Readings for Epiphany 3

For those who have missed our daily readings I offer heartfelt apologies! Last week really did rather get on top of your humble writer. We are catching up with readings for Epiphany Week 3 (Last week) being uploaded today and Epiphany Week 4 tomorrow – or Thursday at the latest). Apologies to all those who have missed these brief notes.

Monday, January 18, 2021Psalm 86; 1 Samuel 9:27-10:8; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Psalm 86: Although headed A Prayer of David it shows signs of being quite late with many borrowings and references to other Psalms. The Psalm includes references to God delivering the singer from death (vs 13) and also from arrogant foes who are attacking me (vs 14). 

The form of this psalm is a prayer-song of an individual. The structure of vss 1-4 is a series of petitions to God (first half each verse) with a reason supporting the petition that describes the situation of the psalmist (for I… – the second half of each verse).

Verse 5 affirms that God is forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call.. before vss 6-7 return to the structure of ‘petition to God to hear’ linked to ‘the dependence of the petitioner on God’.

Vss 8-10 bring in a note of praise and affirmation of the Lord.

Vss 12-13 are a vow of thanksgiving and in vs 13b it is clear that his current state has been one of God-forsakenness and the threat of death.

Vss 14 is the essence of the lament of the singer’s situation: enemies who do not serve God are threatening him. Vs 15 affirms and praises God in a form seen in other psalms. Vss 16-17 express the substance of the petition.

1 Samuel 9.27-10.8:  Last week we read of the call of Samuel when he was a child. This week jumps over 6 chapters during which Samuel has grown to a man, Eli has died (ch. 4), Israel has lost the Ark of the Covenant  (ch.4) and had it returned (ch.5-6) and Samuel has become a Judge over Israel (‘judge’ in the sense of the book of Judges – a charismatic military and political leader). In chapter 8 a key development has been the Israelites’ request to move from a leadership of judges in time of need to a standing and hereditary kingship like the surrounding nations.

The passage is straightforward with the anointing of Saul as king (vs 10.1) and a range of prophesied confirmatory encounters (vss 2-7). The passage describes one of the greatest ‘fractures’ / transition points in the history of God’s people, in which leadership shifts away from spiritually-based prophets and judges toward a standing political kingship. Perhaps the attending signs are necessary to attest that God indeed is in what Samuel has done so that Saul can feel confirmed and validated in his role as ‘king elect’.

2 Corinthians 6.147.1: In this passage Paul calls for a separation between believers and unbelievers and stresses that we  [or you] are the temple of the living God (vs 16). The principle of vs 14  (Do not be mismatched with unbelievers) has sometimes been used as counselling against marriage with a non-Christian. That does not seem consistent with the context of this chapter and also contradicts Pauls teaching in 1 Cor 7 – especially vss 10-17 (for the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband – vs 14).

This chapter is more focussed on the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church and their rejection of him – and Christ – in favour of other loyalties. It is a general call to holiness and devotion to God for we are the temple of the living God (vs 16b). Note here the specific contrast with what has the temple of God [i.e. you/us] to do with idols (vs 16b). It would appear to be some flirtation or association with outside religious groups that lies behind the prohibition of vs 14.

Such an interpretation is supported by chapter 7 vs 1 which can hardly be read as a prohibition of marriage with unbelievers when it calls let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of body and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of the Lord. This would suggest a more general abandonment of Christian living and rapprochement with idolatrous religious practices.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021Psalm 86; 1 Samuel 15:10-31; Acts 5:1-11

For the Psalm see Monday.

1 Samuel 15.10-31:  Again, the lectionary is leading us through some of the key points in the political history of Israel. From Saul’s anointing yesterday, we skip over 4 and a half chapters of Saul’s failures and mistakes to this passage exploring the Lord’s definitive rejection of him as king.

We find Samuel angered by the Lord’s rejection of Saul (vs 11). Samuel wasn’t happy about it all in the first place (chapter 8), and I suppose it is a bit embarrassing to find the man you anointed in the Lord’s name suddenly ‘un-anointed’ by the Lord.

The background to the dialogue in vss 13-16 is that earlier in this chapter Samuel has given a word from the Lord that Saul must attack and completely destroy the Amalekites and all their flocks and herds. The bleating of sheep in my ears and the lowing of cattle that I hear vs 14) is clear evidence that Saul has disobeyed the Lord. Saul is penitent but Samuel wants to leave.

The interactions of vss 24-31 are a fascinating parley about how the rejection of Saul by the Lord will be ‘enacted’ before the people. The sign of the torn robe/kingdom (vs 27-28) comes when Saul tries to hold Samuel in the moment and get some credibility by his continued friendship and presence. Although the Lord will not recant or change his mind (vs 29), Samuel eventually does change his mind and goes with Saul to Gilgal.

How we deal with fallen political leaders, ex-kings and presidents, is a perennial human problem. In coming weeks the United States Senate has exactly this challenge. Will Republican senators continue to journey on with Donald Trump and offer sacrifices/celebrations  because I feared the people and obeyed their voice (vs 24b)? Or will they say with Samuel I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of the Lord [in the oath you swore before almighty God] and the Lord has rejected you as king… (vs 26)?

In the end some senators may choose the compromise solution: just as Saul asked Samuel journey with him and honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel (vs 30), they might, like Samuel, turn back after Saul (vs 31).

It is not every day that a 2,500 year old political drama is enacted before us on prime-time TV – with almost identical dynamics, in almost the very same words!

Acts 5.1-11: Having just given us a story with obvious parallels to the immediate past president of the United States, the lectionary takes us straight to a story about a family of shonky real estate traders, who promised bigly, but didn’t deliver.

No, no, really – NO! I just can’t …. You will have to work this one out for yourselves.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021Psalm 86; Genesis 16:1-14; Luke 18:15-17

For the Psalm see Monday.

Genesis 16.1-14:  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a saga of dystopian gender relations in a modern society where female fertility is in short supply. In today’s reading we have a more ancient story with very similar dynamics. Like the Handmaids of Atwood’s tale, Hagar is given by her mistress Sarah to Abram so that I may obtain children by her (vs 2). The narrative explores the changing fortunes of the two female protagonists (see vss 5, 6b) and the refusal of Abram to get involved.  This story prefigures in some ways the later banishment of Hagar and Ishmael narrated in Gen 21.8-21.

Luke 18.15-17: This vignette from Scripture is a beautiful story of Jesus welcoming children. It is the disciples who try to stop the children being brought (vs 15b) but Jesus rebukes the disciples and welcomes the children. The passage is drawn from Mark Chapter 10. In Mark three examples of Jesus critique of the use of power are brought together – the power of men to divorce women, the power of adults over children and the power of the rich. Luke has reframed the material somewhat bringing only the stories of the children and the rich young ruler together into his chapter 18.

Thursday, January 21, 2021Psalm 62:5-12; Jeremiah 19:1-15; Revelation 18:11-20

Psalm 62.5-12: In starting the Psalm at vs 5 the lectionary has simplified and streamlined an otherwise more complex poem. Vss 1-2 are very similar to vss 5-6. Is this a ‘refrain’ with slight changes to the words, or are there variant texts that have been brought together here?  Vss 3-4 are a bitter lament outlining the criticism and attacks that the singer is experiencing. By starting at verse 5 the Psalm is both simplified and integrated around a single theme of calm and trust.

Vss 5-6 repeat (with some changed wording) the opening verses 1-2. There is a sense of calm assurance and trust here. After the lament of vss 3-4 it is almost as if, in vss 5-6, the singer has already heard the oracle of salvation that sounds in vss 11-12.

Everything up to and including vs 7 are the experience and testimony of the singer: it is all in the first person and is all about ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘my soul’, ‘my honour’, my refuge’ etc etc. From vs 8 through to vs 11 it changes into an exhortation to the community. Because of the singer’s experience, she can reach out to encourage and exhort the whole community to trust in God.

After the bitter accusations of vss 3 & 4, vs 9 introduces the idea of the scales of justice, in which humankind of high and low birth fly up because they cannot balance in the scales of justice, they are found wanting.

Vss 11-12 declare that God has spoken, God is powerful and loving and it is his justice that repays all humankind according to their work.

Jeremiah 19: Jeremiah was a great preacher, the master of the dramatic, symbolic action to illustrate and emphasise the words of his message. Here a pot is bought (vs 1) and smashed (vs 10) in a powerful piece of prophetic theatre. The accusation is announced in vss 4-5 and the terrifying judgement is pronounced in verses 6-9.

The background is the threat of invasion by the Babylonians which Jeremiah prophesied for years even though he was ignored. When the city finally did fall, his predictions and judgements were amazingly prescient.

Revelation 18.11-20: Where our Old Testament passage is a prophecy that  Jerusalem will be overthrown and devastated by Babylon, the New Testament passage is a detail from the prophesy that Babylon will in turn be overthrown and judged. ‘Babylon’ of course had already been overthrown and judged centuries before Revelation was written, but ‘Babylon’ is used as a code-word for Rome, the great empire of the age and oppressor of the people of God.

Empires come and go. There are struggles between nations and often the church gets caught within the clashes of historical forces. What Revelation reminds us is that there is judgment on behalf of the people of God and vindication of the sufferings of the people of God. The two readings today show us the two sides of how this appears to work.

Friday, January 22, 2021Psalm 62:5-12; Jeremiah 20:7-13; 2 Peter 3:1-7

For the Psalm see Thursday.

Jeremiah 20.7-13: One of the truly delightful aspects of Jeremiah is that he is tremendously revealing of his inner life, his struggles and even of his depression. There are several passages (together called the ‘Confessions’ of Jeremiah) where he reveals his deep inner struggles with his vocation and even with God. This passage is one of them.

When he says ‘O Lord you have enticed me and I was enticed, you have overpowered me and you have prevailed’ (vs 7)  the language is that of a girl who has been seduced: you tricked me, you got under my defences. The translation I was given in theological college was ‘O Lord you have seduced me, and I have allowed myself to be seduced!’ Being a laughingstock all day long (vs 7b) is a consequence of that initial seduction.

The content of the seduction is revealed is vs 8: the Lord has conned him into becoming a prophet and a preacher! That vocation has become for me a reproach and derision all day long (vs 8b). What is worse is that he cannot get it out of his head or his soul: he has been so thoroughly seduced that he has to keep on with the Lord, he cannot turn back:

If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot. (vs 9)

This is one of the most gripping and tragic expressions of the call to ministry to be found in all of Scripture, and there are many preachers and ministers who resonate with it. All of this continues despite the terrors and setbacks of vs 10.

The resolution is found in vss 11-13 where the whole tone changes and God is trusted and praised. Each of the ‘Confessions’ of Jeremiah ends with resolution in different ways. Sometimes there is a recommissioning voice from God, sometimes a dose of bracing reality therapy, sometimes the prophet seeming to turn back and find joy and deep satisfaction in his vocation.

2 Peter 3.1-7:  Fire and brimstone preaching seems to go in and out of fashion, as does a focus on the coming of the Lord. Here Peter suggests that the times in which he is writing has lost focus on the coming of the Lord (vs 4) with attendant scoffing and bad behaviour. His answer is a hint that fire and brimstone lies ahead for us all (vs 7).

It’s important to balance all of this out with some serious theologising at work in this passage. The cynicism of the scoffers comes from a sense that all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation (vs 4b). Peter corrects this by relating both the creative word of God (vss 2, 5) and the creation of an earth … formed out of water and by means of water (vs 5c – underline added). That same water was the means of its destruction (vs 6)

We are living in a time when some people, like the scoffers in this passage, think that creation will go one for ever and nothing changes. But many people increasingly recognise that water and fire threaten us in different ways and the catastrophes of the Bible are not things long past or metaphors for the distant future, but a current possibility/probability.

Our challenge is to look for the coming of the Lord in our own circumstances and needs, and seriously countenance what judgements may lie ahead of us and how we will prepare for them and engage them.

Saturday, January 23, 2021Psalm 62:5-12; Jeremiah 20:14-18; Luke 10:13-16

For the Psalm see Thursday.

Jeremiah 20.14-18: Here is another of Jeremiah’s ‘Confessions’. ‘I wish I had never been born’ is the gist of his complaint – and many of us may have felt like that from time to time. But few of us have ever expressed it so poetically, or so horrifyingly, as Jeremiah.

Vs 14 curses the day I was born. I’ve just had a birthday – it would be terrible for one’s birthday to be forever cursed, rather than celebrated. Vss 15-17a curses the man who brought the news to my father who would have served me better if he has killed me in the womb (vs 17a).

Then comes what I think is the most terrifying of his images: so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great (vs 17b,c).  The image of the dead child being carried and cared for forever within its mother, her womb forever great is a horrifying transformation of the safety of the womb into a tomb, and a mother’s pregnant body not a sign of hope and a future but of an eternal deathliness. It’s quite chilling.

This time there is no resolution, simply a life of toil and sorrow and shame (vs 18).

Luke 10.13-18:  Why this passage? I think it may be because of the link to Jeremiah 20.16: Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity…  This denunciation of cities names local towns within Israel. Where the prophets of old railed against the cities of Tyre and Sidon – cities of people other than Israel (vss 13-14) , Jesus denounces Chorazin, Bethsaida (vs 13) and even Capernaum which he had chosen as his own hometown (vs 15 cf. Matthew 4.13).

Vs 16 is actually addressed to the disciples. The overall context of this prophesy against the cities is the sending out of the Seventy on their mission (Luke 10.1-12). In vs 12 there is mention of Sodom and the ancient judgement of Sodom, but in this passage Jesus updates it to Tyre and Sidon, but then turns the focus onto the towns and cities of Israel.

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