Monday, December 7, 2020Psalm 27; Isaiah 26:7-15; Acts 2:37-42

Psalm 27 is a remarkable Psalm that seems to breathe two very different ‘spirits’ or moods. Vss 1-6 are filled with trust and confidence, calm and assurance. Vss 7-13 are petitions and pleading in the midst of danger, distress and rejection. Vs 14 with its call to trust and hope, strikes a new note of patience and trust.

Many commentators have seen the contrast between the first and second parts of the Psalm to be so great as to require a conclusion that here we have two different Psalms – that they cannot belong together. A more reflective position is that here we have the prayer of someone who is falsely accused (vs 12) and who has been rejected and isolated (vs 10), who nonetheless rests in the calm assurance of their faith, described in vs 1-6.

The metaphors of the kinds trouble that faith can meet are invoked in the early section in terms of military conflict (vs 3), and individual wickedness (vs 2). When such troubles come (in this case in some form of false accusation – vs 12), the faith of the singer leads them to call on God (vss 7-12).

Vs 13 is the conclusion of these petitions, expressing confidence that the singer will be vindicated not in the next life, in some kind of heavenly acquittal, but now, in their current existence: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (vs 13b).

Vs 14 is a profound re-affirmation of what has been declared in vss 1-6, a final integrating statement that binds together the content of the singer’s faith to this point (vss 1-6), and the pleading arising from their current travails (vss 7-13) in an encouraging exhortation to wait, trust and be strong in the Lord.

In this time of Advent note the theme of ‘waiting’ that is affirmed in vs 14.

This psalm can strengthen and encourage those who are in the trouble of a personal tension where someone has accused them, or misunderstands their motivations, right through to the peculiarly modern distress of a social media ‘pile-on’ in which it seems the whole world is attacking and hating you. In the latter situation the pressure can be intense, even leading to suicide or enduring trauma. Psalm 27 is one of the ‘shields’ that the Scripture gives to us to strengthen and encourage us. It is well worth returning to regularly! 

Isaiah 26.7-15 has probably been selected for this week because of its theme of waiting (vs 8a). It affirms that the Lord makes the way of the righteous level and smooth (vs 7, and through to vs 9) while the wicked find their way confounded because of the own limitations (vs 10).

Vss 11-13 returns to the theme of the Lord’s establishment of your people and vs 14 celebrates the triumph of the Lord over other gods.

Vs 15 announces that the Lord has enlarged the nation by extend[ing] all the borders of the land. If you have been following the international negotiations over peace in Palestine/Israel you will know that this is contentious. Israel is still forming ‘settlements’ within the Occupied territories which is a form of land theft in contravention of international law. If Israel were to simply annex all the Palestinian territories it would be far simpler and perhaps more legal, but then Israel would have to grant citizenship to millions of Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) which would make impossible the Jewish state. The taking of land, squeezing the Palestinians into ever smaller areas, without granting either the right of citizenship of an extended Israel or the right to form an independent state in the remaining territory, is a continuing and extensive oppression. Is this really the work of the Lord to be celebrated, or something to be condemned and opposed?

Acts 2.37-42 describes the first flowering of the Christian church after the resurrection of Jesus, with 3,000 new converts on that day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020Psalm 27; Isaiah 4:2-6; Acts 11:1-18

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Isaiah 4.2-6 is a brief oracle looking to the future (On that day – vs 2).   Vs 2 uses fruit and branch as metaphors of blessing but the overall context is one of the depletion of Jerusalem (whoever is left in Zion – vs 3).  What are the bloodstains of Jerusalem and the filth of the daughters of Zion (vs 4)?  Are these references to violence and corruption within the prior Israelite society? Or are they references to the devastation of the fall of the city in 587 BCE? It would appear that the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning (vs 4b) refer to the fall of the city, but interprets them as cleansing and ultimately restorative. Vs 5 sees the smoke of the burning city being replaced by a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night as symbols of God’s glory (vs 5), a reminder of the Exodus experience in the wilderness. Over the glory is a canopy which is both shade, shelter and refuge (vs 6).

Acts 11.1-13 describes the next stage in the expansion of the early church – the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles. The full story actually starts in Acts 10, but here Peter gives a summary of that previous chapter in vss 5-17. Vs 18 is the climax in which the circumcised believers who criticized him (vs 2) are silenced and then praise God, accepting the Gentile believers.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020Psalm 27; Malachi 2:10-3:1; Luke 1:5-17

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Malachi 2.20-3.1 is a reading for Advent because of vs 3.1 – the well-known I am sending my messenger to prepare the way… But what is helpful here is the context of the original prophecy given in 2.10-17. The key accusation is stated in vs 11: … for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. Some kind of syncretism (bringing worship of Yahweh and other gods together) seems to have occurred and even spread through the tents of Jacob (vs 12).

The failure of the worship of Yahweh is described in vss 13-14 and the true faith is presented as the wife of your youth  (vs 15) who has been abandoned, divorced. Both divorce and violence are condemned in vs 16. Note the double mention of one God in vs 15: is this a reference to a polytheism that may be the essence of the abomination occurring in Jerusalem? Or is it simply expressing that Yahweh is the only God, and having any other gods beside him is to forsake the one true God?

Luke 1.5-17 is the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and is fairly straightforward. What is missing is the aftermath of this angelic pronouncement found in vss 18-25. I encourage you to read on! 

Of all the characters in the drama of Christmas, Zechariah alone is a ‘religious professional’ – he was a priest and all this ‘God stuff’ was his business. And Zecharaiah is the only person in the drama (apart from King Herod) who does not ‘get with the program’ and play his part in the narrative. What we read today is all very good, right and proper. It was a high and holy day with all the people assembled outside (vs 10), Zechariah chosen by lot to play the most important part in the day’s worship (vs 9), and then to add to the drama an angel appears in the temple with a message. Not your average Sunday, that’s for sure!

And Zechariah is terrified (vs 12). When the happy news and all that will flow from it is communicated by the angel to the priest, Zechariah doubts and there, in the heart of the Temple, asks the great question that tempts every religious professional from time to time (all the time?): how do I know that any of this is true? (vs 18). You can read the rest of the story and see how it plays out.

Thursday, December 10, 2020Psalm 126; Habakkuk 2:1-5; Philippians 3:7-11

Psalm 126 presents various difficulties of interpretation that are not immediately obvious in English translation. It falls into three sections. Vss 1-3 look back to dramatic events of deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Vs 4 is a lament and call for the Lord to act again in the present. Vss 5-6 are set in the future tense and assure the hearers that God will indeed act to save.

The heart of the interpretive problem is that the tense of vss 1-3 could also be read as a future tense. Some scholars refer to this kind of grammatical construction as the ‘prophetic perfect’. Similar issues (and a very similar structure) are found in Psalm 85. The issue with these ambiguities of tense is just how we situate the psalm in the history of Israel so as to make sense of what it refers to.

You can see in the footnotes on biblegateway.com how the translation of the text is dependent on which context the translators think it is referring to.

If vss 1-3 are read in the (future) perfect tense, then this could be a prayer dating from the Exile where vss 1-3 predict what God will surely do, vss 5-6 confirm this and vs 4 is the substance of the people’s lament and petition from their experience of Exile.

If vss 1-3 are read as a past tense, referring back to the Exile, then the Psalm has a post-Exilic setting – but what was left for the Lord to do? Why did the joyous Exiles who had experienced great things need further deliverance?

One solution of this issue is to read the setting as indeed post-Exilic, but during that early time – the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the project of re-founding and rebuilding Jerusalem and Israel as a nation were indeed fragile. The mighty event of return from Exile has occurred, but more was needed. ‘We are finding that we are like a stream in the desert, running dry and failing’ (vs 4). Then comes the re-assurance of the promise of vss 5-6.

The ‘sowing with tears/reaping with joy’ metaphor could reflect some ancient Near-Eastern cultures in which ritual weeping was associated with the sowing season because the seed was seen as the body of the deity, interred in the earth in a form of burial. Without rain it would indeed be a burial and no crop would come forth (thus, for example, the cult of Osiris). It could also be a metaphor for the hard work of ploughing and sowing. Finally, if the setting of the psalm was the time of re-establishing the ruined Jerusalem with the danger and privations attested in Nehemiah and Ezra, ‘sowing with tears’ would be an apt way of describing those difficult years, from which future generations would reap a joyful harvest.

Habakkuk 2.1-5: Habakkuk is a little-read book of the Old Testament. The reading for today is very apt, given that we are in a time of waiting, of expectation. Habakkuk was prophesying in the late 7th century BCE, before the fall of Jerusalem.

This reading has some beautiful poetry. The opening metaphor is that of the prophet as watchman  (vs 1), but a watchman who doesn’t just passively wait scanning an empty horizon, but has put (presumably to the Lord) my complaint.  As a preacher who feels a responsibility for the word, I find the next 2 verses so profound and encouraging! The answer comes: write the vision… so that a runner may read it (vs 2), a reference to the practice of messengers (runners) carrying news in the ancient world. Vs 3 gets to the nub of the problem: the prophet cannot see the vision, doesn’t know what it is. God says, 

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it; 

it will surely come, it will not delay.  (vs 3)

For the church in the early 21st century wondering what the future holds, these are glad words indeed! How often on a Sunday morning when I am due to preach have I pondered this text, and trusted it!

Again, note the theme of waiting – central to this season.

Vss 4-5 are an oracle against the wealthy and proud (how often those go together). Vs 4b (the righteous will live by their faith) is quoted in the New Testament, a pivotal text in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. It is seen by many early Christian writers as a starting point in the OT for an NT understanding of faith.

Philippians 3.7-11 is a well-known reflection by Paul pondering his own faith. It is probably vs 11 that has led to it being included in this week of Advent: Paul looks forward to the completion of his faith in a future resurrection. Faith, for Paul, has meant a re-evaluation of what he had previously gained, now to be considered as loss (vs 7). 

The surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord  leads him to regard everything else as loss (vs 8).  The word translated rubbish in Greek (skubalon) is quite strong. My Gk dictionary gives the meaning: dung, garbage. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message catches the sense of the Greek when he translates this as everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant – dog dung

Vss 9, 10 and 11 are a powerful statement of what it means to gain Christ (vs  8c).

Friday, December 11, 2020Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:2-6; Philippians 3:12-16

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Habakkuk 3.2-6: If Habbakuk chapters 1-2 are a dialogue between God and the prophet, chapter 3 is a more liturgical piece. It is described as a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth (Hab 3.1). It only appears here (in the plural) and in Psalm 7 (in the singular). We do not know what the word means. My internet searching found the following interesting (but unattributed) reflection:

Comparing Habakkuk 3 with Psalm 7, we find similar themes. Both songs paint a picture of dire trouble. Habakkuk 3 speaks of earthquakes, crumbling mountains, pestilence, floods, arrows, spears, and calamity; Psalm 7describes vicious lions, trampled lives, rage, swords, flaming arrows, and violence. Both songs end with praise to the Lord for His deliverance from the surrounding trouble. And both songs mention the shiggaion or shigionoth.

David classifies his song as a shiggaion. Habakkuk says that his song should be sung in the manner of the shigionoth. As best we can tell, the tumultuous poetry of Habakkuk 3 and Psalm 7 was to be accompanied by music that fit the theme. “On shigionoth” probably meant “with impassioned triumph,” “with rapidity,” or “with abrupt changes of tune.”

Philippians 3.12-16 follows on from yesterday’s reading. Here the future orientation of faith is very clear. Vs 15 says that this future orientation is a characteristic of the faith of those of us then who are mature but vs 16 reminds us also to hold fast to what we have attained.

This balance between looking forward and not being satisfied with how we are now, AND not lightly abandoning what we have learned and believed in the past, is the mark of a truly mature faith. We are not called to be smug and satisfied with what we have always known to be true, locked into little bubbles of certainty and prejudice. Neither are we called to be spiritual gadflies who flit from one bloom to another, carrying neither conviction nor memory of how we came to faith and what we have believed. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:13-19; Matthew 21:28-32

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Habakkuk 3.13-19 is another piece from the third chapter of Habakkuk and forms the end of the book. This can be seen in vs 19c because of the final note to the musicians (lit. to the leader:  ) that the accompaniment is to be with stringed instruments.  The first section alternates descriptions of the work of God (vss 13, 15) with descriptions of judgment and distress (vss 14, 16). This pattern is reversed in vss 17-18 where the opening verse describes an even if.. scenario of possible barrenness caused by either drought or the destruction brought by conquest. Even if this is so – 

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
     I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Vs 19 ends with an affirmation of the strength and trust of the prophet with a final technical note to the performers of this rich and dramatic poem (chapter 3).

Matthew 21.28-32 ends the week on a sombre note. The context for this dialogue is the Temple on the day after Jesus has disrupted and ‘cleansed’ it. The people addressed (the They of vs 31) are the chief priests and the elders of the people (Mt 21.23) who have just challenged the authority of Jesus (Mt 21.23-27).

Having successfully deflected their attack on his authority, Jesus goes after them in this passage. He lays to their charge a double failure : that they did not repent and believe John the Baptist, and secondly, that they did not repent when they saw the tax collectors and sinners repenting (vs 32).

The parable that opens the passage is an interesting one: it is not what we confess or what we say that matters to God, but what we actually do, regardless of our protestations (vss 28-30). That They ‘get it’ is clear from vs 31. Do we who claim to follow Jesus really understand and live in accordance with this parable? 

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