Psalm 34:1–7; Ezra 8:1–20; Romans 1:13–25

Psalm 34:1–7: The superscription to this psalm, which Alter renders as, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimilech, who banished him and he went away,” is a direct reference to the story in 1 Samuel 21 when David, who has been captured, plays the madman before the Philistine king. The king wanted nothing to do with a crazy person, so he releases David and his men.

So, why this detailed superscription, when most introductions to psalms, including the David ones, are quite abstract? Perhaps it’s because the psalm–like many others–has to do with crying to God in desperate straits and being rescued: “I sought the Lord and He rescued me,/ and from all that I dreaded he saved me.” (4) This theme of rescue from one enemies suffuses these first verses: “When the lowly calls, God listens/ and from all straits rescues him.” (6). There is a wonderful sense of God’s power being put to the single purpose of protection: “The Lord’s messenger encamps/ round those who fear Him and sets them free.” (7). This is one of the rare references to protection by angels–and like the introduction far more specific to how God protects people in peril: with an angel, the “Lord’s messenger.”

And for us, a good reminder that in this hedonistic world that believes we are here by mere chance, that those of us who fear God are under a mighty cloud of protection.

Ezra 8:1–20: One of the differences between the histories on the OT and how we read history–and even in the NT in the Gospels and Acts, is that they do not always proceed in strict chronological order. Here in Ezra, we’ve already read about how a number of Jews are released from Babylon and are back to Israel rebuilding the temple after no small effort. But here in chapter 8, Ezra interrupts the narrative to relate the detailed story of the return to Jerusalem, beginning as usual with the preparations and a list of those who went back to Jerusalem plus their genealogy, including a head count.

Compared to the hundreds of thousands listed in the history of the early kingdoms of David and Solomon, this is a relatively small crowd, with families usually of less than two hundred members. E.g., “ Of the descendants of Bebai, Zechariah son of Bebai, and with him twenty-eight males.” (11)

Following the head count, Ezra “reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the descendants of Levi.” (15), which would make it impossible to have temple worship once the temple was rebuilt. So, Ezra “sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, who were leaders, and for Joiarib and Elnathan, who were wise,” (16) and sends them to a certain Iddo “and his colleagues the temple servants at Casiphia, namely, to send us ministers for the house of our God.” (17).

Ezra is pleased with the results: “Since the gracious hand of our God was upon us, they brought us a man of discretion, …namely Sherebiah.” (18) And the group is now ready to set out for Jerusalem.

These verses demonstrate both Ezra’s organizational skills, but also that the journey back to Jerusalem is above all, a return under God’s guidance. There is nothing random or spontaneous; good order, careful accounting, and reliance on God are how the journey back home will occur.

Romans 1:13–25: Paul is anxious to communicate with the Romans and describes his mission already as “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (15) as preparation for what he is about to write and “reap some harvest among you.” (14)

His introduction to his theological writings could serve as the introduction to all Paul’s letters as he explicitly states the Gospel is for everyone: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (16) (This is a verse I remember memorizing as a 5th grader at Lake Avenue Congregational Church Sunday School back in 1957.)

Paul begins by summing up the state of humankind form the Creation forward, making it clear that the wicked have suppressed truth because “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (19). But having ignored this plain evidence, “they are without excuse.” (20)

And then the line that sums up the state of the present world just as well as the ancient one: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools;” (22). This of course is the sin of human pride: our willful ability to ignore God’s truth while claiming our own is superior. And in the end, our wisdom is dust.

Paul is not in a good mood about this willful foolishness: “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,” (24) Which is a pretty good description of the present cult of celebrity and the narcissistic behavior of those who claim to be our leaders. And how dd this happen? “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (25). We decided to worship ourselves, and thus we have come foolishly to our present pass. We forget to our peril that we are creatures, not creators.

Psalm 33:12–22; Ezra 6:13–7:28; Romans 1:1–12

Psalm 33:12–22: Our psalmist switches the point of view from earth to heaven where “the Lord looked down.” And God’s focus here in not on creation in general but specifically on human kind. God looks down and “saw all the human creatures” (13) Notice “creatures,” making it clear that even though we forget, we are indeed God’s creation. As is the nature of Hebrew poetry–and to make sure we get the point–the idea of God looking down on us is repeated: “From His firm throne He surveyed/ all who dwell on earth.” (14) God is looking at all of us, not just a few; none of us can escape God’s gaze.

And what does God see? He sees more than just humankind’s outward appearances and actions; he sees right into us, for in being created, so too are our emotions and motivations God’s creation: “He fashions their heart one and all./ He understands all their doings.” (15)

And with the reality that we are his created beings, God sees humans performing acts that they believe are their own accomplishments, when they are not: “The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,/ the warrior not saved through surfeit of power.” (16) The unstated answer to the unstated question of “who, then?” is obvious: God is our rescuer.  This is a fine definition of pride: we operate under the delusion that we are independent beings, forgetting that we are God’s creatures, his creation.

But if, as Jesus says, God’s eye is on the sparrow, so too is his eye on us as those of us who seek after God are protected: “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 keep them alive.” (19,20) As this psalm concludes, the poet reminds us that it is this awareness of God’s faithful watching over us us why “in Him our heart rejoices,/ for in His holy name do we trust.” (21)

Ezra 6:13–7:28: Despite the obstacles thrown in their way, and protected by the decree of King Darius, the rebuilding of the temple is complete: “They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia.” (6:14) A great celebration takes place and Passover is celebrated, as Ezra gives credit to God, but to the king of Assyria, as well: “for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.” (6:22).  This is a good reminder that God’s work is aided through human agency. No miracles are required here, but it’s clear that as the psalm above would have it, God “fashioned” Darius’s heart.

Suddenly the book turns autobiographical (or, assuming someone else wrote this book, biographical) and we learn that Ezra “was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” (7:6) And in return, “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (7:10). Notice that Ezra studies the law, but he also does it and teach it. A good reminder that just reading and writing about the Word of God, as I do here, is not sufficient. My knowledge must be translated into action.

King Artaxerxes writes a letter granting Ezra full access to whatever “the priest Ezra, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence.” God has impacted Artaxerxes’ heart to make sure Ezra has what he needs and is obeyed for a very practical reason. The king clearly has read the history of the Jews and understands God’s wrath for disobedience: “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, or wrath will come upon the realm of the king and his heirs.” (7:23). Artaxerxes isn’t taking any chances here.

Ezra becomes the defacto ruler–not king–of Judah. And Ezra gathers his courage to go visit the king: “I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.” (7:28) Ezra knows that these honors being shown and power given to him are not the result of his work, but God’s.

Romans 1:1–12: And so, we leave the Gospels and Acts and enter the realm of theology. I don’t think that given how Luke’s history ended–with Paul preaching in Rome, that it was any accident that whoever determined the order of the NT, logically places Paul’s letter to Rome immediately following.

Paul’s salutation is a remarkable summary of the the Gospel–and lays out the themes he will be taking up in detail in the themes of this letter, as he writes, “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (3,4). And then Paul’s restates his own great commission to “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” (5)

It’s clear in Paul’s introduction that the letter was written well before he actually arrived in Rome. He tells the people in Rome “I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.” (10). Which wish we know by virtue of reading Luke’s history was finally been granted.

Paul reminds us of the crucial importance of community, and why our faith cannot be practiced in isolation: “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—  or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” The journey with the Lord, has not only Jesus at our side, as on the road to Emmaus, but our friends in the faith as well. Mutual encouragement is so crucial, so important in building up each other’s faith.

 

Psalm 33:6–11; Ezra 5:1–6:12; Acts 28:17–31

Psalm 33:6–11: The second stanza of this new song takes up the reality of God as Creator, who spoke creation into existence: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” (6a), including a very creative description of God separating the waters form the dry land: “He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters.” (7a).

But then the poet skips right over all the other steps of creation, landing on mankind’s response to this God: “All the earth fears the Lord,/ all the world’s dwellers dread Him.” (8) And in this case given the second line of the couplet that includes “dread,” I think the psalmist is using “fears” as in “afraid of,” not the usual Biblical sense of “reveres and worships.”)

Why is humankind afraid? Because they are getting their minds around the fact that God simply speaks and creation happens: “For He did speak and it came to be,/ He commanded and it stood.” (9).

Then, a marvelous comparison of God’s wisdom and might compared to man’s puny efforts: “The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,/ overturned the devisings of peoples.” (10) It would be difficult to think of a more compact and direct way of expressing the arrogance of our assumptions and the futility of our attempts to control outcomes–our belief that if we do “A” then “B” will happen. This ranges from men trying to control their wives and children on up to treaties between nations. (E.g., between the west and Iran currently in the works.)

Only one thing stands through time: “The Lord’s counsel will stand forever,” (11a) There is only one plan that endures and it comes straight form God’s heart, straight form his love for us humans, his greatest creation: “His heart’s devisings for all generations.” (11b)

Ezra 5:1–6:12: We meet “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.” (5:1). While Ezra does not say so directly, they apparently prophesied that things would be OK if work on restoring the temple resumed, which has happened because “Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates” (3) object to the resumption of work and send a letter to Darius, the new king of the Persians, that when they asked the Jews who gave them permission to resume work, they replied that it was Darius’ predecessor, Cyrus. Tattenai et al are challenging the veracity of that claim.

Finally, the reply from Darius arrives. It is not good news for Tattenai and “his associates.” The letter says that indeed the scroll with Cyrus’ edict was found, and it was exactly as the Jews had claimed. To add insult to injury for Tattenai, he is commanded by the king, “I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God: the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay, from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province Beyond the River.” (6:8)  Darius adds a postscript: “Furthermore I decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill.” (6:11) Cool.

The lesson here is that the Jews stood up for their rights but they did so because they knew the decree had been made by Cyrus. They followed good order. Unlike so many groups and causes today, they did not simply claim the moral high ground without proof. They had the documentation.

Acts 28:17–31: In Rome just three days, Paul “called together the local leaders of the Jews” and explains his case, explaining that the Jews in Jerusalem had accused him but there was no case against him. Nevertheless, having appealed to the emperor, he was now a prisoner in Rome. Paul, being Paul, says, “it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (20b). The Jews reply they know nothing about what went on in Jerusalem, but “we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (22).

So, whatever word about “the Way” that arrived in Rome was distorted and Paul begins preaching to the Roman Jews: “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.” (23) As Luke notes, “ Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” (24) As the skeptics were leaving Paul quotes Isaiah,”You will indeed listen, but never understand, /and you will indeed look, but never perceive./ For this people’s heart has grown dull, /and their ears are hard of hearing,” (26,27a)

Paul’s final recorded words are, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28).

And thus, the Good News has indeed come to us, the Gentiles. And what Paul said about the Jews in Rome is just as true today: a missed opportunity that if, as Isaiah said, they would but “listen with their ears,/ and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’” (27b)

This extraordinary history ends on a  brilliant note, the spotlight on Paul, but for all who followed Paul dow to the present day: “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (30)

 

 

Psalm 33:1–5; Ezra 4; Acts 28:7–16

Psalm 33:1–5: There seems little question that this psalm is an actual hymn that was probably sung with choir and accompanying instruments. And it is self-referential: a hymn about singing: “Sing gladly, O righteous, of the Lord/ for the upright, praise is befitting.” (1)  The instruments include the lyre and the ten-stringed lute.  Notice that it is the “righteous” and “upright” that are singing. Worship occurs after confession. We praise God with clean hearts.

Then the most famous verse in the psalm: “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) Alter notes that this is the writer telling us that he’s composed a new hymn for this occasion. But it’s also a challenge to all of us to step out in faith and try new things along with new songs. Yes, we are comfortable with the known, but to worship God with only what’s familiar is to miss the excitement, the joy, and the energy in God–a joy that even new songs can only partially hint at.

Because God loves us and “The Lord’s kindness fills the earth,” our response is to step out into the unknown. No matter where we go or what we try, God will be right there with us. A new song is simply a metaphor for new things, new risks taken in God’s name.

Ezra 4: All is not sweetness and light as Israel returns and begins rebuilding. The people, who appear to be displaced Samaritans, and who occupied the land during the 70 years of exile are (somewhat understandably) miffed at the pretensions of those who returned. After they fail to persuade the returning Jews that they, too, “worship your God as you do” and are excluded form the rebuilding project, the inhabitants “made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (5) Resistance to immigrants and attempts to build new things are hardly recent phenomena!

The inhabitants send a letter of protest to King Artaxeres, contending that the Jews will create a defensive headache for the king and fail to pay taxes: “They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city; they are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now may it be known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced.” (13) Wow. Protests that a certain action will weaken defenses, create a new enemy, and/or reduce governmental revenue are certainly nothing new to our time! 

Unfortunately for the returning Jews, the protests are effective. The king issues an order “that these people be made to cease, and that this city not be rebuilt, until I make a decree.” (21) (This sounds like the process of getting building permits form the city of Walnut Creek to build the new buildings at Saint Matthew!) So, “the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (24) Even our plans to honor God will be met with worldly obstacles that require patience.

Acts 28:7–16: If I’m not mistaken, even today the people of Malta will say that it was the shipwreck that brought Paul to Malta, who brought Christianity to those people. After Paul heals a certain Publius, a leader on the island, “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (9)

They remain in Malta for three months before setting out for Rome on “an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead.” (11). I’m intrigued as to this particular detail. Why does Luke tell us the name of the ship? Perhaps because he’s grateful that it carried them safely to Puteoli by a route through Syracuse and Rhegium. (Again, so much travel detail!).

Paul, Luke and the others arrive safely in Italy at last and we find out that there are believers scattered all over Italy. They remain among believers in Puteoli for a week, and then they arrive in Rome, where word has spread that the famous Paul has arrived and “The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” (15). Luke tells us, that on “seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” (15b).

We can imagine how it heartened Paul that after the hostility in Jerusalem and the dangerous voyage and shipwreck, to be welcomed by new friends. That’s the joy of Christian community. That no matter where in the world we go, we will find brothers and sisters and be welcomed there.

The final line of Acts tells us that when “we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.” And Luke’s history ends. God has used Paul, who has traveled with the Holy Spirit from Damascus through the much of the Roman empire spreading the gospel to rejection in Jerusalem to Rome to a new beginning for the church as Paul’s writings help shape a church that changes the world through the powerful message of Jesus Christ.

 

Psalm 32; Ezra 3; Acts 27:39–28:6

Psalm 32: The underlying theme of this psalm is the joy one feels when forgiven: “Happy, of sin forgiven,/ absolved of offense.” (1) And just to make sure we get the point, “Happy, the man to whom/ the Lord reckons no crime/ in whose spirit is no deceit.”

I’m intrigued by the phrase, “in whose spirit there is no deceit.” It tells me that true confession is exactly that: truth spoken; nothing held back. In fact, the psalmist emphasizes this again: “My offense I made known to You/ and my crime I did not cover.” (5). Nothing is hidden; everything is out in the open. I know I have confessed to wrongdoing, but sometimes only partially, holding back, thinking to myself, OK, perhaps I’m partly at fault, but then rationalizing that it really wasn’t all my fault.

We can think confession, but its real power is saying it aloud, exactly as the psalmist does: “I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,'” (5). And the result is “You forgave my sins offending crime.” (5b) This is why confession at the beginning of worship is so powerful (and deserves to be done every Sunday, not just at Lent.” As other psalms have made abundantly clear, there is tremendous power in what is spoken rather than merely thought. And when we confess in the presence of our community, the power of that spoken confession is, I believe, multiplied.

Ezra 3: The Israelites have returned to Judah and seven months later, they gather at Jerusalem. The temple is still in ruins, but they set up an altar and “and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening.” Then, they celebrate the festival of booths “and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the sacred festivals of the Lord, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the Lord.” (5).

The capital campaign to rebuild the temple has begun and “they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon.” (7)  The priesthood is reestablished and “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel.”

All the people sing, “responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, /for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”” The foundation of the second temple is laid, and many who had seen the original temple begin to weep while others shout for joy “so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (13)

Surely this had to be the happiest day since the dedication of the original temple by Solomon or the discovery of the long-abandoned writings of law of Moses in the temple. But above all it is a reminder that in God, there is always the opportunity to begin again–to start over. Whether it’s personal confession as in today’s psalm, or the joy of an entire nation as it begins to worship as a community once again. God is indeed the God–our God–of second chances.

Acts 27:39–28:6: Speaking of second chances… The plan to bring the disabled ship up onto the beach at Malta goes awry when it gets stuck on a reef. The centurion, realizing that Paul has saved them all, prevents his men from killing the prisoners.  Everyone survives, but as Paul is gathering wood on the beach for a fire, he is bitten by a viper in the woodpile. At first the Maltan natives think, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” (28:4). But when Paul fails to die, and they “saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.” (6).

Of course, Paul is not a god, but I cannot help thinking that the viper has a larger meaning here. Paul has just left Jerusalem when the “viper” of angry Jews has failed to kill him. He has just survived a disaster at sea; not even nature can kill him off. The soldiers have been prevented by their commander from killing him. As with his experiences at Phillipi and at Ephesus, Paul is a survivor. And we cannot help but be grateful that Paul survived for our sakes as well. For it is in Rome, where he is headed, where his great epistles will be written. There is no question that the Holy Spirit has watched over Paul–to the church’s–and our–enormous benefit.

When I’m tempted to think that events are random and God is indifferent to our fate, we need only remind ourselves of Paul’s incredible story.

Psalm 31:21–24; Ezra 1,2; Acts 27:21–38

Psalm 31:21–24: In this benedictory section, our psalmist realizes that God is indeed his refuge: “Conceal them in the hiding-place of Your presence/ from the crookedness of man.” (21) I have not thought much about God as a hiding place or shelter from the depredations of one’s enemies. This intimate picture of God as protector goes against my sense of God as ruler over all creation. Yet, this is why God is God: his greatness is at beyond comprehension and yet at the same time we can rest in the warmth and gentleness of his love.

The psalmist continues that when he thought God would only punish him for his misdeeds, thinking “I am banished from before Your eyes,” (23) in reality God has “heard the sound of my pleading / when I cried out to You.” (23b). Just when we give up is when God shows up and rescues us. He has been listening all the time. These verses are a brilliant exposition on what the faithfulness of God is all about.

And when we realize that God’s steadfastness is very real we are able to join the psalmist: “Be strong, and let your heart be firm,/ all who hope in the Lord.” For our hope is in no way misplaced. Even when times are darkest.

Ezra 1,2: Ezra and Nehemiah are the books that record history after the Babylonian captivity. Ezra begins by quoting the edict of King Cyrus of Persia, which seems to say that Cyrus acknowledges that the God of Israel is his God as well, and he has been commissioned to rebuild the temple: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.”  (1:2).  And he allows “Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” (1:3) So, Cyrus’s theology at once says YHWH is the “God of heaven” but he is also specifically located in Jerusalem. One has the feeling that Jewish advisors to Cyrus drafted the language of the proclamation.

In any event, Cyrus returns the temple treasures that Nebuchadnezzar “had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods” (7) to “Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.” (interesting: that seems to be a very Babylonian name.) Ezra, like our Chronicler (some have speculated they are the same guy, but that theory is now in disrepute), is also an accountant and lists the treasure inventory, “the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred.” (1:11)

Similar to the beginning of 1 Chronicles, Ezra provides a census. Only this one is of all those who return from Babylon to Jerusalem: “The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty,  besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven; and they had two hundred male and female singers.” So, a total of 49,697 folks return together with 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, and 6720 donkeys. (66, 67).

Then the cash from the freewill offering of the temple rebuilding fund:sixty-one thousand darics of gold, five thousand minas of silver, and one hundred priestly robes.” (69) One marvels at the precision.

Why this detailed census and inventory? Because it’s proof of the authenticity of the event of the return to Jerusalem. Ezra is not making this up; this is not myth, but real people in real space in real time. God’s people are real. Just as real as we.

Acts 27:21–38: The ship is being tossed about by the storm; all seems lost; all have gone without food for many days now. Paul stands up and tells the crew that an angel has visited him, who “said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’” (24).  Paul tells everyone to have courage; his faith is resolute, “for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” (25).

So, I wonder. If I had been aboard that doomed vessel, what would have been my reaction to Paul? Would I have taken courage form the words of this man of faith, or would I have thought he was hallucinating and saying silly things to keep our spirits up?

But Paul does not just preach theology; he is also an eminently practical guy and says immediately, “But we will have to run aground on some island.” (26) Which the ship does. But as they weigh anchor, some “sailors tried to escape from the ship and had lowered the boat into the sea, on the pretext of putting out anchors from the bow,” (30). Paul says that unless the sailors stay with the ship, none of them can be saved. The soldiers cut the ropes to the boat, and the sailors drift off to their doom.

Paul now has great credibility and all are willing to take his advice. He suggests that since they’ve gone two weeks without food, that they eat. And then in a scene remarkably similar to the Upper Room, “he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat.” (35). Indeed, this is proof to me that any meal can be a eucharist. Clearly, Paul is now their leader, and all 276 passengers are “encouraged and took food for themselves.” (36). In the same way that Paul has brought spiritual nourishment in the form of Good News to so so many, we have a literal acting out of that same missionary zeal and the breaking of the bread that save 275 others.

Paul is not just some theological guru, but knows that the Good News is about literally saving and feeding others, as well. The Gospel message is about real lives in real space. His  practical knowledge saves hundreds. So too, for us: faith is not just an abstraction; it is real and connected to the real world as we are to reach out and help others.

 

Psalm 31:5–20; 2 Chronicles 36; Acts 27:9–20

Psalm 31:5–20: These verses describe well the vicissitudes of the righteous man in the world then–and the world today–beautifully describing the symptoms of depression. He sees himself as surrounded by those “who look to vaporous lies” (7) and “My eye is worn out in vexation, my throat and my belly.” (10) He feels he is abhorred by both his enemies and his friends: “for all my enemies I become a disgrace,/ just as much to my neighbors, and fear to my friends.” (13)  He recognizes his straits: “I become like a vessel lost” (13) leading to paranoia: “For I heard the slander of many,/ terror all round,/ when they conspired against me,/ when they plotted to take my life.” (14)

There is only one way out for this man beleaguered on all sides: “As for me, I trust in You, O Lord. / I say ‘You are my God.'” (15) And then the plea for rescue: O save me/ from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers./ Shine Your face on my servant,/ rescue me in Your kindness.” (16, 17)

The psalmist knows–as we should as well–that God is the one way out of the wilderness of depression. Whether our enemies are real or imagined, there is only one Rescuer. And God, who is love, will rescue us in his kindness. Yes, there are valuable medicines to treat depression, and God has given us the smarts to develop them. But underneath our own efforts and science is the God of kindness, on whom we can rely and trust.

2 Chronicles 36: Even though Josiah had been faithful to God all these years, Pharoah Neco comes through Judah “fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates,” which was definitely not Judah. Josiah did not listen to the warning of Neco, who told him to not to fight him but to “cease opposing God, who is with me, so that he will not destroy you” (35:21) But Josiah ignores the warning and is killed in battle.

The lesson here is that God can speak to us from unexpected places. Josiah was certainly not expecting God to speak through the voice of the Pharaoh–and he pays the price. We must be listening and discerning the voice of God, no matter what unexpected direction it may be coming from.

Following Josiah’s death, our Chronicler catalogs a depressing list of failed kings: “Jehoiakim was twenty-five years old when he began to reign…He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (36:5). Then “Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (9)(Although it’s unclear to me how an eight-year old could do evil, but I’ll presume he was surrounded by evil courtiers.)

Then “Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign; he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God.” (11) This guy is notable because  “He did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.” (12) 

By this time, Judah was a vassal state of Babylon and had fallen, and Judah “kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (16). Jerusalm falls to the hand of “the king of the Chaldeans.” Nebuchadnezzar shows no mercy. Those who were not killed outright were taken into captivity and carted off to Babylon for the next 70 years.

But the Chronicler ends on a high note. After 70 years, Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon and “in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia” (22) says “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.” (23).

God is the God of second chances. And people of Judah are free to return to Jerusalem. When people speak of the harsh God of the OT, they really need to read this last chapter of 2 Chronicles. It is Judah who was unfaithful and received their due by their own folly. God is merciful.

 Acts 27:9–20:  Agrippa, who was almost persuaded by Paul, said, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” And then, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.” (26:32). But Paul has long wanted to go to Rome and even though he is going there as a prisoner, his wish is being fulfilled.

Luke, speaking again in the first person is accompanying Paul to Rome. Paul is under the guard of a certain Julius,”a centurion of the Augustan Cohort.” Luke describes the voyage in great detail, telling us the exact route they are taking. It’s been a difficult voyage with the wind against them and they arrive at a place called Fair Havens.

Luke tells us “much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous,” (27:9). Paul, obviously an experienced traveler strongly advises against sailing, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” (10) But his advice is ignored and the centurion, who (understandably) things the captain and sailors know better. So, they set sail and take “the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, where they could spend the winter.” (12)

A nor’easter from Crete overtakes them and even their attempts at anchoring the boat were futile. They began tossing cargo overboard, then the ships tackle. But it was all futile, and Luke writes, “neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (20)

Did God cause the storm so Paul could be proved right? I don’t think so. Storms happen; men do stupid things, failing to take advice from those who are more experienced. Why would a sea captain listen to a mere passenger–and one who was a prisoner at that? As Josiah found out, God speaks to us in unexpected ways from unexpected sources. But the hearers must be listening. Josiah did not. And the centurion was not.

 

Psalm 31:1–5; 2 Chronicles 34:8–33; Acts 26:15–27

Psalm 31:1–5: This psalm of supplication emphasizes God as our shelter as the psalmist pleads using military images, “Be my stronghold of rock, /a fort-house to rescue me,/ For You are my crag and my bastion.” (3c, 4a) The psalmist evokes the image of David and his men clambering among the rocks and caves as they are pursued by Saul.

The other image in these first verses of this psalm is the psalmist asking God in an anthropomorphic sense, to bend over and “Incline Your ear to me.” (3a)  And the faster, the better, “Quick, save me.” (3b)  And then more specifically, “for Your nam’s sake guide and lead me.” (4b). One more metaphor makes it clear that the psalmist is being pursued: “Get me out of the net that they laid for me, / for You are my stronghold.” (5) And then, he surrenders totally into “Your hand I commend my spirit.” (6a) And like many psalms of supplication, he acknowledges that in the asking itself, there is rescue: “You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.” (6b)

In this onrush of images and metaphors we feel the psalmists’s desperation and then, suddenly, once he utters “Into Your hand I commend my spirit,” there is peace. Just as Jesus uttered these words on the cross; the agony completed and death takes his spirit.

2 Chronicles 34:8–33: In the midst of the great temple clean-out, rebuilding, and “While they were bringing out the money that had been brought into the house of theLord, the priest Hilkiah found the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses.” (14). Our Chronicler describes exactly how the book finds its way into the hands of King Josiah, who upon hearing its words and realizing what it is, tears his clothes because “the wrath of the Lord that is poured out on us is great, because our ancestors did not keep the word of the Lord, to act in accordance with all that is written in this book.” (21b).

What’s interesting here is that I think this is the frist time that the “Moses books” have been described specifically as a book, indicating that by the time of Josiah, written records were becoming important, and we come to see why Jews came to be known as “people of the Book.”

Josiah consults Huldah, that rarity among rarities: a female prophet. Which makes me wonder: why do some churches prevent women from preaching when Josiah seemed perfectly happy to consult the person through whom God was speaking–and was completely indifferent to the prophet’s sex?

Huldah tells Josiah, yes, for everything Judah has done in the past in worshiping small-g gods they deserve the wrath of God. But because Josiah has been humble before God, “you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place and its inhabitants.” Of course, this is the Chronicler’s reference to the Babylonian conquest.

Josiah causes the book to be read aloud among the people and all make a covenant to keep their side of the Covenant. And for Josiah’s entire reign, “All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors.” (33). That the people followed God through Josiah’s entire reign is the greatest legacy any king could wish for.

Acts 26:15–27: Paul tells of his Damascus road experience, and of how Jesus commissioned him, telling him that Paul was being sent “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (18) Paul has certainly not missed the opportunity to preach the Good News to Festus and Agrippa.

Paul asserts that he has done nothing more than to preach this precisely-defined message of repentance to both Jews and Gentiles, and “For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.” (21) Once again, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the oft-prophesied Messiah, and “saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (22,23)

Paul’s entire defense hangs on the simple assertion that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. And as we know , down through history this has been rejected–the Cornerstone has been rejected.

In Festus, who exclaims, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” (24) Luke shows us the reaction of the educated world, who sees the Good News as improbable nonsense. When we encounter this reaction today, it’s useful to remember it’s hardly original–it’s as old as the church itself.

But Agrippa is clearly listening, and Paul again bases the Gospel on the Scriptures, and goes for the preemptive close on Agrippa: “ King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” (27) Which is a good place to remember that we cannot understand–or accept–the Gospel without understanding the Scriptures on which it is based.

 

Psalm 30:6–12; 2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7; Acts 26:2–14

Psalm 30:6–12: Our psalmist notes one of the magnificent, if under-appreciated, gifts we have received from God, the diurnal rhythm of life so that indeed, “At evening one beds down weeping/ and in the morning, glad song.” (6) It is a cliche because it is truth: each new day is a gift, the opportunity to begin once again; to start over with a clean slate.

The poet then recounts how he believed how, by virtue of never sinning, God would always be at his side: “I thought in my quiet days, ‘Never will I stumble.'” (7) And when that was the case, “You made me mountain-strong.” (8a) But then, disaster. He fails and God departs: “When You hid Your face I was stricken.” (8b).

As the poet begs God to return–“To You, O Lord, I call, / and to the Master I plead,” (9)–he tries to convince God by the sheer logic that those who are dead cannot worship God: “What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward?/ Will dust acclaim You,/ will it tell the truth?” (10) There is great truth here. While we talk about heaven, we need to remember that the OT Jews did not believe in an afterlife. There is no greater despair than to be separated from God.

God eventually hears his pleas to “grant me grace” and we encounter one of the most encouraging verses in the Psalms: “You have turned my dirge to a dance for me,/ undone my sackcloth and bound me with joy.” (12) And we join the in a hymn of thanksgiving, “Lord, my God, for all time will I acclaim You.” The psalm, like its cries of the poet, has descended into the pit but by its end, it has climbed the mount of thanksgiving.

2 Chronicles 33:1–34:7:  What’s so discouraging about the good kings like Hezekiah is that they seem to be unable to pass along their goodness–of course a reminder that each person must make his or her own decision to follow God (and in our case, Jesus).  Children cannot inherit faith; they must find their own–as I well know personally.

Alas: “Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (33:1,2), quickly rebuilding the “high places” his father Hezekiah had pulled down. Worse, he puts an idol in the temple and in the excoriating judgement of our Chronicler, “Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that they did more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the people of Israel.” (9). Once again we have an example of the crucial importance of the leader. Righteous or sinful, the led will follow his example.

God speaks to “Manasseh and to his people, but they gave no heed.” (10) As a result God calls upon the Assyrian army, which had already destroyed Israel, to invade Judah. Manasseh is captured and carried in chains off to Babylon. Manasseh finally gets God’s message and “in distress he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors.” (12) God hears Manasseh and restores him and Judah. “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord indeed was God.” (13) Manasseh has gotten the message and follows God the rest of his life–as does Judah.

While Hezekiah knew and followed God from the beginning, Manasseh must fall into the pit before finding God. Two examples for us: that repentance leads just as surely to God as lifelong faith. Thank God for this.

Amon follows Manasseh, and is assassinated by his servants after a disastrous two-year reign. What’s interesting here is that “the people of the land killed all those who had conspired against King Amon; and the people of the land made his son Josiah king to succeed him.” (25). Justice comes via the population, who were still following God and hoped for a just king.

Which brings us to young king Josiah, a mere lad of when he begins his reign.Like his grandfather, Josiah follows God from the outset and receives the highest compliment from our Chronicler: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (34:2). When he was twelve he “began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles, and the carved and the cast images.” (3)

Acts 26:2–14: Luke’s brilliance as a historian certainly includes the fact that while he tells us much about Paul in the third person, we also get to hear Paul’s own words–and here before Agrippa, his life story.

Having established his Jewish bona fides, Paul relies of fundamental Jewish theology, making it clear that his faith in Jesus is the logical consequence of “my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night.”  (6,7) And then he points out, “It is for this hope, your Excellency that I am accused by Jews!” (8) Brilliant. Because he’s saying that he is more Jewish than the Jews who accuse him, so why is he being accused of being too Jewish?

To prove that point, Paul recounts his zealous actions against the Christians, even to the point that “I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.” (10)

But then, Paul’s life-changing experience on the Damascus road: “I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’” I think it’s crucial that Paul says that the voice was speaking Hebrew, for it informs his audience that his experience is Jewish at its core; it is the God of the Jews speaking to him. It is in no wise foreign. In other words, the logical connection to Paul’s Jewishness, and to what he is about to tell them, is totally in the Jewish context.

 

Psalm 30:1–5; 2 Chronicles 32; Acts 25:16–26:1

 Psalm 30:1–5: This psalm’s superscription, “Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David,” tells us it’s a hymn that was sung when the temple (or, as Alter suggests, some object or area inside the temple) was dedicated. And the hymn is “for David,” which given David was long dead by the time the temple was dedicated, I’ll take as
“in memory of David.”

There is great verticality here. The psalmist has died (or come close to it) and descended into “the pit,” representing deep illness, depression, or even death. But God has rescued him and “I shall exalt You, Lord, for you drew me up” (2) –almost as water being drawn up from a well. And again, “Lord, You brought me up from Sheol” (4a) And returned his life to him, “[You] gave me life from those gone down to the pit.” (4b)

This drawing up, and essentially, resurrection has come about because “I cried out and You healed me.” (3) and as a result, there is cause for great rejoicing: “Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful, / acclaim his holy name.” (5). This is indeed a psalm for those who have been healed, for it is prayer and God’s response to prayer that is healing, be that physically, emotionally or spiritually.

2 Chronicles 32: Even though Hezekiah is Judah’s most righteous king in a long time, trouble–in the form of King Sennacherib of Assyria comes to invade. (I imagine that having successfully conquered Israel, Assyria has turned its aggressive intentions to Judah.) Rather than just going out and attacking, Hezekiah executes several brilliant defensive moves. One being to cut off all the water that flows outside Jerusalem, “Why should the Assyrian kings come and find water in abundance?” (4)

Leader that he is, he encourages his people and his troops, reminding them that God is on their side, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him.” (7) Sennecherib tries to discourage the inhabitants of Jerusalem, telling them that they are stupid for believing Hezekiah when he says God will save them against Assyria’s might, “Hezekiah [is] misleading you, handing you over to die by famine and by thirst, when he tells you, ‘The Lord our God will save us from the hand of the king of Assyria’” (11)

Of course Sennacherib is mistaken, having “spoken of the God of Jerusalem as if he were like the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of human hands.” (19) and he goes down to defeat. This victory brings not only vindication, but “Many brought gifts to the Lord in Jerusalem and precious things to King Hezekiah of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.” (23).

But Hezekiah is human and the worst sin of all–pride– overcomes him; victory goes to his head and he becomes sick but then he “humbled himself for the pride of his heart,” and recovers. All in all a successful reign, for Hezekiah remains faithful to the end of his life, even though God continues to test him “and to know all that was in his heart.” (31b). Hezekiah passes the test and the Chronicler accords him a great accolade not given to other kings in his history, speaking of his “good deeds.”

Hezekiah is the paragon of faithfulness, but for me, it is gratifying to see his weakness as well. He finds his way back to God–just as each of us can do if we are willing to step back and be self-aware.

 Acts 25:16–26:1: Speaking with King Agrippa, Festus relates his frustration with the Jews and especially with Paul, the proximate cause of all the unrest. He’s especially frustrated because no obvious crime has been committed. To his Roman ears, it’s just impenetrable theological disagreement. Now, Paul has asked to take his case to the emperor, but this places Festus in a quandary, since “I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him.” (26) He asks Agrippa, who obviously understands the theological issues, to hear Paul “so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write” (26) Agrippa agrees to hear Paul.

This passage where Roman authority meets Jewish authority is crucial because I think Luke is showing us that the gospel message is confusing to to the “greeks” and blasphemous to the Jews. Paul certainly explicates these issues in his letter to the Romans, (which is why it may be placed immediately following Acts). From the secular point of view, represented here by Festus, the Good News makes no sense other than that it it doesn’t seem to be a crime.

We see evidence all around us today, ranging from people like Festus who see it as nonsensical to people like the Jews, who wish it to be suppressed.  We would do well to remember just how radical the gospel message really is.