Archives for September 2014

Psalm 107:10-16; 1 Samuel 7:2-8:22; Luke 24:36-53

Psalm 107:10-16: This section of this psalm describes how Israel in the wilderness had abandoned God and become “dwellers in dark and death’s shadow,/ prisoners of tormenting iron.” (10). The reason behind their plight is starkly clear: “For they rebelled against / God’s sayings, the Most High’s counsel they despised.” (10). One more proof that human nature has not changed a whit in 3000+ years. In American society today we are surrounded by evidence stacked on top of evidence of how we have rebelled, not just against God’s “sayings,” or even “the Most High’s counsel” but against the very idea of God Himself.

In our hubris we have pronounced God not only dead, but the very idea of God irrelevant. We believe we are merely a complex collection of neurons, which evolved sufficiently to imagine God into existence. And now at our high level of self-awareness we think that that we will do very well on our own. What arrogance; what hubris.

The psalmist asserts, “He brought their heart low in troubles. /They stumbled with none to help.” (12) Exactly as we are stumbling, having rejected God’s help. Will we ever cry out “to the LORD from [our] straits, from [our] distress?” (13) What will it take for us to know that only God can rescue us, that only God can do for us, what he did for Israel: “He brought them out from the dark and death’s shadow and their bonds He sundered.” (14)

This is certainly what Jesus Christ did for us. The tragedy is that the world does not even realize how it is already in dark and death’s shadow. But that there is a means of rescue at hand–if it will only look.

1 Samuel 7:2-8:22: Samuel as judge shows great wisdom. He gathers all Israel at Mizpah, which the Philistines take as a terrific opportunity to invade. But Israel has put away its idols and turned back to God, saying, “We have sinned against the Lord” (7:6) and the Philistines “were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” (7:13). 

But Samuel grows old and appoints his sons as judges, but “his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” (8:3). Their corruption as judges cause Israel to beg for a king. Samuel prays, and God replies, ““Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (8:7)

This is a profound moment in Israel’s history. God makes it clear that Israel will be taking a critical, immutable step, seeking to replace God their King with a human king. One thing is clear: God is certainly still King; it is we who have rejected him as such. We’d rather have a human king. It just seems so much more attractive, so much more tangible, so much more secure.

Samuel gives one of history’s greatest speeches about the price to the people in having a human king (and in our day, the cost of a highly centralized government). In what we could call the “He will take” speech, Samuel outlines how the king will take the people’s sons into the army; their daughters into servanthood; their vineyards and fields; and even after that they will still have to pay taxes: “He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks (8:15-16) Worst of all, the people will give up their very freedom, “you shall be his slaves.” (8:17).

And it’s an immutable deal. Once the people take a human king they have declared that God is no longer their King, and even if they want God back, “the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (8:18)

The people refuse to listen, saying “that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (8:20). As Israel will discover in its subsequent history, there are occasional advantages to having a king, but the cost–particularly under corrupt kings–is enormous, even to the point of eventually losing their entire nation to conquerors. And we are the same. We want someone to go out and fight our battles for us. But at what cost?

Luke 24:36-53: In this crucial story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, Luke establishes the all-important fact of the corporeality of the resurrected Jesus. In fact, he does it twice, first with Jesus’ statement, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (39) But even then, there is skepticism, albeit happy skepticism: “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,” So, making it abundantly clear that he is not a ghost, he asks for food. “ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” (42, 43) This seems to convince everyone present.  

Luke then turns to establishing quite specifically how Jesus was God’s fulfillment all Scripture, “that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (44) and as his last act on earth conducts a Bible study, elaborating on the events the disciples have just witnessed: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” (46) His final instruction is for the disciples to hang around in Jerusalem, and wait because “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”(49). What’s interesting here is that it is Jesus who is sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus then heads out to Bethany and effectively disappears into heaven–a tantalizing preview of greater detail to come in Acts 1.

Luke ends his first book on a note of joy: “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (52,53) Which is exactly what Easter is about.

Psalm 107:1-9; 1 Samuel 5:1-7:1; Luke 24:28-35

Psalm 107:1-9: This psalm is a praise hymn, “Acclaim the LORD, for He is good, / for His kindness is forever.” The reason for praise comes in the very next verse: “Let the LORD’s redeemed ones say, / whom he redeemed from the hand of the foe,” (2).  Alter notes that “redeemed” is not theological here, but that the singers have literally been rescued from physical captivity.

There is a contrast here between “scattered” and “gathered” as God “gathered them from the lands, / from east and west, from north and south.” (3) And in the next verses between “wandering” and “straight:”They wandered in wilderness, waste land, / found no road to a settled town,” (4) and “He led them on a straight road to go to a settled town.” (7)

God gathers his scattered, wandering sheep and sets us on the “straight road.” For me, this is one of God’s important qualities that we don’t talk about very much. In our daily lives, we too often feel scattered by all its demands and distractions. We wander from task to task, place to place, never feeling that we’ve accomplished anything worthwhile or gotten to where we wanted to get.

But when we look to God, we realize that God is Order–and He brings order to our lives. (After all, God has created a beautiful, ordered world: just ask any physicist)  By reflecting on God’s kindness, as the singers do in this psalm, our minds and souls are gathered together into peaceful coherence and and we can see a clear straight path ahead. But as I have discovered, this is something I need to do every day.

1 Samuel 5:1-7:1: The Philistines quickly discover that their great war trophy, the Ark of the Covenant, brings disaster, not triumph. They set it up in their temple next to their idol, Dagon. In an almost humorous note, Dagon is found the next morning, fallen from its shelf onto its face. Then the next morning, the idol has been msteriously cut in pieces. The Philistines wisely conclude that they will be better off without the Ark and pass it off to the willing inhabitants of Gath. Disaster ensues –something like the black plague–as they plead, “let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” (5:11).  It’s clear the Ark belongs only to one tribe: Israel.

Now the problem is how to get it back to Israel. After consulting the priests, the Ark is placed on a wooden cart together with a guilt offering, gold shaped as mice and as the tumors. The whole affair is pulled by two milk cows(!) The cows wander off and come back to Israel at Beth-shemesh.  The people recognize the Ark, and “When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it.” (6:13). After seven months, the Ark is back in its rightful land.

The lesson here is not only that God is more powerful than the false Gods, but God will be mocked. Had the Philistines realized that the God of Israel was more powerful than their own, and that the Ark was something far greater than a war trophy, there may have been a very different outcome for them. So too, today, where God has been determined to be a delusion by those who claim to be wise. What fate awaits them?

 Luke 24:28-35: We owe much to the unnamed walkers on the road to Emmaus. Even though they had not recognized Jesus, and as the reach Emmaus, Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on.” (28) Notice Luke’s “as if.” Jesus seems to be performing a little test. Will these two men invite him, a stranger, to dinner? They do, and they recognize Jesus as he breaks bread with them.

I think Luke’s message is, even though we may not recognize Jesus as he walks along side us, will we invite the stranger in? This incident in Emmaus seems to be an acting out of Jesus’ all-important words in Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you fed me…”) By offering kindness to this seeming stranger, the Emmaens offered kindness to Jesus himself. As we, too, should offer kindness to those who are hungry and in need. For we may also find we are indeed supping with Jesus.

As well, like the Emmaens, we have that same opportunity to recognize who Jesus is anew each and every time we come to the altar rail to join him in supper. It is not a ritual; it is a cause of rejoicing and to realize that our hearts are also burning in the passionate joy that the risen Jesus brings to us.

Psalm 106:40-48; 1 Samuel 3,4; Luke 24:13-27

Psalm 106:40-48: Writing from exile himself, the psalmist reminds his listeners that this is not the first time that God “gave them into the hand of nations, / their haters ruled over them. /And their enemies oppressed them, /and they were subject to their power.” (40, 41) And it was their fault, not God’s: “they rebelled against His counsel /and were brought low through their misdeeds.” (42)

But we should never give hope, he writes, because in the very next verse, God “saw when they were in straits, / when He heard their song of prayer. / And He recalled for them His pact, / relented through his many kindnesses.” (43, 44)

Thus, the endless cycle of sin and falling away and then God’s inevitable rescue. This of course was the basic reality of the Old Covenant. Under the terms of the New Covenant established through Jesus Christ, God does not punish us for our misdeeds; their consequences are in themselves sufficient punishment. Through the grace of Jesus Christ we are saved once and for all, and we can say with the psalmist, we “acclaim Your holy name and to glory in Your praise.” (46)

1 Samuel 3,4: Samuel, living at Eli’s house, hears a voice in the night. He keeps thinking it is Eli, but Eli figures out it must be God talking, and advises Samuel to say, ““Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (3:9). The next time Samuel hears the voice he replies as instructed. God, “who is standing before him,” says ““See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (3:12) Specifically, God is going to punish Eli because he allowed his sons to run amok.

So, when I hear someone say, “What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it?” I wish God would speak to me with the singular clarity that he spoke to Samuel. But then I think of the content of God’s very clear message that was spoken in Samuel’s bedroom.  The voice of God is not necessarily going to deliver happy news.

Indeed, as the next chapter reveals, very bad things can happen. Israel brings the Ark itself to the battle, doubtless thinking it would cast some sort of magic spell and defeat the Philistines. But God has other plans, and the presence of the Ark, while at first discouraging the Philistines, “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?” (4:8) then ends up encouraging Israel’s enemy to fight hard and “The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” (4:11) The lesson is clear: blithe assumptions about what God is or is not going to do are extremely risky.

A messenger brings the bad news about his sons and the Ark to Eli who can bear the news of the death of his two sons; he knew they had sinned. But when he hears that the Ark is lost, “Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy.” (4:18) And the pregnant but newly-widowed wife of Phineas goes into labor and gives birth to a son who receives perhaps the saddest name of all: “Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” (4:21)  I think the story of Ohineas’ wife is included because the authors wish to make a point that sin’s consequences–here Eli’s sin–impact far more people than just the sinner.

Luke 24:13-27: The risen Jesus–comes alongside the Emmaus walkers, who famously do not recognize him until the very end. I’m struck by the parallels of this encounter with the story of the young Samuel finally hearing the voice of God, whom he did not recognize three times earlier. I think both Samuel and Emmaus teach us that God operates subtly and requires a great deal of discernment on our part. That’s why I tend to be suspicious of people who announce, “I heard God speaking to me.” without at some point shortly thereafter admitting that God’s voice was difficult to hear amidst all the noise of life. Or that God spoke several times before He was recognized by the listener.

This is not to deny the reality of God speaking, but I guess I’m in the “still, small voice” camp. God rarely, if ever, will come to us as single, dramatic theophany, but as with Samuel and the walkers on the road, several times, usually very quietly. I think this process of slow recognition is an essential part of the process of listening–and discerning–God’s words to us.

Psalm 106:24-31; 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11; Luke 23:44-56

Psalm 106:24-31: The psalm has now virtually become a catalog of misdeeds against God by Israel. The poet tells us that God “would have wiped them out / were it not for Moses His chosen one—” (23). But even though their leader has saved them, “they muttered in their tents, / they did not heed the voice of the LORD.” (25)

It’s difficult to think of a more apt image for us Christians who constantly find something to complain about at church. The music. The sermon. The people who took our “rightful place” in the pews. The leadership. The lack of leadership. As we pout in out tents we are able to come up with an endless list.

Israel “clung to Baal Peor / and ate sacrifices to the dead” (28). The real question is, what is my Baal Peor? To what “dead” things have I sacrificed my time and my resources? As always, the problem is that I have placed myself above God. In what ways do I “fall in the wilderness” (27) every day? And the infinite grace of God picks me up each time.

1 Samuel 1:1-2:11: Once again, we meet a faithful woman: Hannah. Unlike the custom of the time, which was to pray aloud, Hannah prays silently, her lips moving. This is so unusual that the priest, Eli, who has certainly watched–and heard–a lot of prayers in his time, thinks she is drunk. But Eli blesses her when she explains she has been “pouring out my soul before the Lord.” (1:15). And she returns to her home a happy woman. Her son Samuel is born, and true to her promise to God, she leaves him with Eli, saying, “Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” (1:28)

I am struck by the verb “lent” when it seems like she would have said “given,” which she in fact says later in the verse. The word underscores the sheer willingness of her action. She could take him back at any time, if she wished; she remains his mother with all the rights of motherhood. But her devotion to God and gratitude for this gift of a son is so enormous that the second verb in her sentence is “given” as she willingly hands Samuel to God. Just as Mary, as Jesus’ mother, “lent” her son to all humankind.

The other parallel to Mary is the son Hannah sings (2:1-10). One sees the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in her verses of praise–and Mary’s Magnificat is an echo of this wonderful poem. And as we see so frequently in the OT–and what Jesus does as well–is that God turns the world upside down from what we humans think is proper order:

He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.” (2:8)

The poor and needy are God’s great concern. Are they ours?

Luke 23:44-56: It is Luke, writing to his Gentile audience, who makes it clear that before anyone else, it is a “pagan” Roman soldier who recognizes the enormous injustice that has just been performed: “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (47) Outside of the framework of Jewish beliefs of what was heretical and what wasn’t; outside the snare of wrongly interpreting God’s Law; outside of the plotting and political maneuvering, this unnamed Centurion saw Jesus’ innocence.

Everyone goes home except that “all [Jesus’] acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (49) What were they thinking about as they stood there in the figurative and literal darkness? Did they, like the Centurion, realize that an innocent man had been killed? I think they must have. Did they feel guilt? Remorse? Above all they must have felt loss. Loss of a friend. Loss at the death of the person who had made them realize there was so much more to God than just His law. Above all, loss of something they had come so close to grasping: the Kingdom of God. And in its place: sheer emptiness. Can there be any deeper despair than that?

Psalm 106:13-23; Ruth 4; Luke 23:32-43

Psalm 106:13-23: Even though God had rescued Israel from the Egyptians,”Quickly they forgot His deeds, / they did not await His counsel.” (13) There are two acts here: not just forgetting what God had done for them, but then, deciding they would do just fine on their own in the wilderness, they did not wait around to hear what God had to say. Of course when we see ourselves as being at the center of the universe, we not only forget, but we arrogantly see ourselves as independent beings, not requiring anyone’s counsel, much less God’s.

But as the psalmist points out, it doesn’t take long for things to go bad: “And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness, / they put God to the test in the waste land.” (14) So, as soon as trouble comes, we remember, ‘Oh yeah, we need God.’ Then we pray, and God, ever patient, ever generous, satisfies our needs, just as he does for Israel: “And He gave them what they had asked, / sent food down their throats.” (15) This cycle of forgetting–arrogance–get in trouble–praying behavior is what leads so many of us to believe God is a handy thing to have around when we have a need, but then, our needs fulfilled, we can put Him back on the shelf for emergency use.

“They made a calf at Horeb / and bowed to a molten image.” (19) Like Israel, we go off and make our golden calves and worship them. But at what expense? “And they exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bull.” (20) How much we miss when we forget God; we trade “our glory” for an image of a grass-eating bull. Not even the bull itself, but just its image! How much I have missed by forgetting God except at those times He’s convenient to have around!

Ruth 4: Boaz knows he wishes to marry Ruth, but first the proprieties of inheritance must be followed. (The women went along with the inheritance!) Boaz contacts the official next-of-kin of Naomi’s estate. The next-of-kin thinks that’s a pretty good deal, but then Boaz mentions the rules of inheritance: “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” (5). The man reconsiders, saying ““I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” (6) And Boaz is now free to marry Ruth, which he does.

Once again, redemption is the theme: God redeems Israel; Boaz redeems Ruth; Jesus has redeemed us.  It’s fascinating that what is at its heart a dry economic transaction is the means by which God operates on His people. We are lost, but found–and redeemed.

Ruth the Moabite–the quintessential Gentile–is David’s great grandmother. There is Gentile blood in Israel’s greatest hero. And then, there is Gentile blood in Jesus himself, reminding us that while Israel is God’s Chosen People, we are all His chosen people; redeemed into Life.

Luke 23:32-43: What leaps out upon reading Luke’s account of the crucifixion is that with one exception, everyone witnessing Jesus’ death was utterly confused. The confusion seems to rest in just what “king,” “kingdom,” and “Messiah” really meant–and really entailed. The mocking of the leaders, “let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The placard that mockingly proclaimed “King of the Jews.” The sour wine offered as a taunt to a pretend king. All these are demonstrations that in the end, disciples included, no one really ever “got it” about what this Kingdom was that Jesus kept talking about.

So sure in their understanding in the precise of “king” and “kingdom,” everyone around Jesus lacks the imagination to perceived that Jesus’ message and actions were about a completely new and completely different Kingdom.  Except one person. The thief on the cross “gets it,” saying,  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (42) Somehow this man dying alongside Jesus perceived that Jesus’ kingdom was not in Jerusalem, but somewhere else. And Jesus’ promises him he will indeed be remembered.

Luke is making it perfectly clear here that Jesus’ Kingdom is in this world, yet not of this fallen world. It is indeed “paradise.”

Psalm 106:6-12; Ruth 2,3; Luke 23:13-31

Psalm 106:6-12: The psalmist notes that like their ancestors, his own generation has “offended like our fathers, we wronged, we did evil.” (6). He then retraces the history of Israel from this perspective of forgetting who God is. Perhaps this is the greatest sin of all: forgetting Who God is and what he has done for us–and believing we’re the one’s in charge and can accomplish great things: the sin of pride. “Our fathers in Egypt did not grasp Your wonders. /They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses/ and rebelled by the sea,” (7)

Yet, even though Israel forgot and did evil things, God only didn’t forget in return, but became their rescuer: “Yet He rescued them for His name’s sake,/ to make known His might.” (8) Notice that God didn’t rescue Israel because they deserved it; this was pure grace: “for His name’s sake.” And then again, more rescuing: “And He rescued them from the hand of the hostile / and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.” (10) And at last, the people realized what had been done for them: “And they trusted His words, / they sang His praise.” (12)

How many times have I forgotten about God and how many times have I been rescued? Grace is not just a one time thing, but because of our sinful hearts it is an continuous process. We receive God’s grace not because we somehow deserve it, but it is simply God’s nature: “for His name’s sake.”

Ruth 2,3: At first glance, the courtship of Boaz and Ruth is surely the most romantic story in the Bible. But it’s more than that: like the verses in today’s psalm, it’s a story of refuge and of rescue. It’s not a coincidence that it occurs where both characters trust fully in God. Boaz reassures Ruth, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (2:12) In that sense, Ruth is all of us; and like Ruth, we come to the fields and threshing floor–the Kingdom of God–and are treated most generously.

Naomi advices Ruth, “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” (3:4, 5) I don’t think it’s a stretch to see Ruth washing and anointing herself as an allegory for baptism and then we go and lie down at Jesus’ feet; the refuge of our hearts. 

At the end of the chapter, Boaz pours out six measures of barley for Ruth and Naomi. It is an act of pure generosity, of grace. And it is the same generosity, the same grace, that we enjoy through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Luke 23:13-31: The sentencing of Jesus, an act of desperation as Pilate tries to calm the crowd, stands in stark contrast to the sweetness of the story of Ruth and Boaz.The crowd has been manipulated by its leaders into an irrational frenzy. As with today’s psalm, Israel has forgotten what God has done for them.

And then a scene we don’t seem to read much on Good Friday: the women line the via Dolorosa and beat their breasts in mourning for Jesus as he passes. And suddenly, Jesus says more to them than he has spoken since his arrest: ““Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (23:28) and then a truly frightening prophecy: “For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’” (29,30)

Of course this prophecy was fulfilled in real time in AD70 when Titus overthrew Jerusalem. But I think there is even greater apocalyptic meaning in those verses; a coda, if you will to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse that describe the end of history so starkly.

Psalm 106:1-5; Ruth 1; Luke 23:1-12

Psalm 106:1-5: Like the previous psalm, this one recounts Israel’s history and opens in much the same manner by acknowledging God’s essential benevolence: “Acclaim the LORD, for He is good, for His kindness is forever.”  In keeping with God’s kindness, our response is “Happy those who keep justice, who do righteousness at all times.” (3) Of course, there is some poetic license here since we have all proven again and again that it is impossible to “do righteousness at all times.” As will become apparent after these opening verses.

There is a wistful quality of better times, as it appears to be written from exile, and the poet asks plaintively, “Recall me, O LORD, when You favor Your people, mark me for Your rescue,” (4) A day will come, he writes, when God will return and rescue Israel from its current plight. That once again, God will “see the good of Your chosen ones, to rejoice in the joy of Your nation, to revel with Your estate.” (5) But at the moment, God seems to be absent.

Again, we are reminded that there will be times in our lives when God is nowhere to be found and we pray for rescue, but as the psalmist notes, that does not diminish God’s kindness or His goodness. We pray with the assumption, as the poet does here, that God is listening.

Ruth 1: After the ugliness of Judges, the famous opening chapter of Ruth comes as a fresh, cleansing breeze. Widowed Naomi returns to Israel with her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi gives each the freedom to return to their own people and their own gods, which Orpah does. But Ruth clings to her mother in law and in one of the most beautiful poems in the Bible, she says,

Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
 Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.   (1:16,17)

Ruth is the archetype for all of us in the New Covenant, for we are not God’s original chosen people. But we have become God’s, Israel’s God has become our God through the act of grace of sending His Word, Jesus Christ,  to us. Ruth was willing to give up her former life, indeed her family and her entire heritage to follow Naomi to Bethlehem.

Unlike Naomi, who told her daughters-in-law to return to their homes, Jesus has asked the us to give up our previous lives to follow him. Do we have the dedication of Ruth to do so?

Luke 23:1-12: Jesus is brought before Pilate the first time and after the accusations that Jesus is stirring up trouble for the Romans by his kingly pretensions, “Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” (3). Jesus has the temerity to fling the accusation back at them and the answer makes it clear that they were left speechless.

Pilate has no idea what to do next until he cleverly finds an out for himself: he doesn’t have jurisdiction over Jesus, who as a Galilean, should be Herod’s problem.  Herod is in town and Jesus is delivered to Herod’s court.  Luke tells us that Herod was anxious to see this Jesus because he wanted to see Jesus perform a miracle for him.  Jesus not only doesn’t deliver the miracle on command; he is completely silent. Even mocking and torture have no effect, and putting an “elegant robe” on Jesus, the accused is sent back to Pilate.

One would think that Pilate would be less than thrilled to see a problem he believed he had gotten rid of returned to him, and that he would be pretty angry with Herod. Yet, Luke tells us, “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (12). Why would they become friends? Is it because Herod is culturally Jewish and Pilate is a Gentile and by both rejecting Jesus, Luke is telling us that the entire world has rejected Jesus, not just the Gentiles and not just the Jews?

Or is it that Jesus’ mere presence–and his silence– in both Pilate’s and Herod’s courts has had a healing effect? That the Kingdom of God–where Jesus was indeed king–reached down and touched the two earthly kingdoms? Perhaps Luke is giving us a small hint of what the Kingdom of God was really all about and that it impacts real people in real time.

 

Psalm 105:37-45; Judges 20:32-21:25; Luke 22:63-71

Psalm 105:37-45: This long psalm, which narrates the history of Israel, starting with Abraham and focusing on the captivity and escape from Egypt, concludes in these verses with the years in the wilderness, (although it rather inexplicably skips over the events at Sinai), ending with the entry into the promised land.

Interestingly, we are reminded that God renewed His original Covenant,”For He recalled His holy word / with Abraham His servant,” (42) as His final act in the wilderness before “He brought out His people in joy, in glad song His chosen ones.” (43). These two verses are a description of salvation for all of us: God brings us out of the wilderness of sin into the promised land of the Kingdom of God.

But having been brought out of the wilderness, Israel still has a solemn obligation: “so that they should keep His statutes, and His teachings they should observe. Hallelujah!” (45) So too, for us: Coming into God’s Kingdom entails significant responsibility. Through Christ’s grace we keep God’s law and follow His teachings. As Paul says somewhere, the responsibilities of salvation and the gift of grace are not ours to bandy about so that “sin abounds.”

I think it’s important to remember that even though it’s the “New” Covenant, there are still two sides to the deal: God’s grace through Jesus Christ is on one side and our responsibility to follow God’s ways as we work in the Kingdom is on the other.

Judges 20:32-21:25: We now understand why the Levite sent the pieces of his chopped up concubine to the other tribes of Israel: it was a message that the tribe of Benjamin, at least those who resided in the town of Gilbeah, where the men performed gang rape, were to be punished for their sins. So, the eleven tribes of Israel come to battle the tribe of Benjamin and are defeated two times with heavy losses. Internecine warfare–brother-against-brother is ugly and it this incident of Israel fighting its own tribe is as ugly as it gets.

Before going up against Benjamin a third time, it finally occurs to the leaders of Israel that they might ask God what they should do: “Shall we go out once more to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites, or shall we desist?” The Lord answered, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (20:28). So, with God apparently on their side, the Israel army employs a stratagem to draw the Benjaminites out of the city, where they are overwhelmed and defeated. The authors record appalling numbers of dead. Thousands from the Israel side, and ” all who fell that day of Benjamin were twenty-five thousand arms-bearing men, all of them courageous fighters.” (20:46)

In another ugly scene, the victorious Israel army goes in to the town of Gilbeah and slaughters everyone. Then it occurs to Israel, that while they have sworn to not allow any intermarriage with Benjamin, at the same time, they should not allow one of their own tribes to become extinct. And in an amazing juxtaposition of death and mercy, “ the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by theLord that we will not give them any of our daughters as wives?” (21:6,7). The answer comes again from God: One town in Israel, Jabesh-gilead, had not shown up for the sacrifice, and it is decreed they shall be killed–except its 400 virgins, who are given over as brides to the survivors of Benjamin. Thus, by means we can only consider barbaric, the tribe of Benjamin is saved from extinction.

What to make of all this slaughter? Even though God was consulted, it was only after men’s own devising–the Levite who slaughtered the concubine, and the vengeful army of Israel that was slaughtered–that they remembered God and prayed to Him. It’s clear that God is playing a secondary role here. The evil here is evil perpetrated by men, who as the last line of chapter 21 reminds us, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (21:25) Proof that what is right “in our own eyes” is far from God’s will for us.

Luke 22:63-71: Now that his enemies have captured Jesus, they waste little time in getting down to a particularly cruel of torture along with humiliation.  I’d never noticed the verse that after blindfolding Jesus, they taunt him, ““Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They kept heaping many other insults on him.” (64, 65) What an incredible perversion of the Jewish meaning of prophesy in the spirit of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel!. To these men, prophesy was just a trivial parlor game. Men who claimed to represent the very heart of Judaism have perverted it. How low they have fallen.  And at this point I am reminded of faith healers who do their tricks on stage. A profound misunderstanding and misuse not only of who Jesus was, but of God himself.

In response to their mocking question, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” Jesus says, ““If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer.” (67, 68) Which is exactly the attitude of a mocking world. Similar to Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who asked him to perform a miracle, Jesus reminds them that belief comes from the heart, not form outward form or fake “proofs” that would be discounted anyway.

We are so often the same as those priests and officials. Faith can be a tiring journey, and we all seek a direct proof at one point or another. But if there was a proof so overwhelming, then we would have given up our free will to choose or not choose to believe. Jesus’ tormentors do not understand this–and neither does the world. Without that ability to accept or reject on faith we would be mere automatons, not God’s highest creation, created imago deo.

It seems that the final, unarguable proof will come to the unbelieving world only at the end of history.

 

Psalm 105:16-22; Judges 19; Luke 22:39-51

Psalm 105:16-22: Our psalmist becomes historically very specific, recounting the Joseph story of famine in Egypt, “He sent a man before them—/ as a slave was Joseph sold.” There is a dramatic image of Joseph’s plight that we don’t read in the Genesis story, “They tortured his legs with shackles, / his neck was put in iron,” (18), but then “until the time of his word had come, / the LORD’s utterance that purged him.” (19) It is the utterance of God that frees Joseph, not Joseph’s own words. God is operating through Joseph.

This section concludes with more detail missing from the Genesis story, Pharoah “made him master of his house / and ruler of all his possessions, / to admonish his princes as he desired /and to teach wisdom to his elders.” (21, 22) This is a dramatic picture of Joseph’s power under the Pharaoh. I’m assuming our psalmist is engaging in a bit of dramatic hyperbole here, but making his key point that Joseph’s transformation came through “the utterance of God.”

Which is the point, I think. God uses people in the very worst circumstances to speak and to change not only their won situation, but as with Joseph, an entire country. I suspect there’s a subtext for Israel itself here to recognize that they are God’s people and God will use them. We’ll see where the rest of this psalm takes us.

Judges 19: This story of the unfaithful concubine, who runs home, is eventually found by her Levite master; the Levite, as guest in Gibeah is almost sodomized, the concubine is offered instead; she is gang raped, left for dead, and carried off dead or alive (it’s not clear) by the Levite who then cuts her body into 12 pieces, with each piece being sent to each tribe of Israel. It’s a gruesome, and frankly disgusting story. It’s almost a direct echo of the Lot-in-Sodom story, but with an even bloodier, more appalling ending. Why is it even in the Bible?

It’s worth noting, I think, that the chapter reads like a newspaper story; there is no editorial comment and God is nowhere to be found in the story. It is simply a straightforward account of ugly human behavior on all sides–Jew and gentile.

If we look at this story in larger context, the book of Judges, in many ways, seems to be a compendium of evil human behavior–both by Israel and even more by the surrounding pagan communities of which Gilbeah was one.  It all adds up to a stunning and depressing picture of a world where God seems to be absent and revolting human behavior seems to know no bounds. A picture not that far off from what we read about what is happening in the world today.

Luke 22:39-51: Luke’s account of Jesus prayer leaves out the Garden of Gethsemane altogether. And it is bookended by Jesus’ remark to the disciples, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (40, 46). Here we learn that Jesus’ fervent prayer resulted in “his sweat [that] became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (44). For me the most intriguing aspect of Luke’s version of this final prayer is that Jesus “found them sleeping because of grief.” Here is the first clue that the disciples at last really understood what was going to happen. That their beloved leader was truly going to die and they are heartbroken and exhausted.

But Jesus doesn’t cut them any slack, saying, “Get up and pray.” So, what seems to be Jesus’ recommended antidote for grief and exhaustion? Prayer.

When Judas approaches Jesus to greet him with the betraying kiss, we cannot miss Jesus’ irony when he says, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (48). The disciples’ understandable human reaction is to dispatch the betrayer with a sword thrust, but someone misses and cuts off an ear instead. Here’s the culmination of Jesus’ discourse about purses and swords in the Upper Room. This movement will not live by the sword. Swords are to be put away, “Jesus said, “No more of this!” and he in his final miracle, heals the man’s ear.

How sad, then, that over the centuries in the name of Christianity, so many swords have been wielded. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we read Jesus’ words with the gruesome story of Gilbeah in mind. Jesus has come to transform the world through his death and resurrection. There is hope for humankind’s bad behavior, for its sins after all.

 

 

Psalm 105:8-15; Judges 18; Luke 22:24-38

Psalm 105:8-15: The psalmist calls to all Israel–the “Seed of Abraham / sons of Jacob, His chosen ones”–to “Recall the wonders that He did, / His portents and the judgments He issued,” (6) but above all to remember the Covenant. God certainly remembers it: “He recalls His pact forever—the word He ordained for a thousand generations—”(8). Not only does God remember His vow, but He “He sealed with Abraham, /and His vow to Isaac,  and He set it for Jacob as a statute, /for Israel an eternal pact,.” (10) There are three aspects to this sacred covenant: it is sealed, (in modern terms, signed); it is set into law; and it is unbreakable (an “eternal pact.”)

For all the myriad ways that Israel went astray, it was never God who broke His promise. For us, God’s inviolable promise is in the form of the New Covenant. He will keep His side of its terms; will we? This is also why I do not believe that when we go astray or even think we’ve abandoned God altogether in favor of our own philosophy that we have not lost our salvation. For us, baptism is the sure sign that we have been “sealed with the cross of Christ forever.”

God’s Covenants, whether the Old or the New, mean protection: “He allowed no man to oppress them / and warned kings on their account: /“Touch not My anointed ones, / and to My prophets do no harm.”” (14, 15) Does that mean we will be protected physically from the evil rampant in the world? As we can see in the Middle East, no. But it does mean that whatever befalls to us physically, that eternal seal brings means we will always be in God’s care–forever.

Judges 18: Although the tribe of Dan had been allocated territory by lot in Joshua’s time (Joshua 19:40-48), it had been lost. This chapter describes how “five valiant men” of Dan come to Micah’s house and encounter the unnamed Levite priest. Wondering why he was serving in the house of a non-Israelite, the Levite answers,  “Micah did such and such for me, and he hired me, and I have become his priest.” (4) Apparently satisfied that the Levite can also speak with God, they ask if their battle will succeed. He replies ““Go in peace. The mission you are on is under the eye of the Lord.” (6).

The 5 men, together with another 600, eventually come back to Michah’s house and ask the priest to become a priest for the tribe of Dan. He agrees, and brings the idols with him. Micah’s people are upset; they run after the Danites, Micah exclaiming, ““You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, ‘What is the matter?’ (24) The Danite leader replies, ““You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.” (26). So Micah gives up and goes home.

What to make of this story? It’s pretty much straight history and its application is elusive. I guess we can say that the Levite priest needed work and that Micah was sensible to let the priest he had hired go with the Danites when confronted by 600 armed men. It also tells us that even in the midst of idols, men like the Levite can serve God.

Luke 22:24-38: These verses are Luke’s “Upper Room Discourse,” which takes up four chapters in John’s gospel. Jesus describes the unusual hierarchy in the Kingdom–so different from the Romans (gentiles): “But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (26) And then he says, “But I am among you as one who serves.” (27) This is what true leadership is: the willingness to serve those who are led, not like “The kings of the Gentiles [who] lord it over them.” (24).

Jesus then makes a promise to them: “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (30) I have to wonder, though, if the disciples have yet figured out exactly what this Kingdom was, that Jesus is talking about. I know I wouldn’t have. We see an image of what Jesus is talking about, I think, in Revelation.

After the familiar passage about Peter’s denial, Jesus talks rather mysteriously about purses, bags and swords. I don’t think he’s advocating violence or that the disciples should take up arms, but confirming once again that he is about to be treated like a criminal as prophesied in Isaiah 53: “this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” (37) And when he says the two swords in the room are already “enough,” he is telling his disciples that they should not take up arms and is simply telling them, “this is enough; we’re done with this conversation.”