Welcome to the last set of readings and notes for the period after Epiphany. This will be our last set of readings for some weeks as the writer is taking four weeks annual leave. The readings and notes were first produced nearly one year ago as we faced a period of lockdown during the covid pandemic. Now that we are coming out of the period of restrictions into a more ‘covid-normal’ environment, we will have to decide whether to continue with this format or adopt another approach to supporting people who are connecting with us via the website.
When I return from leave I would like to hear from those who are regularly following these readings to discuss what the future of our web-delivery should be.
The readings for this week carry through to Shrove Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent. If there is any theme to the readings it appears to deal with trials and transitions in the history of Israel and in the mission of the early church. We offer fairly full notes to the Psalms and more general and succinct notes for the Bible passages.
Monday, February 8, 2021: Psalm 102:12-28; 2 Kings 4:8-17, 32-37; Acts 14:1-7
Psalm 102.12-28 is a little over half of the Psalm (28 verses in the whole). We read vss 1-17 of this Psalm on the 11th May last year and these notes are (in part) from that time.
For those familiar with last year’s Bible Chef podcast 2, the text of this Psalm has been ‘cut-up’ very differently by various commentators (that is, they analyse the structure in very different ways). There are elements of individual lament, communal hymn and even some elements of prophecy! How has all this come together? One scholar has referred to the ‘unusually misshapen structure’ of the Psalm. Another explains it thus:
“We have here an eloquent witness for the manner in which ancient prayers, originally written as an individual’s lament about sickness, have in later times been read. The words, contrary to the meaning that was obvious to the eyes, were applied to the all-important concern of that later time, to the longings of the people uprooted from their homeland.” (H. Schmidt)
At issue in the Psalm are the two layers of ‘individual petition’ (the song of an individual person) and the ‘communal hymn’ (the liturgical expression of the gathered community). This tension is seen in modern hymnody in the distinction between what in German are called ‘ich lieder’ and ‘wir lieder’: ‘I-songs’ and ‘we-songs’. ‘I songs’; are in the first person singular and ‘we-songs’ are in the plural. Some churches have ALL their songs in the I-song format (me! me! me! …) others are all about the shared affirmations that we make, and the shared praise that we offer (we! we! we! ….) There is a good case to be made that a healthy spirituality will have a balance of I-songs, we-songs and You-songs (hymns addressed to, or descriptive of, God)!
The ‘I-song’ predominates in vss 1-11 and the ‘we-song / you-song’ in vss 12-17. In the remainder of the Psalm these voices are more alternating or intermingled.
For background, let me summarise our reflections on vss. 1-11
Vss 1-2: A formulaic address to God from an individual petitioner asking for help in a time of distress.
Vss 3-11: These verses are intensely personal and describe bodily experience of serious illness or old age and approaching death. Vss 6-7 evoke loneliness through bird metaphors. Some scholars quote similar references to birds from ancient Babylonian laments. In our own time these verses may evoke for some of us the imagery of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Like a bird on a wire’.
Vs 8 introduces the motif of ‘the enemy’. Throughout the Psalms we often find descriptions of personal pain and illness transitioning quickly to naming the role of enemies – in a way that is jarring to modern sensibilities. For us, illness is one thing, and conflict another. The world of the Psalms was very different: illness and misfortune were interpreted as the judgement of God for sin (a kind of reverse prosperity gospel). In times of illness a more aggressive probing of one’s character and actions would be done by ‘enemies’ – and these might simply be your pious neighbours who see God’s hand at work in everything.
In that ancient world, some scholars see another phenomenon familiar to us in the Australian indigenous belief in ‘pointing the bone’ – that magicians and cursing can cause mysterious illness and death.
Vss 12-22: These verses describe the steadfastness of God (vs 12) and the hope of the future (vs 13-22) in terms much more redolent of the voice of the community. What is very interesting is that instead of recounting the great acts of God in the past (the usual further development of the affirmation expressed in v 12), this Psalm moves into a prophetic mode and confidently predicts the great acts of God in the future (vss 13, 15-17). This prophetic voice is not widespread in the Psalms. The historical context for vss 13-22 would appear to be the exile (see vs 13b, 14, 16, 20, the future tense of vss 21-22).
In vss 23-24 the note of lament is again present, and the sense of the threat of death is present in vs 24.
Vss 25-27 praise Yahweh as Creator and unshakeable God. Interestingly, these verses are quoted in Hebrews 1.10-12. In Hebrews, the context of Chapter 1 makes it clear that the text is applied to the Lord Jesus (Gk Kyrios = Lord). The term Lord in the OT applies to God, so Hebrews has transposed the role of the Creator God referred to in Ps 102.25-27 onto Jesus.
Vs 28 is a prophetic affirmation of the future descendants of Israel at peace and established in the restored Jerusalem.
2 Kings 4.8-17, 32-37 tells of the kindness of the Shunammite woman (vss 8-10) and the enduring relationship that developed between Elisha and her family. The woman is generous and gives freely without any expectation of recompense (vs 13). Elisha promises her a son (vs 16). Is her response a sign of lack of faith, or evidence of modesty and carefully guarded expectations?
The second part of the reading involves the death of the child and Elisha’s intervention in raising him and restoring him to the woman.
Acts 14.1-7 is a story of Paul and Barnabas encountering opposition in Iconium. Vs 4 makes clear that, while division and contention were present, matters were evenly balanced. Vs 5 indicates the balance was tipped when the leaders of both Jews and Gentiles decided to take action, and Paul and Barnabas moved on to Lystra and Derbe to continue their mission.
Throughout human history (including Christian history) political movements, civil discord and repression have led to activists, preachers and thinkers ‘moving on’. Think of the exodus of civil rights activists leaving Hong Kong right now, of what might flow from the very recent coup in Myanmar. One of the great engines of innovation and change across the world has been people being displaced, finding new homes and bringing their skills, perspectives and gifts to their new country. We in Australia over the last century have been especially the beneficiaries of these processes with the variety of cultures and ideas that have come to our shores.
Tuesday, February 9, 2021: Psalm 102:12-28; 2 Kings 8:1-6; Acts 15:36-41
For the Psalm, see Monday.
2 Kings 8.1-6: Here is an example of exactly the dynamics discussed yesterday in relation to Acts 14. In response to famine (vs 1) the Shunammite woman flees with her family to live among the Philistines. She has the good fortune to return seven years later at a time the King was asking Gehazi (Elisha’s servant) about the great things Elisha had done. In the middle of the story of the raising of her son, in walks the woman herself! Duly impressed, the king restores not only her land, but the rents from it from the last 7 years (vs 6).
Not all refugees are so fortunate. Recall that the words ‘Philistines’ and ‘Palestinians’ are from the same root. In the Nakba (the Catastrophe) of 1948 many Palestinians in Israel left their homes, taking with them and carefully maintaining the keys to the front doors of their homes. After not 7 but 70 years they are still to return, and the ruling powers of Israel will not restore their property.
Acts 15.36-41 describes the falling out of two Christian leaders over the actions of a third. The outcome is not a crippling of the Christian mission, but a strengthening: Barnabas and Mark head one way (vs 39) and Paul teams up with Silas and heads off in another direction (vs 40).
Disputes and disagreements are always difficult and contentious in churches, but sometimes they work out for the best, with new directions, new teamwork, new initiatives arising from circumstances of dispute and argument.
Wednesday, February 10, 2021: Psalm 102:12-28; Job 6:1-13; Mark 3:7-12
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Job is a wonderful book in the Bible. Job has been stricken with loss and disease. In the face of all the usual spiritual panaceas offered by his friends, Job remains adamant that his suffering is undeserved and asks for a face-to-face interview with God so that he can argue his case with the Almighty. Here in chapter 6 we have part of Job’s lament (vss 2-7) and a call for God to end it all and crush him (vs 8-13).
Like Job, people living with pain and suffering grapple with the question of ‘why?’ Such people take strength from Job, for he does not flinch from the agonising questions that suffering brings, nor from the longing for death, although he steadfastly refuses the path of self-harm or suicide (see Job 2.9-10).
What has the lectionary given us Mark 3.7-12? Reflecting on this question let us focus on vs 9: even in overwhelming success the Christian mission poses risks and dangers. Vs 9 is a form of contingency planning for a possible disaster in the course of preaching. We are not living in such a time when the crowds press in on the community of Jesus as they did then. But we have other risks to manage and mitigate!
Thursday, February 11, 2021: Psalm 50:1-6; 1 Kings 11:26-40; 2 Corinthians 2:12-17
Psalm 50 is a complex Psalm which falls into three sections:
- vss 1-6 (our reading for today) describes the appearance of theophany (epiphany?) of God in a series of natural wonders and call the covenant people together for judgement;
- vss 7-15 God’ judgement against his people over their practice of sacrifice;
- vss 16-23 the proper form of obedience that is owing to God.
Some of the background issues in understanding the Psalm are just what its life-setting might have been. Was it part of a covenant renewal service? Does it reflect in the later verses (vss 7ff) an emergence of the traditions of the prophets within the Levitical priesthood, for the language and concepts of these later verses are very much in tune with the prophets. Such questions do not concern us directly as we only have the opening six verses of the Psalm.
Vs 1 invokes the divine presence in three of the OT divine names – the Mighty One (or the God of Gods), “God” and the Lord (when the Lord is in small caps it is the English translation of ‘Yahweh’). God speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting (vs 1b). God even calls the heavens and the earth as witness in the case against God’s people (vs 4). The appearance of God is through three natural forces/powers: brilliant light (vs 1b), devouring fire, and a mighty tempest (vs 3b).
Vs 2 connects the God of all the earth with the city of Zion.
That judgement is God’s purpose is clear from vss 4 and 6, and vs 5 makes clear that it is the people who have entered into covenant with the Lord by sacrifice who are to be judged. The content and detail of that judgement follows in vss 7-23 in terms very reminiscent of the prophetic traditions of Israel.
1 Kings 11.26-40: In the wake of Solomon’s death the kingdom divided into Judah (under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son) and the other tribes of Israel (under Jeroboam). Here we have the encounter between Jeroboam and the prophet Ahijah which stimulates/authorises(?) Jeroboam to take control (vs 29). Jeroboam was not of royal lineage but was a very capable man (vs 28).
Ahijah as prophet foments the rebellion of Jeroboam. This was a key moment on the history of Israel and led to the split of the united monarchy over the twelve tribes into the Northern Kingdom (focussed around Samaria and Shechem) and the southern kingdom of Judah and Benjamin centred on Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE but was later rebuilt by Nehemiah and Ezra.
2 Corinthians 2.12-17 presents an historical fragment amid the theologising Paul makes about his mission as a fragrance… the aroma of Christ (vs 15). Vs 13 is the link to the other passages we are reading this week.
Just as conflict was the driver of mission in Acts 15 (see Tuesday), so here a longing to find my brother Titus leads Paul to move on to Macedonia (vs 13). This is a different description of events to those of Acts 16 in which Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia calling him to come.
Affinity and friendship, collegiality and co-operation has shaped Christian mission even more than conflict and discord. Think of some of the great partnerships that have shaped the church and led to new initiatives for Jesus. Think also of the friends who have been significant for you in faith and life.
Friday, February 12, 2021: Psalm 50:1-6; 1 Kings 14:1-18; 1 Timothy 1:12-20
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
1 Kings 14.1-18 is the sequel to yesterday’s story. As Ahijah had prophesied Jeroboam’s rise, here he announces his doom. When Jeroboam’s son falls sick (vs 1) he reaches out to the old prophet hoping for good news. He sends his wife in disguise but Ahijah sees through this and speaks the word of the Lord (vss 6-16). The judgement is cruel: when his mother sets foot in the city her son shall die! (vs 12).
The prophecy looks to the future destruction of the northern kingdom and their scattering (vs 15). The lectionary has taken us this week into the rising and falling of kings and kingdoms. It is wise to reflect upon the world in which we live with its thrones and presidencies, its empires and spheres of influence. Which are rising and spreading? Which are falling and contracting? How do we serve God in the changing tides of empire and political fortune?
1 Timothy 1.12-20: Here Paul, as an older man, reflects upon his own ministry in terms of his dramatic conversion. He is reaching out to, and instructing, his younger protege Timothy. Scholars now generally agree that the Pastoral Epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not actually written by Paul but by later writers. This does not diminish their authority or their power.
Vs 20 puts into perspective the vagaries of leadership and ministry: Hymenaeus and Alexander had obviously failed or gone down a wrong path. In encouraging Timothy Paul points to their shipwreck in the faith as a warning. Just as conflict, or disruption, or friendship, or affinity have shaped Christian ministry, so also formation, encouragement and mentoring of the less experienced by those who are more experienced is a vital aspect of Christian life and ministry.
Saturday, February 13, 2021: Psalm 50:1-6; 1 Kings 16:1-7; Luke 19:41-44
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
1 Kings 16.1-7 is another example of how the prophets (in this case Jehu, son of Hanani, not to be confused with King Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat) shaped the political order by announcing oracles of judgement from the Lord as well as by ‘anointing’ leaders who would then rise up and overcome the established powers that be.
Luke 19.41-44 is Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem which came to pass at the hands of the Romans in the year 70 CE. The Holy City has not been exempted from battle and siege, conquest and ruin. According to Wikipedia: “During its long history, Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.The oldest part of the city was settled in the 4th millennium BCE, making Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world.”
The first destruction was at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE and the second at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. Just as kingdoms and rulers have known both rise and fall, so the city that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims has been subjected to deep reversals of fortune.
Monday, February 15, 2021: Psalm 110:1-4; Exodus 19:7-25; Hebrews 2:1-4
Psalm 110 has been quoted many times in the New Testament:
Controversy with the Pharisees: Mt 22.41-45 (and parallels Mk 12.35-37/Lk 20.41-44);
‘Sitting at the right hand of God’: Mt 26.64, Acts 2.35 & 7.55, Rom 8.34, Eph 1.20, Heb 1.13 & 8.1 & 10.12, 1 Pet 3.22
‘Priest after the order of Melchizedek’: Heb 5.6ff & 7.1ff
‘Defeating the enemies’: Acts 2.35, 1 Cor 15.25, Heb 1.13 & 10.13.
Given its important role in shaping/expressing the NT understanding of Jesus one might think that the Psalm has been clearly understood and the scholars agree on its meaning but ‘no other psalm has in research evoked so many hypotheses and discussions as Psalm 110’ (Kraus). The text of the psalm is ‘difficult and disputed’ and research into the nature of OT kingship and other traditions from the ancient Near East has led to many theories as to what is happening in the psalm.
The lectionary has simplified our task in omitting vss 5-7 which are quite difficult to interpret. In vss 1-4 we can discern that the psalm is about the enthronement of a king (vss 1, 4). Whether that king is the King of Israel or Yahweh has been debated. My own exploration of some of the research concludes that it is best interpreted as an enthronement psalm for a human king. The psalm probably dates from the early period of the kings of Israel.
Vs 1 is a call from Yahweh for the king being enthroned to sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool. The metaphor of making your enemies a footstool is well attested in surrounding cultures as a sign of military domination of enemies. Note that here in vs 1b, and also in vs 3b and 4, it is the Lord who is speaking.
Vs 2 is the voice of a priest or other person in the enthronement ceremony who declares that the king has power delegated from Yahweh (The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty sceptre) and invites to king to rule in the midst of your foes. In vss 1 & 2 the theme of military success over enemies is central to the role of kingship.
Vs 3 is quite confused in the manuscripts as can be seen from the footnotes in the NRSV version. Another translation of this verses offered by one scholar reads the text as:
Round about you stand noblemen
in the day of your power.
“On the holy mountains,
from the womb of the rosy dawn,
have I begotten you like the dew.”
Vs 4 declares that the king is not only a military and political ruler, but also is inducted into an eternal priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. This may have been an early tradition associated with Jerusalem from before the Jebusite city fell to the Israelites under King David (see the story of King Melchizedek of Salem… priest of God Most High and his blessing of Abram in Genesis 14.17ff).
Over many centuries this Psalm has been read as a messianic Psalm prophesying the coming and status of Jesus. We can happily agree and affirm that the Psalm applies to Jesus even though it may have had primary reference to the ancient enthronement rituals of Israelite kings. It is interesting to compare the Psalm to the rituals used in the UK for the enthronement of their monarchs and see the similarities and differences that are involved.
Exodus 19.7-25: This great description of the powerful theophany at Sinai includes the consecration of the people to Yahweh (vss 10-13) and the dramatic sequel to that consecration (vss 16-25). It is passages like this that led the German theologian and philosopher Rudolph Otto to describe the essence of holiness as mysterium tremendum et fascinans – that is, a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating (R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1917).
Within the Christian tradition the experience of Sinai has been re-evaluated through such passages as Hebrews 12.18-29.
Hebrews 2.1-4: This passage needs to be read in the light of chapter 1 which is an extended reflection of the superiority of Jesus Christ over angels grounded the quotation of OT texts. Having concluded that analysis the writer immediately warns his readers to attend to what we have heard (vs 1) – that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ delivered by human preachers. His readers trust in the authority of angelic messengers (vs 2) which only makes them more culpable if we neglect so great a salvation (vs 3). Vss 3b-4 provide a densely packed summary of the authority of the gospel and how it has been transmitted to us through several steps:
It was declared at first through the Lord,
and it was attested to us by those who heard him,
4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles,
and by gifts of the Holy Spirit,
distributed according to his will.
Shrove Tuesday, February 16, 2021: Psalm 110:1-4; Job 19:23-27; 1 Timothy 3:14-16
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Job 19.23-27: In his long struggle with suffering Job has moments of triumph and deep faith, resulting in joyful outbursts. This passage is one of the best known, having been taken by GF Handel and incorporated into his oratorio The Messiah. Here Job affirms that though he may die (he was stricken with a skin disease – vs 26 cf. Job 2.7-8), he knows he will at the last meet his Redeemer (or Vindicator – see footnote). It is an affirmation of the resurrection of the body and a high point of spiritual experience in the whole of Old Testament.
1 Timothy 3.14-16: In his mentoring of Timothy, ‘Paul’ – remember that the book was not actually written by Paul but someone later invoking Paul’s authority – names the purpose of his letter: that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (vs 15). The purpose of mentoring and teaching is not academic excellence for its own sake, or arcane spiritual exercises for personal enlightenment, but that that we might know how one ought to behave in the household of God!
He then quotes an early Christian confession (which doesn’t actually sound very much like Paul at all!) in vs 16. It is interesting how that confession blends together the very human elements of Christian mission (proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world) with the spiritual aspects of seen by angels and taken up in glory. All of this is grounded in the incarnation of Jesus (He was revealed in flesh) and the attestation of the Spirit (vindicated in spirit).