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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 31 - Proper 26 - Year A
Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7,33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
Alt - Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 31 - Proper 26 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


JOSHUA 3:7-17                The Book of Joshua narrates the story of 
Moses' successor, Joshua, leading the Israelites into the Promised Land of 
Canaan, dividing it among the twelve tribes and renewing their covenant 
with God.  This passage is a sacred legend of how the Israelites crossed 
the Jordan River following the ark of the covenant bearing the stones 
inscribed with the commandments.  It is patterned after the story of Moses 
leading the Israelites across the Red Sea.  The legend was adapted as the 
basis for a well-known spiritual sung by American slaves, "One More River 
to Cross." The story spoke to the slaves of the hope for freedom in a new 
land.


PSALM 107:1-7, 33-37         This is the first psalm in the last of five 
parts into which the Book of Psalms is divided.  It may in fact be two 
psalms combined in one at an early stage of editing.  As it now stands it 
is a beautiful thanksgiving litany.


MICAH 3:5-12                 [Alternate] Micah holds an important place in 
Old Testament prophecy.  He lived in the late 8th century BCE when Assyria 
threatened the existence of both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms of 
Israel and Judah.  His prophecies declared uncompromising justice as God's 
sole interest at a time when more popular prophetic voices sought to 
please their political masters and accepted bribes for doing so.  

 
PSALM 43                     [Alternate] Usually regarded as the 
conclusion to Ps. 42, as it appears in the Hebrew, this lament calls for 
God's help in defense against ungodly opponents.  As customary with 
laments, it ends with a vow committing the psalmist to worship faithfully 
and expresses hope for ultimate deliverance from his trials.  


1 THESSALONIANS 2:9-13       There seems to be a note of self-
justification in this brief passage, as if Paul was both grateful yet 
unsure of how he was received by the Thessalonians.  He is reassured, 
however, that they did accept his preaching of the gospel as God's word.


MATTHEW 23:1-12              In this chapter Jesus delivers a severe 
tongue-lashing to the scribes and Pharisees, the strictest of many parties 
in Israel at that time.  In reading it we must keep in mind that Matthew's 
Gospel was written about 85 AD when Christians were in conflict with Jews 
about Jesus as the Messiah and the inclusion of Gentiles in the early 
church.  At first the church has been exclusively Jewish.  The passage may 
reflect that period of bitter conflict more than the attitude of Jesus 
himself.  Nonetheless, Jesus did rebuke anyone who showed false piety.  
The passage ends with his call to service as true faithfulness.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS OF THE READINGS.

JOSHUA 3:7-17   No one can fail to note the difference between the first 
five books of the OT known as the Penteteuch and the Book of Joshua which 
begins what the Hebrew tradition called "the Former Prophets" (Joshua, 
Judges.  I & II Samuel, I & II Kings) and some Christian scholars have 
designated as "the Histories." The Book of Joshua narrates the story of 
Moses' successor, Joshua, leading the Israelites into the Promised Land of 
Canaan, dividing it among the twelve tribes, and renewing the Covenant 
with Yahweh.  These three elements are found in quite distinctive 
segments, each with its own special characteristics: the invasion and 
occupation (chs.  1-12); the apportionment of Promised Land among the 
twelve tribes of Israel (chs.  13-21); the renewal of the Covenant (chs.  
22-24).  The whole work bears the marks of Deuteronomic editors.  It is 
believed that its final composition took place during the Babylonian 
captivity either in Babylon or Judea although earlier editions and oral 
traditions certainly preceded this final work.  The book is not "history" 
as we understand that term today.  Rather, it is history seen through eyes 
of faith from a distinctive theological point of view.
	
This passage tells the sacred legend of how the Israelites crossed the 
Jordan River following the Ark of the Covenant.  The story follows the 
pattern of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea.  The ark 
contained the stones inscribed with the commandments given to Moses and 
was carried by Levitical priests (3:3).  As the priests entered the water 
of the Jordan, the river's flow stopped and backed up as if behind a dam 
(vs. 13).  This phenomenon attributed to divine intervention has been 
known in modern times to have had natural causes.  In 1927 a landslide 
caused by an earthquake blocked the river for more than 27 hours.

According to the story also, the crossing of the river was to take place 
during the harvest when the river was in flood.  In the lower Jordan 
valley, this occurs in April at the height of the spring run-off of 
melting snow at the sources of the Jordan on Mount Lebanon far to the 
north.  While the whole twelve tribes made their way across on dry ground, 
the ark remained in the middle of the river bed.  

The point of the story is the claim of faith in vs. 10: "By this you shall 
know that among you is the living God ...."  Do we see the events of our 
time, however caused, in a similar light from the viewpoint of faith? Do 
apparently remarkable victories or devastating tragedies in our 
contemporary world have inspirational components? Did televised scenes of 
disabled children and women from the war zone of Angola move so many 
nations to ban personnel land mines? Without such an attitude would the 
conscience of the world have been awakened by the massacres of so many 
innocent victims of civil wars in Rwanda and Cosovo? How can this 
theological principle be applied to the current struggles in Afghanistan 
and Iraq? Or should it be applied to current events at all?


PSALM 107:1-7,33-37   This is the first psalm in the last of five parts 
into which the Book of Psalms is divided.  It may in fact be two psalms 
combined in one at an early stage of editing.  As it now stands it is a 
beautiful thanksgiving litany.  Regardless of its source in the Hebrew 
scriptures, it stands on its own as one of the great pieces of poetry in 
any literature of the world.  A collection of English poetry for use as an 
Ontario public school text once included the KJV rendering of a 
significant excerpt from it.

The first segment of this reading expresses gratitude for Yahweh's 
steadfast love, universal redemption and providential help in extreme 
distress (vss.1-9).  The same theme carries through the whole poem in ever 
more specific detail with many illusions to Israel's historic pilgrimage 
from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Throughout the whole poem there is a 
compelling, antiphonal refrain, "Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast 
love, for his wonderful works to humankind." (NRSV vs. 8, 15, 21, 31) Each 
time this refrain has a different secondary element which appears to draw 
ever closer to the ritual ceremonies in the temple (vs. 9, 16, 22, 32) for 
which this was almost certainly a thanksgiving litany.  The fact that this 
refrain does not occur in vs. 33-43 has caused some scholars to 
distinguish this latter segment (not included in this reading) as a 
second, didactic psalm even though it too celebrates the unpredictable 
providence and special concern of Yahweh for the poor and needy.

The poem bears the unmistakable marks of the prophetic message of Second 
Isaiah.  It probably dates from the Persian period or even the Hellenistic 
age when the liturgies of the temple had been developed to a high degree 
with litanies such as this.  It still carries a potent message for our own 
times when the poor of the world are evident on our very doorstep while 
the resources of the world are being consumed so unequally.  


MICAH 3:5-12   [Alternate] Micah, of whom little is known other than that 
he was a rural Judean, holds an important place in Old Testament prophecy.  
He lived in the late 8th century BCE when Assyria threatened the existence 
of both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  His 
prophecies declared uncompromising justice as God's sole interest at a 
time when more popular prophetic voices sought to please their political 
masters and accepted bribes for doing so.  

Power has a strange way of attracting popular support by means of 
solicitous propaganda.  We confront this every day, even in the most 
democratic societies, giving it the curious name of "spin." As this 
passage points out so graphically, ancient Israel had its spin doctors 
too.  They were called false prophets who sought favours by saying what 
their political masters wanted to hear.  

The times when the core of Micah's prophecies were uttered were decidedly 
different than those desired by Israel's leaders.  In an era of great 
political and religious corruption and compromise, faithful Israelites had 
to struggle to maintain the purity of their faith tradition rooted in the 
justice and righteousness of Yahweh that required faithful obedience to 
the Covenant.  

A growing gap between rich and poor characterized the age of Micah's 
contrarian prophecies.  Naturally, the rich and powerful sought to 
continue the comforts they enjoyed no matter how much it violated the 
nation's religious heritage or whatever the cost to those less powerful 
than they.  They found plenty of favourable support in the twisted 
prophecies of those whom they could bribe.  At the same time they 
worshipped hypocritically believing that they were safe in God's 
providential care (vs. 11).

 
PSALM 43   [Alternate] Usually regarded as the conclusion to Ps. 42, as it 
appears in the Hebrew, this lament calls for Yahweh's help in defense 
against ungodly opponents.  As customary with laments, it ends with a vow 
committing the psalmist to worship faithfully and expresses hope for 
ultimate deliverance from his trials.  

Like the prophecy of Micah above, it appeals for divine justice.  As such 
it appropriately fills the role in Christian liturgics of the psalm as 
serving an antiphon or response to reinforce the message of the Old 
Testament lesson.  In this instance, the psalmist's attitude ascends from 
that of a sufferer from wounds in body and soul (cf. 42:10) who has 
experienced severe persecution to one of trust and confidence.	

Perhaps thinking of the angelic figures, the cherubim, believed to flank 
or support the throne of Yahweh and serve as guardians of the ark, he 
immediately imagines them reflecting God's light and truth.  So he asks 
that they lead him to the very presence of Yahweh.  For Jews of that time, 
the temple on the holy hill of Jerusalem represented the divine presence.  
There he vows to offer praise accompanied by an ancient musical 
instrument, the lyre.  Then his despair will turn to hope and trust in 
Yahweh's providential care.


1 THESSALONIANS 2:9-13   We can never know the exact circumstances of 
Paul's ministry in Thessalonica to which he makes reference in this brief 
passage.  It seems to contain a certain note of self-justification, as if 
Paul was both grateful yet unsure of how he and his fellow Christian 
missionaries had been received by the Thessalonians.  He also voiced 
genuine concern that these new Christians might not be able to withstand 
the persecution to which they were being subjected.

On the surface, it would appear that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy has been 
criticized or falsely accused of malingering and living off the generosity 
of the Christian community.  Paul protests that they "had worked night and 
day, so that they might not burden any of you." This may refer to Paul's 
tent-making ministry, something he could have carried on very easily in 
this important seaport city.

Thessalonica had a dubious reputation due to being capital of a Roman 
province and a major commercial centre on the main highway between Rome 
and its eastern provinces.  As in many cities in the Roman Empire, the 
Jewish community there was of considerable size and influence.  The brief 
account of the mission given in Acts 17:1-9 suggests that the antagonism, 
especially from some of the Jews, had been so severe as to incite a riot 
in the marketplace.  It is also possible that if employment opportunities 
had been uncertain at that time, the arrival of three strangers who took 
jobs from some of the local folk had confused public perception of their 
mission.  

Paul and his companions had been forced to flee the city by night in order 
to protect their friends in Christian community who had given them 
shelter.  It would also appear from the tenor of vs. 10 that charges of 
immoral behavior had been leveled against the missionaries.  This Paul 
refuted as forcefully as he could by appealing to the Thessalonian 
community's memories of their genuine care for and encouragement of them 
in the Christian life (vs. 11-12).  In vs. 13 Paul expressed some 
reassurance that they did accept his preaching as God's word and not mere 
human manipulation.  

The accusation leveled against the apostles in Acts 17:6 contains a 
memorable text on which innumerable sermons have been preached.  While 
expressing genuine concern for those whom he had persuaded to follow the 
new way despite victimization by their opponents, Paul reiterated that 
same theme: The Christian gospel and the way of discipleship following 
from it "turns the whole world upside down." It still does for those who 
accept the challenge, as we are made aware in the public media almost 
every day whenever the Christian gospel challenges powerful interests and 
contemporary standards of behavior.


MATTHEW 23:1-12   In this chapter Jesus delivers a severe tongue-lashing 
to the scribes and Pharisees, the strictest of many parties in Israel at 
that time.  In reading it we must keep in mind that Matthew's Gospel was 
written about 85 AD when Christians were in conflict with Jews about Jesus 
as the Messiah and the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church.  At 
first the church has been exclusively Jewish.  The passage may reflect 
that period of bitter conflict more than the attitude of Jesus himself.  
The kernel of Jesus' own thought may be no more than that recorded in vs. 
11 and possibly also vs. 12.  

Nonetheless, Matthew quotes Jesus as rebuking anyone who showed false 
piety.  The tradition found in all the gospels clearly points to this 
being very much the mind of Jesus as the apostolic church knew it.  The 
Pharisees had interpreted the will of God as the minute details of the law 
and the tradition of the elders, which in the 2nd century was written down 
in the *Mishnah*.  Matthew represented Jesus as advocating rigorous 
adherence to the essentials of the law (cf.  Matt. 5:18).  Yet he also 
defined Jesus' major messianic function as reinterpreting the law as a 
sincere and unequivocal expression of love for God and neighbor.  This 
tension surfaces very plainly in this passage.  

Specifically, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their public show of 
religious fervour without performing what God required of them.  The 
example he gave of this hypocrisy was their desire "to sit on Moses' 
seat." This was a seat of honour in the synagogue close to the arch where 
the scrolls of the Torah were kept.  Whoever sat there was recognized as 
having the authority to teach.  Similarly, they also wore fine garments 
carefully designed according to the prescription of Numbers 15:37-39, and 
they sought preferential places at banquets and in synagogues symbolizing 
their importance as teachers of the law.  

The instructions given to Christian disciples, whether by Jesus himself or 
by the author of the gospel speaking to his own community, stand in stark 
contrast to the hypocritical actions of the Pharisees (vs. 8-10).  The 
recommended behavior for Christian disciples recalls the stinging prophecy 
of Micah 6:6-8 condemning the sacrificial ritualism of the temple several 
centuries earlier.  Humility like that of a servant was required of all.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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