Archives for April 2014

Psalm 43; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45-56

Psalm 43  Alter notes that given the abrupt beginning of this psalm (“Grant me justice, O God,”) and that the several lines are virtually identical, Psalm 42 and 43 may have once been a single psalm.  Be that as it may, these verses are certainly darker than those in the preceding psalm.  The psalmist asks rhetorically, “For You, O God, my stronghold, why should You neglect me? Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe?”(2)  While this is not a direct accusation that God has abandoned him, it comes very close.

The psalmist then moves to supplication, “Send forth Your light and Your truth. It is they that will guide me.” (3)  “Guide” is an appropriate verb because the psalmist–apparently in exile or a foreign land– now traces out his desire to come to “Your holy mountain And to Your dwelling place,” which would be Jerusalem, I presume.  Once there, he seeks further guidance to “let me come to God’s altar,” (4) and then directly to God Himself, “to God my keenest joy.”

Like the journey itself, the psalm ascends from the depths of seeming abandonment directly into the presence of God, where almost ecstatic joy replaces gloom: “And let me acclaim You with the lyre, O God, my God.”  The psalm ends on the same theme as Psalm 42:  “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God.” (5)  In just a few verses, our psalmist has taken a spiritual journey form the depths of despair to worshipful joy atop the mountain.

And that is our journey too.  Not just once in our lives, but again and again.  Because movement is the very nature of prayer. Prayer is not idle contemplation; it is a journey, it is dynamic; its bias is to action.

When I contemplate a material, God-denying life, I realize how flat that journey would be.  Having rejected God, I would be trapped in emptiness, and there would be no reason other than self-motivation to ascend.  But self-actualization (to be Maslovian about it) is insufficient.  Because in the end, we find nothing but ourselves at the mountaintop.  No wonder the therapeutic industry is so vast.

Exodus 38  Now Bezalel constructs the seriously large “burnt-offering altar of acacia wood, five cubits its length and five cubits its width, square, and three cubits its height.” (1) as well as the bronze laver and the exterior textile walls 100 cubits by 50 cubits; the posts, the sockets, the hooks.  All limned in precise and loving detail.

Our author concludes with an accounting of capital expenditures, ” All the gold that was fashioned for the task in every task of the sanctuary, the elevation-offering gold was twenty-nine talents…And the silver reckoned from the community was a hundred talents…” (24, 25)  We also learn that both a freewill offering and a tax are the income sources.  The tax is also a way of taking a census.

So, again, precision, exactitude, accounting.  When Jesus talks about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, he is speaking out of this longstanding precision–another proof that there is nothing random about God or His creation.  This exactitude of course underlays all biology in our genes and DNA, as well as physics, as you can discover in any book about quantum physics at one end of magnitude and astrophysics at the other end.  More proof for me, anyway, that God is hardly an abstract spirit, but a builder and Creator–and he expects the same attention to detail from us.

 Matthew 27:45-56  In Matthew, the only words that Jesus speaks on the cross is the opening line of Psalm 22.  Which some witnesses interpret as a call for Elijah to come rescue him. Why Elijah?  Perhaps because Elijah was taken directly to heaven and did not die, the bystanders assume this is Jesus’ request as well–which would certainly prove Jesus’ kinship with God.  But Elijah does not call, Jesus screams in a final spasm of agony and dies.  But that is hardly the end.

To Matthew’s Jewish readers, what happens next is extraordinary indeed.  The Temple curtain is ripped in two, exposing the Holy of Holies to everyone.  Certainly symbolic of the passing of the Old Covenant.  And the bodies of the saints not only arise, but wander around Jerusalem, seen by many.  We don’t talk very much about this detail at Easter, but it must certainly be a presaging of the Day of the Lord when the dead will rise.  For many Jews, who did not believe in resurrection, this had to be an almost earth-shattering event.

But Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “Truly this man was God’s son.”  And it is the realization of the gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point–and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Psalm 42:6-11; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Psalm 42:6-11   The psalmist’s longing to encounter God intensifies into something approaching desperation the last half of this poem.  Now, “My God, my being is bent for my plight,” as he seeks to find God over a broad geographic area, “Therefore do I recall You from Jordan land, from the Hermons and Mount Mizar.” (6)  The gentle image of the deer drinking from the stream is supplanted by an image of deep ocean and crashing surf: “Deep unto deep calls out at the sound of Your channels. All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.” (7)

Yet, underneath the intensity of the psalmist’s search lies an assurance that God is indeed still with him: “By day the LORD ordains His kindness and by night His song is with me— prayer to the God of my life.” (8).  Nevertheless, the psalmist still cries out, “I would say to the God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? (9).

I think it is this sense of anxiously seeking a seemingly absent God intertwined with the poet’s faith that God is still with Him that gives this psalm its power.  The lesson for us that we can seek God with the assurance that God will show up.  Because at the root of the search lies our hope that we will be found and rescued: “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God.” (11)  The psalmist knows with deep assurance that God will not fail him, but he nevertheless still can cry out in desperation.  And so can we.

Exodus 37  The faithful Bezalel constructs the Ark, the most sacred object of Israel, which our priestly author describes in loving detail.  Not just its size ,”two and a half cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width and a cubit and a half its height.” (1), or its core materials (acacia wood), but its incredible richness: “he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half 7 cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width. And he made two cherubim of gold, hammered work he made them, at the two edges of  the cover.”

So too, the lamp stand of pure gold (16) and the golden altar for burning incense, a cubit square, also covered in gold.  I continue to be struck by just how much wealth the Israelites departed Egypt with, remembering that the Egyptians basically flung their gold and jewels at the departing Jews.  It would seem that was part of God’s plan as well: that the repentant Israelites would–from their hearts and at the urging of the spirit– gladly contribute all that wealth to God.  And that wealth is transformed by pure-hearted men willing to give of their time and talent to transform treasure into something worthy for God.

Are we transforming our wealth into something worthy for God?  Perhaps not into gorgeous physical objects like the Ark, the lamp stand or the incense altar.  But we have wealth and other time and talents for our work in the Kingdom.

Matthew 27:32-44  Matthew’s taut description of the crucifixion is strictly reportorial.  Facts and observation.  No emotional scenes of crying women or transformed Roman centurions.  Just the humiliation of crucifixion: the drink of gall; the division of the clothes; the sign over his head.  But above all the mocking and the taunting.  Even the criminals being crucified mocked him. Could there be a greater humiliation?

Matthew’s Jewish perspective reminds us that the scribes and elders jubilantly mocked him in their apparent triumph over this interloper of the accepted religious order, ““He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” (42)  This is the last we hear of the scribes and elders as they make their way back to Jerusalem in one of the great delusions of all time.

And in this mocking sentence lies complete truth. A truth far, far greater than the temporal reality of the priests and elders and everyone else gathered around that cross.  For Jesus did indeed come down from the cross and become King–but not in a way the elders, the priests or the criminals could ever imagine.  For in this cheap mockery lies the unstated reality that Jesus also died for those who taunted him on the cross–and those who have taunted him across history.  And those who taunt him today.

 

Psalm 42:1-5; Exodus 36; Matthew 27:11-31

Psalm 42:1-5   Other psalms may be better known, but for me, this psalm is the most beautiful of all.  The image of a deer running through the forest in search of–and finding– a stream of water to quench its deep thirst strikes to my heart.  As simile, it is the quintessence of what it is to yearn for–and then find–a loving God.

Yearning is a much deeper feeling than the simple act of desiring or seeking.  As the psalmist says, “My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.” (2).  This is not just emotional or psychological or intellectual or physical or even spiritual.  It is all those things…and more.  This yearning for “the living God” consumes our entire being.  Indeed, as the psalmist implies, the yearning becomes our being.

And if we cannot find or come into the presence of God, there can only be ineffable sadness: “My tears became my bread day and night as they said to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (3)  Without being in the presence of God, there is only memory, “These do I recall and pour out my heart: when I would step in the procession, when I would march to the house of God with the sound of glad song of the celebrant throng.”

What remains is hope.  Yearning arises from memory and produces hope.

Some years ago, we used to sing this psalm at worship, “As the deer panteth after water.”  I have a yearning to hear it again.

Exodus 36  Following the harsh lesson of the golden calf, Israel seems completely transformed, “the Israelites had brought for the task of the holy work to do it, and they on their part brought more freewill gifts morning after morning.” (3).  Construction is being overseen by “wise-hearted men.”  Which is a terse and terribly accurate description of real leadership.

Moses’ request for the people to bring donations to God because of the motivation of their heart and the urging of the spirit produces such a surplus, that the workmen tell Moses, “The people are bringing too much for the work of the task that the LORD charged to do.” (5).  And “the task was enough to do all the task, and more.” (7)  Surplus is what occurs when gifts are from the heart.

Our priestly author describes the construction of the Tabernacle in loving detail, describing each element and the material used.  Once again reminding us that details–especially in a sacred space–matter.  The old cliche, “God is in the details,” begins right here.  More importantly, it’s a reminder that our connection with God is not just a fuzzy abstraction, but we can encounter God everywhere in the warp and woof of our daily life.

Matthew 27:11-31  One of the things that over the years has convinced me that the Gospel writers are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit is just how much information and feeling is packed into the incredible economy of language.  Speaking as a guy who writes quite a bit, I know it is far more difficult to write with economy than with verbosity.  And here in the account of Jesus’ trial, conviction, and torture there is not a superfluous word. But these few words paint as rich a picture as any Renaissance artist was able to accomplish.

It’s interesting that Jesus replies to Pilate’s question with a laconic “You say so,” but “when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer.”  When Pilate asks Jesus if he heard the accusations, Jesus remains silent. Clearly, in the numerous capital trials over which Pilate had presided, he had never encountered a man unwilling to speak in his own defense and “the governor was greatly amazed.” (14)  Defending oneself against false accusation without countervailing evidence is not a strong strategy.  Jesus knew that the outcome was preordained anyway.

And then a second extraordinary thing occurs to Pilate, “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.'” (19)  I think we can be pretty sure that Pilate had never received a message like this one before from his wife.  But by this time the crowd is about to become a bloodthirsty mob.  It is too late for Pilate to reflect on, never mind heed, his wife’s words.

One of the great “what ifs” of history: What if the wife’s message had reached Pilate’s ears just a few minutes earlier before Pilate presented that fateful choice to the crowd: Jesus or Barabbas? Would Pilate simply announced that he was releasing Jesus?  What would the crowd have done? Would there have been rebellion on the spot?

One lesson we learn: God’s timing is a close-run thing.