Archives for September 2015

Psalm 107:10–16; Jeremiah 48:26–49:16; Hebrews 3:1–15

Psalm 107:10–16: Unlike the previous psalm, this one omits the historic details of Israel’s history, concentrating instead on the cyclic relationship between God and the wandering nation. It always begins with rebellion: “For they rebelled against God’s sayings,/ the MostHigh’s counsel they despised.” (11) And then the consequence: “And He brought their heart low in troubles. They stumbled with none to help.” (12)

That last phrase is perhaps the most frightening of all for it describes life without God. We are stumbling around in the dark with no one there to help. I think stumbling pretty much characterizes most of our society today. Wandering, stumbling, trying to do it all on our own in the vain hope we somehow will stumble on the light. The solution to this aimless and hopeless stumbling is simple: “And they cried to the Lord from their straits,/ from their distress He rescued them./ He brought them out from the dark and of death’s shadow/ and their bonds He sundered.” (13, 14)

Notice how the rescue is effected: the people cry out. In that verbal society, what is spoken is everything, Not writing to God for rescue, not thinking about God for rescue, not even praying for rescue, but crying aloud. We acknowledge our aloneness and desperation by calling out to God. For when we speak we are admitting our desperate our aloneness to ourselves, those around us, and finally, to God.

And having called out, having acknowledged that we cannot find our way on our own, God comes to us and does something remarkable: We are brought “out from the dark and death’s shadow.” The psalmist describes two types of darkness here. The first is the dark of our own futile attempts to find direction and purpose in life and ending up just going in circles. But that darkness is different than death’s shadow, which hangs over us whether we want to acknowledge it or not. God brought us out from death’s shadow by sending Jesus to conquer death. But we can be brought our from that shadow only by crying out to God and acknowledging we are helplessly lost on our own.

Jeremiah 48:26–49:16: God judges three civilizations: the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites. The section opens on an arresting image: “let Moab wallow in his vomit; he too shall become a laughingstock.” (48:26) The poem that follows describes once great Moab becoming a drunken victim of its own pride:
    We have heard of the pride of Moab—
        he is very proud—
    of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
        and the haughtiness of his heart.” (48:29)

But like a drunkard, Moab’s pride becomes its downfall as “Gladness and joy have been taken away/ from the fruitful land of Moab;” (48:33) and finally, “Woe to you, O Moab!/…for your sons have been taken captive,/ and your daughters into captivity.” (48:46). But God, being God holds out a flickering flame of hope: “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab/ in the latter days, says the Lord.” (48:47). People complain about how the OT is always about God’s wrath, and they are right. But the part we have to pay attention to is that no matter how hopeless the situation, n matter what judgement has come, there is always hope.

So, too with the Ammonites:
   ” I am going to bring terror upon you,
        says the Lord God of hosts,
        from all your neighbors,
    and you will be scattered, each headlong,
        with no one to gather the fugitives.” (49:5) But again, hope: “But afterward I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites, says the Lord.” (49:6)

And again with the Edomites: “You shall not go unpunished; you must drink it. For by myself I have sworn, says the Lord, that Bozrah shall become an object of horror and ridicule, a waste, and an object of cursing; and all her towns shall be perpetual wastes.” (49:13) But unlike Moab and Ammon, there seems to be no hope of rescue. Is God’s judgement immutably final? Is God being inconsistent here, or has Edom committed what is essentially an unforgivable sin? Or perhaps there is no underlying logic at all. Is God dispensing hope randomly? I hope not.

Hebrews 3:1–15: These early chapters of Hebrews are all about establishing a clear structure of hierarchy and clarifying and essentially redefining the roles of Israel’s great leaders. First up is Moses. I expect that for the Jews, Moses had evolved over the centuries into a mythical figure, almost god-like. Our author deflates that image. Moses is simply God’s faithful servant” “just as Moses also “was faithful in all God’s house.”” (2) But now, “Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (3) More than a servant, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son.” (6) For the Jews this was radical stuff. The itinerant rabbi they crucified was greater than Moses, now demoted to a mere servant?!?

As always, I’d love to know the back story that motivated our author to write this book. Like Paul, we presume he was facing a church of dissension as he quotes Psalm 95, comparing the rebels in the church to Israel rebelling against God in the wilderness:
    “Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
      as on the day of testing in the wilderness,
    where your ancestors put me to the test,” (8, 9a)

To make sure everyone understood the intent of the passage, the writer issues a stern warning: “ Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (12) This is a reminder to us that we cannot take our faith casually. We are embarked on the most important journey of our lives: our journey of faith. It is not a hobby. It is not to be set aside when it’s inconvenient.

And finally, a reminder that our faith is acted out in community as we encourage each other: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (13) Because we have remarkable status and responsibility, for “we have become partners of Christ” (14) Ponder that. We are not subordinates; we are members of the family. we are partners. And all that implies in terms of the great responsibilities that come with partnership.

Psalm 107:1–9; Jeremiah 47:1–48:25; Hebrews 2:8b–18

Psalm 107:1–9: This psalm opens with “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ for His kindness is forever” marking it a psalm of thanksgiving. It is also probably post-exhilic because the next verse describes how God has gathered together those who have been scattered: “…and gathered them from the lands,/ from east and west, from north and south.” (3) God gathered them as they “wandered in wilderness, waste land,/ found no road to a settled town.” (4) And he found these wanderers were “hungry, thirsty, too,/ their life-breath failed within them.” (5)

This psalm operates on two levels. First, the physical. God has gathered together those who were scattered, provided shelter in the settled town, quenched their thirst and satisfied their hunger. “For He sated the thirsting throat/ and the hungry throat He filled with Good.” (9)  And these people are thankful.

But the second level speaks directly to us today. Is there a better description of our current human condition? Now that our culture believes we have outgrown the need for God, we are increasingly scattered as we continue lose societal cohesion. There is no better metaphor for our present situation than we have found no road to a settled town where our spiritual hunger and thirst can be quenched.

Will we, like the people in this psalm, “cry to the Lord from their straits?” (6a) For Israel, “from their distress He saved them./ And He led the on a straight road/ to go to a settled town.” (6b, 7) This phrase seems particularly apt as thousand and thousands attempt to flee the chaos of the Middle East and find a straight road to a settled town in Europe.

As Christians, we know where that straight road leads: directly to Jesus Christ. But I fear the world will continue to wander, thinking it knows what to do. Will it, too, ever cry out to God?

Jeremiah 47:1–48:25: One thing about Jeremiah that we never found with Isaiah. God speaks through his prophets to the lands beyond Israel and Judah. Here, Jeremiah prophesies doom for the Philistines, that ever-present threat to the Jews:
     “For the Lord is destroying the Philistines,
         the remnant of the coastland of Caphtor.
     Baldness has come upon Gaza,
         Ashkelon is silenced.” (47:4b, 5a) 

Because Gaza and Ashkelon are still with us almost 3000 years later, there is an eerie quality to this prophecy, as if it has been fulfilled once again in our time.  Judgement also comes to Moab: “the fortress is put to shame and broken down;/ the renown of Moab is no more.” (48:2) There is a gruesome command as well, “Accursed is the one who is slack in doing the work of the Lord; and accursed is the one who keeps back the sword from bloodshed.” (48:10)–one of those places in the OT where we shake our head, realizing that it was a very different place than what we know, and that some aspects of these prophecies remain inexplicable.

So, why Philistia and Moab here in the midst of a long story about the fate of Israel and Judah? It’s one more place where we encounter the fact that God is concerned with all humankind. Israel may have been his chosen people, but his concerns–and ultimately, his love, extends to all people.

Hebrews 2:8b–18: The reason for our author’s discussion on the place of humans in God’s creative hierarchy becomes clear: “we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (9)  My take on this is that Jesus came to earth to effectively give God the personal experience, if you will, of “the suffering of death” and of “tasting death.” But in so doing, Jesus Christ has thereby accomplished the means to our salvation, or as our author puts it, “make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (10) [I love the phrase, “pioneer of salvation”…]

Going on to cite three Scripture passages, our author makes it clear that only through becoming flesh and blood, could Jesus have “likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (14, 15) Jesus came to conquer death. Or as the old cliche has it, Jesus won the final war against death even though we continue to fight the battles against the devil. 

In short, Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (17)  Aha, now we see where he’s going with this. Jesus is our great high priest, making the once-and-for-all sacrifice on our behalf. But the primary qualification for Jesus to become that effective priest was that “he himself was tested by what he suffered, [so that] he is able to help those who are being tested.” (18)

God is sympathetic to our fallen plight as humans. That’s on display all the way through the OT. But it is only through Jesus Christ that God becomes empathetic with us: tasting what we taste, walking where we walk, suffering what we suffer–and of course the one great Suffering which becomes the means to our salvation.

 

Psalm 106:40–48; Jeremiah 45,46; Hebrews 1:10–2:8a

Psalm 106:40–48: The psalmist reduces Israel’s entire history to a simple, unending unending cycle. Israel rebels against God’s covenant: “And they were defiled through their deeds/ and went whoring through their actions.” (39) God turns against them: “And the Lord’s wrath blazed against His people.” (40)  and punishes them: “And their enemies oppressed them,/ and they were subject to their power.” (42)  The people eventually get the message and turn back to God: “And He saw they were in dire straits,/ when He heard their song of prayer.” (44). God relents and reminds them of their covenant with him: “And He recalled for them His pact,/ relented through his many kindnesses.” (45).

The psalm ends on a note of remembering God’s relentless kindness: “And He  granted them mercy in the eyes of all their captors.” (46). Clearly written form exile, the psalm concludes with the plea for resuce so that they can once again gather and worship God: ”

Rescue us, LORD our God
and gather us from the nations
to acclaim Your holy name
and to glory in Your praise. (47)

And thus it is with us, at least as individuals, if not as a nation. It is an unending cycle of loving God and then turning away. In the depth of our fallen being, we believe we really can do it all ourselves. But when things turn bad, we cry out to God for rescue, just as Israel did. And being ever merciful, God hears our prayers. But like Israel, we must also suffer the consequences of our actions and wrong beliefs. The question is: will we–will I–ever have sufficient faith that in Oswald Chamber’s words, completely abandon myself to God?

Jeremiah 45,46: After taking dictation about all the bad things that will be happening to Israel, Jeremiah’s amanuensis, Baruch, cries,“Woe is me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest.” (45:3).  But, speaking the Word of God, Jeremiah encourages him, “will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.” (45:5) This little chapter is a marvelous respite from the pain that Baruch must have felt in writing down Jeremiah’s words–realizing what was about to befall Israel. But Baruch was faithful and his faithfulness is rewarded.

But the respite is brief as we imagine Baruch now writing for Jeremiah: “The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning the nations.” (46:1) This long poem first looks back in history, recalling the earlier conflict between Egypt and Babylon: “the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah.” (46:2)

In that war, Egypt met a bad end:
The nations have heard of your shame,
and the earth is full of your cry;
for warrior has stumbled against warrior;
both have fallen together. (46:12)

And now, Jeremiah prophesies a similar outcome “about the coming of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon to attack the land of Egypt.” (46:13) And like Israel, “Daughter Egypt shall be put to shame;/ she shall be handed over to a people from the north.” (46:24)

We might wonder why the histories of these nations are included here in the midst of the major concern of this book: what happens to Judah? My own take is that both these nations played enormously important roles in Israel’s history. They are virtually historical bookends: Egypt at its beginning as a nation; Babylon at its end. But also, I think that we’re being reminded that God plays a role in the affairs and fate of every nation. The question up for debate, is God playing a role in the fate of the various nations today? the nations in the Middle East that replaced Babylon? Europe? America?

For Judah, though, this chapter ends on a hopeful note:
     ” As for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
      says the Lord,
      for I am with you.” (46:28)

Judah will be preserved, but not without punishment:
I will make an end of all the nations
among which I have banished you,
but I will not make an end of you!
I will chastise you in just measure,
and I will by no means leave you unpunished.”

As the psalmist above notes, God rescues us, but there are always consequences. What God applies for individuals, God applies for nations. I think that as America’s culture so swiftly abandons its Judaeo-Christian underpinnings we would do well to reflect on this chapter in Jeremiah.

Hebrews 1:10–2:8: Our author continues to quote scripture as he reminds us that Jesus Christ is not simply an angel–a belief I presume was widespread and one of the reasons this book was written in the first place.  He concludes his Jesus vs. angels argument with the clincher: “But to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? )1:13) as he reminds us that the ultimate role of angels is to serve, and in fact “sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” (1:14) Which of course, would be us!

The author now turns to the role of humans in God’s economy, reminding us, “God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels” (2:5) but to someone else. We can see him scratching his head as he becomes almost humorous here, thinking, “Oh, yes, now who can that be?” as he writes wryly, “But someone has testified somewhere,” (2:6) He then quotes a lengthy portion of Psalm 8 that describes us humans in God’s hierarchy: “You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;” but on the other hand–and unlike the angels–“you have crowned them with glory and honor,” (2:7)  And, oh yes, we humans are above all else in creation: “subjecting all things under their feet.” (2:8)

In these first chapters, our author has reminded us of God’s carefully structured order and exactly where we humans fit in the scheme of things. He’s ready to turn his attention to the other crucial matters at hand.

 

 

 

 

Psalm 106:32–39; Jeremiah 44; Hebrews 1:1–9

Psalm 106:32–39: If someone were looking for the screenplay version of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, this psalm would serve well as it hits all the highlights and “lowlights” of their wandering years. The psalmist sums up both the complaining and Moses anger at Meribah in two powerful verses:
“And they caused fury over the waters of Meribah,
and it went badly for Moses because of them,
for they rebelled against him,
and he pronounced rash things with his lips.” (33, 34)

In just these few words we see how Moses lost his right to enter Canaan because the goading of the crowd made him angry and caused him to say things he would regret the rest of his life. But words once spoken cannot really be undone. This is a powerful warning to all of us, when in times of stress we become angry–and anger that leads to regretful acts. Social media is another place where, as many are finding out, angry words can lead to bad consequences.

The psalmist skips right over Israel’s entry into and conquest of Canaan–Joshua is nowhere to be found–and leaps forward in time to their Great Mistake in not obeying God as conquerers: “They did not destroy the peoples/ as the Lord had said to them.” (34) But instead, “they mingled with the nations and learned their deeds.” (35) And the worst consequence of this assimilation of all, of course, was taking up the pagan religions of Canaan: “And they worshipped their idols,/ which became a snare to them.” (36). From our modern perspective we cannot comprehend why God would order the destruction of the tribes living in Canaan, but assimilation becomes downfall for the Jews.

We can be more sympathetic with God’s order to destroy the pagans at the next verses, which describe bluntly and gruesomely the reasons behind God’s rationale:

And they sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons.
And they shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and their daughters when they sacrificed to Canaan’s idols,
and the land was polluted with blood-guilt.
And they were defiled through their deeds
and went whoring through their actions.  (37-39)

While our society is nowhere near child sacrifice, these verses are a deep challenge to churches that aim to attract members by being “hip” to the prevailing culture and assimilate its mores.  At best they lose their distinctiveness; at worst they become irrelevant and a blot on the Gospel. Say what you will about the Catholic Church, it has maintained its distinctive and yes, separateness form the culture, far better than mainline Protestantism (yes, I’m including Lutherans), which frankly is fading into the cultural woodwork.

Jeremiah 44:  And speaking of cultural assimilation, the remnant that fled to Egypt is busy disobeying the rule to maintain their distinctiveness as God’s people in a foreign culture: “Why do you provoke me to anger with the works of your hands, making offerings to other gods in the land of Egypt where you have come to settle?” (8) Jeremiah, speaking the voice of God asks, “Have you forgotten the [consequences of the] crimes of your ancestors, of the kings of Judah, of their wives, your own crimes and those of your wives, which they committed in the land of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” (9) Worse, “They have shown no contrition or fear to this day, nor have they walked in my law and my statutes that I set before you and before your ancestors.” (10) Jeremiah goes on to tell the crowd that God will “punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence.” (13)

But when the people hear this warning, they respond, “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her,” (16, 17) asserting that they are getting food only by sacrificing to the Egyptian queen of heaven. They have decided it was not God who provided for them, but their own libations made of in front of this false God that have brought them success. Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgement on their arrogance: “ I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good; all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left.” (27)

We are as stubborn and misguided as these people. We are convinced that our success arises from our own actions by making offerings and pouring out libations at the altar of the American culture of wealth and celebrity. When in reality our blessings have come from God, who, like these people, we ignore at our peril.

 Hebrews 1:1–9:  In the New Testament canon, Paul gets most of the credit for forming the theology of Jesus Christ. Peter, James and John play minor but important roles. But it is the anonymous Jewish author of Hebrews that sets perhaps the most rigorous foundation of Christ’s preeminence as the Son of God, linking Jesus again and again to God by constant use of the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament).

It is here in the very first verses that our author establishes that God is speaking to mankind in a very new way: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” (1,2). God has abandoned the old way of speaking and now speaks through the person of Jesus Christ. What Jesus said, God said. What Jesus taught, God taught. 

The next verse must be one of the key passages for the Council of Nicea when it states in the Creed, “of one being with the Father,” where it says, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (3a). More than the personification, Jesus also “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (3b) So, Jesus replaces the now-obsolete sacrificial system. Our author will expand on all these themes in the chapters that follow. 

By citing Scripture our author establishes the fact of Jesus’ superiority to the angels. This is important in building the connection between Jesus and God because up to this point angels were viewed as superior to mere humans. But now, angels are merely “his servants flames of fire.” (7) while “of the Son, [God] says,
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
      therefore God, your God, has anointed you
       with the oil of gladness beyond your companions [the angels].” (9)

And this is just the opening of this often mysterious but powerful book!

 

Psalm 106:24–31; Jeremiah 42,43; Philemon 1:12–25

Psalm 106:24–31: This detailed poetic history of he years in the wilderness recounts how the Israelites came to hate everything about God, including even the promised land itself: “And they despised the land of desires,/ they did not trust His word.” (24) Instead, “they muttered in their tents,/ they did not heed the voice of the Lord.” (25) There were consequences: “And He raised His hand against them,/ to make them fall in the wilderness.” (26)

We are fundamentally no different. We do not trust God’s word and we certainly spend lots of time muttering in our tents. Which today is the bitter whining that we hear from Christians who complain that the culture has turned against Christianity.  I am certainly unhappy at the direction that our country appears to be headed; it even seems pretty lost in the wilderness. But the mandate is clear: Trust God. There is far too great an attempt by too many, who in the name of God, are striving to control events to their own desired outcome. They have come to believe they know precisely what God wants when it is really what they want.

The psalmist calls out one faithful man amidst the whining and the turning away from God: “And Phineas stood and prayed,/ and the scourge was held back/ and it was counted for him as merit,/ generation to generation forever.” (30, 31). The message is clear. Phineas prayed. The challenge is to follow his example and not the mob’s.

 Jeremiah 42,43: There are only a few–the ‘remnant’–left in Judah, and they come to Jeremiah, asking “Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the Lord your God show us where we should go and what we should do.” (42: 3-4) Jeremiah agrees and the group tells the prophet, “Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God,” (42:6). After ten days, Jeremiah hears the voice of God, telling them that they are to remain in Judah: “If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” (42:10) God apologizes!

Jeremiah says that they should not fear the king of Babylon and if they flee to Egypt–as they have been planning to do–they will die. The irony of a return to Egypt, the land of slavery from which they escaped centuries earlier was apparently lost on them. Jeremiah impresses on them several times that if they go, “you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go and settle.” (42:21)

But contrary to their promise to do whatever God said, speaking through Jeremiah, “Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the other insolent men said to Jeremiah, “You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’.” (43:2) They accuse the prophet of colluding with Baruch who is “is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” (43:3) And the remnant heads off to Egypt in defiance of God and breaking their promise to obey, taking Jeremiah with them.

This is human nature. Make a promise to God but when the news is not what we want to hear, we go do what we wanted to anyway. But God, unlike us, means what he says.

Jeremiah hears God command him to “Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes. Let the Judeans see you do it,” (43:8)  Jeremiah tells those who observed this action that “my servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them. He shall come and ravage the land of Egypt.” (43:10-11) Of course the lesson here is that we can try, but we cannot escape God. This is always the outcome when we attempt to twist things to fit our own agenda. A less creative God would have had the Egyptians kill the Judeans, but instead God will use the the very instrument that would have protected them in Judea–Babylon–to take them out in what they thought was their refuge. The question is, in what ideas of my own that are not God’s do I seek false refuge?

Philemon 1:12–25: In an act of great generosity, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, the slave’s owner: “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” (13, 14) This is Paul at his masterful best, suggesting that maybe it is God’s will for Onesimus to return to his owner in the hope that he is “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16) Paul offers to pay any expenses incurred and concludes, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (21)

This short heart-warming letter is an image of what God has done for us in sending Jesus Christ to us as Onensimus was sent originally to Paul–and somehow I suspect the parallel was not lost on Paul. As Jesus returned to heaven, the slave returns to Philemon. And as Paul speaks so often of going to heaven, here he asks, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (22) Indeed, this is an echo of Jesus’ promise in the Upper Room: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)

Did Paul ever make it to Philemon’s house and see Onesimus again? Probably not. His heart was rent, but Paul’s generosity arose from his intense love not just for Onesimus and Philemon, but from his love of Jesus Christ.

Psalm 106:13–23; Jeremiah 40,41; Philemon 1:1–11

Psalm 106:13–23: In the last verse of yesterday’s reading, the Israelites “trusted His words..and sang His praise.” (12) Today, we open at the next verse and things have changed: “Quickly they forgot His deeds,/ they did not await His counsel.” (13) Singing and trust have become complaining about the manna “And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,/ they put God to the test in the waste land.” (14) This is one of those places where we realize human nature has not changed one whit in 5000 years. Singing becomes complaining in virtually an instant. I have a feeling many pastors can identify here.

But their complaining produces results: “And He gave them what they had asked,/ sent food down their throats.” (15) This is a reference to the quail that God sent and they had to eat until they were sick of it. Yes, God sometimes gives us what we ask for, even if it isn’t very good for us–a reminder of our own complaining and lack of wisdom. I have a feeling that our prosperity can be like the quail. We are rich and still we complain.

The following verses cover notable incidents in the wilderness: the complaining and plots against Moses and Aaron; the “earth opened and swallowed Dothan,” (17), the horrific fire and the “flame [that] consumed the wicked. (18) They “made a calf at Horeb/ and bowed to a molten image.” (19) And worse, “they exchanged their glory for a grass-eating bull.” (20) Above all, “They forgot the God their rescuer,” as the poet reminds them of God’s marvelous interventions; God “Who did great things in Egypt,/ wonders in the land of Ham,/ awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds.” (21, 22).

How we are so like them! Forgetting what God has done for us; how God has blessed us and complaining and then turning away from God to worship our own idols: objects, yes. But our priorities also. We stuff God into a Sunday morning closet and even when that’s not convenient due to our other recreational plans, we ignore Him altogether.

God would have wiped out Israel “were it not for Moses…who stood in the breech before [God.]” (23) So, too, we would be lost had it not been for our Moses: Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah 40,41: The captain of the guard, who was to bring Jeremiah in chains to Babylon, realizes that what has befallen Jerusalem was because “the Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said, because all of you sinned against the Lord and did not obey his voice.” (41:3) and releases Jeremiah, telling him to go to Gedaliah, who is the governor of what’s left of Judah. It’s fascinating that it is the captain of the Babylonian guard who realizes what happened was not Babylon’s tactical brilliance that brought about Judah’s defeat, but God. Did no inhabitant of Judah ever come to realize that what happened was the consequence of their sin?

Gedaliah is the governor and tells the people to obey the rule of the Babylonians and “all will go well with you.” Things seem to be OK, but a certain Jonanan comes to the governor, asking permission to kill Ishmael because he is plotting to assassinate Gedaliah. But the governor forbids this telling the would-be rescuer, “Do not do such a thing, for you are telling a lie about Ishmael.” (41:16)

Alas, the plot was true and Gedaliah is assassinated by Ishmael. Others are killed as well. Eighty men in mourning show up in Jerusalem “with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, bringing grain offerings and incense to present at the temple of the Lord.” Seventy are slaughtered, but ten tell Ishmael they have stores of grain hidden away. There is a gruesome scene where Ishamael fills an empty cistern with the bodies of those he had slaughtered. The rest of the survivors are taken in chains as captives to the Ammonites.

But when Jonanan “heard of all the crimes that Ishmael son of Nethaniah had done” (41:11) he follows Ishmael and rescues the people and “they were glad.” (41:13) Ishmael tries to escape, but is hunted down and killed by Johanan. The remnants of Ishmael’s gang flee.

Why is the story of Johanan and Ishmael here in the middle of Jeremiah? For us, I think it is symbolic of how Jesus comes to warn the Judah of his day, but just as Gedaliah didn’t believe Johanan, the religious officials scoffed and eventually killed the messenger. And Israel paid dearly in AD70. The real question is, do we believe what Jesus has to say to us, or will we merely scoff? Jesus has a much to say about the consequences of disbelief in his Olivet discourse in the Gospel of Matthew.

Philemon 1:1–11: This lovely letter is certainly Paul at his finest–and it is the one personal letter we have as he writes to Philemon. (And I think the compilers of the NT canon purposely placed this sweet letter immediately following the didactic harshness of Titus to illustrate the contrast–perhaps they knew that Paul had not really written the pastorals…) Paul does not preach at Philemon, instead he lifts him up: “I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” (5) Unlike the Paul of Titus, here he is an encourager: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” (6) And ever generous, there is beautiful symmetry as he acknowledges how “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” (7)  Wow. What a feeling it must have been for Philemon to receive this letter from a famous leader of the church.

Paul is a master psychologist. He builds up Philemon with words of praise and then eventually comes to the purpose of his letter. He first reminds Philemon that as a leader of the church he has the right “to command you to do your duty,” (8) But, appealing to Philemon’s generous nature instead, “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” (9) and Paul subtly reminds Philemon of his present circumstances  “also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”  Brilliant: Paul notes that he could command Philemon but is asking out of love and by the way, reminding Philemon of his grim circumstances as a prisoner. Who could possibly turn down any request from Paul at this point?

The reason for the build-up is clear. Paul’s request is a hard one: that Philemon release his slave Onesimus, noting “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” More brilliant psychology. Not that the slave is just useful just Paul, but to Philemon as well. Paul is essentially inviting Philemon into a partnership if he is willing to give up his slave. Let’s see where this goes…

 

Psalm 106:6–12; Jeremiah 38:14–39:18; Titus 3:3–15

Psalm 106:6–12: Our psalmist records the famous escape from Egypt, the Egyptian pursuit, crossing the Sea (of Reeds per Alter), and making it to the other side. At first look it’s an odd beginning to this section: “We offended like our fathers, we wronged,/ we did evil.” (6) But this confession of wrongdoing has deep historical roots as he also records the attitude and behavior of his ancestors.

First, there is their unawareness of God’s hand in the events leading up to their release from slavery: “Our fathers in Egypt/ did not grasp Your wonders.” (7a).  Unawareness continues rampant through Israel’s history–and ours. Worse, in their forgetfulness they rebel: “They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses/ and rebelled by the Sea, at the Sea of Reeds.” (7b) [As it’s recorded in Exodus 14:11, it was more than mere forgetfulness, it was derision of their leaders in the famously sarcastic complaint,  “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”] Not unlike the present complaints we hear on Facebook of Christians “forcing their religion down our throats.”

But, as our psalmist points out, their rescue is not just about them: “Yet He rescued them for His names sake,/ to make known Hs might.” (8) And there is no more dramatic large-scale rescue than this: “He blasted the Sea of Reeds, and dried it up/…And He rescued them from the hand of the hostile/ and redeemed them form the hand of the enemy.” (9, 10) Notice “redemption,” that wonderful act of God that threads through the Bible. Like Israel, we are redeemed. The question is, how are we going to respond to us it?

The psalmist records the initial response of Israel: As “the waters covered their foes,/…they trusted His words/ they sang His praise.” (12) In their (and our) anger and contempt, God shows merciful grace and redeems them in dramatic fashion. And they are grateful. But for how long? Is it like the aftermath of 9/11 , where we were kind to each other, and even thought about God for a while, but quickly reverted to our usual form of anger and contentiousness?

Jeremiah 38:14–39:18: King Zedekiah seems to intuit that Jeremiah is the only true prophet around, and he meets secretly with him “at the third entrance of the temple.” The king tells Jeremiah that he wants to ask something and please “do not hide anything from me.” (38:14.) Jeremiah, who clearly has his wits about him, replies, “If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” (38:15) So, the king swears “As the Lord lives, who gave us our lives, I will not put you to death or hand you over to these men who seek your life.” (38:16)

Thus reassured, Jeremiah tells the king that if they surrender to Babylon, they will live and Jerusalem will not be destroyed. “But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be handed over to the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you yourself shall not escape from their hand.” (38:18) If the king refuses to heed the prophet’s warning, then Jeremiah assures him, “All your wives and your children shall be led out to the Chaldeans, and you yourself shall not escape from their hand, but shall be seized by the king of Babylon; and this city shall be burned with fire.” (38:23).

But Zedekiah does not surrender, and a few months later, Jerusalem falls. The hapless king is taken before Nebuchadrezzar and is forced to watch his sons killed, and then the victor “put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him in fetters to take him to Babylon.” (39:7) With the exception of “some of the poor people who owned nothing” the remaining population of Jerusalem is sent into exile with the blinded king.  His blindness seems an appropriate metaphor for Zedekiah’s blindness in refusing to act on Jeremiah’s warning.

Interestingly, Nebuchadrezzar orders that Jeremiah be spared: “Take him, look after him well and do him no harm, but deal with him as he may ask you.” (39:12). Why was Jeremiah spared? Did the Babylonian king know about Jeremiah’s prophecies and decided to spare the life of the one guy who “got it,” while all around him remained in deep denial? Perhaps. But in the end, it is a clear message that God protects his prophets, particularly those whose faith is so great that they persist in telling the truth no matter what the possible outcome. The question of course is, am I willing to tell the truth where it needs to be told? Or would I prefer to remain in denial, even though I know what is true, thinking that is the safest course? Zedekiah’s fate is a stern lesson on the perils of not acting on a prophetic word.

Titus 3:3–15: The author turns autobiographical for a moment, recalling “ For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” (3) Would Paul have described himself in these terms? As a good Pharisee, I doubt very much that Paul would have accused himself as a “slave to various passions and pleasures.” But whoever wrote it, he certainly gets the Kerygma right: “…the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water  of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (4) We even get a Pauline riff, “having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (7)

Even though he’s coming to the end of the letter, our author cannot resist offering more advice: “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.” (8) and once more, with feeling, “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (9) And if you’re raising a ruckus in the church, you only get two chances: “after a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.” (10, 11)

I know I am being hard on the author of Titus–and I’d love to know the backstory at this church, whose very existence must have been hanging by a thread. Perhaps I’ve been a Lutheran too long, but grace seems absent from this letter. It’s all about the doing rather than the being, as the final word of advice reminds them, “let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.” Unproductive? Really?

Psalm 106:1–5; Jeremiah 37:1–38:13; Titus 2:6–3:2

Psalm 106:1–5: This psalm opens like a praise hymn–“”Hallelujah!/ Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ for His kindness is forever,/Who can utter the Lord’s mighty acts,/ who can make heard all His praise?” (1, 2) But “the Lord’s mighty acts” gives us a clue that like the preceding psalm, we will be reviewing Israel’s history.

The third verse sets out the thematic framework: “Happy those who keep justice,/ who do righteousness at all time.” (3) We have a feeling we will be hearing about righteousness spurned and justice denied later in this verse. This becomes more evident in the personal note of the next verse two verses: “Recall me, O Lord, when You favor Your people,/ mark me for Your rescue,/ to see the good of Your chosen ones,/ to rejoice in the joy of Your nation…” (4, 5)

This introduction that moves from praising God to the themes of justice and righteousness to a note of supplication, to the plea to be rescued suggests that we are in for a long historical ride in this psalm that will bring us to a distinctly unpleasant reality. One lesson we can learn here is that one of the roots of wisdom is reflection on the past.

Jeremiah 37:1–38:13:  Pieces of Jeermiah’s history seem to be collected in this section of the eponymous book. Before, it was King Jehoikim, who burned the scroll. King Zedekiah has succeeded Jehoikim and he seems less a hopeless case than his predecessor and he sends his messengers to ask Jeremiah to, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” (37:3) But Jeremiah responds with a dire prophecy that “ Pharaoh’s army, which set out to help you, is going to return to its own land, to Egypt. And the Chaldeans shall return and fight against this city; they shall take it and burn it with fire.” (37:8)

Jeremiah heads out of town to see the land he bought but doesn’t get any farther than the Benjamin gate of Jerusalem, where he is arrested on a false charge of deserting to the Chaldeans. His protests that it was a lie are to no avail and Jeremiah is imprisoned, “in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.” (37:16).

But something is bothering the king and he sends for Jeremiah, “question[ing] him secretly in his house, and said, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Jeremiah said, “There is!” Then he said, “You shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.”  Since the city is now under siege, Jeremiah twists the prophetic knife, “Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, ‘The king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land’?” (37:19) Apparently realizing that Jeremiah had a point, he agrees to release Jeremiah from prison, but not to freedom “and they committed Jeremiah to the court of the guard; and a loaf of bread was given him daily from the bakers’ street, until all the bread of the city was gone.” (37:21)

Jeremiah then asserts, “Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out to the Chaldeans shall live; they shall have their lives as a prize of war, and live.” (38:2) The court officials demand death for Jeremiah “because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” (38:4). Jeremiah is tossed into the bottom of an abandoned cistern, although “there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.” (38:6)

But God protects his prophets, even the ones who bear news no one wants to hear. The king hears of Jeremiah’s plight from one of those heroes we meet only once, a certain “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house”  who asks the king to rescue Jeremiah, to which he agrees and “they drew Jeremiah up by the ropes and pulled him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.” (38:13)

Jeremiah’s travails prove that our desire to kill the messenger has deep roots. But we also learn that sometimes, even dire prophecies can sink in. Things have come to a desperate pass in Jerusalem, surrounded by the Chaldeans and the treacherous  Egyptians, so Jeremiah’s prophecies have real credibility. The question is, do we, like King Zedekiah, have to be in desperate circumstances before we put aside our denial of reality and really listen?

Titus 2:6–3:2: Even though this book is didactic and directive to the point of annoyance, we sense that the church is under fire by the authorities and right conduct is essential not only to its proper operation, but to its very survival.  So, there are warnings to young men, who might be tempted to carouse: “urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured;” (2:6-8a)

We know that like Zedekiah’s court, there are people always looking for the slightest excuse to kill the prophet or shut down the church, which is why our author observes that decent behavior will avoid this: “then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” (2:8b).

Then there is the admonition to slaves: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.” (2:9-10). From our cultural perspective we tend to think that the church should have been condemning slavery, not telling the slaves to be obediently submissive. But again, exigent circumstances demanded that the church be culturally quiet if it were to cary out its mission. A time eventually came for the church when it separated itself from the evils of slavery, although the human cost of centuries of delay was enormous.

Finally, our author speaks to everyone: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (3:1-2) What does this verse have to say to us today? Given the current public behavior of some Christians, there’s some reason to shout this message from the rooftops. Notice that the verse is not telling us to shut up, rather “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” I think that’s a fair metric by which to assess the actions of the church and individuals in the public square. Personally, I do not think that condemning social mores such as gay marriage and bemoaning we are no longer a “Christian nation”  hold up to the standard that’s been set here.

And in the end, we really have to assess our role as the church in society by the phrase, “be ready for every good work.” Are we working to better society or are we just complaining loudly?

 

Psalm 105:37–45; Jeremiah 36; Titus 1:10–2:5

Psalm 105:37–45: This historical narrative continues with Israel’s escape from Egypt with two interesting observations that I don;t recall in the Exodus story: “And He brought them [Israel] out with silver and gold,/ and none in His tribes did falter.” (37) God provides (in ways the psalmist doesn’t reveal) with ample wealth and there was complete unanimity in that all of Isreal escapes; none were left or remained behind.  Moreover, “Egypt rejoiced when they went out,/ for their fear had fallen upon them.” (38) Egypt was glad to be rid of them–at least until Pharaoh (and others, I suspect) had second thoughts, realizing just how valuable the Jews were to the Egyptian economy.

The poet escapes over the crossing of the sea adventure and brings them into the wilderness, where “He spread a cloud as a curtain/ and fire to light up the night.” (39) I had not thought before of the cloud as a “curtain,” which doubtless protected the people in the intense heat of the desert. God provides shelter, light, and food: “They asked, and He brought the quail/ and with bread from the heavens he sated them” (40) –“sated” reminds us of their complaining. There is water (41) but the poet skips over the dramatic events at Mount Sinai with only a cryptic reference to the Covenant: “For He recalled His holy word/ with Abraham His servant.” (42).  Again and again, the emphasis here is on God’s gifts to Israel–a vivid demonstration of grace.

The history ends by describing both sides of the Covenant. The book of Joshua is summarized in a single verse: “And He gave them the lands of nations,/ they took hold of the wealth of peoples,” (44) And the other side, the response and responsibility of the people, which is what this entire psalm has been leading up to: “so that they should keep His statutes,/ and His teachings they should observe./ Hallelujah!”

The psalm reminds us that God has done great things for us, but that we have a responsibility to respond appropriately to these tremendous gifts. Israel was to keep God’s law. For us, we respond to the gift of God’s grace with faith in Jesus Christ. Covenants are not one-way streets.

Jeremiah 36: This historical chapter recounts God’s command to Jeremiah, “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today.” (2) Pointing out that “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord” (5) Jeremiah asks his secretary, Baruch, to read the scroll in the Temple and elsewhere in the hope that “ It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.” (7)

Baruch does so, and ends up reading the scroll in the king’s palace. But the court officials are alarmed and exclaim, “We certainly must report all these words to the king.” (17) Baruch reveals that Jeremiah “dictated all these words to me, and I wrote them with ink on the scroll.” (18) The scroll is brought to King Jehoiakim, who is sitting before his fireplace. Despite pleas to preserve the scroll, “As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king  would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.” We can almost see the king’s yawns of indifference to the contents of the scroll as he orders Jeremiah and Baruch to be arrested. However, “the Lord hid them.” (26)

God tells Jeremiah, “Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.” (28) But now God dictates an addendum concerning the king: “He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. And I will punish him and his offspring and his servants for their iniquity; I will bring on them, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and on the people of Judah, all the disasters with which I have threatened them—but they would not listen.” (30, 31).

There we have it: “He would not listen” to God. How often are we like this arrogant king? We do not listen to God. Even when like the rewritten scroll, God repeats himself.

Titus 1:10–2:5:  There are “many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision,” i.e., Jews, who “must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach.” (1:10, 11) And one prophet from Crete has apparently castigated his own people, “their very own prophet, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.'” (12) The diatribe is not yet complete as we read, “that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.” (13, 14)

These verses is an extraordinarily harsh rebuke.  So harsh that I have difficulty accepting Paul’s authorship. Yes, the Jews have caused him tremendous woes, but Paul was always proud of his Jewish roots and knowledge. I cannot believe that Paul would ever utter the phrase “Jewish myths.”

And when the author goes on to say, “They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” (16) I hear only human anger. Paul would be disappointed; he would be stern, but I don’t think he would exhibit the ungracious meanness so dramatically on display in this passage.

The passage continues in its harsh, didactic vein: “Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance. Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good…” (2:3)  We then encounter one of those difficult relational passages that mix the noble [ “so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind,”] with what in our age is the socially questionable: “being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.” (2:4,5) 

What are to make of Titus? I can see its practical application in the church, but it is certainly among the least graceful books in the NT.

Psalm 105:23–36; Jeremiah 34:8–35:19; Titus 1:1–9

Psalm 105:23–36: This section of this historical psalm recounts the slavery in Egypt and eight of the ten plagues. The Israelites have become “more numerous than their foes.” (24) And once again it is God’s actions that drive events. First, it is not just Pharaoh that comes to despise the rapidly multiplying slaves, but all Egyptians: “He changed their heart to hate His people,/ to lay plots against His servants.” (25). Moses and Aaron are introduced into the picture: “He sent Moses his servant,/ Aaron, whom he had chosen.” (26)  Once again, it’s God who is in charge of events.  I’m also intrigued that in this verse, anyway, Aaron shares equal billing with Moses.  Is this a nod by the psalmist to the Temple priesthood?

Moses and Aaron are God’s instruments of warning to the Egyptians: “The set among them the words of His signs,/ His portents in the land of Ham.” (27)  The plagues to come are not just natural disasters, but God speaking (“word of His signs”) and above all, a warning, (Portents).  Like the rest of this psalm, it’s all about God speaking (here through Moses and Aaron) and acting.

The following verses describe eight plagues–and in a different order than the Exodus story. When one thinks about it, the order really doesn’t matter all that much. With one exception: the psalmist places darkness as the first portent: “He [God] set darkness, and it grew dark,/ yet they did not keep their word.” (28) Darkness is not just a natural occurrence here, but a weapon in God’s arsenal which God deploys: “He set darkness.”  And of course, darkness is a potent symbol of the absence of God in the hearts of the Egyptians.  The psalmist seems to be saying that the Egyptians deserved what they got because their hearts were dark.

The remaining plagues are also God’s direct work: “He turned their waters to blood/ and made their fist die.” (29) “He spoke and the swarm did come” (31) Notice again, the power of words and speech.  And the action verbs: “He turned” (32); “He struck” (32); “He struck” (33); “He spoke” (34). Until we come to the final horrific act, and the poet leaves no doubt about the cause: “And He struck down each firstborn in their land, the first yield of all their manhood.” (36). The final phrase, “first yield of their manhood” intensifies the tragedy that each family must have felt.

Jeremiah 34:8–35:19: King Zedikiah “made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them—that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery.” (34:8,9) And the people do so, but have second thoughts and “brought them again into subjection as slaves.” (34:11) Jeremiah reminds the people that the Law requires slaves who’ve worked for six years to be set free on the seventh year. And there will be hell to pay for this transgression, “You have not obeyed me by granting a release to your neighbors and friends; I am going to grant a release to you, says the Lord—a release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (34:17)

One has to wonder how the Southern aristocracy, all of them Bible-believing Christians, justified slavery in light of this passage. I  suppose they said the business about freeing the slaves after six years was part of Jewish law and then, citing Paul (probably from Romans), observed that they were no longer bound by the terms of law. Or they believed that the slaves were not wholly human (remember the “three-fifths rule” in the Constitution). But this is to misunderstand God’s intentions and above all his demand for justice.

But then again, today, each of us is guilty of interpreting God’s requirement for justice in ways that benefit us to the detriment of others. The power of denial and purposely not seeing the injustice right in front of us is strong indeed.

Titus 1:1–9: Like the two pastoral epistles before it, Titus opens with the clear assertion that Paul is the author. (Of course, placing the authorship ahead of the salutation was how all letters were written in those days.) The first paragraph also provides a kerygmatic summary that emphasizes Paul’s bona fides: “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began—in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior,” (2,3) 

I expect that Calvin, and now the Reformed Church, liked the phrase, “faith of God’s elect.” There’s also a faint echo of John 1 and Paul’s insistence in Philippians that God’s promise predates history. But here it’s not about Jesus Christ who predates history, but our promise of eternal life from “before the ages began.”  I suppose that the juxtaposition of “elect” and a promise that predates history could well lead to developing the doctrine of predestination. But I’m leaving it at that.

Titus is the bishop of Crete and the instructions for the bishop’s duty and character begin apace. “For a bishop as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.” (7).  Looking back at Papal history, one feels that the Borgia popes did not reflect on this verse…

But the list describes the true qualities of effective leadership–both inside and outside the church.  I’m also struck by the emphasis on the bishop’s teaching and preaching duties: “ He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.” These are verses that every call committee or group considering appointments of a bishop (or pastor) must truly take to heart.