Psalm 44:10–17; Exodus 39:1–31; Matthew 27:57–66

Originally published 4/3/2016. Revised and updated 4/4/2018:

Psalm 44:10–17: While the previous section of this psalm concluded on a note of how faithful the psalmist and his peers have been to God, this section turns darkly accusatory toward God because it seems that God has not reciprocated that faithfulness. We encounter one of the longest passages of complaint against God in the Psalms. As the military language suggests, the psalmist probably writes just following a stinging military defeat of Israel. [Unfortunately, the psalm gives no hint as to what historical battle this might have been,] The psalmist does not hide his anger as he writes:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
    and did not sally forth in our ranks.
    You turned us back from the foe,
    and our enemies took their plunder. (10, 11)

Worse, God’s inaction has resulted in a greater catastrophe than just a defeat in battle turning the metaphor of God being the good shepherd of Israel on its head:
You made us like sheep to be eaten
and scattered us through the nations.
” (12)

The nation of Israel itself appears to have been destroyed and its population scattered to the four winds—which of course is eventually exactly what happened, be it the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Babylonian captivity, or Israel’s occupation first by Greeks then by Romans—all leading up to the destruction by Titus of the temple and most of Jerusalem in AD70.

But perhaps the bitterest complaint of all is how God failed to value—much less care for—his people:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price on them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us. (13, 14)

God’s failure regarding Israel is not just a national tragedy; it has grave personal consequences as the psalmist goes on to remind God—and us—of the shame he (and we presume others) is experiencing:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame covered my face,
from the sound of revilers and cursers,
from the enemy and the avenger.
” (16, 17)

Underneath our poet’s anger and shame is the deepest feeling of all: abandonment. The psalmist’s faith has brought him nothing but shame. Which is exactly what makes these verses so powerful. We often feel that same sense of abandonment in God’s silence and our belief that he has failed to act as we want him to. We ask, ‘Why, God?’ and ‘Where are You, God.’  That is why this psalm is so powerful and so relevant today.

This psalm gives us a model that we can be angry at God. We don’t have to employ false reverence and pretend to like God. We can shake our fists at him. At times like these I’m with the psalmist: that old saw that when we didn’t see God walking beside us because he was carrying us is is a myth. I believe there are times like these described here, when God turns away and does not speak. We are completely, utterly on our own without a hope in the world.

Exodus 39:1–31: The tabernacle is complete, as are its furnishings. Now it is time to fashion the priestly garments. We assume it is “Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, engraver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.” (38:23) who leads the project of making “the sacred vestments for Aaron; as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:1)

The description of these vestments, including “the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.” (2) pretty much follows the earlier description and demonstrates to me, anyway, that both sets of authors were actually looking at the same vestments, which had apparently survived down through Israel’s history—or subsequent replacement garments—to the Babylonian captivity when these authors were writing. The ephod contains the twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel and enough gold rings that suggest it must have weighed upwards of 40 or 50 pounds.

However, two things are missing in this description: that is the mysterious urim and thummin. This omission suggests that these two rocks [or whatever they were] did not come to play a large role in actual worship.

In addition to the breastplate and robe, the artisans “also made the tunics, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, and the turban of fine linen, and the headdresses of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twisted linen.” (27, 28). My suspicion based on no actual knowledge or facts is that these linen undergarments were the inspiration for the Mormon practice of wearing similar garments under their outer clothing.

Once again we are almost overwhelmed by the richness and magnificence of these descriptions. And again, we can only conclude that true worship of God demands the finest creations of human mind and hand [mens et manus—the MIT motto]. Which is one more reason why worship is serious business indeed.

Matthew 27:57–66: Even though the inner twelve disciples had abandoned Jesus, one disciple, who we assume has been following Jesus for some time but has never been mentioned until now, appears and asks for Jesus’ corpse: Joseph, the rich man from Arimathea. Joseph prepares the body and “wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.” (59, 60). And in a detail I’d never noticed before, it is Joseph who rolls the rock in front of the tomb. His crucial role complete, “he went away” and drops from Biblical history. Almost in passing Matthew notes, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (61) As far as our ospel writer is concerned, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are the only ones who have not abandoned Jesus after he dies. I believe these three are the stand-ins for the ordinary worshipper; we lay people. On the day following Good Friday we are all sitting in front of the tomb, lost in our thoughts and in our loss. But unlike those three faithful followers, we know how the story turns out.

Ever the masters of selective memory, the religious officials are well aware of Jesus’ prediction that he will rise again after three days. They hurry to Pilate and say, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (63) I presume they didn’t want to post their own temple guard at the tomb and appealed to Roman authority on the grounds that dealing with the threat from “this imposter” required official sanction. Pilate must have been frustrated at this request, thinking he had finally gotten the religious leaders off his back with the crucifixion of “this imposter.” Yet, he’s doubtless thinking, here they were again with some cockamamie story about preventing a resurrection. Not wanting to provide any pretext whatsoever for more rioting in Jerusalem he agrees to provide a Roman guard, and instructs the temple officials to “make [the tomb] as secure as you can.” As we will find out shortly, what is secure to humans is not secure for God, who always breaks through the rocks we erect to hide from his relentless pursuit.

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.

 

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