Archives for September 2015

Psalm 105:16–22; Jeremiah 33:6–34:7; 2 Timothy 4:9–22

Psalm 105:16–22: Our psalmist/historian comes to the Joseph story.  The land is gripped by famine, which God created, “every staff of bread he broke.” (16b). But then a twist: Joseph’s brothers are nowhere to be found in this version of the story. Instead, Joseph is sent by God, “He [God] sent a man before them–/as a slave Joseph was sold.” (17) So, why no brothers in these verses? I think it was because the tribes of Israel were named after those self-same brothers, and that to bring up those names here would cause anger and distress. The descendants of each tribe would prefer to keep that dark part of their history buried. Which is how history is often written.

God’s man, Joseph, suffers: “They tortured his legs with shackles,/ his neck was out in iron.” (18) Now, the poet emphasizes God’s role in Joseph’s ascension to power: “until the time of his word had come,/ the Lord’s utterance that purged him./ The king sent and loosed his shackles,/ the ruler of peoples set him free.” (19, 20).  In the Genesis story, God remains in the background but here it is God who is pulling all the strings. For the psalmist, the dream interpretation that frees Joseph is “the Lord’s utterance.” The poet has spiritualized the original story to illustrate how God has been intertwined and, indeed, directed the affairs of Israel since earliest times.

And it is Joseph, God’s man, who came to “admonish his princes as he desired/ and to teach wisdom to his elders.” (22) Our eyes tend to slide right over “and to teach his elders,” but in that patriarchal society it would only be a man specially anointed by God who could presume to have greater wisdom that those older than he. Joseph was extraordinary because he was chosen by God. In some ways, this psalm is a transition point between the original story and setting up parallels of Jesus came to Israel as the new Joseph.

Jeremiah 33:6–34:7:  Here we encounter perhaps Jeremiah’s most famous prophecy, the “righteous branch.” Speaking in God’s voice, Jeremiah says that while the present corrupt branch of the Davidic dynasty will pass away, “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David;” (33:14,15a) And unlike the present corrupt branch personified in the current king, Zedekiah, “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (33:15b) Finally, things will be set aright: “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” (33:16b) And perhaps the boldest prophecy of all: “David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel,” (33:17).  

Why is this promise so important? Because it is the covenant that God made with David because of David’s righteousness. And God’s covenants cannot be broken–by God, anyway: “If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken,” (33:19,20)

So, there we have it: The Davidic Messiah is promised not just in Isaiah, but here in Jeremiah also.  And as Christians, it is also God’s promise to us that a descendant of the House of David would come to earth and become our savior. It’s no wonder that the Matthew, the gospel writer to the Jews, made such a big deal about Jesus’ ancestry, tracing it back to David. Jesus is the expression of God’s unbreakable covenant.

Oh, and by the way, Jeremiah goes on to prophesy that Zedikiah will be captured and taken to Babylon, where “you shall see the king of Babylon eye to eye and speak with him face to face;” (34:3).  And as a final demonstration of God’s grace, Jeremiah tells the king, “You shall not die by the sword; you shall die in peace.” (34:5).  

2 Timothy 4:9–22: In these concluding verses we get a personal glimpse of Paul.  Whether they are autobiographical (which is how they are written) or biographical, it does not really matter. In keeping with the managerial tone of the letter, these are mostly administrative instructions of moving people around. Demas has deserted him, so he instructs Timothy, “”Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.” (4:11) There is also real anger here at those who have deserted and are now undermining him: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” (14,15)

One personal note: My father inscribed 2 Timothy 4:13 in every book he ever purchased–and that was a lot of them: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”  For me, this verse has deep personal resonance–and it is one of those rare verses where we encounter such domestic concerns. But the books and parchment were indeed important.

The letter ends with warm personal greetings that certainly make it sound like Paul wrote the letter. But even if he didn’t, whoever wrote it was close to Paul and cared about him deeply. And he has left us a beautiful reminder that Paul was human with all his gifts and all his failings. Just as today, the church had significant problems and some people would would desert it or undermine it. A reminder that only through Jesus is a broken church composed of broken people made whole.

Psalm 105:8–15; Jeremiah 32:16–33:5; 2 Timothy 3:10–4:8

Psalm 105:8–15: Our psalmist reflects on the history of Israel, or more precisely on the history of the covenant as seen from God’s perspective, recalling how it connects back to the three patriarchs:

He recalls His pact forever—
the word He ordained for a thousand generations—
which He sealed with Abraham, and His vow to Isaac,
and He set it for Jacob as a statute,
for Israel an eternal pact,

Then, we hear the Covenant in God’s own words, “To you I will give the land of Canaan/ as the plot of your estate.” (11). Back at that time of Israel’s origins in Canaan, “they were a handful of men,/ but a few, and sojourners there.” (12) At the time that god gave his Covenant, they were but a wandering nomadic tribe, “And they went about form nation to nation,/ from one kingdom to another people.” (13)  This verse and “Sojourners” tells us that Abraham/Isaac/Jacob had no real claim to the land, only the promise of God that one day they would possess it as they moved about in Canaan form place to place.

Nevertheless, they enjoyed God’s fierce protection: “He allowed no man to oppress them/ and warned kings on their account: ‘Touch not My anointed ones,/ and to my prophets do no harm.'” (14,15) This reference to the wanderings of the Patriarchs is certainly one reason why protection of sojourners in Israel in always included in the lists of justice that God demands for widows, orphans and the poor, which we encounter in the OT.

This is also a reminder that God keeps his promises no matter how few we may be or where we may wander–and I suppose even when we wander outside the church. All those psalms of supplication notwithstanding, God never abandons us. His eye is indeed on the sparrow.

Jeremiah 32:16–33:5: Jeremiah remains under guard in the court of Judah’s king and devotes his time to prayer. Like the psalm above, he begins at Creation, “It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (32:16), reviewing the captivity and escape from Israel, the entry into Canaan, “you gave them this land, which you swore to their ancestors to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey;” (32:22) But then things went awry: “they did not obey your voice or follow your law; of all you commanded them to do, they did nothing.” (32:23) [Notice that “doing nothing” is also to disobey God.] And in true deuteronomic fashion, “Therefore you have made all these disasters come upon them.” as he reviews the current desperate situation: “siege ramps have been cast up against the city to take it, and the city, faced with sword, famine, and pestilence…” (32:24). Things couldn’t be worse.

But Jeremiah admits his puzzlement: “O Lord God, [You] have said to me, “Buy the field for money and get witnesses.'” (32:25) Why, Jeremiah asks, should he buy land in a place that is about to be conquered? This is another one of those great metaphorical object lessons we find scattered across this book. Jeremiah’s purchase represents God’s promise that Israel will one day be restored after he has punished the people: “See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety.” (32:37) And then, the Great Promise: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God….I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (32:38, 40)

Israel was certainly restored after its 70-year exile in Babylon under the terms of what we could call the “Renewed Covenant.” But for us Christians, once again we can read these words as the promise of Jesus coming as savior: the New Covenant. Ultimately, for both Israel and ourselves, there is this marvelous promise: “I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” (32:41) Think on that: we are the beneficiaries of all God’s heart and soul. There is nothing greater, nothing better than basking in the love of God.

2 Timothy 3:10–4:8: This is where we encounter the (in)famous verse, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (3:16) Yes, all Scripture is God-inspired, but that does not mean “transcribed autograph direct  from the Holy Spirit” such that every word is inviolate, without error. I’m no theologian, but inerrancy just doesn’t seem to flow from this verse, whose purpose–like so much in this epistle–seems to be practical advice rather than complex theology. For me, the point of this verse is about how we use Scripture as a touchstone reference point for maintaining order and building up knowledge and understanding of each of us as we grow in Christ. 

Nor is this just an intellectual exercise so that we are able to compete successfully in “Sword Drills.” Rather, we are to be come “proficient, equipped for every good work.” The way I read that is that when we head out into the world to serve others and carry out the Great Commission, we must be able to rely on our Biblical understanding to be effective witnesses in our actions. And these actions do not include browbeating others with the “Are you saved?” question. Or at least it doesn’t for me.

Frankly, I think that Biblical ignorance is rampant in much of the church today. And lacking that sure grounding in what Jesus, the Apostles are saying and what all the authors of both the OT and NT actually wrote, we drift aimlessly, unsure of ourselves, almost automaton-like. And then inevitably, we drift away altogether.

We are not to leave our brains at the door of the church and go in to just enjoy an emotional worship experience with cool songs and a charismatic sermon. As the Cursillo folks have it, being an effective Great Commission Christian involves prayer and study before there can be effective action. Study is more than sitting and listening to one 20-30 minute sermon each week. It involves self-discipline and diving into the Word. And action without knowing why and out of what tradition and purpose we’re acting becomes noble but ultimately empty gestures.

Psalm 105:1–7; Jeremiah 31:23–32:15; 2 Timothy 3:1–9

Psalm 105:1–7: These verses are the worshipful introduction to this long psalm that traces Israel’s history back to Genesis. The psalmists purpose is clear in the very first verse: “Acclaim the Lord, call out His name,/ Make His deeds known among the peoples.” As usual, we have the sense of words that are being spoken aloud in the verbs that follow: “Sing to Him,/ hymn to Him,/ speak of all His wonders.” (2) And the impact of speaking and singing is joy: “Revel in His holy name. / Let the heart of the Lord’s seekers rejoice.” (3)

Were we to carry these verses into a modern congregation I’m not sure the poet would be all that impressed as we sit in reverent silence during most of worship. African-American worship with its singing and call and response style seems much closer  to what the psalmist is saying here. Worship at the Temple was definitely a boisterous affair!

In this setting of joyful activity the next verse reminds us that we are to be actively engaged in our relationship with God. We cannot just sit back and passively expect God to bless us. “Inquire of the Lord and His strength,/ seek His presence always.” (4) “Inquire” and “seek” are what we are to do is we truly love God. In our consumer-oriented society too many churches have become all too adept at providing consumer goods themselves: good bands, comfortable seats, extensive programs for children, “good” preaching. And asking basically only for contributions in return. What we could call the “transactional church.”

I believe that churches that survive in the long run will not only encourage but may even require their members to participate in small study groups to learn what their faith is about. And then they send them out into the streets and to serve as tangible witness to what God has done for all of us in sending Jesus Christ to earth. Then, along with the psalmist we will “Recall the wonders that He did” (5) and that “He is the Lord our God–/through all the earth, His judgements.” (7)

Jeremiah 31:23–32:15: Jeremiah prophesies a New Covenant: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:33) And then the greatest promise: “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34) Like all prophecy, it has a near-term component: the eventual restoration of post-exilic Israel. But its long term implication is what matters most to us in the 21st century. As Christians, these famous verses can really mean only one thing: the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah prophesies that Jerusalem will not only be restored but it will be enlarged: “the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah.” (31:38, 39) And even more importantly, “It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (31:40b) I’m guessing that the more Orthodox sects in modern Israel place great store in this prophecy as the boundaries of Jerusalem are pushed ever outward.

Jerusalem is under siege by Nebuchadrezzar; Jeremiah is under court guard “where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.” (32:3) The king comes to Jeremiah and asks, ““Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it?” (32:3).

Jeremiah’s answer is certainly not what the king (or we) expected. The prophet describes his real estate transaction when he says that the Lord told him that his cousin Hanamel would come to him with an offer to buy his land. And of course, that’s exactly what happens. Jeremiah tells the king,  “in accordance with the word of the Lord, [Hanamel] said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’” (32:7)  Jeremiah tells the king, “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.” (32:8)  The prophet then tells how he signed the deed and put it into an earthenware jar for safekeeping “in order that they may last for a long time.” (32:14) And then finally, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (32:15)  In other words, Jeremiah has such assurance that Israel will be restored following its captivity that Jeremiah is willing to put money where his mouth is.

(But I’m sure he’ll have more to say about this in tomorrow’s reading…)

2 Timothy 3:1–9: Well, if our author was truly Paul, he outdoes himself here with one of his lists that pretty much summarizes the state of the culture of his time. And of course, of ours as well. “in the last days distressing times will come.  For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,” (1a-4) With barely a casual glance at modern American culture we can see every one of those traits on public display. And on any given Sunday morning here in Walnut Creek, the last line rings particularly true: “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,” who don’t even bother to “[hold] to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” (5)

But the advice that follows seems both ungracious and unPauline: “Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires.” (6) Given the women such as Lydia, who were crucial supporter in the formation of the early church, I’m find it difficult to accept that Paul would use the phrase “silly women,” who are “overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires.” Obviously, our author does not what these women to be unduly influenced by persons of evil intent, but I think there are all kinds of silly men, too.

Perhaps I’m just projecting my values on a very different culture (although the list here certainly suggests definite similarity), but this warning strikes me as overly petty.

 

Psalm 104:31–35; Jeremiah 30:12–31:22; 2 Timothy 2:14–26

Psalm 104:31–35: This magnificent psalm, which is the poet’s take on the first chapter of Genesis, concludes with a soaring hymn of praise: “May the Lord’s glory be forever,/ May the Lord rejoice in His works.” (31) Notice how we  sing to God, God but God joins in and “rejoices in his works.”

The poet reminds us once again of God’s unimaginable power: “Who but looks down to earth, and it trembles,/ but touches the mountains–they smoke.” (32) This is the God–Creator of all–whom we worship: “Let me sing to the Lord while I live,/ let me hymn to my God while I breathe.” (33) And as always, worship is not inner reflection or mere thought, it is singing and speech: “Let my speech be sweet unto Him.” (34).

And while we’re worshipping, just one more wish: “Let offenders vanish from earth/ and the wicked be no more.” (35a). Amidst the joy and singing, a sobering reminder that God’s creation has been sullied by fallen mankind. But the poet only notes fallenness in passing as the psalm ends on exactly the phrase it began: “Bless, O my being, the Lord.” And as an extra exclamation mark: “Hallelujah!”  We have truly soared to the heights of worship in these 35 verses. This psalm is itself pure joy.

 Jeremiah 30:12–31:22: We encounter a far more despairing poem here in Jeremiah:
“Thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you.” (30:12-14)

There is certainly no rejoicing; there is not even hope. Why? “Your pain is incurable./Because your guilt is great,/because your sins are so numerous. (30:15) There will be punishment for sin. There must be punishment for sin. And this is the popular image of the avenging, wrathful OT God. 

But wait: What’s this? “For I will restore health to you,/ and your wounds I will heal,/ says the Lord.” (30:17) Following punishment, the promise of restoration awaits:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
        and have compassion on his dwellings;
     the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
and the citadel set on its rightful site.” (30:18)

And the greatest promise to Israel of all: “And you shall be my people,/ and I will be your God.” (30:22) Like the whirlwind, or a passing storm, God’s anger and punishment are meted out because there has been sin and injustice, but once justice is satisfied the storm passes. And Jeremiah–giver of doleful, terrifying warnings–writes of Israel’s restoration following exilein these famous verses:
    “Rachel is weeping for her children;
       she refuses to be comforted for her children,
        because they are no more.
     Thus says the Lord:
        Keep your voice from weeping,
             and your eyes from tears;
         for there is a reward for your work,
             says the Lord:
         they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
         there is hope for your future,
     says the Lord:
            your children shall come back to their own country.” (
31:15-17)

There is always hope. Even in the darkest of times amidst the deepest agony. Is there any sadder phrase than “ she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more?” And yet just two verses later: “there is hope for your future…your children will come back to their own country.” Restoration, redemption: this is God’s wonderful promise. The promise he offers to all humankind through the death and resurrection of his own begotten son. Surely at that moment God wept because his child was no more. But there is always hope for our future.

How is there hope? Jeremiah tells us: “consider well the highway,/ the road by which you went./Return, O virgin Israel.” Redemption and restoration is all about realizing the hopeless path of sin we are following–and turning around.

2 Timothy 2:14–26: Aha! a verse I memorized in the 5th grade at Lake Avenue Congregational Church: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” That verse had no resonance to my 10-year old mind. But it does now. In preparation for my teenage years, I probably should have been required to learn the very next verse and a half: “Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” (16, 17a). In fact, in this age of social media, talk spreads not slowly like gangrene, but like wildfire. Almost every day we read of some person being taken down by intemperate remarks on Facebook or Twitter. We should print and post that verse on the top of our computers! 

We encounter a rather odd metaphor–one I don’t I think Paul would have used–but instructive nonetheless: “ In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary.” (20) This sounds like a reference to the hierarchy of the early church where most of the people are “ordinary utensils,” but regardless of our ordinariness, “All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” (21) And here are the requirements for doing so, perhaps the two verses with which every church should open any council or congregational meeting: “Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (22, 23)

Of course the question is, am I pursuing righteousness, faith, love, peace and a pure heart? Or would I rather dwell on the controversies?