Psalm 89:1-8; Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12; Luke 11:29-36

Originally published 7/25/2014. Revised and updated 7/24/2018

Psalm 89:1-9: This psalm acclaims God’s faithfulness—repeated 8 times in the psalm— to His people over and over. Alter informs us that that this is a royal psalm, describing the covenant between King David and God:
‘I [God] have sealed a pact with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant.’ (4)

But it becomes clear that it was composed at a time when David’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse in the face of his enemies. Nevertheless, the psalmist is relentlessly upbeat in the first verses about God’s immutable faithfulness. Our psalmist is attempting to reassure his listeners and perhaps  himself. In modern parlance, he’s basically saying, “Hang in there. God is faithful and will help us through this dark time.” He wants to make sure we get the point by coming back to God’s faithfulness repeatedly:

For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.” (2)
You set Your faithfulness firm.” (3)
the heavens will acclaim…Your faithfulness, too,” (6)
“...who is like You, …with Your faithfulness round You?” (9)

I tend to talk about my faithfulness (or lack thereof), but not about God’s relentless faithfulness to me, regardless of how well I return that trust. Here in the psalm, God is faithful specifically to King David but it is through the sacrificial love Jesus Christ, I know that God will be faithful and never abandon me.

We talk about how God loves us. But it is His faithfulness that takes love out of the realm of the abstract and makes it real on a daily basis. That no matter how I screw up, I will be forgiven because God is faithful to me. And with the psalmist my response can only be worship in gratitude and along with “the heavens [I] will acclaim Your wonder, O LORD.” (6)

Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12: At the very end of Moses’ long poem/song following a specific blessing for each of the tribes of Israel, we find the striking verse, “Happy are you, Israel. Who is like you? A people delivered by the LORD, Your shield of help and the sword of your triumph. Your enemies cower before you and you on their backs will tread.” (33:29)

In light of current events, I think we must acknowledge that this verse is not just poetic hyperbole, but a prophecy that seems relevant even today. To be sure, modern Israel is a long way culturally and spiritually from the ancient Israel. But I think we would be too hasty in dismissing the idea that there is still at least a remnant of the original covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

As the psalmist notes above, God is faithful, and specifically faithful to the house of David.  Who are we to dismiss the idea that there is not something greater going on here than an unending battle between Israel and its neighbors?

Deuteronomy concludes with the narrative of Moses’ death and burial, and Israel’s mourning. (Or “keening” as Alter has it.)

Chapter 34 opens with Moses’ ascent up to the mountain top.”And Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which faces Jericho. And the LORD let him see all the land, (34:1,2). I take this as a deliberate echo on the part of our authors of Moses’ ascent on Sinai where he first encountered the burning bush and then again when God delivered the Decalogue (twice). On this mountaintop Moses looks at the land God has promised to the “stiff-necked” people that he has led all these years.

I have always thought of Moses’ inability to enter the Promised Land as a form of punishment by God. Perhaps it is, but I think it’s also a message that leaders can accomplish great things, but there is a limit to which they can go, and then the reins must be handed over. Too many leaders throughout history have accomplished great things but then became failures by virtue of holding too firmly to their position.  This view of the Promised Land is Moses’ reward. But I have to think Moses was relieved that he could finally rest.

Moses has ascended to the position of the greatest of Israel’s prophets, and his ascent to the mountaintop attests to this.  And as our writer acknowledges, “But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,” (34:10)

Luke 11:29-36: Jesus remarks that the people “seek a sign” that their Messiah has indeed returned. But as usual, he turns the situation upside down and tells them that they are looking for the wrong thing. Jonah went to the gentiles of Ninevah; so too, Jesus has come to accomplish something much greater than being just a Jewish messiah. He has come for all of the Ninevahs of the world. I think that is what he means when he says, “something greater than Jonah is here!” (32)

Jesus makes the rather mysterious remark, “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” (35) What sort of light is in fact darkness? Is it the light of our self-taught wisdom? Jesus is warning us—especially theologians (!)—not to get too carried away with relying on our own internal wisdom. I think that’s what Paul is getting at, I think, in the first chapter of I Corinthians about our wisdom vs. God’s wisdom that appears to be foolishness to “wise men.” Given that the gospel of Luke was written toward the end of the first century I don’t think it’s a stretch to speculate that these words are also Luke’s warning to the nascent cults of gnosticism that dematerialized Jesus into pure “light.”

In the modern context, light that is actually darkness would seem to be spiritual quests of “self-discovery”—that the light (or enlightenment) is already within ourselves and all we have to do is reflect and meditate enough in order to”discover it.” Jesus is saying rather clearly though, that is a dead end and not really light at all.

But if we use our figurative and literal eyes to see that the Light comes from beyond ourselves, not from within ourselves, then we become healthy. And we know that the Light comes only via Jesus. This is the light—himself—that he is talking about at the end of this reading: “If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” (36)

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