Psalm 89:20–29; Joshua 1,2; Luke 11:37–54

Originally posted 7/26/2016. Revised and updated 7/26/2018

Psalm 89:20–29: Turning to full encomium mode, our psalmist gives God all the credit in causing Israel to choose David as Israel’s king, now writing in God’s voice:
Then did You speak in a vision
to Your faithful and did say:
‘I set a crown upon the warrior,

I raised up one chosen from the people
I found David my servant,
with My holy oil anointed him. (20, 21)

There’s no question in the psalmist’s mind that David had been chosen by God, as God now announces how he will protect David from all comers—not just protection, but military victory as well:
No enemy shall cause him grief
and no vile person afflict him.

I will grind down his foes before him
and defeat those who hate him.
” (23, 24)

Our psalmist, doubtless writing retrospectively, describes the intimacy of God’s relationship with David, effectively bestowing God-like qualities on his chosen king:
My faithfulness and my kindness are with him,
and in My name his horn will be lifted.

David’s kingdom will be extensive (again the poet writes with hindsight):
And I shall put his hand to the sea
and his right hand to the rivers.

Perhaps most importantly, David reciprocates God’s faithfulness to him:
He will call me: ‘My father You are,
my God and the rock of my rescue.’ 

It is this faithfulness lies at the root of David becoming Israel’s greatest king, and in fact, the greatest king on the earth:
I, too, shall make him My firstborn,
most high among kings of the earth.

It almost seems that the Covenant between God and Israel has been transmogrified into a personal covenant between God and David:
Forever I shall keep my kindness for him
and my pact will be faithful to him.

This verse creates the clear sense that it is the righteousness and faithfulness of Israel’s king that will in large part determine how faithful God will be to Israel. And as we know from Israel’s history, it is unrighteous kings that hastened Israel’s demise.

Joshua 1,2: Upon the death of Moses, God commissions Joshua as undisputed leader of Israel, promising, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (1:5b) and tells Joshua (three times): “Be strong and courageous” (1:6, 7, 9) but always with the caveat: “being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” (1:7) As long as Joshua is “strong and courageous” and obeys the law, “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

Preparations for battle commence, beginning with the reminder that the tribes that remained on the east side of the Jordan that “all the warriors among you shall cross over armed before your kindred and shall help them.” (1:14) The Reubenites and others tell Joshua they will be faithful and in a promise that resonates down through the ages, they respond, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” (1:16). This is also our command. The question is are we as faithful as these warriors?

Josuha shows great strategic wisdom, requiring intelligence before planning and commencing battle. He sends two spies to reconnoiter the land, “especially Jericho.” They enter Jericho on the pretense of seeking sexual satisfaction, and “entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab” (2:1). Somehow the king of Jericho finds out they’re there and demands that Rahab turn them over. Rahab has hidden them and concocts a story that they have already departed.

Rahab tells the men that fear has overcome Jericho since the fierce reputation of the Israelites has preceded them. She tells them that since “I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.” (2:12) The spies agree, telling her that if she stays quiet, “then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.” (2:14). The spies tell her that she must hang a red cord out her window when they invade as a signal to spare her and her family or the deal is off.

Rahab lets the spies out by a back window and they escape Jericho. After hiding from the pursuers for 3 days, they return to Joshua bringing the good news that “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us.” (2:24)

What’s fascinating about this classic story is that God uses not only a female, but a prostitute as the means of both providing information as well as escape. The lesson for us is of course that God does not work only through the mighty, but the very least of people. Which of course was exactly Jesus’ method as well, especially as we reflect on the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Luke 11:37–54: Itinerant that he was, Jesus was always willing to dine with anyone who invited him, and in this case, he sups with a Pharisee and his lawyer friends. Things start out badly as Jesus neglects to wash his hands. When this is called to his attention, he lectures them on their hypocrisy,  “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” (39). Things go downhill from there and a lawyer responds, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” (45)

Far from being sympathetic or apologizing, Jesus accuses them of blatant hypocrisy and worse, of oppressing the people—which they should know that showing justice and mercy to the poor and widows is a key command of the Jewish scriptures: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.” (46) He excoriates them further: “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.” (51)

Not surprisingly, following this rather disastrous dinner, “the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward him…lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.” (53)

We can only conclude that Jesus intentionally created this hostile atmosphere, knowing where it would eventually lead. Obviously, everything he said about these folks was true, and he did nothing to sugar-coat it. The lesson here for us is that while the yoke may be easy, Jesus’ message is hard.

People aren’t going to like hearing their faults quite as explicitly as Jesus put it to these guys. Like them, we will respond defensively just as the lawyer did. We do a disservice to the church when we fail to speak about our intrinsic sinfulness (or perform the rite of confession at worship), creating the impression that Jesus is sort of this nice guy but kind of wimpy (which is what I hear in much praise music).

Psalm 89:10–19; Deuteronomy 33:18–34:12; Luke 11:29–36

Psalm 89:10–19: As he continues to praise God’s dominance over all the small-g gods—”A God held in awe by the council of he holy” (8a)—our psalmist shifts his focus to God’s power over creation, first over the oceans:
You rule over the tide of the sea.
When its waves lift up, it is You who subdue them.
It is You Who crushed Rahab like a corpse—
with the arm of Your might You scattered Your enemies. (10, 11)

[Alter informs us that ‘Rahab’ is one of the names for the primordial sea god of the Canaanites.]

Our poet expands the scope of God’s dominion to all of earthy creation—because it is God who is Creator:
Yours are the heavens, Yours, too, the earth.
The world and its fullness, You founded them.
The north and the south, You created them.
Tabor and Hermon sing glad song in Your name. (12, 13)

His focus shifts to God as ruler of his creation and the beneficent qualities of his rule:
Yours is the arm with the might.
Your hand is strong, Your right hand raised.
Justice and law are the base of Your throne.
Steadfast kindness and truth go before Your presence. (14, 15)

Here at the juxtaposition of justice and law against kindness and truth I think we have one of the more effective descriptions of God’s relationship with his creatures, i.e., humans, us. We read of the angry God who lashes out against injustice and the gentle, loving God who wants only to embrace us. These are not  contradictions or even inconsistencies in God’s character: these are the jeweled facets of who God is—and who he wants us to imitate. Of course Jesus Christ is God’s human incarnation of these qualities—and therefore the more tangible example that we are to imitate.

The psalmist brings us back to earth by describing God’s followers and the blessings they enjoy:
“Happy the people who know the horn’s blast.
O Lord, they walk in the light of Your presence.
In Your name they exult all day long,
and through Your bounty they loom high.
For You are their strength’s grandeur,
and through Your pleasure our horn is lifted. (16-18)

Notice how the psalmist is subtly shifting to a description of the qualities of leadership: they are happy; they worship; they “loom high” over others; and they are strong— the very best exemplars of God’s power over creation.

The focus shifts to one man, one protector:
For the Lord’s is our shield,
and to Israel’s Holy One, our king. (19)

Who this is will come as no surprise in the verses that follow…

Deuteronomy 33:18–34:12: See yesterday’s reflections.

Luke 11:29–36: As Jesus’ popularity grows and the crowds clamor for more miracles his speeches turn darker. Like John the Baptist before him he doesn’t hesitate to excoriate the crowd and the culture in general: “When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.” (29, 30) Obviously, no one understood what Jesus meant by the “sign of Jonah,” but for us we know: as Jonah was swallowed by the fish, spent three days in darkness and then was spit out, so Jesus is referring to his own death, burial, and resurrection.

The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because … something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (31, 32)

Jesus clearly states that his generation will reject him and be judged harshly for it. Unlike the Queen of Sheba who came from the south to bask in Solomon’s wisdom, the crowds will reject Jesus’ far greater wisdom. And unlike the people of Nineveh, who repented upon hearing Jonah’s message, this generation will reject the man who is greater than Jonah. What Jesus says about his generation is certainly still true of the present generation as we move into a post-Christian world. Our own generation rejects wisdom greater than Solomon’s and it rejects Jesus’ saving grace.

Jesus then gets personal, and states a medical truism: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.” (34) Jesus is giving us a binary choice. First, we should “consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” (35) Are we full of false light, which I take to be self-centered pride or perhaps the ersatz enlightenment of gnosticism, or in our case, reliance on our own “wisdom” or technology?  Or are we full of the true light that Jesus brings to us? True light, which to me stands for the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, means we live a true life, a life that shines forth in the darkness of the world that surrounds us. What a wonderful promise: that we will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” (36)



Psalm 89:1-8; Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12; Luke 11:29-36

Originally published 7/25/2014. Revised and updated 7/24/2018

Psalm 89:1-9: This psalm acclaims God’s faithfulness—repeated 8 times in the psalm— to His people over and over. Alter informs us that that this is a royal psalm, describing the covenant between King David and God:
‘I [God] have sealed a pact with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant.’ (4)

But it becomes clear that it was composed at a time when David’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse in the face of his enemies. Nevertheless, the psalmist is relentlessly upbeat in the first verses about God’s immutable faithfulness. Our psalmist is attempting to reassure his listeners and perhaps  himself. In modern parlance, he’s basically saying, “Hang in there. God is faithful and will help us through this dark time.” He wants to make sure we get the point by coming back to God’s faithfulness repeatedly:

For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.” (2)
You set Your faithfulness firm.” (3)
the heavens will acclaim…Your faithfulness, too,” (6)
“...who is like You, …with Your faithfulness round You?” (9)

I tend to talk about my faithfulness (or lack thereof), but not about God’s relentless faithfulness to me, regardless of how well I return that trust. Here in the psalm, God is faithful specifically to King David but it is through the sacrificial love Jesus Christ, I know that God will be faithful and never abandon me.

We talk about how God loves us. But it is His faithfulness that takes love out of the realm of the abstract and makes it real on a daily basis. That no matter how I screw up, I will be forgiven because God is faithful to me. And with the psalmist my response can only be worship in gratitude and along with “the heavens [I] will acclaim Your wonder, O LORD.” (6)

Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12: At the very end of Moses’ long poem/song following a specific blessing for each of the tribes of Israel, we find the striking verse, “Happy are you, Israel. Who is like you? A people delivered by the LORD, Your shield of help and the sword of your triumph. Your enemies cower before you and you on their backs will tread.” (33:29)

In light of current events, I think we must acknowledge that this verse is not just poetic hyperbole, but a prophecy that seems relevant even today. To be sure, modern Israel is a long way culturally and spiritually from the ancient Israel. But I think we would be too hasty in dismissing the idea that there is still at least a remnant of the original covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

As the psalmist notes above, God is faithful, and specifically faithful to the house of David.  Who are we to dismiss the idea that there is not something greater going on here than an unending battle between Israel and its neighbors?

Deuteronomy concludes with the narrative of Moses’ death and burial, and Israel’s mourning. (Or “keening” as Alter has it.)

Chapter 34 opens with Moses’ ascent up to the mountain top.”And Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which faces Jericho. And the LORD let him see all the land, (34:1,2). I take this as a deliberate echo on the part of our authors of Moses’ ascent on Sinai where he first encountered the burning bush and then again when God delivered the Decalogue (twice). On this mountaintop Moses looks at the land God has promised to the “stiff-necked” people that he has led all these years.

I have always thought of Moses’ inability to enter the Promised Land as a form of punishment by God. Perhaps it is, but I think it’s also a message that leaders can accomplish great things, but there is a limit to which they can go, and then the reins must be handed over. Too many leaders throughout history have accomplished great things but then became failures by virtue of holding too firmly to their position.  This view of the Promised Land is Moses’ reward. But I have to think Moses was relieved that he could finally rest.

Moses has ascended to the position of the greatest of Israel’s prophets, and his ascent to the mountaintop attests to this.  And as our writer acknowledges, “But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,” (34:10)

Luke 11:29-36: Jesus remarks that the people “seek a sign” that their Messiah has indeed returned. But as usual, he turns the situation upside down and tells them that they are looking for the wrong thing. Jonah went to the gentiles of Ninevah; so too, Jesus has come to accomplish something much greater than being just a Jewish messiah. He has come for all of the Ninevahs of the world. I think that is what he means when he says, “something greater than Jonah is here!” (32)

Jesus makes the rather mysterious remark, “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” (35) What sort of light is in fact darkness? Is it the light of our self-taught wisdom? Jesus is warning us—especially theologians (!)—not to get too carried away with relying on our own internal wisdom. I think that’s what Paul is getting at, I think, in the first chapter of I Corinthians about our wisdom vs. God’s wisdom that appears to be foolishness to “wise men.” Given that the gospel of Luke was written toward the end of the first century I don’t think it’s a stretch to speculate that these words are also Luke’s warning to the nascent cults of gnosticism that dematerialized Jesus into pure “light.”

In the modern context, light that is actually darkness would seem to be spiritual quests of “self-discovery”—that the light (or enlightenment) is already within ourselves and all we have to do is reflect and meditate enough in order to”discover it.” Jesus is saying rather clearly though, that is a dead end and not really light at all.

But if we use our figurative and literal eyes to see that the Light comes from beyond ourselves, not from within ourselves, then we become healthy. And we know that the Light comes only via Jesus. This is the light—himself—that he is talking about at the end of this reading: “If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” (36)

Psalm 88:14–19; Deuteronomy 32:10–43; Luke 11:1–13

Psalm 88:14–19: Our psalmist continues in deep despair. Even though he has been faithful to God, the favor has not been returned. God seems to be nowhere present as he asks the eternal question:
As for me—to You, Lord, I shouted,
and in the morn my prayer would greet You.
Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,
do You hide Your face from me? (14, 15)

Our poet has been humble and apparently has experienced a significant trauma in his youth that he feels is attributable to God’s anger. In short, he has suffered on God’s behalf:
Lowly am I and near death from my youth
I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful.
Over me Your rage has passed,
your horrors destroy me. (16, 17)

These horrors continue to haunt him. I would take them to be some kind of psychological illness—paranoia perhaps. In any event he has lost his friends and relationships due to whatever he blames God for having done:
They surround me like water all day long,
they encircle me completely.
You distanced lover and neighbor form me.
My friends—utter darkness. (18, 19)

Of all the psalms of supplication we have thus far encountered; of all the cries to a seemingly absent God, this cry is the darkest, the least hopeful. Unlike other psalms of supplication there is no concluding statement about God’s greatness or mercy. There is only the hopeless void of complete abandonment by humans—and by God himself. There is only utter darkness.

If ever we needed a description of what the depths of depression must be like it is right here. And it reminds us that the psalms are not all encomiums to God’s goodness and mercy. That is why for me this is the most emotionally honest book in the Bible.

Deuteronomy 32:10–43: In their effort to make Moses the author of this book (and the entire Pentateuch) the editors have positioned the Song of Moses as prospective—as prophecy. Yet, as we read it there’s little question (to me, anyway) that the poem is retrospective—a lamentation of Israel’s abandonment of God in favor of small-g gods and God’s vengeance upon them:
[Israel] abandoned God who made him,
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
They made him jealous with strange gods,
    with abhorrent things they provoked him.
They sacrificed to demons, not God,
    to deities they had never known,
to new ones recently arrived,
    whom your ancestors had not feared. (15b-17)

They have committed the greatest sin of all:
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
    you forgot the God who gave you birth. (18)

Which is exactly what our own culture has made great progress doing. Thise who forget God will pay the price:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
because the day of their calamity is at hand,
    their doom comes swiftly. (35)

But God will grant mercy when the people return to God. But this will only happen after the trappings of power are gone; after humankind has seen that their pride in their own accomplishment has brought about their downfall—and they see that the small-g gods they created are indeed powerless:
Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people,
    have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone,
    neither bond nor free remaining.
Then he will say: Where are their gods,
    the rock in which they took refuge,
who ate the fat of their sacrifices,
    and drank the wine of their libations?
Let them rise up and help you,
    let them be your protection! (36-38)

For there is only one God who rules over all creation:
See now that I, even I, am he;
    there is no god besides me.
I kill and I make alive;
    I wound and I heal;
    and no one can deliver from my hand. (39)

As the history of Israel illustrates—and this poem reminds us—we know—as these authors knew—that abandoning God leads to dire consequences. All empires fall—many from inward corruption and those in power believing that they control the destiny of the nation.

Luke 11:1–13: The disciples request Jesus to teach them a prayer. Of course it’s the Lord’s Prayer, but only the first part, (which I think is where the Catholocs end it):
Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (2-4)

While we intone this prayer every week in worship, we would do well to recall the context here. Jesus goes on to remind his listeners that persistence is a big part of prayer. He uses the example of the man waking up his friend in the middle of the night and asking for three loaves of bread. At first the man refuses and although Luke doesn’t tell us explicitly, he gives in and gives his friend the bread.  Jesus point: so, too, with prayer.

For me there’s the clear implication that prayer is not about finding a parking place or some other trivial desire. God is certainly not a vending machine of favors. Rather, it is persistent prayer that results in God’s answer, which Jesus tells us in his famous promise: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (9,10)

Moreover, God will answer with what is best for us. I think that’s what Jesus is getting at in his rhetorical questions, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” (11,12) We can expect only the best for us form God—and the best for us may not always be what we desire.

The promise of answered holds because answered prayer comes from God: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (13) Notice what God’s gift is here: it is not some action or some object. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who will come to us when we ask; when we search; when we knock.

Psalm 88:7–12; Deuteronomy 31:9–32:9; Luke 10:25–42

Psalm 88:7–12: Our psalmist starkly describes the ultimate darkness—death—and basically blames God’s anger for bringing him to the edge:
You put me in the nethermost Pit,
in darkness, in the depths.
Your wrath lay hard upon me,
and all Your breakers You inflicted. (7,8)

[By “breakers,” I believe he’s describing drowning in a rough sea.] Our poet does not hold back in blaming God for his woes of broken relationships and physical trauma even though he has cried out to God in agony:
You distanced my friends from me,
you made me disgusting to them;
imprisoned, I cannot get out.
My eyes ache from affliction.
I called on You, Lord, every day.
I stretched out to You my palms. (9,10)

Down through the centuries humankind has prayed desperately only to hear nothing in response. These verses are a stark reminder of the depth of agony we can feel when we are terrible straits and it seems that God is not listening to us.  Our psalmist takes up an argument that we’ve seen before in the Psalms: God, who loves creation and above all, humankind, loses the relationship with ones he loves if they are dead, who cannot by definition worship him:
Will You do wonders for the dead?
will the shades arise and acclaim You?
Will Your kindness be told in the grave,
Your faithfulness in perdition?
Will Your wonder be known in the darkness,
Your bounty in the land of oblivion? (11-13)

This is certainly a “go to” psalm in those times when it seems all hope is lost and we cannot find the words of agony and frustration. This psalmist has expressed that emptiness eloquently.

Deuteronomy 31:9–32:9: Moses gives the command that all Israel needs to have his lengthy sermon read at the festival of booths every seventh year. There’s a very practical reason beyond simply refreshing people’s memories: “so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.” (31:13)

God commands Moses and Joshua to appear before him in the tabernacle. Not content with the repeated commands to worship only God that have consumed much of this book, our authors now have God himself predict that the people will indeed stray from the terms of the Covenant: “Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them.” (31:16)

We have a sense that God’s predictive speech is retrospective and is based on experience as our authors describe how Israel fell away from the Covenant and the terrible consequences that arose: “they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them. In that day they will say, ‘Have not these troubles come upon us because our God is not in our midst?’ ” (31:17)

God commissions Joshua as Israel’s new leader with a solemn promise:“the Lord commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.” (31:23)

At this point our authors assert that Moses has written the Pentateuch: “When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end,  Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God; let it remain there as a witness against you.” (31: 24-26)

And as one final reminder, God commands Moses to write a song to be taught to the Israelites that pretty much summarizes Israel’s national history and the terms of the Covenant.

For me, this song is a reminder of the perils of forgetting history and ignoring its lessons—which certainly seems to be the case today:
Remember the days of old,
    consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
    your elders, and they will tell you. (32:7)

Luke 10:25–42: In this important reading, we hear Jesus answer the lawyer’s question, “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (25) Jesus, being Jesus, responds with the question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (26) The lawyer who answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (27). Jesus responds, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (28)

But the lawyer, being a lawyer, asks the next and perhaps the most important question of all, “And who is my neighbor?”  (29) Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a parable. Perhaps after the parable of the prodigal son, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ best known parable—even to the extent that it is well known outside the church.

As is the case of many parables, there’s an unexpected twist. The neighbor is the person that is the object of Jewish hatred: the Samaritan. Jesus includes the detail of the priests and Levites ignoring the injured man in their self-righteousness, doubtless believing they deserved his fate. It is the hated Samaritan who shows mercy.

This is one of those places where we are reminded that human nature has not changed one whit in the last two millennia. We are still cruel in our self-righteousness. The scenes at our southern border are a stark reminder that we are mostly priests and Levites, much happier to pass by scenes of suffering than to stop and administer aid.  And now we have government entities doing the ignoring for us, insulating us from the awful reality of human suffering. What possible goal does ripping children from their parents accomplish? The issue here is not about legality; it is about morality.

Today’s reading concludes with the famous scene of Martha being annoyed at her sister Mary for abandoning household chores to sit at Jesus’ feet. Rather than asking Mary herself, Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to get to work. In Jesus’ famous reply—“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” (41)— we see ourselves distracted by endless to-do lists as we rush to the next task, becoming spiritually impoverished.

Today, we live in a society obsessed with getting things done and ignoring opportunities where we can stop and just listen. I know I am guilty myself. I think Jesus is not telling us that we should just go to church and hear about him, but that we should take time to refresh ourselves spiritually, whether it be in nature, or just sitting in silence. As the old cliche goes, a man on his deathbed does not wish he spent more time at the office.


Psalm 88:1–6; Deuteronomy 29:22–31:8; Luke 10:17–24

Psalm 88:1–6: This is one of those psalms dedicated to a specific group and person about whom we know nothing, although he may have been a famous personage around the temple, perhaps a choir leader or a poet:
A song, a psalm for the Korahites, for the lead player, on the mahalath, to sing out, a maskil for Heyman the Ezrahite. (1)

In any event, it’s a psalm of supplication. Although our psalmist does not feel God has abandoned him, he nonetheless wants God to hear him as he beseeches God both day and night—which is how I often feel:
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, In Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
Incline Your ear to my song. (2, 3)

This last line—incline Your ear to my song—suggests that we can pray by singing, which for this musical psalmist was probably the way he felt assured that God would indeed hear him.

Regardless of whether or not he’s praying by singing, there’s little question he is feeling oppressed by life—almost to the point of death:
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol. (4)

In fact, in the next two verses he seems almost obsessed by death as he uses virtually every synonym for dying—and that his death is inevitable in the near term:
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit.
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand. (5, 6)

The most horrible fate he can imagine is to be permanently separated from God, which to observant Jews is what the “Pit” and “Sheol” were all about. The issue is not that he is dead, but that he will never be close to God again.

Deuteronomy 29:22–31:8: The shame brought on by disobedience to God is a major theme of this Moses speech. Imagine, he is telling them, what the effect of their downfall will be on other nations who ask, they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?” (29:24) Even those nations that do not follow God will logically deduce the reason for Israel’s destruction: “They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (29:25) Moreover, even those nations will understand the nature of Israel’s sin: “They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.” (29:26) The sin of apostasy deeply angers God, thus, “The Lord uprooted them from their land in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is now the case.” (29:28)

But our authors, masters of psychology that they were, conclude Moses’s seemingly endless disquisition on a positive note—reminding them once again of God’s tremendous promise if they but obey and “return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you.” (30:2) Moreover, God will “again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (30:9, 10) 

Moses reminds them that obeying God is not some far off abstraction, but in the here and now—in our hearts: “this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, …Neither is it beyond the sea, … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (30:11-14)

For me, that is the key message of Moses’ interminable sermon: God is close to us and following him is not about going to heaven or becoming a missionary overseas. It is all about our quotidian lives: how we follow Jesus on a daily basis. Moses says it well. We have a stark choice in how we live. And Jesus, I think echoing Moses here asks us to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” (30:19b, 20)

And on that note, “Moses had finished speaking all(!) these words to all Israel.” (31:1) and he appoints Joshua as his successor: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (31:7,8) Could there be any better, more encouraging words than these at the commissioning of Israel’s next great leader? Or any better words for us?  

Luke 10:17–24: The seventy followers that Jesus sent out to towns and villages return  enthusiastically, telling him, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (17) Jesus is understandably happy at their success, reminding them that this was not done under their own power, but his: “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” (19) This verse has led some fundamentalists to over-interpret Jesus’ words too literally and believe they can handle poisonous snakes as a form of worship—too often to their great detriment. Unfortunately these folks seem to have ignored Jesus’ statement in the next verse that being able to work miracles is not the point; rather, it is to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (20)

The success of the seventy has brought great joy to Jesus, and we encounter one of those Trinitarian moments where Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father are juxtaposed: “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (21) Luke is also reminding us that the power of Jesus is not to be confused with earthly power. Just as Paul points out in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Christianity is incomprehensible to the “wise and intelligent”—and that reality is certainly on full display in our own time and culture!

Instead, the power of God and the power of Jesus are revealed to those whom society discounts and ignores: “For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (24) And down through history, every time Christianity has been conflated with the “wise and intelligent” and those in power, its effectiveness has stifled. I think this is why even today Christianity flourishes among the poor and downtrodden and the oppressed while it is discounted by the intelligentsia who think they are the ones with deeper insights into social reality—just as we are seeing today in too many mainline denominations who wish to conform to the mores of the predominant culture.

Psalm 87; Deuteronomy 28:58–29:21; Luke 10:1–16

Originally published 7/19/2016. Revised and updated 7/19/2018

Today is Susan’s and my 49th wedding anniversary.

Psalm 87: This psalm celebrates the permanence of the temple at Jerusalem compared to all God’s temporary dwellings that have preceded it:
His foundation on the holy mountains—
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
 (1b, 2)

One begins to suspect this psalm was written by a poet employed by the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce:
Splendid things are spoken of you,
O town of God.

He reenforces his personal pride of being a native-born Jerusalemite by listing the other nations who do not have Jerusalem in their midst:
Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,
—this one was born there.

We’ll take “this one” as self-referential as he goes on to make his point about the overall superiority of Jerusalem (called Zion in the psalm) by suggesting that every person in Israel has Jerusalem in his blood:
And of Zion it shall be said:
every man is born in it,
and He, the most High makes it firm-founded.
” (5)

The intent of this verse carries over today at Jewish sedars where the the toast is always,  “Next year in Jerusalem!”

In the next verse, the poet positions God as supreme record keeper, making it clear again that it is better to have been born in Jerusalem than anywhere else:
The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:
this one was born there.

Finally, of Jerusalem, “singers and dancers alike:/ [will say] ‘All my wellsprings are in you.‘” (7) Here, “you” is not God, but Jerusalem itself. I’m sure this celebratory psalm is read enthusiastically today by any Jew who visits Jerusalem—and Christians, too.

Deuteronomy 28:58–29:21: Moses’ warnings of the consequences of disobedience by Israel continue apace. And those consequences are dire: “Although once you were as numerous as the stars in heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God.” (28:62) The consequences will not only be decline, but dissolution of the nation itself: “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other;” (28:64).

Things will be equally ominous at an individual level, “Your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, with no assurance of your life.” (66) And then the final humiliation: the degraded Israelites will attempt to return to slavery but because they have become worthless human beings,”you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” (28:68)

The precision of these imprecations once again strongly suggests to me that this book was written centuries afterwards at a time when Israel had indeed been diminished and scattered by Assyria in the north and later by Babylon in the south.

Apparently there is a brief respite from the curses of the previous chapter as Moses once again, “Summoned all Israel.” (29:1) Once again he reviews all that Israel has experienced over the past 40 years, asking the people to consider how close God has been and how God has protected and sustained them: “The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink—so that you may know that I am the Lord your God.” (29:6,7)

Now, following all this, the time has come for Israel to take a formal oath of obedience “to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today.” (29:12)

But the oath must be sincere and from the heart; otherwise it is worthless. And woe betide “All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways.” (29:19) Insincerity inevitably results in disaster: “All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven.” (20)

This of course is a good reminder that grace was not part of the Old Covenant and how grateful I am to be under the terms of New Covenant through Jesus Christ. However, it is also a reminder that we must turn over our entire heart to him. Like ancient Israel we cannot think that Jesus’ grace is some sort of holy insurance policy. We cannot think pridefully, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways.”

Luke 10:1–16: Here we learn that in addition to the “inner circle” of 12 disciples, Jesus has plenty of other dedicated followers. He commissions seventy of them to go out in pairs and do the prep work needed before Jesus arrives at a new town. But it’s an inherently dangerous task since as we learned in yesterday’s reading they will not necessarily be well received: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (3)

Interestingly, the emissaries are to go only to one house in the village and announce themselves by saying “‘Peace to this house!’” And if the homeowner responds in kind, that’s where they are to remain. If they are welcomed, “eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (8, 9)

The other key part of the mission is not to waste time in places where the message is rejected. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that these places where the Kingdom of God is rejected “it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (12) when the day of judgement arrives.

The Jewish towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida have apparently already rejected Jesus’ message, as he points out that had he taken his message successfully to the Gentile towns of Tyre and Sidon. Had Jesus’ message been accepted in the Jewish towns, “they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (13) Perhaps most startlingly of all, even Capernaum, Jesus’ headquarters, is also cursed: “will you be exalted to heaven?/ No, you will be brought down to Hades.” (15)

The reason for the curse—apparently a long tradition, tracing its way back to Moses in Deuteronomy(!)—is simple as Jesus lays it out in a clear logic chain: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (16) Rejecting the word of Jesus’ missionaries is the same as rejecting Jesus and therefore rejecting God himself.

Luke’s intent here, I think, is to demonstrate how those in his community who want to the news about the Kingdom are to be properly commissioned, and then providing precise instructions on how to carry out their missionary activities. Good order is essential in carrying out the  Great Commission. There is nothing random about bringing the Good News to the world. I think we can argue that Paul and his associates (Silas, Barnabas, etc.) executed these instructions fairly well. Unfortunately, missionaries down through history have not always complied with Jesus’ instructions all that well.

Psalm 86:11–17; Deuteronomy 28:25–57; Luke 9:51–62

Psalm 86:11–17: These verses of supplication do not ask God for escape from some dreadful situation or for God to annihilate the psalmist’s enemies. Rather, he is asking God for knowledge and understanding of God’s ways and God’s truth that he may become a better God-follower and worshipper:
Teach me, O Lord, Your way.
I would walk in Your truth.
Make my heart one to fear Your name.
Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart,

and let me honor Your name forever. (11, 12)

These four lines summarize, I think, the desire of every person who acknowledges that he is not the center of the universe but that God is. We cannot find truth within ourselves. Only God can bring us the real Truth, which for us Christians is certainly the Truth of Jesus Christ.

The reason for the poet’s desire to know God is simple: God is the center, the fount of all that is good in the world, and he has rescued him—and us:
For Your kindness to me is great,
and You saved me from nethermost Sheol. (13)

More specifically, God has saved him from God-hating enemies who would do him harm, both verbally and physically:
O God, the arrogant rose against me,
and a band of the violent sought my life
and did not set You before them. (14)

We come to one of the most famous verses in the Psalms: the realization that it is his mercy and kindness are at the core of God’s being. While God may become angry at us when we stray from the path of righteousness, in the end it is his grace and mercy that abounds:
But You, Master, are a merciful, gracious God,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (15)

The concluding verses ask for God once again to bring that mercy and grace in a visible way—the grace that he has shown so generously in the past:
Turn to me and grant me grace.
…Show me a sign for good,
that those who hate me may see and be shamed.
For You, Lord, have helped me and consoled me. (16, 17)

We know that God is ever faithful and will indeed answer the psalmist’s cry—ad he will answer ours.

Deuteronomy 28:25–57: Writing in Moses’s voice of dire warnings, our authors do an effective job of describing exactly what happened to Israel and then to Judah because they abandoned God—and God will therefore abandon them: “You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (25)

Having abandoned God all their human efforts will be in vain: “You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit.” (30) One has the feeling that the authors have seen personally the horrors of battle and loss in one of the starkest descriptions of the Israel’s destruction by the Assyrians and Judah’s by the Chaldeans that we have yet encountered: “Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on;…A people whom you do not know shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors; you shall be continually abused and crushed, and driven mad by the sight that your eyes shall see.” (32-34)

We can almost hear the sadness and regret of the authors as they write down the simple single reason for Israel’s destruction: “All these curses shall come upon you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the Lord your God, by observing the commandments and the decrees that he commanded you. ” (45)

While our authors place these words in Moses’s mouth as prophesy, the details of who comes to conquer Israel are rather precise: “The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young.” (49, 50)

In the grimmest description of all describing the fate of a nation under siege, there will be outright cannibalism among the starving people: “In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the Lord your God has given you.” (53)

Even sadder for me is how civilization simply dissolves away in in the description of a starving mother: “She who is the most refined and gentle among you, …will begrudge food to the husband whom she embraces, to her own son, and to her own daughter, begrudging even the afterbirth that comes out from between her thighs, and the children that she bears, because she is eating them in secret for lack of anything else, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in your towns.” (57)

These lines are too accurate to be fiction. Surely our authors must have witnessed these horrors.

Luke 9:51–62: Luke makes it clear that not everyone will listen to Jesus. Disciples are sent on ahead to prepare the logistics for a large crowd in an unnamed Samaritan village, “but they did not receive him, because [Jesus’] face was set toward Jerusalem.” (53) I take this to be the rejection due to Jesus’ being perceived as yet another Jewish rabbi trying to convert them. Feeling rather bitter at this rejection, James and John, apparently believing they had Jesus’ power, ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (54) Jesus rather understandably rebukes them.

Luke provides us a good illustration here of the dangers of fanaticism—the kind of fanaticism we see today in another religion that leads to terrorism. As Christians we are to accept the fact that not everyone will want to follow Jesus. When we are rejected we are to do what Jesus did: move on to another village.

Luke also describes the would-be followers of Jesus. There are also those who are initially enthusiastic but who soon lose interest because Jesus demands their highest priority. One person wants to bury his father first; another wants to say goodbye to his family. Jesus tells them bluntly to either follow him immediately or forget it. In short, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (62)

That is a high bar indeed. And it is a bar that I have not crossed. I may love Jesus but for mist of my life he is not my highest priority. I’m like the man who wants to bury his father or say goodbye first. For me, this passage is among the hardest sayings of Jesus.

Psalm 86:1–10; Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24; Luke 9:37–50

Originally published 7/16/2016. Revised and updated 7/17/2018

Psalm 86:1–10: It has been a while since we encountered a David psalm, and here the poet reveals him not as powerful warrior or king but as humble supplicant:
Incline You ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I. 

He reminds God of his faithfulness and is seeking rescue from a dire situation:
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You my God.

The remaining verses in this stanza are a beautiful opening to prayer that at once praises God’s wonderful qualities and the supplicant’s humility:
For You, O Master, a good and forgiving
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas. (4, 5)

In these days of tragedy piled upon tragedy, the psalmist’s words, spoken in David’s voice, are a respite and a wonderful reminder that despite humankind’s ability to foment evil everywhere, God is still with us. It is in desperate times like these where these words become far greater than a a lovely hymn sung thousands of years ago. It is a cry to God for today—and it is my prayer for today:
When I am straits I call to You,
for You will answer me.
      There is none like You among the gods, O Master
      and nothing like Your acts.

Our world is just as cluttered with small-g gods as David’s. Yet we continue to pin our hopes on their ultimate futility. That we humans can somehow become gods ourselves and create peace through bellicose words and pointless actions. With David we pray for the day when:
All the nations You made
      will come and bow before You, O Master
      and will honor Your name.” (9)

For only in God alone does hope reside:
For You are great and work wonders.
       You alone are God.” (10)

Without God there is only an emptiness into which evil can ascend. Alas, that is what seems to surround us these days.

Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24: Moses’ sermon ends with his call with a dramatic gesture involving all the people—a kind of sealing of the pact between God, who has spoken through Moses, and all the people of Israel. This action will include both blessings and a curses—with an ephasis on curses. The tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are to gather on MT. Gerizim for the blessing. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to gather on Mount Ebal for the curse. The Levites are to be the pronouncers—obviously a strong voice was a Levitical requirement.

One wonders how the authors decided to split up the tribes in this manner. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin are on the “blessing mountain,” and these are the tribes that ultimately the southern Kingdom of Judah, which is captured by Babylon, which is probably where this book’s authors came from.

What follows is a remarkable litany of curses that recapitulate the key laws and rules that Moses has spoken through this book and has demanded to be written down. The Levites speak the curse or blessing aloud and “All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!” (27:15) Twelve curses—”Cursed be anyone…”—follow, ranging from pieces of the Decalogue to sexual behavior to one that I think Israel—and we— tend to ignore all too easily: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” (27:19)

In a marvelous display of psychological insight, blessings follow the curses. But these blessing will only occur if “you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today.” (28:1). And just to make sure the people get the point, Moses repeats himself in the next verse: “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God:” (28:2). If the people but obey God and the Law, they will prosper: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (28:4)

One of the blessings appears in many benedictions today: “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” (28:6)

More curses follow, reminding the people of the price of disobeying God: “But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees,” (28:15) there will be dire consequences: “The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (28:20)

It is in this spoken ritual where we see the “deutero” in Deuteronomy. The Covenant between God and Israel is ultimately a simple black and white contract. Obedience to God results in blessing; disobedience results in curses.

So if all these laws have been written down on stones, why go through this spoken ritual? The reason seems clear to me. It is exactly the same reason that oaths are spoken aloud in courtrooms today: Once we have uttered something in public we are bound far more tightly by the spoken word than simply reading something silently. It also why we speak liturgies in worship. Our spoken word is simply more powerful and binding than our thoughts.

Luke 9:37–50: Children appear in Luke more than any other gospel. Here, a boy has been possessed by a demon, although the symptoms—”It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him” (39)—sound more like epilepsy. Jesus heals the boy in the midst of a seizure and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” (43) What’s interesting here is that people aren’t astounded at Jesus’ healing prowess, but at “the greatness of God.” Which is Luke’s message to all of us: Jesus is acting in his Father’s name. We cannot forget God in the midst of our amazement at Jesus.

Luke interrupts his disquisition on children and returns again to a key underlying theme of his gospel: Jesus will die. This time, he reveals that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (44) People, especially the disciples, remain firmly in denial. It’s almost as if Luke’s Jesus is telling everyone that they won’t be able to complain they weren’t warned. It’s easy for us: we know how the story turns out. But it’s far more difficult for the disciples to even contemplate the possibility of losing their charismatic healing leader. And I’m sure they enjoyed basking in Jesus’ reflected glory. And in another example of just how human they were (and how authentic it makes this gospel), the disciples “were afraid to ask him about this saying.” (45) Which is exactly how I behave when I won’t pursue an unpleasant subject because I’m pretty sure I really don’t want to hear the answer.

Immediately following this, Luke returns to Jesus’ attitude toward children, and verses I remember from Sunday School as a young child at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (48). But as an adult I cling to my cynicism, afraid to lower my defenses and come to Jesus as a child would, as a tabula rasa to engage fully with him—and above all, to love him as a child does its parents.

Psalm 85:9–14; Deuteronomy 26:1–27:13; Luke 9:28–36

Originally published 7/15/2016. Revised and updated 7/16/2018

Psalm 85:9–14: The the first half of this psalm is a bold imagining of what Israel will become when God responds to the psalmist’s supplications. God speaks and the psalmist listens. And that having heard God speak in peace, the people will respond in turn and repent:
Let me hear what the Lord God would speak
when He speaks peace to His people and to his faithful.
that they turn not back to folly. (9)

God’s voice instills a new confidence that he will return and rescue:
Yes, His rescue is near for those who fear Him,
that His glory dwell in our land.

In a display of the psalmist’s literary boldness, he creates one of the more arrestingly beautiful metaphors in the Psalms by personifying the qualities that God brings in his rescue:
Kindness and truth have met,
justice and peace have kissed. 

It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful and succinct description of what peace on earth might look like.

Our poet extends this metaphor by imagining heaven and earth meeting:
Truth from the earth will spring up,
as justice from the heavens looks down.

For me this means that truth is like a plant, springing to life as God’s justice rains down on the earth. The agricultural metaphor continues as we learn that the harvest is far greater than mere wheat or grapes:
The Lord indeed will grant bounty
and our land will grant its yield.

Truth and justice are now regnant in the land as God’s return is actuality:
Justice before Him goes,
that He set His footsteps on the way.

O, Lord, in this era where truth and justice seem so far away and evil stalks the land, we pray with the psalmist for you to again cause justice and peace to kiss. For we know that there cannot be peace without justice. And humankind lacks the will and the power to bring about justice and peace in a world that ignores you or pretends you don’t exist.

Deuteronomy 26:1–27:13: After our seemingly endless journey through the long rhetorical desert of laws and prohibitions, we arrive at an oasis of joyful offering. Moses instructs the people that when Israel arrives in the Promised Land “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” (26:2) This is an offering of gratitude that becomes an occasion of worship.

Moses is asking that in this first fruits worship that Israel remember all that God has done for them since in Egypt in three distinct steps: “we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” (26:7) And how that along the way, “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;” (8) And finally, how God “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (9) These verses are strikingly parallel to what the psalmist wrote above: that God hears the cries of the oppressed and responds with justice and peace. These verses are perhaps the most beautiful and succinct of Israel’s national story.

Moreover, this first fruits offering has a wonderfully practical purpose by “giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns,” (12)

At long last we come to Moses’ concluding words in what our authors have presented as a long,—very long—sermon. In an acknowledgement of what these priestly authors have accomplished, we hear Moses’ specific command that it all be written down: “You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over, to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.” (27:3) (Which for me also affirms that Moses is not the actual author of the Pentateuch.)

God’s first location in the Promised Land will be atop Mount Ebal, where an altar of unhewn stone is to be built. The stones are to be covered in plaster and “You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.” (27:8) Just to make sure the people have gotten the message, Moses repeats himself once again: “This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Therefore obey the Lord your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.” (27:9, 10)

What’s intriguing here is that there is a clear implication that the act of crossing over into what was once Canaan transforms Israel to finally become “become the people of the Lord your God.” To me, this statement suggests that the escape from Egypt and the 40 subsequent years of wandering have represented Israel’s national gestation. Only now that by actually returning to the Promised Land have they passed God’s test and become born into the full-fledged people of God.

Luke 9:28–36: In what I consider one of the more mysterious but revealing events of Jesus’ life, Luke comes to the Transfiguration story. What Peter, John, and James—the same three who later become the titular leaders of the early church—witness is a true theophany. For a moment Jesus seems to strip off his humanity and the three disciples and we see the glory of God as manifested in Jesus Christ: “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (29)

Were we writing this story as science fiction, we could say that Jesus and the disciples entered into a different time-space dimension and that they are briefly glimpsing the never-ending conversation that goes on in heaven: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (31) Luke adds the intriguing detail that even though “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” (32) I think Luke is reminding us that to witness the glory of God requires us to remain ever alert. This is also a theme Jesus returns to in his disquisition of end times on the Mount of Olives just before he enters Jerusalem for Passover. Being a Christian has much to do with staying awake and alert.

Finally, I think the Transfiguration has a lot to tell us about where heaven is located. As NT Wright and Marcus Borg have independently asserted, heaven is right here—not up above us in outer space somewhere. But it exists in a dimension we cannot ordinarily see in our mortal lives, although thin spaces give us some intriguing clues.