Archives for June 2014

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?

Psalm 78:17-31; Deuteronomy 1:19-46; Luke 4:14-21

Psalm 78:17-31: The psalmist continues to recount the history of Israel’s years in the wilderness, but the tone becomes increasingly dark and negative in a series of rhetorical questions.  The problem starts here at verse 18: “And they tried God in their heart to ask food for their gullet.” After all that God had done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, their main concern is their next meal.

Of course this verse has a greater meaning for us: how do we try God in our hearts because we’re solely focused on our physical needs?  Not just food and necessities, but in our tendency to complain and always want more stuff.  Like Israel, we doubt God’s sufficiency and ask bitterly as they did, “And they spoke against God. / They said: “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” (19).  This verse goes to the heart of the matter (and to my heart): My faith is weak; even in the evidence of all God has given me, I still doubt that God can do what he has promised.

Even after God provides water from the rock, our psalmist notes, that was insufficient as far as Israel was concerned.  Give us more they (we) demanded, “Can He also give bread? Will He ready flesh for His people?”” (20b).  “Thanks, God,” we say, “but could you also give us meat in addition to this boring manna?” (And we remember the amusing scene where so many birds dropped form the sky, that even the complainers had their fill…)

Our psalmist continues to recount the incidents in the wilderness, noting “And they ate and were full stated,/ what they craved He brought to them.” God answered their prayers, but they never realized their intrinsic selfishness, “They were not revolted by their craving.” Do I ever think of my various prayers as being selfish?  Am I as clueless as Israel?

Perhaps most depressing of all is where complaining and craving take us: “And they wasted their days in mere vapor / and their years in dismay.” (33) All the time we spend complaining and lusting after still more things exacts an severe opportunity cost.  Whatever time we spend in thinking only of ourselves are “wasted days in mere vapor.”  Time that could have been spent in a closer relationship with God.  And those vaporous wasted days add up into years that we can only look back at in dismay.  This verse strikes at the heart!  How am I spending the time left to me? Complaining? Craving? Or with God, realizing that he fulfills my every need?

Deuteronomy 1:19-46:  This is another one of those days when the theme of the Psalm and the OT reading are remarkably parallel: Both deal with Israel’s complaining, weakness, timidity in the wilderness in spite of all that God has done for them.

Moses exhorts Israel as they are about to enter into Canaan.  He recounts how God has fulfilled His promise and brought them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  Now, “See, the LORD your God has given the land before you. Go up, take hold, as the L ORD God of your fathers has spoken to you. Be not afraid nor be dismayed.’ (21)

Moses reviews the history of the wilderness journey, beginning with their cowardice when the 12 spies went to Canaan almost 40 years ago. Moses continues with the almost endless list of their and of their constant complaining and rebellion contrasted with everything God has done for them.  We can see Moses pointing his finger at them and saying, “And despite this thing you do not trust the LORD your God,” (32)

There are several poignant notes in his speech.  One is when he announces publicly that it is not he, but Joshua, who will lead them into the promised land.  Another is when he reminds them that the very children they thought would die in the wilderness have become the brave warriors of Israel: “And your little ones of whom you said they will become prey, and your sons who know not this day good or evil, they it is who will come there, and to them I will give it, and they will take hold of it.” (39)

Moses’ theme is the same as the psalmist’s: You, Israel, have not trusted God, who has provided so much for you. Instead you have complained and rebelled.  But now you are finally here at the edge of the Promised Land.  Take heart; remember God is with you.  How little we have changed over the years: we do not trust God and are cowards instead.  Our call is to remember God is with us and it is only through constant faith in God’s sufficiency that we can undertake fierce battles and win them.  In short, faith is the source of courage.

Luke 4:14-21:  [This is the first time I’ve had to write on the same passage that was the text of Kevin Murphy’s sermon the previous day.]  I think it’s important to remember that Luke writes always with his Gentile audience in mind.  Jesus’ reading of Isaiah in the synagogue is the opening text, I think, for everything that Luke will write about what jesus does and what he says between this moment and the Passion.

Luke is making it clear by Jesus’ selective quotation of Isaiah 61 that he has not come as the next Rabbi for the Jews, but to do exactly what he reads–and that is for everyone regardless of their tribe.  But especially for the four categories of people he identifies: the poor, the captives, the blind  and the oppressed.

The poor is self-evident and I agree with Kevin, it’s the poor, not the “poor in spirit.”  Nevertheless, the good news is for all of us regardless of our status.

The captives are prisoners and anyone held against their will. I think this includes addictions, as well, as those in actual slavery and in the sex trade.

The blind, I think, includes all who are ill.  But also the who willfully decide not to see who Jesus is, and what he wants to do for them.

The oppressed are like the captives, but one thinks of those who are manipulated or abused by others, especially in domestic situations.  But also people groups, including Christians in the Middle east.

We could make a much longer list, but Luke seals the deal when Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not just those listening in the Nazareth synagogue, but all of Luke’s listeners.  Jesus is for all of us.  And in one way or the other we are each and every one of us poor, captive, blind and/or oppressed.  Those are the categories that matter: not our ethnicity or tribe or power or status.

Psalm 78:9-16; Numbers 35:31-Deuteronomy 1:18; Luke 4:1-13

Psalm 78:1-16: This lengthy psalm recounts the history of Israel–a kind of national poem.  The first verse–“Hearken, my people, to my teaching. Lend your ear to the sayings of my mouth.”–evokes the oral tradition, an image of people gathered in remembrance.

This recitation of history dates at least back to Jacob: “He charged to our fathers to make them known to their sons, / so that the last generation might know,  / sons yet to be born / might arise and recount to their sons,” (6)  It is by passing the story down through the generations that creates essential continuity and national identity.  Some 3,000 years later, the Jews continue to demonstrate this identity.

Planted amidst the narrative are warnings to the listeners.  previous generations have sinned and not followed God.  This generation is instructed, “That they be not like their fathers, / a wayward, rebellious generation, / a generation that was not firm of heart,” (8)

God is at the center of the story as the miraculous escape from Egypt and the wanderings in the wilderness are recalled, “He split open the sea and let them pass through, / He made water stand up like a heap. / And He led them with the cloud by day and all night long with the light of fire.” (13,14)

The questions for us at this point in the psalm: Are we listening to God, recalling who we are as God’s people.  Or will we forget like Israel did?  Do we remember what God through Jesus Christ has done for us?  or will we forget that too?

 Numbers 35 -Deuteronomy 1:18:  As befits its mix of  lists and inventories, its statutes and land surveys scattered among the narrative events of Israel wandering through the wilderness and finally arriving at the Jordan, Numbers concludes with important legal issues that will apply to a settled Israel.

Now there are going to be towns and pastures and farms.  God knows that people will continue to bad things, and Moses sets out towns of asylum.  Then the rules applying to various forms of murder are laid out.  Our legal definition of various degrees of manslaughter and murder trace directly back to this chapter.  We even see the beginnings of a jury system: “the community shall judge between him who struck and the blood avenger on these matters of judgment.” (35:24)

Chapter 36 deals with the all-important issues of property, estates, and inheritance, once again centered around the daughters of Zelophehad. The question is, if the daughters of Zelophehad marry into other tribes, who gets the inherited property?  If property shifts among the tribes, the fairness of the system of allocation is corrupted.  A reasonable question and dilemma indeed.  Moses rather cleverly solves the problem by telling the daughters that they must marry within their own tribe, which they do.

The final verse of Numbers weaves regulations and historical narrative together by its precise description of Moses’ location: “These are the commands and the regulations that the LORD charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (36:13)

Alter informs us that the book of Deuteronomy is “the most sustained deployment of rhetoric in the Bible.”  It is Moses’ valedictory address to the people of Israel. Whether Moses ever stood and addressed Israel with the “second law,” may be debatable, but the book opens with a precise description of where [“Moses spoke to all the Israelites across the 1 Jordan in the wilderness in the Arabah opposite Suph between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Di-Zahab,” (1:1)] and when [the fortieth year in the eleventh month on the first of the month” (1:2)].

Once again, we encounter the precision that plants Moses’ words in real space and real time.  These are not just sayings wafting somewhere in the misty celestial heavens, but words meant to be embraced by real people facing real challenges in real life.  So, too, for us. What God says are not just happy thoughts or something vaguely “spiritual.”  God is the God of Creation.  He gives us instruction in how to live our quotidian lives.  God is in everything we do and say. We do well to remember that reality every morning.

Luke 4:1-13: Luke’s account of Jesus’ wilderness temptation recounts the three temptations Each temptation applies as a lesson for our own lives; they are not just for Jesus alone.

“The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”” (3).  Bread represents our livelihoods and possessions.  They are insufficient for our lives.  As many men on their deathbed discover too late, having all the goods in the world do not bring immortality; they do not build relationships–either with other humans or with Jesus.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” (5). This is power.  We need only look at a certain city between Maryland and Virginia to observe the corrupting influence of power on those who seek it and attempt to wield it.  Power does not create relationships.  In fact, its self-centered nature always corrupts rather than builds.

“Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,”” (9). The Temple location makes Luke’s point: He was asking Jesus to set himself literally and figuratively above God, represented by the Temple.  This is our ego: we see ourselves as the center of the universe, setting ourselves above God because we do not see the need for God in our lives.  We think God is superfluous, unnecessary.

This is the sin of pride, and the examples of the sad outcome of pride abound through the Old Testament–and they abound through history.  When I set myself above God, I am testing God, and as Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Psalm 77:16-20; Numbers 34; Luke 3:1-20

Psalm 77:16-20 This section of the psalm begins with the marvelous image of God saving Israel as they cross the sea, the Egyptians in vain pursuit: “You redeemed with Your arm Your people, / the children of Jacob and Joseph.” (16)  The waters become almost anthropomorphic as God’s arm makes a broad sweeping motion and “The waters saw You, O God, / the waters saw You, they trembled, / the depths themselves shuddered.” (17)

Suddenly the psalmist’s camera backs up and the scene widens from the single sea to the image of God’s dominion over all of creation: “The skies sounded with thunder. Your bolts, too, flew about.” (18).  Then, the image of God driving a celestial chariot, making His presence known through thunder and lightening:  “Your thunder’s sound under the wheel— / lightning lit up the world. /  The earth shuddered and shook.”

What a contrast to the God who was silent for so long.  All creation knows that God is God.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the God of Israel, who leads His people and even the water cannot stand in His way: “In the sea was Your way, / and Your path in the mighty waters, /and Your footsteps left no traces.”

God will lead us through the waters as well.  Like Israel, we must have the corrage to follow Him into the most unexpected places.

Numbers 34: God is now land surveyor, defining to Moses the precise boundaries of the land that Israel is about to conquer.  Once again, God is a God of space and time.  The precision with which the borders are defined indicate a God concerned with the contours of the earth and with the practical realities of the “here and now.”

This is no fairy tale God, wafting vaguely in the heavens.  Nor is God confined to some carved idol somewhere.  As today’s psalm also notes, God is the God over all creation, and as this passage so clearly indicates, He is separate from it.  God is not “in” the land; he is the owner of it and it is His to allocate.

Having defined its boundaries, the next order of business is to appoint the leaders of the 9 1/2 tribes that will actually enter Canaan, for the land is to be divided up among the tribes by lot: “These are the ones whom the LORD charged to share out estates to the Israelites in the land of Canaan.” (34:29)  Note the word “share.” Each tribe is equal before God.

Luke 3:1-20: There is an approximately 18-year gap between the close of chapter 2 and the opening here of chapter 3.  This amount of time, and the shift of focus to John motivates Luke to again rather precisely place these events in both Roman time and place (“the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,” (3:1) and Jewish time and place: “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” (2).  (Notice how early Caiaphas is introduced in this gospel.)

Of all the gospel writers, Luke gives us the most detailed portrait of John, focusing especially on what he said, together with the reactions of the crowd.  He claims his authority straight out of Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (4a) and makes it clear that is is the prelude to the main act yet to come: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (4b).  It would seem that the harsher his accusations and demand for repentance, the more popular he became: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (7)

John asks for more than simple repentance, he demands that people change their lives. His message is the same one we hear throughout the Hebrew scriptures: help the poor, treat others fairly. It is not enough to turn around (repent); we must turn around and act. Repentance is not just an intellectual exercise.

I think Luke is showing us, his readers, that what Jesus asks of them (and us)  later in the gospel is not something new and radical.  The prophets have said it already; John has said it already.

John is clearly a mesmerizing, charismatic speaker. So much so that the people think he’s the Messiah and he’s already been in trouble with the law.

But on this issue of messiahship he could not be clearer: “one who is more powerful than I is coming; …He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (16), but then there’s the next verse that is a good deal less comfortable for John’s listeners–and for us: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (17)  

It’s really quite binary, isn’t: the Jesus who is coming is not completely sweetness and light; he is also coming as judge, and as Jesus himself makes clear in the Olivet Discourse, there will be a great separation at the end of history. We’ve been warned–and Jesus warns us again and again.

Psalm 77:10-15; Numbers 33:10-56; Luke 2:41-52

Psalm 77:10-15: The psalmists asks rhetorically, “Has God forgotten to show grace, / has He closed off in wrath His compassion?” (10) Rhetorical, because the poet takes responsibility for being separated from God: “And I said, it is my failing, / that the High One’s right hand has changed.”  How likely am I to acknowledge that it is my actions, not God’s, that result in separating myself from Him.  Of course, “sin” means separation and that is why I so strongly believe that hell is simply eternal separation form God.

For the psalmist, the way back to God is memory: “I recite all your works, / Your acts I rehearse.” (13) And comparison with the alternative (small ‘g’) gods: “Who is a great god like God? / You are the god working wonders. / You made known among peoples Your strength.” (15)  With the poet, it is always wise to reflect on God; to use our God-given gift of memory to recall the times we have been close to Him.  But unlike the psalmist, we also have Jesus Christ in whom we place our trust.  Jesus is the great Intermediary between God and ourselves.  And when we trust Jesus, God will, by definition, always be close at hand.  Like the psalmist, it is our action–or failure to act–that separates us.

Numbers 33:10-56: Our editors provide a useful summary of all the places to which the Israelites wandered during their 40-year sojourn in the desert. There was certainly a lot of putting up and taking down of the Tabernacle.

The editors reveal their priestly nature by recording one event in greater detail in this summary. It  is not Moses sojourn to Mount Sinai , which most of us would take to be the centerpiece of the wanderings.  In fact, the mountain is not even mentioned in the inventory.  Rather it is Aaron, the great high priest, whose death is memorialized right down to the precise date and Aaron’s age when he died: “in the fortieth year of the Israelite’s going out from Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month. And Aaron was one hundred twenty-three years old when he died.” (33:39)

The chapter ends on its most significant note: that Israel must wipe out the Canaanites.  Moses warns the people, “if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land from before you, it will come about that those of them you leave will become stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides,” (55)  Which of course, is exactly what happened.  The Canaanite idols and mores became the defining corruption of Israel down through the subsequent centuries.

One can sympathize with Israel in failing to carry out this command.  But the price was exceedingly high.  Because of human stubbornness God’s vision of His people in the Promised Land was never fully realized.  How myriad the ways in which we fall short and fail to keep even the simple commands of God.

 Luke 2:41-52:  Of all the Gospels, only Luke provides this single, tantalizing glimpse of the boy Jesus in the years between his birth and his baptism.  When I first heard this story in Sunday School I came away with the impression that it was Jesus who was teaching the elders, but that is not the case.  Rather than merely sermonizing, Jesus was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (46)

There’s no question that being the son of God, Jesus had a natural advantage when it came to understanding theology and the ways and words of God.  But Jesus did not arrive on earth with  magical powers and insights.  He arrived as a baby like everyone else.  He was educated by listening and asking questions and answering other questions: a classic educational process. (Since Luke is quite precise about Jesus’ age–12 years–I wonder if Jesus was in the Temple preparing for his bar-mitzvah at age 13.  Even today, Jewish boys study the scriptures at the age of twelve.)

Obviously, Jesus was quite unlike other boys that age–a star student, who left “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (47).  Luke thereby makes it clear that Jesus’ great wisdom and understanding arose from hard work, not from magic.  Again and again, beginning with the infancy narrative, Luke continues to emphasize Jesus’s 100% human nature.

Mary may not have understood (or appreciated) Jesus’ rather impertinent reply, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (49b), but being the God-bearer, she knew upon reflection that this was one more quality of her extraordinary child.  And again, Luke uses that sweet yet most profound phrase: “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (51)

Luke brings down the curtain on Jesus early years with the simple statement, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  Notice the concatenation of “divine” and “human.” Once again, Luke frames Jesus as 100% human and 100% God.  Above all, Luke wants to make it abundantly clear that Jesus was no magician.  Jesus worked and studied hard to become who he was.

Psalm 77:1-9; Numbers 32:28-33:9; Luke 2:33-40

Psalm 77:1-9:  God seems to be silent once again as the psalmist calls out in distress: “My voice to God—let me cry out. My voice to God—and hearken to me.” (2) He is distraught beyond measure; tears flow freely: My eye flows at night, it will not stop. I refused to be consoled.” (3) and there is no consolation.  God’s absence has robbed him of sleep: “You held open my eyelids. I throbbed and could not speak.” (5)

Memory provides scant comfort as “I ponder the days of yore, 6 the years long gone. I call to mind my song in the night.” (6) For there is no greater woe than to feel we have been abandoned by God: “Will the Master forever abandon me, 8 and never again look with favor?” (7) Then the accusations, “Has God forgotten to show grace, has He closed off in wrath His compassion?” (10) 

When we are in close relationship with God; when, as Oswald Chambers insists, we have abandoned ourselves to Christ, we feel separated and alone, there is no greater sorrow.  There is little question in my mind, and it is communicated again and again in the Psalms, that hell is not eternal punishment; it is eternal separation from God.  The psalmist evokes the agony of separation in these first verses.  Tears do not console; memory does not console.  Abandonment seems to be the only fate.  Can we be brought any lower?

Numbers 32:28-33:9:  The Reubenites and Gadites want to setts east of Jordan in the most desperate way.  And Moses promises that if they join the rest of Israel in crossing the Jordan and fight to conquer the Canaanites, that territory will be their reward.  But if not, ”they shall find holdings in your midst in the land of Canaan.” (32:31)

The Reubenites and Gadites eagerly comply and before crossing they feverishly embark on a substantial building campaign: sheep enclosures and entire towns. In addition, the sons of Machir, son of Manasseh “went to the Gilead and captured it and dispossessed the Amorite who was in it.” (32:39).  Then other sons of Manasseh capture other towns.  The towns are renamed, presumably because their names were pagan, although the authors drily note that  one of them, Nobah, actually names a town after himself.  

These all seem to be a dress rehearsal for the Canaanite battles to come.  While Numbers does not record it, we assume that the former inhabitants of these towns were wiped out completely.

Continuing its role as the enumerator of statistics and facts, Numbers lists all the stopping places of Israel during their 40-year peregrinations in the wilderness.  One wonders why this is important to the story. I think that the place names again emphasize this is actual historical record, not a fairy tale—since a million or so people wandering in the desert for 40 years could otherwise stretch credulity.  Also, it demonstrates how God is firmly entrenched in history, in real places and real times.  Unlike the pagans that surrounded them who viewed history (if they viewed it at all) as cyclical, Israel’s story—and God’s story—unrolls linearly across time.  There is a beginning and there will be an end.

God may exist outside of time, but the arrow of time is one of God’s great gifts to us: that we live in the present, in the here and now.  Yesterday is but an unalterable memory; tomorrow is no more than an estimation. Yet, we try too often to live in both when today is what life is all about. For those of us who have started our mortality in the face, today is God’s great gift.

Luke 2:33-40:  Simeon’s song has a significant effect on Mary and Joseph because this is the first time they’ve heard another human being tell them the same thing the angel said: “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” (33).  But Simeon also delivers less-than-wonderful news: their son would “be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  His ministry—especially his dialogs with the Pharisees— was the exemplar of Jesus’ knowing and understanding what the Pharisees and other leaders were really thinking behind their words.  But not many of us, and certainly not the Pharisees, are always happy about having our inner thoughts revealed.  What secrets we want to preserve in our hearts.  Jesus knows all of them and yet we are still loved!

Simeon’s last words to Mary point directly to the cross. Anna, permanent Temple resident, also recognizes Jesus’ unique nature and I’m sure she was great succor to Mary, especially after hearing Simeon’s final words. 

Luke, in his brief summary of Jesus’ early boyhood, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (40), at once says everything but omits so many tantalizing details we would love to know.  Luke, in his authorial wisdom, leaves out the details that could too easily be a distraction from his message of Jesus’ adult ministry.  It is sufficient that we know Jesus grew both physically and in wisdom. We must be satisfied with the little he tells us.