Psalm 44:1–8; Job 4,5,6; Romans 11:19–12:8

Psalm 44:1–8: Today being Good Friday, the opening verse of this psalm speaks to today, even though the events the psalmist describes are far from the events of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion: “God with our own ear we have heard, / our fathers recounted to us/ a deed that You did in their days,/ in days of yore.” (2) We have indeed heard, and unlike the soldiers to whom this psalm is addressed, we also have the incomparable story recoded in all four Gospels.

But as for the real theme of this psalm, it recounts how Israel’s past victories–probably referring specifically to the conquest of Canaan– were accomplished: not just by the military prowess of soldiers, but by God himself: “For not by sword they took hold of the land,…but Your right hand and Your arm,/ and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4) Acknowledging God as their king, the soldiers ask, “Ordain the victories of Jacob” (5) and give them victory in battle once again.

The martial flavor of this psalm turns gruesome as God becomes the agent of conquest: “Through You we gore our foes,/ through Your name we trample those against us.” (6) This is more than just “God is on our side,” rather it is God is accomplishing his purpose through their actions. It is God who will bring victory: “my sword will not make me victorious. For You rescued us form our foes.” (8)

While we may find the military details of the psalm disturbing, the underlying sense of complete trust in God is what we take away from these verses. Complete trust in God is what brings victory. Our strivings without that faith are ultimately meaningless.

Job 4,5,6: In Job’s despair, his friend Eliphaz makes the deuteronomic argument that because Job has sinned, he is being punished. After all, he asks, “who that was innocent ever perished?/  Or where were the upright cut off?” (4:7) But then, the logical consequence is, “ those who plow iniquity / and sow trouble reap the same.” (4:8).  Not terribly encouraging words to tell a friend who is suffering. But then again, we are all Eliphaz at some time or another, offering reproof and correction when mercy is what’s needed.

Elihaz continues, “As for me, I would seek God,/ and to God I would commit my cause.” (5:8) He is content with letting God be inscrutable. One does does not whine, “Why me, God?” Job merely states, “He does great things and unsearchable, / marvelous things without number.” (5:9) And then goes on to list God’s marvels. Perhaps most pointedly (and apparently without self-irony) he notes that God “saves the needy from the sword of their mouth.” (5:15).  In fact, Elihaz goes so far as to assert, “How happy is the one whom God reproves;/ therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (5:17) Really? What we the reader know that Elihaz does not, is that it is not God who has caused Job’s woes. Yet, we are just as quick as Elihaz to blame bad stuff on God and then, just like Elihaz, make a moral calculus out of it.

Jobe is unpressed with Elihaz’ theology as he replies that his straits are not a question of justice vs. injustice: “O that my vexation were weighed,/ and all my calamity laid in the balances!” (6:2) All he wants at this point is death to be granted by God: “O that I might have my request,/ and that God would grant my desire;/ that it would please God to crush me,” (6:8,9). And Job is angry at his friend’s wrong-headed morality: “My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed,” (6:15) More than anything, he feels abandoned by his friends: “Do you think that you can reprove words,/ as if the speech of the desperate were wind?” and simply asks for proof of his wrongdoing, knowing there is none: “Turn, I pray, let no wrong be done./ Turn now, my vindication is at stake./ Is there any wrong on my tongue?” (6:29,30). 

The brilliance of Job is that it exposes our seemingly good intentions of bringing comfort as a poorly disguised effort to preach rather than listening. No wonder Job feels so modern. Everyone is talking and preaching but few are listening to what God or the Job in their lives is saying.

Romans 11:19–12:8: Paul reminds his Gentile listeners not to feel superior to the Jews who have not accepted Christ as Messiah. We “stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.” (11:20). Which I take as stepping back and appreciating the enormity of the grace that has been granted to us through the work of Christ–specifically the work we are remembering this Good Friday into Easter Sunday.

The other thing Paul wants to make clear is that everything that has happened and how God has worked remains at its heart a mystery and that Israel will be saved at the end. Our requirement is to remember that “as regards the gospel they are enemies of God[d] for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors ” (11:28). Too bad the church didn’t remember this wise admonition of Paul’s but chose to focus instead on the execrations of the Good Friday Jewish crowd–all resulting in centuries of shameful oppression of the Jews.

We come to Chapter 12 and Paul’s words of incredible wisdom, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2). Our hearts are transformed by grace and faith, but to discern the will of God requires the discipline of our minds. It is the heart / head balance that I think is so essential to the Christian journey. If’s it’s all feelings, then we tend to oscillate all over the place. It’s it’s all pure intellectual energy then we miss experiencing the true love of God. Notice that Paul is not asking us to understand God. That’s impossible. But it’s our responsibility to use our brains to understand the will of God, and specifically, to understand what is “good and acceptable and perfect.” Yet, we waste so much time trying to understand God himself rather than what he would have us be and do right here and right now

 

Psalm 43; Job 3

NOTE: The Moravian Daily Text email did not arrive today, so I’m guessing these are the passages… Will combine the NT passages in tomorrow’s Musings.

Psalm 43: Alter notes that Psalms 42 and 43 were probably a single psalm and was broken into two psalms for unknown reasons.  This makes sense because the previous psalm ends fairly abruptly on hope: “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him,” (42: 12) while 43 begins abruptly as supplication: “Grant me justice, O God.” It appears now that the enemies described in the previous psalm have taken our psalmist to court: “take up my case against a faithless nation,/ from a man of deceit and free me.” (43:1) The “faithless nation” suggests that the poet is a man of political power. Or perhaps, just as today, he feels he is being tried by the press and public opinion.

After a passing gloomy moment–“For You, O God, my stronghold/ why should You neglect me” (2)–He returns to poetic form with the metaphor that God’s light and truth “will guide me. / They will bring me to Your holy mountain/ And to Your dwelling place.” (3). In fact this ascent in the light of God leads to a place that could be both metaphor or an actual geographic location: “And let me come to God’s altar.” (4)

The sense of ascending to God’s altar is strengthened as gloom evolves to joy and then to worship: “Go, my keenest joy. Let me acclaim You with the lyre” (4b) The more tentative hope of Psalm 42 becomes the hope of assurance: “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him./ His rescuing presence and my God.” (5).

Like so many psalms this one describes an interior emotional journey expressed as a journey of ascent: from despair and anger created by what appears to be unfair persecution, ascending ultimately to assurance in God’s faithfulness. This is exactly our journey so often. It’s worth noting that it is reflecting on God and realizing that the psalmist has not been abandoned by God, who is so often silent, that enables his ascent to the place of worship. So, when we feel God is silent, we too should reflect on God’s faithfulness. God may still not speak, but hope becomes assurance nonetheless.

Job 3: Everything has been taken for Job and this chapter is Job’s lament. Job may still worship God, but that does not lessen his anger and depression. The stark opening line–“Let the day perish in which I was born,”–to wish to never have been born is followed by “gloom and deep darkness.” (5) And something even darker: “let the blackness of the day terrify it.” (5) All creation becomes simply a place of darkness and terror. Light has been taken away: “Let the stars of its dawn be dark; / let it hope for light, but have none;” (9)

Since the day on which Job was born cannot be expunged in darkness, Job turns to the wish he’d died at birth: “Why did I not die at birth, / come forth from the womb and expire?” (11) In beautiful poetry Job expresses unfathomable anguish: “Why is light given to one in misery, / and life to the bitter in soul, /who long for death, but it does not come,” (20, 21a).

Were  more honest words ever written? “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; / I have no rest; but trouble comes.” Like many psalms, Job teaches us that misery and despair must be expressed aloud or in writing. They do not need to be hidden behind an falsely happy face.  I’m pretty sure that had some asked Job how he felt he would not have responded with the anodyne “fine” as so many in our culture respond. Emotions expressed out loud are far healthier than emotions bottled up.

 

 

Psalm 42; Job 1,2; Romans 11:7–18

Psalm 42: This psalm plumbs the depths of the poets soul as he reflects on his desire to be restored to a relationship with God. [Alter notes that for this section of the Psalms that begins here at 42, the poets refer to God as “Elohim” rather than Lord (YHWH).]

From the famous opening line, “As a deer yearns for streams of water,/ so I year for God.” the psalm uses the senses and emotions to evoke how it feels to be seeking a God, who seems to be hiding. There is thirst for the absent God [“My whole being thirsts for God” (3)] to sight [“when shall I come and see / the presence of God?” (3b)] And then tears that “became bread day and night” and “I recall and pour out my heart.” (5) There is yearning to “march into the house of God” and always hope: “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him / for His rescuing presence.” (6)

In the next section, He reflects on God’s presence in nature, which seems to echo far off with God’s voice: “Deep unto deep calls out/ at the sound of Your channels.” (8) And he feels the presence of God through water, evoking a powerful sense of baptism: “All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.” (8b) Even though God has not spoken, he knows God is there: “By day the Lord ordains His kindness/ and by night His song is with me.” (9) Day and night become the “prayer to the God of my life.” (9)

But even so, there is anxiety: “I would say to the God my Rock, /’Why have You forgotten me?” (10) And the poet’s thoughts turn even darker in the shocking phrase, “With murder in my bones, my enemies revile me.” But even though God has not shown himself or spoken, hope still remains: “Hope in God, for yet I will acclaim Him,/ His rescuing presence and my God.” (12)

The lesson for us is that hope will triumph over despair. Even when God does not speak to us, the evidence of his being is all around us: in nature, in our feelings and ultimately, in our hope. God seems very far away on this Holy Week as the world seems to careen toward hysteria and increased danger. This psalm brings real comfort in the realization that that God is indeed our “rescuing presence.”

Job 1,2: I’m pretty sure that it’s no coincidence that the Hebrew editors of Scripture placed this book Job–virtually synonymous with despair–  immediately following the triumph that suffuses the book of Esther. Where that book never mentions God once, God is everywhere in Job. And it is not the God of “rescuing presence” that is celebrated in today’s psalm.

In the very first verse we learn without equivocation that Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” He is wealthy in children and worldly goods. And he offers burnt sacrifice to God just in case “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” (1:5).

In one of the rarest settings in the Bible, the scene shifts to heaven where God and Satan joust. Satan accuses God of putting “a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:10) So, of course, Job is faithful to God. Nothing bad has ever happens to him. And God agrees that Satan (not God!) can put Job to the test, “only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (12)

Satan loses no time in bringing disaster into Job’s life. His sheep, his oxen, his camels, his servants, and worst of all, his children are taken from him. But Job is stll faithful, reminding himself–and us–“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:20) Job does not shake his fist at God.

Satan intensifies Job’s trials by attacking his health. Even Job’s wife thinks her husband’s faith is foolish, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (2:9) But Job persists, noting that “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10)

Job’s three friends arrive “to go and console and comfort him.” Job is in such bad shape they do not recognize him, but sit in silence on the ground for a week.

Whether or not Job was a real person, he is a metaphor for what faith in God is about. I once thought I’d make it all the way through my life without any particular trials or disease. What stands out to me is that God does not create these trials; Satan does. We can never accuse God of doing bad things to us.

Romans 11:7–18: Paul continues to deal with the Jewish track separately form the Gentile track. He pretty much concludes that by ignoring Christ’s salvific power, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking.” and he quotes back-up Scripture that “God gave them a sluggish spirit,/ eyes that would not see / and ears that would not hear.”  (8) However, it is the failure of the Jews to realize what God has done for them that becomes the catalyst of salvation of the Gentiles: “But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles,” (11).  But as a Jew, Paul is still wistful about the enormity of the missed opportunity, “if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (12).

He then turns his attention to Gentile attitudes, lest they feel superior to the Jews who have rejected Christ, reminding them that they derive their own holiness from the Jewish root, “and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.” (16). In fact, Gentiles have been grafted through Christ to the Jewish root; but they are mere branches. He warns them (us), “do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (18).

At 2000 years out, I think the egregious anti-Semitic actions of Christians against the Jews in defiance of Paul’s warning here is one of the great tragedies of history. And even today, anti-Semitism persists–and perhaps is blossoming in some places. Of course we need to be careful not to conflate the state of Israel with the Jewish religion. They are not the same. But in our collective political antipathy to the only democracy in the Middle East, I think it would be difficult to deny that in some ways we Christians are forgetting that the root–the Jewish people–are indeed just as holy as we.

Psalm 41; Esther 9:18–10:3; Romans 10:14–11:6

Psalm 41: While at first reading this psalm seems to be one of supplication, it is actually one of thanksgiving. And specifically, thanksgiving for healing from a grave illness. There are three short speeches that make up the structure and flow of the psalm. The first is the words of supplication prayed on his “couch of pain” (4): “I said, ‘Lord, grant me grace,/ heal me, though I offended You.'”(5)  In keeping with the OT’s deuteronomic frame of reference, the psalmist prays of God’s grace in spite of his offenses before God.

We routinely pray for healing, but rarely add “in spite of my offenses” as we deemphasize just how wonderful God’s healing is. We are imperfect beings who sin frequently. And yes, while we no longer believe that sickness arises as a quid pro quo out of sinfulness, it is nonetheless worthwhile remembering how God’s perfection gracefully heals his imperfect creatures.

The second speech is given by the psalmist’s enemies: “When will he die and his name be lost?”(6) [Notice, how the worst fate is to lose one’s name.] And his enemies amplify their perverse desire with hypocritical visits to the psalmist on his sickbed: “And should one come to visit,/ his heart spoke a lie./ He gathered up mischief,/ went out, spoke abroad.” (7) And in the second part of this second speech, this enemy eagerly anticipates the sick man’s death: “Some nasty thing is lodged in him./ As he lies down, he will not rise again.” (9)

As a result, hopeless abandonment pervades the psalmist’s woes in the third speech of this psalm: “Even my confidant, in whom I did trust,/ who ate my bread,/ was utterly devious with me.” (10) When one loses trust in one’s caregiver, all would seem to be lost. Are these words reflective of reality or is the psalmist simply being paranoid in his illness? In today’s culture, we would suspect vengeful paranoia as he adds, “O Lord, grant me grace, raise me up,/ that I may pay them back.” (11) But who’s to say, his assessment isn’t right on the money?

But healing eventually comes and with it, gratitude to the One who heals: “Your sustained me/ and made me stand before You forever.” (13) Once again, this is another psalm that so beautifully reflects our thoughts, this time on our sickbed: we pray for healing, we are fearful, even paranoid. And when healing comes, so does thanksgiving.

Esther 9:18–10:3: Modecai’s and Esther’s faithfulness, together with the uncle’s strategic instincts and the niece’s courage have resulted in triumph for the Jews. Haman the plotter ends up being plotted against and pays for his deviousness. As a result, the holiday of Purim comes into existence: “the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year.” (9:27). And like Passover and Yom Kippur, this joyful holiday is still celebrated in Israel in keeping with this story: “These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.” (9:28)

In the late 1980’s I happened to be in Israel during the celebration of Purim and had the privilege to be with a family that included young children. Kids dress up in costumes and there are parties everywhere. It’s as if it’s Halloween but without the dark side. A far better thing, IMO, than what our culture has transformed All Hallows Eve into.

Romans 10:14–11:6: Having asserted that salvation comes through confession that Christ is our savior, Paul takes up the very practical problem of getting the word out, i.e., carrying out the Great Commission: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (10:14)

In what would might call the foundation of the missionary movement, Paul uses Scripture to answer his question: “As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (15) Faith “comes form what is heard.” And “what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (17) Which I will take as the basis for reading Scripture at worship and particularly, reading–and preaching from– the “word of Christ,” i.e., the Gospel. As a fan of lectionary readings, it’s great to discover the roots of this liturgical practice here in Romans.

Editorial: I was raised in a church where the only scripture read was what was being preached on. The lectionary–OT, Psalms, NT and Gospel– became both a deeply meaningful and beautiful part of worship when I came to Saint Matthew. Now that we have moved to the Evangelical approach and dropped the pericopes (for reasons of time?) I miss them greatly, and note that for many people it is the only time they will experience the depth and richness of hearing the Hebrew Scriptures, the emotional range and beauty of the psalms and the Good News within the same hour. Which, now that I think about it, is why I so value the lectionary approach of these Moravian readings.

 

 

Psalm 40:9–17; Esther 8:1–9:17; Romans 10:1–13

Psalm 40:9–17: These verses seem to be almost stream of consciousness as the psalmist describes his desire to please God [“To do what pleases You, my God, I desire,” (9)] and asks God to remember his how he has spoken to others about God [“Lord, You Yourself know. / Your justice I concealed not in my heart./ Your faithfulness and Your rescue I spoke.” (11)].

He speaks of how God will always protect him [“Your steadfast truth/ shall always guard me” (12)] from the multitudinous evils that surround him. But then, suddenly, a confession of his failure: “My crimes overtook me/ and I could not see..and my heart forsook me.” (13) This realization is followed immediately by supplication: “Show favor, O Lord, to save me./ Lord, to my help, hasten.” (14)  And let’s not forget to include the usual supplication to humiliate our enemies: “May the be shamed and abased one and all,/ who seek my life to destroy it.” (15).  Instead, let’s reflect on those who like me, follow God: “Let all who seek You/ exult and rejoice in You./ May they always say, ‘God is great!'” (17). And end on a note of humility and supplication: “As for me, I am lowly and needy/ May the master account it for me…My God, do not delay.” (18)

So, what do we make of this psalm that seems to wander all over the place? For me, it is a poetic reflection of the mind as it travels form place to place in thought–which is a very familiar feeling to me. Once again, we see just how human these psalms are: Reflections by real people who agonized and wondered and rejoiced about the same things as we.

Esther 8:1–9:17: Even though Haman has been hung for his evil deed, the letters containing the orders to kill the Jews throughout the kingdom are still out there. Obedient soldiers are likely to have already started carrying out executions of Jews. Time is of the essence. Esther pleads to the king, “how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming on my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?” (8:6). The king gives permission for Mordecai to send letters under the king’s seal (on his signet ring) to rescind the order.

This is an enormous task for there are 127 provinces each with “its own script and to every people in its own language” that must be notified. The letters are written and sealed and “couriers, mounted on their swift royal steeds, hurried out, urged by the king’s command.” (8:14)

The Jews are saved and soon the Jews “gain power over their foes.” (9:1). Mordecai grows powerful and “the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them.” (9:5). The king seems to approve and asks Esther what else she wants. Esther replies, “If it pleases the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict, and let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” (13). This order is carried out. The same slaughter of Jewish enemies occurs in the provinces. But everywhere the Jews “laid no hands on the plunder.”

While the story of Esther is very appealing, the part of the story of the Jews killing their enemies is far less attractive to our modern eyes. Once again, the Old Testament forces us to realize that even though the motivations and psychology of humans is unchanged over thousands of years, the social structure and cultural mores were vastly different. But are we any more civilized today?  There’s strong evidence that we aren’t.

Romans 10:1–13: Paul is at his lawyerly best when he asserts that ignorance–here, about God’s law– is no excuse: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.” (3). But since “Christ is the end of the law” all that’s needed is belief to participate in righteousness.

In one of the favorite verses of the Evangelical world that I heard a zillion times while growing up, Paul asserts, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (9). And then the formula: “one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (10). Many Christians feel this is all that’s needed, and indeed, it’s sufficient for salvation. But it leaves out grace IMO, and makes it seem to much like what I do as over against what God does. Christ has come to us through the baptism. And it is in confirmation  where we acknowledge what Christ has done for us and at that point, we “confess with our lips.” Otherwise it’s just too easy to leave out half of the salvation process.

It’s taken me a long time to come around to the view that Christ has come to us first and and that we respond rather than the view by some that I hold all the power by “accepting Jesus Christ as my savior.” And even though confirmation is derided by some and omitted from some churches (I’m talking about you, Saint Matthew); and even though many new confirmands “graduate” from church, that public confession remains. And eventually, many of those who leave return to the body because they understand as adults the enormity of what Christ has done for them. To leave out that public confession form a young person’s spiritual development is a great disservice to them, IMHO.

Psalm 40:1–8; Esther 6,7; Romans 9:22–33

Psalm 40:1–8: Unlike the dark musings of the previous psalm, this psalm opens on a bright note of thanksgiving: God has heard and answered. “I urgently hoped for the Lord./ He bent down toward me and heard my voice.” (2) But even more important is that God rescued him: “He brought me up from the roiling pit,/ from the thickest mire.” (3)

There is an image of complete renewal following rescue: “He set my feet on a crag,/ and made my steps firm./ And he put in my mouth a new song–/praise to our God.” (4) God listens, answers, and then in a gesture of grace, renews. God does more to us and for us than we can ever expect or hope for.

Now rescued, the psalmist sings his new song. “Many things You have done–You,/ O Lord our God–Your wonders!/ And Your plans for us–/ none can match You.” (6). So, what are God’s plans for us? Does he carefully map out or lives, as some believe, choosing our spouse, our career, our offspring, the time of our demise? I do not believe so. Instead, I think God’s plans are that he has given us the freedom of will, knowing that his plans for us to lead a joyous life–deep joy being suffused with love, happiness, and sorrow–will be fulfilled as long as we follow in his ways.

I’m pretty sure God is not looking to have a relationship with automatons, but with humans in all their joy, their flaws and their seeking after God, knowing we are loved.

Esther 6,7: In a bout of insomnia, the king orders the book of records to be read. (Nothing like a boring record book to be lulled back to sleep!). The records describes Mordecai’s successful efforts in foiling the plot to assassinate the king. The king wonders, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?”(6:3) and orders that robes, a horse and other honors be bestowed on Mordecai. In a wonderful cinematic twist–the very definition of irony, it happens to be Haman, just arriving to announce his intention to hang Mordecai, who is given the duty instead to honor the Jew whom he plans to kill.

Haman is depressed, to say the least, about this dreadful turn of events. As he is commiserating with his wife and friends, “the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.” (6:14)

Our author has prepared a brilliant setup, and Haman is flung headlong into the trap. On the second day of Esther’s party, the king asks, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” (7:2). Notice that Esther approach the king. She clearly understands how men think!

Esther doubtless surprises the king with the answer to his request: “if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people.” We can be sure the king was not expecting this!

In a brilliantly clever and insightful move that appeals directly to the king’s ego, Esther frames the wrong being done to her people as an insult to the king himself: “If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” (7:4) Esther does not have to accuse Haman herself because the king asks, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” (7:5). Esther names Haman.

An ordinary author would have ended the story there, but this author adds one final twist to seal Haman’s fate. The king leaves the banquet hall in wrath and Haman throws himself literally on Esther’s couch, begging for mercy. The king returns, sees Haman effectively on top of Esther and shouts, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” Haman’s fate is completely sealed and in another nice irony is hung on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Again, we need to be careful not to read a lot of theology into this marvelous story of courage and cleverness. It’s just a cracking good story–and it’s no wonder it has been preserved. One never tires of reading it and seeing how good triumphs over evil.

Romans 9:22–33: Paul concludes his essay on the relationship between Israel and Gentiles under the terms of the New Covenant with a simple comparison: “Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.” (30) He immediately gives the reason for Israel’s failure: “Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone,” (32). In short, the works became the end unto themselves, not the expression of a deeper faith in God. 

It’s easy for us to condemn Israel for its obsession with works. yet, we do exactly the same thing when we think faith is about what we do–go to church, do good works, give money–not who we are before God–as expressed by our faith in God. It’s far too easy for our works to become the end not the means as we reflect on how “good” we are and how we have somehow made God happy by dint of our efforts, when it’s completely the other way round. Without faith, works are dead. Something I think that finally became quite clear to Martin Luther. Would that it would become as clear to me.

Psalm 39:7–13; Esther 4,5; Romans 9:8–21

Psalm 39:7–13: The psalmist continues to explore the relationship between ephemeral man–“In but a shadow a man goes about./ Mere breath he murmurs” (7)–and God.  He knows he is in dire straits and “my hope is in You.” It is God alone who “From all my sins [can] save me.” (9) But it’s a conflicted relationship. While the psalmist’s hope rests in God, he also sees God as the source of punishment for his sins as he pleads, “Take away from me Your scourge,/ from the blow of Your hand I perish.” (11)

This is a beautiful description of how Jews related to God under the terms of the Old Covenant: God was at once the source of all hope, but also the source of punishment for wrongdoing. For those of us benefitting from the intercession of Jesus Christ, we can experience the grace daily for which the poet is so desperately seeking.

But even under the terms of grace, we can easily identify with the plea to “Hear my prayer, O Lord,/ to my cry hearken,/ to my tears be not deaf.” (13). And then, the line with which I identify so strongly—even after all these years: “For I am a sojourner with You,/ a new settler like all my fathers.” (13b) God remains mysterious and unknowable. We are mere sojourners–the creatures, who are here but a moment, not the creators.  This is humility in the face of greatness. “Look away from me that I may catch my breath / before I depart am am not.” (14) God is to great, too powerful, yet He is the source of all hope and love in this short time that we are alive on earth.

Esther 4,5: The Esther story rolls forward relentlessly as Mordecai tears his clothes at the news of Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews. Esther hears of this and “the queen was deeply distressed.” Mordecai arranges for the news of the king’s edict to be brought to Esther and for Esther to appeal to the king. But Esther demurs, explaining, ““All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live.” (4: 11) Mordecai responds, ““Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” (12). Esther steals her courage, asks Mordecai to have the Jews fast on her behalf and agrees to approach the king, and “if I perish, I perish.” (17).

Notice how Esther’s courage comes both from inside her, but also in the knowledge that she is supported by the entire community. I think to many would-be heroes skip the role of community and depend on their own resources. Esther knows that it is only through the the prayer and fasting of others that she will be able to come into the presence of the king.

Esther is not only brave, she is clever. She comes to the king not with her plea, but with an invitation to dinner: “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king.” (5:4) Haman feels honored to be invited to dinner with the king and queen. But even this does not quench his hatred for the upstart Mordecai, “Yet all this does me no good so long as I see the Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.” (5:13). At the advice of his wife, Haman prepares a gallows for Mordecai in order to hang him before the banquet.

Haman is the symbol of pride gone off the rails: a pride that becomes mindless hatred. And I have to believe that many Jews in the Middle East today can identify with Mordecai as they are surrounded by hatred. But do they possess the faith and humility, as well as the wisdom of Mordecai?

Romans 9:8–21: Paul points out that “the children of promise” are those whom God has chosen rather than by what good works they may have done. It all comes from him; we do not send our good works to God and receive grace in return. Instead, “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.” (16) This of course turns the entire Jewish system of sacrifice to propitiate God completely on its head. The terms of the New Covenant are radically different than those of the old. Jesus is the hinge point between the two. His death and resurrection have abrgated the terms of the Old and replaced sacrifice with mercy.

Psalm 39:1–6; Esther 2:19–3:15;

Psalm 39:1–6: This reflection on the ephemerality of life begins with the psalmist’s resolution to remain quiet: “I thought: ‘Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue. / Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth…'” (2) Once again, we see the critical role of the voice as being what separates the inner being from the person seen and heard by the rest of the world. Speech is what has set mankind apart from the rest of God’s creation.

But muteness only intensifies the poet’s already existing pain: “I was mute–in silence. / I kept still, deprived of good,/ and my pain was grievous.” (3) But as the poet reflects on his lot, his emotions begin to boil over: “My heart was hot within me./ In my thoughts a fire burned.” And he can remain silent no longer: “I spoke with my tongue.” (4)

Life’s brevity is the topic on which he has been reflecting and now he speaks aloud, questioning God: “Let me know, O Lord, my end / and what is the measure of my days.” (5). The third line of the verse intensifies this sense of ephemerality: “I would know how fleeting I am.” Not waiting for God’s response, the poet answers his own question: “Look, mere handspans You made my days.”  And then in a striking parallel (anticipation?) of Ecclesiastes, he realizes “Mere breath is each man standing.” (6)

As I grow older, this psalm increasingly reflects my own realization of life’s mere “breath.” We behave as if we are immortal, but the reality is that in the larger scheme of God’s creation, we flicker but a moment–and then our flame goes out. The question is, who are we and what have we done during that brief interval?

Esther 2:19–3:15: Esther is now queen, but no one knows her Jewish roots: “Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her” (2:20), Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus., which information he passes to Esther, who in turn tells the king. The conspirators are promptly hanged. This part of the story is crucial because it demonstrates that Esther has doubtless earned the king’s trust.

King Ahasuerus promotes Haman to the position of chief of staff, essentially the second most important man in the kingdom. This power goes to his head ad he demands obeisance from everyone in the kingdom. But Mordecai refuses to bow down. Haman decides to rid the kingdom of these obnoxious, irreverent Jews. Haman with essentially a 10,000 talent bribe talks the king into issuing an edict “giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” (3:13) THe decree goes out, but with masterful understatement, our author notes that “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” (3:15).

We can only imagine this “confusion.” Why would the king issue an order to kill the people who had been living peacefully among them for so many years? From the perspective of the 21st century, this is racism taken to its logical, evil conclusion for a reason that is trivial. But Haman also reminds us that there is no limit to the evil of the human heart–especially when its pride is wounded and it possesses substantial power.

Romans 8:34–9:7: Paul’s words of encouragement suggest that the Romans lived in real fear of sin and subsequently, death eternally separating them from the saving power of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds them (us) that “it is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (8:34). Moreover this intercession is bathed in love, whose power is such that we can never be separated from Christ.

And then in one of the most powerful and encouraging verses in all of Paul’s writings, he tells us, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38, 39) It is to this verse that we (I) can cling when we (I) are bathed in doubt as to the reality of our faith. Faith and love are intertwined through Christ. Even though we may feel separated, it is just that: a feeling. The reality is that we are intertwined in Christ’s love for us.

Paul then turns to the relationship of Israel to the intercessory power of Jesus Christ. He begins on an emotional note, remembering his own Jewishness: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (3:3). And he reminds us that it is from Israel that their–and our–Messiah has arisen: “to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” (3:5).

And then, in a striking passage that suggests (to me, anyway) that Paul is not only arguing to convince his listeners, but himself as well, “It is not as though the word of God had failed.” (3:6), as he begins a disquisition on how Jews and Gentiles are related: “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” (9:7) Paul is about to turn a couple thousand years of Jewish exclusivity on its head…

Psalm 38:17–22; Esther 2:1–18; Romans 8:20–33

Psalm 38:17–22: Our psalmist’s illness and constant pain, “I am ripe for stumbling / and my pain is before me always” (18) places him in a even more vulnerable position, “And my wanton enemies grow many,/ my unprovoked foes abound.” (20) In fact, they seem to be winning despite his best efforts to walk the path of righteousness: “And those who pay back good with evil/ thwart me for pursuing good.” (21)

Unlike many psalms of supplication that end on a hopeful note that recognizes God’s presence, this one ends in a desperate plea. Unlike Psalm 23 that ends on the assurance God is always present even in the darkest times, here there is only silence. We hear only the psalmist’s voice seeming to trail off into hopelessness.  In some ways this psalm seems even more appropriate in our time when God seems absent. With the psalmist, we raise our voices to heaven, pleading, “Hasten to my help,/ O master of my rescue.” And then, only silence.

Esther 2:1–18: So, King Ahasuerus runs something like a beauty contest to find a new queen. Needless to say, many women would like that position and “many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai.” (8). Esther, Mordecai’s niece, is among them. Hegai likes her  and “he quickly provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food.” (9). Esther keeps her Jewish lineage secret.

One has the feeling this book was written by a woman, because I’m not sure a male would have gone into the specifics about Esther’s 12 months of cosmetic treatment: “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women.” (12) [Which also tells us there is nothing new about make-up.] As part of the trial to find out if she was acceptable, Esther goes in to the king [“goes in’ being the code for “had sex with”] and then returns back to a second harem. Unless the woman in this harem was asked for subsequently by name, the party was over.

But Esther was beautiful, “admired by all who saw her.” (15) She goes into the king, “ the king loved Esther more than all the other women” and the king “set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (17). A party and a general holiday follows.

So is this just a cool story, or is there something deeper going on here? We could probably summon symbolic parallels to how King Ahasuerus symbolizes God and Esther the Jewish people. But my inclination is to dispense with theology and just sit back and enjoy this marvelous story.

Romans 8:20–33: After all, if it’s theology we want, Paul provides it in spades as he now expands his thesis of sinful man being doomed to die to into an exposition about the universe and everything: “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (21) In other words, Paul is anticipating that the work of Christ has started the process of an entirely new creation, free of sin and decay. But it’s not going to be an easy or speedy process as he compares it to a woman giving birth: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” (22)

As for those who believe, “in hope we were saved.” (24). But, as Paul points out, hope is by definition invisible, so this wonderful new perfect creation–including our perfected selves– is not yet visible: it’s off in the future. That’s why we suffer as “we wait for it in patience.” (24)

But as we wait the Holy Spirit is at work “helping us in our weakness” in us in ways we cannot fully comprehend, “for [example,] we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (26)

Paul gives us a clear, if not completely comprehensible, picture of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and God–and ourselves: “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (27) And because of this relationship, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (28). A verse that has been of enormous encouragement to many, but is also subject to misinterpretation. It’s not “all things work together for good,” but “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

So what’s the point of “called according to his purpose?” For me it simply means that God has called us not only because he loves us, but that he gives us purpose–God’s purpose–to our lives. As for Paul’s explanation about predestination and the “elect,” I leave that to theologians to argue.

Rather, I will focus on the impact that God has on our lives: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (31) God gave us his son, so “will he not with him also give us everything else?” (32) Those are word that do not require a theologian to interpret. In today’s readings, the psalmist’s plea is eventually answered by Paul. God has been here in our hearts the entire time.

 

Psalm 38:9–16; Esther 1; Romans 8:9–19

Psalm 38:1–16: The psalmist is sick unto death–an illness that consumes him internally–“My innards are consumed with burning” (8a)–and externally: “My sores make a stench, have festered” (6a). One thinks of Job. As so many have done, and continue to do, he blames his illness “through my folly.” (6)

He is near death, “My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me/ and the light of my eyes, too, is gone from me.” (11). He has abandoned by his family and friends in his hour of need: “My friends and companions stand off from my plight. / and my kinsmen stand far away.” (12). But perhaps worst of all, his enemies begin conniving and plotting: “They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm./ They speak lies, utter deceit all day long.” (13) But he is so ill, he hears them only at a distance, “But like the deaf I do not hear.” (14a) It is difficult to think of more dire straits than these. illness, abandonment, conspiracy.

Everything in the psalmist’s world is lost; only one hope remains: “For in You, O Lord, I have hoped.” And in that hope is the core of assurance: “You will answer, O master, my God.” (16) This psalm strips life of every element that we depend on: health, family, friends. They are ephemeral, untrustworthy. In the end, there is only God in whom we can place our trust. As I know from personal experience with illness, it quickly strips away the masks, pretensions, and false gods in our lives. Only our hope in a loving God remains.

Esther 1: The story of Esther is like an intermezzo in an opera. A short respite from the sturm und drang of the main plot. A story rich in plotting and duplicity, but in the end an inspiring story of heroism on the part of a courageous woman.

This chapter lays out the scene. “King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa” (2) and decides to give a week-long party. The author describes the richness of the setting (almost like an opera stage!): “There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings[b] and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones.” (6) Eventually the king becomes “merry with wine” and in his drunkenness commands his eunuchs to bring in Queen Vashti. But the queen refuses.

As a result, Vashti is banished from the court, and an order goes out “let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.” (19). The stage is set for the reminder of the story.

But there is a disturbing subtext in the king’s decree: “all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” (20) And an official declaration of patriarchy goes out “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” (22). Here is one of those dangerous passages that too easily can be ripped out of its cultural context–and I’m sure it has been–to be used in unjustified ways for husbands to oppress wives. By contrast, Paul’s admonitions of marital relations are a model of restraint and enlightenment.

Romans 8:9–19: I think Paul is responsible for the original definition of zombies: earlier in the chapter he has equated the ‘flesh” with being the walking dead. There is only one way in which we are alive: “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (9) Life comes only through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit: “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (10)

If we reject that life and “if [we] live according to the flesh, [we] will die.” (13). But then Paul does something remarkable: it is best that “by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” Only by rejecting our sinful fleshliness will we ultimately live. OK, but then the Spirit does something remarkable. We are transformed: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (14). Like Christ, we die to the flesh and rise (through baptism, I presume) as children of God, imbued by the Holy Spirit.

It is in this newly transformed state that we can cry, “Abba! Father!” (15) because “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (16) And by virtue of becoming family members, we become “heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (17). Today, this seems so routine because we have heard it so often. But think of the impact on Paul’s listeners. This is an unbelievably revolutionary concept. Never before have any humans become part of God’s family.There has always been that strong distinction and separation between God and his creation. That was certainly true of Judiasm. But now, through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit we have become family members.

But family members–even members of God’s family–are not exempt from suffering: in fact, suffering comes with the territory: “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (17). Paul encourages his listeners by reminding them–and us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (18). This is a stark reminder that by becoming children in God’s family that we may, in fact, have to endure greater suffering than otherwise might have been the case.