Archives for April 2016

Psalm 45:1–10; Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17; Mark 1:1–8

Psalm 45:1–9: Alter informs us that this is the only Psalm designated “as a psalm of love.” It is also the only psalm where the poet references himself  with an entire verse of introduction: “My heart is astir with a goodly word./ I speak what I’ve made to the king./ My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.” (2) This verse tells us that he was a poet in the royal court. And as we read on, this psalm is a grand celebration of the king to whom the poet is speaking.

He opens his paean with words of almost treacly flattery: “You are the loveliest of the sons of man,/ grace flows form your lips.” (3a) And in a statement of questionable theology, he asserts that since the king is love;y and graceful, “Therefore has God blessed you forever.” (3b) However, we probably shouldn’t be too hard on our poet since poetic flattery probably got him this position as court poet in the first place.

The poem moves quickly to the essential quality of a  king in that region at that time: military prowess and the national military might he heads: “Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,/ your glory and your grandeur.” (4). But the king also represents God’s justice carried out on earth as the poet names three essential qualities of a king: “And in your grandeur pass onward,/ mount on a word of truth, humility, and justice.” (5a) But at the same time, he is the symbol of military might projected against Israel’s enemies: “and let your right hand shoot forth terrors,/ your sharpened arrows—/peoples fall beneath you—into the heart of the king’s enemies.” (5b, 6)

As king of Israel, there was by definition a special relationship between God and king, specifically that the king is God’s anointed agent mirroring God’s qualities on earth: “Your throne of God is forevermore./ A scepter of right, your kingship’s scepter./You loved justice and hated evil./ Therefore did God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.” (7,8)

I’m not sure why the Moravians ended the reading here, but this final verse tells us that all the kingly qualification matters are out of the way. The tone of the poem shifts to a more romantic image in anticipation of the theme of the latter half of this psalm: “Myrrh and aloes and cassia/ all your garments./ From ivory palaces/ lutes have gladdened you.” (9)

Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17: It is the Moravian’s habit to ignore the boundary point between one book’s end the other’s beginning, and today is no exception. Especially since there is no break in the action.

The tabernacle is complete and erected. Each item of furnishing—lampstand, lamps, the golden altar with its fragrant incense, the altar of burnt offering, the basin—are carefully put into place as the authors remind us, after each item: “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (25, 27,29,32)  In short, the tabernacle is now ready to establish the connection between God and Israel via the priests: Aaron and his sons. The final tent walls are erected and at last, “Moses finished the work.

God approves and “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (34) But oddly enough after all that work. “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (35) The cloud—which is the physical manifestation of the glory of God—is a signaling device. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey.” (36) and likewise, “if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up.” (37)

This remarkable book ends as the relationship between God and Israel has now been firmly and quite tangible established: “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” (38)

Now that the tabernacle is complete, it becomes the meeting place between God and Moses as the book of Leviticus opens with God giving instructions to Moses regarding exactly what is to go on inside the tabernacle. As in Exodus, Moses is the designated intermediary between God and the people.

God gets right to is: issuing detailed instructions on the burnt offering sacrifices involving livestock: bulls, sheeps, goats. The immutable requirements are: it must be form the herd, not a random animal found wandering alone. It shall be “a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord.” (Lev 1:3) Instructions regarding sprinkling of blood and butchering and what parts are burnt and what other parts are washed follow.

Birds—turtledoves and pigeons—also qualify as burnt offerings and the priests are given the rathe unpleasant duty [to me anyway] of twisting off its head. The body is then eviserated and its crop is thrown into the ash heap as the priest “shall tear it open by its wings without severing it.” (1:17)


Im not sure what theological nuggets to draw out of this reading other than my undying gratitude for Jesus having made all this sacrificing and gore no longer necessary.

Mark 1:1–8: We arrive at the beginning of the second gospel. Mark’s style is quite different than Matthew’s. His prose is often terse, almost staccato. If Matthew is a Victorian novel, Mark is a newspaper. Pretty much just the facts without much editorial elaboration. This terseness is one reason why Mark is seen by many scholars as the earliest of the gospels. Some scholars have opined that the gospel is the transcription of an interview by the historical Mark of a much older Peter.

If we continue with the newspaper metaphor, verse one is the headline: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But Mark’s beginning is certainly not Matthew’s beginning as Mark omits genealogies and the nativity stories. He opens by citing Isaiah’s famous verses,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’” (2,3)

I think this verse operates at two levels. It establishes John the Baptist’s role, but I think more importantly, it establishes Mark’s role. He is also the messenger and he is going to tell us a story that will indeed prepare our way for a new life that will come from our hearing this story.

The first person to appear in this gospel is John the “baptizer.” Mark reels off John’s mission in a tightly distilled litany. First, his message: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (4); Then his popularity: “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (5) Then his clothing: “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and diet “he ate locusts and wild honey.” (6) These are the essentials. No more description is required.

Nor does Mark does cite the scriptural reference but simply has John announce: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (8)

For Mark, the details that matter are the ones that will impact his ability to convey Jesus’ acts and Jesus’ message.  Everything else is simply setting the scene.

Psalm 44:18–27; Exodus 39:32–40:23; Matthew 28:1–20

Psalm 44:18–27: Our psalmist turns from shaking the nation of Israel’s collective fist at God to a new strategy: reminding God that despite God’s apparent desertion—and implied betrayal— of them, they have nevertheless remained faithful through this awful defeat: “All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,/ and we did not betray Your pact.” They have been resolute and obedient: “Our heart has not failed,/ nor have our footsteps strayed form Your path.” (19). And then a direct accusation of God’s having used his malevolently, even to the point of death: “though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place/ and with death’s darkness covered us over.” (20).

There is a plaintiveness in the poet’s cry as he asks rhetorically that God certainly would have been alert to their sinfulness, “Had we forgotten the name of God/ and spread out our palms to an alien god,/ would not God have fathomed it?” (21, 22a) After all, the psalmist argues, even had they been hypocritical in pretending to love and honor God, “He knows the heart’s secrets.” (22b)

But it’s even worse than that as our poet comes right out and says exactly what he’s thinking. It is because they are fighting for God, but God has abandoned them that they have met disaster: “For Your sake we are killed all day long,/ we are counted as sheep for slaughter.” (23) Surely, he pleads, this awareness will awaken a slumbering God: “Awake, why sleep, O Master! / Rouse up, neglect not forever.” (24)

In some of the most mournful, despairing verses in Psalms, the poet asks the question that rings down through the ages right to today: “Why do You hide Your face,/ forget our affliction, our oppression?” (25) In a world where God seems absent, all is hopeless: “For our neck is bowed to the dust,/ our belly clings to the ground.” (26) Nevertheless, ever-hopeful, the psalm ends with the final plea that it is God’s inherently generous beneficence that he will come to their rescue: “Rise as a help to us/ and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.” (27).

In the end, we can rely on one thing and one thing only: That God will hear us and will rescue us. But while waiting we can recall this psalm and shake our fist at God at our desperate plight. We can even accuse God of abandoning us. But underneath it all, hope still flickers. As other psalms remind us, God is listening even in silence.

Exodus 39:32–40:23: The work on the tabernacle is complete and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:32) and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (33) This provides the authors the opportunity to summarize in one long paragraph just how extensive and complex this project had been as they review the final inventory of “the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases;” (33b) along with the “the ark of the covenant with its poles and the mercy seat” (35) and all the other furnishings.  And not to forget “the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the sacred vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons to serve as priests.” (41)

As has been their wont, these authors emphasize the human side of this project and repeat the observation that “The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (42) And for their efforts, “When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.” (43) Can there be any better feeling than to have done as God has instructed us to do and to receive a blessing for having done it? However, we must always remember that is not the reason that we do it, but our reward for a job well done.

…I am now off to the hospital and here my reflections must end for today.

Psalm 44:1–9; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45–56

Psalm 44:1–9: The first person plural pronouns that open the psalm indicate this is a “group supplication” that suggests the nation has suffered a defeat in battle. They are recalling how God assisted in past victories of Israel, probably the original conquering of Canaan: “God, with our own ears we have heard,/ our fathers recounted to us/ a deed that You did in their days,/ in days of yore.” (2) In fact they give God complete credit for that past victory: “You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them [Israel]./ You smashed peoples [Canaanites] and sent them away.” (3)

The poet continues on the theme of how it is God who brings victory and the people and/or the army are only the means by which victory is accomplished:
For not by sword they took hold of the land,
      and it was not their right arm that made them victorious
      but Your right hand and Your arm,
      and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4)

In short, Canaan was conquered because God was on Israel’s side.  The poet moves on to point out how the present nation/ army can conquer the present enemy of God would be on their side now since they acknowledge God as their leader: “You are my king, O God./ Ordain the victories of Jacob [Israel].” (5)

Then we encounter the uncomfortable implications of war conflated with God: “Through You we gore our foes,/ through Your name we trample those against us.” (6) This verse makes it clear to me anyway that wishing God’s assistance in battle exposes a side of God that I’d rather not think about. Does God really help armies eviscerate their foes. It seems an outright contradiction to our mage of a loving God. But perhaps we need to be reminded that God possess many qualities. Or is this psalm just completely off base in asking God to gore one’s enemies?

The poet emphasizes that it is neither he nor his tools of war that accomplish victory, but God himself who receives the all the credit: For not in my bow do I trust,/ and my sword will not make me victorious.” (7) The deep faith of the psalmist—and we presume the entire army— is what will lead them to victory: God we praise all day long,/ and Your name we acclaim for all time.” (9) So, even though the military imagery may uncomfortable to our ears, the intense faith of the psalmist and the people he writes about is certainly a worthy example to us.

Exodus 38: Bezalel’s skills continue to be on display as he builds the large (7.5 feet square, 4.5 feet high) altar of burnt offering also [built] of acacia wood. And not just the altar itself, but all its tools and accessories as well: “all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze.” (3) plus the grating. The entire thing is built for portability. But we should also give credit to the women who gave up their mirrors so he could fabricate “the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze.” (8)

Even though our authors persist in using the third person singular pronoun, “he,” indicating, I presume Bezalel, one has to believe that many hands were involved in the actual construction of the furnishings and the tabernacle itself. This is not dissimilar to today’s practice of giving the architect credit for the entire building as e.g. “Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.” even though its design and construction involved the labor of thousands of people.

We have already observed that our authors here are sticklers for detail and nowhere is that more evident than in the final inventory: “These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant, which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses.” (21) Which goes on to account for the overseers of the project: Aaron’s son Ithamar, as well as Bezalel and Oholiab. Then the materials list:
• “gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, “(24)
•  “silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels.” (25) which came from the head tax on everyone “from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men.” (27)
• “The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels.” (29)

So why all this detail, which we will encounter many times in the OT, especially when it comes to building Solomon’s temple? I believe the detail lends historical authenticity to the fact that the tabernacle was doubtless a physical—and therefore a historical—reality. It is also a vivid demonstration of the idea that “God is in the details”— a theme that Jesus took up when he spoke of the lilies in the field and God knowing the number of hairs on our head. This makes God much more real, a God who operates in real space and real time. Which has implications for us today: God is assuredly not the dreamy abstraction we would prefer him to be. God cannot be pushed aside. He is real and he is here.

Matthew 27:45–56: Matthew’s Jesus utters only one sentence the entire time he hangs on the cross and that only moments before he dies: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (46) This is the first line of Psalm 22, and yet another demonstration of how Matthew connects Jesus to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion is dark, but more importantly, he shows how the crucifixion of Jesus was an earth-shattering event which changed the course of history: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (51)

But then he writes what I believe to be the most mysterious sentence surrounding the events of Jesus’ death: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (52, 53) OK, but if this actually happened why do none of the other Gospel writers describe what has to be a mysteriously profound event? Or did Matthew just make this up as further demonstration of the profundity of what just happened: an event so enormous that not only was earth itself affected, but under the earth and in heaven as well? 

It is at the foot of the cross where the Gospel writers remind us that Jesus’ death—and resurrection—belongs to all humankind, not just the Jews. Upon witnessing all that has just transpired, it is the very Gentile Roman centurion who exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (54)

Finally, in a passage that is often overlooked on Good Friday, Matthew tells us, “ Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.” (55) Notice the all-important phrase, they “had provided for him.” It is the women who have sustained Jesus’ physical needs throughout his ministry up to the point of his betrayal. And as we will learn, it is the women who will first learn the news of the Resurrection.  If we needed a clearer message of the important role of women in Jesus’ life and therefore their co-equal role in the life church, it is surely here. Alas, patriarchy has lived on too long in the church.

Psalm 43; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Psalm 43: This psalm seems a direct follow-on to the conclusion of the preceding psalm, where the last lines express the poet’s “Hope in God” and “His rescuing presence.” [Alter suggests that Psalm 42 and 43 were one longer psalm which was broken into two by the editors fro some unknown reason.] Because armed with that hope, the opening line of this psalm begins with a veritable shout: “Grant me justice, O God.” And the justice he seeks is for God to “take up my case against a faithless nation,/ from a man of deceit and wrong free me.” (1)

How many times has this verse been uttered in desperation and hope down through the ages where a single individual stands against both a single enemy as well as an entire society arrayed against him?

Inasmuch as he hopes in God’s justice he asks almost plaintively, “For You, O God, my stronghold,/ why should You neglect me?” (2a) At this point he feels as if he is facing his enemies utterly alone and wonders, “Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe?” (2b)

We see that not only is he facing an enemy but that he must be in exile far from Jerusalem as he asks God to “Send forth Your light and Your truth./ It is they that will guide me./ They will bring me to Your holy mountain/ And to Your dwelling place.” (3)  And not only to Jerusalem, but that he might once again come before God, who dwells in the temple (or tabernacle) there: “And let me come to God’s altar,/ to God, my keenest joy.” (4a) And once there, he will bow down in worship “and let me acclaim You with the lyre,/ O God, my God.” (4b)

This psalm ends on the same note of hope that the preceding one does. God may still be still absent but hope remains: “Hope in God, for yet I will acclaim Him,/ His rescuing presence and my God.”(5) This hope is the one we cling to when God seems to have abandoned us. In some psalms the supplicant raises his fist and shouts at God. But in this one it is quiet hope that sustains us.

Exodus 37: This chapter is a continuation of the details around constructing the Tabernacle and focuses on the details that go into its furnishings. Above all: the Ark of the Covenant. Then the table for the Bread of the Presence, the lampstand, and the Altar of Incense. All of these objects appear to have been crafted by Bezalel, although I suspect that like Michelangelo, he oversaw other workers in his studio.

As with the tabernacle itself, these descriptions are much more compact than the descriptions we encountered in earlier chapters. These authors also continue to emphasize the connection between the objects and their builder as we read the opening words of virtually every sentence: “He made.” There’s no question that the authors want to reassure us that these items are not “magic,” or somehow just appeared out of nothing. Rather they have been assiduously crafted by human hands. Unlike other religions of the time, none of these items pretends to be an image of God—an idol. They exist exclusively as the means to allow priests to come before the living God in proper and highly defined modes of worship.

That there is no idolatry here is emphasized by the Ark of the Covenant. It is not an object to represent God; rather it is a place where God’s presence can dwell. Israel has a direct and tangible connection to God.

Israel’s God is immanent; he is not far away. And it is this immanence that, for me anyway, explains why the construction of these objects is described in such almost excruciating detail. The authors want to make sure we understand that only the best materials were used by the finest and most skilled craftsmen. God deserves the absolute best we can offer him. Which frankly, I fail to do. We are too often satisfied giving God what we have left over.

Matthew 27:32-44: Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion is terse but vividly communicates the darkness and evil of the act. We meet Simon of Cyrene, and “they compelled this man to carry his cross.” (32) I’m sure Matthew inserts this detail to remind us that it was not just the Jews and Romans who are the means of Jesus’ execution. It is all of us.

Matthew omits many of the details of the act of crucifixion itself, simply stating that when offered a drink of wine and gall, Jesus refuses. Something we never see in visual depictions, but Jesus is doubtless stripped naked—the final humiliation— suggested by the fact that “they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots.” (35). Matthew emphasizes how Jesus has become the object of mockery and scorn with the visible sign on which “they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’” (37).

This theme of mockery is amplified further as Matthew writes, “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”” (39, 40)  Unlike the description in Luke, the “bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.” (44) There is no last minute repentance on the part of one of the thieves, nor reassuring words from Jesus that the thief will be joining him in Paradise. There is only darkness, scorn, and mockery. In fact, up to this point, Matthew’s Jesus has not uttered a word.

Once again, I think all of us who read these words must confront Matthew’s clearly implied challenge. We can either believe Jesus is who he said who he is or we are reduced to mockery. There can no middle ground. The sign above his head is either true or it is an object of derision. Matthew is telling us in his dark words here that when we come to the cross we are forced to choose.