Psalm 87; Isaiah 41:8–42:9; Philippians 2:5–18

Originally published 7/20/2017. Revised and updated 7/19/2019, OUR 50TH WEDDING ANNIVERSAY

Psalm 87: This short celebratory psalm seems to be a recollection by a pilgrim who visited the temple at Jerusalem (Zion) and who enjoyed a literal and figurative ‘mountaintop experience.’ As far as he is concerned, the temple (Zion) is the most profound place in all Israel (Jacob):
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob
Splendid things are spoken of you,
O town of God. Selah.” (2,3)

I presume the “town of God” refers to Jerusalem, the host city of the temple, reflected in the glory of the temple itself.

At first glance, the next verse is rather cryptic:
Let me recall Rahab and Babel to my familiars,
Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,
—this one was born there.” (4)

Alter tells us that ‘Rahab’ is another word for Egypt. With that in mind, the verse appears something like a one-verse summary of Israel stretching all the way back to Babel; the escape from Egypt (Rahab); and its various battles with enemies (Philisitia) and its historical economic (Tyre) and diplomatic relationships (Cush). It appears that the psalmist was born at one of those locations. Of course I could be just making this up…

But what’s definite is that it is at the temple at Jerusalem that true spiritual transformation occurs:
And of Zion it shall be said:
every man is born in it,
and He, the Most High, makes it firm-founded.
The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:
this one was born there. selah.” (5, 6)

To me, it appears that the psalmist views his pilgrimage to Zion as a form of rebirth, ‘born again,’ if you will. He was born physically at one of the locations mentioned in verse 4, but he was reborn spiritually at Zion. With this interpretation in mind we can observe a context for Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being ‘born again.’ Doubtless both men were quite familiar with this psalm.

Isaiah 41:8–42:9: God continues speaking, reminding Israel/ Judah how he has chosen them and assuring them he will never abandon them:
do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (41:10)

In the midst of various trials this poem must have been of great comfort to the author—as it is to us:
For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
    I will help you. (41:13)

There is a clear promise of a Messiah here called “the Holy One of Israel.” (41:14, 16) and that via the messiah, God will come to their rescue:
When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them. (41:17)

Following these wonderful promises, there is a disquisition that compares God with small-g gods in the form of idols. Still speaking, God challenges the idols to perform as he can:
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified. (41:23)

But as always, there is only silence from the false gods. To worship them is futile:

But when I look there is no one;
    among these there is no counselor
    who, when I ask, gives an answer.
No, they are all a delusion;

    their works are nothing;
    their images are empty wind. (41:28, 29)

We need to call these verses to mind in our own time and culture, which is chockablock with the idols of wealth, power, sex, and a zillion other false gods. Above all we ned to remember that the promise of the small-g gods is mere delusion.

Chapter 42 is straight-out messianic prophecy of the One who will come to rescue Judah. The Messiah has been chosen and empowered by God:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations. (42:1)

The Messiah will bring much-needed justice, not just to Judah, but to all nations. Moreover, he comes essentially in secret, but his acts will have profoundly public consequences:
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (42:2-4)

As Christians, we know exactly to whom the prophet is referring: Jesus Christ. And the Messiah brings justice in a marvelous promise to turn the world upside down:
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. (42:6b, 7)

And isn’t this also exactly what Jesus has done for us? We have certainly been sitting in darkness, imprisoned in our own self-centered desires. Jesus Christ has released us from the prison of our own egos.

Today’s reading ends with the famous promise of renewal—again exactly what God does for us through the the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. The old passes way; all things are made new:
See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them. (42:9)

I personally think this verse is as profound as anything Paul writes about how our lives are transformed through Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:5–18: Today’s reading includes the famous verses that most scholars believe was an early hymn of the church. The first section describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ:
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.  (6-8)

To me these verses are much like the middle section of the Apostle’s Creed: a tight summary of what Jesus’ sacrifice has accomplished for us. The last stanzas of this hymn describe our human response to this great gift from God:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
     so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father. (9-11)

Above all, the hymn affirms the fact of Jesus’ divinity, having been sent straight to earth from God. And that our response must be exactly as it has always been: worship suffused in gratitude.

Not surprisingly, Paul uses this hymn as a launching point to describe just how that worship—every knee bowing; every tongue confessing—affects our long-term faith journey. Paul makes it clear that he is not the source of this inspiration but rather it is God himself: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (12, 13)

What does it really mean to “work out our own salvation,” the process which theologians call ‘sanctification?’ Well, Paul has an answer for that, too: “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” (14) 

So the challenging question is, as it always is, am I working out my salvation and remaining blameless like an innocent child? I guess the most honest answer is, ‘Sometimes.’

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