Psalm 39:1-6; Exodus 30:17-31:11; Matthew 26:31-35

Psalm 39:1-6   David reflects on the difficulty, if not sheer impossibility, of keeping one’s mouth shut as our enemies goad us and/or lie about us: “I thought, “Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue.  Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked is before me.” (1)  His silence has both physical and emotional consequences: “I kept still, deprived of good, and my pain was grievous. My heart was hot within me.” (3)  A perfect description of how we feel when unjustly accused.

But David knows whom to speak with, and it isn’t his enemies: “I spoke with my tongue:  Let me know, O LORD, my end and what is the measure of my days. I would know how fleeting I am.” (4)  He speaks to God, but it is not a complaint about how unfairly he’s being treated by his enemies.  Rather it’s a reflection on the evanescence of a man’s life: “Look, mere handspans You made my days, and my lot is as nothing before You. Mere breath is each man standing.” (6)

At first this seems a surprising shift of subject.  Why would David move from personal hurt to a philosophical reflection on the brevity of a man’s life?  It seems to be that because in the larger picture, our present woes  (“my lot”) are even more fleeting when compared to the overall length of our lives, which themselves are brief in the larger picture of God, who lives outside time.  When we realize that (in Alter’s wonderful phrase) “mere breath is each man standing,” our present woes are put into their proper perspective.  And in the realization of that larger picture, our current afflictions are but momentary, but survivable troubles.

Exodus 30:17-31:11  Washing in the laver of bronze is mandatory before the priestly duties can be performed: “And they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they do not die,” (30:21) reminding us that baptism has ancient roots.

Even above water is is the sacred oil, which has very specific ingredients: “five hundred weight wild myrrh, and aromatic cinnamon, half of that, two hundred fifty weight, and aromatic cane, two hundred fifty weight. And cassia, five hundred weight by the shekel of the sanctuary, and olive oil,” (30: 24, 25).  This is the oil of consecration, setting apart both physical objects and human beings, which are holy, from all else that which is profane: “And you shall consecrate them, and they shall be holy of holies, whoever touches them shall be consecrated.” (30:30)

The oil used by the pastor at baptism, which seals us with the cross of Christ forever,” has direct roots back through the oil that the woman anointed Jesus’ feet back through to this oil prepared at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Oil that sets us apart from the rest of the world; oil that reminds all of us that we are God’s, and through baptism have been made holy.  The church I grew up focused only on the water, never on oil.  Yet, it’s clear here in Exodus 30 that to be consecrated before God both water and oil are required.  First we are made clean in the water and then consecrated by the oil; set apart to do God’s work in the Kingdom.  A heavy and serious responsibility indeed.

Matthew 26:31-35  I think the Moravian editors kept today’s Gospel reading intentionally brief because they want us to focus and reflect on what Jesus has to say about  the Disciples’ response to the catastrophe about to overtake them.  He quotes Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”  The disciples finally get it: they know something bad is about to happen to Jesus, although it’s not clear yet exactly what that will be.

What’s really fascinating here is that even though Jesus could not be more direct about his resurrection (“But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” – 26:32), that revolutionary statement apparently does not even make an impression on them.  Instead, they can only focus on Jesus’ effrontery to suggest that after three years together they would actually desert him.  Peter speaks for all of them, in denial that they would ever deny his master.  And as Matthew notes tersely, “And so said all the disciples.”  We can see the nodding heads as Peter makes his boldly unwise statement.   Yet, the  resurrection, an event unprecedented in history, goes unnoticed.  It’s all about feeling unjustly accused.  Emotions inevitably trump reason.

Which is exactly what we would say and do, too.  We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive.  Unlike David in today’s psalm, neither the disciples nor us can keep silent.  Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.

Psalm 38:17-22; Exodus 29:31-30:16; Matthew 26:14-30

Psalm 38:17-22  The psalmist raises two important issues in these final verses.  First, we must acknowledge our own sinfulness: “For I am ripe for stumbling and my pain is before me always.  For my crime I shall tell, I dread my offense.” (18,19)  We need to be fully aware that we are subject to temptation–“ripe for stumbling”–and that when we fall, we confess–“For my crime I shall tell.”   But confession does not absolve us from regret or consequences: “I dread my offense.”  A general obviousness to sin and its consequences certainly exists in American culture–and has penetrated far into churches where the emphasis is on positive thinking, feeling good about ourselves, and worst of all, a sense that if we’re “good,” we will become prosperous..

Second, even when we do avoid sin and do good, we will not necessarily receive good in return, and in fact our efforts to do good may be trumped by those doing evil: “And those who pay back good with evil thwart me for pursuing good.” (21) That’s a key lesson for me: we are doing good because we love God, not because we think we will receive some human reward.  In fact our lives may become even more fraught by the very act of having done good.  This is just one more example that much of life is unjust and unfair.

And in this unfairness and injustice there is only one constant: God, who will “Hasten to my help, O Master of my rescue.”

Exodus 29:31-30:16   After the lengthy and lovingly detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle construction, the furnishings, the priestly garb, our author comes to the climax of actual sacrifice of bulls (symbol of masculinity?) and lambs (symbol of innocence?).  And why?  The answer is simple: “they shall know that I am the LORD their God Who brought them out from the land of Egypt for Me to abide in their midst. I am the LORD their God.” (29:46).

In the church where I grew up, ritual was derided as empty gesture.  It was all about the Bible and preaching–although I recall no sermon about this section of Exodus.  But here is God himself commanding an elaborate ritual so that people will remember why they are there and who “brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

As creatures of the New Covenant, God is no longer asking us for ritual sacrifice, since that work has been accomplished once and for all.  But as history so amply demonstrates, we humans require ritual: not just to remember but to know our place in the universe.  The question occurs: how much ritual is too much? Or too little?  Too much and ritual becomes an end in itself, off-putting to those to whom we seek to invite.  Too little and we forget why we are there.  But above all, if this chapter demonstrates nothing else, it is that ritual is not the end in itself; it is the means of remembering who we are, who God is and what he has done for us.

The census in chapter 30 would seem more appropriate in the book of Numbers, but there’s a crucial reality that surfaces here:  Whether rich or poor, all are to give an equal amount–a half shekel–as atonement money.  A reminder that before God we are all the same: sinners.  And that Jesus’ atonement for us applies equally to each of us.  We cannot buy “more atonement,” nor are we denied because of our circumstances.

 Matthew 26:14-30  Judas collects the most infamous payment in history. It’s interesting that he does not name his price (“What will you give me if I betray him to you?”); that is decided by the conspirators.  I’m left with the feeling that the scribes and Pharisees sized up the traitor for what he was and saw that he would sell out for a couple hundred dollars.  Not a shabby investment on their part.

While not stated, it’s clear that Jesus had at least one loyal friend in Jerusalem, willing to lend (or perhaps rent) out his house for this itinerant band from the countryside and their rabbi to have Passover.  One has to imagine that by this time, word of Jesus’ activities at the Temple had spread around the city and that housing him–even for Passover–would be viewed quite dimly by the Temple authorities.  So, to my mind, the man with the Upper Room is one of the many unnamed heroes of Jesus’ time, willing to take a risk for the man who was about to turn the world upside down.

Am I willing to take a similar risk?

Matthew 26:25–“Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.” is surely one of the most psychologically profound verses in the Gospels.  Judas lies to Jesus’ face and Jesus’ reply is full of profound layers of meaning.  “You have said so” says in effect, “I know you’re lying, Judas, but go ahead. Believe what you like.”  It is also Jesus’ acknowledgement that Judas has said many things, but these words, like all of them that have gone before, are empty of meaning, and empty of love.  Judas’ plans for political grandeur have been thwarted, and in his delusion and deep disappointment he will exact his revenge on the man to whom he wrongly hitched his ambitious wagon.

How often have we betrayed Jesus in our hearts and in our actions because things have not gone the way we thought they should?

 

 

Psalm 38:9-16; 
Exodus 29:1-30; Matthew 26:1-13

Late today.  Wrote this on UA1599 from ORD to SFO and just posting this evening…

Psalm 38:9-16  The psalmist describes a descent into what today we would call physical and spiritual depression:  “I grow numb and am utterly crushed. I roar from my heart’s churning.” (38:9)  And the perfect description of emotional loss: “My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me, and the light of my eyes, too, is gone from me.”  (11)  But there is worse to come as even his friends and family abandon him: “My friends and companions stand off from my plight and my kinsmen stand far away.” (12)  Not just abandonment, but active hostility by his enemies: “They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm.”

This must be what the dark night of the soul feels like.  Physically prostrate, emotionally empty, abandoned by everyone, oppressed by those seeking only his destruction.  I’m relieved to write, “this must be what it feels like,” since I have never experienced so deep a darkness or intense enmity.

But when all else is lost and the future bodes only hopelessness, then that is when God’s love and goodness are most visible.  That is the implication here, as our psalmist knows hop comes from just one place: “For in You, O LORD, I have hoped.” And in hope comes faith’s assurance: “You will answer, O Master, my God.” (19)

Exodus 29:1-30  To our modern eyes, all the blood and gore of sacrifice is more repugnant than holy.  Even though I know intellectually that blood is the required atonement for sin before God, the lovingly detailed description here of how the bull is slaughtered and its blood and viscera deposited on the altar is a distraction from reflecting on the reason for the sacrifice in the first place.  For me, this is more an abattoir than a holy place.

Yet, it is what God demanded, and as Alter points out, the ancients saw blood and oil as purification.  Personally, I’m glad we’ve preserved the oil for the sacrament of baptism and immensely grateful that Jesus’ blood put paid to blood sacrifice.

Matthew 26:1-13  Matthew uses parallel narration here: Jesus announces once again and more directly than ever to his inner circle, “You know that after two days…the Son of Man will be handed over and crucified.” (26:2)  Matthew does not record the reaction of the disciples, but based on what we know from the accounts of the Upper Room, there was doubtless total denial.  The disciples had heard it all before but have chosen to disbelieve.  The power of denial is immense, and we, too, are capable of immense denial, especially about many of the more challenging passages in the Olivet discourse Jesus has just concluded.

In parallel, the Gospel writer describes the plotting of “the chief priests and the elders,” who “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” (26:4)  Notice “conspire” and “stealth.”  The actions are those of men cowed by Jesus’ popularity with the crowd, but who will eventually have their way.

And men have been plotting ever since.  Which is why we should not be surprised when we witness efforts worldwide to suppress Jesus’ message.  And why we should not think of the US as a “Christian nation” that somehow just accepts Jesus’ revolutionary message as the “correct” stats quo.  And why we should be careful not to allow Jesus’ message to be co-opted by the culture.

Instead, we are to be like the woman who anoints Jesus with the costly ointment: willing to sacrifice all because of our love for our Lord and Savior.

 

Psalm 38:1-8; Exodus 28:15-43; Matthew 25:31-46

Psalm 38:1-8  This is one of those places where the editors who ordered the Psalms are being ironic.  Psalm 37 ends with the uplifting verse: “He will free them from the wicked and rescue them, for they have sheltered in Him.”  But the darkness of an angry God opens Psalm 38: “LORD, do not rebuke me in Your fury nor chastise me in Your wrath.” (1)

If we think of God as our father, then there is great logic here. Every parent, whose love is unfailing, will become angry with his or her child.  Since God’s parental love is immutable, it’s not illogical that God would become angry as well. David is forthright in admitting his wrongdoing: “For my crimes have welled over my head, like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.” (5)  The simile is exactly correct: our sins are indeed a heavy burden.  Sin exacts its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally: “I am twisted, I am all bent. All day long I go about gloomy. For my innards are filled with burning and there is no whole place in my flesh.” (7,8)  Medical science has established these consequences as fact.

Of course, in today’s “enlightened” society, which essentially rejects the idea of sin, these symptoms are often ascribed to something else that can be ameliorated by drugs or perhaps ferreted out by therapy.  But in the end, our conscience knows the toll of wrongdoing, even if we cannot admit it to ourselves, or we see ourselves as victim rather than perpetrator.

Exodus 28:15-43  The centerpiece of the elaborate priestly breastplate are the Urim and the Thummim, whose physical nature and purpose remain a mystery.  Alter speculates that they may have been engraved stones meaning whose meaning may have been binary answers (“yes” – “no” or “innocent”- “guilty”) to a question posed for resolution.  This theory seems to square with the function of breastplate is expressly named the “breastplate of judgement.”

The image that comes to mind is the “breastplate of righteousness” in Ephesians 6. If the Old Covenant is about judgement, then the New Covenant is about the righteousness imputed to us through the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 25:31-46  These justly famous and challenging verses occur at the climax of the Olivet Discourse: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (25:34-35).

For in the end our value to God–and our fate–does not stand on theology.  It stands on our response to our faith that ultimately must express itself as action.  Right here. Right now. This is the theme that comprises the entire letter of James.

Our faith is crucial for without it we could not work in the Kingdom.  But it is too easy to sit around and discuss the finer points of theology or wonder just what the Urim and Thummin actually were.  And in so doing, fail to act on the desperate need that surrounds us. This is the passage that says so clearly that working in the Kingdom requires not just my intellectual assent–the mind–but a total commitment of my heart.  The proof of that is that we have done this work without considering  any potential reward: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…'”  We do not perform for our own reward; we perform it because we know it is the right thing to do.

For compassion and then action arises from the heart, not the mind.  For me, this is the greatest challenge and yes, the greatest blessing, of my own Christian walk.

Psalm 37:34-40; Exodus 27:1-28:14; Matthew 25:14-30

Psalm 37:34-40  The conclusion of this wisdom psalm emphasizes that in the end, the righteous will “inherit the earth.”   This contrasts the ephemerality of evil against God’s eternal goodness.  The evil take “root like a flourishing plant.” (35) but like all vegetation, their season ends and they disappear with the wind: “He passes on, and, look, he is gone, I seek him, and he is not found.” (36)

Instead it is “the man of peace [who] has a future./ And the transgressors one and all are destroyed.” (38) I’m intrigued that the psalmist speaks of a “man of peace” rather than the more typical “righteous man” that we encounter in the Psalms.  That says much about the behavior of the righteous.  Righteousness occurs in the framework of peace.

This psalm talks about the future.  The man of peace has a future, while “the future of the wicked [is] cut off.”  As with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and the apocalyptic books, Daniel, Ezekiel (to a certain extent), and Revelation there’s much about the future in the Bible.  History moves forward in a straight line and one day it will all end. But like the foolish bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, we tend to live strictly in the present. As the psalmist implies here, the future is all about hope and many good things are yet to come to pass. The promise always remains: “And the Lord will help them and free them.” (39)

Exodus 27:1-28:14  The details of the exterior construction of the Tabernacle continue, as well as a detailed description of the dimensions and materials (mostly bronze) used in the altar, whose most distinctive feature is its four horns–one at each corner.  I’m struck about how the sacred spaces (Tabernacle, Temple) and objects (altar, Ark, etc.) are described in incredible detail, but the text is, shall we say, stingy about the details of ordinary life, of how the people lived on a day-to-day basis.  But then again, these are sacred writings, doubtless written by a priest, who understandably would focus on details like these.

Details abound, as well, in the next chapter about Aaron’s priestly garments.  But at least we get one human note, as the instructions are  “to speak to every wise-hearted person whom I have  filled with a spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, to be priest to Me.” (28:3-4).  God uses the “wise-hearted” to create sacred objects.

While “wise-hearted” may be an intrinsic quality of the man, he is completed only when God has filled him “with a spirit of wisdom.”  If we are “wise-hearted” we are receptacles for wisdom that comes from God.  The clear implication for me is that we cannot generate wisdom on our own, but must our hearts must be prepared to be filled with God’s spirit of wisdom.  Which is not a bad description of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

Matthew 25:14-30  When I was in Sunday School and we studied this very famous parable of the talents, the emphasis was on investing our “talents” wisely for God’s work–and there’s no question that is exactly what we should be doing as we work in the Kingdom.  Only by putting our gifts to work will the Kingdom advance and will we receive the reward of Christian maturity gained through years of experience.  [Notice the very long timeframe in this story: “After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.” (25:19)]

Now that I’m older, I see that this parable is also all about taking risks.  And the greater our talents (gifts) the greater the risk we are to take.  Timidity–burying our talents–simply does not fly in the Kingdom.  Our recent study of “Right Here Right Now” boils down to our willingness to take risks, doing things and inviting people in ways we previously viewed as unpleasant, perhaps outright dangerous.  Remaining unwilling to take these risks not only results in no return on the investment, the most charitable spin we can put on the last verse [“As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” (25:30)] is that we are creating “negative progress” in Kingdom work–we are a stumbling block that just gets in the way.  Better that we had not been there at all.

 

Psalm 37:27-33; Exodus 26; Matthew 25:1-13

Psalm 37:27-33  “Turn from evil and do good and abide forever” is the simplest advice in the this psalm and perhaps in all the Psalms.  And probably the most difficult to perform because it assumes we possess and inner will strong enough to turn away from the pleasures and apparent rewards of doing evil.  Sometimes, yes, we can turn away from evil on our own.  But we’re rarely successful–and this is why we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”

But even then, temptation trumps will even though there is a clear reward for turning from evil, following God, and consequently doing good: “The just will inherit the earth and abide forever upon it.” (29), (which surely must be a verse that Jesus adapted into the Beatitudes.)  

Moreover, those who have turned from evil will be a positive influence on others because “The just man’s mouth utters wisdom and his tongue speaks justice.” (30). The just man is wise because the very foundation of his being is centered around God’s love and goodness: “His God’s teaching in his heart— his steps will not stumble.”(31)

And for us, who are creatures working under the terms of the New Covenant, there is something even more effective in our heart than us fully absorbing God’s teaching: it is the saving power of Jesus Christ, who transforms our lives into the just man described here so much more effectively than our own will.

Exodus 26  This is one of those chapters where we fully comprehend that “God is in the details.”  Instructions ranging from the dimensions of the Tabernacle down to “fifty golden clasps” (26:5) and straight-off engineering, “twenty boards, two sockets beneath the one board for its two tenons and two sockets beneath the other board for its two tenons.” (26:21)

These are more than mere architectural details.  The details of the Tabernacle are a in one way a recapitulation of the Creation Story in the sense that God devotes his energy and attention not only to his own creation in nature, but also asks of humankind, created imago deo, to devote the same care to that which is created by our own hands.

This attention to detail required of anything built to the glory of God and must have been in the minds and hearts of all who have undertaken great creative works–from the cathedrals of the 12th century to the frescoes of Renaissance Italy to the works of JS Bach.  I wonder what subsequent generations will look back on as the great creative works of our time?  

Matthew 25:1-13  The parable of the Ten Bridesmaids works at many levels.  Ten is one of those Biblical numbers connoting “complete” or “completion.” So, perhaps Jesus is making a not very veiled reference to the Church–these are bridesmaids, after all–which will be complete at some point in the future.  Although complete, it will not be perfect, as represented by the foolish bridesmaids.

Some in the Church will have ignored the warnings that the Master will indeed return, even after a long time.  And having ignored the warning, they will be unprepared, and suffer the consequences of being shut out of the party.

We need to be careful and avoid over-interpreting here.  I don’t think Jesus is telling us that foolishness leads to losing one’s salvation, but foolishness certainly has suboptimal consequences.  For me, this is a parable about personal responsibility and using the resources God has given me as wisely as I can while working in the Kingdom.

Psalm 37:23-26; Exodus 25:10-40; Matthew 24:45-51

Psalm 37:23-26   “By the LORD a man’s strides are made firm.” (23) Metaphorically, life is a journey; in this case a hike.  We walk; God makes us “firm,” which I take to mean purposeful.   Life is not an aimless wandering.  Even as we walk forward, the path will not be smooth and we will trip–over other people, over circumstances, over ourselves. Which as I age, I understand much more clearly than as a young man.

But God is holding our hand: “Though he fall, he will not be flung down, for the LORD sustains his hand.” (24) It has taken me longer to understand this than to know that life is hardly a smooth road.  As so many other psalms assert, even when it seems that God has deserted us, he is actually there, holding our hand.

I think it’s important to understand that our hand is “sustained” by God. He  is not leading us by the hand.  As we walk, we have a choice to follow a path of our own devising.  For good or bad.  I hear a lot about “God’s plan for our lives,” but I think it’s too easy–and yes, intellectually lazy–to  assume that life is about following some divinely programmed course that’s been laid out for us–and that when we deviate from that plan, bad things will happen.

 Exodus 25:10-40  Midway through chapter 24, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai and is with God in the cloud.  Here at 25 we read the detailed instructions about the composition and construction of the Ark of the Covenant, the Table, and the Lampstand.  This an intermezzo from the main drama–Moses receiving the tablets and what is going on in the camp below–or perhaps the editors of the book mixed up scrolls.  In any event, this lengthy description of the furnishings and construction of the Tabernacle seems to be something of a non-sequitur.

The materials are of the finest quality [“gold and silver and bronze, and indigo and purple 4 and crimson, and linen and goat hair, and reddened ram skins and ocher-dyed skins and acacia wood” (24:5)] and now I see why the fact that the Israelites were given all these things by the Egyptians as they departed was repeated a couple of times earlier in Exodus.

One aspect of this I had not appreciated before is that all these materials are a voluntary offering: “…that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge…” (25:2)  The message is clear.  God deserves the very best that we have to offer, and whatever we offer to God, whether our treasure or our talents, must be the very best we have to offer. Our “first fruits.”  But above all, it is offered willingly, joyfully “as our hearts may urge.”

Matthew 24:45-51  Jesus continues his theme of urgency and watchfulness for the Day of the Lord, focusing on what we are to do while waiting for that momentous event.  This passage is all about our responsibility to work–not laze–in the Kingdom: “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (24:46) 

Losing focus on why we are in the Kingdom in the first place leads too easily to lording it over others (“he begins to beat his fellow slaves”) and indolence (“eats and drinks with drunkards”).  

It’s interesting that Jesus ascribes this loss of purpose to the fact that we forget that the Master is away right now, but may return at any moment.  As we read in New Testament epistles, there was a much stronger expectation of the Master’s imminent return than there is today, 2000 years later. Yet, we need to be just as prepared and focused as those workers back then.

It’s also easy to see these metaphors at work in a “church setting.”  We become obsessed with worship form rather than function.  We undermine others in order to advance ourselves in the eyes of others.  We see church as an internal social event (the “Sunday country club”) where we are comfortable rather than a place where we equip ourselves for work in the Kingdom “right here, right now.”

 

Psalm 37:16-22; Exodus 23:27-25:9; Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 37:16-22  Better a little for the just than wicked men’s great profusion.” (16) Even though it’s true, it is still difficult to accept with complete equanimity.  Yes, we believe the promise that follows immediately, “For the wicked’s arms shall be broken, but the LORD sustains the just.” (17)  Not only will the wicked’s arms be broken, but “the wicked shall perish, and the foes of the LORD, like the meadows’ green—gone, in smoke, gone.” (20)

I’m not sure that in our power- and celebrity-obsessed culture that we really, deep down, believe that the wicked will meet this fate.  Yes, in the end, as my father used to say, “the chickens come home to roost.”   And in our hearts we know God sustains us, but as the middle class shrinks and wealth continues to concentrate at the very top, these are verses we need to read again and again.  As the psalmist told his listeners, and he is telling us: faith is not based on the appearance of reality.  Take heart.  God is still there and God will mete his justice.

One side note: Jesus must have had these verses in mind when he said the meek will inherit the earth: “For those He blesses inherit the earth and those He curses are cut off.” (22)

Exodus 23:27-25:9   God gets very specific about the Promised Land and the manner in which the Israelites will gain it: “Little by little shall I drive them out before you until you are fruitful and inherit the land. And I shall fix its borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I shall give into your hand the inhabitants of the land and you will drive them out before you.” (23:30-31)  And no deals.  It will be straight up conquest, with all the former inhabitants driven out of Canaan: “You shall not make a pact with them or with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they cause you to offend Me, for should you worship their gods, it will be a snare for you.’” (23:32-33).

Which of course is exactly what didn’t happen.  The inhabitants stayed and Israel’s history is filled with the problems and tragedies–the snares– that ensued.  But I wonder.  Could any people do what God demanded of Israel?  The New Covenant pretty much proves that we couldn’t.

Contrary to popular image, Moses did not just go up on Mt. Sinai to meet God.  There was an elaborate ritual of sacrifice and the leaders gather and collectively see God–or at least His feet: “And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like a fashioning of sapphire pavement and like the very heavens for pureness.”  (24:10) But God no more of himself them: “But against the elect of the Israelites He did not send forth His hand.” (24:11)  This scene of cloud and God’s glory foreshadows Jesus’ Transfiguration many centuries later.

Only Moses goes up into the cloud to meet God, who promises to write the Commandments in stone.  This separation of Moses from everyone else certainly underscores the honor and special place that has been accorded to him throughout Israel’s history.  Unfortunately, the 40-day separation of Moses from the rest of the Israelites will also lead to mischief at the foot of Sinai.

 Matthew 24:36-44  Much has been made of this prophesy about the coming of the Son of Man, leading to the theory (my deliberate word) of the Rapture and bumper stickers that say, “In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned.”

Even though it’s in our Creed, (“He shall come to judge the living and the dead”), we are uncomfortable with the idea that history will end so abruptly.  But apparently, that’s God’s plan that will occur in God’s good time.  For me, the issue is not trying to parse the precise meaning of how that will occur; only that it will occur.

Above all, there is one major lesson: we are to remain alert, always looking outward.  Those of us in the Church are apt to focus inward on our selves and or tasks, metaphorically grinding our meal.  Only by looking outward and upward can we hope to be prepared.

Psalm 37:7-15: Exodus 22:25-23:26; Matthew 24:26-35

Greetings from the still-frigid Midwest, this time in Madison, where there are more Priuses than I have seen anywhere outside the Bay Area.

Kevin: Scot Sorenson sends his personal greetings to you; we having visited Bethel Lutheran for worship yesterday.  A step back in liturgical time, that’s for sure.

Psalm 37:7-15  This Wisdom psalm reminds us that human nature is one of the constants across time.  The wicked always appear to do well, and our reaction to their devious schemes is impatience and then anger at the gross unfairness of life. The psalmist’s advice is profoundly simple: “Be still before the LORD and await Him. / Do not be incensed by him who prospers, by the man who devises schemes.”  (7) and profoundly difficult for us humans to execute.

The psalmist calls for patience  (“Be still…”) and non-intervention on our part; rather we must “await Him.” In the meantime, while we sit around and wait for God to act, the wicked go about their merry way.  This patience requires us to have faith that God will ultimately act and the wicked will get their just desserts.  But this could take years!  The psalmist is aware of this and reassures us that God will indeed act, “And very soon, the wicked will be no more. / You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.” (10)

But in the meantime our impatience leads inevitably to anger, and again, the psalmist advises us, “Let go of wrath and forsake rage./ Do not be incensed to do evil.” (8) For to act out of vengeance and anger makes us just as bad as the evil-doers themselves.  Indeed.  But how many times have I lost patience and acted out of anger?  Alas, far more often against those whom I love than against the more abstract “wicked” described here.

Exodus 22:25-23:26  This seemingly endless list of laws and prohibitions applicable to an early agrarian society includes valuable insights into human psychology.  For example, the psychology of crowds: “You shall not follow the many for evil, and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many.” (23:2)  How often have we “gone along” with the crowd, knowing in our hearts it was wrong?

There’s implicit conservation and resource preservation in the command to work the land/ vineyard/ field for six years and let it rest for the seventh.  There’s remarkable kindness toward animals, even if you hate the owner: “Should you see your adversary’s donkey sprawling under its load and would hold back from assisting him, you shall surely assist him.” (23:5).

Perhaps the most puzzling verses in this passage are: “Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I made ready.” (23:20-21).  Perhaps Christological?  Perhaps not, because the  verse hardly concludes on a note of grace and forgiveness: “Watch yourself with him and heed his voice, do not defy him, for he will not pardon your trespass.”  Nevertheless, a promise: “But if you truly heed his voice and do all that I speak, I shall be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.” (23:23)  Perhaps the New Covenant stated in Old Covenant terms?

Matthew 24:26-35  On the other hand the Olivet Discourse does not exactly evoke an image of a sweet, loving Jesus. In the passages preceding, Jesus has spoken directly, harshly, and accusingly to the Pharisees, but here he is speaking to his disciples and basically scaring the socks off them: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” (24:7) and then, it gets personal: “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (24:9).

We American Christians are mighty uncomfortable here; yet what Jesus foretells is happening today all around the world, notably in the Middle East.  If American Christianity was demanding, never mind persecuted, would we rally around the cross?  Or like the disciples in just a couple of days after Jesus’ talk here, would we flee?  As difficult as it is to say, I think the American Church could benefit from a little more persecution.

We have had it so easy as Christians that we have become essentially irrelevant. And the larger society has simply become indifferent.  Historically, persecution has usually made for a stronger church.  The comfort of turning inward and talking to ourselves, or worse, trying to be “relevant” and “with it,” has made us citizens that have bought into the culture rather than the resident aliens both Peter and Paul demand us to be.

 

Psalm 36; Exodus 20:22-21:27; Matthew 23:33-39

Psalm 36  In the NRSV this psalm begins in the normal third person voice: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

But in Alter’s translation, this psalm opens with transgression personified as a character, “Crime,” speaking from a remarkable point of view: from inside the heart of a man: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked within his heart: ‘There is no fear of God before my eyes.’”  The image is striking: a small, but evil voice speaking within our heart, a kind of anti-conscience.

For me, Alter’s rendering makes the psalm much more personal and much more powerful.  The personified image of crime speaking, deep within a man’s heart creates wickedness. Conscience has been supplanted by crime. “Crime” is ultimately a deceiver, “For it caressed him with its eyes to find his sin of hatred.”  The idea that crime entices and exploits a pre-existing hatred makes sense–be it hatred of others or self-hatred.

The fruits of crime then emanate (as the do so often in the Bible) in speech: “The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit.”  But perhaps most tragically of all, “he ceased to grasp things, to do good.”  Evil has overtaken a man’s heart, and as a result, good has been overtaken by evil.

And as the psalm notes in its final verse, for the evil man only destruction awaits: “There did the doers of mischief fall. / They were toppled and could not rise.”  There is only one antidote: “For with You is the fountain of life. / In Your light we shall see light. /Draw down Your kindness to those who know You.”

Crime can speak all too easily in our own hearts.  Or God can.  Which will I listen to?

Exodus 20:22-21:27  While we all know the Ten Commandments enumerated for the first time in chapter 20, the almost miscellaneous laws that follow in chapter 20 are less widely known.  Alter suggests that this is “probably one of the oldlest collections of law in the Bible” and that it has many parallels with the Code of Hammurabi.

Given the history of these newly-freed people, the fact that the very first one has to do with slavery should probably not be surprising.  What is more surprising, however, is the very idea of a “Hebrew slave,” (21:2).  However, these slaves go free after six years, suggesting more a form of indentured servanthood than classic chattel slavery.

21:20-21 is disturbing: “And should a man 20 strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand, they shall surely be avenged. But if a day or two they should survive,  they are not to be avenged for they are his money.” The implications of this verse are not pleasant.  Beating a slave is apparently within the purview of the law, but murdering a slave is not.  If the slave is beaten and dies immediately, it’s murder; if the slave dies a couple of days later from the beating, then the owner simply got too carried away in his punishment and that’s acceptable.

As is so often the case, I have to take this passage as reflective of a time and culture that happily no longer exists.  I wonder what the Biblical inerrantists do with this?

Matthew 23:33-39  Jesus’ anger reaches a climax, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:33)  This to the Pharisees, who in their self-directed efforts to “be good” have gotten it completely backward.  We are exactly like them: obsessed with outward appearance, the inward essentials forgotten.  But worse, we don’t want to hear challenges like Jesus’ and all the prophets who came before [and Jesus includes them all, from “righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” (23:35)], our obsession that we are the ones who are “right” and the others who say things we take to be “not right” we expunge.

There is no place where the contrast of the implications of Jesus’ message and “religion” stands out so clearly. And yet, what have we as Christians persisted in doing these past 2000 years?  Exactly what the scribes and Pharisees did.  We may have “religion,” but do we really understand and then take to heart what Jesus is saying here?  One thing is clear: the Kingdom of God and “religion” are orthogonal.

Aside from the crucifixion itself, Jesus’ lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (23:37) is perhaps the saddest point in Matthew’s gospel.  And here for us, “Jerusalem” is the world at large.  What are we doing to gather the world “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings?”  Are we willing to help Jesus in this task?