Archives for October 2015

Psalm 119:33–40; Ezekiel 23:28–24:8; James 3:13–4:6

Psalm 119:33–40: The overriding theme of this long psalm is the desire of the psalmist to be instructed in the law and to be guided by God because that is where the pleasure in life arises: “Instruct me, Lord, in the way of Your statutes,/ that I may keep it without fail.” (33) and “Guide me on the track of Your commands,/ for in it I delight.” (35)

So, if we descend a level of abstraction, just what does it mean to be “instructed” or “guided” by God? Like me, sitting here reading Scripture, is it a question of being alone in one’s study, reading and gaining new insight on one’s own? Is being guided by God strictly a one-on-One activity–just God and me? Or are we as individuals guided or instructed through the words and actions of others? Will I gain more instruction  and “insight that I may keep Your teaching” (34a) from God sitting here at my desk reading, or will I benefit from the wisdom of others? Should I read books about the Bible or just the Bible itself? Will I get more out of a Bible study with others or just wait here for the Holy Spirit to descend and give me those “Aha!” moments?

For me–and I think for most others–insight comes in a variety of ways. Certainly solitary study has been enormously productive for me in terms of the discipline of reading and writing about the Bible without aid of commentaries. Which is what “musing” is about. But there’s no question that listening to sermons or having group discussions such as those I enjoy at Hubcaps on Friday mornings brings insights, as well.

The psalmist says, “Through Your ways give me life.” (37b) And I think the key is to be open and accepting of God’s many “ways,” which certainly includes the wisdom and insights of other people. But there’s also no question that for me, sitting alone most mornings at my desk and reading and reflecting is a rich source of insight and hearing God’s “utterance, which is for those who fear You.” (38)

Ezekiel 23:28–24:8: The prophecy concerning Oholah and Oholibah just keeps getting grimmer as the metaphor of Israel and Judah as whoring sisters grinds to its woeful conclusion. The other countries, who are the metaphorical johns, lead Oholibah–Judah–to its bitter end and they “shall deal with you in hatred, and take away all the fruit of your labor, and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your whorings shall be exposed….because you played the whore with the nations, and polluted yourself with their idols.” (23:29, 30)

The greatest sin is not to have played the whore by adopting the idolatrous and sinful practices of the nations around them. That was bad enough, but the greatest sin is to have committed adultery against God, “and blood is on their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery” including the most despicable possible act of idolatry, child sacrifice: “they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me.” (23:37) Worse, they pretended to still be faithful to God: “when they had slaughtered their children for their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it.” (23:39)

God’s judgement against the whores follows Levitical law: “The assembly shall stone them and with their swords they shall cut them down; they shall kill their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses. ” (23:47) and Judah “shall bear the penalty for your sinful idolatry; and you shall know that I am the Lord God.” (23:49)

We often castigate the OT God as harsh and unforgiving, but I think we must consider the magnitude of Israel’s and Judah’s sins. This is not casual idolatry, but children are being sacrificed to false gods. In terms of “eye for an eye” Judah and Israel received exactly what they deserved.

On “the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of theLord came to me” (24:1). It is “this day, this very day. The king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day.” (24:2) And Ezekiel is commanded to “utter an allegory to the rebellious house ” (24:3).

The allegory is a boiling pot, which once was useful for making lamb stew: “Take the choicest one of the flock,/ pile the logs  under it;/ boil its pieces, / seethe also its bones in it.” (24:5).  I take this to be the time that Israel and Judah followed God’s law and the pot represents the kingdom of Israel as it followed God in the days of David and Solomon.  But through the adultery of Judah the pot has become rusty and useless: “Woe to the bloody city,/ the pot whose rust is in it,/ whose rust has not gone out of it!” (24:6) and “the blood she shed is inside it;” (24:7). The blood is emptied out and “to take vengeance,/ I [God] have placed the blood she shed/ on a bare rock,/ so that it may not be covered.” (24:8).

The pot would be the very civilization of Israel and Judah itself and the blood poured out is the punishment to come. Judah will lose everything and its blood will be shed on the rock, in the wilderness. The people who heard this prophecy could not have missed its woeful meaning as the army of Babylon stood camped outside the gates of Jerusalem.

James 3:13–4:6: James sets up the dichotomy of two kinds of wisdom. One is to demonstrate it and “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (3:13). The other “wisdom” is “if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” (14). So, it’s clear that for James, wisdom does not come from ourselves our our own knowledge, but from acts of selfless love that are inspired by God.

In fact, he defines godly wisdom quite precisely: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (3:17) The phrase that jumps off the page for me is “willing to yield.” I think demanding “our way or the highway” has led to more discord and conflict–especially in the church–than any other cause. For James, wisdom cannot arise from getting our own way.

I think James could rightly be called the patron saint of the therapeutic community because he gets exactly what is going on inside people: ” Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (4:1) If our desires come from our head and not our heart, it’s suspect.

He also parses what Jesus meant about asking and receiving, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (4:3) In other words, asking and receiving is a question of the heart, not the mind. If we are in tune with the Holy Spirit then what we ask for will be received. I’m pretty sure that those who preach the “prosperity gospel” have not read this chapter lately.

James make it crystal clear: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (4:4). In other words, God does not bestow mansions, fast cars and planes because that’s how someone is blessed by God. Instead, ““God opposes the proud,/ but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6) Would that we would remember that in our relationships with fellow Christians and in our relation ship as “resident aliens” in the world itself.

Psalm 119:25–32; Ezekiel 22:23–23:27; James 3:1–12

Psalm 119:25–32: Our psalmist sees that his very life depends on his immersion in God’s word: “My being cleaves to the dust./ Give me life as befits Your word.” (25) He is in deep conversation with God: “My ways I recounted and You answered me.” (26a) and he seeks ever greater understanding, “The way of Your decrees let me grasp,/ that I may dwell on Your wonders.” (27) We could reasonably extend this verse and apply it to how we gain knowledge and understanding of the world and universe in which we dwell through the scientific method. This past week I spent two evenings out under the stars, far away from city lights. It is in the majesty of God’s visible universe  far away from the glare of humankind that I can identify with the psalmist, who wishes to dwell on God’s wonders. It stimulates not only our sense of awe, but our desire to learn more, which is what the psalmist is getting at here.

The psalmist then pleads, “The way of lies remove from me,/ and in Your teaching grant me grace.” (29). We don’t encounter the word “grace” very often in the OT, and here grace is a goal, something to be achieved. This is one of those places where we realize that it is God’s Word, in the person of Jesus Christ, that brings us grace. The psalmist had only the Law and as such he could only ask God to give him greater insights arising out of the Law that would bring him to grace. How much greater for us that we do not have to grasp for grace, but that God in his infinite generosity has granted it to us if we will but grasp it.

Ezekiel 22:23–23:27: God’s accusations against the different groups of people of Jerusalem continue unabated.  Israel’s princes “have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows within it.” (22:25). Its priests “have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common.” (22:26). Its officials (which I’ll take to be government workers) “are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain.” (22:27) And finally, its prophets “have smeared whitewash on their behalf, seeing false visions and divining lies for them,” (22:28).  Ezekiel turns his attention to the population at large, the “common folk,” as God declares that they “have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.” (22:29).  All in all a pretty accurate description of every society that follows Israel on up to our own 21st century American culture. I am always amused by politicians who claim they can change all this; those who promise hope, but deliver straw. The human heart is immutably corrupt and can be changed in only one way.

Ezekiel then recounts one of his more fantastic metaphors: the story of the two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah. In a remarkably explicit passage, “hey played the whore in their youth; their breasts were caressed there, and their virgin bosoms were fondled.” (23:3) There’s no mystery about what each represents : “Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.” (23:4)

The story of Oholah, the lost northern kingdom of Israel, comes first: “she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors clothed in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, mounted horsemen.” (23:6). But “She did not give up her whorings that she had practiced since Egypt; … Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, for whom she lusted. (23:6,7). Israel lusted after the men and practices of Assyria and was consumed: “These uncovered her nakedness; they seized her sons and her daughters; and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her.” (23:10)

Then, Judah’s turn: “Her sister Oholibah saw this, yet she was more corrupt than she in her lusting and in her whorings, which were worse than those of her sister.” (23:11) It is Jerusalem to whom Ezekiel is prophesying and he makes sure they get his point: “But she carried her whorings further; she saw male figures carved on the wall, images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, … all of them looking like officers—a picture of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea.” (23:14, 15)  God “turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister. Yet she increased her whorings.” (23:18, 19)  And as the Assyrians turned on Israel, Judah’s efforts to suck up to the Babylonians and imitate their ways will result in disaster: “They shall seize your sons and your daughters, and your survivors shall be devoured by fire. They shall also strip you of your clothes and take away your fine jewels.” (23:25, 26)

This story brings out an aspect of Israel and Judah that I hadn’t appreciated before. I always thought the conquerers just showed up and conquered. But it’s clear that their defeat arose from their failure to maintain their distinctiveness as God’s people. Instead, they adopt the foreign culture, possibly for defensive purposes at first. But the idols, wealth, and colorfully dressed officers of the Assyrians and Babylonians turns out to be lethally attractive. In the end, their paramours turn on Israel and Judah and destroy them. In short, Israel and Judah are corrupted by their own lust; they are not the innocents who are conquered. Kingdoms are weakened by internal rot and then the conquerers need only push them over as one would push over a building comprised of rotting timber.

 James 3:1–12: I would love to know the back story that sets James off on his famous diatribe about the evils wrought by that “small member, ” the tongue. In that era where speech was the main means of communication, James warns us that “the tongue is a fire.” (6a)  It “stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (6b) And it’s untamable as those of us who have said foolish and hurtful things know all too well. James is especially outraged that the same tongue that can commit both good and evil: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (9, 10)

Today, we have many other means of communication than just the tongue. Although that certainly does not prevent us form saying hateful things, especially to those whom we love. It’s easy to write hateful things. And in the Internet era it is far too easy to email or post hurtful thoughts that can do serious injury, as recent cases of cyberbullying that led to suicide prove too well.

James wonders rhetorically, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (11) Of all the things in nature, it is the tongue–and the human being in which the tongue resides–that can perform the trick of saying both good and evil all too easily. The tongue is the clearest proof of our fallen nature. And I am guilty as charged.

Psalm 119:17–24; Ezekiel 21:18–22:22; James 2:14–26

Psalm 119:17–24: This section is a psalm of supplication and its usual memes, but with a twist. Most supplicants ask for their life to be restored. Here, the psalmist asks, “Requite You servant–I shall live,/ and let me observe Your word.” (17) and then, “Unveil my eyes that I may look/ upon the wonders of Your teaching.” (18).  One feels just a bit skeptical when he asserts, “I pine away desiring/ You laws in every hour.” (20) Really? Or is there some hyperbole here?

But there is some danger, too, in neglecting God’s words when he writes, “You blast away the cursed arrogant/ who stray from Your commands.” (21) Of course, the deal of the Old Covenant was in keeping God’s law, so there’s no question the psalmist is being theologically correct when he says, “Take away from me scorn and disgrace/ for Your precepts I have kept.” (22) So, we have to accept his sincerity when he ends with “Yes, Your precepts are my delight,/ my constant counselors.” (24)

Which is good advice for all of us because God’s Word is expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who should definitely be at the center of our lives. For us, the Word was made flesh and we are indeed rescued and it is in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, our “constant counselor” in whom we take delight.

Ezekiel 21:18–22:22: Ezekiel is to mark out a (metaphorical? actual?) fork in the road to which the King of Babylon will come and stand at “the parting of the way?” Will he head toward the Rabbah of the Ammonites or toward Jerusalem? It appears to be a false choice because both are punished. First, Jerusalem: “As for you, vile, wicked prince of Israel,/ you whose day has come,/ the time of final punishment,…things shall not remain as they are.” (21:25, 26) God promises: “A ruin, a ruin, a ruin—/ I will make it!/ (Such has never occurred.)” (21:27a) But then, as always, amidst the curses and depredations, there is the glimmer of the Promise– a Messiah: “Until he comes whose right it is;/ to him I will give it.” (21:27b)

The Ammonites will receive their comeuppance as well, as the sword metaphor reappears: “A sword, a sword! Drawn for slaughter,/ polished to consume, to flash like lightning.” (21:28) As with Israel, God will “pour out my indignation upon you,/ with the fire of my wrath/ I will blow upon you./ I will deliver you into brutish hands,” (21:31). The message here is clear. In the end, God cannot abide evil no matter who commits it.

But the Ammonites are merely a parenthesis as Ezekiel returns to the real issue at hand: the sins of Jerusalem: “You, mortal, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city? Then declare to it all its abominable deeds.” (22:2) We encounter a horrifying catalog of abominations that the leaders and people of Jerusalem have committed: “A city! Shedding blood within itself; its time has come; making its idols, defiling itself.” (22:3) Judgement awaits because “You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made; you have brought your day near, the appointed time of your years has come.” (22:4)

Beginning with the accusation that “everyone according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood.” (26) we encounter virtually the exact inverse of the Decalogue:

  • Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; (7a)
  • the alien residing within you suffers extortion; (7b)
  • the orphan and the widow are wronged in you. (7c)
  • You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths. (8)
  • those who slander to shed blood, those in you who eat upon the mountains, (9a)
  • they take bribes to shed blood; (13a)
  • you take both advance interest and accrued interest, and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; (13b)

Sexual perversion receives detailed attention:

  • In you they uncover their fathers’ nakedness; in you they violate women in their menstrual periods. (10)
  •  One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; (11a)
  • another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; (11b)
  • another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter. (11c)

Thus, for its sinfulness in every aspect of its communal and family life, “the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them, silver, bronze, tin, iron, and lead. In the smelter they have become dross.” (18) What once was valuable is now worthless, as the reading ends, “As silver is melted in a smelter, so you shall be melted in it; and you shall know that I the Lord have poured out my wrath upon you.” (22)

What is striking here is just how the nature of human sin has not changed one iota. Our culture stands guilty of each of these items in the list. Will God withhold his wrath or is judgement inevitable? Looking at history, I think I can guess the eventual outcome.

James 2:14–26: Ah, we come to the centerpiece of James’s thesis: the relationship between faith and works. He asks the rhetorical question that surely got Martin Luther’s attention: “Can faith save you?” (14) Which James answers by asserting that faith–which I take here as intellectual faith–cannot, as he asserts, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (17).

But I think it’s important to realize that James is getting at faith of the heart. Real faith generates the desire to put faith into action by what we do. Faith and works are supremely intertwined: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.” (22)

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure what really got Martin was James’s summary: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (24). Do works really justify? This was  the problem Luther saw in the Church: that works had superseded faith as the means of salvation. I’m pretty sure Luther would have been happier if James had written something like “works are the natural consequence of true faith, but we are justified before God by faith alone. Works logically follow.”  As would I have been. I think it’s too easy to focus solely on works, which leads to pride, which leads to believing we are justifying ourselves by our own efforts.

Faith and works are certainly a tricky and dynamic balance like walking on a knife edge.

Psalm 119:9–16; Ezekiel 20:30–21:17; James 2:1–13

 Psalm 119:9–16: The psalmist slips in an autobiographical note, informing us that he has been seeking God from his youth: “How shall a lad make his path worthy/ to observe as befits Your word./ With all my heart I sought You.” (9, 10a) The question is, of course, do I seek God with all my heart? Or do I come to God only half-heartedly, seeking the Word of God only when it’s convenient for me?

“In my heart I kept Your utterance/ so that I would not offend against You.” (11) This is a theme that will occur over and over in this psalm: the necessity to know God’s word as it is set out in Scripture in order to obey it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, knowing the Law was absolutely essential. Now that we live in the era of grace under the New Covenant, I think we use grace as an excuse not to delve deeply into Scripture in order to better understand the roots of the gift that we enjoy.  Not knowing God’s word is no longer a question of not “offending” God, but of missing so much of the back-story and knowing the theology that should command our lives.

Once again we encounter the preeminence of speech as the key means of communication as the psalmist tells us, “With my lips I recounted/ all the laws You pronounced.” (13) I suspect this ability to recount aloud was more than rattling off the Decalogue. Rather it would be reciting the contents of Leviticus and Deuteronomy–a daunting task and significant achievement! It’s important to note, however, that the psalmist does not see this as memory work as drudgery, but a source of pleasure: ” In Your statutes I delight,/ I shall not forget Your word.” (16) While I have no intention of memorization, there’s no question that beginning my day in God’s word has truly become a delight. Who would have thought?

Ezekiel 20:30–21:17: Even though Israel thinks it can abandon God, God will not abandon them: “What is in your mind shall never happen—the thought, “Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.”” (20:32) Instead, God says, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you.” (20:33) And since God will not abandon Israel, allowing it to be like other nations, it must suffer the consequences of its sins: “As I entered into judgment with your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, says the Lord God.” (21:36). In short, Israel, having entered into the Covenant with God must suffer the consequences of its sins.

But that promise to never abandon Israel also includes the promise to restore it: “There you shall remember your ways and all the deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.” (21:43) In the same way that memory is essential to the psalmist in following God, there is national memory as well. Israel will once again collectively recall what God has done for it. It will again come to its senses and “you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, or corrupt deeds, O house of Israel,” (21:44)  We can grab hold of this promise as well. When we drift away from God and sin we will suffer the consequences of that sin. But we will also recall–and enjoy–God’s gracious forgiveness.

As is so frequently the case, the prophet swings form the promise of restoration back to the threats of punishment: “Thus says the Lord: I am coming against you, and will draw my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked.” (21:4) and we encounter a dreadful metaphor: the sword of the Lord:
     “A sword, a sword is sharpened,
        it is also polished;
     it is sharpened for slaughter,
         honed to flash like lightning!” (21:9b, 10)

Worse, the sword is “is against my people;/ it is against all Israel’s princes.” (21:12) And there’s no point in being in denial about the inevitability of punishment: “ For consider: What! If you despise the rod, will it not happen?  says the Lord God.” (13) God will swing it and strike everyone in its path:
    “Attack to the right!
        Engage to the left!
         —wherever your edge is directed.
      I too will strike hand to hand,
         I will satisfy my fury;
      I the Lord have spoken.” (21:16, 17)

This is one of those places in the OT where we can only say, “Here ends the reading,” and admit we cannot grasp the idea of such a furious God that would destroy the people to whom he also promises restoration just a few verses earlier. It’s a reminder that the Old Covenant is thankfully we have been spared because our sins as a culture are easily as great as ancient Israel’s.

James 2:1–13: James continues to eschew high theology to focus on right practice within the Christian community. Here he raises an issue that is as ignored just as much today as it was in the early church: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2-4) For us the question is, would we welcome the disheveled homeless man as eagerly as the person who parks his expensive car in the parking lot? Unfortunately, we know the answer too well.

James quite rightly says, “God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.” (5) Yes, we know that already. The Bible is really clear on this point. But then he goes on to make a point that I think we don’t stop and really appreciate: “ Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”  (6,7) It’s the haughty wealthy who think they are better than us and the ones eager to acquire even more wealth–usually at our expense. 

So why do we kow-tow to the wealthy even to our own detriment? I think there’s a simple answer: envy. We want to be in their position so we can pridefully lord it over others. But as James points out, “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (9) But alas, our thoughtless, self-centered human nature makes that sin all too easy to commit. James is reminding us that we must consciously regard our actions with other people. Seems so simple, so straightforward. And yet we persist.

Psalm 119:1–8; Ezekiel 20:1–29; James 1:19–27

Psalm 119:1–8: And so we begin our annual trek through the longest Palm that is also the longest book in the Bible—all 176 verses of it. Alter informs us that this psalm is the “Long Acrostic,” with 8 verses attached to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with “aleph.” Each line of the eight verses begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter of that set.

This is a didactic psalm, stressing the importance of knowing God’s word. It is not particular soaring or beautiful. But I imagine that Hebrew scholars had contests among themselves to see who could recite the entire psalm without error.

The first verse pretty much sets out the overriding theme of the entire psalm:” “Happy whose way is blameless,/ who walk in the Lord’s teaching. This is not a psalm about walking through the valley of shadow of death or philosophical outlook of Psalm 90 or the joyful praise of personal rescue of the preceding psalm. It is about the joys of learning, and as the next verse informs us, the joys attendant to keeping God’s law: “Happy who keep His precepts,/ with a whole heart they seek Him.” (2)

Plus, these people who rejoice in teaching seem to be supremely self-confident in their righteousness: “Yes, they did no wrong,/ in His ways they have walked.” (3) And God has set out some very high standards: “You ordained Your decrees/ to be strictly observed.” (4) Alas, as we read in the Histories and the Prophets the people did not exactly hew to the next verse: “Would that my ways be frim/ to observe Your statutes.” (5)

It is only in the last line in this first set of verses where we get a glimpse of the man behind the poetry: “Do not utterly forsake me.” (8) The poet lives in fear that if he does not obey God’s statutes, he will be lost. Which for the Hebrews was true.

Ezekiel 20:1–29: Once again, the elders of Israel come to Ezekiel. We know this is an actual event because the date is recorded: “ In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month.” (1) We aren’t told why they’re coming because, God speaking through his prophet, is beyond being consulted by them. Rather, he lambastes the elders with yet another recitation of the collective sins of Israel, starting with the Exodus: “On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of … And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (6,7)

God, through Ezekiel, recounts the giving of the law and the various rebellions in the wilderness, reminding them how often he took mercy on them: “But I withheld my hand, and acted for the sake of my name, so that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.” (22)

What’s interesting here is that God seems to grant mercy to Israel so that God would not become a laughingstock in “the sight of the [other] nations.” Was God being insecure here? Or was the concept of an invisible monotheistic God so radical in that era of multiple gods represented in physical idols that if Israel was not rescued, God’s role as Creator and protector would not be realized?

The reading ends on a sour note as God recalls that when Israel came into Canaan, all the people could seem to do was “wherever they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices and presented the provocation of their offering…” (28) Really? Is that all Israel did? Or are we seeing an unexpectedly irritated, even petulant side of God?

James 1:19–27: The reading opens with the famous advice, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (10) which in this email and social media era is more important than ever since this form of communication lacks the mediating influence of actually looking someone in the eye before we open our mouths. Instead, when we get angry, we fire off a zingy email that beyond making us feel better for a moment does nothing to address the situation, but only exacerbates it. Send or post in haste, regret at leisure…

James, eager to dispense advice, seems to employ simpler terminology than Paul or the author of Hebrews, which can lead, I think, to some difficulties in interpretation. For example, he says, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (21) I presume by “Implanted word” that he means the Gospel message, the Kerygma, the Good News. Or does he mean the Holy Spirit? I guess I’ll go with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Then we come to James’s most famous aphorism: “ be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (22) As if that didn’t make his point, James excoriates “hearers” even more, accusing them of pride, being “like those who look at themselves in a mirror.” (23b)

This is of course is extremely sound advice—as long as we don’t exclude the “hearing.” It seems to me that we cannot be effective “doers” without having heard—and understanding—what the “implanted word” is all about. But James seems to take exactly that exclusionary path when he asserts, “being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” (22) Frankly, I’m beginning to see why Luther would have been perfectly happy to not have this book in the Canon.

Psalm 118:15–21; Ezekiel 17:11–18:18; Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8

Psalm 118:15–21: The “voice of glad song and rescue” (15a) continues as the psalmist notes a recurrent theme of Psalms that it is the living, not the dead, that are able to praise God: “I shall not dies but live/ and recount the deeds of Yah.”(17)  Although he came close to death–“Yah harshly chastised me/ but to death did not deliver me” (18)–God has rescued him and he has now arrived at the entrance to the temple and is ready to walk through the “gates of justice,” ready to praise God, “I would enter them, I would acclaim yah.” (19) These same gates are “the gate of the Lord” and “the just will enter it.” (20) This phrase casts a light on the nature of the temple I had not really thought about before: the temple is fundamentally a metaphor both for God’s rescue of Israel and for God’s demand for justice.

We then encounter the famous verse quoted by Paul, “The stone that the builders rejected/ has become he chief cornerstone.” (22) In context this is simply a metaphor the psalmist uses to compare his former abject state to his rescued, justified, and newly restored existence, now able to enter the temple praising God. We of course know the cornerstone to be Jesus Christ, rejected by the Jews, but who became the cornerstone of the New Covenant. This is another of those wonderful places in the OT that were once seen in the light of God’s old covenant, but whose meaning is radically transformed and revealed for something (someone!) far greater in the light of the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel 17:11–18:18: Ezekiel recounts the same history we read in Jeremiah: the Jewish governor appointed by the king of Babylon “rebelled against him by sending ambassadors to Egypt, in order that they might give him horses and a large army.” (17:15a) Ezekiel asks the existential question that leaps beyond the specific incident and becomes the question for all Israel, and ultimately, for all of us: “Can he break the covenant and yet escape?” (15b) Needless to say, the answer is obvious: “Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war, …Because he despised the oath and broke the covenant, … he shall not escape.” (17:17,18) Which of course is exactly what happened.

We tend to think of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as being unrelenting doom and the just punishment for a sinful people. Many people think the God we see in the OT is vindictive and mean. Yet, again and again, we encounter passages of tender mercy for the very same people God intends to punish. Here we read a beautiful metaphor for Israel that God will “take a sprig /from the lofty top of a cedar” (11), plant it, “in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,/ and become a noble cedar.” (23) We see that yes, God demands justice and there will be consequences to Israel’s sin, but his love for Israel endures like that of a father raising recalcitrant children. Wendell Berry, in a story we’ve just read, says, “People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it is terrible, in a way.” God’s love is far, far greater than our constricted view of love as hearts and flowers. God’s love includes justice. And sometimes that justice is indeed terrible.

Ezekiel turns to God’s reflections on individuals rather than the corporate Israel, which I think is a direct reflection on the earlier question, of whether or not we cab escape the covenant: “ If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.” (18:5-9). Here we have in narrative form, God’s restatement of the Law.

The key here is that the acts of the individual has consequences. We are each responsible for our acts before God. We cannot claim to be victims of a sinful or unjust society and therefore escape the consequences of our individual actions. Yet, today, many people make exactly that claim before the law. But in the end we stand before God not as a group, but one by one.

Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8: Our unknown author gives his benediction–“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will.” (20, 21). And then a personal note that tells us two things about this unknown author: “ I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free…” (23) And “Those from Italy send you greetings.” (24b) So, he knows Timothy and is writing from Italy, presumably Rome. He must therefore be part of the church at Rome. And there’s little question that his knowledge of the Law, his creativity, and the brilliant logic he employs suggests he is at least as brilliant a scholar–and as dedicated a Christian–as Paul himself. But his identity remains one of the great mysteries of Christianity.

On the other hand, we know exactly who James was: brother of Christ and with Peter, head of the church at Jerusalem. Like the Hebrews author he is writing to a church experiencing persecution, and he opens with words of encouragement: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;” (1:2,3) 

James tells us to “ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (6) And just to make sure we get his point, he repeats himself: “for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (8). Well, I’m sorry, but I think a true life of faith also includes doubt along the way. I suggest that absent doubt we cannot really understand the nature of faith.

We don’t have to get too far into this epistle to see why Martin Luther was no fan of it.

Psalm 118:8–14; Ezekiel 16:43–17:10; Hebrews 13:7–19

Psalm 118:8–14: The immutable truth of verses 8 & 9 says it all:
“Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust humankind.
Better to shelter in the Lord
than to trust in princes.”
And yet we almost always do exactly the opposite. Our first instinct is to trust humankind and princes, which I’ll take here as the larger culture and specifically the government (“princes”), and only we come to a dreadful pass do we turn and trust God.

In demonstration of his point, our psalmist goes on to describe exactly how he trusted God in battle: “All the nations surrounded me./ With the Lord’s name I cut them down.” (11) He repeats the same point in the next verse and then uses a memorable metaphor to make the point a third time about trusting God: They swarmed around me like bees,/ burned out a fire among thorns. /With the Lord’s name I cut them down.” (12) And then once more: “You pushed me hard to knock me down, /but the Lord helped me.” (13) it’s clear that he has placed his entire trust, his entire being in God.

I think it’s important to note that this is not a psalm about God being on his side. Instead, it is that our strength–physical, mental, emotional–comes form God. Our strength does not come from within us. We do not succeed by dint of our internal will or desire. Only by trusting in God can we succeed in the world.  I think that too many Christians today are trying to accomplish noble ends strictly on the power of their own will rather than throwing themselves into the arms of God and trusting that he will help us succeed. As the psalmist  puts it so beautifully, “My strength and my might come from God,/ and he has become my rescue.” (14)

Ezekiel 16:43–17:10: Ezekiel compares the sins of Israel with the ancient standard of total corruption: Sodom. And, inconceivable as it might seem, Israel has managed to exceed even the corruption of that cursed place: “You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways.” (16:47). God will turn Israel’s pride back on itself: “Was not your sister Sodom a byword in your mouth in the day of your pride, before your wickedness was uncovered?” (56, 57). The warning is clear: when we speak evil of those we believe to be corrupt we are almost always being hypocritical. And there are plenty of examples in the political sphere!

So, God “will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath, breaking the covenant.” (59). And yet. God will punish, but he will not abandon. Here we encounter a prophecy of something even greater than the first covenant: “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant.” (60). And for us, that “everlasting covenant” has but one interpretation: the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And in that promise, “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame” (62, 6a3) And in that everlasting covenant, “I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God.” (63b)

In the midst of punishment for breaking the Old Covenant, lies the shining promise of a New Covenant, which the author of Hebrews goes to such lengths to explain.

In the next chapter, Ezekiel is commanded by God to “propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel.” (17:2) An eagle swoops down, plucks a shoot of cedar, sets it in a “city of merchants.” Then it takes a seed and plants it until it becomes a vine, which “brought forth branches, [and] put forth foliage.” (17:6) Then another “great eagle” comes along and plucks up the vine. The question is, “Will it prosper?
Will he not pull up its roots,
    cause its fruit to rot and wither,
    its fresh sprouting leaves to fade?” (17:9)

or, “When it is transplanted, will it thrive?” (17:10) I surmise that Israel is that vine that was taken down to Egypt and brought back to Canaan, where it thrived. But are its roots to shallow such that when adversity comes it withers and dies? That’s the question each of us can ask ourselves: are our roots shallow? Will we wither when we are confronted with adversity? Or, like the psalmist, will we understand that our might and strength come form God?

Hebrews 13:7–19: As Paul so frequently did, our author does here, advising them to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (7) In our American culture of “rugged individualism,” where we tend to think that it is somehow “cheating” to imitate the faith of our leaders, and that we would do better to discover all these truths on our own. We need to recover the idea that “Christian” means “little Christ” and that we are called to imitate him, not to set our on our own path of discovery. This is also why community is so crucially important. We need to be surrounded by others imitating Christ.

Unlike the whims of fashion and the latest fad in the church, we are to remember that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (8) The Gospel message is set in the stone of Jesus Christ. And that is where we are to focus: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them.” (9)

We need to remember that the world around is is “no lasting city” and that “we are looking for the city that is to come.” (14) In a world of constantly shifting impermanence that some mistakenly call “progress” or “meeting our needs,” we must keep our eyes looking to, and our actions imitating, Christ, who is unchanging.

Psalm 118:1–9; Ezekiel 16:1–42; Hebrews 12:25–13:6

 Psalm 118:1–9: The first four verses of this psalm were doubtless chanted together at worship. All the worshippers open by saying, “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ forever is His kindness.” (1) Then three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron [which I take to be the priests] and “those who fear the Lord” are named, each repeating the line “forever is His kindness.” This formulation tells us bluntly that worshipping God was not reserved exclusively to priests or to the citizens of Israel, but that anyone–Jewish or not–can praise God.

Christians who have not read the OT tend to think it’s exclusively about the Jews and for the Jews, but they are wrong. It’s clear in the psalm and in many others–not to mention entire chunks of the OT– that God is God of all creation and therefore the God of all people. There is only one requirement for any person to enjoy God’s love and kindness and that is to fear the Lord.

The centerpiece of this part of the psalm is that when we are hemmed in by worry or imminent danger we can call upon God: “From the straits I called to Yah” (5a).  And God will hear us: “Yah answered me in a wide-open space.” (5b) Notice how God frees us from constriction and feeling hemmed in–our ‘straits’–bringing us out to the freedom of “a wide-open place.” There is breathing room with God.

And when we revere–or ‘fear’– the Lord and call on him, we derive an enormous benefit as the famous verse tells us: “The Lord is for me, I shall not fear./ What can humankind do to me.” For us as God-fearing men and women, God is existentially on our side. And God’s presence is what drives away our fear.

Ezekiel 16:1–42: This chapter is perhaps one of the most striking metaphors in the book, if not the OT, as God speaks through Ezekiel describing the life of a woman, who represents Israel, from birth to gruesome death. A female baby is born and abandoned to its fate, and “No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.” (5) But God takes mercy on this child, Israel, “As you lay in your blood, I said to you, “Live!” (6b) and “You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; …yet you were naked and bare.” (7). Which I take to be people who do not know God. God passes by again and “and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.” (8) God adorns her with ornaments and riches and “Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty.” (14).

God keeps his side of the Covenant and  “trusted in your beauty,” but Israel “played the whore because of your fame” (15) as it takes the gifts bestowed on it by God and “made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore;” (16). Ezekiel, in the voice of God proceeds to summarize Israel’s history as one giant whoring party: “You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, …You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with Chaldea, the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied. (27-29).

God will have justice as Ezekiel concludes this woeful metaphor with awful judgement: “ I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into [your enemies’] hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare.” As the chapter circles around to where it began: with a naked and bare body.

The question that hangs in the air is of course what of modern nations that are playing the whore? Will they we be judged as harshly as Israel? Or will we simply fall of our own dead weight?

Hebrews 12:25–13:6: Our author’s warnings to not abandon the gift of grace reach their climax as he makes an indirect reference to the fate of Israel warned of in Ezekiel: “…for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”  In other words, we are subject to an even higher standard than Israel was. Quoting Haggai 2:6, he reminds us that God “has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.'” (26) pointing out that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” (27b). And then noting that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks.” And that our response to this great unshakable kingdom must be to give back to God “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” In short, grace is not only a great gift, and the means by which we enter the unshakable kingdom, it brings great responsibility. Exactly as Bonhoeffer tells us in The Cost of Discipleship.

The idea of the unshakable kingdom seems especially appropriate as we see Christians running around claiming that the church is doomed because it is now operating in a hostile culture. We forget that we are inheritors of an unshakable kingdom. But “unshakable” does not mean the same thing as “unchanging.” Yes, the truths to which we hold fast are unchanging, but the church itself, while part of that unshakable Kingdom, nevertheless must keep evolving to meet the evolving and ever-changing needs of the society in which it lives.

We are privileged to live in an unshakable Kingdom and with that come ethical and behavioral responsibilities to which our author turns in this final chapter. We are to love each other “mutually” (13:1), show hospitality to strangers for in the famous phrase, “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2), and remember those in prison, especially “those who are being tortured.” (13:3). Honor the sanctity of marriage “for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (13:4) and “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” (13:5) I think in many regards the issue is less the money and more in being content with what we have. I have to say, that following cancer and an enhanced awareness of my mortality, I am far more content with what I have.

And finally, in what must be a”Holy Spirit coincidence,” which is to say, not a coincidence at all, our author quotes that famous verse from today’s Psalm (118:6): “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Which in the end is what all his instructions boil down to: worship, love and fear God and we will never be afraid. What a wonderful promise!

 

Psalm 117; Ezekiel 14:12–15:8; Hebrews 12:14–24

Psalm 117: As a build up to the never-ending, awfully long Psalm 119, the editors of this book provided us with an appetizer in the form of this shortest of all psalms (and the shortest chapter in the  Bible).  This is a prayer of thanksgiving stripped to its essentials: worshipers and Worshipped.

It is also a psalm for everyone, not just Israel: “Praise the Lord, all nations;/ extol Him all peoples.” This is the core of worship: we gather together to extol God, not to be entertained (and dare I say it, not to applaud).

The other half of the psalm describes the essence of God. First, “For His kindness overwhelms us.” Ponder that for a moment: we cannot possibly grasp the enormity of God’s kindness and love. It simply overwhelms us. And then there is God’s other quality: “the Lord’s steadfast truth is forever.” Not just truth and justice, but Truth and Justice that is rock-solid, never-failing.Steadfastness forever. Would that we could say the same about ourselves. What a stark reminder that we are God’s creatures, not the Creator. No wonder we are called to worship.It’s not about us; it’s about God. We can never possibly express adequately how much God loves us and how much God has done for us–especially through the gift of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, we can try. That is the essence of worship.

No wonder the psalm ends on a single word: “Hallelujah.”

Ezekiel 14:12–15:8: In this unusual (even for Ezekiel!) passage, God names three men from history: “even if Noah, Daniel, and Job, these three, were in it, they would save only their own lives by their righteousness, says the Lord God.” (14:14)  And then again: “…even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, says the Lord God, they would save neither son nor daughter; they would save only their own lives by their righteousness. (14:20). [There’s probably some dispute as to whether this Daniel is the Daniel described the book of Daniel, but let’s just go with tradition here.]

So, why these three? Why Noah, who is pre-Abrahamic? Or Job, who had nothing whatsoever to do with Israel and if he’s an actual historical figure, certainly predates Israel? And then Daniel, who may in fact be a contemporary of Ezekiel? Why not David or Moses or Elijah or some of the usual heroes of Israel? The thing these three seem to have in common is that there were righteous without fault. Noah obeyed God even in the face of derision. Job followed God even to the point of despair. Daniel obeyed God’s precepts even to the point of mortal danger. They are shining examples of unblemished righteousness.

Speaking to Ezekiel, God is saying that the righteousness of these men does not rub off on the population of Israel. They cannot atone for the grotesque sins of the people of Jerusalem.  Only Jesus will be able to do that, and he’s some 700 years off in the future.

So, what does this story mean to us in the here and now? First, I think it’s a simple statement that each of us is individually responsible for our actions before God. Second, even though there may be a few righteous people–and some prophets– in a corrupt society, that alone will not save the larger society. And, frankly, I think that is a warning for us right here in America. That our leaders can say “God bless America” all we want, but it is a hollow phrase without righteousness in the land.

Instead of righteousness we have the striking metaphor of a dead and useless grapevine:
    Is wood taken from it to make anything?
        Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?
    It is put in the fire for fuel;
         when the fire has consumed both ends of it
    and the middle of it is charred,
          is it useful for anything? (15:3,4)

One cannot read this poem without instantly thinking of Jesus’ vine metaphor in the Upper Room Discourse. The contrast is stark. Either we can be part of the growing, living vine or we can be useless dead wood fit only for the fire–and even then not very useful. The choice is ours. For Ezekiel, the warning is stark: “ And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, says the Lord God.” (15:8) All empires eventually fall. How will ours fall? In a rubble of dead grape wood?

Hebrews 12:14–24: One of the great contrasts of my own religious upbringing is the concept of grace. In the Evangelical Free Church, it was a matter of “accepting Jesus into my heart.” It was all about my “decision for Christ” and once you understand and comprehend what Jesus did for you, you are qualified for baptism.  The wonderful gift of the Lutheran Church has been the idea that grace arrives from Jesus without our bidding–and we are baptized long before we know what is going on.

But at some point we have to make a decision as conscious beings whether we accept that already present grace or not. That’s what our author is getting at here: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” (12:15) He uses the example of Esau, “an immoral and godless person” who, having sold his birthright, could not obtain the blessing. I think what our writer is saying, is that having once accepted grace, we had better not subsequently reject it. But does that mean all who have rejected the church have therefore rejected grace? I’d like to think not, and that there is always the possibility of redemption.

The other point is that God’s grace has its dangerous qualities–something CS Lewis captures in loving but dangerous Aslan. Our writer says, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” (18, 19) In other words, our belief is not something to be fooled around with or casually tossed off. But unlike Moses, who said “I tremble with fear,” (21) we have a new way to approach the Throne of God, “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (24). So, in the end, God’s grace really is all about Jesus. Why would we reject so great a gift?

 

 

Psalm 116:14–19; Ezekiel 13:1–14:11; Hebrews 12:1–13

Psalm 116:14–19: These final verses of this psalm are the verbal and physical expression of the psalmist’s gratitude for God’s rescue: “My vows to the Lord I shall pay/ in the sight of all his people.” (14). Thanksgiving is a public act. It consists of more than a quick prayer to God for saving us and then getting on with our lives. As we see in this verse there is a public act of thanksgiving. Both God and the community will witness a specific act of thanksgiving. Here, of course, the act of thanksgiving is a sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem, which is noted specifically at verse 17: “To You I shall offer a thanksgiving sacrifice/ and in the name of the Lord I shall pay.” The question is, how often do I give thanksgiving in public? Or do I consider it just a private “between me and God” thing?

The psalmist recalls his human connections and reminds himself that he is God’s creature: “…for I am Your servant./ I am Your servant, Your handmaiden’s son.” (16a) His mother, the “handmaiden” was faithful, so he will be as well, recognizing himself as God’s servant. We see the important quality of humility as well as his recognition that he does not exist in isolation, but is a son, and there are others who came before him whom he will honor as well.

This is quite a contrast with our incessant demand in America–more than any other culture, I think–that our highest calling is ourselves. We think our highest priority is that we be fulfilled as individuals. That we come that before God and before other people. We forget that we are connected to the generations that have come before us, and that we are God’s creatures, not autonomous beings free to do anything we please. The psalmist thanks God because not only because he is grateful, but that he remembers both his position before God in Creation  and his human connectedness. Without that awareness, I think true humility would be impossible.

Ezekiel 13:1–14:11: In Ezekiel’s day Jerusalem must have been over-crowded with professional prophets. (Perhaps today’s political pundits on cable news shows are a their direct descendants.) These false prophets rely only on their own imaginations: “Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” (13:2) But it’s one thing to follow one’s imagination, believing one is connected to God. But it’s quite another to mislead others: “Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel.” (13:4).  Moreover, they talk but do not act for the greater good of the community: “You have not gone up into the breaches, or repaired a wall for the house of Israel, so that it might stand in battle on the day of the Lord.” (13:5)

False prophets are despised by God because not only have they “have uttered falsehood and envisioned lies,” (13:8) but worse, “they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.” (13:10) We are currently surrounded by leaders who say peace when there is no peace. Both the false prophets and those who listen want to believe that everything will be just hunky-dory. Which is why we have ended up with politicians and leaders who tell us only what they think we want to hear. This happened in Jerusalem: “the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace.” (13:16)  I’m pretty sure it’s happening here and now, as well.

The greatest sin, I think, is whitewashing the wall, which I take as a metaphor for saying things are or will be better than they actually are. And when the crisis comes, as it surely will, when “the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?”” (13:12) True prophets are those who tell the people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.  True prophets do not engage in the curse of our political age: magical thinking, which is not only saying things that are not true but it is making promises which cannot possibly be fulfilled.

Ezekiel must have has some street cred in Jerusalem because, “Certain elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me.” (14:1) God gives Ezekiel insight and he knows “these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them.” (14:3) God’s admonition, which he speaks through Ezekiel, is always the same: “Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” (14:6). But we know from its history that Israel did not repent; it did not turn away form idols, and it suffered the consequences. Which is also why I am not terribly optimistic about our present situation. It seems we are turning ever more enthusiastically to our idols: the cult of ourselves. Will things eventually get so bad that we will repent and turn back toward God?

Hebrews 12:1–13: Having listed his extensive “catalog of faith” in the previous chapter, our writer summarizes in the most famous verses of his epistle: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (1) This is the same sense of connectedness that our psalmist feels when he thanks his mother and implicitly, all who came before him. Our writer is reminding us that we are connected to those great heroes of the faith as we repent and persevere “the race set before us.” But we have something far greater than the even the psalmist had. We are “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (2a)

And now our author comes to the greatest example of faith of all he has named: Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (2b) Our writer asks us to “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (3) Even though we may be suffering, we will not suffer as greatly as Jesus did: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (4)

There can be only one conclusion as we reflect on the faithful cloud of witnesses: Jesus is our touchstone and the one whom we are to imitate in our daily lives.  Which is exactly what our author says, “Endure trials for the sake of discipline.” After all, our parents disciplined us, he says, and short term pain “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (11) A life that attempts to avoid pain is a failed life. Discipline, as we look toward Jesus, is what gives us strength. Our author gives one final exhortation to stop cowering and get out into the battle that is the true Christian life: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,  and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (12, 13).

The question is: will I do that? Will I willingly face adversity? Or will I prefer the prophets who whitewash reality?