Psalm 78:32–39; Deuteronomy 1:19–46; Luke 4:14–21

Psalm 78:32–39: In his poem about Israel in the wilderness, our poet observes that even after God brings death to the Israelite rebels, the people have not learned their lesson: “Even so, they offended still/ and had no faith in His wonders.” (32) Rather than turning back to God, “they wasted their days in mere vapor/ and their years in dismay.” (33) Wow. “days in mere vapor” is a terrific description of how we can so easily squander the days of our lives when we do not look to God as our guide. And if we ever needed a an accurate description of the tone of our present culture and the anger and outrage that seems to surface everywhere we turn, it is this: we as a society are spending our precious time on earth “in dismay.”

But at some point, Israel returned to God: and “they sought Him out,/ and came back and looked for God.” (34) Eventually things were so awful, that people realized that God would give them a better life and “they recalled that God was their rock/ and the Most High God their redeemer.” (35) The issue is simple realization. God has never left us and when we have tried everything else, we finally turn to God.

But even then, they—and we—drifted away, and “they beguiled Him with their lips,/ and with their tongue they lied to Him.” (36) And “their heart was not firm with Him/ and they were not faithful to His pact.” (37) This is a good description of me: faithful one day and full of doubt the next.

God, on the other hand is always faithful. “He is compassionate…/and abundantly takes back His wrath/ and does not arouse all His fury.” (38) Finally, our poet provides us deep insight about ourselves: God “recalls that they [we] are flesh,/ a spirit that goes off and does not come back.” (39) At the core of our human nature, we are changeable, inconstant creatures. This evocative concluding line is a perfect summary of our time. We certainly seem to be in the midst of a society that is abandoning not only God, but all of our Judeo-Christian foundation. We are a spirit that goes off and does not come back. The question hangs in the air, will things become so bad that like Israel, we will recall that God is our rock?

Deuteronomy 1:19–46: In this lengthy retrospective speech, Moses recalls the tragedy how Israel came to the border of Canaan. God’s instructions were crystalline: “take possession, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (21) Moses recalls that “all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to.” (22) He details how twelve were chosen and sent.

What is fascinating here is that Moses does not talk about the ten spies who brought back the news that giants and powerful military foes occupied Canaan, but he mentions only the good news that Joshua and Caleb brought: “They brought back a report to us, and said, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.” (25) This selective recall allows him to place the blame on Israel as a whole: “But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord your God.” (26) Instead, Israel “grumble in your tents.” Moses chastises them for their unwillingness, even though Moses had given them ample proof that God would watch over them: “The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes,” (30)

And then Moses’s harshest condemnation of all: “But in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God,” (32) He recounts God’s anger at this refusal and the sentence that the present generation would not enter Canaan, but only “your children, who today do not yet know right from wrong, they shall enter there;” (39)

Moses recalls how Israel suddenly got the message and tries to change its collective mind by sending a battalion to do battle in Canaan. But as Moses reminds them, “‘Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies.’” (42) which is exactly what happened. At this, Israel turns away and heads back across the desert, wandering for an entire generation.

The clear message of this passage is that failing to trust in God or outright rejection of what God asks and promises, leads to dire consequences. Yes, unlike Israel, we live in a state of grace through Jesus Christ, but as those folks learned at a cost of 40 years, our actions and attitudes have consequences, often severe. Just as with Israel, God wants the best for us, but that requires us to respond in trust, not fear. We must never forget that whatever we do or say, there will be consequences, and like Israel, these outcomes can make it too late to change our minds.  And, as the psalmist puts it, we end up wasting our “years in dismay.”

Luke 4:14–21: Jesus returns from the wilderness temptation and begins his public ministry in Galilee and “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (15)

Except for one place.

Jesus returns to Nazareth where he is a familiar face, the proverbial “carpenter’s son.” It was his turn to read the lectionary and he proceeds to read the appointed passage from Isaiah, which clearly describes the role of the davidic messiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,/ because he has anointed me/ to bring good news to the poor.” (18a) The passage goes on to tell how the messiah will release the captives, give sight to the blind, and “let the oppressed go free.”  

I’m sure everyone in the synagogue was intimately familiar with this reading and in light of relentless oppression by the Romans, they treasured these verses as God’s longstanding promise that they wished to see fulfilled in their lifetimes.This passage has been written in the first person as it would be spoken by the Messiah and Jesus tells them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (21) There is no getting around it: Jesus is saying clearly is is the davidic Messiah for whom they have been waiting these many centuries.

We’ll get to the crowd’s reaction tomorrow, but for Luke’s community, this is where Luke makes the direct, impossible-to-miss connection between Jesus and Isaiah’s clear prophecy. Regardless, of what happens next in Nazareth after Jesus utters this infamous sentence, Luke cannot make the connection any stronger than this: Jesus is indeed the long-promised, long-awaited Messiah. But what will the Jews do with this news? And what will we do?

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