Psalm 26; Genesis 46:1-27; Matthew 16:5-20

Psalm 26  This psalm takes an opposite tack from the many that implore God to intervene against enemies.  Instead, it almost dares God, “Judge me, O Lord,” and later, Test me, O Lord, and try me.”  This is hardly “Lead us not into temptation.”  However, as usual, context is everything.  This psalm is not so much a psalm of thanksgiving–and certainly not one of supplication–as it is a psalm that professes the poet’s innocence.  Innocent not because “I shall not stumble, ” but innocent because “the Lord I have trusted.” David has hewed strictly to the paths of God’s righteousness and “walk[ed] in Your truth.”

This is a psalm of confidence.  Not a confidence born of self-righteousness or thinking he’s got it all figured out on his own. Or that he is exempt from danger.  But the confidence that arises from complete trust in God.  It is not arrogance that causes him to exclaim, “Test me, O Lord, and try me,” but complete and utter confidence in God’s righteousness.  I think this is what Oswald Chambers is getting at when he talks about “abandoning” ourselves to Christ.  Ego and the need to be in control have been supplanted by complete and total faith in a loving God.  This is why he can ask so confidently to be judged and tested. He is on a journey on which “I shall walk in my wholeness.  Redeem me. Grant me grace.”  Only God can supply that wholeness, that confidence.

Genesis 46:1-27  The conversation between Jacob and Go in his dream-vision shows striking parallels to the conversations God has had with Abraham and Isaac, especially Jacob’s simple sentence, “Here I am” in response to God’s call (46:3). And it’s crucial to help us understand that Jacob did not pull up stakes just to have a happy family reunion or even to avoid famine, but that the journey to Egypt is God-ordained, “I am the god, God of your father..  Fear not to go down to Egypt, for a great nation I will make of you there.” (46:3b)  So, Egypt, not Canaan, is where God will transform Israel from a clan into a nation.  No one surely saw that coming.

And Jacob does not go down to Egypt alone while God waits back in Canaan.  God promises, “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt.”  (46:4)  Even more importantly, God has no intention of abandoning Israel in Egypt, and it is here where the Exodus return is initially promised: “and I Myself will surely bring you back as well.”  Which of course is exactly what happens.  Certainly not in the way Jacob may have imagined and certainly not 400 years in the future.  But as unknowable as God’s plans may be, God’s promise is steadfast.  This is the same God in which David expressed such confidence that he can “walk in wholeness.”

Matthew 16:5-20   We tend to think that Jesus’ disciples never quite “got” what Jesus was talking about.  But here, for once, “they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (16:12) It’s just as important that we “get it.”  Bad yeast corrupts bread, and bad theological yeast can do the same.  Not just the Pharisees and Sadducees, but the bad yeast that abounds today in the form of corrupt teaching, as e.g., the “prosperity Gospel.”

This is where puns will get you.  Protestants and Catholics will argue until the Second Coming about the exact meaning of 16:18: ” And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  Is the petra Peter (“Rocky”) or Jesus Christ or something else?  I am of the “petra = Jesus Christ” persuasion because I think it is the Church that has the keys to the kingdom, not a single disciple, but I can see where the Catholics are coming from.  For me, the real point here is that the Church is serious business and whatever we do as or in the Church, we do not do lightly or casually because “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (16:19b).

Psalm 25:8-22; Genesis 45; Matthew 15:29-16:4

Psalm 25:8-22  Late this Monday morning, as Jerry and I shared images from northern Minnesota earlier today.  Sort of weird to be looking at all these shots of snow, ice, rocks, and very cold water with the sun shining brightly outside and temps in the 50’s headed to the 60’s.

The latter half of this psalm focuses (so to speak) on the visual relationship between God and David.  The poet writes, “My eyes at all times are on the Lord,” but the next verse wherein he asks God to “Turn to me and grant me grace” gives us the picture of David looking at God’s back s he asks the Lord to turn around and see him.  His supplications continue with the request to “See my affliction and suffering” and “See my enemies who are many.”  It is not enough for David to simply speak his troubles to God.  It is essential that God witness them for Himself by seeing.

This “seeing” theme is important to guys like me who tend to makes God into an all-knowing abstraction rather than a Father who sees the distress of his child.  Just as eye-witness testimony is more reliable than hearsay, it’s as crucial for me as it is for David to ask God to be my witness, and see for himself my own desperate situation.  And equally, that like David, I ask God to witness my current state before asking him to do anything about it.  There is an immediacy and intimacy that “seeing” conveys that makes my supplication more real; I am forced to articulate what I want God to turn and see, not just a general prayer for God to “fix” things for me.

Genesis 45  At last: Joseph’s Big Reveal about who he really is: the brother thought dead who has created finally, after all these years, an acknowledgement of the collective guilt of the brothers.  Of which he absolves them by saying, “And so, it is not you who sent me here but God.” (45:8) Here is the mark of a man of true faith: that all of the rotten things that have happened to Joseph have been through God.  It is God who has brought him on this journey through darkness into the light.  Just as our own journeys that seem dark at worst and pointless at best bring  us into the glaring realization that God has been involved–and beside us–all the time.  You have heard enough about my own journey these past 5 years to know what I’m referring to and how it has indeed been God who has brought me to this point.  Amen.

I cannot help but remark on stumbling across the Biblical precedent for hugging: “And he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of his brother Benjamin and he wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.”  Truly as moving a reunion scene as any in all of Western literature.

Being of a Christological bent I cannot help but see the parallels to the Other Big Reveal: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Just as Joseph had been presumed dead, he has, as far as the brothers are concerned, raised from the dead.  So, too, Jesus.  Just as the brother’s were the instruments that in effect “killed” Joseph, so too, the Jewish authorities.  But it was God in His larger plan who caused these things to occur. Just as there is a subtext of disbelief among the brothers when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, so too, between Jesus and his disciples; a reunion that quickly turns form disbelief to pure joy.  And just as Joseph asks to see his father, so too, the resurrected Jesus, having completed his earthly mission, returns to his father.

Matthew 15:29-16:4   I’ve often wondered why there are two separate multitude-feeding stories: the 5000 and the 4000.  For me anyway, repetition emphasizes the miraculous nature of the events, where a single incident could be easily blown off as Jesus setting an example of sharing and everyone then sharing what they had.  Nice, but no miracle.  Second, I think the feeding demonstrates the spiritual abundance we experience through a relationship with Jesus Christ.  We may have only a few loaves and fish in terms of resources or gifts.  But when we allow Jesus to operate on those through us, the results are amplified by orders of magnitude.

Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being reasonable weatherman, seeing the quotidian details, but missing the big picture, i.e., “the signs of the times.”  Boy, is that us: able to spend time and energy on the small stuff such as music and worship style, but missing the larger picture.  IN a sense, I think that’s why I’ve been having trouble with Right Here, Right Now: it’s pulling me away from my comfort of focusing on what I know: what red in the morning and night means, and into the larger picture–the signs of the times, if you will–of our role in the larger community.

Psalm 25:1-7; Genesis 44; Matthew 15:21-28

Psalm 25:1-7  This psalm begins with David’s confession of an implied wrongdoing, “My God, in You I trust. Let me be not shamed,/ let my enemies not gloat over me.”  After asking God to shame his enemies in turn, David takes the next step beyond confession, the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, “Your ways, O Lord, inform me,/ Your paths, instruct me.”  While it is sufficient for us to confess our sins in order to be forgiven, David gives us an example of building on the “lessons learned.”  And this is not just an interior learning experience, but that it is God who gives the instruction–and as I suspect David knew well, the lesson comes in form of the consequences of the sin.

The other side of confession, is that having confessed, God not only forgives but forgets: “My youth’s offenses and my crimes recall not.”  We don’t, but God does.  Instead, as a father who has forgiven his children’s wrongdoings, God remembers us for who we are: his beloved children.  Remembered not because we are inherently good, but simply because we are his children: “In Your kindness, recall me–You;/ for the sake of Your goodness, O Lord.”

Genesis 44  Joseph’s elaborate scheme involving silver and the goblet seems designed to frustrate the brothers in their effort to return the silver, remembering of course, that it was silver they received in payment for originally selling Joseph as a slave.  I’m pretty sure that by now, the brothers feel they are receiving a bizarre recompense for that original deed. I’m intrigued that in the Bible it is silver–not gold–that seems to play the major role in deceit and betrayal.

Joseph’s pronouncement of a death sentence on the one who has the sacred goblet brings the drama to its climax, especially since it is Benjamin, the one innocent party in all that has led to this point.  One perceives a Christological hint here: it is the innocent Jesus on whom the death sentence is pronounced.

Judah comes forward to plead for Benjamin’s life and admits the brothers’ collective guilt at 44:16: God has found out your servants’ crime.”  Judah is referring to the current situation, but it’s clear that this is the comeuppance for the brothers’ crime against Joseph some 20 years earlier.  And it is God who reveals the crime.  There is a perfect symmetry of retribution when Judah says, “Here we are, slaves to my lord.”  The brothers who sold Joseph into slavery are now slaves themselves. (And also a foretaste of Israel’s eventual fate in Egypt.)

Matthew 15:21-28   The story of the Canaanite woman is one of my favorites, because to my mind, her reply to Jesus statement that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” is one of the most insightful–and clever–in the gospels: “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (15:27).  We certainly see Jesus’ divinity here in that he heals the woman’s daughter, but equally, his humanity as he acknowledges not only the wisdom of the woman’s words, but her cleverness.  It was probably a great relief to hear such pithy metaphorical insight, which his disciples so often failed to display.

Inasmuch as he is writing to a primarily Jewish community, Matthew’s subtext here is crucial: the evangelicum is not only for the Jews, but gentiles as well.  Yes, Mathew infers, Jews may have pride of place, but the good news is for everyone, even those whom you may view as beneath contempt.

Psalm 24; Genesis 43; Matthew 15:10-20

Psalm 24  This marvelously liturgical psalm poses two enormously important questions.  First, “Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord,/ and who shall stand up in his holy place?”  The answer of course is “The clean of hands and the pure of heart.”  But who is that, really? Were the Israelites clean of hands and pure of heart?  Are we? But God’s justice demands clean hands and a pure heart in order to approach him.  For Israel, under the terms of the Old Covenant it was via the sacrificial system.  For us under the New Covenant, it is the intermediary power of Jesus Christ.

The second question asks, “Who is the King of Glory?”  Of course we know the answer, but I believe this is a question whose answer we must acknowledge each time we gather for worship.  For in uttering the psalmist’s answer, “The Lord of armies, He is the king of glory,” we recapitulate our own relationship with God.  He is the king of glory, not we.  This helps me avoid the tendency to put God in a little box of my own devising, reminding me that I am the created, not the Creator, and that God’s power is far greater than I can ever imagine.  I really think that we must maintain this awestruck mystery about God–and that we will never fully comprehend God.  Yes, we are his beloved children and yes, he is our “abba,” but he is also the King of Glory.  We forget that reality at our peril.

Genesis 43  Finding the silver in their bags has truly freaked the brothers, and Jacob tells them to double the silver and bring other items back to Egypt as tribute (including pistachio nuts!) as insurance to make it clear that their intentions were pure. When Joseph elects to have dinner with his brothers, their anxiety goes through the roof, as the believe the invitation means “in order to fall upon us, to attack us, and to take us as slaves, and our donkeys.” (43:18)  But Joseph’s servant explains that “Your God and the God of your father has placed treasure for you in your bags.” (43:23).

Joseph’s brothers have assumed the worst: the silver in the bags is a plot to frame them and make them slaves.  Joseph’s servant says, “No, the silver is a gift from God.”  How very much like us: assume the worst, even when it is actually a gift from God?  I think it’s our intrinsically sinful and suspicious nature to always start out assuming the worst.  Just as Joseph’s brothers did.  But in fact the “worst” may very well be a gift from God.  That’s how I feel about my cancer: could anything worse have happened to me? Yet, in many ways it has been the greatest gift of my life because of how it has so impacted my spiritual journey and brought a fulness to my life that I otherwise in all likelihood would have missed…

Matthew 15:10-20  If money is one of Jesus’ “Big Topics” so, too, is the problem of spoken words: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (15:11) Because even when we say defensive things like, “I didn’t really mean to say that,” the truth is that we did indeed mean it, and Jesus explains why: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (15:18).  Our sinful inner being lays the root of what we say.

Like the Pharisees, I’d rather focus on surface issues like washing our hands before eating, rather than on the real problem of my heart.  Controlling my tongue has been a constant battle through the years.  I’m pretty good with words and can use them to harmful effect on others (especially Susan)–even to the point of seeming like it was a compliment.  This passage that directly connects my tongue to my heart is an ongoing challenge for me.

Finally, in the nature of unexpected gifts in my own bags, I received the following email last night from a guy I’ve never met, but is on one of the prostate cancer Internet boards I inhabit.  I think he has discovered the same thing about unexpected silver in the bag as I have.  He wrote,

“I want to thank you for a couple of things. For your book, which was enlightening; it convinced me that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts and emotions. It helped me come out of the darkness. I also want to thank you for your expressions of faith–I fought faith for a long time after the diagnosis and was angry with God. I finally realized that the cancer and heart attacks were the only times my faith had been seriously challenged. I’ve come around, in part thanks to you. I’ve finally let go and let God and it’s an entirely new world for me now. I have hope for the first time in about a year. Thank you again.”

Psalm 23; Genesis 42; Matthew 14:25-15:9

Psalm 23  This is my third pass through the Psalms and I’m trying to figure out if the Moravians have divided up the psalms such that we intentionally always read Psalm 23 on the day before Valentine’s day.  Because in the end I think this psalm is less a psalm of comfort that is read at approximately 80% of the funerals I’ve attended, than it is a love poem.  For who but a loving Shepherd could offer us meadows and quiet waters? Is there a greater expression of love than God’s companionship as “I walk in the vale of death’s shadow?”  A love so great that all fear is banished?

God’s love is so much greater than mere protection from harm and enemies.  We are his anointed children, and even in the darkest of times we are blessed to overflowing by his generosity.   And best of all, in Alter’s translation, goodness and mercy do not merely “follow me,” they “pursue me.”  Reflect on that: God is so eager to saturate us in blessing that his blessings pursue us, rush after us.  Even in the very darkest times. So, yes, comfort indeed, but comfort that arises, indeed rushes up out of a bubbling spring of pure love.

Genesis 42  The Bible is full of family dynamics–right up to the point where Jesus asks, “Who is my brother?”–a question that seems to point right back to this rich story of hidden fraternal identity and wild misunderstanding.  Like Joseph, Jesus knows the truth of the situation, but just as the brothers fail to recognize Joseph, we fail to recognize Jesus.  An immensely generous Jesus, who gives us full bags and returns our silver (a subtle parallel to the silver that betrayed Jesus), but whose generosity that too often makes us afraid rather than grateful, just as the brothers were afraid.

For me, the hinge point of this story happens when the 10 brothers standing before Joseph recognize their guilt, about which they have obviously been in denial for many years: “Alas, we are guilty for our brother, whose mortal distress we saw when he pleaded with us and we did not listen.” (42:21).  Four words that say it all about the brothers–and about us: “We did not listen.”  And the price for not listening is high.  Reuben attempts to cast himself as the innocent in this bloody business, “Didn’t I say to you, ‘Do not sin against the boy,’ and you did not listen  And now, look, his blood is requited.'”  Just as Adam and Eve failed to listen to God, and Reuben now understands the blood consequences of the failure to listen (even as he tries to shift the blame to others!), so too we have failed to listen.

This is our condition: we do not listen because we think we can control our lives–and the lives of those around us.  And for our failure to listen, there are consequences.  The consequences of sin; c.f. Romans  6:23.

Matthew 14:25-15:9  I think we are too hard on Peter, always looking to his failure of faith as the reason he cannot walk confidently on the water.  But for me, Peter is courageous because (1) he is willing to put Jesus to the test (“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” ) and (2) when commanded, Peter clambers over the gunwales of the boat and sets out.  Matthew doesn’t say anything about the response other 11 disciples, but I’m pretty sure they thought Peter was nuts.  Peter takes the risk and the others don’t.  Yes, Peter loses his focus on Jesus and begins to sink.  But, hey, he got out of the boat.

The two-fold lesson here is clear:  First, when we hear the call to take a risk and get out of the boat we should have the confidence in Jesus to do so. But second, when we take that risk we must constantly look on Jesus, not down at our own feet.  Once we start believing our own press releases and think that whatever walking-on-water thing is being accomplished, is due to our own insights, intelligence, charisma, or whatever, we will begin to sink.  How many famous pastors have met Peter’s fate by believing more in themselves than in Jesus?  Closer to home, why am I still resting in the boat?

Psalm 22:29-31; Genesis 41:17-57; Matthew 14:15-24

Well, we’re back from the North.  A memorable adventure and great male bonding time with Jerry and Joel. And over a thousand images to cull and process.  It’s a beautiful part of the world and yes, it’s darn cold in winter, but highly survivable.  Of course, knowing that we were leaving there after just a few days made the weather more of a novelty than an endless, bitterly cold winter.

 Psalm 22:29-31  I have missed writing about this most magnificent psalm, whose opening lines, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” are famously uttered by Jesus on the cross just before he dies.  I think we badly shortchange ourselves when we thin only on that opening line as Jesus’ final despairing cry–and then silence.  He knew the psalm and those around him surely knew the psalm in its entirely as well.  Much as we know a song or a hymn by its opening line, so too, here.  This is a psalm not of God’s abandonment, but of God as sustainer; a God who “made me safe at my mother’s breasts.” (22:10)

It is a psalm about a God who sustains through the most desperate of times agains the most implacable of enemies, “They gaped with their mouths against me–/ a ravening roaring lion.” (22:14) Instead of abandonment, “He has not spurned nor has despised/ the affliction of the lowly.” (22:25); a God who answers: “And form the horns of the ram You answered me.” (22:22)

So, I take Jesus words as words of faith in his faithful father, not of despair: he knew that he would indeed be rescued and that on that glorious Easter morning, the world had changed forever and that all “will proclaim His [God’s] bounty to a people aborning,/ for He has done.” (22:31) And indeed, the Church–us–are “a people aborning.”

Genesis 41:17-57  Daniel and Joseph stand out as the interpreters of dreams of kings.  They are young, vibrant men, who know the truth of Psalm 22 by personal experience.  And both become their king’s right hand men.  But there’s an angle to Joseph I hadn’t appreciated before: he’s a brilliant administrator  and a savvy leader.  Lest we modern folks think we’ve invented “management,” we need only look to Genesis 41 for a rather early example of proactive leadership.

During my career, when I had people reporting to me, I always asked them to bring problems to me, but also to bring their idea for a solution.  I never claimed that was an original concept, and here at 41:33, I see just how ancient the practice really is.  After crisply deciphering Pharaoh’s dreams and making it clear that a famine in in the offing, Joseph offers a solution to the very big problem the Pharaoh now faces: “And so, Let Pharaoh look for a discerning wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.” And he then goes on to describe how the food should be collected in the first seven years and distributed during the famine.  Obviously, there’s no question that Joseph had himself in mind for that job, but he not just a man of insight, he’s a man of initiative!

Matthew 14:15-24  We tend to skip over the intermezzo between the drama of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ equally dramatic walk on the water: Jesus’ time alone in prayer.  Matthew makes it very clear that this did not happen by accident, but by Jesus’ direction: “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” (14:22)  Then Matthew doubles down, saying first, “he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”  And then pointing out that he was there for several hours, “When evening came, he was there alone.”  In our eagerness for Christian community we tend to miss these crucial phrases, “by himself to pray” and “he was there alone.”

We must be connected to be sure, but as many of the Ancient Fathers made abundantly clear, solitude is equally crucial.  And here is  one of those places where we see the fully human and the fully God Jesus: Fully human because he needed time alone if only to recharge; fully God because he had a singular purpose: to pray and be with his Father.  By Jesus’ example we see that the “up” is as critical as the “in” and the “out.”  But the “up” does not always have to happen in a crowd.  One of the joys of my life now, as compared to earlier times is the frequent opportunity for solitude.  Unfortunately, I tend not to make as dedicated use of “upness” as jesus did.

It’s nice to be home and look out my office window and finally see green.  Like Easter, spring will be late this year, but it will indeed occur.

Psalm 21; Genesis 37; Matthew 13:24-35

Greetings from Grand Marais, Minnesota.  Well, the “The Three Engineers” were out before dawn this morning (at 0 degrees F) photographing dawn over Lake Superior.  An awesome (in every sense of that word) experience to feel so connected to God’s creation.  We’re also grateful for high technology clothing piled on in many layers to keep us warm!

Psalm 21  We can almost hear the choir singing this psalm as David sits resplendent on his throne, the sun glinting off its gilt.  While this psalm of rejoicing is directed to the King, it is also Christological, a foretaste of the great throne room scene in Revelation: “For you meet him with rich blessings;/ you set a crown of fine gold on his head.”

For David the king—and for us—the core of his (our) relationship with God is our trust in God’s unquenchable love: “For the king trusts in the Lord,/ and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.”  Which is why “We will sing and praise your power”—the essence of worship.

Genesis 37  Joseph and his brothers: the Ur-story of sibling rivalry taken to extremes. 11 hardworking brothers and one dreamer.  And a dreamer so oblivious to the resentment of his brothers because he is “daddy’s boy” that he freely interprets his dream, making it obvious that the brothers would do obeisance to the dreamer.

But had the brothers’ resentment (and Reuben’s well-timed mercy) not led to their evil action, Joseph’s dream would never have been fulfilled years later in Egypt.  Proof that God uses all events—both evil and good—to his own, often mysterious ends. It is also a useful reminder about the short term and the long term.  We are so captive to the moment that when something apparently bad happens—either to us or to others—we cry out to God, “Why me?”  But long term, unexpected and often far greater blessings emerge.  I certainly have my own encounter with cancer as an example of this reality.

The question remains: Does God plan all this in advance?  People talk about “God’s plan” a lot.  I personally think it is arrogant of us to think we can perceive God’s “plan,”—even retrospectively. Although God is by no means random, and he is involved in our lives in ways we cannot fully comprehend.  I don’t know if what happened to Joseph was God’s specific plan, although the dream suggests it.  But circumstances could have conspired such that the dream could have come true in a slightly different way.  Who knows? This I do know: if we trust in God, his unfailing love will be with us through whatever happens—planned or unplanned.

Matthew 13:24-35  Having told his disciples he would be speaking in parables, Jesus is on a “parable roll.” Wheat and weeds; mustard see; yeast.  I’m intrigued that all his parables here are agrarian and involve things—both good and bad—that grow. There is nothing static about Jesus’ parables; change, evolution, maturation is everywhere.  That alone is lesson to us would would prefer the status quo ante. “What do you mean, ‘change?’ Not me!”  Yet, here growth is completely natural; it is the underlying assumption of the Kingdom of Heaven:  It is not, as we engineers put it, a “static state.”  It is a growing, dynamic process.

This is about the Church, and it is about us. That which does not grow and mature, dies.  Weeds grow, but their intrinsically evil nature are always found out, pulled out by their roots and burned.  Judgement does indeed await.

Dennis, I haven’t gotten the D800 out yet, but will be certainly using it this afternoon.  It was so cold out that my breath created a layer of ice on the back of the D3, but it kept on operating well.  Hope all went well at Hubcaps this morning.  Jerry, Joel and I ate breakfast after our shoot at the “South of the Border” cafe.  It took me a while to realize it wasn’t a Mexican joint and the border it is south of is the Canadian one that lies just 40 miles north!

Psalm 20; Genesis 36:9-43; Matthew 13:10-23

I don’t usually begin these reflections with a weather report, but here in Bloomington, MN at 7:30 it’s clear and currently -11 degrees.  Supposed to be 0 by noon.   As they say, it’s a “dry cold.”  And we’re heading north where it’s still colder…

I am here without my Alter translations, so it’s all NRSV all the time this week.

Psalm 20 begins as a benediction, “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!/ The name of the God of Jacob protect you!”  It’s direct and to the point, no flowery language.  Even though it’s feels a bit strange for a benediction to be placed at the beginning and not the end, it’s perfectly logical, and frankly, an uplifting, optimistic way to begin worship.  We ought to try it some day.

I wonder how many times I’ve prayed the equivalent of verse 4: “May he grant you your heart’s desire,/ and fulfill all your plans”.  I guess there’s nothing wrong in praying this petition, but we sure need to be prepared to not have our desires granted  and our plans fulfilled.

My son Geoff started a Facebook thread on petitionary prayer last week that as of a couple of days ago had attracted 116 comments, most by other philosophers.  Whatever their views on religion or God—and they ran the gamut– there’s no question that prayers such as David’s are front and center in people’s own lives today.

Genesis 36:9-4  Esau gets his genealogical due as his descendants are listed here in Genesis 36.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” (36:31) Perhaps the authors are stating simple historical fact, but I detect a slight editorial edge here since Edom and Israel certainly parted ways early, and perhaps that’s one reason why God was not so enthusiastic about Israel wanting a king.

But we certainly need to remember that Esau’s descendants were part of the promise made to Abraham as much as Jacob’s.  And in that sense, so are we all.

Matthew 13:10-23  Jesus has a radically new approach to preaching, and now that I think about it, if we go back to the OT, there are stories, psalms, and prophecies chockablock with metaphors, but they never became parables, which I think of as metaphors with flesh and bones on them.  Clearly, the religious leadership of Jesus’ time spoke didactically (in 3-part sermons perhaps?), as did John the Baptist.  But at least in Scripture anyway, Jesus’ approach is completely new and it’s no wonder the disciples were confused.

Jesus’ disquisition on the differences between looking and perceiving and hearing and understanding make the point, I think, that we humans are basically wired to understand better what Jesus has to say to us through stories, not just through philosophical/religious discourse.  But unlike the clear morals of Aesop’s fables, the parables force us to think deep, and it is only by reflection that we can even begin to understand and perceive.

The parable of the sower is the “Ur-parable,” in that it explains the point of the parables: that Jesus understood the reality that much of what he said would be mis-understood (as it certainly was by the religious leaders) or the initial enthusiasm of many would simply fade away with time or persecution.  It is also a clear statement that Jesus’ real message about the Kingdom of God would be lost on just about everybody.  But when we really, truly get it, the rewards for the Kingdom—and for us—will be great indeed.

Psalm 19:1-6; Genesis 34; Matthew 12:33-45

Psalm 19:1-6  As Psalm 139’s celebration of creation (“you knit me in my mother’s womb”) appeals to the physiologists in the crowd (you know who they are, Dennis), this psalm speaks to astrophysicists as it looks up: “The heavens tell God’s glory,/ and His handiwork the shy declares.”  The diurnal cycle is celebrated and “Day to day breathes utterance/ and night to night pronounces knowledge.”  At first blush the psalmist seems to contradict himself in the next verse when he says, “there is no utterance and their are no words,/ their voice is never heard.”  But the point is that the day and night both “speak” without words, but nonetheless clearly communicate the glory, richness and depth of God’s creation.  Spoken words are superfluous; this is communication beyond speech.

The poet sets up a striking metaphor of dawn, as the sun, resting in its “tent” and then “he like a groom from his canopy comes.”  And then with great energy the groom becomes “like a warrior running his course” across the sky.  Just before writing this morning, I was out behind my house photographing the fairly spectacular sunrise and the image of a tent is perfect: The sky was covered with a thin layer of clouds, which gradually turned from orange to pink to yellow–exactly as if the sun were in its tent and coming nearer the entrance, its light illuminating the tent’s think walls–here, the cloud cover.  This gift of God’s creation, which is so easy to miss amidst our ceaseless busyness. I am really looking forward to being out in creation over the next several days!

Genesis 34  Well, we never covered the story of Dinah and Shechem in Sunday School.  There is some complicated family dynamics here.  Shechem rapes Dinah and then falls madly in love with her. Jacob’s sons hear and “they were very incensed, for he [Shechem] had done a scurrilous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter.” (34:7)  Shechem’s father tries to ignore the rape and emphasize the positive, saying, “Pray, give her him as wife,” (34:8) and then expands into a full blown offer of just about anything, “I will give what you say to me.”(34:12)  Interestingly, Jacob remains silent, but his sons take over the negotiation (more negotiation!) and say they will agree only if Shechem is circumcised. (Ouch.)  Which Shechem does.  But Simeon and Levi still  avenge their sister’s honor by killing Hamor and Shechem and retrieving Dinah. Only now does Jacob speak, “You have stirred up trouble for me.”  But the sons reply only “Like a whore should our sister be treated?” (34:31)–and the story ends on this unresolved note.

This is one of the more morally ambiguous stories in the Bible, with both sides acting wrongly and deceitfully.  And the author does not neatly straighten things out at the end.  Two things we can take away, I think: Jacob’s silence through all this, and his failure to be an honest broker allows the sons to become the dominant power in the family–and we will see the fruits of Jacob abandoning his leadership position shortly. And of course, we see the tainted fruit of honor killings in the Middle east to this very day.

Second, this is life as it is actually lived–and one more mark of the incredible authenticity of the Bible: wrongs are committed by all parties and there is no neat resolution–just as in real life.  I also think that this story begins to set the stage for why the Law becomes necessary: It is God alone who can restore order.

Matthew 12:33-45   Jesus is dealing with a more subtle problem: hypocrisy: “How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (12:34).  Which leads to the larger problem: the words we speak.  (I think that right after money, the number three thing Jesus talks about the most, is the stuff we say…) “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (12:37) I think if I though about Jesus’ stern words of accounting for our words (not just our deeds!) on the Day of Judgement, I’d be a lot more circumspect in what I say!

Jesus makes his remarkable prophecy about his death and resurrection, “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (12:40).  This statement has real prophetic impact when Matthew’s readers and we encounter it: we know exactly what Jesus was referring to.  But I’m pretty sure the Pharisees (and everybody else, including the disciples) had zero idea of what he was talking about.  Which is OK; if we understood everything Jesus said, there would be no need for theologians…

I will be writing sporadically over the coming week as I head east and north.  Unbelievable how much stuff (long underwear, layers and layers of stuff, hats, gloves, balaclava, ice crampons, etc.) you have to bring along to spend a couple of days outdoors where the forecast high is 7 degrees…  But I’m pretty excited.

Psalm 18:46-50; Genesis 32:22-33:20; Matthew 12:22-32

Susan and I played SMLC hooky yesterday and went to hear Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity, Naked Spirituality) speak on the blessing of Epiphany which shatters our assumptions about God as it shatters our world. at LOPC.  Memorable lines: “Jesus is a master at spiritual whiplash,”  and “No human being has ever had a thought about God that is better than He actually is.”  Definitely a RH/RN sermon.

 Psalm 18:46-50  This long psalm of praise winds up with recapitulating the theme of God as rescuer: “…blessed is my Rock,/ exalted the God of my rescue,” and ends on a note of both rescue God’s incredible faithfulness:

“And to Your name I would hymn,
making great the rescues of His king,
keeping faith with His anointed,
for David and his seed forever.”

I do not reflect sufficiently on how God has rescued me, which of course is the issue of salvation.  Lutherans talk about how Christ has come to us, which is indeed exactly how it happens, but unlike some other denominations, we do not often consider the perilous state from which we are rescued by Jesus’ grace. Or what it really means to be lost without hope. This psalm beautifully reiterates over and over David’s peril in the shadow of his enemies and his gratitude for God’s rescuing faithfulness.

Genesis 32:22-33:20  To me, the story of Jacob wrestling with “a man” (as Alter translates it) is one of the most enigmatic, yet perfectly symbolic stories in Genesis.  In one sense, it’s a culmination of Jacob’s life story: he has been wrestling all his life since the moment he grabbed Esau’s heel coming out of the womb.  He wrestled away Esau’s birthright, and has wrestled constantly with Laban.  His talent for negotiation is a form of wrestling.  And now it culminates in what is physical wrestling ending in a dislocated hip.  This is no dream; this is the apotheosis of his life. The mysterious man/ messenger from God renames Jacob, “Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out'” (32:3)  Jacob’s point of view is is rather different: it is not about having “won,” but that hesimply  survived, as he names “the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen God face to face and I came out alive.'” (32:31)

And we see in Jacob a new humility; he is a changed man, as is Esau.  For me, the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau is one of the most tender stories in the OT.  The negotiating Jacob has been replaced by the generous Israel: “Pray, take my blessing that has been brought you, for God has favored me and I have everything.” (33:11)  Jacob’s statement, “I have everything” implies much more than wealth and even his family.  It is that he has been (literally) transformed by God and is now reconciled with his brother.

God has given him blessing upon blessing.  The real blessings human relationships and above all, a firm relationship with God–worked out by wrestling with God.  As indeed we must do also.  No real relationship–be it with God or with others– can be established and grow without wrestling.

Matthew 12:22-32  We do not give sufficient credit to Jesus as rational logician.  The accusation of the Pharisees that Jesus’ healing is of the devil in inherently self-contradictory, and Jesus makes this abundantly clear.  Equally crucial, Jesus lays out the binary reality of the Kingdom of God: Either you’re for it or you’re against it.  You’re in it or you’re out of it. There is no middle ground.  Yet, I have spent great portions of my life attempting to live in that non-existent middle place between the Kingdom of God and the various earthly kingdoms, trying to have it both ways.

You’d think for a guy who has spent most of his life dealing with electronics that operates only because of binary arithmetic that I’d have figured that out before now.