Psalm 88:6–12; Isaiah 43:22–44:23; Philippians 3:1–11

Psalm 88:6–12: These verses are among the most compelling descriptions of personal suffering and abandonment by God that we find in the Psalms. We can almost see the poet standing or kneeling raising his outstretched arm and fist up to God in a mixture of anger and bewilderment.

To the poet, it is God has who condemned him: “You put me in the nethermost Pit,/ in darkness, in the depths.” (7) Not only has he been consigned to hell, but God is not quite finished with him–neither personally  “Your wrath lay hard upon me.” (8) nor socially: “You distanced my friends from me,/ You made me disgusting to them.” (9) He sees himself as hopelessly trapped: “imprisoned, I cannot get out.” (9b)

We hear his anguish at God’s unfair treatment. After all, “I called on You, Lord, every day./ I stretched out to You my palms.” (10) But God has not listened to his pleas and now he is near death.

So, the poet challenges God: “Will You do wonders for the dead?/ Will Your kindness be told in the grave?” This ironic plea reflects the Jewish belief that once we are dead, we are gone, no longer participants in God’s creation, no longer able to worship God. Our psalmist is asking God to answer the existential question, “if You want us to worship you, what’s the point of casting us out of your presence by sending us to the Pit?”

This psalm, perhaps more than any other, tells us we do not need to pussyfoot around God. We can not only freely accuse God of not only abandoning us, but even of intentionally causing us to suffer. None of this makes us less of God’s creature as we cry out in pain and agony to our Creator.

Isaiah 43:22–44:23: Speaking for God, Isaiah proclaims that Israel and Judah have abandoned God: “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;/ but you have been weary of me, O Israel!” (43:22) pointing out that it is God alone who has the power to reestablish a right relationship “I, I am He/ who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,/and I will not remember your sins.” (43:25) Having ignored God and continuing to sin against him, God has “delivered Jacob to utter destruction,/ and Israel to reviling.” (43:28)

But God, as always, is patient and forgiving and there is always the promise of redemption”Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,…/ For I will pour water on the thirsty land,/and streams on the dry ground;” This is not just literal water, but metaphorical water in the sense that “I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,/ and my blessing on your offspring.” (44:3) Both Jacob and Israel will rise once again because it has returned to God:
” This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,”
and adopt the name of Israel.” (44:5)

Through Isaiah, God declares his supremacy: “Is there any god besides me?/ There is no other rock; I know not one.” (44:8). The prophet then describes the pointless creation of wooden idols with the ironic image of an idol-carver cutting down a tree, using half the wood to cook his supper, and the other half to carve an idol. The implication of total absurdity of a wooden idol is clear and when Isaiah writes, “They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand.” (44:18) he is describing the idol, its maker and of course, those who worship this inanimate lifeless object.

We may not carve our idols out of wood these days; we’re more likely to use steel and glass, or even completely ephemeral concepts such as money in a bank account. But we are just as blind as the most primitive idol worshipper.

Philippians 3:1–11: As usual, the problem in the early church is those who insist that Gentile Christians become circumcised: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (2). For Paul, this too great focus on flesh and insufficient focus on Christ perverts the Gospel message. (I also think there’s the very practical issue that Gentile men would pretty much be unwilling to join a church that insisted on circumcision of adult males–and that would certainly impede church growth!)

Paul points out that “I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.” (3) [‘Flesh’ being the code word for circumcision.] He is a Jew’s Jew, perfectly Jewish in every respect: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (5,6) Yet, these are nothing, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (7) In fact, everything–not just his Jewish bona fides–fades into utter meaninglessness in the intense and life-changing light of Christ: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (8)

Here is the great breaking point between Judaism and Christianity. Christ is not some kind of super-Jew, a higher expression of what has already been. Instead, Christ is something completely new. Christ replaces everything that was. It’s why we call it the New Covenant; not the “Improved Covenant.”

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