Psalm 104:31–35; Judges 13; Luke 21:29–38

Originally published 8/31/2016. revised and updated 8/31/2018.

Psalm 104:31–35: The concluding verses of this magnificent psalm about God’s creative works and his dominion over creation begin with a doxology:
May the Lord’s glory be forever,
may the Lord rejoice in His works.
 (31)

There’s something eminently satisfying in reflecting on God when he exults in his creative works; that we are his created beings, imago deo. We don’t often think about God’s own emotions and this verse gives us a glimpse of God’s great pleasure in the work he has done.

With a final reminder of God’s power over creation our psalmist arrives at a benediction of joyous worship:
Who but looks down to earth, and it trembles,
but touches the mountains [and] they smoke
.
Let me sing to the Lord while I live,
let me hymn to my God while I breathe.
 Let my speech be sweet unto Him.
As for me, I rejoice in the Lord. (32-34)

Notice the phrases, ‘while I live,’ and ‘while I breathe.” These connote a quality of continuous worship on our part, not just an hour on Sunday morning. Worship involves just being alive and rejoicing in our having been created by God.

But  notice also that although the poet has praised the wonders of God’s creation, it is God—not nature—that he worships. Too many people excuse themselves from formal worship in a community by saying they worship God while in nature. The question of course is it really worshipping God the Creator or creation itself? The psalmist is crystal clear as to who the object of worship must be.

There’s an odd insertion at the last verse:
Let offenders vanish from earth
and the wicked be no more.
 (35a)

This jarring non-sequitur may have been inserted by an later editor, fearing perhaps that the psalm was sufficiently pious. Happily, though, our psalmist gets the final word as he concludes the psalm as he began it on the note of total worship that is not just intellectual but involves his entire being—body, mind, soul:
Bless, O my being, the Lord,
      Hallelujah!

This simple phrase would be a good thing to say or sing whenever we gather together to worship.

Judges 13: We arrive at one of the best known stories in the Hebrew Bible: Samson. The scene opens with Israel having been oppressed under the Philistines for the past 40 years. The unnamed wife (this gyno-anonymity in the OT drives me crazy!) of a certain Manoah “was barren, having borne no children” (2) when she receives an angelic visit, who announces “you shall conceive and bear a son.” (3). The angel instructs her to “be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean.” (4) In the detailed setup for the story to follow, the authors tell us that the angel also instructs her that “No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite.” (5)

The unnamed woman informs her husband, Manoah, of the angelic announcement. His reaction is exactly what one would wish for: he immediately prays for God’s guidance: “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.” (8) Manoah’s humility before God tells us a lot about his character: that he has remained faithful even though he lives under oppression.

God complies with his request and the angel again appears to his wife and Manoah “got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” (11) Manoah wants to hear the angel’s instructions for himself and the messenger repeats what he told the wife: “She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing.” (14)

Obviously pleased, Manoah invites the man to lunch. But the angel demurs and asks instead for a burnt offering but refuses to tell Manoah his name because it is “too wonderful.” The angel ascends into heaven at which point Manoah realizes they’ve been visited by an angel and he panics: “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” (22) But the wife remains calm, pointing out rather wisely that “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have…announced to us such things as these.” (23) The wife obeys the instructions and Samson is born. A fascinating side note here is that the angel’s instructions to the wife to abstain from alcohol and to eat wisely are exactly the instructions given to pregnant women today.

The parallels of this story to the barren Elizabeth, who bears John the Baptist, long after this event are striking. An angelic visit and the announcement of bearing a male child seem to be a standard modus operandi when it comes to the birth of special children who will follow God. Also, it is the woman who calmly accepts the news while it is the man who worries or doubts. At least Manoah, unlike Zechariah, did not laugh and become mute as a punishment for his disbelief.

Samson is born and “the boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. The spirit of the Lord began to stir him.” (24, 25) Great things are to come for this blessed—but all too human—child.

I’m sure that Luke was quite familiar with the Samson story and used it as a model when he wrote about the birth of John the Baptist. Its significance certainly would not be lost among the Jews in his community. But these parallels beyond the angelic visit do not apply to Mary, whose experience of bearing Jesus is unique in history.

Luke 21:29–38: Jesus, looking at the fig tree, announces, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (32) Theologians have been fighting ever since over exactly what ‘this generation‘ refers to. Is it the generation in actual space and time around him when Jesus speaks? Or is ‘generation’ being used by Jesus to refer to the generation that’s alive when history ends and Jesus returns? I go with the former, because the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of the Jews was about as traumatic event that could be imagined. And Luke is writing after 70 CE when Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans.

The next verse, however, is not in dispute and is true across all time and space because Jesus transcends those dimensional limitations even beyond the end of history: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (33) And this statement remains as true today as two millennia ago. Empires have come and gone, just as America will eventually fade, but Jesus’ words and his impact remain undiminished.

Jesus then provides practical instruction that we, his followers, are to remain alert and ready, with our priorities set correctly: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.” (34)  Instead, we are to “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (36) Jesus wants his followers to be conscious and aware of what is going on around us at all times. We are not to be lulled to sleep by thinking Jesus has saved us so we have no further responsibility. Quite the contrary, being a Jesus follower is hard and, yes, occasionally dangerous work.

Even though Jesus has just predicted and described the end of history, he reiterates that worrying about “end times” is not our affair. Instead, we must be alert and focus on Kingdom work. Given that there’s an entire eschatological industry in America today replete with lectures, books, sermons, bizarre interpretations of Revelation, and even the occasional prediction of the exact date Jesus will return to earth, it’s clear that too many Christians have failed to follow Jesus clear and repeated instructions here.

Luke reminds us of Jesus’ popularity at this point, even after he’s predicted such dire future events and given his stern warnings: “And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.” (38) It’s clear that Jesus’ hold on people through his deeds and words was something that “this generation” had never experienced before. Even the charismatic John the Baptist pales in comparison.

 

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