Psalm 31:21-24; Exodus 8; Matthew 20:17-28

Back home again and enjoying a beautiful morning of sun and scudding clouds.  I can see showers off in the distance, and enjoyed the fresh, damp, and green walking down to Peets this morning.  Tulips are up at the Heather Farm Garden Center.  California spring will happen after all.

Psalm 31:21-24  I’m pretty sure the Moravians intentionally chopped up this psalm so we can savor this coda at its end.  These last verses open with “Blessed is the Lord,/ for he has done me wondrous kindness…”  Our psalmist acknowledges God’s kindness even though he has been beset by doubt, “And I had thought in my haste: ‘I am banished from before Your eyes,’ / Yet you heard the sound of my pleading.

The phrase “in my haste” says it all.  We doubt God is listening because we want an answer soon, if not right now.  But God never wavers, never abandons: “steadfastness the Lord keeps.”  Steadfast means rock-solid.  We’re the ones, who in our haste, feel God is not listening, and ultimately acts, “and pays back in good measure the haughty.”

Is there a more encouraging verse in all the psalms than the last verse of this psalm?  I think Alter’s translation really doesn’t express the psalmist’s profound joy in encouraging all of us the way the NRSV does: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage,/ all you who wait for the Lord.”  My prayer is for a courageous heart, no matter what life throws my way because I know that God is listening and that God is steadfast–the rock on which we have so firm a foundation.

Exodus 8  Our usual image of God’s acts–certainly reenforced by many psalms–is that they are powerful: earthquakes, thunder, lightning, mighty rivers.  One of those straight off, say a horrific destructive flood, might have persuaded Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go right away.  Instead, God uses these pestilential plagues –here, frogs, gnats, flies–to “persuade” Pharaoh.  They are a surfeit of three species that are generally annoying to humans–at least the gnats and flies, anyway.  In one way we can see them as a symbol of how Moses is annoying Pharaoh, or that the Hebrews have become a pestilence to Egypt.

But Pharaoh always “hardens his heart” and refuses Moses’ request.  By the end of this chapter it is clear that Pharaoh is toying with Moses, and that no matter how annoying the plague is (and those piles of dead frogs would certainly seem to fit that category to a T), Pharaoh knows that the plague is temporary.  Moses says, “Only let not Pharaoh continue to mock” (8:25) by promising and then rescinding his promise to let the Hebrews go.

So, what is going on here?  I think God is testing Moses as much–or maybe more–than he is testing Pharaoh.  Will Moses stick through this?  Will he continue to faithfully carry out God’s command?  Does God test us in the same way?  Will we remain faithful?

Matthew 20:17-28  Jesus makes his clearest statement yet about what will happen when he and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem: “…the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (20:18-19).  Matthew does not record the disciples’ response.  Do they still not get it and remain in denial?  Or is it slowly dawning on them that what Jesus has now told them three or four times really will happen?

It’s clear that the mother of James and John does not “get it” when she asks Jesus, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (20:21) Jesus asks the two if they’re ready “to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  They boldly reply, “We are.”  As Jesus promises them they will indeed do.  But they have no idea yet what that actually entails.  A  lesson here for us when we stand up and confidently declare, “I will go to the ends of the earth for Jesus,” only to wimp out not too far down the path.  Enthusiasm may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.

What is more important than enthusiasm is servant leadership.  Just before this incident,  Jesus has once again declared “the first shall be last,” and here he makes it clear exactly what he means: ” whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave…” (20:26-27)  We can almost hear the disciples saying, “Oh, you mean me, Jesus?  But I’ve been your faithful follower for these past three years.  Doesn’t that count for something?”  John and James are the primary example (and also what can go wrong when people try to set themselves over others without the right to do so).  Jesus’ clear answer: “No, not unless you’ve first been a slave.”

It’s more fun to be a leader than a slave, but true leaders know exactly what “servant leader” means.  It’s the sergeant or junior officer that will lead the charge as his men follow.  Am I willing to lead the charge into battle?  Or do I just want to sit on God’s right hand, looking important?



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