02 March 2015

The Third Sunday in Lent, 8 March 2015

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 1:18-25
St. John 2:13-22

Background: Temple Culture
In the first century BCE, the so-called Temple of Herod was built. What stood before was the Temple of Zerubbabel, built after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem.  A temple tax was used to fund the project, and it is said that priests built the actual temple.  The construction was done on the Temple Mount on a platform intended to be 1600 feet x 900 feet, sitting at a height of 9 stories. Under this platform were vaults that maintained the level nature of the platform. Apropos to the Gospel for today is the Court of the Gentiles – a market place actually. There visitors allowed into the precincts could purchase animals for sacrifice, food, currencies, and mementos of their visit. The currency changing was due to the fact that Roman currency was not allowed in Temple coffers and had to be traded for Tyrian money. During the Passover season, the number of pilgrims could number over 300,000 individuals. It was a teeming scene.

Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The styling of these words (and that is how the Hebrew Scriptures describe them) as “The Ten Commandments” is a bit artificial with the parsing of the text differing depending on the tradition that is presenting them. One Jewish Scholar has proposed this ordering for the Words:

1.     I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods beside me.
2.     You shall make you no carved likeness
3.     You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
4.     Remember the Sabbath day to hallow it.
5.     Honor your father and your mother.
6.     You shall not murder
7.     You shall not commit adultery
8.     You shall not steal
9.     You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man.
10.  You shall not covenant.

These succinct words are just a beginning, for there is another level of commentary that interprets these Words and how they are to be accomplished in the business of daily life. Of interest are the patterns of kingship and royal presence in the formality of the words, such as “I am the Lord”, where Lord serves not as a name but as a sovereign presence to be acknowledged by those receiving this covenant of words. The place and context of these words is outlined in the fourth commandment: “the heavens above, the earth below, and the waters beneath the earth.”  Two specific place references are referred to in the Words – the land of Egypt from which God had freed the people, and the heavens, earth, and realms under the earth, the entirety of the cosmos that God not only created but still ruled. The relationship of this God with all the realms and peoples is a “jealous” one, with all the sense that that word provides. No other god will be tolerated. And, since the name meant power and suasion, God’s name was reserved only for the language of worship – not for oaths or curses – the name should be used deliberately and with full knowledge. The Sabbath is the day created for such usage.

The following commandments are all about relationship: father and mother to son and daughter, generation to generation, all living things to one another, honoring life, honesty, and possessions. This is a rich collection about how the human family once created, honors the creator in its faithfulness one to the other.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What role do these words play in your life?
  2. What might you add to them?
  3. Which are ignored by our society?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

If the Ten Commandments (above) are “the Words”, then this psalm also is a meditation on the word, the very breath of God. For it is the Word that created the beauty of the heavens, its cycle of light and dark, sun and then moon and stars. Here it is not only God who speaks, but creation itself as well, “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.” This is the language of sight and beauty – no uttered words can express this language. What follows are some verses devoted to the sun, more than likely influenced by Egyptian verses about the sun god who makes the circuit of the heavens each day. All of this beauty merely serves as a context for the following meditation on another sense of the Word.

Now the psalm centers on the beauty of God’s word – God’s teaching, God’s Commandments. The psalmist wants us to understand the preciousness of this teaching, and he reaches for several metaphors: gold and honey, and pure wisdom itself. This is a wisdom that makes us aware of that which we might totally be unaware of, “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults.” The closing verse then extends to our very own words, “Let the words of my mouth…” In this psalm both Creation and the Creator flood the cosmos with the breath that creates, communicates, and honors the other.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
  1. Does creation create wonder in you?
  2. Does it communicate the presence of God to you?
  3. What is the beauty of God’s word?

I Corinthians 1:18-25
The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

“What is foolishness?” Paul asks us. He then avers that the cross itself might prove foolish to some. Who could believe that this instrument of execution could be “the power of God”? Paul plays with the paradoxes of which he is so enamored. Wisdom is destroyed and Discernment is obstructed. Where does this wisdom stand in the world? What is its value? Who are its promulgators? Paul argues that the wisdom of the world does not perceive or know God, and so God then chooses foolishness to be our guide and teacher.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. How do you think that the cross is foolishness?
  2. What do you think is truly the wisdom of our time?
  3. How can the two come together?

St. John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the moneychangers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Here we see Jesus in full prophetic guise. A passage from Jeremiah may help: “Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I have seen it for myself – oracle of the Lord.” Although the synoptic Gospels place this action close to the Passion Narrative, John does not. He sees it as both and immediate corrective, and a proleptic statement concerning his death and resurrection. In John, Jesus = the Temple. It is the zeal that Jesus has for the Temple that condemns him here. Psalm 69:10 can help, “Because zeal for your house has consumed me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” This vision of Jesus as an active prophet doing symbolic acts introduces us to the notion that even more strange and difficult things will happen to him. Perhaps that is why Mark, Matthew and Luke place this event later in the ministry. In John, however, we are clued in right away. Jesus will not have a soft life. Jesus will not be comfortable. Jesus will challenge the religious in their convictions, and the disciples in their following. In this case the disciples in John do get it – they make the connection between the prophetic Jesus and the Risen One.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Can you think of other instances in which Jesus exhibits anger? What are they?
  2. How is Jesus being a prophet?
  3. What would you like to clean up in the Church?
 After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

23 February 2015

The Second Sunday in Lent, 1 March 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
St. Mark 8:31-38

Background: Covenant
This is one of those terms that we assume that people know and understand. However, with the lack of biblical studies in general, such an assumption is probably wrong, and people need to be reminded of the import of such a concept. The notion of covenant appears in several aspects in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The first of the covenants to be described in the Bible is the covenant with Noah (last Sunday’s first reading.) In the story of the flood, God reveals his covenant with Noah not only with words, but also with the sign of the Rainbow. Other covenants follow, with Abraham, Moses, “the new covenant” of Jeremiah, the so-called “Priestly Covenant” made with Aaron and his descendants, the Davidic covenant, and finally the covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, described by Jesus. All of these agreements have deep roots in the legal systems of the ancient near east, most especially with the legal form of Hittite treaties. Other ideas and actions flow from the covenant: a) The sacrifice that sealed the covenant (see Genesis 15) b) the witnessing of the covenant by heaven and earth (see Deuteronomy 30:19), c) or the trial that comes when the covenant is not kept. These promises and their consequences become an important part of Christian theology, and are best seen at work in the readings for the Easter Vigil, and in the Christian Scriptures that follow in the Mass after the Baptisms. From here we could go on to discuss the Baptismal Covenant, but will save that for a time closer to the Great Vigil.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

On one level this reading is about names. We are introduced to an archaic name for God, “El Shaddai”, and learn that Abram and Sarai’s names will be changed to Abraham and Sarah. The latter may be the tying together two ancient Abrahamic traditions, or in the style of kings, one may be a common name, and the other a “throne name”. This is not the Abraham who argues with God over the fate of Sodom, but rather a quiet individual who falls on his face in the presence of God. The covenant that God proposes has two aspects: a) the promise of a multitude of descendants some of whom will be “nations”, and “kings”, and b) that Sarah will become a mother. Verses omitted from the reading (verses 8-14) include the provision for the circumcision of males, which was not unique to Israel, but also to other Semitic peoples in the western part of the Fertile Crescent, and especially amongst the priestly castes of Egypt. The cutting of flesh (see the reference to the Abrahamic Covenant in the background above) involved both animals and humans in making the covenant incarnate.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What promises has God made to you?
  2. Have you believed in them? Why or why not?
  3. How is Abraham a symbol of faith?

Psalm 22:22-30 Deus, Deus meus

Praise the LORD, you that fear him; *
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob's line, give glory.

For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.

My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

For kingship belongs to the LORD; *
he rules over the nations.

To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.

My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the LORD'S for ever.

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.

We know this psalm from the liturgies of Holy Week, where the initial verses of the psalm connect with the suffering of Jesus. Our usage this morning is limited to the latter verses of the psalm. Here the author gives thanks for preservation from the difficulties outlined in the first half of the psalm, and begins with a shout of thanksgiving. Now we are in the Temple, in the “great assembly” that has gathered there to honor the God who “does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty.”  The extent of God’s grace extends from the Temple to include not only the poor, but also “all the ends of the earth”, including the dead as well, “all who sleep in the earth bow down.” This is very unusual, for the psalter usually does not entertain the notion that the dead can praise God. Indeed it is the opposite – the dead cannot praise God. Here, however, the author expands on the extent of the praise, and exaggerates the number of those who are praising God. The author does not stop there, but includes those yet to come, “a people yet unborn” who will know the love and grace of God, and “the saving deeds that he has done.”

Breaking open Psalm 22:
  1. Are you included in the psalmist’s list of those for whom God is concerned?
  2. Who is on your list of concern?
  3. How wide is God’s mercy for you?

Romans 4:13-25

The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Here we have Paul’s excursus on the first reading (see above). Abraham and Sarah are used as examples in Paul’s argument about the Law and Faith. Paul sees these ancients as primary examples of faith. He observes that the promise given to Abraham and Sarah extends beyond them and their age, to be delivered “also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” What follows then is a midrash on the new recipients of God’s promise and covenant.  The argument is succinct: “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours as well.”  The task of the Letter to the Romans: to recognize the gifts of Israel in her relationship with God, and the extension of those gifts to the gentiles.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What was the faith of Abraham?
  2. In what or whom do you trust?
  3. In what ways was Israel blessed?

St. Mark 8:31-38

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Again, I offer the suggestion that you read the entirety of the pericope, for the initial verses have been lopped off by the lectionary. They describe an important context for the reading. The answer of the disciples to Jesus’ question, “Who are the people saying that I am?” is made more poignant by a further question to them, “who do you say that I am?” The answer that is forthcoming is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one, just as priests, prophets, and kings in Israel were anointed. From that confession follows a further examining of what those words of faith are really all about. Jesus wants to press deeper, and with this we join our lectionary reading again. What Jesus teaches now is not about the correctness of Peter or their observations, but of what needs to happen next – a prediction of the Passion. Peter finds this odious, and says as much. Suddenly we are back in the wilderness of temptation, but now it is Peter who is playing the role of Satan, and who must know step behind.

The teaching that follows is what any disciple should know – the cost of the cross not only to Jesus, but also really to all of us. There is here language of denial – Lenten language. It is not denial of trivial things, such as we might suggest in our Lenten disciple, chocolate, meat, movies, etc., but rather the essential thing, life itself.  The author of Psalm 22 (see above) gets at the same thing with his phrase, “my soul (better translated ‘my seed’) shall live for him.” The seed of psalm 22 is the essence of the future and the descendants of Abraham that Paul argues for. What do we give up for Jesus? Ourselves! If we are not ashamed of the Christ (using Peter’s confession) then God will not be ashamed of us.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does Jesus call Peter “Satan”?
  2. What does Jesus mean about “giving up ourselves”?
  3. Are you ever ashamed of your faith?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller