Monday, December 14, 2020Psalm 125; 1 Kings 18:1-18; Ephesians 6:10-17

Psalm 125 is a Song of Ascents or A pilgrimage Song (see the title). The form of the Psalm is difficult to categorise but vs 4 leads toward the conclusion that it is a ‘community prayer song’. 

Vss 1-2 are an expression of trust in God where the surrounding protection of the Lord for his people is likened to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.

The setting of the psalm is revealed in vs 3 where a sceptre of wickedness has rested on the land, probably for some time for the wickedness of the occupying power seems to be leading the righteous to stretch out their hands to do wrong. The form of vs 3 can either be a promise or a prophecy of God’s impending action.

Whichever it is, vs 4 is a prayer that God will act as announced in vs 3 and deliver those who are good and those who are upright in their hearts.

Vs 5 is a judgement on those among the people who turn aside to their own crooked ways, a reference to those in Vs 3b who, although of the people of God, have stretched out their hands to do wrong.

1 Kings 18.1-18 is an unusual choice of reading. It is the precursor to the dramatic triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal but this dramatic story is completely passed over by the lectionary.

What we see in the text is narrative detail that richly evokes the context of the time.

The first is the story of Obadiah (vss 3-6). While some Jewish traditions attribute the book of the prophet Obadiah to this Obadiah, the steward of the palace of Ahab and Jezebel, it was a common name in Israel. The Islamic version of the name is Abdullah. Obadiah is faithful to God and sheltered 100 ‘prophets’ in two groups of 50 in separate caves, so that if one was discovered the other might survive. We learn of a faithful man, and of the social movement of ‘the prophets’ who lived and worked in companies, bands or ‘schools’. In contrast to the solitary prophets like Elijah and Elisha (who had dealings with the ‘companies of prophets’), these prophets were communal, even communistic in their lifestyle – perhaps more akin to medieval monks than the writing prophets of Israel (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah etc). We know very little about these mysterious Old Testament groups but they are an intriguing hint of a different religious time and a vocation very different to that of the priests of ancient Israel.

The second strand of the story (vs 7-15) tells of Obadiah’s anxiety in carrying Elijah’s message to Ahab (vs 12b) and both the faithfulness of Obadiah (vs 13) and Ahab’s persisting rage against Elijah (vss 9-12). Note the source of Obadiah’s anxiety – that the spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where (vs 12a): prophets like Elijah travelled and wandered and were thought to be transported around the landscape by God’s spirit.

After being assured  that Elijah will surely meet Ahab, Obadiah delivers the message. Ahab’s opening greeting is classic: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (vs 17) only to be met and doubly repaid by Elijah (vs 18).

If I ever have the leisure, I would love to write a book about the pithy comments between political rulers and ministers, priests and prophets through the ages, and this one would certainly be included!

Ephesians 6.10-17 is a very well-known passage in some Christian circles. It is seen by some as a key commissioning text for the so-called ‘prayer warriors’. I think this language should be used carefully and wisely. 

The key verse is vs 12 which describes a struggle not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Such language is steeped in ancient world views and should be carefully studied. The language and theology of ‘the powers’ (to use a shorthand term) has been largely rehabilitated through the work of scholars like Walter Wink and his powerful trilogy Naming the Powers, Understanding the Powers and Engaging the Powers. Wink’s big contribution was his recognition that the Biblical language of the powers (as reflected here in Ephesians) reflects a binary nature of spiritual reality where we are always dealing with an inner spiritual essence and an outer human, sometimes institutional, structure.

Ironically – or perhaps understandably (?) – some of those most at ease with the language of spiritual warfare are most ill-at-ease with the current Bill before the Victorian Parliament prohibiting Change or Suppression practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation (so-called ‘gay conversion’ therapy). What is outlawed is a ‘prayer act’ (such as an exorcism, or ‘praying over’ someone) that results in harm, or significant harm to the person and has been conducted with negligence as to the impact of the practice on that person. Some mischief-makers have said that ‘the government is outlawing prayer’ but it is clear that the Act is outlawing harming people negligently through the use of some prayer practices. 

I understand what people mean by the language of spiritual warfare and prayer warriors and I respect it as a practice – if it is engaged in responsibly and wisely. However, if we in the church are happy to use the language of spiritual warfare and prayer warriors, we should not be surprised when our government recognises that people might be harmed through prayer, and prayer can be done negligently and in a damaging way. If we want to be ‘prayer warriors’ we need the kind of ‘rules of engagement’ that all responsible soldiers have to guide them in battle. The government’s Bill is the very minimum we should seek – as Hippocrates put it: First, do no harm!

If you have concerns about the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 I invite you to contact me and we can talk about it. There are certainly issues around the Bill, and some valid points are made its critics, but I don’t see it as a wholesale attack on the churches and other faith communities.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020Psalm 125; 2 Kings 2:9-22; Acts 3:17-4:4

For the Psalm, see Monday.

2 Kings 2.9-22: This story is again a ‘clipped’ or truncated narrative that omits the lead-up to the first of three stories in this passage. The first story is of Elijah’s being taken up in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire (vs 11) and the prophetic mantle falling to Elisha (see vss 13-14 and read vs 8). 

The second is another story about the company of prophets (vss 15-18). The company of prophets figures also in vss 1-8. Here also is the motif from yesterday of the Lord almost ‘teleporting’ his prophets through the spirit (vs 16b). Eventually giving in to this kind of thinking, Elisha lets them search only to be finally vindicated (vs 18) when they find no trace of Elijah.

The third (vss 19-22) is a story emphasising how the prophetic authority and powers of Elijah now rested on Elisha.

Acts 3.17-4.4 is part of a sermon preached by Peter that starts in vs 12. Perhaps the framers of the Lectionary have decided to omit vss 12-16 because of vss 13-15 which are highly critical of the Jews and have contributed to the idea of Jews as ‘Christ -killers’ a charge specifically laid in vs 15. This passage starts with the exculpatory I know that you acted in ignorance… (vs 17).  A reference that reflects the Advent season is vs 21 how Jesus must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Chapter 4.4 mentions the five thousand who were converted through this second sermon of Peter in addition to the three thousand who converted in Chapter 2.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020Psalm 125; Malachi 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:9-13

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The reading from Malachi 3.16-4.6 introduces several prophecies that relate to Advent expectation.

First are the oracles of judgement and salvation woven together in 3.16 through to 4.3.  Vss 16-18 introduce the concept of the book of remembrance (vs 16) which records the names of the faithful so that they may be preserved and protected from the fate of the wicked. Vss 17-18 detail how this protection will work.

Chapter 4.1 introduces the terrible day of the Lord, burning like an oven, but vss 2 and 3 reassure the faithful that they will be delivered from judgement (because they are recorded in the book of remembrance).

Vs 4 repeats the Deuteronomic principle of adherence to the law but vs 5 and 6 mention the return of Elijah as the forerunner to the day of the Lord (vs 5) and how the role of the forerunner will be to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. This text is quoted by the angel in his announcement to the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1.17) but see how the second half of the verse (Malachi 4.6b) has been changed by Gabriel when speaking to John!

Mark 9.9-13: The coming of Elijah figures throughout the gospels both in relation to John the Baptist but also at the Crucifixion when bystanders heard Jesus’ last cry (Mark 15.34-35). The expectation Elijah’s return must have been very strong in the minds of pious Jews at that time. 

Here Jesus says that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him (vs 13). While it is not specifically stated that Jesus means John the Baptist, the context of this passage leaves little room for other conclusion. Jesus and his disciples are coming down the mountain (vs 9) from the Transfiguration (vss  2-8) during which there appeared to them [the disciples] Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus (vs 4). Furthermore, the death of John the Baptist has just been related at some length in Mk 6. 14-29.

Thursday, December 17, 2020Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:1-11; Hebrews 1:1-4

Psalm 89.1-4, 19-26 is part of a complex and ancient Psalm. The framers of the Lectionary have simplified our reading by focussing the text on only one of three significant sections in the 52 verses of this long Psalm. Reading the Psalm in full reveals three main sections: vss 1-18, a complex and lively hymn on God’s creative power and restraining of chaos; vss 19-37, a detailed reference to a prophetic oracle on the election of David and his house to the kingship and; vss 38-51, a lament over the decline of the kingship. Vs 52 is a closing ascription of praise to integrate all elements in praise.

Our passage takes only the first 4 verses of the first section and the first eight verses of the second. This makes a neat Psalm completely focussed on the promise to David, a psalm very appropriate to Advent when we celebrate the coming of Jesus in the line of David.

Vss 1-2 strike a note of praise to God and God’s love and steadfast faithfulness. Vss 3 & 4 prefigure the focus on the promise to David as an expression of God’s steadfast love.

Cutting out vss 5-18 enables the Lectionary to immediately reinforce vss 3-4 with the development of the theme of the Davidic kingship. Vss 19-20 reinforce not the original anointing of David as king by Samuel (described in 1 Samuel 16) but is far more suggestive of the prophetic vision of Nathan about God’s covenant with David described in 2 Samuel 7. The Psalm seems to embody a multi-layered or developing tradition as to what the promise to the Davidic kingship actually was.

Vs 21 describes how God’s hand shall always remain with him; my arm shall also strengthen him.

Vss 22-24 describe the victory and cunning that the King shall have through God’s support and faithfulness. Vs 25 is almost a reprise of the missing hymn (vss 5-18) to God’s control of the forces of chaos symbolised in the seas and rivers enacted through the King. Vs 26 reflects the ancient idea of the King as the adopted son of God. 

2 Samuel 6.1-11: This passage has inspired (amongst other things) one of the Indiana Jones movies Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike nearly everyone in the movie (who couldn’t wait to get hold of the Ark), David becomes very reluctant to take delivery because of the danger (vs 9). Despite the danger, the Ark of the Covenant has held a special place in the human imagination.

The Ark enclosed the tablets of the law and on the lid were two sculptures of the cherubim on which the Lord was enthroned (vs 2). Just what ‘the cherubim’ were in a culture where religious image-making was strictly prohibited does invite question.

The critical incident in this passage is the death of Uzzah (vs 7) although the meaning of the Hebrew at this point is uncertain (see the textual note in biblegateway.com).

The fate of the Ark is one of the great puzzles of history. In the movie it is lost among a vast trove of treasures from world cultures in a government warehouse somewhere in Washington USA. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to have it in Axum, Ethiopia. Various other possible locations are described in the Wikipedia entry for Ark of the Covenant. 

If you do happen to come across the Ark in your travels, the common wisdom is that, like Pandora’s Box, you shouldn’t touch it, and never try to open it!

Hebrews 1.1-4 is the opening of the book of Hebrews describing the ascension and exaltation of Jesus. In a brief few verses we have the sweep of salvation history from the prophets (vs 1), and the status of Jesus as a Son or the Son (attested in various places in the NT), the heir of all things (cf 1 Corinthians 15.20-28) and the one through whom he also created the worlds (note the plural, cf John 1.3). In this language vs 2 paints a cosmic picture of Jesus, a picture then extended in vs 3 where Jesus is not only the reflection of God’s glory but also the exact imprint of God’s very being who sustains all things by his powerful word.  This is a high and closely woven Christology.  Vs 3 includes the saving work of Jesus in his having made purification for sins. The closing verse caps this off with the contrast between Jesus and the angels, a lead in to tomorrow’s reading.

Friday, December 18, 2020Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; 2 Samuel 6:12-19; Hebrews 1:5-14

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

In 2 Samuel 6.12-19 David overcomes his fear and brings the Ark into the city. When he saw the blessing the Ark brought to Obed-edom he brought it into Jerusalem with both rejoicing and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling every six paces (vs 13).

His wife Michal was upset, and the consequences of this are explored in vss 20-23 where David defended himself against her contempt. The text then says she was childless to her dying day.

Vss 17-19 give a sense of the nature of a religious festival in which the cattle offerings were shared and the people were given food (vs 19). If you read the detail of the sacrificial arrangements in the OT you will see that the parts of the sacrificed animals that the Lord ‘savoured’ was the fat over the kidneys rather than the prime steaks. I suspect this arrangement suited the Lord’s people very well.

Hebrews 1.5-14 carries on from yesterday’s reading and would suggests that the people to whom Hebrews was written were into angels in a big way. We do not think much about angels – except perhaps in the lead up to Christmas.

Mention of angels is not uniform across the New Testament. Mark mentions them 5 times and John  3 times. Paul in all his writings mentions angels on average less than one and a half times in each of his letters. But Matthew has 19 angel references, Luke 46 (in his gospel and in Acts), Revelation 28 and Hebrews 14!

So angels were important to the people to whom Hebrews was written and in this passage the writer makes very clear that, if angels are good, Jesus is far better. The structure of the passage is an extended collection of OT quotations employed to support the pre-eminence of Jesus.

Do you have a belief in angels and what is the substance of that belief? Have angels ever been a part of your personal experience? If so, are you able to talk about this with others or does it remain private? 

Saturday, December 19, 2020Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Judges 13:2-24; John 7:40-52

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Judges 13.2-24 is the back story to the life of Samson, probably included in this week for the insight it gives us into the experience of angels in the life of God’s people and for the insight into the lifestyle of the Nazirite (see vss 4-7). The Nazirites lived an abstemious and pure life and let their hair grow. John the Baptist may have been a form of Nazirite. There was nothing magical about Samson’s hair – it was simply a sign of his devotion to God, his dedication. When Delilah cut it off, he had breached his vow and his strength left him, only to return when his hair regrew. As well as being a Nazirite, Samson was a judge, a deliverer of his people (vs 5b) raised up by God as a great military leader.

But what is fascinating this week with all the celebration of angels in the lead up to Christmas, is how the angel was experienced by Manoah and his wife (described only as his wife, or the woman throughout. I will just list what we learn:

  • He is identified throughout as a man or a man of God although he looked like an angel of God (vss 6, 10)
  • Manoah didn’t recognise him as an angel (vss 11, 16b)
  • The angel’s name  was too wonderful to be disclosed (vs 18)
  • He was recognised in the act of sacrifice when the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar (vs 20)
  • Manoah was very afraid (vs 22) but his wife calmed him down (vs 23).

What can we learn through this? Angels are hard to spot. They look like ordinary human beings. It is not how they look but what they say that matters. Encountering them can be frightening, but if we are frightened listen to our sensible partners and realise that angels happen in our lives, they are a gift, and there is a lot more to be frightened of than angels.

John 7.40-52:  this is another controversy where Jesus’ enemies mingle with the crowds but there is such a confused and mixed opinion that they cannot arrest him. A sub-theme in John is the way the Temple police who are actually interacting with Jesus, are drawn to him (vss 45-46) but the chief priests and Pharisees reject their testimony. Another element of John is the hidden disciples or fellow travellers who are working away within the system and trying to protect Jesus. Here it is Nicodemus (described as going to Jesus in John chapter 3) who defends him (vss 50-51). Another example is the nameless disciple known to the high priest (John 18.15) who was able to get Simon Peter into the courtyard of the high priest, where he then denied Jesus three times.

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