Psalm 33:6-11; Exodus 11:1-12:20; Matthew 21:23-32

Ash Wednesday.  The day in the church calendar when we are officially reminded of our mortality.  As I get older, I find that mortality is more often on my mind, anyway.  But that does not detract from the solemnity of this day.

In addition to the Daily Texts, there are Lectionary readings for this day, as well:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Psalm 33:6-11  The hymn turns to God as Creator, as the psalmist reminds us that God simply spoke creation into existence: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,” and again, “For He did speak and it came to be, He commanded, and it stood.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that this passage (and others like it in the Psalms and elsewhere) were on his mind when John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God and God’s Word are the one and the same thing.

Words and speech are what sets us humans apart from the rest of creation.  For me, the concept of imago deo centers around this gift, which God imbued in us.  Unlike God, we cannot speak things into existence, but the words we use are nevertheless powerful.  Either for good or for ill.  As the Bible makes clear in so many places, words are what we so often use to tear down and destroy.  The very opposite of how God’s voice creates and builds up.

Apropos our reading in Exodus of the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, and what is about to happen, the psalmist notes, “The LORD thwarted the counsel of nations, overturned the devisings of peoples.”  Egypt was only the beginning.  The so-called wisdom of men that we see on display through history and up to the present time is ample proof of the verity of this verse.  Only “the LORD’s counsel will stand forever.”  All man’s works are like grass, and withers away, as we are so beautifully reminded today, Ash Wednesday.

 Exodus 11:1-12:20  God is now at the end game with Pharaoh: “Yet one more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will send you off from here;” (11:1)

[Side note: Even though at the end of chapter 10 it seems clear that Moses and Pharaoh will never face each other again, they are apparently together once again.  After Moses makes his dreadful announcement of the final plague, “he went out from Pharaoh’s presence in a flare of anger.” (11:8).  There is something of narrative inconsistency here; one more reason why I believe that the Bible is inspired, but not inerrant. ]

God tells both Moses and Aaron what He is about to do, and issues very clear instructions of what is to be done if the household is to be spared the terrifying death that awaits all first-born.  Even today, there is no greater horror for a parent than to lose a child.  And American society does not freight the same significance of first-born sons as these ancient societies.  (Although speaking as a first born son, I wouldn’t mind a bit more awe and respect!)  To not have a first born son in the family was a mark of shame.  To have that first born son die was a clear sign that the family was cursed.

The instructions of Passover are chockablock with symbolic meaning.  Much has been made of the Christological significance of the lamb’s blood on the lintel and door posts (shape of a cross) and the fact that it is lamb’s blood, as in “the Lamb of God.”  Nor should we lose sight of the intersection of this very important sign of Old Covenant and the New Covenant in the reality Jesus’ Seder meal the night before he dies.  

In another nod to the Exodus story being the beginning of the national story of Israel, God makes it clear that “you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD through your generations, an everlasting statute you shall celebrate it.” (12:17).  As indeed it is to this very day.  That Passover has been celebrated for thousands of years is not an accidental cultural artifact; it is because God commanded it.

Matthew 21:23-32   Awed by their own theological cleverness, the  priests and elders pose a trick question to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23b).  Jesus is well aware that if he said “God, my father” he would be carted off immediately as a blasphemous heretic.  So, Jesus turns the question on them, making it about John the Baptist and the priest’s clear rejection of him because John was outside the religious mainstream. They argue among themselves trying to come up with an answer, and in order to protect their own skins from either being exposed as hypocrites or from the wrath of the crowd, they dissemble:  “We don’t know.”  Which earns them Jesus’ rightly derisive answer, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (21:27)

I know this dilemma too well: I don’t want to expose myself as a hypocrite and/or I’m cowardly and don’t want to upset other people with a true and honest answer.  So, hoisted on my own petard, I say and do nothing.

Jesus exposes their (and our) hypocrisy in the short parable of the two sons.  Saying we’ll work in the Kingdom and then not doing it is far worse that putting it off, but then getting out there eventually.  Playing at being religious without being serious or committed is far worse than coming late to the Kingdom.  A clear warning to all of us who claim to be working hard for Jesus but not really doing anything at all.

Psalm 33:1-5: Exodus 10; Matthew 21:12-22

Psalm 33:1-5  This psalm is surely a hymn in the sense that we think of hymns, meant to be sung by a congregation.  And there’s musical accompaniment: “Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,/ with the ten-stringed lute hymn to Him.”  The usual themes of praise psalms are present.  God’s righteousness, faithfulness: “For the word of the Lord is upright,/ and all His doings in good faith.”  While the popular image of the Old Testament (OT) God is an angry, justice-seeking old man, this hymn makes it abundantly clear that the OT God “loves the right and the just./ The Lord’s kindness fills the earth.”  Above everything else, God is a God of love expressed as the kindness of a parent to his children.

These verses also contain one of the most familiar lines in all the Psalms, if not the Bible: “Sing to him a new song.”  Of course we can take this in the literal sense: it’s good to create and sing new songs to God, not just the old familiar comfortable ones.

But I think there’s a deeper meaning here:  As God’s creatures we are endowed with the ability to “sing a new song” in all that we do and say.  God does not want us to be stuck in a rut, doing the same old thing over and over.  Instead, as we are created in God’s image, imago deo, so to we can be creators. All of us are endowed with the gift of creativity; to create new things, be they songs, works of art, objects, new ways of doing things, or striking out in new directions.  To be sure, we are not all destined to be artists or song writers, but all of us are capable of seeing and thinking and building relationships in new, fresh ways.  And also, to think and see in new ways.

Exodus 10  God finally directly tells Moses that “I Myself have hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart and the heart of his servants.”  God also gives his reason for hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  I think it is to establish the narrative of the nation of Israel in the most dramatic way possible.  For it is here at Exodus where we move from the Hebrews being the patriarchal tribe of Abraham at the end of Genesis to an actual nation.  God explains to Moses that this is the beginning of an amazing story, “I may set these signs in your midst so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt.” (10:2)  Just as we Americans recall the standoff at Bridge at Concord and the Declaration of Independence as  key narrative events in US history, Israel, even today, traces its beginning as a nation to the plagues in Egypt and of course, the Passover.

Moses warns the Egyptians about the coming swarm of locusts.  Pharaoh’s servants finally lose heart, advising Pharaoh, “How long will this fellow be a snare to us. Send off the men, that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (10:7)  The locusts come and Pharaoh seems to finally cave to pressure, “I have offended the Lord your god.  And now, forgive, pray, my offense.” (10:16).  Sure sounds like he means it, but as usual when the crisis passes, Pharaoh reverts to form.  Just as we usually do when the pressure is removed.

The final confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh  looks like it will yield, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  Finally, Pharaoh threatens Moses and tosses him out of his court, ” Watch yourself. Do not again see my face, for on the day you see my face, you shall die.” (10:28).  Moses is just as implacable: “Rightly you have spoken–I will not see your face again.”  Negotiation is over and the stage is set for the terrible last plague.  God is finished “toying” with Egypt.  The event which marks the beginning of Israel’s national history is about to commence.

 Matthew 21:12-22  Jesus, as he has constantly reminded his disciples is coming to establish a Kingdom that turns the world upside down.  Here in the Temple courtyard, he literally turns the status quo ante upside down as he overturns the moneychanger’s tables.  That’s the part we always hear about, but in the eyes of the Temple authorities he was doing something equally or even more upsetting: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” (21:14).  This was making him way too popular and threatening not only their own positions, but could very well bring the Romans down around their heads, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry.” (21:15)   Jesus the inflames the officials’ anger even further by quoting Psalm 8:2, basically identifying himself as the Messiah: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies/ you have prepared praise for yourself.” (21:16)

Three acts of treason in the eyes of the authorities: upsetting economic order, threatening good order by healing and mass popularity, proclaiming himself as Messiah.  But the priests had to let him go or they would have had a riot on their hands.  They will have to resort to more devious, secretive means to get this false messiah out of their hair.

The machinery leading to crucifixion cranks into motion. The ultimate demise of the Old Covenant and the introduction of the New Covenant collide right here in the Temple courtyard.

Psalm 32; Exodus 9; Matthew 20:29-21:11

Psalm 32  This psalm is a maskil, which as Alter notes, “is a category of song, but its precise nature remains unknown.”  Perhaps “praise chorus” is a rough translation, although for me it is basically a confessional song.  It certainly begins on a positive note: “Happy, of sin forgiven,/ absolved of offense.”  The psalmist has been forgiven by God.  And, as he observes, it is far better to have confessed than to keep it bottled up inside, “When I was silent, my limbs were worn out.”  When we keep our sinful acts to ourselves, we expend all our energy on hiding their reality not only from God, but from ourselves; aka denial.

The poet knows that God is our conscience: “For day and night/ Your hand was heavy upon me.”  And another metaphor of exhaustion: “My sap turned to summer dust.”  But when we say, “I shall confess my sins to the Lord,” God acts, “and You forgave my offending crime.”  But we still resist confession, and again our psalmist pleads: “Be not like a horse, like a mule without sense.”

The contrast before and after confession is stark.  Why  should we endure “the wicked [mens] pains” of hiding from God and keeping our sins to ourselves when the alternative is so much better as the last verse makes so clear: “Rejoice in the Lord and exult, O you righteous,/ sing gladly, all upright men.”  Only after confession can we sing and worship freely and with real joy.  A reminder for me that even though we do not do corporate confession very much at Saint Matthew any more, it is well for me to have confessed to God before singing that first song.

Exodus 9  Where the first three plagues were a grotesque amplification of natural pests, the next plagues get personal.  All of the Egyptian livestock dies, while that of Israel survives.  Pharaoh’s reaction to refuse Moses’ request seems quite logical in the face of  this economic disaster for his Kingdom.  To simply let Israel go at this point would be to admit his weakness before that really annoying prophet Moses and his now very cruel God.  Worse, it would admit Pharaoh’s impotence before his people.

So, Moses (who for some reason keeps getting admitted into Pharaoh’s court) is commanded by God to tell Pharaoh, “This time I am about to send all my scourges to your heart and against your servants and against your people (9:14).  Now the plague of rashes and boils gets personal; the health of the people of Pharaoh’s kingdom is in peril.  The plagues have moved beyond annoyance to real danger.  Next, an unprecedented natural disaster, “there was very heavy hail…the like of which had not in all the land of Egypt from the time it became a nation.” (9:24).  For the first time, Pharaoh appears moved to an admission of his wrongdoing, as he says, “I have offended this time.  The Lord is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong.” (9:27)  Moses accordingly spreads out his hand and the hail stops.  “And Pharaoh’s heart toughened.” (9:35).

We are not very different from Pharaoh.  When disaster is underway we pray desperately to God to stop it.  Then, when the event is over, we forget and go our merry way.  Pharaoh’s DNA lives on in all of us: our hearts are toughened as we forget who God is, and what he has done.

 Matthew 20:29-21:11  This last miracle outside Jericho reminds us that Jesus did not just go around dispensing magical fairy dust.  There are four important characters here: Jesus, the crowd and the two blind men.  Upon hearing the cries of the blind men, the crowd tells them to shut up.  Like the Pharisees, the crowd believes that obviously, these guys were blind because they were sinners and unworthy of Jesus’ ministrations.  But Jesus stops and as Matthew notes, “stood still.”   He didn’t chastise the crowd for their theological ignorance; he just stood there and ignored them.  And then asked that most crucial question, the same one Jesus, who comes to us and stands still, also asks us: “What do you want me to do for you?” (20:32).  Notice that he doesn’t just say, “What do you want me to do?” but adds two immensely important words at the end of the sentence, “for you.”  This encounter is personal;  Jesus is not some magic-making abstraction, but relates to us one-to-one.  

The answer of the blind men is also a lesson for us.  They do not tell their tale of woe; they do not embellish, but answer simply and directly, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (20:33)  They don’t hedge by beating around the bush, “if it be your will” or “if it’s part of your plan for us.”  They just ask directly.  As should we.

As we prepare for Lent, there’s always a bit of cognitive dissonance reading these final chapters of Matthew about Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem and its tragedy and triumph.

Is there a more ironic scene here at the beginning of the most important week in history, as joyful crowds welcome their apparent savior from the oppression of Rome?  The crowds shouting ‘Hosanna’ have no idea of Jesus’ real purpose, nor do they imagine that they will be the same crowd shouting “Crucify him!” in less than 6 days.  We are in that crowd, too.  We construct a Jesus to meet our own desires and purposes, having no idea of his real intention.  Like the crowd, we  have put Jesus into a box of our own imaginations.

But as CS Lewis reminds us in his characterization of Aslan, the real Jesus is not the Jesus we imagine. He is far more radical, far more dangerous and not about to be domesticated by our idea of what he “should” do or be.

Psalm 31:21-24; Exodus 8; Matthew 20:17-28

Back home again and enjoying a beautiful morning of sun and scudding clouds.  I can see showers off in the distance, and enjoyed the fresh, damp, and green walking down to Peets this morning.  Tulips are up at the Heather Farm Garden Center.  California spring will happen after all.

Psalm 31:21-24  I’m pretty sure the Moravians intentionally chopped up this psalm so we can savor this coda at its end.  These last verses open with “Blessed is the Lord,/ for he has done me wondrous kindness…”  Our psalmist acknowledges God’s kindness even though he has been beset by doubt, “And I had thought in my haste: ‘I am banished from before Your eyes,’ / Yet you heard the sound of my pleading.

The phrase “in my haste” says it all.  We doubt God is listening because we want an answer soon, if not right now.  But God never wavers, never abandons: “steadfastness the Lord keeps.”  Steadfast means rock-solid.  We’re the ones, who in our haste, feel God is not listening, and ultimately acts, “and pays back in good measure the haughty.”

Is there a more encouraging verse in all the psalms than the last verse of this psalm?  I think Alter’s translation really doesn’t express the psalmist’s profound joy in encouraging all of us the way the NRSV does: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage,/ all you who wait for the Lord.”  My prayer is for a courageous heart, no matter what life throws my way because I know that God is listening and that God is steadfast–the rock on which we have so firm a foundation.

Exodus 8  Our usual image of God’s acts–certainly reenforced by many psalms–is that they are powerful: earthquakes, thunder, lightning, mighty rivers.  One of those straight off, say a horrific destructive flood, might have persuaded Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go right away.  Instead, God uses these pestilential plagues –here, frogs, gnats, flies–to “persuade” Pharaoh.  They are a surfeit of three species that are generally annoying to humans–at least the gnats and flies, anyway.  In one way we can see them as a symbol of how Moses is annoying Pharaoh, or that the Hebrews have become a pestilence to Egypt.

But Pharaoh always “hardens his heart” and refuses Moses’ request.  By the end of this chapter it is clear that Pharaoh is toying with Moses, and that no matter how annoying the plague is (and those piles of dead frogs would certainly seem to fit that category to a T), Pharaoh knows that the plague is temporary.  Moses says, “Only let not Pharaoh continue to mock” (8:25) by promising and then rescinding his promise to let the Hebrews go.

So, what is going on here?  I think God is testing Moses as much–or maybe more–than he is testing Pharaoh.  Will Moses stick through this?  Will he continue to faithfully carry out God’s command?  Does God test us in the same way?  Will we remain faithful?

Matthew 20:17-28  Jesus makes his clearest statement yet about what will happen when he and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem: “…the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (20:18-19).  Matthew does not record the disciples’ response.  Do they still not get it and remain in denial?  Or is it slowly dawning on them that what Jesus has now told them three or four times really will happen?

It’s clear that the mother of James and John does not “get it” when she asks Jesus, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (20:21) Jesus asks the two if they’re ready “to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  They boldly reply, “We are.”  As Jesus promises them they will indeed do.  But they have no idea yet what that actually entails.  A  lesson here for us when we stand up and confidently declare, “I will go to the ends of the earth for Jesus,” only to wimp out not too far down the path.  Enthusiasm may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.

What is more important than enthusiasm is servant leadership.  Just before this incident,  Jesus has once again declared “the first shall be last,” and here he makes it clear exactly what he means: ” whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave…” (20:26-27)  We can almost hear the disciples saying, “Oh, you mean me, Jesus?  But I’ve been your faithful follower for these past three years.  Doesn’t that count for something?”  John and James are the primary example (and also what can go wrong when people try to set themselves over others without the right to do so).  Jesus’ clear answer: “No, not unless you’ve first been a slave.”

It’s more fun to be a leader than a slave, but true leaders know exactly what “servant leader” means.  It’s the sergeant or junior officer that will lead the charge as his men follow.  Am I willing to lead the charge into battle?  Or do I just want to sit on God’s right hand, looking important?

 

 

Psalm 31:10-20: Exodus 6:13-7:24; Matthew 20:1-16

No photography this morning.  Sitting here in the coffee shop at the Monterey Plaza and the usual view across the bay is obscured by wind and driving rain.  What we’ve all been praying and waiting for, but I hope it lets up a bit before Susan and I begin our drive home later today.

Psalm 31:10-20  No matter our physical weakness– “my strength fails because of my misery,/ and my bones waste away” — or our personal circumstances — “terror all around!—as they scheme together against me,/ as they plot to take my life.”– God is the rock, the faithful One. “But I trust in you, O Lord;/ I say, “You are my God.”/ My times are in your hand.”

I don’t have my Alter with me, so I don’t know how he translated what the NRSV renders as “My times are in your hand,” but I’m pretty satisfied with those six words, which say it all.  Our lives, and the time we’ve been allotted to live out those lives, are a gift from God.  This phrase acknowledges what it took me so many years and a bout with cancer to learn: Regardless of what I may think, I am not the all-knowing master of my destiny.  My times are not defined by what I think they should be.  There are simply too many outside forces impinging on my life.  I cannot be safe on my own power and intelligence.  As our psalmist writes, all that we achieve and are is “accomplished for those who take refuge in you.”

Exodus 6:13-7:24  Once again, Moses implores God to get him off the hook of public speaking, “Since I am a poor speaker,why would Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:28).  And God gets the message, redefining Moses’ role, and making Aaron his mouthpiece, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (7:1) God is very clear, though, to Moses, “You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land.” (7:2).  And finally, “Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.” (7:6)

Moses has clearly gotten the message (so to speak). God also warns them that it will not be an easy task to convince Pharaoh.  He gets the rod-to-snake demonstration and the water-to-blood plague.  But his heart remains hard.

Words, as important as they are, will not accomplish the goal alone; they must be backed up with action.  And in this case, God’s action. There’s an important lesson here for us (and for some politicians I could mention). Words, even words dictated by God are not necessarily enough to soften other’s hearts.  To have meaning, they must lead somewhere; otherwise it is merely empty rhetoric.  When we think we’re witnessing and someone responds, it’s not because of the power of our words, but the Holy Spirit working through those words.  As Moses and Aaron do not save the Israelites, neither to we “save” others.  That is God’s work.

Matthew 20:1-16  Jesus continues to turn accepted wisdom upside down and inside out.  Even today, we believe that labor should be compensated based on effort expended.  It just makes common sense.  But common sense is not an operating principle of the Kingdom.  Here, workers are compensated for merely showing up–and showing up late at that.  And those who worked hardest and longest grumbled at the obvious unfairness of the owner.

It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to extend this parable right into the church.  Those who work hard in a variety of volunteer (or even paid) tasks look around and see that others are not expending as much effort.  So, the dedicated workers start to feel superior, more worthy of God’s blessing, while they grump about others “not pulling their load.”  Leaders start to feel a little smug about their self-sacrificing nobility.  But it turns out that working in the Kingdom is not about us or our perception of our virtue.  There is no ranking, no ordering.  And again Jesus points out the hard truth: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (20:16).

Of course, this has not prevented the church from creating hierarchy, investing power and respect in church leaders.  But as the recent scandal of the Catholic church, where bishops transferred deviant priests in denial of reality, or the fall of various megachurch pastors demonstrates so well, the truth of Jesus’ words are immutable.  There may be rank here on earth, but there is no human rank in the Kingdom.

Psalm 31:6-9; Exodus 5:10-6:12; Matthew 19:23-30

It’s a beautiful sunny morning here in Monterey; the air is crisp and the surf along the Pacific Grove coast was high this morning, making for some pretty decent photography.  It’s also Susan’s birthday!

Psalm 31:6-9  Verse 9 leaps off the page this morning: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;/  my eye wastes away from grief,/  my soul and body also.” Not because this is how I feel this morning, quite the contrary.  But the verse’s juxtaposition is striking.  Our psalmist just exclaimed, “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,/ because you have seen my affliction” three verses earlier.

So, what gives here?  There’s total joy in God’s steadfast love and then suddenly, “I am distress.”  The issue, I think, is not that God’s love is variable; it’s as steadfast as the psalmist asserts.  But as for us, we are highly variable, oscillating between seemingly permanent joy quickly down into the depths of despair.  Who among us has not experienced the instant dissipation of joy when we receive bad news that a distant friend, whom we love has been diagnosed with cancer or even died?  It’s God’s very immovability, his rock-like stability, his “fixedness” that allows us to see our own variability.  And just as God delights in our joyful exultations, he is indeed gracious in our grief, even a grief that causes our eyes, our body and our soul to “waste away.”

Exodus 5:10-6:12 Moses is feeling assailed on all sides.  Having not followed God’s instructions about what to say to Pharaoh, he’s put the Israelites in an even more untenable situation.  And the Israelite supervisors do not mince words about this, “You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (5:21). So, in yet another proof that this story is about a fallible man, not a brave hero, Moses does what just about any of us would do, he cries out to God, who didn’t deliver as promised: “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people?”  All while feeling sorry for himself, “Why did you ever send me?” and making it very clear that it’s all God’s fault anyway, “you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” (5:22-23).

Wow. Is this us, or what?  We think we hear God’s call, and then we insert our own interpretation of what God really meant to say, and then, when things don’t turn out as we thought we were promised, we blame it all on God.

So, in what can only be described as an outstanding example of God’s infinite patience, God does not point out to Moses that he didn’t follow instructions, but responds with infinite generosity, “I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.” (6:5) and instructs Moses to go to the Israelites and tell them who God is and what God plans to do.  This time, Moses follows God’s instructions to the letter, but the situation is already too messed up.  The Israelites would not listen to Moses, “because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” (6:9).  Their repsonse convinces Moses that the real problem is that God made a bad mistake in choosing him: “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?”

There are so many lessons here.  But the one that looms large for me is that carrying out God’s call is never an easy task.  Things will not go according to what seemed like a brilliant plan; we will be consumed by doubt: doubt in God and doubt in ourselves.  We will say the wrong things.  A lot.  But God is infinitely patient and infinitely generous.

Matthew 19:23-30  This is where Jesus makes it clear that in the Kingdom, everything is turned upside down and inside out from what we expect . Contrary to well established cultural custom, the rich are not better, nor are they more righteous and deserving of heaven.  Interesting how the  Jews of Jesus time thought that, and our culture tends to implicitly, if not explicitly, treat the rich and famous as somehow more “righteous” than we of the hoi polloi.

At this point the disciples have been listening to Jesus for quite some time and it’s beginning to dawn on them that this is apparently not the politico-messianic movement they thought they signed up for.  Peter bluntly asks the question that’s doubtless on all their minds: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27).  How we are exactly the same: we labor in the church, make what we see as being significant sacrifices and for what?  Well, there’s Jesus’ promise, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”

Fine, OK, but just to make it clear, Jesus ends his promise by noting the Great Reversal he alluded to earlier about the rich: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (19:30).  And that’s what the Kingdom is about: what we expect is not what’s going to happen.  Just the opposite.  Better not to bring our pre-conceived notions of what “should” be or “should happen” into the Kingdom.

Psalm 31:1-5; Exodus 4:1-5:9; Matthew 19:13-22

Late today.  Am down in Monterey helping Susan celebrate her birthday.  Out at 6:30 this morning at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, photographing surf in the rain.  Then a relaxing breakfast, and enjoying watching the clouds and rain showers scud over Monterey Bay.

Psalm 31:1-5  Our psalmist is on the run and seeks safety: “Be a rock of refuge for me,/ a strong fortress to save me.”  The image of God as both rock and refuge is striking.  As I was climbing around on the rocks this morning, seeking a place for the “perfect shot,” I spotted a small outcropping in the sandstone, under which one body could probably crouch, safe from the storm.  Rocks are solid, immovable, dense, safe.  (And they are foundations: “..and upon this rock I will build my church.”)  As we have seen in so many movies, if we can hide under a rock, we are much safer from those enemies taking shots at us.

In our modern society, we tend to think of refuge in abstract, almost comfortable terms, as e.g., “my home is my refuge from the crowds around me.”   But our psalmist is out in the wild, being pursued by his enemies.  We can almost hear him panting, out of breath from running and barely escaping the trap when he says, “take me out of the net that is hidden for me,/ for you are my refuge.”  Refuge here is not escape; it is safety. How often do I think of God as refuge from my enemies?  As a place of safety, not just retreat or escape?

Exodus 4:1-5:9:  The Moravians are carrying us through Exodus at a pretty rapid clip.  So much has happened already: Moses murders the Egyptian overseer, escapes, gets married, encounters the burning bush and for the first time in the Bible, God identifies himself directly, “I AM WHO I AM.”  And 400 years after Joseph, God is at last ready to bring his chosen people back up out of Egypt.  And Moses is the human whom God will use to accomplish this apparently impossible task.

What makes this story so believable is that Moses is completely human; we know exactly how he feels.  His severe self-doubt is completely understandable: “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” (4:1). As we complete this Right Here Right Now study, I am filled with exactly the same self-doubt.  What if I say something, but people don’t believe me, or worse: what if they think I’m simply addled?  Moses has an advantage here because God demonstrates the power with which he is equipping Moses.  While I am not expecting God to turn my walking stick into a snake, I at least can know that it’s OK to question God as to his intentions.

Even after those dramatic demos, Moses still resists the Call: “…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (4:10).  But God will have none of that and promises, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” (4:12).  There’s the part where I tend to go awry.  I always think I know what to say, and unlike Moses, who was unwilling to speak, I am usually unwilling to shut up.  Once again, our role is to abandon ourselves to God and let him speak through us.

As God promised, Pharaoh’s heart is hard and Moses, out of fear, does not actually say what God intended.  Instead he  asks Pharaoh for a three-day vacation for the Hebrews to “celebrate a festival to[God] in the wilderness.”  That doesn’t move Pharaoh, so he says, “a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” (5:3)  Again, Pharaoh is unmoved.  Moses’ feeble attempts to not actually say what God intends him to say only makes life more miserable for all of them.  The lesson is obvious: when God calls and then sends us, we are to be bold and not make wimp-out excuses–as difficult as that may be to do.  Rather than letting God speak through Moses, Moses tries to control the situation because he is afraid of the possible consequences.  Boy, do I see myself here.

Matthew 19:13-22  Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler (RYR) is surely the operating definition of missed opportunity–and one of the great “could have beens” in the NT.  It is also the operating definition of most of us.  Like the RYR, I am much more secure in the tangible present, and what I have, than I am in taking a risk by abandoning all that.  The RYR lacked the imagination to envision what might have been–that the riches he may have encountered by abandoning his “here and now” riches could have been infinitely greater.

This encounter between Jesus and the RYR always bugged me when I was younger.  I always though Jesus was being pretty unreasonable.  Why not just accept the RYR “as is.”  Surely, he would come to see life with Jesus as superior and willingly give up his riches later on.  Why did he have to abandon all that first as a condition of following Jesus? But as I grow older and live in a post-cancer reality, I finally see what Jesus was getting at.  The quest for security and keeping what I have is no longer as intense.  “Stuff” and social position no longer really matter very much.  Moreover, I can see that it is in the Kingdom where the real treasures lay.

 

Psalm 30:1-5; Exodus 1:1-2:10; Matthew 18:15-35

Psalm 30:1-5   This psalm’s superscription indicates it was sung “for the dedication of the house,” which I would take to be the Temple or some new part of the Temple.  (although probably not renovated restrooms or a new soundboard…)  The singer begins with praise, “I shall exalt You, Lord.”  But it’s not just general praise; there’s a personal statement  of rescue: “…for You drew me up,/ and You gave no joy to my enemies.”

Unlike so many other psalms where the poet asks for general destruction of his enemies, this note, “You gave no joy to my enemies” is really quite magnanimous.  The enemies are still there, and still threatening, but at least they are unhappy at being defeated.  Obviously, this generosity is a reflection of the upbeat tone of the psalm, but I think we would do well to think in terms of our enemies being denied the joy of victory over us rather than their complete destruction.

This certainly seems more congruent with what Jesus implied when he said, “turn the other cheek.”  That simple act denies our enemy of joy and neutralizes his triumph.

This sense of joy suffuses the psalmist’s relationship with God, as well: “But a moment in His wrath,/ life in His pleasure.”  It’s this very simple view of proportionality that allows our psalmist to “bed down weeping,/ and in the morning, glad song.”  The sheer joy that an intimate relationship with God brings far outweighs the woe, and especially that feeling of God’s abandonment that occurs so often in the Psalms and in our lives.  Is this psalm too upbeat, too unrealistic about life as it actually is?  Perhaps, but untrammeled joy should occupy our lives, even more than the darker times.

Exodus 1:1-2:10  As promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, their progeny was indeed fruitful and multiplied faster than the Egyptians.   As the author slyly notes at 1:19, the midwives report to Pharaoh that “‘For not like the Egyptian women are the Hebrew women, for they are hardy.'”  Even though the Hebrews become slaves they continue to multiply causing the Egyptian aristocracy to feel threatened, even to the point, “should war occur, they will actually join our enemies and fight against us.” (1:10).  Thus, the Egyptian rationale for slavery, but also for embarking on genocide, “Every boy that is born you shall fling into the Nile, and every girl you shall let live.” (1:22)

I’m struck by the parallels to the never-ending immigration debate here today, including even the reality that Hispanic birth rates are higher than Caucasians, as we whites will eventually become a minority.  Clearly, many feel threatened by moving form majority to minority status.  I’m sure a similar rationale was used in the 19th century Antebellum south against freeing the slaves, lest they proliferate uncontrollably and overrun the white landowners.  As usual, human nature–especially when it feels threatened–has changed not a whit in thousands of years.

In Sunday School we started right out with the story of the infant Moses set adrift in the wicker basket, conveniently skipping right over the Pharaoh’s genocidal intentions.  This story, of course, is a conscious allusion to the Noah story, and Alter points out that the word used for wicker “ark” is the same as the ark of the Noah story.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to note that this is also a form of baptism; that in water the next great act in this story of God and his chosen people begins.  Water, which also marks major turning points in Moses’ own life, from the crossing of the Red Sea to Moses’ striking the rock, to looking at, but not crossing, the Jordan River at the end of his life.

It’s certainly no coincidence that the Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, “For from the water I drew him out.” (2:10).

Matthew 18:15-35   Jesus takes up the uncomfortable issue of church discipline.  I’ve always been struck that the issue of things going wrong comes up as the first real discussion about the church soon after Jesus has told his disciples that “upon this rock I will build my church.”  In any event, Jesus makes it clear that if the first one-on-one attempt does not result in “the member listen[ing],”witnesses become essential.  This one-on-one meeting happens only when the one who has sinned agrees that’s the case and repents.  The logical next step couldn’t be clearer: “…take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (18:16)

I think the church has generally come down wrong on either side of this issue.  On the one hand there are some strict congregations, whose leader simply pronounces judgement rather than seeking reconciliation.  On the other, churches tend to avoid the entire issue of discipline–and in our litigious age, probably with good reason.  But neither is ultimately healthy for the body, as Paul and I presume every leader since then understands all too well.

That Jesus’s most detailed disquisition on forgiveness immediately follows is no coincidence.  Forgiveness must be the foundation of every issue of discipline.  The message of the parable is crystalline: God forgives; so must we.  And it’s not just the self-serving and very insincere, “if I’ve offended anyone, please forgive me,” we hear form politicians and celebrities, but as Jesus makes terribly clear, it must be “from the heart.”

 

Psalm 29; Genesis 50; Matthew 18:1-14

Psalm 29: In Psalm 28, the poet seeks to hear the voice of God in reply to his pleas.  Here, God’s voice is the emblem of his power and glory: “Grant to the Lord His name’s glory.” And we, his creatures must do obeisance to that power: “Bow to the Lord in holy majesty.”  I’m sure this psalm was written in the midst of a roaring thunderstorm and we hear–and feel– the voice of God loud and clear over nature itself: “The God of glory thunders,/ The Lord is over the mighty waters.”

It is God’s voice manifesting itself in nature that reminds us of God’s dominance as ruler over His creation, “The Lord’s voice in power,/ the Lord’s voice in majesty.”   And it is a power not to be trifled with: “…the Lord’s voice breaking cedars,/ the Lord’s voice shatters the Lebanon cedars.”  Above all, this psalm reminds us that God is not independent of His creation; he rules over it.  And in this rule there is both creation– “the Lord’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does”–and in the very next line, destruction, “and lays bare the forests.”

Which of course leads to the issue of the human death and destruction caused by natural disasters.  Are these of God’s devising as this psalm suggests?  Or is the destruction simply scaled-up tragedy due to our fallen human nature?  We readily acknowledge that when bad things happen to us individually that we live in a fallen creation.  Can we scale this up to the level of floods, hurricanes and even snow storms?  To me, this seems to be taking human credit–albeit negative credit– for events that are beyond human influence.  In the end, I can only conclude that God is God, and God’s reasons behind natural events remain beyond our ken.

Genesis 50:  This final chapter wraps up the story of Jacob, Joseph, his brothers, which occupies the last 13 chapters of Genesis–a quarter of the book!  There is the rather large delegation that takes Jacob’s body back to Canaan–so large that it makes the natives sit up and take notice, and “they said, ‘This heavy mourning is Egypt’s.'” (50:11).  But the crux of the chapter is Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers.  As usual, the brothers are thinking mainly of themselves, “he [Joseph] will surely pay us back for all the evil we caused him.” (50:15) and then, rather than having the courage to simply man up and ask Joseph to forgive them, they couch the request to a command given by their father, “Thus you shall say to Joseph, We beseech you, forgive…” (50:17) knowing that Joseph would never go against anything his father requested.

But forgiveness abounds and once again, Joseph both forgives and weeps.  Most importantly, though, he says, “God meant it for good, so as to bring about at this very time keeping many people alive.”  We don’t hear the brothers’ response, but their silence tells me that they simply never “got it” about how God played the central role in this drama. Something I am equally guilty of when things go my way, as they did for Joseph’s brothers.

This incredible book containing this incredible saga concludes on a calm domestic note about family and the unbroken generations to come, as “Joseph saw the third generation of sons from Ephraim, and the sons, as well, of Machir, son of Manasseh.”  The last scene of this book is Joseph bouncing (I’s like to imagine) his great grandchildren on his knees just before he says, “I am about to die.”  God continues to preserve the seed of Noah as the curtain falls.

Matthew 18:1-14  In this passage, Jesus gives us three crucial requirements for those of us who would work in the Kingdom.  First, humility: “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (18:3).  It is not only pointless to worry about our status, it is counterproductive.  We are to use the humility of children as our example for our own humility.  When was the last time I was as humble as my two-year old grandson, Jens?

Second, there are going to be obstacles in the work: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,” (18:7)  But it is our own ambitions–even good ones–to be an important worker in the Kingdom that end up impeding Kingdom work.  And there is no time for foolishness.  If there are people creating obstacles, it needs to be dealt with, not ignored.  I know from my own management experience that the temptation was always to ignore a problem–especially one involving people–just hoping it would go away on its own.  Which of course it never did.  The longer I delayed the more intractable the issue and the more difficult it was to resolve.  Which is exactly what Jesus is getting at here.

Third, just as we are to eliminate obstacles, we are also to seek those who have become lost.  It is so easy to ignore and subsequently forget those whom we have known that have slipped by the wayside. Seeking and finding the lost sheep–including even ourselves when we are lost in addiction or distraction, I think–is a Kingdom priority.  But our main responsibility is to our brothers and sisters.  As always, this is much easier to say than to do.

Psalm 28; Genesis 49; Matthew 17:14-27

Wow. One month to spring.  Not that it matters much here in California, but my children and grandchildren are pretty tired of winter at this point.  Easy for me to go to Minnesota and rave about the snow and ice, but then again, I had the return flight to California in my pocket…

We may not think of the Psalms this way, but many of them are highly sensual.  Not in the usual sexual implication of that word, but sensual as in our senses.  I use “sensual” rather than “sensory” because the psalmists use senses in a way that directly connects us to God, so “sensual” in the sense of “deep and intimate relationship.”

Here at Psalm 28, we have speaking and the crucial sense of hearing as the psalmist writes, “To You, O Lord, I call./ My rock, do not be deaf to me.”  We use the derisive phrase, “deaf as a rock,” but that is not the meaning here.  God is our anchor, our Rock and above all we desire a response.  For there is nothing more awful than hearing only silence in reply: “Lest You be mute to me/ and I be like those gone down to the pit.:  God’s silence means only one thing: separation, abandonment.  And like those who have gone down to the Pit ahead of him, death.

The psalmist reiterates his vocal cry: “Hear the sound of my pleading/ when I cry out to you.”  And again, “Do not pull me down with the wicked,/ and with the wrongdoers.”  To be in the company of wrongdoers is almost worse than being pulled down into the pit.  The reason is simple because what they say and what they do are miles apart: “…who speak peace to their fellows/ with foulness in their heart.”  Not only do the wrongdoers betray those who mistakenly trust them, they betray God as well: “For they understand not the acts of the Lord/ and His handiwork they would destroy and not build.”  Clearly a message for our time: that God expects us to build on his creation, not destroy it.

Suddenly a turning point: “Blessed is the Lord/ for He has heard the sound of my pleading.”  Notice it is not just “heard my pleading,” but “heard the sound of my pleading.”  These are spoken pleas.  Yes, God hears our silent prayers, but there is something about that which is spoken aloud to God that signifies a deeper belief on our part that God has ears and that he hears just as if He were sitting across the table with us.”  That is how real God is to the psalmist.  Is God that real for me?

Here in the penultimate chapter of this remarkable book, the patriarchal story draws to a close as Jacob “called his sons and said, ‘Gather round, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the days to come.'” (49:1)  And he proceeds to lay out in poetic form both blessings and curses for each of the twelve brothers in birth order.  Reuben, the firstborn has “mounted the place where your father lay” and “profaned my couch.”  And “unsteady as water, you’ll no more prevail!”  For as we saw in the previous chapter as Jacob blessed his grandsons, Reuben’s right of primogeniture was taken away from him.

And so for each brother: “Simeon and Levi, the brothers–/weapons of outrage their trade./ …cursed be their fury so fierce,/ and their wrath so remorseless.” (49:5-7).  Whereas Judah, the root of David, is “a lion’s whelp…like the ming fo beasts, and who dare arouse him?” (49:9)  Zebulon will live by the sea (49:13) and Dan will “be a snake on the road/ and asp on the path, that bites the horse’s heels.” (49:17)  And in fact, the tribe of Dan engaged in guerrilla warfare in Joshua and Judges.  “Asher’s bread shall be rich” and “Naphtali,…who brings forth lovely fawns.” (49:21)  Joseph, the “fruitful son” (49:22) is understandably accorded the greatest blessing: “You father’s blessings surpassed/ the blessings of timeless heights…/ May they rest on the head of Joseph.” (49:20).  And finally, young Benjamin, “ravening wolf,/ in morn he consumes the spoils,/ at evening shares the plunder.” (49:27).  Indeed, as we read in Judges, the tribe of Benjamin was renowned for its military skill.  Twelve very different personalities; twelve very different blessings.  Jacob knew his sons intimately.  Just as God knows us.  What blessing (or curse) would be accorded to us here and now?

Jacob issues very precise geographic and legal details of where and how he will be buried and where: “in the cave bought from the Hittites” and “he breathed his last, and was gathered to his kinfolk.” (49:33).  And the end of one of the most remarkable stories in the OT: the man who used subterfuge to receive the blessing; who wrestled with the angel; who fathered twelve very different sons and yet was blessed by God.  Proof, if ever we needed it, that God powerfully uses us regardless of our imperfections and rebellion.

Jesus issues his greatest challenge to his disciples–and to us: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’” (17:20).  Yet here I sit, very incapable of moving Mount Diablo.  Is it simply a question of too little faith?  I feel that Jesus is referring to our work in the Kingdom of God.  That we can indeed accomplish the impossible by asking the seemingly impossible.  That, I guess, is what vision is all about. That simply dreaming big (as the mathematicians might put it) is necessary but not sufficient, but dreaming from the framework of real faith is indeed sufficient.  But in the end, real faith requires abandoning myself completely to Jesus Christ.  Something I have not yet done.

Ever aware that for people to get a message, especially one they don’t want to hear, it needs to be repeated several times, Jesus tells his disciples again that he will be  betrayed but also that he will be raised.  Still not wanting to accept this very disturbing and strange news, the disciples remain in denial. and “were greatly distressed.” (17:23).  And frankly, I don’t blame them.  We know how the story turns out; they don’t.

Have an excellent day, guys.