Psalm 96; Joshua 16,17; Luke 15:11-32

Originally published 8/12/2014. Revised and updated 8/10/2018

Psalm 96: The first verses of this psalm—”Sing to the Lord a new song!/ Sing to the Lord, all the earth!—and its theme of coming to God is reverent worship have inspired lots of praise songs, but there are two themes in this psalm that I’ve not heard in any song.

The first is:
“For all gods of the peoples are ungods, 
but the LORD has made the heavens. (5)

We and the small-g gods we have created are, in Alters’ marvelous phrase, “ungods.” God alone is Creator. These ungods are not the little statues sitting on the mantle, but the serious ungods in our lives: money, power, fame, wealth, control over others.  The rising rate of suicide in America is ample proof that the ungods in our lives are powerless to deliver the true meaning of life or to reveal why we are really here, which as the psalmist tells us, is to sing a new song to our Creator. Yes, we can argue all we want that depression that leads to suicide is strictly an issue of brain chemistry, but I think this most selfish of acts—to destroy the unique self that God has created—is a cri de couer of realization that we are far, far more than the sum of our brain chemistry, and that our ungods have betrayed us.

The second theme is God’s justice:
Yes, the world stands firm, will not shake.
He metes out justice to peoples righteously. (10)

By concatenating justice with creation, the psalmist forces us to confront the reality that any injustice we commit is a sin against God’s created order. God’s justice is not an occasion of foreboding and terror for those who trust in God, but a time to sing with the joy the new song. As the psalmist puts it so beautifully, Creation itself sings in joy:
Let the field be glad and all that is in it,
then shall all the trees of the forest joyfully sing… (12).

Why does Creation sing? Not because it’s a nice day, but because creation knows its Creator, who is the source of all justice in creation:
He comes to judge the earth.
He judges the world in justice 
and peoples in His faithfulness. (14)

Joshua 16,17: Joshua allocates territory to the half-tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh. Both the Ephraimites and Manassites, however, “did not, however, drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer: so the Canaanites have lived within Ephraim to this day…” (16:10). And, “the Manassites could not take possession of those towns; but the Canaanites continued to live in that land.” (17:12). Both tribes put the Canaanites to forced labor, but by virtue of not driving them out will eventually lead to intermarriage and the eventual destruction of Israel as it turns away from God.

Moreover, in the grand tradition of the wilderness years, the Manassites complain to Joshua that their allocation is unfair, invoking that ever-popular justification that ‘Hey, we are specially blessed by God, so we deserve God’s continued favor’ as the moan, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, since we are a numerous people, whom all along the Lord has blessed?” (17:14). Joshua turns their complaint back on them, “If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and clear ground there for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim…” (17:15).

The lesson is clear: we do not just sit around and wait for the Lord to bless us because it is somehow our “right” to be blessed. As Jesus makes clear again and again, blessing arises from diligent work n the Kingdom. The question for me, is am I willing to do the hard work of clearing the forest?

Luke 15:11-32: It is not possible to read and reflect on this most famous of the Luke parables and not come away new riches. In today’s reading it strikes me that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not so much about the prodigal or even about the brother, it is about the father. Who of course is clearly God, our Father.  In another one of those “Moravian coincidences,” today’s psalm tells us how it is impossible not to sing and worship God our creator. And here we have the father celebrating his son’s return with a party.

The father does not throw a party because it seemed like the right thing to do. The final verse in the story gives the whole thing away, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (32) The father says we had to celebrate and rejoice. There was no option here. God celebrates when the lost have been found not because He’s just being nice, but to use Brendan Manning’s felicitous phrase (thank you, Jerry Hanson!) it is because of God’s furious longing for us. When God finds us, a party is mandatory!

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