Monday, January 25, 2021Psalm 46; Genesis 12:1-9; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Psalm 46: This well-known Psalm is much loved for its sense of calm assurance and its reference to Yahweh’s peacemaking. The phrase Be still and know that I am God (vs 10a) has figured large in Christian devotion, although the exegesis offered below may reframe that understanding. It is a psalm of Zion, along with psalms 48, 76 and 87. In each of these there is reference to the city (of God) as the subject and focus of the psalm.

The structure of the Psalm is defined clearly by the ‘Selah’ concluding vss 3, 7 and 11. Vss 7 and 11 are a refrain and some commentators think that supplying the same refrain after vs 3 gives a perfectly balanced structure of 3 verses+ refrain, 3 verses + refrain, 3 verses + refrain.

If we adopt that structure we can see that the first stanza (vss 1-3) stresses the reliability and refuge of God in the chaotic forces and tumult of nature. The raging waters are symbols of the primeval chaos and the mountains are symbols of all that is permanent and trustworthy. When the mountains fall into the sea, all of life is totally unreliable but the trustworthiness and reliability of God persists. 

The second stanza (vss 4-8) tells of the joys and blessings of the holy city. The river whose streams make glad the city of God (vs 4) is a metaphor for blessing and abundance in a dry land (Jerusalem is pretty dry actually!) Vs 5 stresses that it is God, not the city, that is the source of security and certitude.

Vs  6 introduces a new theme. Where vss 2-3 looked to the tumult of creation, vs 6 introduces the tumult and chaos of history, which is as nothing compared to the voice of God.

The third stanza further develops the idea of the chaos and violence of history which is met by the peace-making work of the Lord. The key verse is vs 9 which states the principle:

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.

The next verse should be read in the context of vs 9. The command to Be still and know that I am God (vs 10a) is not addressed to good Jews (or Baptists!) going about their daily activities. It is addressed to the armed and bloodstained hosts clashing on the fields of battle across the world, and throughout human history! The stanza ends with the beautiful refrain that reiterates the presence and protection of God.

Genesis 12.1-9: In one sense this is really the beginning of the Bible, or at least the beginning of the Bible as a sequential narrative. Genesis chapters 1-11 are the collected myths and stories of the twelve tribes explaining how the world was made, who human beings are, how sin came about, how the world was judged – and saved – in the primeval flood, and how different languages came to be.

In Chapter 12.1-9 the story of the people of God begins with a word to Abram, the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is one of the great archetypal moments not just of the Bible, but of all human history. I heard a famous storyteller once say in a lecture “There are only two stories: someone sets out on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Here in Genesis 12.1-9 we have both. It is the Ur-story (pardon the pun).

I have lost count of the sermons I have heard (or preached) on this passage. It has a majesty and dignity that continues to yield meaning and insight every time I hear it read or preached.

It announces the essence of God’s call (vs 1) and promise (vss 2-3), the response (vss 4-5a), and then the first encounter with the land (vss 5b-6). In the story the two primal shrines of the people of Israel, Shechem (vs 6) and Bethel (vs 8) are named. In vss 7-8 we have the first theophany, the cryptic site of Abram’s camp with Bethel of the west and Ai on the east and the raising of the first altar (vs 8b). Isn’t that primitive camp where we all still live every day, caught between the holy shrine on one side (Bethel) and the pagan city on the other (Ai)?

The final open and enigmatic verse And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb (vs 9) seems to prefigure all the journeying and wandering to come for Abram and his myriad descendants: to Egypt and back and into Egypt again; from slavery into the wilderness; to Sinai and promised land; to Babylon, Exile and return.

This text is as epic in scope, and majestic in language, as it is sparse and brief in form. It is one of the foundational treasures of three great world religions!

1 Corinthians 7.17-24 is a powerful statement about how to live as a Christian. The key verses are the first and last: let each of you lead the life the Lord has assigned (vs 17): in whatever condition you were called … there remain with God. (vs 24) Between these two verses Paul specifically addresses two of the great social divisions of his age – the Jew/Gentile distinction (vss 18-19) and the slave/free distinction (vss 21-23). While not specifically addressing issues of gender and sexuality (as we would understand them, and one of the great social divides of our age) Paul spends the rest of the chapter addressing issues between husbands and wives (vss 1-7, 10-16) and the married and unmarried (vss 8-9, 25-40).

In this passage the basic principles are given about accepting where we are in life, and discovering God’s purpose in the life the Lord has assigned (vs 17). It is Paul at his finest as pastor and guide.

However, today we should reflect on these principles with great care and compassion. In a society where many aspects of our identity and lifestyle (including even our experience of gender) are not pre-determined, what do these principles mean? Should we simply accept the status quo, or is there truly scope now to seek a change in our social situation, or even our identity, that might be consistent with God’s intention for our life? For some people these are pressing and perhaps painful questions, and we should not glibly apply these principles without a compassionate engagement with, and sensitivity to,  the reality of other peoples’ experience and lives.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021Psalm 46; Genesis 45:25-46:7; Acts 5:33-42

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 45.25-46.7: Echoing what I wrote yesterday, this passage tells of one of the great journeys of ‘Israel’ ( the name for Jacob assigned in Genesis 33 – see 46.1 in this passage). Chapter 46 tells of Jacob preparing for the journey. He went to Beersheba to sacrifice. In Genesis 28.10 he left Beersheba and that night had a vision where the Lord had appeared to him in the dream of the ladder going up into heaven. That place was Bethel – which figured in our OT reading yesterday. 

Just as God called Abram out of Haran, God here calls Jacob into Egypt (vs 46.3) and back again (46.4). The journeying and faithfulness of ‘Israel’ continues!

Acts 5.33-42: This passage introduces the famous Counsel of Gamaliel (found in vss 38-39). At the centre of this story are simply ‘the Apostles’ who stand trial before the council in Jerusalem (vs 27). In the face of a desire for a sentence of death on the part of his colleagues (vs 33) Gamaliel does two really smart things. 1) He gets the prisoners out of the room so he can have a private chat with the aggrieved leaders (vs 34b). Privacy is often vital to being able to defuse a nasty argument or dispute.  2) He argues that acting involves a risk: if the accused and the project they seek to punish aren’t of God it will all fall over anyway without your action, but if it IS of God, not only will you fail to stop it, you risk fighting against God! (vs 39)

This wise Jewish rabbi has passed into Christian tradition for his peaceable wisdom. If only Christians who have persecuted Jews (and others) down the centuries had learned to listen to, and trust, his words!!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021Psalm 46; Proverbs 8:1-21; Mark 3:13-19a

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Proverbs 8.1-21: The Wisdom tradition in Scripture (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and perhaps the Song of Solomon – although this last is more of a love-song) attest an ancient Israelite tradition of wisdom and sayings. Wisdom is sometimes expressed in proverbial sayings. Sometimes Wisdom is personified (as here in Proverbs 8.1-21). If you read on in Proverbs 8.22-36 we see the voice of ‘Wisdom’ telling of her involvement in Creation.

In this passage ‘Wisdom’ is presented and described in vss 1-3. She stands on the heights and the crossroads (vs 2) and at the entrances and gates of the city (vs 3). In vss 4-11 she makes her call or invitation to the people describing what wisdom can do for them and what her impact will be in their lives.

Vss 12-21 she describes herself in poetic terms ending with a promise of both righteousness (vs 20) and wealth (vs 21) as the fruit of embracing and learning from her.

Mark 3.13-19a: Mark structures the early part of his gospel around the disciples – their call (Mk 1.16-20), their appointment (here in Mark 3.13-19a), and their commissioning or sending out (Mark 6.6b-13). 

The essence of their appointment here described is that Jesus called to him those whom he wanted (vs 13). This was very different to the usual pattern of discipleship. Most disciples would approach a master and seek to be accepted as a disciple, as in the modern practice of Indian gurus. It is the follower chooses the guru, not vice versa. But here it is Jesus who takes the initiative, and it is he who chooses.

Once called, they are named apostles which simply means the ones who are sent. The purpose for which they are chosen differs slightly from what is revealed in Mk 6.12-13. Here in chapter 3 they are i) to be with him, ii) and to be sent out to proclaim the message (vs 14) iii) and to have authority to cast out demons (vs 15). In chapter 6 it is  i) to proclaim the message, ii) to cast out demons and iii) to heal the sick.

What is interesting here is that the primary and first duty of the disciple/apostle is simply to be with Jesus. Fellowship, companionship, proximity to the Lord, is the heart of discipleship. Keeping close to Jesus is the centre and soul of being his follower.

Thursday, January 28, 2021Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 3:23-29; Romans 9:6-18

Psalm 111 belongs to the acrostic songs: it is structured so that every half verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostics aid memorisation but also places an artificial limiting structure on a text. Within these constraints the Psalm has a flow and freedom that is both poetically beautiful and spiritually powerful. It is clearly sung by an individual (see vs 1b) and has characteristics of the hymn of an individual (in which the attributes of God are praised) but also elements of individual thanksgiving.

Vs 1 opens with Praise the Lord! which also opens Pss 112 and 113, and also closes Ps 113 (see also the closing formula of Pss 104, 105 and 106). A note of thanksgiving is sounded in vs 1b and scholars think that the original context is that of an individual coming into the temple to offer thanks, who then gathers around him a small company of the upright (vs 1c) to whom he will sing his song of praise.

Vss 2-4 are almost like a methodological statement: the great deeds of God can only be understood by those who delight in them (vs 2). The works of God are an expression of honour, majesty and enduring justice (vs 3). His deeds are a ‘memorial’ of his grace and mercy (vs 4). The NRSV translation of vs 4 (he has gained renown…) does not quite capture the sense of ‘a memorial’ in the Hebrew (cf AV: he hath made his wonderful works to be remembered…, NIV: he has caused his wonders to be remembered …).  With this neat summation of God’s works as a memorial, the Psalmist then outlines those works in vss 5-9.

Vs 5 could be a reference to either the bounty of God in creation providing food to all creatures (the word translated ‘food’ has a primary meaning of ‘prey’) or a reference to the provision of food to Israel in the wilderness. Vs 5b acknowledges the foundational  grace of the covenant.

Vs 6 extols God’s faithfulness in giving them the heritage of the nations, a reference to the provision and allocation of the promised land.  Vs 7 introduces both the works of his hands (a reference to creation?) and the giving of the law: his precepts are trustworthy. Vs 8 extends the reflection of the power and obligation of the law and vs 9 summarises God’s act to redeem and sustain the covenant people of God.

Vs 10 summarises the personal engagement with these realities through a common affirmation of the Wisdom tradition: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (cf Proverbs 9.10). Kraus summarises the intention and thrust of this psalm, “The singer wants to provide his hearers  with a new relation to Yahweh’s management and rule. An inner appropriation, joy and fear, is to be determinative.” He then points to Romans 9.4 as a Christian understanding of the kind of Jewish spirituality and faith that is called for in this Psalm (see further the discussion Romans 9 below).

Deuteronomy 3.23-29: Deuteronomy is a later re-telling of the events of Mt Horeb and the wilderness wandering. It narrates and systematises the words of Moses. One of its themes is the faithlessness of the people and God’s punishment of refusing to allow this evil generation (Deut 2.35) to enter the promised land. He we have a stylised tale of how Moses saw the promised land from the top of Mt Pisgah but would never enter it. It bears many similarities to Deuteronomy 34, including that the Israelites were camped at Beth-peor (cf vs 29). It may be that this passage reflects ‘historically’ the end of Moses’ life, but is inserted here as a narrative framing of all the material to be presented over the intervening 30 chapters.

Romans 9:6-18 unfolds Paul’s argument defending the principle declared in vs 6a: It is not as though the word of God had failed. This alleged failure is that the promise to Abraham of forming the people of God has failed and Israel has largely rejected the Messiah (Jesus) and gone their own way: doesn’t that constitute a failure of the original promise?

Paul develops his case through three phases:

  1. God’s free mode of forming a People shown in Isaac (vss 6b-9)
  2. God’s free mode of forming a People shown in Jacob and Esau (vss 10-13)

Objection: Can we charge God with unfairness: (vs 14)

  1. God’s freedom shown in Exodus figures (Moses and Pharaoh) (vss 15-18)

Vss 7b-8 make clear that the promise of descendants to Abraham is not realised through ‘the flesh’ (i.e. that all his descendants will be part of the chosen people). Pauls says that Scripture provides an indication of God’s intention to call into being non-ethnically defined ‘descendants of Abraham’.

In discussing the Jacob-Esau dynamic Paul goes even further: God’s free and sovereign power to choose whom he will is reflected in the divine choice of the elder shall serve the younger, a choice made before they had even been born or shown any moral character in the decisions they had made (vss 11-13).

Helpful here is Brendan Byrne’s comment: What this highly dense stage of the argument particularly brings out is the sovereign freedom of God to pursue a creative purpose quite independently of any contribution from the human side. Human behaviour (“works”) in no sense determines the path God chooses to pursue. The language of “works” immediately calls to mind the polemic against “works of the law” in the earlier part of the letter. (Byrne, 1996: 292)

The final statement of this section (about God ‘loving’ Jacob but ‘hating’ Esau) is a quote from Malachi 1.2-3. “[Hating’ in this context is simply a Semitic way of expressing the choice of one party over another. This quote leads on to the (apparently reasonable) question: Is there injustice on God’s part? (vs 14) 

In rejecting this proposition, Paul quotes Exodus 33.19 which asserts again the sovereign freedom of God to have mercy on whom I have mercy, and … have compassion on whom I have compassion (vs 15). This exercise of mercy and compassion depends solely on God and is independent of any human will or exertion (vs 16). This sovereign freedom of God is then illustrated in the contrasting ways that God blesses and empowers Moses (vs 15) and hardens the heart of Pharaoh (vs 17-18). This hardening of the heart will figure again in chapter 11.7, 25.

Friday, January 29, 2021Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 12:28-32; Revelation 2:12-17

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 12.28-32 reprises one of the repeated themes of the book of Deuteronomy, that obedience and observance of the law and its transmission to rising generations  are foundational to the success of Israel in the promised land (expressed in vs 28). Then follows a warning against idolatry and the following after other gods (vss 29-31). This includes the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice through fire (vs  31b).

The passage ends with a repeated call to diligent observance of the law (vs 32).

Revelation 2.12-17: The Lectionary takes us on frequent visits to Revelation. Here we have the third of the seven letters to seven churches that comprise chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. The letter outlines the charge that, although the church at Pergamum did not deny your faith in me (vs 13), they have been guilty of syncretism and worshipped other gods and philosophies (vss 14-15). The call to repent (vs 16) is followed by words of a secret sign of assurance that will be offered (vs 17).

It was not only the first readers of Deuteronomy (above) who were tempted by strange philosophies and other religions. Here the early church faces a similar challenge.

Just how do we understand these passages today? In a pluralist society is curiosity (Deut 12.30) about other faiths and other philosophies a terrible sin? Shouldn’t we try to understand other perspectives and dialogue with them? Right through the early missionary endeavours of the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, and the later movement of missionary endeavour from the late 18th to the end of the 20th centuries, there was little toleration or understanding of other faiths, and even violence towards indigenous people. 

We are reading these texts in the week of Invasion Day/Australia Day. The history of our own nation includes a shameful lack of curiosity and respect regarding what we now know to be the earth’s oldest human culture. The damage done to Indigenous people and culture was driven (in part) by the spirit of texts like Deuteronomy 12 and the letter to Pergamum. How should we respond to other religions and cultures in the 21st century and how should texts like those we read today be understood in a pluralist, tolerant world?

Saturday, January 30, 2021Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Matthew 8:28-9:1

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 13.1-5 focusses the command to observe the precepts and laws of Yahweh on a particular problem and source of error, namely prophets or those who divine by dreams and promise you omens or portents … and they say “Let us follow other gods” (vss 1-2). This is very focussed and specific. The problem here is that these omens and portents seem to work (vs 2a!) but they are still false prophets and should be resisted (vs 3). Such prophets and diviners are to be put to death (vs 5).

The issue of where to find true and faithful teaching remains today in church and society. Some self-styled ‘prophets’ are clearly false prophets because what they prophesy does not come true (although that doesn’t seem to trouble some of these ‘prophets’!) Others have big and successful churches or other social movements and seemingly effective leadership, but is this sufficient witness to truth and validity in their preaching/leadership, or a case of the omens or the portents declared by them take place ( i.e. their stuff seems to work!) even though they are leading people astray?  These issues are amplified in a culture of toleration where there is wide latitude in acceptable views and values. Thankfully we no longer stone the prophets we don’t like, but how we protect truth and stand against falsehood and error is a very contemporary challenge.

Matthew 8.28-9.1: The story of the healing of the Gadarene demoniac has been taken over by Matthew from Mark 5.1-20. Luke also tells the story in Luke 8.26-39. In Mark the story takes 20 verses, and Luke has followed it closely, but Matthew condenses it to just 8 verses, while adding a second demon-possessed man to the script. The name is variously spelled in manuscripts of all three gospels as Gadarenes, Gergesenes or Gerasenes.

Matthew has simplified the story and purged it of some of the narrative richness of Mark (and Luke). In Matthew it is a straightforward healing/exorcism story. Note that the consequence in all three gospels is that the people are frightened of Jesus and ask him to go away, to leave their country/region. Are there things we do in the name of Jesus that frighten and alienate those among whom we live and minister?

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