Knysna Methodist Church – Lectionary notes – 3 April
The Israelites were being held captive in exile and in this passage Isaiah records God’s message to them. The Lord has been speaking about Babylon and has promised them He will judge the Babylonians. He reminded His people to look back to when He opened the Red Sea for them so they could be confident that He was able to bring about such a seemingly impossible feat. Isaiah used several titles for God to offer comfort for Israel in their captivity. He is the Lord their Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of Israel and their King. Now though, Isaiah encouraged the people not to remember the past and all the bad things that had happened to them. It was as if they were to look back and remember only the good things God had done for them and discard the rest. If they remained stuck in their current situation, they would not see what God had in store for them. God asked them to remember Him and He would then make a way through the wilderness which would enable them to return to Israel, hundreds of kilometres away. He would also provide them with the water they would need and protect them against the wild beasts that roamed in the desert. As a result, God’s people will praise Him and give Him the glory for all He had accomplished for them. The freedom God promised hints at the freedom Jesus will bring for all people as Messiah.
This psalm is one of the fifteen songs of ascents which were sung by pilgrims as they climbed up to Jerusalem. It commemorated the release of the Jewish exiles from Babylon and their return to Jerusalem (although it may also have referred to David’s return after his son Absalom’s rebellion recorded in 2 Samuel 15-19).
The people are full of wonder at the goodness and power of God. They had known about God’s promises to restore them but when it actually happened it was so wonderful. It seemed almost unreal. It gave them such joy that all they could do was laugh and sing to such an extent that even the neighbouring nations had noticed and glorified God for what He had done for them. The singers, who heard what the nations said, agreed that God had done a marvellous work ‘for us’. Their reaction to the blessing of God is all the more powerful by the use of a simple phrase. ‘We are glad’. Its understatement describes the depth of feeling in a more effective way than any exuberant language could.
The people acknowledge that there is still work to be done as they returned to Jerusalem and they ask for an even fuller restoration. What has already happened forms a strong foundation for the hope of what is still to occur. The streams of the south only flow when there has been rain. They fill the dry riverbeds with torrents of water and make the desert bloom. The psalmist prays here for a similar sudden almighty work of God.
Whilst the joy of the first part of the psalm was real, it had been preceded by tears when the people were in exile. The psalmist acknowledges that the joy of the harvest will require hard work on the part of the people. The tears of the people would water the harvest. They were to go out and sow, and wait. Joy is not always sudden. Sometimes people need perseverance and patience to reap a harvest of joy. But when the harvest comes they will jubilantly bring it home.
Legalistic Jews considered they were the ones who were right with God; but Paul told his followers that those who worshiped God in the Spirit and followed Jesus Christ were the truly circumcised ones. It was a spiritual circumcision, rather than a physical act of worship. The joy of the true circumcision can only be found in Jesus Christ. The word worship was used by the Jews for Jewish worship alone. It was never used in regard to Gentiles.
Paul then went on to list the reason he, himself, could have confidence in physical circumcision.
• He had been circumcised when he was eight days old as per the Jewish custom;
• He was a Jew by birth and so an heir to God’s covenant with His Jewish people
• He was born into the tribe of Benjamin. This was the tribe which produced Saul, Israel’s first king.
• He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews – he did not practice the Greek culture as many did;
• In regard to the law:
o He was a Pharisee, a member of the elite sect which held the law in high esteem;
o He had actively persecuted the Church before he met Jesus;
o According to the law he had been seen as a righteous man.
Paul declared he had the right to be considered a man who pleased God by keeping the law and doing the right thing.
Whatever he may have gained from all this ‘right’ living, he now saw this (and everything else he had valued) gained him nothing but that it was all, in fact, worthless in comparison to knowing Jesus. Paul saw a personal relationship with Christ as central to the life of a Christian. He had lost a great deal in order to gain such a relationship. He used strong language describing these losses as rubbish (a word which has a stronger meaning than our use of it today). Because Paul was in Jesus Christ it did not matter how righteous he was as a person. He could give that righteousness up and live in the righteousness of God. His spiritual life was based on what Jesus had done for him not on what he was doing for Jesus.
It was important for Paul to know Jesus; not know about Him but actually know Him as a redeemer, liberator, king, shepherd, the way, the bread of life – in all these ways and more, Paul knew Jesus. As a result Paul knew the power of Christ – that same power that raised Him from the dead – and shared His suffering. Paul was facing martyrdom, but even that was worth it to attain the goal of eternal life. Paul wrote these words when he was imprisoned in Rome. He had suffered a great deal in this life for Christ. He was talking about his experience rather than any lofty ideas he had of faith.
Even then he knew he had not achieved perfection. He would persevere, moving forward to the prize, not letting either his past or his present distract him. The word hold has the meaning of reaching up to something, grasping it and pulling it down in a tight grip. The upward calling he is trying to grasp came from God’s heart and was worthy of God. It was greater than humanity’s ideals and it summoned those who strived to grasp it into the place where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Such a high calling is only in Jesus Christ.
John dates this supper as six days before the Passover – the last week of Jesus’ life. Almost half of John’s Gospel covers this last week.
The dinner was probably to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life. In spite of Jesus’ knowledge of what was going to happen within a matter of days, He would have been the guest of honour. This meal was probably held at Simon the Leper’s house (although John does not say this). Some scholars suspect Martha may have been Simon’s wife. The dinner followed the custom where the men sat and ate, whilst the women served them.
During the meal Mary gave Jesus a very extravagant gift. The event was unusual in that a guest’s feet would normally have been washed as they entered the house by a lowly slave. Water would usually have been used rather than an expensive ointment, and a servant would have dried the guest’s feet with a towel, rather than one of the hostesses with her own hair. A Jewish woman never let her hair down in public. The whole act demonstrated Mary’s gratitude, humility and devotion to Jesus.
Spices and ointments were often purchased as an investment as they could easily be transported and sold. Mary used a whole pound (about 450 grams) of spikenard which was worth about a year’s wages for a workman. The oil is derived from a flowering plant in the honeysuckle family and it has such a sweet smell that John was able to remember it all those years later when he recorded the event in his Gospel.
Judas objected to Mary’s gift. It was too expensive and was such a waste of money which could have benefitted so many people who had nothing. (He may have been embarrassed by the extravagant display of Mary’s love for Jesus too. The guests, with the exception of Jesus, would certainly have been shocked at what she did.) John goes on to say, probably from hindsight, that Judas did not care for the poor because he was a thief.
Jesus defended Mary. His comment about the anointing being for His burial would have stopped other objections in their tracks for few people would criticise the money spent on a burial. Within a couple of days Judas would betray Jesus …
Points to Ponder
• Spend some time looking back and remembering what God has done for you that has been a blessing to you. Then look forward. What is your greatest hope for your future? How do you need God to help you achieve this hope?
• What do you say to God when He fulfils a promise He has made to you? How do you praise Him and/or thank Him? What promise are you waiting to be fulfilled at the moment? How does the thought of the fulfilment of that promise make you feel?
• What is the focus of your life? What do you thing qualifies you to answer in this way? How much time do you spend thinking about this focus? How does it influence the way you live your life?
• Who is Jesus to you? Explain briefly what He means to you.
• How do you feel when you see someone showing their love for someone else in a public way through an act of kindness or generosity? What do you think it says to you about the kind of person they are? What does it say to you about the kind of person you are?
• Do you think you can ever give a gift to express your love for someone that is too expensive? How would you respond to someone who said that the money you spent would have been better spent on the poor? Why would you respond this way?
Isaiah 43; Psalm 126;Philippians 3; John 12