Psalm 42; Exodus 36; Matthew 27:11-31

Originally published 3/31/2016 with excerpts published 3/31/2104. Revised and updated 3/31/2018: Holy Saturday

Psalm 42: The famous opening line of this psalm establishes the theme of this psalm of supplication:
As a deer yearns for streams of water,
so I yearn for You, O God
. (2)

Rather than emphasizing the poet’s suffering as many other psalms do, the theme here is his passionate longing for God, who is apparently absent. The Germans have a better word for this intense longing because it also connotes a deep emotion that “longing” or “yearning” do not: Sehnsucht. This longing is expressed as “My whole being thirsts for God/ for the living God.” (3a) But alas, our poet feels he is far from God’s presence: “When shall I come and see/ the presence of God?“(3b)

Water in all its forms is the foundational metaphor of this psalm, and here it describes not only longing but a feeling of abandonment because the psalmist is surrounded by mocking enemies: “My tears became my bread day and night
as they said to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (4)

This verse certainly expresses a primary theme of our own culture today. Since we cannot prove God scientifically, we who rely on faith are mocked for our stupidity in rejecting materialism—just as the psalmist was. He reminisces about happier days when
I would step in the procession,
when I would march to the house of God
with the sound of glad song of the celebrant throng.

In the same way that we look nostalgically back on an earlier era in which Christian faith permeated our culture, he remains faithful and believes God will rescue him eventually. Once again, a brighter day will come when he will be able to join the procession headed to the temple, singing:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him
for His rescuing presence.
” (6)

As he recalls God’s blessings, our poet returns to the water metaphor. This time is is God’s presence expressed as immersing him completely at the ocean’s shore:
Deep unto deep calls out
at the sound of Your channels.
All Your breakers have surged over me.

He imagines how he will speak with God when he returns:
I would say to the God my Rock,
‘Why have You forgotten me?
Why in gloom do I go, hard pressed by the foe?’

But the thing that seems to vex him most is that his enemies “say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?‘” (11) and he cannot provide irrefutable proof.

Have we not felt exactly the same when we feel God seems absent from our lives and an erstwhile friend, who knows we are people of faith, asks, “So, you claim to believe in God, but he’s nowhere to be seen, is he?'” And then they conclude, “Therefore, God does not exist.” Nevertheless, like the psalmist, we cling to hope:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him,
His rescuing presence and my God.
” (12)

Because we know that sooner or later, God is faithful and he will indeed show up. In this dark day—Holy Saturday—this psalm rings especially loudly. It is the day when all hope seemed to be lost. But Sunday’s coming.

Exodus 36: This chapter is basically a reprise of the construction of the Tabernacle that we saw in an earlier chapter. But where the earlier description was basically dry details, a definite joy and enthusiasm underscore this description and we can see the humanity involved. While the superintendents, Bezalel and Oholiab, are featured, it’s heartening to know that the work also included “every skillful one to whom the Lord has given skill and understanding to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” (1)

I think it’s telling that the authors emphasize how the “skill and understanding” of the workers and artisans has been given and that the work is “in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” This chapter reminds us that God has given each of us gifts of skill and understanding. The question is, do we use them in to work in the Kingdom, or do we squander them on useless projects or even worse, like the servant who buried his talent in Jesus’ famous parable, we fail to use them at all?

The authors continue to emphasize how “everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work” (2) and that so many offerings pour in that the overseers (I presume Bezalel or Oholiab) tell Moses, “The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” (5). One has the feeling that the offerings are gifts from a chastened people, who having seen some 3000 of their kindred struck down following the golden calf debacle, that the roots of much of their enthusiasm arises from feeling duty bound to whatever is commanded of them by God through Moses.

Our priestly author describes the construction of the Tabernacle in loving detail, describing each element and the material used.  Once again reminding us that details–especially in a sacred space–matter.  The old cliche, “God is in the details,” begins right here.  More importantly, it’s a reminder that our connection with God is not just a fuzzy abstraction, but we can encounter God everywhere in the warp and woof of our daily life.

In fact, this chapter makes it clear that the Tabernacle is the work of human hands and skill— an emphasis missing from the earlier description. We meet “those with skill among the workers made the tabernacle with ten curtains” (8) The pronoun “he”  begins each sentence that describes a particular object, reminding us that it is the work of human hands that is connected with each item—curtains, loops, gold clasps, upright frames, silver bases, bars of acacia wood. One has to believe that the leaders and artisans who built the great cathedrals of Europe relied on this section of Exodus to motivate their people—especially when it came to giving offerings—but hopefully with the same willingness shown by the people of Israel here.

Matthew 27:11-31:[One of the things that over the years has convinced me that the Gospel writers are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit is just how much information and feeling is packed into the incredible economy of language.  Speaking as a guy who writes quite a bit, I know it is far more difficult to write with economy than with verbosity.  And here in the account of Jesus’ trial, conviction, and torture there is not a superfluous word. But these few words paint as rich a picture as any Renaissance artist was able to accomplish.]

Jesus is before Pilate and answers the governor’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  with three terse words, “You say so.” As always, Jesus’ answer flings the question back onto the questioner. What’s interesting here is that when “he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer.” (12)

What do we make of Jesus’ silence? I’m sure that in the numerous capital trials over which Pilate had presided, he had never encountered a man unwilling to speak in his own defense and “the governor was greatly amazed.” (14) It seems clear (to me anyway) that Jesus’ silence simply means he will not dignify these false accusations with an answer. To speak and defend himself would have given his accusers legitimacy. His silence deprives them of the satisfaction thinking they had any case whatsoever.

Pilate quickly figures out the emptiness of their plot—”he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.” (18)— as he cuts quickly to the chase and decides to use a method that he thinks will result in Jesus’ release. He offers them the choice between Jesus and Jesus “who is called the Messiah” (17) As if in proof of the correctness of instincts, Matthew tells us that “his wife sent word to him,Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” (19).

But Pilate badly misjudges the mood of the crowd and his ruse to establish Jesus as the innocent party is turned on its head when the crowd, which has obviously been incited by the religious officials, demands that Jesus be crucified. Mobs are unpredictable and two millennia later we see the same evidence in the misguided enthusiasm of people for the political Barabbases of our own day. They would rather turn the world upside down than do the right thing.

To avoid a riot, Pilate gives in, but not before he famously “took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (24)

The people respond, “Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (25) This verse, which at first reading appears to blame the Jews down through history, became the justification for mistreating Jews down through history, blaming them for Jesus’ death. Yet, what the people shouted is in the Torah—that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon subsequent generations. But to use it as a rationale to blame the Jews for Jesus death is a singular wrong committed by the church and culture down through history.

The question hangs in the air two thousand years later: Could Pilate have done anything else than what he did? I confess that no reasonable alternative occurs to me. It stands in history as proof that incited mobs are unstable and unwise.

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