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

Originally published 3/3/2016. Revised and updated 3/3/2018

Psalm 33:1–5: The sheer exuberance 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 when we are right before God.

And being right before God we, “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) This reminds those of us who dislike changes in liturgy (i.e., me) that God welcomes new songs and yes, even the occasional shout—and I suppose hand-raising as well. This is definitely something for me to remember when I am being a curmudgeon about the empty theology of many praise songs.

The roots of this joyful worship are of course a natural response to our deep awareness of what God has done for us. Our response is grounded in the fact that we are his creatures and we know that “…the word of of the Lord is upright/ and all His doings in good faith.” (4) 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.

Our 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. Finally, “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 enthusiastic 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 to being somewhat disturbed that it seems like God is 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. It’s almost as if God is displaying some sort of adolescent pleasure just because he is God and can do so.

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 remimds me of the intransigence of the current occupant of the White House.]

Pharaoh asks who Moses wants 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, suspecting something is afoot and 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 these are empty words. 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 seems 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 easily visualize 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.” (15) 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 simply throw Jesus out of  the temple fearing that a more stringent punishment would create a riot. So, Jesus calmly quotes some scripture, accusing them of self-aggrandizement: “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (16)

He then 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 do about ridding themselves of Jesus it will have to be done as a secret conspiracy.

The next morning Jesus heads back to Jerusalem and not having had breakfast, stops at a fig tree, wishing to pick its fruit. The fig tree is barren and he curses it, 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—at least from our human perspective—remain unanswered simply a demonstration of insufficient faith? 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? It seems to me that faith cannot really be faith without its mirror image of doubt.

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