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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing this morning from Geneva, IL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

I tend to talk about my faithfulness (or lack thereof), but not about God’s relentless faithfulness to me, regardless of how well I return that faithfulness. Here in the psalm, God is faithful specifically to King David: “I have sealed a pact with my chosen one, I have sworn to David My servant.” (4) And through the sacrificial love Jesus Christ, I know that God will never abandon me.

We talk about how God loves us. But it is His faithfulness that takes love out of the realm of the abstract and makes it real on a daily basis. That no matter how I screw up, I will be forgiven because God is faithful to me. And with the psalmist my response can only be worship in gratitude and along with “the heavens [I] will acclaim Your wonder, O LORD.” (5)

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

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

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

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

Chapter 12 opens with Moses’ ascent: “And Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which faces Jericho. And the LORD let him see all the land, (34:1,2). Mountains have played an important role in Moses’ life, most notably Sinai. And here, Moses looks at the land God has promised to the “stiff-necked” people that he has led all these years.

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

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

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

Jesus makes the rather mysterious remark, “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” (35) What sort of light is in fact darkness? Is it the light of our self-taught wisdom? That’s what Paul is getting at, I think, in the first chapter of I Corinthians about our wisdom vs. God’s wisdom that appears to be foolishness to “wise men.”

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

But if we use our figurative and literal eyes to see that the Light comes from beyond ourselves, not from within ourselves, then we become healthy. And we know that the Light comes only via Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus has intentionally picked disciples who are not scholars or “wise,” but in keeping with Luke’s theme that Jesus turned things upside down and inside out, it is the seemingly foolish who are first in the Kingdom and to whom much has been revealed, “I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (24)

And even though Paul did not have Luke’s gospel in front of him when he wrote his letter to Corinth, he says the same thing about the wise and the foolish. You’d think I’d have figured this out by now and abandoned intellectual pretense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Psalm 85:1-7; Deuteronomy 26:1-27:13; Luke 9:28-36

Psalm 85:1-7: In this prayer of supplication, the psalmist reminds God that he had once looked on Israel with favor and has restored and forgiven before: “You favored, O LORD, Your land, / You restored the condition of Jacob. / You forgave Your people’s crime,/ You covered all their offense.” (1,2)  God’s anger has been quenched before: “You laid aside all Your wrath, /You turned back from Your blazing fury.” (3)

But clearly, something has gone dreadfully awry and the psalmist believes God has turned his back once again on his chosen people. Of course, one casual glance at Israel’s history and it’s easy to see that Israel had turned its collective back on God. So, the psalmist pleads “Undo Your anger against us” and like a small child asking its parent, “Will You forever be incensed with us,”–and not just we who are standing here praying, but “will You draw out Your fury through all generations?” (5)

The poet answers the question in the next line, as confidence increase: “Why, You—will again give us life, / and Your people will rejoice in You.” (6) Notice the symbiosis: God gives us life and we respond by “rejoicing in You.” That’s what relationships are all about; they go both ways. Yes, like the psalmist, we know that God will “again give us life” and rescue us, but if we are not changed, even transformed, by that, then we have abandoned the relationship. It is not God who turned His back on us, but we who turned away form Him.

Deuteronomy 26:1-27:13: Like the psalm, the bringing of tithes as an offering reflects the two-sidedness of a covenantal relationship. After all, God heard Israel’s cries in Egypt and “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (9) It is an honor, not an obligation to be able to bring first fruits as an offering.

Wo knew there was a billboard set up at the entrance to the new land? “You shall set up for yourself  great stones and coat them with plaster. And you shall write on them the words of this teaching when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that the LORD your God is about to give you,.”  (27:3) Inscribing the words of the Torah on stone underscores their permanence.  They are in effect the constitution of the newly formed nation of Israel.

And not just “write the words,” but “you shall write on the stones all the words of this teaching  very clearly .” (27:8) It’s not unfair to take “clearly” in both its meanings.  That the law is clear and transparent to all.  These are the rules, guys; abide by them.

Also, “clearly” as in easy to read.  In big letters. You cannot claim you did not see the law, whence our concept of “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.”  If we really, truly followed God’s words, inscribed, as it were, on our hearts, we would spare so much energy by not being in denial of our sins, or continue to offer up lame excuses for our wrongdoings.  God’s law is clear.  But so, too, his mercy.

It is with the crossing of the Jordan that this ragtag difficult-to-control mob at last becomes the nation of Israel: “Moses, and the levitical priests with him, spoke to all Israel, saying, “Be still and listen, Israel. This day you have become a people to the LORD your God.” (27:9)  God made Israel a nation.  But there are responsibilities, as well: “And you shall heed the voice of the LORD your God and do His commands and His statutes which I charge you today .” (27:10)

Luke 9:28-36: The divine and the human meet on the mount of Transfiguration. It’s clearly night because “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep” (32) and something seems to have awoken them.  The three men see a strange sight in their half-awake half-dream sleep: Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.  

It’s fascinating that as they awakened, Peter, James and John recognized exactly who Jesus was speaking with. The speculation of Herod and the crowd thinking that Jesus was perhaps the returned Elijah or another “awakened prophet” (Moses would be a fine candidate) is fully answered here. Jesus is not any of them, but at this point anyway he is clearly their peer.  Astounding enough.  But then the theophany in the cloud and God’s clear voice making it crystalline that of the three, Jesus is his Chosen One.

God has now made it clear for all time that Jesus is greater than Israel’s most renowned prophets. Jesus is greater than Israel. As the OT states many times, God is the God of all creation, not just this little nation. Jesus has been chosen by God not just for Israel, but for all humankind.  And if I were an eyewitness I’d say stupid things like Peter and I’d be terrified, too. 

This was one time where it was easy to “keep silent.” The Transfiguration–which I’ll argue is second only to the Resurrection in terms of God interceding in history–was just too fantastic to be able to tell others and not bet thought a lunatic.

Psalm 84:8-12; Deuteronomy 24:14-25:19; Luke 9:12-27

Psalm 84:8-12: This psalm’s prayer has great energy for its contrasts between being with God and being outside His protection.  The most famous of these (or at least the verse turned into a song) is “For better one day in Your courts / than a thousand I have chosen,.” (9) While the first half of the verse focuses on time, the second half emphasizes place: he second part of the verse emphasizes place: “standing on the threshold in the house of my God, than living in the tents of wickedness.”

This verse evokes the futility of the endless seeking of substitute for the fulfillment that God brings to our hearts.  I have wandered across my years, from place to place, from object to object, from distraction to distraction and none of them are superior to even the briefest encounter with God.  Our society is packed with–and caters to–those who seek to fill the emptiness of their hearts with the metaphorical equivalent of cotton candy.

Like the psalmist we would do well to pause on our journey and reflect on God’s magnificence, as in the first half of this psalm, and on God’s grace in the second: “The LORD grants, He does not withhold bounty to those who go blameless.” (11) This is not necessarily physical bounty, but the bounty that is our heart when it realizes that it is in God that is the proper time and place for us.

Deuteronomy 24:14-25:19: Rules and law are what defines a civilized society.  We may bridle against stupid laws and rules–and goodness knows, there seem to be many. Many of the rules laid out in these two chapters have come down to us today–as another has said, a “gift of the Jews.”

Certainly at the top of the list is the law that punishment is borne by the offender. If someone kills another man’s son, the offender’s son shall not be killed.  This measure-for-measure punishment that killed innocent parties was (is?) apparently quite common in the Middle East. It would seem that the Israeli’s who killed the Palestinian teenager as revenge for the death of Israeli teenagers are committing exactly the sin outlined here.

Then, “When you reap your  harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field , you shall not go back to take it. For the sojourner and for the orphan and for the widow it shall be,” (24:19) And the same rules apply to olive trees and vineyards. Don’t strip everything bare; leave some for those less fortunate, which by this definition includes not just widows and orphans, but “sojourners,” those who are not of Israel, or more broadly of our tribe.

One looks at the humanitarian crisis at our southern border as all those children flee to the (hopefully) safe haven of the US.  Those who want to seal the border and deport those children are in effect saying, “this wheat, these olives, these young grapes are all mine. You may not share in the fruits of this nation; in fact you may not even be sojourners her.”  Deuteronomy has its extremely harsh places, but it we do well to remember that among the laws and rules there is also the command that we exhibit grace.  Which is exactly the point of the last verse of chapter 24: “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” (22)

We could also apply these verses to what it means to be good stewards of the land and resources; that we not take it all, but remember those who come after us.

Happily, not all rules still apply, particularly the one that required women to marry the brother of her husband should she be widowed. (25:5 -9) or the rather unpleasant one about a wife intervening in a brawl between brothers… (25:12)

Luke 9:12-27: Luke makes clear distinctions between Jesus’ public ministry and his interactions with his disciples.  Publicly, he feeds the 5000 and one thing I’d not noticed before is Jesus saying, ““Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” (14). When you think about the sheer logistics of feeding all those people, this is brilliant: smaller groups (at least a hundred of them) could share and eat in a reasonable time.  There was no poor soul waiting for lunch at the end of the queue of 5000. Jesus dealt with large crowds but always at the top of his mind was the needs of the individual.

So, now that he’s among just his disciples, exactly why did Jesus ask that loaded question, “Who do you say I am?” Was he testing them to make sure they were being good disciples? Did he want to see if his message was getting across? Did he want to see just how much they had learned about him and his mission of working in the Kingdom? (After all, the disciples had already gone out on their field trip, so they had some basic missionary experience at this point.)  Or, did he simply want them to verbalize who he was?

Jesus psychology is brilliant: First, he asks them what the crowds are saying.  It’s the same list that Herod gave earlier in the chapter: “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” (19)  Then, making a clear distinction between the crowd and the disciples, implicitly telling them they are set apart from the crowd (and even Herod), he asks them the same question. As always, it’s a question, not a declaration. He does not tell them who he is; he makes the disciples tell him. (Or at least Peter, but I presume he was speaking for all of them.)

So it is with us. Beware of a prophet who comes announcing who he is.  It’s all about discerning who Jesus is based on his words and actions. And if his words and actions reveal who he is, so too for us: our words and actions are ultimately what reveal our own belief about who Jesus is. That, I think, was the subtext to Jesus’ question.

 

Psalm 84:1-7; Deuteronomy 23:1-24:13; Luke 9:1-11

Psalm 84:1-7: This psalm evokes the an image of group of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for a festival, perhaps Passover.  They are camped for the night somewhere along the way and gathered around the campfire.  Perhaps they have just finished their evening meal. The stars shine brightly and perhaps the moon has already risen.

God’s great creation is visible even at night. The pilgrim, looking up at the stars, leans back and sighs, “How lovely Your dwellings, / O LORD of armies!” (1) (BTW, I don’t think “armies” connotes a militaristic tone to this psalm; it’s “armies” in the sense of “many.”)

Creation is so glorious and his heart is so full that he begins to sing, “My heart and my flesh sing gladness to the living God.” (2b)  There’s enough light that our singer spies a bird in the tree above him, settling in for the night, “Even the bird has found a home, / and the swallow a nest for itself, / that puts its fledglings by Your altars,” (3).  God protects all His creation, even the birds.  And we realize that we, also, are God’s creation and that is where true joy–the joy of this one evening and the joy of our lives–comes from: “Happy are those who dwell in Your house, / they will ever praise You.” (4)

The psalmist realizes that all of life is on a pilgrimage, and creates a gorgeous metaphor, “Happy the folk whose strength is in You, / the highways in their heart.” (5). Am I sufficiently aligned to God and in tune with His creation that I remember that my strength in in God on all the highways in my heart? It is God who walks that highway with me.

Deuteronomy 23:1-24:13: This section deals with the intimate details, ranging from castrated men (I feel personally for these guys!) to the problem of nocturnal emissions and digging and using latrines. (I have to wonder how preachers who “preach through the Bible” deal with the practical applications of passages like this…)

More puzzling, however, is the command to permanently shun/avoid  the Ammonites and the Moabites, while effectively embracing the Edomites and Egyptians.  Edom didn’t seem to treat Israel much better than the Ammonites or Moabites, and the Egyptians wanted to kill or at least capture all of Israel. Such are the mysterious ways of God, and/or the editors of this book who may have had certain political axes to grind.

Plus, we can bask in the irony that Ruth of the hated Moabites is King David’s great-grandmother, and of course, Jesus is descended from the same line. So much for various OT proscriptions.

Divorce is the topic that opens chapter 24, and the opening verse is probably claims a place among the top ten misused verses in the Bible: “When a man takes a wife and cohabits with her, it shall be, if she does not find favor in his eyes because he finds in her some shamefully exposed thing, and he writes her a document of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her away from his house,” (24:1) However, the verse is ripped out of its larger context of a special case of divorce, remarriage and divorce, rather than addressing the contentious issue of divorce as a whole. Unfortunately, that has not bothered too many men who cite this passage as justification for their actions.

On the other hand, a newly-married man has certain privileges such as being exempt from military service for a year and his household is exempt form taxes. This makes great sense from a societal perspective in terms of establishing families as the basis of stable community. Too bad marriage and establishing families is now basically a vestigial act in American society–and for which we are paying a heavy price.

Luke 9:1-11: While Matthew gives us the Great Commission, Luke provides us with the practical details of what it means to be on mission and how we should go about it.  Jesus clearly did not share the obsession about church growth and knew (as he had preached in the parable about the seeds) that the message would not be well received everywhere. Rather than persistently beating one’s head against in immovable wall, he says, “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (5) Working in the Kingdom requires the wisdom to recognize futility when we see it.

Word of mouth was the mainstream media of the day and word about Jesus gets back to Herod.  Obviously his court advisors (not unlike advisors today) were not fully informed but were willing to fake a guess or two about “arisen prophets” so they would continue to look wise and well-informed.  We know that Herod had been fascinated by John the Baptist and no doubt his interest in the Jesus was just as strong, maybe stronger.

Luke leaves us hanging with his tantalizing sentence, “And he [Herod] tried to see him [Jesus].” (9) The meeting surely never took place, and it’s a good reminder that Jesus did not feel compelled to hobnob with the politically powerful. Instead, as Luke tells us in the next section, Jesus went about his primary work.  The crowds “followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.” Which is exactly our template for Kingdom work. As the disciples found out on their mission,  we work most effectively where we are welcomed.

Psalm 83:9-18; Deuteronomy 22; Luke 8:40-56

Psalm 83:13-18 : Worse than conspiring against the men of Israel, the enemies conspired against God: “they conspired with a single heart, against You they sealed a pact—” (6) There is remarkable specificity in this psalm, as the poet names places and chieftains. Their conspiracy notwithstanding, they are utterly destroyed.

I particularly like the image, “They were destroyed at En-Dor, / they turned into dung for the soil.” Recycling has early roots!  And  then transformation into weeds: “O God, make them like the thistledown, / like straw before the wind.” (14) Not just blown away but then burned up: “As fire burns down forests /and as flame ignites the mountains,” (15)

But the worse fate awaits, “May they be shamed and dismayed forever /may they be disgraced and may they perish.” (18)  Of course this raises the ethical issue: do we pray for the destruction and death of our enemies? No question that war is a special case, and that’s what’s being described here.  I think this psalm is an exhortation to the troops just before battle.  So perhaps we should dwell on the psalm’s psychological impact rather than its theology.

Finally, we are reminded, as always, that God rules over all the earth and all peoples, not just Israel: “And may they know that You, Your name is the LORD. You alone are most high over all the earth.” Unlike all the small-g gods, there is nothing localized about God. He is the Creator and he reigns “most high” over all the earth and all that dwells therein.

Deuteronomy 22: The exegesis on the decalog continues with detailed rules and examples. If you “see your brother’s ox or his sheep slipping away,” it’s not just a courtesy to ensure they don’t escape, it’s a command. “You shall not be able to ignore it.” (4)

More rules for daily life: “There shall not be a man’s gear on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment,” (5). A difference almost, but not quite, lost in our increasingly androgynous culture.  As for the rule that you can keep the fledging birds in a nest you discover, but “send the mother off,” it is apparently a good omen, “so that it may go well with you and you will enjoy length of days.” (7) More practically, not eating both the mother and her eggs ensures that the species survives.

We also see why houses in the Middle East have flat roofs: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you not put bloodguilt in your house should someone fall from it.” (8).

It makes sense about not trying to plow with an ox and a donkey together: certainly a way to prevent cruelty to the donkey. But I don’t get it about not wearing wool and linen together or about  the tassels.

Things get more disturbing farther into the chapter when it comes to sexual matters.  The right of a man to “hate” his wife because she might not be a virgin is disturbing, although we have to remember that marriage in that culture was basically a financial transaction between the woman’s father and the husband, who would not want to marry “damaged goods.”  Pretty alien to our ears that think mostly about the love of the couple for each other.

But the command to stone the woman to death who has had premarital sex (21) is just plain disturbing.  Why don;t those who are obsessed about homosexuality pick up on this command? (He said snarkily.)

Luke 8:40-56: Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage and then revives Jairus’ daughter.  I’m struck by how Luke weaves the two miracles together.  Jairus comes up and begs Jesus to come to his house and heal his dying twelve-year-old daughter.  On the way, the other woman “came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.” (44) Much to the surprise of the crowd, Jesus is not annoyed, but commends her as an example of faith that he would heal her.  He then goes on to Jairus’ house and revives the daughter.

I think Luke is telling us that we can interact with Jesus both ways.  One is by asking for his healing as Jairus did. That would be the “interrogatory or intellectual method.” The woman with the hemorrhage uses “emotional or feeling method.” Just reaching out wordlessly. Both approaches to Jesus are clearly valid and efficacious.  But the end result for both is identical: healing.

It’s also worth noting that those healed in this story are women. This certainly demonstrates female worth and equality with men in Jesus’ eyes, and therefore in the Kingdom. Luke is also showing us that both these women were represent persons at their most vulnerable. One is a child; the other had been ritually unclean for a long time. And both are healed and become heirs to the Kingdom.

What a contrast to the male rulers, priests and Pharisees, who focused on power as indicative of worth! For Jesus, who as usual turns things upside down, it is vulnerability that connotes worth. Unfortunately, there are still way too many Pharisees in the church today.

 

 

 

Psalm 83:1-8; Deuteronomy 19:1-20:09; Luke 8:16-25

Psalm 83:1-8: There is real urgency, a sense of emergency in the opening verse of the psalm: “O God, no silence for You! Do not be mute and do not be quiet, God.”  The doubled intensity of “do not be mute” and “do not be silent” connotes desperation. The following verses lay out the details as to why God had better answer–and answer soon!

They’re not just Israel’s enemies, they’re “Your enemies,” God, who rage and hate, not just against the nation, but against God Himself.  This is real desperation. The Hebrew verse style of repeating the same thought with different wording is used to powerful effect here. Not just rage and hate, but “Against Your people they devise cunning counsel and conspire against Your protected ones.” (3) Again repetition–“cunning counsel” and “conspire against” that intensify each other.

What they have conspired to do is frightening indeed: “They have said: “Come, let us obliterate them as a nation, and the name of Israel will no longer be recalled.”” (4).  It’s almost as if current events in Israel and Gaza have been lifted out of the psalms. The psalmist then catalogs the tribes and nations that are arrayed against Israel: “Edom and the Ishmaelites, / Moab and the Hagrites, / Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, / Philistia with the dwellers of Tyre.” (6,7) And Assyria, too, which has allied itself with “the sons of Lot.” (8).  So, too, 3000 years later. This is why those optimists who somehow think we’re “improving” as human beings or peace can somehow be achieved in that part of the world are deluded, IMHO. Enmity that is three millennia old will not yield to an optimist’s ministrations.

Deuteronomy 19:1-20:09: This chapter is similar to Numbers 35, where the towns of asylum are laid out. Here, the issue is manslaughter, the murderer who “strikes down his fellow man unwittingly and who was not a foe to him in time past,” (4) an accidental death (5).  The reason is to prevent the endless chain of vengeance: “Lest the blood avenger pursue the murderer when his  heart is hot and overtake him [the murderer].”

Moreover, “innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land …and there would be bloodguilt upon you.” (10)  As we examine events in Israel and Gaza the past week, innocent blood has indeed been spilled.  And no one seems to be following the command, which though formulaic, must be repeated over and over with good reason, especially here were we are dealing with emotionally-driven vengeance: “I [Moses] charge you today to do it, to love the LORD your God and to go in His ways for all time,” (9)

The famous formulation, “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, 21 a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (21) is a definition of justice that we represent today as the balanced scales of held in the hand of the blindfolded lady.  The message is crystalline: do not over-punish for what has happened. Unfortunately, it has been turned on its head as a call for vengeance. You took my eye? Well, I’m going to take yours.  And probably a bit more. And vengeance escalates because of all that hot blood. Too bad those towns of asylum no longer exist.

The reason for restraint when it comes to justice appears in chapter 20. “When you go out to battle against your enemy and you see horse and chariot, troops more numerous than you, you shall not fear them, for the LORD your God is with you,” (20:1).  How quickly we forget God, or worse, never considered Him in the first place, when His promise stands right here: “the L ORD your God goes before you to do battle with your enemies to save you .”  (20:4)

And with that assurance, our armies can fight the battles with sufficient confidence that we can tell the man who has planted a vineyard or built but not yet dedicated his house to go home and “enjoy it.” Alas, we lack so much faith and trust in God’s promises. Just like Israel.

Luke 8:16-25: Did Jesus really ignore his mother and brothers? Luke doesn’t tell us why they showed up in the first place.  Did they want to share the limelight? Did they show up to tell him his notoriety was bringing shame on the family? Or dod they just want to become part of what Jesus was doing? We don’t know. But Jesus’ words make it clear that he has higher priorities than his earthly family.

Luke doesn’t tell us how the crowd reacted to that statement.  Given the priority of family as the key structural unit in that society and how the honor of family was above all else, Jesus’ reply must have been even more shocking to the crowd than it is even to us.

Jesus is talking about the Kingdom and that those who hear the word and then act on it–just do it–are his new family.  I think we’re too ready to see Jesus’ earthly family and the Kingdom family as mutually exclusive, but I don’t think that’s Jesus point.

I think he’s telling us that it’s a personal decision to hear God’s word and then do.  Our earthly families can’t do it for us, nor by virtue of being a “religious” family does that make us “religious.” I know that while I was raised in the faith by my earthly family, it was not until I was an adult that I felt that I had found my own faith.  Only then did it become mine, not my family’s.