Tuesday, July 9, 2024

July 14, 2024 -- 8th Sunday after Pentecost

                          Biblical Words                                       [890]

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14Mark 6:14-29.

When the Lord comes there is ecstasy before a holy mystery – though wicked kings blunder on in evil ways.  

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19.  

Our reading from the history of kingship in Israel presents, with fabulous awe and exaltation, the entrance of Yahweh of Hosts into the future City of God for the first time! 

Yahweh of Hosts did not always reside on Zion.  Through the victories over his enemies, Yahweh led David to a triumphant possession of that holy place. 

Yahweh’s own movements were told in the Ark Narrative (I Samuel 4-6 + II Samuel 6), of which our reading is the climax. 

Marked by the presence of the Ark – God’s mobile throne – the mighty Lord had moved from the old Israelite sanctuary of Shiloh (because of the sins of its priests), and then had embarrassed and manipulated the victorious Philistines.  After the defeat of the Philistines, the Ark had situated itself on the Philistine-Israelite border to wait for David to take Jerusalem and make it ready for the Holy One. 

Tracing these movements of Yahweh became important in later times when the idea became fixed among the “true” worshipers that Yahweh could be found at only ONE holy place, instead of the many Yahweh places like Bethel, Gilgal, Beersheba, and – heaven forbid – Samaria!  (This narrative, like all the Old Testament, is controlled by a Jerusalemite viewpoint.)

Our narrative emphasizes three things: 

1) Yahweh was a holy power, deadly to improper contact (verses 6-11, omitted from the reading), though the holiness is also expressed in the mass of people coming to this event (verse 1) and the multitude of sacrifices offered during the deity’s transit (verse 13). 

2) It is important that All Israel was active and enthusiastic in this transit of Yahweh of Hosts to Jerusalem – 30,000 “chosen” men of Israel were involved, summarized as the action of “David and all the house of Israel” (verse 15, NRSV). 

3) Finally, this was a marvelously exciting event, with lots of instrumental music, singing, and uninhibited dancing. 

Our reading includes the brief description of Michal watching David cavort before the Ark (verse 16).  The narrative tells us that Michal was Saul’s daughter, but it assumes that we remember that she was also David’s (first) wife. 

Michal did not approve of the ecstatic styles of sacred dance in which David indulged.  But because this dancing was in honor of Yahweh, we are to understand that it was OK, even if it was an innovation from the viewpoint of old-time Yahweh people.  Thus, off-stage, as it were (that is, verses 20-23, omitted from our reading), Michal is punished by Yahweh by having no children – thus denying to her the status of queen-mother (ultimately occupied by Bathsheba). 

Psalm 24.  

The psalm reading is a ritual and a liturgy for Yahweh’s entry into the Jerusalem temple as that action was repeated periodically in the ceremonies of Zion. 

There is a declaration of Yahweh as owner of all the world (verses 1-2), followed by two things:  qualification tests for humans who would worship Yahweh in person (verses 3-6), and an exuberant proclamation of Yahweh’s entrance into the temple gates (verses 7-10). 

Who can enter Yahweh’s holy place?  The qualities required have nothing to do with ritual purity – such as freedom from contact with the dead or menstrual women.  They are “clean hands” (meaning no murders or assassinations) and “pure heart” (no deceit), no swearing to lies.  Also, one who acknowledges that blessing comes from Yahweh, the God of Jacob. 

After the entrance exam comes the real glory of this psalm:  the triumphal entry through the gates of the temple: 

Lift up your heads, O gates!

      and be lifted up, O ancient doors! 

      that the King of glory may come in. 

Who is the King of glory?

      The Lord [Yahweh], strong and mighty,

      the Lord [Yahweh], mighty in battle.  (verses 7-8, NRSV)

And in case you missed that the first time, the whole full-throated throng will repeat it for you again – as any good climactic hallelujah chorus should do (verses 9-10).  

Ephesians 1:3-14.  

The Common Revised Lectionary now begins a selection of readings from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Probably not addressed to Ephesians only, this writing was originally a circular letter, intended for several churches in the province of Asia (of which Ephesus was the capital). 

Ephesians is a challenge to one reading Paul’s writings.  (1) It is relatively unique in both style and thought (only Colossians is close to it among the other letters).  (2) It presents us with some magnificent phrases, which invite extended pondering.  (3) However, its thought sometimes gets lost in its exuberant rhetoric, and (4) it is pervaded by a heavenly aura second only to the Book of Revelation. 

(Its treatment of the ekklÄ“sia, the church, and “the heavenlies” [1:3, etc.] have made it a favorite of Protestant dispensationalists, who emphasize the “rapture” of believers to those heavenlies.  The term “dispensation” actually occurs in the King James translation of 1:10.)  

This first reading from the Epistle is an outpouring of language that overwhelms sense with eloquence. 

An early 20th century commentator wrote of this passage, “The twelve verses which follow [that is, verses 3-14] baffle our analysis.  They are a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colours:  at first we fail to find a trace of order or method.  They are like the preliminary flight of the eagle, rising and wheeling around, as though for a while uncertain what direction in his boundless freedom he shall take.”  (J. Armitage Robinson, 1904). 

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that what are six complex sentences in the NRSV translation is a single sentence in Greek (Westcott and Hort edition). 

Nevertheless, so much is clear:  the whole passage is a blessing, a benediction (“Blessed be the God and Father…”).  It is common to find the center of the thought in the phrase “the mystery of his [God’s] will” (verse 9). 

It is also possible to see (as do the notes in The New Jerusalem Bible) this topic developed in a sequence of blessings, things for which God is blessed, running through the whole as follows: 

1) we were elected, verse 4 (“he chose” NRSV);
2) we were predestined for adoption, verses 5-6; 
3) we were redeemed from our sins, verses 7-8;
4) we received revelation of the mystery of God’s will, verses 9-10;
5) we received hope, “inheritance,” a promised future, verses 11 and 14;
both for us Judeans, verse 12;
and for you non-Judeans, who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, verse 13. 

The overall sense of the passage is that there is a vast work of God underway throughout the cosmos and the ages, and we are the blessed recipients of its benefits, without any reference to our works or merits. 

Mark 6:14-29.  

The Gospel reading is an interlude in Jesus’ works in Galilee, filling the time while the disciples are out on their missions (6:7-13). 

The main story here (6:17-29) – of John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod, of the dance of Herodias’s daughter (elsewhere called Salome), and of Herod reluctantly serving John’s head on a platter – all this is a flashback.  What happens in the present time of the narrative is that Herod says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (verse 16, NRSV). 

Herod Antipas is haunted by John the Baptist. 

This son of Herod the Great is a coulda, woulda, shoulda kind of ruler.  He holds grand events for his friends, but he is a deeply fearful man.  His conscience is troubled about his permitting the execution of John, enough so that the rumors about Jesus revive his conviction that he did not in fact get rid of John.  (Herod eventually became too ambitious and died in exile in Spain, with his wife Herodias.  So Josephus, Jewish War, 2.9.) 

The story of Herod Antipas in his luxurious court is set ironically against the activity of the disciples, who are passing on their itinerant journeys among the poor in Galilee.  Those folks in Herod’s court have no ears for the good news that is moving quietly through the countryside, the good news ultimately about the blessed mystery of God’s will for the salvation of all (Ephesians). 


Wednesday, July 3, 2024

July 7, 2024 -- 7th Sunday after Pentecost

                                Biblical Words                                      [889]

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

The great City may have a humble beginning, and God’s servants may be denied by their own. 

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10.  

(An under-stated report.  This passage is not a narrative, it is a report.  A narrative has some kind of tension and a release at its climax.  A report simply states incidents and conditions.) 

The reading from the Prophets is a plain, not to say flat-footed, statement of David’s becoming king of all Israel after being king of the “house” of Judah for a few years (5:1-5; on Judah see 2:1-4).  It continues with the barest report that David captured and expanded the city-state of Jerusalem, making it his personal property, the City of David (5:9-10).  

The passage immediately following our reading tells that David built a cedar-decorated royal palace and installed his wives and children (5:11-16).  As later times looked back, they saw David, in his new capital city, as a substantial king and a power to be reckoned with among the nations. 

In that later viewpoint, however, the City was as important as the Anointed King.  This is the point in God’s history with Israel at which the long-term destiny of the people begins to be focused on the City of God Toward this city much devotion, exaltation, and yearning hope would be directed.    

[See more at About ancient Jerusalem below.]

As the Samuel narrative continues (in next week’s reading), David will take steps to make Jerusalem the glorious dwelling place of the God of Israel by bringing the Ark of God into the city (2 Samuel 6) and planning a great temple of cedar for God there (7:1-3). 

However, the real glory of God’s dwelling in Zion is not in these historical books, but in the Psalms. 

Psalm 48.  

The simplicity and unpretentiousness of the Samuel account contrasts sharply with the presentation of Zion, the glorious mountain and city of God, in the Psalm reading.  

Together with psalms 46 and 76, this psalm alludes to and gives glimpses of a grand liturgical drama that was celebrated and enacted within the holy city over the centuries. 

In this drama, the city of God is assaulted by an assembly of many nations, who come against it from the north and threaten to overwhelm it.  At the critical moment, God displays God’s power in some traumatizing fashion, and the nations are shattered and dispersed.  The city is saved and magnified to the heights for all the world to see. 

Then the kings assembled,

      they came on together.

As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;

      they were in panic, they took to flight. (Psalm 48:4-5)

The prophets used this liturgical drama to portray the looming judgment of a righteous God on God’s own corrupt city (Isaiah 5:26-30 and 10:5-11).  The early prophecies of Jeremiah portray this drama becoming reality in the land: 

Blow the trumpet through the land;

      shout aloud and say,

“Gather together, and let us go

      into the fortified cities!”

Raise a standard toward Zion,

      flee for safety, do not delay,

for I am bringing evil from the north,

      and a great destruction.

(Jeremiah 4:5-6.  All of Jeremiah 4:5-31 is shaped by this drama.) 

Psalm 48 glories in the deliverance of Zion from this danger and celebrates the beauty and earthly glory of the royal city of God. 

The latter part of the psalm verges on idolatry by equating a specific historic structure with God’s own holiness. 

Walk around Zion, go all around it,

      count its towers, …

that you may tell the next generation

      that this is God,

our God forever and ever. 

The “this” of this statement probably refers not to the walls and towers only, but to
the event of God’s deliverance as the sole basis for security and peace.  Still, the temptation to “idolize” the city of masonry and cedar would eventually bring the divine judgment of destruction and exile.  (See, for example, Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon,” Jeremiah 7:1-15.) 

II Corinthians 12:2-10.  

The Epistle reading for this Sunday is one of the most remarkable personal revelations of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. 

In his ongoing hassle to get the Corinthians to recognize the true nature of his apostleship, he is led to “boast” of his spiritual “adventures,” as it were – to contrast his own experiences with those of some self-important “apostles” with glowing credentials who are trying to set up as leaders of the Corinthian church. 

In this passage he speaks of himself in the third person – “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows” (verse 2, NRSV).  On behalf of this “person” Paul will boast of experiences in Paradise and heavenly things heard. 

Though these marvelous heavenly things are impressive, still they are not what the true service of God is about.  To keep him ever mindful of that, God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh” – some physical or nervous disability that repeatedly humbled him.  Three times Paul asked that this tormenting burden be removed, but, like Jesus in Gethsemane, it was God’s will that the servant bear the burden and suffer among the people in God’s service (verses 7-9). 

“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. …for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”   This is Paul’s statement of the great contrast between the prosaic everyday conditions of life and the glory of God’s reign behind it. 

Mark 6:1-13.  

In the Gospel reading Jesus goes home again, and, as in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel (“You Can’t Go Home Again”), it doesn’t work. 

The folks in Nazareth knew Jesus back when.  He is a nice boy and all that, but he has taken to putting on airs.  What is this about deeds of power done with his hands, about wisdom from divine sources?  His hands are good at carpentry, but for divine acts …?? 

The people of Nazareth know the everyday reality, the ordinary world of a boy and young man growing into a tradesman with peculiar religious intensities.  The wonders that came to Capernaum and to places on the other shores of the Galilean lake are not available to them.  Not available, because… “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (verse 4, RSV, not NRSV).  Since they lacked faith in the healer, there was little healing experienced in Nazareth, “and he was amazed at their unbelief” (verse 6, NRSV). 

But our reading does not stop with the failure in Nazareth.  Jesus now begins to mobilize his movement through “the twelve” – who are not called disciples or apostles here (verses 6b-13).  They go out two by two, traveling lightly, taking what is given them, moving on when rejected.  They summon people to repentance, presumably with the corollary that the reign of God is at hand (Mark 1:15), and, as Jesus had done from the beginning, they struggle with people’s demons and work to heal the sick. 

The power and reign of God is moving secretly through the countryside, whether the people of Nazareth, and even Jesus’ own family, know it or not. 


About ancient Jerusalem.

The earliest traces of Jerusalem by name are on Egyptian Execration Texts.  The Egyptians had rituals in which they wrote the names of their enemies on clay jars, uttered curses over them, and then shattered the jars in ritual actions.  The fragments of such broken jars have been recovered and some contain the name “urushalim.”  This was around the 1800’s BCE

In the 1300’s, the “king” of Jerusalem wrote letters to Pharaoh in Egypt, six of which have survived in “the Amarna Letters.”  These were diplomatic archives, written in the international cuneiform script, found in Egypt.  The king, Abdu-Heba, declares his faithfulness to the Pharaoh and denounces the treachery of his neighboring city-state kings. 

The next king of Jerusalem we hear about is Adoni-zedek, who appears in Joshua 10, leading a coalition of Canaanite city-state kings against Joshua – unsuccessfully, needless to say. 

Archeologically, there is evidence of settlement in Jerusalem in the Early Bronze age (3300-2200 BCE) and also in the Middle Bronze Age (1800-1600) before the time of Abdu-Heba. 

One writer, commenting about the extensive fortifications of early Jerusalem, says: 

Why anyone would covet Jerusalem…remains a mystery.  It had nothing to offer.  It’s natural resources (sheep, olives, fruit) were shared by every other hill town.  It was dominated by higher hills on three sides.  The water supply was poor.  It did not lie on any trade route in antiquity. 

[Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Jerusalem,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon, 2008, Vol. 3, pp. 246-259, the quote on p. 247.] 

The Lord [Yahweh] – and David – must have found something to like!