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Today in the Spirit: Proper 4B

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In our walk with Jesus through the lectionary year, the “ordinary” (numbered) season “After Pentecost” generally begins with Gospel selections highlighting the teachings and events of our Lord’s life after the calling of the disciples (the calling itself being featured in Epiphany). As the Gospel of Mark exposes the reader early on to Jesus’ conflict with the teachers of the law, the Proper 4B Gospel reading is Mark 2:23-38 where our Lord boldly declares to the Pharisees that the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath (28).

The complementary OT reading assigned for the week is the content of the Ten Commandments out of Deuteronomy 5:6-21. (The only other time we hear the Ten Commandments as a Sunday reading is on Lent 3B when we hear the parallel out of Exodus 20:1-17). The extra attention given to the Sabbath in this passage prepares the worshiper to hear Jesus’ commentary on Sabbath law in the Gospel reading. Psalm 81 (or Psalm 81:1-10) is appointed for a Sunday only once in three years, on Proper 4B. Likely used in worship at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, this psalm contains language pulled from the delivery of the Ten Commandments to Israel when they were camped in the wilderness: “Hear, O my people, and I will admonish you; O Israel, if you will hearken unto me, There shall be no strange god among you, neither shall you worship any other god” (8-9, BCP Coverdale).  

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In Proper 4B, we come into a series of readings (already started from Propers 2B) from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 4:1-12, we find Paul defending his apostolic ministry and, in the process, teaching the church essential principles for Christian living. His claim to have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways (1) in his ministry assures the fellowship of his sincerity as a church leader and challenges them to do likewise. The Collect is a plea to God, “without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy,” to empower the church to persevere in faithfulness to Christ. As with many Anglican collects, we gain perspective through this prayer on the temporary and transitory nature of our earthly life compared with “eternal” life given to us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  

The Collect

O God, the protector of all those who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy, that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Jealous God (Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

6 “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

7 “‘You shall have no other gods before me.

8 “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Look at the supporting language for delivering the second commandment against making idols. We hear I am a jealous (Heb. qanna, a title for God alone in the OT) God, visiting the iniquity…but showing steadfast love (9-10). Grammatically, the adjective jealous modifies both his visiting judgment on sin and his showing steadfast love. Also, notice the numbers attached to each side: four generations of condemnation and thousands [of generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments. Our God is a God of judgment and mercy, but clearly, we find here that he much prefers mercy. And you and I are counted among the thousands of generations receiving that steadfast love.

Devotionally, we can think further about the vastness of God’s love for the entire population of  Christians in the world we are part of. How many would that be? There are approximately two billion Christians in the world. Imagine the love of God for that many believers–and that is just our generation! How jealous God is in his devotion to all of us. He is eager that each of us might be preserved in firm faith. God is so protective that enemies keen to throw us off balance should not overrun us. Our Father God through Christ is as jealous for us now as he was for the generation of Moses, and he will be equally loving toward many to come until the coming of Jesus and then on into eternity.

Here is from the teaching of Pope Francis on the incomprehensible love of God:

It is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension. But we must! . . . ‘Oh, I am a great sinner!’ All the better! Go to Jesus: He likes you to tell Him these things! He forgets, He has a very special capacity for forgetting. He forgets, He kisses you, He embraces you and He simply says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more’ (John 8:11).

Today, Holy Spirit, I receive the truth that you, together with the Father and the Son, are jealous to uphold me in steadfast love that will never run out.

Open Your Mouth Wide (Psalm 81:1-10[11-16])

6 “I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
    your hands were freed from the basket.
7 In distress you called, and I delivered you;
    I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
    I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah
8 Hear, O my people, while I admonish you!
    O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
9 There shall be no strange god among you;
    you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
10 I am the Lord your God,
    who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
    Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” (1-10)

Vv. 6-10 would appear to be a word of YHWH delivered by a temple prophet. That last line, Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it, is not at all similar to the words Moses received in the desert but is an added exhortation for the present-day people of Israel now established in Jerusalem. The colorful wording expresses God’s desire to give in abundance in keeping with every promise he has made to his people (see Gen. 15:5, Exod. 3:8f). However, the people must surrender to him completely (open your mouth wide) to receive.

My God, Open your mouth wide is something I hear at the dentist, and I don’t like it. I know it’s for my own good that I might readily receive from the dentist the fullness of what their skill has to offer—but how I hesitate! In my fear, I cry out, “It will hurt,” and in my pride, I insist, “Do I really need to have this done to me?”  With you, dear Lord, it is worse. You don’t want to fill me with relief for a tooth but to grant me more than I can ask or imagine for my whole life. Where I need healing, you want to heal me; where I need provision, you want to open the supplies of heaven to supply whatever is lacking; and where I yearn for companionship, you want to give me your own company and that of the saints.

Today, in the Spirit, grasping the meaning of this injunction in the psalm, I resolve to stop clenching my teeth and to loosen my jaw so that you might have your way with me, filling me abundantly with Christian living.

We Have Renounced Disgraceful, Underhanded Ways (2 Corinthians 4:1-12)

1 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

It is good that the lectionary assigns all of vv. 1-12 here. Too often, we hear starting at v. 7 (treasures in jars of clay), then vv .8-10 (afflicted in every way, but not crushed, etc.), then v 12 (death is at work in us), and completely disassociate. “Thank goodness, I am not called to be an apostle!” But, if we read vv. 1-6 first, what do we discover? Paul was not purposefully looking to suffer or to die. The affliction comes to him as a consequence of his renouncing disgraceful, underhanded ways. By choosing to utterly reject the notion that the ends justify the means in his ministry (and his life in general), he is willing to suffer as a matter of principle–the principle of following Jesus no matter the cost. 

So much of our Christian walk is plagued by compromise. We consider the possible ends of following Jesus as something unendurably hard—how it will inconvenience us or invite misunderstanding of others—then, based on those estimations (which are pure guesswork), we decide on a course of action that falls short of what Jesus wants. Oswald Chambers calls this behavior “careful infidelity.” It is “careful” in that it is calculated to make disobedience appear in the best possible light. Still, it is “infidelity” nonetheless, and if it is infidelity, it is, using Paul’s language, disgraceful and underhanded. We avoid suffering, yes, but we cheat him and ourselves and the body.

Today, Holy Spirit, convicted by the testimony of Paul’s approach to serving you without compromise, teach me to examine my ways of following you to see if anything is underhanded about it.

The Sabbath Was Made for Man (Mark 2:23-28)

23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

There are parallels to this narrative in both Matthew and Luke (Mt. 12:1-8, Lk. 6:1-5). All three declare, “So the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Only Mark, however, contains the previous line, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (27).

Devotionally, we might ask ourselves what this additional idea contributes to our understanding of what our Lord is trying to say. One thought might be to consider the authority with which Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made.” Is this spoken from the point of view of an authoritative interpreter of Sabbath law, or something more? Who can really say how the Sabbath was made except for the One who made it? Consider the foundational passage in Scripture for understanding Sabbath law in the OT:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2:1-3)

Brothers and sisters, our confession of Jesus as God provokes us to conclude that Jesus was there at Creation (with the Father and the Spirit): it was Jesus who finished his work of creation, Jesus who rested, and Jesus who blessed the seventh day. How do we know the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath? Because the One who made the Sabbath has said so.

If you are like me, you have a somewhat uneasy relationship with keeping the Sabbath as a spiritual discipline. That’s of little importance here. Today, hearing this Scripture, let us come under the inspiration of the Spirit speaking to us now as he did to the Pharisees in our Lord’s time. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath as the Son of Man and Creator God. 

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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