Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Considering This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons

Most weeks, I try to present some background and thoughts on the upcoming Sunday's Bible lessons being used at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor. Since we use the lectionary, or lesson plan, associated with the Church Year, like many other churches throughout the world, I hope that these brief looks will help others get ready for Sunday worship, too.

The Bible Lessons: 11th. Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Prayer of the Day:
Ever-loving God, your Son gives himself as living bread for the life of the world. Fill us with such a knowledge of his presence that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life to serve you continually, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

General Comments:
1. This day, the focus of the lessons is wisdom as opposed to foolishness. Wisdom is the way of following the God ultimately revealed to us in Jesus. Foolishness is self-will, self-aggrandizement, and self-congratulation. Wisdom is the way of life. Foolishness is the way of death. Wisdom relies on God for discernment; foolishness is self-reliant.

2. Three passages of Scripture that may help to understand the themes for this day:
There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death. (Proverbs 16:25)

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
A Few Comments on the Lessons
Proverbs 9:1-6:
Proverbs, we're told, is composed of wisdom given to Israel's third king, Solomon. (You'll remember that on becoming king, Solomon asked God not for wealth or power, but for wisdom. God was impressed. Solomon was known as the wisest person in the world. He also became the most powerful king in the world. Sadly, Solomon became confused about the source his wisdom and power and countenanced idol-worship and the abuse of his people. After his reign, Israel divided.)

Most of Proverbs is composed of short, seemingly unrelated proverbs or pithy statements of wisdom. Here, though, the verses are connected into a kind of wisdom narrative.

v.1: Wisdom is often personified as a woman. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for wisdom, sophia, is also a woman's name.

I haven't checked it out, but the house built on seven pillars would seem to suggest completion or perfection. The rabbis and the Old Testament saw seven in this way because God's creation was complete by the seventh day. (Of course, the ancient rabbis also thought that humanity fell into sin on the seventh day, meaning that a new day, a first of a new week, was needed.

We see how seven was seen as the number of perfection when Jesus told the disciples that His followers were bound to forgive those who had harmed them not just seven times, but seven times seven (or, some ancient manuscripts have it, seventy times seventy times). The idea: There should be no end to our willingness to forgive; we're to forgive as we've been forgiven by God.

v.2: Wisdom has set a table for all who are willing to eat. The meal, of course, is God's wisdom.

v.3: Wisdom has seen to it that the invitations have gone out.

Calling out from "the highest places in town" would be a good way of ensuring that everyone gets a chance to hear the invitation. (Jesus, you'll recall, was "lifted up" onto the cross and He says that all who look to Him, like ancient Israel was once told to look upon a bronze serpent for the cure of poisonous bites, will be saved from sin and death forever.)

v.4: Here and in verses 5 and 6, we see that wisdom can erase simple-mindedness, being without sense, and immaturity, all of it to be replaced with "the way of insight."

Wisdom is calling all to be enlightened by the wisdom that comes from God.

v.5: Interesting that bread and wine are mentioned. It would be pushing too hard to see the Sacrament of Holy Communion foreshadowed here, I think. But certainly, bread and wine were staples of ancient diet, not so different from us, pointing to the fact that God makes Himself present in the plain, ordinary places of life.

v.6: Wisdom's invitation says that what she offers is more than mere information or head-knowledge. Knowing the ways of God is of the utmost practicality, affecting the way we "live" and how we "walk" through life.

Psalm 34:9-14
v.9: If we reverence God, nothing that need will be lacking. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

v.10: Lions, the kings of jungle, can be in want, but not those who trust in the Lord.

v.11: Certainly, God is infinitely bigger and better than we are. We should have an understanding of what I've often called the basic facts of life: "God is God and we're not."

But I believe more than simple fear is referenced here. An incomplete equation for this passage might be: REVERENCE=FEAR. But it is incomplete, because if your knees don't knock a bit at the prospect of facing almighty God, you're none too wise!

vv.12-14: If you desire a pleasant life with God, then you should be all means, refrain from behaviors that disrupt the peace of families, churches, communities, and nations, following these proscriptions:
  • No gossip or derision
  • No false witness
  • Renounce evil; embrace good
  • Make peace with others your aim
Think how elevated the lives of our families, churches, communities, and nations would be if we accepted these four guidelines for wise and godly living! (In political debates, especially, we could disagree without being disagreeable, something I'd love to see more of on the cable news networks and from the media chattering heads of all political persuasions!)

Ephesians 5:15-20
v.15: As in the first two passages, we see wisdom not as head-knowledge, but as a way of life commended and commanded by God. "Be wise!" we're told.

v.16: The "days are evil," with people looking out for number one. Because that's the way the world lives, that's the path of least resistence for all of us. But the writer of Ephesians says that God has called us to live subversively, embracing God's wisdom, not that of the evil days in which we live.

v.17: This entails having a clear understanding of God's will for all humanity. This is not so obscure as we, often in a play for eluding God's authority over our lives, tend to make it. God calls us to believe in His Son, Jesus; to love God and our neighbor; to live in love with our Christian family, the Church; to tell others about Christ; to serve our neighbors in Christ's Name.

v.18: The writer moves onto a specific issue, drunkenness, which he memorably sets in opposition to life guided by God's Holy Spirit. It's Holy Spirit versus spirits here. Instead of being filled with alcohol, be filled with God.

It's worth mentioning that the selection of passages taken together here indicate that God certainly doesn't condemn drinking wine or alcohol, but condemns it to excess. Sin happens when we misuse God's gifts or use them more than they should be used. Of course, if a person is an alcoholic, they should totally refrain from the use of alcohol.

vv.19-20: The Ephesians (and we) are told to replace our drinking songs with hymns, spiritual songs, and praises to God sung from our hearts. In all circumstances, we're to thank God in the Name of Jesus for the blessings we've received.

John 6:51-58
We're now in the third of five straight weeks when the Gospel lessons are drawn from John 6. Here, Jesus feeds 5000 with a few fish and scraps of bread. The crowd He has fed hunt Jesus down because, as He tells them, they see in this miracle not a sign of Who He is or of the new, eternal life He can give to them, but as an end in itself. They want Jesus to be a king they can manipulate for their own ends. In this, they reflect the foolishness of this world, which the world takes to be wisdom. Jesus instead, calls them to see the sign in His miracle and to embrace the long-term wisdom of living for God, rather than short-term gains that, at their best, can only sustain us to our graves.

v.51: This verse came at the end of our Gospel for this past Sunday. Jesus is "the living bread...from heaven."

Partaking of this bread, which means not just receive Holy Communion, but also embracing Jesus as Lord and king over our lives, will bring life.

v.52: Jesus' fellow Jews are scandalized. Whether, at this point, they understand Jesus to be claiming deity for Himself or not, they do perceive that He is claiming, at least, to be the way of life sent down from heaven.

It's totally wrong for this or other passages in John or Acts to be used as justification for antisemitism, as it often has been in history. For one thing, the word translated from the original Greek of the text, is more aptly rendered as Judeans, more a geographic and national reference than a strictly religious one. Judea was what was left of the former southern kingdom that came about as a result of the split of Israel following Solomon's reign. (The northern kingdom was Israel or Samaria.)

For another, Jesus was a Jew or Judean. Those who claim to love Christ and disdain the humanity of Jews or try to blame "them" for the death of Christ on the cross, can't be taken seriously as Christians. The New Testament makes clear that it was the sin of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, that put Christ on the cross.

vv.53-56: Those who receive Christ, abide in Christ and Christ abides in them. This, clearly, refers to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We Lutherans take Jesus quite seriously when He says in institution of the Sacrament, "This is my body...This is my blood..." Quite literally, in mysterious ways we cannot understand, we take in the very body, blog, and person of Jesus, when we receive the Sacrament. His life, the one that embraced our death and that rose to give us eternity, lives in us.

God enters the person who receives the bread and the wine. What could be of more practical benefit in facing life's daily realities than that?

v.57: Father and Son pulse with eternal, perfect life. Partaking of them by faith gives us life. Failing to do so brings death.

v.58: Jesus, the living bread from heaven, is superior to the manna that God gave to His people in their wilderness wanderings.

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