Archives for March 2014

Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 12:21-51; Matthew 21:33-46

Psalm 33:12-22  This psalm’s third verse celebrates the gratitude of Israel for being chosen as the people of God: “Happy the nation whose god is the LORD, /the people He chose as estate for Him.”  But God is not just a national abstraction “out there.”  Israel rejoices because God knows each person individually. “He fashions their heart one and all. He understands all their doings.”  That’s an interesting concept: God fashioning our heart.  We are not only created, but our personalities are also shaped by God, and because God “understands all [our] doings” there’s a relationship there whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even those who reject the very idea of God’s existence are nevertheless understood by God.  How much we miss of this deep and rich relationship  when we think we humans are at the center of the universe and fail to acknowledge we are God’s greatest creation–and that he knows us more than we know ourselves.

The last verses of this psalm articulate the manifest ways in which this relationship not only expresses it self, but enriches and enlivens our very being.  God not only knows us (“the LORD’s eye is on those who fear Him”) but his kindness provides for our needs as he “saves their lives from death/ and in famine to keep them alive.”

And what is our response to God’s strength and benevolence?  “We urgently wait for the LORD. / Our help and our shield is He. / For in Him our heart rejoices, for in His holy name do we trust.”  There you have it: we wait; we rejoice (and worship); we trust.”  Notice the “urgently.”   We understand that without God our lives are in deep trouble.  God’s faithfulness is never in question, but our relationship with God is not casual or relaxed.  as the last verse notes, “we have yearned for You,”  And we yearn urgently.

Exodus 12:21-51  As God promised, the angel of death passes over Egypt and “the LORD struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and every firstborn of the beasts.” (12:28-29).  I always though Cecil B. DeMille did a great job of depicting this deadly visit with an aerial shot of the city and the final plague as a kind of black fog winding through the streets as cries of anguish rise up from every house.

With this final plague the Egyptians rush to literally push the Israelites out of Egypt exclaiming, “We are dead men.” (12:34).  That certainly explains why they so willingly gave up their “ornaments of silver and ornaments of gold and cloaks.” (12:35).  As far as they were concerned, death was the only thing that awaited them at this point.

Our narrator recaps the numbers.  600,000 men (12:37), which would have meant about 2 million people, which seems like an awfully big number.  And they are leaving Egypt after being there 430 years.  When you consider that the US is only about 240 years old, one gets an appreciation of not only how long they were in Egypt, but that God’s timing (thousand years as a day, etc.) is definitely not our timing.

Most important of all, though, is that the escape from Egypt was God’s plan, not Moses or Pharaoh’s.  They ewere God’s instruments, but not God’s instigators: “It is a night of watch for the LORD, for His taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is the LORD’s, a watch for all the Israelites through their generations.” (12:42)  As the final verses in this chapter make clear, it is the Passover that defines Israel as a nation, and no uncircumcised male may be part of the community going forward.

Matthew 21:33-46  The parable of the wicked tenants contains no ambiguity; it is perhaps Jesus’ clearest metaphor about his own coming–the rejected cornerstone–and the coming of the Kingdom. Perhaps the most terrifying statement that Jesus makes in all his earthly ministry is, “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (21:43)  Not only taken away, but the cornerstone, the rock on which the church is built (and I’m taking the protestant read of “on this rock” of Matthew 18:20 as Jesus referring to himself, not to Peter) “will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (21:44).  And in AD70 the stones of the Temple, the center of Judaism were themselves destroyed, bringing down the curtain on the Old Covenant.

The “chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”  But they cannot arrest Jesus because the crowds “regarded him as a prophet.” (12:45-46).  This same crowd that in just three days will turn irrevocably against this prophet and demand his death, beginning the process that fulfills the psalmist’s prediction, “The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the cornerstone.”  Without this rejection, there would have been no death and resurrection.  Like Pharaoh, the crowd, the priests and the Pharisees may think they are in command of events, but they are merely being used by God for a greater purpose.

Psalm 33:6-11; Exodus 11:1-12:20; Matthew 21:23-32

Ash Wednesday.  The day in the church calendar when we are officially reminded of our mortality.  As I get older, I find that mortality is more often on my mind, anyway.  But that does not detract from the solemnity of this day.

In addition to the Daily Texts, there are Lectionary readings for this day, as well:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Psalm 33:6-11  The hymn turns to God as Creator, as the psalmist reminds us that God simply spoke creation into existence: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,” and again, “For He did speak and it came to be, He commanded, and it stood.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that this passage (and others like it in the Psalms and elsewhere) were on his mind when John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God and God’s Word are the one and the same thing.

Words and speech are what sets us humans apart from the rest of creation.  For me, the concept of imago deo centers around this gift, which God imbued in us.  Unlike God, we cannot speak things into existence, but the words we use are nevertheless powerful.  Either for good or for ill.  As the Bible makes clear in so many places, words are what we so often use to tear down and destroy.  The very opposite of how God’s voice creates and builds up.

Apropos our reading in Exodus of the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, and what is about to happen, the psalmist notes, “The LORD thwarted the counsel of nations, overturned the devisings of peoples.”  Egypt was only the beginning.  The so-called wisdom of men that we see on display through history and up to the present time is ample proof of the verity of this verse.  Only “the LORD’s counsel will stand forever.”  All man’s works are like grass, and withers away, as we are so beautifully reminded today, Ash Wednesday.

 Exodus 11:1-12:20  God is now at the end game with Pharaoh: “Yet one more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will send you off from here;” (11:1)

[Side note: Even though at the end of chapter 10 it seems clear that Moses and Pharaoh will never face each other again, they are apparently together once again.  After Moses makes his dreadful announcement of the final plague, “he went out from Pharaoh’s presence in a flare of anger.” (11:8).  There is something of narrative inconsistency here; one more reason why I believe that the Bible is inspired, but not inerrant. ]

God tells both Moses and Aaron what He is about to do, and issues very clear instructions of what is to be done if the household is to be spared the terrifying death that awaits all first-born.  Even today, there is no greater horror for a parent than to lose a child.  And American society does not freight the same significance of first-born sons as these ancient societies.  (Although speaking as a first born son, I wouldn’t mind a bit more awe and respect!)  To not have a first born son in the family was a mark of shame.  To have that first born son die was a clear sign that the family was cursed.

The instructions of Passover are chockablock with symbolic meaning.  Much has been made of the Christological significance of the lamb’s blood on the lintel and door posts (shape of a cross) and the fact that it is lamb’s blood, as in “the Lamb of God.”  Nor should we lose sight of the intersection of this very important sign of Old Covenant and the New Covenant in the reality Jesus’ Seder meal the night before he dies.  

In another nod to the Exodus story being the beginning of the national story of Israel, God makes it clear that “you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD through your generations, an everlasting statute you shall celebrate it.” (12:17).  As indeed it is to this very day.  That Passover has been celebrated for thousands of years is not an accidental cultural artifact; it is because God commanded it.

Matthew 21:23-32   Awed by their own theological cleverness, the  priests and elders pose a trick question to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23b).  Jesus is well aware that if he said “God, my father” he would be carted off immediately as a blasphemous heretic.  So, Jesus turns the question on them, making it about John the Baptist and the priest’s clear rejection of him because John was outside the religious mainstream. They argue among themselves trying to come up with an answer, and in order to protect their own skins from either being exposed as hypocrites or from the wrath of the crowd, they dissemble:  “We don’t know.”  Which earns them Jesus’ rightly derisive answer, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (21:27)

I know this dilemma too well: I don’t want to expose myself as a hypocrite and/or I’m cowardly and don’t want to upset other people with a true and honest answer.  So, hoisted on my own petard, I say and do nothing.

Jesus exposes their (and our) hypocrisy in the short parable of the two sons.  Saying we’ll work in the Kingdom and then not doing it is far worse that putting it off, but then getting out there eventually.  Playing at being religious without being serious or committed is far worse than coming late to the Kingdom.  A clear warning to all of us who claim to be working hard for Jesus but not really doing anything at all.

Psalm 33:1-5: Exodus 10; Matthew 21:12-22

Psalm 33:1-5  This psalm is surely a hymn in the sense that we think of hymns, meant to be sung by a congregation.  And there’s musical accompaniment: “Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,/ with the ten-stringed lute hymn to Him.”  The usual themes of praise psalms are present.  God’s righteousness, faithfulness: “For the word of the Lord is upright,/ and all His doings in good faith.”  While the popular image of the Old Testament (OT) God is an angry, justice-seeking old man, this hymn makes it abundantly clear that the OT God “loves the right and the just./ The Lord’s kindness fills the earth.”  Above everything else, God is a God of love expressed as the kindness of a parent to his children.

These verses also contain one of the most familiar lines in all the Psalms, if not the Bible: “Sing to him a new song.”  Of course we can take this in the literal sense: it’s good to create and sing new songs to God, not just the old familiar comfortable ones.

But I think there’s a deeper meaning here:  As God’s creatures we are endowed with the ability to “sing a new song” in all that we do and say.  God does not want us to be stuck in a rut, doing the same old thing over and over.  Instead, as we are created in God’s image, imago deo, so to we can be creators. All of us are endowed with the gift of creativity; to create new things, be they songs, works of art, objects, new ways of doing things, or striking out in new directions.  To be sure, we are not all destined to be artists or song writers, but all of us are capable of seeing and thinking and building relationships in new, fresh ways.  And also, to think and see in new ways.

Exodus 10  God finally directly tells Moses that “I Myself have hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart and the heart of his servants.”  God also gives his reason for hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  I think it is to establish the narrative of the nation of Israel in the most dramatic way possible.  For it is here at Exodus where we move from the Hebrews being the patriarchal tribe of Abraham at the end of Genesis to an actual nation.  God explains to Moses that this is the beginning of an amazing story, “I may set these signs in your midst so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt.” (10:2)  Just as we Americans recall the standoff at Bridge at Concord and the Declaration of Independence as  key narrative events in US history, Israel, even today, traces its beginning as a nation to the plagues in Egypt and of course, the Passover.

Moses warns the Egyptians about the coming swarm of locusts.  Pharaoh’s servants finally lose heart, advising Pharaoh, “How long will this fellow be a snare to us. Send off the men, that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (10:7)  The locusts come and Pharaoh seems to finally cave to pressure, “I have offended the Lord your god.  And now, forgive, pray, my offense.” (10:16).  Sure sounds like he means it, but as usual when the crisis passes, Pharaoh reverts to form.  Just as we usually do when the pressure is removed.

The final confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh  looks like it will yield, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  Finally, Pharaoh threatens Moses and tosses him out of his court, ” Watch yourself. Do not again see my face, for on the day you see my face, you shall die.” (10:28).  Moses is just as implacable: “Rightly you have spoken–I will not see your face again.”  Negotiation is over and the stage is set for the terrible last plague.  God is finished “toying” with Egypt.  The event which marks the beginning of Israel’s national history is about to commence.

 Matthew 21:12-22  Jesus, as he has constantly reminded his disciples is coming to establish a Kingdom that turns the world upside down.  Here in the Temple courtyard, he literally turns the status quo ante upside down as he overturns the moneychanger’s tables.  That’s the part we always hear about, but in the eyes of the Temple authorities he was doing something equally or even more upsetting: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” (21:14).  This was making him way too popular and threatening not only their own positions, but could very well bring the Romans down around their heads, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry.” (21:15)   Jesus the inflames the officials’ anger even further by quoting Psalm 8:2, basically identifying himself as the Messiah: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies/ you have prepared praise for yourself.” (21:16)

Three acts of treason in the eyes of the authorities: upsetting economic order, threatening good order by healing and mass popularity, proclaiming himself as Messiah.  But the priests had to let him go or they would have had a riot on their hands.  They will have to resort to more devious, secretive means to get this false messiah out of their hair.

The machinery leading to crucifixion cranks into motion. The ultimate demise of the Old Covenant and the introduction of the New Covenant collide right here in the Temple courtyard.

Psalm 32; Exodus 9; Matthew 20:29-21:11

Psalm 32  This psalm is a maskil, which as Alter notes, “is a category of song, but its precise nature remains unknown.”  Perhaps “praise chorus” is a rough translation, although for me it is basically a confessional song.  It certainly begins on a positive note: “Happy, of sin forgiven,/ absolved of offense.”  The psalmist has been forgiven by God.  And, as he observes, it is far better to have confessed than to keep it bottled up inside, “When I was silent, my limbs were worn out.”  When we keep our sinful acts to ourselves, we expend all our energy on hiding their reality not only from God, but from ourselves; aka denial.

The poet knows that God is our conscience: “For day and night/ Your hand was heavy upon me.”  And another metaphor of exhaustion: “My sap turned to summer dust.”  But when we say, “I shall confess my sins to the Lord,” God acts, “and You forgave my offending crime.”  But we still resist confession, and again our psalmist pleads: “Be not like a horse, like a mule without sense.”

The contrast before and after confession is stark.  Why  should we endure “the wicked [mens] pains” of hiding from God and keeping our sins to ourselves when the alternative is so much better as the last verse makes so clear: “Rejoice in the Lord and exult, O you righteous,/ sing gladly, all upright men.”  Only after confession can we sing and worship freely and with real joy.  A reminder for me that even though we do not do corporate confession very much at Saint Matthew any more, it is well for me to have confessed to God before singing that first song.

Exodus 9  Where the first three plagues were a grotesque amplification of natural pests, the next plagues get personal.  All of the Egyptian livestock dies, while that of Israel survives.  Pharaoh’s reaction to refuse Moses’ request seems quite logical in the face of  this economic disaster for his Kingdom.  To simply let Israel go at this point would be to admit his weakness before that really annoying prophet Moses and his now very cruel God.  Worse, it would admit Pharaoh’s impotence before his people.

So, Moses (who for some reason keeps getting admitted into Pharaoh’s court) is commanded by God to tell Pharaoh, “This time I am about to send all my scourges to your heart and against your servants and against your people (9:14).  Now the plague of rashes and boils gets personal; the health of the people of Pharaoh’s kingdom is in peril.  The plagues have moved beyond annoyance to real danger.  Next, an unprecedented natural disaster, “there was very heavy hail…the like of which had not in all the land of Egypt from the time it became a nation.” (9:24).  For the first time, Pharaoh appears moved to an admission of his wrongdoing, as he says, “I have offended this time.  The Lord is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong.” (9:27)  Moses accordingly spreads out his hand and the hail stops.  “And Pharaoh’s heart toughened.” (9:35).

We are not very different from Pharaoh.  When disaster is underway we pray desperately to God to stop it.  Then, when the event is over, we forget and go our merry way.  Pharaoh’s DNA lives on in all of us: our hearts are toughened as we forget who God is, and what he has done.

 Matthew 20:29-21:11  This last miracle outside Jericho reminds us that Jesus did not just go around dispensing magical fairy dust.  There are four important characters here: Jesus, the crowd and the two blind men.  Upon hearing the cries of the blind men, the crowd tells them to shut up.  Like the Pharisees, the crowd believes that obviously, these guys were blind because they were sinners and unworthy of Jesus’ ministrations.  But Jesus stops and as Matthew notes, “stood still.”   He didn’t chastise the crowd for their theological ignorance; he just stood there and ignored them.  And then asked that most crucial question, the same one Jesus, who comes to us and stands still, also asks us: “What do you want me to do for you?” (20:32).  Notice that he doesn’t just say, “What do you want me to do?” but adds two immensely important words at the end of the sentence, “for you.”  This encounter is personal;  Jesus is not some magic-making abstraction, but relates to us one-to-one.  

The answer of the blind men is also a lesson for us.  They do not tell their tale of woe; they do not embellish, but answer simply and directly, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (20:33)  They don’t hedge by beating around the bush, “if it be your will” or “if it’s part of your plan for us.”  They just ask directly.  As should we.

As we prepare for Lent, there’s always a bit of cognitive dissonance reading these final chapters of Matthew about Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem and its tragedy and triumph.

Is there a more ironic scene here at the beginning of the most important week in history, as joyful crowds welcome their apparent savior from the oppression of Rome?  The crowds shouting ‘Hosanna’ have no idea of Jesus’ real purpose, nor do they imagine that they will be the same crowd shouting “Crucify him!” in less than 6 days.  We are in that crowd, too.  We construct a Jesus to meet our own desires and purposes, having no idea of his real intention.  Like the crowd, we  have put Jesus into a box of our own imaginations.

But as CS Lewis reminds us in his characterization of Aslan, the real Jesus is not the Jesus we imagine. He is far more radical, far more dangerous and not about to be domesticated by our idea of what he “should” do or be.

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?