Today in the Spirit: Proper 12A

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This week the church would have us finish with the parables that make up Jesus’ third major teaching discourse in the Gospel of Matthew. The themes of growth and value and abundance in the revelation of the kingdom of God through the ministry of the Son continue at front and center. The appointed Collect is a plea that we pray out of the “abundance of [the Father’s] mercy,” in expectation of the “good things” to come from him. The Gospel reading out of Matthew 13:31-33,44-50 covers the five short parables of Jesus at the end of the discourse–the parables of the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price and the net. The assigned OT reading from 1 Kings 3:3-14 is the narrative of King Solomn’s prayer for wisdom and YHWH’s gracious response. In connection with both the Collect and the OT reading, the selection of Psalm 119:121-136 has the worshiper speaking out a model prayer in the Spirit for understanding (or discernment NIV) from God, believing that he is wonderful in the giving of his law. Continuing in sequence through Romans 8, the assigned NT reading from Romans 8:26-34 contains Paul’s precious confession of faith, in keeping with the other readings, And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (28). 

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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I Give You Also What You Have Not Asked (1 Kings 3:3-14)

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days” (10-14).

What Solomon does and says in this passage is described in detail; as for YHWH, his activity must be drawn out of the text by the reader (or hearer) from brief descriptions and implications discerned behind the spoken word. And yet, as is often the case in our Bible reading, the most rewarding devotional nuggets emerge from our asking the question not what is man up to–but what is God up to here? Here are a few important details about the heart of the One God we find in this account: 1) Despite Solomon’s tendency to worship in his own way and not according to the law, YHWH shows up: At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” 2) YHWH is delighted by Solomon: It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And 3) The LORD provides abundantly “more,” as the Collect says, “than [he] desires or deserves:” “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.” (On this last point be sure to make the connection with the theme of abundance in the kingdom of God from the Gospel parables). All of this is to say that the way God treats Solomon here applies to us too. The devotional questions become: Do you believe it, and will you live as if it true?

Today, Holy Spirit, observing the steadfast love (from our Psalm 119 this week) of the Father at work with the characters of the Bible, assist me to make the leap of faith necessary to count that same love as granted to me, by the merits of the Son Jesus who died and rose for me.       

It Is Time for the LORD to Act (Psalm 119:121-136)

I have done what is just and right;
    do not leave me to my oppressors. 
Give your servant a pledge of good;
    let not the insolent oppress me. 
My eyes long for your salvation
    and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise. 
Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love,
    and teach me your statutes. 
I am your servant; give me understanding,
    that I may know your testimonies! 
It is time for the Lord to act,
    for your law has been broken. 
Therefore I love your commandments
    above gold, above fine gold. 
Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right;
    I hate every false way (121-128).

The zeal of the young man (9) singing in the Spirit out of Psalm 119 is a hard challenge to us spiritually–really like a devotional slap in the face. We may think defensively, Is he not boasting before the LORD? Is he not being presumptuous in his address to God? How does the particular line, It is time for the LORD to act (or, It is time for you to act, O LORD NIV) strike you? Watch out. Once you get past complaining, “I could never speak to God like that,” you might just find the Holy Spirit asking, “Well, why not?” Have we become so complacent in our Christian lives, so safe in our self-made spiritual cocoons, that we cannot imagine anymore being so zealous as to speak to God in those terms? It is in keeping with his own stated willingness to act for God that this psalmist demands action from God. His putting himself out there to be exposed to evil is the very thing that provokes in him the need for action. We see this elsewhere in Scripture–think of Jesus overturning the tables at the temple (Matthew 22:12ff) or Paul casting out a demon from a slave girl being exploited for money (Acts 16:16ff). To take up our ministry in the world effectively, is it possible that we need to allow ourselves to be more outraged at injustice, more incensed toward sin, than we really are? It is time for the LORD to act, [Why?] for your law has been broken.

Today, in the Spirit who is in you provoking godly anger toward injustice even as he builds you up in love, receive the challenge the young man of Psalm 119 presents to you for service to God in the world.

Interceding (Romans 8:26-34)

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (26-27).

Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us (34).

There is a whole lot of interceding going on in this passage. In the first part, Paul writes it is the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us believers, both through us when we are unable and on his own account with prayers according to the will of God. Later in the text Paul states that Christ Jesus is interceding (same root word in Greek throughout) for us at the right hand of God. Too often in Bible study we separate these two texts, looking at the intercessory ministry of the Spirit and of Jesus apart from one another. Paul does not do this, and neither should we. It is too simple to conclude, well, it’s one God so the intercession of the Spirit and the Son are one and the same. No doubt they are linked, but the Son of God and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons of the Trinity. It is more accurate biblically, and more profitable for us, to view the prayer ministry of the Spirit and the Son as distinct and covering the greatest possible ground around our experience. Yes, there is a whole lot of interceding going on in this passage, in keeping with the truth that there is an incalculable weight of combined prayers of the Spirit and the Son on our behalf.

Today, Lord Jesus and Holy Spirit, reading Paul in Romans I am filled with gratitude for all the prayers going up through me and for me at the throne of glory.

Larger Than (Matthew 13:31-33,44-50)

[The kingdom of heaven is like] the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree…(32).
…like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened (33).
…like treasure hidden in a field (44).
…[like] finding one pearl of great value, [the merchant] went and sold all that he had and bought it (46).
…like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind (47).

Our Gospel reading this week covers five short parables of Jesus in Matthew 13. Three of the parables–the mustard seed, the leaven and the net–are about kingdom growth. The other two–the treasure and the pearl–are about kingdom value. Implied in all of them is the sense of human surprise. The kingdom of heaven is, from the human perspective, astoundingly large and/or overwhelmingly precious. Devotionally, there is something to gain by centering our thoughts on this element of surprise. Just as it is surprising to see what can come out of a mustard seed in the ground or leaven in the plain flour, says Jesus, we should be amazed to see what will result from one man (namely himself) coming humbly into the world like any other. Now the kingdom of God is mostly invisible, but there is evidence of its growth we can observe such as the growth of the church in the world and the influence of Christian thinking in societies of people over time. Look at what has happened since the One God introduced himself singly to Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia! And, isn’t it amazing what has taken place since Jesus of Nazareth was left to die “shamefully” on a cross in old Jerusalem! See how big it has become, and how precious! Warning: don’t be trapped by judging the effectiveness of the coming kingdom of God only on the basis of what you alone have experienced. No one person receives too much of the good thing for him or herself, and no one is permitted to see everything. Think instead, Jesus implies in these parables, on what is happening over generations of people and across the globe–it’s overwhelmingly big and meaningful. 

Today, in the Spirit who helps you grasp the meaning of these parables of our Lord, assert yourself with renewed energy in the carrying out of your smaller kingdom affairs, knowing you play a part in something far greater.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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