Psalm 102:1–11; Jeremiah 16:14–17:27; 1 Timothy 2:8–3:7

Psalm 102:1–11: This beautiful psalm of supplication opens by describing the physical plight of the supplicant as he prays in a somber mood approaching despair: “A prayer for the lowly when he grows faint/ and pours out his plea before the Lord.” Like all psalms of supplication, the opening plea is for God to hear his cries: “Lord, O hear my prayer,/ and let my outcry come before You” (2) because God seems to be completely absent: “Hide not Your face from me/ on the day when I am in straits.” (3) These verses are an apt description of the abandonment we feel when our own lives have  turned desperate and we feel completely alone. Even though we know intellectually that God is close by, our loneliness swamps any sense of God’s presence.

In a striking metaphor and a haunting simile our poet describes both the ephemerality of life and the agony of disease: “For my days are consumed in smoke,/ and my bones are scorched like a hearth.” (5a) I well remember after being diagnosed with cancer the feeling that disease had taken over my life, which was a mere vapor. So dreadful is the poet’s state that he has stopped eating: “My heart is stricken and withers like grass,/ so I forget to eat my bread.” (5b)

He describes his physical state in similes of birds in bleak circumstances: “I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,/ I become like the owl of the ruins” (7) and an carries the bird image into an unforgettable image of insomnia: “I lie awake and become/ like a lonely bird on a roof.” (8). Nor is his relationship with other people any healthier than his body: “All day long my enemies revile me,/ my taunters invoke me in curse.” (9) And not surprisingly, he blames God for his woes: “because of Your wrath and Your fury,/ for You raised me up and flung me down.” (11)

So when we are in are own desperate circumstances, be it emotional or physical distress and think we are the first person to have suffered so greatly we need only turn to this psalm to be reminded that there is nothing unique or original about our feelings or our cries to God.

Jeremiah 16:14–17:27: Jeremiah is a fascinating juxtaposition of imprecation and promise, of curse and comfort. God always holds out hope and immediately following “I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (16:18), we read the famous lines, “O Lord, my strength and my stronghold,/my refuge in the day of trouble,” (16:19a)

Jeremiah is no slouch when it comes to metaphors: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts,” (17:1) And while he is writing about Judah’s sin of idolatry, he might as well be writing about all of us. Sinfulness is deeply engraved in who we are–at the very core of our being. And thus, there is no escape from sin on our own. Only one person will be able to erase that sin.

There is stern but practical advice for all of us who read Jeremiah’s words:
    “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
      and make mere flesh their strength,
      whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (17:5)
because that trust leads only to thirst and moral desiccation:
   “They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
        and shall not see when relief comes.
    They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
       in an uninhabited salt land. ” (17:6)

Is there a better description of life lived without trust in God and his love? Desert emptiness is the fate of a world that trusts in empty idols. Just look anywhere, but especially among the wealthy, who, if they are willing to stop for a moment and ponder, will find that deep in their hearts there is only emptiness. Immediately following this verse is the incredible promise:
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (17:7, 8)

It’s an appropriate simile for those of us here in drought-stricken California in the middle of a long summer. With trust in God we need not be anxious for anything. A loving God is our water of life.

1 Timothy 2:8–3:7: Uh, oh. Here we arrive at one of those inconvenient passages that prescribe roles and behavior that are appropriate for the culture into which they were written: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (2:11) Given Paul’s generous praise of women who assisted him in other epistles, these verses further increase my suspicions regarding Paul’s authorship.

That said, this passage has resulted in a church that treats women as second-class citizens, where I can find not theological justification for such treatment. In the same way that we can accuse today’s zealots of presentism for wanting to impose present-day mores on historical cultures (e.g., erasing all traces of the Confederacy), I think we can accuse others of biblcism, which is the practice of assigning ancient Roman social mores to the present day.

The letter then describes the qualities of a bishop, which among other things suggests other authorship since bishops do not appear to be a role of the earliest church. That said, the Pauline list is a useful one for anyone who would aspire to be a pastor or even lay leader: “must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” (2:2-4)  Given the (often undeserved) reputation of PKs (preacher’s kids) I’d love to know the back-story that generated that last requirement here.

But in the main these are useful qualities that deserve our respect. Another back-story that would be cool to know is, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Unfortunately, there are too many preachers today who have come to believe their own press releases (Franklin Graham, I talking about you) and would do well to ponder these verses.


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