Psalm 94:1–11; Joshua 14:6–15:19; Luke 14:25–32

Originally published 8/6/2016. Revised and updated 8/7/2018.

Psalm 94:1–11: Alter informs us that only here does the psalmist ascribe God as an aggressor, asking God to act against the wicked and to act now:
God of vengeance, O Lord,
God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth,
bring down on the proud requital.
” (1, 2)

Unsurprisingly, the primary sin of the wicked is pride as they lord it over the oppressed, causing our poet to plead,
How long the wicked, O Lord,
how long will the wicked exult?
 (3)

Of course the wicked believe they are beyond God’s reach and are pridefully boastful:
They utter arrogance, speak it,
all the wrongdoers bandy boasts
. (4)

These people are still among us today, believing they know it all, are above it all, and care not a whit about the impact of either their words or actions on other people. And unlike then, now they have social media to amplify their voices.

At this point our psalmist becomes more specific about the sins of the wicked. First, they care neither about other people nor the natural environment and take pains to oppress both:
Your people, O Lord, they crush,
and Your estate they abuse.
 (5)

The wicked have no qualms, even about killing others whether directly or indirectly, as the commit the most heinous crimes against the weakest among them:
Widow and sojourner they kill,
and orphans they murder.
 (6)

Even if they happen to believe in God, they nonetheless believe their actions will not be punished:
And they say, ‘Yah will not see,
and the God of Jacob will not heed.’
 (7)

In today’s world, where increasing numbers of people believe that God does not even exist, the idea of obeying God’s commands or experiencing the dire consequences of disobedience feels oddly quaint. Rather, it’s all about trumpeting and acting on individual rights, regardless of the impact on others. I’m pretty sure this psalmist would have written exactly these lines had he been writing in 21st century America.

The wicked among us may believe they are exempt from God’s punishment, but our psalmist knows better as he warns them:
Take heed, you brutes in the people,
and you fools, when will you be wise?
 (8)

God is on to to their tricks and their actions because he is Creator:
Who plants the ear, will He not hear?
Who fashions the eye, will he not look?
 (9)

What makes us think we can get away with it? Pride and a belief we are responsible to no one.

Above all, as our creator, knows all too well the wiles of the wicked:
The Lord knows human designs,
that they are mere breath.
 (11)

No matter how clever the wicked may think they are, their plans and conspiracies are “mere breath,” and will be blown apart when God turns his attention to them. In short, there are always consequences. But our perception and that of the poet’s as he asks “How long?” in verse 3, it sometimes it seems that God takes an awfully long time to act against the wicked. But act he will.

Joshua 14:6–15:19: Caleb, the other spy with Joshua 45 years previously, who reported that Canaan was ripe for invasion, resurfaces here as he reminds Joshua about the promise Moses made so many years ago: “I wholeheartedly followed the Lord my God. And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever.” (14:8,9) He’s now 85 years old and asserts, “I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war, and for going and coming.” (14:11). Caleb is certainly no wallflower, coming to Joshua and asking for an unspecified favor. Rather, he knows exactly what he wants and demands it: “So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day.” (12)

Joshua complies, and our authors, writing many years later, observe, “So Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholeheartedly followed the Lord, the God of Israel.” (14:14). The lesson for us is clear: if we wholeheartedly follow God, we can ask directly for what we believe is ours. Jesus makes this point later when he says, “Ask and you will receive.”

An interlude of county hall-of-records description of the land given to the tribe of Judah follows. The territory that Judah appears to be quite extensive, stretching all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The parenthetical insertions giving the modern names as e.g., “the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem)” (15:8) and “Mount Jearim (that is, Chesalon)” (15:10)  suggest that our authors were descendants of the tribe of Judah and they are certainly proof that they were writing many years later. I suppose it’s also worth noting that this land became the majority of the Southern Kingdom of Israel, aka Judea.

Following this textual interruption, we return to the story of Caleb occupying his territory and driving out its inhabitants. He’s successful in a couple of places, but is clearly having trouble with one city as he promises,“Whoever attacks Kiriath-sepher and takes it, to him I will give my daughter Achsah as wife.” (15:16) Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, does so and is rewarded with Achsah as his new wife.

Clearly, Achsah has inherited her father’s forthrightness, and tells her husband to ask his father-in-law for a field. Then, separately, she encounters Caleb, who asks, “What do you wish?” (15:18) We sense her irritation at being forced to live in the Negev desert and she loses no time in demanding,“Give me a present; since you have set me in the land of the Negeb, give me springs of water as well.” (15:19) Caleb immediately complies. The daughter has certainly inherited her father’s forthrightness.

Luke 14:25–32: This is truly one of the hard sayings of Jesus: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (26). And just to make sure we get the point, he reiterates, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (27) It’s difficult to rationalize around this obvious priority that Jesus is demanding of us. Attempts at part time or half-hearted discipleship is not discipleship at all. As one pastor once put it in her sermon, either we’re “all in” or we aren’t. Discipleship is a binary proposition.

However, it’s worth noting that Jesus is not asking for blind, unthinking discipleship. Rather, before deciding to become his disciple, we must sit down and evaluate the cost of that discipleship. Just as the man building a tower needs to be fully funded or a king going to war needs to determine “whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand.” (31)

When I sit down and think through discipleship and reflect on my own priorities it’s pretty clear that I’m not the disciple Jesus demands.

Psalm 93; Joshua 13:8–14:5; Luke 14:7–24

Originally published 8/5/2016. Revised and updated 8/6/2018.

Psalm 93: This brief but beautifully evocative psalm celebrates God as king of all creation. The psalmist wastes no time in getting to his theme with the interesting image of what God wears metaphorically:
The Lord reigns, in triumph clothed,
clothed is the Lord, in strength He is girded.
 (1a)

God is eternal, older than even the earth itself:
Your throne stands firm from of old,
from forever You are.
 (2)

What a great way to describe eternity: “from forever You are.”

As occurs many times in the Psalms, flowing water represents the power of nature. It speaks in its rushing energy, growing ever louder:
The streams lifted up, O Lord,
the streams lifted their voice,
the streams lift up their roaring.
 (3)

But God is even greater than the powerful waves of the ocean:
More than the sound of many waters,
the sea’s majestic breakers,
majestic on high is the Lord.
” (4)

Following this introduction that celebrates God’s grandeur, our poet turns to the relationship between God and Israel. God, who is more majestic than all of creation, is the same God who has given Israel the Law, which is what gives the nation its moral order:
Your statutes are very faithful.” (5a).

Even better, God dwells among the people of Israel, specifically at the temple in Jerusalem as our poet returns to the theme of God’s eternality:
Holiness suits Your house.
The Lord is for all time.” (5b)

This psalm reminds me that the God who loves me, and with whom I have a relationship, is greater—far greater—than the power of nature and greater than anything I can imagine. He truly is “from forever”— pace infinitely beyond what my feeble imagination can even comprehend.

Joshua 13:8–14:5: The book turns from military narrative to county hall-of-records, as Joshua performs his final task: the detailed allocation of conquered lands to the 12 tribes of Israel. This record is valuable because it creates as firm sense that unlike many of the surrounding tribes and nations when this book was written, Israel’s roots are not mythical; they are grounded quite specifically in the land itself.

We are again reminded that the tribe of Levi is set apart: “To the tribe of Levi alone Moses gave no inheritance; the offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their inheritance, as he said to them.” (13:14)

The authors then turn to describing the tribal land grants. First up are the tribes that elected to reside on the east side of the Jordan: Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe (always an amusing concept) of Manasseh.

Next up will be the allotment of conquered land west of the Jordan River to the remaining tribes. Once again, our authors—whom I’m presuming to be priests from the tribe of Levi—remind us: “but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.” (14:3) I can’t quite figure out if they are angry about being left out or feel they are special in God’s eyes and therefore deserving of the respect due form the other tribes. Perhaps it is a mixture of both feelings.

IN any event, given these historical roots it’s easy to see why modern day Israel clings so fiercely to the land it conquered and the portions of the West Bank it still occupies. The present day tension between Israel and Palestine goes back more than three millennia and unlikely too be resolved by clever diplomacy.

Luke 14:7–24: Jesus provides sound social advice for guests who have been invited to dinner where there is a rigid hierarchy of seating: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.” (8) Should someone of higher rank show up, both host and guest are placed in an embarrassing position. Therefore, Jesus advises, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (10)

As is always the case, Jesus’ point is much larger than the psychology of social convention as he reminds us in his famous statement, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (11) [This is advice that a certain president would do well to put into practice, but alas, we don’t see much evidence of that happening…]

Luke’s Jesus—perhaps more than in any other gospel—is concerned with the lower rungs of society: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (13) Aid to the less fortunate is of course a prominent running theme of the Old Testament, so even though Jesus’ words may appear radical, they are not. It’s great to know that some at Saint Matthew have put Jesus’ advice about banquet-giving into practice by offering a weekly banquet to the homeless of Walnut Creek and churches here in Madison provide food to those who have little.

As usual, Luke weaves in one of Jesus’ more famous parables: the story of the great banquet to whom many prominent people have been invited. Each invitee finds his excuse not to attend. Upon learning this news, the host is incensed and orders his slave to “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (21) Even then, places at table are not filled, so the slave is ordered to go even further: “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” (23)

The invited guests of the parable are Israel. The poor, crippled, and blind are Gentiles. And there’s a missionary sense here that we see expressed later in the Great Commission when Jesus’s host commands his slave to go far afield into the roads and lanes. The parable ends with Jesus’ rather chilling statement, “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” (24) Which I take to be the Jews for whom Jesus came but who rejected him.

Once again we have a dramatic indication that the Kingdom of God is going to be rather different than the revolution Jesus’ followers, including even his disciples, are expecting. Of course this all seems obvious to us sitting here on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d been listening to Jesus relate this parable alongside his followers I’d be just as clueless as they, thinking it was an interesting but rather weird story.

Psalm 92:10–16; Joshua 12:1–13:7; Luke 13:31–14:6

Originally published 8/4/2016. Revised and updated 8/4/2018

Psalm 92:10–16: Our psalmist, barely able to disguise his glee, writes how God’s enemies receive their just desserts as God looks on:
For, look, Your enemies, O Lord,
for, look, Your enemies perish.,
all the wrongdoers are scattered
. (10)

Alongside God, our poet witnesses their destruction as well:
And my eyes behold my foes’ defeat,
those hostile toward me, my ears hear their fall.
 (12)

Unlike the enemies, who are ephemeral grass that withers and dies, the righteous man, i.e., the psalmist and his like, are metaphorically deep-rooted trees that reach to heaven:
The righteous man springs up like the palm tree,
like the Lebanon cedar he towers.
 (13)

Trees are of course immovable; they grow where they are planted. And these magnificent trees grow in just one place:
Planted in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of our God they flourish.
 (14)

There is a masculine virility in the nature of this flourishing:
They bear fruit still in old age,
fresh and full of sap they are.
 (15)

The message is clear: even in our old age we remain “fresh and full of sap” when we are “planted” near God. And even in old age we bear glad witness to what God has done for us:
to tell that the Lord is upright,
my rock, there is no wrong in him.
 (16)

How much better it is to be God’s tree—our lives planted firmly near him— than withering grass that denies the reality of God—and then dies without hope.

Joshua 12:1–13:7: Our authors provide a complete summary of the territory and associated kings “whom the Israelites defeated, whose land they occupied beyond the Jordan toward the east, from the Wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon, with all the Arabah eastward.” (12:1) Ever striving for accuracy, the authors are careful give Moses credit for the territory on the east side of the Jordan River that became “a possession to the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (6) recounted in Deuteronomy before Israel crossed over the river.

Had Joshua been an English or American general, the list of 16 kings whom Joshua and the Israelite army defeated that follows (12:9-24) would probably have been engraved on a bronze tablet at the Joshua Memorial. (Maybe there is such a thing!) But even better—and perhaps as our authors intended—Joshua is immortalized in the Bible such that we read of his glorious victories some three millennia later.

Despite these excellent victories, the job of conquering Canaan nevertheless remains incomplete. God makes this clear to the aging Joshua: “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.” (13:1) The authors, speaking in God’s voice, go on to list the lands of the Philistines and Canaanites yet to be conquered.  God promises to do the clean-up required himself: “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites.” (13:6)

As we will read later, this incomplete task will create substantial problems for Israel in the years to come as the Israelites intermarry with the Canaanites and worse, take up their idolatrous religious practices, turning away from the One True God. Nevertheless, Joshua’s final task as Israel’s leader is to divide Canaan “for an inheritance to the nine tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh.” (13:7) Details of each tribe’s allocation to follow…

Luke 13:31–14:6: As we’ve read earlier, Jesus’ activities in Galilee have come to the attention of Herod. Now, “some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” (31) [It’s interesting to note that the people who warned Jesus were Pharisees; apparently not every Pharisee was hostile to Jesus.] As usual, Jesus’ response is at once both clear and veiled: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” (32) The reference to the third day can be both the actual third day from the time Jesus receives this warning—or, more likely, it can be a reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day.

His comments notwithstanding, Jesus takes the Pharisee’s warning seriously, but not for the reason we’d expect. Instead, he says, “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what the ultimate response in Jerusalem—an obvious reference to its religious leaders— will be. He laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (34) It seems that not only does Jesus know his fate based on the fate of the prophets that preceded him, but he also knows the fate of destruction that will ultimately befall Jerusalem itself.

As is Luke’s wont, he weaves prophecy and parable in with Jesus’ healing. But the healings are never random; they always serve to illuminate Jesus’ radical mission. Here, he is at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath.” (14:1a) Luke observes that the Pharisees “were watching him carefully” (14:1b), presumably to catch him in any theological error or bad practice.

A man with severe edema appears, but Jesus does not heal him immediately. Rather, he poses the sabbath question as binary two-alternative forced choice question: “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” (14:3) The answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But no Pharisee is willing to answer. Jesus heals the man, sends him on his way, and again asks, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” (14:5) Again, he is met with stony silence.

Jesus’ logic seems so obvious and compelling. Why wouldn’t any of the several Pharisees there at dinner answer him? I think the reason is obvious: to answer would have meant admitting that they were wrong. It’s a clear demonstration that pharisaical pride was incredibly strong. Just as our own pride keeps us silent when we hear something whose answer is so compelling and true that we fear that by answering our entire edifice of faulty logic will come crumbling down around us. And we will look like the fools we actually are. That’s the problem with Jesus: he forces us to examine ourselves. And when we do that honestly we see a prideful, sinful self—someone we’d rather not admit we are. And too often, we take the easy road of denial and remaining silent.

Psalm 92:1–9; Joshua 10:29–11:23; Luke 13:18–30

Originally published 8/3/2016; Revised and updated 8/3/2018

Psalm 92:1–9: This hymn celebrates God’s eternal power as the centerpiece of worship and as in many psalms, the subject of the hymn is God’s two overriding qualities of kindness and faithfulness:
It is good to acclaim the Lord
and to hymn to Your name, Most High
to tell in the morning Your kindness,
Your faithfulness in the nights,
on ten-stringed instrument and on the lute,
on the lyre with chanted sound.
 (2-4)

In fact, the psalmist assets, our fundamental purpose as God’s created beings is to worship him:
For You made me rejoice, Lord, through Your acts,
of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.
” (5)

Following this introduction, the psalm turns to the contrast between the depth of God’s works as over against those of the wicked who inevitably seem successful. What we know of God is but a scintilla of his actual being:
How great Your works, O Lord,
Your designs are very deep
. (6)

I think we should reflect at length on this couplet. Rather than being like the psalmist who accepts God’s unknowable depth, we tend to spend too much time trying to figure out God and why he does certain things but fails (in our eyes, anyway) to do other things. It’s all a futile effort. As the psalmist tells us, we should but bask in his kindness and faithfulness.

The psalmist compares God’s depth against the superficiality of the wicked:
The brutish man does not know,
nor does the fool understand this:
 (7)

And what is ‘this?’ It is the sheer brevity of our existence. While we’d like to think the wicked are the ones who live on successfully, our psalmist reminds us that
the wicked spring up like grass,
and all the wrongdoers flourish—
to be destroyed for all time
. (8)

The wicked are metaphorically grass that grows high and seems to be taking over the earth, but then is mowed down—or as the case in California, is destroyed by fire. By contrast, God is everlasting:
And You are on high forever, O Lord.
…for, look, Your enemies perish,

all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (9, 10)

In this era of seeing the rich and powerful enjoy their success and set up foundations by which they attempt to be remembered, we know their efforts are merely ephemeral. Only God endures.

Joshua 10:29–11:23: The authors present us a catalog of Israel’s military successes under Joshua’s leadership.

  • Libnah
  • Lachish
  • Gezer
  • Eglon
  • Hebron
  • Debir

These battles in which there are no survivors ensure that “Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (10:40)

With the southern portions of Canaan defeated, Joshua turns his attention to the north. These armies—”the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites in the hill country, and the Hivites under Hermon in the land of Mizpah.” (11:3)—are far more powerful than the ragtag bands they defeated in the south. The kings unite as a single force and form “a great army, in number like the sand on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots.” (11:4)

We sense Joshua’s and Israel’s potential discouragement when they see the size and strength of the army they now have to fight, “the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel; you shall hamstring their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.” (11:6)

Despite the strength of the forces arrayed against them, they are victorious: “all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded.” (11:12) Success is clearly the result of obedience, as the authors note: “As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” (11:15)

The remainder of the chapter summarizes Joshua’s conquests: “There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle.” (11:19) As always, our authors give all credit to God being on their side: “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (11:20)

The taking of Canaan is complete; it is now wholly Israel’s “And the land had rest from war.” (11:23)

So, do these descriptions of battles fought and won reflect actual history? Inasmuch as Israel came to occupy the land, there’s no question Israel conquered Canaan at some point—although it’s not impossible that Joshua’s exploits are more fiction than fact. What we have to question is God’s involvement, which frankly I take as a later addition inserted by the victors to make sure everyone knew that God was on their side. We see traces of this even today when we hear of “American exceptionalism” and with every politician’s empty rhetoric including the shopworn phrase, “God bless America.”

Luke 13:18–30: Luke turns his attention to Jesus’ parables that describe the qualities of the Kingdom of God. In the parable of the mustard seed that grows from barely visible seed to giant bush, Jesus predicts the growth of the kingdom into something great. Which is certainly what happened to the church in the first centuries of its existence. To emphasize his point about growth, he then compares the Kingdom to yeast that causes bread to expand.

Although the Kingdom will grow, it will not include everyone, and especially one nation in particular. Obviously, this question of who is very much on the mind of Jesus’ followers, as “Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” (23) As he does so many times, Jesus uses metaphor to remind us that the Kingdom is not entered into casually or half-heartedly. Entrance is “through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” (24) He goes on to emphasize this exclusivity, implying that at the end of history, many will “knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” (25)

Jesus makes it clear that the one who will be knocking but not admitted is Israel itself: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” (28)  Luke’s Jesus tells us quite clearly that the people who will be populating the Kingdom are Gentiles: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (29) The Jews, who despise the Gentiles, and see themselves as God’s chosen people, will lose their pride of place. Worse, those whom they despised will be the ones entering the kingdom as Jesus utters the final damning answer to the question of who will occupy the Kingdom: “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (30)

The question is, of course, are we like the Jews of Jesus time or are we willing to enter through the narrow gate of Jesus Christ himself?

Psalm 91:9–16; Joshua 10:1–28; Luke 13:1–17

Originally published 8/2/2016; Revised and updated 8/2/2018

Psalm 91:9–16: Our psalmist continues with his theme of God as protection and shelter:
For you—the Lord is your refuge,
[in] the Most High you have made your abode
. (9)

As Christians, we talk about the love of God, but it is usually in pretty abstract terms. Here, the metaphor of God as a refuge or a house [abode] suggests a much more tangible relationship. After all, without our houses to live in we would be exposed to all sorts of discomforts and dangers.

God is not only refuge, he is protection:
No harm will befall you,
nor affliction draw near to your tent
. (10)

Obviously, life is full of affliction and harm, but I think the poet’s intent here is that only in the arms of God will we find succor.

The question is, do we just talk about the love of God and when bad things happen to us? Why do we forget about God and try to solve the problem on our own? Or, if we are pursued by a disease or an addiction, do we truly seek out God as a refuge rather than a mere philosophical construct?

Our psalmist goes on to describe the role of guardian angels in our lives:
For His messengers He charges for you
to guard you on all your ways.
On their palms they lift you up
lest your foot be bruised by a stone
. (11, 12)

I happen to believe that not all guardian angels are supernatural beings. I’m sure each of us can recall a time when another person came alongside us and protected us from some dire consequence. God’s messengers not only bring protection, they bring the courage to take risks:
On lion and viper you tread,
you trample young lion and serpent
. (13)

But to enjoy this protection there is one big requirement: that we turn toward God, whose voice we now hear:
For Me he desired and I freed him.
I raised him high, for he has known My name. 
(14)

It is when we turn to God and desire to know his name that the reality of God’s presence becomes apparent. Even in the darkest times, there is always God’s promise of response to which we can cling:
He calls Me and I answer him,
I am with him in his straits.
I deliver him and grant him honor.
 (15)

So, with promises such as that why do we so rarely turn toward God and cry out for his rescue when we are in trouble? Or why we fail to recognize the guardian angels in our lives? It all boils down to our pride that causes us to think that by exercising our own feeble control we can do a better job than God or the angels he sends to protect us.

Joshua 10:1–28: The five kings of the Amorites, including King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem, develop a strategy to attack Gibeon, assuming (correctly) that Israel will have to defend them. The Gibeonites hear of this and go to Joshua, pleading “Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites …are gathered against us.” (6) Joshua complies and on his way to battle, God reassures to him, “Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.” (8).

It’s one thing for God to speak encouragingly, but our authors make sure that we understand how God was personally involved in this battle. First, God is given credit for creating panic and confusion among the Amorites. Next, “As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died.” (11). Finally, Joshua shouts toward heaven, Sun, stand still at Gibeon,/and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” (12). God promptly answers, causing the sun to apparently stand still in the sky.

My own take on these events—God-inspired panic, stones from heaven, and the sun standing still—is that God never acts against his own laws of physics. That the “rocks from heaven” was doubtless a natural event, probably a landslide in that rocky land. As for the sun standing still, we have all experienced different perceptions of the passage of time, so that it seems as if time speeds up or slows down. 

[There’s an intriguing reference to Joshua’s prayer for God to make the sun stand still: “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.” (13b) One wonders how many ancient books there were that are now irretrievably lost to us.]

During that long day when the sun seemed to stand still, Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, wipes out the Amorites. Only the five conspiring kings remain as they were captured and held in a cave. Joshua calls for the kings to be brought before him.

He calls his “chiefs of the warriors who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.”” (24). This symbolic act of victory over vanquished is carried out and Joshua, as an object lesson to his generals, gives all credit to God : “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight.” (25). Then Joshua himself kills the five kings and has them hung on five trees until sunset.

It’s impossible to read these passage without revulsion. I’m sure that a battle like the one described here doubtless took place. But I have to believe also that the authors—in keeping with the reality that it is victors who write the histories—have retrospectively added all the narrative details about God’s intervention. After all, we all seem to have a natural inclination to believe God’s on our side and that our actions—especially in war—are therefore justified. In any event, this is certainly among the more creative historical accounts brought to us by these authors.

Luke 13:1–17: Jesus is many things, but he is assuredly no romantic. His hard-headed realism comes across in his bluntness. Asked about some executed Galileans, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (2) Answering his own question he assures his listeners that they are just as great sinners as those who were killed. He then refers to another current event—the collapse of the tower of Siloam where 18 perished—telling us that bad things such as natural  and manmade disasters happen. The real issue is the state of our souls. Have we repented before something bad happens to us?

To make his point about the state of our souls, he tells the parable of the fig tree, which has been barren for three years and the owner wishes to cut down, but the gardener begs to tend it one more year to see if it bears fruit. If not, he agrees to cut it down after the fourth year.

At first read this parable seems to be a non-sequitur. But I think the symbolism is clear. The fig tree is Israel, whom God planted but is certainly not bearing fruit in terms of truly repenting for its sins. The gardener is Jesus, who symbolically is busy tilling soil and adding fertilizer. The question is, will Israel repent? Since Luke is doubtless writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, we know the outcome of the story. Even though Jesus came and tended it, the tree of Israel was cut down.

As is Luke’s habit, he turns from hard truths to healing. This time it’s the crippled woman, who has been been bent over for 18 years (another 18 in this passage!). Jesus heals her and is promptly taken to task by the Pharisees who object to healings occurring on the Sabbath. Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, much to the delight of the crowd.

For me, the issue is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that this incident illustrates just how clearly the Pharisees and leaders were focused on the forms of religiosity rather than on the needs of suffering human beings. Of course we are all Pharisees today when we focus on forms of worship or rules such as excluding gay people from church. As I’ve observed many times, human nature is pretty immutable, which is why these passages still resonate so strongly for me.

 

Psalm 91:1–8; Joshua 8:30–9:27; Luke 12:49–59

Originally published 8/1/2016; Revised and updated 8/1/2018

Psalm 91:1–8: This magnificent psalm, which celebrates God’s all-encompassing protection, includes one of the most famous lines in the entire Psalms:
I say of the Lord, ‘My refuge and bastion,
            my God in whom I trust.’” (2)

The idea of God as trustworthy protector must have been a radical concept in an era when surrounding cultures worshipped and sacrificed even their children in their futile attempts to propitiate their terrorizing small-g gods.

Our poet’s God is everything small-g gods are not: shelter, protection, truth. Metaphorically like an eagle, God is protector because he is truth:
With His pinion He shelters you,
and beneath His wings you take refuge.
A shield and a buckler, His truth.” (4)

Our psalmist is not content to say merely that God is his protector and leave it at that. Rather, he goes on to provide examples of this protection by using marvelous contrasts that demonstrate the enormous extent and quality of God’s shelter and how it eliminates fear.  First, there is protection from enemies, real and imagined:
You shall not fear from the terror of the night
nor from the arrow that flies by day,
 (5).

And there is protection from disease:
…from the plague that stalks in darkness
nor from the scourge that rages at noon
. (6)

Even when surrounded by disaster, God, in whose voice our poet is now writing, remains our faithful protector in the famous line:
Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand
you it will not reach. 
(7)

And, unlike so many psalms of supplication, which bemoan the apparent success of the wicked, here is God’s promise that the wicked will not prevail in the end:
You but look with your eyes,
and the wicked’s requital you see
. (8)

In other words, those enemies will get what’s what they so richly deserve.

These verses have brought encouragement to all who suffer down through the age, Simply reciting the words of these opening verses is a both a reminder that God loves us and is a healing balm to our fearful souls.

Joshua 8:30–9:27: Joshua is not only the political and military leader of Israel, he has replaced Moses as its spiritual leader as well. Having conquered two cities—Jericho and Ai—Israel enjoys a brief respite as Joshua fulfills God’s command to Moses inscribe the Law on “the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written.” (9:32). Were these simply the Decalogue or the seemingly endless details of the law that consume most of the book of Deuteronomy? I prefer to think it was simply the Decalogue. Otherwise it would be an awful lot of carving!

This task of renewing the Covenant is performed in front of all “Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” (33a) As God had commanded Moses, half of the population stood “in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal.” (33b)

Joshua reads “all the words of the law, blessings and curses,” (34) which this time I take to be the entirety of Deuteronomy because our authors make sure to inform us that “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel.“(35) This would amount to a several hour sermon, through which the people stood. No comfy pews for them…

Most of the tribes inhabiting Canaan become allies and “gathered together with one accord to fight Joshua and Israel.” (9:2) The exception is the Gibeonites, who try a cunning ruse. They dress in worn-out clothes and sandals and come to Joshua, saying, “We have come from a far country; so now make a treaty with us.” (9:6) They bamboozle the leaders, including Joshua. The leaders “did not ask direction from the Lord.” (14)  and fall for the ruse. Israel concludes a treaty with them only to find out they live in the neighborhood, just a three-day journey away.

However, there’s not much Israel can do since “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we must not touch them.” (19) So they let them live and “became hewers of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, as the leaders had decided concerning them.” (21)

This is the first thread that will lead to the unraveling of God’s command to destroy all of Canaan’s inhabitants. Done in by a clever trick. But I’m relieved to know that an oath sworn to God trumps military action and killing people. And my sympathies tend to go with the Gibeonites, who deserve some credit for their cleverness.

Luke 12:49–59: Jesus gives a fire and brimstone sermon—which is more than mere metaphor:  I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (49) Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (51). My take on the harshness of these words is that Jesus’ audience is not the usual hoi polloi, but certainly Pharisees, Sadducees, and other officials. Needless to say, this division is exactly what happens in the early church—as Paul so vividly describes in letter after letter—and it’s certianly the case today. I’m also pretty sure that Jesus’ words resonated within Luke’s community as well since we have already seen Luke hinting at dissension.

True Christianity is too often mistakenly seen by outsiders as a “religion of peace.”  But it is much more than that. Jesus makes it clear that following him will divide families:
father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (53)

Just as it has divided communities and nations throughout history.

Nevertheless, Jesus excoriates his audience for not “getting it” about the real impact of his message and his presence on earth: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (56) And that is true today, even though many Christians think it’s all about interpreting current events as indicators of end times. It has always been “end times.” Ever since Jesus was here.

Finally, Jesus suggests working out disagreements among each other, advising against litigation: “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right.” Involving the formal legal system is all too likely to have negative consequences: “when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison.” (58)

If nothing else, avoiding litigation  saves money by not having to pay lawyers or bribe judges: “I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (59)

There is certainly nothing gentle about Jesus and his impact on history. And I can’t say he was all that happy with the legal system, which was abusively used against him at his own “trial.” Even Pilate saw that.

Psalm 90; Joshua 8:1–29; Luke 12:35–48

Originally published 7/30/2016. Revised and updated 7/31/2018

Psalm 90: This is the only psalm attributed as a “prayer of Moses, man of God.” Perhaps inspired by the fact that even though Moses is Israel’s greatest prophet, he was also a mortal being.  The psalm is a reflection on the eternity of God as over against the brief lifespan of we humans:
For a thousand years in Your eyes
are like yesterday gone,
like a watch in the night.
You engulf them with sleep.
In the morn they are like grass that passes,
by evening it withers and dies
.” (4-6)

As far as our poet is concerned, our relationship with God is rather fraught:
For we are consumed in Your wrath,
and in Your fury we are dismayed
. (7)

We can hide nothing about ourselves, neither our thoughts nor our actions, from God, who exposes everything about us to the light:
You have set our transgressions before You,
our hidden faults in the light of Your face.
 (8)

For me, the centerpiece of the psalm is its most famous lines: “The days of our years are but seventy years,
and if in great strength, eighty years.
  (10a)

As I live now in my eighth decade here on earth, this line has special resonance, just as it did for my friend, Verl, who made it to 81 years. I will never again read these lines without thinking of him.

As anyone who has reached this age knows, we cannot but agree with the poet’s almost existential observation about the years of our life:
their pride is trouble and grief,
for swiftly cut down, we fly off.
” (10b)

But are all our years really nothing more than “trouble and grief?” For the poet they have been because he has been out of relationship with an angry God:
Who can know the strength of your wrath?
As the fear of You is Your anger
. (11)

For him, God is not only angry but absent:
Come back, O Lord! How long?
— and have pity on Your servants.
” (13)

The poem concludes with supplication, asking God to return and to “Sate us in the morn with Your kindness,/ let us sing and rejoice all our days.” (14)  But overshadowing all is the poet’s desperate wish is for God’s anger to subside:
And may the sweetness of the Master our God be upon
and the work of our hands firmly found for us.
 (17)

How grateful I am to know that through Jesus Christ we are firmly in God’s love. Our years may be long and our sufferings many, but unlike the psalmist we do not have to plead to an angry God to remember us—evanescent humans that we are. We will never be forgotten.

Joshua 8:1–29: Having learned its collective lesson about the consequences wrought upon an entire nation by the disobedient actions of a single man, Joshua and his army return to Ai. God is playing the role of general as he pronounces the precise strategy Joshua is to use: “Set an ambush against the city, behind it.” (2) Joshua expands on this by the ruse of having the people who are with him march toward Ai and then, “When they come out against us, as before, we shall flee from them.” (6) As far as the men of Ai are concerned, this is simply another Israelite annoyance that, as before, will be easily defeated. However, when all the warriors are out of the city, “you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city; for the Lord your God will give it into your hand.” (7)

The ruse works perfectly: “When the king of Ai saw this, he and all his people, the inhabitants of the city, hurried out early in the morning to the meeting place facing the Arabah to meet Israel in battle; but he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city.” (14)

As far as our authors are concerned, God is fully engaged in this battle and is giving rather detailed orders to Joshua: “the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.”” (18) Joshua does so and Ai is invaded and set afire. The men of Ai look back and realize they “had no power to flee this way or that,” (20) Joshua continues to hold his sword aloft until “he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.” (26) Only the king remains alive and is brought to Joshua and promptly hanged. Ai and its 12,000 inhabitants are utterly destroyed and is reduced to “a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

So, what do we make of this militaristic God who commands the death of thousands besides squirm uncomfortably? My own take on these battles is that they are doubtless based on some historical oral tradition, but that writing hundreds of years later, the authors have firmly inserted God into the story to become part of the national myth that God was on Israel’s side—as long as it obeyed him. Which seems to be the overarching theme of this book.

Luke 12:35–48: Jesus tells the rather puzzling parable of the faithful slaves, noting, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.” (37) He then states that “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” (39) This is obviously self-referential as he concludes, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (40) In short, Israel’s messiah will come from a completely unexpected direction and as events will demonstrate, the nation is completely unprepared for the manner in which the messiah—the Son of Man—arrives and his nature as suffering servant rather than triumphant king.

Peter understandably asks if this parable is meant for Jesus’ inner circle or for public consumption. As usual, Jesus’ answer is ambiguous as he asks, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves?” To me, he seems to be referring to the church—or at least communities of the faithful, such as the one Luke is writing to—after Jesus has gone from them. As always, it’s about working in the Kingdom, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (43) Which I will take here as the implied command for all of us who claim to be in the church. We are not just hangers-on; we are to be workers advancing the kingdom..

Jesus seems to anticipate that some of the “slaves” will take advantage of the master’s absence: “if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,…[the master] will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful.” (46) I wonder if this (to me , anyway) rather superfluous addition is an explicit warning to someone in Luke’s community that is creating dissension? I’m pretty sure we don;t want to folow this example as a means of church discipline!

Nevertheless, there’s no question that intentionality and responsibility play a role here. If a slave has been misled inadvertently by his leaders, his punishment will be light. But the “slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.” (47) This seems to be a clear indication that those in leadership positions within the Kingdom—the church—bear a greater responsibility that the hoi polloi. As Jesus famously puts it, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (48)

So, when someone takes on a leadership the in the church such as pastor, he or she bears a greater responsibility to work in the kingdom and to treat those who are led fairly and responsibly.

Psalm 89:39–46; Joshua 5,6; Luke 12:13–21

Originally published 7/28/2016. Revised and updated 7/28/2018.

Psalm 89:39–46: Once again, our poet changes directions, returns to writing in his own voice as he hurls imprecations to this same God, who depsite his promise to maintain the Davidic dynasty, appears to have betrayed his everlasting covenant:
And You [i.e. God], abandoned and spurned,
You were furious with Your anointed.
You canceled the pact of Your servant,
You profaned his crown on the ground.
” (39, 40)

The reason for this anger appears to be that the nation of Israel has been defeated in battle and thus has become a laughingstock to its neighbors (‘face’ being all important in the hierarchy of nations then, as it is today):
You [God] turned his [Israel’s] forts into rubble.
All passers-by plundered him,
he became a disgrace to his neighbors.
” (41, 42)

There has also been cowardice on the part of Israel’s army, for which the psalmist also blames God:
You also turned back his sword’s flint
and did not make him stand up in the battle. (44)

David’s throne, i.e, his dynastic successors, has therefore been ended for all time:
You put an end to his [Israel’s] splendor,
and his throne You hurled to the ground.
You cut short the days of his prime.

you enveloped him with shame. (45)

This passage exposes the psalmist’s deep bitterness at God’s apparent betrayal of an eternal contract with Israel through David. But so far he is only bemoaning God’s seeming abandonment as he shakes his poetic fist at a God. The trajectory of this psalm beautifully encapsulates the sense of betrayal that we all feel when it seems God, who has promised to always be with us, has somehow turned the tables and abandoned us—or worse. But like the psalmist here, we do not explore the root causes for that seeming abandonment. We only shake our fist in anger and frustration.

Joshua 5,6: Having crossed over the Jordan, word has spread to the inhabitants of Canaan that Israel comes with a special power and they “heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them.”  (5:1) It would appear that many surrendered to Israel without a battle. Suddenly, God interrupts the action, demanding that every male in Israel be circumcised because the generation born on the road in the wilderness had not been circumcised. Joshua and we presume, the Levites carry out this activity, rendering the entire army of Israel inactive as “they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed.” (5:8) Ouch.  They then celebrate Passover in Canaan and “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” (5:12)

The mass circumcision and the Passover in Canaan is the clear bookend marking the end of the journey out of  Egypt. Israel is now a nation and no longer a wandering people.

In an eerie replay of Moses’ burning bush experience, Joshua “looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.” (13) Joshua asks if he’s friend or foe, but the person announces himself as “as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” At which point “Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” (5:14). Once again sandals are removed because Joshua is standing on holy ground. The authors of the book of Joshua are reminding us here that Joshua has been fully commissioned as Israel’s leader by God himself and that his subsequent actions are authoritative and indeed those willed by God.

The first action is the unique “battle of Jericho,” of Sunday School fame as the army of Israel marches around the city walls. For the first six days it’s just one circumnavigation with just trumpets. As for the inhabitants of Jericho, I’m guessing there was probably first puzzlement then derision as they laughed at this apparently pointless activity. Lulled into ignoring what was happening outside their walls, they were surely surprised on the seventh day when Israel marches around seven times and then all hell breaks loose as all Israel shouts and the walls collapse.

Only Rahab and her family are rescued as every inhabitant and animal is put to the sword.

So, is the battle of Jericho history or myth or both? That there was a battle is doubtless historical. That it happened exactly this way is more problematic. But regardless, the psychological impact on all Canaan was profound: “So the Lord was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land.” (6:27) The stage has been fully set for the subjugation of Canaan by Israel.

Luke 12:13–21: Someone asks Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (13) Jesus refuses the request but takes the opportunity to speak to the issue of greed and wealth. Jesus words had resonance in his day—and even greater resonance now: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (15)

While many of Jesus’ parables are symbolic and puzzling, there’s not much ambiguity surrounding this story of the wealthy man.  His crops produce so abundantly that he decides to “pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” (18) But it is not his wealth that leads to the man’s downfall. It is prideful hubris: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” (19) we see the same kinds of activity on exact display today as wealthy people buy houses, tear them down, and build a larger, more ostentatious mansion in its place. [Also goes for corporations: now that Apple has completed its extravagant new corporate headquarters, I predict it will be only a matter of time before its inevitable decline begins.]

God has other plans in mind for the wealthy farmer, and Jesus makes the point of the story: “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (20)  Jesus’ moral is straightforward: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (21)

We are exactly the same as this man. We store up earthly wealth with the plan of retiring to a comfortable life, thinking wealth puts us fully in control our destiny. But when we think we’ve done it all on our own and just as we pridefully review our brilliant investment strategies, life intervenes. Perhaps it’s an illness or some other unforeseen circumstance that puts paid to our brilliance. We ignore our spiritual investments at our own peril.

Psalm 89:30–37; Joshua 3,4; Luke 12:1-12

Originally posted 7/27/2014. Revised and updated 7/27/ 2018

Psalm 89:30–37: One suspects this psalm was written long after the reign of King David as our poet recalls God’s promise to David:
And I shall make his seed for all time
and his throne as the days of heavens.
 (30)

While he is writing prospectively, as if David had not yet ascended to the throne, we get the sense that the psalmist has already witnessed the corruption of the subsequent kings of the Davidic dynasty. He reminds himself of the terms of God’s Covenant with David, again written as if God were speaking:
If his sons forsake my teaching
and do not go in My  law,
if they profane My statutes
and do not keep My commands,” (31, 32)

The consequences of failing to keep those commands are severe indeed:
I will requite their crime with the rod,
and with plagues, their wrongdoing.
 (33)

But even then, the psalmist writes, God remains loyal to David
Yet My steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him,
and I will not betray My faithfulness.
I will not profane My pact…
One thing I have sworn by my holiness—
that David I will not deceive.
His seed shall be forever…”
 (34-37a)

In other words, David’s name will not be sullied in God’s eyes and the Davidic dynasty will continue on earth even though his descendants become corrupt and evil.  That is how faithful to God David has been_and will ever be The psalmist continues to write in God’s voice, reassuring us of his faithfulness to David because David—despite his manifest sins—remained faithful to God. In fact his faithfulness trumped the evil of his descendants even to the point that the Davidic dynasty remained despite its corruption. God would not go back on his soecific promise to David.

Joshua 3,4:  There is remarkable symmetry in Israel’s departure from Egypt and its entrance into Canaan. Just as they crossed water to escape the pursuing Egyptians, now they cross water as a conquering army. Both times they must do so in haste. No time can be wasted. Only in this crossing the Ark—i.e., God— precedes the people and Joshua reminds the people of God’s promise: “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.” (3:10)

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

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

The phrase, “they [the stones] are there to this day” is a reminder that God intervenes in real space and real time, and is a God of linear history. Joshua tells the Israelites, Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’  (4:20-22) 

We have been given the gift of memory; we are to use it. We are to remember ourselves and we have a duty to pass this memory along to our progeny.  But as we know from Israel’s own history, they forgot where the Ark had crossed over.  And our own history is littered with the relics and events of the ongoing tragedy of forgetting history and forgetting God–and having to learn the hard lesson all over again. Exactly as our society is managing to do once again.

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

Here, I think Jesus is warning the Pharisees and other authorities that their conspiracy that results in his death and resurrection him will eventually “be proclaimed from the housetops.” (3) Which is is exactly what happened and is still being proclaimed some 2000 years later.

Jesus then goes on to remind us what is so evident in the OT: God is in the details and concerns Himself with every detail of His creation, especially we humans: “But even the hairs of your head are all counted.” (7a) These words, coming immediately after Jesus’ warning that conspiracies will always be found out, remind us that our our attempts to hide evil will always be exposed because God knows what’s going on. 

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

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

 

 

 

 

Psalm 89:20–29; Joshua 1,2; Luke 11:37–54

Originally posted 7/26/2016. Revised and updated 7/26/2018

Psalm 89:20–29: Turning to full encomium mode, our psalmist gives God all the credit in causing Israel to choose David as Israel’s king, now writing in God’s voice:
Then did You speak in a vision
to Your faithful and did say:
‘I set a crown upon the warrior,

I raised up one chosen from the people
I found David my servant,
with My holy oil anointed him. (20, 21)

There’s no question in the psalmist’s mind that David had been chosen by God, as God now announces how he will protect David from all comers—not just protection, but military victory as well:
No enemy shall cause him grief
and no vile person afflict him.

I will grind down his foes before him
and defeat those who hate him.
” (23, 24)

Our psalmist, doubtless writing retrospectively, describes the intimacy of God’s relationship with David, effectively bestowing God-like qualities on his chosen king:
My faithfulness and my kindness are with him,
and in My name his horn will be lifted.
 (25).

David’s kingdom will be extensive (again the poet writes with hindsight):
And I shall put his hand to the sea
and his right hand to the rivers.
 (26).

Perhaps most importantly, David reciprocates God’s faithfulness to him:
He will call me: ‘My father You are,
my God and the rock of my rescue.’ 
(27)

It is this faithfulness lies at the root of David becoming Israel’s greatest king, and in fact, the greatest king on the earth:
I, too, shall make him My firstborn,
most high among kings of the earth.
 (28)

It almost seems that the Covenant between God and Israel has been transmogrified into a personal covenant between God and David:
Forever I shall keep my kindness for him
and my pact will be faithful to him.
 (29)

This verse creates the clear sense that it is the righteousness and faithfulness of Israel’s king that will in large part determine how faithful God will be to Israel. And as we know from Israel’s history, it is unrighteous kings that hastened Israel’s demise.

Joshua 1,2: Upon the death of Moses, God commissions Joshua as undisputed leader of Israel, promising, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (1:5b) and tells Joshua (three times): “Be strong and courageous” (1:6, 7, 9) but always with the caveat: “being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” (1:7) As long as Joshua is “strong and courageous” and obeys the law, “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

Preparations for battle commence, beginning with the reminder that the tribes that remained on the east side of the Jordan that “all the warriors among you shall cross over armed before your kindred and shall help them.” (1:14) The Reubenites and others tell Joshua they will be faithful and in a promise that resonates down through the ages, they respond, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” (1:16). This is also our command. The question is are we as faithful as these warriors?

Josuha shows great strategic wisdom, requiring intelligence before planning and commencing battle. He sends two spies to reconnoiter the land, “especially Jericho.” They enter Jericho on the pretense of seeking sexual satisfaction, and “entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab” (2:1). Somehow the king of Jericho finds out they’re there and demands that Rahab turn them over. Rahab has hidden them and concocts a story that they have already departed.

Rahab tells the men that fear has overcome Jericho since the fierce reputation of the Israelites has preceded them. She tells them that since “I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.” (2:12) The spies agree, telling her that if she stays quiet, “then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.” (2:14). The spies tell her that she must hang a red cord out her window when they invade as a signal to spare her and her family or the deal is off.

Rahab lets the spies out by a back window and they escape Jericho. After hiding from the pursuers for 3 days, they return to Joshua bringing the good news that “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us.” (2:24)

What’s fascinating about this classic story is that God uses not only a female, but a prostitute as the means of both providing information as well as escape. The lesson for us is of course that God does not work only through the mighty, but the very least of people. Which of course was exactly Jesus’ method as well, especially as we reflect on the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Luke 11:37–54: Itinerant that he was, Jesus was always willing to dine with anyone who invited him, and in this case, he sups with a Pharisee and his lawyer friends. Things start out badly as Jesus neglects to wash his hands. When this is called to his attention, he lectures them on their hypocrisy,  “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” (39). Things go downhill from there and a lawyer responds, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” (45)

Far from being sympathetic or apologizing, Jesus accuses them of blatant hypocrisy and worse, of oppressing the people—which they should know that showing justice and mercy to the poor and widows is a key command of the Jewish scriptures: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.” (46) He excoriates them further: “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.” (51)

Not surprisingly, following this rather disastrous dinner, “the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward him…lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.” (53)

We can only conclude that Jesus intentionally created this hostile atmosphere, knowing where it would eventually lead. Obviously, everything he said about these folks was true, and he did nothing to sugar-coat it. The lesson here for us is that while the yoke may be easy, Jesus’ message is hard.

People aren’t going to like hearing their faults quite as explicitly as Jesus put it to these guys. Like them, we will respond defensively just as the lawyer did. We do a disservice to the church when we fail to speak about our intrinsic sinfulness (or perform the rite of confession at worship), creating the impression that Jesus is sort of this nice guy but kind of wimpy (which is what I hear in much praise music).