Insights with Seitz: Symphony of Scripture
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12th, 2021

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12th, 2021

November 18, 2020

We now come to a major transitional section in the middle of the Gospel of Mark. The threefold passion prediction of Jesus, today, next week in chapter nine, and again in chapter ten, provides the steady rhythm line. Jesus activity in Galilee—his rapid fire activity in chapter one, his healings and teachings, on two sides of the Sea of Galilee and beginning to broaden out into gentile regions, his being dogged by Jewish officials come up from Jerusalem—all this is giving way now, driven by his announcement openly that he is to go up to Jerusalem and, as he tells his disciples three times, there be beaten, killed and on the third day be raised. Openly, plainly, boldly. 

This openness and boldness on his side is however not reciprocated and is even rebuffed, today by Peter, and later with fear of further asking; and silence. 

It has been noted that the entire section we are entering, running to the end of chapter ten and the actual events of Passover and death here being foretold—which unfold in the Gospel’s final 4 chapters—are framed by two healing stories, both of them involving blindness. This is a fitting frame. The disciples will struggle to understand, like the man who, at Jesus’ touch, first sees only people who like trees and, with a second laying on of hands, sees things clearly. The gentile mission has continued with the feeding of the four thousand, which is the final episode preceding this frame.

Jesus announces his time has come. The son of man will be delivered up – a theme rooted in Daniel and Isaiah and in its own way in the Psalms and other Prophets – and by this means the struggle with demonic forces will end in victory. Not avoiding death but meeting it head on, bearing its assaults, conquering it. The new exodus to the promised land, mapped out by Isaiah, via this judgment, entails all of Israel, the holy ones who follow in his wake, and it will affect all creation, as Isaiah and Daniel had made clear.

But this path was not the one Peter or the disciples had foremost in their minds or had yet contemplated with eyes fully cleared, for a horrible death as a means of salvation comes naturally to no one, even with the aid of the scriptures. And nothing in the first half of the Gospel had prepared them for this: this juxtaposition of divine insight into who Jesus is, given all he has done, “you are God’s anointed one” Peter declares; followed by the immediate declaration of his coming mistreatment and death. All but obliterating the final triumphant “and rise on the third day” – an incomprehensible adjustment of hopes associated with the final judgment to be wrought at the coming of God’s anointed, moved instead into the middle of time, and placing them behind the one who would accomplish this and also demand their own following cross. Their sight, such as it is, is like seeing trees instead of men, even as they do follow, as we shall see.

Jesus is heading into Gentile territory again, toward the villages of the Caesarea which lies north of Galilee. In response to his question about how they hear the crowds wrestling with just who he is, given all his dramatic and successful work on their behalf, the answers rising up have all to do with a powerful OT saint alive and at work in him. (The Transfiguration account repeats this idea in its own way; Herod had also worried about John raised in Jesus). Jesus belongs to a category that has to do with more than meets the eye in just this human frame. Inspired beyond his human frame, Peter answers the question, “you are the Christ.” Jesus’ vehement admonition to tell no one anything is surely linked to the term “Christ” – a term requiring careful and difficult calibration if Christ is properly to be understood as this man Jesus standing before them and speaking of his destiny. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus makes it clear that for him it is a satanically inspired mis-calibration. We have seen this misstep before. Jesus rounds on Peter and makes it clear his announcement of his identity and mission are divine; Peter’s bold rebuttal is satanic. 

Jesus’ words are then to the disciples and crowds both. Is there any way to get and then give something that would have the value of one’s own life, and capable of redeeming it from death? The answer is obvious enough, No. But deep inside Jesus’ rebuke to the Peter and the disciples lies an answer difficult to see and accept. His cross does have that power. His cross is the only thing given capable of gaining our life. Losing our life into that life and death is the means by which God is redeeming the world and giving us new life, eternal life.

The servant of Isaiah had mapped this all out in the providence of God’s actions in Israel, though the road there is also obscure and hard to follow. The lone servant is the embodiment of faithful Israel. The servant is beaten and afflicted, yet stands fast in faith. The servant dies and by that means recognition comes to the nations of the earth, and Israel confesses it was a death capable of bearing sins and bringing new life for generations to come. “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced. It is the Lord God who helps me.” The servant walks his path and prepares it for the one to come in the fullness of time. 

And this is no isolated walk, but one the psalmist declares in his own manner. The cords of death and grip of the grave are overcome by the God who hears the cries of the faithful. The path Jesus lays out and declares we are to follow him in, is a path of victory through death and sin, fragile and short-sighted though we be. The psalmist tells us our destiny in him, and also our confidence in spite of all we can see now but dimly. “You have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling” following in Jesus strong steps.

The Track One reading is taken from the opening chapter of Proverbs. Wisdom speaks in personified form in Proverbs and is introduced in that role in the very start of the collection. Wisdom is the teacher who sets out the way of wisdom and warns of the dangers of following an easier, seductive, yet ultimately foolish way. “Those who listen to me will be secure” is also the counsel of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God, prefigured here in Proverbs. The disciples and all followers must take up their cross and walk in his way, his path, even as it seems hard. The way of the world does not offer the ability to save one’s life, and striving along that path paradoxically ends in loss, as Ecclesiastes reminds us in his wisdom. But the wisdom of the cross is greater than all human wisdom, and this is the path in which the wise find life. The psalmist describes this in terms of God’s law, written into creation itself, declaring his glory by doing his bidding unceasingly and effortlessly. Without speech or language yet communicating God’s glory through obedience to his created wisdom. Law derives from this same wisdom, and it is to be desired more than gold. Peter and the disciples and all who follow Jesus must pray to be delivered from presumptuous sins, and must be given clean hearts by God in Christ.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” is justly the prayer of the Christian preacher, that she might open her mouth in wisdom, cleansed by God’s word.

Which brings us properly into the range of James chapter 3, our Epistle reading for today. False speaking, preemptory rebuking, path walking as the simple, orienting ourselves outside of God’s wisdom and God’s law – all of these arise naturally in us, and need no encouragement. They are defaults.

James uses the example of the tongue, which though small, steers like the tiny rudder on a mighty ship, and boasts of this great exploit. Taming this organ is harder than any taming known to man in the world of fierce and powerful animals. The challenge is clear. But the gift of correction and rebuke and proper following is before us in the Gospel, behind the Lord Christ who shows the way to life through his death, and who grants us the wisdom of the law written now in our hearts by his hand. His tongue the tongue of the servant, the tongue of wisdom, taught anew morning by morning, and ready to guide our ship along its way.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5th, 2021

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5th, 2021

November 18, 2020

We continue our slow walk alongside Jesus in Mark’s narrative portrayal, back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, Jewish and Gentile sides, and now widening his trajectory and entering the historically prosperous coastal regions of Tyre and Sidon, and on into the Decapolis. Track One likewise continues to march through the literature associated with Solomon, moving from Song of Songs to a short trek through the Book of Proverbs. And as well, we are following in both Tracks a continuous reading through the Epistle of James. In both Tracks, Psalms appropriate to the OT reading are provided, in Track two, geared to the symphony of Gospel and OT reading both.

The Gospel account for today, Jesus encounter with a Greek speaking Syrophoenician woman, has in recent times been, the recipient of some remarkable interpretations. Jesus was put in his place. Jesus changed his mind because he was properly upbraided. The Syrophoenician woman served as a mirror reflecting Jesus own xenophobia back to him, causing him to rethink his attitudes towards Gentiles. A google search will pull up dramatic titles for recent studies of the text, like “The woman who changed Jesus.”

So let’s start with the Gospel and take a closer look at Mark’s narrative line.

It is obvious that Jesus is increasingly encountering those in need of healing and who lived on the margins: Jews dead or dying—Jairus’s daughter—the woman with a flow of blood, and now Jesus starts to enter traditional gentile regions, in Tyre and later in the cities of the Decapolis where he will heal and encounter those in need who throng to him, having heard of his fame.
Lots of cultural questions hover around our text. The region Jesus enters is a gentile one wealthier than the Jewish Galilee and the agricultural labor there from which they benefited – taking food and leaving scraps for dogs, one might say. The woman Jesus encounters is a Greek speaker, and could that mean culturally upper class? Tyre is famous in the OT for wealth, trading, and commerce. Read Ezekiel’s three chapter exordium (26-28) for a sober account of the ravaging by Tyre of neighbors and her sea-faring commerce without peer.

One thing is for sure. At the center of many Marcan stories is the theme and the question of faith. Jesus responds to faith – so the woman with the flow who reaches out in faith, and the ruler of the synagogue: “do not fear, only believe.” To the father of the epileptic child in chapter nine: “all things are possible to him who believes.” “I believe. I have faith,” he says, “help my unbelief.”

In addition, the idea of a history of salvation, first to the Jew, then the Gentile, is resident in Acts and in Paul, and we see it as well in the Gospels. Go nowhere but to the lost tribes of Israel. Let the children first be fed. Five thousand are fed, with twelve baskets left over, on the predominantly Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee. Four thousand are shortly to be fed, after them, during Jesus’ fresh journeys in largely Gentile regions. 

Jesus has upbraided the Jewish leaders for hindering the law’s good intent, and as the law’s good giver he has himself gone into the regions of uncleanness and brought forth healing and life from the dead. He now begins a trek into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, as his fame has become known to a strong character in the person of a woman of standing with a daughter possessed by a demon. He is hidden away, Mark tells us, and he wants to remain so. But this persistent woman breaks through, for such is the powerful draw of Jesus for those in need.
Dog is clearly a pejorative term, and most dogs were undomesticated scavengers. A dog under the table is closer to our understanding, awaiting his food. The image can appear in Jewish texts, representing the gentiles who come within their feeding range and dine after them at the final eschatological banquet.

Falling at Jesus feet and begging is indeed her canine posture, and she does not bristle when Jesus confirms the order of salvation. Indeed, she underscores his own point by speaking it back to him. Yet she stands ready in just that posture to receive the food she and her daughter need. Great is her faith. Absent is the pained cry in chapter nine, “help my unbelief,” for she is all in. For saying this, Jesus responds, she has shown her great faith and her daughter’s healing is assured. She went home, found the child in bed, the demon gone.

It is just this strong faith, we may assume, that explains Jesus’s steady movement now, out of the Sea of Galilee western regions, into Tyre and Sidon, and then into the gentile cities on the other side, the region of the Decapolis. Great faith is great faith, and great faith in him is saving faith, spilling over the messianic banquet table and manifesting itself before his eyes. Hidden away, as Mark seems symbolically to imply, in the order of salvation, but breaking forth now.
Isaiah had spoken this beforehand, in what Paul calls a mystery, hidden though present beforehand, and now breaking forth in the fulness of time. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The same text quoted in Acts 13 by Paul and Barnabas to confirm their outreach beyond Jewish Israel, even as their persistent preaching in the synagogues never ceases throughout the ensuing chapters.

Chapters 40—66 of Isaiah are renown for these notes of outreach, of salvation breaking forth among the nations, as Israel’s punishment by the nations becomes, in the order of salvation, the means of their knowledge of God, diaspora Israel in OT times to become in time the synagogue Israel of Paul’s eventual mission in that context.

Chapters 34 and 35 of Isaiah serve as a harbinger of the latter chapters and anticipate many of the themes found there. So our OT reading chosen for today. Wonders of healing and reversals of affliction, without respect to the recipients save their need. Be strong, fear not. And what an example in the woman in today’s reading. Followed by the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promises in the healing of the deaf and mute man in Gentile Decapolis.

Alleluia is the refrain of our psalm, picking up from where Isaiah started. Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their refuge, the elect of Israel or those of us adopted into that banquet.

The Epistle reading from James is a familiar one, reminding us that faith without actions that it compels is not the faith of God’s gifting in Jesus Christ. Jesus showed no distinction in allowing the cry of the woman from wealthy Tyre to sound forth, even as he spoke from within the saving presence of the God of Jacob. When she affirmed that saving order of things, she received not crumbs but new life for her daughter. 

Our track one reading from the middle of Proverbs, chapter 22, has likely been chosen out of other possibilities in that long collection, as in track two, because of themes it reinforces in the Gospel lesson. So we hear in verse 8: those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. The gentile women from Tyre may not be poor in worldly means, but she is desperately poor because of the affliction tormenting her daughter. Jesus may not appear generous at first, but is prepared to do everything asked of him by those with the faith of this same woman, as part of the history of salvation at whose center is Jesus Christ himself. For the Lord pleads their cause, as our Proverbs reading puts it. 

Those who trust in the Lord, though they may be in Tyre, are like Mount Zion itself, which cannot be moved, but stands fast forever. In the Lord’s compassion, crumbs become basketfuls of leftovers, and food from his table life-changing, hope-providing nourishment from heaven. 
He has done everything well, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the demons are routed. 

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 1st, 2021

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 1st, 2021

November 18, 2020

The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle recorded by all four Gospels. Our year B Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John share as well the account of a fearsome sea crossing, which follows it, and in which Jesus comes to the disciples walking on the water. In John, this mysterious boat-less night crossing of the Sea of Galilee by Jesus leads the well-fed crowds to believe he is still at Tiberias. Searching for him and finding him instead at Capernaum, Jesus launches into a long discourse about spiritual food and the true bread from heaven, which runs the length of the 70 plus verse chapter six. The lectionary has therefore decided to depart from Mark here and thus allow a five Sunday long walk through the sixth chapter of John, which begins as did Mark and then moves into more extended address.

Many of the details, moreover, are the same and shared by the two Gospels. Five loaves and two fish, the command to sit down on the grass, the eucharistic-like blessing and breaking and distributing, 12 baskets of leftovers, fear from the disciples at Jesus approach on the water. In John the reference to Passover likely underscores the eucharistic overtone, especially as the Fourth Gospel provides no Last Supper scene alongside the other synoptic witnesses.

In the continuous reading through the books of Samuel, which Track One presents, we land on the terrible chapter of David’s affair with Bathsheba, the wife of his stalwart mercenary warrior Uriah the Hittite. The heretofore flattering and salutary portrayal of David suddenly shifts to its shocking nadir, with the men in the field defending Israel and David prowling the rooftop in indolent free time. In one episode we witness coveting, adultery and false witness, as well as the first commandments of the Decalogue, in breach. The Psalm summarizes David in this wretched loss of integrity, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” But God looks down from heaven all the same, high above David on his rooftop, with the same clear-eyed truthfulness as our narrator. David contriving to cover up his misdeeds and Uriah holding fast to his integrity, frustrating David’s scheme and leading to his own death, left alone on the front lines at David’s command, in the end. In the Annals of the Assyrian Kings there is never a misstep, only flattery and victory without ceasing. Israel’s record of its self allows the horrible light of truth to shine, even on God’s anointed and sustained David, because it is a sacred record guided by the God of Holy Truth, Righteousness, and Mercy.

If read as the OT lesson for this Sunday it is hard to imagine a greater, more stunning contrast with the Davidic King Jesus. Stingy, self-indulgent, conniving, a spiral into Godlessness, where in Jesus is healing, feeding, multiplying, compassionate service. God himself. “O that deliverance would come out of Zion,” our Psalmist cries, restoring the fortunes of a broken people. And there he is come.

Over the coming weeks we will stay with the storyline of David and then Solomon. David’s confession before the prophet Nathan comes next week and alongside it the penitent psalm 51. “Against you, you only have I sinned. And done what is evil in your sight. Create in me a clean heart O God.”

The OT lesson chosen to come alongside the NT’s feeding of the 5000 is the brief account of Elisha’s multiplication of twenty barley loaves and ears of grain. It has likely influenced the multiplication stories in the NT, if not also Jesus own sense of his mission, in showing Jesus to be a prophet greater in spirit than Elijah or Elisha, his predecessors. Elisha is well on the way to becoming a powerful wonder worker. It is a time of famine in the northern kingdom. In the section just preceding ours he has turned a pot of lethal food into healthy and sustaining soup.

Now a man arrives with a sack of food for the man of God. Elisha insists that it will suffice for his hundred fellow prophets and commands it be set before them. His servant, like the disciples, objects that it will only be enough for a few. They eat and as Elisha had promised, there is bread left over after the filling meal. The way is being prepared for the Bread of Life, present there in Israel’s manna and twenty loaves, and present in the flesh feeding 5000 with five barley loaves and two fish, 12 basketfuls left over.

As the grace we said at my parents’ table put it, from the 145th psalm read in response to 2 Kings 4 today. “The eyes of all wait upon Thee O Lord, and Thou giveth them their meat in due season. Thou openest thy hand and fillest all things living with plenteousness.” The LORD is near to those who call on him faithfully, in Jesus and in his prophetic forerunners.

Our Ephesians reading is the soaring pray of Paul for the church, which points to a kind of doxological excess and overflowing, equivalent to twelve baskets left over after starting with but five loaves and two fish; and feeding multitudes. There is a richness untapped and fully on offer, that God the Father is ready to give, due to the work of Jesus Christ, there for the saints living and those gone before. Paul strains to find adequate spatial terms to describe this richness of glory God wants to impart, and thus he must pray and bow his knee. “That you may have the power, Christ dwelling in your hearts by faith, to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ surpassing knowledge,” and be filled with the loaves of God’s very life and spirit to basketfuls of overflowing.

As indicated, over the coming four Sundays of August the Gospel reading remains in the sixth chapter of John, and the various discourses on the true bread from heaven found there. I am the bread of life. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Eucharistic teaching in the manner of the fourth Gospel. Track I takes us from the revolt of Absalom—part of the temporal punishment for David’s sin—and into the reign of Solomon. The next four Sundays will bring us to the end of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. And the OT paired readings focus on feeding and new life as the OT dwells on the theme – manna in the wilderness, the desert feeding of Elijah, the feast of wisdom in Proverbs and the final chapter of Joshua where new life in the LORD is chosen.

In our little village here in France, next to the parish church where you can sometimes hear the bells ring in these podcasts, the long days of August are here. The lovers of holidays, the French, are ensconced in their vacation time in earnest. So too where you are in Canada and the US and elsewhere, during the summer dog days. I, too, will take the month off and return for Pentecost 15, the first Sunday in September.

We have been moving along for 30 episodes now. Do you have suggestions? I will stay with the basic format, which is intended to stay close to the lessons, in their entirety, so as to get you started in your weekly reflections and sermon preparation, or for worshipping with these texts on Sunday. If you have feedback, send it along to our Wycliffe hosts. My thanks to Terry Spratt and Steve Hewko for their excellent studio help and encouragement.
Until September then, Godspeed.

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 25th, 2021

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 25th, 2021

November 18, 2020

Our Gospel reading for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost has clearly omitted a major section in the middle of the sixth chapter of Mark, some 20 verses, so as to let the focus fall on Jesus boat crossing with his disciples/apostles and his compassion on the crowds seeking to be in his healing presence.

Left out here in Mark is the feeding of the five thousand, followed by a terrifying sea crossing where Jesus walks on the water and reassures his closest disciples.

This same sequence is found in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, one of those places where John and Mark have a similar arrangement—feeding of five thousand, and walking on the sea. There, in John, it leads onto fuller discourses about the bread from heaven. 

In Year B, Mark’s year, the lectionary has chosen to let John speak at this point next Sunday, taking over from Mark, since they share the same sequence, and to bring into association as well the rich treasure house of feeding stories from the OT. Manna in the wilderness, Elisha multiplying scarce resources, and so forth. For five Sundays running. I will say more about this next week but note that Mark’s omitted section is not like unto last Sunday’s excision from 2 Samuel 6. Rather it occurs so as to offer space for the 4th Gospel to speak, otherwise not represented in the three-year Matthew, Mark, Luke cycle except on occasions like this. It brings a complementary word and also in this case a much a fuller one.

The transition from the death of John the Baptist, which we heard last Sunday, to today’s scene is only roughly provided in Mark. The disciples of John come and take care of his executed body (v. 29). The apostles of Jesus, as Mark calls them here, return from their successful missionary work and give report (V. 30). Yet the death of John hangs in the air, so to say. Jesus will begin to focus on his chosen twelve, after John’s death and his disciples mourning of him. The apostles go with Jesus into a desert place. The reference to sheep without a shepherd tracks closely the words of Moses in the wilderness, as provided in Numbers 27. Moses is about to die. He will not enter the promise land. God provides Joshua as his replacement, in compassion and in response to Moses’ request, seeing that “the people are like sheep with a shepherd.” Shepherd will become a general term for proper leadership, focused on the Davidic monarchy, but also encompassing the Moses foundational teaching-and-leading role in the wilderness. Moses too provides miraculous food for the sheep he shepherds. Jesus is about to feed five thousand. Jesus ends the retreat with his apostles to come ashore and have compassion. To give instruction, torah. To feed.

We cross over the feeding story that follows and the harrowing boat trip and land with Jesus on the western side of the sea of Galilee. The crowds throng Jesus wherever he goes, here bringing their sick, seeking like the woman with the flow of blood, only to touch his garment. And so be healed. The call for secrecy, a theme in Mark’s Gospel, cannot succeed in anything but slowing down the crowds by a trickle.

This is a Sunday where the Old Testament readings from Tracks 1 and 2 actually both suit the Gospel. Jeremiah speaks of a history of bad shepherds, in his frame of reference meaning the Davidic kings that have ruled over Judah, and for a brief time, the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. We have come to the end. The exile is near. The kings’ negligence over centuries of God’s patience has left the flock scattered. But God’s promises to David are not in vain even as the shepherds have with but rare exception—Hezekiah, Josiah—failed. God will be shepherd for the season of bringing home the scattered flock. This sequence matches the movement of the Psalter as a whole work. Book Three sees the end of the monarchy and the promises to David dashed to the ground. So the end of Psalm 89 whose first section only has been chosen for today’s reading. In Book 4 the Lord is King. And in the final book five psalms of ascent bespeak the ongoing hopes and pledges for David, Zion, God’s people, all nations and a renewed creation of endless alleluia.

In Jeremiah’s words:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

The personal gathering, shepherding by God himself undergirds all that he means to pledge to David. To the degree that in coming days, this Son of David will himself be the LORD our righteousness, the good shepherd, the compassionate Jesus the crowds press forward to touch so as to but touch his garment and be healed. 

Psalm 89 underscores the promises to David and all his lineage. I will punish them for all their transgressions. Even to the point of casting them off, as the end of the psalm soberly laments. But Psalm 89 is not the last word of the Psalter. And its “I will not take my love from him” and “his line will endure forever” override his punishing for a season, and indeed point ahead to Jesus Christ himself. The good shepherd. Psalm 23 captures this well. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, because in the Lord my shepherd, the Lord God, the Lord Jesus, I shall not be in want. David’s psalm become out own.

The reading from Ephesians moves us to chapter two and one of the most important asides in all the New Testament. Here Paul raises his eyes to speak directly to one group only: those previously outside the covenants of promise, strangers, without Christ and without God in the world. All those of us who listen in on God’s life with Israel, in the promises of 2 Samuel, in Psalm 23, Psalm 89, Jeremiah, and in Jesus with his chosen fellow Israelites. Whatever reconciling work God was doing in Jesus Christ, he did with one cross, not two. And in that one cross, God redeemed his people, and brought near those of us far off. Whatever dividing line existed by which God elected and promised and planned the future of good shepherds for his people Israel, involved equally the creating of new citizens, the issuing of library cards so we outsiders might read and see ourselves within the life and promises of Israel. The Holy Spirit makes this so. One new humanity made of two formerly, elected and adopted, with Jesus Christ the cornerstone.

The lectionary brings us into range and inclusion of all God has been saying to his people. A foundation of apostles and prophets, a symphony of prophetic witness, the OT, and an according testament now to be called New. Elder and Younger. Enduring and according. Promise and fulfillment. One Lord Good Shepherd in whom mercy and truth have embraced.
The table spread before us, arcing over the valley of the shadow of death itself, is this Lord in whom all want is turned into praise and thanksgiving. Wherever he went, those in need had only to touch the hem of his garment to be healed. In him is our peace. For in his flesh he has made us into one new humanity. A new temple, the church, built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18th, 2021

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18th, 2021

November 18, 2020

When we left David last week the tribes of all Israel had rallied around him, and his kingship effectively began. Only the lame Mepibosheth from the House of Saul remained alive. This Sunday marks the movement of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, where there is as yet no temple, but the religious significance of Jerusalem for what will become the Davidic monarchy is being made clear.

When last we left the venerable ark it was in Kireath-Jearim, to the west of the City of David, where it had remained, we are told in the first chapters of 1 Samuel, now twenty years. You will recall it had been taken away by the Philistines, who doubling down to avoid the fate of the destroyed Egyptians of Moses’ generation, routed Israel in battle. Good news, bad news, for the ark’s presence in their victorious midst caused tumors to break out throughout the coastal land. Sending it from one city to another to get rid of the freshly renewed and potent Egyptian-like plagues brought no better results. At Gath it was finally sent by cart, accompanied with sin offerings, on its way, where it promptly headed straight for home territory. A sign the priests had properly anticipated, meaning the judgment in their midst had been no accident. At its last staging point, the men of Beth-Shemesh dared to gaze into the ark and they were ominously slain. But the ark was how back home, back in its proper 20-year resting place in Israel.
It is always intriguing to see what verses our readings may from time to time leave out—this Sunday, vv 6 through 12a, which appears to be a surgical excision from the middle of our chapter 6.

Here is the account of one Uzzah who reached out to steady the ark en route, on its mobile journey to Jerusalem, and was struck down, giving rise to a popular name for the place and event and striking fear in David. The ark can take care of itself as we saw clearly in 1 Samuel, traveling around the hostile Philistine territory. It steadies Israel; it isn’t steadied.

Parenthetically, I often find these “steadying efforts” in the lectionary readings, that is, leaving out the more challenging verses from our readings, a missed opportunity. David’s dancing and rejoicing and shouting, amid trumpet fanfare, happens not in diminishment of the ark’s sacred potency but in the light of it. It is dancing and rejoicing after great fear and respect have been experienced by David. The despising by Saul’s daughter, Michal, of which we read today, elides David’s genuine fear like a concerned lectionary editor, and leaves his leaping and rejoicing without a proper context for interpretation. “With all their might” means an exertion like as in battle, matched by the disciplined offerings of respect as they go. The terror-and-tumor wielding arc must be brought forward with care and exertion, such as David and his chosen men are capable of, after the years of discipline we have closely followed in previous chapters.

The psalm speaks of the founding of the seas and the stabilizing of the deep in the same breath as the ascent to God’s dwelling. Who can ascend, who can stand in his holy place? The generation capable of this must seek him with a pure heart and clean hands, untethered to falsehood. The King of Glory is entering his holy place. The Lord of Hosts, seated upon the cherubim. He is the King of Glory. He steadies, secures, defends, founds the seas and dwells in safety in his holy place.

The choice of Amos chapter 7 to come alongside Mark 6 draws our attention to the parallel between Amaziah and King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel and the Galilean King—better Tetrarch—and Herod. And also between the prophet Amos and John the Baptist, the former banished, the latter tragically beheaded, both prophets strong in word and deed. Lectionary comparisons are also useful for calling attention to kindred features and also to subtle contrasts, so sharpening our eye on what is being depicted.

The plumb-line vision is the third in a series of four vouchsafed to Amos, or five if chapter nine’s later vision is to be included. After each of the first two—locusts and judgment by fire—the prophet begs God to relent. Amos the stern is as well a dedicated prophet of intercession for a wayward people. And God relents due to his plea.

The third vision he receives is just as harsh. The sanctuaries and the royal house will come to an end. Amaziah’s banishing of Amos from the sanctuary tragically means the sole person able to plead successfully with God for Israel, and who has done so, is now silenced. Nothing will stay the judgment because of the priest’s banishing response. So the final vision confirms the reality. An end has come upon Israel. Amos sees qayits, “summer fruit”, God says qets. The end.

The depiction of Herod is more complicated than Amaziah’s. He likes to hear John. There is something compelling about him. “When he heard him he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” This complexity may be entertaining to him, but his is a view of the matter not shared by his wife. John’s condemnation of Herod’s wrongful marriage to his sister-in-law – did Herod understand its sharp truth? Mark seems say so: Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. But Herod is clearly a wavering, impetuous, weak ruler. A rash vow to a dancing daughter, his own or his wife’s, seals John’s fate. (Any commentary will disclose how inbred and overly Herod-named was the family tree). Keeping face before his guests, he has the order given and John is slain. A harbinger of the fate awaiting Jesus at the hands of those equally compromised and feckless, as Mark will in time report.

This tragic event is provided in retrospect by Mark, as a means of explaining that—while others had other explanations–Herod believed Jesus’ mighty work was being done in the power and risen presence of this John whom he beheaded. So much for getting rid of him, even by rash vow. Here in Mark’s Gospel we face the question of how to fit this Jesus into some known frame of reference. A prophet come back? Elijah? The carpenter, son of Mary surrounded by relatives?

In the scene that follows we have no report of John’s death such as Matthew supplies, but both have Jesus withdraw to a lonely place. One senses the somber atmosphere. Luke refers to the death but does not report the details. At issue is who Jesus is, and what is that going to mean in the face of this kind of demonic assault.

Our psalm speaks of mercy and truth embracing. The truthfulness of John and the righteousness and mercy of Jesus. The way of prosperity is a way of righteousness even into the jaws of death and demonic cruelty. John has prepared the way yet again, even at his death, and Jesus will follow and lead on, onto a new pathway of peace. Those who turn their hearts to him will know this peace passing all understanding.

Our Epistle reading for today shows the start of a new walk, leaving 2 Corinthians and entering now Ephesians. The big picture is in frame. The plan for the fullness of time is a mystery truly there from eternity, witnessed in the law and prophets, and now shown forth in boldness.
We have been chosen according to this plan, from before the foundations of the earth. His death is part of this plan, it is no John-the-Baptist-tragedy: in Jesus we have redemption in his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. John as well, even in death, is part of this same plan. The riches of God’s grace freely bestowed on us includes John, and is on offer for the sins of the whole world, including a wicked Herod and a dancing Salome. Who is this Jesus? Just this Jesus.

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 11th, 2021

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 11th, 2021

November 18, 2020

Our readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, for 8 July, are in Track One a continuation of our walk through Samuel, paired with Psalm 48. In Track Two a reading from Ezekiel paired with Psalm 123 and the Gospel of Mark Chapter 6. And the Epistle reading for both tracks from the 12th chapter of Second Corinthians.

With the death of Saul, the drama of the final chapters of 1 Samuel stabilizes so far as David’s own health and safety are concerned. But as with aftershocks following an earthquake, the transition to his own secure rule is not yet here. A son of Saul remains and he has sufficient following to be made king as Saul’s successor. And the military retainers for the House of Saul and the House of David remain on violent auto-pilot—Joab and Abner and their respective camp followers. Saul’s son is killed by treachery and the ringleaders receive the same fate as did the opportunist who claimed to have slain Saul, and for the same reason. David did not seek to eliminate all rivalry, but rather avenged those who sought to end the reign of Saul’s house in the hope David would find that cause for their advancement. Only the lame son of Jonathan, mentioned in passing so as to alert us, remains of the House of Saul. The men of Judah and of Israel are now as one, and David is king over them both, and his long reign in the newly named City of David is here chronicled. We will now wait to see the future unfold, with only Mephibosheth left of the lineage of Saul.

Psalm 48 has been chosen to offer praise to Zion, place of God’s dwelling, place of his special choosing, place where he defends his life with his people against earthly threats. And the place where above all kingship, including that of his chosen one David, he is King.

1 Great is the LORD, and highly to be praised; *
in the city of our God is his holy hill.
2 Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, *
the very center of the world and the city of the great King.

As in the opening Psalm 2, paired with Psalm 1, we are reminded of God’s Holy Hill, and of his promises to his Son, the King, who will be protected from assaults, for assaults there will be, only because of God’s infinite kingship and upholding promise.

Our Gospel reading fast-forwards us to just such an assault, now in the fulness of time. Jesus is manifesting power and authority and wisdom such as only God can give. In this is his kingdom come, and yet offense is taken. He can only be who he is as all others are, son of Mary, here is his family, known by a trade. Where did this man get all this?

Jesus responds as did the prophets of old, who were known as different, as prophets, as men of God, precisely to the degree they were impossible to understand on human terms only. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Zechariah, Hosea and on the list goes. They all had fathers and they all had hometowns yet these remain but footnotes on the depository of testimony they have left to us, which continues to bear witness long after their passing. Isaiah was not heard; he is told his address will shut ears, close eyes, make hearts fat. But his testimony is preserved and opened to a new generation. Ezekiel is given woe and lamentation to eat like Jeremiah, and God yet provides an antacid and fills him with a spirit that sets him on his feet and sends him on his “Thus says the Lord” way. Jesus is provided with a long list of valiant forerunners so that he can be sure his path is well prepared for him to walk in. At another place Ezekiel, anticipating Jesus’s hometown comments here, speaks of having to address his own people, for whom his words are so much foreign babble, unlike the nations who do not know his tongue but who would ironically “get it” by contrast.

Just as there is a lineage of prophets in which Jesus stands, so he now sends forth those who will work in his name and with his authority. They too will encounter push back and refusal to welcome. They could be well equipped with the prayer that is the psalm chosen for the day. To you Lord Jesus I lift my eyes. As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, so our eyes look to the Lord our God. When contempt comes, have mercy. Defend us from scorn and derision. And so it is. They cast out many demons, anointed with oil those sick, and cured them. Looking to the Master.

Paul’s description of his thorn in the flesh can come alongside as well. He gets there however by a very specific route. The super apostles in Corinth claim spiritual visions and experiences. Paul can speak of himself in similar terms. But he does so by means of avoiding his first-person and speaking as if of someone else. For 14 long years Paul kept this experience to himself and never used it to boast. The third heaven is an expression of the day, sky, starry night, and the abode of God. Paradise. The experience was both real and also not for publication. For edification. For an example of how not to puff up, even as it served to place Paul in God’s personal presence.

And indeed Paul speaks, not of special revelations or of boasting, but of his affliction and his weakness. A physical, mental and spiritual thorn, from which Paul prayed unceasingly to be released. His apostleship does not lift him into lofty places of peace and boasting, causing envy, but means rather a constant reliance on the strength of God alone. The only answer to his prayer for relief was in fact the answer he received inside his affliction: my power is made perfect in weakness. That says it all. The presence of the power of Christ is such that it cancels out whatever afflicts and whatever condemns us on account of that very shortcoming in our flesh. That is an answer to prayer. That is a cause for real confidence and empowerment.

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 4th, 2021

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 4th, 2021

November 18, 2020

For our Pentecost readings in Track I over the past weeks, we have been supplied with four key episodes from the first 17 chapters of that book: the Call of Samuel, the Request for a King, the Selection and Anointing of David, and David and Goliath. Today we cross over the entire remaining chapters—14 all told—to the account of the death of Saul and Jonathan and David’s elegy over them.

One of the main challenges of the narration is the overshadowing fact that Saul remains King even as David has been anointed by Samuel as his replacement. Saul is not an old man. How will this play out, for David is successful, winsome, and indeed in position to replace him. What these 14 chapters convey is the extreme patience and care David exercises toward Saul, to the degree that in saner moments Saul refers to him as his son and successor, instead of Jonathan, David’s close comrade and Saul’s real son and successor. It makes for an impossible quandry. Saul remains King and David not only defers to that but believes himself divinely constrained to do so. And he is faithful to that constraint to the point of risking his own life, needing to take cover in difficult circumstances, encountering threats in consequence, negotiating his friendship with Jonathan and evading the ensuing attacks from an increasing demented Saul – conjuring up Samuel from the dead being one of the more painful episodes in his decline.

Why 14 chapters and not just a simple summary. At one level the answer is, such is life. There is no early retirement home for rejected but functioning Kings. The dilemma is equally David’s. And so we cover that terrain in the second half of 1 Samuel, in part I believe to make sure we sense something of the balance in David’s long term time on the stage. To recall and place in the record these moments of difficulty and challenge, for any one, much less the one who God has personally and prospectively and providentially placed on that stage, was important for the narrator. David, warrior and success-at-all-things, is David the patient and deferential.

We come then to today’s reading. Saul and Jonathan die in battle, as the final chapter of 1 Samuel relates it. Along with his two other sons, at the hands of the Philistines, on Mt Gilboa. Saul does not die outright but is gravely wounded by an archer’s arrow. The request for his armor-bearer to finish him off is refused, so Saul dies at his own hand, rather than be made sport of by the victors. Yet that fate is still in store for him anyway as we read on. In the end, the men of Jabesh Gilead are able to rescue the bodies, such as they are, and give them burial and proper mourning.

David’s moving tribute today comes after a man’s report to him that such has transpired. More than this, he claims to have finished Saul off. This is one of those places where sources have been posited to account for the divergence. Yet equally it creates a scene in contrast to all David has himself endured and borne, and through which he has faithfully stayed his hand. We have an opportunist eager to lie to gain favor, not realizing he claims to have done precisely what David refused to do, with far more reason to have done so.

The elegy speaks for itself, given all this. The full 14 chapter full journey of David, vis-a-vis Saul and his family, over rough terrain for them all here tragically ends. Verse 21’s reference to ‘not anointed’ with oil is unlikely an effort to claim Saul was never truly king, but rather refers to his shield; so too the implication of Hebrew poetry, where A and B lines repeat and reinforce. And this is the point of all that has ensued since the day of his anointing, the painful cry for a king and the painful burden placed on him for whom it was so, and his own son, and indeed David himself. Elegy indeed.

When last we left Jesus he was crossing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to the predominantly Gentile Decapolis. This Sunday he is returning to the side where he had previously been met by opposition from the Jewish officials. He didn’t arrive, touch the shore, and return immediately. Rather, we are passing over the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, after which Mark says he published widely throughout the Decapolis the great things Jesus had done for him. “And all were amazed.”

This time the reception on the Jewish side of the sea is favorable. One of the leaders of the synagogue, whose name, Jairus, Mark supplies, falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him come and heal his sick and dying daughter. This is the first of a series of healings on behalf of those who cannot ask for themselves, and so means Jesus must “cross over” to meet them on the other side. Sick and dying she is unclean. Off Jesus goes with Jairus and the crowd.

En route however we have an unexpected urgency of its own. A woman with a chronic flow of blood, making her ritually unclean as well, who has dumped a savings on false physicians for years, summons up the courage to touch the healer as he passes through the crowd en route to Jairus’s home. The touch, that will do it, just as Jairus has requested for his daughter. She senses in her familiar flesh of distress and chronic isolation instant electric healing. Jesus senses this as well. Mark’s Jesus is authoritative and virtually clairvoyant, but he demands a personal exchange for a personal crossing over to his side by this poor woman trapped in disease and chronic spiral. In fear and trembling—so the disciples in the boat—she responds to his demand and like Jairus falls at his feet. Now he crosses over. Your faith is a solid compass and it brought you home to me. Be at peace. This was not a one-time fluke. Your scourge is gone.

Now this delay along the way, while doubtless encouraging Jairus in what he has witnessed, yet like in the story of Lazarus, has meant the passing of precious time. Flowing from his house is the bad news. Death got here first. Jesus turns to Jairus and says “keep believing.” He takes the big three with him, Peter, James and John, entering the house where the professional mourners are underway. He sends them packing, leaving him alone with the four, and now joined by the distraught mother. Her sleep is no more final than was the deeper sleep of Lazarus, but it was death just the same. He takes her little hand in his own. Arise. She does, and like a good mother Jesus moves things back into the daily rounds. “Get her something to eat.”
Amazement ensues. And it will continue. There is no one like this man. He is an unstoppable force of healing, life from death, release from demons, power over waves and seas of doubt. The three are there to bear testimony, and what they do there with amazement they will do later with bold speech. After the forgiving Jesus reroutes them by His Risen presence. But not until his final assault on death, his own, is done. Here is the key to the call for secrecy of course. His hour is not come, but come it will.

Our accompanying poetic texts allow us a choice between Lamentations, which captures the plight of the woman with a flow of blood, or Psalm 30, which speaks of life from death. Lamentations 3 is the central of five panels of lament, confession, and a sitting inside sin and loss. It is the first-person poem, daughter Zion, Everyman, Israel – all can claim this speech. Jesus enters it and does not erase it but forgives and new-creates out of it. It is possible to imagine Jairus telling his daughter how remarkable was that day she came back to life, and later as a young woman hearing this psalm summarize her plight and its life giving reversal.

There is very little internal OT commentary on the story of Adam and Eve, surprisingly. The Wisdom of Solomon’s opening chapter offers the first such reflection. It matches nicely both the healing of the woman afflicted and the young child brought back to life. Death is foreign to God’s good purposes. It came as an alien intrusion. All generative forces made by God are wholesome. Jesus comes to defeat the devil who out of envy sought to distort and kill, scourge and condemn. The woman with the flow of blood touches this time the Tree of Life and the Knowledge of Good and Evil and in that act, Satan’s destructive ploy is brought to an end. Envious not for knowledge but for life, her act is acknowledged by Jesus to be the end of his rule over her.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 27th, 2021

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 27th, 2021

November 18, 2020

On the face of it the transition from the parable instruction of Jesus to the crowds, with private tutorials for the disciples, to the stilling of the sea in today’s reading seems abrupt. The address of Jesus as “teacher” offers some help but still makes for a very different classroom in a boat at sea. Nothing parabolic but indeed quite real in a squall. There may be a bit of transition, though subtly conveyed, in his announcement that they are leaving the crowds behind to go to the other side. If the implication of “to the other side of the sea” means where the gentile populations are prominent, then the reference to giving shelter to the birds of the air, as the previous mustard seed teaching described it, would be pertinent. In Ezekiel’s use of the phrase, recycled in Mark, the great cedar sheltered the nations, described as birds, and so too the amazing mustard plant with the same depiction of national safety.

But equally, we can see in both the instruction in parables and in the stormy sea God at work behind the scenes, as it were. Seed growing secretly. Surprising tiny seed growing to grandeur. Jesus asleep but fully in charge. A kind of anti-Jonah, obedient and all in, surprised at the fear but competent to make the seas obey him. The sea is that unruly force that seems to challenge God’s dominion, but over which he rules, from the moment of creation, through the great flood, and as the psalms describe it, a powerful voice over the waters day by day, sitting enthroned above the flood. As is Jesus arising from his sleep enthroned on the waters. “Peace, be still.”
Any number of Old Testament texts might be called upon to reinforce the point, but our selection from Job is a very good one. We find ourselves at the opening of the divine speech from the whirlwind, in God’s response to Job in chapter 38. For Job though the speech is a fearsome thing, it is also a response to him that silences his friends and moves past the subtle wisdom of Elihu, if that is the correct appraisal of the young man’s contribution. Job will be converted in this encounter and enabled to return to his famous intercessory prayer role, prior to being healed of his bodily afflictions. In this manner we see Satan defeated, who had said that no one would serve God for naught, for nothing but God’s own sake. Job does just that. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees you.” 

Or in our NT version, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

God speaks from inside the windstorm. Job is being girded up in his being addressed and being made privy to things God alone has seen. At the moment of creation where no man was, there Job is made to glimpse, through the eyes of God, to see as God sees, through God’s sharing of those memories to our persevering hero. As when he said to the waves of chaos, “Thus far you shall come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”

As God spoke and brought creation into orderly, obedient form, and as he shares that moment with Job who was not there anymore than anyone of us was, so in Jesus God acts in like manner. “Peace, be still.” Like Job, the disciples stand in awe. He who neither slumbers nor sleeps is sovereign over land and sea, over soil and over proud waves. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I am here, and even in crashing storms, and taking my rest, I am in charge. He rebukes the waves and shows that it is so. Faith is that endowment hard to summon up that is assured of secret growth, or deep roots in good soil, of tiny seeds being enough when God in Christ is the Lord of the Kingdom.

The Psalm, 107, with its glimpse at life for sailors on the seas, brings in dramatic chords to accompany Job and Mark. The psalm gives eloquent testimony to palpable fear. The God who brings the terrifying storms is the same Lord to whom appeal can be made, with the power and authority to still those storms. 

Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose, *
which tossed high the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths; *
their hearts melted because of their peril.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards *
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper *
and quieted the waves of the sea.
Then were they glad because of the calm, *

What a perfect accompaniment to the Gospel reading and God’s divine word to Job provided for this Sunday.

Paul’s litany of hardships borne for the sake of the Corinthians also comes nicely alongside the hardships at sea. But for Paul these testify to what empowerment in Christ has enabled in him and in the way of his service. “…through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. We are treated as dying – and see we are alive. Poor but having everything, as having nothing yet possessing all things.” What comes to mind is the promise of the parables of sure growth and deep roots. The disciples get a taste of the power of God in the midst of hardship, and of captaining their boat. Paul gives witness to just how strong this captaining is and what it allows in his ministry through all manner of hardship. And by this means he seeks to offer shelter to the birds of the air in Corinth. “Open wide your hearts also.” Join us in this rich soil with strong roots able to withstand storms and thorns and affliction. 

Finally then, Track One continues the walk through 1 Samuel, here offering two choices for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. The well-known David and Goliath encounter. Talk about a battle for survival and a fearsome encounter with the world’s mightiest and most dedicated warrior! And what does David say, brushing off the warnings and armor of Saul. “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

The bravado and fearlessness come across as unthinkable and a bridge too far, but in many ways they find their absolute fulfillment and accordance in the posture of Jesus himself before a deadly storm. “Where is your faith? Peace. Be still.” “Goliath, you are through.” The young David’s victory is fully plausible—striking the giant with his sling—since it is simply not what the giant thought fighting entailed. So he is doomed with one stone hurled from out of hand-to-hand fighting range. “You never forsake those who fear you, O Lord,” our Psalm 9 reads. “The ungodly have fallen into the pit they dug. The wicked are trapped in the works of their own hands. Rise up O Lord, let them be judged before you.”

The alternative reading from later in the same chapter 17 is provided for this Sunday without any explanation. Is the Goliath story too well known? Too violent? Does Track One admit of choices and variations, given that it has too much good material to work with? 

Here we have a David accepting the vesture of Jonathan, Saul’s son, where Saul’s armor he left to the erstwhile King. David will not find in Jonathan an obvious rival, as claimant to the throne, but a comrade and ally. We begin to see the paranoia and mood swings of Saul as he realizes here is his replacement, and not his son Jonathan. Evil spirit, fear, envy, awe begin to invade by strokes our rejected and yet still king Saul. Now we will have to see how David chooses to react. His loyalty to Jonathan gives us a clue. It will not be his instinct to retaliate in kind but will call forth from him the challenge of patience and respect. How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity. And how very hard. It must come as a gift from God and responded to with psalms of thanksgiving. 

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20th, 2021

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20th, 2021

November 18, 2020

For the 4th Sunday after Pentecost we continue our 1 Samuel readings, Epistle texts from 2 Corinthians, two short parables from the Gospel of Mark, paired with OT equivalents in the form of Ezekiel’s allegory/parable/riddle concerning the great cedar, and the Psalms of response keyed to the two different OT readings.

For last Sunday we tried to summarize the main story line of the Samuel material. In spite of grave threats from the Philistines and others, during Samuel’s long tenure Israel was faithfully preserved from attack. The people feared his passing and asked for a King. Samuel warned them solemnly against this and they persisted in their request, which God granted. However this would require a very strict obedience on their part and Saul’s. In the passage which precedes ours today we hear that God has withdrawn whatever even reluctant support he sought to give on behalf of Saul and the people’s request. Saul refused to carry out the direct command of God and Samuel, and using his handsome head, spared the most handsome portions of the spoils he had been directed to destroy. Pragmatics are not what God requires, but obedience. When confronted by Samuel, within earshot of the bleating reserves, Saul confesses he feared the people and acted in that spirit. He desired their approval. Following on from a similar occasion of cutting the bed to fit his own best sense of things, this time God’s patience and Samuel’s has run out.

The entire complex of narratives involving Saul and the request of Israel, wrongly predicated—“that we might be like the nations”—offers a chilling tale that nevertheless raises up in us sympathy even as the morale of the story is clear. Watch what you ask for, especially out of fear, for the requirements laid down for this are sometimes worse than patiently waiting upon God. Even Samuel finds it in himself to grieve. But that doesn’t change the reality. God dispatches him, and he goes on what he considers a dangerous mission. Here the coming depiction of Saul is anticipated, wherein he becomes the erratic, unpredictable, dangerous, unstable shadow tracking the Lord’s anointed, David, son of Jesse for the remainder of the books of Samuel.

The outward appearances—strength, stature, the grandeur of nations with their battle machines and kings—these are of no interest to the Lord. He looks inside. The ones we do not think the world will admire, these he puts to service. David is young, untested, not the one we would instinctively choose—so too Samuel’s instincts are off. He thought the eldest son of Jesse the best candidate. But God has in view the one he has in view. Saul anoints him. The spirit comes mightily upon him.

The psalm captures the scene well. “Now I know the LORD gives victory to his anointed. Some put trust in horses and chariots. But we call upon the name of the LORD. O Lord, give victory to the King.”

The other OT reading is not only chosen because it comes alongside the sowing parables of the Gospel lesson from Mark, with its image of a spring which becomes a noble cedar. It is also likely directly influencing the parable of the mustard seed as detailed by Mark. From smallest to greatest, this is the kingdom God is sovereignly bringing to flower. The parable in Ezekiel describes the competition amongst the nations, Babylon and Egypt, and the last of the Davidic rulers, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, one preserved and one blinded and hauled into captivity, caught up in the machinations of warring powers. Yet from the Davidic tree brought down, God will take a sprig. It will grow on a mountaintop, like the mount Zion of Micah chapter 4. And all the birds of the air will find shelter under it. In Ezekiel the reference is to the nations of the earth. The phrase emerges in Mark as “so that the birds of the air can make their nest in its shade,” the shade of the great mustard plant with the tiniest and most improbable of beginnings. In the kingdom Jesus is bringing, and whose inner truth he explains to his disciples, all the nations of the earth will find place in its shade. The first parable speaks of the need for sowing the word, and after that God produces the growth in ways hidden and mysterious. The second speaks of the mystery whereby the seemingly small and insignificant is by design en route to becoming a plant capable of sheltering all nations. In a funny way, the reading from 1 Samuel – the choosing of the boy David – fits here as well. David must be brought into view, for no one bothered to let him pass before Samuel. And yet this is the one who will become King and will portend the coming of the King Jesus.

The Psalm chosen for Track Two speaks of the righteous flourishing like great trees, the palm and cedar, because planted in the house of God’s purposes. They shall be green and succulent.

Mark’s double parable—the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed’s grand outcome—belongs in a longer section, which begins at the start of chapter 4 with the parable of the soils, rocky, thorny and good. Quick growth is not sustainable, and thorny growth is hampered from the outset. But good soil produces good growth, and it happens according to the mystery of God’s designing, just as the soil all by itself produces by stages stalk, head and full grain. The parables have the effect of closing ears, Jesus tells the disciples gathered around him. Isaiah and Ezekiel precede him in this truth. But to those close to him, the true meaning is given so that comprehension is possible, and so growth in good soil will occur. Even if mustard sized, the way ahead is prepared. Mark puts the readers in a position to come alongside the disciples, in the good soil it is our privilege, close to Jesus, to inhabit.

In our epistle reading we see one of those remarkable places where, though a serial reading crossing the main terrain of 2 Corinthians, we nevertheless have a remarkable symphonic fit with 1 Samuel and the Gospel and even Ezekiel 17. We walk by faith and not by sight. We regard no one from a human point of view. God looks on the heart. God is taking care of the smallest of our comprehension, and seeing to its growth according to his purposes. This way of walking in faith means much is hidden from our view. But this is not a hindrance but belongs to a new way of thinking and living. We are no longer living for ourselves but have been transported into a new soil where God is bringing about growth. We have a king who is not our heart’s desire, nor our fear’s longing, but is the one God’s has called forth from the baggage where his eye alone sees. This is not seeing from a human point of view, but can only be described with the language of new creation. Old and familiar patterns—let us be like the nations—are passing away. The kingdoms of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah have been brought low. But a sprig no larger than a mustard seed is all that God needs to produce the noble cedar of his kingdom. We are given the secrets of the kingdom that his parables otherwise veil, by sitting at his feet. There the good soil is, there the secret growth goes from stalk to head to full grain, and there the cedar capable of sheltering all the nations makes its way into the heavens. Jesus is himself the sprig, the mustard seed, the ruddy David behind the baggage, the first stalk. And he is at the same time the noble cedar in which is room for all the nations on earth to find shelter, who look to him as Lord and King.

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 13th, 2021

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 13th, 2021

November 18, 2020

Our readings for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost are, for both tracks, a portion of Mark 3—the confrontation between Jesus and certain scribes come down from Jerusalem—the continuous Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 4, a portion from 1 Samuel paired with Psalm 138, and for the complementary Track 2 a text from Genesis with Psalm 130 chosen to emphasize the satanic character of the confrontation with Jesus we read in the Gospel. 

Let me start by offering a brief summary of the contents of 1 Samuel, the focus of Track One, that is, those portions left out between the Sunday selections, the call of Samuel in chapter 3 and today’s reading about the anointing of the ill-fated Saul in chapter 8. This will help us fill in the blanks and better understand the portions from 1 Samuel Track One is providing according to its “let the OT have its own voice” plot. I can recall, parenthetically, doing a major Track One type walk through the OT and NT organized in a teaching volume called The Story. For my part, I found catching people up on what got left out far more interesting, and why what was chosen, chosen.

What the overall narrative line makes clear is this: Samuel preserves Israel during his faithful tenure. He is a prophet who assures that assaults from enemies do not overwhelm God’s people. His leadership is sound and reliable. The threats are real and sustained, but God uses Samuel to best purpose.

When he becomes old, in time, the people fear the future without him. Their request, however, for a King is not favorable to God; fear is handled by God in his sovereign ways. When grounded as well, “to be like the nations” – that is exactly not what Israel is to be. She is to be a light to the nations. Different. Holy. In relationship with a Saving Lord on their behalf.
God tells Samuel to warn the people about their request and he does. They ignore him and double down. God clarifies it is a rejection of him as King, as Lord of a different idea of nationality and kingship, and not a rejection of Samuel.

In chapters preceding this Samuel is sent to anoint Saul as nagid. Ruler. God has heard the cries of Israel for help. We hear in this nagid a concession to a request but on different terms as a King “so as to be like the nations.”

The people react to this, however, as consistent with their cry for a King. Samuel warns them. Strict obedience is the name of this game they have demanded they will play.
We watch as Saul is strictly obedient vis-a-vis his son Jonathon but not in respect of Samuel. And so this Kingship suffers the fate appropriate to it and those who requested it.
God rejects Saul under the conditions of Kingship as strict obedience to him, in spite of Saul’s stature, good looks, and obvious success as a nagid in battle. It is hard not to view him as caught up in the vortex of wrongly grounded requests and a high bar for compliance.
One usual way of handling the complexity of the narrative unfolding is to assign the bits in tension to sources or different authors. But this only defers the interpretation of the text as it presently stands. I think it is better practice to assume the tensions have been left there precisely to convey the complexity. You want a King, you will have one, but things wrongly predicated run their course in strict ways and not generous ones.

I mentioned last week the way the Gospel of Mark transitioned from chapter one’s depiction of Jesus confronting spiritual forces of satan to his confrontation with the religious leaders who challenge his fellowship with tax collectors and his conduct on the Sabbath.

Today the two realms merge. The religious leaders seek to claim that Jesus is himself a challenge to them because he is at work for satan. Going out of one’s mind is often a charge of demonic possession. His very success in healing and carving out inroads in the territory of Satan – so much so that he can barely stop for food – ironically occasions their charge of possession.
Jesus makes two responses, the first long and the second a summary statement the actual fact of the matter. To bind up the strong man is to attack the realm of satan at its source, so as to plunder and destroy his house—his earthly domain of death and bondage. That is the reality of what he is up to.

The longer introduction to this succinct point consists of his rebuttal of the leaders’ charge that he is operating at Satan’s behest. That is nonsensical on its face, Jesus replies. Why would Satan dispatch Jesus to defeat his earthly authority. The charge they level is an admission that Jesus has been successful. He drives out demons. Even they get that much. Silencing them has not prevented their being recognized as driven out at his command. Satan would be divided against himself if he allowed such an activity and was the motive force behind it. No, Jesus is plundering the house of the strong man, and anyone who claims he is acting demonically shows themselves to be themselves on Satan’s side as such. The unpardonable sin is to see Jesus acting to defeat sin and death and bondage and attribute that to the Devil. 

The strong rebuke to his mothers and brothers and cousins must be heard in this even stronger context. They seek to restrain him. That is wrong. He must be about his Father’s business, as Luke’s milder version of his push-back goes. It is the people who have wondered about his mental state, and they act on that basis. Presumably out of concern.

As our reading ends they appear as those calling for him to come aside. He refuses and it is to those gathered that he directs his words. You are brothers and sisters and family. In the work I am given to undertake, such will be the charges made about me, and the challenges I must defeat. So it goes. Follow me. Do not try solace or concern, well-motivated though that might be on a human plane or in human families. To be in my family is to allow me to do my Father’s work, who is Your Father.

The rejection of Samuel is a rejection of God himself. A request to have things as seems best to us on the earthly plane—let us have a king like other nations—is a rejection of God’s kingdom and the King he has in view, whose coming is in his timing and purpose. Jesus’ kingdom brings confrontation from those who cannot see how God is working in him to bring about healing and the defeat of all hostile forces. Yet he is creating through this his special family.

The Genesis reading shows us just how deeply the assault on God’s good creation rends the peace he intended. Fear has entered the stage, fear like that of the people requesting a king. Dissembling and accusation. Satan strikes the head of all humanity. It will take the offspring of Eve to strike back in victory, even a victory over death and enmity. And along the way it will be the forgiveness and forbearance of God with his people which demonstrates his love so strong it teaches us fear and reverence. So Psalm 130. The Psalm chosen to come alongside 1 Samuel 8 reminds us that whatever King God does come in time to bring will only be King in praise and in obedience before God’s Kingship, unlike the ways of nations, who must find their own praise before the Lord. This is the safe refuge from enemies the people cry out for, and only this, as Samuel has taught them.

Or in the words of today’s Epistle. 

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

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