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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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