We are approaching the season of Advent, which is focussed on the coming of the Lord. Next Sunday is Advent Sunday. Some of our texts this week engage with this theme exploring some of the Apocalyptic passages of scripture that look to the Day of the Lord or similar themes.

Monday, November 23, 2020: Psalm 7; Esther 2:1-18; 2 Timothy 2:8-13

Psalm 7 belongs to the group psalms of David. It is a prayer song from a setting where a petitioner seeks justice in the Court of the Lord – in the temple as a place for legal remedy.

The heading of the Psalm calls it a shiggaion of David. This unusual designation is possibly related to an Akkadian word meaning ‘lamentation’, giving the sense of ‘an agitated lamentation’ which is consistent with the content and style of the Psalm. The offense or charge that the singer is defending himself against has been brought by the Benjaminite Cush (heading).

The structure of the psalm is clear: in vss 1-2 the petitioner invokes and approaches Yahweh.

In vss 3-5 he solemnly affirms his innocence with a form sometimes referred to as an ‘oath of cleansing’.

Vss 6-9 appeal for Yahweh’s action and intervention.

Vss 10-11 are an assertion of the petitioner’s trust in God and certainty of the outcome – what some scholars have called ‘a doxology of judgement’.

Vss 12 refers to the attack the petitioner has suffered and vss 13-16 anticipate what the enemy will suffer in the judgement of God.

Vs 17 offers a closing ascription of praise and thankfulness. 

Many have questioned whether Psalm 7 has any function in the worship of the Christian church. The primary function of the delivery of justice has moved from the Courts of the Lord to the Courts of the law. But a theological objection to this psalm is sometimes raised: Is not the Christian’s entire need for justice given a completely new orientation by means of the judgement spoken at the cross of Jesus Christ? (Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 1993: 176) The answer comes that this psalm is not about the justification of the sinner, but the justification of the righteous. We must all fight for truth and justice, and this Psalm is of lasting importance and can be a prayer formula used by Christians.

We began to explore the book of Esther last week. Today’s reading, Esther 2.1-18, tells of how Esther became Queen. Vs 1 refers to the backstory of Chapter 1, which is important to read as the context for this passage. Vss 1-4, 8-10, and 12-18 tell the narrative of the harem and Esther’s progress to the privileged place within it, and how she captivated King Ahaseurus and became queen.

Vss 5-7 and 11 are a subplot about her uncle Mordecai, artfully interwoven with the harem narrative. As the story unfolds in later chapters the various plots come together. A vital element in the unfolding story is vs 10: Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. This keeps the narratives of the successful Queen and the doomed Jews running along separate plot lines until Esther chooses to bring them together at her banquet in the passage that we read last week.

2 Timothy 2.8-13 is a lovely little nugget of Scripture. Vss 8-10 relate Paul’s understanding of the gospel which is intertwined with his own experience.  Vs 8 is a charming summary – that is my gospel (vs 8b). In a pithy shorthand it brings two key threads together: raised from the dead  embracing in a few words the whole Christian narrative of the earthly life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and a descendant of David invoking the entire history of Israel and the Messianic hopes and promise that attach to the Davidic lineage.

Having so artfully expressed the power of his gospel, Paul links it to his own suffering …being chained like a criminal (vs 9a) before pivoting deftly to contrasting this with But the word of God is not chained (vs 9b). These various threads are woven together in vs 10 which combines his own suffering with the status of the elect (appropriating a Jewish concept and applying it to the church) who will obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (vs 10b). It is so carefully worked together!

Then comes the gem of vss 11-13. The logic of this saying starts with two developmental comparisons in the form if we do “a”, then we shall have “b” (if we have died, then we shall live; if we endure, then we shall reign…).

This is followed by two comparisons of reciprocal actions: if we do “c” to him, he will also do “c” to us (if we deny him, he will also deny us). 

But the fourth term of this progression is beautifully and surprisingly contradicted: the expected “if we are faithless, he will be faithless toward us” is turned on its head. What we get is if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself (vs 13 – in itself also a delightful play on vs 12b).

This one of the most beautiful and poetic teachings about grace in the whole of the New Testament. God’s action is not governed by our doings, or the usual reciprocity that characterises human relationships: God’s faithfulness has nothing to do with our actions, or our prayers or our love of God or praise of God. It is grounded completely in the being of God, for God cannot deny Godself!  After three sayings that would be quite at home in a Hindu framework of karma or a Muslim framework of submission we have the surprising and intrinsically Christian fourth clause – a contradiction of all that has been said in vss 11 and 12: 

if we are faithless, he remains faithful –

for he cannot deny himself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020: Psalm 7; Esther 8:3-17; Revelation 19:1-9
For Psalm. see Monday.

In Esther 8.3-17 we have the rather grim sequel to Esther’s actions of deliverance of Mordecai and her people that we explored last week. In vss 3-6 Esther makes her appeal to King Ahaseurus. For those of us who have been following Esther’s story with a feminist lens we can see the technique at work when she fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him (vs 3) and the rather grovelling and submissive address of vss 5-6. These are the tools of women engaging with patriarchal power and are consistent with Esther’s previous strategies.

The tragic twist of the whole plot of Esther comes in in vs 8: the cocky king hands to Esther the power to write as you please with regard to the Jews but also hands over the authority to seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked. How lightly and off-handedly do those with political and patriarchal power sometimes allow others to wield it!

The tragic consequence of Ahaseurus’ ‘delegation’ is seen in vss 11-12: By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.

Now this may have led to celebrations and honour for the Jews (vss 15-17), but the lectionary rather coyly does not mention the terrifying outcome of that single day of slaughter of their enemies. In Esther chapter 9 we read how Esther had Ahaseurus extend the killing time in the capital to two days. The final death toll is given in chapter 9 vs 16: seventy-five thousand died across all the king’s provinces.

Now the Jews have endured more than their share of pogroms, slaughters and holocausts over the course of world history. Perhaps we should not begrudge them the Esther story. It is the centre of the Jewish festival of Purim.  I am reluctant to celebrate any slaughter, but that is not the way the world works.

In the Imperial War Museum in London is a typed and framed memo dictated by Winston Churchill in the days after the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II which killed around 25,000 people in a single night. Churchill refers to the raid and uses the word ‘atrocity’ somewhere in the body of that paragraph. A government censor has crossed out the word and written in the margin, “Prime Minister, our side does not commit atrocities.”  That censor would have felt right at home with Esther!

Revelation 19.1-9:  After all of the plagues and wrath and destruction that have unfolded through the book of Revelation up to this point, finally come a mighty thundering answer!  The great chorus of the multitude of heaven answers, telling of God’s justice and action in vss 1-3 and again in vss 6-8. In a change to the idea of a Greek chorus answering the main speakers, we then find confirming responses to the chorus being delivered by the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures (vs 4) and a voice … from the throne (vs 5).

In answer to the second great chorus (vss 6-8) comes a word from an angel to John to write down the blessing and the attestation of the truth of these words (vs 9).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020: Psalm 7; Ezekiel 33:7-20; John 5:19-40
For Psalm. see Monday.

Ezekiel 33.7-20: Ezekiel was a prophet contemporaneous with Jeremiah in the 6th C BCE but with a very different style of writing. Here he grapples with two issues in ethics.

Vss 7-9 deal with the ethical responsibilities of the prophetic office. If the prophet doesn’t denounce the sins of the wicked and they die, the prophet will be responsible and will be judged by God. But if the prophet does denounce them and they continue in their wickedness and die, at least the prophet will not be held accountable: you will have saved your life (vs 9).

Vss 10-16 deal with the fact that ‘the wicked’ and ‘the righteous’ are not separate categories who stand condemned and saved respectively. When the wicked do what is right, they will be saved (vss 11, 14-16) and when the righteous do what is evil, they will die (vss 12-13).

Vss 17-20 engage with a question as to whether God is just when God works in this way. In some ways it picks up theme of vs 10 and turns it back and forth before forcefully stating God’s conclusion O house of Israel, I will judge all of you according to your ways! (vs 20b).

John 5.19-40:  Unlike the synoptic gospels which have a basically narrative (story-telling) structure with an occasional long sermon (the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.20-49), John has extended passages of Jesus teaching in an involved and seemingly repetitious way. 

Some themes recur in John, such as the relationship between the Father and the Son, as here in vss 19-24 and then woven in a slightly different key through the later verses (see for instance vss 26-27, 30, 36-38).

Vss 25-29 deal with the time when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God (vs 25). John also uses titles for Jesus in a way the other gospels do not. Note here the playful juxtaposition of ‘Son of God’ (vs 25), ‘Son’ (vs 26) and ‘Son of Man’ (vs 27).

Vss 31 – 36a engage with the witness of John the Baptist as a testimony to Christ until that focus on testimony is redirected to the Father in vss 36b to 38, and then to the Scriptures, they that testify on my behalf (vs 39b).

Thursday, November 26, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Zechariah 13:1-9; Revelation 14:6-13

Psalm 80 belongs to the category of community prayer songs. That it had the form of a liturgy for responsorial public use can be seen in the presence of a refrain repeated in vss 3, 7 and 19: Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. Vs 14 can also be seen as a variation of this refrain.

The lectionary has omitted vss 8-16, a section recounting the intervention of Yahweh in rescuing Israel from Egypt (vss 8-10) but then querying why God has then abandoned her (vss 11-16).

Vss 1-2 call upon the Shepherd of Israel to hear. It identifies the Lord as you who lead Joseph [not Jacob] like a flock (vs 1b) before confirming that the disaster and calamity is threatening the Northern tribes of Israel Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh (vs 2a). This Psalm must date from sometime after the northern tribes split from Judah following the death of Solomon.

Following the refrain (vs 3) vss 4-6 ask the how long will you be angry…? Question. This question, followed by the metaphors of the bread of tears and tears to drink in full measure combined with the scorn of our neighbours and our enemies laugh among themselves, suggest that this is not a pending threat but an accomplished state of affairs of some duration. The refrain then follows again (vs 7).

Jumping over the missing middle session the Psalmist then turns to a final petition (vs 17) and a statement of commitment and faithfulness strikingly similar to the form of the promise of the people at the convocation at Shechem related in Joshua 24.16-18.

The closing verse repeats the responsive refrain which runs through the Psalm.

Zechariah 13.1-9: The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai and prophesied in the early years of the restoration of Jerusalem after the Exile. That is, the author of Zechariah chapters 1-8 prophesied then.  The later chapters probably came from the 5th C BCE and represent a later expression of the Zechariah tradition. This later Zechariah is some of the earliest literature in the apocalyptic tradition which is probably why it is selected to be read today, alongside Revelation 14. Note the similarities between Zech 13.7-9 and the Revelation reading.

Zechariah 13. 1 announces the theme of a cleansing fountain …for the house of David. This cleansing results in two movements of purification: I will cut off the names of the idols from the land (vs 2a) and I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit (vs 2b). The denunciation of the prophets continues through vss 3-6. This probably reflects a move away from prophecy, a relatively uncontrolled and individualised form of religious authority and proclamation towards a disciplined and organised priesthood. Note the unusual signs associated with prophecy of a hairy mantle in order to deceive (vs 4b) and the ritual scarring of the chest (vs 6).

Vss 7-9 speak of the devastation of the flock after the striking of the shepherd (a text quoted in association with the arrest and trial of Jesus). The 2/3 destroyed – 1/3 refined through fire division of humankind is somewhat similar to the “one third was destroyed” theme of Revelation 8.6ff we read recently.

Revelation 14.6-13: Again, we are jumping around in Revelation. This passage follows the vision of the Lamb and the 144,000 we read last week. Here we are presented with three angels who do not announce woe and plague and generalised mayhem. If the previous wrath and judgement had been poured fairly indiscriminately upon the world, these angels bring carefully focussed good news for the people of God.

The first brings an eternal gospel to proclaim (vs 6) (with gospel in the original sense of a proclamation announced on behalf of a king). The second announces the fall of Babylon (vs 8) which will be described in chapter 18. The third announces the punishment of all those who have ‘sold out’ and worship the Beast and its image (vss 9-11).

Vs 12 clarifies that all this constitutes a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus Christ. The pastoral intention of Revelation is very much to encourage and strengthen those under persecution, people suffering, and even dying for their faith. This latter category are encouraged by what is announced in vs 13: And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord” together with a confirming word from the Spirit (vs 13b).

Friday, November 27, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Zechariah 14:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-18

For Psalm. see Thursday.

Now the Zechariah reading for the day is probably linked to 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. Just as Thessalonians looks to the coming of the Lord in final vindication and victory, so Zechariah 14.3ff speaks of the final day of the Lord. This is hardly a day of victory for Jerusalem (see vss 1-2) but the Lord will go forth and fight (vs 3) and win (vss 4-5).

The result is that there shall be continuous day (vs 7), living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, flowing to both eastern and western seas (vs 8) and the Lord will become king over all the earth (vs 9). Compare these prophecies with the vison of John the Seer in Revelation 22.1-6.

I Thessalonians 4.1-18 includes the famous and formative passage of Scripture that has yielded the doctrine known as the Rapture (see vss 13-18).

The first part of the chapter is ethical teaching focussing on abstaining from fornication (vs 3), controlling the body (vs 4) and overcoming lustful passion (vs 5) and not exploiting a sister or brother (vs 6). Vss 9-10 deal with loving the brethren. 

Vss 11-12 are a polished little pearl of teaching: aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

The Coming of the Lord, the identified subject of vss 13-18, has been made a touchstone of orthodoxy in some Christian traditions. On a recent Sunday (15th November) I preached on 1 Thessalonians 5 where a similar theme emerges in 1 Thessalonians 5.10.

To put all this into perspective we have to realise that 1 Thessalonians is one of, if not the earliest book of the New Testament. It is very clear from the earliest strands of the Christian tradition that they believed that the return of Christ would be very, very soon. In Mark 13.30, for instance, Jesus tells the disciples “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” In Mark 9.1 Jesus says, “Truly I tell you there are some standing here who will not taste death until they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”

Against that background and that expectation, the death of some believers before Christ returned provoked anxiety and consternation. When Jesus returns we who walk on the earth will meet with him, but what of those who sleep under the earth? Paul ‘levels the playing field’ (so to speak) by speaking of the dead of Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds, together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever (vss 16b-17).

Note several things here. The first is the little comment “ …we who are alive, who are left, …” suggesting that significant numbers of believers had already died. 

Note secondly the contrast in Paul’s teaching is between those who are alive and those who have died, and his teaching is to bring them together in the same saving and reuniting experience of meeting with Jesus ‘in the air’. In much preaching, ‘the Rapture’ (as ‘this meeting in the air’ is known) is presented not as the reunion of believers past and present in joy and gladness, but the dramatic and painful separation of those who are redeemed, caught up in the air, from those who are damned, left behind as the title of a best-selling Rapture-based novel expresses it. This twists and corrupts Paul’s teaching: the ones who are left in Paul’s teaching are actually the living saints who are to be reunited with their dead sisters and brothers and their Lord.

Thirdly, where Paul offers this teaching with a final recommendation Therefore encourage one another with these words, the preachers of the Rapture are more in line with the principle Therefore torment one another with these words as they play on people’s fears of being ‘left behind’ and heighten their anxiety.

This early Christian eschatology gave way to different expression of Christian hope as the decades passed. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15.21-25, we see not an instantaneous and miraculous reunion of the dead and the living ‘in the air’ but an ordered process of resurrection and re-ordering of the world.  This reflects a more cosmic view of the future than the simple, immediate, and Christian-community focussed doctrine of 1 Thessalonians 4.

Saturday, November 28, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Micah 2:1-13; Matthew 24:15-31

For Psalm. see Thursday.

The prophet Micah, prophesied in Judah in the late 8th C BCE, mainly preaching to Jerusalem against injustice and wickedness.  This passage (Micah 2.1-13) comprises three main sections.

Vss 1-5 are directed against those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds (vs 1). The accusation against them comes in vs 2 and the Lord’s judgement in vss 3-5.

Vss 6-11 are a reflection on the theme of preaching and those who oppose Micah’s preaching. The basic petition of the crowd (do not preach … disgrace will not overtake us) is given in vs 6. Micah questions this attitude in vs 7 both with reference to the Lord and the intrinsic value of his preaching (Do not my words do good to one who walks uprightly?) Vss 8-10 is Micah expressing the Lord’s condemnation of those who tell Micah “Do not preach!” and vs 11 is a sarcastic comment about the kind of preacher they would prefer.

As so often in the prophets, in vss 12-13 the tone changes from oracles of denunciation and condemnation to an oracle of salvation and restoration. Micah was prophesying around the time the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom. While we cannot place precisely the circumstances of this oracle the survivors of Israel (vs 12a) suggests the aftermath of a military defeat. The metaphors of vs 12 of gathering, shepherds and sheep in a fold sound a little strained in the context of the breaking out theme of vs 13. Is the context a gathering of prisoners of war, or a remnant of Israel, which the Lord will mysteriously deliver in a mass breakout?

Matthew 24.15-31 is Matthew’s version of what in Mark 13 is called the Little Apocalypse taught by Jesus. Again, this text is offered today because this is the eve of Advent Sunday, the day that looks to the future coming of Jesus. Vs 31 has echoes of the eschatology we studied yesterday in 1 Thessalonians 4 but note the subtle difference: where 1 Thessalonians spoke of being caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air (vs 17) this verse he will send out his angels … with a loud trumpet call. And they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  While they share in common a trumpet call/the sound of God’s trumpet, in one the meeting is in the air – a physical location,  but in the other the elect are gathered from the four winds – a metaphorical description of a wide coverage of the gathering actions of the angels.

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