Archives for March 2014

Psalm 37:23-26; Exodus 25:10-40; Matthew 24:45-51

Psalm 37:23-26   “By the LORD a man’s strides are made firm.” (23) Metaphorically, life is a journey; in this case a hike.  We walk; God makes us “firm,” which I take to mean purposeful.   Life is not an aimless wandering.  Even as we walk forward, the path will not be smooth and we will trip–over other people, over circumstances, over ourselves. Which as I age, I understand much more clearly than as a young man.

But God is holding our hand: “Though he fall, he will not be flung down, for the LORD sustains his hand.” (24) It has taken me longer to understand this than to know that life is hardly a smooth road.  As so many other psalms assert, even when it seems that God has deserted us, he is actually there, holding our hand.

I think it’s important to understand that our hand is “sustained” by God. He  is not leading us by the hand.  As we walk, we have a choice to follow a path of our own devising.  For good or bad.  I hear a lot about “God’s plan for our lives,” but I think it’s too easy–and yes, intellectually lazy–to  assume that life is about following some divinely programmed course that’s been laid out for us–and that when we deviate from that plan, bad things will happen.

 Exodus 25:10-40  Midway through chapter 24, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai and is with God in the cloud.  Here at 25 we read the detailed instructions about the composition and construction of the Ark of the Covenant, the Table, and the Lampstand.  This an intermezzo from the main drama–Moses receiving the tablets and what is going on in the camp below–or perhaps the editors of the book mixed up scrolls.  In any event, this lengthy description of the furnishings and construction of the Tabernacle seems to be something of a non-sequitur.

The materials are of the finest quality [“gold and silver and bronze, and indigo and purple 4 and crimson, and linen and goat hair, and reddened ram skins and ocher-dyed skins and acacia wood” (24:5)] and now I see why the fact that the Israelites were given all these things by the Egyptians as they departed was repeated a couple of times earlier in Exodus.

One aspect of this I had not appreciated before is that all these materials are a voluntary offering: “…that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge…” (25:2)  The message is clear.  God deserves the very best that we have to offer, and whatever we offer to God, whether our treasure or our talents, must be the very best we have to offer. Our “first fruits.”  But above all, it is offered willingly, joyfully “as our hearts may urge.”

Matthew 24:45-51  Jesus continues his theme of urgency and watchfulness for the Day of the Lord, focusing on what we are to do while waiting for that momentous event.  This passage is all about our responsibility to work–not laze–in the Kingdom: “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (24:46) 

Losing focus on why we are in the Kingdom in the first place leads too easily to lording it over others (“he begins to beat his fellow slaves”) and indolence (“eats and drinks with drunkards”).  

It’s interesting that Jesus ascribes this loss of purpose to the fact that we forget that the Master is away right now, but may return at any moment.  As we read in New Testament epistles, there was a much stronger expectation of the Master’s imminent return than there is today, 2000 years later. Yet, we need to be just as prepared and focused as those workers back then.

It’s also easy to see these metaphors at work in a “church setting.”  We become obsessed with worship form rather than function.  We undermine others in order to advance ourselves in the eyes of others.  We see church as an internal social event (the “Sunday country club”) where we are comfortable rather than a place where we equip ourselves for work in the Kingdom “right here, right now.”

 

Psalm 37:16-22; Exodus 23:27-25:9; Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 37:16-22  Better a little for the just than wicked men’s great profusion.” (16) Even though it’s true, it is still difficult to accept with complete equanimity.  Yes, we believe the promise that follows immediately, “For the wicked’s arms shall be broken, but the LORD sustains the just.” (17)  Not only will the wicked’s arms be broken, but “the wicked shall perish, and the foes of the LORD, like the meadows’ green—gone, in smoke, gone.” (20)

I’m not sure that in our power- and celebrity-obsessed culture that we really, deep down, believe that the wicked will meet this fate.  Yes, in the end, as my father used to say, “the chickens come home to roost.”   And in our hearts we know God sustains us, but as the middle class shrinks and wealth continues to concentrate at the very top, these are verses we need to read again and again.  As the psalmist told his listeners, and he is telling us: faith is not based on the appearance of reality.  Take heart.  God is still there and God will mete his justice.

One side note: Jesus must have had these verses in mind when he said the meek will inherit the earth: “For those He blesses inherit the earth and those He curses are cut off.” (22)

Exodus 23:27-25:9   God gets very specific about the Promised Land and the manner in which the Israelites will gain it: “Little by little shall I drive them out before you until you are fruitful and inherit the land. And I shall fix its borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I shall give into your hand the inhabitants of the land and you will drive them out before you.” (23:30-31)  And no deals.  It will be straight up conquest, with all the former inhabitants driven out of Canaan: “You shall not make a pact with them or with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they cause you to offend Me, for should you worship their gods, it will be a snare for you.’” (23:32-33).

Which of course is exactly what didn’t happen.  The inhabitants stayed and Israel’s history is filled with the problems and tragedies–the snares– that ensued.  But I wonder.  Could any people do what God demanded of Israel?  The New Covenant pretty much proves that we couldn’t.

Contrary to popular image, Moses did not just go up on Mt. Sinai to meet God.  There was an elaborate ritual of sacrifice and the leaders gather and collectively see God–or at least His feet: “And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like a fashioning of sapphire pavement and like the very heavens for pureness.”  (24:10) But God no more of himself them: “But against the elect of the Israelites He did not send forth His hand.” (24:11)  This scene of cloud and God’s glory foreshadows Jesus’ Transfiguration many centuries later.

Only Moses goes up into the cloud to meet God, who promises to write the Commandments in stone.  This separation of Moses from everyone else certainly underscores the honor and special place that has been accorded to him throughout Israel’s history.  Unfortunately, the 40-day separation of Moses from the rest of the Israelites will also lead to mischief at the foot of Sinai.

 Matthew 24:36-44  Much has been made of this prophesy about the coming of the Son of Man, leading to the theory (my deliberate word) of the Rapture and bumper stickers that say, “In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned.”

Even though it’s in our Creed, (“He shall come to judge the living and the dead”), we are uncomfortable with the idea that history will end so abruptly.  But apparently, that’s God’s plan that will occur in God’s good time.  For me, the issue is not trying to parse the precise meaning of how that will occur; only that it will occur.

Above all, there is one major lesson: we are to remain alert, always looking outward.  Those of us in the Church are apt to focus inward on our selves and or tasks, metaphorically grinding our meal.  Only by looking outward and upward can we hope to be prepared.

Psalm 37:7-15: Exodus 22:25-23:26; Matthew 24:26-35

Greetings from the still-frigid Midwest, this time in Madison, where there are more Priuses than I have seen anywhere outside the Bay Area.

Kevin: Scot Sorenson sends his personal greetings to you; we having visited Bethel Lutheran for worship yesterday.  A step back in liturgical time, that’s for sure.

Psalm 37:7-15  This Wisdom psalm reminds us that human nature is one of the constants across time.  The wicked always appear to do well, and our reaction to their devious schemes is impatience and then anger at the gross unfairness of life. The psalmist’s advice is profoundly simple: “Be still before the LORD and await Him. / Do not be incensed by him who prospers, by the man who devises schemes.”  (7) and profoundly difficult for us humans to execute.

The psalmist calls for patience  (“Be still…”) and non-intervention on our part; rather we must “await Him.” In the meantime, while we sit around and wait for God to act, the wicked go about their merry way.  This patience requires us to have faith that God will ultimately act and the wicked will get their just desserts.  But this could take years!  The psalmist is aware of this and reassures us that God will indeed act, “And very soon, the wicked will be no more. / You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.” (10)

But in the meantime our impatience leads inevitably to anger, and again, the psalmist advises us, “Let go of wrath and forsake rage./ Do not be incensed to do evil.” (8) For to act out of vengeance and anger makes us just as bad as the evil-doers themselves.  Indeed.  But how many times have I lost patience and acted out of anger?  Alas, far more often against those whom I love than against the more abstract “wicked” described here.

Exodus 22:25-23:26  This seemingly endless list of laws and prohibitions applicable to an early agrarian society includes valuable insights into human psychology.  For example, the psychology of crowds: “You shall not follow the many for evil, and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many.” (23:2)  How often have we “gone along” with the crowd, knowing in our hearts it was wrong?

There’s implicit conservation and resource preservation in the command to work the land/ vineyard/ field for six years and let it rest for the seventh.  There’s remarkable kindness toward animals, even if you hate the owner: “Should you see your adversary’s donkey sprawling under its load and would hold back from assisting him, you shall surely assist him.” (23:5).

Perhaps the most puzzling verses in this passage are: “Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I made ready.” (23:20-21).  Perhaps Christological?  Perhaps not, because the  verse hardly concludes on a note of grace and forgiveness: “Watch yourself with him and heed his voice, do not defy him, for he will not pardon your trespass.”  Nevertheless, a promise: “But if you truly heed his voice and do all that I speak, I shall be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.” (23:23)  Perhaps the New Covenant stated in Old Covenant terms?

Matthew 24:26-35  On the other hand the Olivet Discourse does not exactly evoke an image of a sweet, loving Jesus. In the passages preceding, Jesus has spoken directly, harshly, and accusingly to the Pharisees, but here he is speaking to his disciples and basically scaring the socks off them: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” (24:7) and then, it gets personal: “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (24:9).

We American Christians are mighty uncomfortable here; yet what Jesus foretells is happening today all around the world, notably in the Middle East.  If American Christianity was demanding, never mind persecuted, would we rally around the cross?  Or like the disciples in just a couple of days after Jesus’ talk here, would we flee?  As difficult as it is to say, I think the American Church could benefit from a little more persecution.

We have had it so easy as Christians that we have become essentially irrelevant. And the larger society has simply become indifferent.  Historically, persecution has usually made for a stronger church.  The comfort of turning inward and talking to ourselves, or worse, trying to be “relevant” and “with it,” has made us citizens that have bought into the culture rather than the resident aliens both Peter and Paul demand us to be.

 

Psalm 36; Exodus 20:22-21:27; Matthew 23:33-39

Psalm 36  In the NRSV this psalm begins in the normal third person voice: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

But in Alter’s translation, this psalm opens with transgression personified as a character, “Crime,” speaking from a remarkable point of view: from inside the heart of a man: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked within his heart: ‘There is no fear of God before my eyes.’”  The image is striking: a small, but evil voice speaking within our heart, a kind of anti-conscience.

For me, Alter’s rendering makes the psalm much more personal and much more powerful.  The personified image of crime speaking, deep within a man’s heart creates wickedness. Conscience has been supplanted by crime. “Crime” is ultimately a deceiver, “For it caressed him with its eyes to find his sin of hatred.”  The idea that crime entices and exploits a pre-existing hatred makes sense–be it hatred of others or self-hatred.

The fruits of crime then emanate (as the do so often in the Bible) in speech: “The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit.”  But perhaps most tragically of all, “he ceased to grasp things, to do good.”  Evil has overtaken a man’s heart, and as a result, good has been overtaken by evil.

And as the psalm notes in its final verse, for the evil man only destruction awaits: “There did the doers of mischief fall. / They were toppled and could not rise.”  There is only one antidote: “For with You is the fountain of life. / In Your light we shall see light. /Draw down Your kindness to those who know You.”

Crime can speak all too easily in our own hearts.  Or God can.  Which will I listen to?

Exodus 20:22-21:27  While we all know the Ten Commandments enumerated for the first time in chapter 20, the almost miscellaneous laws that follow in chapter 20 are less widely known.  Alter suggests that this is “probably one of the oldlest collections of law in the Bible” and that it has many parallels with the Code of Hammurabi.

Given the history of these newly-freed people, the fact that the very first one has to do with slavery should probably not be surprising.  What is more surprising, however, is the very idea of a “Hebrew slave,” (21:2).  However, these slaves go free after six years, suggesting more a form of indentured servanthood than classic chattel slavery.

21:20-21 is disturbing: “And should a man 20 strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand, they shall surely be avenged. But if a day or two they should survive,  they are not to be avenged for they are his money.” The implications of this verse are not pleasant.  Beating a slave is apparently within the purview of the law, but murdering a slave is not.  If the slave is beaten and dies immediately, it’s murder; if the slave dies a couple of days later from the beating, then the owner simply got too carried away in his punishment and that’s acceptable.

As is so often the case, I have to take this passage as reflective of a time and culture that happily no longer exists.  I wonder what the Biblical inerrantists do with this?

Matthew 23:33-39  Jesus’ anger reaches a climax, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:33)  This to the Pharisees, who in their self-directed efforts to “be good” have gotten it completely backward.  We are exactly like them: obsessed with outward appearance, the inward essentials forgotten.  But worse, we don’t want to hear challenges like Jesus’ and all the prophets who came before [and Jesus includes them all, from “righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” (23:35)], our obsession that we are the ones who are “right” and the others who say things we take to be “not right” we expunge.

There is no place where the contrast of the implications of Jesus’ message and “religion” stands out so clearly. And yet, what have we as Christians persisted in doing these past 2000 years?  Exactly what the scribes and Pharisees did.  We may have “religion,” but do we really understand and then take to heart what Jesus is saying here?  One thing is clear: the Kingdom of God and “religion” are orthogonal.

Aside from the crucifixion itself, Jesus’ lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (23:37) is perhaps the saddest point in Matthew’s gospel.  And here for us, “Jerusalem” is the world at large.  What are we doing to gather the world “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings?”  Are we willing to help Jesus in this task?

Psalm 35:19-28; Exodus 19:10-20:21; Matthew 23:23-32

Sunny and awfully cold (+9F) this morning in Batavia.  People are pretty discouraged about ever seeing spring here in the Midwest.

Psalm 35:19-28  At this point in the psalm it’s becoming clearer that David is experiencing a legal proceeding against him in a courtroom, as his enemies testify against him, ostensibly as eyewitnesses: “They open their mouths wide against me./ They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Our eyes have seen it.'” (21).  But God is David’s witness as he pleads for his Lord to testify on his behalf: “You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.” (22)  And then somewhat desperately, “Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause, my God and my Master, for my quarrel.” (23).

God is both witness and judge: “Judge me by Your justice, Lord my God.” (24)  Which of course is what God is to us, as well.  But David stands by himself before God.  In Jesus Christ, we have an advocate before our Judge.

David is not completely alone, though.  Just as there is a crowd of people testifying against him “who rejoice in my harm” (26), there are those who stand with David: “May they sing glad and rejoice,/ who desire justice for me.” (27).  So, too, in community we are among those who will sing and rejoice for us when we are on trial.  And when we come through that trial, they will also sing with us, “Great is the Lord/ Who desires His servant’s well-being.” (28)

 Exodus 19:10-20:21  This dramatic episode where God comes to Mount Sinai demonstrates that we do not approach God casually.  There is a clear separation between God and men, and God makes it clear that anyone who even touches the mountain will die.  And that to even listen to God’s voice requires significant preparation, as in the washing of their cloaks (which we recall the Israelites took from the Egyptians upon their departure).  Interesting side note (for me, anyway): that “on the third day the Lord will come down before the yes of all the people on Mount Sinai.” (19:11)  It seems that there is an OT precedent for everything that happens in the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection.

The theophany is dramatic to say the least: “…there was thunder and lightening and a heavy cloud on the mountain and the sound of the ram’s horn.” (19:16).  This is no ordinary storm, “and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (19:17).   Moses is the intermediary between God and the people and he shuttles between God on the mountain and the people below as “Moses would speak, and God would answer him with voice.” (19:19).  This entire scene presages Christ as our own intermediary–and reminds us that God certainly loves us as our “Abba,” but that he is also God, creator of the universe and we do well to remember God’s omnipotence.

What I had not really thought about before is that before the Ten Commandments took written form, they were spoken to the people by God Himself.  The Commandments as we know them are basically a condensation of God’s long sermon here.  That, among other things, emphasizes again the generational theme we have seen so often,   “I am the Lord your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons…for My foes.” (20:5,6)  But also, “doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and for those who keep My commands.” (20:6)

Matthew 23:23-32  Matthew builds to the climax of what Jesus came to earth to tell us.  And it is not easy to hear.  These four “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” paragraphs are not just speaking to the religious leaders of his day, but Jesus is speaking to the hypocrite in all of us.

First, we focus on the trivial: the appetizer (“mint, dill, and cummin”) but not the main dish: “justice and mercy and faith.”  It’s as if Jesus is describing David’s oppressors in Psalm 35.

Second, and what I think is the defining quality of all good hypocrites: focusing solely on our appearance rather than the dirty reality (“inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”) of our character.  Church is an especially attractive place for this practice: This is where we put our exterior selves on public display in attractive literal and figurative clothing.  We want nothing more than to appear whole and “with it” to those around us, even though we are broken inside.

Third, “Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (23:31)  This is Jesus’ awful prophecy.  Not only do the scribes and Pharisees claim they would not have killed the prophets had they been present back then, but Jesus knows they are about to kill the Prophet in their midst.

To claim we are better than our ancestors when in fact we are about to commit the same crime is perhaps the worst hypocrisy of all.  Just as our society today believes it is more “enlightened” and more “tolerant” than our benighted forebears, we are just like the scribes and Pharisees: ready to pounce and annihilate anyone who dares point out our societal failings in a way that does not comport with the accepted (and dare I say it: politically correct) “wisdom.”

Psalm 35:11-18; Exodus 18:7-19:9; Matthew 23:13-22

Greetings from the snowy Midwest.  Clearing skies are promised for later today, but Geoff was out this morning shoveling his driveway…

Psalm 35:11-18  David’s agonized prayer continues as he recounts his afflictions at the hands of his enemies.  I’m struck by how the torture he feels arises from the words rather than the actions of his enemies: “Outrageous witnesses rose,/ of things I knew not they asked me” (11) and “Their mouths gaped and they were not still” (15b).  Is there anything more hurtful than “with contemptuous mocking chatter they gnashed their teeth against me?” (16)  In the case of children, we call this bullying.  For grown men, it is an affliction we must generally bear in silence.

David’s–and our–only recourse is to cry out to God.  And here, David does not ask God to mete out vengeance.  At this point, his weariness is so great that he asks only for rescue from his tormenters: “Bring back my life from their violence, / from the lions, my very being.” (17)

But underneath David’s agony is a foundation of faith in God.  Unlike so many of us, David does not blame God for his woes.  Instead, he promises to make public proclamation of God’s benevolence, “I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,/ in a vast crowd I shall praise you.” (18).  The question looms: Could I even contemplate, much less actually carry out, what David promises God he will do upon being rescued?  I’m not so sure as he is.

Exodus 18:7-19:9  Jethro’s arrival in peace (and domestic tranquility) stands in stark contrast with the battle between the Israelites and the Amekelites that precedes it. (side note: If Moses is old by this time, his father-in-law is really old…) Jethro exclaims, “I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods,” (18:11), a reaffirmation of the underlying theme of Exodus: that God’s acts in Egypt prove once and for all His supremacy over all the small-g gods of the time–and our time…

I don’t know if someone has yet written a book along the lines of, “Biblical Examples of Great Management and Leadership,” but Jethro certainly gives excellent advice to his son-in-law of the benefits of delegation.  Seeing that Moses is burdened all day with people coming to him for decisions, Jethro suggests that Moses appoint judges to handle the task for him, telling Moses, “it will lighten [your load] from upon you and they will bear it with you.” (18:22-23).  And Moses chooses wisely, installing three managerial layers in the hierarchy: “able men from all Israel and he set them as heads over the people, chiefs of  thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens.” (18:25-26)

These administrative matters dealt with and Jethro having departed, the Israelites arrive at that most significant location: the foot of Mt. Sinai.  God resumes his dialog with Moses, beginning with a reiteration of the Covenant: “if you will  truly heed My voice and keep My covenant, you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples, for Mine is all the earth.” (19:5).  God understands us in every regard, not least of which being that we need to hear and the same things over and over.  Which is why He states the Covenant, simple as it is, again and again.  And why we need to worship every week, or more often.  We are indeed people of short memory.

Matthew 23:13-22  Jesus, knowing what is coming, and I think to a certain extent to make sure the conspiracy moves into action, continues his disquisition (harangue?) before the scribes and Pharisees, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” (23:13)  If you’re a religious leader, those are fighting words!

But wait, there’s more.  Even if these guys make a single convert by crossing the sea, “you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (23:15).  And then, “Woe to you, blind guides.” (23:16).  And don’t forget, this is front of the crowd.  Even though Jesus has spoken the truth, they are publicly humiliated and inwardly seething.  There’s little question now that they’ll hesitate to take Jesus out.

The question is, that in my own theological “wisdom,” as well as my actions am I being a “blind guide,” and undoing the work of the Kingdom for others, even as I think I’m making a positive contribution?

Psalm 35:1-10; Exodus 17:1-18:6; Matthew 22:41-23:12

I’m late today, as this being written on UA 1660 from SFO to ORD, so it probably won’t go out until this evening…

Psalm 35:1-10  In asking God to help “fight those who fight against me.” David prays a prayer that in our politically correct “enlightened” society we are probably loathe to emulate.   Clearly, he is praying from a place of deep agony and hurt in what he perceives as his innocence, “For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me, unprovoked they dug a pit for my life.”

David lives in an eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth framework, for he asks that God do the same to his enemies as they did to him, basically that they be hoisted on their own petard: “Let disaster come upon him unwitting and the net that he set entrap him.”

So, are we entitled to pray the same kind of prayer in times of personal disaster?  When really bad things have happened to us?  I would argue yes. For isn’t better to cry out to God for him to see that our enemies come to the same bad end where we find ourselves than to try to take action ourselves.  Action which will invariably come to a bad end for us.

David’s prayer is the prayer that reminds us that vengeance is indeed the Lord’s.  But there is no prohibition in crying to God for vengeance to occur.  The key point is that we cry out or pain, our agony and yes, our desire to get even to God.

Exodus 17:1-18:6  Wandering through the desert is admittedly arduous on our own when we have equipped ourselves with ample food and water.  How much more difficult for an entire nation that is now nostalgic for its previous life as slaves, but slaves whose thirst and hunger were satisfied.  Water at Meribah, then food via manna, and now the troops are thirsty again, and complaining loudly: “Why is it you brought us up from Egypt to bring death on me and my children and my livestock by thirst?” (17:4).  Moses, who has never been confident of his leadership skills anyway, is at the end of his rope, “What shall I do with this people? Yet a little more and they will stone me.” (17:5).  But as always, God comes through and water comes from the rock.

In Moses, who was very human, we see a common fate that befalls every leader.  No matter how brilliant the leader, no matter how much he delivers for those he lead, there will always be complaining among the troops.  And discouragement for the leader. Leaders—especially in churches—can turn in only one direction: to God.  Which, of course, is the whole point of God-led leadership.

But if it’s not one thing, it’s another.  The thirst crisis is barely resolved and “Amalek came and did battle with Israel at Rephidim.”  (17:7) As if in an ironic demonstration of Moses’ leadership, the battle goes well for Israel as long as Moses holds up his staff. As an engineer, I’ve always admired the very practical solution of propping up Moses’ staff with a rock.  I suppose we could be symbolic here and say that when we (and especially leaders) are weary, we must rely on the Rock of our salvation rather than the strength of our own arms.

Matthew 22:41-23:12  Jesus turns the table on the Pharisees test by asking “Whose son is the Messiah?”  They reply, falling neatly into Jesus’ trap: “The son of David.” (21:42)  Jesus once again turns things upside down by quoting a psalm of David that results in a paradox: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (22:45)

Which for me is always the answer when we ask questions about Jesus out of our earth-bound human frame of reference.  In human terms, Jesus is a complete paradox: inevitably the very opposite of what we expect. What we expect him to be.  What we expect him to do.  And not just for the Pharisees and Sadducees and the Jerusalem crowd on this Passover week.  But for us, as well.  Something we do well to remember when we try to tame Jesus by putting him into our well-defined, comfortable little boxes.  (Which is one reason why the song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” bothers me.)  CS Lewis had it right: Jesus is all-loving, but dangerous—especially to our pre-conceived notions of who he should be.

Jesus makes it clear what the problem is that he has with the leadership: “do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (23:3).  And once again, Jesus turns everything upside down: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (23:12) True for us as Jesus’ followers, but also true for Jesus himself in just a few days, as he will endure the greatest humiliation the world has ever visited on a single man.

It’s all so non-intuitive, and yes, paradoxical: the idea that we must first descend in order to ascend.  The crowd may think Jesus is on top of the world right now.  But not for long.

Psalm 34:19-22; Exodus 15:22-16:36; Matthew 22:23-40

NB: For those of you who may not have taken notes from Chris Dai’s sermon on Sunday, here are the seven “Penitential Psalms” that he noted: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143

Psalm 34:19-22  There’s an interesting difference between Alter’s translation of 34:19 (“Many the evils of the righteous man, / yet from all of them the LORD will save him.”) and the NRSV (“Many are the afflictions of the righteous,/  but the Lord rescues them from them all.”)  Both translations include the sense of “many bad things (evils) will befall the righteous.”  But in Alter’s translation, we can take “evil” both as external (afflictions that happen) and internal, i.e., our own intrinsic sinfulness (“Many the evils [inherent in] the righteous man.”)

Perhaps I’m over-reading here, but the point I take away is that not only does God ultimately protect us from bad things that happen to us, but God forgives us for the acts that we commit due to our own personal sinfulness.  For me, this idea of ultimate forgiveness for the evil that we commit is reiterated in the final verse of the psalm (which Alter and the NRSV translate identically): “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; / none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Our ultimate redemption is, after all,  exactly what Jesus came to earth and did for us.

Exodus 15:22-16:36   Well, the celebration certainly didn’t last long.  Miriam’s song barely ends and two verses later, the Israelites are complaining bitterly–and somewhat understandably–when they come to Marah and find only brackish water: “And the people murmured against Moses, saying  “What shall we drink?”” (15:24)  Moses cries to God, who shows him a tree to fling into the water to make the water sweet.  God reminds Moses, “If you really heed the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His eyes, and hearken to His commands and keep all His statutes, all the sickness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the LORD your healer.” (15:26).  Here is the essence of the Old Covenant in a single verse: Follow God and all will be well. Deviate, and it will not be well.

This incident is the first of many in the Wilderness narrative that revolves around water, which takes on added intensity in the desert, leading up to Moses’ imprudent, but effective, striking of the rock for water (Numbers 20).  What’s clear in all of this is that God is the provider of water–and therefore of life.  Metaphorically, of course, we are all in the desert, saved only by the waters of baptism.

God provides manna, or (per Alter) “Man hu” which means “What is it?”  as it appears on the ground one morning, and the people understandably ask that question.  After Moses gives careful instructions that people are to gather only what they need for the day, some enterprising souls try to preserve some for the next day, perhaps to sell it to others or to provide for their security “back up.”  Their efforts lead to disaster and a very angry Moses.  The lesson is clear: God, who provides for us, is our security.  But it’s worth noting, too, that he provides just enough to meet our needs.  It’s our wants that lead to problems…

Matthew 22:23-40  More trick questions for Jesus, this time from the Sadducees.  A really obscure one about who will a widow who’s been married seven times be married to in heaven.  Jesus astounds everyone by revealing that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (22:30) I take the phrase “And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching” (22:33) to mean that the crowd was surprised, but that it didn’t necessarily agree with what Jesus was saying.

The Pharisees rush up to exploit this somewhat skeptical astonishment by asking their own trick question, hoping to exploit Jesus being on the knife edge of blasphemy.  I believe the Pharisees thought Jesus would answer their “What is the greatest commandment” question with some other completely radical idea.  Of course Jesus answers with complete orthodoxy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (22:37).  Matthew doesn’t describe the crow’s reaction this time, but the Pharisees plan to get Jesus on a charge of blasphemy clearly falls apart.

Given the circumstances, there is great irony in the second commandment “which is like” the first one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Which of course is exactly what the Sadducees and Pharisees are NOT doing with regard to Jesus.  How often do we have theological discussions like this one, all the time failing to see that the application of the theology, e.g., actually loving our neighbors is far more important than the niceties of its academic correctness?

 

Psalm 34:8-18; Exodus 14:19-15:21; Matthew 22:15-22

Psalm 34:8-18   In keeping with the theme of generations we’ve been encountering in the Exodus readings, our psalmist echoes the same idea of passing along what we’ve learned about God and his great mercy to our children: “Come, sons, listen to me, / the LORD’s fear will I teach you.”  And what lessons they are.  From the daily reminder, “keep your tongue from evil / and your lips from speaking deceit,” to what guides the course of our lives: “Swerve from evil and do good,  seek peace and pursue it.”

The verb, “swerve” evokes an image of someone moving rapidly toward evil and then changing direction at the very last moment, just before the collision.  A far more dynamic and optimistic image, IMO, than the NRSV’s “Depart from evil” which suggests we’ve already arrived at the evil place and now it’s time to leave.

But even if we’ve come to the evil place, God is still listening: “Cry out and the LORD hears, and from all their straits He saves them.”  Again, Alter’s translation suggests a much less passive role on our part than the NRSV’s “The Lord is near the brokenhearted,”  We cry out to God is fear, desperation and yes, from foxholes.  God hears us, and he saves us.  Here is one of those places that demonstrates so beautifully why we always come back to the Psalms for succor in our nights of shadow and dark terrors.

 Exodus 14:19-15:21  Cecil B DeMille has made it impossible for me to read the passage of crossing the sea on dry land and then, of Moses raising his arm and the waters crashing back in over the Egyptians without running his movie in my mind’s eye.  But in the words here, there’s a definite tinge of God’s creative power that we see in Genesis 1 and also in the Psalms: “He made the sea dry ground, and the waters were split apart.” (14:22)  Here, God is in the process of creating a nation, of transforming a complaining, ragtag crowd [“Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (14:13)] into a God-fearing nation that finally “gets it” about what God has been doing through Moses: “Israel saw the great hand that the LORD had performed against Egypt, and the people feared the LORD, and they trusted in the LORD and in Moses His servant.” (14:31)

Moses’ poem in chapter 15 recapitulates all that has happened so far.  It signifies the end of the first great stage of the Israel story: the plagues, capped by the Passover.  They have escaped Egypt and the next great part of the narrative–the wilderness journey–is about to begin.

Moses’ poem ends on an optimistic note, “The Lord shall be king for all time.” Although like so many triumphal conclusions, it does not fully come true.  Some hundreds of years later the people ultimately decided that they needed a human king–and we know where that got them.

Aaron’s sister, Miriam, adds a final musical coda: “Sing to the LORD for He has surged, O surged, Horse and its rider He hurled into the sea!” (15:21).   Almost like an organ postlude as we leave the joys of worship and return to the trials of daily life.  Which, as we will see, is exactly what happens in the next verse…

Matthew 22:15-22  Those Pharisees just don’t give up, and one has to admit that the question about taxes is pretty clever.  But Matthew is clearly showing his impatience with the leaders by the smarmy, quasi-obsequious opening dialog he assigns to the questioner, “we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (22:16).  Yes, those qualities are all indeed true, but they are asked with an ulterior motive to trap Jesus.  The phrase, “we know you are sincere” is rife with irony because the Pharisees certainly aren’t.

How like the Pharisees we are: giving lip service to Jesus, all the while not really believing in who he is or worse, planning in our own hearts some act which will ultimately expose our duplicitous nature, our hypocrisy.

The Bible is chockablock with warnings against the smooth words of those who would do evil, and we have no finer example than the Pharisee’s oily words we read here.  As Matthew makes clear,  Jesus, “aware of their malice,” is not fooled.  But how many people have been taken in by unctuous tele-evangelists  pretending to speak for Jesus, but whose hearts have indeed already turned to deceit?

 

 

Psalm 34:1-7; Exodus 13:1-14:18; Matthew 22:1-14

Psalm 34:1-7   The superscription of this psalm, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, who banished him, and he went away” refers to the story recounted in I Samuel 21 when David, who with his army is surrounded completely, plays the madman in front of the Philistine king.  The king decides he doesn’t want to deal with a crazy man and allows David and his men to escape.  Understandably, then, this psalm begins with thanksgiving, “Let me bless the LORD at all times, always His praise in my mouth.”  Notice how verbal his praise is, “praise in my mouth,” and later, “Let the lowly hear and rejoice.”

This verbal quality is important because it is a direct answer to what can only be a spoken prayer, “I sought the LORD and He answered me.”  One senses that David actually heard God’s answer.  And a reminder to us that we are not just filling a room with our voice when we pray aloud and that although the sound waves themselves do not travel far physically, our expression always finds its way to God, who also possesses senses, as He listens.

There is another, more unexpected sensory aspect farther down: “Taste and see that the LORD is good, happy the man who shelters in Him.”  God impacts all our senses: sight, hearing, touch and taste.  And other psalms speak of “God’s sweet fragrance.”  If I ever needed proof that God is more than mere intellectual abstraction, it is right here.  Our relationship with God has sight, hearing and all the senses; God is visceral: we feel His presence with all our senses.

Exodus 13:1-14:18   Even as our author recapitulates the ordinance of Passover already described in the previous chapter,  we read again exactly what has happened and what has been promised that must be (and has been) remembered and carried down through the generations: “…should your son ask you tomorrow, saying, ‘What is this?’, you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves. And it happened, when Pharaoh was hard about sending us off, that the LORD killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast.” (13:14-15)

In a discussion at Hubcaps this morning, someone remarked on how as we grow older we become more aware of our forebears and the importance of remembering the generations who came ahead of us.  We are not here isolated and alone, but are the product of all that has gone before.  Which is exactly as God has ordained it–and keeps emphasizing over and over in Genesis and here in Exodus.  We independent-minded Americans, who think what we are is the product of our work alone, would do well to remember this truth.  We are not the ultimate master of our destiny.   And our genes have much to say about who we become.  This is, I think, key to understanding the great connectedness we have to each other and to God, as well.  

Egypt is not all that far from Canaan and a direct route back through Philistia would have gotten the Israelites to the promised land in a matter of months.  The trek through the desert was not a navigational error, but God’s will: “God thought, “Lest the people regret when they see battle and go back to Egypt.” And God turned the people round by way of the wilderness of the Sea of Reeds… (13:18).  God sends them by an indirect and more difficult route so that Israel does not lose heart and want to go back.  God knows the human heart well: we set out on a journey or take a new risk and as soon as we hit an obstacle we want to go right back to where we came from.

But there is not turning back.  We cannot grow and mature as Christians if we are unwilling to leave base camp.  And as with the Israelites, we may end up on an unplanned path that comes to us unexpectedly because to do otherwise would make it too easy to turn around and go back.  As we all know, there are many Christians who once embarked excitedly, but upon encountering difficulty came back to the campground or worse, quit altogether.

Matthew 22:1-14   With the parable of the wedding banquet we are again reminded of how Jesus turns things upside down and inside out, continuing Matthew’s subtext on “the first shall be last and vice versa.”  Here, however, Jesus issues a stern warning.  You can’t just remain dissolute and show up at the wedding banquet in your street clothes–the clothes of our old lives.  But we must put on the wedding clothes (which for those of us who rarely wear formal suits and ties, we still do for weddings.)  Jesus’ meaning is crystalline, unless we are willing to be transformed by covering over our old clothes–our old life–and put on an entire new life as a worker in the Kingdom it would be better not to even show up.

Jesus’ implicit meaning is even scarier than that: those who pretend to be disciples but are not truly transformed will pay for their arrogance in pretending to be something they are not.  One has to wonder what Judas thought when he heard Jesus say this.