Psalm 91:9-16; Joshua 8:1-29; Luke 12:35-48

Psalm 91:9-16: God’s protection is more than God just being there in the midst of danger, battle or plague.  God’s protection–His shelter– is where we come to live: “For you—the LORD is your refuge, the Most High you have made your abode.” (9) That is where we are completely safe: “No harm will befall you, nor affliction draw near to your tent.” (10)

One of the most famous verses in Psalms reminds us that God sends His angels to protect us, “On their palms they lift you up lest your foot be bruised by a stone.” (12)  This is an apt image because the mountainous paths of Israel and Judah were scattered with rocks and presented constant obstacles to the traveler.  So too, we face an ongoing path of obstacles, but God is not just a one-time God; we are rescued again and again.  As I know by personal experience…

God Himself speaks in the final verses of this psalm in one of the best descriptions we have of God’s protective actions beginning with freedom: “…I freed him. I raised him high, for he has known My name.” (14) And unlike those many psalms that cry out to an apparently absent God, “He calls Me and I answer him,” (15)  Not only are we protected, but we are rescued: “I am with him in his straits. I deliver him and grant him honor.” (15). Finally, we are granted long life, and again, the idea that we are continually rescued, “With length of days I shall sate him, and show him my rescue.” (16)

This is God’s promise. May we remember it in our darker days.

Joshua 8:1-29: (I mistakenly wrote on this passage a few days ago, and repeat my thoughts here.)

In a brilliant military stratagem, Joshua draws out the inhabitants of Ai, and when he sees they’ve all exited the fortified city, raises his sword, which is a signal to the ambush group to enter and burn the city. No matter which way the Ai-ites tried to flee they were surrounded and in accordance with God’s command, “Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped.” (22). The city of Ai was reduced to rubble, its king hung, and the victorious “and raised over [the remains of Ai] a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

As much as we would like to think of God as a being strictly a God of peace, God also enables and here in this context anyway, even condones war.  Moreover, every inhabitant, including women and children, was annihilated. Is this really the will of a God of grace and mercy? Apparently so.

Had humankind not fallen, then there would have been no need for war. But our fallen state, alas, includes combat and battles. Was conquering Ai a “just war?” Who knows? This is an issue we are grappling with even this week in pretty much the same geographical territory.

Luke 12:35-48: (I wrote on this passage last week–did the Moravians send the wrong readings?  In any event, here are some further thoughts on the last portion of this passage.)

Jesus’ last sentences in the parable of the slaves have to do with with responsibility. If we think of the slaves as workers in the Kingdom, it is clear we have knowledge about what the Master expects of us.  The Gospel is Good News, but it is far more than that. Jesus gave us instructions to carry this Good News into the world.  Like the slaves here, we know “what his master wanted.” But while this knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient because if we are like the slave, we must be prepared to carry out our duties. Which here would certainly include carrying the Good News to others. 

Will we “receive a severe beating” in the form of some punishment? Here, I think we need to be careful and not over-interpret the parable. After all, we are not God’s slaves and we live under the terms of grace. But by knowing but not working we pay what economists call an “opportunity cost.” We miss out. We could have had so much more by working more diligently in the Kingdom, by bringing the Good News to those we pass by every day.  I know that I have certainly been negligent and missed many opportunities which could have brought great joy.

Psalm 91:1-8; Joshua 7; Luke 12:22-34

Psalm 91:1-8: Nowhere else in the Bible do we find a more eloquent description of how God protects us from danger.  If there were ever a psalm to memorize before setting out on a dangerous mission or for a soldier to read before battle, it is this one.

The person being protected speaks in verse 2, “My refuge and bastion, / my God in whom I trust.” And in the end that is the only prayer we need to say. But the psalmist takes up that theme in the subsequent verses, elaborating in all the ways we will be protected. We are protected both from accident and from an epidemic: “For He will save you from the fowler’s snare, / from the disastrous plague.” (3) and from the “terror of the night” and in war, “the arrow that flies by day,” (4). In light of the ebola in Africa, verse 6 has particular resonance in that God will protect us “from the plague that stalks in darkness [and] from the scourge that rages at noon.”

The image of war and terrorism is evoked in the memorable verse, “Though a thousand fall at your side / and ten thousand at your right hand,/ you it will not reach.” (7)

I think it’s important to note that we will still experience woes and disasters in our lives, remembering that this is a psalm of encouragement, not of prediction. But when we place our complete trust in God we are placed in a protective context far greater than ourselves. The difficult mission is not something we have to do completely alone and unprotected.

When we embark on a dangerous journey knowing that God is with us, our courage is strengthened and we know that even if evil befalls us, we are in the arms of One who loves us.  And that makes all the difference.

Joshua 7: The sin of Achan–taking silver and gold that was the spoils of war and burying it in his tent–is an ominous precursor of the sins of Israel which will follow.  God has required that all the “devoted things” be given to Him alone, and Achan’s sin cannot be tolerated. Through a remarkable tribe-by-tribe winnowing process, Achan is finally identified.

Achan confesses, but his entire family is stoned an all his possessions are burnt. This is not only a memorable lesson to the rest of Israel–one they won’t soon forget–but it is also a stark reminder that confession does not necessarily lead to forgiveness, much less exoneration.  And an equally stark reminder that one man’s sins infect his entire family.

Joshua has asked  the crucial “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” (25) Neither God nor Joshua are being capricious. The moral health of the community depends on the moral behavior of its members. A lesson we seem well on our way to forgetting in our post-Christian society today.

Luke 12:22-34: Luke doesn’t give us the back-story that leads to Jesus’ incredibly encouraging words, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (22, 23a) [And in another striking “Moravian coincidence,” both today’s psalm and this gospel are about encouragement.]

I suspect that the disciples saw that even though Jesus’ popularity was at an all-time high and he was surrounded by crowds, they were poor and hungry and tired. I’d like to think that the disciples didn’t complain about their sorry lot, but that Jesus recognized their downcast spirits and encourages them with his memorable words. (Although Judas, as the disciple’s treasurer probably pointed out the sorry state of their finances.)

We’re just like the disciples. All we humans spend lots of time worrying, especially about finances. And lots of us (me included) work hard to maintain our financial position and save for the unexpected. Yet, I know of many dedicated Christians who have been down to their last dollar and receive unexpected gifts form places they never anticipated, and from those they never asked. They are living proof of what Jesus is talking about here.

So why is my faith that God will provide so weak? I suppose once again it’s my own attempts to control what happens rather than giving myself wholly over to God’s providence. In the end it’s all about Kingdom priority.  I talk a good line, but my actions still indicate that I have at least one foot in the worldly treasure department.

Psalm 90; Joshua 5,6; Luke 12:13-21

Psalm 90: This beautiful psalm resonates in our modern world as it compares the evanescence of our own lives to God’s eternity. We cannot really comprehend God’s perspective, who is outside of time.  “For a thousand years in Your eyes are like yesterday gone, like a watch in the night.” (4) The poet starts with a millennium, compresses it to a single day (“yesterday”) and reduces it again to a “watch in the night,” just three or four hours.

The fleetingness of our time here on earth is like grass that, “In the morning it sprouts and passes, / by evening it withers and dies.” (6) The psalmist then becomes very specific about just how little time we really do have: “The days of our years are but seventy years, / and if in great strength, eighty years.” (10a)

The underlying question is, what do we do with those few years? The psalmist’s initial answer is depressing: “And their pride is trouble and grief, for swiftly cut down, we fly off.” (10b) Is that all that life consists of? Without a relationship with God, that would be so.

But further down, hope emerges: “To count our days rightly, instruct, / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (12)  Only in a true relationship with God, will we gain a “heart of wisdom.” In this relationship God will “Sate us in the morn with Your kindness, let us sing and rejoice all our days.” How much better to be worshipping God than a life that is empty and then “swiftly cut down.”

Joshua 5,6: After circumcising those who had been “born on the journey through the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised,” the manna ceases and ” they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna;” (12). The two acts reaffirm God’s covenantal relationship with Israel as the break point between Israel in the wilderness and Israel in Canaan. 

Joshua has his own burning bush moment, seeing “a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.” Recognizing this to be the commander of the army of God, Joshua falls on his face and asks what God commands. There is but one command, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” (15) cUnlike Moses, Joshua does not meet God directly, but “only” the commander of God’s army, and frustratingly, we do not hear what was said to Joshua. But it’s a clear message that Joshua is the anointed commander of the army of Israel, and there is much to be done.

In Sunday School, we learn about the fall of the walls of Jericho, but not of the total destruction wreaked on its inhabitants: “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (21) We also did not learn that Rahab, who hid the messengers, was a prostitute. 

This is one of those places where it’s clear that God is indifferent to who we are and is asking only that we be faithful–as Rahab was. None of us, no matter how much we may have sinned, is exempt from God’s grace when we turn to God.

Luke 12:13-21: The parable of the rich fool is another one of those times when the readings are in synchrony. Today’s psalm notes the brevity of our existence; the parable reflects on how wisely–or unwisely–we use our brief time here and who we believe to be in charge.  The rich man believed all he had done was his own doing and that he had done it well.  Time to sit back and say,”to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”(19)

But Jesus is saying life doesn’t work that way: “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (20) And yet we continue to believe that if we work hard, save our money, prepare for a future without God that everything will work out just fine.  As anyone who has encountered and lived through a life-threatening illness can tell you, that is a fool’s errand. Only when staring death in the face do we realize that our new barns are not where the real point of life lies; they are empty works. We cannot insure ourselves; we cannot accomplish great things on our own. Only Jesus can do that.

Psalm 89:46-52; Joshua 8:1-29; Luke 12:35-48

Writing today and for the next several weeks from the porch at Hamilton Beach in Wareham, Massachusetts.

Psalm 89:46-52: The conclusion of this long psalm ends on a note that is at once accusatorial and wistful. The preceding verses have described both David’s political and personal downfall. “You put an end to his splendor, / and his throne You hurled to the ground. /You cut short the days of his prime. /You enveloped him with shame.”(45, 46).

Then the psalmist expands his horizon to include all of humankind: “Recall how fleeting I am, / how futile You made all humankind.” (47). It’s almost as if the poet is asking,’Look, God, in the larger scheme of things, we men are here for only a second or two. So why do you make our brief almost ephemeral lives so miserable?’  After all, every person will die,”What man alive will never see death, / will save his life from the grip of Sheol?” (49).  ‘Can’t we just enjoy the brief moments we are here?’

The psalm concludes with one final plea to remember David–and to remember us when you treated us kindly: “Where are Your former kindnesses, Master, / that you vowed to David in Your faithfulness?” (50)  Which of course is exactly what God does by sending His savior into the world–as John puts it, not to condemn it, but to save it.

Joshua 8:1-29: In a brilliant military stratagem, Joshua draws out the inhabitants of Ai, and when he sees they’ve all exited the fortified city, raises his sword, which is a signal to the ambush group to enter and burn the city. No matter which way the Ai-ites tried to flee they were surrounded and in accordance with God’s command, “Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped.” (22). The city of Ai was reduced to rubble, its king hung, and the victorious “and raised over [the remains of Ai] a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

As much as we would like to think of God as a being strictly a God of peace, God also enables and here in this context anyway, even condones war.  Moreover, every inhabitant, including women and children, was annihilated. Is this really the will of a God of grace and mercy? Apparently so.

Had humankind not fallen, then there would have been no need for war. But our fallen state, alas, includes combat and battles. Was conquering Ai a “just war?” Who knows? This is an issue we are grappling with even this week in pretty much the same geographical territory.

Luke 12:35-48: Even though the Lutheran church pretty much addresses Jesus’ second coming only when we recite the Creeds (I think I’ve heard only one or two sermons about the second coming in my 35+ years at Saint Matthew), Jesus seems pretty clear on the matter. As he is here: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (40) 

Obviously, the key for us is not to try–as too many fundamentalists have done–to figure out when that will happen.  Whenever it is, it will be completely unexpected.  Our responsibility is clear and simple: be prepared.

As always, there is nothing random about Luke’s ordering of events or of Jesus’ parables. The parable of faithful and unfaithful slaves is a followup to being prepared, because Jesus is explaining what we are supposed to be doing in the meantime before the Master returns.  Clearly, we are expected to be at work in the Kingdom: “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (43).

But if we turn from our honest Kingdom work and become distracted then corruption will inevitably creep in. Some will think they are better than others and “begin to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” (45b) As Jesus notes, a harsh penalty will ensue. How often this has happened in the church! Jesus knew exactly what would go wrong across the past 2000 years.

That is why leadership is so crucial. If it’s corrupt at the top, then odds are it will be corrupt throughout. If it’s wandering away from Jesus at the top, then the entire body wanders away.

Leaders are not just “one of the guys.” They are an example to whom everyone else looks.  A leader’s role comes with heightened responsibility: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (48)

In today’s post-Christian world, the world is looking harder than ever for Christian leaders who fall–and to which they can point in derision in the world’s unrelenting quest to identify “hypocrites.”  In that regard, everyone of us is a leader–and Jesus expects much of us.

Psalm 89:19-29; Joshua 3,4; Luke 12:1-12

Writing this morning from Geneva, IL.

Psalm 89:19-29: This portion of the psalm is a paean to King David, “I found David my servant, with My holy oil anointed him,” (21) and how God is on his side, “I will grind down his foes before him and defeat those who hate him.” (23)

But as at the beginning of the psalm, the underlying theme is God’s faithfulness, “My faithfulness and My kindness are with him, and in My name his horn will be lifted” (25) and that David will reciprocate that faithfulness: “He will call me: ‘My father You are, my God and the rock of my rescue.’” (27).

Again, we must observe that it is God who is first faithful to David. David did not seek out God, he responded.  I was again reminded that we are a responding people when two children were baptized yesterday at Bethel Lutheran in Madison, WI.

So, too, for us.  How many people are vainly “looking for God?” They think it is their duty to find, and then to please God in order for God to reveal Himself.  And yet, there He is all the time: right alongside us. We need only drop our mask of pretension that it is through our effort and our need to control our circumstances that God can be found. And once having done that we find God standing there all the time.

Joshua 3,4:  There is remarkable symmetry in Israel’s departure from Egypt and its entrance into Canaan. As they water in haste to escape the pursuing Egyptians, now they cross water as a conquering army. Both times they must do so in haste. No time can be wasted.

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

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

The phrase, “they are there to this day” is a reminder that God intervenes in real space and real time, and is a God of linear history.  We have been given the gift of memory; we are to use it. But as we know from Israel’s own history, they forgot where the Ark had crossed over.  And our own history is littered with the relics and events of the ongoing tragedy of forgetting history and forgetting God–and having to learn the hard lesson all over again. Exactly as our society is managing to do once again.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Psalm 89:1-8; Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12; Luke 11:29-36

I’m writing this morning from Madison, Wisconsin, where we have arrived safely after a 2600+ mile drive.

Psalm 89:1-8: This psalm acclaims God’s faithfulness to His people again and again:

“For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.” (1)
“You set Your faithfulness firm.” (2)
“the heavens will acclaim…Your faithfulness, too,” (4)
“…who is like You, …with Your faithfulness round You?” (8)

I tend to talk about my faithfulness (or lack thereof), but not about God’s relentless faithfulness to me, regardless of how well I return that faithfulness. Here in the psalm, God is faithful specifically to King David: “I have sealed a pact with my chosen one, I have sworn to David My servant.” (4) And through the sacrificial love Jesus Christ, I know that God will never abandon me.

We talk about how God loves us. But it is His faithfulness that takes love out of the realm of the abstract and makes it real on a daily basis. That no matter how I screw up, I will be forgiven because God is faithful to me. And with the psalmist my response can only be worship in gratitude and along with “the heavens [I] will acclaim Your wonder, O LORD.” (5)

Deuteronomy 33:18-34:12: At the end of Moses’ long poem/song of blessing for each of the tribes of Israel, we find the striking verse, “Happy are you, Israel. Who is like you? A people delivered by the LORD, Your shield of help and the sword of your triumph. Your enemies cower before you and you on their backs will tread.” (33:29)

In light of current events, I think we must acknowledge that this verse is not just poetic hyperbole, but a prophecy that seems relevant even today. To be sure, modern Israel is a long way culturally and spiritually from the ancient Israel. But I think we would be too hasty in dismissing the idea that there is still at least a remnant of the original covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

As the psalmist notes above, God is faithful, and specifically faithful to the house of David.  Who are we to dismiss the idea that there is not something greater going on here than an unending battle between Israel and its neighbors?

Deuteronomy concludes with the narrative of Moses’ death and burial, and Israel’s mourning. (Or “keening” as Alter has it.)

Chapter 12 opens with Moses’ ascent: “And Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which faces Jericho. And the LORD let him see all the land, (34:1,2). Mountains have played an important role in Moses’ life, most notably Sinai. And here, Moses looks at the land God has promised to the “stiff-necked” people that he has led all these years.

I have always thought of Moses’ inability to enter the Promised Land as a form of punishment by God. Perhaps it is, but I think it’s also a message that leaders can accomplish great things, but there is a limit to which they can go, and then the reins must be handed over. Too many leaders throughout history have accomplished great things but then became failures by virtue of holding too firmly to their position.  This view of the Promised is Moses’ reward. But I have to think Moses was relieved that he could finally rest.

Moses has ascended to the position of the greatest of Israel’s prophets, and his ascent to the mountaintop attests to this.  And as our writer acknowledges, “But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,” (34:10)

Luke 11:29-36: Jesus remarks that the people “seek a sign” that their Messiah has indeed returned. But as usual, he turns the situation upside down and tells them that they are looking for the wrong thing. Jonah went to the gentiles of Ninevah; so too, Jesus has come to accomplish something much greater than just a Jewish messiah. He has come for all of the Ninevahs of the world. I think that is what he means when he says, “something greater than Jonah is here!” (32)

Jesus makes the rather mysterious remark, “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” (35) What sort of light is in fact darkness? Is it the light of our self-taught wisdom? That’s what Paul is getting at, I think, in the first chapter of I Corinthians about our wisdom vs. God’s wisdom that appears to be foolishness to “wise men.”

In the modern context, light that is actually darkness would seem to be spiritual quests of “self-discovery”–that the light (or enlightenment) is already within ourselves and all we have to do is reflect and meditate enough in order to”discover it.” Jesus is saying rather clearly though, that is a dead end and not really light at all.

But if we use our figurative and literal eyes to see that the Light comes from beyond ourselves, not from within ourselves, then we become healthy. And we know that the Light comes only via Jesus.

Psalm 87; Deuteronomy 29:22-31:8; Luke 10:17-24

Writing this morning from the La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza in Santa Fe, NM.

Psalm 87: This paean to Jerusalem [“The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” (2)] appears to have been written by a poet from somewhere else, [“Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush, —this one was born there.” (4)] but who may have converted to Judiasm, as he observes that “of Zion it shall be said: every man is born in it,” (5) and that “The LORD inscribes in the record of peoples:  this one was born there.”(6)

And not just that God writes his name, but that God is the source of life, ““All my wellsprings are in you.” (7)

As usual, God is in the details and keeps careful records. Moreover, God knows us by name.  These verses must certainly have been on Paul’s mind when he wrote the letter to Phillipi (4:3) and on John’s mind when he writes of the “book of life” in Revelation.

Deuteronomy 29:22-31:8: The author paints a picture of the destruction of Israel should it disobey the commands and break its Covenant with God: “What is this great smouldering wrath?’ And they will say, ‘For their having abandoned the Covenant of the LORD, God of their fathers,” (29:24) for the greatest sin of all, “they went and worshipped other gods and bowed to them, gods that they did not know…”(29:25)

Here is one of those places where we see the angry, wrathful God that so disturbs us, but as I’ve learned in therapy, anger may be a secondary emotion, but it is still a legitimate feeling. Nevertheless, verse 27 is remarkable for its use of the many synonyms of anger: “And the LORD tore them from upon their soil in wrath and in anger and in great fury…” And in either a prediction or observation of the Babylonian exile, the verse concludes, “…and flung them into another land as on this day.’”

But in chapter 30, there is the promise of return, because God knows that ” you shall turn back to the LORD your God and heed His voice…” (30:2) and “He [God] shall turn back and gather you in from all the peoples to which the LORD your God has scattered you.” (30:4)

The angry God is actually a loving God, whose anger is justified, and in one of the most beautiful verses in Deuteronomy, “the LORD your God shall circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being for your life’s sake.” (30:7)

The circumcised heart is one which, to use Oswald Chambers’ construction, is a heart that has completely abandoned ego and given itself wholly over to God.  And unlike Israel, which operated wholly under the terms of the Old Covenant, we have been granted grace under the terms of the New Covenant. The question always remains: can I abandon my ego to Christ?

After many, many chapters of rules, commands, imprecations and threats, Moses “finished speaking these words to all Israel.” (31:1) and tells his listeners, “A hundred and twenty years old I am today. I can no longer sally forth and come in, and the LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’” (31:2)

One final plea, reminiscent of Henry V’s St. Crispin Day speech, encourages all Israel, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear and do not dread them, for the LORD your God, He it is Who goes with you. He will not let go of you and He will not forsake you.” (31:6) and passes the con to Joshua.

These final words are increasingly apropos for those of us living in an increasingly post-Christian world surrounded by hostility to those who dare speak out against the prevailing culture.

Luke 10:17-24:  Once again, one of those Moravian parallels.  As the psalmist rejoices that his name was written in the book of Zion, Jesus promises and even better thing, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (10:20)

For guys like me, what Jesus says about how to discover God and God’s purposes is profoundly important.  I cannot intellectualize myself into heaven, for “you [God] have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”  (21b) We must come to the kingdom as innocent babes.

Jesus has intentionally picked disciples who are not scholars or “wise,” but in keeping with Luke’s theme that Jesus turned things upside down and inside out, it is the seemingly foolish who are first in the Kingdom and to whom much has been revealed, “I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (24)

And even though Paul did not have Luke’s gospel in front of him when he wrote his letter to Corinth, he says the same thing about the wise and the foolish. You’d think I’d have figured this out by now and abandoned intellectual pretense.

Psalm 85:8-13; Deuteronomy 27:14-28:24; Luke 9:37-50

Note: I will be posting only sporadically for the next several weeks as Susan and I are shifting coasts and will be in Massachusetts for the remainder of the summer. But we are taking a long time to get there…

Psalm 85:8-13: Once God has rescued Israel (again!) and Israel will finally see the error of its ways, “when He speaks peace to His people and to His faithful, /that they turn not back to folly.” (8) Then, a new era will be brought into being.   Its qualities are described in a remarkable verse that pairs two pairs:  “Kindness and truth have met, / justice and peace have kissed.” (10) Truth is no longer harsh and forbidding; it is gentle and kind. Extending this almost romantic image is the bold, almost sexual metaphor, “justice and peace have kissed.”

We can imagine four allegorical figures: two men and two women.  I have no basis other than cultural stereotyping for this, but I suggest that truth and justice have masculine qualities and kindness and peace are softer, more feminine. God introduces truth to kindness. Truth, even when it’s a hard truth, is ultimately an act of kindness. Protecting people from truth inevitably leads to a bad end. Speaking truth firmly and gently, even with compassion, is an act of kindness.

There can be no peace without justice. Thus the even more forthright kiss and, we imagine, embrace. They go hand in hand.  Then, with a vertical thrust and energy, which underscores their masculine qualities, “Truth from the earth will spring up, as justice from the heavens looks down.” (11) Heaven and earth are the totality of God creation. Truth and justice can only exist together.  Without truth there can be no justice.  Absent truth, justice os far off.

The psalmist knits all four of these qualities into a whole that describes in very human terms that demonstrates that God’s blessings are far greater than better crops and winning battles.

Deuteronomy 27:14-28:24: The last half of chapter 27 lays out twelve (one for each tribe?) acts, which resemble the decalogue, but focus on idolatry and sexual sins. In an interesting psychological device, these are not mere proscriptions in writing. This is not just “don;t do this,” but “cursed be he.” Cursing had even greater impact in that society than our, for it meant being cast out of the community.

Further underscoring the seriousness of these sins in this catalog, each one is spoken aloud and Israel must reply, “Amen.”  This is much more the nature of spoken vow, as one would do before testifying in court.  When we speak aloud and then say, “Amen,” we have spoken before the community and they will hold us to a higher standard than we might hold ourselves.

From the curses at the end of chapter 27 to the blessings of chapter 28… Here is the deuteronomic deal: obey God and you will be blessed. Obedience must come first. “If you truly heed the voice of the L ORD  your God to keep to do all His commands … all these blessings will come upon you and overtake you when you heed the voice of the LORD your God.” (28:2,3)

An amazing catalog of blessings will result. Blessings in town and field (4). and possibly the greatest blessings of all, fecundity: “Blessed the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil and the fruit of your beasts, the get of your herds and  the offspring of your flock.” (5)

God’s side of the Covenant is reiterated, “The LORD will set you up for Him as a holy people as He has sworn to you when you keep the command of the LORD your God and walk in His ways.” (28:9).

But absent that obedience, blessing is replaced by curses, as the catalog of blessings is turned inside out and repeated in essentially the same order as the blessings above. Including barrenness, “Cursed the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, the get of your herds and the offspring of your flock.” (28:19) Perhaps worst of all, “The LORD will strike you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with burning and with desiccation and with emaciation and with jaundice, and they will pursue you till you perish.” (28:23)

It’s little wonder that the Jews of Jesus’ time saw such a string correlation between a person’s behavior / circumstances and God’s favor or disfavor. But I think it’s worth remembering that these blessings and curses here in Deuteronomy are pronounced on Israel as a whole. The Pharisees had taken things too far, I think, in applying the rules of blessing and curses at the level of the individual person.

Luke 9:37-50: Luke makes an crucial point about Jesus’ healing of the demon-possessed boy. After the boy is healed, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” (43) He does not say “all were astounded at the greatness of Jesus.” Even though they had not witnessed the Transfiguration, the crowds are figuring out that there is a direct connection between Jesus and God.

In a brilliant interplay of the light of healing and darkness of Jesus’ ultimate death creates the tension that drives this gospel forward with such force, Luke immediately shifts the scene to the intimacy of Jesus and his disciples. In stark contrast of the joy of the healed boy, the scene grows dark as Jesus tells them he is going to be “betrayed into human hands.” Which has zero meaning to the disciples who are befuddled.  Which was probably not a surprise to Jesus.

The disciples are afraid to ask the question because they intuit that they won’t like the answer. Another point that proves the psychological veracity of the gospel. I know I would have been afraid to ask, as I have been afraid many times in my life of what the truth might actually be.

One has to wonder, though.  Is this where Judas begins to think about hatching his plot?  Luke has certainly laid down a clue for us.

 

Psalm 85:1-7; Deuteronomy 26:1-27:13; Luke 9:28-36

Psalm 85:1-7: In this prayer of supplication, the psalmist reminds God that he had once looked on Israel with favor and has restored and forgiven before: “You favored, O LORD, Your land, / You restored the condition of Jacob. / You forgave Your people’s crime,/ You covered all their offense.” (1,2)  God’s anger has been quenched before: “You laid aside all Your wrath, /You turned back from Your blazing fury.” (3)

But clearly, something has gone dreadfully awry and the psalmist believes God has turned his back once again on his chosen people. Of course, one casual glance at Israel’s history and it’s easy to see that Israel had turned its collective back on God. So, the psalmist pleads “Undo Your anger against us” and like a small child asking its parent, “Will You forever be incensed with us,”–and not just we who are standing here praying, but “will You draw out Your fury through all generations?” (5)

The poet answers the question in the next line, as confidence increase: “Why, You—will again give us life, / and Your people will rejoice in You.” (6) Notice the symbiosis: God gives us life and we respond by “rejoicing in You.” That’s what relationships are all about; they go both ways. Yes, like the psalmist, we know that God will “again give us life” and rescue us, but if we are not changed, even transformed, by that, then we have abandoned the relationship. It is not God who turned His back on us, but we who turned away form Him.

Deuteronomy 26:1-27:13: Like the psalm, the bringing of tithes as an offering reflects the two-sidedness of a covenantal relationship. After all, God heard Israel’s cries in Egypt and “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (9) It is an honor, not an obligation to be able to bring first fruits as an offering.

Wo knew there was a billboard set up at the entrance to the new land? “You shall set up for yourself  great stones and coat them with plaster. And you shall write on them the words of this teaching when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that the LORD your God is about to give you,.”  (27:3) Inscribing the words of the Torah on stone underscores their permanence.  They are in effect the constitution of the newly formed nation of Israel.

And not just “write the words,” but “you shall write on the stones all the words of this teaching  very clearly .” (27:8) It’s not unfair to take “clearly” in both its meanings.  That the law is clear and transparent to all.  These are the rules, guys; abide by them.

Also, “clearly” as in easy to read.  In big letters. You cannot claim you did not see the law, whence our concept of “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.”  If we really, truly followed God’s words, inscribed, as it were, on our hearts, we would spare so much energy by not being in denial of our sins, or continue to offer up lame excuses for our wrongdoings.  God’s law is clear.  But so, too, his mercy.

It is with the crossing of the Jordan that this ragtag difficult-to-control mob at last becomes the nation of Israel: “Moses, and the levitical priests with him, spoke to all Israel, saying, “Be still and listen, Israel. This day you have become a people to the LORD your God.” (27:9)  God made Israel a nation.  But there are responsibilities, as well: “And you shall heed the voice of the LORD your God and do His commands and His statutes which I charge you today .” (27:10)

Luke 9:28-36: The divine and the human meet on the mount of Transfiguration. It’s clearly night because “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep” (32) and something seems to have awoken them.  The three men see a strange sight in their half-awake half-dream sleep: Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.  

It’s fascinating that as they awakened, Peter, James and John recognized exactly who Jesus was speaking with. The speculation of Herod and the crowd thinking that Jesus was perhaps the returned Elijah or another “awakened prophet” (Moses would be a fine candidate) is fully answered here. Jesus is not any of them, but at this point anyway he is clearly their peer.  Astounding enough.  But then the theophany in the cloud and God’s clear voice making it crystalline that of the three, Jesus is his Chosen One.

God has now made it clear for all time that Jesus is greater than Israel’s most renowned prophets. Jesus is greater than Israel. As the OT states many times, God is the God of all creation, not just this little nation. Jesus has been chosen by God not just for Israel, but for all humankind.  And if I were an eyewitness I’d say stupid things like Peter and I’d be terrified, too. 

This was one time where it was easy to “keep silent.” The Transfiguration–which I’ll argue is second only to the Resurrection in terms of God interceding in history–was just too fantastic to be able to tell others and not bet thought a lunatic.

Psalm 84:8-12; Deuteronomy 24:14-25:19; Luke 9:12-27

Psalm 84:8-12: This psalm’s prayer has great energy for its contrasts between being with God and being outside His protection.  The most famous of these (or at least the verse turned into a song) is “For better one day in Your courts / than a thousand I have chosen,.” (9) While the first half of the verse focuses on time, the second half emphasizes place: he second part of the verse emphasizes place: “standing on the threshold in the house of my God, than living in the tents of wickedness.”

This verse evokes the futility of the endless seeking of substitute for the fulfillment that God brings to our hearts.  I have wandered across my years, from place to place, from object to object, from distraction to distraction and none of them are superior to even the briefest encounter with God.  Our society is packed with–and caters to–those who seek to fill the emptiness of their hearts with the metaphorical equivalent of cotton candy.

Like the psalmist we would do well to pause on our journey and reflect on God’s magnificence, as in the first half of this psalm, and on God’s grace in the second: “The LORD grants, He does not withhold bounty to those who go blameless.” (11) This is not necessarily physical bounty, but the bounty that is our heart when it realizes that it is in God that is the proper time and place for us.

Deuteronomy 24:14-25:19: Rules and law are what defines a civilized society.  We may bridle against stupid laws and rules–and goodness knows, there seem to be many. Many of the rules laid out in these two chapters have come down to us today–as another has said, a “gift of the Jews.”

Certainly at the top of the list is the law that punishment is borne by the offender. If someone kills another man’s son, the offender’s son shall not be killed.  This measure-for-measure punishment that killed innocent parties was (is?) apparently quite common in the Middle East. It would seem that the Israeli’s who killed the Palestinian teenager as revenge for the death of Israeli teenagers are committing exactly the sin outlined here.

Then, “When you reap your  harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field , you shall not go back to take it. For the sojourner and for the orphan and for the widow it shall be,” (24:19) And the same rules apply to olive trees and vineyards. Don’t strip everything bare; leave some for those less fortunate, which by this definition includes not just widows and orphans, but “sojourners,” those who are not of Israel, or more broadly of our tribe.

One looks at the humanitarian crisis at our southern border as all those children flee to the (hopefully) safe haven of the US.  Those who want to seal the border and deport those children are in effect saying, “this wheat, these olives, these young grapes are all mine. You may not share in the fruits of this nation; in fact you may not even be sojourners her.”  Deuteronomy has its extremely harsh places, but it we do well to remember that among the laws and rules there is also the command that we exhibit grace.  Which is exactly the point of the last verse of chapter 24: “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” (22)

We could also apply these verses to what it means to be good stewards of the land and resources; that we not take it all, but remember those who come after us.

Happily, not all rules still apply, particularly the one that required women to marry the brother of her husband should she be widowed. (25:5 -9) or the rather unpleasant one about a wife intervening in a brawl between brothers… (25:12)

Luke 9:12-27: Luke makes clear distinctions between Jesus’ public ministry and his interactions with his disciples.  Publicly, he feeds the 5000 and one thing I’d not noticed before is Jesus saying, ““Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” (14). When you think about the sheer logistics of feeding all those people, this is brilliant: smaller groups (at least a hundred of them) could share and eat in a reasonable time.  There was no poor soul waiting for lunch at the end of the queue of 5000. Jesus dealt with large crowds but always at the top of his mind was the needs of the individual.

So, now that he’s among just his disciples, exactly why did Jesus ask that loaded question, “Who do you say I am?” Was he testing them to make sure they were being good disciples? Did he want to see if his message was getting across? Did he want to see just how much they had learned about him and his mission of working in the Kingdom? (After all, the disciples had already gone out on their field trip, so they had some basic missionary experience at this point.)  Or, did he simply want them to verbalize who he was?

Jesus psychology is brilliant: First, he asks them what the crowds are saying.  It’s the same list that Herod gave earlier in the chapter: “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” (19)  Then, making a clear distinction between the crowd and the disciples, implicitly telling them they are set apart from the crowd (and even Herod), he asks them the same question. As always, it’s a question, not a declaration. He does not tell them who he is; he makes the disciples tell him. (Or at least Peter, but I presume he was speaking for all of them.)

So it is with us. Beware of a prophet who comes announcing who he is.  It’s all about discerning who Jesus is based on his words and actions. And if his words and actions reveal who he is, so too for us: our words and actions are ultimately what reveal our own belief about who Jesus is. That, I think, was the subtext to Jesus’ question.