Psalm 33:12–22; Exodus 12:21–51; Matthew 21:33–46

Originally published 3/5/2016. Revised and updated 3/6/2018

Psalm 33:12–22: This psalm’s third section celebrates the gratitude of Israel for being chosen as the people of God:
Happy the nation whose god is the LORD,
the people He chose as estate for Him. (12)

The point of view shifts to heaven as we read how God surveys all— every person and all human activity on earth:

From the heavens the Lord looked down,
and saw all human creatures.
From His firm throne He surveyed
all who dwell on the earth.” (13, 14)

But God is not just a national abstraction “out there.”  Israel—and we— rejoice because God knows each person as a distinct individual:
He fashions their heart one and all.
He understands all their doings. (15)

That’s an interesting concept: God fashioning our heart.  We are not only created, but our personalities are also shaped by God, and because God “understands all [our] doings” there’s a relationship between God and every person whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even those who reject the very idea of God’s existence are nevertheless understood by God.  How greatly we miss out on this deep and rich relationship when we behave that it is us who are at the center of the universe. God knows us more than we know ourselves. And what happens, what we accomplish is not solely our doing.

God not only observes our outward behavior, his omniscience penetrates our every thought and motivation.
He fashions their heart one and all.
He understands their doings. (15)

Moreover, what we think of as our wisdom and strength actually comes from God:
The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,
the warrior is not saved through surfeit of power. (16)

Should an outside agency come to our rescue it is not that agency that appears to rescue us; rather, it is God alone:
The horse is a lie for rescue,
and in his [the horse’s] surfeit of might he helps none escape.(17)

Our escape comes only through God. Men and governments may appear to be the source of well-being and rescue, but that is an illusion. It is God who provides all.
Look, the Lord’s eye is on those who fear Him,
on those who yearn for His kindness
to save their lives from death
and in famine to keep them alive.” (18, 19)

And what should be our response to God’s strength and benevolence?
We urgently wait for the LORD.
Our help and our shield is He.
For in Him our heart rejoices,
for in His holy name do we trust. (20, 21)

There you have it: we wait; we rejoice (and worship); we trust.  Notice the “urgently.”   We must understand that without God our lives are in deep trouble.  God’s faithfulness is never in question, but our relationship with God is never casual or relaxed.  As the last verse notes, “we have yearned for You,”  And we yearn urgently.

In short, faith in God is the source of life. These verses have been directly fulfilled for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who is indeed our source of life and sustenance in times of trouble.

Exodus 12:21–51: Moses gets the word out regarding the rather specific instruction of how to survive this tenth plague. Particularly crucial is that everyone must (to use the current term of art) shelter in place: “None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning.” (12:22) Moses also emphasizes how this will become a “a perpetual ordinance for you and your children.” (12:24) [I doubt he actually said these word. Instead, I think they are a clever editorial insertion into the story by the editors writing centuries later. ] Once again we see the emphasis on the importance of progeny and successive generations: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’  you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord,” (26, 27) The generation enduring the actual Passover will be remembered down through the ages, as indeed it is to our own time.

What is remarkable is that there is no doubt about what God will do among the Israelites” “The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.” (28) They have certainly come to realize it is their God who is the force behind the preceding nine plagues and how they have been spared what the Egyptians have endured on behalf of their stubborn Pharaoh.

What is the Passover for the Hebrews is a plague of agony and death for the Egyptians and no family is spared: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon” (29) We get a hint that the Egyptians feared that even worse was to come:  “The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” (33) It was clear they believed that the Israelites were the source of their woes—and of course they were right.

Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and gives permission for the Israelites to depart and then he says something completely unexpected (for me, anyway): “And bring a blessing on me too!” (32) Has Pharaoh become a God believer now that he has witnessed God’s power? Or is it more a temporary emotional reaction to the trauma he has just endured? 

So, with the gold and all the other possessions, which the authors tell us “they plundered [from] the Egyptians” (36), 600,000 Israelites “and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds” (38) set out for Succoth, having lived in Egypt for 430 years. Which when one thinks about it, is a very long time. If the Israelites had departed this year, 2016, Jacob and his clan would have arrived in 1586.

from 2014: Our narrator recaps the numbers.  600,000 men (12:37), which would have meant about 2 million people, which seems like an awfully big number.  And they are leaving Egypt after being there 430 years.  When you consider that the US is only about 240 years old, one gets an appreciation of not only how long they were in Egypt, but that God’s timing (thousand years as a day, etc.) is definitely not our timing.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this story is that the Israelites obeyed God’s instruction to the letter: “All the Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.” (50) I’m pretty sure that had I been an Israelite I would have seen the whole Passover thing as quite strange if not ludicrous. But on the other hand, I had not witnessed the mighty acts of God which preceded that final night.

Matthew 21:33–46: Sitting in the temple courtyard, Jesus is in full parable-telling mode. This one is about the tenants who tend the vineyard while the owner is absent. The owner sends slaves to check things out, which the tenants, feeling that the owner will never find out, promptly beat, stone and kill three slaves in succession. Finally, the master sends his own son, who the tenants also kill. Jesus asks the question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (40) The answer is altogether obvious.

The vineyard is God’s kingdom, the slaves are the prophets; the son is the Messiah, The wicked tenants are Israel, which is about to dramatically reject the Son of God. As Jesus observes by quoting Psalm 118, that rejection will spell Israel’s doom, as the Messiah becomes the salvation of the Gentiles—the “other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (41)

While this parable may have been lost on the crowd, it was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees, who would like to arrest Jesus right then and there, “but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (46)

In light of what happened in Israel in AD70, it’s impossible to hear Jesus’ warning, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls,” (44) without thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate decimation of Israel.

And it’s equally worth reflecting on the fate of those who consciously reject the Cornerstone even today.



Psalm 33:6–11; Exodus 11:1–12:20; Matthew 21:23–32

Originally published 3/4/2016. Revised and updated 3/5/2018

Psalm 33:6–11: Our psalmist recounts the Genesis creation story in flowing verse:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters.
puts in treasure houses the deeps.” (6,7)

I’m particularly drawn to the idea of great wealth “in the deeps” being stored in “treasure houses” because it suggests that the material of creation is of great value. Which of course it is. Humankind has been drawing on these treasure houses for millennia, but now we are drawing on those reserves at an increasing pace.

While God’s mercy and love is inexhaustible, the contents of these treasure houses are not.One imagines that the psalmist had no idea that humans would one day exploit those “treasure houses” in the sea with offshore drilling rigs and their concomitant risks. Will our exploitation of our earth continue unabated or will we realize that what God has given us in his glorious creation is finite and we desecrate  those treasure housesit to the point of self-destruction?

The verse that follows speaks of a condition that seems particularly elusive today:
All the earth fears the Lord,
all the world’s dwellers dread him. (8)

The western world seems overcome by either indifference to God or outright rejection of his existence. On the other side are the religious fanatics that destroy creation and their neighbors in a wrongheaded conception of what “fearing God” means. We humans seem capable of almost infinite misunderstanding as we attempt to recreate God in our own image.

But we need to remember that in the end, it is God who is the ultimate Creator, bringing the universe and all that is in it into being ex nihilo:
He did speak and it came to be,
He commanded, and it stood, (9)

The psalmist reminds us that despite everything humans do and despite our attempts to ignore, reject or even forget him, God will have the final word. In the end, God will triumph over all our human endeavors:
The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,
overturned the devisings of peoples. (10)

All our efforts to see ourselves as small-g gods will come to naught.

At the end of history it is only “The Lord’s counsel [that] will stand forever.” (11a) Humankind will finally look back at its works and see them for the empty idols they are. Only God’s work in creation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts will matter: “His heart’s devisings [are] for all generations.” (11b) The question becomes, why do we refuse to accept the superiority of God’s devisings over our own? Alas, we know the answer: our human pride.

Exodus 11:1–12:20: God comes to Moses and tells him to prepare the people for one final plague. God promises that Pharaoh “will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away.” (11:1). One suspects that even Moses was pretty doubtful at this point. After all, even God couldn’t get Pharaoh to change his mind ten previous times.

This time, though, God adds an instruction that at the time probably seemed puzzling, but will have great value later on: Moses is to “Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.” (11:2) This will be feasible because the “Lord gave the people [Israelites] favor in the sight of the Egyptians.” (11:3) Nevertheless, I suspect there was a lot of skepticism on the part of the Israelites at this point.

Moses then describes God’s plan to kill every firstborn in Egypt but that there will be a crucial distinction as the angel of death passes over Egypt. A loud cry will arise in Egypt but “not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (11:7)

Needless to say, Pharaoh won’t buy any of this—and God knows it: “The Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” (11:9)

Something I had not noticed before is that the passover event is so central to the history of Israel that the calendar for Israel is set from this point forward: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” (12:2) This calendar continues today in 2018 as the Jewish Calendar and we now are in year 5778.

The instructions for what will become the Passover are detailed and complex. In anticipation of the instruction to depart quickly, it becomes “dinner on the run,” with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (12:11)

I think a crucial aspect of the Passover is that it requires participation by every household and careful preparation. The first nine plagues were basically a battle between competing gods: the gods and magicians of Egypt and the God of Israel. Now with this event, Israel’s God will make it eternally clear which God is greater: “I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” (12:12) Which of course he does.

One of the clues that suggests this story was written much later in Israel’s history is the detailed instructions about how Passover “shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” (12:14). Given the urgency surrounding the actual passover, one suspects Moses would not have paused the story to explain how Passover was to become a central festival of Jewish life. with all the detailed instructions about leavened and unleavened bread.

But at this point the doorposts and lintels are smudged with blood, the lamb stew is ready to be eaten and with the Israelites, we wait in anticipation for God’s most fearsome plague.

Matthew 21:23–32: Having had no figs for breakfast, Jesus returns to the temple where things seem to have calmed down a bit. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (23). As usual Jesus declines to answer the question, telling the priests they must answer his question first:  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (25)

This is a brilliant yet unanswerable question because “from heaven” indicts the religious leaders for not believing John. At the same time, the “human origin” answer will inflame the crowd “for all regard John as a prophet.” (26) Of course, standing right in front of the religious leaders is the one person in history who really could answer the question. Jesus is “both heaven and human,” as Jesus is from heaven but comes from a human mother. Here is where we see the roots of the doctrine that Jesus is simultaneously 100% God and 100% human.

Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. The first refuses to go but then changes his mind and goes anyway. The other tells his father that he will go but then fails to do so.  Jesus asks the crowd “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (31) The crowd correctly answers that the one who refused but then changed his mind was the obedient one.

His message is clear here: the sinners who have rejected God initially but then repent are the ones who enter the kingdom. The religious hypocrites may profess to love God, but in reality they follow their own hearts rather than God and therefore are in effect refusing to enter the kingdom.

At a higher level of abstraction this parable is also about the Jews who professed to worship God but rejected Jesus as over against the Gentiles who had no idea who God was, but came to accept Jesus enthusiastically—whence the roots and growth of the Christian church.

Psalm 33:1–5; Exodus 10; Matthew 21:12–22

Originally published 3/3/2016. Revised and updated 3/3/2018

Psalm 33:1–5: The sheer exuberance of these five verses is palpable as the psalmist directs this choir  to “Sing gladly, O righteous, to the Lord.” (1a) The choir can do so because it is comprised of righteous people: “for the upright, praise is befitting.” (1b). So, too, for the members of the orchestra:
Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,
with the ten-stringed instrument hymn to him. (2)

This kind of joyous worship occurs only when we are right before God.

And being right before God we, “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) This reminds those of us who dislike changes in liturgy (i.e., me) that God welcomes new songs and yes, even the occasional shout—and I suppose hand-raising as well. This is definitely something for me to remember when I am being a curmudgeon about the empty theology of many praise songs.

The roots of this joyful worship are of course a natural response to our deep awareness of what God has done for us. Our response is grounded in the fact that we are his creatures and we know that “…the word of of the Lord is upright/ and all His doings in good faith.” (4) For us Christians, we know that the word of God is the Word of God: Jesus Christ, who has saved us and brings us to the joy of worship.

Our psalmist reminds us that God does indeed “love the right and the just.” (5) And it is only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ that we become so. Finally, “The Lord’s kindness fills the earth,” (5b) which again means that God’s greatest act of kindness, Jesus, has come for each one of us. Secure in his grace, and having confessed our sins and been forgiven, we worship with singing, and yes, even enthusiastic shouting.

Exodus 10: As we head into the eighth and ninth plagues, I begin to wonder why God takes credit for having hardened Pharaoh’s heart each time it looks like he’ll finally give into Moses’ demands. The answer is right here at the end of 10:1: “in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord.” (1b, 2)

I confess to being somewhat disturbed that it seems like God is toying with people’s lives and creating great suffering just to make a point so Moses’ children and grandchildren can remember what fools the Egyptians were. It’s almost as if God is displaying some sort of adolescent pleasure just because he is God and can do so.

Moses comes before Pharaoh and promises to unleash the locusts on the land if Pharaoh does not relent.  Pharaoh’s advisors implore the king that his stubbornness has brought great damage and suffering, even to the point of disrespect: “Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (7) [Pharaoh remimds me of the intransigence of the current occupant of the White House.]

Pharaoh asks who Moses wants to accompany him to go worship God. Notice he is not yet talking about an actual permanent exodus.  Moses replies every Israelite, young and old, male and female, should go. But Pharaoh restricts his permission to just the men, suspecting something is afoot and that if he lets them all go he is losing Egypt’s labor force: “The Lord indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind.” (10)

Moses stretches out his staff and the locusts arrive on cue. Pharaoh looks around the decimated land and realizes he has sinned against God. For the first time he admits, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” (16) And for the first time asks forgiveness: “Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the Lord your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me.” (17).

But these are empty words. it’s all play-acting and once again, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.” (20) I believe God keeps taking credit for Pharaoh’s refusal to make it clear that God remains in control of every event, every word. The plagues are clearly God’s work. Moses is simply God’s factotum.

The ninth plague is overwhelming darkness and once again, Pharaoh seems to relent, allowing all the people to go, but not the Israelites’ livestock. Moses demurs, insisting the livestock is essential for the sacrifices.

Pharaoh is now beyond mere anger and  we can easily visualize his reddened face as he screams, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” (29). It has taken nine plagues to finally get him to the breaking point.

Moses agrees: “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.” (29). Something even darker than darkness awaits the Egyptians. And it will not require Moses to appear before Pharaoh to make his case.

Matthew 21:12–22: Jesus, now quite well known by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, arrives at the temple and famously “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (12) He performs healings at the temple itself and the crowd grows even more enamored of him. But “when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry.” (15) They confront Jesus and ask,“Do you hear what these are saying?” making it clear Jesus is treading on the thin ice of blasphemy.

But the ardor of the crowd is such that if the religious officials simply throw Jesus out of  the temple fearing that a more stringent punishment would create a riot. So, Jesus calmly quotes some scripture, accusing them of self-aggrandizement: “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (16)

He then walks out of the temple, and spends the night in Bethany. We don’t read it here, but I’m sure this confrontation causes the officials to realize that whatever they do about ridding themselves of Jesus it will have to be done as a secret conspiracy.

The next morning Jesus heads back to Jerusalem and not having had breakfast, stops at a fig tree, wishing to pick its fruit. The fig tree is barren and he curses it, which promptly dies. This seemingly peevish act provides one of Jesus’ greatest teachable moments about faith: Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”  (21) Then, in one of his most memorable statements, he tops it off with the astounding statement, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (22)

Really? Are prayers that we pray in all sincerity but yet—at least from our human perspective—remain unanswered simply a demonstration of insufficient faith? Is it wrong to doubt?  I confess to frequent doubts, which as I read this verse is probably why I haven’t moved any mountains. Can pure faith really exist absent even the occasional doubt? I have met people who at least appear to me to have no doubts. Are they “better Christians” than I? It seems to me that faith cannot really be faith without its mirror image of doubt.

Psalm 32; Exodus 9; Matthew 20:29–21:11

 Originally published 3/2/2016. Revised and updated 3/2/2018

Psalm 32: This “maskil,” which scholars believe is a kind of song, opens in a mood of rejoicing that God has forgiven:
Happy, of sin forgiven,
absolved of offense. (1)

Forgiveness brings freedom from guilt:
Happy, the man to whom
the Lord reckons no crime,
in whose spirit is no deceit. (2)

In short, honest confession before God creates an inner happiness. The poet contrasts this happiness with the woes—both emotional and physical— of unconfessed sin:
When I was silent [before God], my limbs were worn out.
when I roared all day long (3)

The second line of this verse suggests that rather than opting for a quiet confession before God, the poet filled his days with mindless activities to keep the weight of his sin off his mind. That is certainly how I act when I’m trying to push a wrongdoing out of my conscience.

He goes on to describe this weight of guilt as relentless pressure:
For day and night
Your hand was heavy upon me.
My sap [inner strength, I believe] turned to dust. (4)

In short, holding onto the burden of an unconfessed sin is a weighty burden, which is an apt description for guilt.

Confession eliminates this burden:
My offense I made known to You
and my crime I did not cover. (5)

In point of fact, confession  is the simple process that John describes in his eponymous epistle: “If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive…” (1 John 1:8). And here in the psalm we hear exactly the same transaction, clearly stated by our poet:
I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,’
and You forgave my offending crime. (6)

Yet despite this simplicity, we are much more likely to hold on to sin than to confess it due, I suppose, to our inner sense of shame. This is why I believe corporate confession at worship is not an optional add-on to the liturgy. We cannot come before God with true hearts of worship without knowing we are forgiven.

Our psalmist, his sin confessed and forgiven, goes on to rejoice in the reality of God’s forgiveness for now he can worship with a clean heart, drawing a contrast between his happiness the sorry state of his enemies who have not recognized and confessed their crimes:
Many are the wicked’s pains,
but who trusts in the Lord kindness surrounds him. (10)

Rather than pain, the weight is lifted and rejoicing replaces guilt:
Rejoice in the Lord and exult, O you righteous,
sing gladly, all upright men! (11)

Exodus 9 Plague is heaped upon plague in the thus far futile effort to change Pharaoh’s mind. Moses declares that all the Egyptian livestock will become diseased and die, carefully listing the species that will be affected: “the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (3) and noting that the Israelites’ stock will remain unaffected? As always, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.” (7)

Then, boils on animals and humans alike. There is the almost humorous observation that “The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.” (11) But Pharaoh seems to have an inexhaustibly hard heart.

Then, Moses provides a one day warning that the weather will turn dreadfully bad. We now see that there are some Egyptians who finally believe that what Moses is saying will actually occur: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place.” (20) The hail and fire comes to Egypt but God spares the Israelites.”Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail.” (26) By this time I’m guessing that Moses’s credibility is growing among the Israelites.

Pharaoh summons Moses and appears to have had a serious change of heart: “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” (27, 28). But once the crisis has passed, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go.” (35)

We are all Pharaoh. Like him we are very slow learners when it comes to accepting reality and obeying God. We’re willing to pray for respite at the moment of crisis, even as Pharaoh appears to have finally done. Like him, we may even say the right words aloud. God rescues us, but unlike today’s psalmist who sincerely confesses and then rejoices and worships, our confessions are not always from deep in our hearts. We mouth the words and then we quickly return to our former ways.

Perhaps the most depressing, yet most human aspect of these short-lived foxhole conversions, is that just as God has told Moses that the pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. God knows us all too well: that rescue without confession and worship will not change our hearts. Externalities—even major crises—are not what cause us to change our ways. Only the redemption of Jesus Christ can do that.

Matthew 20:29–21:11: Jesus encounters the two blind men on the roadside, who interrupt the proceedings with their annoying cries. But their cries, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” (31) have a new twist. What Jesus has sternly ordered his disciples to keep quiet about up to now is now very much out in the open. Word is spreading quickly that this healing rabbi wandering the countryside is indeed the promised Messiah.

Another new aspect in this healing story is that Jesus asks directly, even sounding a little annoyed, “What do you want me to do for you?” (32) He does not just reach over and touch them and they are healed. They must state what it is they desire, and the reply of these two blind me is fraught with significance: “They said to him,Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (33) They don’t hedge by beating around the bush like we do saying things like, “if it be your will” or “if it’s part of your plan for us.”  They just ask directly.  As should we.


The blind men are healed and they join his followers. Which is exactly the metaphor for us. Before, we were blinded by our sin and self-centeredness, but through Jesus we have come to see what the Kingdom is really all about.

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem follows immediately. As always, Matthew uses Scripture to prove Jesus is who he says he is. This time, Jesus’ sending a couple of disciples to fetch a donkey is a fulfillment Isaiah’s prophecy. [One must assume that Jesus knew this as well.]

Jesus enters Jerusalem to the crowd’s acknowledgement that he is indeed the Son of David. But when others in Jerusalem ask who he is, people in the crowd do not tell them he is the Son of David, but simply that “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (21:11) Clearly, Matthew is reminding us that not everyone is quite ready to proclaim Jesus as Messiah. This is a  first hint of what is to come later in the week.

Is there a more ironic scene here at the beginning of the most important week in history, as joyful crowds welcome their apparent savior from the oppression of Rome?  The crowds shouting ‘Hosanna’ have no idea of Jesus’ real purpose, nor do they imagine that they will be the exactly the same crowd shouting “Crucify him!” in less than 6 days.  We are in that crowd, too.

As CS Lewis reminds us in his characterization of Aslan, the real Jesus is not the Jesus we imagine. He is far more radical, far more dangerous and not about to be domesticated by our idea of what he “should” do or be. But we’re far more comfortable with our own preconceived notions. We construct a Jesus to meet our own desires and purposes, having no idea of his real intention.  Like the crowd, we  have put Jesus into a box of our own imaginations.


Psalm 31:21–25; Exodus 8; Matthew 20:17–28

Originally posted 2/29/2016—revised and updated 3/1/2018

Psalm 31:21–24: Our psalmist, writing in David’s voice, reminds us once again that when we are threatened by evil, or even when we tire of the depredations of our corrupt culture, God is our reliable protector—the one place where we can hide:
Conceal them in the hiding-place of Your presence
from the crookedness of man.
hide them in Your shelter
from the quarrel of tongues.
Blessed is the Lord,
for he has done wondrous kindness 
in a town under siege. (21, 22)

In practical terms, the psalmist is reminding us that we can find respite from the cacophony and hypocrisy of our present age by retreating to meditation, prayer, and scripture.

This psalm’s concluding verses strike a very personal note: my impatience with God, who operates on a different timetable than we think he should:
And I had thought in my haste:
‘I am banished from before Your eyes.’
Yet You heard the sound of my pleading
when I cried out to you.” (23)

The psalmist gets it exactly right: we jump to conclusions in our haste, especially when God is silent for longer than we think he should be.We want God to respond quickly, especially when our need or situation is particularly urgent.  No question that impatience is hard-wired into all of us.

The lesson here is slow down and don’t fret while waiting: God is faithful beyond our feeble imaginations. God has surely heard us and his response will surely come. Our duty is to love God, not to be impatient with him:
“Love the Lord, all His faithful,
steadfastness in the Lord keeps
and pays back in good measure the haughty in acts. (24)

Or as my father used to say, “the chickens always come home to roost for those who are “haughty in acts.” In God’s silence, we must wait with a patient attitude of the heart as the psalmist advises in his concluding lines:
Be strong, and let your heart be firm,
all who hope in the Lord. (25)

Exodus 8:The thing I had not noticed before is that at this point in the story Moses has not asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites to leave Egypt altogether. His plea is much more modest: “‘Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (1) As I read this chapter it strikes me how Moses is really God’s mouthpiece. God is behind the scenes telling Moses exactly what to say to Pharaoh.

Moses may be God’s speaker, but Aaron is the guy who actually executes: “the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’” (5).

I’m struck by the especially creepy warning,”The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.’” (4) My skin crawls to think of frogs crawling around on my body.

But the court magicians duplicate the frog trick. Pharaoh asks Moses to make the frogs go away and he will allow the Israelites to worship. But when Moses complies, Pharaoh goes back on his word. Then the gnats. This time the court magicians fail to duplicate the feat and they admit that God is behind it: “the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” (19a) Nevertheless, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.” (19b)

The  fourth plague—flies—finally persuade Pharaoh to tell Moses that he will let the Israelites worship, but then Moses adds the condition that in order not to offend the Egyptians, they must travel a 3-day journey in order to sacrifice unobserved. Pharaoh agrees, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. “ (28). He then adds, “Pray for me.”  Moses promises to banish the flies with the caveat, “only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” (29) Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh reneges on his word.

So, what gives? Who is on trial here? Pharaoh or Moses? God certainly seems to be more intent on testing Moses’ patience and obedience by demonstrating who’s in charge rather than in actually letting the Israelites worship him?

Matthew 20:17–28: Jesus has apparently concluded that the disciples still don’t get it about what’s going to happen to him. So for a third time he tells them bluntly and in even greater detail that he will be crucified and will rise again: “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (18, 19). Unfortunately, Matthew elects not to tell us what the disciples said in response. Perhaps they have not yet figured out that Jesus’ statement regarding the “Son of Man” is self-referential.

Which, frankly, makes me a bit suspicious. We know that Matthew is writing any years after the events he records. Did Jesus really say this, or is Matthew editorializing here because he knows how the story turned out? Nevertheless, if we’re willing to accept the gospels as the inspired word of God, then my suspicion notwithstanding, I think we must accept that Jesus actually said this.

In fact the very next incident underscores the authenticity of Jesus’ words. Not only do the disciples not get it about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but others as well. Thinking that Jesus was going to establish an earthly kingdom, the mother of James and John demands that Jesus, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (21) [Of course we have to remember that she’s a Jewish mother, so her forwardness about what she wants for her sons seems perfectly appropriate.]

One even wonders if John and James put her up to it, since we hear them answer affirmatively when Jesus asks if they are “able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” James and John reply, “We are able.” (22)

Jesus then says something remarkable: he does not have the power to determine the order of seating in heaven: “but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (23) In short, God determines the priority order of heaven. One wonders if at this point James, John, their mom, and the other disciples might at least have an uncomfortable inkling that Jesus is not actually talking about an earthly kingdom that will replace Roman oppression.

This attempted coup d’etat on the part of the Sons of Thunder does not sit well with the other disciples. As always, though, Jesus uses this as a teachable moment, telling them that leadership requires first being a servant: “but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;” (26, 27)

And that is the lesson for any of us who claims to be a leader. Unless he or she has experienced what it is like to be led, preferably at the very lowest rung on the ladder (Jesus’ reference to a slave), they will be ineffective in the long run. Unfortunately, there are way too many examples of this failed leadership extant both inside and outside the church.




Psalm 31:11–21; Exodus 6:13–7:24; Matthew 20:1–16

Originally posted 2/28/2014—revised and updated 2/28/2018

Psalm 31:11–21: As he continues, our psalmist describes an exhausted and discouraged David in a dark soliloquy. Apparently David has committed a major wrongdoing and is now reaping the consequences:
For my life is exhausted in sorrow
and my years in sighing.
Through my crime my strength stumbles
and my limbs are worn out. (11)

Even David’s friends have joined his enemies in withdrawing from his presence. Proving once again that human nature has not changed at all, our psalmist describes how most people withdraw from the company of a depressed person.
For all my enemies I become a disgrace,
just as much to my neighbors, and fear to my friends. (12)

That social rejection leads to a sense that not only is he utterly alone but that he has died already:
Forgotten from the heart like the dead,
I become like a vessel lost. (13)

If ever we needed a clear description of what true depression feels like from the point of view of the person experiencing it, it is right here in this psalm, which we presume describes David when Saul was attempting to kill him. The sense of abandonment—to be isolated and then forgotten—is palpable here.  That this abandonment comes as the result of a conspiracy makes it even worse:
For I heard the slander of many,
terror all round,
when they conspired against me,
when they plotted to take my life. (14)

At the bottom of this dark abyss of the soul there is only one hope for rescue and David remembers who that is:
As for me, O Lord,
I say ‘You are my God.
My times are in Your —O save me
from the hands of my enemies, my pursuers. (15, 16)

Rejected by humans, only one agent of rescue remains as he continues to pray in desperation:
Shine Your face on Your servant,
Rescue me in Your kindness. (17)

Only one person can remove his shame: “Lord, let me not be shamed, for I call You.” (18a). And while God is effecting David’s rescue, it would be OK by him if his enemies experienced what he is experiencing:
Let the wicked know shame,
and be stilled in Sheol. (18b)

I often wonder that in light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies whether we can pray for bad things to befall our enemies. But here David is not actually asking for revenge, he is simply praying that his enemies cease their persecution:
Let lying lips be silent,
that speak haughty against the just
in arrogance and contempt. (19)

In our current culture, arrogant and hateful speech—easily amplified by social media—seems to be the currency d’jour, I believe this is an entirely reasonable and proper prayer.

Exodus 6:13–7:24: As always in the OT, it is ancestry that establishes a person’s bonafides, and our authors interrupt the action to provide a detailed list of Moses’ and Aaron’s forebears. In the eyes of our authors this makes them the legitimate players selected by God to carry out the greatest exodus in history.

Even more important than ancestry is the fact that his protestations of inadequacy notwithstanding, Moses is obedient even though he once again reminds God of his weakness in speech and argument: “But Moses said in the Lord’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”” (6:30). Clearly Moses was no lawyer, but he was lucky to have an articulate brother.

Then in a remarkable statement, God informs Moses that he has it all set up to make sure Moses will be able to carry off this enormous task of persuading Pharaoh to release the Israelites: “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (7:1)  But in order to make sure Pharaoh ultimately accepts that Moses is like a god, it will not be an easy task. God informs Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.” (7:4) God’s logic seems to be that only after a series of showy miracles will Pharaoh truly be convinced of Moses’ god-like status. The brothers accept their roles and “Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.” (7:6)

The authors remind us that by the time these events are set to occur, both Moses and Aaron are relatively advanced in age: “Moses was eighty years old and Aaon eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (7:7) Which speaking as a 71-year old, is a good reminder that one’s role in effecting great change is not necessarily over.

The first demonstration to Pharaoh is Aaron’s magic staff, which turns into a snake and then back again, followed by the portentous announcement, “See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood.” (7:17) Which of course he proceeds to do. Unfortunately, the Egyptian magicians are able to perform the same trick, so Pharaoh remains unpersuaded.

So, what is God’s point here? Dueling magic tricks between Moses and the court magicians that leave the inhabitants of Egypt—both Egyptian and Israelite— in desperate straits unable to drink water seems somehow petty. Of course we know how the story turns out, but at this point we can only sympathize with the frustration that Moses felt. After all, Aaron and he were faithfully following God, but God seems to be turning the tables on them. I know I have prayed for an outcome and been obedient but the result has not been the way I had imagined or hoped. At that point it’s difficult not to think of God as cruel trickster. And I’m pretty sure that was the feeling that overtook Moses and Aaron.

Matthew 20:1–16: Jesus continues his disquisition on the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. And it’s clear that the kingdom is not a haven of relaxation. There is labor. Worse, the wages of the laborer are not proportionate to the amount of labor expended. Those annoying latecomers that show up at 4:45 receive the same wages as the diligent workers who reported for work at 8 a.m.

I view this parable as Matthew making the same kind of point that Luke made in the parable of the Prodigal Son with regard to the relationship between the prodigal and his brother. The brother had done everything according to what he saw as his father’s plan: being the good son and working diligently. He has followed the law religiously. The prodigal  has enjoyed—and squandered—the same amount the brother will receive as his inheritance. And yet his return is celebrated by the father. The brother’s feelings are our feelings when something so “unfair” has occurred.

What’s clear in both parables is that when we hew strictly to the law we have no concept of what grace and mercy really are: a gift it is the father’s (and God’s) right to give without further explanation. We law-followers live by the quid pro quo. But life’s not fair. Even God behaves this way.

Our culture wishes everything to be equal and “fair.” But to confuse equity—that we have the potential to receive the same inheritance, the same opportunity— and equality—that we have exactly the same outcomes—are not the same thing. Unfortunately, this confusion is widespread in our culture. Now, as then, to confuse equity and equality, as the laborers in the vineyard did, leads only to hard feelings.

God provides equity. We all get to work in the vineyard. What we do with our opportunity is up to us. We may arrive early or late, but God’s grace falls equally on all of us.




Psalm 31:6-9; Exodus 5:10-6:12; Matthew 19:23-30

Originally posted 2/27/2014—revised and updated 2/27/2018

It’s Susan’s birthday!

Psalm 31:7-10  Verse 10 leaps off the page this morning:
Grant me grace, Lord, for I am distressed.
my eye is worn out in vexation,
my throat and my belly [also].

Not because this is how I feel this morning, quite the contrary.  But the verse’s juxtaposition is striking. Just three verses earlier our psalmist exclaimed,
Let me exult and rejoice in your kindness,
that You saw my affliction.
You knew the straits of my life.

So, what gives here?  There’s total joy in God’s steadfast love and then suddenly, “I am distress.”  The key, I think, is not that God’s love is variable; it’s as steadfast as the psalmist asserts it is.  But it is we who are highly variable as our emotions oscillate between seemingly permanent joy quickly down into the depths of despair.  Who among us has not experienced the instant dissipation of joy when we receive bad news that a distant friend, whom we love has been diagnosed with cancer or even died?  It’s God’s very immovability, his rock-like stability, his “fixedness” that allows us to see our own variability.

Also, as the psalmist has observed, God “knew the straits of my life.” That is, God knows everything there is to know about us. Just as God delights in our joyful exultations, he is indeed gracious in our grief, even a grief that causes our eyes, our body and our soul to be “worn out in vexation.”

Exodus 5:10-6:12 Moses is feeling assailed on all sides.  Having failed to follow God’s very specific instructions about what to say to Pharaoh, he’s placed the Israelites in an even more untenable situation.  The Israelite supervisors do not mince words about this, “You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (5:21). The supervisors appeal to Pharaoh, who memorably tells them, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” (5:17, 18)

So, in yet another proof that this story is about a fallible man, not a brave hero, Moses does what just about any of us would do, he cries out to God, blaming him for not delivering as promised: “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people?”  All while feeling sorry for himself, “Why did you ever send me?” and making it very clear that it’s all God’s fault anyway, “you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” (5:22-23).

Wow. Is this us, or what?  We think we hear God’s call, and then we insert our own interpretation of what God really meant to say, and then, when things don’t turn out as we thought we were promised, we blame it all on God.

So, in what can only be described as an outstanding example of God’s infinite patience and grace, God does not remind Moses that he didn’t follow instructions, but responds with infinite generosity, “I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.” (6:5) and instructs Moses to go to the Israelites and tell them who God is and what this God plans to do. This time, Moses follows God’s instructions to the letter, but the situation is already too messed up.  Moses has understandably lost all credibility and the Israelites would not listen to him, “because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” (6:9).  Their response convinces Moses that the real problem is that God made a terrible mistake in choosing him: “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” (6:12)

There are so many lessons here.  But the one that looms large for me is that carrying out God’s call is never an easy task.  Things will not go according to the brilliant plans we devise on our own, as we ignore God’s direction.  And when things don’t turn out as we envisioned, we will be consumed by doubt: doubt in God and doubt in ourselves.  We will say the wrong things.  A lot.  But God is infinitely patient and graceful.

Matthew 19:23-30  This is where Jesus makes it clear that in the Kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down and inside out from what we expect. Contrary to well established cultural custom, the rich are not morally superior, nor are they more righteous and deserving of heaven.  Interesting how the Jews of Jesus’ time thought that, and our culture tends to implicitly, if not explicitly, treat the rich and famous as somehow more “righteous” than we of the hoi polloi. We see this all around us when celebrities opine on controversial topics in which they have no expertise beyond the fact that they are famous.

At this point the disciples have been listening to Jesus for quite some time and it’s beginning to dawn on them that this is apparently not turning out to be the politico-messianic movement they thought they had signed up for. Peter bluntly asks the question that’s doubtless on all their minds: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27).  We are exactly the same: we labor in the church, make what we see as being significant sacrifices and for what reward? Well, there’s Jesus’ promise, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (29)

Fine, OK, but just to make it clear, Jesus ends his promise by repeating the Great Reversal he alluded to earlier about the rich: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (19:30).  And that’s what the Kingdom is about: what we expect is not what’s going to happen.  Just the opposite.  Better not to bring our preconceived notions of what “should” be or “should happen” into the Kingdom. And of course, willingling becoming “the last” always goes against our self-centered will.

Psalm 31:1–6; Exodus 4:1–5:9; Matthew 19:13–22

Originally posted 2/26/2016—revised and updated 2/26/2018

Psalm 31:1–5: This psalm of supplication opens with a statement of the psalmist’s steadfast trust in God’s protection and asking him to listen, using the interesting image of God bending down, his hand cupping his ear as the psalmist speaks:
In You, O Lord, I shelter.
Let me never be shamed.
In Your bounty free me.
Incline Your ear to me. (2, 3a)

The verses here are short and clipped, almost telegraphic, conveying urgency. The military references enhance the feeling that God’s help had better come sooner rather than later:
Quick, save me.
Be my stronghold of rock,
a fort-house to rescue me. (3b)

Once again, he expresses his trust in God with military metaphors:
For You are my crag and my bastion,
and for Your name’s sake guide me and lead me. (4)

Having restated his trust in God’s protection, he comes to the point of his prayer in direct, impassioned sentences. He is trapped, surrounded by enemies:
Get me out of the net that they laid for me,
for You are my stronghold. (5)

And he casts escaping from his dire situation completely on God’s response in words that read almost as a benediction:
In Your hand I commend my spirit.
You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. (6)

This is more than a foxhole prayer by someone who has forgotten about God until his moment of peril. Instead, it is a prayer by a man who knows God and trusts God. This is an ongoing relationship and it is out of that well-founded trusting relationship that he asks for God’s intervention. Unlike many psalms of supplication our psalmist is sure that God is nearby; there is no sense that the supplicant has been abandoned by God. The entire prayer is built on a foundation of trust and awareness of God’s presence. I pray that I can affirm that God is indeed the rock, the crag, the bastion in whom I trust when I come to him in prayer.

Exodus 4:1–5:9: Even though Moses has had a direct and personal encounter with God, he still feels inadequate to the task he’s been assigned, asking God almost plaintively, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” (4:1) God does a little show-and-tell with Moses staff becoming a snake and turning back to a staff again. Then a little more personally, God tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak and draw it back out, “and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow.” (6) God quickly heals his hand telling Moses, ““If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign.” (8) And for good measure, God tells Moses he can also pour water from the Nile on the ground and it will turn to blood.  These are all a foretaste of the plagues soon to be visited upon Egypt.

Even though Moses is probably now pretty convinced of God’s power, he asks to get out of the assignment by telling God about his inarticulate speech, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (10) God will have nothing of this excuse, so Moses plays his final card: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” (13). God is pretty annoyed at this point and assigns Moses’ brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece.

The lesson here is obvious: no matter how many excuses we throw up about our weaknesses or our inability to work in the Kingdom, God has a way of overcoming them—and expects us to follow his commands. We also note that there is no new excuse we can present to God that God hasn’t heard already. It’s clear that Moses pretty much ran the table of excuses and God countered each one of them. The lesson for us is when we offer an excuse, we also need to be alert to see how God will negate the excuse and give us the fortitude to go forward.

Moses asks his father-in-law, Jethro, for permission to move his household back to Egypt to which Jethro quickly agrees. The covenantal deal is sealed in blood by Moses’ wife circumcising their son and touching Moses feet with the foreskin. (Ugh.) Aaron comes to Moses and they meet with the Israeli leaders, with Aaron speaking and Moses performing the signs God had demonstrated to him. In one of the truly uplifting verses in this book, “The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” (31)

With the Israelites now united behind their new leader, Moses appears before Pharaoh and announces that God demands that the king let the Israelites go. Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh refuses, claiming to know nothing of this God character. Aaron and Moses try another gambit, asking for a three-day holiday for Israel “to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” (5:3) This request seems outrageous to Pharaoh and he turns the screws on Israel, famously telling them to make bricks without straw. He accuses the hardworking Israelites of being lazy and commands, “Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.” (5:9)

This story reminds us that oppressors are always the same: they see the oppressed as lazy and unworthy of mercy and double down in their cruelty. I’m pretty sure this story resonated strongly among the Afro-American slaves in the 19th century. And it resonates strongly with us as we see oppressed people all around the world today.

Matthew 19:13–22: Jesus once again provides his disciples—and us—with an object lesson when people bring little kids to be blessed and the disciples try to shoo them away. Jesus responds, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (14) The message is clear: everyone, no matter their age, is eligible for the kingdom. Jesus is also telling them that as a matter of fact, guys, the kingdom is much different than you think. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of what you (and we) are expecting. This “upside downness” will be borne out with increasing drama as the story proceeds.

As usual, Matthew makes an important point via the juxtaposition of his stories. Just after Jesus blesses the children, telling us we need to be like them, the rich young ruler (RYR) comes up to Jesus and asks the all-important question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Unsurprisingly, Jesus does not directly answer the question, but asks if the RYR has obeyed all the commandments. The RYR responds that he has and then Jesus tells him that is insufficient. He must go and sell everything and give it all to the poor.

Unwilling to do so, the RYR walks away sadly, foregoing the opportunity of a lifetime. The RYR’s adult hesitation is contrasted with the innocence of little children. The lesson is clear: if we cannot lose our “adultness” and our all-consuming need to remain in control and if we are unwilling to abandon everything to Jesus, we cannot be like innocent children eager to enter the Kingdom.

Alas, I am far more like the RYR wishing to retain control of my life and my possessions, unwilling to forego everything. I suspect I am not alone.

Psalm 30:6–12; Exodus 2:11–3:22; Matthew 19:1–12

Originally posted 2/25/2016—revised and updated 2/24/2018

Psalm 30:6–12: One of the greatest gifts form God that every creature enjoys is the diurnal rhythm of life. No matter what happens in a given day, the day comes to an end and we begin afresh in the morning with a new day and a fresh perspective. Our psalmist puts it beautifully:
At evening one beds down weeping,
and in morning, glad song. (6b)

We may not always wake up in “glad song,” but as we awaken it’s worth reflecting on the new day’s opportunities rather than yesterday’s trials.

There is another underlying rhythm here: the apparent presence and absence of God. When we feel God’s presence, we sing with the poet’s confidence in God’s sustaining power:
Lord, in Your pleasure
You made me stand mountain-strong. (8a)

But when we feel abandoned by God, then, “—When You hid Your face, I was stricken. (8b)

Even so, the psalmist has a good lesson here for us. Even when he felt abandoned, he continued to pray:
To You, O lord, I call,
and to the Master I plead. (9)

I know this is where I personally go astray. When I feel I’m in a spiritual desert and God is nowhere to be seen, I stop praying. Which only makes me feel more abandoned.

On the contrary, our psalmist is prayerfully persistent and asks God the same question that is asked in many psalms of supplication:
What profit in my blood,
in my going down deathward? [Great word!]
Will dust acclaim You,
will it tell Your truth? (9)

In other words, what’s your logic, God, in allowing us to die, or even feel abandoned? Dead people do not worship or acclaim God.

This raises the eternal question of theodicy, if God loves us, why does he allow bad things to happen to us? So we ask with the psalmist,
Hear Lord, and grant me grace.
Lord become a helper to me. (11)

I don’t think of God as my helper very often, but God is indeed the powerful help at the center of our lives, especially when we realize that God expresses his love through the kind actions of other people.

We come to realize that even if God does not directly answer the question, we are nevertheless able to reflect each new morning. Which means we’re still alive! And if we are alive in God, we rejoice at his transformative power:
You have turned my dirge into a dance for me
untie my sackcloth and bound me for joy. (12)

And with the psalmist, we rise and dance and sing: “O, let my heart hymn You and not be still.” (13a) May each new day be a dance rather than a dirge.

Exodus 2:11–3:22: This reading covers a lot of territory. We encounter the troubling passage where Moses, angered by the harsh beating of a fellow Hebrew, kills the Egyptian and hides the body thinking no one has seen his act. But the next day, he’s found out, not by an Egyptian but a fellow Hebrew and he flees to Midian, where he helps the daughters of the priest of Midian scare off marauding shepherds at the water trough. He’s invited to dinner, takes up residence, and shortly marries the priest’s daughter Zipporah, who bears him a son. I’m sure that at this point Moses he intended to live out his days in Midian.

Moses is living proof that you cannot escape God. Conditions in Egypt have gone from bad to worse for the Hebrews, and “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” (2:23), whom they had obviously forgotten about since the time of Joseph. God, who has apparently been silent for the past 400 years, “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (24). Really? Did God forget about the Israelites all this time? Or had the Israelites forgotten about him until their circumstances were so desperate that “their cry for help rose up to God?” I suspect the latter, since we tend to come to God only in dark times. But God is loving and “God took notice of them.” (2:24b)

As usual, God has an improbable rescue plan and he chooses an equally improbable leader to help carry it out. It’s this murdering shepherd who’s been hiding for some years off in Midian. God makes himself known in the form of a burning bush and identifies himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (3:6). Moses, aware he is experiencing a theophany hides his face in terror “for he was afraid to look at God.”

Moses’s terror does not faze God in the least, who proceeds to tell him that he’s now God’s chosen leader who will lead the Israelites out of Egypt “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (3:8) Moses, having overcome his initial fear, understandably asks why God chose him to go to Pharaoh. God speaks the words all of us facing a difficult or impossible situation wish to hear: “I will be with you.” (3:12)

This comforting answer seems to reassure him because Moses asks a question that no one in the Bible has thus far asked: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (13). God answers in what I have always felt is pretty cryptic: “I am who I am.” Nevertheless, this seems to satisfy Moses since he continues to listen as God gives him instructions of what to do.

But I’m sure God’s plan felt quite impossible to Moses. He is to suddenly reappear in Egypt, convince the Hebrew leaders that he’s not the escaped murderer they think he is, but has come directly from God and they had better listen to him. Even worse, he has to go to Pharaoh and demand that he allow Egyptian society to be ripped apart by freeing its slaves. Here, however, God promises to help him, telling Moses, “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.” (3:20) This is a good reminder that God is with us when he asks us to do the impossible. The question of course is even though God is with us are we willing to take a risk to carry out God’s work?

God certainly seems to have a sense of irony when he says “ I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed.” (3:21) ‘Favor’ toward the Hebrews was not exactly what the Egyptians were feeling when they allowed the Hebrews to depart. But then again, God promises, they’ll be free to plunder the Egyptians as they leave.

Matthew 19:1–12: We come to one of Jesus’ truly hard sayings: the question of divorce, which arises, as usual, from the Pharisees, relentless in their quest to trip him up. Jesus refers them to Genesis, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’” (4) and therefore, children leave their parents and marry because it is God’s will as Creator that the natural order of all living creation be observed: “they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (6).

The Pharisees counter that the Law allows a certificate of divorce, which allows an ‘out.’ Jesus retorts, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” (8a) but he emphasizes that it violates God’s natural created order: “from the beginning it was not so.” (8b) Which is what I think divorce is today: It is not God’s good created order, but it is allowed. And I suppose we could appy that rule to all of the other gender weirdness taking place today.

Then comes the hard part: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (9) The disciples probably know people who have divorced and they logically conclude, it is better not to marry in the first place. Jesus cuts them off by saying not everyone, e.g., eunuchs, can marry, and that his words apply only to those who can.

The Catholic church has remained steadfast on the issue of divorce and among the consequences of that steadfastness, the Anglican church came into being. Jesus knows divorce will happen, but he is also telling us that divorce (and the newly flexible gender roles) corrupts the natural order. In his words about eunuchs [welcome to my world…] I think the underlying message is that divorce will always be part of a society of fallen humans, but also that it always corrupts us further.

We have to ask ourselves what has been the consequence of divorce in American society. I think there is no question that widespread divorce has corrupted the definition of marriage itself. Just look at the growing rates of cohabitation without marriage—which in effect is exactly an answer to the disciples’ question— as well as the expanding definition of what marriage even means in terms of gender. No matter how we justify divorce, same sex marriage, and further redefinitions of marriage now occuring, there can be no argument that Jesus is right: divorce and its consequences have corrupted God’s natural created order. One more evidence of our fallenness as human beings. No matter its justification, it goes against what God had in mind for us.

Psalm 30:1–5; Exodus 1:1–2:10; Matthew 18:15–35

Originally posted 2/24/2016—revised and updated 2/23/2018

Psalm 30:1–5: This psalm’s superscription is quite specific: “Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David.” (1) First, no surprise as it announces itself as a psalm. Second, it suggests it is used at the dedication of the temple [although the temple wasn’t around in David’s time], so perhaps it was written for the dedication of an altar or something that preceded the temple. Third, it’s “for David,” i.e., not written by David, as I suspect very few psalms were.

Speaking in David’s voice the psalmist opens on a note of pure joy and thanksgiving for God’s rescue:
I shall exalt You, Lord, for You drew me up,
and You gave no joy to my enemies. (2)

Alter informs us that the phrase “drew me up” is exactly drawing water up from a well. In short, David has been rescued from the pit of death because his enemies did not succeed in their conspiracy to kill him.

Our poet also acknowledges a supplication to God which was answered:
Lord, my God,
I cried and You healed me. (3)

These are words that resonate strongly for me since I believe that God rescued me from an inevitable death from advanced cancer. I have been truly healed. The psalmist reiterates the idea of  a rescue from certain death:
Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
gave me life from those gone down to the Pit. (4)

David was rescued in what seems to be just minutes before his death. The idea of going “down to the Pit,” reminds one of the Apostle Creed’s affirmation that after he died on the cross, Jesus descended into hell, or what in the OT is called Sheol or the Pit. This psalm reflects that same descent and ascent.

For this rescue there can be only one response: worship, which is nicely summarized in verse 5:
Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful,
acclaim his holy name.

This is one of those moments when we realize that “worship” and “thanksgiving” are essentially synonyms. While there are many elements to liturgical worship including confession and the word, there’s no question that a high point is the “Great Thanksgiving” just before the words of institution. Would that we sung it more often than just saying it in unison.

Exodus 1:1–2:10: This second book of the Pentateuch, Exodus, begins by naming the 11 brothers and Joseph, in what started out as a large family (of 70!) has become in succeeding generations “fruitful and prolific” and “they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (7)

The pharaonic dynasty has changed in the intervening years and “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (8). He looks out over his empire and is exceedingly nervous about holding his grip on power. The Israeli “guests” have multiplied to the point where the Pharaoh declares, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” (9) His major concern is political as he tells his aides, “let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (10). So they enslave them, and the “Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” (13, 14a). To make sure we get the point about the Egyptians becoming the oppressors, our authors repeat themselves: “They [the Egyptians] were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” (14b) Given that this book was probably written during the Babylonian captivity, this story of Egyptian oppression would certainly have had resonance among the Jews of that time, even though that had not been enslaved by the Chaldeans.

Even as slaves the Jews continue to multiply. Pharaoh decides things have gotten out of hand the Israelite fecundity must be stopped brutally in its tracks. He orders all the Egyptian midwives to kill any Israelite boy minutes after his birth. “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” (17)

When Pharaoh challenges them on this, they reply rather cleverly that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (19). Our authors tell us, “because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (22). Realizing the midwife tactic won’t work, the Pharaoh issues an even harsher command: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” (22)

The scene shifts from the palace to the house of Levi and his wife, identified only as “a Levite woman.” [What is it with omitting the names of courageous women? Such is patriarchy, I guess.] We all know the story: the mother can no longer hide the child and builds a little ark and places it in the reedy part of the Nile. The boy’s sister watches; the Egyptian princess spots it, rescues the child and via the sister, winds up giving the child to its actual mother, who nurses and raises the child. “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.” (2:10a) And what I had not realized before, it is the Pharaoh’s daughter who “named him Moses,“because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (2:10b)  [Does this mean that the name ‘Moses’ is actually Egyptian in origin?]

In Sunday School we started right out with the story of the infant Moses set adrift in the wicker basket, conveniently omitting over the Pharaoh’s genocidal intentions.  This story, of course, is a conscious allusion to the Noah story, and Alter points out that the word used for wicker “ark” is the same as the ark of the Noah story.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to note that this is also a form of baptism; that it is in water the next great act in this story of God and his chosen people begins.  Water, which also marks major turning points in Moses’ own life, from the crossing of the Red Sea to Moses’ striking the rock, to looking at, but not crossing, the Jordan River at the end of his life.

And in the Pharaoh’s decree we see a foreshadowing of Matthew’s account of Herod demanding boy children to be killed after he hears about the nascent Messiah just born in Bethlehem. Matthew’s point being that just as Moses was rescued from certain death to save his people, so too Jesus is our rescuing Messiah.

I’m struck by the parallels to the never-ending immigration debate here today, including even the reality that Hispanic birth rates are higher than Caucasians, as we whites will eventually become a minority.  Clearly, many feel threatened by moving form majority to minority status.  I’m sure a similar rationale was used in the 19th century Antebellum south against freeing the slaves, lest they proliferate uncontrollably and overrun the white landowners.  As usual, human nature, especially when it feels threatened, has changed not a whit in thousands of years.

Matthew 18:15–35: I’ve always been puzzled by this passage about the process of dealing with someone “who sins” in the church. This whole passage seems oddly out of context, feeling much more like an insertion by Matthew, especially in light of the fact that the church of Jesus Christ did not exist while Jesus was on earth. And I suspect Jesus was not talking about temple politics here. Nevertheless, the process of meeting one-on-one to resolve an issue and if that doesn’t work then bringing a “two or three witnesses” is a pretty effective technique if handled in the name of Jesus and not as to often happens as a means of vindictiveness.

Whether or not Jesus actually said these things is really not the issue here, since this is a passage provides a useful lesson in church polity. Moreover, this section concludes with the all-important reality that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (20)

Even more important is that conflicts among Christians provides a good opportunity for Jesus to make the all-important point about our obligation to forgive: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (22)

Jesus drives the point of forgiveness home with his memorable parable of the unforgiving servant. The slave grovels and is forgiven an enormous debt by his master. But he turns around and demands a comparatively trivial amount from a fellow slave. Other slaves complain to the master, who  demands, You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ ” (32, 33) The unforgiving slave meets a bad end. The parable’s lesson is terribly clear here. Through Jesus Christ, God has forgiven us our enormous sins and we are to pay that forgiveness forward by forgiving those who sin against us.

Of course this behavior of forgiveness is enormously puzzling to those outside the church, as witness the forgiveness of the youth who killed nine people gathered for a Bible study in a church in Charleston SC. While the world beyond the church may find this behavior odd and even wrong-headed, there’s no question what our obligation as Christians is—just as it was obvious to those church members in Charleston.But it’s worth noting what Jesus left unsaid: bad acts have bad consequences. Forgiveness  is one thing. Nevertheless, the sinner must be prepared to pay the price for his wrongdoing.