Daily Readings for the first week of Advent

It is Advent! This is a season of expectation, of looking forward to the coming of the Lord. Throughout the history of the people of God we have looked forward to what God will do in either judgment or deliverance, punishment or rescue. The readings for this month come from across the whole Bible and speak of God’s coming action, as understood in the historical context of that reading. Sometimes the readings are a warning, sometimes a promise. 

Our readings this month will have minimal notes. The notes will give the background to the passage, its historical context and the challenges then facing the people of God. It is up to the reader to think about the challenges of our own day and what the readings can teach us about our own expectation of what God might do in our future, in our context.

Monday, November 30, 2020Psalm 79; Micah 4:1-5; Revelation 15:1-8

Psalm 79 is steeped in the experience of war and desolation, most probably the fall of Jerusalem to the invading Babylonians dated 587 BCE. Vss 1-4 outline the calamity, noting the ruination of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple, the massacre of the citizens and that they were unburied (vss 2-3), and the taunting and mocking they endured from their neighbours (vs 4), a taunt that is ultimately directed at God (see vss 10a, 12b).

Vss 5-12 are a series of petitions for deliverance and  vengeance. Vs 13 strikes a note of confidence that God will hear and act and affirms the enduring relationship of the shepherd and the sheep and the thankfulness of the people.

Among the petitions is the recognition that we are all the inheritors of ancestral sins (vs 8) and that there is a collective responsibility for the past that we seek to move beyond so that compassion [might] come speedily to us, for we are brought very low. How much does expectation and hope for the future rest in a realistic acknowledgment of our (collective) past sins and our present predicament?

Micah 4.1-5: Micah was a contemporary of the prophets IsaiahAmos and Hosea.  He prophesied from approximately approximately 737 to 696 BCE during the reigns of kings JothamAhaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. This was a time when Assyria was the dominant regional power and threatened the northern kingdom of Israel. Around 701 BCE Assyria besieged and conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom.

Micah’s prophesy was directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. He prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem and Samaria, although these events were separated by over 100 years. In foreseeing the destruction and then the future restoration of the Judean state, he rebuked the people of Judah for dishonesty and idolatry.

This passage looks to days to come (vs 4a) when the people of Israel will be restored and become a focal point for the ingathering of many nations (vs 4b). Note the action of God in arbitrating between strong nations far away (vs 2a), reference to the power struggles between Egypt and Assyria (and later Babylon), with the promise of peace (vss 3b-4).

What will God do in the future struggles for power of our age amid the dynamics of the old colonial powers of Europe exploring their new Union, the current (or waning?) power of the USA and the rising powers of Asia, especially China? What can we learn from Micah about our future?

Revelation 15.1-8:  Revelation is presented as a ‘prophecy’ of what the future of the Roman empire will be, with Rome represented under the figure of ‘Babylon’. After a series of apocalyptic disasters, plagues and punishments, chapter 15 presents a vision of empowerment and witness by those who had conquered the beast and its image (vs 2b). Vss 3 – 4 reveal their power and their song and vss 5 -8 tell that the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened…

How will the church of God bear witness in the current travails and challenges of world history? What does the angel of the Lord call us to proclaim and prophesy in this age?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020Psalm 79; Micah 4:6-13; Revelation 18:1-10

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Micah 4.6-13:  Today’s reading carries on from yesterday’s. In that day (vs 6) reveals the start of another oracle. This is another oracle of salvation, of rescue. The lame that are here welcomed in (vs 7) were by Deuteronomic law to be shut out of the temple (a reference to the taunt of the original defenders of Jerusalem see 2 Samuel 5.6 ff). Jesus seems to fulfil this prophesy when the blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he healed them (Matthew 21.14) in contradiction of the Jewish exclusion of such people from their holy places (2 Samuel 5.8)

Vs 11 is a marked change. This verse is an oracle of judgement, of many nations arraigned against Israel. Vs 12 reveals a secret plan of the Lord, revealed in vs 13.

Who are the marginalised and excluded in our society that the Lord calls us (unexpectedly!) to include and welcome? What twists and turns and reversals of fortune are coming in the fortunes of the powerful and arrogant in the world?

Revelation 18 is the narrative of the fall and judgment of Babylon, one of my favourite passages of the whole Bible. I love the poetry and symbolism of it, the successive laments of all these who had become rich through their involvement with the city. The first voice announces the end of Babylon (vss 1-3). The second voice calls Come out of her , my people… (vss 4-8). Vss 9-10 give the first of the laments of those who watch her destruction.  Reading the whole chapter is worth it. Lament after lament over her judgment is offered before the people of God are finally called to rejoice over her judgement (Revelation 18.20).

When we see the rise and fall of nations in our own time are we called to lament, or to rejoice? How shall we find our voice for this vital work in the unfolding of the future?

Wednesday, December 2, 2020Psalm 79; Micah 5:1-5a; Luke 21:34-38

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Micah 5.1-5 continues the cycle of oracles. Vs 1 is an oracle of judgement, but vss 2-5 are oracles of salvation. Vs 2 has become a part of the Christmas narrative as we can see in Matthew 2.1-12 and the following oracles in vss 4-5a have been applied to Jesus. Vs 5b returns with some abruptness to the late 8th century BCE and the threat of Assyria to the small and weak state of Israel.

In this chapter the geopolitics of ancient Israel and the many threads of the first Advent of Christ mingle together. In our own age how do geopolitics and Christian expectation interact? Is it only in the time of Jesus that prophecies of empires and their rise and fall are linked with the expectations of the people of God, or are we called to similar watchfulness and readiness in our own age?

Luke 21.34-38: This passage emphasises Jesus’ message of readiness and watchfulness. The final verse is interesting: if our preaching were more engaged (like Jesus) with preparedness for the challenges of our time, would we find all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to [us]? (vs 38).

Thursday, December 3, 2020Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Hosea 6:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10 

Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13 is a reading that removes a key section – vss 3-7. This ‘harmonises’ the opening section (usually vss 1-3: an acknowledgement of past salvation) and the concluding section (vss 8-13: an oracle of future salvation) by omitting a lament about the current struggles and misfortune of the people (vss 4-7).

Let us attend to the final oracle of salvation: vs 8 is of an unusual form  which introduces a prophetic oracle in vss 9-13. It is almost as if a priest introduces another speaker who from vs 9 on assures the people of coming salvation, which is both imminent (vs 9) and marked by the salvific powers of love, faithfulness, righteousness (or justice) and peace coming together (vss 10-13).

But what of verse 8? How do we hear what God the Lord will speak in our own time? Who names or introduces the prophetic word? In an age of social media, constant chatter and the endless dump of information into our ears, eyes and minds, how do we still ourselves enough, and find the quiet, ordering rituals to be people who turn to him in their hearts (vs 8c)? 

Hosea was a prophet who found in his tumultuous private life (for his wife was unfaithful and appears to have borne children by other men – see Hosea 1.2-9, 2.2-5) an allegory of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here in Chapter 6 he prophesies a return to the Lord in vss 1-3. In vss 4-6 there is an oracle of judgment spoken in the very voice of the Lord. Vs 6 was quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9.13.

In 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul offers his thanksgiving for the Thessalonian church (in vss 2-10). The reason for its inclusion in this week is in vs 10 – how all their faithfulness and service and exemplary life leads them to expectation, waiting and rescue… from the wrath that is coming (vs 10).

Friday, December 4, 2020Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Acts 11:19-26

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Jeremiah 1. 4-10 is the call narrative of Jeremiah. Each of the prophets had a story about how they were commissioned, how God spoke to them and called them. It was part of their authentication, their validation for prophetic ministry in the eyes of the people. Sometimes, as with Moses, it came with protest and reluctance on the part of the prophet. Here Jeremiah protests his youth. This is overridden by God’s call which predates his birth in its origin (vs 5) and its final destiny in the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms (vs 10).

Does our sense of expectation in this day, our sense of the gospel, have roots so deep and consequences so high?

While Acts 11.19-26 starts with scattering, death and foreboding, it soon changes because the hand of the Lord was with them (vs 21). Barnabas comes into this environment and is impressed (vss 23-24). He then looks for Paul and brings him into this ferment of the community now energised by the martyrdom of Stephen.

We know well the conversion of Saul (Acts 9) and his later missionary work and Christian theologising, but the link between these two phases of Paul’s Christian experience is the way Barnabas sought him out (vs 25), encouraged him and mentored him in service for a whole year (vs 26).  Expectation is not always about waiting and watching, but sometimes discerning who are the ones who will initiate and shape the future and encouraging and mentoring them in their calling.

Who are we called to seek out, encourage and train for the tasks of the future?

Saturday, December 5, 2020Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Mark 11:27-33

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ezekiel was a prophet who worked in the time of the Exile in Babylon. In Ezekiel 36.24-28 he prophesies the restoration of the scattered people of Israel. In vs 26 he prophesies a change of heart in terms similar to Jeremiah 31.33. Vs 28 repeats the terms of the covenant known from the Deuteronomic writings.

In a time of repression and exile, of military defeat and cultural retreat, the prophet looks to a time of restoration and return, but not just a return to the status quo. He foresees a new spiritual vitality and energy, reinterpreting the ancient covenant. 

As we live through an age of cultural marginalisation and institutional decay, what is the prophetic word to God’s people in the 21st century?

Mark 11.27-33 ends the week with a fascinating argument between Jesus and the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vs 27). The setting is the week before Jesus’ death. The issue is his authority. They ask Jesus a question about his authority. In posing a counter question, which they refuse to answer, Jesus exposes their failure to understand the work of John the Baptist, the forerunner to Jesus. Because they were caught between the expectation of the people (vs 32) and their own lack of faith (vs 31) they were powerless to force an answer from Jesus – and even if they had received an answer they would not have understood or responded to it.

Expectation, preparedness, is a force that constrains the powerful and shapes the courses of action open to others in our own day. How does our expectation act to constrain and shape the actions of others who will create the future?

Daily Readings for the 26th Week after Pentecost

We are approaching the season of Advent, which is focussed on the coming of the Lord. Next Sunday is Advent Sunday. Some of our texts this week engage with this theme exploring some of the Apocalyptic passages of scripture that look to the Day of the Lord or similar themes.

Monday, November 23, 2020: Psalm 7; Esther 2:1-18; 2 Timothy 2:8-13

Psalm 7 belongs to the group psalms of David. It is a prayer song from a setting where a petitioner seeks justice in the Court of the Lord – in the temple as a place for legal remedy.

The heading of the Psalm calls it a shiggaion of David. This unusual designation is possibly related to an Akkadian word meaning ‘lamentation’, giving the sense of ‘an agitated lamentation’ which is consistent with the content and style of the Psalm. The offense or charge that the singer is defending himself against has been brought by the Benjaminite Cush (heading).

The structure of the psalm is clear: in vss 1-2 the petitioner invokes and approaches Yahweh.

In vss 3-5 he solemnly affirms his innocence with a form sometimes referred to as an ‘oath of cleansing’.

Vss 6-9 appeal for Yahweh’s action and intervention.

Vss 10-11 are an assertion of the petitioner’s trust in God and certainty of the outcome – what some scholars have called ‘a doxology of judgement’.

Vss 12 refers to the attack the petitioner has suffered and vss 13-16 anticipate what the enemy will suffer in the judgement of God.

Vs 17 offers a closing ascription of praise and thankfulness. 

Many have questioned whether Psalm 7 has any function in the worship of the Christian church. The primary function of the delivery of justice has moved from the Courts of the Lord to the Courts of the law. But a theological objection to this psalm is sometimes raised: Is not the Christian’s entire need for justice given a completely new orientation by means of the judgement spoken at the cross of Jesus Christ? (Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 1993: 176) The answer comes that this psalm is not about the justification of the sinner, but the justification of the righteous. We must all fight for truth and justice, and this Psalm is of lasting importance and can be a prayer formula used by Christians.

We began to explore the book of Esther last week. Today’s reading, Esther 2.1-18, tells of how Esther became Queen. Vs 1 refers to the backstory of Chapter 1, which is important to read as the context for this passage. Vss 1-4, 8-10, and 12-18 tell the narrative of the harem and Esther’s progress to the privileged place within it, and how she captivated King Ahaseurus and became queen.

Vss 5-7 and 11 are a subplot about her uncle Mordecai, artfully interwoven with the harem narrative. As the story unfolds in later chapters the various plots come together. A vital element in the unfolding story is vs 10: Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. This keeps the narratives of the successful Queen and the doomed Jews running along separate plot lines until Esther chooses to bring them together at her banquet in the passage that we read last week.

2 Timothy 2.8-13 is a lovely little nugget of Scripture. Vss 8-10 relate Paul’s understanding of the gospel which is intertwined with his own experience.  Vs 8 is a charming summary – that is my gospel (vs 8b). In a pithy shorthand it brings two key threads together: raised from the dead  embracing in a few words the whole Christian narrative of the earthly life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and a descendant of David invoking the entire history of Israel and the Messianic hopes and promise that attach to the Davidic lineage.

Having so artfully expressed the power of his gospel, Paul links it to his own suffering …being chained like a criminal (vs 9a) before pivoting deftly to contrasting this with But the word of God is not chained (vs 9b). These various threads are woven together in vs 10 which combines his own suffering with the status of the elect (appropriating a Jewish concept and applying it to the church) who will obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (vs 10b). It is so carefully worked together!

Then comes the gem of vss 11-13. The logic of this saying starts with two developmental comparisons in the form if we do “a”, then we shall have “b” (if we have died, then we shall live; if we endure, then we shall reign…).

This is followed by two comparisons of reciprocal actions: if we do “c” to him, he will also do “c” to us (if we deny him, he will also deny us). 

But the fourth term of this progression is beautifully and surprisingly contradicted: the expected “if we are faithless, he will be faithless toward us” is turned on its head. What we get is if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself (vs 13 – in itself also a delightful play on vs 12b).

This one of the most beautiful and poetic teachings about grace in the whole of the New Testament. God’s action is not governed by our doings, or the usual reciprocity that characterises human relationships: God’s faithfulness has nothing to do with our actions, or our prayers or our love of God or praise of God. It is grounded completely in the being of God, for God cannot deny Godself!  After three sayings that would be quite at home in a Hindu framework of karma or a Muslim framework of submission we have the surprising and intrinsically Christian fourth clause – a contradiction of all that has been said in vss 11 and 12: 

if we are faithless, he remains faithful –

for he cannot deny himself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020: Psalm 7; Esther 8:3-17; Revelation 19:1-9
For Psalm. see Monday.

In Esther 8.3-17 we have the rather grim sequel to Esther’s actions of deliverance of Mordecai and her people that we explored last week. In vss 3-6 Esther makes her appeal to King Ahaseurus. For those of us who have been following Esther’s story with a feminist lens we can see the technique at work when she fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him (vs 3) and the rather grovelling and submissive address of vss 5-6. These are the tools of women engaging with patriarchal power and are consistent with Esther’s previous strategies.

The tragic twist of the whole plot of Esther comes in in vs 8: the cocky king hands to Esther the power to write as you please with regard to the Jews but also hands over the authority to seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked. How lightly and off-handedly do those with political and patriarchal power sometimes allow others to wield it!

The tragic consequence of Ahaseurus’ ‘delegation’ is seen in vss 11-12: By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.

Now this may have led to celebrations and honour for the Jews (vss 15-17), but the lectionary rather coyly does not mention the terrifying outcome of that single day of slaughter of their enemies. In Esther chapter 9 we read how Esther had Ahaseurus extend the killing time in the capital to two days. The final death toll is given in chapter 9 vs 16: seventy-five thousand died across all the king’s provinces.

Now the Jews have endured more than their share of pogroms, slaughters and holocausts over the course of world history. Perhaps we should not begrudge them the Esther story. It is the centre of the Jewish festival of Purim.  I am reluctant to celebrate any slaughter, but that is not the way the world works.

In the Imperial War Museum in London is a typed and framed memo dictated by Winston Churchill in the days after the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II which killed around 25,000 people in a single night. Churchill refers to the raid and uses the word ‘atrocity’ somewhere in the body of that paragraph. A government censor has crossed out the word and written in the margin, “Prime Minister, our side does not commit atrocities.”  That censor would have felt right at home with Esther!

Revelation 19.1-9:  After all of the plagues and wrath and destruction that have unfolded through the book of Revelation up to this point, finally come a mighty thundering answer!  The great chorus of the multitude of heaven answers, telling of God’s justice and action in vss 1-3 and again in vss 6-8. In a change to the idea of a Greek chorus answering the main speakers, we then find confirming responses to the chorus being delivered by the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures (vs 4) and a voice … from the throne (vs 5).

In answer to the second great chorus (vss 6-8) comes a word from an angel to John to write down the blessing and the attestation of the truth of these words (vs 9).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020: Psalm 7; Ezekiel 33:7-20; John 5:19-40
For Psalm. see Monday.

Ezekiel 33.7-20: Ezekiel was a prophet contemporaneous with Jeremiah in the 6th C BCE but with a very different style of writing. Here he grapples with two issues in ethics.

Vss 7-9 deal with the ethical responsibilities of the prophetic office. If the prophet doesn’t denounce the sins of the wicked and they die, the prophet will be responsible and will be judged by God. But if the prophet does denounce them and they continue in their wickedness and die, at least the prophet will not be held accountable: you will have saved your life (vs 9).

Vss 10-16 deal with the fact that ‘the wicked’ and ‘the righteous’ are not separate categories who stand condemned and saved respectively. When the wicked do what is right, they will be saved (vss 11, 14-16) and when the righteous do what is evil, they will die (vss 12-13).

Vss 17-20 engage with a question as to whether God is just when God works in this way. In some ways it picks up theme of vs 10 and turns it back and forth before forcefully stating God’s conclusion O house of Israel, I will judge all of you according to your ways! (vs 20b).

John 5.19-40:  Unlike the synoptic gospels which have a basically narrative (story-telling) structure with an occasional long sermon (the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.20-49), John has extended passages of Jesus teaching in an involved and seemingly repetitious way. 

Some themes recur in John, such as the relationship between the Father and the Son, as here in vss 19-24 and then woven in a slightly different key through the later verses (see for instance vss 26-27, 30, 36-38).

Vss 25-29 deal with the time when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God (vs 25). John also uses titles for Jesus in a way the other gospels do not. Note here the playful juxtaposition of ‘Son of God’ (vs 25), ‘Son’ (vs 26) and ‘Son of Man’ (vs 27).

Vss 31 – 36a engage with the witness of John the Baptist as a testimony to Christ until that focus on testimony is redirected to the Father in vss 36b to 38, and then to the Scriptures, they that testify on my behalf (vs 39b).

Thursday, November 26, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Zechariah 13:1-9; Revelation 14:6-13

Psalm 80 belongs to the category of community prayer songs. That it had the form of a liturgy for responsorial public use can be seen in the presence of a refrain repeated in vss 3, 7 and 19: Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. Vs 14 can also be seen as a variation of this refrain.

The lectionary has omitted vss 8-16, a section recounting the intervention of Yahweh in rescuing Israel from Egypt (vss 8-10) but then querying why God has then abandoned her (vss 11-16).

Vss 1-2 call upon the Shepherd of Israel to hear. It identifies the Lord as you who lead Joseph [not Jacob] like a flock (vs 1b) before confirming that the disaster and calamity is threatening the Northern tribes of Israel Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh (vs 2a). This Psalm must date from sometime after the northern tribes split from Judah following the death of Solomon.

Following the refrain (vs 3) vss 4-6 ask the how long will you be angry…? Question. This question, followed by the metaphors of the bread of tears and tears to drink in full measure combined with the scorn of our neighbours and our enemies laugh among themselves, suggest that this is not a pending threat but an accomplished state of affairs of some duration. The refrain then follows again (vs 7).

Jumping over the missing middle session the Psalmist then turns to a final petition (vs 17) and a statement of commitment and faithfulness strikingly similar to the form of the promise of the people at the convocation at Shechem related in Joshua 24.16-18.

The closing verse repeats the responsive refrain which runs through the Psalm.

Zechariah 13.1-9: The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai and prophesied in the early years of the restoration of Jerusalem after the Exile. That is, the author of Zechariah chapters 1-8 prophesied then.  The later chapters probably came from the 5th C BCE and represent a later expression of the Zechariah tradition. This later Zechariah is some of the earliest literature in the apocalyptic tradition which is probably why it is selected to be read today, alongside Revelation 14. Note the similarities between Zech 13.7-9 and the Revelation reading.

Zechariah 13. 1 announces the theme of a cleansing fountain …for the house of David. This cleansing results in two movements of purification: I will cut off the names of the idols from the land (vs 2a) and I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit (vs 2b). The denunciation of the prophets continues through vss 3-6. This probably reflects a move away from prophecy, a relatively uncontrolled and individualised form of religious authority and proclamation towards a disciplined and organised priesthood. Note the unusual signs associated with prophecy of a hairy mantle in order to deceive (vs 4b) and the ritual scarring of the chest (vs 6).

Vss 7-9 speak of the devastation of the flock after the striking of the shepherd (a text quoted in association with the arrest and trial of Jesus). The 2/3 destroyed – 1/3 refined through fire division of humankind is somewhat similar to the “one third was destroyed” theme of Revelation 8.6ff we read recently.

Revelation 14.6-13: Again, we are jumping around in Revelation. This passage follows the vision of the Lamb and the 144,000 we read last week. Here we are presented with three angels who do not announce woe and plague and generalised mayhem. If the previous wrath and judgement had been poured fairly indiscriminately upon the world, these angels bring carefully focussed good news for the people of God.

The first brings an eternal gospel to proclaim (vs 6) (with gospel in the original sense of a proclamation announced on behalf of a king). The second announces the fall of Babylon (vs 8) which will be described in chapter 18. The third announces the punishment of all those who have ‘sold out’ and worship the Beast and its image (vss 9-11).

Vs 12 clarifies that all this constitutes a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus Christ. The pastoral intention of Revelation is very much to encourage and strengthen those under persecution, people suffering, and even dying for their faith. This latter category are encouraged by what is announced in vs 13: And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord” together with a confirming word from the Spirit (vs 13b).

Friday, November 27, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Zechariah 14:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-18

For Psalm. see Thursday.

Now the Zechariah reading for the day is probably linked to 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. Just as Thessalonians looks to the coming of the Lord in final vindication and victory, so Zechariah 14.3ff speaks of the final day of the Lord. This is hardly a day of victory for Jerusalem (see vss 1-2) but the Lord will go forth and fight (vs 3) and win (vss 4-5).

The result is that there shall be continuous day (vs 7), living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, flowing to both eastern and western seas (vs 8) and the Lord will become king over all the earth (vs 9). Compare these prophecies with the vison of John the Seer in Revelation 22.1-6.

I Thessalonians 4.1-18 includes the famous and formative passage of Scripture that has yielded the doctrine known as the Rapture (see vss 13-18).

The first part of the chapter is ethical teaching focussing on abstaining from fornication (vs 3), controlling the body (vs 4) and overcoming lustful passion (vs 5) and not exploiting a sister or brother (vs 6). Vss 9-10 deal with loving the brethren. 

Vss 11-12 are a polished little pearl of teaching: aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

The Coming of the Lord, the identified subject of vss 13-18, has been made a touchstone of orthodoxy in some Christian traditions. On a recent Sunday (15th November) I preached on 1 Thessalonians 5 where a similar theme emerges in 1 Thessalonians 5.10.

To put all this into perspective we have to realise that 1 Thessalonians is one of, if not the earliest book of the New Testament. It is very clear from the earliest strands of the Christian tradition that they believed that the return of Christ would be very, very soon. In Mark 13.30, for instance, Jesus tells the disciples “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” In Mark 9.1 Jesus says, “Truly I tell you there are some standing here who will not taste death until they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”

Against that background and that expectation, the death of some believers before Christ returned provoked anxiety and consternation. When Jesus returns we who walk on the earth will meet with him, but what of those who sleep under the earth? Paul ‘levels the playing field’ (so to speak) by speaking of the dead of Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds, together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever (vss 16b-17).

Note several things here. The first is the little comment “ …we who are alive, who are left, …” suggesting that significant numbers of believers had already died. 

Note secondly the contrast in Paul’s teaching is between those who are alive and those who have died, and his teaching is to bring them together in the same saving and reuniting experience of meeting with Jesus ‘in the air’. In much preaching, ‘the Rapture’ (as ‘this meeting in the air’ is known) is presented not as the reunion of believers past and present in joy and gladness, but the dramatic and painful separation of those who are redeemed, caught up in the air, from those who are damned, left behind as the title of a best-selling Rapture-based novel expresses it. This twists and corrupts Paul’s teaching: the ones who are left in Paul’s teaching are actually the living saints who are to be reunited with their dead sisters and brothers and their Lord.

Thirdly, where Paul offers this teaching with a final recommendation Therefore encourage one another with these words, the preachers of the Rapture are more in line with the principle Therefore torment one another with these words as they play on people’s fears of being ‘left behind’ and heighten their anxiety.

This early Christian eschatology gave way to different expression of Christian hope as the decades passed. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15.21-25, we see not an instantaneous and miraculous reunion of the dead and the living ‘in the air’ but an ordered process of resurrection and re-ordering of the world.  This reflects a more cosmic view of the future than the simple, immediate, and Christian-community focussed doctrine of 1 Thessalonians 4.

Saturday, November 28, 2020Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Micah 2:1-13; Matthew 24:15-31

For Psalm. see Thursday.

The prophet Micah, prophesied in Judah in the late 8th C BCE, mainly preaching to Jerusalem against injustice and wickedness.  This passage (Micah 2.1-13) comprises three main sections.

Vss 1-5 are directed against those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds (vs 1). The accusation against them comes in vs 2 and the Lord’s judgement in vss 3-5.

Vss 6-11 are a reflection on the theme of preaching and those who oppose Micah’s preaching. The basic petition of the crowd (do not preach … disgrace will not overtake us) is given in vs 6. Micah questions this attitude in vs 7 both with reference to the Lord and the intrinsic value of his preaching (Do not my words do good to one who walks uprightly?) Vss 8-10 is Micah expressing the Lord’s condemnation of those who tell Micah “Do not preach!” and vs 11 is a sarcastic comment about the kind of preacher they would prefer.

As so often in the prophets, in vss 12-13 the tone changes from oracles of denunciation and condemnation to an oracle of salvation and restoration. Micah was prophesying around the time the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom. While we cannot place precisely the circumstances of this oracle the survivors of Israel (vs 12a) suggests the aftermath of a military defeat. The metaphors of vs 12 of gathering, shepherds and sheep in a fold sound a little strained in the context of the breaking out theme of vs 13. Is the context a gathering of prisoners of war, or a remnant of Israel, which the Lord will mysteriously deliver in a mass breakout?

Matthew 24.15-31 is Matthew’s version of what in Mark 13 is called the Little Apocalypse taught by Jesus. Again, this text is offered today because this is the eve of Advent Sunday, the day that looks to the future coming of Jesus. Vs 31 has echoes of the eschatology we studied yesterday in 1 Thessalonians 4 but note the subtle difference: where 1 Thessalonians spoke of being caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air (vs 17) this verse he will send out his angels … with a loud trumpet call. And they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  While they share in common a trumpet call/the sound of God’s trumpet, in one the meeting is in the air – a physical location,  but in the other the elect are gathered from the four winds – a metaphorical description of a wide coverage of the gathering actions of the angels.

Daily readings for the 25th Week after Pentecost

Monday, November 16, 2020Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18; Judges 4:8-24; Romans 2:1-11
Psalm 83 was last read on August 31st and I have here edited the notes from that day. I have left in the notes to verses not included in today’s reading.

The psalm has three main sections: a call to Yahweh (vs 1), a description of the distress being suffered by the community (vss 2-8) and petitions for Yahweh’s protection and intervention, intermixed with imprecations against Israel’s enemies (vss 9-18). This reading today includes the call to Yahweh, the first half of the second section (vss 2-4), the first two verses (vss 9-10) and last two verses (vss 17-18) of the second section.

It is identified as A Song. A Psalm of Asaph (heading). This is one of a collection of 12 Psalms so identified comprising Ps 50 and Pss 73-83. A Song indicates that it was a community prayer song or community lament. The heading A Psalm of Asaph may indicate authorship by Asaph, or it may be a sign that theses Psalms are to be sung by the Asaphites, a group of singers within the Temple. In 1 Chronicles 6.39 Asaph is named as one of the two men David placed in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord and he is mentioned again in the time Solomon’s temple was dedicated at 2 Chronicles 5.12 where he is the first named of the Levitical singers.

The Psalm opens with a Call on Yahweh (vs 1).  Vss 2-4 describe the conspiracy of the enemies which is clearly directed at your people (vs 3) Israel (vs 4)

Vss 5-8 are omitted from today’s reading. They name the various tribal enemies. Most of these enemies are local peoples of Canaan and the surrounding districts but vs 8 includes the regional superpower Assyria.  

Vss 9-18 are petitions for God to act in defence of Israel by striking down their enemies. Vss 9-12 are quite strong and name specific peoples. The lectionary has (with some delicacy) removed vss 5-12!

There has been criticism of the ‘piety’ of this psalm because of the ‘wishes of malediction and vengeance’ in verses 9-18. They are the prayers of a people under threat, a ‘model’ for many nations when we are threatened by alien powers. We should not be too judgmental: in times of great war when our nation has been threatened (as in the dark days of WW 2 when Japan marched like a whirlwind through Asia) many pulpits in this country would have echoed these prayers. Particularly powerful and jarring is the prayer that God might deal with them as fire consumes the forest, / as the flame sets the mountains ablaze (vs 14). Vs 15 appears to introduce the metaphor of a firestorm, as the image of the bushfire merges with that of the tempest and hurricane!  Those who have lived through the summer of fire in 2019-20 in Australian might be reluctant to pray such terror on anyone, even our enemies!

Vss 16-17 focus on the infliction of shame on the enemies. Vs 18 strikes a less strident and vengeful tone with the prayer that the enemies may come to know the might of the Lord.

Over the years many different ‘contexts’ for this psalm have been attributed by scholars seeking to locate the precise historical circumstances in which such a precise alliance of forces rose against Israel. Can one assume a single context at all? Is this Psalm a plea for Yahweh’s help that embodies all the threats and invasions and wars that Israel had known over her history?

Judges 4.8-24: Last Saturday we read the first twelve verses of the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), a celebration of one of Israel’s mighty women heroes. Chapter 4 gives the narrative of the events that are celebrated in Chapter 5. The link between this reading and the Psalm for the day are the names Jabin (vss 22-23) and his general Sisera, the unfortunate central character of vss 17-22 of Judges 4. Jabin and Sisera are mentioned in Psalm 83 vs 9, hence the choice of this reading to go with the Psalm.

Note that Barak (vs 8) – yes, the same name as the former President of the USA – would not go into battle without Deborah the prophetess (see vss 1-7 of this chapter for background). Deborah agreed to come, but warned Barak that, because he would only go if she went, he would get no glory from the battle, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman (vs 9b), which came true in the story of vss 17-22.

Vs 11 is important to the plot. Vs 17 tells us that the clan of Heber the Kenite was at peace with King Jabin, but vs 11 tells us that Heber had separated from his clan. Thinking he was walking into a friendly camp of his king’s allies, Sisera asked for water. When Jael assured him he was safe and gave him milk to drink – not just water – he was lulled into a sense of security and fell asleep. As he slept soundly, she drove a tent peg through his skull into the ground!

I have heard a sermon on this story preached by an Australian Army chaplain during the Korean War. It was delivered to 500 allied troops on an airstrip before they boarded planes for a week’s R&R in Tokyo. The sermon related the tale of Sisera and Jael as told from the King James Bible. It used the phrase from Judges 5.25 (KJV) where Jael’s actions are described in these terms: “He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.” The sermon to these battle-hardened veterans went on and on about how she ‘brought forth butter in a lordly dish’ and how she showed kindness in order to deceive him. It closed with the simple warning: Boys, you are about to enter the tents of wonderful, beautiful women who will bring forth butter in a lordly dish, and all manner of thing beside. Just remember General Sisera, who woke the next morning with a splitting headache, and was never the same again. Take care. Go with God.

Romans 2.1-10: We studied this passage in the first week after Pentecost. It is the sequel to Paul’s careful analysis of human sinfulness in chapter 1. 

After listing three different kinds of sinners in chapter 1, chapter 2 opens with the emphatic Therefore ….  All I have written in chapter 1 feeds into this conclusion: you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. ‘Whoever you are’ (rather inclusive), you have no right to judge other people because, as I have just shown you, you are doing the very same things (that is – you fall somewhere in those groups I described). Far from picking out gays, or idolators, or murderers, for particular opprobrium, Paul has swept us all into the same basket and said – you have no basis for judging others.

The first defence of those who love to judge is then trotted out: “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (vs 2) In other words, “You can’t criticise us or stop us from judging others – it’s in the Bible!’

Vss 3-4 are Paul’s answer to this. He argues that they may be right, but if God is going to judge the others, won’t God also judge you? (vs 3) He then asks a question that I find quite devastating: Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience (vs 4a)?  Asked slightly differently this question is ‘Are you so in love with judgment that you despise the grace of God?’  

For all those who have ‘moral concerns’ about other people and their acceptability before God this is an incisive and unsettling question. Vs 4b takes it further: isn’t God’s kindness meant to lead US to repentance, not give us cause to rail against and condemn other people?

Vss 5 and 6 focus on the consequence of this judgemental attitude – that you are storing up wrath for yourself, and reinforcing the key point For he will repay according to each one’s deeds…

The deeds that form the raw material of God’s judgement are not specific moral judgements or laws, or values but patiently doing good [in order to] seek for glory and honour and immortality (vs 7) for those who are rewarded with eternal life. An adverse judgment awaits those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness (vs 8). Note the rebuke here of those who claim that their judgmental attitude is in accordance with truth (vs 2).

Vss 9 and 10 bring this calculus of divine judgement back into the key framing of Romans 1.16b – the Jew first, and also the Greek. This framing is central to Romans. Judgement belongs to God, not to humankind. God will exercise that judgement not according to the minutiae of moral rules and laws but in view of honour and goodness and glory on the one hand, and self-seeking, ignoring of ‘the truth’, and wickedness on the other. Judgement will be in an even-handed way treating Jew (first) and Greek with complete impartiality for there is no respect of persons with God (vs 11).

Tuesday, November 17, 2020Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18; Exodus 2:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 2.1-10: Why have we suddenly jumped back into the time of Israel in captivity in Egypt? I sense a theme developing this week around the role of women as heroes of faith! We often list the great [male] heroes of God’s people but this week we seem to be celebrating the women, which is wonderful!  The heroes here are all women. Note that none of them are named in this narrative: they are simply the woman (not even his mother), his sister, the daughter of Pharaoh, and her maid. It is only in vs 8b the woman is identified as the child’s mother, but the story then immediately reverts to calling her the woman (vs 9b). 

So the dramatis personae of this vignette are identified as a series of female roles: woman, sister, daughter, maid. How many nameless women have done heroic, courageous and costly service for the people of God, only to be unrecognised for the great contribution they have made to the people of God?

1 Thessalonians 5.12-18 follows on from the passage we reflected on last Sunday. It encourages a respectful and supportive attitude to the leaders in the community (vss 12-13a) and then a general exhortation to be at peace among yourselves (vs 13b). Vs 14 I find very re-assuring: it is wonderful to be part of a community where idlers, the fainthearted, and the weak find acceptance and patience! Vs 15 about not repaying evil for evil is the basis for a community that makes peace and builds reconciliation. In vss 16, 17 and 18 we see three wonderful exhortations to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances which together, if we can live up to them, do much to empower and make vital a Christian life. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18; Esther 7:1-10; Matthew 24:45-51
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Esther 7.1-10 continues the theme of women heroes. The backstory of the book of Esther is wonderfully written. In chapter 1 Queen Vashti refuses to appear at a banquet as commanded by king Ahaseurus, emperor of the vast Persian empire. Ahaseurus deposes Vashti, then at the urging of his officials enforces the subordination of wives to their husbands across all of the 127 provinces of his whole empire! In chapter 2 there is a beauty contest across the empire so that beautiful young virgins could be sought out for the king (Esther 2.2). Upon entering the harem, these girls underwent twelve months of beauty treatments before their turn came for each girl to go into King Ahaseurus (Esther 2.12). Unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name (Esther 2.14) the girl then went to a second harem and was no longer needed. (Perhaps the best analogy in our culture is the difference between the glamour of the new car showroom and the used car ‘lot’.) In this charming lottery of love the Jewish girl Esther ‘won’ a place and went on to earn the love of the king and become the Queen of Persia.

Meanwhile, Haman, a wicked councillor of the king, was planning a genocide of the Jews (chapter 3), but Esther’s uncle Mordecai learns of it and reveals it to Esther (chapter 4). Chapters 5 & 6 tell of a subplot about Mordecai’s loyalty to the king, Haman’s plan to hang Mordecai, and the set-up of Esther’s banquet. 

Our passage today is the climax of the story in which Esther, from the powerless position of a woman commanded to be subject to, and obey completely, the most powerful man in the world, and the doubly powerless and imperiled position of a Jew destined to destruction with all her people, and the triply dangerous and powerless position of a niece to a condemned prisoner on death row (Mordecai), Esther intervenes to save Mordecai, her people and herself. In her speech (vss 3-4) one can hear deference to, even flattery of, the king. She expresses what is about to happen as this damage to the king (vs 4). It is the clever speech of a woman who has to use her beauty and her submission to navigate the interests and egos of two powerful men. It is not really until vs 8 that it becomes clear that Esther has won and Haman has lost, and even then it is only when Ahaseurus (mistakenly) sees Haman as a sexual rival for Queen Esther that his fate is sealed and they covered Haman’s face (vs 8c).

Esther, like Deborah, is one of the great women heroes of Israel. She is celebrated every year in the Jewish Festival of Purim. The book is a wonderful exploration of sexual and imperial politics, of how the lowly and powerless (women, Jews, the poor) can find freedom and liberation through the wisdom and courage of one or two heroes.

Matthew 24.45-51 is found at the end of a chapter of teaching by Jesus about the end of the age and the difficulties of the future. The parable is about a slave put in charge of the master’s household and the two different paths such a slave might take, wise and dutiful (vss 46-47) or violent and exploitative (vs 48-49). The mention that the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know (vs 50) together with the context of Jesus’ teaching about the future and the coming of the Son of Man (vss 29-31) makes clear that this parable is aimed at the leaders of the church and how they are to behave.

At various places throughout Scripture there are warnings against religious leaders who exploit those placed in their care. Lest we think this is all ancient history, think about those in our day to whom vss 48-49 apply: the televangelists who financially exploit their followers, the hard-line moralisers who whip up their followers to hate, and the outwardly religious who sexually abuse the vulnerable. 

For all such persons, and for all those (like me) who have been given stewardship of the master’s household, vs 51 is sobering, and should be ever-remembered! However, the note to vs 51 is worthy of reflection: is the action of the returning master to cut him in pieces (suggesting violence and retribution) or to cut him off (suggesting removal of the offender and protection of the victim)? Often feelings of violence and retribution are a human reaction which is then projected onto God. Is Jesus suggesting the former, or the latter, interpretation?

Thursday, November 19, 2020Psalm 100; Genesis 48:15-22; Revelation 14:1-11
Psalm 100 was read in the week beginning Monday 4th May. This psalm is well known to worshippers in the English tradition through the hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’, often sung to the tune Old Hundredth. This was also a common tune for the Doxology, sung to open Baptist services in a previous generation. It is a Psalm calling forth praise and thanksgiving. The setting can be discerned from vss 2 and 4 which call the worshipping community to enter the gates of the sanctuary in sung praise and worship. It is in every sense a ‘processional hymn’. 

There is a heading to the psalm (A Psalm of Thanksgiving (NRSV) or ‘A psalm for the presentation of thanksgiving’) which confirms that it is a ‘call to thanksgiving’. We often glide over the headings of the Psalms and do not read them out in public worship, which is a pity, for they are the ‘production notes’ that open a window on how the psalms may have functioned in the earliest layers of Israel’s worship tradition. 

Sometimes the headings are elaborate. Psalm 56, for instance, has this heading: To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath. While we cannot be certain as to the meaning, it appears that this is a direction to the worship leader indicating the tune to which it should be sung (The Dove on Far-off Terebinths), that David wrote it, that the form is a Miktam (an unknown form attributed to Psalms 16 and 56-60) composed after David’s capture in Gath by the Philistines.  

Other headings are more cryptic. A recurring heading is simply To the leader: Do not destroy. My view is that a liturgist is here speaking to the Temple musicians and simply saying, ‘Please don’t murder this one, guys!’ Whether he wanted it faster, or slower, or with more feeling, or greater solemnity, we cannot be sure, but anyone who has spent decades in worship in various churches will have identified with these words from time to time – although never, of course, at Box Hill Baptist with our fine team of musicians!!!

Vs 3 brings two themes together, the covenant that stood at the heart of Israel’s identity (I will be your God, and you will be my people) and the motif of being ‘the sheep of his pasture’. This verse affirms that the people are the creation of God, the flock for which he cares and shepherds.

Vs 4 reprises the call to thanksgiving and worship and vs 5 reiterates a common theme of the Psalms, that God’s love and faithfulness endure for all generations.

Genesis 48:15-22 appears to be an aetiology. What is explained by this aetiology is how the ‘tribe’ of Joseph (that is, the two sub-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons) are each apportioned recognition and blessing alongside their ‘brothers’ (literally their ‘uncles’), the other sons of ‘Israel’ (= Jacob). Vs 22 names the giving of the extra ‘portion’. Again, the note to this verse is instructive: the play on the word Shechem (the city) and shekem (a ‘portion’ or a ‘mountain slope’) reflects that Shechem is built between two mountains. 

When I was ministering in Canberra I learned how the ancient identities of the ‘Israeli’ tribes persist. One of my friends was the leader of the General Delegation Palestine who was a Palestinian from Nablus (which is the modern name for Shechem). He told of the separate identity and ‘fellow-feeling’ of the citizens of Nablus. Yasser Arafat when he was alive sent a new governor to Nablus who was not a local. The governor arrived to find 20,000 demonstrators blocking the entry to the governor’s house and the authorities had to rescind his appointment and find a local candidate acceptable to the people.

This ancient passage also reflects another theme that runs through the book of Genesis, the privileging of younger brothers over the older (Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, Perez/Zerah (chapter 38), Ephraim/Manasseh seen here in vss 18-20).

Revelation 14.1-11 presents the vision of the heavenly host of 144,000 worshipping the lamb.  The idea of the 144,000 as an upper limit of the number of the redeemed has been the subject of countless doorstop interviews with Jehovah’s Witnesses and other sects who have taken this passage quite literally and concluded that ONLY 144,000 people will be saved. This has been the source of much confusion and suffering.

On its own terms, it is difficult to interpret the passage in this way. Vs 4 makes clear that the 144,000 have not defiled themselves with women (which suggests they are all men), for they are virgins (which excludes most men!) Further, the passage explicitly identifies them as first fruits for God and the Lamb (vs 4) which implies there is a larger harvest yet to come.

The best way of understanding the mystical number of 144,000 is to see it as a metaphor for both inclusion and abundance. The people of God were twelve tribes of Israel. Here we find the twelve tribes squared (12 x 12) to give 144, and then multiplied by the astonishing figure of a thousand. Where Israel expected the twelve tribes to find salvation, John announces not 12 but 144,000.

Vss 6-11 have a further three angels. The first brings an eternal gospel to proclaim (vs 6) (with gospel in the original sense of a proclamation announced on behalf of a king). The second announces the fall of Babylon (vs 8) which will be described in chapter 18. The third announces the punishment of all those who have ‘sold out’ and worship the Beast and its image (vss 9-11).

Friday, November 20, 2020Psalm 100; Isaiah 40:1-11; Revelation 22:1-9
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Isaiah 40.1-11 is the commencement of the so-called Second Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah as an historical figure preached and wrote around the time of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem 701 BCE. His writings comprise chapters 1-39 of our book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-55 of our book of Isaiah date from the lead up to the return of the Exiles from Babylon to the land of Israel which started around 538-537 BCE. So the activity of the ‘Isaiah’ of chapters 1-39 occurred about 160 years before the work of the Isaiah of chapters 40-55. Yet a later ‘Isaiah’ again, wrote the words we find in our book of Isaiah chapters 56-66.

This should not surprise us. The ministers of the Box Hill Baptist Church have all been from a common ‘school’ of thought for the last 50 years. Ancient writers had very different attitudes to we modern individualists. An ancient writer would often ‘cloak’ their words with the authority of a revered earlier figure in a kind of reverse plagiarism that was understood as respecting and honouring the elders. What bound these authors together was a common theology, similar poetic themes and a common spiritual understanding of who God was and how God acted.

This passage predicts and announces comfort for the destroyed city of Jerusalem (vss 1-2, 9), a highway being built ‘in the wilderness’ (the desert country between Babylon and Israel which the returning exiles would have to cross, vss 3-5) and a powerful poetic contrast between the fragility and vulnerability of humans (vss 6-8a) and the military might (vs 10) and sustaining, shepherding power (vs 11) of the Lord God.

Revelation 22.1-9:  Following the announcement by Second Isaiah of the restoration of Jerusalem, our NT passage provides a description of the restored heavenly Jerusalem which has been announced in Revelation 21. These are the penultimate words of the Bible as we have received it.

The vision of the river of the water of life (vss 1-5) is one of cosmic healing and reconciliation, and of the vindication of the servants of God after long suffering (vss 4-5). Vss 6 & 7 are statements by the angel, and by the risen Christ attesting the book that John has written. Vss 8-9 are the testimony of John himself as the author.

Saturday, November 21, 2020Psalm 100; Ezekiel 34:25-31; Matthew 12:46-50
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ezekiel 35.25-31 offers another vision of covenant blessing. Just as Isaiah yesterday has prophesied the restoration of Jerusalem and the bringing home of the people of God, and Revelation yesterday told of the final healing of the world in the new Jerusalem, here Ezekiel, prophesying from Exile, tells of God’s future restoration of order and blessing. This includes the ordering of wild animals away from domestic lands but still having their own realm and security (vs 25), the blessing of the holy hill of Zion and the giving of the blessing rain (vs 26), abundance and security in crops and liberation from foreign oppression and protection from the wild animals (vss 27-29).

All of this will lead to new awareness of God and how they are the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord (vs 31).

The weekly readings end with Matthew 12.46-50. We read other parts of Matthew 12 last week and explored the complex relationships between Matthew 12, Mark 3 and Luke 11. See Saturday of last week (24th Week after Pentecost) for more detail. Here we have the story of how Jesus sees and identifies his family: And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (vss 49-50).

There has always been a tension within the Christian community between our sense of human family and our sense of kinship with each other. For most of us we are able to manage this well and rejoice in the blessings of both senses of family.  Some sects have sought to drive a wedge between physical family and our sense of sister/brotherhood within the church, misinterpreting texts like Matthew 10.37 (Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me).

It can be painful to have family members who are either in tension with our own beliefs or have even been estranged from us because of our belief or other reasons. We can feel powerless when we see problems and issues in our human families that might be addressed by the resources of love, faith and forgiveness that we have found to be effective in our own lives. Such difficulties can be some of the most acute and distressing experiences of family life – and sometimes the most insoluble! 

Matthew has not reproduced the clever subplot in Mark chapter 3 which is found in the lead-up to this story about “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  Mark tells us “When [Jesus’] family heard it they went out to restrain him, for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind” (Mark 3.21). This is followed by the subtle words of Jesus if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand (Mark 3.25) before posing the question Who are my mother and my brothers? (Mark 3.33) and opting for ‘the family of faith’. 

There is comfort to be found in the realisation that even Jesus experienced the kinds of family tensions and difficulties that can affect us today!

Daily Readings for the 24th Week after Pentecost

We are nearing the end of the church year. I have enjoyed writing these notes on the daily readings and have learned so much in so doing. (I even bought special reading glasses so I could read my ‘book commentaries’ and also the computer screen without having to change glasses). The notes were a response to the lockdown and the loss of face-to-face worship which started before Easter this year. Now that we are slowly coming out of lockdown, we need to decide whether to maintain the discipline and the time investment of researching and writing these notes each week. 

They will probably become shorter and less detailed (I did get rather carried away when we were studying the letter to the Romans in some depth!) but I think whether to continue the notes or not should be a community decision. If you use these study notes and would appreciate continuing to have them posted to our website, please email me at with any comment or feedback you may have. Even a simple message that you do read them – even if not every day – would inform the decision we make about whether to continue or not. Of course, any suggestion as to how they might be improved is also very helpful!

We will continue to use the website, Zoom and various digital tools to communicate with each other and deliver teaching and other material, but response and feedback as to how this is working really assists us in developing tools to assist and support you in your discipleship.

Grace and peace,

Jim Barr

Monday, November 9, 2020Psalm 78; Joshua 24:25-33; 1 Corinthians 14:20-25
We commenced looking at Psalm 78 last week, dipping our toe in the water with the introductory verses. I offer again the introductory paragraphs from last week but direct you to my comments last Thursday November 5th.

Psalm 78 is a recitation of the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, and the people’s perfidy and resistance. We came upon this Psalm (with a different range of verses) on September 24 where it was paired with the description of the escape from Egypt in the Pentateuch. Of the 72 verses of the Psalm vss 1-7 are part of the introduction to this great recitation of God’s saving acts. 

Psalm 78 is unique piece in the Old Testament and it is hard to categorise. It could be designated a historical psalm, but there are also elements of thanksgiving. Vss 1-2 suggest that what follows would be a wisdom poem, but throughout the principles of the Deuteronomic history can be seen in how the historical material is presented. It is a didactic poem which joins together various traditions already established within Israel. 

H-J Kraus writes ‘One must speak of a doctrine of history as it is laid out in Psalm 78’ (Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 1989: 122). The ‘history’ as told appears to be very early with no apparent reference to events after the 9th century BCE. 

I will not repeat the commentary on vss 1-7 other than to note that vss 5-11 complete the introduction and are focussed on the two great themes of the Deuteronomic history of Israel, covenant and law.

Vss 12-31 begins the narration of the history in alternating sections declaring the saving actions of God together with God’s judgments (vss 12-16, then 21-31) and then the faithlessness of the people (vss 17-20).

Vss 32-41 narrate the continuous failure and sin of the people before the Psalmist turns in vs 42 through vs 53 to describe God’s action in the tradition of the exodus.

In vs 54 the history turns abruptly from the exodus tradition to the Zion tradition, the holy hill (vs 54) in Jerusalem which was the main cultic centre displacing other cultic centres such as Shiloh (vs 60). Associated with this tradition is the elevation of Judah (vs 68) over the other tribes. In vs 70 the end point of this narration of the history of God’s people is He chose his servant David … to be the shepherd of his people Jacob (vss 70-71). The rejection of: the tent of Joseph, he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim (vs 67) appears to be related to the rout of his adversaries (vs 66). It reflects the split of Judah (centred on Jerusalem) from the tribes of middle Palestine who then formed the northern kingdom (Israel).

One of the great questions in interpreting this text is just how the great narrative of God’s deliverance and the faithlessness of the people – bringing both God’s judgment but then further deliverance – is being deployed. Up until vs 54 the story has been the story of the twelve tribes, whom God loves and saves. From vs 54 to vs 72, the focus is more on the southern kingdom (Judah) with specific mention that God has NOT chosen those dreadful northern tribes (vs 67, almost as a continuation of the battles against adversaries of vs 66). Is this psalm actually some ancient version of MJGA: Make Jerusalem Great Again

I am writing these notes on the day that Joe Biden was acclaimed the President of the United States. His narrative is very different to this Psalm: I am President of the UNITED States of America. I want to govern for ALL the tribes, those who voted for me (Judah) and for the tribes who voted against me (Joseph and Ephraim). 

It raises the question of how we use holy texts, and even how much ancient animosities can sometimes be ‘baked in’ to the words of the text itself! How we choose and use passages from the Bible can have deep implications for our communities. It is significant that Biden did not quote any Biblical passage about how terrible and hateful the ‘other mob’ are (of which there are many examples), but a text from Ecclesiastes 3 about it being a time to heal.

Joshua 24.25-33: Having just heard in the Psalm how the ancient shrines have been overthrown and rejected, here we have the earlier story of how the covenant was enacted and a shrine established. Note that the shrine had both a stone of witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us (vs 27) and the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord (vs 26). Here we have a combination of a sacred tree and a stone of witness both set up in the sanctuary of the Lord. It’s a lovely thought that the stone were not just a tablet on which the law was written: the stone heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us (vs 27). 

How often we think that it is what we humans write on nature through poetry or engineering or agriculture that is our great statement to the world, and perhaps even to God.  But this text suggests that a greater statement is what God has spoken to us, that nature has heard and retains in witness against us!

Vss 29-33 tell of the death of Joshua and Eleazar son of Aaron and their burial, along with the bones of Joseph in the very lands that today’s Psalm has said are rejected by God. Remember that these lands are in the middle of the West Bank, centred on modern Nablus in the heart of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Whether Jerusalem will continue to dominate and subjugate the tent of Joseph, … the tribe of Ephraim (Ps 78.67) is still a central issue in Middle East politics. This is not ancient history we are reading, but the deep background of a very real and contemporary struggle for justice!

1 Corinthians 14.20-25 takes us into the heart of a dispute within the early Church.  Paul writes in the law it is written but the text is actually from Isaiah 28.11 (vs 21). The original setting and meaning of the Isaiah passage can be interpreted in several ways, but here Paul uses it against the advocates of speaking in tongues (vs 23) within the Corinthian church. The contrast is between tongues which just lead unbelievers to think you are mad (vs 23) and prophecy (which we would call preaching) which might speak to the heart of the unbeliever (vs 24). It is difficult to see how vs 22 fits with what follows, unless we interpret vs 22 as the principle affirmed by the church in Corinth, which Paul then contradicts and argues against in vss 23-24.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020Psalm 78; Nehemiah 8:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
For the Psalm, see Monday. 

Nehemiah 8.1-12, like yesterday’s reading, brings us to a renewal of covenant ceremony. The setting here is the restoration of Jerusalem following the Exile. In Ezra we have a religious figure who is both scribe (vs 1) and priest (vs 2), both a teacher and worship leader. Nehemiah is a political leader (vs 9 – see also this verse for confirmation of Ezra’s roles).

Significant in this text is the emphasis on hearing with understanding (vss 2b, 3b, 7b, 8b). In many ways this is similar to the Protestant spirit of enquiry and understanding, and in vss 7-8 you can almost sense an ancient form of the Methodist Bible class, or a Baptist all-age Sunday School class.

Vss 9-12 describe a subsequent ritual celebration of the covenant in gladness and feasting because they had understood the words that were declared to them (vs 12).

1 Thessalonians 3.6-13 has two main sections. Vss 6-10 describe Timothy’s report about the Thessalonian church (vs 6) which Paul responds to with eloquent and heartfelt joy. Vss 7-10 are a series of beautiful affirmations of what this church means to Paul.

Vss 11-13 are blessings. Vs 11 is a prayer that the divine SATNAV might bring Paul to Thessalonica. Vss 12-13 are more personal blessings for the church there.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020Psalm 78; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 24:29-35

For the Psalm, see Monday. 

Jeremiah 31.31-34 introduces a whole new vision of covenant. Over recent weeks we have seen covenants enacted in rituals, focussed in altars and sacrifice, established through law and preaching and understanding, graven on stones, or listened to by stones. Here Jeremiah speaks of the law written on their hearts (vs 33). From something symbolised externally in sacred object, shrine or ritual, the focus changes to the internal, for I will put my law within them (vs 33).

Note that the historical narration of alternating salvation and apostacy/failure that has characterised so many of the texts we have read over recent weeks, is here supplanted by a sense of abiding repentance and faithfulness on the part of the people, and complete forgetting of their failure by the Lord (vs 34).

In Matthew 24.29-35 we have an early view of the end-time, the Parousia or return of the Son of Man (vs 30). That this was seen as imminent is clear in vs 34.  

The title Son of Man is here probably reflects the vision of Daniel (see Daniel 7.13) in an earlier strand of apocalyptic literature. Some scholars have suggested that the Son of Man on the lips of the historical Jesus was an Aramaic expression (bar-nasha) which in Jesus’ time may have been a vernacular expression meaning something like everyman. For those who remember the African-American street slang that was taken over into protest culture of the 1970’s you may recall the expression ‘the Man’, as in Roy Orbison’s song Working for the Man. ‘The Man’ was a metaphor for ‘the system’, the exploitative class. 

In the ancient Aramaic idiom, scholars believe ‘the son of man’ was a metaphor for ‘the common man’, ‘ordinary people’. When the phrase is heard from the lips of Jesus this interpretation brings a poignant meaning: Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the ordinary person (the son of man) has nowhere to lay his head.

Christian tradition took the phrase and located it within the poetic tradition of some of the Psalms, and the apocalyptic traditions of Daniel and Ezekiel, which is definitely the sense in which it is used in this passage.

Thursday, November 12, 2020Psalm 123; Judges 2:6-15; Revelation 16:1-7

If the Psalm for the first part of the week is a long celebration of God’s deliverance and reliability, Psalm 123 is a short and focussed lament in a time of suffering and humiliation. It has the form of a prayer song of an individual (vs 1) which transitions at the end of vs 2 into a communal prayer: Have mercy upon us O Lord… vs 3a). What opened in the singular (I lift up my eyes… vs 1) becomes profoundly communal (for we have had more than enough of contempt… vs 3).

Prayer songs often begin with an indication of the physical posture of the petitioner. The look of entreaty and dependency is indicated in vs 1, along with the affirmation that you … are enthroned in the heavens. This cosmic identity of God’s dwelling contrasts with all talk of holy mountains and the temple and may well reflect the days of exile and separation from the temple. The description of the contempt and humiliation that the people experience (vss 3b, 4) is also consistent with the privations of exile.

The book of Judges describes the history and social organisation of early Israel immediately after the “conquest” of the promised land and prior to the institution of kingship. In those days there was no king in Israel: all the people did what was right in their own eyes describes the form of political organisation and this is declared in Judges 17.6 and in the last verse of the book (Judges 21.25).

With such an anarchistic lack of social organisation, when a disaster such as invasion threatened, the people of Israel were dependent upon the Lord raising a leader, called a judge, to bring the people together and lead them. The book of Judges describes this period of Israel’s history and the succession of charismatic (?) leaders that Yahweh raised up to lead Israel.

Our reading today sets the scene with the death of Joshua and his whole generation (vss 6-10). With the loss of that pioneering generation the people lost their way in idolatry (vss 12b , 13) so that the Lord punished them through military weakness and failure, so that they were in great distress (vs 15c).

Revelation 16.1-7: The book or Revelation almost requires an abacus or calculator to keep up with the narrative. After seven letters (chapters 1-3), seven seals (chapter 6), seven angels with seven trumpets (chapters 8-11), one dragon and two beasts (chapters 12-13), one lamb with 144,000 worshippers and another either six or seven angels (chapter 14), we come to chapters 15 and 16 which feature seven angels with seven bowls of the wrath of God. It is a highly figurative book and all those angels and beasts and trumpets and bowls and plagues can merge into one another if we don’t keep count (and we almost wonder whether that ‘merging together’ was John’s aim in writing as he does).

In this passage we have the first three bowls of wrath: pestilence and sores (vs 2), and then the sea (vs 3), and the rivers (vs 4), turned to blood.

In vss 5b-7 the angel of the waters declares, and the response from the altar affirms of God that your judgements are true and just!

Friday, November 13, 2020Psalm 123; Judges 2:16-23; Revelation 16:8-21
For the Psalm, see Thursday. 

Following the description of the death of Joshua, Judges 2.16-23 outlines the basic structure of the narrative to follow: vs 16 presents the role of the ‘judge’. Even though the Lord raises up a judge, the people turn from Yahweh and the judge. Vs 18 presents this as a recurring pattern. 

Vss 20-23 present a sub-narrative in which the nations harrassing and seducing Israel had been left by God to test Israel (vs 22). This narrative subverts the greater narrative of the complete conquest of the land that was the theme of the book of Joshua.

Revelation 16.8-21 presents the last four of the bowls of wrath. Vss 8-9 describe a bowl poured … on the sun with a result of fierce heat. Vss 10-11 describe a bowl poured on the throne of the beast and upon the followers of the beast.

Vss 12-16 describe the sixth angel [who] poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates with results that take 4 verses to describe.

Vss 17-21 describe the seventh and last bowl which brings a decisive judgment against the great city (vs 19). This then described in eloquent detail in chapter 18.

The bowls of the wrath of God are the action of God in judgment against injustice and violence. Despite the catastrophic impacts of the pouring out of the bowls, they are in support of justice-making and the setting right of God’s world. Despite the dramatic consequences of the poured-out bowls, humankind did not repent or give God glory (vss 9b, 11b, 21b).

Saturday, November 14, 2020Psalm 123; Judges 5:1-12; Matthew 12:43-45
For the Psalm, see Thursday. 

Judges 5.1-12 introduces us to Deborah and Barak, two of the great heroes of Israel.  The events of their great military exploits are told in Chapter 4. All of chapter 5 (31 verses) is the song of victory that was inspired by their success. 

When locks are long in Israel (vs 2) is a reference to the Nazarites, those who devoted themselves by vow to the Lord and did not cut their hair (see Numbers 6.1-21).

Vs 3 calls on the kings and princes of the earth to hear the song. Vss 4-5 recall the acts of God in delivering the people after Egypt, at Sinai.

VS 6 takes up the song of praise of Deborah again. Vs 6 says the peasantry prospered in Israel (cf the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel -vs 11b). 

Vs 8 expresses the basic structure of yesterday’s reading: the people rebel by choosing false gods and war is the response. The lack of preparation for war is reflected in vs 8b.

So the subject of the song is how Deborah and Barak raised the peasants in an army and conquered their enemies. This is so remarkable that the rich who ride on white donkeys and sit on rich carpets should sing of it (vs 10) and at the desert oases the caravans must sing of it (vs 10).

Matthew 12.43-45 speaks of demon possession. These verses are paralleled in Luke 11.24-26, almost word for word. Matthew has taken these words from the source that he shared with Luke and linked them with teaching from Mark chapter 3. 

Mark 3.19b – 35 has two passages that Mark links together. The first is that of Jesus and Beelzebul  (by the ruler of demons he casts out demons Mk 3.22), and the second is how the family of Jesus come to take charge of him for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind” (Mk 3.22).

Matthew has taken these two stories of Mark 3.19b-35 and expanded them by interpolating between Mark’s first and second stories three more stories:  about a tree and its fruit (Matt 12.33-37); Jesus’ sayings about ‘the sign of Jonah’ (Matt 12.38-42); and these verses about the return of the unclean spirit (Matt 12.43-45).

Luke has also linked Mark’s Beelzebul tradition, the return of the unclean spirit, and the sign of Jonah, but in a different order to Matthew (see Luke 11.14-32). Luke deletes Mark’s story about Jesus’ family coming to take him in hand.

So here we have a rich layering of gospel tradition. In itself, today’s passage about the return of the unclean spirit deals with the risks of apostasy, of turning away from Jesus once one has trusted him, had ‘one’s house put in order’, only to turn back and find oneself in a far worse position. 

The gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) have linked this with the teaching from Mark 3 (probably because of the common theme of demon possession). It is worth reading the three accounts side-by-side and seeing what differences in meaning you can discern, how the various ‘readings’ of Jesus’ teaching might speak to you in different ways.

Daily Readings for the 23rd Week after Pentecost

Monday, November 2, 2020Psalm 128; Joshua 4:1-24; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20
Psalm 128 is a didactic poem with many elements from the wisdom tradition. Vss 1 and 4 are declaratory in sense – general observations about blessing expressed in the third person. 

Vss 2-3 and 5-6 are addressed to the hearer, perhaps by an officiating priest (the Psalm is headed A Song of Ascents otherwise translated A Pilgrim Song for those coming to the Temple). These verses are in the second person, addressed to You…, Your…, Your…, You…, Your…

The opening sentiment is shared by many psalms (cf Ps 1) which announce happiness and blessing on those who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him (vs 1), a theme reprised in vs 4.

Vss 2-3 then express this in terms of a direct promise with almost the tone of prophecy, speaking of domestic content and prosperity, of a farmer living well on the fruit of your labour (vs 2). This promise of idyllic home life is extended to the blessings of a large family in vs 3. The reference to this personal idyll causes many scholars to see the Psalm as clearly post-Exilic as this promise of settled, prosperous life and large family contrasts with the privations of the exile in Babylon.

Vss 5-6 take the personal promises of vss 2-3 and link them more to the collective context of corporate experience in Zion (vs 5a), Jerusalem (vs 5b) and Israel (vs 6b), all of which is undergirded by the blessing (vs 5a) and peace (vs 6b) of the Lord.

After the privations and disasters of this year we have started to really value the simple things of life, such as meeting with family, or a meal with friends. We have realised how fragile such pleasures can be, and how we are dependent on cities, communities and states for basic security, health support and the resources to live. A poem like Psalm 128 is like an idyllic picture within a black frame: it needs the ‘frame’ of remembered privation in exile or lockdown to really show the beauty and power of the words!

Joshua 4.1-24 tells of the crossing of the Jordan. Vss 1-8 tell of Joshua commanding the setting up of a memorial of twelve stones from the river to be erected at the site of the camp once the river has been crossed. Vs 9 tells of a different tradition in which the twelve stones are set up in the river. 

Vss 10-18 then relate the crossing of the river, and vss 19-24 tell of the setting up of the memorial at Gilgal. The parallels between the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordon are recognised (vs 23).

Early Israel had a number of cultic sites (such as Gilgal, Bethel, Shiloh) all associated with events and interpretations of events in their history. Later there was a suppression of these regional shrines and centralisation of worship in the Jerusalem cult. 

Within our own country there are many sites sacred to our indigenous people. In our day it is the power of corporations and the economic order that lead to the suppression and destruction of these sites.

There is a wonderful vibrancy in 1st Thessalonians! It is probably the earliest of the New Testament writings and we can see the traces of the energy of the new movement that grew up around Jesus in today’s reading. Vss 13-16 draw the comparison between the struggles faced by the early Jesus communities in Judea and Thessalonica. Vss 17-20 are bursting with warmth and longing. How beautiful is that metaphor of we were made orphans by being separated from you (vs 17)?  The immediacy of the expectation of the Lord’s coming is seen in vs 19. Paul speaks with such love: you are our glory and our joy! (vs 20).

We do not always have that sense of delight in our sisters and brothers. In the church in which I was raised there was a woman who had that delight in being at church. All through her teenage years she never missed a Sunday. She was married to her sweetheart one Saturday, and on the Sunday morning they were both there in church at 11 am to start their married life together. They holidayed each year 50 miles from our town and always drove back for Sunday worship. She never missed a Sunday. When children came along, she would be there ‘great with child’ one Sunday, and back the following Sunday with a baby in her arms. She gave birth to four children and never missed a Sunday! It was a remarkable record, and personally I wouldn’t recommend it – we all need variety in teaching and worship from to time – but she wasn’t driven by duty or rules. That woman looked around the church and felt Yes, you are our glory and our joy!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020Psalm 128; Joshua 6:1-16, 20; Acts 13:1-12
For the Psalm see Monday.

Joshua 6.1-16 is the well-known story of how Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho … and the walls came tumbling down (as the Negro spiritual has it). It depicts the close relationship between the cultic/religious and military experience of Israel. Where the Exodus was achieved solely through the actions of God who fought against Pharaoh and Egypt on behalf of Israel, here it is more of a partnership between the Lord and his servants, and the men bearing arms (see vss 7b, 9, 13b).

The relationship between the violence of war and the blessing of religion has a long and chequered history. The Collins Street Baptist Church where I pastored for ten years played a role in WW1. The then minister, the Revd T.E. Ruth, was all for ‘God, King and country’. His Sunday night preaching (often taking issue with the Friday night ‘lecture’ given at St Patrick’s Cathedral by Archbishop Daniel Mannix who opposed conscription) was so popular that the church hired a theatre opposite the church to accommodate the crowds. Every Sunday night the theatre would be packed, often with hundreds in overflow crowds and dissenting protestors filling Collins Street. The Deacons would pray with the minister in the church and then form a bodyguard to escort him across the road to the theatre through the jeering and cheering crowds. This didn’t have the silent dignity of Joshua 6, but I think there is a connection to be drawn between the two stories and the long history of the blessing of war in the Lord’s name. This is but one of the troubling questions that arise from the narrative of Joshua.

Acts 13.1-12 marks a distinctive turn in the book of Acts, a turn that has been decisive for all of Christian history. Up until this chapter (with the exception of some of chapter 9 about Saul’s conversion and early preaching) all the action has focussed on the other apostles – Peter, Stephen, Philip, James. Here Saul (soon renamed as Paul in vs 9) and Barnabas are among the prophets and teachersin the church at Antioch (vs 1). Who now remembers anything at all about Simeon the Black, Lucius of Cyrene or Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler (vs 1)? Yet at the start of this chapter they were all just colleagues and presumably friends with Saul and Barnabas in the first great Christian church outside Palestine.

Vs 2b are some of the most momentous words in the New Testament: Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. From this flowed so much that shaped all of subsequent Christian history.

When we look back on life there are many with whom we worship and with whom we work. We are all potentially another Simon Black or Manaen, just one of the crowd remembered solely because we happened to be around the place when Paul and Barnabas were called. But who can tell when the call of the Lord might be for us, when we might be commissioned to be the Barnabas or Saul whose words and thought shape the people of God for another thousand years?

Wednesday, November 4, 2020Psalm 128; Joshua 10:12-14; Matthew 15:1-9
For the Psalm see Monday.

Joshua 10.12-14 is a cheery little text remembering that great day when the sun stood still and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies (vs 13). Victors often see miracles at work when they win a great victory! How wonderful that God is on our side! Hallelujah!!

I have, resting on my Bible as I type this, something I have inherited from my grandfather. It is a small belt buckle ‘souvenired’ from either Gallipoli or the Western Front in WW1. It bears the inscription “Gott mit uns” (God with us)! I keep it with me to remind me that it is not only the victors who believe in miracles and call on the name of the Lord. I hope and pray that the soldier to whom the buckle was issued suffered nothing more than falling trousers, but I fear he had already suffered far more than that before the buckle came into my family’s possession.

The book of Joshua raises great questions about whose side God is on, how God acts in war. Vs 14 is telling: There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.  What does this say about prayer? Does God really heed human voices and take sides in battles between nations?

Matthew 15.1-9 is a controversy story where the Pharisees and scribes dispute with Jesus. Note that they come from Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religion and cult. Jesus turns their accusation against them. They accuse him of allowing his disciples get away with not washing their hands (vs 2). He accuses them of allowing people to leave their parents destitute and abandon their family obligations (vss 4-6). Vss 8-9 turn the prophecy of Isaiah directly against the Jewish tradition. 

Given the OT reading today and the questions raised just two paragraphs above, what does the Matthew reading teach us about the authority of received texts and traditions, especially a text as celebratory of war and even genocide as the book of Joshua?

Thursday, November 5, 2020Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 5:10-12; Revelation 8:6-9:12
Psalm 78 is a recitation of the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, and the people’s perfidy and resistance. We came upon this Psalm (with a different range of verses) on September 24 where it was paired with the description of the escape from Egypt in the Pentateuch. Of the 72 verses of the Psalm today we are only given vss 1-7, part of the introduction to this great recitation of God’s saving acts. 

Psalm 78 is unique piece in the Old Testament and it is hard to categorise. It could be designated a historical psalm, but there are also elements of thanksgiving. Vss 1-2 suggest that what follows would be a wisdom poem, but throughout the principles of the Deuteronomic history can be seen in how the historical material is presented. It is a didactic poem which joins together various traditions already established within Israel. 

H-J Kraus writes ‘One must speak of a doctrine of history as it is laid out in Psalm 78’ (Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 1989: 122). The ‘history’ as told appears to be very early with no apparent reference to events after the 9th century BCE. 

It begins with a formula for opening a teaching session and I will utter dark sayings from of old (vs 2b) suggests the revelation of enigmatic, even secret principles. The references to things …that our ancestors have told us (vs 3) and we will tell to the coming generation (vs 4a cf. vs 6b) reflect a culture of oral transmission. 

Vss 1-4 relate to the teaching (vs 1) and how it is to be transmitted generation to generation. The teaching is variously described as the words of my mouth (vs 2), a parable (vs 2), dark sayings from of old (vs 2) and things that we have heard and known (vs 3). They relate to the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done (vs 4).

Vss 5-7 change the register to a law in Israel which is described as a decree, and something commanded our ancestors to teach to their children (vs 5). Just as the dark sayings of vss 1-4 are to be transmitted to coming generations, so too are the commandments (vs 7).

One of the failures of our generation (collectively understood) is the failure of our transmission of the religious culture and doctrines we have known (and perhaps our cultural and historical traditions generally?) to the rising generation. Is this because we have stopped telling our story to the coming generation? Is this poem, nearly three millenia old, an accusation against a culture where everything is written down, but largely unread? Even the basic disciplines of writing, editing and publishing through which books, newspapers and magazines are formed have now been supplanted by the immediacy and idiocy of social media, where things … that our ancestors have told us have been replaced by salacious gossip about vacuous celebrities, and glorious deeds by dotty conspiracies. 

Our culture and the violence of the colonial project has displaced and disrupted oral transmission of the stories of this land and had a devastating impact on indigenous society and culture. Will digital culture similarly disrupt and displace the written culture of western Enlightenment in which the Protestant Free-Church tradition belongs? Does Psalm 78 call us to a revaluation of how we know history and culture and how we share and teach it?

Joshua 5.10-12 is a part of the Gilgal tradition. On Monday we read how the heart of the Gilgal shrine was the memorial stones of crossing the river. Here another strand of the meaning of Gilgal is unfolded: the manna that sustained them in the desert was replaced by eating the produce of the land (vs 11). Note the transition from they kept the passover (small ‘p’ – vs 10) and the day after the passover (vs 11) which almost implies moving beyond the passover – that along with the manna it belonged to the earlier traditions. But we know that Passover continued (with a capital ‘p’) as a great cultic festival. 

I find it fascinating to consider how our traditions need memorials, statues and stones to mark them in time and place, but also rituals, festivals and food to keep them alive in hearts and minds.

Revelation 8.6-9.12: there’s lots of trumpeting happening this week, from Jericho and them tumbling walls to the terrible seven trumpets of Revelation that signify the terrifying curses cast on earth. Vs 7 presents the first woe and takes us back to our own recent summer season of bushfire and flood. Then follow burning mountains (vs 8), falling stars (vs 10), ruptured sun and moon and constellations (vs 12) followed by a sombre and even more harrowing prediction of the final three trumpets (vs 13).

Two of the last three trumpets announce very significant woes. Today’s text presents a plague of scorpion-like locusts (chapter 9.1-6) which are described in gruesome detail in vss 7-11.

Revelation is a densely structured book with seven letters (chapters 2-3), seven flaming torches (4.5) seven seals (chapter 6), seven bowls of wrath (chapter 16). I think the best way of understanding is to not micro-analyse each verse or sign but immerse ourselves in the sweep of the narrative.

Should you think that angels and trumpets as harbingers of a doom-laden future are just ancient superstition and not at all real, I draw your attention to a recent New Zealand TV piece on the Trumpettes, a group of ‘socialites’ meeting in Florida at Mar-a-Lago recently:  

Further comment, I think, is unnecessary.

Friday, November 6, 2020Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 8:30-35; Revelation 9:13-21
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Joshua 8.30-35 describes the renewal of the covenant at Mt Ebal. Mt Ebal (vs 30) and Mt Gerizim (vs 33) are the two mountains either side of the valley in which lies the modern city of Nablus (= biblical Shechem, another ancient shrine). The mountains are two of the highest peaks in the West Bank.

As we saw recently in reviewing Deuteronomy, there was some ambiguity about whether the stones were to marked or unmarked, monument or altar. Here the stones are unhewn (vs 31) and built into an altar, but are then wrote on (vs 32) with a full copy of the law. Some ancient traditions of the Samaritans report that the division of the people on the two mountains (vs 33b) was accompanied by a ritual of one group repeating all the blessings of the law and the other repeating all the curses of the law.

What is interesting here are the references to alien as well as citizen (vs 33) and the aliens who resided among them (vs 35). The book of Joshua is a narrated as an invasion of an ethnically pure Israelite movement of twelve tribes who completely displace the people of the land through conquest and even genocide. Yet here there is definite reference to a composite identity of citizen and alien that is in tension with the overall narrative. If you read chapter 9 you will see another account that explores the history of Israelites and Gibeonites and undercuts the narrative of total displacement of the Canaanites and the ethnic purity of the Israelites.

Most nations have a polyglot, multi-cultural structure in various degrees, and tell narratives of unity and a common history that form the mental scaffolding of national identity. Within that scaffolding there are minority identities that hold their own memories and meanings. For many nations, as in Australia today, these identities and memories are being constantly negotiated.

Revelation 9.13-21 presents the sixth blast of angelic trumpet. Here four ‘angels’ (vss 14-15) are unleashed in the form of an army of 200 million … troops of cavalry (vs 16 – cf. the four ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’ in chapter 6.1-8?). From this terrible event a third of humankind was killed (vs 15) but the remaining two thirds of humankind did not repent of the works of their hands … worshipping demons and idols … their murders or their sorceries, or their fornication or their thefts (vs 20-21).

In our recent Deep Dive (Apocalypse and Eucalypts) Keith Dyer explored how the meaning of apocalypse has been transformed from revelation to catastrophe. The Lectionary does not help us this week in that it has served up six of the seven trumpets – all of which are doom, gloom, death and disaster – and left out the last one (Rev 11.15-19) which is all about the deliverance and justice that comes from God!  We have heard all the bad stuff, but not the good stuff which is the whole point of this graphic series of woes. 

So be kind to yourself: after wading through all the trauma, treat yourself to the four verses that put everything in perspective and frame what is still to come (Revelation 11.15-19). 

Then it will start to sound like revelation and good news and not catastrophe upon disaster!

Saturday, November 7, 2020Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 20:1-9; Matthew 24:1-14
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Joshua 20.1-9: This is an enlightened tradition indeed! The background to the cities of refuge (vs 1) is that of a culture of revenge and retribution. The shedding of blood created an obligation for an avenger of blood (vs 3b) to ‘slay the slayer’. It was death itself that created this obligation, without reference to mitigating facts, motive or circumstances of the death. Here in Joshua 20 an alternative to local retributive justice is established. The cities are nominated in vss 7-8 and their function summarised in vs 9.

The process is clear. The slayer … shall stand at the entrance of the gate of that city: and then explain the case to the elders of that city (vs 4). Once taken in the slayer becomes the fugitive (vs 4b) and is not to be given up. Vs 6 describes two processes for the discharge of the charge of slaying (a trial before the congregation and the death of the one who is high priest at the time) without clarifying how the two work together.

Vs 9b puts it succinctly: anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so as not to die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until there was a trial before the congregation.

Matthew 24.1-14: This has been week of building and demolishing: altars built and walls demolished in Joshua. Mayhem and destruction in Revelation. How fitting to end the week with the ‘little apocalypse’ of Jesus from Matthew’s account. 

Jesus does wonderful things with this tradition. While predicting plenty of destruction and disaster (vss 2, 6a, 7, 9, 10-12) he ends with words of reassurance and comfort (vss 13-14) along with reminders salted throughout to keep things in perspective (vss 4, 6b, 8).

Perhaps the modern taste for horror tales and disaster stories has been deeply ingrained in human nature from the beginning. Personally, I have never enjoyed horror movies and don’t really understand those who do. Disaster movies are more accessible, but not necessarily enjoyable. Whether it is Jesus’ words here, or the writings of John the Seer, or the more blood-curdling tales of violence from Joshua, as Christians we need to keep the text in context. We need to see that, while our minds might be drawn to the lurid and spectacular and destructive, what the Bible is saying over and over again is the one who endures to the end will be saved (Jesus), they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood (Joshua), the kingdom of the world, has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 11.15).