Psalm 104:31-35; Judges 14,15; Luke 22:1-13

Psalm 104:31-35: The final verses of this psalm are like the cadenza in a concerto: a final flourish of virtuosity that leaves the listener–or in this case, the reader–breathless. The psalmist uses every faculty he possesses to praise God: “Let me sing to the LORD while I live, / let me hymn to my God while I breathe. / Let my speech be sweet unto Him.” (33,34a) Sing, “hymn,” speak. All to one glorious end: “As for me, I rejoice in the LORD.” (34b)

The penultimate verse is one wish: “Let offenders vanish from earth and the wicked be no more.” (35) Since nowhere has this psalm dealt with “offenders” or the wicked, it seems almost as if it was added in to the original psalm by an editor to make sure all the theological bases were covered. Nevertheless, it is only a momentary pause in the crescendo that ends this wonderful hymn to God’s munificence of His creation: “Bless, O my being, the LORD, Hallelujah!” A segue to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus would seem appropriate here.

Judges 14,15: For me, Samson is one of the most puzzling and, yes, annoying figures in the OT. He has been given remarkable gifts by God, andGod clearly is directing important aspects of his life, such as marrying a Philistine woman. His imbued by the Holy Spirit with both courage and strength: “The spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid.” (14:6) But his human qualities are problematic at best and revolting at worst.

He is secretive and doesn’t tell his parents about his encounter with the lion. He is arrogant, taunting the Philistines with his famous riddle. He is stubborn, refusing to tell his wife the answer to the riddle. But he can be manipulated, “and because she nagged him, on the seventh day he told her” (14:17) the answer.

He is given to rage: “…and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle.” (14:19). He abandons his wife and comes home to his parents to sulk.

He is vindictive. When he comes back and tries to reclaim his wife, which her father denies, he destroys the father’s farm with burning foxtails. And he is vengeful, “Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men.” (15:15)

Finally, he is a complainer, complaining to God, “ Am I now to die of thirst, and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” (15:18). And God inexplicably, IMO, gives him water.  The “Spirit of the Lord” is in Samson and he judges Israel for 20 years. But, frankly, I find him to be a repulsive human being. Proof, I guess, that God’s ways are indeed mysterious. Proof, also, that God can use people who are arrogant, stubborn, vindictive, rage-filled, and complainers–among other attractive qualities. And of course Samson demonstrates that we don’t have to be treacly wimps to be useful to God!

Luke 22:1-13: So we come to the third Passion narrative since the beginning of this year. Luke carefully constructs the multiple plot elements that will all shortly collide. He gives us the motivation of the Temple hierarchy: “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people.” (2) Luke positions Judas as their perfect plot device because “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.” Does that mean that because Judas was possessed and really didn’t act on his own will? Is Luke letting Judas of the hook? Is “Satan” the evil side in all of us?

Interestingly, Luke, ever the detailed historian doesn’t give us the amount about the payoff to Judas, but keeps his primary focus on the Chief Priests and scribes, “They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money.” Judas is basically a minor player in the plot.

Yet, Luke gives us a tantalizing detail in the preparation for Passover in the Upper Room, “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters  and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (10,11) Who was this guy with the jar of water and why did Jesus know about him? It’s a reminder that history, where God is involved, hangs on the tiniest detail. What if the disciples had found two men carrying water? What then? It’s also a reminder that even performing the simplest, most mundane task can have profound consequences.

Psalm 104:24-30; Judges 13; Luke 21:29-38

Psalm 104:24-30: In this long peaen to God and His creation, the author praises its marvelous riches and order. “The lions roar for prey, / seeking from God their food.” (21) But then return to their dens as “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening.” (23) Even though lions and men are natural enemies, they both operate in creation by the diurnal pattern God has instilled in them.  This is just one example, as the psalmist writes, “How many Your deeds, O LORD/, all of them You do in wisdom./ All the earth is filled with Your riches.” (24)  It is the same at sea as on land: “There the ships go, / this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.” (26) Because of God’s wisdom man and Leviathan can coexist in the same creation.

All of creation, including ourselves, is dependent on God:God provides for every creature: “All of them look to You / to give them their food in its season.” (28)  But there will be times when it appears God has deserted His creation, and panic and death ensue: “When You hide Your face, they panic, / You withdraw their breath and they perish, and to the dust they return.” (29) But even after the hardest times, there will always be renewal: “When You send forth Your breath, they are created, / and You renew the face of the earth.” (30)

Death and renewal: the endless cycle. But when we are faced with hardship and trials and disease, and God seems to have “hidden His face,” there is always the promise of renewal. This psalm of course is also a metaphor for Jesus’ work for all of humankind. Death and then not just renewal, but Resurrection.

Judges 13: Then, there is the other endless cycle: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” (1) Then, Israel repents and returns to God until the nation drifts away form God once again. Each cycle seems to last 40 years, which can be taken literally or symbolically, 40 being the number for a long time. 

In a remarkable parallel to the Abraham-Sarah story, and a presaging of words we will hear at the Annunciation, there is a barren woman in the tribe of Dan. “And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.” (3)  Unlike the other stories, there are clear instructions about what to to: “Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean… No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. (4,5) Even better, there is a wonderful promise, “It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”  (6)

The wife goes to her husband, who unlike many of his neighbors, is still a man of God. He prays, asking for the angel to return, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.”  Eventually the man and his wife meet up with the angel, who gives them instructions, but not his name “because it is too wonderful.”  The grateful couple, still unaware that their visitor is an angel, ask him to stay for lunch, but the declines, suggesting they offer the goat as a sacrifice to God.

When they do, the angel ascends to heaven on the flames. The man, Manoah, fears they will die for having seen God, but his wife points out if that was God’s plan, they would already be dead.

This wonderful story of a still-faithful couple being visited by an “angel unaware” is a marvelous promise to us: God can come to us in a lot of ways, and turn our lives inside out. We may not understand why a particular event or person or even illness comes our way, but as this couple from the tribe of Dan discovered, it may indeed have come from God. God is always full of surprises.

 Luke 21:29-38: My NRSV Bible has subject headers, and this one says, “The Lesson of the Fig Tree.” So what exactly, is the lesson of the fig tree? Is it an eschatological statement? Perhaps. Jesus points to the fig leaves and talks about things happening “before this generation passes away,” and an unbelievable thing certainly did happen later that week.  But I think the lesson of the fig tree is also once again about being prepared, about being alert, and about having our priorities straight.

For me, Jesus’ central statement is, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” (34) In other words don’t waste your time on the things we’d expect Jesus to tell us not to waste our time doing: “dissipation and drunkenness.” OK, but then and for me, more importantly, don’t waste our time on “the worries of life.”

Jesus admonition about not worrying is paramount and becoming more so as I grow older. The topics to worry about seem endless: Will my cancer come back? What happens when Susan can’t walk? Will we have enough money for retirement? Will Geoff get tenure? What kind of world will our grandkids grow up into? Will there be enough water in California? What will happen geopolitically? The list is endless. As Jesus points out, it’s got to be a conscious act to decide not to worry.

But we also need to remember that “not worrying” does not mean becoming clueless to what’s going on. That’s why Jesus is also telling us to stay alert. Staying alert but not worrying by placing our trust in God.  In fact, I think that’s a spiritual discipline I would do well to keep practicing.

Psalm 104:10-18; Judges 8; Luke 20:9-19

Psalm 104:10-18: Descending down form the clouds and mountain tops of the first part of this psalm, these verses describe God’s creation at a human scale. More importantly, they describe how God’s creation is in perfect balance–a balance we humans have pretty much upended.

Water flows like a stream through here, tying all of life on earth together: “You let loose the springs in freshets, among the mountains they go.” (10) The waters come down and “They water all beasts of the field, the wild asses slake their thirst.” (11) Rain and snow “waters mountains from His lofts, / from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated.” (13). Reminding us that water is fundamentally a gift from God–a gift that in this drought time we realize we have largely squandered. Water is the source of life: “He makes the hay sprout for cattle, grass / for the labor of humankind to bring forth bread from the earth.”  And not just bread, “and wine that gladdens the heart of man / to make faces shine brighter than oil, and bread that sustains the heart of man.”

Water is life–clearly something the psalmist realized in the semi-arid climate of Israel. Which is why for me, anyway, baptism is about far more than a symbolic cleansing. Baptismal water reminds us that water is the how God has designed His creation to bring us physical life. Without it we are dead. And how the waters of baptism bring us New Life.

Judges 8: Gideon, triumphant over Midean, is “upbraided violently” by the Ephramites, who had wanted to join the battle for its spoils. When Gideon points out that “God has given into your hands the captains of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb;” (3) and “their anger against him subsided.” This is a classic case of wanting more, even though the  Ephraimites had plenty already. Gideon then crosses the Jordan, “he and the three hundred who were with him, exhausted and famished.” (5). The people of Succoth refuse to give him bread because he has not yet captured  Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian. Gideon vows vengeance: “I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.”  (7) The same refusal for bread for his troops happens at Penuel, and Gideon vows to throw down their tower when he returns. Gideon captures the kings and carries out his threat on Succoth and Penuel.

Was Gideon just being vindictive? To an extent, yes. But Succoth and Penuel are us: we are never satisfied. Even when God did great things through Gideon, these people were dissatisfied; it was insufficient; they wanted more. Even when Jesus did great things, the Pharisees were dissatisfied; it was not enough. Even when great things happen in a church community through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are still dissatisfied; it is not enough.

Gideon’s leadership is so impressive that all Israel wants him to be king,“Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also.” Gideon refuses but asks for some of the booty. The enthusiastic contribution adds up to one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold. But then Gideon does something deeply disturbing, “Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his town, in Ophrah; and all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (27).

Even the finest leader will fail.  He became corrupted, I think, both by the great victories and by the fawning of the crowd. As we marketers say, Gideon began to believe his own press releases. The cryptic line, it became a snare” pretty much says it all. Gideon believe it was his accomplishment; not God’s. The fleece-laying Gideon had been subsumed by his ego.  The kings of Israel that eventually followed Gideon sinned the same way. “Sinned” in the sense of separating themselves from God; placing themselves at the center. We look at the many charismatic church leaders who have fallen in our time and see Gideon. But too often, we do not see ourselves.

Luke 20:9-19:  There is nothing hidden about the parable of the wicked tenants. The slaves who were sent are the prophets; and Jesus is claiming to  “the beloved son” is pretty obvious. It is a barely concealed description of the corrupted leadership of Israel, and the leadership recognizes that and “When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour,” (19). 

We shake our heads and excoriate the leaders for not “getting it.” But it is also a parable for us. How many slaves have we tossed out, including tossed out of churches? How many people, who have Jesus in there heart, are like the beloved son have we rejected as “Jesus-obsessed” or naive and we have discounted or even dismissed?

The state of American culture–and even in the institutional church– is not far from the Israel of Gideon’s–and Jesus’– time. We have rejected the slaves and prophets and warning; we seem to be in the process of rejecting the Beloved Son.

I have always tended to laugh at those who say “judgement is coming.” But now I’m not so sure. I don’t think it will be an apocalyptic event, but the slow acid of corruption in the name of “fairness” and “tolerance,” disguising our intrinsic self-centered pride. Like Gideon we have our own ephods. Like Israel, we fall away in our ultimate failure to recognize ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’.  God forbid.

Psalm 104:1-9; Judges 7; Luke 19:45-20:8

Psalm 104:1-9: This psalm starts out the same was as the previous one, but heads off in a completely different direction. Psalm 103 celebrates God’s kindness and compassion; This one is an almost ecstatic celebration of the glories of God’s greatness and His dominion over creation with two striking similes: “You are very great./ Grandeur and glory You don. / Wrapped in light like a cloak, stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.” (2) God wears grandeur and his chariot is the clouds.

God is on the move everywhere in creation; we sense God’s own joy at what He has created: “He goes on the wings of the wind. /He makes His messengers the winds, / His ministers, glowing fire.” (3,4) The psalmist recapitulates the first parts of the Genesis story: “He founded earth on its solid base, / not to be shaken forevermore.” (5) Although people who’ve experienced earthquakes may dispute our psalmist’s assertion of “not to be shaken,” the reality is that earth has continued in its stable orbit for billions of years.

Then, a reference to water: “With the deep You covered it like a garment—/ over mountains the waters stood.” While this may be simply a reference to the vastness of the oceans, it could be taken as a description of the Noahic flood (“over the mountains”). The flood imagery seems reinforced at verse 8: “They [the waters] went up the mountains, went down the valleys, / to the place that You founded for them.” And then God’s promise that the flood would never happen again: “A border You fixed so they could not cross, / so they could not come back to cover the earth.” (9)

What strikes me most of all is the sheer energy of God’s creative power and that it is a dynamic, ongoing process. Creation didn’t just happen as some Genesis 1 static fact and then God went on to do something more interesting. Instead, God continues to be actively involved in His creation, a reality we can reflect on whenever we feel the wind or see a cloud cross the sky.

Judges 7: Gideon is now convinced that God is serious about Israel defeating the Midianites, so he assembles a really big army. But God has a point to make to Gideon and Israel: “ Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’” (2) God orders Gideon to dismiss the “fearful and trembling,” which he does. But then after serious winnowing, the 300 troops who lapped the water remain. This is now Gideon’s army.

Gideon spies on the Midian camp at night and overhears a man telling his dream to a comrade: a cake of barley tumbles onto a tent and overturns the tent. The comrade coolly replies with the dream’s interpretation: “And his comrade answered, “This is no other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, a man of Israel; into his hand God has given Midian and all the army.” (14) 

But Gideon does not just rush back to camp and rally the troops. Instead, “When Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped.” (15) Gideon realizes that the comrade was the voice of God and is now fully convinced his army of 300 can defeat an army that “lay along the valley as thick as locusts.” And his first response is to worship. The question is, what is my response when God speaks to me? Do I pause and worship, realizing that I am God’s instrument, but the battle is his?

Gideon and his army of 300 carry out the famous trumpet and jar stratagem and secure victory for Israel. As with the walls of Jericho, trumpets again play a key role in defeating the enemy. But perhaps the most inspiring action of Gideon’s army was their cry, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” (20) That is how God works through us as he worked through Gideon. Both God and his instrument, the doubting Gideon were essential. Just as we are essential to carrying out God’s work in the Kingdom.

Luke 19:45-20:8: Jesus tosses the vendors out of the Temple. “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him;” (47) but Jesus is too popular. Luke doesn’t tell us, but I think the leaders regrouped and thought if they could figure out a way to undermine Jesus’ authority then the people would abandon him–and they could be rid of this annoying rabble-rouser. So they ask the question,  “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” (20:2). Jesus instantly perceives the stratagem and asks them, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The leaders realize  they had been trapped. If they say “heaven,” Jesus can rightfully ask why didn’t you believe him? If they answer otherwise, the crowds, in front of whom this question was asked who still revered John, would have their heads. 

The leaders have been hoisted on their own trick question petard and Jesus refuses to answer. The issue is that in the end, each of us has to make a decision individually about whether or not Jesus “is from heaven.” It’s the same situation as when the Pharisees asked for “a sign from heaven” (Matthew 16). Even if they received one, they’d figure out a way to discount it. Because they preferred to keep their ego at the center of their lives rather than give themselves up wholly “to heaven.”

Same thing here. The world is pretty divided on the question. But in the end, it comes down to what each of us believes in our hearts. And who eventually occupies that heart.

Psalm 103:19-22; Judges 6; Luke 19:28-44

Psalm 103:19-22: The concluding verses to this remarkable psalm remind me of the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The preceding 3 movements are each magnificent, each outlining a memorable theme, just as this psalm has done up to this point. The 4th movement begins quietly, but then four soloists and a choir come in with the word, “Freude,” which means “jo,” softly at first, but building in power and emotion.

And so with this psalm. Rather than “joy,” there is the phrase, “Bless the Lord,” repeated several times. First the “messengers of God”–the angels–are blessed, “valiant in power, performing His word,/ to heed the sound of His word.” (20). Then, we humans, “Bless the LORD, all His armies, / His servants performing His pleasure.” (21) And then, in a resounding crescendo, orchestra, soloists, choir, all of God’s works: “Bless the LORD, O all His works, / in all places of His dominion.” Works: Not just the earth, not just human beings, but all of God’s cosmic creation.

And then one final cadenza, “Bless, O my being, the LORD!” as the psalmist brings this magnificent theme back to himself, exactly where he began the psalm, realizing that he, too, is part of this creation. As we all are. If we but take a moment, stop and reflect on both the majesty and miracle of what God has done for us.

Judges 6: The endless cycle. Following the forty years of “rest” that Deborah’s victory had brought, the next chapter opens with the ever-depressing words, “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”  Now they are desperate, hiding in caves and when they plant seeds it is stolen; they must be near starvation. 

An angel comes, sits under an oak tree, and begins speaking with Gideon, who is threshing wheat in a wine press to hide it from the Midianites. God is speaking directly to Gideon via the angel, who commissions him to “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian;” (14). Gideon protests, claiming he is weakest of a weak family from a weak tribe. But the angel replies, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” (16)

The still incredulous Gideon goes off and prepares lunch for his guest, which the guest sets on a rock and it burns up, proof enough for Gideon that he is indeed speaking with an angel. This gives him courage to believe what the angel said was indeed true. He takes 10 men and they tear down the Baal altar at night since they were rightfully afraid of the Midianites, who immediately bring their army to put Israel back in its place. But Gideon courageously blows his trumpet and the remnants of Israel’s army gathers for battle.

This all happens before the famous “setting out the fleece” incident and demonstrates not only Gideon’s intrinsic courage, but also his faithful obedience. It’s not like the fleece instilled these qualities in him; he already had them. But Gideon is not naive. After all, he may have just been lucky up to this point. But now the stakes are infinitely higher, and he asks God to confirm what has been promised. And in another example of God’s patience, the fleece is put out twice, and twice God does exactly what Gideon has asked.

For me, Gideon is the example of courageous faith tempered by savvy. God does not ask to be followed blindly. For me, that is the mark that distinguishes a cult from true faith: God gave us brains to ask questions and yes, test Him. Just as a serious walk of faith is a journey of constant seeking, questioning, listening–and observing the evidence around us that God is who He says He is.

Luke 19:28-44: Jesus comes to the gate of Jerusalem and makes his famous entry. The Pharisees are not exactly happy to see him, saying ““Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” (40) Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  The listening Pharisees doubtless thought that “shouting stones” were mere hyperbole, but there is far deeper meaning here.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, realizing that the people whom he came to save, represented by Jerusalem itself, are about to reject him and thereby, his Kingdom, which contains  “the things that make for peace!” But tragically, they see only an itinerant preacher who seems intent on upending the status quo and angering the Romans in the process. They think they can get peace by getting rid of this hick preacher from Galilee. But, alas, Jesus and the Kingdom are now “hidden from your eyes.”

History is awash in missed opportunities “hidden from our eyes” that, had they been seized, would have led to far better outcomes. But is there a greater missed opportunity than this one? The missed opportunity of Israel rejecting its Messiah?

Was the destruction of Jerusalem God’s retribution for their failure to recognize who Jesus was? It certainly seems to be what Jesus is saying: “They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (44)

The stones would have cried out because the even the stones of Jerusalem knew what the people of Jerusalem refused to recognize. And the rest is history.

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.