Psalm 45:10-17; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21-34

 Psalm 45:10-17  The king, who is the object of this encomium, is apparently marrying a foreign princess.  The poet advises her to forget the past and face her new reality: “…look, incline your ear, and forget your people, and your father’s house.  And let the king yearn for your beauty, for he is your master, and bow down to him.” (10,11)  Thus it ever was in a patriarchal society: the princess has the asset of beauty, but the male (here the king) has the asset of power.

The princess is brought before the king in “filigree of gold her raiment”(13), together with her own court, “maidens in train, her companions.”(14).  But neither the king nor the princess are considering the issue of patriarchy.  This is a joyous occasion, even though the princess will never see her family again, “They are led in rejoicing and gladness, they enter the palace,” (15).

The princess and king together will produce progeny, and this will help the princess forget that she has been taken from her home: “In your fathers’ stead your sons will be. You will set them as princes in all the land.” (16)

This psalm is about a king and a royal marriage.  I suppose we could extend it to Christ and the Church as his bride, but I really think that’s stretching it too far.  So, I will enjoy this psalm’s royal imagery as the gorgeous poetry it is.

Leviticus 4  God is now giving Moses detailed instructions of sacrifices required for different categories of people who “offend arrantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done.” (2)

There are specific sacrificial instructions for different categories of people, “if the anointed priest should offend” (3); for “When a chieftain offends and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done” (22) and for “a single person from the common people should offend errantly in doing one of the LORD’s commands that should not be done, and bear guilt,” (27) These categories provide isight into how the Israelites were organized: priesthood, tribal chieftains and the hoi polloi. 

And the sinner was guilty even f he committed an offense unknowingly, but “the offense that he committed is made known to him.” (27b).  Which suggests that everyone was looking out for the other’s sins. Here, we can see the judgmental roots of the Pharisees, where were inly to happy to publicly announce another’s sins.

And at the center of all this, when the sacrifice is made, “the priest shall atone for him, for his offense that he committed, and it shall be forgiven him.”  For it is the priest making sacrifices to God that lies at the center of the Old Covenant.  A never-ending process of sin and sacrifice, followed by more sin and more sacrifice.  How grateful we should be for Jesus’ once and for all Atonement.

Mark 1:21-34  If “immediately” and “follow” are the themes of Jesus establishing his ministry, then here in the synagogue where Jesus commences his public ministry is the theme of how Jesus conducts his ministry: Authority.  “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) and “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27).

The astonishment of the people about Jesus’ authority with the Scriptures and over the demons of the underworld tells us a lot about the spiritual state of the people and their religious leaders before Jesus arrived on the scene.  It would seem that the scribes read the Scriptures aloud but had little to say, or what they did say was anodyne and, frankly, wimpy.  Like many sermons I’ve heard through the years.  But it’s clear that Jesus is more than just knowledgable about the Scriptures.  The people at the synagogue sense Jesus’ deep, intimate connection with the Scriptures. Almost as if they had come alive in the person of Jesus, and had begun walking and talking among them.  This was an unprecedented experience for them–and for us.

Mark offers ample evidence of Jesus’ authority in action beyond explicating the Scriptures as he writes about healing.  Starting with the specific, Peter’s mother-in-law, and then the general, “he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (34)

Capernaum is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  Yet, this is where Jesus began his ministry: in the Israeli outback.  Retrospectively, his strategy is clear: Begin in an obscure place and let the word filter out on its own.  No need to start giving speeches in Jerusalem.  And, unlike the many other prophets and Zealots wandering the countryside at the time, use actions, along with Scripture to establish his authority.  This is far far more than simply the provocative speeches of other would be revolutionaries and rabble rousers.  Jerusalem is still asleep and they do not know what is coming.

Psalm 45:1-9; Leviticus 2,3; Mark 1:9-20

Psalm 45:1-9  Alter notes that the designation for this psalm, “a song of love,” occurs only here.  It is also the only psalm where the author steps to center stage in the first verse, “My heart is astir with a goodly word. I speak what I’ve made to the king. My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.” (1)  The author tells us, he will be reciting this song to the king, who is the subject of the poem.  (He also notes his other scribal skills in passing.)

What follows is praise, almost bordering on the obsequious IMO, for the king’s handsomeness (“You are loveliest of the sons of man,”), his elegant and kind speech, (“grace flows from your lips”) as well as his prowess as a warrior, (“Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,  your glory and your grandeur.”) (3).  The king is the ideal mix of “truth, humility and justice” but equally capable of battle, “let your right hand shoot forth terrors, your sharpened arrows— peoples fall beneath you.” (4)  At this point we need to remember this is a song, not a theological treatise…

But above all, the is rightly aligned to God, “You loved justice and hated evil.  Therefore did God your God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.” (7)  And here is the lesson for us:  We may not sit on a throne holding a scepter of power in our right hands, but the real question is, do we love justice and hate evil, just as God does?  Like the shepherd of Psalm 23, that is how “God [will] anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.” (9)

Leviticus 2,3  We tend to forget that amidst all the blood of the sacrificial system, there was a grain offering as well–and it is with this that the “sacrificial instruction manual” begins.  I have to assume that grain offerings were acceptable to God because some people were poor and could not afford the greater expense of an animal sacrifice.  And grain offerings could create a “a fragrant odor to the LORD” (2:3) as well as an animal one.  God accommodates all his children!

Here, too, is where we see that God does not demand everything be sacrificed to him (as I presume other pagan sacrificial systems demanded), but only a “token portion,” the remainder, “what is left of the grain offering is for Aaron and for his sons.”  The offering is unleavened bread, reminding all of the Passover bread.  Why no yeast or honey?  It’s hard to say.  God has his reasons; not all of then will be revealed to us.

Interesting that “every offering of your grain you shall season with salt. You shall not leave out the salt of the covenant of your God from your grain offering.” (2:3).  So when Jesus talks about being the “salt of the earth,” there is not only a sense of seasoning, but among his audience that is well aware of the sacrificial requirements of the Temple, a requirement of sacrifice as well.

If God is specific about the nature of the grain offering, he gets even more precise in chapter 3, specifying exactly how the animal is to be disemboweled and what is to be done with each organ. And “all the fat to the LORD.” (3:16)  God knew that too much fat is bad for people camping and hiking in the wilderness…  Just asHe knows what’s right for us.

Mark 1:9-20  In a mere eleven verses Mark describes Jesus baptism, including the decent of the Holy Spirit and God’s vocal approval; the wilderness temptation, the beginning of the ministry in Galilee, and the calling of four disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, John).  But amid all this economy of language, Mark takes the time to repeat what I think is a crucial theme of this Gospel: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (18) and again, “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (20).

Two words: “immediately” and “followed.” We don’t get the backstory, but Mark emphasizes that we follow, we don’t go “side-by-side;” we don’t “accompany” Jesus; we don’t “join his team.” We do one thing only: we follow.  There is true hierarchy here: Jesus is the leader; we are the followers. Our society obsessed with egalitarianism and equality and equity is uncomfortable with the idea of real leadership, which is what Jesus is all about.

The all-important adverb, “immediately” is in the same sentence as “follow.”  There is urgency in the work of the Kingdom.  No careful weighing of options and “I’ll get back to you on that.” As we will see throughout this Gospel, it’s all urgent, right here, right now stuff.  I wonder how many people to whom Jesus said “Follow me. Now or never” that chose the “never” option.  For Mark, it’s all about action, not thoughtful contemplation. Is it for us?  Or do I reflect too much–not because reflection is wrong–but as an excuse for not acting?

 

Psalm 44:17-26; Exodus 40:24-Leviticus 1:17; Mark 1:1-8

Psalm 44:17-26  This accusatory psalm reminds God that while He has apparently forgotten his people, they have not forgotten Him: “yet we did not forget You, and we did not betray Your pact.” (18) and then to emphasize the point, repeats the assertion of their own faithfulness: “Our heart has not failed, nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path,” (19) even though “You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place.”

Then, in a classic bout of defensiveness, the psalmist states that had they neglected God, God would surely have known it and responded, “Had we forgotten the name of God  and spread out our palms to an alien god, would not God have fathomed it?” (20)  As things stand now, “we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.”  The intense despair of this psalm certainly suggests that the images of slaughtered sheep are not mere metaphors, but the defeat of an actual battle.

How often we cry out in times of trouble, “where are You, God?” And this psalm informs us that we can indeed be angry and cry out in despair.  We do not have to pretend as good little Christians that we love God and that it’s a sin when we are angry with Him or have become convinced that he has deserted us for good.  To be sure, God loves us, God is constant, but there are times in our lives when “our neck is bowed to the dust, our belly clings to the ground.” (25) and God simply doesn’t show up.  We have every right to be angry with the Creator of the universe.

But crucially, even in their despair, there is a final plea: “Rise as a help to us  and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.” (27)  They have not given up.  Underneath the anger and despair there is the hint of assurance that they know God will eventually show up.  And neither should we reject God altogether in these times of darkness when all seems lost.

 Exodus 40:24-Leviticus 1:17  The Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting, as Alter calls it) is finally complete and assembled.  And God sees that it is good and comes to dwell there.  After the wanderings thus far, where God sort of hovers over the Israelites as a cloud or pillar of fire, God finally has a residence, and “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the LORD  filled the Tabernacle.  God’s glory was so intense that “Moses could not come into the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud abode upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle”. (35)  I think there is great significance here that God has come down form his remoteness on Mt. Sinai to dwell amongst the people. God has moved from distance abstraction to daily presence.

This remarkable book of a remarkable escape and journey has been guided by God the whole time.  And it ends by reminding Israel–and us– that God is present, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.” (38)  We may not have the visual evidence of God that the Israelites had, but that does not make God any less present in our own lives.

The authors of the Torah leave Israel with all eyes on God as they suspend the story of the journey in the wilderness with the interregnum that is the book of Leviticus, which is basically unencumbered by any narrative detail at all.  Now ensconced in the Tabernacle, God once again speaks to Moses, ” saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them…” (2)  And there follows the almost endless detail of precisely how the sacrifices are to be made.

We know that sacrifices are offered as propitiation for the people’s sins.  But this chapter ends on a tantalizing sensory note.  The sacrifices are “a fire offering, a fragrant odor to the LORD.” (1:17).  We know God sees and hears us, but here, we are reminded that God possesses all the senses we do. And that what we do for God includes acts that God not only sees and hears, but that should be “a fragrant odor to the Lord.”

Mark 1:1-8  Mark is the Gospel’s journalist and again and again, in this shortest gospel, he reminds us in his spare language that there is no time to wast.  Just the facts please.  And then only the facts that read directly to his opening sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Like John, Mark tells us there was a beginning, but there’s no theological exegesis about Jesus being the Word.  No birth story, no genealogies, no wise men, no Mary or Joseph.

For John, Jesus’ birth or his theological connection to God and the Word is irrelevant.  This book is about what Jesus did and said.  And for Mark, that is evidence enough.

John the Baptist has shown up in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.  And a mere seven verses into the story, John is ready to remove himself form the stage because “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (7)  This introductory paragraph, and John himself are about one thing only: preparation.  Preparation for the one “coming after me,” but also preparation for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The stage is set…

Psalm 44:9-16; Exodus 39:32-40:23; Matthew 28:1-20

Psalm 44:9-16  There is an abrupt shift from praise [“God we praise all day long, and Your name we acclaim for all time.” (8)] to abandonment and shame caused by God’s failure to appear in the next verse: “Yet You neglected and disgraced us 10 and did not sally forth in our ranks.” (9). We marketers have a difficult time with this juxtaposition. Praise one minute, anger the next. This is not how you are supposed to appease and please God, is it?

Yet, the accusations against God continue. His neglect has resulted in a poor outcome in battle “You turned us back from the foe, and our enemies took their plunder.” (10) God, not the enemy, is the one who devalued them:”You sold Your people for no wealth and set no high price upon them.” (12) And in that culture, the worst thing of all: “You made us a shame to our neighbors, derision and mockery to those round us.” (13). The psalmist takes this personally: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face,” (15)

What are we to make of this? It’s one thing to be angry with God, but to accuse God of neglect desertion, and creating personal shame?  How easily we forget that God is God.  He can take it. He knows the truth, and above all, he knows our deepest feelings.  Especially when our despair is as deep as the psalmist’s.  We do not have to be placid Sunday school children before God; we can be angry, defeated, shamed, despairing warriors as well.  This is what makes the Psalms the ur-text of  every prayer since then: brutal honesty before God, not fawning hypocrisy.  Too bad I forget that so often.  Of course Jesus recognized the very same thing when he compared the prayer of the Pharisee to that of the publican.

Exodus 39:32-40:23  Our author cannot cease writing about the glories of the Tabernacle, the Ark, the furnishings, the vestments, and here he recapitulates the inventory one more time.  Alter captures an almost musical quality with the repeated “its” before each item: “the Tent and all its furnishings, its clasps, its boards, its crossbars, and its posts and its sockets,…” (34)

But even more important than the glories of the inventory is how the people have obeyed God’s instructions down to the letter, “…thus the Israelites did all the work. And Moses saw all the tasks, and, look, they had done it as the LORD had charged, thus they had done it, and Moses blessed them.” (42, 43)

We don’t hear much these days about the theology of vocation, which I have always considered to be one of the high points of Lutheran theology.  But here it is: the people are not priests, they are workers, and they have crafted a work to the glory of God.  I have to believe this passage was read form time to time during the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I were writing subsection titles for this part f Exodus, the first part of this final chapter would be headed, “Some assembly required.”  God’s instructions to Moses are quite precise about where the furnishings and drapery of the Tabernacle are to be placed.  (It also reminds me of the little models of the Tabernacle we 5th graders made back in Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena so many years ago.)

Matthew 28:1-20  Like Matthew himself, the Moravians do not linger over post-Resurrection details, as our Gospel writer wraps up the most astounding event in history with his usual economy, almost terseness.  One event, which I think is exclusive to Matthew, is the recounting of how the priests and religious officials bribed the guards to spread the Big Lie, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.  Which theory continues to surface even today.  (I remember a book in the 1970’s about this, and Wikipedia even includes an entry, “the stolen body hypothesis.)

Matthew, with his Jewish perspective writing to a Jewish community, ends the story of Jesus’ interaction with Judaism on this distinctly conspiratorial note with, “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (15)  The tragedy of course, is that Matthew’s words have been at least partly catalytic in the church’s persecution of the Jews over history.  But that is not Matthew’ fault.  It is ours.

Matthew’s story ends with Jesus’ famous commissioning.  (And doesn’t even mention the Ascension.)  And that is why I think he wrote his Gospel in the first place.  It’s so much more than the “greatest story ever told.”  It’s an instruction manual of how to carry out the Great Commission.  And Jesus’ final words are his (and God’s) Greatest Promise to us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  May we never ever forget that sublime truth.

 

Psalm 44:1-8; Exodus 39:1-31; Matthew 27:57-66

Psalm 44:1-8   This psalm of praise acknowledges what this secular age would greet with incredulity: that it is not humankind but God  whose “hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them. You smashed peoples and sent them away.” (2)  The poet further claims, “For not by their sword they took hold of the land, and it was not their arm that made them victorious but Your right hand and Your arm, and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (3,4).

This does not seem very far from “God is on our side” kind of thinking.  But when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents, “For not in my bow do I trust, and my sword will not make me victorious.” (6)  In the end, it is God who “rescued us from our foes, and our enemies You put to shame.” Not us.

We can grasp this truth not on the battlefield but in everyday life.  We do not place our trust in our own gifts, skills, or tools, but we place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully place our trust in God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 39:1-31  Another chapter of lovingly detailed description of what was made for the Tabernacle.  This time the priestly garments and the breastplate that goes atop the robes.  Twelve stones in four rows of precious stones on the breastplate, representing the twelve tribes.  And my favorite detail, “the hem of the robe all around, within the pomegranates. A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and 26 a pomegranate on the hem of the robe all around, to serve, as the LORD had charged Moses.” (25, 26).  The phrase, “as the LORD had charged Moses” is repeated, reminding us that all this was not something Moses, Aaron, or anyone else made up, but that it was God-specified.  This is at the heart of the Old Covenant: that the one chosen priest, who comes before God in the Holy of Holies is dressed in the finest garment imaginable.  Because to come before God is no casual affair.

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of what we read here in Exodus with Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion: that he was stripped of all his clothing and what little he had was gambled away at the foot of the cross.  How different our High Priest of the New Covenant: stripped naked, hanging on a cross. And yet, Jesus comes before God in a manner inconceivable to Caiaphas, the high priest, who surely wore a priestly garment not unlike the one described here in Exodus.

Matthew 27:57-66  As Jesus is brought down from the cross, we are reminded that Jesus had many followers besides the Twelve (now Eleven).  Unlike the unnamed disciple who lent Jesus the Upper Room, Joseph, the “rich man form Arimathea” gets to go down in history.  But he appears on the stage only briefly.  His last recorded act is he “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”  (Hadn’t noticed before that it is Jospeh of A. that places the stone in front of the tomb, not the Romans or the Jews.)

Ever the masters of selective memory, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (62, 63)  I wonder exactly when it was that after having successfully killed off the man who would upset the status quo ante, it occurred to them that he was still a threat.  And an even bigger threat dead than alive such that “the last deception would be worse than the first.” (64).

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.

 

Psalm 43; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45-56

Psalm 43  Alter notes that given the abrupt beginning of this psalm (“Grant me justice, O God,”) and that the several lines are virtually identical, Psalm 42 and 43 may have once been a single psalm.  Be that as it may, these verses are certainly darker than those in the preceding psalm.  The psalmist asks rhetorically, “For You, O God, my stronghold, why should You neglect me? Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe?”(2)  While this is not a direct accusation that God has abandoned him, it comes very close.

The psalmist then moves to supplication, “Send forth Your light and Your truth. It is they that will guide me.” (3)  “Guide” is an appropriate verb because the psalmist–apparently in exile or a foreign land– now traces out his desire to come to “Your holy mountain And to Your dwelling place,” which would be Jerusalem, I presume.  Once there, he seeks further guidance to “let me come to God’s altar,” (4) and then directly to God Himself, “to God my keenest joy.”

Like the journey itself, the psalm ascends from the depths of seeming abandonment directly into the presence of God, where almost ecstatic joy replaces gloom: “And let me acclaim You with the lyre, O God, my God.”  The psalm ends on the same theme as Psalm 42:  “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God.” (5)  In just a few verses, our psalmist has taken a spiritual journey form the depths of despair to worshipful joy atop the mountain.

And that is our journey too.  Not just once in our lives, but again and again.  Because movement is the very nature of prayer. Prayer is not idle contemplation; it is a journey, it is dynamic; its bias is to action.

When I contemplate a material, God-denying life, I realize how flat that journey would be.  Having rejected God, I would be trapped in emptiness, and there would be no reason other than self-motivation to ascend.  But self-actualization (to be Maslovian about it) is insufficient.  Because in the end, we find nothing but ourselves at the mountaintop.  No wonder the therapeutic industry is so vast.

Exodus 38  Now Bezalel constructs the seriously large “burnt-offering altar of acacia wood, five cubits its length and five cubits its width, square, and three cubits its height.” (1) as well as the bronze laver and the exterior textile walls 100 cubits by 50 cubits; the posts, the sockets, the hooks.  All limned in precise and loving detail.

Our author concludes with an accounting of capital expenditures, ” All the gold that was fashioned for the task in every task of the sanctuary, the elevation-offering gold was twenty-nine talents…And the silver reckoned from the community was a hundred talents…” (24, 25)  We also learn that both a freewill offering and a tax are the income sources.  The tax is also a way of taking a census.

So, again, precision, exactitude, accounting.  When Jesus talks about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, he is speaking out of this longstanding precision–another proof that there is nothing random about God or His creation.  This exactitude of course underlays all biology in our genes and DNA, as well as physics, as you can discover in any book about quantum physics at one end of magnitude and astrophysics at the other end.  More proof for me, anyway, that God is hardly an abstract spirit, but a builder and Creator–and he expects the same attention to detail from us.

 Matthew 27:45-56  In Matthew, the only words that Jesus speaks on the cross is the opening line of Psalm 22.  Which some witnesses interpret as a call for Elijah to come rescue him. Why Elijah?  Perhaps because Elijah was taken directly to heaven and did not die, the bystanders assume this is Jesus’ request as well–which would certainly prove Jesus’ kinship with God.  But Elijah does not call, Jesus screams in a final spasm of agony and dies.  But that is hardly the end.

To Matthew’s Jewish readers, what happens next is extraordinary indeed.  The Temple curtain is ripped in two, exposing the Holy of Holies to everyone.  Certainly symbolic of the passing of the Old Covenant.  And the bodies of the saints not only arise, but wander around Jerusalem, seen by many.  We don’t talk very much about this detail at Easter, but it must certainly be a presaging of the Day of the Lord when the dead will rise.  For many Jews, who did not believe in resurrection, this had to be an almost earth-shattering event.

But Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “Truly this man was God’s son.”  And it is the realization of the gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point–and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Psalm 42:6-11; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Psalm 42:6-11   The psalmist’s longing to encounter God intensifies into something approaching desperation the last half of this poem.  Now, “My God, my being is bent for my plight,” as he seeks to find God over a broad geographic area, “Therefore do I recall You from Jordan land, from the Hermons and Mount Mizar.” (6)  The gentle image of the deer drinking from the stream is supplanted by an image of deep ocean and crashing surf: “Deep unto deep calls out at the sound of Your channels. All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.” (7)

Yet, underneath the intensity of the psalmist’s search lies an assurance that God is indeed still with him: “By day the LORD ordains His kindness and by night His song is with me— prayer to the God of my life.” (8).  Nevertheless, the psalmist still cries out, “I would say to the God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? (9).

I think it is this sense of anxiously seeking a seemingly absent God intertwined with the poet’s faith that God is still with Him that gives this psalm its power.  The lesson for us that we can seek God with the assurance that God will show up.  Because at the root of the search lies our hope that we will be found and rescued: “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God.” (11)  The psalmist knows with deep assurance that God will not fail him, but he nevertheless still can cry out in desperation.  And so can we.

Exodus 37  The faithful Bezalel constructs the Ark, the most sacred object of Israel, which our priestly author describes in loving detail.  Not just its size ,”two and a half cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width and a cubit and a half its height.” (1), or its core materials (acacia wood), but its incredible richness: “he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half 7 cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width. And he made two cherubim of gold, hammered work he made them, at the two edges of  the cover.”

So too, the lamp stand of pure gold (16) and the golden altar for burning incense, a cubit square, also covered in gold.  I continue to be struck by just how much wealth the Israelites departed Egypt with, remembering that the Egyptians basically flung their gold and jewels at the departing Jews.  It would seem that was part of God’s plan as well: that the repentant Israelites would–from their hearts and at the urging of the spirit– gladly contribute all that wealth to God.  And that wealth is transformed by pure-hearted men willing to give of their time and talent to transform treasure into something worthy for God.

Are we transforming our wealth into something worthy for God?  Perhaps not into gorgeous physical objects like the Ark, the lamp stand or the incense altar.  But we have wealth and other time and talents for our work in the Kingdom.

Matthew 27:32-44  Matthew’s taut description of the crucifixion is strictly reportorial.  Facts and observation.  No emotional scenes of crying women or transformed Roman centurions.  Just the humiliation of crucifixion: the drink of gall; the division of the clothes; the sign over his head.  But above all the mocking and the taunting.  Even the criminals being crucified mocked him. Could there be a greater humiliation?

Matthew’s Jewish perspective reminds us that the scribes and elders jubilantly mocked him in their apparent triumph over this interloper of the accepted religious order, ““He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” (42)  This is the last we hear of the scribes and elders as they make their way back to Jerusalem in one of the great delusions of all time.

And in this mocking sentence lies complete truth. A truth far, far greater than the temporal reality of the priests and elders and everyone else gathered around that cross.  For Jesus did indeed come down from the cross and become King–but not in a way the elders, the priests or the criminals could ever imagine.  For in this cheap mockery lies the unstated reality that Jesus also died for those who taunted him on the cross–and those who have taunted him across history.  And those who taunt him today.

 

Psalm 42:1-5; Exodus 36; Matthew 27:11-31

Psalm 42:1-5   Other psalms may be better known, but for me, this psalm is the most beautiful of all.  The image of a deer running through the forest in search of–and finding– a stream of water to quench its deep thirst strikes to my heart.  As simile, it is the quintessence of what it is to yearn for–and then find–a loving God.

Yearning is a much deeper feeling than the simple act of desiring or seeking.  As the psalmist says, “My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.” (2).  This is not just emotional or psychological or intellectual or physical or even spiritual.  It is all those things…and more.  This yearning for “the living God” consumes our entire being.  Indeed, as the psalmist implies, the yearning becomes our being.

And if we cannot find or come into the presence of God, there can only be ineffable sadness: “My tears became my bread day and night as they said to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (3)  Without being in the presence of God, there is only memory, “These do I recall and pour out my heart: when I would step in the procession, when I would march to the house of God with the sound of glad song of the celebrant throng.”

What remains is hope.  Yearning arises from memory and produces hope.

Some years ago, we used to sing this psalm at worship, “As the deer panteth after water.”  I have a yearning to hear it again.

Exodus 36  Following the harsh lesson of the golden calf, Israel seems completely transformed, “the Israelites had brought for the task of the holy work to do it, and they on their part brought more freewill gifts morning after morning.” (3).  Construction is being overseen by “wise-hearted men.”  Which is a terse and terribly accurate description of real leadership.

Moses’ request for the people to bring donations to God because of the motivation of their heart and the urging of the spirit produces such a surplus, that the workmen tell Moses, “The people are bringing too much for the work of the task that the LORD charged to do.” (5).  And “the task was enough to do all the task, and more.” (7)  Surplus is what occurs when gifts are from the heart.

Our priestly author describes the construction of the Tabernacle in loving detail, describing each element and the material used.  Once again reminding us that details–especially in a sacred space–matter.  The old cliche, “God is in the details,” begins right here.  More importantly, it’s a reminder that our connection with God is not just a fuzzy abstraction, but we can encounter God everywhere in the warp and woof of our daily life.

Matthew 27:11-31  One of the things that over the years has convinced me that the Gospel writers are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit is just how much information and feeling is packed into the incredible economy of language.  Speaking as a guy who writes quite a bit, I know it is far more difficult to write with economy than with verbosity.  And here in the account of Jesus’ trial, conviction, and torture there is not a superfluous word. But these few words paint as rich a picture as any Renaissance artist was able to accomplish.

It’s interesting that Jesus replies to Pilate’s question with a laconic “You say so,” but “when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer.”  When Pilate asks Jesus if he heard the accusations, Jesus remains silent. Clearly, in the numerous capital trials over which Pilate had presided, he had never encountered a man unwilling to speak in his own defense and “the governor was greatly amazed.” (14)  Defending oneself against false accusation without countervailing evidence is not a strong strategy.  Jesus knew that the outcome was preordained anyway.

And then a second extraordinary thing occurs to Pilate, “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.'” (19)  I think we can be pretty sure that Pilate had never received a message like this one before from his wife.  But by this time the crowd is about to become a bloodthirsty mob.  It is too late for Pilate to reflect on, never mind heed, his wife’s words.

One of the great “what ifs” of history: What if the wife’s message had reached Pilate’s ears just a few minutes earlier before Pilate presented that fateful choice to the crowd: Jesus or Barabbas? Would Pilate simply announced that he was releasing Jesus?  What would the crowd have done? Would there have been rebellion on the spot?

One lesson we learn: God’s timing is a close-run thing.

  

 

 

Psalm 41; Exodus 35; Matthew 27:1-10

Psalm 41  David begins with general thanksgiving for God’s protection [“May he be called happy in the land. And do not deliver him to his enemies’ maw. (2)] moving quickly to a general prayer for healing: “May the LORD sustain him on the couch of pain. 4 —You transformed his whole bed of illness,” (3) and then to a specific request for his own healing:  “I said, ‘LORD, grant me grace, 5 heal me, though I offended You.'” (4)

It’s clear that David’s illness is severe and that his enemies eagerly await his passing, “My enemies said evil of me: ‘When will he die and his name be lost?'”  (5) Even their ostensibly kind visits to his bedside are not only insincere but have an evil agenda: “And should one come to visit, his heart spoke a lie.”  (6) Worse, this visitor is all too happy to spread the lie that David is near death: “He gathered up mischief, went out, spoke abroad…[saying] “evil of me, “Some nasty thing is lodged in him. As he lies down, he will not rise again.” (8).  David cannot even rely on the confidant he trusted.  In his illness David has been abandoned by everyone.  Worse, he is the focus of corrupt plots and public lies.  One can only imagine the hatchet job the modern media would be able to do here.

Happily, I have never been in this dire situation–and it’s doubtless more endemic to kings and leaders. (Shakespeare is chockablock with plotting around the king’s deathbed.)  But there’s still a lesson here for us: In the end, there is only One in whom we can place all our trust: “And I, in my innocence, You sustained me and made me stand before You forever.” (12). As the general prayer at the beginning of this psalm reminds us, [“Happy who looks to the poor.  On the day of evil may the LORD make him safe.” (1)] God’s steadfastness is for all of us: leader, king, or desperately poor.  Whether we are desperately ill or when all around us are inconstant or worse, God is constant; God will indeed sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Exodus 35  The assembly of the community listening to Moses expound on his meeting with God–here instructions about observation of the Sabbath–is certainly different than the angry, rebellious crowd that goaded Aaron into creating the golden calf.  Contriteness abounds.  Moses the gives a stewardship sermon (proving that they have very deep roots!) that is not just a polite request, but that comes from God himself: ‘Take from what you have with  you a donation to the LORD. Whose heart urges him, let him bring it, a donation of the LORD,” (4,5)

And it’s not just an abstract request, Moses lists everything that needs to be donated: “gold and silver and bronze, and indigo and purple and crimson linen and goat hair, and reddened ram skins and ocher-dyed skins and acacia wood, and oil for the lamp and spices” right on down to “stones for setting in the ephod and in the breastplate.” (6,7)  Demonstrating it’s not unreasonable to be specific in articulating exactly what’s needed.

The centerpiece of this chapter for me is the people’s response to Moses’ request: “And every man whose heart moved him and everyone whose spirit urged him came, they brought a donation of the LORD for the task..” (21)   The response is not “because I should,”  or “I’ll look generous in front of my neighbors,”  or “I’ll get special favor from God.”  The response is “whose heart moved him and whose spirit urged him.”  That the response to what God has asked arises from the heart is repeated, “And the men came, besides the women, all whose heart urged them,” (22)

God is so different than the local gods of the time, who demanded the people’s treasure–no questions asked and certainly not because they were moved “from the heart.”.  What God asks of us is quite different from the many organizations with their hands out, appealing to our egos rather than our hearts. From universities who will name a professorship or even a building for a sizable donation down to free gifts for a PBS membership.  God only wants what we give because we are moved “from the heart as the spirit urges.”

Matthew 27:1-10  Implied, but not stated, is the reality that the priests and elders had not made their case for Jesus’ blasphemy, which would have allowed the to execute Jesus under Jewish law.   So more conspiracy is required, the leaders concluding that Roman law will be more efficacious in carrying out their plot.  Interesting how the Jews, who despised the Roman rulers, soldiers and their heathen laws, were more than willing to compromise their principles to achieve their ends. As are we.  Not in conspiracies and plots, but in our (my, anyway) willingness to buy right into what the culture has on offer.  The question obtains: am I selling out principle because it’s more convenient than taking a stand?

Judas has history’s most intense case of seller’s remorse when he finally realizes what he’s done.  He’s willing to give the priests a full refund. And then Judas, in his confession, states exactly what the priests themselves have done to Jesus: ““I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” (4).  But the leaders are blinded to their own sin, and reply harshly, “What’s that to us?”  Judas certainly deserves his opprobrium, but I think the hypocritical blindness of the priests is even greater than Judas’ crime.  For they are in complete denial of their monstrous undertaking, and return to business at hand, counting the money they themselves gave to Judas as tainted “blood money.”  Blood money indeed.  Hypocrisy is just another way of saying how we are blind to our own sins.  Even though our sins are as big as logs in our eyes.

Psalm 40:9-17; Exodus 34; Matthew 26:59-75

Great to hear Mary Naegeli on prayer and Teresa of Avila this morning.  And by her definition, I guess my scribblings here are a form of prayer.  So, here goes…

Psalm 40:9-17  The psalmist’s close connection to God compels him to speak, “I heralded justice in a great assembly.  Look, I will not seal my lips.” (9)  When we are connected, we cannot keep it to ourselves, “I withheld not from the great assembly Your steadfast truth.” (10)  But this is two-way truth.  Just as we cannot hold back from speaking about God, so, too, “You, LORD, will not hold back Your mercies from me.”

As Mary pointed out this morning, God is always there, always constant, even when it doesn’t seem that way.  As the psalmist notes, “Your steadfast truth shall always guard me.” (12)  But more than even steadfastness is the reality of rescue.  God is a rescuing God and we, who seek and are rescued can do aught else but “exult and rejoice in You.” (16)  And “May [we] always say, ‘God is great!’–those [of us] who love Your rescue.”

The juxtaposition of exultation and rescue is breathtaking.  For what person rescued from drowning or any other danger would not want to embrace his rescuer and shout praises not just for the fact that he’s ben rescued, but to sing praises of the rescuer as well?

Exodus 34  God quite justifiably says to Moses, in effect, “hey, you broke the first two tablets I gave you, now go carve another set.”  Moses goes up on the mountain a second time as God announces his character, as well as a condition of forgiveness: “A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and  abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass, and offense, yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of  sons, to the third generation and the fourth.” (34:8,9)  God will forgive sins that are confessed, but not if they remain unconfessed.  Which makes sense.

We then have a repetition of the Covenant written earlier in Exodus.  This time, though, with what seems like special emphasis on avoiding intermingling with the current inhabitants of Canaan, “lest he become a snare in your midst.” (34:12)  God makes it abundantly clear to Moses, “For you shall not bow to another god, for the LORD, His name is Jealous, a jealous God He is. (34:15)   In light of the golden calf fiasco, there’s a new commandment: “No molten gods shall you make for yourselves.” (34:17).  

Unfortunately, we know how this all turned out… But we must never forget: God’s terms and conditions are abundantly clear.  Israel can never claim they weren’t warned–or continued to be warned by the prophets.  So, too, ourselves.  I know I continue to minimize the downsides of disobeying God.  But we can never accuse God of not being very clear on this point.

Moses comes down from the mountain, his face reflecting the glory of God.  So much so, that he must remain veiled.  The question is, do we reflect God in our own lives?  Or like thermodynamic black bodies, simply absorb the light?

[Interesting side note from Alter that “glory” was mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate to mean “horns”, which explains why Michelangelo’s famous statue of the seated Moses includes small horns sprouting from Moses’ forehead…]

Matthew 26:59-75  I’ve always wondered who the unnamed witnesses were that the priests were able to finally dig up and get them (force them?) to say, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” (26:61) What was in it for them?  Were they bribed, or just angry?  Jesus’ strategy of not responding to these witnesses’ verifiably true statement is brilliant.  The priests are forced to decide for themselves.  It’s only in response  to the Big Question (tell us if you are the Messiah) that Jesus speaks.  And then only to toss it right back in the faces of his accusers by quoting Psalm 110 and Daniel 7:13–passages his accusers surely knew, and which incensed them only further.

Frustrated out of their minds, they could respond only like little children: spitting and slapping.  There is an almost comical note here as Jesus’ accusers ludicrously try to test his messianic powers by having him identify the people who slapped him. (26:68).  That a Messiah is somehow imbued with telepathic power.  And Jesus’ silence leaves the final question unanswered. For we must each answer that question for ourselves.

What a contrast Jesus’ silence is to Peter’s false answers.  In one sense, Matthew answers the accuser’s question because it is his closest disciple who has struck Jesus.  And as the Psalms reminds us repeatedly, it is our tongues which are fearsome weapons.  Unlike the psalmist who exults when rescued by God, Peter’s fear–and our own fears–not only make us break our silence, but to deny our savior. How many times have I denied Jesus?  Both in silence and in speech?