Psalm 44:18–27; Exodus 39:32–40:23; Matthew 28:1–20

Originally published 4/6/2016 with portions from 4/5/2014. Revised and updated 4/5/2018:

Psalm 44:18–27: Our psalmist turns from shaking Israel’s collective fist at God to a new strategy: reminding God that despite his apparent desertion—and implied betrayal— of them, they have nevertheless remained faithful and obedient despite this awful defeat:
All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,
and we did not betray Your pact.
Our heart has not failed,
nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path.
 (18, 19)

Having thus buttered up God, our poet flings a direct accusation of God’s having used his people malevolently, even to the point of death:
…though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place
and with death’s darkness covered us over.
 (20).

There is an ironic plaintiveness in the poet’s cry as he asks rhetorically that God certainly would have been alert to their sinfulness had they abandoned God:
Had we forgotten the name of God
and spread out our palms to an alien god,
would not God have fathomed it?
” (21, 22a)

After all, the psalmist argues, even had they been hypocritical in pretending to love and honor God, “He knows the heart’s secrets.” (22b)

Finally, our poet comes right out and says exactly what he’s thinking. Their defeat is God’s fault. Ever faithful, they have fought for God, but God has abandoned them and that is why they have met disaster:
For Your sake we are killed all day long,
we are counted as sheep for slaughter.
” (23)

Surely, he pleads, this awareness of their plight will awaken a slumbering God. And in some of the most mournful, despairing verses in Psalms, the poet asks the question that rings down through the ages right to today:
Awake, why sleep, O Master!
Rouse up, neglect not forever
Why do You hide Your face,
forget our affliction, our oppression?
 (24, 25)

In a world where God seems absent, all seems hopeless in an image of total defeat that has sapped them even of the ability to stand:
For our neck is bowed to the dust,
our belly clings to the ground.
 (26)

Nevertheless, ever-hopeful, this agonized psalm ends with the final plea that it is God’s inherently generous beneficence that he will eventually come to their rescue:
Rise as a help to us
and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.
 (27).

In the end, we can rely on one thing and one thing only: That God will hear us and will rescue us. But while waiting we can recall this psalm and like the men the psalmist describes, we can shake our fist at God at our desperate plight. We can even accuse God of abandoning us. But underneath it all, hope still flickers. As other psalms remind us, God is listening even in silence.

Exodus 39:32–40:23: The work on the tabernacle is complete and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:32) and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (33) This provides the authors the opportunity to summarize in one long paragraph just how extensive and complex this project had been as they review the final inventory of “the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases;” (33b) along with the “the ark of the covenant with its poles and the mercy seat” (35) and all the other furnishings.  And not to forget “the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the sacred vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons to serve as priests.” (41)

As has been their wont, these authors emphasize the human side of this project and repeat the observation that “The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (42) And for their efforts, “When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.” (43) Can there be any better feeling than to have done as God has instructed us to do and to receive a blessing for having done it? However, we must always remember that is not the reason that we do it, but our reward for a job well done.

We don’t hear much these days about the theology of vocation, which I have always considered to be one of the high points of Lutheran theology.  But here it is: the people are not priests, they are workers, and they have crafted a work to the glory of God.  I have to believe this passage was read form time to time during the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I were writing subsection titles for this part of Exodus, the first part of this final chapter would be headed, “Some assembly required.”  God’s instructions to Moses are quite precise about where the furnishings and drapery of the Tabernacle are to be placed.  (It also reminds me of the little models of the Tabernacle we 5th graders made back in Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena so many years ago.)

Matthew 28:1-20  Matthew does not linger over post-Resurrection details, as our Gospel writer wraps up the most astounding event in history with his usual economy, almost terseness. Unlike the quiet garden and the empty tomb recounted in Luke, Matthew’s description of the resurrection is truly heaven come down to earth: And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. (2, 3)  WHile the women who had come to the tomb may have been frightened, it is the rough, masculine Roman soldiers who freak out: For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 

Jesus does not reveal himself to the women; rather the angel sends them off to give the good news that he tells them: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (6, 7) 

Their faithful and joyful response is rewarded by Jesus appearing to them: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” (9) As in the other Gospels, it is the women who meet the resurrected Jesus first,

One event, which I think is exclusive to Matthew, is the recounting of how the priests and religious officials bribed the guards to spread the Big Lie, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.  Which theory continues to surface even today.  (I remember a book in the 1970’s about this, and Wikipedia even includes an entry, “the stolen body hypothesis.)

Matthew, with his Jewish perspective writing to a Jewish community, ends the story of Jesus’ interaction with Judaism on this distinctly conspiratorial note with, “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (15)  The tragedy of course, is that Matthew’s words have been at least partly catalytic in the church’s persecution of the Jews over history.  But that is not Matthew’ fault. It is ours.

Matthew’s story ends with Jesus’ famous commissioning.  (And doesn’t even mention the Ascension.)  He has made us witness to Jesus’ mission on earth and the story ends with a call to action—our action. And that is why I think he wrote his Gospel in the first place. Jesus’ time on earth is so much more than the “greatest story ever  told.”  It’s an instruction manual of how to carry out the Great Commission by remembering and then doing the things Jesus did. And Jesus’ final words are his (and God’s) Greatest Promise to us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (20) May we never ever forget that sublime truth. Our faith is much more than contemplation or acceptance; in the end the Gospel depends on our willingness to share our faith with others.

 

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