Archives for January 2015

Psalm 13; 1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27; Acts 13:48–14:7

Psalm 13:There is real desperation that underlies the first five verses of this psalm. A desperation that arises because it seems that God has been silent for a very long time. So, long, in fact that it seems God has abandoned him: “How long, O LORD, will You forget me always?/ How long hide Your face from me?” (2) This is not just a question of “missing God,” It is because God is the psalmist’s guide and absent that guide there is only sorrow: “How long shall I cast about for counsel,/sorrow in my heart all day?” (3)

The psalmist feels close to dying and needs God’s response forthwith: “Regard, answer me, LORD, my God./ Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death,” (4). Not just death, but God’s silence will mean that his enemies will enjoy the schadenfreude of his demise and “exult when I stumble.”

Suddenly, even though God has not yet answered, the psalmist’s mood is lifted because he remembers God’s love for him and that although God may be silent at the moment, he will indeed eventually answer: “But I in Your kindness do trust, / my heart exults in Your rescue.” And in that assurance that God will rescue there is great joy: “Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me.” (6)

It is worth pondering on the reality that like the psalmist if we ask God to come to us in our darkest hour, we can rest in the assurance that he will indeed answer. God may be silent right now, but he is also kind and faithful–and we can take refuge in that simple fact. And that changes everything: from desperation to the joy of assurance.

1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27: David has reestablished regular worship at the Tabernacle, leaving “Zadok and his kindred the priests” (16:39) in charge “to offer burnt offerings to the Lord on the altar of burnt offering regularly, morning and evening, according to all that is written in the law of the Lord that he commanded Israel.” (16:40). Our Chronicler also mentions Heman and Jeduthun, who are in charge of the music. Which makes me realize just how long music has been an essential element of worship. No wonder we have such strong feelings about it!

The Chronicler recounts almost word for word the Book of King’s account of the story of David wanting to build a permanent structure for God, Nathan’s dream where God tells the prophet “not yet,” and God’s covenant with David: “I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” (17:13,14). Nathan tells all this to David, as David responds to God in prayer, “Thus your name will be established and magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, is Israel’s God’; and the house of your servant David will be established in your presence.” (17:24)

Both the author of Kings and Chronicles are telling us that this covenant between David and God is the reason behind David’s greatness. This is another hinge point of Israel’s history. God has spoken and David obeys, and the house of David will endure forever.  But this covenant has even greater implications as we are reminded us why the connection between David and Jesus is so crucial, for it is through Jesus that the house of David lives on even today.  It is through Jesus that God fulfilled his covenant with David to the benefit of all humankind.

Acts 13:48–14:7: Although the Jews are rejecting Paul’s message as heresy, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” (48) And it is through these new believers that “the word of the Lord spread throughout the region.” (49) The Jews take their case to the prominent women and men to “stir up persecution against Paul and Barnabas.” (Notice how Luke mentions women and men–it’s clear that women had influential roles in this society.)  Paul and Barnabas leave town, but the left behind “disciples [who] were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

With the power of the Holy Spirit, the missionaries had sewn their seed and the church grew even after they left. This is what the authorities and the opponents never understand: the Holy Spirit is unquenchable and cannot be legislated out of existence.

The same thing happens in Iconium as “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.” (14:3). Once again Paul and Barnabas have to flee to the countryside “and there they continued proclaiming the good news.” I think Luke is telling us that had there not been the persecution that forces the missionaries to flee each place where they preach and convert people, the good news would not have been spread as effectively as it was. The leaders and authorities are playing whack-a-mole with Paul and Barnabas–and inadvertently spreading the good news.

So, today, perhaps rather than whining about how the church is being persecuted by the secular state, we should look to persecution as an opportunity to spread the good news–just as Paul and Barnabas did.

 

Psalm 12; 1 Chronicles 16:1–36; Acts 13:34–47

Psalm 12: The psalm of supplication has a clear prophetic tone as our psalmist sets a very bleak stage where those who worship God have simply disappeared: “For the faithful is gone, / for vanished is trust from the sons of man.” (2) The world is now one of deception, words that arise from men’s duplicitous hearts: “Falsehood every man speaks to his fellow, / smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” (3) It is a world full of prevarications and con men. It is also a strikingly contemporary image: a place where no one’s words can be trusted, where we are surrounded by falsehoods, exaggerated claims (marketing!) and double-speak by leaders and politicians (“You can keep the doctor you have!”)

Then, the most striking image in the psalm: “The LORD will cut off all smooth-talking lips, / the tongue that speaks of big things.” Even though “cut-off” here is the usual term for “destroy,” we also get the image of God literally “cutting off” these lying lips and tongues.

God makes his promise, “From the plunder of the poor, from the wretched men’s groans, / now will I rise,” (6) What’s striking here is the image of God having been hidden among the poor and wretched rising up to smite those who wrongly believe their speech has made them impervious to God’s wrath: ” those who said, “Let us make our tongue great, our own lips are with us—who is master to us?”” (5)

And there we have it: the sin of overweening pride, aided and abetted by the tongue, will be brought down.  Replacing those evil words is God’s speech, “The LORD’s sayings—pure sayings, /silver tried in a kiln in the earth /refined sevenfold.” (7) Which is why we must listen for the still small voice of God midst the racket of the noisy, lying, prevaricating world in which we live.

1 Chronicles 16:1–36: David has brought the Ark up to Jerusalem, and the Chronicler notes that “Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing; and she despised him in her heart.” (15:29) But for now, the party continues as all the nation celebrates, especially after David “distributed to every person in Israel—man and woman alike—to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat,[c] and a cake of raisins.” (16:3)

David appoints “certain Levites…to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord.” (4). These three verbs–invoke, praise, thank–are a good definition of of the elements of worship, especially if we think of “invoke” as prayer.

David then appoints “the singing of praises to the Lord by Asaph and his kindred.” (7) and a marvelous psalm of worship follows, that begins on a note of thanksgiving, “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.” (8) and recounts the history of Israel, always remembering  that it is God who has brought them here.” We know this psalm because it includes some of the wonderfully resonant phrases that are still part of our worship today, especially, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; / for his steadfast love endures forever.” (34) Which indeed it does.  The chapter ends on the most joyous possible note as “all the people said “Amen!” and praised the Lord.”

Acts 13:34–47: Paul gives one of his great sermons to the converted Jews who are at the synagogue. He tells how Jesus died, was buried and was raised again by God, citing Psalm 2. He then invokes the name of the greatest Jew of all, David, comparing him to jesus, telling them that David was a man who died, “was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption;” (36) Jesus, on the other hand was “he whom God raised up experienced no corruption.” and that therefore “through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you;” Anticipating what he will detail at great length in his letter to Rome, Paul exclaims, “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (39)

This is really good news, which the crowd receives with enormous enthusiasm. They ask Paul and Barnabas back to preach the next week and “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” (44). But the “Jews were filled with jealousy.” Paul’s next words define his mission–and the historic arc of the church going forward: ““It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (46) The world is truly being turned upside down.

Psalm 10:12–18; 1 Chronicles 13:1–14:7; Acts 13:8–20a

Psalm 10:12–18: Our psalmist turns to a prayer of supplication, asking God to remember the weak: “Rise, O LORD, raise Your hand, / forget not the lowly.” The reason God should do this is simple, the poor and the weak have nowhere else to turn as they are oppressed by the wicked who despise God: “The wretched leaves his fate in Your hands. /It is You Who help the orphan.” (14b)

Like many of these prayers, the psalmist reminds God–and reminds us–of what God will indeed do: “Break the arm of the wicked, /and seek out evil, let wickedness not be found.” (15) But we must always remember that there is no doubt in the mind and heart of the psalmist that God would ever fail to accomplish these things as he turns confidently to the assurance that God is truly listening to his prayer: “The desire of the poor You have heard, O LORD, /You make their heart firm, Your ear listens.” (17) And having listened, we know that God will act: “To do justice for the orphan and the wretched, / and let none still oppress man in the land.” (18)

The question for me is, can I pray with the remarkable assurance of the psalmist when I see injustice and oppression around me? The lesson is clear: pray confidently!

1 Chronicles 13:1–14:7: David has consolidated his power and he realizes it’s time to bring the Ark up to Jerusalem, which apparently has been sitting somewhere else, ignored, during the reign of Saul. Wise leader that he is, David consults “the commanders of the thousands and of the hundreds, with every leader.” (1) and asks if it’s a good idea and happily, “it pleased all the people.” (4) Once again, we have an example of the leader, who by consulting with those he lead, finds this is an excellent way to gain agreement and along the way, to infuse them with the same enthusiasm for the project that the leader feels.

So, they build a new ox-cart and bring the Ark up to Jerusalem. This is a cause of great celebration, as “David and all Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.” (8) But just as the ark cart reaches the threshing floor of Chidon, the oxen stumble. Afraid that the ark will fall off the cart, one of the drivers, Uzzah, reaches out to steady it. Not being a priest, he has broken the law and is immediately struck dead. David is outraged by this act of unfairness. After all, poor Uzzah was trying to do the right thing.

David is angry at God (11) and then afraid of God (12), so he abandons his plan to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, leaving it the care of Obed-edom, whose household God blesses. Where’s the fairness in that?

So, what gives with God? I’m on David’s side here. Yes, God’s law is to be followed, but this is the merciless OT side of God that like David, we are both angry at and afraid of. I’m pretty sure David didn’t go home and write a psalm praising God that night. If nothing else, though, we learn that like David, we can be people of God, but can still get angry at God for his seeming indifference–and yes, cruelty– to people who are only trying to do the right thing.

Acts 13:8–20a: Saul, now also called Paul, begins his first missionary journey. And immediately encounters Elymas the magician, trying to influence the proconsul with his magic. Luke makes it clear here that Paul is no magician whose magic trumps the other magician. Instead, Paul “filled with the Holy Spirit” simply stares at Elymas and denouncing him, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (10) Whereupon Elymas goes blind.  Luke is making it clear that this is not Paul’s doing but the Holy Spirit’s.

Paul says something crucial we do well to remember: we try to make the straight paths of the Lord crooked. There are infinite ways of making the simplicity of the Gospel message more complex. We do this with complicated sermons that talk around the Keryma rather than just saying it outright. We are capable of creating complex theology that causes people to misunderstand the Gospel message and lose their way. This statement is fair warning to all who teach and lead.

Paul and Barnabas, having converted the proconsul, head of to Perga in Pamphylia, while John Mark heads back to Jerusalem. The pair go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, whereupon they are invited “if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” Which Paul does. I’m intrigued: Luke tells us Paul “stood up and with a gesture began to speak.” What was the gesture? It must have been a friendly one.

Paul begins his speech with a history lesson about Israel. One has the impression that the Jews at the synagogue in Perga may not have been all that familiar with their ancestors’ history. Not unlike many in church today who do not know the roots and history of their Christian faith…

Psalm 10:1–11; 1 Chronicles 12; Acts 12:20–13:7

Psalm 10:1–11: Alter tells us that like the preceding psalm, the received text appears to have been damaged and the meaning of the original Hebrew in many verses is unclear. However, the overall theme seems clear: it is a wonderful description of the wicked and their schemes, which ultimately lead to their downfall: “In the wicked man’s pride he pursues the poor, /but is caught in the schemes he devised.” (2)

The root cause of this wickedness is also clear: “‘There is no God’ is all his schemes.” (4b) And as usual, pride–the conviction that he is the one in control–is at the bottom of his overweening (and misplaced!) confidence: “He said in his heart, ‘I will not stumble, / for all time I will not come to harm.'” (6) At his root, he is a con man: “His mouth is full of oaths, /beneath his tongue are guile and deceit,/ mischief and misdeed.” (7)

But perhaps worst of all, this con man preys on the innocent and the poor, “He waits in ambush in a sheltered place, /from a covert he kills the blameless, /for the wretched his eyes look out.” (8) And alas, the “lowly bow down,/ and the wretched fall into his traps.” (10) Is there a greater evil than what we see around us today where financial cons designed to prey on the insecure and elderly rob them of both wealth and dignity? Yet, right here in the psalms is a perfect description of those evil men, men who have been with us for three millennia.

1 Chronicles 12: Once again, where the author of Samuel focuses on the plot and motivations of Saul in his pursuit of David, our Chronicler focuses on–and carefully names–the men who surrounded David and fought with him–and how he gained martial strength as warriors come to join his side.

We see how the original core of named warriors (vss 2-7) is augmented by the arrival of some Gadites, who are “mighty and experienced warriors, expert with shield and spear, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were swift as gazelles on the mountains.” (8). These men are named. Then, “Some Benjaminites and Judahites came to the stronghold to David.” (16). David warns them “if you have come to betray me to my adversaries, though my hands have done no wrong, then may the God of our ancestors see and give judgment.”  But “the spirit came upon Amasi, chief of the Thirty” and states the theme of this movement to David’s side, “For your God is the one who helps you.” (18), culminating in “people kept coming to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God.” (22)

Then, since he is at heart a list-maker, the author lists the “numbers and divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord.” (23).  Here in Chronicles, we get a much richer picture of the movement of loyalty of the most powerful men in the country from Saul over to David. There is an inevitability to David’s triumph over Saul as the Chronicler ends the story by saying “there was joy in Israel.”

I like how we see the detailed politics and sheer strength that aligns with David–it gives us a sense that David is not some magic king, but a real man to whom major portions of the nation give their allegiance. Yes, God is on David’s side because he is a man of God, but it takes real people with real loyalty and skill to bring David to the throne.

Acts 12:20–13:7: Even after Herod’s disappointment with Peter, the king believes he is basically a god. For reasons Luke doesn’t spell out, “Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon,” who come begging for food.  They appeal to his vanity by “shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!””  Herod apparently believes his own press releases and for a variety of reasons, I suppose, he meets a fairly dreadful end, “an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” (12:23).  Herod’s death clears a major political obstacle out of the way for the early church. and “the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (12:24).

Antioch is a vital part of the early church and Luke names some of its more prominent prophets and teachers. The Holy Spirit intervenes in the proceedings and tells them (I presume through the prophets) to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (13:2). Luke makes it clear that Saul and Barnabas did not just wake up one morning and decide to be missionaries. They have been called by the Holy Spirit.

Which is why we must still listen for the call of the Holy Spirit. Even though we may think we have certain talents which will serve the church well, in the end it is the Holy Spirit that decides. Which is also why we need to listen carefully for the voice of God and be able to discern that call.

Psalm 9:11–20; 1 Chronicles 11:4–47; Acts 12:6–19

Psalm 9:11–20: Our psalmist who has been rescued by God and praises God for that [“Let me exult in Your rescue” (15c)] turns to the fate of nations: “The nations sank down in the trap that they made, / in the snare that they made their foot was caught.” And again: “By his own handiwork was the / wicked ensnared.” (17)

Is he referring to sinful Israel or Judah or to other nations beyond them –or perhaps to every nation? In any event, they are ensnared in a trap of their own making. Which seems terribly contemporary. For example, the US is ensnared in unintended consequences of the flawed policy that was supposed to make democracy blossom across the Middle East. And it is soon to be hopelessly ensnared in the financial consequences of misguided laws that endeavor to make everyone happy.

Unfortunately, there is not much hope for these nations as the “wicked turn back to Sheol,/ All the nations forgetful of God.” (18) As usual the reason these nations are wicked is that they have ignored the plight of the poor. For the poor, because of God’s great mercy, there is always hope: “For not forever will the poor man be forgotten, /the hope of the lowly not lost forever.” (19)

But as for the nations themselves, God’s judgement awaits: “Arise, O LORD, let not man flaunt his strength, /let nations be judged in Your presence.” But will modern nations “know they are mortal” because of the fear of the Lord” (21) I am not hopeful on this front. Like all great nations and empires before us, I’m afraid we ignore God’s warnings at our peril.

1 Chronicles 11:4–47: King David recaptures Jerusalem from the Jebusites. We learn how Joab became David’s great commander since he was the one who accepted David’s challenge: “Whoever attacks the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.” (6). David builds the city walls, “and Joab repaired the rest of the city.”

For our Chronicler there is one and only one Reason for David’s success: “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.” (9) God is with him. David succeeds not because he his brave and smart and a brilliant leader, although he is all of these. He succeeds for one reason only: “the Lord of hosts was with him.”

Unlike the account in Kings, which focuses mostly on David, his own acts, and the plots surrounding him, the Chronicler recounts the great deed of David’s men, and cataloger that he is, carefully lists the names of all involved. There’s Eleazar who stands alongside David as the kill the Philistines. (12-14). There are three of the thirty chiefs who kill Philistines to fulfill David’s request to drink from the water of Bethlehem, although David refuses because his men risked their lives to bring it to him. (15-19). And there are many others.

What’s remarkable here is that the Chronicler makes it clear that David did not accomplish his great works on his own, but that he had surrounded himself with brave men and great warriors, whose names are recorded here. We realize what a gift Chronicles gives us: If we had only the book of Kings, all these names of all these brave men would have been lost forever. And we also realize that successful leadership such as David’s requires that those who are led are equally courageous as the leader. Great leaders give credit to their men.

Acts 12:6–19: An angel literally rescues Peter form prison. This is so extraordinary that Luke tells us that Peter himself didn’t believe what was happening: “he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.” (9) Once the are outside the prison, the angel disappears and “Peter came to himself,” correctly surmising what had just happened: “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (11). While Peter’s rescue is certainly a dramatic angelic visitation, I think many angels in the form of other human beings have rescued many people. If not from prison, then from the prison of addiction or other perilous circumstances.

Peter finds his way to John Mark’s house and dear Rhoda is so overjoyed at seeing Peter that she runs back inside, leaving Peter standing there, still knocking. (One of Luke’s funnier scenes.) They eventually let Peter in and are understandably amazed. We know this is an authentic event because Luke gives us two important and very logical details. Peter tells everyone to be quiet and not wake the neighbors. And then “he left and went to another place” into hiding since the authorities would doubtless come to John Mark’s searching for the escaped prisoner.

Luke, ever the master of understatement, tells us “there was no small commotion among the soldiers.” Quite understandable since the soldiers were afraid of their very lives. Such was Peter’s prominence that Herod himself searches for Peter in the prison. Herod had doubtless decided he would snuff our this new sect by executing its leader and he was furious that his plot had been foiled. Alas, for the poor soldiers, who are executed.

Luke ends this story with a tantalizing detail: “[Herod] went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.” Why? Had Herod given up on his plan to annihilate this bothersome sect? His frustration must have been so immense that he simply leaves town and that annoying new movement behind him.

Psalm 9:1–10; 1 Chronicles 9:35–11:3; Acts 11:25–12:5

Psalm 9:1–10: Alter informs us that “This psalm and the next one are a striking testimony to the scrambling in textual transmission” and comments that “lines of verse may have been patched into the text from other sources in an attempt to fill in lacunae.”

Nevertheless, we can read this psalm as a hymn to God’s great glory, “Let me rejoice and be glad in You, let me hymn Your name, Most High,” (3). The psalmist reflects on God’s justice, “But the LORD is forever enthroned, / makes His throne for justice unshaken.” (8). And this justice is not just for Israel, but for the entire world: “And He judges the world in righteousness,/ lays down law to the nations in truth.” (9).

Again and again, the psalms of for all humankind, not just the Jews. because God is God of all of us. Moreover, God pays special attention to the downtrodden and oppressed: “Let the LORD be a fortress for the downcast, a fortress in times of distress.” (10).

The question for me is, why do I persist in fighting life’s battles on my own when God is right here to provide a “fortress in times of distress.” Why do I think I can meet whatever challenge strictly on my own when God is right here to offer a “fortress” of protection to me?

1 Chronicles 9:35–11:3:  The Chronicler records the family of Saul in great detail. Yet, he gives amazingly short shrift to Saul himself, omitting details of his entire life and the conflicts between David and Saul, opening his history on Saul’s very last day on earth–his final battle with the Philistines, where “The battle pressed hard on Saul; and the archers found him, and he was wounded by the archers.” (10:3). He describes Saul’s pleas to have his armor-bearer finish him off, the servant’s refusal, and Saul’s subsequent suicide.

Then, the Chronicler describes Saul’s final humiliation as the victors “fastened [Saul’s] head in the temple of Dagon.” (10:10). It is not Saul, but the soldiers of Jabesh-gilead, who retrieve Saul’s body, who are the “valiant warriors.” The Chronicler reminds us that reason for Saul’s downfall was “he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord;” (10:13). And, “Therefore theLord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.” (10:14).

In short, our historian is not interested in Saul, focusing as he does on Saul’s downfall and the reasons for his defeat. The story’s moral is abundantly clear: “Saul died for his unfaithfulness.” What a way to be remembered through history!

The historian turns his attention to David as the people acclaim him, “The Lord your God said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over my people Israel.” (11:2). As always with David, it is his intimate connection to God that makes all the difference–especially when we see so closely juxtaposed here with Saul’s unfaithfulness.

Acts 11:25–12:5: Barnabas finds Saul in Tarsus and they both head to Antioch–famous for being the place where “the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” (11:26) A prophet from Jerusalem, whom I would take to be Jewish, Agabus, makes his brief appearance on the stage, predicting a worldwide famine, which apparently came to pass.  The disciples in Antioch, “determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea.” (11:29). And here we encounter the first example of the church ministering to its brethren in other lands. An example that has lived on through the entire history of the church.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, persecution by Herod results in the second martyrdom: James, brother of John, is killed by the sword and Peter is placed under arrest.

These passages remind us that it was not all growth and happiness for the early church. There are enormously difficult items, as well. We Christians in the 21st century would do well to remember–and to pray for–Christians today, ironically in Antioch and the Middle East, that are suffering from a different but equally devastating sword: the sword of Islam. Suffering is part and parcel of the church–and we ignore this reality at our peril.

Psalm 8; 1 Chronicles 9:1–34; Acts 11:11–24

Psalm 8: This famous psalm begins–and ends–by celebrating God’s majestic name. Once again we are reminded of the supreme importance of names. And God’s name is above all. So majestic and sacred that it is unutterable for the Jewish people even today.  Something to ponder as we so casually toss off the “OMG’s” that litter our world.

The psalmist celebrates the heavens above us: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, / the moon and the stars You fixed firm,” (4) We often talk about the work of God’s hands, but here the psalmist notes the “work of you fingers,” implying great yet delicate dexterity. One can imagine looking up at the filigree of the starry sky and knowing that such magnificent detail visible to us must be the work of agile and creative fingers.

At the very center of the psalm is its awesome heart that ponders the relationship between Creator and his highest creation: humankind. “What is man that You should note him, / and the human creature, that You pay him heed?” (5)  And when we look up at night at the starry sky in its infinite size and grandeur, we,  realize we are but a speck in creation. Yet, God is interested in us above everything else in creation, and he cares passionately for us. He loves us.

But we must never forget the order of the relationship: “You make him little less than the gods, / with glory and grandeur You crown him?” We are indeed God’s greatest creation but when our pride causes us to think we are higher than the little-g gods (here heavenly beings such as angels, I think), the the order of creation is upset and it all comes crashing down around our ears. Yet, it is this pride that is our most common–and greatest–sin. We must remember our place within creation. Unlike God, we do not transcend it.

1 Chronicles 9:1–34: Our Chronicler, having completed what is effectively a genealogical census, brings us to his present day. He basically dispenses with the entire history of Judah with the simple and flat statement, “Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness.” (1b). But now “some of the people of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh” have returned to live in Jerusalem and were counted and we learn that 1760 men were priests, “qualified for the work of the service of the house of God.” (13).

Then, there are the Levitical families, who provide support for the priests. Some are gatekeepers, the security force, an office that “David and the seer Samuel established them in their office of trust.” (22) Their duties included counting the holy utensils, and “they would spend the night near the house of God; for on them lay the duty of watching, and they had charge of opening it every morning.” (27) Others mixed spices and made bread. Then come the singers, “living in the chambers of the temple free from other service, for they were on duty day and night.” (33)

I think our author does a fine job reminding us that there is far more to operating a temple than just the priestly office. Many others have a supporting role to play and there is great honor in these other essential duties. Even as today, pastor is not the only important role in the church. He or she depends on the willing work of many others. I’d like to think that this passage at least caused Luther to reflect on the issue that and other vocations beyond priest or pastor are equally honorable–and essential.

 Acts 11:1–24: After baptizing Cornelius and his family, Peter returns to Jerusalem, where “the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (3) Peter once again covers the chain of events in great detail. (And I think Luke does this to remind us of just how profound a sea change this baptism was.) Peter reminds his critics that it is the Holy Spirit who is in charge: “ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” (15) and he makes the clinching argument: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (17) 

This is something for us to remember when we observe other Christians engaging in practices such as glossalia that we might find off-putting or even, we think, heretical. Would that our reaction be the same as those Jewish Christians at Jerusalem: “ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (18).

And here we have it: from here on out Luke will be focusing on how the Good News was brought to the Gentiles.  Luke pulls his camera back to a wide angle view of the Mediterranean world that was now occupied by Christians who had fled Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom. “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.” (21) Interesting, isn’t it, how those who scattered in fear of their lives “infect” the new places they have come to with the Good News.

The church at Jerusalem is excited to hear this and it sends its first missionary, Barnabas, to Antioch. Would that we respond similarly to such good news. And it is because of those before us that brought Good news to the southern hemisphere and to Asia and Africa that we are now witnessing the greatest growth of the church in those places–just as the early church had its greatest growth outside Jerusalem.

Psalm 7:1–9; 1 Chronicles 7; Acts 10:34–43

Psalm 7:1–9: We can almost see David running from his enemies, out of breath, now down on his knees, head raised and his crossed arms shielding his face as he prays to an absent God, reminding God that He is David’s last and only hope: “LORD, my God, in You I sheltered. /Rescue me from all my pursuers and save me. / Lest like a lion they tear up my life/— rend me, with no one to save me.” (2,3)

He pleads his innocence, using reverse psychology, imploring God to let his enemies overtake him if he has sinned, “if I have done this, /if there be wrongdoing in my hands. /If I paid back my ally with evil, if I oppressed my foes without reason— /may the enemy pursue and overtake me.”

But if God finds David to be innocent–and he fully expects this exoneration–then he prays for justice: “Rouse for me the justice You ordained.” (7) and again, “Grant me justice, LORD, as befits my righteousness / and as befits my innocence that is in me.” (9) Once again, we must note that David is praying for God to mete out justice; he is not taking justice into his own hands.

This is why a prayer that proclaims our own innocence and asks God to deliver justice is legitimate. We are not asking God’s permission to to wreak justice ourselves. Implicit in this prayer for justice is the supplicant’s willingness to wait on God. In the end, praying is also about being patient–even in the most dire circumstances.

1 Chronicles 7: The genealogical inventory of each tribe continues, now the descendants of Issachar, Benjamine, Napthali, Manasseh, Ephram, and Asher but with a new detail: a count of the warriors gathered from the tribes of Issachar and Benjamin in the “days of David.” (2)  They are impressive numbers: 36,000; (4) 87,000 (5); 22,034(!) (7); 22,200 (9); 17,200 (11).  We have to believe that our Chronicler wrote these numbers with a brooding sense of how much had been lost by the time Judah ended up in Babylon.

The genealogies of Naphtali; Manasseh, Ephraim and Asher are almost perfunctory (especially Naphtali) by comparison. Some of the events listed–“Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle.” (21) are not even very valorous. But the Chronicler is dedicated and resolutely notes every detail so that all these names of all these generations are at least listed. And in these lists we remember that these were real people who lived in real places. Above all, the Chronicler wants to make sure that Israel’s history is not lost in myth.

Acts 10:34–43: Peter preaches what we now cll the kerygma, the Good News: the most profound story ever told but told in the simplest terms. First, Peter tells us the message is indeed for all people everywhere: ““I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (34,35). The message at is core is peaceful and acknowledges “Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” (36)
Peter then simply describes what happened: Jesus “went about doing good and healing,” including the crucial information that “God was with him.” He was crucified but rose again on the third day.  However, not everyone saw him, just those of “us who were chosen by God as witnesses.” (41)

Peter notes that he and the disciples are not preaching because they thought it would be a nice thing to do, but that “ He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” (42). Note “commanded.” Finally, the application to everyone as Peter states what John would later write as 3:16: “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”(43)

How can something that profound be said any simpler? Yet, even in its simplicity I work hard to make it more complicated that that. I think in the end its because to actually accept the gift of forgiveness requires abandoning our own pretensions, our ego, and above all our desire to control our lives–and ultimately our fate.

Psalm 6; 1 Chronicles 6:31–81; Acts 10:23b–33

Psalm 6: We can almost feel the psalmist’s pain as he cries out to God form his sick bed: “Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am wretched. / Heal me, for my limbs are stricken. / And my life is hard stricken.(3,4a). The assurance of God’s presence that we saw in earlier psalms is completely absent.. In fact, it seems our present psalmist has been calling on God for quite a while, and the only answer is silence: “–and You, O Lord, how long?” (4b)

But our poet is not so sick that he cannot apply logic to make his case to cause God to answer. After all, God cannot be worshipped if he is dead: “For death holds no mention of You. / In Sheol who can acclaim You?” (6) Perhaps if God realizes how desperately the psalmist longs for God, he will respond: “I weary in my sighing. / I make my bed swim every night, / with my tears I water my couch.” (7)

And then. And then an answer. God is indeed listening. The tears vanish; we can imagine the smile on the poet’s tear-stained face: “for the LORD hears the sound of my weeping. / The LORD hears my plea, /the LORD will take my prayer.” (10). His enemies, who doubtless have been assuring him that God cannot hear him are “shamed and hard stricken.”

This is the psalm that speaks so profoundly to those of who feel we are praying to a God who is not listening. Yes, God is indeed listening. He hears. The next question: Will God speak?

1 Chronicles 6:31–81: Our scrupulous Chronicler, having listed the genealogies of every tribe of Israel now turn his attention to other inventories, listing the men and their sons and grandsons who served as musicians and priests for David and then, Solomon, including Heman, Samuel’s grandson. We have to wonder which of these men wrote psalms, for to be listed by the Chronicler, for I imagine that “musician” included not just “player,” but “composer” and “poet” as well.

The Chronicler then turns his attention to inventorying the land and settlements occupied by the Levites, as we recall that the tribe of Levi, being priests, were allocated pieces of land by each of the other tribes. The allocation appear to be a small town and its surrounding pasture lands.  Even in this humble inventory we are reminded that land was at the center of God’s promise to Israel.

Acts 10:23b–33: Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house, who immediately falls down and tries to worship Peter, who in turn “made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” (26). I think this is a critical point that Luke is making. Jesus had not somehow passed along his divinity to his disciples; they were human like everyone else. That would be an important point for the early church, especially as if fought off the influences of gnosticism.

Quite a crowd has gathered and again, Luke underscores the radical nature of this meeting as Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (28) So he has obeyed God and appeared before Cornelius but still doesn’t know why.

Cornelius describes what happened with military precision, including the exact time, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock,” (30), explaining only that an angel commanded him to send for Peter. And not just send for him, but “here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” Notice how Cornelius makes it clear that both Jew and gentile are standing in “the presence of God.” Luke is telling us that what is about to happen is not a human idea, but an action that comes from God himself through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 5; 1 Chronicles 5:23–6:30; Acts 10:9–23a

Psalm 5: This David psalm draws a stark contrast between those who follow God and those who reject God.  The man of God (David?) knows, “LORD, in the morning You hear my voice, in the morning I lay it before You and wait.”  God is no small-g god: “For not a god desiring wickedness are You, / no evil will sojourn by You.” (5)  Since God cannot abide evil, there must be severe consequences for evildoers: “You destroy the pronouncers of lies, / a man of blood and deceit the LORD loathes.” (7)

This is the quality of God–his hatred of evil and those who do evil–that we’d prefer not to think about. In our culture where the highest moral stance is “tolerance,” God is anachronistically intolerant.

In this psalm, the greatest sin is deceit and falsehood: “An open grave their throat,/ their tongue, smooth-talking. Condemn them, O God.” (10) And the prayer is for justice to be meted out by God himself: “Let them fall by their counsels for their many sins. / Cast them off for they have rebelled against You.” (11) In a culture that tosses off “white lies” with casual abandon and engages in falsehood at every level, we stand condemned by these verses.

1 Chronicles 5:23–6:30: The genealogical inventory continues relentlessly. The half-tribe of Manasseh (one of Joseph’s two sons) gets fairly short shrift. Even though they included “mighty warriors, famous men, heads of their clans,” (5:24b) their sins brought only destruction in the end: “But they transgressed against the God of their ancestors, and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land” (25) The Chronicler lumps them with the Reubenites and the Gadites and together, this piece of Israel met their deserved fate: “the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of King Pul of Assyria, the spirit of King Tilgath-pilneser of Assyria, and he carried them away,.” (26) End of story.

The generations of Levites, on the other hand, are treated far more kindly. The author lists the genealogies of all three of Levi’s sons, and we encounter notable names such as Samuel and Joel along the way.  I’m guessing our Chronicler was himself a Levite when we compare the language he uses. Unlike the angry God who caused Israel to be conquered by Assyria, he treats the Judean exile much more gently: “the Lord sent Judah and Jerusalem into exile by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” (6:13) Notice how God merely “sends” Judah away to Babylon. The details of this “sending” are almost conveniently omitted.

 Acts 10:9–23a: Peter goes p on to the roof to pray, becomes hungry and asks someone to prepare lunch. Suddenly, rather than an angelic visitation, Peter falls into a trance and witnesses the amazing gentile picnic blanket of unclean animals descending from heaven. He distinctly hears God tell him to kill and eat those unclean foods, noting “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (15b). Significantly, this repeats three times before Peter is convinced.

Not coincidentally, the messengers from Cornelius show up and ask for Peter. They explain they are from Cornelius, “a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” (22)

This incident is Luke’s all-important bridge point of “The Way” becoming something far greater than a growing Jewish sect. What God is declaring “clean” is far more than some animals that lie outside Jewish dietary laws. With Cornelius as the model of the gentile who respects Judaism–and who in turn is respected by the Jews–we are about to see the message of Jesus Christ explode onto the world stage. Although there have been numerous references to “aliens” among the Jews deserving God’s blessings all through the OT, and even Jesus’ hint of a message that carries far beyond the Jews when he praises the faith of the gentile woman who was willing to eat the crumbs from the Jewish table, it is only now where the  we anticipate gentiles becoming full equals with the Jews.

As Peter’s–and the church’s– subsequent history proves, this is neither an easy nor trivial transition. But Luke makes it abundantly clear here that it is God-driven.