Archives for October 2015

Psalm 116:7–13; Ezekiel 11:16–12:28; Hebrews 11:29–40

Psalm 116:7–13: Our newly rescued psalmist asks God to “Return, my being, to your calm,/ for the LORD has requited you.” (7) Notice how he describes something akin to what people who’ve had a near-death experience as he seems to rise up outside his body by using the second person pronoun, “you” referring to himself. This is an existential freedom: “For You freed me from death,/ my eyes from tears,,/ my foot from slipping.” (8)

In a verse reminiscent of Psalm 23, in his gratitude is expressed by walking alongside God “in the lands of the living.” (9) But even as he walks along side God he realizes that “I in my rashness said,/ ‘All humankind is false.'” (11) Which is to basically accuse God of making a mistake in having created humankind in the first place. This suggests that whatever bad thing that had happened to him was caused by others, leading to deep cynicism about people.

We tend to do exactly the same thing because it is awfully easy to become deeply cynical about the motives and behaviors of those around us–especially those with whom we disagree. This verse forces us to realize that human beings are indeed God’s creation and to categorize them for what they believe or who they are goes against God’s will. Nevertheless, that’s hard to do when we, like the psalmist, have been the injured party.

I have to think that this psalm is one place where Jesus picked up his ‘turn the other cheek’ theme.

Our psalmist eventually realizes his mistake, and asks, “What can I give back to the Lord/ for all He requited to me?” (12) What he gives back in thanksgiving is “The cup of rescue [that] I lift/ and in the name of the Lord I call.” (13) In the end, that is what God does: He is our Great Rescuer.

Ezekiel 11:16–12:28: Ezekiel has cried to God, “Ah Lord God! will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?” (11:13), wondering of God will destroy the entire Jewish race. But God responds, “Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.” (11:16) There will be restoration as God “will give them one[c] heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (11:19) God is very clear what this changed heart does: “so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (11:20a) as we come to the wonderful promise, “Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (11:20b)

But that will happen only if they give up their evil practices and “as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.” (11:21). Israel–and we–must be willing to exchange our hearts of stone for a heart of flesh.

This interlude of promise fades as the theme turns what Ezekiel must do “in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear.” (12:1). This verse provides context for when Jesus utters his own eyes/ears statements. Surely the Pharisees who heard him knew these verses and realized that Jesus was accusing them of being “a rebellious house,” on a par with the idol worshippers of old Israel. Since they saw themselves as the exact opposite, it’s little wonder even Jesus’ statements that appear anodyne inflamed the religious leaders around him.

God turns Ezekiel into an object lesson, commanding him to “bring out your baggage by day in their sight, as baggage for exile; and you shall go out yourself at evening in their sight, as those do who go into exile.” (12:4) Since Ezekiel was a well-known inhabitant of Jerusalem, God notes that people will ask questions. In response, Ezekiel is to say, ““I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them; they shall go into exile, into captivity.” (12:11), which of course is exactly what eventually happens.

Then God commands Ezekiel, “Mortal, eat your bread with quaking, and drink your water with trembling and with fearfulness,” (12:17) which is an object lesson to Jerusalem and Israel that “They shall eat their bread with fearfulness, and drink their water in dismay, because their land shall be stripped of all it contains, on account of the violence of all those who live in it.” (12:19). What’s fascinating here is that God seems to have given up on Jeremiah-like verbal pronouncements of doom, instead using Ezekiel as an object lesson of what is to come. It’s almost as if God has to use the more powerful visual rather than aural medium to make his point through Ezekiel’s actions. Had movies been at God’s disposal in that era, I’m sure he would have made Ezekiel become a film maker.

Hebrews 11:29–40:Our author’s amazing catalog of “heroes of faith” and “historical actions of faith” continues without pause.
— “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land” (29)
— “By faith the walls of Jericho fell…” (30)
— “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient” (31)

Our writer is passionate on this issue of faith: “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—” (33) and then catalogs the amazing deeds that faith has accomplished: “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (33, 34).

‘OK,’ his listeners might say, ‘We get your point but this is ancient history. We are suffering here and now for our faith. What about us?’ Our writer then proceeds to list the gruesome trials that others have suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains, imprisonment, stoning, sawn in two, killed by sword, destitute, persecuted, tormented.” He’s saying, in effect, ‘you think you have it hard? Come on, people!’ 

Which is a frame of reference we Christians in 21st century America should consider when we think all of society is against us and we have it so hard. If the author of Hebrews were writing today, I think we would say, ‘Quit whining! Think about the Christians in the Middle East that are fleeing their homelands and others being beheaded for their faith. They are faithful, why aren’t you?’ Putting this chapter into our modern context is a sobering exercise. Maybe my faith isn’t so strong after all.

Psalm 116:1–7; Ezekiel 10:1–11:15; Hebrews 11:17–28

Psalm 116:1–7: This is a marvelous psalm of thanksgiving to which any person who has faced great danger or recovered from severe illness can relate. The opening verse says exactly what we feel when we know God has answered our prayers: “I love the Lord, for He has heard/ my voice, my supplications.” (1) We don’t encounter the phrase “I love the Lord” very often in the Psalms, so it’s worth lingering to savor the depth of feeling here.” The reason for the psalmist’s love of God is deep, but here it is also that God has “heard my voice.” And as is always the case in the Psalms, I believe “voice” is speaking aloud. Our psalmist did not just think this prayer, but cried aloud to God.

And he cried aloud to God many times: “For He has inclined His ear to me/ when in my days I called.” (2) Persistent in prayer is so crucial. Not because God doesn’t hear the first time, but because we come closer to God with each prayer we utter.

And he was in a desperate situation: The cords of death encircled me–/ distress and sorrow did I find.” (3) This may have been a near-fatal illness or perhaps a close call on the battlefield. It doesn’t really matter. The key point here is that he cried out in desperation and God heard.  In fact he records the actual prayer: just five short words: “Lord, pray, save my life.” (4) Nothing fancy. No theologically correct introductions praising God’s greatness, no fancy emendations. Right to the point–and a good lesson for all of us. [Especially those pastors from my youth who could go on and on, preaching a whole other sermon in their Sunday morning “pastoral prayer.”]

As he gratefully remembers that “our God shows mercy” (6) he reminds us that God is God for everyone, not just the mighty or powerful or super-religious. But everyone: “The Lord protects the simple,/ I plunged down, but me he did rescue.” (6) At one point or another each of us will be in a desperate situation–the sense of drowning here in the phrase “plunged down”–but God is our Rescuer.

Ezekiel 10:1–11:15: Lest we think that John’s Revelation or Daniel are the only books in the Bible with striking descriptions of very dramatic visions, let’s not forget Ezekiel. Here, we have an actual theophany: “then the glory of the Lord rose up from the cherub to the threshold of the house; the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord.” (10:4)   The remainder of the chapter appears to be Ezekiel’s effort to describe the indescribable–especially the cherubim, who have “four faces: the first face was that of the cherub, the second face was that of a human being, the third that of a lion, and the fourth that of an eagle.” (10:14) and “four wings, and underneath their wings something like human hands.” (10:21).

Following this vision, Ezekiel returns to Jerusalem, although apparently still in a vision as “the spirit lifted me up and brought me to the east gate of the house of the Lord, which faces east.” (11:1) He sees twenty-five “officials of the people” (I presume they are religious officials)  standing there, including two he names, “Jaazaniah son of Azzur, and Pelatiah son of Benaiah,.” God speaks to Ezekiel making it clear who they are: “Mortal, these are the men who devise iniquity and who give wicked counsel in this city.” (11:2) God commands Ezekiel, “Therefore prophesy against them; prophesy, O mortal.” (11:4) Ezekiel obeys and does so.  The gist of the prophet’s message is what we hear often: “I will bring the sword upon you, says the Lord God….and execute judgments upon you. You shall fall by the sword; I will judge you at the border of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord.” (11:8-10)

Ezekiel seems quite surprised by the sudden impact of his prophecy: “while I was prophesying, Pelatiah son of Benaiah died.” (11:13) and he falls on his face, crying, “Ah Lord God! will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?” (13).

I really likeEzekiel. He seems continually surprised that God has chosen him and then when the power of his prophecy is demonstrated, he is frightened at what he apparently has caused (of course, it’s God who caused it.) In this way, Ezekiel seems more like the rest of us mortals (which is what God calls Ezekiel) than do Isaiah or Jeremiah. On the other hand, it is Ezekiel who has had the visions and caused men to die on the spot. In some ways, he must have been the most frightening prophet of all to appear in Israel.

Hebrews 11:17–28: Our author continues his catalog of faith with examples that must have made a huge impact on his Jewish audience as he traces acts of faith from Abraham to Moses. Now, however, he doesn’t just name names, he describes the acts of faith of each.
–“By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” (17)
— “By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau.” (20)
— “ By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph” (21)
— “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites” (22)
— “By faith Moses was hidden by his parents” (23)
— “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (24)
–“ By faith [Moses] left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger;” (27)
— “By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood” (28)

I think he’s stretching a bit about Joseph, but there’s little question that each of these acts were made because the man making them believed in and trusted God.

But what are we to make of this rather mysterious statement about Moses, “ He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward.” (26)? What did Moses know about the Messiah? Perhaps the key lies in the phrase, “for he was looking ahead to the reward.” perhaps in his conversations with God on Mount Sinai, God revealed his larger plan–even the New Covenant itself–to Moses. For the Jews, Moses was the greatest of all, for he was the nation’s founder. But perhaps even more, our author is making the bold assertion that Moses was the prototype of Christ himself. And now that we have the real Christ, we are in an even better position than Moses.

 

 

Psalm 115:9–18; Ezekiel 8,9; Hebrews 11:4–16

Psalm 115:9–18: The psalmist shifts his attention to worshipping this God paced high above us in the heavens as we hear what I take to be a liturgical prayer that sounds as if were chanted or sung. The first section is about trusting in God.
O Israel, trust in the Lord,
their help and shield is He.
House of Aaron, O trust in the Lord,
their help and their shield is He.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord,
their help and their shield is He.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord,
their help and shield is He.  (9-11)

The second section of this song reflects on God’s blessings:
The Lord recalls us, may He bless,
may He bless the house of Israel,
may He bless the house of Aaron.
May He bless those who fear the Lord.  (12-13)

This is the essence of Israel’s deuteronomic relationship with God: their trust, which God reciprocates with blessing. Even though we are followers of jesus Christ, and God is now more explicitly a God of love, trust and blessing lie at the core of our relationship, as well.

The benedictory conclusion of the psalm–“May the Lord grant you increase,/ both you and your children” (14)–reminds us that we are in close relationship with the Creator of the universe: “Blessed are you by the Lord,/ maker of heaven and earth.” (15) But before we get all carried away, the psalmist reminds us that there is a clear boundary. God is in heaven; we are here on earth: “The heavens are the heavens for the Lord,/ and the earth He has given to humankind.” (16)

In keeping with Jewish belief that we are here while we live and then we are gone he repeats a theme we hear frequently i the Psalms: “The dead do not praise the Lord.” (17) Which for those of us still living, now is the time to trust in God and receive his blessings. Regardless of what may happen to us following our death, the time for trust and enjoying God’s blessing is today, not in the sweet bye and bye.

Ezekiel 8,9: Once again we encounter that OT sign of historical precision as to when significant events occur: “ In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month,” (8:1) as Ezekiel now writes in the first person. He has a vision and “the spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north,” (8:2, 3) God has transported Ezekiel to a position above the Temple and asks him, “Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary?” (8:6) But worse is to come: “I went in and looked; there, portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel.” (8:10). But perhaps most striking is that the erstwhile priests committing these abominations say, “‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” (8:12)  The temple abominations are merely the sign of the larger issue as God asks rhetorically, “Is it not bad enough that the house of Judah commits the abominations done here? Must they fill the land with violence, and provoke my anger still further?” (8:17)

This is a warning to all of us. We think we can hide and commit sins that God cannot see. In fact, perverted religious practices are a sign of a much greater disease within the larger culture. False religions and false belief too often begets violence. We do not have to stretch our imaginations very far to see this happening today in the Middle East and elsewhere as religious extremism becomes the abomination that begets violence.

Then God calls out, ““Draw near, you executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand.” (9:1) together with a mysterious “man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side.” (9:2) In fact it is that man who is commanded to “put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” (9:4) i.e., those who object to the abominations and are not idolaters. In this bizarre reenactment of the Passover, each person so marked by the man with the writing case is spared as the six executioners are commanded to “pass through the city after him [the man with the writing case], and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Cut down old men, young men and young women, little children and women, but touch no one who has the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” (9:5,6)

Is the man with the writing case and angel? Ezekiel? Some other prophet? Jesus? It doesn’t really matter. The point is, as we will come to hear again and again in this book, a faithful remnant remains. And God will, by ways simple or mysterious, protect those who are faithful.

Hebrews 11:4–16: This chapter is the great roll call of witnesses who came before the people to whom the author is writing–and to us 2000 years later. Abel and Enoch are faithful. Noah, even in the face of derision, remains faithful.  Our author points out that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (6)

Abraham, by virtue of setting out from Ur is faithful to God. And, something I suspect no Jewish ear had heard before this pronouncement, “By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.” (11) Which is to say, “from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (12)

But then our author makes a crucial point. All of these heroes of the Jewish history “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” (13) That is, all of these faithful were wanderers, who followed God far away from the comforts of home. By faith, they were willing to become strangers in a strange land. (Peter takes up this same theme of being aliens in his epistle.)

Just as we, who claim to be faithful today, must be willing to do. These are verses that should be read by every person who claims that America is, was, or should be “Christian.” That we should live in a comfortable culture that embraces Jesus Christ is the complete the opposite of faith. We must be willing to set out in a hostile climate and culture to carry the Good News to our neighbors. And with Ezekiel, we must be alert to the abominations that surround us.

Psalm 114; Ezekiel 4:6–6:7; Hebrews 10:19–31

Psalm 114: The energy of this metaphorically powerful psalm that compresses the history of Israel into just 8 verses is evident at the opening verse: “When Israel came out of Egypt./ the house of Jacob from a barbarous-tongued folk.” We realize suddenly that as slaves in Egypt, the Hebrews and Egyptians spoke different languages. And the poet leaves no doubt as to which language was superior. a major reason for that superiority, of course, is that God accompanies Israel: “Judah became His sanctuary,/ Israel His dominion.” (2)

The forty years of wandering in the wilderness are compressed into its bookends of the two bodies of water that play such an important role in Israel’s history: “The sea saw and fled,/ Jordan turned back.” (3) These references to the crossing of the sea out of Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan animate nature itself, revealing its personality as “The mountains danced like rams,/ hills like lambs of the flock.” (4). Allegorical hierarchy is maintained as the large mountains are symbolized as powerful male sheep, while the smaller hills are the newborns.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this poem is how the poet repeats these preceding two verses as a rhetorical question:
“What is wrong with you, sea, that you flee,
Jordan, that you turn back,
mountains, that you dance like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock?” (5,6)

Well, we know that sea and rivers don’t flee or turn back, and that mountains and hills don’t dance. I think the poet is making sure we understand just how powerful and unusual was God’s intervention with the Hebrews–so remarkable that even nature rejoices in what has happened. The following verse—-“Before the Master, whirl, O earth,/ before the God of Jacob,” (7)–says exactly that. God’s action cause not just the humans of Israel and Judah to rejoice, but as Creator all of creation responds to what God has done.

The poet concludes by bringing nature and Israel into juxtaposition by reminding us of the famous incident at Meribah, where it is God, not Moses, “Who turns the rock to a pond of water,/ flint to a spring of water.” (8) That the poem concludes on water given by God reminds me of the saving power of the waters of baptism. All nature comes down to this simple, but wonderful, act of God’s grace. For Israel. For us.

Ezekiel 4:6–6:7: God’s training and testing of his newest prophet continues with the assignment of hard tasks. God binds Ezekiel to lie on his right side for forty days as he “bears the punishment of the house of Judah.” (4:6) That Judah is in effect atoning for the sins of Judah is a foretaste of Christ’s atoning for our sins. The forty days is certainly symbolic, reflecting Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness as he prepared for his own prophetic work.

God provides for Ezekiel’s sustenance while undergoing these desert rigors. Among other things, we learn that Ezekiel was a vegetarian: “Ah Lord God! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth.” (4:14) And then the rather unappetizing detail, as God replies, “See, I will let you have cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.” (4:15)

Things get weirder. God commands Ezekiel to use a sword to shave off not only his beard but the hair on his head. Then he’s to burn one third of it inside Jerusalem, another third “you shall take and strike with the sword all around the city” (5:2) and the final third is to be scattered to the wind. All of these are symbols of the fate of Jerusalem: fire and famine, being cut down by their enemies, and then exile.

There are other fearful promises from, yes, a God who demands justice: “ Surely, parents shall eat their children in your midst, and children shall eat their parents; I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to every wind.” (5:10) and “ when I loose against you my deadly arrows of famine, arrows for destruction, which I will let loose to destroy you, and when I bring more and more famine upon you, and break your staff of bread.” (5:16)

Finally, God instructs Ezekiel to bring this message to Israel and its relentless idolatry: “say, You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord God! Thus says the Lord God to the mountains and the hills, to the ravines and the valleys: I, I myself will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places.” (6:3) and then, “ I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars.” (6:5)

What do we make of this? God is angry and God demands a harsh justice. This is one of those seemingly unresolvable conflicts between the OT God and the God we encounter through Jesus Christ. If nothing else, it is amble proof of why a New Covenant was required. The old cycle of human crime and Godly punishment was ultimately futile.

Hebrews 10:19–31: Our author has constructed a new, albeit symbolic, temple for the New Covenant that replaces the Old: “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” (19) and right through the “curtain (that is, through his flesh)” (20) to bring us directly into the new Holy of Holies: before God himself.

But with this new access to God through Jesus Christ comes enormous responsibility: “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (22) Surely, the water of baptism is that “pure water.” This is not just some sort of individual crystal-gazing personal spirituality, but real world action, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (24, 25) In other words, our faith is acted out by our deeds and in community for all to see.

To make sure we hew to the straight and narrow, the writer reminds us that we cannot fool around. Our faith is not a convenience or a product we pick up and then discard, it is a serious commitment: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” (29). In other words, if we’re going to practice this faith, we must practice it whole-heartedly. Alas, I stand guilty as charged for too often setting my faith aside to pursue more ephemeral pleasures.