Archives for August 2014

Psalm 98; Joshua 19:40-21:8; Luke 17:1-10

Psalm 98: This psalm is clearly a hymn–a new song–to be sung by Israel gathered together with the implication it was written to celebrate a victory. What’s key is that it acknowledges it is God’s victory, not Israel’s: “The LORD made known His victory, / before the nations’ eyes He revealed His bounty,” (2) that is visible to all the nations around Israel: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” (3b).

The victory is not only visible to other people, but to all creation: “Shout out to the LORD, all the earth. / Burst forth in glad song and hymn.” (4)  And all creation joins in with the orchestra (lyre, trumpets and ram’s horn are mentioned) that surely accompanied this hymn: “Let the sea and its fullness thunder, /… Let the rivers clap hands, / let the mountains together sing gladly.” (7,8) It’s as if they join the orchestra as the percussion section.

Once again, I’m struck by the unity between humankind and the natural world that’s expressed here. There is no sense that men dominate creation; rather, we are integral to it. Alas, we have certainly done our best to destroy that unity as we have exploited natural resources (not to mention other races) down through history. That is hardly the stewardship God asked of Adam.

Joshua 19:40-21:8: Having overseen the division of the land among the tribes, the tribes in return give Joshua, “by command of the Lord gave him the town that he asked for, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim; he rebuilt the town, and settled in it.” (19:50) Thus,  Joshua retires from leadership.

That’s quite a contrast to Moses’ exit from the stage: his last long speech reiterating the commandments; the Song of Moses (Deut. 32); the formal transfer of leadership to Joshua; Moses’ final blessing of the people (Deut. 33); the last longing glimpse of Canaan from the mountaintop; his death and burial (Deut. 34).

Joshua asks for a ruined town, restores it, and settles down. This is not the last we hear of Joshua; there is still some work to do and a speech to make. But Joshua, organized and clearly not the prophetic visionary that Moses was, is an example of how God uses people who are willing to simply go out and do God’s work without fanfare.

Moses was God’s perfect man to lead an unruly mob out of Egypt and into the wilderness, keeping order by force.  Joshua is God’s perfect man to organize a new nation, lead an army, allocate resources, and set up processes such as the Cities of Refuge that will serve the people well for many years to come. Kingdom work requires visionaries like and it requires insightful leadership and administrators willing to rebuild their own town.

Luke 17:1-10: This section of Luke seems to be a compilation of his additional notes about Jesus’ sayings that he took down from his sources.

These sayings are not connected to weighty parables; they are just reminders of the quotidian duties of Christ-followers: Don’t be a stumbling block to others; be willing to rebuke those who sin (something we are awfully loathe to do in our litigious culture); forgive those who repent; forgive others times seven.

And following Joshua’s example, we must work effectively as we are commanded, but don’t expect a reward. Or even a “thank you.” After all, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (17:10)  This is the gritty day-to-day work of being a Christ-follower.

But so often we are tempted by the applause of the crowd that tricks us into believing we are special, the exception and then believing we can just randomly sit down at the Master’s table as an equal. As usual, it boils down to the question of who is in charge of our lives? That eternal existential question: Am I really willing to abandon my ego and really let Jesus run my life?

Psalm 97:7-12; Joshua 19:10-39; Luke 16:16-31

Psalm 97:7-12: The eschatological tone of the psalm continues with a description of the effect of God’s glory on those who do not worship Him: “All idol-worshippers are shamed, / who boast of the ungods. / All gods bow down to Him.” (7) While the worshipers of the idols of our age may appear to be on the ascendant, and while they make bold claims that not only is belief in God needlessly stupid but even barbaric, this psalm makes it clear that they will one day be apprised of their arrogant stupidity.

We “who love the LORD, [and] hate evil,” on the other hand, can hold onto the bold promise that “He guards the lives of His faithful. From the hand of the wicked He saves them,” (10) because “Light is sown for the just, / and for the upright of heart there is joy.”  (11) The image of light being sewn into the earth as if it is seed is striking. For those of us living under the terms of the New Covenant, the light of Jesus has been sewn into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we take seriously what the psalmist is saying–that we are now bearers of God’s light, then we will both worship joyfully and testify: “Rejoice, O you just, in the LORD, / and acclaim His holy name.” (12) The light we bear also means it is our responsibility to do all we can to bring justice, which is after all the underlying theme of this psalm.

Joshua 19:10-39: The territories of Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali are laid out in detail. What’s interesting here in this otherwise fairly dull passage is that the territories of these last six tribes have been assigned by lot. This is God’s fairness at work: that he does not hold certain tribes or families above others.

We are all equal before God.  A message that Jesus preached again and again, but that those who saw themselves as being above others could not stand and conspired to kill this rabble-rouser who was only following what God had already laid out. How quickly we forget the fairness of God as our self-centered pride replaces the simple simple fact that we are each created equal at the moment of our birth.  And death.

Luke 16:16-31: At first, Jesus’ comment that people try to enter the Kingdom “by force” is puzzling. But then we see the context of his statement, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” (17) I think Jesus is saying that entering the Kingdom is actually more difficult than obeying every “jot and tittle” of the Law. There is only One Way to enter the Kingdom, and while that may transcend the Law, it does not abrogate it.  (As I recall this is a topic that Paul delves into in detail in Romans.)

As an example of this greater difficulty, he lays out the terms of divorce, whcih are far stricter than those laid out in Moses’ law where divorce was more easily obtained. Since he is speaking to scribes and Pharisees it’s not unreasonable to assume that many of them had divorced their previous wives and married anew. Here, I think, Jesus is stating God’s law in the clearest possible terms to those who claimed they followed every aspect of the Law. It’s interesting to note that Jesus does not elaborate or explain further. He seems to be saying, ‘It’s a law, guys. Deal with it. If you weren’t so hypocritical, you’d realize you’ve broken the Law in important ways.’

Unfortunately, I think Jesus’ example has been over-interpreted to the extent of punishing people who divorce for very good reason. Yes, it may be adultery, but as Jesus points out again and again, each of us breaks the Law even when we think we are being ‘good,’

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells us that in the end the those who claim to be better and above others, i.e., the scribes and Pharisees, do not in fact really follow the law. It is Lazarus, who makes no pretensions to superiority who is favored by God. (This picks up on the theme of justice in today’s Psalm and the theme of all of us being created equal before God discussed above.)

Those who live as if they are superior to others are not following the Law at all. And, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Which is not only an indictment of human pride; it is of course a prophecy of exactly what happened. Right up to today.

 

 

Psalm 97:1-6; Joshua 18:1-19:9; Luke 16:1-15

Psalm 97:1-6: John certainly had this psalm in mind when he wrote of his visions on Patmos. “His lightnings lit up the world; / the earth saw and quaked. /Mountains melted like wax before the LORD,/ before the Master of all the earth.” (4,5). Particularly at the opening of the sixth seal: “and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (Rev 6:13,14).

Both passages remind me that despite my and others’ attempts to do so, God is not constrained by the little box into which we prefer He’d fit.

At its core, this psalm is about justice: “Cloud and dense fog around Him, / justice and judgment the base of His throne” (2) and then, “The heavens told His justice, and all peoples saw His glory.” (6) A perfect creation would be perfectly just. Alas, we have corrupted creation by our sin that promotes injustice. We want to keep God in that little box hoping He won’t see our acts because in our hearts we know that we sew and tolerate injustice. Again and again, we are reminded that to come before God we must be perfectly just. And there is only One Way by which that can occur.

Joshua 18:1-19:9: Seven tribes have not yet had their territories apportioned. We would think that upon finally arriving at the Promised Land that everyone would be eager to claim their portion of the land, settle down and begin life anew.  Yet, there seems that having arrived, the people are just “hanging out.” We hear frustration in Joshua’s voice when he asks, “How long will you be slack about going in and taking possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you?” (18:3) So Joshua takes matters into his own hands, assigns three men from each tribe to lay out the remaining portions of land, which they do.

So, why were they being slack about taking possession of the land? There could be many reasons, but one of them, I think, was that as far as they were concerned they’d reached the Promised Land and that in itself was sufficient. Just as we come into the Kingdom when we’re baptized but then just “hang out,” expecting others to to the hard work. We choose churches based on how much we like the quality of their preaching and music. We “church shop” for the programs that suit us, behaving exactly as the consumers of other products. But then, like the Israelites, we we refuse to actually work and contribute to the building of the Kingdom. Joshua’s words about “how long we will be slack” is not a historical artifact; they are completely appropriate for us today.

Luke 16:1-15: This is one of those parables that upon first reading make me go “Huh?!?” Is Jesus really endorsing dishonesty? But on closer examination, Jesus is endorsing stewardship and faithfulness. We are all dishonest managers and we have been given wealth that in the end and despite what we think is assuredly not our own; it is God’s. How we use that wealth is the point here. Do we use it as a means to invite others into the Kingdom just as the manager used his master’s wealth to ensure he would be welcome into other’s homes after he lost his job?

Wealth is a means, not an end. We can have wealth, but if we focus on it, thinking it’s our own then it becomes our master. But if we use it as a means to build the Kingdom, then we are serving God, not the other master.

Psalm 96:10-13; Joshua 16,17; Luke 15:11-32

Psalm 96: The first verses of this psalm–“Sing to the Lord a new song!–and the theme of coming to God is reverent worship have inspired lots of praise songs, but there are two themes in this psalm that I’ve not heard in any song.

The first is “For all gods of the peoples are ungods, / but the LORD has made the heavens.” (5) We and the gods we have created are, in Alters’ marvelous phrase, “ungods.” God alone is Creator. These ungods are not the little statues sitting on the mantle, but the serious ungods in our lives: money, power, fame, wealth.  Robin Williams’ recent suicide is ample proof that the ungods in our lives are powerless to deliver the true meaning of life or to reveal why we are really here, which is to sing a new song to our Creator. Instead, a man who had all those ungods makes the tragic choice to end what he saw as an empty, depressing life. Yes, we can argue all we want that depression is strictly an issue of brain chemistry, but I think this most selfish of acts–to destroy the unique self that God has created– is a cri de couer of realization that we are far, far more than the sum of our brain chemistry, and that our ungods have betrayed us.

The second theme is God’s justice: “Yes, the world stands firm, will not shake. He metes out justice to peoples righteously.” (10)  By concatenating justice with creation, the psalmist forces us to confront the reality that any injustice we commit is a sin against God’s created order. God’s justice is not an occasion of foreboding and terror for those who trust in God, but a time to sing with the joy the new song. As the psalmist puts it so beautifully, Creation itself sings in joy: “Let the field be glad and all that is in it, then shall all the trees of the forest joyfully sing…” (12). Why does Creation sing? Not because it’s a nice day, but because “He comes to judge the earth. /He judges the world in justice / and peoples in His faithfulness.” (14)

Joshua 16,17: Joshua allocates territory to the half-tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh. Both the Ephraimites and Manassites, however, “did not, however, drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer: so the Canaanites have lived within Ephraim to this day…” (16:10). And, “the Manassites could not take possession of those towns; but the Canaanites continued to live in that land.” (17:12). Both tribes put the Canaanites to forced labor, but by virtue of not driving them out will eventually lead to intermarriage and many problems down the road. 

Moreover, in the grand tradition of the wilderness years, the Manassites complain to Joshua that their allocation is unfair, invoking that ever-popular justification that ‘Hey, we are specially blessed by God, so we deserve God’s continued favor’ as the moan, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, since we are a numerous people, whom all along the Lord has blessed?” (17:14). Joshua turns their complaint back on them, “If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and clear ground there for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim…” (17:15).

The lesson is clear: we do not just sit around and wait for the Lord to bless us because it is somehow our “right” to be blessed. As Jesus makes clear again and again, blessing arises from diligent work n the Kingdom. The question for me, is am I willing to do the hard work of clearing the forest?

Luke 15:11-32: It is not possible to read and reflect on this most famous of the parables and not come away new riches. In today’s reading it strikes me that the parable is not so much about the prodigal or about the brother, it is about the father. Who of course is clearly God, our Father.  In another one of those “Moravian coincidences,” today’s psalm tells us how it is impossible not to sing and worship God our creator. And here we have the father celebrating his son’s return with a party.

The father does not throw a party because it seemed like the right thing to do. The final verse in the story gives the whole thing away, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” The father says we had to celebrate and rejoice. There was no option here. God celebrates when the lost have been found not because He’s just being nice, but to use Brendan Manning’s felicitous phrase (thank you, Jerry Hanson!) it is because of God’s furious longing for us. When God finds us, a party is mandatory!

Psalm 95; Joshua 14:6-15:19; Luke 14:25-32

Psalm 95: This is one of those psalms where singing becomes shouting: “Come, let us sing gladly to the LORD, / let us shout out to the Rock of our rescue.” (1) But it is not mere shouting, it is shouting in song: “Let us greet Him in acclaim, / in songs let us shout out to Him.” (2) Perhaps a modern analogue would be Red Sox fans singing “Sweet Caroline” in Fenway Park. The point is, that God’s greatness transcends mere songs of praise, but is something that is to be sung in massed unison.

This psalm focuses on the greatness of God as Creator, In Whose hand are the depths of the earth, and the peaks of the mountains.” (4) And, as always, our natural response to so great a God is worship: “Come, let us bow and kneel, bend the knee before the LORD our maker.” (6). The phrase “the LORD our maker” reminds us that we are His creation, we are not the small-g gods that we (me, anyway) so often see ourselves as being.

“For He is our God and we are the people He tends and the flock of His hand.” (7) reiterates the Creator/created relationship. This is the proper order of creation, and we do well to remember that order, which is why worship is about praise and remembrance, not about being entertained or edified or even (as I heard my parents say so often) “getting something out of it.”

When we corrupt that order and set ourselves above our Creator, as seems to be our natural bent, then sin–especially the sin of pride–arises, and all its dreadful consequences. This is what happened at Meribah (8) and again in the wilderness when the people complained when the spies came back and were afraid of the Canaanites. The result: “Forty years I loathed a generation, /and I said, ‘They are a people of wayward heart.” (10)

Through the saving power of Jesus Christ we will never be loathed, but that does not absolve of of our responsibility to remember we are the Created and our natural singing/shouting response is gratitude and worship of our Creator.

Joshua 14:6-15:19: In chapter 15 we are introduced to Caleb, whose warrior qualities and capabilities are described. In one of the odder bargains of the OT, Caleb says that whoever takes Kiriath-sepher will be awarded his daughter Achsah and in something edging toward incest, she becomes the wife of Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, her cousin.

Since the family is assigned to the desert, so she urges her new husband to ask for springs of water as part of their territory. However, he apparently says nothing, so being no slouch, Achsah takes it upon herself to ask her father, which request she grants. While the theological application may be as simple as “ask and you shall receive,” I’m amused that the father-daughter bond of the father granting a daughter’s request–something I have happily done many times myself–has deep historical roots!

Luke 14:25-32: This is one of those disturbing passages about the cost of discipleship that rubs against our grain, especially when Jesus says ““Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (26) Perhaps I’m softening “hate” too much to suggest that these relationships cannot have greater precedence than the relationship between Jesus and ourselves as his disciples.

The latter half of this passage, which seems not to be preached on as much, is that discipleship requires preparation and planning, which point Jesus makes not once, but twice: once in building and once in military planning.  To me, Jesus is saying there is nothing random or particularly about working in the Kingdom. To be sure, Kingdom work requires vision, but it is vision that anticipates cost (the tower example) and potential consequences (the military example)–not the short-lived enthusiasm that we too often mistake for vision. If the cost or consequences are too great, then the plan must be modified accordingly.

This is also a good example of what my father said distinguished Christianity from cults: You cannot “leave your brains at the door.” Being a worker in the Kingdom requires thought, insight, and yes, intelligence.  We cannot mindlessly follow some charismatic but ultimately empty leader and expect to build something lasting or expand the territory of the Kingdom.

Psalm 94:12-23; Joshua 13:8-14:5; Luke 14:7-24

Psalm 94: “God of vengeance, O LORD,  God of vengeance, shine forth!” (1) Alter informs us that God is addressed this way only in this psalm of supplication, which I’ll take as an expression of the psalmist’s passionate intensity at the sight of gross injustice and desire for God to act rather than as a theological insight.  It’s an untenable situation. Not only are the wicked successfully carrying out their evil, they are proud of it: “They utter arrogance, speak it, / all the wrongdoers bandy boasts.” (4) Given the high estate in which the Psalms and the OT at large holds widows and orphans, the magnitude of their crimes is especially heinous: “Widow and sojourner they kill,/ and orphans they murder.” (6)

But they have made a major error, believing that God is indifferent to their evil crimes: “And they say, “Yah will not see, and the God of Jacob will not heed.” (7) But they can’t say they haven’t been warned, “Take heed, you brutes in the people, / and you fools, when will you be wise?”

As always, however, there is the eternal promise that in the end, God’s justice will be restored, “For justice will join with judgment, /and all the upright will follow it.” (15) And the evildoer’s own acts will do them in: “He will turn back against them their wickedness, / through their evil He will destroy them, / the LORD our God will destroy them.” (23)

For me this psalm reflects verities that are still undeniably true some 2500 years later. First, evildoers believe they are the center of the universe and that they will get away with it, but also their pride will ultimately lead to their downfall. In light of current news where evil seems to be on the march everywhere, we can take hope that its downfall will come, but it may take far longer than we could hope. Nevertheless, in the meantime we are protected “the LORD became my fortress, and my God, my sheltering rock.” (22)

Joshua 12-14:5: These final chapters of Joshua turn away form the exciting battles and victories and become a catalog. First, of the numerous kings that have been conquered by Israel (chapter 12). But perhaps the most ominous is the description is at the beginning of chapter 13 of the parts of Canaan that Israel had not conquered. (13: 1-7). God reminds Joshua that “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites;” (13:7).  But much land has been conquered and one of Joshua’s final duties is to “allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you.” (13:7)

Now, Scripture becomes a surveyor’s record. Again, like the detail we encounter in the descriptions of the layout and furnishings of the Temple that come later, I’m struck by the importance of details in the story of Israel–and indeed, of all God’s creation.

As well, the definite boundaries that are laid out here is a tangible reminder that God is a God of boundaries, and that there are limits–not only physical ones such as those described here, but of our behavior and God’s expectations. Boundaries are definite. As the today’s psalm observes, there is good and there is evil. There are those who align with God and those who do not. I tend to prefer a squishier, more ambivalent view of life and like others, would prefer to think that at everyone’s core there is goodness–even if only a spark. But the evidence of the Bible indicates otherwise. We can be on one side of God’s boundary or the other; we cannot straddle it.

Luke 14:7-24: Jesus advice-start low and be asked to move higher, rather than the other way around, is so sensible, so logical. Why does he even have to give it? For the simple reason that we are prideful creatures and that our logic is that we are rightfully #1. This is Oswald Chambers’ persistent theme: unless we abandon our egos and replace them with Jesus Christ, we will always wrongly take the place of honor that only Christ can occupy.

The parable of the wedding feast is one of the most remarkable in Luke’s gospel. At first it seems that Jesus is referring to the Jews as the invited guests and gentiles as the ones brought in from the streets. That’s certainly a fair interpretation, but I think there’s a deeper meaning that follows logically from Jesus’ high-low disquisition a few verses earlier.

Notice that there is never an outright rejection to the master’s invitation, but each invited guest offers excuses, citing other distractions that have a higher priority. That’s all of us, I think. We have an infinite number of plausible excuses to keep our own selves and our priorities ahead of those of Jesus’.  The poor on the streets are those without pretension. They have already abandoned themselves; their egos are not the center of the universe and they happily accept Jesus’ invitation and find themselves at a banquet whose riches they could never have imagined.

While not stated directly, Jesus’ message is also one of opportunity cost. By checking out our new piece of land or by trying out our new oxen (I’m tempted to say “BMW” here in lieu of “oxen”) we have foregone a party whose joy we cannot even comprehend.

Psalm 92; Joshua 10:1-28; Luke 13:1-17

Psalm 92:9-15: The superscription of this psalm indicates it is a psalm of thanksgiving to be sung on the Sabbath. Worship is our response when we realize the greatness of God: “It is good to acclaim the LORD / and to hymn to Your name, Most High,/ to tell in the morning Your kindness,” (1,2) Unlike the small-g gods–idols–the God we worship is not passive, but active throughout His creation–and that is the reason for we respond so happily: “For You made me rejoice, LORD, through Your acts, / of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.” (4)

The larger theme of the psalm then emerges: “How great Your works, O LORD, Your designs are very deep.” (5) I take “deep” not only describing the complexity of creation, but also as “beyond our understanding.”  One of the things most difficult to understand is why evil seems ascendent and evildoers seem to be winning. But as the psalmist reminded us, in God’s larger picture, His justice will prevail: “the wicked spring up like grass, / and all the wrongdoers flourish /— to be destroyed for all time.” (7). And again, “Your enemies perish, / all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (9).

Ultimately, the righteous prevail and in one of those great psalmic metaphors, “The righteous man springs up like the palm tree, / like the Lebanon cedar he towers.” (12) Not only prevail, but righteousness will grow stronger and taller than evil because we are “Planted in the house of the LORD, / in the courts of our God they flourish.” (14). Through Jesus Christ we are “planted” to grow in righteousness.

Even when all around us appears lost, Jesus, our Great Hope, is steadfast, and therefore, so are we, with a special encouragement for those of us rocketing into old age: “They bear fruit still in old age, / fresh and full of sap they are,” (14)

Joshua 10:1-28: Joshua has made peace with the Gibeonites and they have allied themselves with Israel. The five kings of the Amorites understand the threat want to end this alliance quickly. The Gibeonites ask Joshua for help. The army of Israel attacks by surprise and “the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon” (10) God has joined the battle and “the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died;” (11)

Joshua prays to God, ““Sun, stand still at Gibeon, /and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” (12) So, did the sun stand still or did it just appear to stand still as Israel fought the five kings? Although God can do anything He pleases with creation, my view is that God did not suspend the laws of physics, but that time appeared to stand still as the battle continued.

More significant to me, anyway, is the statement, “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought with Israel.” (14) The implication seems to be this is the only time that God responded to a human prayer, which we know to be untrue. If the meaning is this is the only time that God suspended the laws of physics, then the assertion makes sense. 

The other thing that’s clear, God is definitely on the side of Israel, and remarkable things happen. Joshua did not pray to ask God to be there for Israel; He already was. Joshua knew that, but he still prayed. We would do well to remember that God is there for us, as well. But we should still pray.

Luke 13:1-17: Jesus continues to upend the sociological and theological status quo, first stating that there’s no correlation between a person’s goodness or badness and whatever fate they meet. The victims of the fallen tower died because the tower fell, not as a result of their personal conduct or status.

The parable of the fig tree is a clear message that as God’s people we are called to work in the Kingdom and bear fruit. This is another revocation of the idea that social status determines our favor or disfavor before God. The Pharisees and Temple leaders ascribed their inherent superiority before God to their status as “true practitioners” of the Law.  Those of lower status, such as the woman Jesus healed, were obviously less favored. Jesus puts forward the revolutionary idea that what God is looking for is the fruit that we bear, not our status.

The parable also includes a clear message of grace: “‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (8,9) We are constantly being given second chances by God. We need to recognize that and act on the grace we have been given.

Finally, the contentious issue of “work” on the Sabbath. How quick we are to try to draw clear boundaries about what is acceptable and unacceptable before God. As always, it’s about who’s in control. We would rather establish our own rules and call them “God’s rules” rather than show grace.  It’s also about rigidity–something at which too many churches excel.  I well remember being questioned about my choice to attend a “secular” university rather than going to the “Christian college” run by the denomination.  Yes, there need to be boundaries in life, but God has graciously given boundaries that affirm rather than deny.

Psalm 91:9-16; Joshua 8:1-29; Luke 12:35-48

Psalm 91:9-16: God’s protection is more than God just being there in the midst of danger, battle or plague.  God’s protection–His shelter– is where we come to live: “For you—the LORD is your refuge, the Most High you have made your abode.” (9) That is where we are completely safe: “No harm will befall you, nor affliction draw near to your tent.” (10)

One of the most famous verses in Psalms reminds us that God sends His angels to protect us, “On their palms they lift you up lest your foot be bruised by a stone.” (12)  This is an apt image because the mountainous paths of Israel and Judah were scattered with rocks and presented constant obstacles to the traveler.  So too, we face an ongoing path of obstacles, but God is not just a one-time God; we are rescued again and again.  As I know by personal experience…

God Himself speaks in the final verses of this psalm in one of the best descriptions we have of God’s protective actions beginning with freedom: “…I freed him. I raised him high, for he has known My name.” (14) And unlike those many psalms that cry out to an apparently absent God, “He calls Me and I answer him,” (15)  Not only are we protected, but we are rescued: “I am with him in his straits. I deliver him and grant him honor.” (15). Finally, we are granted long life, and again, the idea that we are continually rescued, “With length of days I shall sate him, and show him my rescue.” (16)

This is God’s promise. May we remember it in our darker days.

Joshua 8:1-29: (I mistakenly wrote on this passage a few days ago, and repeat my thoughts here.)

In a brilliant military stratagem, Joshua draws out the inhabitants of Ai, and when he sees they’ve all exited the fortified city, raises his sword, which is a signal to the ambush group to enter and burn the city. No matter which way the Ai-ites tried to flee they were surrounded and in accordance with God’s command, “Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped.” (22). The city of Ai was reduced to rubble, its king hung, and the victorious “and raised over [the remains of Ai] a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

As much as we would like to think of God as a being strictly a God of peace, God also enables and here in this context anyway, even condones war.  Moreover, every inhabitant, including women and children, was annihilated. Is this really the will of a God of grace and mercy? Apparently so.

Had humankind not fallen, then there would have been no need for war. But our fallen state, alas, includes combat and battles. Was conquering Ai a “just war?” Who knows? This is an issue we are grappling with even this week in pretty much the same geographical territory.

Luke 12:35-48: (I wrote on this passage last week–did the Moravians send the wrong readings?  In any event, here are some further thoughts on the last portion of this passage.)

Jesus’ last sentences in the parable of the slaves have to do with with responsibility. If we think of the slaves as workers in the Kingdom, it is clear we have knowledge about what the Master expects of us.  The Gospel is Good News, but it is far more than that. Jesus gave us instructions to carry this Good News into the world.  Like the slaves here, we know “what his master wanted.” But while this knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient because if we are like the slave, we must be prepared to carry out our duties. Which here would certainly include carrying the Good News to others. 

Will we “receive a severe beating” in the form of some punishment? Here, I think we need to be careful and not over-interpret the parable. After all, we are not God’s slaves and we live under the terms of grace. But by knowing but not working we pay what economists call an “opportunity cost.” We miss out. We could have had so much more by working more diligently in the Kingdom, by bringing the Good News to those we pass by every day.  I know that I have certainly been negligent and missed many opportunities which could have brought great joy.

Psalm 91:1-8; Joshua 7; Luke 12:22-34

Psalm 91:1-8: Nowhere else in the Bible do we find a more eloquent description of how God protects us from danger.  If there were ever a psalm to memorize before setting out on a dangerous mission or for a soldier to read before battle, it is this one.

The person being protected speaks in verse 2, “My refuge and bastion, / my God in whom I trust.” And in the end that is the only prayer we need to say. But the psalmist takes up that theme in the subsequent verses, elaborating in all the ways we will be protected. We are protected both from accident and from an epidemic: “For He will save you from the fowler’s snare, / from the disastrous plague.” (3) and from the “terror of the night” and in war, “the arrow that flies by day,” (4). In light of the ebola in Africa, verse 6 has particular resonance in that God will protect us “from the plague that stalks in darkness [and] from the scourge that rages at noon.”

The image of war and terrorism is evoked in the memorable verse, “Though a thousand fall at your side / and ten thousand at your right hand,/ you it will not reach.” (7)

I think it’s important to note that we will still experience woes and disasters in our lives, remembering that this is a psalm of encouragement, not of prediction. But when we place our complete trust in God we are placed in a protective context far greater than ourselves. The difficult mission is not something we have to do completely alone and unprotected.

When we embark on a dangerous journey knowing that God is with us, our courage is strengthened and we know that even if evil befalls us, we are in the arms of One who loves us.  And that makes all the difference.

Joshua 7: The sin of Achan–taking silver and gold that was the spoils of war and burying it in his tent–is an ominous precursor of the sins of Israel which will follow.  God has required that all the “devoted things” be given to Him alone, and Achan’s sin cannot be tolerated. Through a remarkable tribe-by-tribe winnowing process, Achan is finally identified.

Achan confesses, but his entire family is stoned an all his possessions are burnt. This is not only a memorable lesson to the rest of Israel–one they won’t soon forget–but it is also a stark reminder that confession does not necessarily lead to forgiveness, much less exoneration.  And an equally stark reminder that one man’s sins infect his entire family.

Joshua has asked  the crucial “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” (25) Neither God nor Joshua are being capricious. The moral health of the community depends on the moral behavior of its members. A lesson we seem well on our way to forgetting in our post-Christian society today.

Luke 12:22-34: Luke doesn’t give us the back-story that leads to Jesus’ incredibly encouraging words, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (22, 23a) [And in another striking “Moravian coincidence,” both today’s psalm and this gospel are about encouragement.]

I suspect that the disciples saw that even though Jesus’ popularity was at an all-time high and he was surrounded by crowds, they were poor and hungry and tired. I’d like to think that the disciples didn’t complain about their sorry lot, but that Jesus recognized their downcast spirits and encourages them with his memorable words. (Although Judas, as the disciple’s treasurer probably pointed out the sorry state of their finances.)

We’re just like the disciples. All we humans spend lots of time worrying, especially about finances. And lots of us (me included) work hard to maintain our financial position and save for the unexpected. Yet, I know of many dedicated Christians who have been down to their last dollar and receive unexpected gifts form places they never anticipated, and from those they never asked. They are living proof of what Jesus is talking about here.

So why is my faith that God will provide so weak? I suppose once again it’s my own attempts to control what happens rather than giving myself wholly over to God’s providence. In the end it’s all about Kingdom priority.  I talk a good line, but my actions still indicate that I have at least one foot in the worldly treasure department.

Psalm 90; Joshua 5,6; Luke 12:13-21

Psalm 90: This beautiful psalm resonates in our modern world as it compares the evanescence of our own lives to God’s eternity. We cannot really comprehend God’s perspective, who is outside of time.  “For a thousand years in Your eyes are like yesterday gone, like a watch in the night.” (4) The poet starts with a millennium, compresses it to a single day (“yesterday”) and reduces it again to a “watch in the night,” just three or four hours.

The fleetingness of our time here on earth is like grass that, “In the morning it sprouts and passes, / by evening it withers and dies.” (6) The psalmist then becomes very specific about just how little time we really do have: “The days of our years are but seventy years, / and if in great strength, eighty years.” (10a)

The underlying question is, what do we do with those few years? The psalmist’s initial answer is depressing: “And their pride is trouble and grief, for swiftly cut down, we fly off.” (10b) Is that all that life consists of? Without a relationship with God, that would be so.

But further down, hope emerges: “To count our days rightly, instruct, / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (12)  Only in a true relationship with God, will we gain a “heart of wisdom.” In this relationship God will “Sate us in the morn with Your kindness, let us sing and rejoice all our days.” How much better to be worshipping God than a life that is empty and then “swiftly cut down.”

Joshua 5,6: After circumcising those who had been “born on the journey through the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised,” the manna ceases and ” they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna;” (12). The two acts reaffirm God’s covenantal relationship with Israel as the break point between Israel in the wilderness and Israel in Canaan. 

Joshua has his own burning bush moment, seeing “a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.” Recognizing this to be the commander of the army of God, Joshua falls on his face and asks what God commands. There is but one command, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” (15) cUnlike Moses, Joshua does not meet God directly, but “only” the commander of God’s army, and frustratingly, we do not hear what was said to Joshua. But it’s a clear message that Joshua is the anointed commander of the army of Israel, and there is much to be done.

In Sunday School, we learn about the fall of the walls of Jericho, but not of the total destruction wreaked on its inhabitants: “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (21) We also did not learn that Rahab, who hid the messengers, was a prostitute. 

This is one of those places where it’s clear that God is indifferent to who we are and is asking only that we be faithful–as Rahab was. None of us, no matter how much we may have sinned, is exempt from God’s grace when we turn to God.

Luke 12:13-21: The parable of the rich fool is another one of those times when the readings are in synchrony. Today’s psalm notes the brevity of our existence; the parable reflects on how wisely–or unwisely–we use our brief time here and who we believe to be in charge.  The rich man believed all he had done was his own doing and that he had done it well.  Time to sit back and say,”to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”(19)

But Jesus is saying life doesn’t work that way: “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (20) And yet we continue to believe that if we work hard, save our money, prepare for a future without God that everything will work out just fine.  As anyone who has encountered and lived through a life-threatening illness can tell you, that is a fool’s errand. Only when staring death in the face do we realize that our new barns are not where the real point of life lies; they are empty works. We cannot insure ourselves; we cannot accomplish great things on our own. Only Jesus can do that.