The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, 23 August 2020
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: The Hyksos and Israel
The Hyksos, a foreign people (to Egypt) that moved down from the northern Levant and established a culture in the Nile River Delta (1650 BCE), with a capital at Avaris, have been associated by some as the Egyptian rulers “who knew not Joseph”. Their expulsion under Ahmose I (1570-1546 BCE) has been seen by many as linked to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. That now has been largely rejected. They were a Semitic people who practiced both Canaanite and Egyptian religious rites and spoke a tongue related to Canaanite. Some have seen the use of the horse and chariot, the sickle sword, and the composite bow as their contributions to Egyptian culture. It is clear now, however, that they did not dominate the whole of Egypt but only the Delta region. Seen as the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt they probably existed alongside the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties. The Egyptians were based in Thebes, while the Hyksos ruled in Avaris. In Josephus we hear an association that he makes with the Exodus, however their expulsion from Egyptian territory may have only inspired the account in Exodus.
First Reading: Exodus 1:8-2:10
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
With this reading, we begin a huge and influential tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely that of Moses. Brevard S. Childs, in his commentary on Exodus, has an unusual take on this story. He sees it as a historicized wisdom tale, and uses the following as evidence for this thought: 1) the characters have natural roles as opposed to supernatural descriptions. For example, there is Pharaoh who is portrayed as a “wicked fool” much like Haman in the Esther story, 2) The piety of the characters, especially the midwives in their decision not to obey Pharaoh, 3) The Egyptian Princess is described in an open and positive manner – she is seen as having a pity for the abandoned Moses, and 4) There are few mentions of God and God’s role in the story. “Nowhere does God appear to rescue the child; rather, everything has a ‘natural’ cause.” Never the less, this is a foundational story in Salvation History. Child’s observations may be true, but the reasons behind the editing and transmission of the story are theological, not social.
In the story we meet the character of Pharaoh, none that we know by name, but any pharaoh - for there will be several in the story of Moses. The character of this pharaoh, and any pharaoh will be the same, shrewd, wicked, and stubborn. They will always be thwarting God’s will and purpose. This will be the background and context of the entire adventure. From the Nile to the Reed Sea, Pharaoh will be at cross-purposes with Moses, and Moses will be the one who hears God’s voice, the one who leads.
Breaking open Exodus:
1. If this is a wisdom story, what does it teach us about daily living?
2. What emotions do you see in the Princess?
3. How is this story connected to the Jesus story?
Psalm 124 Nisi quia Dominus
1 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;
2 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;
3 Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;
4 Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;
5 Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.
6 Blessed be the Lord! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the Name of the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
We get an immediate clue in the first verse of this psalm as to its use. It is a liturgical psalm, meant for use either in the temple or by pilgrims in procession. It is a community thanksgiving for God’s acts of protection and guidance to the people of Israel. The first five verses have a sense of particularity to them, referring to acts in which God has saved God’s people. The use of ocean imagery, sea monsters in verse 3, and the flood sweeping them away would have powerful constructs to those singing the psalm. The sea, its creatures, and its powerful waves were images of death to the people of Israel.
The second section of the psalm (verses 6-8) might be seen as sung by a single voice, praising the God of Israel. Again images are used to describe the averted fate – prey that is victim to an animal’s teeth, and the snare of a fowler. They have been delivered, and now there is hope for more, for fresh events of salvation, “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.
Our reading of this poem from Second Isaiah is divided into two strophes (verses 1-3, and 4-6). The remainder of the larger pericope (51:1-23) continues that general pattern. If there is a general theme that the prophet wants to set before us, it is one of listening. Each of the strophes in our reading begins with that invitation. In his commentary on Second Isaiah,
“The first strophe has as its purpose the encouragement of those who are seriously pursuing righteousness. These are persons who would be particularly prone to discouragement. Their compatriots whose hearts are hardened (cf. 46:12–13) will not be especially troubled by God’s apparent failure to keep his promises. After all, they never thought he would in the first place.”
Isaiah sees those, however, who are looking for God, and who don’t know what to do with their disappointment. To this attitude Isaiah brings a familiar offering – comfort. The first strophe asks us to look at Abraham and Sarah, for God comforted them in their distress, as God comforts Zion. Out of Sarah’s despair, God comforted her with an heir – and not only an heir, but also a nation.
The second strophe reminds God’s people to listen for God’s teaching, God’s word, and God’s prophetic presence. The people invited by God to listen are God’s people, partners in an intimate relationship with God. If comfort was the byword for the first strophe, hope stands in for the second. And this hope stands in a desperate place. “Though the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth wear out like a garment…my salvation shall remain forever and my victory shall always be firm.” These are words for our time as well.
Break open Isaiah:
1. How do you hear God as an individual?
2. How do you hear God in your community?
3. What is your hope?
Psalm 138 Confitebor tibi
1 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;
3 For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.
4 When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me.
5 All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
6 They will sing of the ways of the Lord, *
that great is the glory of the Lord.
7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
8 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.
9 The Lord will make good his purpose for me; *
O Lord, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.
This psalm expresses the thanksgiving of an individual in the first section (verses 1-3), and in the second (verses 4-8) praises God in a much wider context. The thanksgiving’s purpose is best expressed in the verse 8, which mirrors the sentiments of the 23rd psalm, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me.” This is what others will see, what the nations will see and experience. The great divide that might exist amongst others does not obtain here. “The Lord is on high, but cares for the lowly.” If there is a divide, it is one that Mary sings about in the Magnificat. In this poem and in her song, the lowly are lifted up and the proud are seen by God from afar.
Breaking open Psalm 138:
1. Are you one of the lowly, or are you one of the proud?
2. How do you model God’s behavior in lifting up the lowly?
3. What are the troubles you are walking through?
The Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Paul has spent a great deal of time up to this point reminding the church of who it is that actually constitutes the church – Jews, Gentiles, men, women, children. Now he addresses them as a community called to be and do together. He calls them a “living sacrifice.” This reading reminds me of a phrase in the Rite 1 Eucharistic Prayer of the Book of Common Prayer, “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” We are made worthy of being such a sacrifice by the renewal of our minds – so that we might know what it is that God wants us to do.
Having that certainty about our true self, Paul then wants us to see how the community is knit together so that it might accomplish the will of God. He encourages us to look at our real selves, the various parts of which we are made, which parts working together make for life. So it must be for the church as well. Paul makes one of his lists, enumerating the differing gifts present in the church: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. Has anything been left out? Offering up ourselves we can offer up some of these gifts. Offering up as a community we might, as a body be able to offer up all of them.
Breaking open Romans:
1. What is your greatest gift?
2. How might it be used for others?
3. How might you offer it up in the Body of Christ?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 16:13-20
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
This reading always reminds me of a joke told during my college years by a professor of theology. It consists of Jesus’ question about, “who do men say that I am?” Only, in this version, the apostles’ answer, “Some say that you are the ultimate concern, the ground of all being, the omega point,” and Jesus said unto them, “Huh?” It was a take down of contemporary, or not so contemporary theology by a conservative Lutheran theologian, and it was a sign, in our nervous laughter in response, of our own search for who Jesus is. It’s a poignant question, and one that is asked with increasing relevance in our own time, when much of what Jesus calls us to do is either ignored, or explained away.
Matthew uses another term, “the Son of Man”, as opposed to Mark’s “I”. Matthew’s Jesus reaches back into the history of Israel to help Peter frame his response, as well as the responses of the others, “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah.” In these responses, Jesus is seen as standing amongst the prophets, the latest manifestation of which was John the Baptist. Peter goes beyond that. “You are the Messiah.” What does it mean that Jesus was the “Anointed One”? And here we see Jesus standing amongst the anointed ones of Israel – prophets, priests, and kings.
The vision is not Peter’s own, but a gift from God – a revelation from God. With his confession, however, do we then need to stop seeking an answer, or words with which to frame an answer? In our preaching, in our devotions we need to continue to address the question. Our time is either asking it, or ignoring it. What troubles me most is that our time is painting Jesus in colors that he would not recognize or want. So we are left with it. Who do you say that he is?
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What questions is Jesus asking you?
2. What would you like to ask him?
3. What role does he play in your life?
General idea: Knowing Jesus
Example 1: Taken from death to life as Moses was (Track One: First Reading)
Listening to God individually and communally (Track Two: First Reading)
Example 2: Knowing ourselves in Christ (Second Reading)
Example 3: Devoting ourselves to the Question (Gospel)
All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 Childs, B. (1974), The Book of Exodus, A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia.
 Ibid, page 13
 Oswalt, J. (1998), The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Kindle Edition, location 6677.
 Episcopal Church. (1979). The Book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church : together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of the Episcopal Church. New York :Seabury Press, page 336.