Psalm 13; Genesis 21; Matthew 7:24–8:4

Originally posted 1/18/2016—revised and updated 1/18/2018

Psalm 13: This classic psalm of supplication opens with the desperate plea to God,
How long, O Lord, will You forget me always?
How long hide Your face from me?” (2)

The psalmist’s emotional state is so tormented that it seems as if God has abandoned him forever. Even worse than abandonment, God may have forgotten him. In the culture being forgotten was even worse than death because to be forgotten was as if one had never existed at all.

The impact of God’s seeming abandonment means our poet has nowhere to turn for succor: “How long shall I cast about for counsel,
sorrow in my heart all day?” (3a)

In the midst of feeling abandoned by God, he is surrounded by people out to get him: “How long will my enemy loom over me?” (3b)

At the end of his rope, he utters one last desperate plea for God to respond before he closes his eyes in death:
Regard, answer me, Lord, my God,
Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death.” (4)

And if that happens, his enemies’ triumph will be complete:
Lest my enemy say, ‘I’ve prevailed over him,’
lest my foes exult when I stumble.’” (5)

Implicit in this verse is the fact that if the poet dies without God’s response, God himself will have failed in his duty to save the righteous.

Just when things seem darkest and there is nothing more to say, the door of the poet’s heart cracks open, and he remembers that God is indeed faithful and will return:
But I in Your kindness do trust
my heart exults in Your rescue.” (6a)

And with that rescue worship follows: “Let me sing to the Lord,/ for He requited me.” (6b)

This deep dive into despair and abandonment followed by the heart’s ascent to realizing that even when surrounded by opponents God remains faithful beautifully expresses the same emotional roller coaster that any person of serious faith will experience. I suggest that we do not understand what real faith entails if we do not at some point (or points) experience this emotional descent into feeling abandoned followed by coming to realize that God has been there all the time.  It seems to me that real faith cannot exist without it being severely tested along the way. The question is, will I stop only halfway through this psalm or will I continue to its worshipful conclusion?

Genesis 21: At last, in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age Isaac is born and quickly circumcised. The author reminds us of Sarah’s original laugh when she was told that she would have a son. Once again, Sarah laughs, but rather than a snort of derisiveness, this is deep and affecting laughter that only true joy can bring: “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (6). And she is rightly astounded at what God has wrought: “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (7)

But Isaac’s birth is not all sweetness and laughter. After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Hagar’s son, Ishmael, playing with him. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son out of the household, which “was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son [Ishmael].” (11) Once again, God intervenes and soothes Abraham’s feelings, telling him that Ishmael will become the leader of “a great nation.” Mollified, Abraham equips Hagar with some food and water and sends her away.

The scene shifts to a desperately thirsty Hagar, who has placed Ishmael under some bushes as she cries, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” (16). Hagar is in the same distraught state that today’s psalm describes. And as the psalmist observes, God answers, telling Hagar to “lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (18). She wakes up and spies a well, obtains water and “gave the boy a drink.” (19) Inasmuch as Ishmael is Abraham’s son, the authors do not want to cast a dark light on him and tell us that “God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.” (28) Hagar obtains a wife for Ishmael from Egypt and the the three of them disappear from the pages of Genesis.

But what do we make of laughing Sarah? She is the instrument of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s departure? Frankly, she doesn’t come off as sympathetically as Abraham. She may have laughter, but for me she has a cruel streak of jealousy as well.

Abimelech reappears and asks Abraham to “swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” (23) Which Abraham agrees to do.

Sometime later, Abraham complains that Abimelech’s servants had seized his well, and Abimelech makes good on his oath, returning it to Abraham. Abraham returns the favor by giving the king sheep and oxen.  The king returns to Philistia. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree and names the place Beer-sheba. Once again we see the crucial role that water plays in the history of Israel.

What are we to make of this covenant between Abimelech and Abraham? What will become between Israel and what is already Philistia (a far older culture than Israel), which becomes Israel’s sworn enemy? Yet, the authors also tell is that “Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.” (34) Perhaps even more important is the point that the authors make about Abraham residing “as an alien.” If we assume this chapter was written while Israel was in Babylonian exile, this is a reassuring encouragement. As Abraham dwelt as an alien, so too can Israel. A great nation arose from Abraham. So, too, the implication that great things are yet to come for shattered Israel. As Christians we know what great thing will come from Israel: Jesus Christ.

Matthew 7:24–8:4: Jesus concludes his sermon with the famous illustration of houses built on rock and sand in his call to action: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (7:24) The point of the metaphor is clear: it’s not just hearing God’s word that matters, it’s about acting on them. Likewise, “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (7:26)

This is a real challenge for me since I’m pretty good at reflection; less good at action. But Jesus leaves no room for navel contemplation or waffling about the importance of action. Acting out our faith is as very foundation on the rock of our lives. I think there’s a subtext here, as well. One suspects that Matthew’s Jewish audience was more inclined to theological disputation than to action, and our gospel writer is reminding them that they are required to act on what they’ve heard. As are we.

Action also sets the tone for the remainder of Matthew’s gospel where we see Jesus act again and again. The first miracle in Matthew is the healing of a leper, which to that culture was about as dramatic a miracle you can get. The leper kneels and states, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” (8:2) Jesus replies, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (8:3) The leper is healed. We can imagine the dramatic impact on the crowd as Jesus even touched the leper in the first place. One simply did not touch lepers. There are two miracles here: Jesus touching the leper followed by the actual healing.

For me, this passage has a deep undertone of the choice that each of us makes. We can choose to be healed by Jesus–or choose not to. But it is Jesus, who always without fail says, I do choose!” He comes to us, touches us, and makes us clean through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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