Psalm 94:12-23; Joshua 13:8-14:5; Luke 14:7-24

Psalm 94: “God of vengeance, O LORD,  God of vengeance, shine forth!” (1) Alter informs us that God is addressed this way only in this psalm of supplication, which I’ll take as an expression of the psalmist’s passionate intensity at the sight of gross injustice and desire for God to act rather than as a theological insight.  It’s an untenable situation. Not only are the wicked successfully carrying out their evil, they are proud of it: “They utter arrogance, speak it, / all the wrongdoers bandy boasts.” (4) Given the high estate in which the Psalms and the OT at large holds widows and orphans, the magnitude of their crimes is especially heinous: “Widow and sojourner they kill,/ and orphans they murder.” (6)

But they have made a major error, believing that God is indifferent to their evil crimes: “And they say, “Yah will not see, and the God of Jacob will not heed.” (7) But they can’t say they haven’t been warned, “Take heed, you brutes in the people, / and you fools, when will you be wise?”

As always, however, there is the eternal promise that in the end, God’s justice will be restored, “For justice will join with judgment, /and all the upright will follow it.” (15) And the evildoer’s own acts will do them in: “He will turn back against them their wickedness, / through their evil He will destroy them, / the LORD our God will destroy them.” (23)

For me this psalm reflects verities that are still undeniably true some 2500 years later. First, evildoers believe they are the center of the universe and that they will get away with it, but also their pride will ultimately lead to their downfall. In light of current news where evil seems to be on the march everywhere, we can take hope that its downfall will come, but it may take far longer than we could hope. Nevertheless, in the meantime we are protected “the LORD became my fortress, and my God, my sheltering rock.” (22)

Joshua 12-14:5: These final chapters of Joshua turn away form the exciting battles and victories and become a catalog. First, of the numerous kings that have been conquered by Israel (chapter 12). But perhaps the most ominous is the description is at the beginning of chapter 13 of the parts of Canaan that Israel had not conquered. (13: 1-7). God reminds Joshua that “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites;” (13:7).  But much land has been conquered and one of Joshua’s final duties is to “allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you.” (13:7)

Now, Scripture becomes a surveyor’s record. Again, like the detail we encounter in the descriptions of the layout and furnishings of the Temple that come later, I’m struck by the importance of details in the story of Israel–and indeed, of all God’s creation.

As well, the definite boundaries that are laid out here is a tangible reminder that God is a God of boundaries, and that there are limits–not only physical ones such as those described here, but of our behavior and God’s expectations. Boundaries are definite. As the today’s psalm observes, there is good and there is evil. There are those who align with God and those who do not. I tend to prefer a squishier, more ambivalent view of life and like others, would prefer to think that at everyone’s core there is goodness–even if only a spark. But the evidence of the Bible indicates otherwise. We can be on one side of God’s boundary or the other; we cannot straddle it.

Luke 14:7-24: Jesus advice-start low and be asked to move higher, rather than the other way around, is so sensible, so logical. Why does he even have to give it? For the simple reason that we are prideful creatures and that our logic is that we are rightfully #1. This is Oswald Chambers’ persistent theme: unless we abandon our egos and replace them with Jesus Christ, we will always wrongly take the place of honor that only Christ can occupy.

The parable of the wedding feast is one of the most remarkable in Luke’s gospel. At first it seems that Jesus is referring to the Jews as the invited guests and gentiles as the ones brought in from the streets. That’s certainly a fair interpretation, but I think there’s a deeper meaning that follows logically from Jesus’ high-low disquisition a few verses earlier.

Notice that there is never an outright rejection to the master’s invitation, but each invited guest offers excuses, citing other distractions that have a higher priority. That’s all of us, I think. We have an infinite number of plausible excuses to keep our own selves and our priorities ahead of those of Jesus’.  The poor on the streets are those without pretension. They have already abandoned themselves; their egos are not the center of the universe and they happily accept Jesus’ invitation and find themselves at a banquet whose riches they could never have imagined.

While not stated directly, Jesus’ message is also one of opportunity cost. By checking out our new piece of land or by trying out our new oxen (I’m tempted to say “BMW” here in lieu of “oxen”) we have foregone a party whose joy we cannot even comprehend.

Psalm 92; Joshua 10:1-28; Luke 13:1-17

Psalm 92:9-15: The superscription of this psalm indicates it is a psalm of thanksgiving to be sung on the Sabbath. Worship is our response when we realize the greatness of God: “It is good to acclaim the LORD / and to hymn to Your name, Most High,/ to tell in the morning Your kindness,” (1,2) Unlike the small-g gods–idols–the God we worship is not passive, but active throughout His creation–and that is the reason for we respond so happily: “For You made me rejoice, LORD, through Your acts, / of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.” (4)

The larger theme of the psalm then emerges: “How great Your works, O LORD, Your designs are very deep.” (5) I take “deep” not only describing the complexity of creation, but also as “beyond our understanding.”  One of the things most difficult to understand is why evil seems ascendent and evildoers seem to be winning. But as the psalmist reminded us, in God’s larger picture, His justice will prevail: “the wicked spring up like grass, / and all the wrongdoers flourish /— to be destroyed for all time.” (7). And again, “Your enemies perish, / all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (9).

Ultimately, the righteous prevail and in one of those great psalmic metaphors, “The righteous man springs up like the palm tree, / like the Lebanon cedar he towers.” (12) Not only prevail, but righteousness will grow stronger and taller than evil because we are “Planted in the house of the LORD, / in the courts of our God they flourish.” (14). Through Jesus Christ we are “planted” to grow in righteousness.

Even when all around us appears lost, Jesus, our Great Hope, is steadfast, and therefore, so are we, with a special encouragement for those of us rocketing into old age: “They bear fruit still in old age, / fresh and full of sap they are,” (14)

Joshua 10:1-28: Joshua has made peace with the Gibeonites and they have allied themselves with Israel. The five kings of the Amorites understand the threat want to end this alliance quickly. The Gibeonites ask Joshua for help. The army of Israel attacks by surprise and “the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon” (10) God has joined the battle and “the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died;” (11)

Joshua prays to God, ““Sun, stand still at Gibeon, /and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” (12) So, did the sun stand still or did it just appear to stand still as Israel fought the five kings? Although God can do anything He pleases with creation, my view is that God did not suspend the laws of physics, but that time appeared to stand still as the battle continued.

More significant to me, anyway, is the statement, “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought with Israel.” (14) The implication seems to be this is the only time that God responded to a human prayer, which we know to be untrue. If the meaning is this is the only time that God suspended the laws of physics, then the assertion makes sense. 

The other thing that’s clear, God is definitely on the side of Israel, and remarkable things happen. Joshua did not pray to ask God to be there for Israel; He already was. Joshua knew that, but he still prayed. We would do well to remember that God is there for us, as well. But we should still pray.

Luke 13:1-17: Jesus continues to upend the sociological and theological status quo, first stating that there’s no correlation between a person’s goodness or badness and whatever fate they meet. The victims of the fallen tower died because the tower fell, not as a result of their personal conduct or status.

The parable of the fig tree is a clear message that as God’s people we are called to work in the Kingdom and bear fruit. This is another revocation of the idea that social status determines our favor or disfavor before God. The Pharisees and Temple leaders ascribed their inherent superiority before God to their status as “true practitioners” of the Law.  Those of lower status, such as the woman Jesus healed, were obviously less favored. Jesus puts forward the revolutionary idea that what God is looking for is the fruit that we bear, not our status.

The parable also includes a clear message of grace: “‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (8,9) We are constantly being given second chances by God. We need to recognize that and act on the grace we have been given.

Finally, the contentious issue of “work” on the Sabbath. How quick we are to try to draw clear boundaries about what is acceptable and unacceptable before God. As always, it’s about who’s in control. We would rather establish our own rules and call them “God’s rules” rather than show grace.  It’s also about rigidity–something at which too many churches excel.  I well remember being questioned about my choice to attend a “secular” university rather than going to the “Christian college” run by the denomination.  Yes, there need to be boundaries in life, but God has graciously given boundaries that affirm rather than deny.

Psalm 91:9-16; Joshua 8:1-29; Luke 12:35-48

Psalm 91:9-16: God’s protection is more than God just being there in the midst of danger, battle or plague.  God’s protection–His shelter– is where we come to live: “For you—the LORD is your refuge, the Most High you have made your abode.” (9) That is where we are completely safe: “No harm will befall you, nor affliction draw near to your tent.” (10)

One of the most famous verses in Psalms reminds us that God sends His angels to protect us, “On their palms they lift you up lest your foot be bruised by a stone.” (12)  This is an apt image because the mountainous paths of Israel and Judah were scattered with rocks and presented constant obstacles to the traveler.  So too, we face an ongoing path of obstacles, but God is not just a one-time God; we are rescued again and again.  As I know by personal experience…

God Himself speaks in the final verses of this psalm in one of the best descriptions we have of God’s protective actions beginning with freedom: “…I freed him. I raised him high, for he has known My name.” (14) And unlike those many psalms that cry out to an apparently absent God, “He calls Me and I answer him,” (15)  Not only are we protected, but we are rescued: “I am with him in his straits. I deliver him and grant him honor.” (15). Finally, we are granted long life, and again, the idea that we are continually rescued, “With length of days I shall sate him, and show him my rescue.” (16)

This is God’s promise. May we remember it in our darker days.

Joshua 8:1-29: (I mistakenly wrote on this passage a few days ago, and repeat my thoughts here.)

In a brilliant military stratagem, Joshua draws out the inhabitants of Ai, and when he sees they’ve all exited the fortified city, raises his sword, which is a signal to the ambush group to enter and burn the city. No matter which way the Ai-ites tried to flee they were surrounded and in accordance with God’s command, “Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped.” (22). The city of Ai was reduced to rubble, its king hung, and the victorious “and raised over [the remains of Ai] a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

As much as we would like to think of God as a being strictly a God of peace, God also enables and here in this context anyway, even condones war.  Moreover, every inhabitant, including women and children, was annihilated. Is this really the will of a God of grace and mercy? Apparently so.

Had humankind not fallen, then there would have been no need for war. But our fallen state, alas, includes combat and battles. Was conquering Ai a “just war?” Who knows? This is an issue we are grappling with even this week in pretty much the same geographical territory.

Luke 12:35-48: (I wrote on this passage last week–did the Moravians send the wrong readings?  In any event, here are some further thoughts on the last portion of this passage.)

Jesus’ last sentences in the parable of the slaves have to do with with responsibility. If we think of the slaves as workers in the Kingdom, it is clear we have knowledge about what the Master expects of us.  The Gospel is Good News, but it is far more than that. Jesus gave us instructions to carry this Good News into the world.  Like the slaves here, we know “what his master wanted.” But while this knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient because if we are like the slave, we must be prepared to carry out our duties. Which here would certainly include carrying the Good News to others. 

Will we “receive a severe beating” in the form of some punishment? Here, I think we need to be careful and not over-interpret the parable. After all, we are not God’s slaves and we live under the terms of grace. But by knowing but not working we pay what economists call an “opportunity cost.” We miss out. We could have had so much more by working more diligently in the Kingdom, by bringing the Good News to those we pass by every day.  I know that I have certainly been negligent and missed many opportunities which could have brought great joy.

Psalm 91:1-8; Joshua 7; Luke 12:22-34

Psalm 91:1-8: Nowhere else in the Bible do we find a more eloquent description of how God protects us from danger.  If there were ever a psalm to memorize before setting out on a dangerous mission or for a soldier to read before battle, it is this one.

The person being protected speaks in verse 2, “My refuge and bastion, / my God in whom I trust.” And in the end that is the only prayer we need to say. But the psalmist takes up that theme in the subsequent verses, elaborating in all the ways we will be protected. We are protected both from accident and from an epidemic: “For He will save you from the fowler’s snare, / from the disastrous plague.” (3) and from the “terror of the night” and in war, “the arrow that flies by day,” (4). In light of the ebola in Africa, verse 6 has particular resonance in that God will protect us “from the plague that stalks in darkness [and] from the scourge that rages at noon.”

The image of war and terrorism is evoked in the memorable verse, “Though a thousand fall at your side / and ten thousand at your right hand,/ you it will not reach.” (7)

I think it’s important to note that we will still experience woes and disasters in our lives, remembering that this is a psalm of encouragement, not of prediction. But when we place our complete trust in God we are placed in a protective context far greater than ourselves. The difficult mission is not something we have to do completely alone and unprotected.

When we embark on a dangerous journey knowing that God is with us, our courage is strengthened and we know that even if evil befalls us, we are in the arms of One who loves us.  And that makes all the difference.

Joshua 7: The sin of Achan–taking silver and gold that was the spoils of war and burying it in his tent–is an ominous precursor of the sins of Israel which will follow.  God has required that all the “devoted things” be given to Him alone, and Achan’s sin cannot be tolerated. Through a remarkable tribe-by-tribe winnowing process, Achan is finally identified.

Achan confesses, but his entire family is stoned an all his possessions are burnt. This is not only a memorable lesson to the rest of Israel–one they won’t soon forget–but it is also a stark reminder that confession does not necessarily lead to forgiveness, much less exoneration.  And an equally stark reminder that one man’s sins infect his entire family.

Joshua has asked  the crucial “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” (25) Neither God nor Joshua are being capricious. The moral health of the community depends on the moral behavior of its members. A lesson we seem well on our way to forgetting in our post-Christian society today.

Luke 12:22-34: Luke doesn’t give us the back-story that leads to Jesus’ incredibly encouraging words, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (22, 23a) [And in another striking “Moravian coincidence,” both today’s psalm and this gospel are about encouragement.]

I suspect that the disciples saw that even though Jesus’ popularity was at an all-time high and he was surrounded by crowds, they were poor and hungry and tired. I’d like to think that the disciples didn’t complain about their sorry lot, but that Jesus recognized their downcast spirits and encourages them with his memorable words. (Although Judas, as the disciple’s treasurer probably pointed out the sorry state of their finances.)

We’re just like the disciples. All we humans spend lots of time worrying, especially about finances. And lots of us (me included) work hard to maintain our financial position and save for the unexpected. Yet, I know of many dedicated Christians who have been down to their last dollar and receive unexpected gifts form places they never anticipated, and from those they never asked. They are living proof of what Jesus is talking about here.

So why is my faith that God will provide so weak? I suppose once again it’s my own attempts to control what happens rather than giving myself wholly over to God’s providence. In the end it’s all about Kingdom priority.  I talk a good line, but my actions still indicate that I have at least one foot in the worldly treasure department.

Psalm 90; Joshua 5,6; Luke 12:13-21

Psalm 90: This beautiful psalm resonates in our modern world as it compares the evanescence of our own lives to God’s eternity. We cannot really comprehend God’s perspective, who is outside of time.  “For a thousand years in Your eyes are like yesterday gone, like a watch in the night.” (4) The poet starts with a millennium, compresses it to a single day (“yesterday”) and reduces it again to a “watch in the night,” just three or four hours.

The fleetingness of our time here on earth is like grass that, “In the morning it sprouts and passes, / by evening it withers and dies.” (6) The psalmist then becomes very specific about just how little time we really do have: “The days of our years are but seventy years, / and if in great strength, eighty years.” (10a)

The underlying question is, what do we do with those few years? The psalmist’s initial answer is depressing: “And their pride is trouble and grief, for swiftly cut down, we fly off.” (10b) Is that all that life consists of? Without a relationship with God, that would be so.

But further down, hope emerges: “To count our days rightly, instruct, / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (12)  Only in a true relationship with God, will we gain a “heart of wisdom.” In this relationship God will “Sate us in the morn with Your kindness, let us sing and rejoice all our days.” How much better to be worshipping God than a life that is empty and then “swiftly cut down.”

Joshua 5,6: After circumcising those who had been “born on the journey through the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised,” the manna ceases and ” they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna;” (12). The two acts reaffirm God’s covenantal relationship with Israel as the break point between Israel in the wilderness and Israel in Canaan. 

Joshua has his own burning bush moment, seeing “a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.” Recognizing this to be the commander of the army of God, Joshua falls on his face and asks what God commands. There is but one command, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” (15) cUnlike Moses, Joshua does not meet God directly, but “only” the commander of God’s army, and frustratingly, we do not hear what was said to Joshua. But it’s a clear message that Joshua is the anointed commander of the army of Israel, and there is much to be done.

In Sunday School, we learn about the fall of the walls of Jericho, but not of the total destruction wreaked on its inhabitants: “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (21) We also did not learn that Rahab, who hid the messengers, was a prostitute. 

This is one of those places where it’s clear that God is indifferent to who we are and is asking only that we be faithful–as Rahab was. None of us, no matter how much we may have sinned, is exempt from God’s grace when we turn to God.

Luke 12:13-21: The parable of the rich fool is another one of those times when the readings are in synchrony. Today’s psalm notes the brevity of our existence; the parable reflects on how wisely–or unwisely–we use our brief time here and who we believe to be in charge.  The rich man believed all he had done was his own doing and that he had done it well.  Time to sit back and say,”to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”(19)

But Jesus is saying life doesn’t work that way: “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (20) And yet we continue to believe that if we work hard, save our money, prepare for a future without God that everything will work out just fine.  As anyone who has encountered and lived through a life-threatening illness can tell you, that is a fool’s errand. Only when staring death in the face do we realize that our new barns are not where the real point of life lies; they are empty works. We cannot insure ourselves; we cannot accomplish great things on our own. Only Jesus can do that.

Psalm 89:46-52; Joshua 8:1-29; Luke 12:35-48

Writing today and for the next several weeks from the porch at Hamilton Beach in Wareham, Massachusetts.

Psalm 89:46-52: The conclusion of this long psalm ends on a note that is at once accusatorial and wistful. The preceding verses have described both David’s political and personal downfall. “You put an end to his splendor, / and his throne You hurled to the ground. /You cut short the days of his prime. /You enveloped him with shame.”(45, 46).

Then the psalmist expands his horizon to include all of humankind: “Recall how fleeting I am, / how futile You made all humankind.” (47). It’s almost as if the poet is asking,’Look, God, in the larger scheme of things, we men are here for only a second or two. So why do you make our brief almost ephemeral lives so miserable?’  After all, every person will die,”What man alive will never see death, / will save his life from the grip of Sheol?” (49).  ‘Can’t we just enjoy the brief moments we are here?’

The psalm concludes with one final plea to remember David–and to remember us when you treated us kindly: “Where are Your former kindnesses, Master, / that you vowed to David in Your faithfulness?” (50)  Which of course is exactly what God does by sending His savior into the world–as John puts it, not to condemn it, but to save it.

Joshua 8:1-29: In a brilliant military stratagem, Joshua draws out the inhabitants of Ai, and when he sees they’ve all exited the fortified city, raises his sword, which is a signal to the ambush group to enter and burn the city. No matter which way the Ai-ites tried to flee they were surrounded and in accordance with God’s command, “Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped.” (22). The city of Ai was reduced to rubble, its king hung, and the victorious “and raised over [the remains of Ai] a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

As much as we would like to think of God as a being strictly a God of peace, God also enables and here in this context anyway, even condones war.  Moreover, every inhabitant, including women and children, was annihilated. Is this really the will of a God of grace and mercy? Apparently so.

Had humankind not fallen, then there would have been no need for war. But our fallen state, alas, includes combat and battles. Was conquering Ai a “just war?” Who knows? This is an issue we are grappling with even this week in pretty much the same geographical territory.

Luke 12:35-48: Even though the Lutheran church pretty much addresses Jesus’ second coming only when we recite the Creeds (I think I’ve heard only one or two sermons about the second coming in my 35+ years at Saint Matthew), Jesus seems pretty clear on the matter. As he is here: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (40) 

Obviously, the key for us is not to try–as too many fundamentalists have done–to figure out when that will happen.  Whenever it is, it will be completely unexpected.  Our responsibility is clear and simple: be prepared.

As always, there is nothing random about Luke’s ordering of events or of Jesus’ parables. The parable of faithful and unfaithful slaves is a followup to being prepared, because Jesus is explaining what we are supposed to be doing in the meantime before the Master returns.  Clearly, we are expected to be at work in the Kingdom: “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (43).

But if we turn from our honest Kingdom work and become distracted then corruption will inevitably creep in. Some will think they are better than others and “begin to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” (45b) As Jesus notes, a harsh penalty will ensue. How often this has happened in the church! Jesus knew exactly what would go wrong across the past 2000 years.

That is why leadership is so crucial. If it’s corrupt at the top, then odds are it will be corrupt throughout. If it’s wandering away from Jesus at the top, then the entire body wanders away.

Leaders are not just “one of the guys.” They are an example to whom everyone else looks.  A leader’s role comes with heightened responsibility: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (48)

In today’s post-Christian world, the world is looking harder than ever for Christian leaders who fall–and to which they can point in derision in the world’s unrelenting quest to identify “hypocrites.”  In that regard, everyone of us is a leader–and Jesus expects much of us.

Psalm 89:19-29; Joshua 3,4; Luke 12:1-12

Writing this morning from Geneva, IL.

Psalm 89:19-29: This portion of the psalm is a paean to King David, “I found David my servant, with My holy oil anointed him,” (21) and how God is on his side, “I will grind down his foes before him and defeat those who hate him.” (23)

But as at the beginning of the psalm, the underlying theme is God’s faithfulness, “My faithfulness and My kindness are with him, and in My name his horn will be lifted” (25) and that David will reciprocate that faithfulness: “He will call me: ‘My father You are, my God and the rock of my rescue.’” (27).

Again, we must observe that it is God who is first faithful to David. David did not seek out God, he responded.  I was again reminded that we are a responding people when two children were baptized yesterday at Bethel Lutheran in Madison, WI.

So, too, for us.  How many people are vainly “looking for God?” They think it is their duty to find, and then to please God in order for God to reveal Himself.  And yet, there He is all the time: right alongside us. We need only drop our mask of pretension that it is through our effort and our need to control our circumstances that God can be found. And once having done that we find God standing there all the time.

Joshua 3,4:  There is remarkable symmetry in Israel’s departure from Egypt and its entrance into Canaan. As they water in haste to escape the pursuing Egyptians, now they cross water as a conquering army. Both times they must do so in haste. No time can be wasted.

Both times God holds back the water so that they cross over on dry ground. Besides the practicalities of hundreds of thousands of people not slogging through water, (and now an army of thousands doing the same), what is the significance of the water being “cut off?” Certainly it’s a demonstration that God has power over nature–and we are reminded of Jesus stilling the waters of Galilee.  I think it also demonstrates how God removes barriers when we follow Him willingly–and when we understand and follow His instruction.

The twelve stones play a major role in this crossing-over story. Joshua places them “in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood” (4:9). A clear symbol to me, anyway, that Israel’s duty was to follow in God’s footsteps–just as it is our duty is to follow Him.

The phrase, “they are there to this day” is a reminder that God intervenes in real space and real time, and is a God of linear history.  We have been given the gift of memory; we are to use it. But as we know from Israel’s own history, they forgot where the Ark had crossed over.  And our own history is littered with the relics and events of the ongoing tragedy of forgetting history and forgetting God–and having to learn the hard lesson all over again. Exactly as our society is managing to do once again.

Luke 12:1-12: Would that those who conspire and think they can get away with it had listened more closely to Jesus’ observation that “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (2) Every conspiracy eventually sees the light of day, as those who have followed the trajectory of American politics for the past 40 years know all too well: from Watergate to Edward Snowden: “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

Here, I think Jesus is warning the Pharisees and other authorities that their conspiracy that results in his death and resurrection him will eventually “be proclaimed from the housetops.” Which is is exactly what happened and is still being proclaimed some 2000 years later.

Jesus then goes on to remind us what is so evident in the OT: God is in the details and concerns Himself with every detail of His creation, especially we humans: “But even the hairs of your head are all counted.” These words, coming as they do, immediately after Jesus’ warning that conspiracies will always be found out remind us that our our attempts to hide evil will always be exposed because God knows what’s going on. 

But if we follow God, then the fact that God knows every aspect of our lives will bring great peace: “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (7) 

As for the “unforgivable sin,” when Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (10b) I think he is simply saying that as long as we keep rejecting the presence of God in our own lives then we are neither seeking, nor will receive, forgiveness. But when we acknowledge and then accept that God, via the Holy Spirit, is the one who leads, we will come to the sudden realization that we need forgiveness–and we will indeed be forgiven.

 

 

 

 

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

I’m writing this morning from Madison, Wisconsin, where we have arrived safely after a 2600+ mile drive.

Psalm 89:1-8: This psalm acclaims God’s faithfulness to His people again and again:

“For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.” (1)
“You set Your faithfulness firm.” (2)
“the heavens will acclaim…Your faithfulness, too,” (4)
“…who is like You, …with Your faithfulness round You?” (8)

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 faithfulness. Here in the psalm, God is faithful specifically to King David: “I have sealed a pact with my chosen one, I have sworn to David My servant.” (4) And through the sacrificial love Jesus Christ, I know that God will 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.” (5)

Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12: At the end of Moses’ long poem/song of 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 12 opens with Moses’ ascent: “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). Mountains have played an important role in Moses’ life, most notably Sinai. And here, 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 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 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? 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.”

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.

Psalm 87; Deuteronomy 29:22-31:8; Luke 10:17-24

Writing this morning from the La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza in Santa Fe, NM.

Psalm 87: This paean to Jerusalem [“The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” (2)] appears to have been written by a poet from somewhere else, [“Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush, —this one was born there.” (4)] but who may have converted to Judiasm, as he observes that “of Zion it shall be said: every man is born in it,” (5) and that “The LORD inscribes in the record of peoples:  this one was born there.”(6)

And not just that God writes his name, but that God is the source of life, ““All my wellsprings are in you.” (7)

As usual, God is in the details and keeps careful records. Moreover, God knows us by name.  These verses must certainly have been on Paul’s mind when he wrote the letter to Phillipi (4:3) and on John’s mind when he writes of the “book of life” in Revelation.

Deuteronomy 29:22-31:8: The author paints a picture of the destruction of Israel should it disobey the commands and break its Covenant with God: “What is this great smouldering wrath?’ And they will say, ‘For their having abandoned the Covenant of the LORD, God of their fathers,” (29:24) for the greatest sin of all, “they went and worshipped other gods and bowed to them, gods that they did not know…”(29:25)

Here is one of those places where we see the angry, wrathful God that so disturbs us, but as I’ve learned in therapy, anger may be a secondary emotion, but it is still a legitimate feeling. Nevertheless, verse 27 is remarkable for its use of the many synonyms of anger: “And the LORD tore them from upon their soil in wrath and in anger and in great fury…” And in either a prediction or observation of the Babylonian exile, the verse concludes, “…and flung them into another land as on this day.’”

But in chapter 30, there is the promise of return, because God knows that ” you shall turn back to the LORD your God and heed His voice…” (30:2) and “He [God] shall turn back and gather you in from all the peoples to which the LORD your God has scattered you.” (30:4)

The angry God is actually a loving God, whose anger is justified, and in one of the most beautiful verses in Deuteronomy, “the LORD your God shall circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being for your life’s sake.” (30:7)

The circumcised heart is one which, to use Oswald Chambers’ construction, is a heart that has completely abandoned ego and given itself wholly over to God.  And unlike Israel, which operated wholly under the terms of the Old Covenant, we have been granted grace under the terms of the New Covenant. The question always remains: can I abandon my ego to Christ?

After many, many chapters of rules, commands, imprecations and threats, Moses “finished speaking these words to all Israel.” (31:1) and tells his listeners, “A hundred and twenty years old I am today. I can no longer sally forth and come in, and the LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’” (31:2)

One final plea, reminiscent of Henry V’s St. Crispin Day speech, encourages all Israel, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear and do not dread them, for the LORD your God, He it is Who goes with you. He will not let go of you and He will not forsake you.” (31:6) and passes the con to Joshua.

These final words are increasingly apropos for those of us living in an increasingly post-Christian world surrounded by hostility to those who dare speak out against the prevailing culture.

Luke 10:17-24:  Once again, one of those Moravian parallels.  As the psalmist rejoices that his name was written in the book of Zion, Jesus promises and even better thing, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (10:20)

For guys like me, what Jesus says about how to discover God and God’s purposes is profoundly important.  I cannot intellectualize myself into heaven, for “you [God] have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”  (21b) We must come to the kingdom as innocent babes.

Jesus has intentionally picked disciples who are not scholars or “wise,” but in keeping with Luke’s theme that Jesus turned things upside down and inside out, it is the seemingly foolish who are first in the Kingdom and to whom much has been revealed, “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 even though Paul did not have Luke’s gospel in front of him when he wrote his letter to Corinth, he says the same thing about the wise and the foolish. You’d think I’d have figured this out by now and abandoned intellectual pretense.

Psalm 85:8-13; Deuteronomy 27:14-28:24; Luke 9:37-50

Note: I will be posting only sporadically for the next several weeks as Susan and I are shifting coasts and will be in Massachusetts for the remainder of the summer. But we are taking a long time to get there…

Psalm 85:8-13: Once God has rescued Israel (again!) and Israel will finally see the error of its ways, “when He speaks peace to His people and to His faithful, /that they turn not back to folly.” (8) Then, a new era will be brought into being.   Its qualities are described in a remarkable verse that pairs two pairs:  “Kindness and truth have met, / justice and peace have kissed.” (10) Truth is no longer harsh and forbidding; it is gentle and kind. Extending this almost romantic image is the bold, almost sexual metaphor, “justice and peace have kissed.”

We can imagine four allegorical figures: two men and two women.  I have no basis other than cultural stereotyping for this, but I suggest that truth and justice have masculine qualities and kindness and peace are softer, more feminine. God introduces truth to kindness. Truth, even when it’s a hard truth, is ultimately an act of kindness. Protecting people from truth inevitably leads to a bad end. Speaking truth firmly and gently, even with compassion, is an act of kindness.

There can be no peace without justice. Thus the even more forthright kiss and, we imagine, embrace. They go hand in hand.  Then, with a vertical thrust and energy, which underscores their masculine qualities, “Truth from the earth will spring up, as justice from the heavens looks down.” (11) Heaven and earth are the totality of God creation. Truth and justice can only exist together.  Without truth there can be no justice.  Absent truth, justice os far off.

The psalmist knits all four of these qualities into a whole that describes in very human terms that demonstrates that God’s blessings are far greater than better crops and winning battles.

Deuteronomy 27:14-28:24: The last half of chapter 27 lays out twelve (one for each tribe?) acts, which resemble the decalogue, but focus on idolatry and sexual sins. In an interesting psychological device, these are not mere proscriptions in writing. This is not just “don;t do this,” but “cursed be he.” Cursing had even greater impact in that society than our, for it meant being cast out of the community.

Further underscoring the seriousness of these sins in this catalog, each one is spoken aloud and Israel must reply, “Amen.”  This is much more the nature of spoken vow, as one would do before testifying in court.  When we speak aloud and then say, “Amen,” we have spoken before the community and they will hold us to a higher standard than we might hold ourselves.

From the curses at the end of chapter 27 to the blessings of chapter 28… Here is the deuteronomic deal: obey God and you will be blessed. Obedience must come first. “If you truly heed the voice of the L ORD  your God to keep to do all His commands … all these blessings will come upon you and overtake you when you heed the voice of the LORD your God.” (28:2,3)

An amazing catalog of blessings will result. Blessings in town and field (4). and possibly the greatest blessings of all, fecundity: “Blessed the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil and the fruit of your beasts, the get of your herds and  the offspring of your flock.” (5)

God’s side of the Covenant is reiterated, “The LORD will set you up for Him as a holy people as He has sworn to you when you keep the command of the LORD your God and walk in His ways.” (28:9).

But absent that obedience, blessing is replaced by curses, as the catalog of blessings is turned inside out and repeated in essentially the same order as the blessings above. Including barrenness, “Cursed the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, the get of your herds and the offspring of your flock.” (28:19) Perhaps worst of all, “The LORD will strike you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with burning and with desiccation and with emaciation and with jaundice, and they will pursue you till you perish.” (28:23)

It’s little wonder that the Jews of Jesus’ time saw such a string correlation between a person’s behavior / circumstances and God’s favor or disfavor. But I think it’s worth remembering that these blessings and curses here in Deuteronomy are pronounced on Israel as a whole. The Pharisees had taken things too far, I think, in applying the rules of blessing and curses at the level of the individual person.

Luke 9:37-50: Luke makes an crucial point about Jesus’ healing of the demon-possessed boy. After the boy is healed, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” (43) He does not say “all were astounded at the greatness of Jesus.” Even though they had not witnessed the Transfiguration, the crowds are figuring out that there is a direct connection between Jesus and God.

In a brilliant interplay of the light of healing and darkness of Jesus’ ultimate death creates the tension that drives this gospel forward with such force, Luke immediately shifts the scene to the intimacy of Jesus and his disciples. In stark contrast of the joy of the healed boy, the scene grows dark as Jesus tells them he is going to be “betrayed into human hands.” Which has zero meaning to the disciples who are befuddled.  Which was probably not a surprise to Jesus.

The disciples are afraid to ask the question because they intuit that they won’t like the answer. Another point that proves the psychological veracity of the gospel. I know I would have been afraid to ask, as I have been afraid many times in my life of what the truth might actually be.

One has to wonder, though.  Is this where Judas begins to think about hatching his plot?  Luke has certainly laid down a clue for us.