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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 39:1–6; Esther 2:19–3:15;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 37:34–40; Nehemiah 12:44–13:14; Romans 7:7–20

Psalm 37:34-40: For those who endeavor to “hope for the Lord and keep His way” (34a) this exercise is frustrating at best when we “have seen an arrogant wicked man/ taking root like a flourishing plant.” There are examples of the crooked and shady all around us becoming rich and famous, while those of us who toil honestly seem to miss the party.

Yes, there is the promise, “He passes on, and, look, he is gone,/ I seek him, and he is not found.” (36). And we see examples of fallen celebrities and powerful men going off to jail frequently. In the end, as my father used to say, ‘the chickens come home to roost.” Their fame and power is ephemeral.

What’s important here is that we are to “watch the blameless, look to the upright,/ for the man of peace has a future.” Things will turn out all right for us in the end because we trust in God. Because “the rescue of the just is from the Lord, / their stronghold in time of distress.”

But getting to that point of rescue does not mean we will escape suffering along the way. Too many people believe that if they become Christians that everything about their lives will become what they see the wicked enjoying around them. But we need only remember Jesus at Gethsemane and what followed. Rescue indeed came, and it comes for us. Although that can be very difficult to remember in times of suffering; the promise remains.

Nehemiah 12:44–13:14: The concluding verses of Nehemiah record how service in the temple resumes with the Levites in charge. Ashad happened in the past, the law is read aloud. As the people of Israel listen, they realize again that they are a people set apart. And in the theme of today’s psalm, Nehemiah writes, “our God turned the curse into a blessing.” (13:2) Israel has suffered, but by turning to God, curses become blessings.

This remarkable book ends more or less as it began: Nehemiah is the one man who demonstrates responsibility in following the law of God—and he takes the initiative. In his absence, the priest Eliashib has remodeled a storeroom where the various offerings of grain, wine and oil and other sacramental items had been stored in the temple into living quarters for a certain Tobiah. Moreover, “ I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them; so that the Levites and the singers, who had conducted the service, had gone back to their fields.” (13:10) Clearly, the temple is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only: worshipping God.

So, once again, Nehemiah has to set things right and he appoints trustworthy men to oversee temple operations. Ever faithful, Nehemiah again prays, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.” (13:14) As always, his focus as leader has been on God. Everything else he does and says flows from his faithfulness. Would that all my actions flow form my faith rather than my selfish motives.

 Romans 7:7–20: In this passage Paul is addressing those new Christians, probably Gentiles, who have said that the Law is not only an impediment to following Jesus Christ, but is itself sinful. Paul corrects this misconception in the strongest possible terms: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” No, the purpose of the Law is to identify sin: “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. (7) The Law itself “is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (12) Rather, it is we, whom the law has exposed as being hopelessly sinful, that are ultimately dead.

The law also exposes that if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we are creatures of inner conflict; “of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin,” (14) In one of the most famous verses in this book, Paul expresses the frustration and conflict created by our own sinful nature: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. “ (15)

The point is—and as the Scriptures demonstrate again and again—we cannot come to righteousness on our own. Our inherently sinful nature makes that impossible: “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (18)

On our own, we are cursed to “not do the good [we] want, but the evil I do not want is what [we] do.” (19). It is essential to recognize this grim reality of our human nature. People who believe they are inherently “good” simply have not examined themselves and their motivations carefully enough.

Psalm 37:16–22; Nehemiah 9:1–10:27; Romans 5:12–6:4

Psalm 37:16-22: This section of the psalm deals with economic justice and, as usual contrasts the wicked against the poor and just. In God’s eyes, the just are always better off regardless of their circumstances: “Better a little for the just/ than wicked men’s great profusion.” (16) The reason is simple: “the Lord sustains the just.” (17).

But better than merely being sustained, we enjoy God’s love for eternity: “The Lord embraces the fate of the blameless,/ and their estate shall be forever.” (18) Jesus surely had this psalm in mind when he told the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the poor man and the rich man: “For the wicked shall perish.” (20a)

In God’s economy, the wicked are ephemeral: “Like the meadow’s green—gone, in smoke, gone.” (20b)

These verses also stand behind the Sermon on the Mount as we hear beatitude echo the psalm: “For those He blesses inherit the earth.” (22) When we think about it, this psalm would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers. He did not have to tell them “those he curses are cut off” (22) because the minds of his listeners would have filled in that verse themselves.

Nehemiah 9:1-10:27: The work of restoring the walls of Jerusalem is completed and everyone is gathered for a dedicatory day of confession, prayer and to make a covenant that henceforth Israel will dedicate itself to God.

Nehemiah retraces Israel’s story, reminding us again that know where we came from is crucial and that to lose our story is to lose our identity.

As Nehemiah prays, he reminds all present that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments;” (16) God, in contrast, is “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (17).

Israel’s story is our story. We are just as stiff-necked and easily forget that God wants desperately to have a loving relationship with us.

Again and again, Nehemiah recounts the theme of today’s psalm: how God sustained them, but they constantly turned away in wickedness. Even to the point of completely rejecting God: “ they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (9:26) And they deserved their punishment. They would cry out to God for mercy and “according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hands of their enemies.” (27) But again, they sinned and again, “many times you rescued them according to your mercies.” (28).

This confession reminds us of how we constantly fall into sin and how God is ever faithful, ever merciful, rescuing us again and again. It is always our pride, which Nehemiah characterizes as “stubborn shoulder and [they] stiffened their neck and would not obey.” (29)

But, Nehemiah promises, this time will be different because the leaders of the restored nation sign a covenant to follow God, because “we are in great distress.” (37) And in keeping with the detail that characterizes the histories, Ezra and Nehemiah, their names are listed in Chapter 10: a reminder to all those men’s descendants that they have made a covenant with God. Just as our baptismal certificates are a reminder to us of our even better covenant with God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 5:12–6:4: Paul traces it all back to Adam. Sin comes into the world and therefore, death, and harking back to his earlier assertion, “death spread to all because all have sinned.” (5:12) and sin predates the law.

But grace is larger than death due to sin: “many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ,” (5:15). Jesus is the new Adam, or perhaps, the “restorative Adam,” as Paul asserts, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (5:18)

Interestingly, as a once devout Jew, Paul now asserts that the Law essentially got in the way. But that was fine because it led in turn to something even greater, “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” (5:20)

But, Paul tells us, we need to be careful about sin leading to grace. That is no excuse to say, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (6:1) Sin is part of our old selves. Our old selves have “been buried with him by baptism into death,” (6:4).

This is the essence of the New Covenant: we don’t just get forgiven; we have an entirely new life in Jesus Christ. In this new life, thinking that we can just keep on sinning is utterly illogical, when “we too might walk in newness of life.” (6:4)

Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1–6:14; Romans 4:1–12

Psalm 36: This psalm has a unique opening as “Crime” becomes a character speaking to the evil person in which it resides: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked/ within his heart:” And its utterance is the definition of what comprises an evil man because it is the crime of rejecting God: “There is no fear of God/ before my eyes.” (2). Crime works its wily ways on its host: “For it caressed him with its eyes/ to find his sin of hatred.” (3). What we could call this “anti-conscience,” speaks honeyed words of temptation: “The words of his [crime’s] mouth are mischief, deceit,”

And as Paul would agree, the potential to commit sin resides indeed, inside all of us and when we succumb to crime’s entreaties, “he [we] ceased to grasp things, to do good.” (4) Crime takes over our conscience and “Mischief he [we] plots in his bed,/ takes a stand on a way of not good,/ evil he [we] does not despise.”

Is “crime” Satan? Or is it merely the dark side of each of us fallen human beings?

Standing in stark contrast to Crime and the evil man is God himself: “Lord, in the heavens, Your kindness/ and Your faithfulness to the skies.” (6)  Unlike Crime’s temptations, God brings us “justice like the unending mountains/ Your judgement, the great abyss, / man and beast the Lord rescues.” (7) The rewards of listening to God are infinitely greater than listening to crime: We feast at God’s table: “They take their fill from the fare of Your house/ and from Your stream of delights You give them drink.”  (9)

The psalmist seems to be asking, why would someone listen to crime and its reward of mischief and deceit when by following God, his munificent generosity blesses us with riches beyond imagining? Just one simple reason: to follow God we must abandon the idea of ourselves being at the center of the universe and acknowledge that God is our creator and we his creatures. To do that is to cast away pride. Not an easy task.

Nehemiah 5:1–6:14: Relatives of the Jews who have returned are complaining that they are being oppressed as workers by the nobles and officials to the extent that they are being forced to borrow money at interest and being treated like slaves. “and some of our daughters have been ravished.” (5:5). We hear the cry of the downtrodden: “we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” (5:5)

Nehemiah brings them justice and demands that the extraction of interest cease instantly and orders, “Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (5:11) Nehemiah notes that this policy stands in contrast to his predecessors, “The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people.” And he tells us why, “But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.” (5:15) Nehemiah, the man of God, does not oppress others.

I think this chapter is here to remind post-exhilic Israel–and us–that God cares above all for the poor, the widows and the orphans. If we get nothing else out of our reading of the OT, we must get that. And yet, we continue to be able to ignore Nehemiah’s example with such ease.

Nehemiah’s nemesis, Sanballat and his cronies, ask for a meeting but as he observes, “they intended to do me harm.” (6:2). Sanballat tries to plays the sedition card, handing Nehemiah a letter that says, “that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king.” (6:6) Nehemiah tells Sanballat to buzz off, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind” (6:8) They even try to trick Nehemeiah with a false prophet. But as a man of God, Nehemiah discerns this, and his courage in undiminished because he knows God will protect him.

 Romans 4:1–12: Paul continues his discourse on the contrasts between faith and works by citing Abraham–the founder of the Jewish race–as an example of a man who was justified by the unmerited gift of God’s righteousness, not his works. After all, Paul argues, “to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” (4). So, how could Abraham receive a gift if he had worked to earn it? God would be depriving him of his due wages. So, too, with David.

Then Paul produces his greatest argument against those who claimed only Jews had received the gift of righteousness with sheer logic (which the Greeks in the crowd must surely have appreciated!):  “We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” (10). Come on guys, Paul is saying, you’ve got it backwards: circumcision is the sign of having already received the gift; it is not a qualification for the gift. Besides, how could it be a gift if you have to be qualified by something like circumcision to receive it?

Psalm 35:19–28; Nehemiah 4; Romans 3:19–31

Psalm 35:19–28: As happens so often in the psalms, voices and speech figure prominently. First we hear the “unprovoked enemies,” who “rejoice over me” (19) and then the psalmist tells us that “they do not speak peace/ and against the earth’s quiet ones plot deceit.” (20) Out of conspiratorial whispers the enemies begin shouting, as “They open their mouths wide against me./ They say, ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!…” (21)

But frustratingly, God seems to be silent as the poet pleads, “You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.” In fact God seems to be asleep, as the psalmist says, “Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause/ my God and my Master…do not let them rejoice over me.” (23, 24) He asks God to silence his enemies, “Let them not say in their heart, / ‘Hurrah for ourselves.'” (25) The poet stands in the dock, as his enemies testify against him. But if God will but act, they will “don shame and disgrace” (26). And the poet’s supporters will finally be able to speak. And not just speak, but sing aloud, “May they sing glad and rejoice,/ who desire justice for me.” (27a)

The voices of the enemy have been drowned out by the voices that praise God, as the psalm ends with the friends saying, “Great is the Lord/ who desires His servant’s well-being.” (27b) And the psalmist himself can finally speak, praising God, “my tongue will murmur You justice,/ all day long Your praise.” (28)

Conspiracy, accusation, testimony, praise. All these in just these few verses–and all of them oral. In an era where little was written down, that was said and sung was of utmost importance. And the lesson for us is that regardless of all our other forms of written and electronic communication, what we speak aloud is still of utmost importance.

Nehemiah 4: Sanballat “was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews” for their effrontery of attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His buddy, Tobiah the Ammonite, joins in, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (3). But Nehemiah and the Jews are resolute and pray, “turn their taunt back on their own heads,” (4)

But it’s a tough job as Judah observes, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall.” (10) And now enemies are plotting against them. BUt Nehemiah, brilliant leader that he is, reminds them that God is on their side, encouraging them, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (14).

The plot of their enemies has been foiled and new defensive measures are put in place, “half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and body-armor;” (16) and even “burden bearers carried their loads in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon.” (17)

Even though they are beset by enemies, the project continues because Nehemiah does two things: (1) he trusts God to provide and protect and (2) he continues to be a brilliant leader, adapting to the situation and encouraging everyone involved in the work. Again, a terrific example of putting “feet” on one’s prayers: believing what God says and acting accordingly.

Romans 3:19–31: As Paul continues his argument that while legal circumstances may be different, every human–whether Jew or Greek–is ultimately under the same law. In short, “the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (19)

Now, he turns his argument to the righteousness of God, which has already “been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets” (21) and that it points directly at the person of Jesus Christ. But the brutal reality is that under this law, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” (23)–a verse I learned at an early age in a church where it was till fashionable to speak of one’s intrinsic sinfulness.

But God is merciful and wants a relationship with every human, so we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (24).  But this gift has been bought at a high price: Jesus, “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (25).

So, we are saved through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (a concept that seems to come from Paul rather than out of Jesus’ mouth–at least as I read the Gospels). But we cannot boast that we’ve gotten salvation by our good deeds, our works. Indeed, “No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (27, 28). Which seems like a verse Martin Luther would have clung to enthusiastically.

Nevertheless, even though we are saved through faith and not our good works, the law remains in force–but in a completely new and unexpected way through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, grace does not allow lawlessness. Sin may not abound. It remains the standard which defines our sinfulness.