June 16, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Week of Third Sunday after Trinity

Monday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 86, Judges 5:1-18, Lk. 6:39
Evening - Ps. 84, 85, Neh. 5:1-13, Acts 13:44-14:7

Commentary, Nehemiah 5:1-13

The Covenant of God includes duties to Him and to other people of the Covenant.  We see this easily in the Ten Commandments, for the first four are about our relationship with God and remaining six are about our duties to one another.  People are not called into an individual Covenant with God; we are, and always have been, called into the Community of the Covenant.  It is within this Covenant Community that we are baptized, instructed in the faith, worship God on the Lord's Day, and celebrate the feast of Holy Communion. In fact, every aspect of our lives, as a man or woman of God, is lived within the context of the community of faith.  In the New Testament era this community is called the Church, which refers to both its universal and local manifestations.  In the Old Testament that community was called Israel, or, by the time of Nehemiah, Judah.  One of the problems with the Jews who remained in Shushan, Babylon, or Egypt, is that they were no longer functioning within the Covenant Community.  Even if they formed synagogues and kept the ritual law in these lands, they were still branches severed from the vine. The Jewish community was not to be scattered, nor were its people to be dispersed into groups in distant lands.  They were to be a vital, living part of the community in the land God had given to them.  Likewise, today, Christians are to be vital members of the community of faith.  But, unlike the Jews, we are called to go into all the world.  We are called to infiltrate every nation with the Gospel.  Those who respond in faith are received into the universal community through the local part of that community, the local church.

Received into that community, we now are under obligation to it.  We are to give ourselves to its instruction, leadership, and discipline.  We enter into the spiritual discipline of prayer, Scriptures, fellowship, sacraments, and worship of the Church.  When we fail in this discipline, the Church, through its ministers, has authority to call us back, and to exclude those who will not return.

In the fifth chapter of Nehemiah, the Jews have neglected their Covenant obligations to one another.  Rather than working together as brethren in the Lord, some have been profiteering from the scarce food supply caused by a drought.  They have sold grain at exorbitant prices, taken land and homes away from their brethren in exchange for food, and even enslaved their neighbor's children as payment.  Others have stolen to feed their families, while still others have sold their land for food.  All of this was in direct violation of the Law of God and the Covenant duties of the Jews toward one another. Nehemiah verbally chastises them for treating each other so.  He clearly sees this as a religious issue (rather than a social issue), in which the people are breaking the Covenant with God.

This is a good place to state that the laws of the Covenant Community do not always apply directly to those outside of it.  The land of Israel, for example, was given to the Jews as their heritage, and could not be taken away from its owners except under very limited circumstances, and even then, only for a specified number of years.  But this does not preclude buying and selling and investing in land by Gentiles, nor does the action urged by Nehemiah mean any person is necessarily owed food and support.  Much harm has been done by well meaning people who have tried to apply Covenant Community obligations to people, business and nations that are not part of the Covenant.  Socialism, communism, and government re-distribution of wealth are sad and costly examples of this.

Nehemiah urges the Jews to restore what rightfully belongs to others, and to deal charitably with the poor through voluntary charitable activities.  He shakes dust from his robe with the prayer that God will shake out of the Covenant everyone who does not fulfill his Covenant duties.

Tuesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.89:1-9, Judges 5:19, Lk. 7:1-10
Evening - Ps. 90, Neh. 8:1-12, Acts 14:8-18

Commentary, Nehemiah 8:1-12

Tonight's reading covers an event so significant in the life of the Jewish people it is worthy to be equated with Passover, crossing the Red Sea, receiving the Law at Sinai, and the moral/spiritual revival of Godliness in the time of Josiah the king.  The event is the mass gathering of the Jewish people to hear the reading of the Law of God on one of the feast days called for in the Old Testament called the Feast of the Trumpets (Num. 29:1).  The people have gathered in the street because the Temple could not hold them, and they have gathered to hear again the words of the grace of God, and the life to which they are called.  To this point, the revival of the Covenant in Jerusalem has been sporadic, and based upon general knowledge and memory, rather than direct contact with the Scriptures.  The people knew they were to offer sacrifices, so they did.  They knew they were to rebuild the Temple, so they did.  They knew they were to dwell in and possess the land, so they rebuilt the wall.  All of these efforts were aimed at returning to God and being people of the Covenant again.  They were good and necessary things, but apart from the Word of Scripture, they lacked unity of purpose and direction.  The people worked from memory, not daily experience with the revelation of God.  All of that changed when Ezra read the Bible to this great and solemn assembly in Jerusalem.  This day is a return to Scripture.

The people had built a pulpit, a tower for this purpose.  It was tall enough for Ezra to be seen by all the people, and all were silent as he ascended the steps. All of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside were there.  People of great age who had built the new Temple stood beside children.  Young families with infants stood beside grand parents.  All were quiet.  All were intent on the proceedings.  All who were old enough to understand realised this was a momentous occasion.

When Ezra opened the scroll, all the people stood, for they had been kneeling in prayerful stance.  Verse 6 says Ezra blessed the Lord.  This is the traditional, liturgical blessing said when the books of the Law, called the Torah, are opened in the Temple or synagogues, as it has been said for thousands of years.  It is sung by the priest and followed by the amen of the people, also sung in a manner very much like the amen at the end of a hymn today.  The amen is the people's assent and commitment to the prayer. In it they affirm their assent to the meaning of the prayer, and beseech God to grant their request, or receive their thanksgiving and worship.  It is as to say, "Let it be so, O Lord."

The gathering was so large it was impossible for Ezra to be heard by all.  So, at strategic places throughout the area, other priests were stationed.  Watching Ezra, they simultaneously mounted their pulpits, turned to the same passage of Scripture, read the same words, and gave the prepared instruction on the meaning of the text.  So, throughout the city the people heard the Word, prayed, and worshiped as one.  It has been nearly 150 years since the liturgies and readings of the day have been publicly conducted by the Jewish people as a whole in Jerusalem., and it is a moving experience.  It is another step deeper into the Covenant, another step back to God.  And this time, it is the Scripture, not memory, which guides them.

Wednesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 92, Judges 6:1-35, Lk. 7:11-17
Evening - Ps. 104, Neh. 9:5-15, Acts 14:19

Commentary, Nehemiah 9:5-15

For seven days the people gathered as one in Jerusalem, and each day Ezra and the priests read and expounded the Law of God to them.  It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this. These people were returning to God.  They were returning to the Bible.  For hours each day they heard the Bible read and explained.  Ezra probably started with Genesis and read straight through the five books of Moses, called the Torah, or Law.  The significance of these books is that in them God invites the Jews into His Covenant, promises many great things to them, and tells them what they must do as their part of the "bargain."  Basically, their part is to receive pardon from sin, and be led into a new and better life with God as their God.  God forgives their sins and wraps them in His everlasting love, gives them a land in which to dwell, and shows them how He is to be known and worshiped.  They are the receivers in all parts of this Covenant.  Even their obligations to love God above all else and serve Him in Godly worship are more like blessings than duties.  It is light and life to the soul to know and serve God.  The knowledge of Him is eternal life; His service is perfect freedom.  The Jews were re-learning this during these days in the Scripture, and in learning them, they were re-dedicating themselves to being God's Covenant people.  It has been many generations since something like this has happened in Jerusalem.  Most of the Jews' history is the story of their departure from the Covenant and return to idolatry and other sins.  Times like this are rare, and noteworthy, and comparable to the Reformation in their scope and significance.

A very important part of this time is that, as the people heard the Covenant read and explained, they realised how far they and their ancestors had fallen short of it.  More accurately, they realised that they and their ancestors had simply and intentionally rejected the Covenant, and that Covenant breaking was the habitual direction of their individual and corporate life.  Their confession was no blanket statement.  Fully one fourth of the day was filled with hearing the Law, and one fourth spent in deep and honest confession (Neh.9:3). We notice that the first day of the reading of the Law was an occasion of great gladness.  But now the Law has convicted them of their sin, and they are gathered to hear it in sackcloth and ashes, the garb of great sorrow before God.  On the first day they rejoiced and celebrated.  Now they confess sin and fast in their shame. I dare say the Church of our own time could benefit from such time in the Word of God, and that it would do much more good than most of the programs and "revivals" found in many churches.

Nehemiah 9:5-15 begins a sermon, probably written by Ezra and preached by the Levites who aided him in the preceding days.  Having spent the morning hearing the Word read and the afternoon in prayer and fasting, the Levites return to the pulpits with this sermon, which they preach simultaneously at various places to enable all the people to hear. The sermon continues to the end of the chapter and recounts their history from the call of Abraham (Abram) to their present hour.  Verses 5-15 retell the call of Abraham and the Exodus, emphasising the grace of God in choosing Israel and blessing them as His people.

Thursday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 94, Judges 7:1-8, Lk. 7:18-35
Evening - Ps. 111, 114, Neh. 9:16, Acts 15:1-12

Commentary, Nehemiah 9:16

Tonight's reading continues the sermon begun in Nehemiah 9:5.  The sermon is basically a short summary of the history of the Jewish people in light of the Covenant of God.  The point of the sermon is found in verse 33 "Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly."   This conclusion is continued in verses 34 and 35 which confess that kings and people, and even the priests of Israel have not kept the Covenant, "neither turned they from their wicked works."  Because of their sin the people are servants in their own land (36).  They are not a free and independent nation, they are part of the Persian Empire and subject to its king.  They are forced to pay taxes to support Persia (37). 

It is not just their ancestors who have sinned; the present generation is just as guilty (37).  They have not kept the Covenant.  The days of hearing the Law read and expounded to them have shown them how far they have strayed from the Covenant.  So they are confessing their sin and turning back to God, turning back to the Covenant He made with them.  Verse 38 is the beginning of a list of Jews who intend to keep the Covenant.  These people have made a covenant to keep the Covenant.

This is a tremendous occasion.  It represents a true desire to be a Jew in heart as well as ethnicity.   The signers of this covenant will not be satisfied with only the outward forms of the faith.  Their hearts and lives are now devoted to God, and they intend to serve Him by keeping the letter and the spirit of the Covenant.

Every Christian has made a covenant to keep the Covenant.  I do not mean we have promised to offer sacrifices and move to Jerusalem.  We have become keepers of the Covenant as it is fulfilled in Christ Jesus.  We have confessed our sins and trusted in Him as our peace offering and atoning sacrifice to God.  We have returned to Him and now dwell in Him and live a new life in Him in which we keep His commandments, and love His people.

Friday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 102, Judges 7:16, Lk. 7:36
Evening - Ps. 116, Neh. 13:15-22, Acts 15:31-21

Commentary, Nehemiah 13:15-22

The Jewish people have seen a wonderful revival among them.  They have seen the Holy City go from a decaying ruin to a secure fortress with royal protection.  They have seen the Faith of the people revived, and they have seen the people return to God and to His Covenant.  There has been much confession and repentance of sin, for as they heard the Law read and expounded they became mournfully aware that their ancestors had turned away from God, and their people had rejected the Covenant.  They found that it was not only their ancestors who had sinned against God; they themselves were guilty.  They had forsaken God.  They had rejected the Covenant.

Their repentance was not in word alone.  They matched their words with their deeds, keeping both the letter and the spirit of the Law of God.  They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.  They offered the sacrifices in faith.  They kept the feasts and the fasts according to the Covenant God had made with their forefathers.  They returned to the Bible and made it their rule and guide in life again.  The revival is almost complete, but not quite.  The first verses of Nehemiah 13 show that some of the priests were allied with the enemies of God and were giving the Levites' portion of the tithes to Tobiah (1-10).  This was remedied by Nehemiah (11-14).

In tonight's reading we see that the Jews still had problems with the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is about much more than going to "church" or refraining from work and worldly amusements.  It was about honouring God, trusting Him to provide for physical needs, and finding joy in Him.

It honours God by devoting a full day to His service.  Everything else is set aside to seek and honour God on the Sabbath.  It recognises Him as God, as Lord, and Master and Owner of all things, especially the lives and property of the Jewish people.

It trusts God by putting their prosperity into His hands.  Instead of spending the day working on their homes and earning a living, they spend the day with God.  This means they are trusting Him to provide for them.  Instead of working the farms and crops, they trust them into the care of God for the Sabbath.  This also means they are seeking God instead of following an endless pursuit of the world's goods.  Working seven days a week would enable them to cultivate more land, raise more crops and flocks, make more money, and become more prosperous.  Devoting the Sabbath to God meant they had to be satisfied with less money, and a simpler life.  It also showed them that some things are more valuable than more money, and the Sabbath Day was reserved for those things; for God, worship fellowship, and family.

Keeping the Sabbath instead of spending it as "a day off" for personal pursuits and worldly amusements is also an act of faith which finds its joy in God instead of worldly things.  It is not a day to play; it is a day for God.  The joy of the Sabbath was the worship and service of God.  These are lessons the Church of today desperately needs to learn and practice.

Nehemiah could force the Gentiles to stay away from Jerusalem on the Sabbath, but he could not make the Jews honour the Sabbath in their hearts.  That had to come from within them by the grace of God.

Saturday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.107:1-16, Judges 10:17, 11:29-40, Lk. 8:1-15
Evening - Nehemiah 13:23-31, Acts 15:22-35

Commentary, Nehemiah 13:23-31

We learn from Nehemiah that faith is much more than external rituals; it is a Covenant life with God that includes an inward disposition of the heart.  The Covenant life is expressed in the Covenant forms.  In the Old Testament those forms consisted of being part of the nation of Israel, worshiping God in the prayers and via the Temple sacrifices, and rituals, and the much deeper sense of love of God above all, and living in peace and active good will with the Covenant people.  In the New Testament the forms are prayer, Scripture, public and private worship, and the other things by which God draws us into Himself.  In both Testaments, the outward forms without the inward disposition are meaningless.  Going forward in a crusade, Confirmation, church attendance, and Holy Communion are not the end of faith, whole hearted Covenant life is.  Whole hearted covenant life is fed and accomplished through the outward forms of prayer, worship, and the other means of grace, so the heart and the forms feed and strengthen each other, and both are essential parts of the Covenant life.

We close our study in Nehemiah with the lesson that we cannot truthfully live the covenant life without honouring God in our home life.  No matter what our station in the home, we are to devote ourselves to it without reservation.  The Jews had not done this.  They had intermarried with people who worshiped other gods and followed other values.  This weakened the Jewish home.  It made an essential part of the Covenant community a non-covenanting part.  It robbed the Jews of the blessings of a Godly home.  It robbed the children of the blessings of being raised in the Covenant.  It undermined their faith, and led them into the sin of idolatry. In a similar way, marriage between a Christian and an unbeliever robs the Christian of a Christian home, robs the children of the strong foundation a Christian home provides, and robs God of another Covenant family.


The Jews saw this in their own city.  Children of the mixed marriages were a combination of Jew and pagan.  They had pagan ways and values that opposed and negated those of the community of faith.  Through them, the pagan ways were infiltrating the Covenant community.  They were a major impediment to the return to the Covenant.  They even threatened to lead the Jews back into compromise and idolatry as Solomon's wives had done.  Their presence in Jerusalem shows that compromise was already happening.

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