Psalm 67; Proverbs 13; 1 Corinthians 15:42–58

Psalm 67: This thanksgiving psalm opens with what we commonly think of as a benediction: “May God grant us grace and bless us,/ may He shine his face upon us.” (2) But when I think about it, it is a perfect opening for worship, which is what this psalm is.

Would that we humans could do what the next verses describe; that God would be acknowledged and worshipped throughout the entire world: “To know on the earth Your way,/ among all the nations Your rescue.” (3) These  are the two key elements of worship: that we know God is Creator and that God is the loving source of redemption and salvation for all humankind. If only we would follow “Your way.”

The next verses describe earth and humankind as they would have been in God’s original created order, a world-wide Eden, if you will, because God remains at the center of human existence: “Nations acclaim You, O God,/ all peoples acclaim You./ Nations rejoice in glad song.” (4,5). Alas, we humans decided to make ourselves the center of the universe, and the resultant mess we have made of creation and relationships is woeful evidence of how disordered our sinful self-centeredness is.

I’m reminded of the throne room scene in Revelation as people gather and “Nations acclaim You, O God,/ all peoples acclaim You.” (6) We pray for the eventual end of history and the restoration of God’s created order, where love reigns supreme.

Proverbs 13: As we read this catalog of sayings, it’s easy to see that human nature has not changed one whit in the millennia since they were written down (and doubtless existed as oral sayings for hundreds of years before that.) Each verse is a study in opposition as righteous and the wicked are set against each other through the entire chapter: “The righteous hate falsehood,/ but the wicked act shamefully and disgracefully.” (5). And many of these verses resonate strongly in our culture: “Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing;/ others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth.” (7)–which seems especially apropos in the 94598 ZIP code.

Of course it is the penultimate verse that is the most widely known in popular culture: “Those who spare the rod hate their children,/ but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (24) Our culture has conflated the “rod” with child abuse and there is no doubt that parents have done that. But that is not really the focus of the verse. We say “spare the rod, spoil the child,” but the real theme is love and its relation to discipline. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with discipline, and the evidence of its absence is all around us.

One of the great ironies of modern culture is that where parental discipline is absent, the child will seek it out itself: the gang culture and even prison culture are perfect examples of perverted discipline. I do not know of any single person who has gone through military basic training that has regretted the lessons learned there. Yes, discipline is tough and it is not fun, but the consequences of not understanding boundaries and good order are severe–both for the individual and for society.

1 Corinthians 15:42–58: I’m sure Paul’s words here have resulted in more misinterpretation than just about anything else he wrote. It has become a source of the idea of the Rapture, where all good Christians will be raised to heaven: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (52). But in its context, I think Paul is attempting to describe the indescribable (and I think history would have been better off had he not tried!).

The question from Corinth that he has obviously held off answering until the very end of his letter is what happens to our bodies when we die. And it is the nature of this resurrection body upon which Paul speculates. Paul tries out a couple of explanations.

First, he sets up oppositions (sort of like Proverbs!) between our bodies that are and those that will be: perishable/imperishable; dishonor/honor; weakness/power. And then: physical/ spiritual. On which he elaborates by juxtaposing earth and heaven: “the first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [Jesus Christ] is from heaven.” (47) as he asserts, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (48)

But Paul knows this explanation will not satisfy his audience so he takes a different explanatory tack, at least admitting it’s a mystery: “We will not all die,[d] but we will all be changed.” (51) Unfortunately, too many people have left off the “mystery” part and boldly concluded that something they call the Rapture is prophetic fact. Even to the silly point of predicting when it will happen.

In the end, all Paul can say is that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (53). And he leaves it at that. As should we.

Rather than focusing on exactly what our bodies will become, Paul tells us to not fear death, quoting Isaiah: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (54). Which is where I think we should leave the mystery, and stop trying to assert we know what will happen at the end of history.

 

Psalm 64; Proverbs 6; 1 Corinthians 14:6–19

 Psalm 64: This David song opens with a plea for God’s protection–“Hear, God, my voice in my plea.”–to be hidden “from the counsel of evil men,/ from the hubbub of the wrongdoers.” (3). “Hubbub” certainly seems an appropriate word for the noise around us, especially from ubiquitous media and now the multitudinous voices of the Internet.

But the real danger from these “evil men” is their barbed words that do so much damage. As is so often in the Psalms, we once again we encounter the hurtful power of the spoken word–which we can easily extend in our culture to the written word. They have “whetted their tongue like a sword,/ pulled back their arrow–a bitter word–/to shoot in concealment the innocent./ In a flash shot him down without fear.” (4, 5a)

Two themes stand out here. First, there is intent: they “pull back their arrow.” These are not hurtful thoughts uttered inadvertently. There is a plan to hurt the victim. Second, the evil words come  “from concealment.” They are spoken in conspiratorial surprise; the victim has no opportunity to prepare for what is about to happen to him.

Those who speak evil revel in it: “They encourage themselves with evil words.” (6) These people enjoy conspiracy: “They recount how traps should be laid./ They say, Who will see them?” (6b) The source of the conspiracy lies in a man’s heart; the words are merely expression of intrinsic evil: “We have hidden them from the utmost search,/ in a man’s inward self,/ and deep is the heart.” (7)

But we know that God will hear our plea and ultimately, he will strike down the evildoers: “But God will shoot an arrow at them/In a flash they will be struck down.” (8) Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this is that it is their own words that will be their undoing: “And their tongue will cause them to stumble,/ all who see them will nod in derision.” (9) And this is exactly how it plays out. There is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing conspirators undone by their own words.

Proverbs 6: The editors of the NRSV title this chapter, “Practical admonitions.” And so they are. In keeping with the theme of the psalm above, the very first admonition is the consequences of misspoken words: “you are snared by the utterance of your lips,/caught by the words of your mouth.” (2) And later, a warning about avoiding those of who try to con others: “A scoundrel and a villain/goes around with crooked speech,/… with perverted mind devising evil,/ continually sowing discord.” (12-14) Once again, we are reminded of the power of the spoken word–especially when spoken with evil intent.

The writer then resorts to lists: “There are six things that the Lord hates,/ seven that are an abomination to him:”
 (1) haughty eyes, (2) a lying tongue,
    and (3) hands that shed innocent blood,
   (4) a heart that devises wicked plans,
    (5) feet that hurry to run to evil,
   (6) a lying witness who testifies falsely,
   (7)  and one who sows discord in a family. (16-19)

Pride, lies, murder, conspiracy, seeking out evil, false testimony are certainly the sins we might expect to be in the list. But perhaps most surprisingly and profoundly, “one who sows discord in a family.” One thinks of feuds among siblings over inheritances, or actions such as adultery or abuse that tear a family apart. Not much seems to have changed over the millennia…

1 Corinthians 14:6–19: All three readings today deal with the problem of speech. Here, Paul is dealing with “glossalia,” speaking in tongues. Clearly, it was fairly rampant at Corinth and seen by many–as it is today–as a manifestation of one having a gift from the Holy Spirit. The owners of this gift had doubtless set themselves above the ungifted hoi polloi.

For Paul, the key aspect of glossalia is the ability to interpret what has been uttered. Without interpretation it is gibberish. Words without communication are empty: “if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?” (9)

Interpretation is more important than the actual glossalia: “one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” (13) As he does so often, Paul makes it clear that he has the gift in greater quantity than others, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;” (18) But then he puts the gift into its proper perspective: “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (19).

I have witnessed a church torn asunder by a faction that viewed glossalia as evidence of superior spirituality, and the view that those who lacked the “gift” were “in touch with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, I am always suspicious of this particular gift since it is so easy to abuse. Even with interpretation. God has given us us what in my opinion is a superior gift: the ability to speak and communicate clearly in actual language.

Psalm 61; Proverbs 2:9–3:20; 1 Corinthians 12:12–26

Psalm 61: This David psalm of prayerful praise includes four famous metaphors of God’s protection juxtaposed in just two verses:

For You have been a shelter to me,
a tower of strength in the face of the foe.
Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,
let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding-place. (4,5)

The shelter that God provides is not just a escape from the woes of the world, but protection from our enemies. Although the enemies referred to in the Psalms are primarily other people–and that was certainly the case for David–I like to think there are other enemies from which God protects us, including ourselves. I have been protected these past six years from the potential ravages of cancer. Yes, medical science has played an enormous role in that protection, but so has God’s shelter–especially emotionally and  spiritually.

This psalm is about more than protection; it is about being grateful that God is with us at all times. Speaking of David, the psalmist writes, “May he ever abide in the presence of God./ Steadfast kindness ordain to preserve him.” (8) To me, this means not just the simple reality that God abides with his, but that we be conscious of God’s presence. For it is in this consciousness that we will do as the psalmist does, “So let me hymn Your name forever/ as I pay my vows day after day.” (9) Each new day is a gift; the awareness of, and our joyful response to, God’s abiding and protecting presence is how we should begin each day.

Proverbs 2:9–3:20: The recurrent leitmotiv of Proverbs is ho following God will bring wisdom to us and we will thereby avoid the snares and traps of daily life: “wisdom will come into your heart,/ and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;” (2:10)

If we have wisdom, it will “save you from the way of evil,” specifically from companions “who speak perversely,/ who forsake the paths of uprightness/ to walk in the ways of darkness” and above all, from those “who rejoice in doing evil” and worse, those “who rejoice in doing evil.” (2:13,14) There’s little question in my mind that when we are surrounded by those who “rejoice in doing evil,” that we are likely to follow them. Which for me, anyway, explains the behavior of mobs and riots. It just takes one or two to inflame a crowd.

Then, there’s an explicit statement that if we’re wise, “You will be saved from the loose woman,/ from the adulteress with her smooth words…” (2:16). However, is it the man who is led astray by the woman? My guess it that the opposite is equally, if not more frequently, true.

In chapter 3, the theme turns to wealth and how we should use our resources, including the classic verse for a stewardship Sunday sermon:

“Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.” (3:9, 10)

Will we always reap more than what we give? If we give because our motivation is to reap, then I think the deal’s off. We’re trying to control God. But if we give willingly without a thought to what will happen, then I really agree with the poet and our figurative barns will be filled–and often in ways we did not expect.

Then, there’s psychic reward of wisdom itself: “Happy are those who find wisdom,…/for her income is better than silver, / and her revenue better than gold.” (3:13, 14) As I age I’m beginning to actually understand this: there is far greater satisfaction and yes, reward, in seeing the fruits of wisdom than in worldly goods.

1 Corinthians 12:12–26: This is Paul’s famous e pluribus unum speech about how wildly different people with wildly different skills and gifts are congealed into a cohesive community by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even though many modern and post-modern pundits and politicians think they invented the concept of diversity, it’s right here in Paul’s almost 2000-year old letter.

But it’s diversity to the glory of God, to a far greater purpose than I think how modern American culture society defines ‘diversity.’ Diversity must have a goal beyond mere inclusion or achieving some government-mandated level of racial and cultural variety. True diversity happens only when it is bound together by a common purpose–and there is no greater purpose than to worship together and then go into the world together as tangible evidence of the incredible love of God.

The other key theme here in Paul’s message is that to our eyes some gifts appear to be greater than others. That the gifted preacher is somehow more greatly esteemed by Christ than the janitor who cleans the pews after the service. We may think more highly of the preacher than the janitor, but that is assuredly not how Jesus Christ sees it.

And there are pernicious effects to disparate esteem given (or not given) to different members of the Body of Christ. The preacher begins to believe all the wonderful things people are telling him, and he/she becomes self-centered, even narcissistic. In the absence of kind words, the janitor may see his duties as worthless and suffer the consequences of believing he himself is worthless.

No wiser words have ever been written about the real purpose of diversity in the church: “ If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (26). If we are neither suffering nor rejoicing together, we are only pretending to be a community in Christ.

 

Psalm 58; Job 40; 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2

Psalm 58: Alter warns us that with the exception of verses 7 and 11, the text of this psalm is “badly mangled,” so we have his translational conjecture–which would be true of all other translations as well.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the psalmist is angry by the sarcastic tone of his opening question, “Do you, O chieftains, indeed speak justice,/ in rightness judge humankind?” (2) He then accuses them of not only of falsity in their judicial role, but of using their power to execute wicked acts, “In your heart you work misdeeds on earth,/ weigh a case with outrage in your hands.” (3)

Our poet goes on to execrate their very being: “They have venom akin to the serpent’s venom,/ like the deaf viper that stops up its ears.” (6a)

And then, some of the most ferocious and angry verses in Psalms as the poet calls upon God, “God, smash their teeth in their mouth.” (7) and “Let them melt away, like water run off.” (8) We’ve talked about these “shaking your fist at God” verses previously and again it’s crucial to observe that the psalmist is asking God to take vengeance on his enemies, not that he will do the deed himself. (A crucial distinction that Islamic radicals seem to have missed as they take it upon themselves to shed blood of those they disagree with.)

And finally, perhaps the most gruesome image we encounter in the Psalms: “The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees, / his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood.” Yet, as before it is vengeance he sees, not vengeance he takes.

Job 40: God challenges Job to reply: “Anyone who argues with God must respond.” (2) Jobe refuses to speak, arguing, “I have spoken once, and I will not answer;/ twice, but will proceed no further.” (5)

God is not pleased,and tells Job what many fathers have told their sons down through the ages: “Gird up your loins like a man;/ I will question you, and you declare to me.” (7) In short, Job is given no choice but to respond. And perhaps the greatest challenge is that God asks if Job will accuse God of unrighteousness in order to justify himself: “Will you even put me in the wrong?/ Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (8)

God’s question is for all of us. Do we condemn God in order to justify ourselves? The answer seems obvious: when we endeavor to be in control of our lives and deny God we are in effect condemning God to justify our own actions and our own sense of being in control. Of course, those who have denied the existence of God altogether are doing the same, just blissfully unaware of consequences down the road.

In the remainder of this chapter God makes it clear once again who is Creator and who (and what) is created: “It is the first of the great acts of God—/ only its Maker can approach it with the sword.” (19)

1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2: Here we encounter the famous “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” (23) Nevertheless, Paul advises, “if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.” The bottom line here is relationship with others; this is simply Paul’s take on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In his conclusion, we hear Paul’s take on the second half of the Great Commandment: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” If we evaluate our decisions in the light of the “glory of God,” then I think we will make the right decision more often than the wrong one.

In the final verse of today’s text, Paul says, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” (11:2). I wish I knew the Greek here, because “traditions” in and of themselves are simply that: traditions. If they are traditions that honor God, then they must be maintained at all costs, e.g., good order in Word and Sacrament. But if they are human or social traditions such as musical style or women wearing hats in church, I’m more wary of Paul’s advice. Tradition is essential to continuity, but I also believe that human and social traditions are subject to evolution.

Psalm 57:7–11; Job 39; 1 Corinthians 10:11–22

Psalm 57:7–11: The psalmist uses two powerful images of physical entrapment–the net and the pit–to describe his enemies machinations against him: “A net they set for my steps,/…they dug before me a pit.” (7). Even when we may not necessarily have actual enemies pursuing and trying to trap us, the image certainly evokes feelings of being trapped by circumstances.

We hear the psalmist’s feeling satisfied justice at the next line when “they themselves fell into it” (the pit, that is.) Which is true for many conspiracies. In the end, truth will out and the plotting collapses in on itself.

Having been rescued from the pit, the psalmist turns to praise: “Let me sing and hymn.” (8) In fact his joy is so great that he wants others playing instruments to join him: “Awake, O lyre,/ Awake, O lute and lyre.” Rescue brings true joy: “I would waken the dawn.” (9) And all for one overwhelming reason: “For Your kindness is great to the heavens/ and to the skies Your steadfast truth.” (11)

The challenge for us is do we even really realize how many times God has saved us from the net and the pit. If we reflected more on how we’ve been rescued, I suspect we would experience much the same joy as the psalmist does in these concluding verses.

Job 39: God’s voice out of the whirlwind continues, turning to the miracle of animal life with an amazingly comprehensive bestiary, all focused on what God is able to do in the animal kingdom–and by implication what man cannot. The opening verses begin with birth and youth:

2Can you number the months that they fulfill,
    and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
    and are delivered of their young?

The inventory is extensive: the wild ass, the wild ox, an ostrich, the horse, the hawk. All of them have skills and abilities–and weaknesses (“God has made it forget wisdom,/ and given it no share in understanding.”) that are beyond the ken and wisdom of mankind.

God is making it very clear just who is in charge of creation.

1 Corinthians 10:11–22: Paul continues his disquisition on the issues surround idols and what does or does not constitute worshipping idols. Here, he turns to the issue of the Eucharist and the danger of conflating libations made to an idol with partaking of the body and blood of Christ. If we partake of the cup of blessing, “is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” (16) Therefore, we can do one or the other, but not both. The reason is simple: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.” (20). Paul is at his logical best: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

The challenge here, of course, is what kinds of choices do we make? Do go places and do things that has us consorting with demons–or as I’ll take it here, evil. This is certainly a prohibition against witchcraft and tampering with dimensions that are beyond the four we inhabit.

I also think this section is also one of the roots of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The language can certainly be taken at the either the literal or metaphorical level: “ The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (16).  I’m generally in the metaphorical camp, but there’s no question that the sacrament of communion is far more than metaphor and much more than just “in remembrance of me.”

 

Psalm 57:1–6; Job 38; 1 Corinthians 10:1–10

Psalm 57:1–6: The superscription of this psalm is dedicated to David “when he fled from Saul in the cave.” The cave as hiding place is reflected in the first verse as David speaks, “Grant me grace, God, grant me grace,/ for in You I have taken shelter.” The psalmist doubles down on the idea of shelter with the imagery of David as a small bird (Alter informs us this is a common theme in Psalms): “…and in Your wings’ shadow do I shelter/ until disasters pass.” (2)

The remainder of this section reflects the assurance that Go brings when we shelter “under his wings.” First, “He will send from the heavens and rescue me” (4) But not only rescue. With rescue, “God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4b).  God’s rescue and kindness creates courage such that “I lie down among lions/ that pant for human beings./ Their fangs are spear and arrows,/ their tongue a sharpened sword.” (5)

These metaphorical lions are clearly an image of Saul’s pursuing army (“spear and arrows”) as well as the evil things that Saul has said about David, (“Their tongue a sharpened sword”). But God’s kindness trumps all of these perils. And God brings not just rescue, kindness and courage, but he turns the tables on David’s enemies: “A net they set for my steps/…they dug before me a pit–/ they themselves fell into it.” (7)

I think it’s significant that it is David’s enemies own deeds–the pit they’ve dug–that becomes a trap for them. David did not have to do anything beyond praying for rescue; it was all God’s doing. This is something to remember in the ongoing culture wars when Christians feel oppressed and want to lash back out at their enemies. Eventually, the pit that enemies dig in order to capture us becomes their own undoing. The lesson is clear: God will take care of it. We are to pray for rescue and God will deliver his kindness. And be patient.

Job 38: God finally speaks “out of the whirlwind” in one of the most brilliant and powerful pieces of poetry ever written.

The author is specific: “God speaks to Job,” so we don;t know if his companions hear God’s speech or not. I suspect it was not unlike Paul’s Damascus road experience, where only he heard Jesus.

God opens with an accusation: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and tells Job “Gird up your loins like a man.” Job will need all the courage he can muster because Job is standing in the dock as a witness in God’s courtroom: “ I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” (3)

God’s opening argument is that Job is the creature not the Creator: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?/ Tell me, if you have understanding.” (4) There is sarcasm: “Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (5) God asks question after question to the silent Job as he describes this activities in creation: “Or who shut in the sea with doors,” (8); “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,” (12); “Have the gates of death been revealed to you,/ or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” (17). God’s question range from earth into the heavens: “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,/ or loose the cords of Orion?” (31)

For me, the key question is, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,or given understanding to the mind?” (36). In today’s materialist world, the belief is that humankind is an evolutionary happenstance; that our minds have evolved into a sufficiently large collection of neurons to allow us to pose the questions. But in the end, the materialist can only conclude, “Nothing. It’s all a happy coincidence.”

In reflecting on these verses we may know about the physical mechanisms that operate within nature, but in a world that has excluded God, we cannot answer the biggest question of all: Why are we here anyway? Will God speak to us out of the whirlwind?

1 Corinthians 10:1–10: Paul turns to Israel’s own history as he addresses, I assume, the Jewish Christians at Corinth.  In a remarkable interpretation of the water emanating from the rock in the wilderness, he turns it into a metaphor, “For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (4). But even having drunk from the Rock that is Christ, many of them still turned to evil and “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” (5)

Just to make sure his listeners get the point, Paul amplifies, “these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.” (6). This is a strong warning indeed. Referring specifically to the accusations that others have made, Paul cautions, “Do not become idolaters as some of them did,” (7) and “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”

Idolatry and immorality are the bane of our present culture–as they have been through history. We have set ourselves up as our own idols and worship the creation of our hands, which today are certainly the products and services of technology. Like the Corinthians, we constantly put Christ to the test. Will idolatry and immorality within the church–often expressed in seemingly benign ways such as self-centeredness and a “I know it all attitude” (especially by leadership) bring the serpents of destruction upon us?

Paul’s warning still stands: do not play at church without transforming your behavior. Do not put Christ to the test. Alas, something we seem to do skillfully and with indifference to the consequences.

Psalm 56:9–13; Job 36:27–37:24; 1 Corinthians 9:12b–27

Psalm 56:9–13: Our psalmist moves from supplication to praise in the assurance that “Then shall my enemies turn back on the day I call/ This I know that God is for me.” (10) For me, there is real resonance in both language and meaning in the simple phrase of monosyllabic words, “This I know, that God is for me.” Surely, this verse was in Paul’s mind when he posed his rhetorical question in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who is against us?”

From assurance again there is logical movement to praise as he repeats the refrain of verse 5: “In God, Whose word I praise,/ in the Lord Whose word I praise,” And from praise again to trust that banishes fear: “In God I trust, I shall not fear.” (12)

And if God is for us, the psalmist asks, “What can man do to me?” (13) Surely there are Christian martyrs down through the ages to these very days that have uttered this psalm as they died for Jesus Christ.

Finally, gratitude piled upon upon gratitude: “For You saved me from death,/ yes my foot from slipping,/ to walk in God’s presence/ in the light of life.” We can ask–and be granted–nothing greater than this. And for us, all this through the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

Job 36:27–37:24: Elihu reflects on the unfathomable power of God: “Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,/ the thunderings of his pavilion?” (36:29) But then he conflates nature’s power with Go’d anger at sin: “Its crashing tells about him;/ he is jealous with anger against iniquity.” (33). That God expresses his anger through nature is a widespread belief even today when we ask questions like, “Why did God do this?”

Elihu’s theology may be suspect but there’s no question there’s real power in his poetry as he describes God’s speech in the thunder and his power in lightning:

“At this also my heart trembles,
    and leaps out of its place.
Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice
    and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose,
    and his lightning to the corners of the earth.” (37:1-3)

For Elihu, God is actively at work in nature, be it snow (6), wind (9), ice (10), clouds (11). And whatever God does, it is completely bound to his emotion and judgement: “Whether for correction, or for his land,/ or for love, he causes it to happen.” (13) Of course the psalms are packed with verses describing how God speaks and acts through nature and Paul certainly picks up that theme at Romans 1:20: “ Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

So, Elihu tells Job, “ stop and consider the wondrous works of God.” (14) God is inscrutable and unknowable: “The Almighty—we cannot find him;/ he is great in power and justice,” (23). So, Elihu advises Job that our role as creatures is to fear God, not to try to figure God out: “Therefore mortals fear him;/he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.” (24). And Elihu certainly has a point. But that does not stop Job–and us–from trying.

1 Corinthians 9:12b–27: Paul continues his discourse n the appropriateness of being paid for his services, arguing that “those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar.” (13) But he points out, (somewhat defensively, IMHO), that “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case,” (15)  suggesting that the psychic and spiritual reward of preaching the Gospel is preferable to mere remuneration: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” (18)

Then he reveals his preaching strategy: to identify with the group to whom he is ministering: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.” (20a) And to Gentiles, “outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.” (21) In short, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (22). And he does “it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (23)

So what are we as lay people to make of this? The issue for us in not being paid, but of identifying with the group to whom we are ministering, in effect becoming one of them. The tragedy of 19th century missionary efforts is that the white men (and they were almost all white men) came in to Africa with a sense of cultural superiority, that Western mores and ways were better. Paul’s sense of identifying and being was ignored.

So, we come to the homeless and the ill and dying with humility not with “fixes.” For it is only in an honest one-to-one relationship that the Gospel will shine through us, not from us. That is how Paul shared its blessings–and so should we.

Psalm 56:1–8; Job 36:1–26; 1 Corinthians 9:1–12a

Psalm 56:1–8: The psalmist attributes (or dedicates) the psalm to David “when the Philistines seized him in Gath,” so we know this will be a psalm of supplication. Which is immediately clear in the first line, “Grant me grace, O God,/ for a man tramples me/ all day long the assailant does press me.” (2) The verb set trample/ assail is repeated immediately in the next verse, “My attackers trample me all day long, for many assail me.”

‘Trample’ and ‘assail’ are highly physical words, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that David is being assaulted not only verbally and psychologically, but that me is undergoing physical distress, as well. Thus, these verses are a highly appropriate prayer for some one experiencing physical illness or recovering from serious injury.

There’s an important lesson for those of us who would feel sorry for ourselves here. The psalmist does not linger on his woes, turning immediately to the solid rock of his faith in God with a very neat envelope structure of ‘praise’ being surrounded on both sides by fear and trust: “When I fear, I trust in You,/ in God, Whose word I praise, / in God I trust, I shall not fear.” (5) The meaning cannot be simpler–or more powerful: when we are in fearful circumstances, we recall our trust in God, which leads immediately to praise. And it is praise that again reminds us of our trust in God which in turn casts out fear. The image is that our ability and desire to praise God is cocooned in trust, which in turn wards off fear.

It is that security and trust that allows the psalmist–and us–to remember, “what can flesh do to me?” Be it ‘flesh’ in the sense of other people, or as I prefer it, our own flesh. This makes the prayer perfect for those with cancer, which is a disease of one’s own flesh rebelling against itself.

Job 36:1–26: Elihu continues his enormously long sermon, turning his attention away from Job, “multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) to one of the most complete and compelling descriptions of God’s qualities that we find in the bible, as he opens, “I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.” (2)

At first glance, his opening lines seem to be just a bit too self-aggrandizing: “For truly my words are not false;/ one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.” Really, Elihu? But if we reflect a moment, Elihu is claiming to be in a right relationship with God and then can essentially speak on God’s behalf. (Ironically, it was Job who was once in a right relationship with God–a relationship that was snatched away from him.)

One of Elihu’s key insights, I think, is that God operates through our conscience, which we then of our free will can choose to act on or ignore. First, those who are doing evil become aware of their sins via God, who “declares to them their work/ and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.” (9) And then, God strikes our conscience with a clear call to cease the sin: “He opens their ears to instruction,/and commands that they return from iniquity.” (10)

Then comes our choice (with the usual deuteronomic consequences):

11 If they listen, and serve him,
    they complete their days in prosperity,
    and their years in pleasantness.
12 But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword,
    and die without knowledge.

I can certainly agree, though, that if we ignore God’s often still small voice and choose not to listen, we are basically doomed to die without knowledge. Not just knowledge of God, but knowledge of the true qualities of our own being and of the larger universe that God has created.

I see disbelief in God as pure hubris; that people are working so hard on not believing in God that they miss the mystery and majesty of something and Someone much greater than themselves. A life of disbelief leads to death without, as Elihu says here, having gained true knowledge–a potential richness and meaning squandered in ignorance. When we are on our deathbeds, all that we have accomplished on our own turns to meaningless dust–and then there is nothing. Which to me is what hell is all about.

1 Corinthians 9:1–12a: Clearly, someone at Corinth has leveled against Paul that seems to transform him from confident leader to an unusual defensiveness: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” (1,2). Paul is up front: “This is my defense to those who would examine me.” (3)

And then we learn the backstory. It appears that Paul (and Barnabas) have been criticized for wanting to be paid for their services and associated expenses. He points out that other apostles and missionaries “have the right to food and drink,” including the fascinating fact that “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)” were married. (5)  Every worker is paid for his (or her) services: “Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?” (7) So, Paul is arguing, why shouldn’t he and Barnabas be paid?

I’m guessing it was some of the Jewish Christians who were criticizing Paul because he appeals to Scripture: “ For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (9) Which, as Paul explains, is not about oxen  but that “whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” (10) And finally right to the point: “ If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (11)

The attitude at Corinth has certainly carried through to the present day where many churches (not all of them: I suspect Saint Matthew is an exception here) are overly parsimonious in what they pay their pastors,  assuming that the psychic rewards of ministry (irony intended) will somehow put food on the table.

Psalm 55:20–23; Job 34:29–35:16; 1 Corinthians 8

Psalm 55:20–23: Continuing to describe his enemy, our psalmist relates how be betrayed even his supposed friends: “He reached out his hand against his allies/ profaned his own pact.” (21). From our Christian perspective we think immediately of Judas, although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about future events.

Once again, smooth beguiling speech is the means of betrayal: “His mouth was smoother than butter–/and battle in his heart./ His words were softer than oil,/ yet they were drawn swords.” (22) The metaphors of butter, oil juxtaposed against battles and swords perfectly describes a betrayer who seduces and then goes in for the kill. Although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about it, the seduction of women by evil men using smooth talk certainly comes to mind here.

The poet presents his enemy (and us, I think) with a choice. We can retain our evil ways or we can “Cast [our] lot on the Lord,/ and He will support you./ He will never let the righteous stumble.” (23). We can decide for God, or we can be left to our grim fate, which the psalmist acknowledges that God (not he) “will bring them down/ to the pit of destruction.” (24a). These “men of bloodshed and deceit/ Will not finish half their days.” (24b) Unlike Job, the psalmist is confident that evil doers will get their just desserts in the end. Personally, I’m torn between Job and our psalmist.

Job 34:29–35:16: Elihu relentlessly continues his theological discourse and delivers perhaps the harshest condemnation against Job that we’ve encountered so far:

34 Those who have sense will say to me,
    and the wise who hear me will say,
35 ‘Job speaks without knowledge,
    his words are without insight.’
36 Would that Job were tried to the limit,
    because his answers are those of the wicked.
37 For he adds rebellion to his sin;
    he claps his hands among us,
    and multiplies his words against God.”

Elihu’s sermon continues on into the next chapter as he basically accuses Job of terminal self-righteousness; that shaking your fist at God is a pointless exercise: “If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?/ And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?” (35:6). But along the way, Elihu makes an important point about human relationships: “Your wickedness affects others like you,/ and your righteousness, other human beings.” (35:8). 

But in the end, Elihu asserts that Job’s railing against God is pointless: “Job opens his mouth in empty talk,/ he multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) 

Really, Elihu? You say that Job has not been tried to the limit? That he’s just being rebellious against God? That his woes are just empty talk? This seems to be a classic case of preaching to someone in whose shoes we have never walked. Elihu has not gone through what Job has experienced; he is looking on from the sidelines.

I think about people who are sop much more skilled at philosophical discourse and giving advice rather than they are at listening. These are the people that are working so hard on what they’re going to say next that they’ve not even heard the person talking to them. Elihu has been silent through 31 chapters, but I’m left with the impression he hasn’t heard a word Job has said.

1 Corinthians 8: Paul takes up a social issue that on its surface is foreign to us: should Christians consume food offered to idols?  Speaking, I think, to mature Christians, Paul points out that ““no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one” (4) so the question is basically moot.

But. “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (7) In other words, habits acquired in one pre-believer state are difficult to break.

Which brings us to the key point of the chapter, which is still enormously relevant to us today in the church: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (9) It is better to forego our correct belief and rationalized theology than to inadvertently lead someone else astray. In short, we are to teach and lead by example.

While Paul’s admonition applies to every Christian, I think this raises particularly thorny questions for those in leadership roles to whom others naturally look to as examples of how to lead the Christian life. For example, this is why pastors who engage in legal but questionable financial behavior, or “upstanding Christians” who bring barely-justified lawsuits against others in or out of the church are so injurious to the church at large–and only provide meaty (pun intended) ammunition for the charge of hypocrisy.

 

Psalm 55:16–19; Job 34:1–28; 1 Corinthians 7:25–40

Psalm 55:16–19: This passage (among others elsewhere in Psalms) disturbs many Christians because it wishes the very worst on the psalmist’s enemies: “May death come upon them./ May they go down to Sheol alive.” (16) And there’s no ambiguity that this is something other than a prayer to God: “For in their homes, in their midst, are evils./ But I call to God.” (16b, 17a).

So what are we to do with this (as the theologians call it) imprecatory psalm?  After all, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. Surely, the psalmist can’t be serious here? Do we just feel uncomfortable and move on?

I think the psalmist himself gives us a clue as to the nature of these curses wished upon his enemies when he says, “Evening and morning and noon/ I complain and moan, and He hears my voice.” (18) The psalmist knows that vengeance is God’s and not his, but that does not prevent him from “complaining and moaning” to God in prayer. These imprecations are the psalmist’s deepest emotions and there is no one other than God at whom he can shout and shake his fist. He knows that God can take it, and that whatever happens to his enemies is solely God’s affair. The lesson to us is clear: we can shout all we want to God, but when it comes to human relationships it is Jesus’ words that we must follow.

Job 34:1–28: Elihu lays out Job’s case before God, saying, “Let us choose what is right;/ let us determine among ourselves what is good.” (4) First, he neatly summarizes Job’s position: “For Job has said, ‘I am innocent,/and God has taken away my right;/ in spite of being right I am counted a liar;/ my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’” (5,6)

Then he summarizes God’s position: “far be it from God that he should do wickedness,” (10) and then, “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,/ and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” (12) Therefore, Elihu argues, it’s logically impossible for God to be unjust: “Shall one who hates justice govern?/ Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty,…who shows no partiality to nobles,/ nor regards the rich more than the poor,” (17, 19a) for the very simple reason that “they are all the work of his hands.” (19b)

As for the wicked, Elihu argues, “He shatters the mighty without investigation,/ and sets others in their place.” (24) and “He strikes them for their wickedness/ while others look on, /because they turned aside from following him,” (26), which seems a clear reference to Job and his friends. To use the modern idiom, Elihu is saying to Job, “God is punishing you, Job, for your wickedness; get over it.” 

So while Elihu has spoken more clearly and forthrightly than the three friends–and even Job–t=it’s still very much deuteronomic theology: Your punishment is a consequence of your sins. Sigh.

1 Corinthians 7:25–40: This passage gives us a sense of the urgency with which Paul preached. Urgency because I think he felt Christ’s return was imminent as he advises virgins and those contemplating marriage, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” (26) Then, Paul follows with his low view of marriage: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.” (28b) in the name of sparing people “from distress.”

Why does Paul so dislike marriage? Because it is distracting form our focus on Christ: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife.” (32b, 33). Well, yes, that’s true. And this is certainly a proof text for the Catholic Church’s position on celibate priests and unmarried religious. Nevertheless, I think Paul is underestimating the drive of human nature (“let the two become as one”) and/or overestimating the reality that not everyone is blessed with his own superlative willpower.

Paul does eventually bow to reality, recognizing human nature will out, as long as self-control is involved (which is good advice): “if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. But he nevertheless sees marriage as a lower estate than singleness (which of course to him meant celibacy): “ So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (38). 

However, at the end of this passage I detect just a hint of defensiveness: “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (40). Paul is trying to say this advice is coming from the Holy Spirit, but there’s just that tiny note of uncertainty in “I think.”