Daily Devotion for the second week of Easter

Readings for the Second week of Easter

Ps 114: This beautiful, polished little Psalm does not have the responsive, hymnic form found in many Psalms that were designed for public praise in the liturgies of the Jerusalem temple – apart from a call-response pattern appearing in vs 8.  Scholars have discussed (without resolution) the original setting of the psalm suggesting three alternatives 1) the enthronement of Yahweh festival 2) the extended festival of the Passover and 3) the early Gilgal festival associated with the alliance of the 12 tribes in the time of Joshua (thus H-J Kraus – see Joshua 3-5). 

The mention of Judah as ‘God’s sanctuary’ and Israel as ‘his dominion’ (vs 2) has some scholars situating this Psalm within the post-exilic context of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. ‘Dominion’ in this context carries the same sense that Australia and Canada had as ‘Dominions’ when they were seen as subservient to Great Britain as the centre of Empire. Those who locate the Psalm first within the early Gilgal tradition read ‘Israel’ (vs 2) in the incorporative sense of ‘all the twelve tribes’) and read vs 2a and 2b as an identical parallelism. They then see it moving at a later time into the Passover liturgies.

It has a simple but elegant structure: vss. 1-2 tell the story of Exodus and establishment in the promised land with power and brevity.

Vss 3-4 tell of the parting of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan and the skipping of the mountains and the frolicking of the hills.

Vss 5-6 ask why this was so, what it was that seas, rivers, mountains and hills have ‘seen’.

Vss 7-8 call on the earth to make thunderous reply, trembling at the presence of the Lord (vs 7) and then almost reversing the actions of vss 3, 5 (the waters becoming dry land) with the declaration of vs 8 that the Lord makes the rock become a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Vs 3 has a simple but very powerful poetic form in which ‘the sea’ ‘sees’ and ‘flees’. ‘Seeing’ and ‘fleeing’ (the latter with an almost military overtone) presents the sea with almost human characteristics – simple, brief but very powerful use of imagery.

Judges 6.36-40   This is a part of the Gideon story (Judges 6.11-8.35). The story of the fleece is Gideon’s final testing of God’s call to lead Israel, a call debated, questioned and resisted multiple times by Gideon from 6.12 on. This is why he begs that the Lord’s anger not burn against him (vs. 39) as he asks for the umpteenth time for confirmation of the commission he has received!

1 Corinthians 15.12-20 follows on from a reading in Easter week in which Paul recites in order the ‘tradition of the appearances’ to the disciples and includes himself in the list of those to whom the risen Lord appeared. He then goes on through the rest of chapter 15 to give the most extensive and considered theological reflection of the nature of resurrection to occur in all of the New Testament. Vss 12-20 argues that the resurrection of Jesus proves that the resurrection of the dead does occur. He argues that the resurrection of Jesus is foundational for our faith and proves that the resurrection of the dead will occur – he argues this in a positive way, and then argues in a negative way that if Christ is not risen, our faith is futile, our preaching dishonest, our hope is in vain, and we are ‘of all people most to be pitied’ (vs 19). In his final verse he points to the pervasive and powerful OT concept of the first-fruits (foundational to notions of both sacrifice and ‘offering’) to claim the risen Christ as ‘the first fruits of those who have died’ (vs 20).

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jonah 1.1-17 is the beginning of one of the most widely- (if not accurately-) known stories of the Bible. If Gideon (see Monday) struggled with, and sought constant reassurance about his call from God, Jonah has no such doubts: he knew what God wanted, and he knew straight away what God could do with it: But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord (vs 3) as if Tarshish would be far enough away!  When the storm hits the sailors seem more devout than Jonah because they pray to their Gods (vss 5-6). Lots were cast by the crew to determine who is responsible for the calamity (a process perhaps more effective and even more just than tweet-blaming your opposition, as we tend to do in this so-called ‘enlightened’ age) and the lot fell on Jonah (vs 7). Despite the repeated efforts of the crew, they could not beat the storm and reluctantly (and after exculpatory prayer!) did as Jonah suggested and threw him overboard with immediate positive results re the weather, accompanied by suitable sacrifices and vows of conversion. The text ends with the Lord saving Jonah through the medium of ‘a large fish’ which swallowed him and provided hospitality for three days and three nights.

1 Corinthians 15.19-28 continues Paul’s exploration of resurrection opening with a lovely reprise of the last two verses of yesterday’s reading (a little like a serial TV show where an episode opens with flashbacks to the action of last week!) The notion of the ‘first fruits’ was that the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God in worship and sacrifice and in them were symbolically included all the rest of the harvest – although by sacrificing the first fruits the farmer /worshipper was able to retain and use the rest of the harvest. Here that logic is reversed: just as the first fruits has been resurrected so with the rest of the ‘harvest of death’. Here Paul stresses the order: first Christ, then those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father .. (vs 24). The description of this ‘handing over’ extends from 24b to vs 28 and is a presentation of how Paul sees the final consummation of history. Vs 28 is controversial in that it seems to express an order of submission within the Godhead (which is part of the Arian heresy), but that submission is then immediately transcended in the statement of a final state of affairs ‘so that God may be all in all’.

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jonah 2.1-10 continues the saga of Jonah in the belly of the ‘great fish’. Note that the psalm of thanksgiving that comprises chapter 2 makes no reference to ‘the fish’ or ‘the belly of the fish’. There is reference to ‘the belly of Sheol’ (vs 2) and reference to being cast into the sea (some accident of ending up in the sea) (vss 3, 5)  but this is balanced by expressions of deep regret at being separated from the Temple in Jerusalem (vss 4, 7) and verses suggesting the threat to life was being buried in land or in Sheol (vs. 2b, 6). So we have a wonderful Psalm that is appropriate for – but not specific to – Jonah’s situation.

Matthew 12.38-42 reports the response of Jesus to the demand for a sign from some of the scribes and Pharisees. (vs 38). Jesus’ reply points to the sign of Jonah which is a type of the coming death and burial of Jesus, with the implied parallel between Jonah emerging from the belly of the great fish, just as Jesus will emerge from the tomb. The key point is that the people of Nineveh repented, just as the queen of the South sought the wisdom of Solomon, and both these groups will rise up at the judgement and condemn this generation, because what is before them is  greater than either Jonah or Solomon and they have not repented. Here Jesus is drawing a comparison of the ability of the peoples of the South (seen in their Queen) and the East (typified by Nineveh) to be able to see the hand of God in Jonah and Solomon, where the scribes and Pharisees cannot see God in one far greater than the Old Testament kings and prophets.

Psalm 116.1-4,12-19:  If you have watched the first edition of our Bible Chef podcast on the BHBC website (which dealt with the importance of ‘peeling’) you will immediately notice that vss 5-11 of this Psalm have been peeled off and left in the trash. Why? Possibly because these verses deal with the nature of the distress that the petitioner has experienced. What remains is much more purely a brief expression of the problem followed by a ‘song of thanksgiving of an individual’ that is offered as testimony within the shared worship of the community. Scholars see this Psalm as a series of fragments of praise and thanksgiving that have been gathered together. Some scholars have tried (probably unsuccessfully) to see Psalms 116 and 117 together as part of a larger whole (Psalm 117 is a very short fragment (2 verses) that is clearly a public responsive piece from a worship liturgy.)

Vss 1-2 express the devotion of the singer to the Lord arising from the Lord having heard the singer’s distress. 

Vs 3 describes the singer’s situation.

Vs 4 reiterates the call of distress that was heard by the Lord (according to vss 1-2).

The motif of ‘lifting up the cup of salvation’ (vs 13) is difficult to place with accuracy within the cult of the temple. There were libation offerings to be offered (see, for example, Ex 29.40ff and Num 28.7). There were also descriptions of the opposite to ‘the cup of salvation’, namely ‘the cup of wrath’, but this was usually used as a metaphor rather than any form of ritual or cultic participation (see Is 51.17, Lam 4.21, 32, 33). In the NT we have mention of the ‘cup of blessing’ (1 Cor 10.16) with reference to the Lord’s Supper. We cannot be certain as to what ‘the cup of salvation’ in Ps 116 referred.

Vss 14 express the singer’s determination to ‘perform their vows’: the Lord has delivered them they will offer praise and fulfil the vows that they have made. 

Vss 15-16 contain expressions of trust in the Lord – the Lord is not unconcerned or ignorant of the death of the Lord’s people, and I am your servant, the child of one of your servants.

Vss 17-19 elaborate the performance of vows expressed in vs 14: offering a thanksgiving sacrifice (vs 17a), calling on the name of the Lord (vs 17b), paying vows publicly (vs 18) in the temple in Jerusalem (vs 19a,b) ending with an acclamation of praise (vs 19c).

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Isaiah 26.1-4: Within the book of Isaiah is material from different periods and by various authors gathered together in the ‘tradition’ of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied about Judah and Jerusalem in the time of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (See Isaiah 1.1). Isaiah 26.1-4 is an oracle of redemption of Judah and ‘the strong city’ would refer to Jerusalem. Vs 2 reflects the traditions of pilgrimage and ‘opening the gates’ associated with the times of festival, and especially Passover. This may account for this passage being included at this time of Easter/Passover.

1 Peter 1.13-16: Whenever we see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible, it means that the words we read after the ‘therefore’ are grounded in the words before the ‘therefore’. Vss 10-12 of 1 Peter make an interesting argument about the role of the prophets in predicting Christ’s suffering and glorification who were actually serving ‘not themselves but you’  in regard to the things that have been ‘announced to you through those who have brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things into which even angels long to look’ (vs 12).  Wow: that’s some authority – the prophets of old, the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven, things into which even angels long to look. You will notice that ‘those who brought you good news’ (i.e. the writer!) hardly matter at all. It’s all the prophets, the Holy Spirit, heaven and the interest of the angels!  Therefore here’s what you have to do…

An important subtext in Peter’s description of the work of the prophets is their predicting Jesus’ suffering and glorification. In a letter addressed to a community that is suffering, to know that suffering is predicted, and associated with glorification, is of great encouragement. Peter then calls them to action, discipline, hope in the grace that Jesus will bring when he is revealed (note the future sense), obedience and holiness.

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

In both the Isaiah reading and the Lukan reading, the underlying metaphor is that of the feast.

Isaiah 25.6-9 describes the end-time feast that the Lord will provide ‘for all peoples’ (vs 6). The feast will be accompanied by the end of death (vs 7) and the wiping away the tears from all faces (vs 8 – cf. Rev 7.15-17). Vs 9 expresses the future expressions of vindication of those who wait faithfully and patiently for God’s salvation.

In Luke 14.12-14, Jesus takes the end-time expectation of a great feast and teaches how to make it a part of present policy. The unfolding feast takes place over most of Luke 14: 

14.1-6:  Jesus accepts an invitation to a meal at the house of a Pharisee on the Sabbath and heals a man on the way.

14.7-11: Jesus at table tells a parable about looking for the lower place at the table.

14.12-14: (our passage today) Jesus tells the Pharisee to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind and he will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

14.15-24: Jesus tells the parable of the great dinner and those who declined their invitations, so the host sent out into the streets and lanes to bring the masses into the feast.

14.25-33: Jesus teaches about the cost of discipleship.

Daily Devotions for Easter Week

Daily Devotions for Easter Week

Monday, April 13, 2020Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Colossians 3:5-11

Christian tradition has made much of Ps 118: it is one of the most quoted of all the Psalms in the New Testament. It includes sayings that you will recognise:

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

This is the day the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever.

The early church read Psalm 118 as a prophetic witness to the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Verses 5-13 are a cry for God’s help amid difficulties, but the verses selected strike a note of jubilation and affirmation of God’s deliverance and goodness.

The Exodus passage is the dramatic story of the deliverance of the Israelites through the Crossing of the Red Sea. That the first Christians celebrated this story as a ‘type’ of the deliverance we have found through Jesus can be seen through such passages as I Corinthians 10.1-6. As we celebrate the Resurrection, we see it reflected in the OT stories of God’s deliverance.

Colossians 3.5-11 follows on from the passage on Easter day about our lives being ‘hidden with Christ in God’. It is an exhortation to renewed living and contains in vs 11 a saying strikingly similar to Galatians 3.28 – but it does not include the gender inclusivity found in Galatians.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Exodus 15:1-18; Colossians 3:12-17

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Similar to the Psalm, the Songs of Moses (Exodus 15.1-18) and Miriam (Exodus 15.20-21 – part of yesterday’s reading) are poetic celebrations of the deliverance of the Israelites through the crossing of the Red Sea (yesterday’s reading). Although placed on the lips of Moses, vss 13-18 look forward to the hand of God establishing the Israelites in the Promised Land.

Colossians 3.12ff is further ethical exhortation as to the shaping of Christian life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Joshua 3:1-17; Matthew 28:1-10

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Joshua 3 is the crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership. Although it took place over forty years after the crossing of the Red Sea this is presented as a recapitulation of the same deliverance – the intention of God is clearly stated (vs 7) to show that the Lord is with Joshua just as he was with Moses.

The Matthew description of the resurrection follows Mark with some further details added. One significant element is the presence of guards at the tomb, reflecting the plotting of Mt 27.62-66 and the bribery of 28.11-15. This is consistent with Matthew’s tendency to show the Jews in the worst possible light around the events of both the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus (see Mt 27.25). Given the persistence of anti-Semitism in (so-called) Christian societies, it is time we recognised and rejected this tendency in Matthew’s telling of the story.

Thursday, April 16, 2020Psalm 16; Song of Solomon 2:8-15; Colossians 4:2-5

Psalm 16 is a song which rejoices in the benefits and outcomes of faithfully serving the Lord. There are hints (especially in vss 4-6) that the singer is a priest (administering blood offerings, refusing to take the names of other gods on my lips, ‘the Lord is my portion and my cup, you hold my lot’). Perhaps he was tempted to abandon his calling and serve another god but overcame the temptation? Vs 6 is particularly poignant. If the singer is a priest, the ‘boundary lines’ that have ‘fallen in pleasant places’ were the boundaries in the land set up after the Conquest under Joshua (see yesterday’s reading): but those boundaries have actually denied him any allocation of ancestral land – he lives on the offerings given by the people in the Temple. He accepts and affirms this in the second half of the verse: ‘I have a good inheritance!’ Such an interpretation makes other parts of the Psalm very significant: his rejoicing in ‘the holy ones in the land’ (vs 3) and the closing words of calm assurance and confident repose (vss 7-11).

The Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs) is part of the Wisdom literature. It is an extended love song sung by two lovers, assisted by a chorus of friends. It has long been treated allegorically as referring to Christ and the Church. This passage has been headed Springtime Rhapsody, and its inclusion in Easter week probably reflects the allegorical reading of Christ and the Church as the lovers, and that Easter in the northern hemisphere is a spring festival.

Our eagle-eyed readers will have noticed an interruption in the readings from Colossians: whatever happened to 3.18-4.1? These verses are a version of the ‘House rules’ underpinning every household in the ancient Roman world. Vss 3.18, 20 and 22 were the accepted rules of the time, and the urging of wives, children and slaves to submit to their respective ‘betters’ might have been why this passage was not felt appropriate for the joy of Easter week! Note however that vss 3.19, 21 and 4.1 were the quite radical Christian re-balancing of household relationships addressed to husbands, fathers and slaveowners! Vss 4.2-5 continue the ethical teaching about how to live as Christians.

Friday, April 17, 2020Psalm 16; Song of Solomon 5:9-6:3; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

More romance and tender loving comes with another passage in the Song of Solomon (5.9-6.3). (See Wednesday’s notes for context.) Here, the ‘friends of the bride’ ask her why her man is so beloved (vs 15.9) and in vss 10-16 she tells them. In 6.1 the friends ask ‘where has he gone?’ The bride’s reply (vss 6.2-3) can be interpreted poetically – or (if one reads the symbolism of the ‘flock’ and the ‘lilies’ in other parts of the Song quite carefully) might be interpreted as a euphemistic reference of a more intimate nature. Either way, it is one of the great descriptions of love in world literature.

I Corinthians 15.1-11 Paul rehearses the ‘official tradition’ of the Resurrection and how it was attested. Vss 1-2 outline its foundational status for Paul and his readers. Vs 3 proclaims that this is ‘as of first importance’ and outlines what may have been a very early creed (vss 3b -7?). An important part of this creed is the recitation of the appearances of the risen Christ in order (vss 5-7). Not to be outdone, Paul adds his own name to the list ‘as to one untimely born’ (vs 8) and then balances this audacious claim with a confession of his own unworthiness (vs 9). This passage is a window onto the earliest Christian structuring of the Resurrection tradition and is the foundation on which Paul then builds his rich exploration of the meaning of Resurrection (vss 15.12-58!)

Saturday, April 18, 2020Psalm 16; Song of Solomon 8:6-7; John 20:11-20

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

After the richness of the last two readings from the Song of Songs, this final reading rises above the intimate yearning of the lovers’ passion for each other, to a profound and poetic statement of the power of love, its enduring quality and the nature of commitment.  In a few brief lines the poet explores love through the metaphors of the seal (with all of the legal implications of the seal in the ancient world), the ‘fierceness’ of the grave, an out-of-control fire, the vastness of the ocean, the fury of the flood, and the powerlessness of all the wealth in the world in the face of love! 

John 20.11-20 introduces the lovely vignette of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus outside the tomb after she mistakes him for the gardener. I have always heard here a strange echo of Genesis 4 – where our distant ancestors took on the roles of shepherd and gardener, with tragic results. Mary mistakes the Shepherd for the gardener, but when he calls her by name she recognises Rabbouni! (Teacher!) and perhaps recalls the teaching of the Good Shepherd, who was also the Lamb of God.

The last two verses (19-20) present Jesus appearing to the disciples in a locked room. In the verses that immediately follow this, John gives an alternate version of the gift of the Holy Spirit – given not at Pentecost but on the evening of Easter, in that locked room, through the simple acts of blessing and breathing. This a powerful metaphor in a time when the law of the land prevents us from breathing upon one another, because all manner of thing can be transmitted through such a primal gesture!

Devotional Readings for Holy Week

We have entered Holy Week – the week of the Passion. The lectionary readings for this week follow a straightforward logic and offer a ‘tapestry of texts’ that take us into the events of Holy Week, the Hebrew background to Holy Week and the freedom of worship and practice of the Christian church that arises from the Easter events.

The gospel readings are from John and narrate the events of Holy week. The order of the readings is not quite in the chronology of John’s gospel and reflect the rhythm of devotion rather than history. These readings anchor us in the story of the Passion and invite us to journey with Jesus through each day of the week.

The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures are four of the ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah, passages that Christians see fulfilled in the passion of Jesus. Two other readings come from different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. On Maundy Thursday there is the description of the first Passover, when the Lord ‘passed over’ Egypt bringing death to the firstborn. The Holy Saturday readings are laments from Job and Lamentations, appropriate for the time of grief and waiting as Jesus lay in the tomb. These readings take us into the rich background of Holy Week in the Hebrew Bible:- from the early Exodus traditions, through the prophet of the Exile looking to the restoration of the nation in the ‘suffering servant’, to the deep laments of the Wisdom literature.

The Psalms are prayers of trust and assurance, of resting in, and appealing for, the Lord’s protection and deliverance. The sole exception is Good Friday, where Psalm 22 – the Psalm quoted by Jesus on the Cross – expresses the depth of human abandonment in the face of deep suffering. 

The New Testament (or early Christian writings) lessons are drawn from Hebrews, 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter. These well-known readings all deal with the freedom of Christian worship and Christian living that the followers of Jesus experienced in the months and years after that first Easter.

To read and reflect on these readings is to take a mini-course in Christian theology:- the Jewish roots of the Passover Festival and hope in Exile; the Psalms and laments that explored danger, pain, trust and deliverance (and have been carried over into Christian worship); the historical memory of Jesus and the Passion; and the frameworks of freedom in worship and committed communal living that are foundational to Christian experience.

You will notice that in the header of each day’s readings there are links to ART and PRAYER that the organisers of this form of the Lectionary have provided, should you wish to explore them.

Monday of Holy Week
April 6, 2020
ART — PRAYER
Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 36:5-11Hebrews 9:11-15John 12:1-11

The Isaiah reading is the first of four passages this week dealing the ‘suffering servant’. While the Christian tradition sees the Servant fulfilled in Jesus, the original prophecy was looking to the restoration of Israel.  In identifying Israel as the servant, the prophet was claiming for the people of God a salvific role among the nations. This cycle of passages has been critical in the history of the Bible in recasting the vital action of God through God’s ‘servant’ in terms of humility and suffering in human history rather than power and triumph. 

While it certainly shaped our understanding of Jesus, is there still a corporate element to these passages that can guide humanity in a time of profound suffering?  What does it mean in the midst of this global crisis, when so many are so sick, that ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench’?  Think of doctors who seek to follow Jesus, who must make agonising triage decisions in allocating scarce medical resources. As the world faces a lack of ventilators, this text affirms that ‘[the Lord] gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it’. This passage can be a powerful prayerful meditation if we read it while holding the suffering world in our hearts and minds.   

Psalm 36 opens (vs 1-4) and closes (v 12) with descriptions of the wicked and their riotous living and ultimate fate, but our reading avoids these verses. Instead, the focus is on vs 5-11, a Psalm of assurance and trust. Only in v 10 do petitions appear and v 11 reveals the life situation or threat that the Psalmist faces.  

The Hebrews reading outlines the end of the cult of sacrifice and presents Jesus as ‘the mediator of a new covenant’ (v 15). All the NT readings this week are declarations of the Christian understanding of worship and faithful life that have arisen from the work of Holy Week.

John 12.1-11 artfully brings together two stories: an extension of the raising of Lazarus and the subsequent plot to kill Jesus (see John 11) in a sub-plot to kill Lazarus also; and the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary. The anointing of Jesus is known also to Matthew, Mark and Luke, but they do not give the woman’s name, the venue is variously given as ‘the house of Simon the leper’ or the house of a Pharisee. In Matthew and Mark it is Jesus’ head that is anointed. In Luke, it is Jesus’ feet that are anointed and ‘the sinful woman’ wipes them with ‘the hair of her head’.

This is clearly a very significant and powerful story that was widely remembered and celebrated in the early Christian community. In the various versions we see an evolution from a nameless woman, then ‘a woman of the city who was a sinner’, to Mary, one of the inner circle of the followers of Jesus. Luke presents it as an event that happened sometime in the ministry of Jesus, but for Mt, Mk and Jn it was associated with Holy Week and Bethany and finally with the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha (Jn). The early church came to ‘own’ this event in deeply committed and devotional ways. An act of love that Mt, Mk, and Lk ascribed to someone (apparently) outside the household of faith (the nameless woman), has become something experienced in the heart of the Jesus network.

Tuesday of Holy Week
April 7, 2020
ART — PRAYER
Isaiah 49:1-7Psalm 71:1-141 Corinthians 1:18-31John 12:20-36

Isaiah 49.1-7 makes several aspects of the ‘suffering servant’ very clear. V 3 names the servant as ‘Israel’, and vs 1,6,7 declare the scope of his ministry to the coastlands and all the nations. V 7 reflects the current situation of Israel in exile and promises future empowerment and deliverance.

The Psalm is the first half of a psalm asking God to ‘not cast me off in the time of old age’  (vs 9, 18). There is mention of enemies conspiring against the singer (vs 7, 10-11, 13). Through this prayer there breathes a spirit of calm and assurance in the goodness and protection of God.

The reading from I Corinthians is a wonderful presentation of the subversive nature of the gospel that calls the ‘foolish and the weak’ to shame the strong and refute the wise. Paul places this gospel as confronting the worldviews of both Jews (focussed on ‘signs’ and the judgments of history) and Greeks (focussed on ‘wisdom’ and learning). It includes Paul’s sublime two-word definition of the gospel and its deconstruction of Jewish and Gentile cultures: but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (v 23).

John 12.20-36 opens with some Greeks seeking Jesus. The lectionary skilfully presents this as a counterpoint to the I Corinthians reading. John then presents some sayings and preaching of Jesus reflecting on the call to discipleship and his coming death. Some of the great themes of John’s gospel (light, the judgement of the world, the glorification of the Son of man and the lifting up of the Son of Man) are reprised and woven together. A word of divine approval from heaven (v 28) attests to Jesus authority.

Wednesday of Holy Week
April 8, 2020
ART — PRAYER
Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 70Hebrews 12:1-3John 13:21-32

The Isaiah reading presents a brief (5½ verses) song of the Servant.  V 6 has long been applied to Jesus. It presents the Servant as a Teacher (v 4), resolute (v 7) and powerful (vs 8-9).

Psalm 70 is a ‘prayer song of an individual in great distress’ (H-J Kraus). It emphasises the powerlessness of the petitioner. In v 4 something of the faith and confidence of the worshipping community breaks through.

Hebrews 12.1-3 presents one of those short, pithy and carefully worded descriptions of Christian worship and experience that has come to mean so much for the people of God. It mentions ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ (v 1) and calls us to ‘run the race’ following Jesus. Grounding its appeal in both the example of Jesus and the communion of saints, this 3 verse exhortation has been treasured by Christians in every age.

John’s depiction of the Last Supper is very different to Mt, Mk and Lk. The focus is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (see the reading for Maundy Thursday – tomorrow). The only reference to sharing bread and wine is the cryptic conversation (misunderstood by the other disciples) between Peter, the disciple Jesus loved, Jesus and Judas. I have only participated once in a Communion service where this text was used as the framework for the service. It was in an ecumenical service in Sri Lank in 1983 led by the radical Catholic priest Fr Tissa Balasuriya. It was a public event and there were theologians of many parts of the world and different Christian traditions present. When I asked him how we could celebrate publicly the Eucharist when it was against Catholic rules to take Communion together, he said simply “Wait and see!” Having blessed the bread and wine, Fr Tissa said simply “He who betrays me is the one who dips in the dish with me” (Mt 26.23), after which he dipped the bread in the dish of wine, ate and sat down. All present had to decide whether we would ‘dip in the dish’ and so number ourselves among the betrayers of Christ! It was one of the most memorable and confronting experiences of Communion I have ever known.

Maundy Thursday
April 9, 2020
Holy Thursday
ART — PRAYER
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1-2, 12-191 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Exodus takes us right back into the time of Israel in slavery in Egypt. After a cycle of plagues and judgements, Pharaoh has still not relented and released Israel. In the final judgement the Lord will ‘pass over’ Egypt and kill the first born of every house unless the blood of the slaughtered lamb is on the lintel and the doorposts of the home. Maundy Thursday is the Christian name for the Thursday of the Passover so this reading gives us the deep background and symbolism of this night.

Psalm 116 as presented here is a psalm of thanksgiving appropriate to one of the great festivals of Israel. The ‘lifting up of the cup of salvation’ and ‘paying my vows in the presence of the people’ suggest the context of public worship and thanksgiving.

I Corinthians 11 presents in four verses the ‘words of institution’ of the Lord’s Supper, Paul’s simple testimony that has shaped the eucharistic theology of a wide variety of Christian traditions. Within the Free Church tradition it has been especially liberating and authoritative.

The John reading celebrates Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as an example and commissioning of them to similar acts of service (vs 12-17). For John, this act of service is more determinative of Jesus’ last gathering with his disciples than the sharing of a final meal. The sharing of bread and wine in John only occurs as the context in which the betrayal of Judas is both revealed and misunderstood by the disciples (see notes for Wednesday).

Good Friday
April 10, 2020
ART — PRAYER
Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25
or
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

Isaiah 52-53 is perhaps the most famous of the Servant songs and has been taken from earliest Christian tradition to refer to Jesus. Here on Good Friday, it is the one of the richest Hebrew Scriptures that anchors the death of Jesus in Jewish prophecy and historical memory.

Psalm 22, known by the first words in the Latin version – De Profundis, is the Psalm that Jesus quotes upon the Cross to express his sense of abandonment and suffering (Ps 22.1 cf. Mk 15.34, Mt 27.46). What is significant on this day is that we read the whole Psalm, not just the expressions of abandonment and suffering, but reading through to the affirmation and celebration of God’s goodness and ultimate victory in vs. 21b to 31.

There is a choice of two readings from Hebrews, both of which stress the role of Jesus as the new High Priest in opening a new way into God’s presence (10.19-21, 4.14-16). 10.20 refers to the tearing of the veil or curtain in the Temple in the comparison of entering ‘through the curtain (that is through his flesh)’ (10.20).

The John reading is the long reading of the Johannine Passion – two long chapters. It includes the arrest, Peter’s denial, and the long and complex interrogation by Pilate (including the rich statements by Pilate: ‘What is truth? ‘Behold, the man!’ ‘Here is your King!’ and ‘What I have written, I have written’). John’s passion includes the dialogue between Jesus, his mother, and ‘the disciple Jesus loved’. After the death of Jesus, his body is delivered to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two ‘secret disciples’, for burial.

Holy Saturday
April 11, 2020
ART — PRAYER
Job 14:1-14
or
Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
Psalm 31:1-4, 15-161 Peter 4:1-8Matthew 27:57-66
or
John 19:38-42

Holy Saturday is a time of waiting. The Hebrew Scripture passages are laments from Job (the Wisdom tradition) and from Lamentations (associated with Jeremiah). The Lamentations reading however, unlike the Job passage, concludes with a note of hope (3.21-24).

Psalm 31 expresses lament, trust and thanksgiving. It is presented as a prayer for rescue and deliverance.

1 Peter 4 seems to have been included because of its reference to the gospel having been preached to the dead (v 6), which according to Christian tradition was what Jesus did when he went down into Hades between his death and Resurrection – hence the linking of this reading to Holy Saturday.

There are two alternate gospel readings. Matthew 27.57-66 tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus. What is notable in this passage is the concern of the chief priests and the Pharisees to head-off the possibility of Jesus’ disciples ‘staging’ a resurrection by stealing the body. The irony of Pilate’s reply “… make it as secure as you can” (v 65) almost drips with mockery.

In the John reading, two prominent citizens (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) co-operate in receiving and interring the body of Jesus. John presents the Jesus movement as having connections with the upper levels of society (see, for instance, the disciple ‘who was known to the high priest’ (Jn 18.16)). That they were rich and devoted to Jesus is also reflected in them ‘bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ (v 39).

Daily Devotions for the 5th week of Lent

Monday, March 30, 2020Psalm 143; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Acts 20:7-12

Psalm 143 is a personal prayer by an individual persecuted by nameless ‘enemies’ (vss. 3, 12). Vss 1-2 frame the address to God, and vss 3-6 describe the suffering of the one praying. Does vs 3 hint at having been imprisoned (‘…making me sit in darkness…’)?

Despite the distress, bordering on despair, experienced by the Psalmist, vs 5 declares the encouraging role of memory (‘I remember the days of old’) and the sustaining power of ‘meditating on the works of your hands’.

Vss 7-12 list the petitions, what the pray-er is asking for: answers and encouragement (vss 7-8a), teaching and guidance (vss 8b, 10), refuge and deliverance (vss 9, 11, 12).

This is a Psalm that shapes well our prayers in this time of pestilence, where the ‘enemy’ is not human, but a pandemic disease. While the original setting of the Psalm may have been a prison, it lends itself to framing our experience of self-quarantine and the importance of encouragement ‘in the morning’ and some framework of wisdom and encouragement to structure the passing days.

The OT and NT readings deal with the untimely deaths of two youths, one through disease (that robbed him of his breath! – 1 Kings 17.17) and one through an overly-long sermon (Acts 20)! It invites comparison of the health risks of respiratory disease (short-windedness) and overly enthusiastic preaching (long-windedness). In each story the intervention of the prophet (Elijah) and the apostle (Paul) leave both youths alive and well (and with memorable stories to tell in later life). 

In our context, one matter for thanksgiving and celebration is that, unlike the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, young people do not seem to be at particular risk from Covid-19 (although the disease can still be very serious). Those of us who are parents and grandparents will be grateful for this, even though we ourselves may be at increased risk.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020Psalm 143; 2 Kings 4:18-37; Ephesians 2:1-10

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The other readings for the day both deal with the transition from death to life, the reverse of the usual journey of human experience. The Shunammite woman is a significant figure from the Hebrew Bible, wealthy and powerful in her own right. Although she is married, her husband is nowhere named and she is never identified as ‘his wife’. She takes the initiative in becoming a patron of the prophet. Her interactions with Gehazi and Elisha after her son dies, show intelligence and faith (read vss 26, 28, 30).

The Ephesians passage reflects the language of the spiritual powers that breathes through the epistle (‘the ruler of the power of the air’ – vs 2, ‘children of wrath’- vs 3, ‘the heavenly places’ – vs 6). The idea of the ‘ruler of the power of the air’ refers to a pervasive spiritual force that is omnipresent in the earth. This worldview does not see ‘the air’ as benign or pleasurable, but as an inherent spiritual threat. While our current fear of invisible contagion through close sharing of ‘air’ with others is entirely medical and physical, it does give us an insight into a spiritual worldview that sees evil at work in all of the environment around us. Just how we might integrate such a view of pervasive and inimical spiritual power with an appreciation of the beauty and goodness of creation is a matter for careful reflection and prayerful wisdom.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020Psalm 143; Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41; Matthew 22:23-33

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jeremiah 32 describes one of the truly great prophetic acts of the whole of the Bible. For many years Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be besieged and destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar (as he is named in this text). This story is doubly dated (vs 1) to the reigns of both Zedekiah of Judah and Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. The setting here is that the fall of Jerusalem (‘… by sword, by famine and by pestilence’ – vs 36) is imminent. Those who had mocked, harassed and imprisoned Jeremiah for years were starting to realise he had been right and they and their city were doomed. At the moment of personal triumph, when all around him were cashing out their assets and buying jewellery and gold for the hard times ahead (just as we are seeing with the stock markets and the gold price today), Jeremiah is told by God to buy a field. It is an act of hope, a sign that on the other side of the disaster there will be sowing and harvest, weddings and children, building of houses and singing of songs! Jeremiah has been libelled as a ‘prophet of doom’: yes, he saw clearly, and prophesied faithfully, the shape of the coming disaster; but even more faithfully, he prophesied the goodness of God and pointed to the restoration of the nation on the other side of the terrible circumstances of today.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees (who did not believe in the future Resurrection of any human being) tried to corner Jesus with a trick question, using the legal principle of levirate marriage. Jesus answers that the heavenly experience is of greater blessedness (an angel-like state) that exceeds human categories such as marriage. As Jesus draws near to his own death and Resurrection in Matthew’s telling of the story, this is part of his teaching that prepares the disciples for the surprise and challenge of the empty tomb.

Thursday, April 2, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; 1 Samuel 16:11-13; Philippians 1:1-11

The Lenten Psalms are quite fitting for our current circumstances. Psalm 31 brings together petitions, descriptions of distress and statements of trust. The passage for today is the middle section of the Psalm but it can stand alone in its literary integrity and spiritual meaning. The whole Psalm describes the suffering of an individual but ends confidently with an address of encouragement to the worshipping group (vss 23-24). Vss 9-12 suggest the cause of distress is some form of illness, but vss 13, 15 introduce the theme of enemies conspiring against the singer’s life. Vss 14-16 are an expression of trust in God and an affirmation of God’s goodness.

The 1 Samuel passage is a section of the narrative of the anointing of a new king to succeed Saul. Omitted is the long description of the succession of sons that Jesse presents for Samuel’s approval.  The act of anointing is a deeply subversive act, a symbolic blow against the existing order and a de-legitimation of the king in the name of God. Samuel was deeply aware of this. He protested to the Lord that if he did as he was commanded Saul would kill him (1 Sam 16.2). That Samuel’s mission was perceived more widely as rebellious and dangerous can also be seen in the fear shown by the elders of Bethlehem when he arrived (1 Sam 16.4). While it would be many years before David ascended the throne, this act of anointing effected a transformation in David – the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward (vs 13). Social change often begins with small symbolic acts that plant the seeds of future action. What ‘anointings’ that will shape the future are occurring in our own time?

The personal and tender introduction to Paul’s letter to the Philippians reveals an intimate and loving relationship with the church. That the church is well established can be seen in the reference to bishops and deacons (or overseers and helpers) in vs 1. What is lovely is the textual ambiguity of vs 7: does Paul feel close to them ‘because you hold me in your heart’ or ‘because I hold you in my heart’? The text does not make it clear, and the manuscript tradition reflects both readings. This delightful ambiguity is found in other NT letters (e.g. 2 Cor 3.2). Far from being a weakness, this reflects the double principle that churches should love their leaders, and leaders should love their churches!

Friday, April 3, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; Job 13:13-19; Philippians 1:21-30

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

The book of Job is a profound exploration of human suffering and divine justice. Against all the advice of his pious friends that suffering is the result of sin and Job should repent, Job asserts his innocence and demands an answer from God. These verses follow the first cycle of ‘advice’ offered by Job’s friends. Here Job expresses his determination to present his case to God, whatever the risks. The language is startling (‘I take my flesh in my teeth’ vs 14). His call for silence in vs 13 is almost “Silence in court!” as he prepares to offer his defence. Note the variant reading of vs 15a ‘Though he kill me, yet I will trust in him’ which is more in keeping with Job’s confidence in God.

Just as Job is prepared to run the risk of death in his desire to engage with God, so Paul in the Philippians passage muses about whether it is better to live or die. To Paul, both living and dying have advantages and he is happy with either. Because his continuing to live would be to the benefit of his readers, Paul believes that is what will happen.

The second part of the Philippians reading teaches that we must live in a way worthy of the gospel. Vs 28 indicates that the church is engaged in conflict ([you] ‘are in no way intimidated by your opponents’) and shares ‘the same struggle that you saw I had’ (vs 30).

Saturday, April 4, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; Lamentations 3:55-66; Mark 10:32-34

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Lament (a passionate expression of grief or sorrow) is a form of literature that has not found a ready place in our religious expression or in our culture (with the possible exception of the musical tradition of ‘the blues’). Lamentations 3.55-66 follows a long list of sufferings and disasters, and affirms that God listens, God acts and has taken up the writer’s cause. The passage ends with a call for God to give ‘pay back’ and asks God to curse the writer’s enemies (vss 64-66). There is a genre of Psalms (imprecatory Psalms) that call for the punishment, destruction or cursing of one’s enemies. Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, around 20 are imprecatory or cursing psalms. If a culture of ‘optimism and positivity’ has inhibited our engagement with lament, has a culture of ‘niceness’ stopped us from engaging with those Psalms that express anger and a passionate thirst for, if not revenge, than at least a sense of personal vindication?

The gospel reading (Mark 10.32-34) is a high point of Mark’s gospel and the beginning of the transition into the Passion. Mark has structured the central part of his gospel around three predictions of his death and resurrection (8.31-38, 9.30-32 and here). The tension in the disciples and crowd is palpable (‘they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid – vs 32). The third prediction is the most detailed.  This text is followed by the selfish request of James and John for the places of honour in the coming Kingdom and then the miraculous healing of blind Bartimaeus, followed immediately by Jesus’ triumphal (?) entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.