Psalm 18:46-50; Genesis 32:22-33:20; Matthew 12:22-32

Susan and I played SMLC hooky yesterday and went to hear Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity, Naked Spirituality) speak on the blessing of Epiphany which shatters our assumptions about God as it shatters our world. at LOPC.  Memorable lines: “Jesus is a master at spiritual whiplash,”  and “No human being has ever had a thought about God that is better than He actually is.”  Definitely a RH/RN sermon.

 Psalm 18:46-50  This long psalm of praise winds up with recapitulating the theme of God as rescuer: “…blessed is my Rock,/ exalted the God of my rescue,” and ends on a note of both rescue God’s incredible faithfulness:

“And to Your name I would hymn,
making great the rescues of His king,
keeping faith with His anointed,
for David and his seed forever.”

I do not reflect sufficiently on how God has rescued me, which of course is the issue of salvation.  Lutherans talk about how Christ has come to us, which is indeed exactly how it happens, but unlike some other denominations, we do not often consider the perilous state from which we are rescued by Jesus’ grace. Or what it really means to be lost without hope. This psalm beautifully reiterates over and over David’s peril in the shadow of his enemies and his gratitude for God’s rescuing faithfulness.

Genesis 32:22-33:20  To me, the story of Jacob wrestling with “a man” (as Alter translates it) is one of the most enigmatic, yet perfectly symbolic stories in Genesis.  In one sense, it’s a culmination of Jacob’s life story: he has been wrestling all his life since the moment he grabbed Esau’s heel coming out of the womb.  He wrestled away Esau’s birthright, and has wrestled constantly with Laban.  His talent for negotiation is a form of wrestling.  And now it culminates in what is physical wrestling ending in a dislocated hip.  This is no dream; this is the apotheosis of his life. The mysterious man/ messenger from God renames Jacob, “Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out'” (32:3)  Jacob’s point of view is is rather different: it is not about having “won,” but that hesimply  survived, as he names “the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen God face to face and I came out alive.'” (32:31)

And we see in Jacob a new humility; he is a changed man, as is Esau.  For me, the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau is one of the most tender stories in the OT.  The negotiating Jacob has been replaced by the generous Israel: “Pray, take my blessing that has been brought you, for God has favored me and I have everything.” (33:11)  Jacob’s statement, “I have everything” implies much more than wealth and even his family.  It is that he has been (literally) transformed by God and is now reconciled with his brother.

God has given him blessing upon blessing.  The real blessings human relationships and above all, a firm relationship with God–worked out by wrestling with God.  As indeed we must do also.  No real relationship–be it with God or with others– can be established and grow without wrestling.

Matthew 12:22-32  We do not give sufficient credit to Jesus as rational logician.  The accusation of the Pharisees that Jesus’ healing is of the devil in inherently self-contradictory, and Jesus makes this abundantly clear.  Equally crucial, Jesus lays out the binary reality of the Kingdom of God: Either you’re for it or you’re against it.  You’re in it or you’re out of it. There is no middle ground.  Yet, I have spent great portions of my life attempting to live in that non-existent middle place between the Kingdom of God and the various earthly kingdoms, trying to have it both ways.

You’d think for a guy who has spent most of his life dealing with electronics that operates only because of binary arithmetic that I’d have figured that out before now.

Psalm 18:30-36; Genesis 31:22-55; Matthew 11:25-12:8

Psalm 18:30-36  In these verses our psalmist melds the previous verses of David’s virtue into military imagery, reenforcing the reality that it is “the God who girds me with might/ and keeps my way blameless.”  There is almost a sense of basic training for combat beginning with physical training, “…makes my legs like a gazelle’s…trains my hands for combat,/ makes my arms bend a bow of bronze.”  (Boy, does that bring back memories of OCS!) Now trained, David is equipped by God: “You gave me Your shield of rescue.”

I think we should be careful and avoid turning these verses into metaphor such as the “whole armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6.  There is a magnificent physicality here. God certainly prepares us for spiritual battle, but he helps us prepare physically, as well.  Having just come from my morning workout at the gym, this is not something God just showers on us; building physical strength is hard work.  For me, physical exercise is a crucial element in keeping cancer at bay.  So, with David I need to remember that in the end my strength comes from God, but I am deeply involved in the workout.

Genesis 31:22-55  Before Jacob fled with his wives, “Rachel stole the household god’s that were her father’s.” (31:19).  Now that Laban has caught up with Jacob, his family and his flocks, Laban, above all else, wants those gods back. Jacob, not knowing that it was Rachel who took them, puts his wife in great peril by almost casually responding to Laban, “With whomever you find your gods, that person shall not live.” (31:32).  In one of the most cinematic scenes in Genesis, the author combines tension with humor as Laban desperately searches Rachel’s tent while he sits on the cushion in which the gods are hidden.  No dummy, Rachel refuses to get up because she claims to be having her period, and Laban leaves without the gods.  I imagine a lot of couples who’ve gone through divorce, dividing property have felt the same outrage that Laban did.

But this is serious business and Laban’s search of Rachel’s and Leah’s tents is the last straw.  Even though Jacob has deceived Laban in a variety of ways, he now accuses Laban of cheating him out of his wages “ten times over,” and notes that God has decided in Jacob’s favor (32:42)  Starting with the assertion that God is on his side, Jacob once again conducts a successful negotiation and Laban and he come to terms.  This time, though, the vow is sacred between them, as Laban states, “God is witness between you and me.” (31:50).  After establishing a boundary stone that neither will cross, they sit down together and eat bread together.  I had always thought of Passover as the first sacred meal establishing a vow, but here is an earlier one.  The roots of Eucharist are deeper than we can ever imagine.  And this meal with Jacob and Laban reminds us that we do not come to communion casually, but it is a sacred vow that we are honoring.

Matthew 11:25-12:8  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (11:28) are among the most comforting words in the Gospels.  That comfort is all the more remarkable when we consider that just moments earlier Jesus has said some pretty uncomfortable things, as e.g. “But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (11:24).  It seems almost contradictory until we reflect on Jesus’ prayer between those two statements, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;” (11:25).  It is the “infants” not the “wise and intelligent” to whom Jesus offers his comforting words.

This presages what Paul says about foolishness and wisdom in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians.  Matthew makes it clear right here that God the father is speaking to us in a new, unanticipated way.  Not through the religious authorities as the Pharisees and others would have it, but through his Son, who has been sent to earth as a revolutionary.  For me, Jesus’ message is terribly clear:  we cannot intellectualize our way to God, but we can come only as innocents, as infants, realizing that comfort in the Father–being “God’s kids”–comes only through Jesus because “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  All we need to do is take on that easy yoke and light burden.  Which often seems to be neither,…unless we compare them to the alternative.

Dennis, I trust you are persevering through the Super Hype. Again, prayers for energy and strength in all that you do.

Psalm 18:25-29; Genesis 30:25-31:21; Matthew 11:11-24

Great to hear from you, Dennis.  I get exhausted just thinking about being in New York City, much less navigating via the subways.  You guys are the adventurous ones!  The streets are wet here this morning following what can only be described as a heavy mist.  But wet enough to slow down the commute, which I am so glad not to be a part of…  I think it’s snowing in the Sierras, though, which is where we need the water the most.

 Psalm 18:25-29  David continues his description of what I’m tempted to call a “quid pro quo relationship” with God.  If I’m good, God will be good back to me: “And the Lord requited me for my merit,/ for my cleanness of hands in His eyes,” (v25)  and “With the faithful You deal faithfully,…with the pure one you deal purely.” (v26, 27).

The converse is also true: “”with the perverse man, [You] deal in twists.”  I take the “dealing in twists” to mean that if we deal with others in a convoluted fashion with a malevolent intent in mind, God will do the same to us, usually (to mix metaphors) hoisting us on our own petard.  Once again, it’s easy to see where the Pharisees were coming from when Jesus turns all of this “quid-pro-quoness” of our relationship to God inside out and upside down.

The verse that stands out to me, though, is “For You light up my lamp, O Lord,/ my God illumines my darkness.”  This not only finds its detailed fulfillment in Psalm 119, but it also reads directly forward to Jesus making the point that we, too, can be lights to the world if we allow the Holy Spirit to “light up our lamps.”

Genesis 30:25-31:21  Now that Joseph is born and Jacob’s family, shall we say, complete, he seeks permission from Laban to move on to his own land.  After a bit of hesitation, Laban agrees and offers to pay Jacob his wages.  Ever the bargainer, Jacob replies, “You need give me nothing,” (30:29), making it sound as if he desires nothing, which is what it seems like when he asks only for the speckled sheep and goats from Laban’s herds.  Since those are a minority of the flocks, Laban can hardly turn down such a good deal.  Then, in what is a surprisingly detailed description of animal breeding, clever Jacob ends up with the strongest herds by not breeding the weak ones. and leaving those for hapless Laban: “…and so the feeble ones went to Laban and the vigorous ones to Jacob.” (30:42)  I have to say that this is where David’s statement that “with the perverse man, [You] deal in twists.” does not seem to apply…  At this point, Jacob’s cunning seems to be succeeding nicely.

In the process, Jacob, not surprisingly, antagonizes Laban and his sons, who are outraged that Jacob has wound up with the prime livestock. After conferring with Rachel and Leah out in the fields, far from earshot of Laban or his sons, Jacob hatches the plot to escape Laban’s grasp during a sheep-shearing exercise, which they do.  Once again, Jacob, having deceived someone, ” fled, he and all that was his,…and he set his face toward the high country of Gilead.” (31:22) Laban pursues and catches up with Jacob.  But Laban is warned in an interventional dream, “Watch yourself, lest you speak to Jacob either good or evil.” (31:24).  Reminds me of another interventional dream: the warning to Joseph not to divorce Mary.

Given Jacob’s general duplicity and overly-clever behavior, we could wonder why Laban didn’t just take Jacob out. There certainly seems to be some justification.  But God had made a promise to Jacob’s grandfather and his father–and to Jacob. Jacob was clearly working under God’s protection and Laban’s protestation, “Oh, you have played the fool!” (31:29) notwithstanding, God has bigger plans for Jacob than for Laban.  Such are the often inexplicable ways of God, and why it’s pointless to assume God’s logic operates the same way as our logic.

 

Matthew 11:11-24  Jesus’ continues his explanation of John the Baptist’s position vis a vis his own.  John is the messenger of which “all the prophets and the law prophesied…he is Elijah who is to come.” (11:13-14).  But Jesus knows that logic and consistency is not people’s strong suit, and that regardless of his explanation, they will simply not “get it.” Jesus points out our inconsistency.  John abstains from food and drink and people accuse him of being demon-possessed; Jesus eats and drinks and people accuse him of being “a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:18b).  Here, in a nutshell, is our inconstancy and, worse, our ability to always take the darkest possible interpretation of another’s words.

This is the same negative energy that motivates modern political “discourse,” such as the talking heads on cable TV always accusing their opponents of the worst possible intentions.  But not just politicians; it’s me, too–and my ability to take words and polarize them against someone else, failing so often to just listen and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Jesus is right, as always: “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (11:18)  We talk a good game; we accuse others of their faults, but in the end, it is our actions that reveal our wisdom–or lack thereof.

I’m praying for energy, safety and warmth for you, Dennis, as you embark on your insanely full schedule. You are resting always in God’s peace–even when you’re running form place to place and having to be nice to all those people!