Psalm 118:15–21; Ezekiel 17:11–18:18; Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8

Psalm 118:15–21: The “voice of glad song and rescue” (15a) continues as the psalmist notes a recurrent theme of Psalms that it is the living, not the dead, that are able to praise God: “I shall not dies but live/ and recount the deeds of Yah.”(17)  Although he came close to death–“Yah harshly chastised me/ but to death did not deliver me” (18)–God has rescued him and he has now arrived at the entrance to the temple and is ready to walk through the “gates of justice,” ready to praise God, “I would enter them, I would acclaim yah.” (19) These same gates are “the gate of the Lord” and “the just will enter it.” (20) This phrase casts a light on the nature of the temple I had not really thought about before: the temple is fundamentally a metaphor both for God’s rescue of Israel and for God’s demand for justice.

We then encounter the famous verse quoted by Paul, “The stone that the builders rejected/ has become he chief cornerstone.” (22) In context this is simply a metaphor the psalmist uses to compare his former abject state to his rescued, justified, and newly restored existence, now able to enter the temple praising God. We of course know the cornerstone to be Jesus Christ, rejected by the Jews, but who became the cornerstone of the New Covenant. This is another of those wonderful places in the OT that were once seen in the light of God’s old covenant, but whose meaning is radically transformed and revealed for something (someone!) far greater in the light of the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Ezekiel 17:11–18:18: Ezekiel recounts the same history we read in Jeremiah: the Jewish governor appointed by the king of Babylon “rebelled against him by sending ambassadors to Egypt, in order that they might give him horses and a large army.” (17:15a) Ezekiel asks the existential question that leaps beyond the specific incident and becomes the question for all Israel, and ultimately, for all of us: “Can he break the covenant and yet escape?” (15b) Needless to say, the answer is obvious: “Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war, …Because he despised the oath and broke the covenant, … he shall not escape.” (17:17,18) Which of course is exactly what happened.

We tend to think of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as being unrelenting doom and the just punishment for a sinful people. Many people think the God we see in the OT is vindictive and mean. Yet, again and again, we encounter passages of tender mercy for the very same people God intends to punish. Here we read a beautiful metaphor for Israel that God will “take a sprig /from the lofty top of a cedar” (11), plant it, “in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,/ and become a noble cedar.” (23) We see that yes, God demands justice and there will be consequences to Israel’s sin, but his love for Israel endures like that of a father raising recalcitrant children. Wendell Berry, in a story we’ve just read, says, “People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it is terrible, in a way.” God’s love is far, far greater than our constricted view of love as hearts and flowers. God’s love includes justice. And sometimes that justice is indeed terrible.

Ezekiel turns to God’s reflections on individuals rather than the corporate Israel, which I think is a direct reflection on the earlier question, of whether or not we cab escape the covenant: “ If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.” (18:5-9). Here we have in narrative form, God’s restatement of the Law.

The key here is that the acts of the individual has consequences. We are each responsible for our acts before God. We cannot claim to be victims of a sinful or unjust society and therefore escape the consequences of our individual actions. Yet, today, many people make exactly that claim before the law. But in the end we stand before God not as a group, but one by one.

Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8: Our unknown author gives his benediction–“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will.” (20, 21). And then a personal note that tells us two things about this unknown author: “ I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free…” (23) And “Those from Italy send you greetings.” (24b) So, he knows Timothy and is writing from Italy, presumably Rome. He must therefore be part of the church at Rome. And there’s little question that his knowledge of the Law, his creativity, and the brilliant logic he employs suggests he is at least as brilliant a scholar–and as dedicated a Christian–as Paul himself. But his identity remains one of the great mysteries of Christianity.

On the other hand, we know exactly who James was: brother of Christ and with Peter, head of the church at Jerusalem. Like the Hebrews author he is writing to a church experiencing persecution, and he opens with words of encouragement: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;” (1:2,3) 

James tells us to “ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (6) And just to make sure we get his point, he repeats himself: “for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (8). Well, I’m sorry, but I think a true life of faith also includes doubt along the way. I suggest that absent doubt we cannot really understand the nature of faith.

We don’t have to get too far into this epistle to see why Martin Luther was no fan of it.

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