Psalm 20; Genesis 36:9-43; Matthew 13:10-23

I don’t usually begin these reflections with a weather report, but here in Bloomington, MN at 7:30 it’s clear and currently -11 degrees.  Supposed to be 0 by noon.   As they say, it’s a “dry cold.”  And we’re heading north where it’s still colder…

I am here without my Alter translations, so it’s all NRSV all the time this week.

Psalm 20 begins as a benediction, “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!/ The name of the God of Jacob protect you!”  It’s direct and to the point, no flowery language.  Even though it’s feels a bit strange for a benediction to be placed at the beginning and not the end, it’s perfectly logical, and frankly, an uplifting, optimistic way to begin worship.  We ought to try it some day.

I wonder how many times I’ve prayed the equivalent of verse 4: “May he grant you your heart’s desire,/ and fulfill all your plans”.  I guess there’s nothing wrong in praying this petition, but we sure need to be prepared to not have our desires granted  and our plans fulfilled.

My son Geoff started a Facebook thread on petitionary prayer last week that as of a couple of days ago had attracted 116 comments, most by other philosophers.  Whatever their views on religion or God—and they ran the gamut– there’s no question that prayers such as David’s are front and center in people’s own lives today.

Genesis 36:9-4  Esau gets his genealogical due as his descendants are listed here in Genesis 36.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” (36:31) Perhaps the authors are stating simple historical fact, but I detect a slight editorial edge here since Edom and Israel certainly parted ways early, and perhaps that’s one reason why God was not so enthusiastic about Israel wanting a king.

But we certainly need to remember that Esau’s descendants were part of the promise made to Abraham as much as Jacob’s.  And in that sense, so are we all.

Matthew 13:10-23  Jesus has a radically new approach to preaching, and now that I think about it, if we go back to the OT, there are stories, psalms, and prophecies chockablock with metaphors, but they never became parables, which I think of as metaphors with flesh and bones on them.  Clearly, the religious leadership of Jesus’ time spoke didactically (in 3-part sermons perhaps?), as did John the Baptist.  But at least in Scripture anyway, Jesus’ approach is completely new and it’s no wonder the disciples were confused.

Jesus’ disquisition on the differences between looking and perceiving and hearing and understanding make the point, I think, that we humans are basically wired to understand better what Jesus has to say to us through stories, not just through philosophical/religious discourse.  But unlike the clear morals of Aesop’s fables, the parables force us to think deep, and it is only by reflection that we can even begin to understand and perceive.

The parable of the sower is the “Ur-parable,” in that it explains the point of the parables: that Jesus understood the reality that much of what he said would be mis-understood (as it certainly was by the religious leaders) or the initial enthusiasm of many would simply fade away with time or persecution.  It is also a clear statement that Jesus’ real message about the Kingdom of God would be lost on just about everybody.  But when we really, truly get it, the rewards for the Kingdom—and for us—will be great indeed.

Psalm 19:1-6; Genesis 34; Matthew 12:33-45

Psalm 19:1-6  As Psalm 139’s celebration of creation (“you knit me in my mother’s womb”) appeals to the physiologists in the crowd (you know who they are, Dennis), this psalm speaks to astrophysicists as it looks up: “The heavens tell God’s glory,/ and His handiwork the shy declares.”  The diurnal cycle is celebrated and “Day to day breathes utterance/ and night to night pronounces knowledge.”  At first blush the psalmist seems to contradict himself in the next verse when he says, “there is no utterance and their are no words,/ their voice is never heard.”  But the point is that the day and night both “speak” without words, but nonetheless clearly communicate the glory, richness and depth of God’s creation.  Spoken words are superfluous; this is communication beyond speech.

The poet sets up a striking metaphor of dawn, as the sun, resting in its “tent” and then “he like a groom from his canopy comes.”  And then with great energy the groom becomes “like a warrior running his course” across the sky.  Just before writing this morning, I was out behind my house photographing the fairly spectacular sunrise and the image of a tent is perfect: The sky was covered with a thin layer of clouds, which gradually turned from orange to pink to yellow–exactly as if the sun were in its tent and coming nearer the entrance, its light illuminating the tent’s think walls–here, the cloud cover.  This gift of God’s creation, which is so easy to miss amidst our ceaseless busyness. I am really looking forward to being out in creation over the next several days!

Genesis 34  Well, we never covered the story of Dinah and Shechem in Sunday School.  There is some complicated family dynamics here.  Shechem rapes Dinah and then falls madly in love with her. Jacob’s sons hear and “they were very incensed, for he [Shechem] had done a scurrilous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter.” (34:7)  Shechem’s father tries to ignore the rape and emphasize the positive, saying, “Pray, give her him as wife,” (34:8) and then expands into a full blown offer of just about anything, “I will give what you say to me.”(34:12)  Interestingly, Jacob remains silent, but his sons take over the negotiation (more negotiation!) and say they will agree only if Shechem is circumcised. (Ouch.)  Which Shechem does.  But Simeon and Levi still  avenge their sister’s honor by killing Hamor and Shechem and retrieving Dinah. Only now does Jacob speak, “You have stirred up trouble for me.”  But the sons reply only “Like a whore should our sister be treated?” (34:31)–and the story ends on this unresolved note.

This is one of the more morally ambiguous stories in the Bible, with both sides acting wrongly and deceitfully.  And the author does not neatly straighten things out at the end.  Two things we can take away, I think: Jacob’s silence through all this, and his failure to be an honest broker allows the sons to become the dominant power in the family–and we will see the fruits of Jacob abandoning his leadership position shortly. And of course, we see the tainted fruit of honor killings in the Middle east to this very day.

Second, this is life as it is actually lived–and one more mark of the incredible authenticity of the Bible: wrongs are committed by all parties and there is no neat resolution–just as in real life.  I also think that this story begins to set the stage for why the Law becomes necessary: It is God alone who can restore order.

Matthew 12:33-45   Jesus is dealing with a more subtle problem: hypocrisy: “How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (12:34).  Which leads to the larger problem: the words we speak.  (I think that right after money, the number three thing Jesus talks about the most, is the stuff we say…) “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (12:37) I think if I though about Jesus’ stern words of accounting for our words (not just our deeds!) on the Day of Judgement, I’d be a lot more circumspect in what I say!

Jesus makes his remarkable prophecy about his death and resurrection, “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (12:40).  This statement has real prophetic impact when Matthew’s readers and we encounter it: we know exactly what Jesus was referring to.  But I’m pretty sure the Pharisees (and everybody else, including the disciples) had zero idea of what he was talking about.  Which is OK; if we understood everything Jesus said, there would be no need for theologians…

I will be writing sporadically over the coming week as I head east and north.  Unbelievable how much stuff (long underwear, layers and layers of stuff, hats, gloves, balaclava, ice crampons, etc.) you have to bring along to spend a couple of days outdoors where the forecast high is 7 degrees…  But I’m pretty excited.

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!