Psalm 40:1-8; Exodus 32:30-33:23; Matthew 26:47-58

Psalm 40:1-8  This psalm begins with an intensely physical metaphor for rescue: “He brought me up from the roiling pit, from the thickest mire. And He set my feet on a crag, made my steps firm.” (2)  In this week of disaster in northern Washington of people drowned in a mudslide, the image is even more dramatic.  How often our lives seem to be bogged down in meaningless noise and the muck and more of modern life.  There is only one firm place: the crag of God–and it is only God who can lift us up and place us there.

Not just rescue, but praise and singing: “And He put in my mouth a new song–praise to our God.”  Not just praise and worship, but that our infectious joy is witness as well: “May many see and fear and trust in the LORD.” (3)  These famous verse are akin to testimonies of new Christians who recount their conversion from the mire and muck of sin to Christ, the solid rock–hoping that others will hear and believe.  I occasionally miss hearing those testimonies that peppered many Sunday mornings in my youth.

Worship of the God of creation follows praise: “Many things You have done—You, O LORD our God—Your wonders!” (5).  And then anticipation of what God has in store for us: “And Your plans for us— none can match You.”  I think too many Christians have taken “God’s plan” to too low a level of abstraction:  That God has pre-programmed just about every aspect of their lives: from where they will go to school, who they will marry, etc. etc.  For me, that is to deny the gift of free will we’ve been given–not to mention that life is far more random.

Instead, I think “God’s plans for us” are how He has revealed Himself and His love for us through Jesus Christ.  It’s difficult to conceive of a more exciting plan, worthy of praise and singing.

Exodus 32:30-33:23   To say that Moses is upset upon seeing the idol before him at the foot of the mountain is a gross understatement (which Alter captures in the repeated second person plural pronoun: “You, you have committed a great offense. And now I shall go up to the LORD. Perhaps I may atone for your offense.” (32:30)  At Moses’ begging, God relents, but it is punishment delayed.  As always with God, “And on the day I make a reckoning, I will make a reckoning with them for their offense.” (32:35).  Thus it ever is.  Sins have consequences.  Even forgiven ones.

The promise of return to Canaan still stands, but these “stiff-necked people”  will not be the ones to enjoy it. Rather, God announces, “To your seed I will give it.” (33:1)

Moses pitches the Tent of Meeting some distance from camp and everyone can see that God in the pillar of cloud is coming down to talk with Moses. I continue to be struck (as I’m sure the Israelites were, too, of the intimate relationship Moses has with God: “And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow.” (33:11)  Then, Moses “would return to the camp, and his attendant Joshua son of Nun, a lad, would not budge from within the Tent.” We will be hearing more about this “lad.”

Yet, Moses continues to press his case to know God even more intimately: “And now, if, pray, I have found favor in Your eyes, let me know, pray, Your ways, that I may know You, so that I may  find favor in Your eyes.” (32:14).  Moses has experienced the presence of God through the burning bush, through the clouds on Sinai, and now “face to face” via the pillar of cloud  at the Tent of Meeting.  Yet, he does not really know God.  So, Moses asks once more if God will reveal Himself. God finally agrees, noting that to look God in the face would kill Moses, but “you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (32:23).

So, when we think we “know” God or think we “know his plans for our lives,” we would do well to recall this dialog with the man who led the Jews out of Egypt. Even he could not fully know God.  That is why God is God–and God, like Aslan, is more than a bit dangerous.  Like Moses, we cannot look God fully in the face.  Only through Jesus can we come into God’s presence.

 Matthew 26:47-58  I’ve always wondered why the men, whom I assume to be the Temple Police, who came to arrest Jesus would not recognize him on sight.  After all, Jesus had been, shall we say, a pretty visible presence in the Temple courtyard for most of the week.  I think Judas’ signal has to be to accommodate the final irony of this story: that a sign of affection is a signal of betrayal; the least sincere kiss in history.  Or, to extend it a bit: representative of the false love that we can so easily express for Jesus.  When in fact our hearts are hardened.  Better to not express ourselves at all than to feign love where there is only indifference or worse.

And yet.  And yet, Jesus calls Judas “friend.”  I know in my heart that Jesus uttered this word with utter sincerity.  That even in this betrayal, Jesus truly loved Judas with as much intensity as he loved the other disciples who remained loyal to him–and the one who wanted to fight back with his sword.

But alas, they did not remain loyal.  In one of the saddest sentences in this gospel, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (26:56) Perhaps not the Betrayal, but a betrayal nonetheless.  A betrayal I have acted out again and again.  And yet, Jesus will still call me “Friend.”

 

Psalm 39:7-13; Exodus 31:12-32:29; Matthew 26:36-46

Psalm 39:7-13  The psalmist continues to weave supplication together with reflections on the brevity of a man’s life.  In these verses there is an outright plead for rescue, to be saved from a sin that would render the psalmist too like the wicked, “From all my sins save me. Make me not the scoundrel’s scorn.”(9)   But then a plea for God to relent: “Take away from me Your scourge,  from the blow of Your hand I perish.”

Is God’s punishment too harsh or disproportionate?  In the deuteronomic scheme of things–cause and effect punishment, if you will–it’s not unreasonable to tell God “enough is enough.”  Even as people of the New Covenant there can be times where we can feel we have suffered enough, and we will pray for the suffering to cease.  But as the psalmist implies here, is it is God who is doing the punishment, or are these simply the circumstances that are creating the suffering?  In any event, it seems entirely reasonable to feel, as the psalmist does, that God is allowing the punishment and therefore it is to God to whom we pray for it to cease.

“For I am a sojourner with You, a new settler like all my fathers.” (12) suggests that he is a resident alien in a new country–a theme Peter picks up in his epistle.  But here it builds from the theme of ephemerality.  We are resident aliens for a brief time here in God’s creation.  And in an almost Job-like request, the psalmist asks God to, “Look away from me, that I may catch my breath before I depart and am not.” (13)  God’s power is so great, that it is almost too much for us to take in our human weakness and sin.

The psalmist’s ambivalence about God, who is at once our rescuer but in whose awesomeness we cannot stand too long in our brief lives is one more example of the relentless honesty of the psalms.

 Exodus 31:12-32:29   After giving instructions about keeping the sabbath, God finishes speaking and hands the tablets to Moses:  “He gave Moses when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai the two tablets of the Covenant, tablets of stone written by the finger of God.” (31:18)  There was certainly more detailed instruction on these tablets than just the Ten Commandments, and it would definitely take the finger of God to write all this on two pieces of stone that a man could carry(!)

Meanwhile, down at the foot of Sinai, the people decide Moses has dilly-dallied too long up there in the cloud.  They decide to take worship into their own hands.  They create the infamous golden calf, and bow down, worshipping the gods of Egypt, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (32:5)  God is definitely displeased, “I see this people and, look, it is a stiff-necked people. And 10 now leave Me be, that My wrath may flare against them, and I will put an end to them…” (32:9) Basically, God plans to start all over where he began with Abraham, making exactly the same promise to Moses, the only man who has obeyed him: “and I will make you a great nation.” (32:10b).

But Moses, who has interceded for his people so many times before Pharaoh, now intercedes for them before God with a very logical and reasonable argument: ““Why, O LORD, should your wrath flare against Your people that You brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?” (32:11) making the point that the Egyptians would rightly wonder why God had gone to the bother of rescuing the Israelites only to destroy them in the desert.  Moses also asks God to “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel Your servants, to whom You swore by Yourself” and made the original covenant.  God relents and Moses comes down to confront the people.

So, is God really so emotional that he would destroy people he has rescued?  Well, God requires justice, and this is not emotion so much as it is a clear picture of justice demanded.  This story is a Christological precursor of Jesus’ intercession for us before a justly angry God. And like the Israelites, we need to be grateful for that intercession.

Matthew 26:36-46  I think it is in Gethsemane where we see Jesus at his most human and vulnerable: “and began to be grieved and agitated,” (26:37b).  In this state there is only one thing–and one thing only–that Jesus can do: pray.  He prays with the same desperation we read in today’s psalm, that God relent from the punishment about to be meted out–the punishment we each deserve.  But in the end, acceptance.  The acceptance we find so often in the psalms of supplication.

Jesus wakes the disciples three times during the night, and only after he says, “the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” does he rouse them from their sleep.  Much has been made of the sleeping disciples, but I think we tend to be too hard on them. Did they really abandon Jesus in his time of deepest need?  Perhaps. I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep too, even though I had just heard Jesus’ speech about the necessity of remaining awake because we don’t know the hour the master will return.  The sleeping disciples are the contrast between Jesus’ strength to accept his fate and our own human weakness: to fall asleep when we should be praying.

 

 

Psalm 39:1-6; Exodus 30:17-31:11; Matthew 26:31-35

Psalm 39:1-6   David reflects on the difficulty, if not sheer impossibility, of keeping one’s mouth shut as our enemies goad us and/or lie about us: “I thought, “Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue.  Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked is before me.” (1)  His silence has both physical and emotional consequences: “I kept still, deprived of good, and my pain was grievous. My heart was hot within me.” (3)  A perfect description of how we feel when unjustly accused.

But David knows whom to speak with, and it isn’t his enemies: “I spoke with my tongue:  Let me know, O LORD, my end and what is the measure of my days. I would know how fleeting I am.” (4)  He speaks to God, but it is not a complaint about how unfairly he’s being treated by his enemies.  Rather it’s a reflection on the evanescence of a man’s life: “Look, mere handspans You made my days, and my lot is as nothing before You. Mere breath is each man standing.” (6)

At first this seems a surprising shift of subject.  Why would David move from personal hurt to a philosophical reflection on the brevity of a man’s life?  It seems to be that because in the larger picture, our present woes  (“my lot”) are even more fleeting when compared to the overall length of our lives, which themselves are brief in the larger picture of God, who lives outside time.  When we realize that (in Alter’s wonderful phrase) “mere breath is each man standing,” our present woes are put into their proper perspective.  And in the realization of that larger picture, our current afflictions are but momentary, but survivable troubles.

Exodus 30:17-31:11  Washing in the laver of bronze is mandatory before the priestly duties can be performed: “And they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they do not die,” (30:21) reminding us that baptism has ancient roots.

Even above water is is the sacred oil, which has very specific ingredients: “five hundred weight wild myrrh, and aromatic cinnamon, half of that, two hundred fifty weight, and aromatic cane, two hundred fifty weight. And cassia, five hundred weight by the shekel of the sanctuary, and olive oil,” (30: 24, 25).  This is the oil of consecration, setting apart both physical objects and human beings, which are holy, from all else that which is profane: “And you shall consecrate them, and they shall be holy of holies, whoever touches them shall be consecrated.” (30:30)

The oil used by the pastor at baptism, which seals us with the cross of Christ forever,” has direct roots back through the oil that the woman anointed Jesus’ feet back through to this oil prepared at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Oil that sets us apart from the rest of the world; oil that reminds all of us that we are God’s, and through baptism have been made holy.  The church I grew up focused only on the water, never on oil.  Yet, it’s clear here in Exodus 30 that to be consecrated before God both water and oil are required.  First we are made clean in the water and then consecrated by the oil; set apart to do God’s work in the Kingdom.  A heavy and serious responsibility indeed.

Matthew 26:31-35  I think the Moravian editors kept today’s Gospel reading intentionally brief because they want us to focus and reflect on what Jesus has to say about  the Disciples’ response to the catastrophe about to overtake them.  He quotes Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”  The disciples finally get it: they know something bad is about to happen to Jesus, although it’s not clear yet exactly what that will be.

What’s really fascinating here is that even though Jesus could not be more direct about his resurrection (“But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” – 26:32), that revolutionary statement apparently does not even make an impression on them.  Instead, they can only focus on Jesus’ effrontery to suggest that after three years together they would actually desert him.  Peter speaks for all of them, in denial that they would ever deny his master.  And as Matthew notes tersely, “And so said all the disciples.”  We can see the nodding heads as Peter makes his boldly unwise statement.   Yet, the  resurrection, an event unprecedented in history, goes unnoticed.  It’s all about feeling unjustly accused.  Emotions inevitably trump reason.

Which is exactly what we would say and do, too.  We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive.  Unlike David in today’s psalm, neither the disciples nor us can keep silent.  Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.

Psalm 38:17-22; Exodus 29:31-30:16; Matthew 26:14-30

Psalm 38:17-22  The psalmist raises two important issues in these final verses.  First, we must acknowledge our own sinfulness: “For I am ripe for stumbling and my pain is before me always.  For my crime I shall tell, I dread my offense.” (18,19)  We need to be fully aware that we are subject to temptation–“ripe for stumbling”–and that when we fall, we confess–“For my crime I shall tell.”   But confession does not absolve us from regret or consequences: “I dread my offense.”  A general obviousness to sin and its consequences certainly exists in American culture–and has penetrated far into churches where the emphasis is on positive thinking, feeling good about ourselves, and worst of all, a sense that if we’re “good,” we will become prosperous..

Second, even when we do avoid sin and do good, we will not necessarily receive good in return, and in fact our efforts to do good may be trumped by those doing evil: “And those who pay back good with evil thwart me for pursuing good.” (21) That’s a key lesson for me: we are doing good because we love God, not because we think we will receive some human reward.  In fact our lives may become even more fraught by the very act of having done good.  This is just one more example that much of life is unjust and unfair.

And in this unfairness and injustice there is only one constant: God, who will “Hasten to my help, O Master of my rescue.”

Exodus 29:31-30:16   After the lengthy and lovingly detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle construction, the furnishings, the priestly garb, our author comes to the climax of actual sacrifice of bulls (symbol of masculinity?) and lambs (symbol of innocence?).  And why?  The answer is simple: “they shall know that I am the LORD their God Who brought them out from the land of Egypt for Me to abide in their midst. I am the LORD their God.” (29:46).

In the church where I grew up, ritual was derided as empty gesture.  It was all about the Bible and preaching–although I recall no sermon about this section of Exodus.  But here is God himself commanding an elaborate ritual so that people will remember why they are there and who “brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

As creatures of the New Covenant, God is no longer asking us for ritual sacrifice, since that work has been accomplished once and for all.  But as history so amply demonstrates, we humans require ritual: not just to remember but to know our place in the universe.  The question occurs: how much ritual is too much? Or too little?  Too much and ritual becomes an end in itself, off-putting to those to whom we seek to invite.  Too little and we forget why we are there.  But above all, if this chapter demonstrates nothing else, it is that ritual is not the end in itself; it is the means of remembering who we are, who God is and what he has done for us.

The census in chapter 30 would seem more appropriate in the book of Numbers, but there’s a crucial reality that surfaces here:  Whether rich or poor, all are to give an equal amount–a half shekel–as atonement money.  A reminder that before God we are all the same: sinners.  And that Jesus’ atonement for us applies equally to each of us.  We cannot buy “more atonement,” nor are we denied because of our circumstances.

 Matthew 26:14-30  Judas collects the most infamous payment in history. It’s interesting that he does not name his price (“What will you give me if I betray him to you?”); that is decided by the conspirators.  I’m left with the feeling that the scribes and Pharisees sized up the traitor for what he was and saw that he would sell out for a couple hundred dollars.  Not a shabby investment on their part.

While not stated, it’s clear that Jesus had at least one loyal friend in Jerusalem, willing to lend (or perhaps rent) out his house for this itinerant band from the countryside and their rabbi to have Passover.  One has to imagine that by this time, word of Jesus’ activities at the Temple had spread around the city and that housing him–even for Passover–would be viewed quite dimly by the Temple authorities.  So, to my mind, the man with the Upper Room is one of the many unnamed heroes of Jesus’ time, willing to take a risk for the man who was about to turn the world upside down.

Am I willing to take a similar risk?

Matthew 26:25–“Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.” is surely one of the most psychologically profound verses in the Gospels.  Judas lies to Jesus’ face and Jesus’ reply is full of profound layers of meaning.  “You have said so” says in effect, “I know you’re lying, Judas, but go ahead. Believe what you like.”  It is also Jesus’ acknowledgement that Judas has said many things, but these words, like all of them that have gone before, are empty of meaning, and empty of love.  Judas’ plans for political grandeur have been thwarted, and in his delusion and deep disappointment he will exact his revenge on the man to whom he wrongly hitched his ambitious wagon.

How often have we betrayed Jesus in our hearts and in our actions because things have not gone the way we thought they should?

 

 

Psalm 38:9-16; 
Exodus 29:1-30; Matthew 26:1-13

Late today.  Wrote this on UA1599 from ORD to SFO and just posting this evening…

Psalm 38:9-16  The psalmist describes a descent into what today we would call physical and spiritual depression:  “I grow numb and am utterly crushed. I roar from my heart’s churning.” (38:9)  And the perfect description of emotional loss: “My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me, and the light of my eyes, too, is gone from me.”  (11)  But there is worse to come as even his friends and family abandon him: “My friends and companions stand off from my plight and my kinsmen stand far away.” (12)  Not just abandonment, but active hostility by his enemies: “They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm.”

This must be what the dark night of the soul feels like.  Physically prostrate, emotionally empty, abandoned by everyone, oppressed by those seeking only his destruction.  I’m relieved to write, “this must be what it feels like,” since I have never experienced so deep a darkness or intense enmity.

But when all else is lost and the future bodes only hopelessness, then that is when God’s love and goodness are most visible.  That is the implication here, as our psalmist knows hop comes from just one place: “For in You, O LORD, I have hoped.” And in hope comes faith’s assurance: “You will answer, O Master, my God.” (19)

Exodus 29:1-30  To our modern eyes, all the blood and gore of sacrifice is more repugnant than holy.  Even though I know intellectually that blood is the required atonement for sin before God, the lovingly detailed description here of how the bull is slaughtered and its blood and viscera deposited on the altar is a distraction from reflecting on the reason for the sacrifice in the first place.  For me, this is more an abattoir than a holy place.

Yet, it is what God demanded, and as Alter points out, the ancients saw blood and oil as purification.  Personally, I’m glad we’ve preserved the oil for the sacrament of baptism and immensely grateful that Jesus’ blood put paid to blood sacrifice.

Matthew 26:1-13  Matthew uses parallel narration here: Jesus announces once again and more directly than ever to his inner circle, “You know that after two days…the Son of Man will be handed over and crucified.” (26:2)  Matthew does not record the reaction of the disciples, but based on what we know from the accounts of the Upper Room, there was doubtless total denial.  The disciples had heard it all before but have chosen to disbelieve.  The power of denial is immense, and we, too, are capable of immense denial, especially about many of the more challenging passages in the Olivet discourse Jesus has just concluded.

In parallel, the Gospel writer describes the plotting of “the chief priests and the elders,” who “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” (26:4)  Notice “conspire” and “stealth.”  The actions are those of men cowed by Jesus’ popularity with the crowd, but who will eventually have their way.

And men have been plotting ever since.  Which is why we should not be surprised when we witness efforts worldwide to suppress Jesus’ message.  And why we should not think of the US as a “Christian nation” that somehow just accepts Jesus’ revolutionary message as the “correct” stats quo.  And why we should be careful not to allow Jesus’ message to be co-opted by the culture.

Instead, we are to be like the woman who anoints Jesus with the costly ointment: willing to sacrifice all because of our love for our Lord and Savior.

 

Psalm 34:19-22; Exodus 15:22-16:36; Matthew 22:23-40

NB: For those of you who may not have taken notes from Chris Dai’s sermon on Sunday, here are the seven “Penitential Psalms” that he noted: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143

Psalm 34:19-22  There’s an interesting difference between Alter’s translation of 34:19 (“Many the evils of the righteous man, / yet from all of them the LORD will save him.”) and the NRSV (“Many are the afflictions of the righteous,/  but the Lord rescues them from them all.”)  Both translations include the sense of “many bad things (evils) will befall the righteous.”  But in Alter’s translation, we can take “evil” both as external (afflictions that happen) and internal, i.e., our own intrinsic sinfulness (“Many the evils [inherent in] the righteous man.”)

Perhaps I’m over-reading here, but the point I take away is that not only does God ultimately protect us from bad things that happen to us, but God forgives us for the acts that we commit due to our own personal sinfulness.  For me, this idea of ultimate forgiveness for the evil that we commit is reiterated in the final verse of the psalm (which Alter and the NRSV translate identically): “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; / none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Our ultimate redemption is, after all,  exactly what Jesus came to earth and did for us.

Exodus 15:22-16:36   Well, the celebration certainly didn’t last long.  Miriam’s song barely ends and two verses later, the Israelites are complaining bitterly–and somewhat understandably–when they come to Marah and find only brackish water: “And the people murmured against Moses, saying  “What shall we drink?”” (15:24)  Moses cries to God, who shows him a tree to fling into the water to make the water sweet.  God reminds Moses, “If you really heed the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His eyes, and hearken to His commands and keep all His statutes, all the sickness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the LORD your healer.” (15:26).  Here is the essence of the Old Covenant in a single verse: Follow God and all will be well. Deviate, and it will not be well.

This incident is the first of many in the Wilderness narrative that revolves around water, which takes on added intensity in the desert, leading up to Moses’ imprudent, but effective, striking of the rock for water (Numbers 20).  What’s clear in all of this is that God is the provider of water–and therefore of life.  Metaphorically, of course, we are all in the desert, saved only by the waters of baptism.

God provides manna, or (per Alter) “Man hu” which means “What is it?”  as it appears on the ground one morning, and the people understandably ask that question.  After Moses gives careful instructions that people are to gather only what they need for the day, some enterprising souls try to preserve some for the next day, perhaps to sell it to others or to provide for their security “back up.”  Their efforts lead to disaster and a very angry Moses.  The lesson is clear: God, who provides for us, is our security.  But it’s worth noting, too, that he provides just enough to meet our needs.  It’s our wants that lead to problems…

Matthew 22:23-40  More trick questions for Jesus, this time from the Sadducees.  A really obscure one about who will a widow who’s been married seven times be married to in heaven.  Jesus astounds everyone by revealing that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (22:30) I take the phrase “And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching” (22:33) to mean that the crowd was surprised, but that it didn’t necessarily agree with what Jesus was saying.

The Pharisees rush up to exploit this somewhat skeptical astonishment by asking their own trick question, hoping to exploit Jesus being on the knife edge of blasphemy.  I believe the Pharisees thought Jesus would answer their “What is the greatest commandment” question with some other completely radical idea.  Of course Jesus answers with complete orthodoxy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (22:37).  Matthew doesn’t describe the crow’s reaction this time, but the Pharisees plan to get Jesus on a charge of blasphemy clearly falls apart.

Given the circumstances, there is great irony in the second commandment “which is like” the first one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Which of course is exactly what the Sadducees and Pharisees are NOT doing with regard to Jesus.  How often do we have theological discussions like this one, all the time failing to see that the application of the theology, e.g., actually loving our neighbors is far more important than the niceties of its academic correctness?

 

Psalm 34:8-18; Exodus 14:19-15:21; Matthew 22:15-22

Psalm 34:8-18   In keeping with the theme of generations we’ve been encountering in the Exodus readings, our psalmist echoes the same idea of passing along what we’ve learned about God and his great mercy to our children: “Come, sons, listen to me, / the LORD’s fear will I teach you.”  And what lessons they are.  From the daily reminder, “keep your tongue from evil / and your lips from speaking deceit,” to what guides the course of our lives: “Swerve from evil and do good,  seek peace and pursue it.”

The verb, “swerve” evokes an image of someone moving rapidly toward evil and then changing direction at the very last moment, just before the collision.  A far more dynamic and optimistic image, IMO, than the NRSV’s “Depart from evil” which suggests we’ve already arrived at the evil place and now it’s time to leave.

But even if we’ve come to the evil place, God is still listening: “Cry out and the LORD hears, and from all their straits He saves them.”  Again, Alter’s translation suggests a much less passive role on our part than the NRSV’s “The Lord is near the brokenhearted,”  We cry out to God is fear, desperation and yes, from foxholes.  God hears us, and he saves us.  Here is one of those places that demonstrates so beautifully why we always come back to the Psalms for succor in our nights of shadow and dark terrors.

 Exodus 14:19-15:21  Cecil B DeMille has made it impossible for me to read the passage of crossing the sea on dry land and then, of Moses raising his arm and the waters crashing back in over the Egyptians without running his movie in my mind’s eye.  But in the words here, there’s a definite tinge of God’s creative power that we see in Genesis 1 and also in the Psalms: “He made the sea dry ground, and the waters were split apart.” (14:22)  Here, God is in the process of creating a nation, of transforming a complaining, ragtag crowd [“Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (14:13)] into a God-fearing nation that finally “gets it” about what God has been doing through Moses: “Israel saw the great hand that the LORD had performed against Egypt, and the people feared the LORD, and they trusted in the LORD and in Moses His servant.” (14:31)

Moses’ poem in chapter 15 recapitulates all that has happened so far.  It signifies the end of the first great stage of the Israel story: the plagues, capped by the Passover.  They have escaped Egypt and the next great part of the narrative–the wilderness journey–is about to begin.

Moses’ poem ends on an optimistic note, “The Lord shall be king for all time.” Although like so many triumphal conclusions, it does not fully come true.  Some hundreds of years later the people ultimately decided that they needed a human king–and we know where that got them.

Aaron’s sister, Miriam, adds a final musical coda: “Sing to the LORD for He has surged, O surged, Horse and its rider He hurled into the sea!” (15:21).   Almost like an organ postlude as we leave the joys of worship and return to the trials of daily life.  Which, as we will see, is exactly what happens in the next verse…

Matthew 22:15-22  Those Pharisees just don’t give up, and one has to admit that the question about taxes is pretty clever.  But Matthew is clearly showing his impatience with the leaders by the smarmy, quasi-obsequious opening dialog he assigns to the questioner, “we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (22:16).  Yes, those qualities are all indeed true, but they are asked with an ulterior motive to trap Jesus.  The phrase, “we know you are sincere” is rife with irony because the Pharisees certainly aren’t.

How like the Pharisees we are: giving lip service to Jesus, all the while not really believing in who he is or worse, planning in our own hearts some act which will ultimately expose our duplicitous nature, our hypocrisy.

The Bible is chockablock with warnings against the smooth words of those who would do evil, and we have no finer example than the Pharisee’s oily words we read here.  As Matthew makes clear,  Jesus, “aware of their malice,” is not fooled.  But how many people have been taken in by unctuous tele-evangelists  pretending to speak for Jesus, but whose hearts have indeed already turned to deceit?

 

 

Psalm 34:1-7; Exodus 13:1-14:18; Matthew 22:1-14

Psalm 34:1-7   The superscription of this psalm, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, who banished him, and he went away” refers to the story recounted in I Samuel 21 when David, who with his army is surrounded completely, plays the madman in front of the Philistine king.  The king decides he doesn’t want to deal with a crazy man and allows David and his men to escape.  Understandably, then, this psalm begins with thanksgiving, “Let me bless the LORD at all times, always His praise in my mouth.”  Notice how verbal his praise is, “praise in my mouth,” and later, “Let the lowly hear and rejoice.”

This verbal quality is important because it is a direct answer to what can only be a spoken prayer, “I sought the LORD and He answered me.”  One senses that David actually heard God’s answer.  And a reminder to us that we are not just filling a room with our voice when we pray aloud and that although the sound waves themselves do not travel far physically, our expression always finds its way to God, who also possesses senses, as He listens.

There is another, more unexpected sensory aspect farther down: “Taste and see that the LORD is good, happy the man who shelters in Him.”  God impacts all our senses: sight, hearing, touch and taste.  And other psalms speak of “God’s sweet fragrance.”  If I ever needed proof that God is more than mere intellectual abstraction, it is right here.  Our relationship with God has sight, hearing and all the senses; God is visceral: we feel His presence with all our senses.

Exodus 13:1-14:18   Even as our author recapitulates the ordinance of Passover already described in the previous chapter,  we read again exactly what has happened and what has been promised that must be (and has been) remembered and carried down through the generations: “…should your son ask you tomorrow, saying, ‘What is this?’, you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves. And it happened, when Pharaoh was hard about sending us off, that the LORD killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast.” (13:14-15)

In a discussion at Hubcaps this morning, someone remarked on how as we grow older we become more aware of our forebears and the importance of remembering the generations who came ahead of us.  We are not here isolated and alone, but are the product of all that has gone before.  Which is exactly as God has ordained it–and keeps emphasizing over and over in Genesis and here in Exodus.  We independent-minded Americans, who think what we are is the product of our work alone, would do well to remember this truth.  We are not the ultimate master of our destiny.   And our genes have much to say about who we become.  This is, I think, key to understanding the great connectedness we have to each other and to God, as well.  

Egypt is not all that far from Canaan and a direct route back through Philistia would have gotten the Israelites to the promised land in a matter of months.  The trek through the desert was not a navigational error, but God’s will: “God thought, “Lest the people regret when they see battle and go back to Egypt.” And God turned the people round by way of the wilderness of the Sea of Reeds… (13:18).  God sends them by an indirect and more difficult route so that Israel does not lose heart and want to go back.  God knows the human heart well: we set out on a journey or take a new risk and as soon as we hit an obstacle we want to go right back to where we came from.

But there is not turning back.  We cannot grow and mature as Christians if we are unwilling to leave base camp.  And as with the Israelites, we may end up on an unplanned path that comes to us unexpectedly because to do otherwise would make it too easy to turn around and go back.  As we all know, there are many Christians who once embarked excitedly, but upon encountering difficulty came back to the campground or worse, quit altogether.

Matthew 22:1-14   With the parable of the wedding banquet we are again reminded of how Jesus turns things upside down and inside out, continuing Matthew’s subtext on “the first shall be last and vice versa.”  Here, however, Jesus issues a stern warning.  You can’t just remain dissolute and show up at the wedding banquet in your street clothes–the clothes of our old lives.  But we must put on the wedding clothes (which for those of us who rarely wear formal suits and ties, we still do for weddings.)  Jesus’ meaning is crystalline, unless we are willing to be transformed by covering over our old clothes–our old life–and put on an entire new life as a worker in the Kingdom it would be better not to even show up.

Jesus’ implicit meaning is even scarier than that: those who pretend to be disciples but are not truly transformed will pay for their arrogance in pretending to be something they are not.  One has to wonder what Judas thought when he heard Jesus say this.

Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 12:21-51; Matthew 21:33-46

Psalm 33:12-22  This psalm’s third verse celebrates the gratitude of Israel for being chosen as the people of God: “Happy the nation whose god is the LORD, /the people He chose as estate for Him.”  But God is not just a national abstraction “out there.”  Israel rejoices because God knows each person individually. “He fashions their heart one and all. He understands all their doings.”  That’s an interesting concept: God fashioning our heart.  We are not only created, but our personalities are also shaped by God, and because God “understands all [our] doings” there’s a relationship there whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even those who reject the very idea of God’s existence are nevertheless understood by God.  How much we miss of this deep and rich relationship  when we think we humans are at the center of the universe and fail to acknowledge we are God’s greatest creation–and that he knows us more than we know ourselves.

The last verses of this psalm articulate the manifest ways in which this relationship not only expresses it self, but enriches and enlivens our very being.  God not only knows us (“the LORD’s eye is on those who fear Him”) but his kindness provides for our needs as he “saves their lives from death/ and in famine to keep them alive.”

And what is our response to God’s strength and benevolence?  “We urgently wait for the LORD. / Our help and our shield is He. / For in Him our heart rejoices, for in His holy name do we trust.”  There you have it: we wait; we rejoice (and worship); we trust.”  Notice the “urgently.”   We understand that without God our lives are in deep trouble.  God’s faithfulness is never in question, but our relationship with God is not casual or relaxed.  as the last verse notes, “we have yearned for You,”  And we yearn urgently.

Exodus 12:21-51  As God promised, the angel of death passes over Egypt and “the LORD struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and every firstborn of the beasts.” (12:28-29).  I always though Cecil B. DeMille did a great job of depicting this deadly visit with an aerial shot of the city and the final plague as a kind of black fog winding through the streets as cries of anguish rise up from every house.

With this final plague the Egyptians rush to literally push the Israelites out of Egypt exclaiming, “We are dead men.” (12:34).  That certainly explains why they so willingly gave up their “ornaments of silver and ornaments of gold and cloaks.” (12:35).  As far as they were concerned, death was the only thing that awaited them at this point.

Our narrator recaps the numbers.  600,000 men (12:37), which would have meant about 2 million people, which seems like an awfully big number.  And they are leaving Egypt after being there 430 years.  When you consider that the US is only about 240 years old, one gets an appreciation of not only how long they were in Egypt, but that God’s timing (thousand years as a day, etc.) is definitely not our timing.

Most important of all, though, is that the escape from Egypt was God’s plan, not Moses or Pharaoh’s.  They ewere God’s instruments, but not God’s instigators: “It is a night of watch for the LORD, for His taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is the LORD’s, a watch for all the Israelites through their generations.” (12:42)  As the final verses in this chapter make clear, it is the Passover that defines Israel as a nation, and no uncircumcised male may be part of the community going forward.

Matthew 21:33-46  The parable of the wicked tenants contains no ambiguity; it is perhaps Jesus’ clearest metaphor about his own coming–the rejected cornerstone–and the coming of the Kingdom. Perhaps the most terrifying statement that Jesus makes in all his earthly ministry is, “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (21:43)  Not only taken away, but the cornerstone, the rock on which the church is built (and I’m taking the protestant read of “on this rock” of Matthew 18:20 as Jesus referring to himself, not to Peter) “will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (21:44).  And in AD70 the stones of the Temple, the center of Judaism were themselves destroyed, bringing down the curtain on the Old Covenant.

The “chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”  But they cannot arrest Jesus because the crowds “regarded him as a prophet.” (12:45-46).  This same crowd that in just three days will turn irrevocably against this prophet and demand his death, beginning the process that fulfills the psalmist’s prediction, “The stone that the builders rejected/ has become the cornerstone.”  Without this rejection, there would have been no death and resurrection.  Like Pharaoh, the crowd, the priests and the Pharisees may think they are in command of events, but they are merely being used by God for a greater purpose.

Psalm 33:6-11; Exodus 11:1-12:20; Matthew 21:23-32

Ash Wednesday.  The day in the church calendar when we are officially reminded of our mortality.  As I get older, I find that mortality is more often on my mind, anyway.  But that does not detract from the solemnity of this day.

In addition to the Daily Texts, there are Lectionary readings for this day, as well:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Psalm 33:6-11  The hymn turns to God as Creator, as the psalmist reminds us that God simply spoke creation into existence: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,” and again, “For He did speak and it came to be, He commanded, and it stood.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that this passage (and others like it in the Psalms and elsewhere) were on his mind when John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God and God’s Word are the one and the same thing.

Words and speech are what sets us humans apart from the rest of creation.  For me, the concept of imago deo centers around this gift, which God imbued in us.  Unlike God, we cannot speak things into existence, but the words we use are nevertheless powerful.  Either for good or for ill.  As the Bible makes clear in so many places, words are what we so often use to tear down and destroy.  The very opposite of how God’s voice creates and builds up.

Apropos our reading in Exodus of the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, and what is about to happen, the psalmist notes, “The LORD thwarted the counsel of nations, overturned the devisings of peoples.”  Egypt was only the beginning.  The so-called wisdom of men that we see on display through history and up to the present time is ample proof of the verity of this verse.  Only “the LORD’s counsel will stand forever.”  All man’s works are like grass, and withers away, as we are so beautifully reminded today, Ash Wednesday.

 Exodus 11:1-12:20  God is now at the end game with Pharaoh: “Yet one more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will send you off from here;” (11:1)

[Side note: Even though at the end of chapter 10 it seems clear that Moses and Pharaoh will never face each other again, they are apparently together once again.  After Moses makes his dreadful announcement of the final plague, “he went out from Pharaoh’s presence in a flare of anger.” (11:8).  There is something of narrative inconsistency here; one more reason why I believe that the Bible is inspired, but not inerrant. ]

God tells both Moses and Aaron what He is about to do, and issues very clear instructions of what is to be done if the household is to be spared the terrifying death that awaits all first-born.  Even today, there is no greater horror for a parent than to lose a child.  And American society does not freight the same significance of first-born sons as these ancient societies.  (Although speaking as a first born son, I wouldn’t mind a bit more awe and respect!)  To not have a first born son in the family was a mark of shame.  To have that first born son die was a clear sign that the family was cursed.

The instructions of Passover are chockablock with symbolic meaning.  Much has been made of the Christological significance of the lamb’s blood on the lintel and door posts (shape of a cross) and the fact that it is lamb’s blood, as in “the Lamb of God.”  Nor should we lose sight of the intersection of this very important sign of Old Covenant and the New Covenant in the reality Jesus’ Seder meal the night before he dies.  

In another nod to the Exodus story being the beginning of the national story of Israel, God makes it clear that “you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD through your generations, an everlasting statute you shall celebrate it.” (12:17).  As indeed it is to this very day.  That Passover has been celebrated for thousands of years is not an accidental cultural artifact; it is because God commanded it.

Matthew 21:23-32   Awed by their own theological cleverness, the  priests and elders pose a trick question to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23b).  Jesus is well aware that if he said “God, my father” he would be carted off immediately as a blasphemous heretic.  So, Jesus turns the question on them, making it about John the Baptist and the priest’s clear rejection of him because John was outside the religious mainstream. They argue among themselves trying to come up with an answer, and in order to protect their own skins from either being exposed as hypocrites or from the wrath of the crowd, they dissemble:  “We don’t know.”  Which earns them Jesus’ rightly derisive answer, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (21:27)

I know this dilemma too well: I don’t want to expose myself as a hypocrite and/or I’m cowardly and don’t want to upset other people with a true and honest answer.  So, hoisted on my own petard, I say and do nothing.

Jesus exposes their (and our) hypocrisy in the short parable of the two sons.  Saying we’ll work in the Kingdom and then not doing it is far worse that putting it off, but then getting out there eventually.  Playing at being religious without being serious or committed is far worse than coming late to the Kingdom.  A clear warning to all of us who claim to be working hard for Jesus but not really doing anything at all.