Psalm 44:9-16; Exodus 39:32-40:23; Matthew 28:1-20

Psalm 44:9-16  There is an abrupt shift from praise [“God we praise all day long, and Your name we acclaim for all time.” (8)] to abandonment and shame caused by God’s failure to appear in the next verse: “Yet You neglected and disgraced us 10 and did not sally forth in our ranks.” (9). We marketers have a difficult time with this juxtaposition. Praise one minute, anger the next. This is not how you are supposed to appease and please God, is it?

Yet, the accusations against God continue. His neglect has resulted in a poor outcome in battle “You turned us back from the foe, and our enemies took their plunder.” (10) God, not the enemy, is the one who devalued them:”You sold Your people for no wealth and set no high price upon them.” (12) And in that culture, the worst thing of all: “You made us a shame to our neighbors, derision and mockery to those round us.” (13). The psalmist takes this personally: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face,” (15)

What are we to make of this? It’s one thing to be angry with God, but to accuse God of neglect desertion, and creating personal shame?  How easily we forget that God is God.  He can take it. He knows the truth, and above all, he knows our deepest feelings.  Especially when our despair is as deep as the psalmist’s.  We do not have to be placid Sunday school children before God; we can be angry, defeated, shamed, despairing warriors as well.  This is what makes the Psalms the ur-text of  every prayer since then: brutal honesty before God, not fawning hypocrisy.  Too bad I forget that so often.  Of course Jesus recognized the very same thing when he compared the prayer of the Pharisee to that of the publican.

Exodus 39:32-40:23  Our author cannot cease writing about the glories of the Tabernacle, the Ark, the furnishings, the vestments, and here he recapitulates the inventory one more time.  Alter captures an almost musical quality with the repeated “its” before each item: “the Tent and all its furnishings, its clasps, its boards, its crossbars, and its posts and its sockets,…” (34)

But even more important than the glories of the inventory is how the people have obeyed God’s instructions down to the letter, “…thus the Israelites did all the work. And Moses saw all the tasks, and, look, they had done it as the LORD had charged, thus they had done it, and Moses blessed them.” (42, 43)

We don’t hear much these days about the theology of vocation, which I have always considered to be one of the high points of Lutheran theology.  But here it is: the people are not priests, they are workers, and they have crafted a work to the glory of God.  I have to believe this passage was read form time to time during the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I were writing subsection titles for this part f Exodus, the first part of this final chapter would be headed, “Some assembly required.”  God’s instructions to Moses are quite precise about where the furnishings and drapery of the Tabernacle are to be placed.  (It also reminds me of the little models of the Tabernacle we 5th graders made back in Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena so many years ago.)

Matthew 28:1-20  Like Matthew himself, the Moravians do not linger over post-Resurrection details, as our Gospel writer wraps up the most astounding event in history with his usual economy, almost terseness.  One event, which I think is exclusive to Matthew, is the recounting of how the priests and religious officials bribed the guards to spread the Big Lie, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.  Which theory continues to surface even today.  (I remember a book in the 1970’s about this, and Wikipedia even includes an entry, “the stolen body hypothesis.)

Matthew, with his Jewish perspective writing to a Jewish community, ends the story of Jesus’ interaction with Judaism on this distinctly conspiratorial note with, “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (15)  The tragedy of course, is that Matthew’s words have been at least partly catalytic in the church’s persecution of the Jews over history.  But that is not Matthew’ fault.  It is ours.

Matthew’s story ends with Jesus’ famous commissioning.  (And doesn’t even mention the Ascension.)  And that is why I think he wrote his Gospel in the first place.  It’s so much more than the “greatest story ever told.”  It’s an instruction manual of how to carry out the Great Commission.  And Jesus’ final words are his (and God’s) Greatest Promise to us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  May we never ever forget that sublime truth.

 

Psalm 44:1-8; Exodus 39:1-31; Matthew 27:57-66

Psalm 44:1-8   This psalm of praise acknowledges what this secular age would greet with incredulity: that it is not humankind but God  whose “hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them. You smashed peoples and sent them away.” (2)  The poet further claims, “For not by their sword they took hold of the land, and it was not their arm that made them victorious but Your right hand and Your arm, and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (3,4).

This does not seem very far from “God is on our side” kind of thinking.  But when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents, “For not in my bow do I trust, and my sword will not make me victorious.” (6)  In the end, it is God who “rescued us from our foes, and our enemies You put to shame.” Not us.

We can grasp this truth not on the battlefield but in everyday life.  We do not place our trust in our own gifts, skills, or tools, but we place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully place our trust in God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 39:1-31  Another chapter of lovingly detailed description of what was made for the Tabernacle.  This time the priestly garments and the breastplate that goes atop the robes.  Twelve stones in four rows of precious stones on the breastplate, representing the twelve tribes.  And my favorite detail, “the hem of the robe all around, within the pomegranates. A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and 26 a pomegranate on the hem of the robe all around, to serve, as the LORD had charged Moses.” (25, 26).  The phrase, “as the LORD had charged Moses” is repeated, reminding us that all this was not something Moses, Aaron, or anyone else made up, but that it was God-specified.  This is at the heart of the Old Covenant: that the one chosen priest, who comes before God in the Holy of Holies is dressed in the finest garment imaginable.  Because to come before God is no casual affair.

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of what we read here in Exodus with Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion: that he was stripped of all his clothing and what little he had was gambled away at the foot of the cross.  How different our High Priest of the New Covenant: stripped naked, hanging on a cross. And yet, Jesus comes before God in a manner inconceivable to Caiaphas, the high priest, who surely wore a priestly garment not unlike the one described here in Exodus.

Matthew 27:57-66  As Jesus is brought down from the cross, we are reminded that Jesus had many followers besides the Twelve (now Eleven).  Unlike the unnamed disciple who lent Jesus the Upper Room, Joseph, the “rich man form Arimathea” gets to go down in history.  But he appears on the stage only briefly.  His last recorded act is he “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”  (Hadn’t noticed before that it is Jospeh of A. that places the stone in front of the tomb, not the Romans or the Jews.)

Ever the masters of selective memory, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (62, 63)  I wonder exactly when it was that after having successfully killed off the man who would upset the status quo ante, it occurred to them that he was still a threat.  And an even bigger threat dead than alive such that “the last deception would be worse than the first.” (64).

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.

 

Psalm 43; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45-56

Psalm 43  Alter notes that given the abrupt beginning of this psalm (“Grant me justice, O God,”) and that the several lines are virtually identical, Psalm 42 and 43 may have once been a single psalm.  Be that as it may, these verses are certainly darker than those in the preceding psalm.  The psalmist asks rhetorically, “For You, O God, my stronghold, why should You neglect me? Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe?”(2)  While this is not a direct accusation that God has abandoned him, it comes very close.

The psalmist then moves to supplication, “Send forth Your light and Your truth. It is they that will guide me.” (3)  “Guide” is an appropriate verb because the psalmist–apparently in exile or a foreign land– now traces out his desire to come to “Your holy mountain And to Your dwelling place,” which would be Jerusalem, I presume.  Once there, he seeks further guidance to “let me come to God’s altar,” (4) and then directly to God Himself, “to God my keenest joy.”

Like the journey itself, the psalm ascends from the depths of seeming abandonment directly into the presence of God, where almost ecstatic joy replaces gloom: “And let me acclaim You with the lyre, O God, my God.”  The psalm ends on the same theme as Psalm 42:  “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God.” (5)  In just a few verses, our psalmist has taken a spiritual journey form the depths of despair to worshipful joy atop the mountain.

And that is our journey too.  Not just once in our lives, but again and again.  Because movement is the very nature of prayer. Prayer is not idle contemplation; it is a journey, it is dynamic; its bias is to action.

When I contemplate a material, God-denying life, I realize how flat that journey would be.  Having rejected God, I would be trapped in emptiness, and there would be no reason other than self-motivation to ascend.  But self-actualization (to be Maslovian about it) is insufficient.  Because in the end, we find nothing but ourselves at the mountaintop.  No wonder the therapeutic industry is so vast.

Exodus 38  Now Bezalel constructs the seriously large “burnt-offering altar of acacia wood, five cubits its length and five cubits its width, square, and three cubits its height.” (1) as well as the bronze laver and the exterior textile walls 100 cubits by 50 cubits; the posts, the sockets, the hooks.  All limned in precise and loving detail.

Our author concludes with an accounting of capital expenditures, ” All the gold that was fashioned for the task in every task of the sanctuary, the elevation-offering gold was twenty-nine talents…And the silver reckoned from the community was a hundred talents…” (24, 25)  We also learn that both a freewill offering and a tax are the income sources.  The tax is also a way of taking a census.

So, again, precision, exactitude, accounting.  When Jesus talks about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, he is speaking out of this longstanding precision–another proof that there is nothing random about God or His creation.  This exactitude of course underlays all biology in our genes and DNA, as well as physics, as you can discover in any book about quantum physics at one end of magnitude and astrophysics at the other end.  More proof for me, anyway, that God is hardly an abstract spirit, but a builder and Creator–and he expects the same attention to detail from us.

 Matthew 27:45-56  In Matthew, the only words that Jesus speaks on the cross is the opening line of Psalm 22.  Which some witnesses interpret as a call for Elijah to come rescue him. Why Elijah?  Perhaps because Elijah was taken directly to heaven and did not die, the bystanders assume this is Jesus’ request as well–which would certainly prove Jesus’ kinship with God.  But Elijah does not call, Jesus screams in a final spasm of agony and dies.  But that is hardly the end.

To Matthew’s Jewish readers, what happens next is extraordinary indeed.  The Temple curtain is ripped in two, exposing the Holy of Holies to everyone.  Certainly symbolic of the passing of the Old Covenant.  And the bodies of the saints not only arise, but wander around Jerusalem, seen by many.  We don’t talk very much about this detail at Easter, but it must certainly be a presaging of the Day of the Lord when the dead will rise.  For many Jews, who did not believe in resurrection, this had to be an almost earth-shattering event.

But Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “Truly this man was God’s son.”  And it is the realization of the gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point–and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Psalm 42:6-11; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Psalm 42:6-11   The psalmist’s longing to encounter God intensifies into something approaching desperation the last half of this poem.  Now, “My God, my being is bent for my plight,” as he seeks to find God over a broad geographic area, “Therefore do I recall You from Jordan land, from the Hermons and Mount Mizar.” (6)  The gentle image of the deer drinking from the stream is supplanted by an image of deep ocean and crashing surf: “Deep unto deep calls out at the sound of Your channels. All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.” (7)

Yet, underneath the intensity of the psalmist’s search lies an assurance that God is indeed still with him: “By day the LORD ordains His kindness and by night His song is with me— prayer to the God of my life.” (8).  Nevertheless, the psalmist still cries out, “I would say to the God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? (9).

I think it is this sense of anxiously seeking a seemingly absent God intertwined with the poet’s faith that God is still with Him that gives this psalm its power.  The lesson for us that we can seek God with the assurance that God will show up.  Because at the root of the search lies our hope that we will be found and rescued: “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God.” (11)  The psalmist knows with deep assurance that God will not fail him, but he nevertheless still can cry out in desperation.  And so can we.

Exodus 37  The faithful Bezalel constructs the Ark, the most sacred object of Israel, which our priestly author describes in loving detail.  Not just its size ,”two and a half cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width and a cubit and a half its height.” (1), or its core materials (acacia wood), but its incredible richness: “he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half 7 cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width. And he made two cherubim of gold, hammered work he made them, at the two edges of  the cover.”

So too, the lamp stand of pure gold (16) and the golden altar for burning incense, a cubit square, also covered in gold.  I continue to be struck by just how much wealth the Israelites departed Egypt with, remembering that the Egyptians basically flung their gold and jewels at the departing Jews.  It would seem that was part of God’s plan as well: that the repentant Israelites would–from their hearts and at the urging of the spirit– gladly contribute all that wealth to God.  And that wealth is transformed by pure-hearted men willing to give of their time and talent to transform treasure into something worthy for God.

Are we transforming our wealth into something worthy for God?  Perhaps not into gorgeous physical objects like the Ark, the lamp stand or the incense altar.  But we have wealth and other time and talents for our work in the Kingdom.

Matthew 27:32-44  Matthew’s taut description of the crucifixion is strictly reportorial.  Facts and observation.  No emotional scenes of crying women or transformed Roman centurions.  Just the humiliation of crucifixion: the drink of gall; the division of the clothes; the sign over his head.  But above all the mocking and the taunting.  Even the criminals being crucified mocked him. Could there be a greater humiliation?

Matthew’s Jewish perspective reminds us that the scribes and elders jubilantly mocked him in their apparent triumph over this interloper of the accepted religious order, ““He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” (42)  This is the last we hear of the scribes and elders as they make their way back to Jerusalem in one of the great delusions of all time.

And in this mocking sentence lies complete truth. A truth far, far greater than the temporal reality of the priests and elders and everyone else gathered around that cross.  For Jesus did indeed come down from the cross and become King–but not in a way the elders, the priests or the criminals could ever imagine.  For in this cheap mockery lies the unstated reality that Jesus also died for those who taunted him on the cross–and those who have taunted him across history.  And those who taunt him today.

 

Psalm 42:1-5; Exodus 36; Matthew 27:11-31

Psalm 42:1-5   Other psalms may be better known, but for me, this psalm is the most beautiful of all.  The image of a deer running through the forest in search of–and finding– a stream of water to quench its deep thirst strikes to my heart.  As simile, it is the quintessence of what it is to yearn for–and then find–a loving God.

Yearning is a much deeper feeling than the simple act of desiring or seeking.  As the psalmist says, “My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.” (2).  This is not just emotional or psychological or intellectual or physical or even spiritual.  It is all those things…and more.  This yearning for “the living God” consumes our entire being.  Indeed, as the psalmist implies, the yearning becomes our being.

And if we cannot find or come into the presence of God, there can only be ineffable sadness: “My tears became my bread day and night as they said to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (3)  Without being in the presence of God, there is only memory, “These do I recall and pour out my heart: when I would step in the procession, when I would march to the house of God with the sound of glad song of the celebrant throng.”

What remains is hope.  Yearning arises from memory and produces hope.

Some years ago, we used to sing this psalm at worship, “As the deer panteth after water.”  I have a yearning to hear it again.

Exodus 36  Following the harsh lesson of the golden calf, Israel seems completely transformed, “the Israelites had brought for the task of the holy work to do it, and they on their part brought more freewill gifts morning after morning.” (3).  Construction is being overseen by “wise-hearted men.”  Which is a terse and terribly accurate description of real leadership.

Moses’ request for the people to bring donations to God because of the motivation of their heart and the urging of the spirit produces such a surplus, that the workmen tell Moses, “The people are bringing too much for the work of the task that the LORD charged to do.” (5).  And “the task was enough to do all the task, and more.” (7)  Surplus is what occurs when gifts are from the heart.

Our priestly author describes the construction of the Tabernacle in loving detail, describing each element and the material used.  Once again reminding us that details–especially in a sacred space–matter.  The old cliche, “God is in the details,” begins right here.  More importantly, it’s a reminder that our connection with God is not just a fuzzy abstraction, but we can encounter God everywhere in the warp and woof of our daily life.

Matthew 27:11-31  One of the things that over the years has convinced me that the Gospel writers are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit is just how much information and feeling is packed into the incredible economy of language.  Speaking as a guy who writes quite a bit, I know it is far more difficult to write with economy than with verbosity.  And here in the account of Jesus’ trial, conviction, and torture there is not a superfluous word. But these few words paint as rich a picture as any Renaissance artist was able to accomplish.

It’s interesting that Jesus replies to Pilate’s question with a laconic “You say so,” but “when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer.”  When Pilate asks Jesus if he heard the accusations, Jesus remains silent. Clearly, in the numerous capital trials over which Pilate had presided, he had never encountered a man unwilling to speak in his own defense and “the governor was greatly amazed.” (14)  Defending oneself against false accusation without countervailing evidence is not a strong strategy.  Jesus knew that the outcome was preordained anyway.

And then a second extraordinary thing occurs to Pilate, “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.'” (19)  I think we can be pretty sure that Pilate had never received a message like this one before from his wife.  But by this time the crowd is about to become a bloodthirsty mob.  It is too late for Pilate to reflect on, never mind heed, his wife’s words.

One of the great “what ifs” of history: What if the wife’s message had reached Pilate’s ears just a few minutes earlier before Pilate presented that fateful choice to the crowd: Jesus or Barabbas? Would Pilate simply announced that he was releasing Jesus?  What would the crowd have done? Would there have been rebellion on the spot?

One lesson we learn: God’s timing is a close-run thing.

  

 

 

Psalm 41; Exodus 35; Matthew 27:1-10

Psalm 41  David begins with general thanksgiving for God’s protection [“May he be called happy in the land. And do not deliver him to his enemies’ maw. (2)] moving quickly to a general prayer for healing: “May the LORD sustain him on the couch of pain. 4 —You transformed his whole bed of illness,” (3) and then to a specific request for his own healing:  “I said, ‘LORD, grant me grace, 5 heal me, though I offended You.'” (4)

It’s clear that David’s illness is severe and that his enemies eagerly await his passing, “My enemies said evil of me: ‘When will he die and his name be lost?'”  (5) Even their ostensibly kind visits to his bedside are not only insincere but have an evil agenda: “And should one come to visit, his heart spoke a lie.”  (6) Worse, this visitor is all too happy to spread the lie that David is near death: “He gathered up mischief, went out, spoke abroad…[saying] “evil of me, “Some nasty thing is lodged in him. As he lies down, he will not rise again.” (8).  David cannot even rely on the confidant he trusted.  In his illness David has been abandoned by everyone.  Worse, he is the focus of corrupt plots and public lies.  One can only imagine the hatchet job the modern media would be able to do here.

Happily, I have never been in this dire situation–and it’s doubtless more endemic to kings and leaders. (Shakespeare is chockablock with plotting around the king’s deathbed.)  But there’s still a lesson here for us: In the end, there is only One in whom we can place all our trust: “And I, in my innocence, You sustained me and made me stand before You forever.” (12). As the general prayer at the beginning of this psalm reminds us, [“Happy who looks to the poor.  On the day of evil may the LORD make him safe.” (1)] God’s steadfastness is for all of us: leader, king, or desperately poor.  Whether we are desperately ill or when all around us are inconstant or worse, God is constant; God will indeed sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Exodus 35  The assembly of the community listening to Moses expound on his meeting with God–here instructions about observation of the Sabbath–is certainly different than the angry, rebellious crowd that goaded Aaron into creating the golden calf.  Contriteness abounds.  Moses the gives a stewardship sermon (proving that they have very deep roots!) that is not just a polite request, but that comes from God himself: ‘Take from what you have with  you a donation to the LORD. Whose heart urges him, let him bring it, a donation of the LORD,” (4,5)

And it’s not just an abstract request, Moses lists everything that needs to be donated: “gold and silver and bronze, and indigo and purple and crimson linen and goat hair, and reddened ram skins and ocher-dyed skins and acacia wood, and oil for the lamp and spices” right on down to “stones for setting in the ephod and in the breastplate.” (6,7)  Demonstrating it’s not unreasonable to be specific in articulating exactly what’s needed.

The centerpiece of this chapter for me is the people’s response to Moses’ request: “And every man whose heart moved him and everyone whose spirit urged him came, they brought a donation of the LORD for the task..” (21)   The response is not “because I should,”  or “I’ll look generous in front of my neighbors,”  or “I’ll get special favor from God.”  The response is “whose heart moved him and whose spirit urged him.”  That the response to what God has asked arises from the heart is repeated, “And the men came, besides the women, all whose heart urged them,” (22)

God is so different than the local gods of the time, who demanded the people’s treasure–no questions asked and certainly not because they were moved “from the heart.”.  What God asks of us is quite different from the many organizations with their hands out, appealing to our egos rather than our hearts. From universities who will name a professorship or even a building for a sizable donation down to free gifts for a PBS membership.  God only wants what we give because we are moved “from the heart as the spirit urges.”

Matthew 27:1-10  Implied, but not stated, is the reality that the priests and elders had not made their case for Jesus’ blasphemy, which would have allowed the to execute Jesus under Jewish law.   So more conspiracy is required, the leaders concluding that Roman law will be more efficacious in carrying out their plot.  Interesting how the Jews, who despised the Roman rulers, soldiers and their heathen laws, were more than willing to compromise their principles to achieve their ends. As are we.  Not in conspiracies and plots, but in our (my, anyway) willingness to buy right into what the culture has on offer.  The question obtains: am I selling out principle because it’s more convenient than taking a stand?

Judas has history’s most intense case of seller’s remorse when he finally realizes what he’s done.  He’s willing to give the priests a full refund. And then Judas, in his confession, states exactly what the priests themselves have done to Jesus: ““I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” (4).  But the leaders are blinded to their own sin, and reply harshly, “What’s that to us?”  Judas certainly deserves his opprobrium, but I think the hypocritical blindness of the priests is even greater than Judas’ crime.  For they are in complete denial of their monstrous undertaking, and return to business at hand, counting the money they themselves gave to Judas as tainted “blood money.”  Blood money indeed.  Hypocrisy is just another way of saying how we are blind to our own sins.  Even though our sins are as big as logs in our eyes.

Psalm 40:9-17; Exodus 34; Matthew 26:59-75

Great to hear Mary Naegeli on prayer and Teresa of Avila this morning.  And by her definition, I guess my scribblings here are a form of prayer.  So, here goes…

Psalm 40:9-17  The psalmist’s close connection to God compels him to speak, “I heralded justice in a great assembly.  Look, I will not seal my lips.” (9)  When we are connected, we cannot keep it to ourselves, “I withheld not from the great assembly Your steadfast truth.” (10)  But this is two-way truth.  Just as we cannot hold back from speaking about God, so, too, “You, LORD, will not hold back Your mercies from me.”

As Mary pointed out this morning, God is always there, always constant, even when it doesn’t seem that way.  As the psalmist notes, “Your steadfast truth shall always guard me.” (12)  But more than even steadfastness is the reality of rescue.  God is a rescuing God and we, who seek and are rescued can do aught else but “exult and rejoice in You.” (16)  And “May [we] always say, ‘God is great!’–those [of us] who love Your rescue.”

The juxtaposition of exultation and rescue is breathtaking.  For what person rescued from drowning or any other danger would not want to embrace his rescuer and shout praises not just for the fact that he’s ben rescued, but to sing praises of the rescuer as well?

Exodus 34  God quite justifiably says to Moses, in effect, “hey, you broke the first two tablets I gave you, now go carve another set.”  Moses goes up on the mountain a second time as God announces his character, as well as a condition of forgiveness: “A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and  abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass, and offense, yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of  sons, to the third generation and the fourth.” (34:8,9)  God will forgive sins that are confessed, but not if they remain unconfessed.  Which makes sense.

We then have a repetition of the Covenant written earlier in Exodus.  This time, though, with what seems like special emphasis on avoiding intermingling with the current inhabitants of Canaan, “lest he become a snare in your midst.” (34:12)  God makes it abundantly clear to Moses, “For you shall not bow to another god, for the LORD, His name is Jealous, a jealous God He is. (34:15)   In light of the golden calf fiasco, there’s a new commandment: “No molten gods shall you make for yourselves.” (34:17).  

Unfortunately, we know how this all turned out… But we must never forget: God’s terms and conditions are abundantly clear.  Israel can never claim they weren’t warned–or continued to be warned by the prophets.  So, too, ourselves.  I know I continue to minimize the downsides of disobeying God.  But we can never accuse God of not being very clear on this point.

Moses comes down from the mountain, his face reflecting the glory of God.  So much so, that he must remain veiled.  The question is, do we reflect God in our own lives?  Or like thermodynamic black bodies, simply absorb the light?

[Interesting side note from Alter that “glory” was mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate to mean “horns”, which explains why Michelangelo’s famous statue of the seated Moses includes small horns sprouting from Moses’ forehead…]

Matthew 26:59-75  I’ve always wondered who the unnamed witnesses were that the priests were able to finally dig up and get them (force them?) to say, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” (26:61) What was in it for them?  Were they bribed, or just angry?  Jesus’ strategy of not responding to these witnesses’ verifiably true statement is brilliant.  The priests are forced to decide for themselves.  It’s only in response  to the Big Question (tell us if you are the Messiah) that Jesus speaks.  And then only to toss it right back in the faces of his accusers by quoting Psalm 110 and Daniel 7:13–passages his accusers surely knew, and which incensed them only further.

Frustrated out of their minds, they could respond only like little children: spitting and slapping.  There is an almost comical note here as Jesus’ accusers ludicrously try to test his messianic powers by having him identify the people who slapped him. (26:68).  That a Messiah is somehow imbued with telepathic power.  And Jesus’ silence leaves the final question unanswered. For we must each answer that question for ourselves.

What a contrast Jesus’ silence is to Peter’s false answers.  In one sense, Matthew answers the accuser’s question because it is his closest disciple who has struck Jesus.  And as the Psalms reminds us repeatedly, it is our tongues which are fearsome weapons.  Unlike the psalmist who exults when rescued by God, Peter’s fear–and our own fears–not only make us break our silence, but to deny our savior. How many times have I denied Jesus?  Both in silence and in speech?

Psalm 40:1-8; Exodus 32:30-33:23; Matthew 26:47-58

Psalm 40:1-8  This psalm begins with an intensely physical metaphor for rescue: “He brought me up from the roiling pit, from the thickest mire. And He set my feet on a crag, made my steps firm.” (2)  In this week of disaster in northern Washington of people drowned in a mudslide, the image is even more dramatic.  How often our lives seem to be bogged down in meaningless noise and the muck and more of modern life.  There is only one firm place: the crag of God–and it is only God who can lift us up and place us there.

Not just rescue, but praise and singing: “And He put in my mouth a new song–praise to our God.”  Not just praise and worship, but that our infectious joy is witness as well: “May many see and fear and trust in the LORD.” (3)  These famous verse are akin to testimonies of new Christians who recount their conversion from the mire and muck of sin to Christ, the solid rock–hoping that others will hear and believe.  I occasionally miss hearing those testimonies that peppered many Sunday mornings in my youth.

Worship of the God of creation follows praise: “Many things You have done—You, O LORD our God—Your wonders!” (5).  And then anticipation of what God has in store for us: “And Your plans for us— none can match You.”  I think too many Christians have taken “God’s plan” to too low a level of abstraction:  That God has pre-programmed just about every aspect of their lives: from where they will go to school, who they will marry, etc. etc.  For me, that is to deny the gift of free will we’ve been given–not to mention that life is far more random.

Instead, I think “God’s plans for us” are how He has revealed Himself and His love for us through Jesus Christ.  It’s difficult to conceive of a more exciting plan, worthy of praise and singing.

Exodus 32:30-33:23   To say that Moses is upset upon seeing the idol before him at the foot of the mountain is a gross understatement (which Alter captures in the repeated second person plural pronoun: “You, you have committed a great offense. And now I shall go up to the LORD. Perhaps I may atone for your offense.” (32:30)  At Moses’ begging, God relents, but it is punishment delayed.  As always with God, “And on the day I make a reckoning, I will make a reckoning with them for their offense.” (32:35).  Thus it ever is.  Sins have consequences.  Even forgiven ones.

The promise of return to Canaan still stands, but these “stiff-necked people”  will not be the ones to enjoy it. Rather, God announces, “To your seed I will give it.” (33:1)

Moses pitches the Tent of Meeting some distance from camp and everyone can see that God in the pillar of cloud is coming down to talk with Moses. I continue to be struck (as I’m sure the Israelites were, too, of the intimate relationship Moses has with God: “And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow.” (33:11)  Then, Moses “would return to the camp, and his attendant Joshua son of Nun, a lad, would not budge from within the Tent.” We will be hearing more about this “lad.”

Yet, Moses continues to press his case to know God even more intimately: “And now, if, pray, I have found favor in Your eyes, let me know, pray, Your ways, that I may know You, so that I may  find favor in Your eyes.” (32:14).  Moses has experienced the presence of God through the burning bush, through the clouds on Sinai, and now “face to face” via the pillar of cloud  at the Tent of Meeting.  Yet, he does not really know God.  So, Moses asks once more if God will reveal Himself. God finally agrees, noting that to look God in the face would kill Moses, but “you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (32:23).

So, when we think we “know” God or think we “know his plans for our lives,” we would do well to recall this dialog with the man who led the Jews out of Egypt. Even he could not fully know God.  That is why God is God–and God, like Aslan, is more than a bit dangerous.  Like Moses, we cannot look God fully in the face.  Only through Jesus can we come into God’s presence.

 Matthew 26:47-58  I’ve always wondered why the men, whom I assume to be the Temple Police, who came to arrest Jesus would not recognize him on sight.  After all, Jesus had been, shall we say, a pretty visible presence in the Temple courtyard for most of the week.  I think Judas’ signal has to be to accommodate the final irony of this story: that a sign of affection is a signal of betrayal; the least sincere kiss in history.  Or, to extend it a bit: representative of the false love that we can so easily express for Jesus.  When in fact our hearts are hardened.  Better to not express ourselves at all than to feign love where there is only indifference or worse.

And yet.  And yet, Jesus calls Judas “friend.”  I know in my heart that Jesus uttered this word with utter sincerity.  That even in this betrayal, Jesus truly loved Judas with as much intensity as he loved the other disciples who remained loyal to him–and the one who wanted to fight back with his sword.

But alas, they did not remain loyal.  In one of the saddest sentences in this gospel, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (26:56) Perhaps not the Betrayal, but a betrayal nonetheless.  A betrayal I have acted out again and again.  And yet, Jesus will still call me “Friend.”

 

Psalm 39:7-13; Exodus 31:12-32:29; Matthew 26:36-46

Psalm 39:7-13  The psalmist continues to weave supplication together with reflections on the brevity of a man’s life.  In these verses there is an outright plead for rescue, to be saved from a sin that would render the psalmist too like the wicked, “From all my sins save me. Make me not the scoundrel’s scorn.”(9)   But then a plea for God to relent: “Take away from me Your scourge,  from the blow of Your hand I perish.”

Is God’s punishment too harsh or disproportionate?  In the deuteronomic scheme of things–cause and effect punishment, if you will–it’s not unreasonable to tell God “enough is enough.”  Even as people of the New Covenant there can be times where we can feel we have suffered enough, and we will pray for the suffering to cease.  But as the psalmist implies here, is it is God who is doing the punishment, or are these simply the circumstances that are creating the suffering?  In any event, it seems entirely reasonable to feel, as the psalmist does, that God is allowing the punishment and therefore it is to God to whom we pray for it to cease.

“For I am a sojourner with You, a new settler like all my fathers.” (12) suggests that he is a resident alien in a new country–a theme Peter picks up in his epistle.  But here it builds from the theme of ephemerality.  We are resident aliens for a brief time here in God’s creation.  And in an almost Job-like request, the psalmist asks God to, “Look away from me, that I may catch my breath before I depart and am not.” (13)  God’s power is so great, that it is almost too much for us to take in our human weakness and sin.

The psalmist’s ambivalence about God, who is at once our rescuer but in whose awesomeness we cannot stand too long in our brief lives is one more example of the relentless honesty of the psalms.

 Exodus 31:12-32:29   After giving instructions about keeping the sabbath, God finishes speaking and hands the tablets to Moses:  “He gave Moses when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai the two tablets of the Covenant, tablets of stone written by the finger of God.” (31:18)  There was certainly more detailed instruction on these tablets than just the Ten Commandments, and it would definitely take the finger of God to write all this on two pieces of stone that a man could carry(!)

Meanwhile, down at the foot of Sinai, the people decide Moses has dilly-dallied too long up there in the cloud.  They decide to take worship into their own hands.  They create the infamous golden calf, and bow down, worshipping the gods of Egypt, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (32:5)  God is definitely displeased, “I see this people and, look, it is a stiff-necked people. And 10 now leave Me be, that My wrath may flare against them, and I will put an end to them…” (32:9) Basically, God plans to start all over where he began with Abraham, making exactly the same promise to Moses, the only man who has obeyed him: “and I will make you a great nation.” (32:10b).

But Moses, who has interceded for his people so many times before Pharaoh, now intercedes for them before God with a very logical and reasonable argument: ““Why, O LORD, should your wrath flare against Your people that You brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?” (32:11) making the point that the Egyptians would rightly wonder why God had gone to the bother of rescuing the Israelites only to destroy them in the desert.  Moses also asks God to “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel Your servants, to whom You swore by Yourself” and made the original covenant.  God relents and Moses comes down to confront the people.

So, is God really so emotional that he would destroy people he has rescued?  Well, God requires justice, and this is not emotion so much as it is a clear picture of justice demanded.  This story is a Christological precursor of Jesus’ intercession for us before a justly angry God. And like the Israelites, we need to be grateful for that intercession.

Matthew 26:36-46  I think it is in Gethsemane where we see Jesus at his most human and vulnerable: “and began to be grieved and agitated,” (26:37b).  In this state there is only one thing–and one thing only–that Jesus can do: pray.  He prays with the same desperation we read in today’s psalm, that God relent from the punishment about to be meted out–the punishment we each deserve.  But in the end, acceptance.  The acceptance we find so often in the psalms of supplication.

Jesus wakes the disciples three times during the night, and only after he says, “the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” does he rouse them from their sleep.  Much has been made of the sleeping disciples, but I think we tend to be too hard on them. Did they really abandon Jesus in his time of deepest need?  Perhaps. I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep too, even though I had just heard Jesus’ speech about the necessity of remaining awake because we don’t know the hour the master will return.  The sleeping disciples are the contrast between Jesus’ strength to accept his fate and our own human weakness: to fall asleep when we should be praying.

 

 

Psalm 39:1-6; Exodus 30:17-31:11; Matthew 26:31-35

Psalm 39:1-6   David reflects on the difficulty, if not sheer impossibility, of keeping one’s mouth shut as our enemies goad us and/or lie about us: “I thought, “Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue.  Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked is before me.” (1)  His silence has both physical and emotional consequences: “I kept still, deprived of good, and my pain was grievous. My heart was hot within me.” (3)  A perfect description of how we feel when unjustly accused.

But David knows whom to speak with, and it isn’t his enemies: “I spoke with my tongue:  Let me know, O LORD, my end and what is the measure of my days. I would know how fleeting I am.” (4)  He speaks to God, but it is not a complaint about how unfairly he’s being treated by his enemies.  Rather it’s a reflection on the evanescence of a man’s life: “Look, mere handspans You made my days, and my lot is as nothing before You. Mere breath is each man standing.” (6)

At first this seems a surprising shift of subject.  Why would David move from personal hurt to a philosophical reflection on the brevity of a man’s life?  It seems to be that because in the larger picture, our present woes  (“my lot”) are even more fleeting when compared to the overall length of our lives, which themselves are brief in the larger picture of God, who lives outside time.  When we realize that (in Alter’s wonderful phrase) “mere breath is each man standing,” our present woes are put into their proper perspective.  And in the realization of that larger picture, our current afflictions are but momentary, but survivable troubles.

Exodus 30:17-31:11  Washing in the laver of bronze is mandatory before the priestly duties can be performed: “And they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they do not die,” (30:21) reminding us that baptism has ancient roots.

Even above water is is the sacred oil, which has very specific ingredients: “five hundred weight wild myrrh, and aromatic cinnamon, half of that, two hundred fifty weight, and aromatic cane, two hundred fifty weight. And cassia, five hundred weight by the shekel of the sanctuary, and olive oil,” (30: 24, 25).  This is the oil of consecration, setting apart both physical objects and human beings, which are holy, from all else that which is profane: “And you shall consecrate them, and they shall be holy of holies, whoever touches them shall be consecrated.” (30:30)

The oil used by the pastor at baptism, which seals us with the cross of Christ forever,” has direct roots back through the oil that the woman anointed Jesus’ feet back through to this oil prepared at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Oil that sets us apart from the rest of the world; oil that reminds all of us that we are God’s, and through baptism have been made holy.  The church I grew up focused only on the water, never on oil.  Yet, it’s clear here in Exodus 30 that to be consecrated before God both water and oil are required.  First we are made clean in the water and then consecrated by the oil; set apart to do God’s work in the Kingdom.  A heavy and serious responsibility indeed.

Matthew 26:31-35  I think the Moravian editors kept today’s Gospel reading intentionally brief because they want us to focus and reflect on what Jesus has to say about  the Disciples’ response to the catastrophe about to overtake them.  He quotes Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”  The disciples finally get it: they know something bad is about to happen to Jesus, although it’s not clear yet exactly what that will be.

What’s really fascinating here is that even though Jesus could not be more direct about his resurrection (“But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” – 26:32), that revolutionary statement apparently does not even make an impression on them.  Instead, they can only focus on Jesus’ effrontery to suggest that after three years together they would actually desert him.  Peter speaks for all of them, in denial that they would ever deny his master.  And as Matthew notes tersely, “And so said all the disciples.”  We can see the nodding heads as Peter makes his boldly unwise statement.   Yet, the  resurrection, an event unprecedented in history, goes unnoticed.  It’s all about feeling unjustly accused.  Emotions inevitably trump reason.

Which is exactly what we would say and do, too.  We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive.  Unlike David in today’s psalm, neither the disciples nor us can keep silent.  Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.