Psalm 40:1-8; Exodus 32:30-33:23; Matthew 26:47-58

Psalm 40:1-8: This poem begins as a thanksgiving psalm. God has heard his pleas and rescued him: “I urgently hoped for the Lord./ He bent down toward me and heard my voice,/ and He brought me up from the roiling pit./ from thickest mire.” (1-3a) The image suggests he has been saved from drowning in a whirlpool formed by rocks and rushing water. This sense of rescue and being placed safely on the firm rocks alongside the river is reinforced: “And He set my feet on a crag,/ made my steps firm.” (3b)

When we are rescued by God, our first act, indeed our first instinct, is to worship God in thanksgiving and that is what our poet does here: “And He put in my mouth a new song—/ praise to our God.” (4a) And he wishes to be an example to others of God’s salvific power: “May many see and fear/ and trust in the Lord.” (4b) When we hear stories of wonderful rescues by God from metaphorical roiling pits such as those who are rescued from the perils of addiction by turning to God, we understand exactly what the poet is describing and our hearts are glad.

This rescue reminds our psalmist—as it should remind us—that “Happy the man who puts/ in the Lord his trust/ and does not turn to the sea monster gods/ and to false idols.” (5) While we may not worship ‘sea monster gods’ like the Canaanites, we surely are surrounded by an almost infinite variety of false idols that will never hear our pleas, much less rescue us.

Our psalmist launches into effusive praise and reminds us that “Many things You have done—You,/ O Lord our God—Your wonders!/ And Your plans for us—none can match you.” (6a) I don’t think it’s that God has specific mapped-out plans for us as much as the poet is describing God’s loving overall plan for us is to follow him. Whatever God’s plans for our lives may be we can look back and see how God has rescued and guided us:  “I would tell and I would speak: they are too numerous to recount.” (6b)

Our psalmist then tells us that his rescue and God’s plan do not come on efforts of his own, but simply that God has heard him: “Sacrifice and grain-offering You do not desire./ You opened Your ears for me: /for burnt-offering and offense-offering You do not ask.” (7) That God is not asking for sacrifices is a pretty revolutionary thought for a poet who writes at the time of the ongoing temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. And for us, it is a precursor to how God heard the cries of humankind and sent his son Jesus to become the once-and-for-all sacrifice.

Exodus 32:30-33:23: Even though the Levites have killed 3000 Israelites, God is not fully satisfied at Israel’s repentance. Moses pleads to God, offering to have God erase him from memory and from God’s book: “if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (32:32). But God is not interested in making Moses a substitutionary sacrifice. The people have sinned and as this point, God says, “when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.” (32:34). Which God proceeds to so: “the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.” (32:35) That final phrase makes sure no one—least of all God— is confused, Aaron made the idol.  It did not magically appear out of the fire.

God gives the command to depart Sinai and head to Canaan. The folks are mighty upset. It seems they have grown comfortable, and Moses has warned them that God sees them as “a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you.” (33:5). Further punishment surely awaits them.

Even though Moses is down off the mountain, God remains quite busy giving Moses instructions, which now occurs at the “tent of meeting.” This appears to be a literal tent pitched some distance outside the camp. The people know the conversation is occurring because the “the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses.” (33:9) Surely motivated by their fear of impending punishment, the people are now well motivated to worship God: “When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down.” (33:10)

During these tent meetings, Moses continues to intercede for the people. In fact Moses is brutally direct with God, telling him, “you have not let me know whom you will send with me.” (12)  Moses reminds God that these are the people God has chosen and he then says something truly profound as he pleads with God: “In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (33:16) God has surely kept his promise to make the people of Israel distinct—right on down to the present day. When we think about it, is is truly remarkable that the Jewish identity continues to be preserved across the millennia.

God agrees to Moses’ pleas. Then the authors note that even though God and Moses have been conversing “face to face, as one speaks to a friend,” he has never actually seen God’s face. Moses asks God, “Show me your glory, I pray.”(18)  God agrees but there is one condition: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (20). Which tells us that the glory of God is so great that even though we humans have been created in the image of God, we cannot look directly at him. This is something to remember when we try to anthropomorphize God into our likeness and think that God is just one of us, only more powerful. But it also tells us that prayer does not require seeing God “face to face,” but that we are nevertheless in his presence as Moses was.

Moses, the one person in the Bible more than any other, who has what has to be the most intimate relationship with God recounted in the Scriptures, is still a mortal, and can see only the back of God as he passes by. The authors are reminding us in a dramatic fashion that God is God and we cannot comprehend God’s full persona. We are the creatures; God is the Creator.

Matthew 26:47-58: Judas arrives with “a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.” (47) and promptly betrays Jesus with the most infamous kiss in history. Jesus’ last words to his betrayer are remarkable for their pathos: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” (50). The kindness in Jesus’ voice not only indicates he knows what is about to happen, but seems to suggest that Judas has been motivated by forces outside himself. And in those words there is even a suggestion of forgiveness. History has been cruel to Judas, but Jesus greets him in resigned peace. Could we ever greet one who betrays us with the same kind equanimity?

Emotions run strong and Matthew tells us “Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” (51). Other gospels tell us it was ever-impetuous Peter, but as is usual for Matthew, it is the act that is more important than the person. Jesus reminds all who can hear, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (53) But Jesus does not call upon God; he has fully accepted his fate and the cup of bitterness he is about to drink.

Jesus also remarks that the crowd has “come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (55) when they could have arrested him in the temple. Jesus certainly knows that the plot is being executed under cover of night because the religious authorities were afraid the crowds around Jesus would riot. Jesus implicitly accuses the authorities of cowardice. One wonders what went through their heads as they heard these words. As always, though, Matthew’s Jesus reminds us that “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” (56)—a clear reference to the suffering servant of Isaiah.

Then we encounter some of the most disheartening words in this gospel: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (56b). Which is pretty much what I would have done as well. Think about it: three years with Jesus; a clear message that he is the Messiah; the most intimate gatherings and conversations. But when facing danger, they flee immediately. This is one of those places where we know that the Gospels are indeed true. Were the Gospel of Matthew a fictional account at least one disciple would have stood at his side.  As it is, only Peter “was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.” (58). Matthew reminds us that even though Jesus has told them repeatedly that he would die, Peter still holds out hope that this was all a big mistake.

 

 

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