Archives for May 2014

Psalm 57:7-11; Leviticus 26:1-35; Mark 8:22-38

Psalm 57:7-11  The last half of this psalm radiates peace and light–a stark contrast to the wiles and sword-like words of his enemies described in the first half.  The night has passed; it is a new morning and now there is only music: “Let me sing and hymn. Awake, O lyre, awake, O lute and lyre.” (8) Singing and playing of such grace and power that “I would waken the dawn.”  Surely one of the most beautiful phrases in the psalms.

As a person who is up before dawn every morning, this image resonates strongly for me in the realization that every new dawn is the beginning of the precious gift of a new day from our gracious God.  As the sun rises, our psalmist praises God, whose “kindness is great to the heavens, and to the skies Your steadfast truth.”  (10) In this evocative image that the psalmist paints in words and music, it is not the sun, but God’s kindness and truth that light the daytime sky.

For truly, each new day comes from the reality that God “Loom(s) over the heavens, Over all the earth Your glory.” (11).  In the midst of the evil that our psalmist has endured–and in the midst of so much evil in the world–God’s kindness and truth still light the sky each morning.

Leviticus 26:1-35  This great chapter is God’s summary of the Covenant he has established with His people; its terms and conditions, if you will.  It’s quite simple really: “If you go by My statutes and keep My commands and do them,” (3) numerous blessings will follow. rain, trees that yield fruit and fields that yield grain.   Grain that in turn becomes bread. (5)  If they “will lie down with none to cause terror, and I shall make evil beasts cease from the land , and no sword will pass through your land.” (6).  And they will win battles even when greatly outnumbered. (7) Above all, God will fulfill his promises if the people fulfill theirs: “I shall be God to you, and as for you,  you will be My people. (13)  God asks only one thing: obedience.

But in the face of Israel’s disobedience the converse is also true: “if you do not heed Me and do not do all these commands, and if you reject My statutes and if you loathe My laws, voiding My covenant, I on My part will do this to you:” (14)  And a long list of really bad things, including cannibalism, follows.  And what God will do is not just a straighforwrad quid pro quo of bad things, but “My part will chastise you sevenfold for your offenses.” (29)  This is God’s promise of a reversal of the Sabbath, “All the days of the desolation it shall keep a sabbath for not having kept your sabbath years when you dwelled there.” (35)

This is God’s deal.  Unfortunately, we know what Israel did.

Mark 8:22-38  In his healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, and then sending him “away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”” (26) we sense that Jesus feels his healing powers and growing popularity could result in a movement that too easily could become a revolution, which would certainly derail the divine plan.  So, too, when Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah, “he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” (30)  [Notice also, that unlike Matthew, Mark does not include any kind of other exchange between Jesus and Matthew about rocks and his Church.]

The reasons for silence and not fomenting a revolution become clear in Mark’s next passage. Jesus has a divine plan:  “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (31)  A story so crazy, so absurd that Peter takes him aside and “rebukes him.”  

Mark does not tell us what Peter said, so we can only speculate.  I’ve always thought it was Peter telling Jesus of his unfailing loyalty, and that Jesus could never contemplate dying.  That may be so, but I also think Peter may have tried to encourage Jesus to go ahead and foment that revolution.  He may have argued that given Jesus’ increasing popularity, now was the time to strike politically.  I can hear him saying, ‘Forget that business about dying and rising.  Let’s strike while the iron is hot.’  For me, that is what lies behind Jesus’ rebuke that “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (33)

We are all Peter.  Because we always seem to want Jesus to do what we’ve outlined for him to do. But as humans, our minds are almost always set on human things.

Psalm 57:1-6; Leviticus 25:18-55; Mark 8:14-21

Psalm 57:1-6  David is still on the run; this time from Saul.  He seeks shelter in the cave, which is a metaphor for the shelter that God grants him: “Grant me grace, God, grant me grace, for in You I have taken shelter.” (1)   But more than shelter, David calls out to God for rescue, and because of his intimate trust, knows that God will come, “He will send from the heavens and rescue me.” (3)

Not just rescue, but something even greater, “God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4)  God is more than a rescuer, he is steadfastly kind and loving.  A tremendous contrast to those who seek to destroy him, “I lie down among lions that pant for human beings. Their fangs are spear and arrows, their tongue a sharpened sword.”  Notice how David’s enemies are not just pursuing him with “spear and arrows,” but an even deadlier weapon: their words.  Which is pretty much how people pursue their enemies these days, be it via print, TV, or social media.  Words are truly the deadly weapons of our culture.

And David remains assured that his enemies will get theirs in the end: “A net they set for my steps,  they pushed down my neck, they dug before me a pit— they themselves fell into it.” (6)  Which is a pretty good summary of how so many people fall into their own verbal traps.  There are plenty of cases in point, be it politicians’ emails or recorded phone calls of basketball franchise owners.

Leviticus 25:18-55  This chapter details the terms and conditions of property ownership, and is basically a manual  about real estate, indentured servitude–and slavery.

It’s interesting that there’s a distinction between property located within a walled city and that out on the land.  Houses in cities are residences and produce nothing, where rural land–especially in an agrarian society–produces a harvest and is economically more important.

But the issue that underlies all these rules and price-setting is the Jubilee Year.  If this chapter describes the basics of an early capitalist society, perhaps we could call it “capitalism with a 50-year reset button,” when everything basically starts over again.  It’s tempting to imagine how a true jubilee year as describe here would work in the 21st century.  What would this reset look like?  Would the capital accumulated by a few be redistributed to all? In an era where income inequality seems to be the topic d’jour I don’t think it’s a completely irrelevant question.

The final verse of this chapter casts a new light on the nature of God’s covenant with Israel.  All slaves are “be released in the jubilee year, he and his children with him.” (54)  yet, as the human slaves are released, all Israel is reminded, “For Mine are the Israelites as slaves, they are My slaves whom I brought out of the land of Egypt.”

But a covenant with God is a completely different kind of “slavery” than the human version.  Although we have been given the gift of free will, we are still God’s creatures and because of the covenant we have with God through Jesus Christ, we are in fact God’s beloved slaves.  Tough to get our minds, if not our hearts, around that idea.

Mark 8:14-21  I want to be sympathetic with the disciples here as Jesus exclaims, ““Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (17)  They’re talking about physical bread and Jesus is talking about spiritual bread.  Metaphors can easily confuse us.  But then Jesus gives us the three basic rules for distinguishing between the physical and the spiritual: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”(18) See. Hear. Remember.  

It’s what Sherlock Holmes is all about.  If we truly see, and truly hear and truly remember, we will understand far more about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in the world in which we live.  Again and again, Jesus tells us to be alert.  To see and to listen.  

I for one, pretty much tend to drift through life clueless, ignoring (or choosing not to see or hear) that which is truly going on around me.  Going through the motions, but not really seeing–and responding to what I see.  Working in the kingdom is about idling our time away.  It is about using the senses of the mind–and the senses of the heart–that God has given us.  Only then will we truly understand, “Right here. Right now.” 

Psalm 56:9-13; Leviticus 24:10-25:17; Mark 8:1-13

Psalm 56:9-13  The latter half of this psalm is David’s version of “Blessed Assurance,” and is better sung than analyzed.  There is David’s assurance that God will be true to His word; “This I know, that God is for me.”  And although it’s not here in the psalm, the only possible response to that line must be, “Then, who can be against me?”

And as in the first stanza, we have what we might call the “Grand Triumvirate:” praise, trust and the banishment of fear.  The motto found on our coins, “In God we trust” is completed here at verse 11: “I shall not fear.”  trust drives out fear completely.

And with fear banished, “What can man do to me?” (11)  If we needed an operating definition of what salvation is all about, it is here in the closing verse of this psalm:

For You saved me from death,
yes, my foot from slipping,
to walk in God’s presence
in the light of life.

And for us, that is indeed the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

Leviticus 24:10-25:17  Names are crucial for they establish our identity within the community.  In a rare turnabout, where the women are usually anonymous, the editors of Leviticus name the mother of the son “who vilified the Name of God” (24:11)  She is “Shelomith, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.”  So great was the offense of the son in vilifying God’s name that he could not be named but was taken outside the camp and stoned to death.

But no name is greater than the name of God and “he who invokes the LORD’s name shall be doomed to die; and the community shall surely stone him, sojourner and native alike,” (24:16) and just to make sure everyone gets the point, the punishment is repeated immediately: “for his invoking the Name he shall be put to death.”  I suppose that the issue is not that God’s name is mentioned aloud, but that it is (in Alter’s words) “vilified,” or to use the common phrase, “taken in vain.”

Would that society paid more attention to this rule, and we could possibly be spared the ubiquitous “OMG” acronym. Also, I suppose this is why even to this day, Jews write “G-d” rather than “God.”  And for those of us who spell out God’s name, a good reminder that naming God–and the attitude in which we name God– is serious business in deed.

Chapter 15 lays out God’s rules for the fifty-year jubilee.  And another one of those rules we pass right over today, the command, “and call a release in the land to all its inhabitants.”  In short, what we might call “God’s bankruptcy law.”

God also defines fair real estate sales here, “The larger the number of years, the more you shall pay for its purchase and the smaller the number of years the less you shall pay for its purchase, since he is selling you the number of yields.” (25:16)  Which is completely logical and fair in an agrarian society.  (Although given that these laws were theoretically promulgated while Israel was wandering around in the wilderness, all this attention to property seems something of a non-sequitir…

Mark 8:1-13  Having previously fed the 5000, Jesus now feeds the 4000 in much the same way.  And once again, and recalling that in the incident in the storm on Galilee, the disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing, they apparently have not yet picked up on this miraculous feeding of the multitude business.  Once again they ask, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (8:4).  And once again, Jesus performs the miracle.  And once again, the disciples climb into the boat with Jesus (10).  Did they get it this time? Probably not.

It’s easy to be hard on the disciples because we know the whole story.  But the disciple’s question at both feedings is exactly our question, and a sure sign that we don’t “get it” either.  We claim to have great faith, but when push comes to shove, we’re just as clueless as the disciples as to Jesus’ true intentions and his true abilities.

Which is why I think Mark juxtaposes the Pharisee’s request for “a sign” immediately following this story.  “Show us a sign,” we cry along with the Pharisees. We keep asking for signs, but even if lightening were to zap from heaven and build a mansion in front of our eyes, we’d still find reason to doubt.  And anyone who claims to “know” is a fool (e.g., Harold Camping predicting the 2nd coming in 2011).  Which is why the endless quest for “proof” of God’s existence is such a fool’s errand. Only faith works.

Psalm 56:1-8; Leviticus 23:23-24:9; Mark 7:24-37

Psalm 56:1-8  The introductory paragraph indicates this is a David psalm when the Philistines seized him at Gath, so he writes, we presume, as a prisoner.  He is hemmed in and assailed form all sides: “My attackers trample me all day long, for many assail me, O High One.” (2).  He knows, as should we, there is only one direction to turn, which Alter renders with clever symmetry: “When I fear, I trust in You,  in God, Whose word I praise, in God I trust, I shall not fear.”  Fear leads to trust leads to praise leads to trust, which banishes fear.

What strikes me here is the close relationship of trust and praise of God’s word.  Even in the most dire circumstance, worship is possible because we are grounded in trusting God.  And couched in this trust we rest in assurance that no one can harm us: “What can flesh do to me?” (4).  David then catalogs their attempts to bring him low and even take his life from him: “All day long they put pain in my words, against me all their plots for evil.  They scheme, they lie low, they keep at my heels as they hope for my life.” (5,6).

David is not content to merely accept his enemies’ depredations and he asks God for relief: “For their mischief free me from them. In wrath bring down peoples, O God.”  We can pray for release from our present circumstances, but always knowing that by trusting God we are freed from fear-perhaps the greatest enemy of all.

These verses bring to mind the old Fanny Crosby hymn, which we never sing any more, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”  Assurance in the God’s steadfastness rings out from this first verses of this psalm.

 Leviticus 23:23-24:9  When we think about the covenant between God and Israel, we (at least I) do not tend to think of celebrations and commemorations.  yet, here God sets out at least three distinct periods of setting aside daily work and commemorating special events, chief among them, the Day of Atonement.  These are not casual holidays taken on a whim, but are commands from God, to be observed as “an everlasting statute for your generations.” (23:41)–as much a part of the law as the Decalogue.

This is why one of the great gifts of the Lutheran church to me personally is the liturgical calendar.  An ongoing reminder of Jesus’ transforming work, as we commemorate what he has done for us from birth to death to Resurrection to Ascension to Pentecost.  It’s clear from these passages in Leviticus that God means for us to turn from our daily tasks, stop and remember–and reflect.  Maybe we don’t dwell in huts for seven days (23:43) or offer food at an altar, but the subtext here is that pausing and reflecting on what God–and for us, Jesus–has done is a key element in our relationship with Him.

Unfortunately, I live a life where reflection and contemplation is too rare.  I am too eager to move on to the next task at hand.  Busyness is a too effective way to avoid reflecting on who we are and the nature of our relationship with God.

Mark 7:24-37  As I remarked when we read this story in Matthew, that with the exception of the woman at the well in John, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is perhaps my favorite of all the people he meets and talks with.  Operating at several levels, it is perhaps Jesus’ clearest statement that he came not just for Jews, but for the entire world.  More than that, though, I think it tells us that when we have faith in who he is and what he can do, we can approach Jesus with boldness.

The woman had a real world need: a demon-possessed daughter that she believed  Jesus could heal.  She had a solid faith that Jesus would do for her what she had heard he had done for many others.  And she is smart: she understands Jesus’ metaphor of the children and dogs, (and unlike so many of us who only come up with the perfect reply after the moment passes), she pushes back with a reply, which Jesus makes clear is what has led to her daughter’s healing, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (30)  It was this woman’s boldness and courage that Jesus respected.  But it is boldness and courage in the context of her deep faith that Jesus meets her need.

This is the same boldness with which David prays in so many psalms.  But it is never confrontational boldness; it is always grounded in deep respect and deep faith that Jesus will actually do what we’re asking him to do. We do not approach our Lord in weakness, but in faith in who he is–and who we are: deeply loved.