Psalm 18:7–15; Genesis 28:10–29:14; Matthew 10:26–42

This is the 500th post I have made to since February 2104.

Psalm 18:7–15: The poet continues in the voice of David, describing how he called God, who answered: “He heard from His palace my voice,/ and my outcry before Him came to His ears.” (8). God does not respond to David’s plea with a mere whisper, but with all the dramatic forces of nature. God’s response begins as a seismic event: “The earth heaved and shuddered,/ the mountains’ foundations were shaken.” (9). God becomes an erupting volcano that destroys David’s enemies as “smoke rose form His nostrils/ and fire from His mouth consumed,/ coals blazed up around Him.” (9) The very heavens [which was viewed as a flat plane somewhere above earth] move: “He tilted the heavens, came down,/ dense mist beneath His feet.” (10).

Then we have the awesome but somewhat unsettling image of God astride an angel coming down out of now-tilted heaven to wreak vengeance on David’s enemies: “He mounted a cherub and flew,/ and He soared on the wings of the wind.” (11) But in David’s telling, God is not yet ready to reveal himself to the enemy but rather in an image that evokes the primordial beginning of the Genesis 1 creation story, “He set darkness His hiding-place round Him,/ His abode water-massing, the clouds of the skies.” (12) The ominous tension builds and finally God speaks as only God can do, his voice resembling a violent thunderstorm: “The Lord thundered from on high.” (14a) And to complete the storm image, “He let loose His arrows, and scattered them,/ lightning bolts shot, and He panicked them.” (15)

So, David’s enemies appear to have been dispatched by natural forces. These verses are a reminder that long before our world of science and technology that explains everything, nature was seen as a primary agent through which God acted. Enemies are scattered by natural phenomena. But for the poet and people of his time, these natural events such as volcanic eruptions and fierce thunderstorms were a dramatic manifestation of God’s awesome power–and the fact that God was indeed very much involved in the affairs of men.

Genesis 28:10–29:14: As Jacob escapes the fury of the brother whom he has tricked and deceived, he stops to sleep for the night outdoors, using a stone as a pillow. He then has one of the more memorable dreams of the OT: “he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (28:12) This dream is the means by which God reminds Jacob of the Covenant: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,” (13, 14a). But then God makes an even greater promise than he made to Abraham: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (15) This of course is the same promise to which we cling today. Even when God seems far away, he has not abandoned us.

Not surprisingly, the dream has an enormous impact on Jacob, who shouts, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (17). Jacob takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar and pours oil on it, calling the place Bethel. And unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob makes a vow in return to God: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God,” (20, 21).

This seems to be the point at which Jacob, now some 40 years old, finally becomes an adult. He has made a commitment to God. Or is this just “mountaintop experience” enthusiasm?

Jacob journeys on and encounters shepherds and a large  flock of sheep. He asks the shepherds where they come from and they reply “We are from Haran.” Jacob asks if they know Laban. Indeed they do and point out Laban’s daughter–his cousin– Rachel, who is arriving with her father’s sheep. Jacob politely rolls away the stone covering the well so Rachel can feed her flock. Then, he rather dramatically [and I suspect indiscreetly] kisses Rachel as weeps and tells her he is her kinsman. Rachel runs to her father’s house with the good news. Jacob comes to LAban’s house and meets his uncle. Laban happily says,“Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (29:14) and invites him to stay.

At this point things look pretty promising and romantic. Jacob is now well aware of the Covenant from God and now he’s met the girl of his dreams. It all looks so pastoral and gentle and promising. But the story is not over yet.

Matthew 10:26–42: Matthew’s Jesus continues his private discourse with his disciples. His words are far less comforting than what he said to the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount. In preparing his disciples for their missionary journey, he tells them “have no fear of them [those who reject the Kingdom]; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” The disciples are to be brave and boldly proclaim the message of the Kingdom: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (27) Yes, it’s potentially dangerous work, but God will protect them.

Jesus tells them one of the great promises of faith: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (28). These words surely lept out to the readers/ listeners to Matthew’s gospel—people who were already in dangerous circumstances by virtue of their faith. Jesus’ words remind them—and us— that they are about God’s very serious business and will receive God’s protection. Which is a good thing, because Jesus did not come to be gentle and self-effacing: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (34)

The radical nature of Jesus’ message is going to severely test and upend human relationships, as he quotes from Micah’s prophecy: “For I have come to set a man against his father,/ and a daughter against her mother,…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (35, 36)

Our number one priority in life is not only to follow Jesus, but to take up the cross—the ultimate symbol of suffering and yes, death—and follow Jesus. This phrase, “take up your cross,” is also an ominous premonition of events to come. Matthew’s readers will surely recall Jesus’ warnings on that bleak Passover Friday.

The message the disciples—and we— are to bring to the world is far from the namby-pampy “feel good about yourself” treacle that so pervades parts of the church today. Jesus would not cotton to the likes of Norman Vincent Peal or Bob Schuller, and certainly not to today’s “feel good gospel” preacher d’jour, Joel Osteen. We have received a tough and challenging commission from Jesus, but it is better than anything else we could ever do.

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