Psalm 103:6-18; Judges 5; Luke 19:11-27

Psalm 103:6-18: The people who complain all the time that the OT God is always angry, taking vengeance, and killing off people would do well to reflect on these verses: “Compassionate and gracious, the LORD, /slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (8). Actually, I prefer the NRSV rendering, “abounding in steadfast love” to Alter’s “kindness” because I think God’s love is deeper than mere kindness.

A key point in this line is that God is “slow to anger,” and his patience is described again and again in the story of Israel. God waits literally for years while Israel sins and worships its ungods before acting. In God’s patience, I think we see His desperate hope that we will come to our senses and turn back to God before He is forced to act.  And sometimes we do, and thereby enjoy His compassion, His grace and above all, His steadfast love.

“For as the heavens loom high over earth, / His kindness is great over those who fear Him.” (11) This wonderful simile tells us that God’s steadfast love (again, the NRSV’s phrase) is as great as the heavens that are over us, indeed, as vast as the universe.  In those pre-electric lighting days, the stars at night were bright and invoked a sense of vastness that we miss today. And the verticality of the simile–heavens over the earth–tell us that God’s love is everywhere and like the sun, moon and stars, God’s love shines on all of us: saints and sinners alike.

As God’s love is vertically over us, our transgressions, our sins, are horizontally as far from us as we can imagine: “As the east is far from the west, / He has distanced from us our transgressions.” Since the east by definition never meets the west, one cannot even go that far; it is an unimaginable distance. God’s forgiveness separates us from our wrongdoing to the extent that it is forgotten by Him. (However, never forgetting that we must live with the consequences of our sin.)

Why this steadfast love and this forgiveness? Because God loves us as a father loves a wandering, immature child: “As a father has compassion for his children, / the LORD has compassion for those who fear Him.” (13)

Judges 5: Many Bible historians hold that the Song of Deborah is one of the oldest writings in the Bible. This poem is an archetype of poems written after battles, the most famous of course being Homer’s Iliad.

The poem recounts the great victory over the Canaanites and their leader, Sisera, that is recounted in the previous chapter. It is also a poem of gratitude to those who fought:

My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
    who offered themselves willingly among the people.
    Bless the Lord.” (9)

But perhaps most striking is its femininity. Of course, not surprising in a poem ascribed to a woman, but after the battles described in Joshua, which featured only males, we see that women were as invested in conquering Canaan as the men. This comes to the fore as Jael’s heroism is celebrated:

“Most blessed of women be Jael,
    the wife of Heber the Kenite,
    of tent-dwelling women most blessed. (24)

But juxtaposed to this victory is the poignant scene of Sisera’s wife, awaiting a return that will never come:

“Out of the window she peered,
    the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
    Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ (28)

Even to the point of deluding herself that her husband is taking so long because they are dividing the spoils. The poem does not describe the wife’s reaction when she finds the truth of what happened in the tent; we are left to imagine her horror and desolation.

The poem ends, as we might expect, on a note of triumph:

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
    But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.” (31a)

The fruits of Deborah’s and Jael’s courage are summed up in final verse of the chapter: “And the land had rest forty years.” (31b)

Luke 19:11-27: On reading this famous parable, I think it’s much more eschatological than when we focus solely on the slaves and the return on the talents that the ruler gave them. First, as Luke notes, “ [Jesus] went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (11). His disciples were sure they were about to immediately enjoy the ample fruits of this Kingdom their leader kept talking about. So Jesus is telling this very hard parable to make it clear that all will not be hunky dory when they reach Jerusalem, nor will the Kingdom be what they think it will be.

Second, Jesus provides a veiled reference to the fact that he will be leaving them with the promise of his return, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.” (11) And that it is the duty of the slaves to continue to work and hopefully reap more than they sew in how they use the resources that they are given.

Third, there are “the citizens of his country [who] hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’” (14). This seems to be a clear reference to the Temple leadership in Jerusalem who will indeed send a delegation to Pilate saying almost exactly what Jesus predicts here they will say.

Finally, the last line of the passage: “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’” (27) seems a clear reference to a final judgement yet to come.  (And probably one of those verses used down through the centuries to justify oppression of the Jews.)

Of course it’s easy for us to see retrospectively what Jesus is talking about because we know what happened–and what is yet to come. But I’m pretty sure the disciples truly did not “get it”–just as I know I wouldn’t have were I in their shoes.

Psalm 103:1-5; Judges 4; Luke 19:1-10

Psalm 103:1-5: The first two verses of this psalm are the words to the popular praise song, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Alter translates the Hebrew word that every other translator calls “soul” differently: “Bless, O my being, the LORD, and everything in me, His holy name.” Maybe it’s my engineering point of view, but I greatly prefer Alter’s us of ‘being’ because ‘soul’ is so ephemeral, but ‘being’ is so identifiably tangible. (Even though “Bless my being, O my Lord” doesn’t scan very well as a lyric…)

‘Soul’ is great; yes I have one, but what exactly is it? My ‘life force?” The piece of me that connects with God? The little thing that floats up to heaven when I die? But ‘being’ connotes all of that and more: my physical being, my thoughts, my feelings and yes, my connection to God. ‘Being’ is all of me, and it is certainly all of me that God has blessed.

The next few verses are almost a catalog of all that God does for me: At the top of the list, “He forgives my wrongs.” And then he “heals my illnesses.” I can sure identify with those two!

And then, He “redeems [my] life from the Pit, crowns [me] with kindness, compassion,” (3) I am saved and my grateful response to being “crowned” with kindness and compassion. Notice the connection: Being redeemed is not just a personal act that occurs in individual isolation, it natural qualities are kindness and compassion, which I in turn, must give to others.

And then, He “sates [me] with good while [I] live— [I] renew [my] youth like the eagle.” (4) How easy it is to focus on the “what ifs” and the “should haves” and all that is missing and wrong, while forgetting that God has showered me in what is good. And, yes, my physical youth is long behind me, but that does not prevent me from having a youthful outlook together with the experiential wisdom that age provides. What a marvelous combination!

 Judges 4:  Having “again [done] what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” Israel lives under an oppressor, Sisera and his 900 iron chariots. They finally  cried out to the Lord for help;”(3) Deborah, the prophetess, who was judging Israel at the time, tells Barak, heading the Israel army to “‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun.” Barak asks Deborah to accompany him, and she replies, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (9) Speaking with the authority of one who is clearly in command, Deborah tells Barak, ““Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” (14) Barak and the Israel army seize the day; all of Sisera’s army except him are killed.

Then there’s Jael, who at first comforts the quaking, defeated commander Sisera, offering him a place to sleep and water. Then calmly drives a tent peg through the head of the sleeping general. Again, a woman who is unafraid. Her single line, spoken to Barak, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.”(22) indicates a steely resolve that men had better not trifle with.

When I hear that various evangelical churches (and the other one based in Salt Lake City) will not allow women on their board of elders, I always wonder how they can ignore Deborah’s and example of leadership. She clearly has the combined qualities of prophet, judge, and strategist. She speaks authoritatively; Barak respects her so much he won’t go into battle without her.  Same for Jael’s cleverness and courage. Apparently Paul’s view of women as people who need to wear hats in church and be quiet trumps these examples of God-led faithfulness, strategic brilliance and courage in a woman.

Both women indicate qualities of leadership (Deborah) and courage (Jael) that are examples to men (here, represented by Barak) and to me, anyway, prove that before God, character and faithfulness are what matter; not gender.

Luke 19:1-10: My familiarity with the story of Zacchaeus dates back to my earliest years in Sunday school. After Jesus’ very heavy prophecies about the coming of the Son of Man, this story, told with whimsical humor but with a very serious lesson is a respite.

Zaccheaus stands in stark contrast to the rich young ruler as he says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (8) Here is a man who has his priorities straight; worldly possessions no longer matter to Zaccheaus. More importantly, he wants to set things right. Zaccheaus is a living example of redemption: of complete turning around.

And then those famous words, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (10) Yes, Jesus came to save, but notice the other verb: ‘to seek out.’ Jesus is not just waiting around for people figure out how bad they are and to hit the sawdust trail, but is actively looking for us. It was Jesus who called out to Zaccheaus to come down from the tree; Jesus sought out the tax collector, who up to that moment had simply been an observer.

This is one of those places that underscore for me why the Lutheran theological view that Jesus comes to us rather than us having to somehow stumble across him is so much richer, and yes, so much better than the “Come to Jesus” sermons and the endless “Just as I am” hymns I grew up with. What comfort there is in knowing that, like the short tax collector, I have been sought out by Jesus.

Psalm 102:12-22; Judges 1:17-2:23; Luke 18:18-30

Psalm 102:12-22: In a remarkable shift from the personal agony of a man near death, the psalm suddenly takes up a new topic: the woeful state of the nation of Israel, as the psalmist asks for God’s mercy on the nation as previously on an individual: “You, may You rise, have mercy on Zion, 14 for it is the hour to pity her, for the fixed time has come.” (14) The nation is in a desperate state: “For Your servants cherish her stones / and on her dust they take pity.” (15)  Only stones and dust remain.

Unlike the earlier section, there is faith that God will indeed rebuild Zion: “For the LORD has rebuilt Zion, / He is seen in His glory” because God answers their plea: “He has turned to the prayer of the desolate / and has not despised their prayer.” (17) God has answered because He looked and heard: “He has looked  to hear the groans of the captive, / to set loose those doomed to die,” (21).

This is why we pray. We know that we are the creatures of not only a loving God, but an observant and listening God. We are not praying into empty space, but to God who “has gazed down from His holy heights,/ from heaven to earth He has looked.” (20) This image of God peering down from Heaven may be theologically cliched, but it is comforting to know we are indeed not alone and that our cries are indeed heard.

Judges 1:17-2:23: Judah and the others who Joshua left in charge of the army are only partly successful at driving out the Canaanites, although their partial victories cause the Canaanites to end up doing forced labor in most cases.  This first chapter provides a complete inventory of partial success and failure (and some very recognizable place names: Gaza, Ashkelon, among others).  After the victories cataloged in the book of Joshua, this book starts out ominously in terms of the Israelite’s ability to keep their side of God’s Covenant.

For a while things are OK, “The people worshiped the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel.” (2:7). But when that experiential memory dies with Joshua and his staff, the immediacy of the great things God had done for Israel dies in Israel’s collective memory as well.  In its unemotional statement, we see the roots of the tragedies that will eventually befall Israel: “Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” (2:10)  Worse, “they abandoned the Lord, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes.” (2:13)

Form earliest times, every subsequent generation, having not listened to the warnings of its elders, has to learn the same hard lessons all over again. And eqaully true today, as we baby boomers thought we could bring about a new peaceful world and never again, we stupidly thought, would we have to do something so terrible as fight a war.

To bring order out of what was growing chaos in Israel, “the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.” (2:17) But even that fails to work: “Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example.” (2:18) And there is the tragedy summed up in a nutshell: “they did not follow their example.”

We, who are the younger generation, always think we know better. We ignore the example of those who came before us, thinking somehow we’re morally superior and “now better.” And worst of all, we abandon God in our quest for new, more attractive Gods. It’s difficult to think of a more apt passage to so accurately describe our present pass in history.

Luke 18:18-30: In the end, it’s a question of ordered priorities. If, like the rich young ruler, we lack the imagination to really hear what Jesus is saying, then we’ll never get through that little door–the eye of the needle–into the Kingdom. That’s because we think we have to give up all our stuff, which won’t fit through that eye, in order to “be saved.”

But I think what Jesus is really saying is if you really, truly follow me with your heart, you will happily abandon all the other possessions, including family, into which you’ve placed your hope and security. It all seems to boil down to this: If it’s about me, then my stuff matters and I’ll miss entering the Kingdom; if it’s about Jesus, then I don’t care about my stuff because I’ll come to realize that the Kingdom is far greater.

And then in answer to Peter’s statement, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” we really “get” what Jesus is telling the rich young ruler–and us: Kingdom priority means that “for the sake of the kingdom of God, [there is no one] who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (30) 

There’s something important to notice in what Jesus is saying in this last verse. If we abandon our worldly values and priorities and make the Kingdom as our first priority, we will enjoy “very much more in this age.” That’s right here, right now. And then, later, the promise of eternal life after we die.

How many folks have failed to enjoy the fruits of their Kingdom labor right here on earth because they’ve only focused on “getting to heaven?” The Christian life is infinitely more than “pie in the sky bye and bye.” Jesus is telling the ruler–and us–your very best choice is to work in the Kingdom now because you will really, really love doing so and you will reap rewards you cannot even imagine. Kingdom rewards that are so much better than all our wealth and all our stuff.

 

Psalm 102:1-11; Joshua 24:14-Judges 1:16; Luke 18:1-17

Psalm 102:1-11: This psalm, which describes exactly what it is in its first line, “A prayer for the lowly when he grows faint / and pours out his plea before the LORD.” stands in stark contrast to the psalms of shouting, worshipping and singing that precede it. This juxtaposition suggests that the editors who compiled and ordered the psalms want to remind us that life is  not just about joy. There is sorrow and desperation as well.

The psalmist pleads to God, “Incline Your ear to me. / On the day I call, quickly answer me.” (3) One wonders about why “quickly” until the next verse, “For my days are consumed in smoke, / and my bones are scorched like a hearth.”  Quotidian life is like smoke wafting up into the sky; each day as ephemeral as the one before. Life is a wisp. But the almost frightful image of bones “scorched like a hearth,” we’re reminded that life has done damage to the psalmist’s health and well being. A man near death: “My heart is stricken and withers like grass, / so I forget to eat my bread.” (5)

And now he has reached the point near death, in a striking image that makes one think of a person in the painful final stages of cancer: “From my loud sighing, / my bones cleave to my flesh.” (6)  In a remarkable trilogy of bird images, “I resemble the wilderness jackdaw, /I become like the owl of the ruins. / I lie awake and become like a lonely bird on a roof.” (7b,8) we see a man lying away, near death, thin and lonely.

And yet, even in this state near death, his enemies still torment him: “All day long my enemies revile me, my taunters invoke me in curse.” (9). He ascribes his present woeful state to one cause: “because of Your wrath and Your fury, for You raised me up and flung me down.” (11). He has decided that God has done this to him.

Yet, now he comes to God, seeking succor. It would be difficult to find a more dramatic description of a man brought to the point of desperation that now he is ready to seek the one final Hope that remains: “And You LORD, forever enthroned, and Your name—for all generations.” When all seems lost, there is One to whom we can turn. There is only One, who even though He may seem to be the source of our desperation, is also at once the source of all hope.

Joshua 24:14-Judges 1:16: Joshua comes to the closing of his last speech, asking, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” (14) Worship and fidelity is what God asks of Israel–and us.

But we must never forget that we have a choice in the matter about whom we will serve. God or the ungods in our lives: “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living;” (15a)  Joshua makes the choice he has made crystal clear in the famous lines, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”(15b)  Joshua reminds us that following God is not something that “just happens,” but that it is the major decision of our lives; the center point of how we decide to exercise the gift of free will that God has given us.

At the end of this book we see that the old generation that came out of Egypt and made it to Canaan has truly passed away: Joseph’s bones are buried at Shechem; Joshua dies; Eleazar, the son of Aaron has died. A new era begins.

The book of Judges opens the people are leaderless and ask, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” (1) God answers clearly:  “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.” (2) And we witness a peaceful transition of power.  There is still much to do, and more battles against the Canaanites ensue. Perhaps most significantly for the future of the nation, “Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it.” (8) As well as the surrounding territory. Thus Judah’s name is forever associated with this all-important real estate.

The question is, will Israel conquer all the Canaanites?

Luke 18:1-17: The parable of the widow and the unjust judge seems to be about persistence. The judge had no regard for justice, but because of the widow’s unrelenting pleas that become hounding, he grants justice just to get her off her back. Jesus seems to be saying to the Jews (the “chosen ones”) that God will quickly grant them justice if they but ask. But then the ominous question, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” It seems that praying to God for justice does not necessarily mean that those praying have faith.  And we certainly know that ultimately, the Jews did not have faith in the Son of Man, Jesus.

That the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector immediately follows is Jesus’ illustration of the point he just made about the difference between those loudly crying to God and real faith.  The public prayers of the Pharisee may sound good to others, but there is no real faith in his heart; it is all about show. True faith is demonstrated in a private, humble conversation with God, as that of the tax collector. True faith expresses itself in prayers that are not about public eloquence or what other people hear.

Jesus command to bring the children to him is all well and good and a clear demonstration of his kindness, but it is not really the “take away” lesson here. The point of this incident, and its juxtaposition with the two parables that precede it, is that true faith requires no presuppositions and no ego. Just as a child is innocent of the ways of the world and has no sense yet of having to control things, so must we come into the Kingdom, shedding our desire for control and turn everything over to Jesus, exactly as a child trusts its parents to meet its every need.

 

Psalm 101; Joshua 23:1-24:13; Luke 17:26-37

Psalm 101: This psalm’s superscription says “a David psalm,” and although there’s nothing in it that ties the psalm directly to David, it’s reasonable to read it as the king’s interior thoughts about God’s “kindness and justice” (1), the qualities of the good and evil people over whom he reigns, and what he will do to those who commit evil acts.

Before he can speak of others, though, he must be pure himself: “I shall not set before my eyes / any base thing. / I hate committing transgressions. /It will not cling to me/” (3) There’s something interesting happening here: David says to himself, “May I not know evil.” (4) In other words he reflects consciously about the necessity of avoiding evil. I consider myself a “good” person, but I rarely consciously think about evil or my need to avoid it as David does here. Bringing this thought to the forefront of our minds creates a keener awareness of our decisions and actions–and makes it easier, I think, to avoid committing evil acts.

After self-reflection, David then turns his attention to persons around him, first vowing destruction on those who defame others (5). People who post hateful messages on Facebook, or conduct “Twitter wars” would do well to consider these words.

And then his abhorrence of that greatest sin, pride: “The haughty of eyes / and the proud of heart, him shall I not suffer.” (6) As others do not “suffer fools,” so we should not “suffer the prideful,” but remove ourselves from their presence. Same for liars: “A speaker of lies shall not stand firm before my eyes.” (7)

We may not be able to do what David vows as king, “Each morning I shall destroy all the wicked of the land,” (8) but we can avoid these sins ourselves, and avoid being in the presence of those who commit these sins.

Joshua 23:1-24:13: Like his predecessor, Moses, Joshua after many years of rest gives a valedictory speech to all Israel. It reminds the people how much God has blessed them in giving them this bountiful land, and reminding them to hew closely to God: “Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left.” (6) and reminding them all that God has done for them: “For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations; and as for you, no one has been able to withstand you to this day.” (9)

But it is also laced with dire warnings should the people indeed look to the right or left, “the Lord will bring upon you all the bad things, until he has destroyed you from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.” (16)  That will happen “If you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he enjoined on you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them.”  As always, the major sin is turning from God to the ungods.

In the final chapter of this book, Joshua gives a brief history of Israel, harking all the way back to Abraham, reminding them of all that God has accomplished for them, reviewing in particular detail the battles Joshua fought with them and a long list of the peoples that were conquered: “When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; ” (11) Israel has much to be thankful for.

But there is one all-important thing to remember, “ it was not by your sword or by your bow.”(12)  God has accomplished all this through them, but it was not their own doing. The final verse of this book says it all: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” (13) This is a good verse to reflect on when we finish a task, look at what’s been accomplished and think it was solely our doing.  We, too, eat of the fruit of the vineyards which we did not plant. For what we “accomplish” in our lives is God’s, not our alone.

Luke 17:26-37: Jesus continues his apocalyptic speech, describing what will happen “in the days of the Son of Man.” (27).  It will not be a pretty sight as he compares it to the Flood and the last day of Sodom. Whatever happens, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (33) The clear message: do not put your trust or security in worldly goods, position or deeds. Only by surrendering ourselves, our ego, and above all, our control wholly–losing our lives–to God will we ultimately be saved.

The final verses here–“on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.  There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”(35) provide the primary biblical source for those who believe Christians will be “raptured” into heaven. I personally think Jesus is only saying that there are two classes of people referred to above: those who trust in the world and those who trust in God and he is illustrating his point, not predicting a specific future event. 

I’m actually more intrigued by the final verse: “Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (37) The question is, what is the corpse and who is the vultures?  One possibility is that the corpse is Israel, which is in the process of rejecting he whom God sent to them. The “vultures” is sometimes translated as “eagles,” which was the symbol of the Roman army. Is this a prediction of Israel’s ultimate destruction by Titus? Perhaps. But it could easily mean other things, as well. As always, we need to be careful and avoid over-interpretation.

Psalm 100; Joshua 22; Luke 17:20-25

Psalm 100: I remember memorizing the King James version of this thanksgiving psalm back in the 5th grade (1957) at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena. I’m sure I focused mostly on the words and not very much on its meaning.  Perhaps it takes the experiences of life to fully appreciate the deep joy that this psalm communicates.

Once again, right at the first verse, there are three responses that we have when we realize just Who God is: “Shout out to the LORD, all the earth, / worship the LORD in rejoicing, /come before Him in glad song.” Shouting. Worshipping. Singing. The culture I’m part of pretty much views shouting as “inappropriate,” especially in church.  I think black churches do a better job of combining the three than the Lutheran Book of Worship does.

So, what exactly is this joy that underlies the shouting, worshipping, singing? I think the psalmist tells us in the final verse where there is another triad–this time describing God’s qualities: “For the LORD is good, / forever His kindness, / and for all generations His faithfulness.” (5) God is good. God is kind. God is faithful. Moreover all these things are “forever” and “for all generations.”

The question becomes, can I mirror God’s qualities in my relationship with other people? Can I be good. Can I be kind? Can I be faithful? I think true joy arises out of those qualities. Joy when we realize just how good, how kind, how faithful God is to us. Joy when we transmit those things on to others.

Joshua 22: The Reubenites, Gadites and half-tribe of Manasseh built a large stone altar on the east side of the Jordan. As soon as word reaches the rest of Israel over on the West bank, they send their army prepared to fight, incensed that these East Bank infidels have become apostate, telly them, “‘What is this treachery that you have committed against the God of Israel..by building yourselves an altar today in rebellion against the Lord?” (16). The West Bank tribes reassure the others that they have no intention of offering sacrifices  on it and reply, “We did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? … So your children might make our children cease to worship the Lord.” (25)

Ah, human nature. Unchanged as always. Suspicious from the start, the West Bank tribes assume the worst in the motives of the East Bank tribes. There is no up front benefit of the doubt, but at least Israel listened to the others’ case before attacking. The East Bank tribes, likewise, were not terribly trusting, assuming that Israel’s descendants would take the Jordan boundary as the “edge of Israel” and eventually cut off the East Bank descendants from God. One can almost see the roots of the modern conflict in the Mideast right here in this story.

The lesson is for all of us. We see something unusual and assume the worst possible intentions and outcome. If we take the time to listen, then maybe we can understand the other person’s point of view and their motives. But our culture is devolving to a “shoot first then ask questions” mentality. And its tragic political and social consequences are evident all around us.

 

Luke 17:20-25:  Speaking of assumptions, the Pharisees assumed that Jesus was fomenting revolution in his constant chatter about the “Kingdom of God,” so they ask him outright what he means. Jesus’ answer had to be befuddling: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’” (20, 21a) ‘Huh?’ they must have thought. Then Jesus caps it off with his puzzling statement, “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (21b)

Before Jesus said this, no one had ever thought of a kingdom as anything but a tangible political entity. That it could be dispersed among the physical kingdom like some sort of vapor is not an intuitive idea. (I’m reminded of the scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments when the angel of death is depicted as an ominous low-hanging fog spreading through the streets that Passover night.)  Even today, when we talk of “being in the Kingdom” or “working in the Kingdom” most people will just think we’re being metaphorical.

Jesus then makes a dire prophecy–to his disciples, not the Pharisees: “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” (22). This has an apocalyptic sense, I think, of Jesus’ second coming. But he is clear about what our response must be: “They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (23) The clear message to me, anyway, is keep focused on one’s work in the Kingdom, not on silliness that we’ve seen too often, like predicting the exact date of the “Rapture.”  Also, don’t follow the latest trendy religious fashion. Our duty is stay focused on the Kingdom work at hand.

Psalm 99; Joshua 21:9-45; Luke 17:11-19

Psalm 99: The psalm opens with a reminder that God is greater and more fearful (in both senses of that word) than we can imagine: “The LORD reigns—peoples tremble, /enthroned upon cherubim—the earth shakes.”  Alter reminds us in his notes that cherubim are not sweet-cheeked little angels but large fearsome beasts with wings, lion’s bodies and human faces. There’s good reason for people trembling before God.  The image of God as a bearded, avuncular old man in a white bathrobe does a disservice to our imaginations–and to our proper resect for God.

And once again we are reminded that justice is atop God’s priority list: “And with a king’s strength He loves justice.” / You firmly founded righteousness, / judgment and justice in Jacob You made.” (4).  God does not merely require justice, he loves it. It is such a tragedy that we, his highest creation, hold such a low view of justice.

There’s a striking reminder at verse 8 that God is at once merciful, but when we sin consequences abound: “LORD our God, it was You Who answered them, / a forbearing God You were to them, / yet an avenger of their misdeeds.” It’s important to note that God “avenges” misdeed. To me, that is not reaching out and striking us down in a quid pro quo fashion. Rather, it is that our misdeed will inevitably have negative consequences–on others and eventually, on ourselves.

Joshua 21:9-45: The final act in the allocation of land and the settling of Canaan, now Israel, is the grant of towns and surrounding land by each of the other tribes to the priestly tribe of Levi, who were to have no marked-out territory of their own: “The towns of the Levites within the holdings of the Israelites were in all forty-eight towns with their pasture lands. Each of these towns had its pasture lands around it.” (42) This gift of towns and land is in fact a form of tithing, a reminder that what we think is ours is really a gift from God, as was all of Canaan to Israel, and that we are really obligated to give a portion back to those who serve God on our behalf.

God really makes good on his promise to the descendants of Abraham: “Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there.” (43) And it was not a partial delivery; God delivered completely: “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.” (45) The question is, do we have sufficient faith to believe–to really believe–that God has completely delivered on His promise to us? The fact of Jesus Christ is ample proof of that.

 And it’s also clear who really conquered the land: “not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands.” (44b) Again and again, we are reminded that it is God who fights our battles and conquers our enemies.  I’m sure there were lots of soldiers in Joshua’s army that felt their personal efforts had carried the day.  But in the end, we are reminded, those soldiers were God’s instruments. The very same applies to those of us toiling in the Kingdom.

God has given Israel the land formerly known as Canaan, but in one sense He has given Israel something even greater: “And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors.” (44a) The gift of rest and respite–particularly in our goal-driven, information-soaked age–is something to be treasured. And I am personally grateful for the gift of time on most mornings to be able to sit, reflect, and write.

Luke 17:11-19: There is a very sharp barb barely concealed in this story of Jesus healing the ten lepers.  Only the Samaritan thinks to return to Jesus to thank him. Luke doesn’t have to tell us, but the other nine were certainly Jewish.  Is this story a prophecy of what was to happen in the growth of the church following Jesus’ death and resurrection? Rejected by his own people, it is the Samaritans, the Gentiles of the world, who have responded to Jesus’ healing touch.

Jesus makes it clear again and again that he has come to fulfill the Law, i.e., the Jewish Law. But like the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus in Matthew 15 and reminded him that the dogs eat the crumbs from the table, Luke is telling us that it is “foreigners” who come back and understand what Jesus has done for them. And as we find out in the epistles, Jesus is the cornerstone rejected by his own people.

I also think that we can extend this lesson to the Church at large.  We are all lepers, and even though we have all been healed spiritually through Jesus’ atoning act, we become blasé and careless, forgetting to thank Jesus for what he has done for us. In the church setting, the “foreigners” are often the newest Christ-followers, whose enthusiasm we too easily discount as naive. We mature Christians, blinded by our sophistication, too often forget the magnitude of Jesus has really been done for us.

 

Psalm 98; Joshua 19:40-21:8; Luke 17:1-10

Psalm 98: This psalm is clearly a hymn–a new song–to be sung by Israel gathered together with the implication it was written to celebrate a victory. What’s key is that it acknowledges it is God’s victory, not Israel’s: “The LORD made known His victory, / before the nations’ eyes He revealed His bounty,” (2) that is visible to all the nations around Israel: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” (3b).

The victory is not only visible to other people, but to all creation: “Shout out to the LORD, all the earth. / Burst forth in glad song and hymn.” (4)  And all creation joins in with the orchestra (lyre, trumpets and ram’s horn are mentioned) that surely accompanied this hymn: “Let the sea and its fullness thunder, /… Let the rivers clap hands, / let the mountains together sing gladly.” (7,8) It’s as if they join the orchestra as the percussion section.

Once again, I’m struck by the unity between humankind and the natural world that’s expressed here. There is no sense that men dominate creation; rather, we are integral to it. Alas, we have certainly done our best to destroy that unity as we have exploited natural resources (not to mention other races) down through history. That is hardly the stewardship God asked of Adam.

Joshua 19:40-21:8: Having overseen the division of the land among the tribes, the tribes in return give Joshua, “by command of the Lord gave him the town that he asked for, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim; he rebuilt the town, and settled in it.” (19:50) Thus,  Joshua retires from leadership.

That’s quite a contrast to Moses’ exit from the stage: his last long speech reiterating the commandments; the Song of Moses (Deut. 32); the formal transfer of leadership to Joshua; Moses’ final blessing of the people (Deut. 33); the last longing glimpse of Canaan from the mountaintop; his death and burial (Deut. 34).

Joshua asks for a ruined town, restores it, and settles down. This is not the last we hear of Joshua; there is still some work to do and a speech to make. But Joshua, organized and clearly not the prophetic visionary that Moses was, is an example of how God uses people who are willing to simply go out and do God’s work without fanfare.

Moses was God’s perfect man to lead an unruly mob out of Egypt and into the wilderness, keeping order by force.  Joshua is God’s perfect man to organize a new nation, lead an army, allocate resources, and set up processes such as the Cities of Refuge that will serve the people well for many years to come. Kingdom work requires visionaries like and it requires insightful leadership and administrators willing to rebuild their own town.

Luke 17:1-10: This section of Luke seems to be a compilation of his additional notes about Jesus’ sayings that he took down from his sources.

These sayings are not connected to weighty parables; they are just reminders of the quotidian duties of Christ-followers: Don’t be a stumbling block to others; be willing to rebuke those who sin (something we are awfully loathe to do in our litigious culture); forgive those who repent; forgive others times seven.

And following Joshua’s example, we must work effectively as we are commanded, but don’t expect a reward. Or even a “thank you.” After all, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (17:10)  This is the gritty day-to-day work of being a Christ-follower.

But so often we are tempted by the applause of the crowd that tricks us into believing we are special, the exception and then believing we can just randomly sit down at the Master’s table as an equal. As usual, it boils down to the question of who is in charge of our lives? That eternal existential question: Am I really willing to abandon my ego and really let Jesus run my life?

Psalm 97:7-12; Joshua 19:10-39; Luke 16:16-31

Psalm 97:7-12: The eschatological tone of the psalm continues with a description of the effect of God’s glory on those who do not worship Him: “All idol-worshippers are shamed, / who boast of the ungods. / All gods bow down to Him.” (7) While the worshipers of the idols of our age may appear to be on the ascendant, and while they make bold claims that not only is belief in God needlessly stupid but even barbaric, this psalm makes it clear that they will one day be apprised of their arrogant stupidity.

We “who love the LORD, [and] hate evil,” on the other hand, can hold onto the bold promise that “He guards the lives of His faithful. From the hand of the wicked He saves them,” (10) because “Light is sown for the just, / and for the upright of heart there is joy.”  (11) The image of light being sewn into the earth as if it is seed is striking. For those of us living under the terms of the New Covenant, the light of Jesus has been sewn into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we take seriously what the psalmist is saying–that we are now bearers of God’s light, then we will both worship joyfully and testify: “Rejoice, O you just, in the LORD, / and acclaim His holy name.” (12) The light we bear also means it is our responsibility to do all we can to bring justice, which is after all the underlying theme of this psalm.

Joshua 19:10-39: The territories of Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali are laid out in detail. What’s interesting here in this otherwise fairly dull passage is that the territories of these last six tribes have been assigned by lot. This is God’s fairness at work: that he does not hold certain tribes or families above others.

We are all equal before God.  A message that Jesus preached again and again, but that those who saw themselves as being above others could not stand and conspired to kill this rabble-rouser who was only following what God had already laid out. How quickly we forget the fairness of God as our self-centered pride replaces the simple simple fact that we are each created equal at the moment of our birth.  And death.

Luke 16:16-31: At first, Jesus’ comment that people try to enter the Kingdom “by force” is puzzling. But then we see the context of his statement, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” (17) I think Jesus is saying that entering the Kingdom is actually more difficult than obeying every “jot and tittle” of the Law. There is only One Way to enter the Kingdom, and while that may transcend the Law, it does not abrogate it.  (As I recall this is a topic that Paul delves into in detail in Romans.)

As an example of this greater difficulty, he lays out the terms of divorce, whcih are far stricter than those laid out in Moses’ law where divorce was more easily obtained. Since he is speaking to scribes and Pharisees it’s not unreasonable to assume that many of them had divorced their previous wives and married anew. Here, I think, Jesus is stating God’s law in the clearest possible terms to those who claimed they followed every aspect of the Law. It’s interesting to note that Jesus does not elaborate or explain further. He seems to be saying, ‘It’s a law, guys. Deal with it. If you weren’t so hypocritical, you’d realize you’ve broken the Law in important ways.’

Unfortunately, I think Jesus’ example has been over-interpreted to the extent of punishing people who divorce for very good reason. Yes, it may be adultery, but as Jesus points out again and again, each of us breaks the Law even when we think we are being ‘good,’

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells us that in the end the those who claim to be better and above others, i.e., the scribes and Pharisees, do not in fact really follow the law. It is Lazarus, who makes no pretensions to superiority who is favored by God. (This picks up on the theme of justice in today’s Psalm and the theme of all of us being created equal before God discussed above.)

Those who live as if they are superior to others are not following the Law at all. And, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Which is not only an indictment of human pride; it is of course a prophecy of exactly what happened. Right up to today.

 

 

Psalm 97:1-6; Joshua 18:1-19:9; Luke 16:1-15

Psalm 97:1-6: John certainly had this psalm in mind when he wrote of his visions on Patmos. “His lightnings lit up the world; / the earth saw and quaked. /Mountains melted like wax before the LORD,/ before the Master of all the earth.” (4,5). Particularly at the opening of the sixth seal: “and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (Rev 6:13,14).

Both passages remind me that despite my and others’ attempts to do so, God is not constrained by the little box into which we prefer He’d fit.

At its core, this psalm is about justice: “Cloud and dense fog around Him, / justice and judgment the base of His throne” (2) and then, “The heavens told His justice, and all peoples saw His glory.” (6) A perfect creation would be perfectly just. Alas, we have corrupted creation by our sin that promotes injustice. We want to keep God in that little box hoping He won’t see our acts because in our hearts we know that we sew and tolerate injustice. Again and again, we are reminded that to come before God we must be perfectly just. And there is only One Way by which that can occur.

Joshua 18:1-19:9: Seven tribes have not yet had their territories apportioned. We would think that upon finally arriving at the Promised Land that everyone would be eager to claim their portion of the land, settle down and begin life anew.  Yet, there seems that having arrived, the people are just “hanging out.” We hear frustration in Joshua’s voice when he asks, “How long will you be slack about going in and taking possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you?” (18:3) So Joshua takes matters into his own hands, assigns three men from each tribe to lay out the remaining portions of land, which they do.

So, why were they being slack about taking possession of the land? There could be many reasons, but one of them, I think, was that as far as they were concerned they’d reached the Promised Land and that in itself was sufficient. Just as we come into the Kingdom when we’re baptized but then just “hang out,” expecting others to to the hard work. We choose churches based on how much we like the quality of their preaching and music. We “church shop” for the programs that suit us, behaving exactly as the consumers of other products. But then, like the Israelites, we we refuse to actually work and contribute to the building of the Kingdom. Joshua’s words about “how long we will be slack” is not a historical artifact; they are completely appropriate for us today.

Luke 16:1-15: This is one of those parables that upon first reading make me go “Huh?!?” Is Jesus really endorsing dishonesty? But on closer examination, Jesus is endorsing stewardship and faithfulness. We are all dishonest managers and we have been given wealth that in the end and despite what we think is assuredly not our own; it is God’s. How we use that wealth is the point here. Do we use it as a means to invite others into the Kingdom just as the manager used his master’s wealth to ensure he would be welcome into other’s homes after he lost his job?

Wealth is a means, not an end. We can have wealth, but if we focus on it, thinking it’s our own then it becomes our master. But if we use it as a means to build the Kingdom, then we are serving God, not the other master.