Psalm 39:1-6; Exodus 30:17-31:11; Matthew 26:31-35

Originally published 3/25/2016. Revised and updated 3/26/2018

Psalm 39:1-6: This David psalm opens with the the usual phrases associated with a psalm of supplication. Our psalmist informs us,
I thought, ‘Let me keep my ways from offending my my tongue.
Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked is before me.
 (2).

David is wise not say say things to his enemies that he might regret. There are many times I certainly wish I had put a muzzle on my mouth before saying hurtful things, especially to Susan.

But there’s a twist. This psalm is not a cri de coeur to God, but a reflective meditation. The next verse makes it clear that words are not being spoken but rather they are interior thoughts—which remain just as passionate as any words uttered aloud:
I was mute—in silence.
I keep still deprived of good and my pain was grievous.
 (3)

In other words, he has elected to suffer in silence in front of his enemies—and we assume—his friends. Despite his vow of silence, his feelings are still strong and passionate and he cannot help speaking:
My heart was hot within me.
In my thoughts a fire burned
I spoke with my tongue:” (4).

He breaks his silence speaks to the only one who can help him in his desperate straits: God. But the prayer is far more philosophical than we might expect from a man in desperate circumstances:
Let me know, O Lord, my end
and what is the measure of my days.
” (5)

Is his situation so desperate that he is asking God how much longer he must suffer? Or is there something deeper going on here?

Verse 6 reveals the philosophical depth of the poem as the the poet’s David makes a statement we would be much more likely to read in Ecclesiastes:
Look, mere handspans You made my days,
and my lot is nothing before You
.
Mere breath is each man standing.

This verse reveals his deep existential angst. What is the point of suffering, anyway, our poet seems to be asking. God is remote, silent, and benignly indifferent to this man, whose being is mere ephemerality, anyway.

That life is fleeting and ultimately pointless before an indifferent God is a feeling any person who honestly asks these profound questions must confront. And any of us who have asked the same question of God should be grateful to find the same question here in Psalms. And as we have experienced ourselves, there is only silence from heaven. Jesus must have felt this same abandonment in his mortality on the cross. At some point in his suffering he must have felt that his life was pointless and as his famous cry from Psalm 22 reminds us, that he had been abandoned altogether: “My God, why have you forsaken me?

Exodus 30:17-31:11: Since the Tabernacle is a holy place, it is crucial that any priest coming to offer obeisance to God must be both ritually and physically clean. This is the purpose of the “bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing.” (30:18) Washing is not just a casual act: “they shall wash with water, so that they may not die.” (30:20). And to make sure everyone gets the point, God repeats himself in the next verse in exactly the same phrase: “They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die.” (20: 21)

This proto-baptism at the Tabernacle is a stark reminder to us that we have been washed by God through Jesus Christ once and for all. This is what our baptism represents, and just like the instructions here it is a profoundly serious act. Which is doubtless why some Christian denominations believe that baptism must be a conscious decision on the part of the individual and that infants cannot make that decision, thuis delaying baptism to the “age of accountability.”

God—as cosmic chemist—now reveals the formula for the anointing oils consisting of precise measures of myrrh [Aha! we’ll encounter myrrh later.], cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia—all mixed together with olive oil. Again, God reminds Moses that this is no ordinary oil, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations.” (30:31) It is forbidden for the oil to be made or used for any other purpose. Once again we are reminded that “holy” means set apart for God.

The oil used by the pastor at baptism, which seals us with the cross of Christ forever,” has direct roots back through the oil that the woman anointed Jesus’ feet back through to this oil prepared at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Oil that sets us apart from the rest of the world; oil that reminds all of us that we are God’s, and through baptism have been made holy.  The church I grew up focused only on the water, never on oil.  Yet, it’s clear here in Exodus 30 that to be consecrated before God both water and oil are required.  First we are made clean in the water and then consecrated by the oil; set apart to do God’s work in the Kingdom.  A heavy and serious responsibility indeed.

So, too, the incense consisting of “sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense…an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.” (30:35). I’m struck by the salt that seasons the incense. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the one who reminds us that we are to be the salt of the earth, and here we see that salt seasons the incense as we are to season the world. And we see that salt is holy and set apart. So, too, are we.

With all these plans and precise instructions in hand, God announces that he has chosen specific people to do the actual work of creation, who he has “filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (31:3) So when we speak of a God-given talent, we have biblical confirmation right here!  To supervise the “artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” (4,5), God has chosen a certain Bezalel. To lead the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, including the Ark, he has chosen Oholiab.

Here in Exodus, we see that God imbues each of us with certain talents, which like the Parable of the Talents that Jesus tells, means we are to put them to work for God, not hide them in the ground. This passage also reminds us that the ability to create and craft handiwork is a reflection of God’s own magnificent acts of creation. In short we are to reflect the fact that we are created imago deo with our own creative gifts and talents.

Matthew 26:31-35: I think the Moravian editors kept today’s Gospel reading intentionally brief because they want us to focus and reflect on what Jesus has to say about  the Disciples’ response to the catastrophe about to overtake them. Then, Jesus announces to his disciples, who believe they will always be loyal no matter what happens, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ (31)

Jesus has just quoted Zechariah 13:7 and the disciples finally get it: they know something bad is about to happen to Jesus, although it’s not clear yet exactly what that will be.

Could there be any more depressing announcement to men who had followed him loyally for three years? The disciples had to be thinking, does Jesus think so little of us that he predicts that we’ll desert him? Really! That’s impossible! It will never happen!

As usual, Peter expresses the emotion of both himself and the others as he exclaims,“Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” (33). Jesus of course responds with his famous retort that Peter will deny him not once but three times. Peter objects even more vociferously, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (35) And lest we be tempted to blame only Peter, Matthew makes it clear that “so said all the disciples.” (35b)

Which is exactly what we would say and do, too. Our high-falutin intentions are always so much grander than our cowardly actions. We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive.  Unlike David in today’s psalm, neither the disciples nor us can keep silent.  Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.

But something I’d never noticed before is that  right in the middle of all this Jesus clearly states the coming reality of his resurrection: “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (32).What’s really fascinating here is that even though Jesus could not be more direct about his resurrection that revolutionary statement apparently does not even make the slightest impression on them.  Instead, they can only focus on Jesus’ effrontery to suggest that after three years together they would actually desert him. It’s Friday and they—and we—don’t even hear that Sunday is coming.

Which of course is exactly like me. I am so offended at being told something that is true but I don’t like that I miss the greater, more important story: that Jesus loves me. We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive. Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.

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