Psalm 34:19–23; Exodus 15:22–16:36; Matthew 22:23–40

Originally published 3/9/2016. Revised and updated 3/9/2018

Psalm 34:19–23: No matter how desperate our situation, there is always hope—a hope that arises from God being close by. Few verses better express this hope in God’s succor and rescue:
Near is the Lord to the broken-hearted,
and the crushed in spirit he rescues. (19)

Our psalmist articulates one of the fundamental realities of life: it is hard and many times we will indeed be broken-hearted during our life’s journey. It may be loss of a loved one, divorce, a child who has become an addict. The list is truly endless. And we can be crushed in spirit by disease, a toxic relationship, even the discouragement of a failed project.

But as our psalmist observes,
Many the evils of the righteous man,
yet from all of them the Lord will save him. (20)

No matter our circumstances, there is always hope for those who trust God and that God is listening. God is near. He listens and he acts.

There is also a beautiful symmetry here as our psalmist observes about the fate of the unrighteous:
Evil will kill the wicked,
and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt. (22)

This theme that evil becomes its own destruction runs through many psalms. There is no need for outside agencies to exact punishment; evil people will find and experience their own downfall. It just tends not to happen as quickly as we might prefer. But the “chickens eventually come home to roost.” We have witnessed this is full flower as powerful men like Harvey Weinstein have finally been brought down by their evil acts upon women.

The psalm ends with a beautiful summary of how God acts for those who fear him, those whom the psalmist calls ‘righteous:’
The Lord ransoms His servants’ lives,
they will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him. (23)

And we know it was Jesus Christ who came and made this reality permanent for anyone who believes on him.

Exodus 15:22–16:36: Although they have been rescued from the Egyptians and have finally come to realize and then worship God as their rescuer, the journey through the desert is not an easy one. Three days in they arrive at the oasis of Marah, the people are thirsty, “they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter.” (15:23). The people cry to Moses and he in turn cries to God, who promptly shows him a piece of wood lying on the ground. He tosses the wood into the water and it becomes potable.

But it’s not going to be all hunky dory going forward. In what seems to be a narrative anomaly, God himself speaks, outlining the “statute and ordinance” that he has set up for the Israelites: “He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians.” (15:26) In other words, ‘Obey me, and I will protect you.’

This is exactly the point today’s psalm makes: if we are righteous and trust God, he will rescue and protect you. I’m sure the people thought that this would be easy to do and God would indeed bless them for their righteousness. But good intentions are insufficient. Just as we often do. But as we know too well, life tends to be complicated and the unending conflict between our own will and God’s purpose for our life means this compact is much more difficult for us to carry out than it may first appear.

About 45 days into their journey, the Israelites arrive in the aptly named “wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai,” (16:1). The joy of the rescue from the Egyptians and the cool water of Elim has long faded. The Israelites are hungry and they are in a foul mood, and they raise their usual complaint: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” (16:3)

One of the reasons I accept the historical authenticity of this story is that it relates again and again the reality of human nature, which has not changed in more than 3000 years. We’re satisfied for a while and we love God during that time. But when things get tough, we turn on God and complain bitterly. We are just like the Israelites.

Moses has Aaron announce, “‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” (16:9) Quails arrive in the evening and fresh manna is like the morning dew.

What’s interesting here is that some gathered more and others gathered less, but “when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”  (16: 18) This is a picture of the ideal society, where everyone receives or gathers exactly what they need: no more, no less—and they are satisfied. But notice that it took God’s direct intervention to make this happen. Given the ongoing complaints, it is clear that even God cannot satisfy everyone all the time. Goodness knows humans are even less capable at creating a society where equality and satisfaction live in harmony. American history is scattered with supposed utopias that simply died out because human nature is never satisfied by its own actions—and relational peace is always elusive.

Matthew 22:23–40: This time the Sadducees come to Jesus with their own trick question: the seven brothers who die in succession as the next brother marries the widow. This continues seven times and they ask, “In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” (28).

Jesus flat out tells them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (29), as he points out that marriage happens only on earth and “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (30) Moreover, Jesus asserts, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (32)

This is basically all Jesus has to say about human relationships in heaven. It’s clear that it is the relationships on earth that matter more. Which is probably why Matthew places the next question immediately following.

The Pharisees scoffed at the Sadducees for asking such a dumb question and “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him” (35) with a serious and important question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (36)

Jesus’ famous answer silences his critics. First, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (37). Notice that Jesus is very specific here. It’s not just the abstract “love God” that we so often hear, but that we love God with all three elements of our being: heart, soul, mind. This is the definition of complete love of God: it is not just the emotions of the heart nor the intellect of the mind, but true love of God is (as Sara Wolbrecht once preached) being “all in” for God with our entire physical, spiritual, and emotional being..

And if we are ‘all in’ for God then it is far easier to carry out the second—and in many ways more challenging and difficult—part of Jesus’ greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (39). Jesus is clearly telling us that without loving God, we can neither love ourselves nor our neighbor. And in our present culture of individual self-fulfillment being more important than our relationship with our neighbor—even our spouses!—there is more than ample evidence of just how poorly we actually carry out these commandments.

Even Evangelicals who loudly profess how they love God have abandoned the second half of Jesus’ commandment as they enthusiastically follow politicians who foment divisiveness, if not actual hatred of our neighbor.

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