Psalm 106:1-5; Ruth 1; Luke 23:1-12

Psalm 106:1-5: Like the previous psalm, this one recounts Israel’s history and opens in much the same manner by acknowledging God’s essential benevolence: “Acclaim the LORD, for He is good, for His kindness is forever.”  In keeping with God’s kindness, our response is “Happy those who keep justice, who do righteousness at all times.” (3) Of course, there is some poetic license here since we have all proven again and again that it is impossible to “do righteousness at all times.” As will become apparent after these opening verses.

There is a wistful quality of better times, as it appears to be written from exile, and the poet asks plaintively, “Recall me, O LORD, when You favor Your people, mark me for Your rescue,” (4) A day will come, he writes, when God will return and rescue Israel from its current plight. That once again, God will “see the good of Your chosen ones, to rejoice in the joy of Your nation, to revel with Your estate.” (5) But at the moment, God seems to be absent.

Again, we are reminded that there will be times in our lives when God is nowhere to be found and we pray for rescue, but as the psalmist notes, that does not diminish God’s kindness or His goodness. We pray with the assumption, as the poet does here, that God is listening.

Ruth 1: After the ugliness of Judges, the famous opening chapter of Ruth comes as a fresh, cleansing breeze. Widowed Naomi returns to Israel with her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi gives each the freedom to return to their own people and their own gods, which Orpah does. But Ruth clings to her mother in law and in one of the most beautiful poems in the Bible, she says,

Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
 Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.   (1:16,17)

Ruth is the archetype for all of us in the New Covenant, for we are not God’s original chosen people. But we have become God’s, Israel’s God has become our God through the act of grace of sending His Word, Jesus Christ,  to us. Ruth was willing to give up her former life, indeed her family and her entire heritage to follow Naomi to Bethlehem.

Unlike Naomi, who told her daughters-in-law to return to their homes, Jesus has asked the us to give up our previous lives to follow him. Do we have the dedication of Ruth to do so?

Luke 23:1-12: Jesus is brought before Pilate the first time and after the accusations that Jesus is stirring up trouble for the Romans by his kingly pretensions, “Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” (3). Jesus has the temerity to fling the accusation back at them and the answer makes it clear that they were left speechless.

Pilate has no idea what to do next until he cleverly finds an out for himself: he doesn’t have jurisdiction over Jesus, who as a Galilean, should be Herod’s problem.  Herod is in town and Jesus is delivered to Herod’s court.  Luke tells us that Herod was anxious to see this Jesus because he wanted to see Jesus perform a miracle for him.  Jesus not only doesn’t deliver the miracle on command; he is completely silent. Even mocking and torture have no effect, and putting an “elegant robe” on Jesus, the accused is sent back to Pilate.

One would think that Pilate would be less than thrilled to see a problem he believed he had gotten rid of returned to him, and that he would be pretty angry with Herod. Yet, Luke tells us, “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (12). Why would they become friends? Is it because Herod is culturally Jewish and Pilate is a Gentile and by both rejecting Jesus, Luke is telling us that the entire world has rejected Jesus, not just the Gentiles and not just the Jews?

Or is it that Jesus’ mere presence–and his silence– in both Pilate’s and Herod’s courts has had a healing effect? That the Kingdom of God–where Jesus was indeed king–reached down and touched the two earthly kingdoms? Perhaps Luke is giving us a small hint of what the Kingdom of God was really all about and that it impacts real people in real time.

 

Psalm 105:37-45; Judges 20:32-21:25; Luke 22:63-71

Psalm 105:37-45: This long psalm, which narrates the history of Israel, starting with Abraham and focusing on the captivity and escape from Egypt, concludes in these verses with the years in the wilderness, (although it rather inexplicably skips over the events at Sinai), ending with the entry into the promised land.

Interestingly, we are reminded that God renewed His original Covenant,”For He recalled His holy word / with Abraham His servant,” (42) as His final act in the wilderness before “He brought out His people in joy, in glad song His chosen ones.” (43). These two verses are a description of salvation for all of us: God brings us out of the wilderness of sin into the promised land of the Kingdom of God.

But having been brought out of the wilderness, Israel still has a solemn obligation: “so that they should keep His statutes, and His teachings they should observe. Hallelujah!” (45) So too, for us: Coming into God’s Kingdom entails significant responsibility. Through Christ’s grace we keep God’s law and follow His teachings. As Paul says somewhere, the responsibilities of salvation and the gift of grace are not ours to bandy about so that “sin abounds.”

I think it’s important to remember that even though it’s the “New” Covenant, there are still two sides to the deal: God’s grace through Jesus Christ is on one side and our responsibility to follow God’s ways as we work in the Kingdom is on the other.

Judges 20:32-21:25: We now understand why the Levite sent the pieces of his chopped up concubine to the other tribes of Israel: it was a message that the tribe of Benjamin, at least those who resided in the town of Gilbeah, where the men performed gang rape, were to be punished for their sins. So, the eleven tribes of Israel come to battle the tribe of Benjamin and are defeated two times with heavy losses. Internecine warfare–brother-against-brother is ugly and it this incident of Israel fighting its own tribe is as ugly as it gets.

Before going up against Benjamin a third time, it finally occurs to the leaders of Israel that they might ask God what they should do: “Shall we go out once more to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites, or shall we desist?” The Lord answered, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (20:28). So, with God apparently on their side, the Israel army employs a stratagem to draw the Benjaminites out of the city, where they are overwhelmed and defeated. The authors record appalling numbers of dead. Thousands from the Israel side, and ” all who fell that day of Benjamin were twenty-five thousand arms-bearing men, all of them courageous fighters.” (20:46)

In another ugly scene, the victorious Israel army goes in to the town of Gilbeah and slaughters everyone. Then it occurs to Israel, that while they have sworn to not allow any intermarriage with Benjamin, at the same time, they should not allow one of their own tribes to become extinct. And in an amazing juxtaposition of death and mercy, “ the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by theLord that we will not give them any of our daughters as wives?” (21:6,7). The answer comes again from God: One town in Israel, Jabesh-gilead, had not shown up for the sacrifice, and it is decreed they shall be killed–except its 400 virgins, who are given over as brides to the survivors of Benjamin. Thus, by means we can only consider barbaric, the tribe of Benjamin is saved from extinction.

What to make of all this slaughter? Even though God was consulted, it was only after men’s own devising–the Levite who slaughtered the concubine, and the vengeful army of Israel that was slaughtered–that they remembered God and prayed to Him. It’s clear that God is playing a secondary role here. The evil here is evil perpetrated by men, who as the last line of chapter 21 reminds us, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (21:25) Proof that what is right “in our own eyes” is far from God’s will for us.

Luke 22:63-71: Now that his enemies have captured Jesus, they waste little time in getting down to a particularly cruel of torture along with humiliation.  I’d never noticed the verse that after blindfolding Jesus, they taunt him, ““Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They kept heaping many other insults on him.” (64, 65) What an incredible perversion of the Jewish meaning of prophesy in the spirit of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel!. To these men, prophesy was just a trivial parlor game. Men who claimed to represent the very heart of Judaism have perverted it. How low they have fallen.  And at this point I am reminded of faith healers who do their tricks on stage. A profound misunderstanding and misuse not only of who Jesus was, but of God himself.

In response to their mocking question, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” Jesus says, ““If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer.” (67, 68) Which is exactly the attitude of a mocking world. Similar to Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who asked him to perform a miracle, Jesus reminds them that belief comes from the heart, not form outward form or fake “proofs” that would be discounted anyway.

We are so often the same as those priests and officials. Faith can be a tiring journey, and we all seek a direct proof at one point or another. But if there was a proof so overwhelming, then we would have given up our free will to choose or not choose to believe. Jesus’ tormentors do not understand this–and neither does the world. Without that ability to accept or reject on faith we would be mere automatons, not God’s highest creation, created imago deo.

It seems that the final, unarguable proof will come to the unbelieving world only at the end of history.

 

Psalm 105:16-22; Judges 19; Luke 22:39-51

Psalm 105:16-22: Our psalmist becomes historically very specific, recounting the Joseph story of famine in Egypt, “He sent a man before them—/ as a slave was Joseph sold.” There is a dramatic image of Joseph’s plight that we don’t read in the Genesis story, “They tortured his legs with shackles, / his neck was put in iron,” (18), but then “until the time of his word had come, / the LORD’s utterance that purged him.” (19) It is the utterance of God that frees Joseph, not Joseph’s own words. God is operating through Joseph.

This section concludes with more detail missing from the Genesis story, Pharoah “made him master of his house / and ruler of all his possessions, / to admonish his princes as he desired /and to teach wisdom to his elders.” (21, 22) This is a dramatic picture of Joseph’s power under the Pharaoh. I’m assuming our psalmist is engaging in a bit of dramatic hyperbole here, but making his key point that Joseph’s transformation came through “the utterance of God.”

Which is the point, I think. God uses people in the very worst circumstances to speak and to change not only their won situation, but as with Joseph, an entire country. I suspect there’s a subtext for Israel itself here to recognize that they are God’s people and God will use them. We’ll see where the rest of this psalm takes us.

Judges 19: This story of the unfaithful concubine, who runs home, is eventually found by her Levite master; the Levite, as guest in Gibeah is almost sodomized, the concubine is offered instead; she is gang raped, left for dead, and carried off dead or alive (it’s not clear) by the Levite who then cuts her body into 12 pieces, with each piece being sent to each tribe of Israel. It’s a gruesome, and frankly disgusting story. It’s almost a direct echo of the Lot-in-Sodom story, but with an even bloodier, more appalling ending. Why is it even in the Bible?

It’s worth noting, I think, that the chapter reads like a newspaper story; there is no editorial comment and God is nowhere to be found in the story. It is simply a straightforward account of ugly human behavior on all sides–Jew and gentile.

If we look at this story in larger context, the book of Judges, in many ways, seems to be a compendium of evil human behavior–both by Israel and even more by the surrounding pagan communities of which Gilbeah was one.  It all adds up to a stunning and depressing picture of a world where God seems to be absent and revolting human behavior seems to know no bounds. A picture not that far off from what we read about what is happening in the world today.

Luke 22:39-51: Luke’s account of Jesus prayer leaves out the Garden of Gethsemane altogether. And it is bookended by Jesus’ remark to the disciples, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (40, 46). Here we learn that Jesus’ fervent prayer resulted in “his sweat [that] became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (44). For me the most intriguing aspect of Luke’s version of this final prayer is that Jesus “found them sleeping because of grief.” Here is the first clue that the disciples at last really understood what was going to happen. That their beloved leader was truly going to die and they are heartbroken and exhausted.

But Jesus doesn’t cut them any slack, saying, “Get up and pray.” So, what seems to be Jesus’ recommended antidote for grief and exhaustion? Prayer.

When Judas approaches Jesus to greet him with the betraying kiss, we cannot miss Jesus’ irony when he says, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (48). The disciples’ understandable human reaction is to dispatch the betrayer with a sword thrust, but someone misses and cuts off an ear instead. Here’s the culmination of Jesus’ discourse about purses and swords in the Upper Room. This movement will not live by the sword. Swords are to be put away, “Jesus said, “No more of this!” and he in his final miracle, heals the man’s ear.

How sad, then, that over the centuries in the name of Christianity, so many swords have been wielded. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we read Jesus’ words with the gruesome story of Gilbeah in mind. Jesus has come to transform the world through his death and resurrection. There is hope for humankind’s bad behavior, for its sins after all.

 

 

Psalm 105:8-15; Judges 18; Luke 22:24-38

Psalm 105:8-15: The psalmist calls to all Israel–the “Seed of Abraham / sons of Jacob, His chosen ones”–to “Recall the wonders that He did, / His portents and the judgments He issued,” (6) but above all to remember the Covenant. God certainly remembers it: “He recalls His pact forever—the word He ordained for a thousand generations—”(8). Not only does God remember His vow, but He “He sealed with Abraham, /and His vow to Isaac,  and He set it for Jacob as a statute, /for Israel an eternal pact,.” (10) There are three aspects to this sacred covenant: it is sealed, (in modern terms, signed); it is set into law; and it is unbreakable (an “eternal pact.”)

For all the myriad ways that Israel went astray, it was never God who broke His promise. For us, God’s inviolable promise is in the form of the New Covenant. He will keep His side of its terms; will we? This is also why I do not believe that when we go astray or even think we’ve abandoned God altogether in favor of our own philosophy that we have not lost our salvation. For us, baptism is the sure sign that we have been “sealed with the cross of Christ forever.”

God’s Covenants, whether the Old or the New, mean protection: “He allowed no man to oppress them / and warned kings on their account: /“Touch not My anointed ones, / and to My prophets do no harm.”” (14, 15) Does that mean we will be protected physically from the evil rampant in the world? As we can see in the Middle East, no. But it does mean that whatever befalls to us physically, that eternal seal brings means we will always be in God’s care–forever.

Judges 18: Although the tribe of Dan had been allocated territory by lot in Joshua’s time (Joshua 19:40-48), it had been lost. This chapter describes how “five valiant men” of Dan come to Micah’s house and encounter the unnamed Levite priest. Wondering why he was serving in the house of a non-Israelite, the Levite answers,  “Micah did such and such for me, and he hired me, and I have become his priest.” (4) Apparently satisfied that the Levite can also speak with God, they ask if their battle will succeed. He replies ““Go in peace. The mission you are on is under the eye of the Lord.” (6).

The 5 men, together with another 600, eventually come back to Michah’s house and ask the priest to become a priest for the tribe of Dan. He agrees, and brings the idols with him. Micah’s people are upset; they run after the Danites, Micah exclaiming, ““You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, ‘What is the matter?’ (24) The Danite leader replies, ““You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.” (26). So Micah gives up and goes home.

What to make of this story? It’s pretty much straight history and its application is elusive. I guess we can say that the Levite priest needed work and that Micah was sensible to let the priest he had hired go with the Danites when confronted by 600 armed men. It also tells us that even in the midst of idols, men like the Levite can serve God.

Luke 22:24-38: These verses are Luke’s “Upper Room Discourse,” which takes up four chapters in John’s gospel. Jesus describes the unusual hierarchy in the Kingdom–so different from the Romans (gentiles): “But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (26) And then he says, “But I am among you as one who serves.” (27) This is what true leadership is: the willingness to serve those who are led, not like “The kings of the Gentiles [who] lord it over them.” (24).

Jesus then makes a promise to them: “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (30) I have to wonder, though, if the disciples have yet figured out exactly what this Kingdom was, that Jesus is talking about. I know I wouldn’t have. We see an image of what Jesus is talking about, I think, in Revelation.

After the familiar passage about Peter’s denial, Jesus talks rather mysteriously about purses, bags and swords. I don’t think he’s advocating violence or that the disciples should take up arms, but confirming once again that he is about to be treated like a criminal as prophesied in Isaiah 53: “this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” (37) And when he says the two swords in the room are already “enough,” he is telling his disciples that they should not take up arms and is simply telling them, “this is enough; we’re done with this conversation.”

Psalm 105:1-7; Judges 16,17; Luke 22:14-23

Psalm 105:1-7: It’s really too bad we don’t sing (or at least read) the Psalms at Saint Matthew any more. They really cry out to be read aloud. And the opening verses of this psalm beg to be spoken or sung:

Acclaim the LORD, call out His name,
make His deeds known among the peoples.
Sing to Him, hymn to Him,
speak of all His wonders.
Revel in His holy name.

Acclaim. Call out. Sing. Hymn. Speak. All involve the use of our voices, not just our eyes. For how can we keep God’s magnificence to ourselves? And then, what’s next? Revel. Have a party; get up and dance.

And what are we acclaiming, calling out, singing, hymning, speaking about? God’s deeds and God’s wonders. “Deeds” means that God is in action among his people. Again and again in the psalms, not to mention the narrative of the Old Testament and the Gospels, Acts and, I think, Revelation, God is active among us. If we look we can see the evidence everywhere in changed lives, in evil that is transformed to good. This is not to be pollyannish about the state of the world; there is still plenty of evil out there. But imagine how dark would be a world where a Living God was not active.

And then, God’s wonders. This is what the preceding psalm was all about: the wonders of God’s creation from beneath the earth and seas up through the rivers, mountains and valleys and out to the stars. From the tiniest insect to humankind itself. There’s indeed plenty to sing, hymn, acclaim. And to revel in.

Judges 16,17: So, what can we say about this famous story of Samson and Delilah? There’s probably no better story that illustrates the relational dynamic of man and woman where God has been ignored. Samson has “fallen in love” and the Philistines know they can use Samson’s sexual weakness to their advantage and Delilah seems to be an enthusiastic member of the plot. There is no true love here, only intended betrayal (by pieces of silver!) to employ Delilah’s raw sexuality accompanied by her clever and incessant wheedling. Samson’s “secrets” (the bowstrings, the rope, being held down with the web) are his less-than-clever attempts to show off in front of his enemies.

Samson’s moral weakness leads directly to his physical weakness. And that’s the lesson here for us. Our exterior gifts and abilities must be rooted in moral and spiritual strength. And those come only from God. But this is also a story of God’s faithfulness. Even though Samson abandoned God, God did not abandon him and was there to answer Samson’s final prayer, “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God,” (16:28)

As for the story of Micah and his mother, I am fairly befuddled as to why it’s here or what its deeper meaning might be, other than as an example of “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (17:6)  The connection to the preceding story must be the 1100 pieces of silver given to Delilah to betray Samson suggests that Micah’s mother was Delilah, but the text gives no other indication. Micah has stolen his mother’s money, admits to her that he’s taken it and returns it to you. His mother promptly uses it to have an idol cast out of some of the silver.

An itinerant Levite comes along, and if we are looking for an example demonstrating that the priestly clan drifted as far from God as everyone else, we have it here. The Levite becomes the “priest” for the idol. Lesson? Just because someone has been ordained or is thought to be “holy” does not make them so. Alas, so many contemporary examples abound.

Luke 22:14-23: The familiar words of the institution of the Last Supper are bookended by two remarkable statements by Jesus: First, he says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;” (15), saying he won;t be dining with them until “it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (16) By this time, the disciples have surely figured out that the political kingdom they assumed was coming probably wasn’t and now their leader, whom they loved, was apparently abandoning them. Then the familiar words. “My blood?” “New covenant?” I know if I were there I would be befuddled, confused and starting to get angry. Surely, these had to be the feelings of the disciples.

Then, after saying the words we know well, Jesus announces that one of them will betray him. And a verse I’ve never really seen before: “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.” (21) Was only Judas’ hand on the table or did some or all of them have their hands on the table? The fact that “they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this” suggests there were many hands on the table when Jesus made his statement. 

So, we could take two meanings out of Jesus’ cryptic announcement. Yes, Judas had his hand on the table and would indeed betray Jesus and “woe to him”. But also, the other hands on the table were disciples–surely Peter–who would betray their Lord in other ways. Denial and cowardice to be sure. And “woe to us.” I think the subtext here is that Jesus is telling us that everyone of us will all deny him in one way or the other. Not just the other disciples, but all of us. Yet, through grace, we will always be invited back to his table. As we are every week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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