Psalm 40:1-8; Exodus 32:30-33:23; Matthew 26:47-58

Originally published 3/28/2016. Revised and updated 3/28/2018

Psalm 40:1-8  Once again written in David’s voice, this psalm opens with an intensely physical metaphor for God listening to his pleas for rescue to be saved from drowning:
I urgently hoped for the Lord.
He bent down toward me and heard my voice,
He brought me up from the roiling pit,
from the thickest mire.
And He set my feet on a crag,
made my steps firm. (2,3)

If we ever needed an apt metaphor for the state of American society it is surely right here. How often our lives seem to be bogged down and close to drowning in the relentless noise and the scandalous muck modern life. There is only one firm place; only one place of peace: the crag of God–and it is only God who can lift us up and place us there.

The natural response of rescue is thanksgiving, praise, and singing. Nor is it just praise and worship, but that our infectious joy becomes a witness to others:
And He put in my mouth a new song—
praise to our God.
May many see and fear

and trust in the LORD. (4)

These famous verses are akin to testimonies of new Christians who recount their conversion to Christ, escaping the mire and muck of sin.When we hear stories of wonderful rescues by God from metaphorical roiling pits such as those who are rescued from the perils of addiction by turning to God, we understand exactly what the poet is describing and our hearts are glad.

This rescue reminds our psalmist—as it should remind us—that
Happy the man who puts
in the Lord his trust
and does not turn to the sea monster gods
and to false idols.
” (5)

While we may not worship ‘sea monster gods’ like the Canaanites, we surely are surrounded by an almost infinite variety of false idols that will never hear our pleas, much less rescue us.

Our psalmist launches into effusive praise and reminds us that
Many things You have done—You,
O Lord our God—Your wonders!
And Your plans for us—none can match you
.” (6a)

Despite the implication of “plans” here, I don’t think it’s that God has specific mapped-out plans for us as individuals. If he did we would be mere automata. I think too many Christians have taken “God’s plan” to too low a level of abstraction:  That God has pre-programmed just about every aspect of their lives: from where they will go to school, who they will marry, etc. etc.  For me, that is to deny the gift of free will we’ve been given–not to mention that life is far more random.

Instead, I think the poet is describing God’s loving overall plan for us is to follow him. Whatever God’s plans for our lives may be we can look back and see how God has rescued and guided us:
I would tell and I would speak:
they are too numerous to recount.
” (6b)

“God’s plans for us” are how He has revealed Himself and His love for us through Jesus Christ.  It’s difficult to conceive of a more exciting plan more worthy of praise and singing.

Exodus 32:30-33:23 Even though the Levites have killed 3000 Israelites, God is not fully satisfied at Israel’s repentance. Moses pleads to God, offering to have God erase him from memory and from God’s book: “if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (32:32). But God is not interested in making Moses a substitutionary sacrifice. The people have sinned and as this point, God says, “when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.” (32:34). Which God proceeds to so: “the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.” (32:35) That final phrase makes sure no one—least of all God— is confused, Aaron made the idol.  It did not magically appear out of the fire.

At Moses’ begging, God relents, but it is punishment delayed.  As always with God, “And on the day I make a reckoning, I will make a reckoning with them for their offense.” (32:35).  Thus it ever is.  Sins have consequences. Even forgiven ones.

The promise of return to Canaan still stands, but these “stiff-necked people”  will not be the ones to enjoy it. Rather, God announces, “To your seed I will give it.” (33:1)

Moses pitches the Tent of Meeting some distance from camp and everyone can see that God in the pillar of cloud is coming down to talk with Moses. I continue to be struck (as I’m sure the Israelites were, too, of the intimate relationship Moses has with God: “And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow.”  Then, Moses “would return to the camp, and his attendant Joshua son of Nun, a lad, would not budge from within the Tent.” (33:11) We will be hearing more about this “lad.”

Moses continues to press his case to know God even more intimately: “And now, if, pray, I have found favor in Your eyes, let me know, pray, Your ways, that I may know You, so that I may  find favor in Your eyes.” (32:14).  Moses has experienced the presence of God through the burning bush, through the clouds on Sinai, and now “face to face” via the pillar of cloud  at the Tent of Meeting.  Yet, he does not really know God.  So, Moses asks once more if God will reveal Himself. God finally agrees, noting that to look God in the face would kill Moses, but “you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (32:23).

So, when we think we “know” God or think we “know his plans for our lives,” we would do well to recall this dialog with the man who led the Jews out of Egypt. Even he could not fully know God.  That is why God is God—and God, like Narnia’s Aslan—is more than a bit dangerous.  Like Moses, we cannot look God fully in the face.  Only through Jesus can we come into God’s presence.

 Matthew 26:47-58  I’ve always wondered why the men, whom I assume to be the Temple Police, who came to arrest Jesus would not recognize him on sight. After all, Jesus had been, shall we say, a pretty visible presence in the Temple courtyard for most of the week.  I think Judas’ signal has to be to accommodate the final irony of this story: that a kiss, the sign of affection, is a signal of betrayal; the least sincere kiss in history.

Judas arrives with “a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.” (47) and promptly betrays Jesus with the most infamous kiss in history. Jesus’ last words to his betrayer are remarkable for their pathos: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” (50). The kindness in Jesus’ voice not only indicates he knows what is about to happen, but seems to suggest that Judas has been motivated by forces outside himself. And in those words there is even a suggestion of forgiveness. History has been cruel to Judas, but Jesus greets him in resigned peace. Could we ever greet one who betrays us with the same kind equanimity?

And yet.  And yet, Jesus calls Judas “friend.”  I know in my heart that Jesus uttered this word with utter sincerity.  That even in this betrayal, Jesus truly loved Judas with as much intensity as he loved the other disciples who remained loyal to him–and the one who wanted to fight back.

Emotions run strong and Matthew tells us “Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” (51). Other gospels tell us it was ever-impetuous Peter, but as is usual for Matthew, it is the act that is more important than the person. Jesus reminds all who can hear, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (53) But Jesus does not call upon God; in Gethsemane he has fully accepted his fate and the cup of bitterness he is about to drink.

Jesus also remarks that the crowd has “come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (55) when they could have arrested him in the temple. Jesus certainly knows that the plot is being executed under cover of night because the religious authorities were afraid the crowds around Jesus would riot. Jesus implicitly accuses the authorities of cowardice. One wonders what went through their heads as they heard these words. As always, though, Matthew’s Jesus reminds us that “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” (56)—a clear reference to the suffering servant of Isaiah.

Then we encounter some of the most disheartening words in this gospel: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (56b). Which is pretty much what I would have done as well. Think about it: three years with Jesus; a clear message that he is the Messiah; the most intimate gatherings and conversations. But when facing danger, they flee immediately. This is one of those places where we know that the Gospels are indeed true. Were the Gospel of Matthew a fictional account at least one disciple would have stood at his side.  As it is, only Peter “was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.” (58). Matthew reminds us that even though Jesus has told them repeatedly that he would die, Peter still holds out hope that this betrayal and arrest was all a big mistake.

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