Psalm 107:23–32; Jeremiah 50:1–40; Hebrews 4:6–16

Psalm 107:23–32: The reading opens with one of my favorite lines in the psalms because Melville quotes them in Father Mapple’s sermon near the beginning of my favorite American novel, Moby Dick, as he preaches to a congregation of sailors about to depart for a two-year whaling voyage:
Those that go down to the sea in ships,
who do tasks in the mighty waters,
it is they who have see the deeds of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep.” (23, 24)

And in this time of monster hurricanes, the next verse is especially apropos as perhaps the most beautiful description ever written describing an angry sea and the woeful plight of sailors caught in those storm-tossed waves:
He speaks and raises the stormwind
and it makes the waves loom high.
They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,
their life-breath in hardship grows faint.
They reel and sway like a drunkard,
all their wisdom is swallowed up.” (26, 27)

But there is one who rescues:
And they cry to the Lord
from their straits from their distress He brings them out,
He turns the storm into silence,
and its waves are stilled,
and they rejoice that these have grown quiet.
and He leads them to their bourn.” (28, 29)

[‘Bourn’ is a small, still stream.] I guess we could call this an “inadvertent prophecy,” for it is a perfect description of that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus slept peacefully in the rocking boat as the disciples panicked. Of course these verses are also a perfect metaphor for our own lives and the peace that only prayer and God can bring to our personal sturm und drang.

As always in the Psalms heartfelt worship is the immediate reaction of those who have been rescued by God:
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
and His wonders to humankind.
Let them exalt Him in the people’s assembly
and in the session of elders praise Him.” (31, 32)

When I look back over my life I realize there are numerous times where God has indeed rescued me from the waves. Not least in 2009.

Jeremiah 50:1–40: Now it is Babylon’s turn to be in Jeremiah’s cross-hairs as the prophet pronounces God’s judgement on the conquerors of Judah and Jerusalem: “ For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.” (3) As we know from history, Cyrus, king of what is now Persia, conquered Babylon in BCE 539—not too many years after Babylon decimated Jerusalem.  We read: “For I am going to stir up and bring against Babylon a company of great nations from the land of the north; and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be taken.” (9)  [Sorry, but my personal suspicion is that our Jeremiah author is writing after that event, not before, so he had the historical facts at hand…]

This event occurs when “the people of Israel shall come, they and the people of Judah together; they shall come weeping as they seek the Lord their God.” (4)  We again encounter the metaphor of Israel as a flock of wandering sheep: “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.” (6) God will always fit the punishment t the crime and it’s clear here that God sees the repentance of the Jewish remnant that remains in exile.

The sheep metaphor arises again in a succinct summary of the fate the once-proud kingdom of David and Solomon has endured: “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured it, and now at the end King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed its bones.” (17)

Continuing that metaphor is God’s wonderful promise: “I will restore Israel to its pasture, and it shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead its hunger shall be satisfied…for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared.” (19, 20) Where there is repentance there is also restoration.

Many verses regarding the destruction of Babylon follow…

The question arises: If God used Assyria and Babylon as his agents to dole out Israel’s and Judah’s deserved punishments, why is he now so enthusiastic about destroying its conquerors? I think the answer is here: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah; all their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go.” (33) The conquerors think their hold on power is firm and they exceed the punishments God has allowed.

But Jeremiah believes that Israel has suffered enough and he holds onto a firm hope: “Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (34)

Jeremiah’s final prophecy is that Babylon will never be rebuilt: “Therefore wild animals shall live with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall inhabit her; she shall never again be peopled, or inhabited for all generations.” (39) Which is exactly what happened. It’s ruins lie in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

What’s the lesson for us? God cannot endure evil and empires fall. What fate awaits us here in the declining empire of America that so thoroughly is abandoning its Judeo-Christian foundation? Will we see repentance?

Hebrews 4:6–16: Our author continues his disquisition on “rest.” I think what he is getting at is that “rest” for the Jews was both the God-ordained Sabbath as well as the Promised Land they occupied with Joshua so many centuries ago under the terms of the Old Covenant. But he argues that “rest” has a greater meaning: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.” (8) And, he continues, “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” (9, 10)  So we should literally rest from our labors just as God rested. 

But it appears there’s a third interpretation of “rest,” and I think it is living out our salvation through Jesus Christ: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (11)

We arrive a verse I learned as a kid: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (12) I was taught that the small-w “word of God” is Scripture, the Bible. That’s the view of most Evangelicals, who love their sola scriptura. I’m less sure now. It seems to me the word of God can come in a variety of ways beyond just the Bible: through other people, through sermons, through actions, through reflection. The Holy Spirit is not limited in the ways it can operate on us.

But regardless of how we heard God’s word, in the end our actions and the consequences of those actions are our responsibility: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (13) The truth will always be found out.

I think behind all of this rather confusing essay, our author is attempting to describe the impact of the transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity. Nowhere is that more apparent than his essay on Jesus Christ as our great high priest.

However, Jesus as priest is not some abstract metaphor. Rather, our author wants to make sure we see Jesus as a real and legitimate priest who by becoming human through the Incarnation fully understands our human plight: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested  as we are, yet without sin.” (15) That last phrase “yet without sin” says it all in how Jesus, while human, is also far greater than us.

Jesus as priest sits on the throne of grace and in one of the clearer promises in this epistle, our author makes sure we know that Jesus is the person to whom we come to confess and receive forgiveness: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (16) That, ladies and gentlemen, is a promise we can grasp. Like a priest, we can come to Jesus and confess and he intercedes on our behalf, making us right before God.

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