The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, 2 July 2017

Track One:
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13

Track Two:
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Romans 6:12-23
St. Matthew 10:40-42

Background: The Prophets

Prophecy and prophets are not unique to either Israel, or to the Bible. There are several examples from the cultures of the Ancient Near East, wherein the prophet was seen as a messenger from the gods. In Israel, the prophet received the message from God via the agency of dreams, visions, or a direct communication from God. The difficulty was, however, how such messages might be authenticated – often times the messages were in conflict with another prophet’s vision. We see that especially in the work of Jeremiah. Much of the prophetic work was oral rather than written, and was often introduced with a “messenger formula” Thus says the Lord. The form of these messages was various, using the mode of legal writs, laments, hymnody, curses, oracles, and similar forms. The content of the prophet’s messages may have collected and saved by supporters or by disciples. In some cases, a scribe was used to collect and redact the material. In the case of Ezekiel, the later Isaiahs, and Jeremiah, the work was probably written.

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-14

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

This is a moving tale that might have had several purposes. Regardless of the purpose it grabs the hearers attention as an effective piece of prose. We are introduced to the theme in an immediate and stark phrase, “God tested Abraham.” We are introduced to the humanity of this story by means of levels of focus, such as when we are introduced to Isaac,

“Take your son,
your only one,
whom you love,

Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), an eleventh century French rabbi proposed the phrase as a conversation between God and Abraham, which adds to the drama of the initial scene:

            “Take your son”                    “I have two sons.”
            “your only one,                     “This one is an only one to his mother.”
            “whom you love”                  “I love both of them.”

The narrative makes certain that we understand the roles here, father and beloved son, and a theme that is repeated over and over again. The journey, which would have taken a great deal of time, seems to happen quickly, and yet the author spares no detail as he names all the equipment and activities necessary to carry out the command. In their progress to the site of the sacrifice it is Abraham who carries the dangerous implements, the knife and the torch. It is clear that Abraham does not want to harm his son.

A verb and theme that announces itself frequently in the text is “to see”. Abraham sees the place from afar, and at the end finally sees the ram. But God also “sees to it” when Isaac questions the sacrifice due to the lack of a victim. At this point the action slows down. Each activity connected with the sacrifice is enumerated. It reads like a movie script, which is only interrupted by the voice from heaven. Abraham is asked to stay his hand, as is Hagar in the story about her and Ishmael in Genesis 21:17. Both stories show the promise of a future for Abraham and his sons. It is a promise that Abraham sees, and so he names the place, in our translation, “The Lord will provide.” A better translation that meets the theme seen over and over again is, “The Lord sees.”

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          Why has this story been saved for us?
2.          What are Isaac’s reactions during the story?
3.         What is Abraham thinking?

Psalm 13 Usquequo, Domine?

     How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?
2      How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day? *
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?
3      Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
4      Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.
5      But I put my trust in your mercy; *
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
6      I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; *
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.

The initial verse of the psalm gives us a spectrum of experience that the psalmist explores: “How long” vs. “forever”. Such is the perspective when God appears to be absent from the problems of our lives. Of special interest here, following the “See” theme in the first reading is the language of verse 3, “give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death.” In spite of the troubles of the present time, the author would rather see the world even in the midst of trouble, and of waiting for God’s good pleasure. He dreads the possibility that his enemy might take delight in his demise. In place of that dread he instead puts his trust in God.

Breaking open Psalm 13
  1. In what ways is God silent for you?
  2. When you think of God’s world, what do you see?
  3. What does it mean to trust in God?


Track Two:

First Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9

The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

If you have the opportunity, glance through the previous two chapters. Although they are not a part of a single literary unity, they do speak of a theme that unites them with this chapter. The theme is the Judgment of Jerusalem, a theological follow-on from Jeremiah’s argument against the political leaders of the time and their prophets. Chapter 26 sees the destruction of the city, however in chapters 27 and 28 the argument centers not on destruction but on how long the exile, which Jeremiah sees, will last. These chapters are dated around 598 BCE, just after Babylon has inserted itself into the land of Judah and its rule.

We might wonder what meaning this has for the reader or hearer in our time – what is the theological import of this reading today? In the initial part of the reading we meet Hananiah the prophet. And here’s the theological problem; which prophet do we heed? This is a question for our own time when so many speak in the name of Jesus, but have differing messages. As I understand Jeremiah’s comment, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace…” it is in how the times and events that surround what is preached is made real for the welfare of the people of God. The proof of the pudding is how a prophet’s word comes to fruition. This is not an easy answer. It’s time for the Holy Spirit’s gifts.

Breaking open the Jeremiah:
1.         How do you know a prophet (preacher) is speaking the truth?
2.         Who are the prophets of our time?
3.        Who are the prophets that you trust?

Psalm 89:1-4,15-18  Misericordias Domini

     Your love, O Lord, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.
2      For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.
3      "I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
4      'I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.'"
15    Happy are the people who know the festal shout! *
they walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence.
16    They rejoice daily in your Name; *
they are jubilant in your righteousness.
17    For you are the glory of their strength, *
and by your favor our might is exalted.
18    Truly, the Lord is our ruler; *
the Holy One of Israel is our King.

If there is a theme to this psalm it is certainly centered in the word “faithfulness”. It is repeated eight times within the verses of the psalm. The psalm is about God’s covenant with David, and it represents in a way the theological point of view that may have informed the prophet Hananiah in the First Reading. If you read the entirety of the psalm you will see that its references to David, or really to a king in the Davidid line, come from a time when that line is in danger. We can see that in these verses, which are not included in the liturgical reading:

31      If his sons forsake my teaching and do not go in my law,
32      if they profane my statutes and do not keep my commands,
33      I will requite their crime with the rod, and with plagues, their wrongdoing.”[1]

Faithfulness to God results in the faithfulness of God as described in the verses of our reading. Kingship and leadership should be modeled on the providential nature of our God, and not guided by any other thing. Here we have a lesson for our own leaders.

Breaking open the Psalm 89:
1.     What do you understand in the word “faithfulness”?
2.     Who has been faithful to you?
3.    How have you been faithful?

Second Reading: Romans 6:12-23

Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We continue a reading from the section of Romans that deals with the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Here the apostle instructs how to live a life born in the newness that results from our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. He describes this in contrastive concepts, “instruments of wickedness” and “instruments of righteousness.” How do we live in righteousness? Do we abandon the Law because of grace? No, we are enjoined to be slaves of righteous, even while living in a time marked by sin and wickedness. The remainder of his argument turns on the consequences of our acts, “The wages of sin is death.” But Christ is life – and we are born into Christ. Therefore we have the hope of eternal life.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Who are the “instruments of wickedness” that you see in the world?
  2. How are you an “instrument of righteousness”?
  3. What does it mean to be a “slave of righteousness”?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 10:40-42

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

William Albright in his commentary on Matthew makes an interesting and compelling argument about the “Prophet” and the “Righteous One”. He quotes an ancient text before beginning his notes on the verse that follows, “He who welcomes his fellow-man is considered as though he had welcomed the Shekinah.”[2] The “Shekinah” indicates the divine presence. The first point in his argument is that the “Righteous One” played an important role in the development and evolution of the idea of the Messiah. What follows then are two questions, “What righteous one?” “What prophet?” Are these examples of an everyman holy man, or are they intended by Jesus to indicate something more particular. Albright is of the opinion that Jesus references himself in these words. Therefore we welcome and receive him and then receive his reward in each case. The real reward, not only to us but also to our fellow human (love your neighbor as you love yourself) is the gift of water to anyone that results in our recognition of Jesus (to the least of these my brothers…as unto me). This is a passage that recognizes our relationship to Jesus, and his relationship with us.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does it mean to call Jesus a prophet?
  2. How is Jesus the Righteous One?
  3. What is the reward that you are given?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; 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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Alter, R. (2009) The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, Kindle Edition, Location 7056.
[2]Mekilta, Tractate Amalek, 3.


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