Our readings this week come from the Revised Common Lectionary. They are a whirlwind tour of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people, visiting some of the key symbols, the key moments of the long history of the people of God from Abraham to Jesus Christ and the early preachers of Jesus Christ. 

They are best read not for the fine detail of their teaching but for the panoramic view they give of the Bible and it’s story. Set your focus on the long view as you read these passages and let your imagination roam down the thirty centuries since these events were first lived and told!

Monday, January 11, 2021Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Genesis 17:1-13; Romans 4:1-12

Psalm 69 is a prayer song offered by someone who has been falsely accused of stealing something that they now have to restore (vs 4). That they have been overwhelmed by the accusation and the pressure it has placed on their life is clear from vss 1-3. Vs 5 is a form of confession. The Lectionary has omitted the part of the Psalm that relates to the penitence and petitions of the sufferer for deliverance and goes straight to the vow of praise that is offered in vss 30-36.

In the Christian tradition the Psalm as a whole has been closely identified with the suffering of Jesus and is quoted in the New Testament in various places. That the original setting dates from after the Exile can be seen from vs 35.

Genesis 17.1-13 deals with the origins of circumcision as a sign of the Covenant between God and Abraham. Note that this sign predates even the promise of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 18.9ff) and the first acts of circumcision involve Ishmael and the other men of Abraham’s household (see Genesis 17.23-27). The narrative stresses that Abraham is to be the father of many nations and the sign of circumcision includes all his sons, not just Isaac, the son of promise.

Romans 4.1-12 is Paul’s treatment of circumcision as a sign of Abraham’s faith rather than an ethnically defined Jewish community. Bearing in mind that circumcision is already in Genesis a sign shared by many nations, Paul expands the symbol even more, rejecting the physical sign and redefining it as an inclusive badge of all who live by faith.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Exodus 30:22-38; Acts 22:2-16

For the Psalm see Monday.

After dealing with the sign of circumcision in yesterday’s readings, the reading from Exodus 30.22-28 today explores another sign of covenant and commitment: anointing. Anointing oils are part of the care of the body from the ancient world (vs 25a), but these provisions deal with holy oil (vs 25b) to be used only for the consecration of sacred things (vss 26-29) and sacred  people or priests (vs 30). Such holy anointing oils were to be strictly used only for their sacred purpose and not for everyday use (vss 32-33, 38).

Acts 22.2-16 actually come from late in Paul’s ministry, even though he is describing the start of his ministry. He is now a prisoner, like Jesus before his crucifixion, and Stephen before his martyrdom, and will remain a prisoner for the rest of the book of Acts. In pairing this reading with Exodus 30, is the Lectionary suggesting that just as anointing was the sign of being appointed for ministry among the Old Testament priests, arrest and trial is the sign of authentic ministry for Jesus and his followers?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36; Isaiah 41:14-20; John 1:29-34

For the Psalm see Monday.

Isaiah 41.14-20 comprises 2 oracles. The first (vss 14-16) prophesies that the Lord will give dominance and strength to you worm Jacob, you insect Israel (vs 14). The second affirms that the Lord will provide water in the desert for the poor of God’s people as they return from exile (vss 17-18) and fill the wilderness with trees (vs 19) so that all may see and know… that the hand of the Lord has done this (vs 19). The passage comes from that part of Isaiah that teaches of the promised return from Exile and reflects both the powerless ignominy of Babylonian captivity and the promise of return and rebuilding from disaster.

John 1.29-34 links together John’s declaration of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Baptism of Jesus by John. The sign of the descending Spirit (vs 33) validates Jesus as the Son of God as John testifies (vs 34). Here we see the ministry of Jesus Christ commencing.

Thursday, January 14, 2021Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:6-15; 2 Corinthians 10:1-11

Again, the lectionary has partitioned Psalm 139, 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”.

The omniscience of God and especially God’s knowledge of the individual is the theme of vss 1-6. In vss 7-12 (omitted from our reading) this is extended into a reflection on the omnipresence of God – that fleeing from or hiding from God is impossible. Vss 13-16 bring a profound reflection on the Lord’s creation, and intimate knowledge, of the singer. The final section (vss 19-24) have again been omitted.

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

Judges 2.6-15 marks a key transition point in the story of Israel. Following the wilderness wandering and the occupation of the land under Joshua, Joshua (vs 8) and his whole generation (vs 10) die. This then exposes the waywardness of Israel (vss 11-13) and the resulting judgement of God (vss 14-15). How God then responds to, and rescues, Israel will be the subject of tomorrow’s reading.

2 Corinthians 10.1-11 is Paul’s spirited defence of his ministry against those who criticise him for acting according to human standards (vs 2) and boast[ing] a little too much of our authority (vs 8) and say his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible (vs 10). 

This reading ‘lifts the veil’ on some of the contested dynamics surrounding Paul’s ministry and writing which has been a major element of the New Testament witness and has shaped the church in every generation. We often read Paul from a place of armchair comfort. This passage reminds us that the church of Jesus Christ can be a contested and argumentative space.

Friday, January 15, 2021Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:16-23; Acts 13:16-25

For the Psalm see Thursday.

In Judges 2.16-31 we see God’s answer to the end of the time of the great heroes of the Exodus, Moses and Aaron, Joshua and all his generation. Then the Lord raised up judges (vs 16), a form of charismatic leadership that was commissioned in times of need (vs 18). The rhythm of deliverance under a judge (vs 18) and backsliding when the judge died (vs 19) became a repeated pattern. Vss 21-22 make clear than some of the other nations were left in the land in order to test Israel (vs 22a).

Acts 13.16-25 is more preaching by Paul. In vss 16-22 (7 verses!) he summarises the history of Israel from the captivity in Egypt, through the Exodus and conquest, the time of the judges, and the origins of the kingship with Saul in the time of Samuel and the rise of King David. This is a magisterial summary of Israel’s history covering a period (according to the times given in the text) of over 500 years. Modern scholars would see the period covered as perhaps 350-400 years, but in keeping with the readings this week which summarise or ‘sample’ the history of the people of God, it’s a very good summary.

Saturday, January 16, 2021Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Samuel 2:21-25; Matthew 25:1-13

For the Psalm see Thursday.

The reading from 1 Samuel 2 is the background to the rise of Samuel, the prophet who marks the transition from the time of the judges to the early kings of Israel. Vs 21 introduces very succinctly the boy Samuel who would grow up to be the great prophet. Vss 22-25 describes the wickedness of Eli’s sons and makes clear that the Lord had decided to end the priestly line of Eli.

Matthew 25.1-13 is Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids – five were foolish and five were wise. It is another parable of preparedness for the coming of Lord. This week has been whirlwind tour of the history of God’s people. Just as we were introduced to the signs of circumcision (on Monday) and the oil of anointing (Tuesday), the lectionary invites us to be wise in how we trim the oil of our own lamps.  The readings and wisdom of this week invite us to carry with us the story of God’s dealing with the people of God in the past so we are always ready to meet the Lord in the present.

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