Psalm 3; Genesis 3,4; Matthew 2:1–12

Psalm 3: Although the psalmist asserts this is a “David psalm, when he fled from Absalom his son,” [This event occurred when Absalom usurped the throne (2 Samuel 16)] Alter suggests that these ascriptions have no historical authority and that the psalm generally refers to any person in trouble. However, I prefer to go with tradition and even though David probably did not write the psalm, it is helpful to have it connected to a real person and event because it makes the psalm all the more emotional and impactful to think that we could feel the same way David did.

Regardless, it is a psalm that can be uttered by any person who finds himself in trouble and pauses to remember that he is not alone after all but is protected by God. This assurance is expressed in the wonderful metaphor: “And You, Lord, are a shield for me,/ my glory, Who lifts up my head.” (4). The image of God lifting up the head of a broken man on his knees, his head bowed not in prayer but in despair is powerful. And unlike some psalms where God seems to be absent, here “With my voice I cry out to the Lord,/ and He answers me form His holy mountain.” (5) God brings peace in this time of enormous distress and David is able to lie down and sleep so that when “I awake, [I realize that] the Lord has sustained me.” (7) even though his situation is desperate and he is surrounded by the enemy, “I fear not from myriads of troops/ that round about set against me.” (7).

David is fully assured that God will “strike all my foes on the cheek.” (8a) because “Rescue is the Lord’s.” (9a) The question for me of course is will I have the same faith and trust in God to deal with some situation where I am desperate trouble and rely on God because “Rescue is the Lords?” David was able to pray and then lie down and go to sleep rising in the morning knowing he is protected by God. Could I go to sleep knowing God is my shield, or would I try to control the situation myself and attempt to resolve the trouble on my own? I know this tends to be my first instinct rather than following David’s example.

Genesis 3,4: Following the wonderful story of creation of man and woman, it does not take long for paradise to be lost. What strikes me in the temptation story is that the serpent does not lie. Eating the fruit of the tree does not kill them as God had warned, but it provides exactly what the serpent says it will: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (3:4) Notice that this desire to be like God and control our own destiny was innate at creation because I think we were created imago deo, in the image of God and thus possessed will. In short, the potential for sin was built into our very being. Otherwise, there would have been no temptation and the desire before eating the fruit to “make one wise,” (3:6).

Notice also that Adam is not off in some other part of the garden, but is standing right next to the woman and that “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” The man succumbed to exactly the same temptation as the woman. We have blamed her far too harshly. She may have taken the initiative to eat the fruit, but Adam, who knew the same thing as Eve about the tree, ate readily. Men and women are truly equal partners in sin.

Immediately following the sin of succumbing to temptation comes the sin of trying to shift the blame. Again, both are equal partners as the man attempts to shift the blame to the woman, who in turn attempts to shift the blame to the serpent.  Every human has this built-in ability to blame the other person [“she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate”] or an outside circumstance [“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”] (12, 13) And thus it continues down to today. The core of our innate sinfulness is to succumb to temptation and then shift blame. The core motivations of human nature express themselves immediately; it is built in. Watch any three-year old child who has done something wrong do exactly what the man and woman did.

One of the great mysteries to me in the story of Cain and Abel is why God preferred the blood sacrifice to Cain’s offering of “the fruit of the ground.” (4:3) I believe this story is not history, but one of the foundational myths of the national origin of Israel. It is stating that from the outset God prefers animal sacrifice to the passivity of laying fruit down at the altar. Moreover, God does not have to explain his preference; it simply is what it is.

Cain murders Abel and his punishment is to become “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (4:14) but he will not be killed. Like Cain, Israel has wandered. From Egypt to Canaan and then wandered from God leading to exile. Israel is doomed to wander but like Cain, it is never extinguished.

Civilization arrives as Cain builds a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. In short, the great conflict between the urban and agrarian comes early in human history. Cain is the father of Enoch who is the great grandfather of Lemech whose sons explain the origin of the essential elements of ancient civilization: Jabal, the “the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock.” Jubal, “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” (4:20, 21) Tubal-cain, “who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.” (4:22) We tend to think of ancient civilization as nomadic and agrarian, but cities have also always been part of our history. And as we shall see, cities are both glorious and corrupt: the very essence of humankind.

Matthew 2:1–12: Man has been looking up to the heavens for direction, wisdom, and omens since the dawn of civilization. The wise men follow the star, which some theorize was a comet, to Jerusalem, to seek this new king. They are informed by the court prophets that they really need to go to Bethlehem, just a few miles away. The star leads them there and then stops “over the place where the child was.” (9b) What I hadn’t noticed before is that “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (10). They are joyous because they know they have reached their destination and know they have found what they are looking for. They are overjoyed even before they lay eyes on jesus. The stopping star is their source of joy.

This is Matthew’s clear sign to his readers and listeners that we are all like the wandering wise men seeking a new king. The entire thrust and drive of history, the metaphorical star, stops in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth is the event that has altered history and taken it in a completely new and unexpected direction. And from our perspective here some 2000 years later, there is no question that the Incarnation has truly been the hinge of history. Would civilization even have survived without the interruption of the birth of Jesus?

No wonder the wise men brought their treasures and paid homage to the little child. They became the first worshippers at Jesus’ feet. They understood that the world had indeed changed for good.

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