Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Psalm 107:23–32: The geographical setting of this psalm shifts from wilderness to water with the famous line, “Those who go down to the sea in ships.” (23) At least it’s famous to me since Herman Melville quotes it in Moby-Dick. We encounter most memorable and powerful sea imagery  that contrasts God’s creative force against us puny humans as the poet describes a ship on a storm-tossed sea. We can see and hear the waves:
“He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,” (25, 26a)

We see the sailors struggling to hold on as they are tossed about:
“their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up.” (26b, 27)

This, of course, is powerful metaphor for our storm-tossed lives, a series of ups and downs, as we struggle to hold on. The sailors do the only thing they can think of:
“And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out.
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled.” (28, 29)

We have to believe that when the disciples were frightened for their lives during the violent storm on Galilee that they recalled this psalm when Jesus stilled the wind and the waters. As the psalmist writes, it is God who does that, and it’s difficult to come up with a more dramatic object lesson for the disciples–and us– that connects Jesus to his father. No wonder they were awestruck and convinced that what he was telling them was the truth.

In the storms of our lives we have the same marvelous assurance that Jesus will calm the waters of our anxiety. And with the psalmist, we “acclaim to the Lord His kindness/ and His wonders to humankind.” (31)

Jeremiah 50:1–40: And now Jeremiah comes to the the prophecy of the most important power of all: Babylon.  He accurately predicts the invasion of Cyrus the Persian who conquers Babylon once and for all: “For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3)

As Babylon falls, “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4) In a beautiful metaphor, Jeremiah summarizes the entire story of Israel and Judah: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6) Is there a sadder image than “they have forgotten their fold?” And bluntly, we are now living in a culture which has forgotten its fold, as well.

The next verse is ominous: “All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, “We are not guilty, because they have sinned against the Lord, the true pasture, the Lord, the hope of their ancestors.” (7) Notice it is the enemies who are justifying their actions, saying, “we are not guilty.” They understand what Israel and Judah have done: “they have sinned against the Lord, the true pasture.” God is not only the shepherd, but the pasture–the source of our sustenance. And we reject God at enormous cost. Which I believe we are seeing in Europe today as a civilization that has forgotten its pasture begins to unravel. Once again.

Babylon meets its fate for the same reason Israel and Judah have: “Summon archers against Babylon, all who bend the bow. Encamp all around her; let no one escape. Repay her according to her deeds; just as she has done, do to her—for she has arrogantly defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel.” (29)

But, as always, God remembers his people: “The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go. Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (33) God is always, as he has always been, behind the scenes, never far away. As our psalmist has it, he calms the storm-tossed seas. Our Redeemer . Our Rescuer.

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author concludes his essay about “sabbath rest”–the symbolic Canaan–with the plea, “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” Because if we do not enter that rest through Jesus Christ, judgement awaits, expressed in an image that seems much more OT than NT: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12)

This is one of those verses I memorized as a kid. It was made clear to me at the time that “the word of God” was the Bible. But in my old age, I see that the word of God is much more than that. Our writer goes on: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) This verse is usually taken as one that supports the Great Judgement at the end of history. It may be that, but for me it has far greater immediacy. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions right here right now.

Now we turn to the long essay about Jesus as our great high priest. I am long removed by history and culture from the duties of the priests in the Temple, so I find this section about the priesthood to be somewhat abstract and not terribly relevant beyond its theology of Jesus as intercessor between God and us. Obviously, for the audience to who Hebrews was addressed–Jews all, I suspect–it has much deeper meaning. But this passage also sets up an important concept about our attitude as Christians: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) I get it about boldness, but if grace is “unmerited favor” are we really supposed to ask for it? That seems more Evangelical than Lutheran.

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