Archives for August 2018

Psalm 95; Joshua 14:6-15:19; Luke 14:25-32

Originally published 8/11/2014. Revised and updated 8/9/2018.

Psalm 95: This is one of those psalms where singing becomes ecstatic shouting:
Come, let us sing gladly to the LORD, 
let us shout out to the Rock of our rescue. (1)

But it is more than mere shouting; it is singing enthusiastically:
Let us greet Him in acclaim, 
in songs let us shout out to Him. (2)

Perhaps a modern analogue would be Red Sox fans singing “Sweet Caroline” in Fenway Park. The point is, that God’s greatness transcends mere songs of praise, but is something that is to be sung in massed unison.

This psalm focuses on the greatness of God as Creator and king over all small-g gods:
For a great God is the Lord
and a great king over all the gods.
In Whose hand are the depths of the earth,
and the peaks of the mountains. are his.
His is the sea and He made it,
and the dry land His hands did fashion. (3-5)

As always, our natural response to so great a God is fervent worship:
Come, let us bow and kneel,
bend the knee before the LORD our maker. (6).

The phrase, “the LORD our maker,” reminds us that we are His creation, we are not those small-g gods that we (me, anyway) so often see ourselves as being. Nor are other objects such as wealth or power.

the Our poet reiterates the centrality of Creator/created relationship:
For He is our God
and we are the people He tends
and the flock of His hand. (7)

This is the proper order of creation, and we do well to remember that order, which is why worship is about praise and remembrance, not about being entertained or edified or even (as I heard my parents say so often) “getting something out of it.” Worship is the expression of joy that we are God’s creatures, saved through Jesus Christ.

When we corrupt that order and set ourselves above our Creator, as seems to be our natural bent, then sin—especially the sin of pride—arises with all its dreadful consequences. The psalmist reminds us that this is what happened at Meribah (8) and again in the wilderness when the people complained when the spies came back and were afraid of the Canaanites. The result is an angry God who cancels his plan to show this wayward generation the Promised Land:
Forty years I loathed a generation,
and I said, ‘They are a people of wayward heart.
And they do not know my ways.
Against them I swore my wrath,

They shall not come to My resting place. (10, 11)

Through the saving power of Jesus Christ we will never be loathed by God, but that does not absolve of of our responsibility to remember we are the Created and our natural singing/shouting response is gratitude and worship of our Creator.

Joshua 14:6-15:19: Caleb reappears and reminds Joshua that “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land; and I brought him an honest report.” (14:7) Because of that honest report, he tells, Joshua (who must surely have known about the promise since he was the other spy who gave an honest report) that “Moses swore [to me] on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholeheartedly followed the Lord my God.’” (14:9)

If Joshua gives Caleb the land of Hebron, he promises that even though he is 85 years old, he is still strong and ready to do battle with Hebron’s current inhabitants, promising, “it may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out, as the Lord said.” (14:12) Joshua hands over the land to strong, assertive Caleb.

In chapter 15, following a county-record description of the boundaries of Judah, we encounter one of the odder bargains of the OT. Caleb says that whoever takes Kiriath-sepher will be awarded his daughter Achsah and in something edging toward incest, she becomes the wife of Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, her cousin.

Since the family is assigned to the desert, Caleb’s now-married daughter urges her new husband to ask for springs of water as part of their territory. However, he apparently says nothing. So being no slouch, Achsah takes it upon herself to ask her father, which request he grants. While the theological application may be as simple as “ask and you shall receive,” I’m amused that the father-daughter bond of the father granting a daughter’s request—something I have happily done many times myself—has deep historical roots!

Luke 14:25-32: This is another one of those disturbing passages about the cost of discipleship that rubs against our grain, especially when Jesus says, Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (26) Perhaps I’m softening the word “hate” too much to suggest that even the deepest of these human relationships cannot have greater precedence than the relationship between Jesus and ourselves as his disciples.

The latter half of this passage, which seems not to be preached on as much, is that discipleship requires preparation and planning, which point Jesus makes not once, but twice: once in building and once in military planning.  To me, Jesus is saying there is nothing random or particularly casual about working in the Kingdom. To be sure, Kingdom work requires vision, but it is vision that anticipates cost (the tower example) and potential consequences (the military example). This is not the short-lived enthusiasm that we too often mistake for vision. If the cost or consequences are too great, then the plan must be modified accordingly.

This is also a good example of what my father said distinguished Christianity from cults: You cannot “leave your brains at the door.” Being a worker in the Kingdom requires thought, insight, and yes, intelligence. We cannot mindlessly follow some charismatic but ultimately empty leader and expect to build something lasting or expand the territory of the Kingdom. Alas, there are too many charismatic preachers abroad today, especially on TV, that corrupt the strong message of Jesus.

Psalm 94:12-23; Joshua 13:8-14:5; Luke 14:7-24

Originally published 8/9/2014. Revised and updated 8/8/2018.

Psalm 94:12–23: At verse 12 the psalmist turns his attention to the individual who is suffering and can enjoy a respite by coming close to God and learning his teachings while awaiting the ultimate punishment of the wicked:
Happy the man whom Yah chastises
and whom from His teaching He instructs
to make him quiet in evil days
until a pit is dug for the wicked. (12, 13).

For despite the pain of the present day there is always hope because
the Lord will not abandon His people,
and His estate He will not forsake. (14)

Given the fact that God is always with us, the psalmist then asks rhetorically,
Who will rise for me against evildoers?
who will take a stand against the wrongdoers? (16)

The answer comes immediately with a reflection on how God rescues him–and us. And not just rescue, but God’s love comes as well:
Were not the Lord a help to me,
I would have almost dwelled in the silent realm.
When I thought my foot had stumbled,
Your kindness, Lord, sustained me. (17, 18)

These many centuries later we have the assurance that God will do the same in our hearts as he did for the psalmist:
With my many cares within me,
Your consolations delighted me. (19)

Every one of us carries a heavy burden of worries and cares. Jesus addresses this reality when he says that each day has sufficient worries of its own and not to fret about tomorrow.

But laying our worries aside is more than just an act of will. It is a reliance on the love and consolation that God brings—especially when, like the psalmist, we look out into the world and see so much hatred, strife, and trouble. God is indeed our ultimate hope when it appears that the wicked will triumph. And while we wait for the defeat of the wicked, we are protected:
The Lord became my fortress,
and my God, my sheltering Rock. (22)

Meanwhile, the wicked will ultimately receive their comeuppance by having them experience their won malfeasance:
“He will turn back against them their wickedness,
through their evil He will destroy them,
the Lord our God will destroy them. (23)

One suspects there is more fond hope and intense feeling on the part of the psalmist than there is theological truth here. But as we have said many times, the Psalms are where intense emotion is freely expressed. And here we see the psalmist’s anger and frustration up close.

Joshua 12-14:5: These final chapters of Joshua turn away form the exciting battles and victories and become an outright historical catalog much like the appendix at the end of a history book. First, of the numerous kings that have been conquered by Moses and Joshua (chapter 12). But perhaps the most ominous list is the description is at the beginning of chapter 13 of the parts of Canaan that Israel had not conquered. (13: 1-7). God reminds Joshua that “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites;” (13:7a).  Much land has been conquered and one of Joshua’s final duties is to “allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you.” (13:7b)

Now, Scripture becomes a surveyor’s record much as we would see in the record books at any county clerk’s office. Again, like the detail we encounter in the descriptions of the layout and furnishings of the Temple that come later, I’m struck by the importance of details in the story of Israel—and indeed, of all God’s creation.

As well, the definite boundaries that are laid out here is a tangible reminder that God is a God of boundaries, and that there are limits—not only physical ones such as those described here, but of our behavior and God’s expectations. Boundaries are definite. As the today’s psalm observes, there is good and there is evil. There are those who align with God and those who do not. I tend to prefer a squishier, more ambivalent view of life and like others, would prefer to think that at everyone’s core there is goodness—even if only a spark. But the evidence of the Bible indicates otherwise. Jesus makes it perfectly clear that we can be on one side of God’s boundary or the other; we cannot straddle it.

Luke 14:7-24: Jesus’ advice about banquet seating—to start low and be asked to move higher, rather than the other way around—is so sensible, so logical. Why does he even have to give it? For the simple reason that we are prideful creatures and that our logic is that we are rightfully #1. This is Oswald Chambers’ persistent theme: unless we abandon our egos and replace them with Jesus Christ, we will always wrongly take the place of honor that only Christ can occupy.

The parable of the wedding feast is one of the most remarkable in Luke’s gospel. At first it seems that Jesus is referring to the Jews as the invited guests and Gentiles as the ones brought in from the streets. That’s certainly a fair interpretation, but I think there’s a deeper meaning that follows logically from Jesus’ high-low disquisition a few verses earlier.

Notice that there is never an outright rejection to the master’s invitation, but each invited guest offers excuses, citing other distractions that have a higher priority. That’s all of us, I think. We have an infinite number of plausible excuses to keep ourown selves and our priorities ahead of those of Jesus’.  The poor on the streets are those without pretension. They have already abandoned themselves; their egos are not the center of the universe and they happily accept Jesus’ invitation, finding themselves at a banquet whose riches they could never have imagined.

While not stated directly, Jesus’ message is also one of opportunity cost. By checking out our new piece of land or by trying out our new oxen (I’m tempted to say “BMW” here in lieu of “oxen”) or focusing on the size of our bank accounts and stock portfolios, we have foregone a party whose true joy we cannot even comprehend.

Psalm 94:1–11; Joshua 14:6–15:19; Luke 14:25–32

Originally published 8/6/2016. Revised and updated 8/7/2018.

Psalm 94:1–11: Alter informs us that only here does the psalmist ascribe God as an aggressor, asking God to act against the wicked and to act now:
God of vengeance, O Lord,
God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth,
bring down on the proud requital.
” (1, 2)

Unsurprisingly, the primary sin of the wicked is pride as they lord it over the oppressed, causing our poet to plead,
How long the wicked, O Lord,
how long will the wicked exult?
 (3)

Of course the wicked believe they are beyond God’s reach and are pridefully boastful:
They utter arrogance, speak it,
all the wrongdoers bandy boasts
. (4)

These people are still among us today, believing they know it all, are above it all, and care not a whit about the impact of either their words or actions on other people. And unlike then, now they have social media to amplify their voices.

At this point our psalmist becomes more specific about the sins of the wicked. First, they care neither about other people nor the natural environment and take pains to oppress both:
Your people, O Lord, they crush,
and Your estate they abuse.
 (5)

The wicked have no qualms, even about killing others whether directly or indirectly, as the commit the most heinous crimes against the weakest among them:
Widow and sojourner they kill,
and orphans they murder.
 (6)

Even if they happen to believe in God, they nonetheless believe their actions will not be punished:
And they say, ‘Yah will not see,
and the God of Jacob will not heed.’
 (7)

In today’s world, where increasing numbers of people believe that God does not even exist, the idea of obeying God’s commands or experiencing the dire consequences of disobedience feels oddly quaint. Rather, it’s all about trumpeting and acting on individual rights, regardless of the impact on others. I’m pretty sure this psalmist would have written exactly these lines had he been writing in 21st century America.

The wicked among us may believe they are exempt from God’s punishment, but our psalmist knows better as he warns them:
Take heed, you brutes in the people,
and you fools, when will you be wise?
 (8)

God is on to to their tricks and their actions because he is Creator:
Who plants the ear, will He not hear?
Who fashions the eye, will he not look?
 (9)

What makes us think we can get away with it? Pride and a belief we are responsible to no one.

Above all, as our creator, knows all too well the wiles of the wicked:
The Lord knows human designs,
that they are mere breath.
 (11)

No matter how clever the wicked may think they are, their plans and conspiracies are “mere breath,” and will be blown apart when God turns his attention to them. In short, there are always consequences. But our perception and that of the poet’s as he asks “How long?” in verse 3, it sometimes it seems that God takes an awfully long time to act against the wicked. But act he will.

Joshua 14:6–15:19: Caleb, the other spy with Joshua 45 years previously, who reported that Canaan was ripe for invasion, resurfaces here as he reminds Joshua about the promise Moses made so many years ago: “I wholeheartedly followed the Lord my God. And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever.” (14:8,9) He’s now 85 years old and asserts, “I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war, and for going and coming.” (14:11). Caleb is certainly no wallflower, coming to Joshua and asking for an unspecified favor. Rather, he knows exactly what he wants and demands it: “So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day.” (12)

Joshua complies, and our authors, writing many years later, observe, “So Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholeheartedly followed the Lord, the God of Israel.” (14:14). The lesson for us is clear: if we wholeheartedly follow God, we can ask directly for what we believe is ours. Jesus makes this point later when he says, “Ask and you will receive.”

An interlude of county hall-of-records description of the land given to the tribe of Judah follows. The territory that Judah appears to be quite extensive, stretching all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The parenthetical insertions giving the modern names as e.g., “the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem)” (15:8) and “Mount Jearim (that is, Chesalon)” (15:10)  suggest that our authors were descendants of the tribe of Judah and they are certainly proof that they were writing many years later. I suppose it’s also worth noting that this land became the majority of the Southern Kingdom of Israel, aka Judea.

Following this textual interruption, we return to the story of Caleb occupying his territory and driving out its inhabitants. He’s successful in a couple of places, but is clearly having trouble with one city as he promises,“Whoever attacks Kiriath-sepher and takes it, to him I will give my daughter Achsah as wife.” (15:16) Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, does so and is rewarded with Achsah as his new wife.

Clearly, Achsah has inherited her father’s forthrightness, and tells her husband to ask his father-in-law for a field. Then, separately, she encounters Caleb, who asks, “What do you wish?” (15:18) We sense her irritation at being forced to live in the Negev desert and she loses no time in demanding,“Give me a present; since you have set me in the land of the Negeb, give me springs of water as well.” (15:19) Caleb immediately complies. The daughter has certainly inherited her father’s forthrightness.

Luke 14:25–32: This is truly one of the hard sayings of Jesus: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (26). And just to make sure we get the point, he reiterates, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (27) It’s difficult to rationalize around this obvious priority that Jesus is demanding of us. Attempts at part time or half-hearted discipleship is not discipleship at all. As one pastor once put it in her sermon, either we’re “all in” or we aren’t. Discipleship is a binary proposition.

However, it’s worth noting that Jesus is not asking for blind, unthinking discipleship. Rather, before deciding to become his disciple, we must sit down and evaluate the cost of that discipleship. Just as the man building a tower needs to be fully funded or a king going to war needs to determine “whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand.” (31)

When I sit down and think through discipleship and reflect on my own priorities it’s pretty clear that I’m not the disciple Jesus demands.

Psalm 93; Joshua 13:8–14:5; Luke 14:7–24

Originally published 8/5/2016. Revised and updated 8/6/2018.

Psalm 93: This brief but beautifully evocative psalm celebrates God as king of all creation. The psalmist wastes no time in getting to his theme with the interesting image of what God wears metaphorically:
The Lord reigns, in triumph clothed,
clothed is the Lord, in strength He is girded.
 (1a)

God is eternal, older than even the earth itself:
Your throne stands firm from of old,
from forever You are.
 (2)

What a great way to describe eternity: “from forever You are.”

As occurs many times in the Psalms, flowing water represents the power of nature. It speaks in its rushing energy, growing ever louder:
The streams lifted up, O Lord,
the streams lifted their voice,
the streams lift up their roaring.
 (3)

But God is even greater than the powerful waves of the ocean:
More than the sound of many waters,
the sea’s majestic breakers,
majestic on high is the Lord.
” (4)

Following this introduction that celebrates God’s grandeur, our poet turns to the relationship between God and Israel. God, who is more majestic than all of creation, is the same God who has given Israel the Law, which is what gives the nation its moral order:
Your statutes are very faithful.” (5a).

Even better, God dwells among the people of Israel, specifically at the temple in Jerusalem as our poet returns to the theme of God’s eternality:
Holiness suits Your house.
The Lord is for all time.” (5b)

This psalm reminds me that the God who loves me, and with whom I have a relationship, is greater—far greater—than the power of nature and greater than anything I can imagine. He truly is “from forever”— pace infinitely beyond what my feeble imagination can even comprehend.

Joshua 13:8–14:5: The book turns from military narrative to county hall-of-records, as Joshua performs his final task: the detailed allocation of conquered lands to the 12 tribes of Israel. This record is valuable because it creates as firm sense that unlike many of the surrounding tribes and nations when this book was written, Israel’s roots are not mythical; they are grounded quite specifically in the land itself.

We are again reminded that the tribe of Levi is set apart: “To the tribe of Levi alone Moses gave no inheritance; the offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their inheritance, as he said to them.” (13:14)

The authors then turn to describing the tribal land grants. First up are the tribes that elected to reside on the east side of the Jordan: Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe (always an amusing concept) of Manasseh.

Next up will be the allotment of conquered land west of the Jordan River to the remaining tribes. Once again, our authors—whom I’m presuming to be priests from the tribe of Levi—remind us: “but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.” (14:3) I can’t quite figure out if they are angry about being left out or feel they are special in God’s eyes and therefore deserving of the respect due form the other tribes. Perhaps it is a mixture of both feelings.

IN any event, given these historical roots it’s easy to see why modern day Israel clings so fiercely to the land it conquered and the portions of the West Bank it still occupies. The present day tension between Israel and Palestine goes back more than three millennia and unlikely too be resolved by clever diplomacy.

Luke 14:7–24: Jesus provides sound social advice for guests who have been invited to dinner where there is a rigid hierarchy of seating: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.” (8) Should someone of higher rank show up, both host and guest are placed in an embarrassing position. Therefore, Jesus advises, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (10)

As is always the case, Jesus’ point is much larger than the psychology of social convention as he reminds us in his famous statement, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (11) [This is advice that a certain president would do well to put into practice, but alas, we don’t see much evidence of that happening…]

Luke’s Jesus—perhaps more than in any other gospel—is concerned with the lower rungs of society: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (13) Aid to the less fortunate is of course a prominent running theme of the Old Testament, so even though Jesus’ words may appear radical, they are not. It’s great to know that some at Saint Matthew have put Jesus’ advice about banquet-giving into practice by offering a weekly banquet to the homeless of Walnut Creek and churches here in Madison provide food to those who have little.

As usual, Luke weaves in one of Jesus’ more famous parables: the story of the great banquet to whom many prominent people have been invited. Each invitee finds his excuse not to attend. Upon learning this news, the host is incensed and orders his slave to “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (21) Even then, places at table are not filled, so the slave is ordered to go even further: “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” (23)

The invited guests of the parable are Israel. The poor, crippled, and blind are Gentiles. And there’s a missionary sense here that we see expressed later in the Great Commission when Jesus’s host commands his slave to go far afield into the roads and lanes. The parable ends with Jesus’ rather chilling statement, “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” (24) Which I take to be the Jews for whom Jesus came but who rejected him.

Once again we have a dramatic indication that the Kingdom of God is going to be rather different than the revolution Jesus’ followers, including even his disciples, are expecting. Of course this all seems obvious to us sitting here on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d been listening to Jesus relate this parable alongside his followers I’d be just as clueless as they, thinking it was an interesting but rather weird story.

Psalm 92:10–16; Joshua 12:1–13:7; Luke 13:31–14:6

Originally published 8/4/2016. Revised and updated 8/4/2018

Psalm 92:10–16: Our psalmist, barely able to disguise his glee, writes how God’s enemies receive their just desserts as God looks on:
For, look, Your enemies, O Lord,
for, look, Your enemies perish.,
all the wrongdoers are scattered
. (10)

Alongside God, our poet witnesses their destruction as well:
And my eyes behold my foes’ defeat,
those hostile toward me, my ears hear their fall.
 (12)

Unlike the enemies, who are ephemeral grass that withers and dies, the righteous man, i.e., the psalmist and his like, are metaphorically deep-rooted trees that reach to heaven:
The righteous man springs up like the palm tree,
like the Lebanon cedar he towers.
 (13)

Trees are of course immovable; they grow where they are planted. And these magnificent trees grow in just one place:
Planted in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of our God they flourish.
 (14)

There is a masculine virility in the nature of this flourishing:
They bear fruit still in old age,
fresh and full of sap they are.
 (15)

The message is clear: even in our old age we remain “fresh and full of sap” when we are “planted” near God. And even in old age we bear glad witness to what God has done for us:
to tell that the Lord is upright,
my rock, there is no wrong in him.
 (16)

How much better it is to be God’s tree—our lives planted firmly near him— than withering grass that denies the reality of God—and then dies without hope.

Joshua 12:1–13:7: Our authors provide a complete summary of the territory and associated kings “whom the Israelites defeated, whose land they occupied beyond the Jordan toward the east, from the Wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon, with all the Arabah eastward.” (12:1) Ever striving for accuracy, the authors are careful give Moses credit for the territory on the east side of the Jordan River that became “a possession to the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (6) recounted in Deuteronomy before Israel crossed over the river.

Had Joshua been an English or American general, the list of 16 kings whom Joshua and the Israelite army defeated that follows (12:9-24) would probably have been engraved on a bronze tablet at the Joshua Memorial. (Maybe there is such a thing!) But even better—and perhaps as our authors intended—Joshua is immortalized in the Bible such that we read of his glorious victories some three millennia later.

Despite these excellent victories, the job of conquering Canaan nevertheless remains incomplete. God makes this clear to the aging Joshua: “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.” (13:1) The authors, speaking in God’s voice, go on to list the lands of the Philistines and Canaanites yet to be conquered.  God promises to do the clean-up required himself: “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites.” (13:6)

As we will read later, this incomplete task will create substantial problems for Israel in the years to come as the Israelites intermarry with the Canaanites and worse, take up their idolatrous religious practices, turning away from the One True God. Nevertheless, Joshua’s final task as Israel’s leader is to divide Canaan “for an inheritance to the nine tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh.” (13:7) Details of each tribe’s allocation to follow…

Luke 13:31–14:6: As we’ve read earlier, Jesus’ activities in Galilee have come to the attention of Herod. Now, “some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” (31) [It’s interesting to note that the people who warned Jesus were Pharisees; apparently not every Pharisee was hostile to Jesus.] As usual, Jesus’ response is at once both clear and veiled: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” (32) The reference to the third day can be both the actual third day from the time Jesus receives this warning—or, more likely, it can be a reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day.

His comments notwithstanding, Jesus takes the Pharisee’s warning seriously, but not for the reason we’d expect. Instead, he says, “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what the ultimate response in Jerusalem—an obvious reference to its religious leaders— will be. He laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (34) It seems that not only does Jesus know his fate based on the fate of the prophets that preceded him, but he also knows the fate of destruction that will ultimately befall Jerusalem itself.

As is Luke’s wont, he weaves prophecy and parable in with Jesus’ healing. But the healings are never random; they always serve to illuminate Jesus’ radical mission. Here, he is at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath.” (14:1a) Luke observes that the Pharisees “were watching him carefully” (14:1b), presumably to catch him in any theological error or bad practice.

A man with severe edema appears, but Jesus does not heal him immediately. Rather, he poses the sabbath question as binary two-alternative forced choice question: “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” (14:3) The answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But no Pharisee is willing to answer. Jesus heals the man, sends him on his way, and again asks, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” (14:5) Again, he is met with stony silence.

Jesus’ logic seems so obvious and compelling. Why wouldn’t any of the several Pharisees there at dinner answer him? I think the reason is obvious: to answer would have meant admitting that they were wrong. It’s a clear demonstration that pharisaical pride was incredibly strong. Just as our own pride keeps us silent when we hear something whose answer is so compelling and true that we fear that by answering our entire edifice of faulty logic will come crumbling down around us. And we will look like the fools we actually are. That’s the problem with Jesus: he forces us to examine ourselves. And when we do that honestly we see a prideful, sinful self—someone we’d rather not admit we are. And too often, we take the easy road of denial and remaining silent.

Psalm 92:1–9; Joshua 10:29–11:23; Luke 13:18–30

Originally published 8/3/2016; Revised and updated 8/3/2018

Psalm 92:1–9: This hymn celebrates God’s eternal power as the centerpiece of worship and as in many psalms, the subject of the hymn is God’s two overriding qualities of kindness and faithfulness:
It is good to acclaim the Lord
and to hymn to Your name, Most High
to tell in the morning Your kindness,
Your faithfulness in the nights,
on ten-stringed instrument and on the lute,
on the lyre with chanted sound.
 (2-4)

In fact, the psalmist assets, our fundamental purpose as God’s created beings is to worship him:
For You made me rejoice, Lord, through Your acts,
of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.
” (5)

Following this introduction, the psalm turns to the contrast between the depth of God’s works as over against those of the wicked who inevitably seem successful. What we know of God is but a scintilla of his actual being:
How great Your works, O Lord,
Your designs are very deep
. (6)

I think we should reflect at length on this couplet. Rather than being like the psalmist who accepts God’s unknowable depth, we tend to spend too much time trying to figure out God and why he does certain things but fails (in our eyes, anyway) to do other things. It’s all a futile effort. As the psalmist tells us, we should but bask in his kindness and faithfulness.

The psalmist compares God’s depth against the superficiality of the wicked:
The brutish man does not know,
nor does the fool understand this:
 (7)

And what is ‘this?’ It is the sheer brevity of our existence. While we’d like to think the wicked are the ones who live on successfully, our psalmist reminds us that
the wicked spring up like grass,
and all the wrongdoers flourish—
to be destroyed for all time
. (8)

The wicked are metaphorically grass that grows high and seems to be taking over the earth, but then is mowed down—or as the case in California, is destroyed by fire. By contrast, God is everlasting:
And You are on high forever, O Lord.
…for, look, Your enemies perish,

all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (9, 10)

In this era of seeing the rich and powerful enjoy their success and set up foundations by which they attempt to be remembered, we know their efforts are merely ephemeral. Only God endures.

Joshua 10:29–11:23: The authors present us a catalog of Israel’s military successes under Joshua’s leadership.

  • Libnah
  • Lachish
  • Gezer
  • Eglon
  • Hebron
  • Debir

These battles in which there are no survivors ensure that “Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (10:40)

With the southern portions of Canaan defeated, Joshua turns his attention to the north. These armies—”the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites in the hill country, and the Hivites under Hermon in the land of Mizpah.” (11:3)—are far more powerful than the ragtag bands they defeated in the south. The kings unite as a single force and form “a great army, in number like the sand on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots.” (11:4)

We sense Joshua’s and Israel’s potential discouragement when they see the size and strength of the army they now have to fight, “the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel; you shall hamstring their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.” (11:6)

Despite the strength of the forces arrayed against them, they are victorious: “all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded.” (11:12) Success is clearly the result of obedience, as the authors note: “As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” (11:15)

The remainder of the chapter summarizes Joshua’s conquests: “There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle.” (11:19) As always, our authors give all credit to God being on their side: “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (11:20)

The taking of Canaan is complete; it is now wholly Israel’s “And the land had rest from war.” (11:23)

So, do these descriptions of battles fought and won reflect actual history? Inasmuch as Israel came to occupy the land, there’s no question Israel conquered Canaan at some point—although it’s not impossible that Joshua’s exploits are more fiction than fact. What we have to question is God’s involvement, which frankly I take as a later addition inserted by the victors to make sure everyone knew that God was on their side. We see traces of this even today when we hear of “American exceptionalism” and with every politician’s empty rhetoric including the shopworn phrase, “God bless America.”

Luke 13:18–30: Luke turns his attention to Jesus’ parables that describe the qualities of the Kingdom of God. In the parable of the mustard seed that grows from barely visible seed to giant bush, Jesus predicts the growth of the kingdom into something great. Which is certainly what happened to the church in the first centuries of its existence. To emphasize his point about growth, he then compares the Kingdom to yeast that causes bread to expand.

Although the Kingdom will grow, it will not include everyone, and especially one nation in particular. Obviously, this question of who is very much on the mind of Jesus’ followers, as “Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” (23) As he does so many times, Jesus uses metaphor to remind us that the Kingdom is not entered into casually or half-heartedly. Entrance is “through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” (24) He goes on to emphasize this exclusivity, implying that at the end of history, many will “knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” (25)

Jesus makes it clear that the one who will be knocking but not admitted is Israel itself: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” (28)  Luke’s Jesus tells us quite clearly that the people who will be populating the Kingdom are Gentiles: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (29) The Jews, who despise the Gentiles, and see themselves as God’s chosen people, will lose their pride of place. Worse, those whom they despised will be the ones entering the kingdom as Jesus utters the final damning answer to the question of who will occupy the Kingdom: “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (30)

The question is, of course, are we like the Jews of Jesus time or are we willing to enter through the narrow gate of Jesus Christ himself?

Psalm 91:9–16; Joshua 10:1–28; Luke 13:1–17

Originally published 8/2/2016; Revised and updated 8/2/2018

Psalm 91:9–16: Our psalmist continues with his theme of God as protection and shelter:
For you—the Lord is your refuge,
[in] the Most High you have made your abode
. (9)

As Christians, we talk about the love of God, but it is usually in pretty abstract terms. Here, the metaphor of God as a refuge or a house [abode] suggests a much more tangible relationship. After all, without our houses to live in we would be exposed to all sorts of discomforts and dangers.

God is not only refuge, he is protection:
No harm will befall you,
nor affliction draw near to your tent
. (10)

Obviously, life is full of affliction and harm, but I think the poet’s intent here is that only in the arms of God will we find succor.

The question is, do we just talk about the love of God and when bad things happen to us? Why do we forget about God and try to solve the problem on our own? Or, if we are pursued by a disease or an addiction, do we truly seek out God as a refuge rather than a mere philosophical construct?

Our psalmist goes on to describe the role of guardian angels in our lives:
For His messengers He charges for you
to guard you on all your ways.
On their palms they lift you up
lest your foot be bruised by a stone
. (11, 12)

I happen to believe that not all guardian angels are supernatural beings. I’m sure each of us can recall a time when another person came alongside us and protected us from some dire consequence. God’s messengers not only bring protection, they bring the courage to take risks:
On lion and viper you tread,
you trample young lion and serpent
. (13)

But to enjoy this protection there is one big requirement: that we turn toward God, whose voice we now hear:
For Me he desired and I freed him.
I raised him high, for he has known My name. 
(14)

It is when we turn to God and desire to know his name that the reality of God’s presence becomes apparent. Even in the darkest times, there is always God’s promise of response to which we can cling:
He calls Me and I answer him,
I am with him in his straits.
I deliver him and grant him honor.
 (15)

So, with promises such as that why do we so rarely turn toward God and cry out for his rescue when we are in trouble? Or why we fail to recognize the guardian angels in our lives? It all boils down to our pride that causes us to think that by exercising our own feeble control we can do a better job than God or the angels he sends to protect us.

Joshua 10:1–28: The five kings of the Amorites, including King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem, develop a strategy to attack Gibeon, assuming (correctly) that Israel will have to defend them. The Gibeonites hear of this and go to Joshua, pleading “Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites …are gathered against us.” (6) Joshua complies and on his way to battle, God reassures to him, “Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.” (8).

It’s one thing for God to speak encouragingly, but our authors make sure that we understand how God was personally involved in this battle. First, God is given credit for creating panic and confusion among the Amorites. Next, “As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died.” (11). Finally, Joshua shouts toward heaven, Sun, stand still at Gibeon,/and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” (12). God promptly answers, causing the sun to apparently stand still in the sky.

My own take on these events—God-inspired panic, stones from heaven, and the sun standing still—is that God never acts against his own laws of physics. That the “rocks from heaven” was doubtless a natural event, probably a landslide in that rocky land. As for the sun standing still, we have all experienced different perceptions of the passage of time, so that it seems as if time speeds up or slows down. 

[There’s an intriguing reference to Joshua’s prayer for God to make the sun stand still: “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.” (13b) One wonders how many ancient books there were that are now irretrievably lost to us.]

During that long day when the sun seemed to stand still, Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, wipes out the Amorites. Only the five conspiring kings remain as they were captured and held in a cave. Joshua calls for the kings to be brought before him.

He calls his “chiefs of the warriors who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.”” (24). This symbolic act of victory over vanquished is carried out and Joshua, as an object lesson to his generals, gives all credit to God : “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight.” (25). Then Joshua himself kills the five kings and has them hung on five trees until sunset.

It’s impossible to read these passage without revulsion. I’m sure that a battle like the one described here doubtless took place. But I have to believe also that the authors—in keeping with the reality that it is victors who write the histories—have retrospectively added all the narrative details about God’s intervention. After all, we all seem to have a natural inclination to believe God’s on our side and that our actions—especially in war—are therefore justified. In any event, this is certainly among the more creative historical accounts brought to us by these authors.

Luke 13:1–17: Jesus is many things, but he is assuredly no romantic. His hard-headed realism comes across in his bluntness. Asked about some executed Galileans, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (2) Answering his own question he assures his listeners that they are just as great sinners as those who were killed. He then refers to another current event—the collapse of the tower of Siloam where 18 perished—telling us that bad things such as natural  and manmade disasters happen. The real issue is the state of our souls. Have we repented before something bad happens to us?

To make his point about the state of our souls, he tells the parable of the fig tree, which has been barren for three years and the owner wishes to cut down, but the gardener begs to tend it one more year to see if it bears fruit. If not, he agrees to cut it down after the fourth year.

At first read this parable seems to be a non-sequitur. But I think the symbolism is clear. The fig tree is Israel, whom God planted but is certainly not bearing fruit in terms of truly repenting for its sins. The gardener is Jesus, who symbolically is busy tilling soil and adding fertilizer. The question is, will Israel repent? Since Luke is doubtless writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, we know the outcome of the story. Even though Jesus came and tended it, the tree of Israel was cut down.

As is Luke’s habit, he turns from hard truths to healing. This time it’s the crippled woman, who has been been bent over for 18 years (another 18 in this passage!). Jesus heals her and is promptly taken to task by the Pharisees who object to healings occurring on the Sabbath. Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, much to the delight of the crowd.

For me, the issue is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that this incident illustrates just how clearly the Pharisees and leaders were focused on the forms of religiosity rather than on the needs of suffering human beings. Of course we are all Pharisees today when we focus on forms of worship or rules such as excluding gay people from church. As I’ve observed many times, human nature is pretty immutable, which is why these passages still resonate so strongly for me.

 

Psalm 91:1–8; Joshua 8:30–9:27; Luke 12:49–59

Originally published 8/1/2016; Revised and updated 8/1/2018

Psalm 91:1–8: This magnificent psalm, which celebrates God’s all-encompassing protection, includes one of the most famous lines in the entire Psalms:
I say of the Lord, ‘My refuge and bastion,
            my God in whom I trust.’” (2)

The idea of God as trustworthy protector must have been a radical concept in an era when surrounding cultures worshipped and sacrificed even their children in their futile attempts to propitiate their terrorizing small-g gods.

Our poet’s God is everything small-g gods are not: shelter, protection, truth. Metaphorically like an eagle, God is protector because he is truth:
With His pinion He shelters you,
and beneath His wings you take refuge.
A shield and a buckler, His truth.” (4)

Our psalmist is not content to say merely that God is his protector and leave it at that. Rather, he goes on to provide examples of this protection by using marvelous contrasts that demonstrate the enormous extent and quality of God’s shelter and how it eliminates fear.  First, there is protection from enemies, real and imagined:
You shall not fear from the terror of the night
nor from the arrow that flies by day,
 (5).

And there is protection from disease:
…from the plague that stalks in darkness
nor from the scourge that rages at noon
. (6)

Even when surrounded by disaster, God, in whose voice our poet is now writing, remains our faithful protector in the famous line:
Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand
you it will not reach. 
(7)

And, unlike so many psalms of supplication, which bemoan the apparent success of the wicked, here is God’s promise that the wicked will not prevail in the end:
You but look with your eyes,
and the wicked’s requital you see
. (8)

In other words, those enemies will get what’s what they so richly deserve.

These verses have brought encouragement to all who suffer down through the age, Simply reciting the words of these opening verses is a both a reminder that God loves us and is a healing balm to our fearful souls.

Joshua 8:30–9:27: Joshua is not only the political and military leader of Israel, he has replaced Moses as its spiritual leader as well. Having conquered two cities—Jericho and Ai—Israel enjoys a brief respite as Joshua fulfills God’s command to Moses inscribe the Law on “the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written.” (9:32). Were these simply the Decalogue or the seemingly endless details of the law that consume most of the book of Deuteronomy? I prefer to think it was simply the Decalogue. Otherwise it would be an awful lot of carving!

This task of renewing the Covenant is performed in front of all “Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” (33a) As God had commanded Moses, half of the population stood “in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal.” (33b)

Joshua reads “all the words of the law, blessings and curses,” (34) which this time I take to be the entirety of Deuteronomy because our authors make sure to inform us that “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel.“(35) This would amount to a several hour sermon, through which the people stood. No comfy pews for them…

Most of the tribes inhabiting Canaan become allies and “gathered together with one accord to fight Joshua and Israel.” (9:2) The exception is the Gibeonites, who try a cunning ruse. They dress in worn-out clothes and sandals and come to Joshua, saying, “We have come from a far country; so now make a treaty with us.” (9:6) They bamboozle the leaders, including Joshua. The leaders “did not ask direction from the Lord.” (14)  and fall for the ruse. Israel concludes a treaty with them only to find out they live in the neighborhood, just a three-day journey away.

However, there’s not much Israel can do since “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we must not touch them.” (19) So they let them live and “became hewers of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, as the leaders had decided concerning them.” (21)

This is the first thread that will lead to the unraveling of God’s command to destroy all of Canaan’s inhabitants. Done in by a clever trick. But I’m relieved to know that an oath sworn to God trumps military action and killing people. And my sympathies tend to go with the Gibeonites, who deserve some credit for their cleverness.

Luke 12:49–59: Jesus gives a fire and brimstone sermon—which is more than mere metaphor:  I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (49) Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (51). My take on the harshness of these words is that Jesus’ audience is not the usual hoi polloi, but certainly Pharisees, Sadducees, and other officials. Needless to say, this division is exactly what happens in the early church—as Paul so vividly describes in letter after letter—and it’s certianly the case today. I’m also pretty sure that Jesus’ words resonated within Luke’s community as well since we have already seen Luke hinting at dissension.

True Christianity is too often mistakenly seen by outsiders as a “religion of peace.”  But it is much more than that. Jesus makes it clear that following him will divide families:
father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (53)

Just as it has divided communities and nations throughout history.

Nevertheless, Jesus excoriates his audience for not “getting it” about the real impact of his message and his presence on earth: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (56) And that is true today, even though many Christians think it’s all about interpreting current events as indicators of end times. It has always been “end times.” Ever since Jesus was here.

Finally, Jesus suggests working out disagreements among each other, advising against litigation: “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right.” Involving the formal legal system is all too likely to have negative consequences: “when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison.” (58)

If nothing else, avoiding litigation  saves money by not having to pay lawyers or bribe judges: “I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (59)

There is certainly nothing gentle about Jesus and his impact on history. And I can’t say he was all that happy with the legal system, which was abusively used against him at his own “trial.” Even Pilate saw that.