Psalm 119:105–112; Ezekiel 34:20–36:7; 1 Peter 3:8–22

Psalm 119:105–112: When I was in the 5th grade at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, I learned to recite the 39 books of the OT plus the 27 books of the NT. I  also learned a bunch of memory verses, including this one: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (105) [Of course we learned the King James version since that was “The Holy Bible.”] What is remarkable on my journey is that God’s word has indeed at these latter years of my life finally become a lamp unto my feet as I trace this Christian journey. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is the primary way in which I believe God speaks to me.

Like many verses, this one stands on its own, but it becomes richer and more meaningful in context. God’s word is not just “out there” as a friendly lamp lighting my life’s path. Instead it is at the center of–and the purpose  of– the psalmist’s life: “I swore and I will fulfill it–/ to observe Your just laws.” (106) As a fifth grader I had no idea about life’s trials to come, and there’s probably a good reason why we 10-year olds didn’t learn verse 107: “I have been sorely afflicted. / O Lord, give me life as befits Your word.” We had no idea of affliction, nor of risk: “My life is at risk at all times, / yet Your teaching I do not forget.” (109). Nor did we have enemies: “The wicked set a trap for me.” (110a)

But we 5th-graders did learn one thing: if we followed God’s word, we would also find that like the psalmist, “they are my heart’s joy.” (111). And that has indeed been the case now late in life. Coming to God’s word almost every morning is where I find true joy. I certainly feel the way the psalmist does: “I [have] inclined my heart to do Your statutes” but unlike him, I know I will not be able to follow God’s word “forever without fail.” (112) But realizing I will fail is why Jesus came to all of us in grace.

Ezekiel 34:20–36:7: The metaphor of God as shepherd and how he judges his sheep continues. What’s significant here is that we learn that God judges each sheep–each person–individually: “I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” (34:20) God will “save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged” but it will be done on an individual basis: “and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” (34:21)

Ezekiel then becomes almost Isaiah-like as he describes this wonderful peace to come: “I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase.” (34:26, 27). We arrive at the famous apotheosis of this shepherd/sheep metaphor: God as our Good Shepherd who promises, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture  and I am your God.” (34:31) Once again, this prophecy is at once a promise to Israel, but it also transcends Israel to become a promise to all of us.

Chapter 35 and its judgement against “Mount Seir,” which is apparently at the center of the kingdom of Edom at first glance seems out of place here. It’s a judgement against them because they have sinned against God by  ill by their actions against Israel: “You shall know that I, the Lord, have heard all the abusive speech that you uttered against the mountains of Israel, saying, ‘They are laid desolate, they are given us to devour.’” (35:12) But the reason for its position between the metaphor of the shepherd and sheep and God’s ulyimate blessing on Israel beaocme clear quickly.

The actions of Edom are the final straw for God. He reveals his true emotion: “I am speaking in my hot jealousy against the rest of the nations, and against all Edom, who, with wholehearted joy and utter contempt, took my land as their possession, because of its pasture, to plunder it.” (36:5) Then, God promises to take vengeance: “I am speaking in my jealous wrath, because you have suffered the insults of the nations; therefore thus says the Lord God: I swear that the nations that are all around you shall themselves suffer insults.” (36:6,7)

What’s fascinating here is that we get a glimpse into God’s nature through God’s feelings: jealousy and wrath. This reminds us that the popular image of God as an avuncular, harmless old man is far from the truth. Clearly, one of the key aspects that we his creatures, created imago deo, have inherited from God are intense feelings.

1 Peter 3:8–22: One of the joys of reading Peter is to see how deeply he cares about community: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (8). Following Jesus’ example of turing the other cheek, Peter reminds us, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” (9)

If we are truly a loving community looking out for each other, no one can “harm you if you are eager to do what is good.” (13) But we must always remember that we are not immune from suffering, and “even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” (14a). But perhaps most important of all is that we are free of fear: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.” (14b) This is another one of those important reminders that while we live in an increasingly hostile cultural environment, and even if our freedom of actions and expression as Christians becomes increasingly restricted–as I believe it will–we have no need to fear what the larger society fears. We are safe even in suffering.

We Christians are not to cower in the corner but we must “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (15). Moreover, we are to “do it with gentleness and reverence.” (16)  Christ is our great example of suffering done right.

Finally, Peter explains that baptism, which was “prefigured” by Noah and the flood, “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (21) Christ comes to us through baptism, but with that act of grace comes great personal responsibility: our good conscience and the courageous yet gentle behavior that arises from the gift our baptism.

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