knowledge and all-seeing clarity about themselves and some kind of divine or priestly response became the means of discerning guilt or innocence. Or is it essentially a didactic poem steeped in the Wisdom traditions of ancient Israel? We cannot tell. 

Elements suggest allusions to fragments of myths now lost to us (what were the wings of the rising sun (vs 9)? Did this refer to some ancient myth or story, or did this poetic metaphor originate with the singer?)

It remains one of the great psalms of the Bible, and one of the poetic treasures of world literature.

Isaiah 44.1-5 comes from the second ‘book’ of Isaiah. While Isaiah is presented as a single work, scholars believe it involves three different generations of prophetic engagement within a common prophetic tradition, but over a significant time period. It was named for Isaiah, the 8th century BCE prophet whose work comprises chapters 1-39 of the book we read. The so-called ‘Second Isaiah’ wrote chapters 40-55 in the context of the Exile in the 6th century BCE.

It prophesises blessing and restoration, with water poured on a thirsty land – water and springs in the desert being a common metaphor for this prophet. Some common prophetic themes are the foreknowledge of God (vs 2a), the watering of dry and desert lands (vs 3), growth and flourishing by flowing streams (vs 4) and the fourfold prophetic naming of vs 5 (‘the Lord’s’ / Jacob / ‘the Lord’s’  / Israel)  which symbolises the recovery of identity and heritage by the people.

Hebrews 2.1-9 I always wanted to study the book of Hebrews, but when a course was offered during my theological training it turned out I was the only student with such an interest. My reason was that parts of Hebrews seem to present the Atonement exclusively in terms of sacrifice, and other parts of the book are simply magnificent prose and storytelling. And there was the mysterious character Melchizedek who I always found quite fascinating. Alas, the course was cancelled!

Hebrews Chapters 1 and 2 would suggest that the community to which this book was written had a bit of a hang-up about angels. Chapter 1 is all about the Son being superior to angels. Chapter 2 opens with a warning that we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it (vs 1) with a contrast between the penalty for disbelieving an angelic message (vs 2) and the terrible risk that we might neglect so great a salvation (vs 3), declared through the Lord and attested by God with signs and wonders and various miracles (vs 4).

Vs 5 returns to the deprecation of angels and vss 6-8a quotes from Psalm 8.4-6.  Vs 8b clarifies that what the writer is saying is eschatological – related to the future – so we do not yet see it. This lack of vision into the future is made good in Christ, who is the shape and promise of the future: but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower[g] than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (vs 9).

Friday, July 17, 2020Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Ezekiel 39:21-29; Hebrews 6:13-20

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ezekiel is a prophet of the early 6th century BCE, and his prophetic focus was the fall of Jerusalem and the resulting Exile in Babylon, and then the return from Exile in the later 6th Century BCE. Whether one lifetime could encompass all this historical experience we might question, but it was the prophet’s ‘school’, or followers, who collated his work and presented it in the form of the book.

This oracle prophesises the restoration of Israel in terms that will declare the judgement and salvation of God to the nations (vss 21, 23) and to Israel (vss 22, 28). The catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem and the Exile in Babylon is explained as the judgement of God for Israel’s sin (vss 23b, 24). The restoration will encourage Israel (vs 26) and give them assurance (vss 26,28). Notable is the promise of the ‘pouring out’ of my spirit upon the house of Israel (vs 29b).

Hebrews 6.13-20 relates to the certainty of God’s promise. The early chapters of Hebrews have repeatedly warned the readers of the dangers of falling away from the message they have received. It stresses that there is no back from apostasy (6.1-8) but encourages them that God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake (6.10). Having already invoked the examples of Moses (chapter 3) and Joshua (chapter 4), and introduced Melchizedek in chapter 5, here in chapter 6 the writer grounds his argument for the reliability of God’s promise in the example of Abraham (vss 13-15). Not only does God make a promise to Abraham (vs 13) he also swore an oath (vs 15) so that our hope is grounded on two unchangeable things (vs 18 – the promise and the oath). Vs 20 brings together our hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain (vs 19) with Jesus, a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Mechizedek is mentioned in Hebrews chapters 5, 6 and 7, and figures almost more prominently in the NT than he did in the OT. He is a ‘bit player’ named once in Genesis 14, mentioned once in the enthronement Psalm 110, and eight times in Hebrews chapters 5-7! In Hebrews he serves as the model of the high priesthood of Jesus. In Genesis 14 he is named as King of Salem and priest of ‘God Most High’. He comes to meet Abraham after a military victory and blesses him, receiving a tenth of the spoils from Abraham. 

The reasons that Melchizedek moves from being a minor OT character into a significant figure in Hebrews is argued in chapter 7. In 7.3 he is described as having no beginning and no end (by the ingenious logic that the OT doesn’t tell that he was born or that he died) and that he is superior to, and worthy of receiving all the tithes of, the Levitical priesthood for he [Levi] was still in the loins of his ancestor [Abraham] when Melchizedek met him (Hebrews 7.11). 

While this was responsible first century exegesis, I take great encouragement from this as a preacher. If the writer of Hebrews could make such grand pronouncements on the basis of an argument from silence in 7.3 and such specious logic as 7.10, I feel reassured as to some of the hermeneutical leaps my own sermons have taken over the years. As the writer of Hebrews might have put it, ‘Long live Melchizedek!’

Saturday, July 18, 2020Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Exodus 14:9-25; Matthew 7:15-20

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 14 tells of the Crossing the Red Sea as the Israelites left Egypt. Anyone who has seen the Cecil B. deMille 1955 film The Ten Commandments will have graphic mental pictures of what is described in this passage.

Some themes that recur throughout the book of Exodus are seen here: the grumbling of the people and desire to turn back (vss 11-12); the exhortation to have courage and trust God (vss 13-14); the repeated hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (vs 17); the accompanying angel and pillar of cloud (vss 19-20, 24); the staff of Moses as an instrument of power (vs 16).

Matthew 7.15-20 is a warning against false prophets using the metaphor of a tree and its fruit. Jesus uses the phrase about wolves in sheep’s clothing (vs 15) and then gardening insights about fruit revealing the kind of tree and distinguishing good and bad trees (vss 16-18). Vs 19 is warning of bad trees being cut down and thrown into the fire and vs 20 a final summary principle: Thus you will know them by their fruits.

I am always surprised that we do not have a greater focus in the churches on the spiritual discernment of true and false prophets. One question relates to the office of ‘prophet’: was Jesus referring to any teacher or leader in the Jesus movement? Or was the office of prophet reserved to one of the ‘wandering prophets’ who became a part of the early Jesus movement after the Resurrection? In the Old Testament the roles of prophet and priest and ‘wise woman’ were distinguished, each with different marks of office and qualification: in the OT it was only with regard to prophets that a question arose as to whether they were ‘true’ or ‘false’. In the Christian church, how do we assess such matters?

Within priestly or liturgical Christian traditions ministry is more akin to OT priesthood – a regulated and managed top-down hierarchy. As we have seen in a recent Royal Commission, the confidence that such systems maintain accountability and protect the vulnerable from ravenous wolves can be quite misplaced. 

Within the free church tradition – with a greater emphasis on preaching and less supervision -ministry may be closer to a prophetic kind of model. Within Islam there is less regulation of Imams and the prophetic model may be more appropriate. In the Christian tradition we sometimes apply the description of a ‘prophet’ to a particular style of outspoken ministry perhaps involving social critique, but should we have a more systematic understanding of it and a more careful discernment of its ‘fruit’?

For Baptists, with their principles of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, the question of discerning false prophets from true is a central issue. It certainly was an issue important to Matthew: in chapter 23.15 he reports that Jesus proclaimed ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’  Was this aimed at the Pharisees within the Jesus community? (And yes, we still have them!) It is a saying that should be ‘front of mind’ for anyone involved in evangelism!

As someone called and commissioned to preach, I find these questions both haunting and central to life. It may be just a personal / professional preoccupation, but I think the churches would be stronger with a more detailed attention to these questions, and a more carefully elaborated theology of discernment around the offices of prophet, priest and pastor, and of other forms of Christian ministry and leadership.

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