June 2, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Week of First Sunday after Trinity

Monday after the First Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 28, Num 22:2-14, Luke 2:21-40
Evening - Ps. 31, Ezra 5:1-17, Acts 9:1-19

Commentary, Ezra 5:1-17

As noted in the commentary for Monday after Trinity Sunday, the first seven chapters of the book of Ezra give a brief history of the Jews who returned from Babylon in 536 B.C.  Forced by military action to stop work on the new Temple, the work languished, as did the zeal of the Jewish people (4:23-24).  The Lord raised up prophets to call them back to their work.  It is important to note here that their work was not to simply build a new Temple or re-instate the sacrificial system.  Their work was to be the Covenant People of God, and to love Him above all else.  The Temple was a symbol of this.  It was the symbol of His presence with them.  The sacrifices offered there were symbols of their devotion to Him.  They also symbolised the coming of the Messiah, whose sacrifice would actually take away their sins.  It was the place where God met His people, where He made them whole and clean, where He forgave their sins, and where they came to be in the presence of God.  So the Temple was an important place and it served an important function in Jerusalem. It was the focal point of the Covenant, and to be forced to stop rebuilding it was a serious blow to the Jewish people.

Chapter 5 records the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, which we have been reading for the past few days.  The result of their ministry was the renewed determination of the governor and the High Priest to build the Temple (5:2).  Chapter 5:6-17 is a copy of the letter sent by the Jews in Jerusalem to the king of Persia explaining their loyalty to him and asking him to search his records for the decree of Cyrus allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.

If the Temple was the focal point and primary symbol of the Covenant of God, the zeal to rebuild it was the zeal to be God's Covenant People.  The objective was not simply to rebuild an object of national pride, or to build a religious building where they could do religious things.  The intention, on their part was to return to their calling to be the people of God.  It was this intention that God wanted to keep alive in their collective heart.  It was their departure from the Covenant that brought the wrath of God upon them in 586.  It was their dilution of the faith, along with their lack of sincerity that led them into other sins and caused God to allow the Babylonians to conquer them.  The Babylonian Captivity was punishment for breaking the Covenant and rebelling against God.  Now that they were back in Jerusalem, God wanted them to return to the Covenant again.  Thus, the Temple, as the focal point of their Covenant keeping, must be rebuilt.

Tuesday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 32, Num. 22:15-40, Lk. 2:41
Evening - Ps. 33, Ezra 6:1-12, Acts 9:20-31

Commentary, Ezra 6:1-12

Ezra is a book of history. Therefore, a look at what has transpired prior to today's reading in chapter 6, will greatly help us understand its message.  Chapter 1 records the decree of Cyrus releasing the Jews from captivity in Babylon.  In 536 B.C. the first of several groups of Jews left Babylon and arrived in Jerusalem.  Almost immediately they attempted to rebuild the Temple, which had been plundered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. In chapter 4, adversaries of Judah ask to be allowed to help with the Temple, but are refused.  The adversaries were descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with Gentiles. They had also diluted their faith with pagan ideas and worship.  On the surface their appeal to help rebuild the Temple appears good, and the rejection of their offer by the Jews (Ez. 4:2) seems cruel and arrogant.  But perhaps the Jews understood that watered down, adulterated religion had to be rejected, and to allow its practitioners to help rebuild the Temple would be to invite their erroneous faith into it when completed.  It was just that kind of religious compromise that brought the judgment of God upon the Jews in the first place, and they had no intention of returning to it at that time.

Rather than repenting of their sin and purging themselves of false religion, the adversaries began to make trouble for the Jews (4:4-6), even making false accusations to the king that the Jews were preparing to mount a military attack on Persia (4:8-16).  Believing the accusation to be true, the Persians sent an army to Jerusalem to stop the rebuilding of the Temple by force of arms (4:23-24).

The Jews responded with an appeal to the king.  By this time, Cyrus was dead and Darius the Mede ruled the empire (5:5-17).  Darius searched his records and found the decree of Cyrus, which is restated in our reading for today, Ezra 6:1-12.

A major point of this passage is the need for truth in religion.  The Jews could have welcomed the compromisers into their midst.  Their presence would have made the work easier, the city wealthier, and the congregation larger.  Instead, the Jews refused to compromise.  Why? The message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel told them the Babylonian Captivity was the judgment of God for compromising the faith.  They did not want to endure such suffering again, so, for a while, they maintained the pure faith.  The primary point of this passage is the great, irresistible power of God. God brings His work to completion in His own way and time.  He does not need the wealth of people, or great numbers of them to accomplish His will.  A small band of faithful believers is much more valuable to Him than great crowds who have compromised the truth. He raises up empires at His pleasure, and casts them down when He wills.  Empires are no more of a hindrance to Him than Judas was to our Saviour.

Wednesday after the First Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 37:1-25, Num. 22:41-23:12, Lk. 3:1-22
Evening - Ps. 34, Ezra 6:13-18, Acts 9:32

Commentary, Ezra 6:13-18
                                     
At long last the Temple is completed.  God has brought His people back to their homeland, and enabled them to rebuild the Temple.  This means the sins which brought His anger and caused their captivity are forgiven, and they are restored to God's favour. This is all accomplished by grace.  It was God alone who brought them out of Babylon, and God alone who gave them zeal to build the Temple and persevere in its construction though enemies tried to stop their work.  God's wonderful mercy and unstoppable providence are clearly seen in this passage.  And if God accomplished His promises to the Jews with such power and faithfulness, we can trust Him to accomplish what He has promised us in Christ.  We may meet with opposition, and our faith may be as weak as that of the Jews in this passage, but God will bring His work in us to completion by His own power.  He cannot fail.

The people did their work with great joy.  This includes not only the rebuilding of the Temple, but also its dedication and services.  We may also do our service unto God with joy.  Worship, prayer, the services of the Church, and the reading of the Scriptures can be a source of great joy to us.  Let them not become burdens we must force ourselves to bear.  Let them be meat and drink to our souls, as streams in the desert. "Let us learn to welcome holy ordinances with joy and attend on them with pleasure.  Let us serve the Lord with gladness.  Whatever we dedicate to God, let it be done with joy" (Matthew Henry) 

Thursday after the First Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 37:26, Num. 23:13-26, Lk. 4:1-13
Evening - Ps. 39, Zech. 7:8, Acts 10:1-23

Commentary, Zechariah 7:8

Yesterday's reading in Ezra told us of the completion of the work of rebuilding the Temple.  Tonight's reading in Zechariah takes us back to the days before the Temple was built, and a time when the construction had ceased due to military threats by the Persian government.  Zechariah and Haggai began their ministries in Jerusalem in the year 520 B.C.  Their prophetic message was comprised of two primary points.  First, rebuild the Temple.  This point came with many encouragements and promises of God, some of which we have looked at in recent comments.  Second, be the People of God.  Return to the Covenant He made with your ancestors.  Return to Him.  Love and honour Him as you are called to do.  This point also came with promises and encouragements.  We have looked at some of them already, and will do so again soon.  Tonight's reading is about the second point of Zechariah's message; being the people of God.  It is about returning to the Covenant relationship with God.  It is about being His people and loving Him above all else.  God's major concern was not for the Temple.  The Temple was not for Him, it was for the Jews.  It was a symbol of God's presence and providence with them.  It was a symbol of the forgiveness of their sins and their acceptance by God through His grace.  It was the place where they worshiped God, and where they met God in worship.  In short, the Temple was the symbol of the Covenant in action.  The Law specified their Covenant obligations; the Temple was a central part of how they fulfilled those obligations in everyday life.

The Law was a primary aspect of the Covenant.  There were three parts of the Law; moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law.  The Jews had a tendency to focus on the ceremonial law because it was the easiest to keep.  The moral law, summarised in the Ten Commandments, was the hardest to keep.  It still is.  It is because of our failure to keep the moral law that we need the sacrifice of the Lamb of God to cover our sins and make us acceptable to God.  The civil law, because it was simply the moral law codified and applied to everyday life, was also very difficult to keep. It, too, still is. Man's natural inclination toward evil causes us to tend to pervert the civil law and government for selfish gain.  If a party can gain control of the government and courts, its members can do what they want without fear of human retribution.  It did not take some of the Jews long to devise ways to control the government and courts, and to use them to their own advantage.  David's false dealing with Uzziah over Bathsheba, and Ahab and Jezebel's dealings with Naboth (1 Kings 21:1-16) show some of this abuse, but it was not contained to the palace.  The writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel frequently mention the abuse of power to gain wealth.  Crooked scales, moving property boundaries, and false accusations were well honed and heavily used tools in Judah before the Captivity.  But God called the Jews to live in fellowship and respect, even to love one another.  He did not create a wellfare state; He did create a system of laws, which promoted freedom, justice, and well-being among His people.

Zechariah reminds the people of Jerusalem that their ancestors' abuse of the civil law was a major reason why God allowed the Babylonians to conquer and brutalise them.  They were warned by the former prophets (9-10), but they did not listen.  "Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law" (7:11).  Because they refused to hear God's call to them through the prophets, God did not listen to their call to Him through prayer when the conquering armies came (7:12).  He allowed them to be conquered in a brutal war that left vast numbers of their people dead and vast parts of their land ravaged, including Jerusalem and the Temple.  Survivors of the war were forced to live in captivity in foreign lands (7:13-14).

We could draw many lessons from this short passage.  Law based on the moral law of God provides a sure foundation for liberty and justice, and the nation that has and follows such laws will live in peace and freedom.  The natural sin-inclinations of the human heart are one of the main reasons why we need government.  It exists to protect the God-given rights and freedoms of the people.  Even good government can be perverted and used for evil if people are allowed to control and distort it for personal gain and power.  God desires peace and liberty for all people.  Failure to live in true liberty and peace is great sin, and God is angry at such people.  God is angry at those who pervert justice and use government power for their own gain and goals.  On a higher lever, it is God's plan that His Covenant People live in mutual respect and love according to His moral law.  There is to be a fellowship and unity among us based upon our love for God and one another.  We cannot expect the world and its kingdoms to live up to this standard very well.  But the Church must.

Friday after the First Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 40:1-16, Num. 23:27-24:25, Lk. 4:14-30
Evening - Ps. 41, 54, Zech. 8:1-13, Acts 10:24-33

Commentary, Zechariah 8:1-13

God is returned unto Zion (Zech 8:3).  This refers not to His actual presence, for God is present in all places and in all times.  It refers to His presence in grace.  It is His presence in the way we mean when we say, "God be with you, and with thy spirit."  He is present to defend, to lead, to bless, and dwell in peace with His people.  The time of His wrath has ended.  The conquest, the captivity, the scattering of the people of Jerusalem into the surrounding nations is over.  God allowed that to happen because of sin in his people.  The holy city of Jerusalem, and even the Temple itself, had become unbearable in God's eyes because of the sin of the people.  The Temple had been filled with idols.  The worship offered in it was vain and insincere.  The morality of the people was as that of Gentiles who did not know God.  All of this is recorded in the Bible from Genesis to the prophets. So God allowed His people to reap what they had sown and receive what they had sought.  They wanted to be as the Gentiles, so God gave them over to the Gentiles, to be conquered and murdered and dominated by them.  But all of that is over.  God has brought them back to Jerusalem.  God has called them to return to the Covenant, to being the people chosen by God to be His unique people among all others.  God has returned to them in grace, and calls them to return to Him in faith.
               
The rest of the reading tells of the restoration and glory of Jerusalem after the Temple is rebuilt.  The people will not be killed by invaders, they will live to ripe old age, and the streets will be filled with children.  Thus, the Jews are to "Let your hands be strong" (8:9), strong for the work of rebuilding the Temple and the city, but most of all, for rebuilding their faith.

This passage has obvious application to the New Testament Church.  God will bring His people into it from many nations and countries.  It will be a City of Peace, for the peace that passes all understanding, which is not as the world giveth but as Christ only can give, will dwell in it.  God Himself will dwell in this New Zion, and it will be blessed and a blessing.  Therefore, we who dwell in this City of God must let our hands be strong.  Let them be strong for the work of the Kingdom.  Let them be strong in faith.  Let them build spiritual things now and for generations yet to come.  For we will possess all things.


Saturday after the First Sunday after Trinity
Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 44, Dt. 34, Lk. 4:31-41
Evening - Ps. 46, 47, Zech. 8:14, Acts 10:34

Commentary, Zechariah 8:14

Zechariah 8:14-23 continues the wondrously good news that God has returned to Zion.  Because the Jewish people had forsaken Him He withdrew His grace and protection from them, and allowed them to be devoured by their enemies.  But now He has returned in grace to accomplish His purpose for His people.  As He did not turn back from His wrath, He also will not turn back from His mercy (14-15).  As surely as His words of wrath were fulfilled, His words of mercy will also be fulfilled.  He will do good things for Jerusalem and Judah, thus, they can have confidence in Him.  They may draw near to Him in faith, rather than run from Him in fear.

He calls the Jews to return to Him as He has returned to them.  The call is not simply to rebuild a landmark and re-institute religious activity.  The call is to turn their hearts to God as He has turned His to them.  The call is to live in fellowship and peace with one another and with God.  It is a call to come to God with sincerity and truth in worship.  God does not tell them to dispense with liturgy in order to worship Him with their heart.  He tells them to put their heart into the liturgy.  The Temple worship is formal, but it is not dead formalism, and it means nothing if the heart of the people is not in it.  Let the service of God in worship and in everyday life be joy to the house of Judah (8:19).  When the heart is in it, it will be joy to worship God.

This will cause many to want to return to Jerusalem and to the Covenant (8:20-21).  Many Jews did not return to Jerusalem at the end of the Captivity.  Many found new lives in the lands where they had once been prisoners.  They did not want to return to Jerusalem, a land of poverty, hardship, and danger.  They enjoyed the looser approach to the faith that was allowed in the Gentile lands.  In short, they had no intention of returning to Jerusalem or making the sacrifices required to become the people of the Covenant again.  The joy of the people in Jerusalem would be an invitation to them to return to God.


It would also induce Gentiles to seek the God of Israel.  "Many people, and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord" (8:22).  This will be fulfilled in greater glory in the New Jerusalem.  Christ's Church will gather many people and strong nations into it in a way the old Jerusalem could never do.  Verse 23 is also a picture of the day of Christ and the era of fulfillment in which we live.  The first Christians were Jews and through the grace of God working in them, Gentiles have come to their God.  May they also come to us, the spiritual children of Abraham, because they have heard that God is with us.

First Sunday after Trinity Sermon

Thy Life
Psalm 119:33-48, Deuteronomy 30:11-20, John 13:1-17, 34-35
First Sunday after Trinity
June 2, 2013

Today we move into the second half of our Church year, which is our annual cycle of prayer and Scripture reading.  The first half has emphasised what the Bible teaches about God and what He has done for us in Christ.  The second half emphasises our response to God.  We could say that the first half of the year is about what Christians believe, and the second half is about what Christians do.

What do Christians believe?  We believe the Bible.  We believe the Bible was given to us by God and that it is His self revelation of His nature and will.  In it we see a loving Father who welcomes prodigals back to His house, who even runs to meet us on the way, and who desires only what is good for us, only that which gives meaning and joy and goodness to life.  In the Bible we see God loving us so much He made the ultimate sacrifice, going to the cross to bear in Himself all of the anguish and grief and, yes, even anger, our sins have caused Him.  Yes, there are legitimate questions about the Bible, and, yes, there are many disagreements about its meaning even among Christians, and, yes, even those who profess to believe it are miserable failures at living out its principles and teachings. But, in spite of all of this, there is, and always has been, a general agreement among all people who read the Bible, whether they are skeptics or true believers, in what the Bible teaches.  Knowing what we know about human beings, such agreement is remarkable in itself.  And what the Bible teaches is summarised for us in the great and enduring creeds of the Church.  We say one of them every Sunday; the Apostles' Creed at Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Nicene Creed at Holy Communion.  They express the essential teachings of the Bible, therefore we do not simply recite them as an academic acknowledgement, we say them as expressions of our faith.  To us they are not just facts, they are the beliefs by which we live our lives.

We say this because we believe what God said through Moses in Deuteronomy 30:20, "He is thy life."  He is our life because it is He who created us.  He did not merely create the heavens and earth, He created us.  He formed us in the womb.  He formed our bodies and put life into them He formed our personhood, so that we are not just something, we are someone.  He is our life because He has preserved our lives to this very moment.  I am not just talking about giving us the necessities that have kept us alive, I'm talking about His supernatural intervention and guiding of our lives in those things that, when we look back over our lives we say, if God had not delivered me from this or that danger, I would not be here today.  If God had not delivered me from this situation or those circumstances, my life today would be vastly different and miserable, if I were even alive at all.

But Moses was writing about something deeper and more fundamental than God giving and preserving our physical lives, Moses was writing about the life of the soul, for it is especially in the life of the soul that God "is thy life."  Naturally we think about the cross when we think about the life of the soul.  In giving His life for us, Christ purchased life for our souls.  But I hope we think about more than simply being forgiven of sin and going to Heaven, because Christ died to help us in this life too.  Christ died to give us what He called abundant life, life that is as good as it can get in this world.  It is no secret that a life lived in the "thou shalt nots" is no life at all.  That is because the things God forbids are the things that destroy lives.  Therefore, God's commandments are not prison walls to keep us from having fun, they are a fence around a home that keep us from harm.  Anyone who has seen young children running and playing beside a busy highway can immediately grasp the value of a good fence, and that is what the commandments of God are.  And look at the hurt and misery that fills the history of the human race because of our willful indulgence in God's "thou shalt nots."  Wars, abuse, violence, hatred, injustice, corruption.  How many children have died?  How many have cried themselves to sleep alone, afraid, and hungry, because of the human infatuation with God's "thou shalt nots?"

But imagine what the world would be like if the entire human race replaced murder with peace, fornication and adultery with fidelity and love, deceit with honesty, falsehood with truth, and greed with contentment. Suppose everyone lived in such a way that, as as our Catechism says, we hurt no one by word or deed, keep our bodies in temperance, soberness, and chastity, be true and just in all our dealings, keep our tongues from evil speaking, and labour truly for our own livings rather than covet the possessions of others?  Can we not see that such a world would be fundamentally different from the one in which we live?  Can we not see that life in such a world would be exciting and free and happy?  And isn't that the kind of world God's commandments would create, if we just obeyed them?

I am not suggesting we can build such a world in our present condition.  I don't believe any amount of social engineering, education, or political experimentation can create such a world.  It certainly cannot be created by law or by force.  I think it will be created, one day, by the grace of God, but God will build it, not man.  But you and I have the opportunity to taste that world now, because we have the opportunity to live by God's law, not perfectly, but better than we are currently doing.  And we, by faith, have the opportunity to "see" how wonderful life would be if everyone lived by it God's law.  But, even more than this, we have the promise that we will actually live in such a world one day.  We will live in a place where evil is a thing of the past, where all live in peace and harmony with one another and with God.


But let's get back to the here and now, for we are talking about how Christians live.  We live by the law of God.  We do not think we keep it perfectly, nor do we believe keeping it earns any favour from God.  We keep it because it is a gift from God.  It shows us how to live happy and peaceful lives.  We keep it because it is good.  By His grace, and by the power of the Holy Spirit  let us walk in the ways of His commandments.