Psalm 97:1–6; Joshua 19:40–21:8; Luke 17:1–10

Originally published 8/12/2016. revised and updated 8/13/2018.

Psalm 97:1–6: That God is king over all creation and that this is an occasion of supreme joy is made clear from the opening verse of this psalm of worship:
The Lord reigns —let earth exult,
let the many islands rejoice
. (1)

The sense that God is above us, hidden from direct view and only partly visible to us is reinforced with the image of “Cloud and dense fog around Him.” (2a) But as always, it is God’s character that is the most important focus of our worship: “justice and judgement the base of His throne.” (2b)

Our psalmist makes it clear that God is nothing like the popular image of a bearded old gentleman snoozing on his throne. He is active and yes, inspires fear in both senses of the word, as he wipes out those who would oppose him:
Fire goes before Him
and all round burns his foes.
 (3)

As well, God remains active in his natural creation. Quite contrary to our modern perspective that wonders why God would allow natural disasters such as fires and earthquakes to occur, our psalmist makes it clear that God is the powerful agency actually causing this awesome events. God is not some avuncular old man; he is lord of all creation:
His lightnings lit up the world;
the earth saw and quaked.
Mountains melted like wax before the Lord.

Master of all the earth. (4, 5)

God’s incomprehensible power and above all his uncompromising justice is the reason why we worship him:
The heavens told His justice,
and all peoples saw His glory.
 (6)

This psalm is a reminder of the futility of our attempts to put God in a box of our own design, and to attempt to understand God. God cannot be understood. We can only stand in awe and worship.  With the psalmist, I believe that every worship service should at some point acknowledge God’s unfathomable majesty.

Joshua 19:40–21:8: The allocation of land for each tribe by lottery continues as we read that initially, the territory given to Dan “was lost to them.” (47a) Undeterred, “the Danites went up and fought against Leshem, and after capturing it and putting it to the sword, they took possession of it and settled in it.” (47b) This concludes the allocation of land on the west side of the Jordan.

Joshua and his heirs are themselves to be rewarded with an exclusive inheritance: “By command of the Lord they gave him the town that he asked for, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim; he rebuilt the town, and settled in it.” (19:50)

However, the job of allocation is not complete. God again speaks to Joshua, reminding him that he must  “Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses.” (20:2) The are the cities to which those who inadvertently kill another person are to flee.

Our ever-helpful authors recapitulate the rules of sanctuary: First, sanctuary is not automatic. The fleeing person is instructed to “stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain the case to the elders of that city; then the fugitive shall be taken into the city, and given a place, and shall remain with them.” (20:4) A public trial (which I presume to be a confession of the facts) follows and sanctuary is allowed until “the death of the one who is high priest at the time: then the slayer may return home, to the town in which the deed was done.’” (20:6) This odd aspect of length of time that sanctuary is valid, i.e., until the death of the high priest, is probably a way of explaining that significant time is required until avenging tempers cool.

Six cities are appointed as cities of refuge: Kadesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan.

Ah, yes, and let’s not forget the Levites. While the tribe of priests do not receive land for the obvious reason that they are too busy with priestly duties and cannot farm, they become the urban tribe and receive cities, where I presume they are the appointed leaders. The direct descendants of Aaron received 13 cities; the Kohathites received 10; the Gershonites received 13; and the Merarites received 12. Which looks like 48 cities in all. If I’m not mistaken, these ‘cities’ are small villages where there is a small number of permanent structures and perhaps some simple fortification.

Luke 17:1–10: At this point, Luke reviews some of what I assume to be Jesus’ sermon notes and seminars with his disciples. First, temptations to sin will come our way: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” (1) But in a clear message to the eventual leaders of his church, Jesus is clear that they must never be the agents of temptation of those whom they lead: “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (2).

In short, while Jesus holds all his followers to a high standard, the standards to which leaders are to be held is even higher. Unfortunately, that has not always the case in the church. The priest scandal of the Catholic church certainly comes to mind, but there are sufficient local examples of adulterous pastors as well.

Then Jesus turns to the difficult issue of forgiveness: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” (3) However, it’s crucial to note that the first act our responsibility as the offendee to confront the offender. If there is repentance, then forgiveness is not an option; it is a requirement. While Jesus does not say so overtly, I dont think it’s unreasonable to assume the converse is also true: where there is no repentance on the part of the offender we are not obligated to forgive.

This idea of repetitive forgiveness is difficult for us, but Jesus makes it awfully clear: “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (4). I presume however that this is a sincere repentance. This concept must have been even more difficult in that culture where eye-for-eye-tooth-for-tooth vengeance rather than forgiveness was the order of the day.

In the section where the disciples ask Jesus to “Increase our faith!” (5), Luke (I think for the first time) calls Jesus ‘Lord:’ “The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (5) I’m not sure if this is an intentional title shift on Luke’s part or not. In any event, the appellation makes it clear that these commands are indeed God’s intent and that we have no option other than to follow them.

Finally, Jesus makes the distinction between leader and those who are led very clear. We who are part of Jesus’ church are definitely the led, no more intrinsically worthy than slaves. We do our jobs, but that does not confer the right to act as the master: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (10) In the Kingdom there is only one leader. That is Jesus, who is our Lord. This is what Oswald Chambers keeps getting at when he tells us that to follow Jesus we must abandon our own ego and intentions in favor of the Lord’s.

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