Psalm 81:6-10; Deuteronomy 13:1-14:21; Luke 7:18-30

Psalm 81:6-10: In a striking shift in point of view, the psalmist yields his poem to the voice of God Himself, announcing, “a language I knew not, I heard.” (6) This is how one must hear God speak. We don’t recognize the voice; not that it is incomprehensible, but it is a voice (“language”) that we have never heard before.  And in hearing, we also understand what God is saying to us.  The psalmist hears and he transcribes what the voice is saying.

God points out that he rescued Israel from slavery: “I delivered his shoulder from the burden / his palms were loosed from the hod.” (7) and that when things were really desperate at the water’s edge, “From the straits you called and I set you free. / I answered You from thunder’s hiding-place.” (8)   God’s point is, I’ve been there all the time listening to you, so now it’s time to listen to me: “Hear, O my people, that I may adjure you. / Israel, if You would but hear Me.” There’s even a note of some frustration (“if You would but hear Me.”)

God is asking one but thing: “There shall be among you no foreign god / and you shall not bow to an alien god.”  One surmises that this psalm was written in one of those periods of Israel’s history when the nation had been seduced over to the usual small-g gods.

The application of these verses is obvious. God has rescued us, now we have turned away, seduced by our very own small-g gods of wealth, power, pleasure, stuff.  Are we listening?  Are we hearing what God is saying to us?

Deuteronomy 13:1-14:21: The focus of this chapter–and indeed of the entire book thus far–is the urgent necessity, nay command, for Israel to avoid putting the ever popular small-g gods ahead of God himself.  While I have no proof, it certainly feels as if the editors of this book were writing and compiling at a time when Israel had turned away from God, and they are using history to remind their contemporaries of the consequences of abandoning God for their small-g gods.

The previous chapter was about tearing down all the places where those gods were worshipped.  This chapter speaks directly to the issue of being seduced by “prophets” of those same tempting but impotent gods.  Do not be tempted to follow! “you shall not heed the words of that prophet or of that dreamer of dreams.”(4)

Whether publicly or privately, Even of that person is a close relative, “your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or your daughter or  the wife of your bosom or your companion who is like your own self incite you in secret,” (7) do not follow!  In true deuteronomic fashion, these seducers shall be put to death.  If there’s a corrupt town, destroy it!  And if you do, our deuteronomic God “may turn back from His blazing wrath and give you compassion, and be compassionate to you.” (18).  In the end, the command is simple indeed: “do what is right in the eyes of the LORD your God.” (19)

And yet we like Israel, refuse in our own pride to do “what is right.”  And we have set up so many of our own small-g gods, some of them right in the Church itself.

This first section of chapter 14 deals with dietary laws, and I presume this is a central reference point for the Kosher laws. What strikes me, though, has nothing to do with that.  It is the lists of animals, birds and fishes by species. It is really an astounding variety and whether consciously or unconsciously, gives us a picture of the fecundity of the land into which Israel came.

Luke 7:18-30:  John, sitting in prison, has heard all about this Jesus, to whom the crowds that once surrounded John are now flocking. He wants first hand info, so he sends two trusted friend to go and get the scoop.  It’s interesting that Luke writes, that John “sent them to the Lord,” rather than “sent them to Jesus.”  I think it’s Luke’s point here to establish the contrast between John, who did many of the same things, and Jesus, who is indeed greater.

The gist of Jesus’ message to John’s emissaries is to describe what he does as reversals, or as scientists might put it, complete state changes: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (22)  Once again, Luke reminds us how Jesus is turning the world upside down and inside out.

Jesus also uses this opportunity to explain his relationship to John: John is the messenger. He is the Message. Luke also tells us that Jesus has come to rip the world asunder: those “acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.” (29) And those who had not: “But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

Which is to say, “God’s purpose” for all of us, and why we are here on earth in the first place, is to  follow God. Exactly the message of Deuteronomy, but now there is a person, the Lord Jesus, right here among us to follow.

Psalm 81:1-5; Deuteronomy 12; Luke 7:1-17

Psalm 81:1-5: Perhaps the Moravians planned it this way–who knows–but the celebratory opening verses of this Psalm certainly seem appropriate for July 4. (Only there were no actual fireworks in the psalmist’s day.) In vivid contrast to the somber anguish of the preceding psalm (80), this opening fairly brims with joy and celebration.  We are not only to sing, but to shout: “Sing gladly to God our strength, / shout out to the God of Jacob.” (2) This sounds more like a sporting event than “church.”

Once again, the psalms disprove the theory that God doesn’t like noisy praise and singing; that reverence has somehow become conflated with respectful silence.  Here, there is an entire orchestra that accompanies the singing and shouting: “Lift your voices in song and beat the drum, / the lyre is sweet with the lute. / Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,” (3,4a)

Also, extremely unchurch-like is the reason for celebration: it’s the new moon, which Alter informs us was a widely-practiced festival in the ancient Middle East. What gives here? Isn’t worshipping the moon–new or full–a pagan practice?  Apparently not, because in the very next verse we learn that it’s “…an ordinance in Israel, / a rule of the God of Jacob. / A decree He declared it for Israel.” (5) Ordinance. Rule. Decree. Seems pretty clear that it’s time to celebrate.

Not only that, it hearkens back to the time Israel was in Egypt and God came to rescue them: “when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land / — a language I knew not, I heard.” (6)

So, since it’s an ordinance, a rule, a decree, let’s lose our Victorian reverence and sing at the top of our lungs!

Deuteronomy 12:  The order is given: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you are to dispossess worshipped their gods— on the high mountains and in the valleys and under every lush tree.” (2,3)  The reason is clear: remove all the possible places that God could be worshipped, including in nature(“under the lush tree”) in order that God is worshipped in a single place, which of course is Jerusalem, so “to set His name there, to make it dwell, you shall seek it and come there.” (5)  In short, God is saying, “I will be worshipped in one place and one place only, not all over the countryside.”

This command is one reason why we have sacred spaces, aka churches and cathedrals, admittedly all over the world, not just in Jerusalem (although that location obviously continues to hold a special place for Jews: “Next year in Jerusalem!”).

The chapter also deals with sacrifices made at that one place.  While there are many burnt offerings wherein the entire animal is consumed, other offerings do not involve the whole animal.  What is left may be consumed.  “Only wherever your appetite’s craving may be you shall slaughter and eat meat, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that He has given you within all your gates.” (15) This is God’s generosity.  While God may seem all-demanding, unlike the other local small-g gods, He is not all-consuming.  God continues to provide ample provision not just for our spiritual needs, but our physical ones, as well.

There is only one prohibition: not to consume the animal’s blood. Blood has special significance, since it was seen literally as the life of the animal.  For us, of course, blood means only one thing: we have been washed “whiter than snow” in the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ.

Luke 7:1-17: The story of the healing of the generous centurion’s son at Capernaum must have had enormous resonance for Luke’s gentile audience.  Not only did Jesus minster–and heal–the gentile’s son, Jesus is “amazed” at the soldier’s faith: “and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (9)  That Jesus could heal without even approaching the son was another remarkable aspect because it meant to Luke’s hearers–and to us–that Jesus can indeed reach out and heal across space, and now across time.

In the story of the widow of Nain, Luke illuminates yet another dimension of Jesus’ healing ministry. Luke is careful to point out that it was the widow’s son who died, which means that in that culture she would be condemned to a life of penury.  While it is the son who receives the physical healing, it is the mother who is completely healed and whose life is in  essence restored as much as her son’s: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”” (13) Notice that Luke at this moment calls Jesus “Lord.”  This is a clear indication that Jesus our Lord has compassion on ll of us, and will touch the bier carrying our sins, bind up our wounds and comfort us until we can stop crying.

Neither of these miracles is confined to that particular space and time.  They are miracles which come to Luke’s audience–and to us on this very day in this place.

Psalm 80:12-19; Deuteronomy 11; Luke 6:39-49

Psalm 80:12-19: God rescued, planted, nurtured and grew the metaphorical vineyard which is Israel. Continuing the metaphor, the psalmist asks rhetorically, why has God allowed it to be attacked? “Why did You break through its walls / so all passers-by could pluck it? / The boar from the forest has gnawed it, / and the swarm of the field fed upon it. ” (12) The Assyrian army (the boar), attacking from the north (the forest), has consumed the fruits of Israel, both literally and metaphorically.

Supplication follows in the next verses, asking God to come back and see what has been wrought: “God of armies, pray, come back, / look down from the heavens and see, / and take note of this vine,” (14).  And not just “take note” of what has happened, but wreak vengeance (which, as always, is God’s): “burnt in fire, chopped to bits, from the blast of Your presence they perish.”

An unexpected supplication follows as the vine metaphor is abandoned: “May Your hand be over the man on Your right, / over the son of man You took to Yourself.” Is this a christological reference? (“The man on Your right” and “the son of man You took to Yourself”)  If so, it seems oddly misplaced.

Or is it simply a change of metaphor? Israel as vine has now become Israel as adopted son.  If that’s the case, I’m not sure what to do about “son of man,” although I believe that could be a reference to David, as the psalmist longs for the time when Israel was strong and prospered under David’s rule.

The lesson for us is that despite the accusatory tone that God has allowed all these bad things to happen, if He will but rescue Israel, in turn they will always be faithful: “And we will not fall back from You. Restore us to life and we shall call on Your name.” (19)  Once again, the psalm ends on hope in God’s ultimate faithfulness rather than despair.  As should we.

Deuteronomy 11: Moses draws a geographical contrast between Egypt and Canaan. Egypt is flat; Canaan “is a land of mountains and valleys.” (11) which nonetheless flows with milk and honey. (10BUt more important than the agrarian details is the command, which Moses repeats: “My commands with which I charge you today to love the L ORD your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being,” (13)  If they do so, God will reward them: “I will give the rain of your land in its season, early rains and late, and you shall gather in your grain and your wine and your oil.” (14)

If they fail to keep God foremost in their hearts, then all the promises are off.  Once again, Moses warns, “Watch yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you swerve and worship other gods and bow to them.” (16)  Moses boils all this down near the end of the chapter: “See, I set before you today blessing and curse.” It’s quite simple: there’s “the blessing, when you heed the command of the LORD your God”  and “the curse, if you heed not the command of the LORD your God.” The command being not to worship other small-g gods. (26-28). (Which, given its repetition through Deuteronomy (well, the entire Pentateuch) and Israel’s subsequent history certainly seems to be the commandment that is primus inter pares.

As usual, I’m distressed by the quid pro quo quality of God as Moses describes Him here.  It’s easy to see how Israel came to believe there was a direct correlation between faithfulness and reward–which today is expressed as the prosperity gospel.  However, I’m with Bruce McLaren: God’s qualities are sequentially revealed through the course of the old and new testaments. Yes, God doubtless still possesses quid pro quo qualities, but in Jesus Christ, they have been superseded by grace and faith in Jesus’ transformative work.

Luke 6:39-49: Jesus continues to deal with the qualities and contradictions of human nature. We often think of the “God side” of Jesus looking down on us and talking about not being a hypocrite or just being stupid (“blind leading the blind”) or building our lives on sandy foundations. We’re tempted to say, “Yeah, Jesus, easy for you to say; you’re perfect.”  But then we have to remember that Jesus is fully human and therefore is also talking about himself.  There’s no question in my mind, that he was subject to all the issues he discusses, and that he had to will as a human being not to fall into any of those traps.

I have done all of the things he talks about; setting oneself above one’s teacher; the hypocrisy of “fixing” someone else’s flaws without dealing with our own; failing to preserve one’s good reputation in whatever we do or say (“Fruit) will lack credibility or power; the incredible power of words once spoken to produce good or evil.

Whatever we do, whatever we say, however we act, comes down to the foundation. Absent a firm foundation, we are not prepared for the vicissitudes that inevitably come our way.  We have heard Jesus’ message.  Like the disciples that are listening, will we take it to heart? And not just “to heart” but “to mind” and our whole selves. That is the grand existential question, nay, opportunity.

We have free will: we can choose or not.  Worse, we can ignore these truth and simply drift along never deciding one way or another.  And that is the very defintion of a house built on sand.

Psalm 80:8-11; Deuteronomy 9:7-10:22; Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 80:8-11:  Our psalmist uses one of the most prominent metaphors of the Bible: the vine and vineyard.  Here, Israel is the vine: “You carried a vine out of Egypt, / You drove away nations and planted it,” reflecting the point made by Moses in Deuteronomy that it is God, not the people of army of Israel, who brought them from Egypt cleared Canaan for them. And it is God who planted it carefully and made it grow: “You cleared space before it /and struck its roots down, and it filled the land.” (9)

Not only did the vine grow in Canaan, but it grew into a great empire because of God’s nurturing hand: “The mountains were covered by its shade, and by its branches the mighty cedars.” (10). Israel once stretched from the shore of the Mediterranean to the Jordan River: “You sent forth its boughs to the sea and to the River its shoots.” (11).

There can be little question that Jesus had this psalm in mind when he supplanted Israel as the vine in John 15.  God nurtured Israel as his beloved vine in the time form Joshua to Solomon, and it grew into a great kingdom.  Now, Jesus nurtures us.  We are the branches of his vine that stretches its shoots around the world.

Deuteronomy 9:7-10:22:  This remarkable passage recapitulates almost all of the wilderness journey, this time in Moses’ point of view.  His narration focuses especially on the events recounted in Exodus 32-32: Moses’ 40-day trip up to Sinai to receive the “Ten Words;” his return to find the people worshiping the golden calf; his anger and breaking of the tablets; his intercession before God to save Israel, which God desired to destroy; the second trip to Sinai to receive the Ten Words once again; the establishment of the Levitical priesthood; the building of the Ark to hold the tablets.

God describes the people of Israel with a remarkable adjective: “‘I have seen this people and, look, it is a stiff-necked people.'” (9:13, 9:27).  “Stiff-necked” evokes the image of someone who is prideful and whose opinion is immovable. Given their history, it’s certainly apt for Israel–and it’s certainly apt for us.  We decide our own way is the only “correct” way to go or to do something, and in our pride, we refuse to budge, even when it’s clear God is asking us to go a different direction.  In the same way that Moses interceded with God not to destroy Israel, so, too, Jesus Christ has interceded for us on our stiff-necked behalf.

It is Moses’ concluding words that resonate most strongly, because it is the summary of what God asked Israel–and us–to do: “what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to  worship the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep the L ORD’s commands and His statutes that I charge you today for your own good?” (10:12, 13)  “For your own good.” How quickly we forget that worship and obedience is “for our own good.”  How stiff-necked we become when God asks us to put our ego and our agenda aside and follow him.

And in another remarkable metaphor, “you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart,.’ (10:16).  This can mean only one thing: That we are to remove the barrier that separates God’s love from the seat of our understanding and our feeling; that we be open and responsive to God’s word.  It is the complete opposite of stiff-neckedness.

Luke 6:27-38: Luke’s rendition of the Sermon on the Mount continues, and again we see the Great Reversal. Everything we think we know and believe is turned upside down and inside out. Right at the top of the list, one of the most difficult of all: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (27b, 28).

Then there’s generosity to those who steal from us: “ anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (29).  And perhaps in our possession-obsessed society (although apparently not so different then than now): “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (30).It’s all really quite simple: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.: (31)

Can Jesus ask any more than this? Why, yes, he can.  We need to move beyond our comfort zone of those we know and love; we are supposed to reach out even to our enemies: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?…If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?” (32, 33)  And perhaps most challenging of all to our “stiff-necked” prideful selves, whom we see as the center of the universe: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (35).

The remainder of Luke’s gospel descries how Jesus goes about doing this.  And, via the example of the disciples, how readily we fail.   Jesus has set a high bar indeed.  And as a casual glance at the history of his Church reveals, it has mostly failed, up to and including us. But how could we accomplish any work in the Kingdom if we did not know what was expected of us? Happily, God’s mercy is also great.

Psalm 80:1-7; Deuteronomy 8:1-9:6; Luke 6:12-26

Psalm 80:1-7: Alter informs us that Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh all refer to the northern kingdom, Israel.  Clearly, they are experiencing great difficulties and the psalmist feels God’s anger at them is the cause of their present troubles.  He prays to God to “rouse Your might / and come to the rescue for us. / O God, bring us back,/ and light up Your face that we may be rescued.” (3,4)

By now, the psalmist pleads, Israel has suffered enough for their misdeeds, “You fed them bread of tears / and made them drink triple measure of tears.” (6) The metaphor “bread of tears” is striking. What does it mean to be on a diet of sorrow or meals of despair? This is certainly a long term thing, not just a passing cloud. The nation is depressed; its morale shattered.

It’s clear how they came to their present pass: their collective sin and disobedience.  Which is exactly what Moses promised would happen in his Deuteronomy speech.  We diagnose depression now as a disease (that can be ameliorated by drugs…)  But as the psalmist implies here, our “bread of tears” also results from our choices and the actions we take.

But there is always hope: God may be silent now, but he will not “smolder against Your people’s prayer” (5) forever.  By praying we have placed ourselves in right position, acknowledging our sinfulness.  God is listening.  Will he rescue?

Deuteronomy 8:1-9:6:  Chapter 8 weaves God’s injunction to keep his commands (1, 7-10) with a recollection of all God did for them in the wilderness (2-5 and again at 15,16).

Here also is where we encounter Jesus’ famous quote: “you know that not on bread alone does the human live but on every utterance of the L ORD’s mouth does the human live.” (3)

The chapter’s centerpiece is the hymn-like description of what awaits them in the Promised Land:

“For the L ORD your God is about to bring you to a goodly land, a land of brooks of water, springs  and deeps coming out in valley and in mountain, a land of wheat and barley and vines and figs and pomegranates , a land of oil olives and 9 honey, a land where not in penury will you eat bread, you will lack nothing in it,” (7-9)

The juxtaposition of this passage with the descriptions of the parched desert with its vipers and scorpions makes it all the more alluring. In fact, things will be so wonderful that “you will eat and be sated and bless the LORD  your God on the goodly land that He has given you.” (10).

But then Moses adds immediately,”Watch yourself, lest you forget the LORD your God and not keep His commands and His laws.”  And therein lies the rub. Both for Israel and for us.  We are blessed; we live comfortable lives and forget Who has provided this. Worse, we think we’ve accomplished it ourselves.  We know what ultimately happened to Israel. We, too, must “Watch ourselves.”

This theme of remembering Who has brought us these things is reiterated in chapter 9: “Not through your merit nor through your heart’s rightness do you come to take hold of their land.” (9:5a)  In fact, Israel is getting the land because “through the wickedness of these nations is the LORD your God dispossessing them before you and in order to fulfill the word that the LORD swore to your fathers” (9:5b).  We must never forget that God is God; we are the beneficiaries, not the instigators of His blessings.

Luke 6:12-26: Ever the man of intimate detail, Luke names the twelve Disciples in a single list.  Jesus’ reputation and ministry are spreading ever wider; the crowds increasingly greater: “great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (17).

But what’s really fascinating here is that Jesus speaks only to his disciples, not to a crowd on a mountainside. What Jesus says is so unexpected, so outside the mainstream, that at first only the disciples can hear it. No one has ever said any of this the way Jesus has said it here.

Luke is drawing a direct contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world, the here and now.  At this point in Jesus’ ministry, this is a message for his disciples, not everyone.

Jesus opens with the Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, which in its juxtaposition of opposites turns the world inside out and upside down.  If you’re poor, hungry or weeping now, all that will be reversed in the Kingdom of God.  And with an almost fearful symmetry, if you are wealthy, sated, or laughing in the here and now, the opposite will happen to you in the Kingdom of God.

There is reversal everywhere: “ when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy.” (22)

As we know, this message is so revolutionary, so unexpected that even the disciples don’t get it.  Even all the way up to the cross.

 

Psalm 79:9-13; Deuteronomy 7; Luke 6:1-11

Psalm 79:9-13: This psalm opens on a tragic scene: the destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem, and the massacre of the people:

God, nations have come into Your estate,
they have defiled Your holy temple.
They have turned Jerusalem to ruins.
They have given Your servants’ corpses
as food to the fowl of the heavens,
the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth. (1,2)

This surely must be a description of the events surrounding the Babylonian conquest in 586BCE. The psalmist understands why this has happened: Israel’s multitudinous sins have brought the nation to destruction. But, he also says, ‘isn’t this enough, God?’ as he asks rhetorically, “How long, O LORD, will You rage forever, Your fury burn like fire?” (5).  It’s now time, he suggests, for God to direct His anger to other nations, particularly the ones who don’t know or worship God: “Pour out Your wrath on the nations / that did not know You and on the kingdoms / that did not call on Your name.” (6)  After all, they’re the ones who have “devoured Jacob and his habitation laid waste.” (7)

As is so often the case, there are two appeals to God in the psalm.  One is the logical one above; the other is a more emotional appeal to God’s mercy; to not having to pay for the crimes of the ancestors, “Do not call to mind against us our forebears’ crimes. Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us,” (8), which quickly evolves to a prayer of supplication and repentance, “Help us, our rescuing God / for Your name’s glory, / and save us and atone for our sins / for the sake of Your name.” (9)

Here is the thing that we always need to remember.  While the psalm may open with the poet shaking his angry fist at God, their is never any question that this same God who has allowed destruction is also a merciful God.  And it is to that mercy the psalmist appeals. This is very different from our modern tendency to say things like, “Well, bad things happened, God didn’t answer my prayers, so what happened to me is His fault. I’ve stopped believing in Him.”  The psalmist never mistakes his agenda for God’s agenda.

Could we stand in the rubble of our destroyed city, amidst then rotting corpses and say, “But we are Your people and the flock that You tend. / We acclaim You forever. / From generation to generation we recount Your praise.”? I’m not very sure I could.

 Deuteronomy 7: This chapter is the promise, which was sadly fulfilled in today’s psalm: “You shall not seal a covenant with them and shall show them no mercy. You shall not intermarry with them. You shall not give your daughter to his son, nor shall you take his daughter for your son. For he will make your son swerve from following  Me, and they will worship other gods, and the LORD’s wrath will flare against you and He will swiftly destroy you.” (3,4)

After telling Israel to show no mercy to those they conquer, God, through Moses, tells them why: “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God.” (5) But above all, “But because of the LORD’s love for you…because of His keeping the vow that He swore to your fathers…” (8)”  God has kept His side of the vow, now it’s time for Israel to do the same.

This is the essence of deuteronomic theology, not a quid pro quo; it is a solemn covenant between parties: “it shall come about in consequence of your heeding these laws when you keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep the covenant and the faith for you that he swore to your fathers.” (13)

The last half of the chapter is a call to be courageous in the face of overwhelming odds because,”the LORD your God will cast off these nations from before you little by little.” (22) It will be a long slog, but “the LORD your God will give them before you and panic them with a great panic until they are destroyed.” (24)

I’m struck by the fact that God makes it clear it will be a long and arduous battle.  What a contrast to we American who want to whip in, slaty the enemy and whip out again.  But as we are finding out (again and again), wars that look quick and easy up front, always consume more time, more resources–and more soldiers–than we ever thought possible.  And right here in Deuteronomy is God’s ancient wisdom that we have ignored–and we have paid the price.

Luke 6:1-11:  The Sabbath was indeed holy, a mandated day of rest and no work. Over the years, a great encrustation of rules defining what was allowed and what was proscribed evolved. When challenged, Jesus cites the example of David entering the house of God and taking the brad because he was hungry.  Luke doesn’t have to write, “But David was a special case,” as the Pharisee’s reply. But then Jesus says, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”(5). Luke doesn’t have to tell us that Jesus’ reply was an even greater affront than the mere fact of plucking grain.

That the healing on the sabbath story follows immediately accomplishes two things.  First, it underscores Jesus’ view that the spirit of the sabbath is corrupted when it is bound up in too many niggly rules.  Jesus seems to be saying, “God gave us brains and common sense to interpret God’s intentions. You don’t need to codify it and then spend your time watching like hawks for any offenses.” And where do we see this same pharisitical  behavior today?  In church of course, as we look around at others, too often taking offense at their behavior or what they say.

Second, this is one of the opening salvos in (what I believe to be) Jesus’ carefully orchestrated plan to create a clear contrast between the Pharisees and church officials and himself.  It started in that synagogue in Nazareth, continued at Capernaum and now is beginning to ebar fruit with Luke’s first mention of a potential plot against him: “But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (11)

 

Psalm 78:65-72; Deuteronomy 4:32-5:21; Luke 5:12-26

Writing this morning from the mountains at Pinecrest, California.

Psalm 78:65-72: Our psalmist is winding up his history of Israel, bringing the poem to his present day. There’s an interesting generational note, as he writes “Yet He rejected the tent of Joseph, and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.” (67). Generational logic would suggest that the Israel dynasty would come through the line of Joseph, since he was basically the progenitor of Israel in Egypt.  But God has chosen a different patriarch instead by which to continue the kingly line, “And He chose the tribe of Judah,” (68), which of course is the root of the Davidic dynasty, and therefore the root of Jesus through Joseph.

Moreover, it is on Judah’s land–Jerusalem–where the Temple, the single residence of God on earth, is built: “Mount Zion that He loves. And He built on the heights His sanctuary,” (69). David finally appears, “And He chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds.” (70)  The psalm concludes with the image of David as Israel’s shepherd-king, “And with his heart’s innocence he shepherded them, with skilled hands he guided them.” (72)

And for us, we have an even better Shepherd-King, Jesus Christ, that as come through the line of Judah.

Deuteronomy 4:32-5:21:  A significant subtext of these early chapters of Deuteronomy is that idols and images are anathema.  God is described as fire and voice, but is otherwise invisible, as the author underscores the contrast between God and all those small-g gods: “He showed you His great fire, and His words you heard, from the midst of the fire.” (4:35)

Unlike those small-g gods, God is love, and it this love that has been at the foundation of all God has done since then, “And since He did love your fathers He chose their  seed after them and brought you out from Egypt through His presence with His great power,” (4:37).  And not just in the past, but as Moses addresses the nation on the bank of the Jordan River the near future, as well” “to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you from before you, to bring you to give to you their land in estate as on this day.” (4:38, 39).

In short, God delivers on his promises.  All we have to do, like Israel, is to keep ours: “And you shall keep His statutes and His commands which I am about to charge you today, that He do well with you and with your sons after you and so that you long endure on the soil that the LORD your God is about to give you for all time.” (40)

In chapter 5, Moses lays out the Decalogue (“Ten Words”) in precise detail. In keeping with the contrast between God and idols, the first commandment receives particular attention: “You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall make you no carved likeness, no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth.” (5:8).  Once again, these words reenforce the prohibition of God as image.

Moreover, a strict prohibition against idol worship, “You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the LORD your God,” (9).  This is not a casual prohibition, but the sins of the fathers will be visited not just on the sons, but to the fourth generation “for my foes.”  But, on the other hand, God will be “doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and for those who keep My commands.”

In short, a restatement of the terms of the Old Covenant. Unfortunately, we know what actually happened.

Luke 5:12-26:  In my fervent belief that there is nothing at all random about Luke’s ordering of his gospel, today’s reading is Jesus’ cleansing of the leper followed by his healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof.

For me, these are the two phases of baptism: we are buried to sin and rise to new life.  Under Jewish law, the leper was ritually (and medically) unclean.  Once cleansed by Jesus, he is to report to the priest and make the offerings described in leviticus.  For Luke, the cleansed leper is all of us: we are leprous in sin, and Jesus washes us, making us clean.  (And if we were a bit more Baptist about it, we would note that we have been washed clean in Jesus’ blood.)

But I think there is more to baptism cleansing; it is, I believe, also healing. Jesus tells the paralytic, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”  So, too, we are healed and forgiven.  I think Luther talked about every day including baptism, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that daily we are cleansed and, when we confess our sins, we are forgiven. In this daily ritual, Jesus’ forgiving power raises us to new life.

Side note: Maybe it’s a stretch, but we could make a case for the man being lowered down from the roof as symbolic of each of us being lowered into the baptismal waters before Jesus, who forgives our sins.

 

Psalm 78:56-64; Deuteronomy 4:1-31; Luke 5:1-11

Psalm 78:56-64: Even though Israel conquered and now occupies the Promised Land [“And He drove out nations before them and set them down in a plot of estate, and made Israel’s tribes dwell in their tents.” (55)] they are the same contentious crowd that complained about leaving Egypt and complained and rebelled for forty years in the wilderness.  Crossing the Jordan appears not to have changed their behavior one whit: “Yet they tried God the Most High and rebelled, and His precepts they did not keep.  They fell back and betrayed like their fathers,” (56,57a).

Having not completely wiped out the Canaanites, they adopted their idol worship, and this was most egregious of all: “They vexed Him with their high places, incensed Him with their idols.” (58) and in the deuteronomic opinion of the psalmist, God responded appropriately, “God heard and was angry, wholly rejected Israel.” (59)

We are then presented with a passage describing God’s retribution in detail. Israel is conquered by its enemies, “He let his might [i.e. Israel] become captive” (61). The psalmist reports the outcome in gruesome detail,

He gave over his people to the sword,
against His estate He was enraged.
His young men the fire consumed
and His virgins no wedding song knew.
His priests fell to the sword, (62-64)

This retributive theology (“if you sin, God will punish you directly for it”) certainly explains why, in Jesus time, the rich were blessed and the poor were being punished and why lepers were paying for someone’s, if not their own, sins. In the face of this belief, Jesus articulated his radical idea about how things operated quite differently in the Kingdom. For which we can be grateful.

Deuteronomy 4:1-31: Deuteronomic theology is, of course, at the core of this eponymous book.  Moses is crystalline on the matter: “for every man that went after Baal Peor did the LORD your God  destroy from your midst. But you, the ones clinging to the LORD your God, are all of you alive today.” (4,5)

But it is also the very foundation of our own laws and concept of justice today: “And what great nation is there that has just statutes and laws like all this teaching that I am about to set before you today?” (8)  As well as the concept of personal responsibility, “Only be you on the watch and watch yourself closely lest you forget the things that your own eyes have seen and lest they swerve from your heart— all the days of your life, and you shall make them.” (9)

Moses reveals he will not be crossing the Jordan with them, and in this benedictory speech, asks the people to remember one thing above all, “Be you on the watch, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He has sealed with you,” (22), warning them especially to avoid idol-making, which of course is what led to the outcome the psalmist describes in today’s passage.

Moses describes the vast difference between idols, “gods that are human handiwork, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.” and God, “And you shall search for the LORD your God from there, and you shall find him when you seek Him with all your heart and with all  your being.”  There it is: the radical difference between the monotheistic God of Israel and all the small-g gods. God created us–not the other way around– and lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. If we seek God he will always find us.

But just as Israel goes awry as it falls for the man-made gods, so do we.  Our gods may be more technologically clever, but conflict between the desires of our selfish hearts and the God’s desire to dwell in our hearts is exactly the same three millennia later.

 Luke 5:1-11: One of the things Luke makes clear is that Jesus knew these fishermen.  He didn’t just materialize on the beach and ask them to follow him.  Jesus knew them well enough to ask to use the boat as a pulpit, as he “he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.” (3)

But then, in a brilliantly written passage that itself becomes a metaphor, Jesus suggests the fishermen go fishing, and they enjoy enormous success.  This of course is the metaphor for what Peter and the disciples will accomplish in the early church that Luke describes in Acts.

Not surprisingly, Peter is the first disciple to speak in Luke’s account, and after basically telling Jesus his plan won’t work (“we have worked all night long but have caught nothing”) he agrees to it anyway, (“Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”) (5) He soon realizes that he is in the presence of someone who has unimaginable power directly from God.  And is in effect, standing on holy ground for which he is not worthy, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (8).

Which, when you think about it, is how we all come to a honest relationship with Jesus Christ.  First, skepticism, then eventually (and this can be a long time for a lot of us) agreement to do what Jesus suggests, and then we stand in awe at what he has done, realizing our own sinfulness and how puny our own results are compared to Jesus’.  But like Peter, and his partners, James and John, Jesus calls us to follow Jesus.

That’s the crucial moment. Jesus has come to us and asked us to follow him.  What do we decide? Do we drop everything and follow? (I’ve long wondered what became of those two boatloads of fish.)  Or do we hang on to our fish, which is so often our economic security, just as it was for Peter, James and John?  Or are we willing to leave it all on the beach and follow Jesus?

Psalm 78:40-55; Deuteronomy 3; Luke 4:31-44

Psalm 78:40-55:  These verses recall what Israel forgot: “And again did they try God,/ and Israel’s Holy One they provoked. /They did not recall His great hand, / the day He ransomed them from the foe,” (41,42) This is an indictment against Israel specifically, but it’s an indictment against us, too.  We too easily forget what God through Jesus Christ has done for us.

We may go to the mountaintop, but once we are back home, we become consumed with the quotidian details of life.  We forget the close communion with God. Pretty soon, we start thinking we’re able to do life on our own.  Occasionally, we remember God, but mostly to complain to Him about His manifest failings to deliver what we’ve asked for.

So, too, with Israel.  So, the psalmist forces them to remember, detail by detail.  He reviews the plagues that led up to Israel’s escape. From the first one, “He turned their rivers to blood,” (42) to the last, “He struck down each firstborn in Egypt, / first fruit of manhood in the tents of Ham.” (52). God brought them through the sea, “He guided them safely—they feared not,/ and their enemies the sea covered.” (53).  And now, “He brought them to His holy realm, / the mount His right hand had acquired,” (53) which would be the foot of Sinai.

This historical review of Israel’s national history at this low level of abstraction is a good lesson for us as we grow older.  How often do I sit down and review detail by detail my journey over the past 50 years (since I graduated from high school.)  Have I taken the time to review where God has been present and how he has acted in my own life to my benefit?

Deuteronomy 3: While it may seem as if today’s psalm is reviewing Israel’s history from Egypt to Sinai in great detail, it is a quick overview compared to Moses’ narrative of all the battles Israel has fought and where and against whom.  As ever, God, speaking through Moses, is deeply involved in the details as he reviews this battle history down to the size of giant King Og’s bedstead, “Look, his bedstead, an iron bedstead,… Nine cubits its length and four cubits its width.” (12)

These details lead to the theme of the chapter, and what is to be the theme of Israel going forward, if they will only listen to, and obey, God: “‘Your own eyes have seen all that the LORD your God did to these two kings. So shall the LORD do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross.” (21) God tells them these are not mere stories, but that they have been eyewitnesses to what God has accomplished through them.  Just as we need to recall what God has been able to accomplish through us.

Tougher times are yet to come.  But because we have been witnesses to God’s acts in the past and that girds our faith for the future. Alongside Israel, we must remember, “You shall not fear  them, for it is the LORD your God Who does battle for you.’” (22)  Of course, that requires us to abandon our own agendas and follow God’s.  Easier said than done, I fear.

The chapter concludes with Moses poignant request to cross over into the Promised Land, “Let me, pray, cross over that I may see the goodly land which is across the Jordan,” (24).   Moses says he can’t cross over, not because he struck the rock at Meribah, but because “the LORD was cross with me because of you, and He did not listen to me.” (26).  Instead, Moses blames the intransigent, cowardly, whining people of Israel, who have caused him to lose favor in God’s eyes. But God brushes Moses off, “‘Enough for you! Do not speak more to Me of this matter.” (27)

Notice how Moses deflects the blame from his action at Meribah to the people’s behavior.  God rightly says, Stop whining, Moses.”  I think the editors of Deuteronomy have brilliantly reminded us that even though Moses is the last Patriarch to speak directly to God, he is also very human.  Again, God does great things through great people, but they are not demigods. They have the same human failings as we.

Luke 4:31-44: Jesus returns to Capernaum and exorcises a demon right there in the synagogue (where I have stood!). Unlike the response of the crowd in the Nazareth synagogue, this group’s reaction is quite different, ““What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 

Luke’s ever-present subtext has to do with the words Jesus speaks and the power with which he speaks them.  While Luke is certainly taking a different approach than John, there’s no question here that Luke clearly sees Jesus as the Word. We see that again later in this section, where Jesus makes it clear that his overriding purpose of ministry is Proclaimer,”“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (43), which Luke underscores by remarking, “So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.” (44). For John, Jesus is the metaphysical Word.  For Luke, Jesus is the active, proclaiming Word.

I’ve never thought much about why the demons know Jesus is the son of God.  I assume it’s because they inhabit that “principalities and power” netherworld. That Jesus was Messiah was simple fact to them.  It’s the humans that are the more difficult case because they keep misinterpreting Jesus, which is why he told the demons to be quiet. Jesus’ task of proclaiming is goig to take some time; it must not be short-circuited.

 

Psalm 78:32-39; Deuteronomy 2; Luke 4:22-30

Psalm 78:32-39: In this section our psalmist deals with the issue of true faith vs. feigned faith.  Trouble happens in the wilderness and they “came back and looked for God.” (34b).  They said all the right stuff: “they recalled that God was their rock and the Most High God their redeemer.” (35) but they were only empty words with nothing behind them: “… they beguiled Him with their lips, / and with their tongue they lied to Him. (36) Empty words because “their heart was not firm with Him, / and they were not faithful to His pact.” (37).

How often I have mouthed the words of faith but behind them is either doubt or emptiness–or both? Clearly I’m part of a long and highly populated line of people.  But even when we mouth empty words, and are unfaithful to God, He is faithful to us: “Yet He is compassionate,” and even though God would be completely justified in zapping us, instead “He atones for crime and does not destroy, / and abundantly takes back His wrath.” (38)

The psalmist answers why God is merciful: “He recalls that they are flesh, a spirit that goes off and does not come back.” (39) God knows, understands, accepts, and above all, forgives our fleshly weakness.  Like little children, “we wander off.”  And although the psalmist doesn’t say it here, just after wandering off, we then get angry at God because we think in the silence, he has deserted us. Who has deserted Whom?

Deuteronomy 2: This complicated passage recounts the peoples who have inhabited various parts of the lands surrounding Canaan. The overriding message is that all of the lands and kingdoms through which Israel passes are not to be occupied by Israel.   God has reserved Canaan for them, but the land of Seir, which “they are not to besiege”  is reserved for the descendants of Esau. In fact, they need to pass through rather gingerly, paying the natives for whatever food and drink they consume.  (This passage about Seir seems to reflect Jacob’s lingering fear of his elder brother, whose birthright he stole.)

Same thing for Moab: leave it alone “for I will not give you his land as an inheritance,” because it belongs to “the sons of Lot.”  It’s fascinating how God has apparently designated the other lands for the relatives of Abraham, which is of course in keeping for the demographics that persist today.

Equally interesting is that the peoples who occupied these lands before Abraham’s relatives are also named.  They seem to have been giants and other fearsome creatures. My favorite is the “Zamzummim,  a great and multitudinous people, and lofty as the giants.” (21).  The key point I think God is making here through his mouthpiece, Moses, is that God has dominion over Creation and has the absolute right to say who will occupy what land.  Something that comes down to us today in the form of borders and immigration laws.  Only no one is listening to God and we have the conundrums such as modern Israel/ Palestine and Iraq, a single land fought over by different tribes.

Moses then discusses the conquest of Sihon because it was God’s will that Israel posses this land, “the LORD said to me, ‘See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land before you. Begin— take hold— to take hold of his land.’” (31)  The army of Israel also accomplished what God is going to ask them to do in Canaan: “we captured all his towns at that time and we put every town under the ban, menfolk and the women and the little ones , we left no remnant.” (35) Always distressing to our western ears, but God has His reasons,as the subsequent history of Israel so tragically proves.

Luke 4:22-30:  Things had started out so well after Jesus read the Isaiah passage. As Kevin noted this past Sunday, the congregation was beaming with pride at their hometown boy made good.  Nazareth, under the Roman yoke, doubtless thought that the Messiah, who was in their eyes, a political savior would arise from this dusty backwater town, and rescue all of Israel from Rome, and restore Israel to its former glory. A carpenter from Nazareth, no less!

After Jesus makes it more than clear that he has no intention of becoming Israel’s political savior by citing the Elijah and Elisha examples of rescuing Gentiles rather than Jews, all hell breaks loose.  Yet even in light this rather firm rejection by the people of Nazareth of their erstwhile messiah, the idea of Jesus as political messiah persisted in the minds of people–including his disciples–up until the very last minute of Jesus’ ministry.  Even among his disciples.  And certainly among the Jerusalem power structure who saw their sinecures threatened.

Of course, Luke’s intention is to again make it clear to his Gentile audience that Jesus did not come exclusively for the Jews, but for the Gentiles, as well.  Even today, even though his message about the Kingdom of God is equally applicable to his own people, Jesus remains rejected by Judaism; the prophet has certainly never been accepted by his hometown.

I’m struck by the last verse in this passage, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”  Jesus ignores the execration and threats of the crowd and “went on his way.”  A good lesson for us when we encounter hostility to Jesus’ message. Or start worrying that we’re no longer a “Christian country,” or worry about politics.  Jesus lust went on his way, shaking the dust form his sandals.  Why can’t we?