Archives for March 2016

Psalm 34:8–18; Exodus 14:19–15:21; Matthew 22:15–22

Psalm 34:8–18: We’ve read the line so often that its “sensory concreteness” (as Alter puts it) no longer startles us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good,/ happy the man who shelters in him.” (9) But what does it mean to “taste the Lord?” It connotes the intimacy of a French kiss, yet the image of kissing God is both startling and even somewhat off-putting. We’ll just take it that the poet is trying to express how it feels to be in such a close relationship with God and to experience God’s innate goodness so personally.

Absent this close relationship and experiencing God’s beneficence, even the king of beasts, “Lions are wretched, and hunger.” (11a) but “those who fear Him know no want.” (10b).

At this point, the thrust of the psalm shifts from awed worship to almost didactic instruction and advice—all of it good—as our poet advises, “Come sons, listen to me,/ the Lord’s fear I will teach you.” (12).

First, if you want to experience a good long life, “keep your tongue from evil/ and your lips from speaking deceit.” (14). As always, the number one sin to avoid is speaking (and texting or posting in our modern age) evil of others. In these days of degraded political speech, I’m inclined to attend a political rally with this verse printed on a large poster that could be seen by the candidate speaking ill of his or her rivals.

Second, if we’re inclined to head to bad deeds we need to catch ourselves: “Swerve [great verb!] from evil and do good,/ seek peace and pursue it.” (15) This implies that we make conscious decisions—our free will—in deciding what course to take.. That is, we are responsible for our actions—what seems to be an increasingly rare quality in these days of victimhood and blaming others or our circumstances for our own bad decisions.

If we do these things, the poet assures us that God is nearby and is both seeing and hearing us: “The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous/ and His ears to their outcry.” (16) The evildoer, on the other hand will meet his or her inevitable bad en, abandoned by God: “The Lord’s face is against evildoers,/ to cut off from the earth their name.” (17) As we’ve observed many times in the Psalms, there is no worse fate than being forgotten by one’s descendants.

This section ends on the optimistic note missing form most psalms of supplication that God both listens and acts: “Cry out and the Lord hears,/ and from all their straits He saves them.” (18)

Exodus 14:19–15:21: At this dramatic moment when the Egyptian pursuers are about to catch up with their former slaves, “the angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.” (19). In other words God’s power inserts itself between the Egyptians and Israelites, protecting them. Which is a nice image for all of us when we feel beset by enemies pursuing us to know that God has our back.

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (21) The Israelites walk across on dry ground while the horses and chariots of the pursuing Egyptians  become clogged in the mud, to which our authors give God all the credit. This is also a good example where advanced technology (the Egyptians’ chariots) becomes a hinderance rather than a help.

Arriving at the other side of this sea (which I agree with scholars who assert this is not the Red Sea, but the much shallower Sea of Reeds in the same area), Moses again stretches out the famous staff—”and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth” (27)—and the Egyptians drown.

This dramatic act of God—to whom the authors are repeatedly careful to give all the credit— has a profound impact on the Israelites as they look across and see the bodies of their enemies: “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (14:31). For the moment, anyway, Moses has their complete attention and more important, their complete loyalty.

As is so often the case, especially in the Psalms, the act that follows rescue is worship, and “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord” (15:1). “This song” is what we know as the Song of Moses, and it is as beautiful and emotionally meaningful as any psalm as it praises God and recounts in verse what God has just done for them:
The Lord is my strength and my might,
       and he has become my salvation;
     this is my God, and I will praise him,
        my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (15:2)

The same story we have just read in narrative is now retold in verse, ending on the glorious note: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.” (18)

The important reality here is that at long last, all Israel gives credit for its rescue to God. And just to make sure that we get the message, the authors again remind us, “When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.” (15:19)

In a lovely coda to the song, we hear a short but beautiful precis from Miriam, Aaron’s sister (and therefore Moses’s sister, too) that sums up this famous story in just a few words:

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (21)

I presume this is the same Miriam who featured in Moses’s rescue as a baby so many years ago. In any event it is warmly satisfying that this story of war, blood and guts ends on a soft feminine note that gives God all the credit.

Matthew 22:15–22: The Pharisees accelerate their efforts to show the crowds that Jesus is a fraud and therefore he can be taken and done away with. So they finally arrive at what I’m sure they thought was the perfect trap.

If they couldn’t get him on Jewish theology, then they would expose Jesus as a traitor to Rome. We can see the Cheshire cat smiles on their faces as the use false praise—”“Teacher, we know that you are sincere…” (16) —the Pharisees smugly ask , “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (17)

Jesus has them figured out and asks for a Roman coin, and asks the Pharisees whose head is on it. When they answer, “Caesar’s,” he responds with his famous dictum: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (21).

The Pharisees, for the moment, anyway, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” (22)

What are we to do with Jesus famous aphorism? It’s been pulled and pushed to all kinds of dubious ends over the years. The problem seems to be that different people have different definitions of just who Caesar and God are. For me, though, it is the perfect definition of the boundary between this earth and the Kingdom of God. And I for one straddle that boundary in constant unresolved tension.

Psalm 34:1–7; Exodus 13:1–14:18; Matthew 22:1–14

Psalm 34:1–7: This psalm dedicated to David makes a clear connection to the story in I Samuel 21 of David acting the madman before the Philistine king (who was Achish, not Abimelech) in order to rescue his men from captivity: “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, who banished him, and he went away.” (1) [Proof, BTW, that the Bible is not error-free.]

The psalmist describes the immense relief that David must have felt when he and his men are able to escape the clutches of his captor: “Let me bless the Lord at all times/ always His praise in my mouth.” (2) This is the opposite of a psalm of supplication, as the psalmist reminds us that God is worthy of praise no matter what the circumstances: “In the Lord do I glory./ Let the lowly hear and rejoice.” (3). Not only do others rejoice at David’s good news, but he invites all with him to join in joyful worship: “Extol the Lord with me,/ let us exalt His name one and all.” (4) Once again we see that worship happens in community; it is not an individual act.

God’s generous rescue is the reason for rejoicing. There is no absent or non-listening God here. God not only heard but he acted: “I sought the Lord and He answered me,/ and from all that I dreaded He saved me.” (5). David expands his praise as he remembers that God rescued not only him, but his companions, who now rejoice along with him: “They looked to Him and they beamed,/ and their faces were no longer dark.” (6) This verse marvelously describes God’s transformative power when our prayers are answered—and that our only response can be jotful worship.

Our psalmist fairly bursts with assurance that “When the lowly [man] calls, God listens/ and from all straits rescues him.” (7). In fact, no matter how desperate our circumstances, we are surrounded by God’s ministering angels: “The Lord’s messenger encamps/ round those who fear Him and sets them free.” (8)

My prayer is for that kind of assurance in a listening God when it seems I have been abandoned—just as David surely felt abandoned by God when he was in captivity. This psalm reminds us that God is never far away and that he is indeed listening and protecting us.

Exodus 13:1–14:18: Now that they have been rescued, God asks for all the firstborn to be dedicated to him: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn.” (2) Once again Moses reminds the people—and us—of the supreme importance of the feast of Passover. [One has the feeling these instruction keep getting repeated to make sure that the Jews reading this story in Babylon truly get the message.] Here we get the famous instructions that “Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession,” (13:7).

Once again highlighting the importance of ancestry, there is the instruction that it be handed down: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (13:8), which of course it has been to the present time. This generational aspect is amplified by the instructions to consecrate the firstborn male to God also as a remembrance of rescue: “When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (13:14)

The authors then provide the rationale for why the Israelites did not simply walk straight back to Canaan. What God [and the writers] know is what Moses and the Israelites did not appreciate: Canaan had been taken over by other tribes during Israel’s 430 year absence and  understandably would be reluctant to give it up: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” (13:17).  Here is also where we learn of the pillars of cloud and fire that will serve as their GPS guide.

It has not taken long for the Egyptians to come to their senses and decide they want their slaves (and doubtless their gold and treasure) back. Now that the crisis has passed (so to speak), “the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?”” (14:5) And they set off in hot pursuit. Once again, the authors are careful to note that “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly.” (14:8)

The advancing Egyptians are visible to the Israelites and they (rather understandably, IMO) cry out in fear. But then, as is always the case, now convinced they are about to die in the wilderness at Pharaoh’s hand, they look for someone to blame. This is obviously Moses and they state their dissatisfaction and fear in one of the most sarcastic verses in the Bible: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11)

Moses pleads for them not to be afraid, but to trust God—and to shut up: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (14:14)

Moses stands at the precipice both literally and figuratively as God instructs him to once again put his staff into action: “lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.” (14:16)

We see so much human nature here. When things get tough, we cower in fear and look for someone to blame. All God wants us to do is to trust him. But most of us are pretty much like the ISraelites: we’d rather tremble in fear on our own, feeling abandoned by God, rather than trusting him.

Matthew 22:1–14: For Matthew, jesus’ main occupation during that last week in Jerusalem is telling parables. This one is the famous where the invited guests demur attending the wedding feast, making all the usual excuses. The angry king retaliates and “sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” (7). It’s probably obvious to at least the religious leaders that Jesus is once again referring to Israel, which is in the process not only of rejecting him, but killing him.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight, Jesus’ parable comes literally true when Titus destroyed the temple and all of Jerusalem in AD70.

The wedding guests are obviously the Gentiles, “both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (10). But once invited to the wedding, there is a severe warning: we must wear the wedding garments. The one who failed to do this is “speechless” and is thrown out into the outer darkness. Jesus is making it terribly clear that if one wishes to be in the Kingdom, one must be obedient to its rules and realities.

To me, this is a clear sign that there is no such thing as “casual Christianity,” where we can pick and choose our doctrines and our response to Jesus’ call. We are in the Kingdom by invitation, but alway under Jesus’ terms. [He makes this clear in John where he says ‘I am the way, the truth, the life.’] As much as we’d rather define our own Christianity, it is not us who make up the rules. It is Jesus; only Jesus.

This is why I believe that religions such as the Mormons, who have added their own theology and sacred books, or prosperity Gospel preachers who have distorted Jesus’ words, are like the man without the wedding garment. What Jesus said stands; we cannot add to it or take away from it.

 

Psalm 33:12–22; Exodus 12:21–51; Matthew 21:33–46

Psalm 33:12–22: The psalm’s point of view as we read how God surveys all every person and all human activity on earth from his heavenly throne:
“From the heavens the Lord looked down,
and saw all human creatures.
From His firm throne He surveyed
all who dwell on the earth.” (13, 14)

God not only observes our outward behavior, his omniscience penetrates our every thought and motivation: “He fashions their heart one and all./ He understands their doings.” (16) Moreover, what we think of as our wisdom and strength actually comes from God: “The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,/ the warrior is not saved through surfeit of power.” (16)

Should an outside agency come to our rescue it is not that agency that appears to rescue us, it is God alone: “The horse is a lie for rescue,/ and in his [the horse’s] surfeit of might he helps none escape.” (17) Our escape comes only through God. Men and governments may appear to be the source of well-being and rescue, but that is an illusion. It is God who provides all.

Those who fear God are especially under the shade of God’s protection: “Look, the Lord’s eye is on those who fear Him,/ on those who yearn for His kindness/ to save their lives from death/ and in famine keep them alive.” (18, 19) In short, faith in God is the source of life. These verses have been directly fulfilled for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who is indeed our source of life and sustenance in times of trouble.

The reality that we are protected by God is our ultimate source of joy and anticipation:
“We urgently wait for the Lord.
Our help and our shield is He.
For in Him our heart rejoices,
For in His holy name we trust.” (20,21)

Can we ask for greater comfort in times of testing and trial than what we already have in looking to God and his Son?

Exodus 12:21–51: Moses gets the word out regarding the rather specific instruction of how to survive this tenth plague. Particularly crucial is that everyone must (to use the current term of art) shelter in place: “None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning.” (22) Moses also emphasizes how this will become a “a perpetual ordinance for you and your children.” (24) Once again we see the emphasis on the importance of progeny and successive generations: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’  you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord,” (26, 27) The generation enduring the actual Passover will be remembered down through the ages, as indeed it is to our own time.

What is remarkable is that there is no doubt about what God will do among the Israelites” “The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.” (28) They have certainly come to realize it is their God who is the force behind the preceding nine plagues and how they have been spared what the Egyptians have endured on behalf of their stubborn Pharaoh.

What is the Passover for the Hebrews is a plague of agony and death for the Egyptians and no family is spared: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon” (29) We get a hint that the Egyptians feared that even worse was to come:  “The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” (33) It was clear they believed that the Israelites were the source of their woes—and of course they were right.

Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and gives permission for the Israelites to depart and then he says something completely unexpected (for me, anyway): “And bring a blessing on me too!” (32) Has Pharaoh become a God believer now that he has witnessed God’s power? Or is it more a temporary emotional reaction to the trauma he has just endured? 

So, with the gold and all the other possessions, which the authors tell us “they plundered [from] the Egyptians” (36), 600,000 Israelites “and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds” (38) set out for Succoth, having lived in Egypt for 430 years. Which when one thinks about it, is a very long time. If the Israelites had departed this year, 2016, Jacob and his clan would have arrived in 1586.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this story is that the Israelites obeyed God’s instruction to the letter: “All the Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.” (50) I’m pretty sure that had I been an Israelite I would have seen the whole Passover thing as quite strange if not ludicrous. But on the other hand, I had not witnessed the mighty acts of God which preceded that final night.

Matthew 21:33–46: Sitting in the temple courtyard, Jesus is in full parable-telling mode. This one is about the tenants who tend the vineyard while the owner is absent. The owner sends slaves to check things out, which the tenants, feeling that the owner will never find out, promptly beat, stone and kill three slaves in succession. Finally, the master sends his own son, who the tenants also kill. Jesus asks the question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (40) The answer is altogether obvious.

The vineyard is God’s kingdom, the slaves are the prophets; the son is the Messiah, The wicked tenants are Israel, which is about to dramatically reject the Son of God. As Jesus observes by quoting Psalm 118, that rejection will spell Israel’s doom, as the Messiah becomes the salvation of the Gentiles—the “other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (41)

While this parable may have been lost on the crowd, it was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees, who would like to arrest Jesus right then and there, “but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (46)

In light of what happened in Israel in AD70, it’s impossible to hear Jesus’ warning, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls,” (44) without thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate decimation of Israel.

And it’s equally worth reflecting on the fate of those who consciously reject the Cornerstone even today.

 

 

Psalm 33:6–11; Exodus 11:1–12:20; Matthew 21:23–32

Psalm 33:6–11: Our psalmist recounts the creation story in flowing verse:
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters.
puts in treasure houses the deeps.” (6,7)

I’m particularly drawn to the idea of creation being stored in “treasure houses” because it suggests that the elements of creation are of great value. Which of course they are. Humankind has been drawing on these treasure houses for millennia, but now we are drawing on those reserves at an increasing pace.

While God’s mercy and love is inexhaustible, the contents of these treasure houses are not. Will our depredations to our earth continue unabated or will we realize that what God has given us in his glorious creation is finite and we desecrate it to the point of self-destruction?

The following verse speaks of a condition that seems particularly elusive today: “All the earth fears the Lord,/ all the world’s dwellers dread him.” The western world seems overcome by either indifference to God or outright rejection of his existence. On the other side are the religious fanatics that destroy creation and their neighbors in a wrongheaded conception of what “fearing God” means. We humans seem capable of almost infinite misunderstanding as we attempt to recreate God in our own image.

Just as “He did speak and it came to be,/ He commanded, and it stood,” (9) so too, God will have the final word. In the end, God will triumph over all our human endeavors: “The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,/ overturned the devisings of peoples.” (10) All our efforts to see ourselves as little gods will come to naught.

At the end of history it is only “The Lord’s counsel [that] will stand forever.” (11a) Humankind will finally look back at its works and see them for the empty idols they are. Only God’s work in creation and in our hearts will matter: “His heart’s devisings [are] for all generations.” The question becomes, why do we refuse so readily to accept the superiority of God’s devisings over our own? Alas, we know the answer: human pride.

Exodus 11:1–12:20: God comes to Moses and tells him to prepare the people for one final plague. God promises that Pharaoh “will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away.” (11:1). But then an instruction that at the time probably seemed puzzling, but will have great value later on: Moses is to “Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.” (2) This will be feasible because the “Lord gave the people [Israelites] favor in the sight of the Egyptians.” (3)

Moses then describes God’s plan to kill every firstborn in Egypt but that there will be a crucial distinction as the angel of death passes over. A loud cry will arise in Egypt but “not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (7)

Something I had not noticed before is that the passover event is so central to the history of Israel that the calendar for Israel is set from this point forward: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” (12:2) This calendar continues today in 2016 as the Jewish Calendar and we now are in year 5776.

The instructions for what will become the Passover are detailed and complex. In anticipation of the instruction to depart quickly, it becomes “dinner on the run,” with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (12:11)

I think a crucial aspect of the Passover is that it requires participation by every household and careful preparation. The first nine plagues were basically a battle between competing gods: the gods and magicians of Egypt and the God of Israel. Now with this event, Israel’s God will make it clear who is greater: “I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” Which of course he does.

One of the clues that suggests this story was written much later in Israel’s history is the detailed instructions about how Passover “shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” (14). One suspects a retrospective viewpoint here. With the urgency surrounding the actual passover in Egypt, one suspects Moses would not have paused the story to explain how Passover was to become a central festival of Jewish life. with all the instructions about leavened and unleavened bread.

But at this point the doorposts and lintels are smudged with blood, the lamb stew is ready to be eaten and we wait in anticipation for God’s most fearsome plague.

Matthew 21:23–32: Having had no figs for breakfast, Jesus returns to the temple where things seem to have calmed down a bit. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”” (23). As usual Jesus declines to answer the question, telling the priests they must answer his question first:  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (25)

This is a brilliant yet unanswerable question because “from heaven” indicts the religious leaders for not believing John. At the same time, the “human origin” answer will inflame the crowd “for all regard John as a prophet.” (26) Of course, standing right in front of the religious leaders is the one person in history who could answer the question, “both heaven and human,” as Jesus is from heaven but comes from a human mother. Here is where we see the roots of the doctrine that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human.

Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. The first refuses to go but then changes his mind and goes anyway. The other tells his father that he will go but then fails to do so.  Jesus asks the crowd “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (31) The crowd correctly answers that the one who refused but then changed his mind was the obedient one.

His message is clear here: the apparent sinners who have rejected God initially but then repent are the ones who enter the kingdom. The religious hypocrites may profess to love God, but in reality they follow their own hearts rather than God and uin effect refuse to enter the kingdom.

At a higher level of abstraction this parable is also about the Jews who professed to worship God but rejected Jesus as over against the Gentiles who had no idea who God was, but came to accept Jesus enthusiastically, whence the roots and growth of the Christian church.

Psalm 33:1–5; Exodus 10; Matthew 21:12–22

Psalm 33:1–5: The sheer joy of these five verses is palpable as the psalmist directs this choir  to “Sing gladly, O righteous, to the Lord.” (1a) The choir can do so because it is comprised of righteous people: “for the upright, praise is befitting.” (1b). So, too, for the members of the orchestra: “Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,/ with the ten-stringed instrument hymn to him.” (2) This kind of joyous worship occurs only after we are right before God.

And being right before God we, “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyus shout.” (3) This reminds those of us who hew to what we know and like that God welcomes new songs and yes, even the occasional shout. Something for me to remember when I am being a curmudgeon about some of the songs we sing in worship.

The roots of this joyful worship are of course a natural response to our awareness of what God has done for us. Our response is grounded in the fact that we are his creatures and we know “For the word of of the Lord is upright/ and all His doings in good faith.” (4) And for us Christians, we know that the word of God is the Word of God: Jesus Christ, who has saved us and brings us to the joy of worship.

The psalmist reminds us that God does indeed “love the right and the just.” (5) And it is only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ that we become so.  “The Lord’s kindness fills the earth,” (5b) which again means that God’s greatest act of kindness, Jesus, has come for each one of us. Secure in his grace, and having confessed our sins and been forgiven, we worship with singing, and yes, even shouting.

Exodus 10: As we head into the eighth and ninth plagues, I begin to wonder why God takes credit for having hardened Pharaoh’s heart each time it looks like he’ll finally give into Moses’ demands. The answer is right here at the end of 10:1: “in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord.” (1b, 2)

I confess that it seems God who seems to be toying with people’s lives and creating great suffering just to make a point so Moses’ children and grandchildren can remember what fools the Egyptians were.

Moses comes before Pharaoh and promises to unleash the locusts on the land if Pharaoh does not relent.  Pharaoh’s advisors implore the king that his stubbornness has brought great damage and suffering, even to the point of disrespect: “Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (7)

Pharaoh asks who Moses want to accompany him to go worship God [notice he is not yet talking about an actual permanent exodus.] Moses replies every Israelite, young and old, male and female, should go. But Pharaoh restricts his permission to just the men, realizing that if he lets them all go he is losing Egypt’s labor force: “The Lord indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind.” (10)

Moses stretches out his staff and the locusts arrive on cue. Pharaoh looks around the decimated land and realizes he has sinned against God . For the first time he admits, ““I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” (16) And for the first time asks forgiveness: “Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the Lord your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me.” (17).

But it’s all play-acting and once again, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.” (20) I believe God keeps taking credit for Pharaoh’s refusal to make it clear that God remains in control of every event, every word. The plagues are clearly God’s work. Moses is simply God’s factotum.

The ninth plague is overwhelming darkness and once again, Pharaoh appears to relent, allowing all the people to go, but not the Israelites’ livestock. Moses demurs, insisting the livestock is essential for the sacrifices.

Pharaoh is now beyond mere anger and  we can see his reddened face as he screams, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” (29). It has taken nine plagues to finally get him to the breaking point.

Moses agrees: “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.” (29). Something even darker than darkness awaits the Egyptians. And it will not require Moses to appear before Pharaoh to make his case.

Matthew 21:12–22: Jesus, now quite well known by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, arrives at the temple and famously “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (12) He performs healings at the temple itself and the crowd grows even more enamored of him. But “when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry.” (5) They confront Jesus and ask,“Do you hear what these are saying?” making it clear Jesus is treading on the thin ice of blasphemy.

But the ardor of the crowd is such that if the religious officials threw Jesus out of  the temple, or worse, they crowd would riot. So, Jesus calmly quotes some scripture, walks out of the temple, and spends the night in Bethany. We don’t read it here, but I’m sure this confrontation causes the officials to realize that whatever they did about ridding themselves of Jesus would have to be done in secret.

The next morning (Monday?) he heads back to Jerusalem and not having had breakfast, stops to pick a fig. The fig tree is barren and he curses the tree, which promptly dies. This seemingly peevish act provides one of Jesus’ greatest teachable moments about faith: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. ” (21) Then, in one of his most memorable statements, he tops it off with the astounding statement, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (22)

Really? Are prayers that we pray in all sincerity but yet remain unanswered simply a demonstration of insufficient faith on our part? Is it wrong to doubt?  I confess to frequent doubts, which as I read this verse is probably why I haven’t moved any mountains. Can pure faith really exist absent even the occasional doubt.  I have met people who at least appear to me to have no doubts. Are they “better Christians” than I?

Psalm 32; Exodus 9; Matthew 20:29–21:11

Psalm 32: This “maskil,” which scholars believe is a kind of song opens in a mood of rejoicing that God has forgiven: “Happy, of sin forgiven,/ absolved of offense.” (1) Forgiveness brings freedom from guilt: “Happy, the man to whom/ the Lord reckons no crime,/ in whose spirit is no deceit.” (2) In short, honest confession before God creates an inner happiness.

The poet contrasts this happiness with the woes—both emotional and physical— of unconfessed sin: “When I was silent [before God], my limbs were worn out.” (3a) The next line—”when I roared all day long” (3b)—suggests that rather than quiet confession before God, the poet filled his days with mindless activities to keep the weight of his sin off his mind.

He goes on to describe this weight of guilt as a relentless pressure: “For day and night/ Your hand was heavy upon me./ My sap [inner strength, I believe] turned to dust.” (4) In short, holding onto the burden of an unconfessed sin becomes a weighty burden, which is an apt description for guilt.

Confession eliminates this heavy burden, “My offense I made known to You/ and my crime I did not cover.” (5) In point of fact, confession  is the simple process that John describes in his eponymous letter: “If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive…” (1 John 1:8). And here in the psalm we hear exactly the same transaction, clearly stated by our poet: “I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,’/ and You forgave my offending crime.” (6)

Yet despite this simplicity, we are much more likely to hold on to sin than to confess it due, I suppose, to our inner sense of shame. This is why I believe corporate confession before worship is not an optional add-on. We cannot come before God with true hearts of worship without knowing we are forgiven.

Our psalmist, his sin confessed and forgiven, goes on to rejoice in the reality of God’s forgiveness for now he can worship with a clean heart, drawing a contrast between his happiness the sorry state of his enemies who have not recognized and confessed their crimes: “Many are the wicked’s pains,/ but who trusts in the Lord kindness surrounds him.” Rather than pain, there is only rejoicing: Rejoice in the Lord and exult, O you righteous,/ sing gladly, all upright men!”

Exodus 9 Plague is heaped upon plague in the thus far futile effort to change Pharaoh’s mind. Moses declares that all the Egyptian livestock will become diseased and die, carefully listing the species that will be affected: “the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (3) and noting that the Israelites’ stock will remain unaffected? As always, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.” (7)

Then, boils on animals and humans alike. There is the almost humorous observation that “The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.” (11) But the pharaoh seems to have an inexhaustibly hard heart.

Then, Moses provides a one day warning that the weather will turn dreadfully bad. We now see that there are some Egyptians who finally believe that what Moses is saying will actually occur: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place.” (20) The hail and fire comes to Egypt but “Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail.” (26)

Pharaoh summons Moses and appears to have had a serious change of heart: ““This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” (27, 28). But once the crisis has passed, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go.” (35)

We are all Pharaoh. Like him we are very slow learners when it comes to accepting reality and obeying God. We’re willing to pray for respite at the moment of crisis, even as Pharaoh appears to have finally done. Like him, we may even say the right words aloud. God rescues us, but unlike today’s psalmist who rejoices and worships, we quickly return to our former ways.

Perhaps the most depressing, yet most human aspect of these short-lived foxhole conversions is that just as God has told Moses that the pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. God knows us all too well: that rescue without confession and worship will not change our hearts. Externalities—even major crises—are not what cause us to change our ways. On the redemption of Jesus Christ will do that.

Matthew 20:29–21:11: Jesus encounters the two blind men on the roadside, who interrupt the proceedings with their annoying cries. But their cries, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” (31) have a new element. What Jesus has sternly ordered his disciples to keep quiet about up to now is now very much out in the open. This healing rabbi wandering the countryside is indeed the promised Messiah.

Another new aspect of this healing story is that Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (32) He does not just reach over and touch them and they are healed. They must state what it is they desire, and the reply of these two blind me is fraught with significance: “They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (33)  As indeed the eyes of the disciples and we presume the eyes of the crowd are also opened. They are opened not just to Jesus’ healing power but to the reality that Jesus is indeed who he says he is.

The blind men are healed and they join his followers. Which is exactly the metaphor for us. Before, we were blinded by our sin and self-centeredness, but through Jesus we have come to see what the Kingdom is really all about.

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem follows immediately. As always, Matthew uses Scripture to prove Jesus is who he says he is. This time, Jesus’ sending a couple of disciples to fetch a donkey is a fulfillment Isaiah’s prophecy. [One must assume that Jesus knew this as well.]

Jesus enters Jerusalem to the crowd’s acknowledgement that he is indeed the Son of David. But when others in Jerusalem ask who he is, people in the crowd do not tell them he is the Son of David, but simply that “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (21:11) Clearly, Matthew is reminding us that not everyone is quite ready to proclaim Jesus as Messiah. A first hint of what is to come later in the week. Just like today.

Psalm 31:23–25; Exodus 8; Matthew 20:17–28

Psalm 31:21–24: This psalm’s concluding verses strike a very personal note: impatience with God, who operates on a different timetable than we think he should: “And I had thought in my haste: / ‘I am banished from before Your eyes.’/ Yet You heard the sound of my pleading/ when I cried out to you.” (23) How often we decide that God has not heard our prayers when he is silent for longer than we think he should be.

We want God to respond quickly, especially when our need or situation is particularly urgent. The psalmist gets it exactly right: we jump to conclusion in our haste, especially when God is silent for longer than we think he should be. No question that impatience is hard-wired into all of us.

The lesson here is slow down, don’t fret while waiting: God has surely heard us and his response will surely come. As he writes, “steadfastness in the Lord keeps/ and pays back in good measure the haughty in acts.” Or as my father used to say, “the chickens come home to roost.” In God’s silence, we should wait with a patient attitude of the heart as the psalmist advises: “Be strong, and let your heart be firm,/ all who hope in the Lord.” (25)

Exodus 8:The thing I had not noticed before is that Moses has not asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites to leave Egypt altogether. His plea is much more modest: “‘Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (1) As I read this chapter it strikes me how Moses is really God’s mouthpiece. God is behind the scenes telling Moses exactly what to say to Pharaoh.

Moses may be God’s speaker, but Aaron is the guy who actually executes: “the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’” (5).

I’m struck by the especially creepy warning,”The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.’” (4) My skin crawls to think of frogs crawling around on my body.

But the court magicians duplicate the frog feat. Pharaoh asks Moses to make the frogs go away and he will allow the Israelites to worship. But when Moses complies, Pharaoh goes back on his word. Then the gnats. This time the court magicians fail to duplicate the feat. Nevertheless, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.”

The flies finally persuade Pharaoh to tell Moses that he will let the Israelites worship, but then Moses adds the condition that in order not to offend the Egyptians, they must travel a 3-day journey in order to sacrifice unobserved. Pharaoh agrees, ““I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. ” (28). He then adds, “Pray for me.”  Moses promises to banish the flies with the caveat, “only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” (29) Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh reneges on his word.

So, what gives? Who is on trial here? Pharaoh or Moses? God certainly seems to be more intent on testing Moses’ patience and obedience by demonstrating who’s in charge rather than in actually letting the Israelites worship him?

Matthew 20:17–28: Jesus has apparently concluded that the disciples still don’t get it. So for a third time he tells them bluntly and in even greater detail that he will be crucified and will rise again: “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (18, 19). Unfortunately, Matthew neglects to tell us what the disciples said in response. Perhaps they have not yet figured out that Jesus’ statement regarding the “Son of Man” is self-referential.

Which, frankly, makes me a bit suspicious. We know that Matthew is writing any years after the events he records. Did Jesus really say this,or is Matthew editorializing here because he knows how the story turned out? However, if we’re willing to accept the gospels as the inspired word of God, then my suspicion notwithstanding, I think we must accept that Jesus actually said this.

In point of fact, the very next incident underscores the authenticity of Jesus’ words. Even if the disciples didn’t get it about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the mother of James and John certainly did since she demands, ““Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (21) [Of course we have to remember that she’s a Jewish mother, so her forwardness about what she wants for her sons seems perfectly appropriate.]

One even wonders if John and James put her up to it, since we hear them answer affirmatively when Jesus asks if they are “able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” But Jesus then says something remarkable: he does not have the power to determine the order of seating in heaven: “but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (23) In short, God determines this.

This attempted coup d’etat on the part of the Sons of Thunder does not sit well with the other disciples. As always, though, Jesus uses this as a teachable moment, telling them that leadership requires first being a servant: “but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;” (26, 27)

And that is the lesson for any of us who claims to be a leader. Unless he or she knows what it is like to be led, preferably at the very lowest rung on the ladder (Jesus’ reference to a slave), they will be ineffective in the long run. Unfortunately, there are way too many examples of this failed leadership extant both inside and outside the church.