Archives for August 2016

Psalm 104:31–35; Judges 13; Luke 21:29–38

Psalm 104:31–35: The concluding verses of this grand psalm about God’s creative works and his dominion over creation begin with a doxology: “May the Lord’s glory be forever,/ may the Lord rejoice in His works.” (31) There’s something eminently satisfying in reflecting on God as he exults in his creative works; that we are his created beings, imago deo. We don’t often reflect on God’s own emotions and this verse gives us a glimpse of God’s great pleasure in the work he has done.

With a final reminder of God’s power over creation—”Who but looks down to earth, and it trembles,/ but touches the mountains [and] they smoke.” (32)—our psalmist arrives at joyous worship:
Let me sing to the Lord while I live,
      let me hymn to my God while I breathe.
      Let my speech be sweet unto Him.
      As for me, I rejoice in the Lord.” (33, 34)

Notice the phrases, ‘while I live,’ and ‘while I breathe.” These connote a continuous worship on our part, not just an hour on Sunday morning. Worship involves just being alive and rejoicing in having been created.

But  notice also that although the poet has praised the wonders of God’s creation, it is God—not nature—that he worships. Too many people excuse themselves from formal worship in a community by saying they worship God while in nature. The question of course is it really worshipping God the Creator or creation itself? The psalmist is crystal clear as to who is the object of worship.

There’s an odd insertion at the last verse: “Let offenders vanish from earth/ and the wicked be no more.” (35a) This jarring non-sequitur may have been inserted by an later editor fearing perhaps that the psalm was not pious enough. Happily, our psalmist gets the final word as he ends the psalm as he began it on the note of total worship that is not just intellectual but involves his whole self beginning at the heart:
Bless, O my being, the Lord,

This simple phrase would be a good thing to say or sing whenever we come together to worship.

Judges 13: We arrive at one of the best known stories in the Hebrew Bible: Samson. The scene opens with Israel having been oppressed under the Philistines for the past 40 years. The unnamed wife (this gyno-anonymity in the OT drives me crazy!) of a certain Manoah “was barren, having borne no children” (2) when she receives an angelic visit, who announces “you shall conceive and bear a son.” (3). The angel instructs her to “be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean.” (4) In the detailed setup for the story to follow, the authors tell us that the angel also instructs her that “No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite.” (5)

The unnamed woman informs her husband, Manoah, of the angelic announcement. His reaction is exactly what one would wish for: he immediately prays for God’s guidance: “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.” (8) Manoah’s humility before God tells us a lot about his character: that he has remained faithful even though he lives under oppression. God complies with his request and the angel again appears to his wife and Manoah “got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” (11) Manoah wants to hear the angel’s instructions for himself and the messenger repeats what he told the wife: “She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing.” (14)

Obviously happy, Manoah invites the man to lunch. But the angel demurs and asks instead for a burnt offering but refuses to tell Manoah his name because it is “too wonderful.” The angel ascends into heaven at which point Manoah realizes they’ve been visited by an angel and he panics: “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” (22) But the wife remains calm, pointing out that “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have…announced to us such things as these.” (23) The wife obeys the instructions and Samson is born. A fascinating side note here is that the angel’s instructions to the wife to abstain from alcohol and to eat wisely are exactly the instructions given to pregnant women today.

The parallels of this story to the barren Elizabeth, who bears John the Baptist, long after this event are striking. An angelic visit and the announcement of bearing a male child seem to be a standard modus operandi when it comes to the birth of special children who will follow God. Also, it is the woman who calmly accepts the news while it is the man who worries or doubts. At least Manoah, unlike Zechariah, did not laugh and become mute as a reward for his disbelief.

I’m sure that Luke was quite familiar with the Samson story and used it as a model when he wrote about the birth of John the Baptist. Its significance would not be lost among the Jews in his community. But these parallels beyond the angelic visit do not apply to Mary, whose experience of bearing Jesus is unique in history.

Luke 21:29–38: Jesus, looking at the fig tree, announces, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (32) Theologians have been fighting ever since about what ‘this generation‘ refers to. Is it the generation in actual space and time around him when he speaks? Or is ‘generation’ being used by Jesus to refer to the generation that’s alive when history ends and Jesus returns? I go with the former, because the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of the Jews was about as traumatic event that could be imagined.

The next verse, however, is not in dispute and is true across all time and space because Jesus transcends those dimensional limitations even past the end of history: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (33) And this statement remains as true today as two millennia ago. Empires have come and gone, just as America will fade, but Jesus’ words and his impact remain undiminished.

Jesus then gives practical instruction to remain alert and ready, with our priorities set correctly: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.” (34)  Instead, we are to “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (36) Jesus wants his followers to be conscious and aware of what is going on around us. We are not to be lulled to sleep by thinking Jesus has saved us so we have no further responsibility. Quite the contrary, being a Jesus follower is hard and, yes, occasionally dangerous work.

Even though Jesus has just predicted and described the end of history, he reiterates that worrying about “end times” is not our affair. Instead, we must be alert and focus on Kingdom work. Given that there’s an entire eschatological industry in America today replete with lectures, books, sermons, bizarre interpretations of Revelation, and even the occasional prediction of the exact date Jesus will return to earth, it’s clear that too many Christians have failed to follow Jesus rather clear and repeated instructions here.

Luke reminds us of Jesus’ popularity at this point, even after he’s predicted such dire things and given his stern warnings: “And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.” (38) It’s clear that Jesus’ hold on people through his deeds and words was something that “this generation” had never experienced before. Even the charismatic John the Baptist paled in comparison.


Psalm 104:24–30; Judges 11:28–12:15; Luke 21:5–28

Psalm 104:24–30: Our poet launches a grand summation of God’s power that has created and now cares for every aspect, every creature including humankind, in his creation: “How many You deeds, O Lord,/ all of them You do in wisdom./ All the earth is filled with Your riches.” (24)

Seemingly standing on the shore, the psalmist turns toward the sea and marvels at the variety of life contained in the ocean: “The sea is great and wide,/ where creatures beyond number stir,/ the little beasts and the large.” (25). And on its surface, ships sail and whales cavort:”There the little ships go,/ this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.” (26)

But the common point of every living creature is that they—and we—are dependent upon God for our very lives: “All of them look to You/ to give them food in its season.” (27). We humans so often forget this dependence, thinking we are thriving only by our own efforts. But absent the resources of the earth that God keeps providing homo sapiens would have died out millennia ago.

The psalmist drills down into this theme of dependence on God, noting that God can gives us everything we have and consume: “When You give them, they gather it in,/ when You open Your hand, they are sated with good.” (28) But God can also withhold via disaster and drought: “When You hide Your face, they panic,/ You withdraw Your breath and they perish,/ and to dust they return.” (29) Even today, we recognize that the efforts and technology of humankind is puny when arrayed against the forces of nature.

Perhaps most significantly, our psalmist gives credit where it is due. God is in a state of constant creation and renewal: “When You send forth Your breath, they are created,/ and You renew the earth.” (30) Of course the question is, will humankind despoil the earth to such an extent that God’s renewal will be insufficient? Happily, compared to the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, we are at least becoming more aware of the preciousness of God’s good creation.

Judges 11:28–12:15: Unsurprisingly, “the king of the Ammonites did not heed the message that Jephthah sent him.” (11:28) Following Gideon’s (and others) example, Jephthah makes a deal with God: If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” (30b, 31) Clearly, Jephthah in his enthusiasm failed to think through the implications of his vow.

Jephthah is victorious over the Ammonites and returns home to Mizpah. Alas, it is his virgin daughter who comes out to greet him first. Jephthah knows he cannot take back his vow and tells his daughter the fate that awaits her. In perhaps one of the greatest displays of obedience in the entire OT, she tells him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” (36)

She asks for a 2-month reprieve “so that I may go and wander[a] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” (37). But at the end of her journey she returned and “her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.” (39) The authors observe that a custom arose that “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” (40)

I find this story of Jephthah’s daughter to be pretty disturbing. Would God even countenance a vow of infanticide? Is Jephthah’s act a legend? I hope so. In any event, the authors make no comment relating to God’s approval or disapproval of his act.

Like any family, internecine squabbles inevitably arise and Israel is no exception. The men of Ephraim threaten Jephthah: “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you!” (12:1) He replies that they did not help when he called them. In any event the men of Gilead fight the men of Ephraim. Since they all look like each other, Jephthah tells his men to ask each soldier crossing back over the Jordan to pronounce, “Shibboleth.” If they mispronounced it as “Sibboleth,” they were Ephramites and were killed by the men of Gilead. “Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.” (12:6) Jephthah’s main contribution to history is that he has given us the word, ‘shibboleth,’ which means, “a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group.”

Jephthah judges Israel for 6 years, followed by Ibzan of Bethlehem, whose contribution to history is that he sired 30 sons, all of whom married. Then comes the unremarkable Elon the Zebulunite followed by Abdon, who not to be outdone by Ibzan, sires 40 sons and 30 grandsons, all of whom made an impressive parade by riding on 70 donkeys.

Luke 21:5–28: These verses are Luke’s take on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, where Jesus describes the end of history. My own sense is that the way in which Luke writes this discourse is a direct message to those in his community who felt that the end of history was imminent—and was being preached by some in the early church. But Luke’s Jesus warns his disciples that “many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” (8)

For me the centerpiece of the discourse is how Jesus points out that we are not to be afraid of the world’s chaos: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (9) Which seems to be exactly what history has proved over the past 2000 years. War will always be with us: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;” (10) And nature will have its way with humankind as well: “ there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (11)

Writing as he did after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Luke must see signs of imminent persecution of the new church as his Jesus warns,: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons.” (12) Jesus asks his disciples—and us—to follow his example and use the persecution as “an opportunity to testify.” (13) In this testimony, Jesus promises that “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (15) Luke gives us a brilliant example of exactly what Jesus is talking about in the final chapters of Acts when we hear Paul, brought up on sedition charges by the Jews, testify before the procurator Festus, who is “almost persuaded.”

Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and that “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (24) Some Christians believe the ‘times of the Gentiles’ was fulfilled by Israel in 1967 when it retook all of Jerusalem. My own view is that as long as a mosque sits on the site of the temple, Jesus’ prophecy has not yet been fulfilled.

At some point off in the future, history will end and “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (27) This statement is of course a proof text for those who believe in a public second coming of Jesus—as well as those who believe in a “private Rapture” as they argue over who ‘they’ is.

However, I personally remain ambivalent about exactly how the Second Coming will occur, and that we should not waste time worrying about its exact nature. There is plenty of Kingdom work to be done in the meantime and as Jesus has already made clear, that’s our true priority.

Psalm 104:19–23; Judges 11:1–27; Luke 20:41–21:4

Psalm 104:19–23: Our psalmist, who has observed nature extremely carefully, turns to describe how the sun and moon have been ordered by God to create the rhythms of animal and human life: “He made the moon for the fixed seasons;/ the sun—He appointed its setting.” (19) This rhythm accounts for the nocturnal behavior of animals: “You bring down darkness and it turns to night/ in which all the beasts of the forests stir.” (20)

He provides one dramatic example of the movements of a nocturnal beast: “The lions roar for prey,/ seeking from God their food.” (21) In a demonstration of God’s orderly creation, as the lions returns to its den after being on the prowl all night, diurnal man gets up and goes to work:

When the sun comes up, they head home,
and in their dens they lie down.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until evening.” (22,23)

The underlying message here is that God has been intentional. Man works while the lion sleeps and they avoid each other. The psalmist is clear: this has been planned out by God; there is nothing random about creation. When I head out into nature on a photographic journey this God-defined orderliness presents itself in numerous ways. We are indeed fortunate to dwell in a God-created world. However, when humankind despoils creation then ugliness trumps beauty.

Judges 11:1–27: One of the underlying themes of the OT is that men and women born of low estate often turn out to be the greatest leaders. While the story of Jephthah is not taught in Sunday school or appears in any lectionary reading, his story is inspiring. It demonstrates that the supposed wise leaders can be foolish while those who are rejected are used by God.

Jephthah is the son of a prostitute but also “a mighty warrior.” (1) Fathered illegitimately by Gilead, the father’s two legitimate sons “drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.’” (2)Jephthah becomes a successful outlaw.

The Ammonites begin to make war against Israel. Somebody remembers Jephthah’s gifts as a warrior and they ask him back, begging him to command the Israelite army. He correctly points out that these are the same people who drove him away and now they want his help. The warrior finally agrees on the condition that “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” (9) They agree.

Rather than rushing to battle, Jepthah, who is clearly wiser than the others, sends a messenger to the Ammonite king asking, “What is there between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” (12). The Ammonites reply that “Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.” (13)

Jepthah responds with a history lesson of what actually happened several hundred years earlier. Israel obeyed the kings of Edom and Moab in their refusal to allow Israel to enter their land. But when Israel entreated Sihon to allow them to pass through peaceably, Sihon, king of the Amorites, “gathered all his people together, and encamped at Jahaz, and fought with Israel.” (20) Jephthah points out that Israel defeated the Amorites and therefore by the rules of war, the land legitimately belongs to Israel. He concludes, “It is not I who have sinned against you, but you are the one who does me wrong by making war on me.” (27) And says that God will decide who wins the battle about to begin.

What’s fascinating here is that Jepthah employs diplomacy rather than immediately heading off to battle. The Amorite king can gracefully acknowledge Israel’s claim or he can go to war. Our authors are making it abundantly clear that Israel’s claim on Canaan is legitimate. The parallels to today’s conflict between Israel and Palestine are striking. Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, but is being forced to cede that territory. I’m sure the story of Jephthah is widely known there if not here in America.

Luke 20:41–21:4: At first glance the answer to the question, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son?” (41) appears nonsensical. After all, David reigned more than 1000 years ago, so the Messiah certianly cannot be David’s human son. Jesus answers the question by quoting a psalm attributed to David: “David himself says in the book of Psalms,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ (42, 43)

Jesus asks rhetorically, “David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” (44) In other words, the Messiah, David’s “son,” is far greater than a human son—and far greater than David himself, who acknowledges the lordship of the Messiah in his very own psalm. This claim that Jesus has made for himself will only further enrage the Pharisees and scribes.

Fully understanding their enmity and that he has nothing to lose, Jesus goes on to chastise the hypocrisy of the religious leaders: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.” (46) But even worse is that they disobey God’s injunctions to show kindness and generosity to the widows and orphans: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” (47a) And for this egregious sin, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” (47b)

To demonstrate his point, and to underscore the theme throughout the OT, Jesus observes that the widow who contributed all she had to the treasury, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.” (3).

This is one of those places where we see that Luke is deeply concerned about social equity and through Jesus’ words the gospel writer castigates  those in power who oppress those without power. It is also where I have come to see that our primary duty as workers in the Kingdom is to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. Our duty is much less about evangelism that focuses on “saving others.” That’s the job of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Our efforts to serve the poor simply pave the way for Jesus to work in the hearts of those who do not know him.

Psalm 104:10–18; Judges 9:34–10:18; Luke 20:27–40

Psalm 104:10–18: The psalmist’s paean to the beauty and diversity of God’s good creation moves from the major structures of creation to the water nourishing the local landscape: “You let loose the springs in freshets,/ among the mountains they go.” (10). This is the precious water that provides life in that semi-arid region of the world: “They water all beasts of the field,/ the wild asses slake their thirst.” (11) Then as now, water is the essence of the lives which God has created: “He waters mountains from His lofts,/ from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated.” (13)

And in that agricultural economy it is water that allows man to tend the earth: “He makes the hay sprout for cattle,/ grass for the labor of humankind/ to bring forth bread from the earth.” (14) Water is what brings forth the fruit for the “wine that gladdens the heart of man/ to make faces shine brighter than oil,/ and bread that sustains the heart of man.” [I love that line that describes the effect of wine: “faces shine brighter than oil.”]

Even though most of us are far removed from the farms that bring us food and drink, what was true then is just as true now. Without water the earth would shrivel and die. As would we.

There is a beautiful logic underlying God’s creation which our poet brings into view: water feeds the earth which feeds humankind. It does the same for the rest of creation as well, in a single sentence that evokes a landscape rich in birds and animals in which we would be happy to dwell:
“The trees of the Lord drink their fill,
the Lebanon cedars He planted,
where the birds make their nest.
the stork whose home is the cypresses,
the high mountains for the gazelles,
the crags a shelter for badgers.” (16, 17, 18)

For me, I see the poet asserting that plants animals have the same rights to God’s good creation as we humans. That humankind has desecrated so much of the earth is tangible evidence of our prideful and sinful nature.

Judges 9:34–10:18: Abimelech will not countenance Gaal the usurper and he and his army lay in wait to ambush the city. Gaal looks outside the city walls and goes back to Zebul, one of the lord of Shechem, and tells him that Ab’s army is about to attack. Zebul is in denial that Ab would do that, telling Gaal, “The shadows on the mountains look like people to you.” (9:36)

However, Zebul is badly mistaken, and Ab successfully reasserts his kingly rights and “Zebul drove out Gaal and his kinsfolk, so that they could not live on at Shechem.” (41) However, this does not satisfy Ab, who lies in wait outside Shechem and “When he looked and saw the people coming out of the city, he rose against them and killed them.” (43) In fact he destroys the entire city, “and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt.” (45)

The lords of Shechem hear of Ab’s rampage and hide in the “stronghold of the temple of El-berith.” (46). Ab commands his troops to cut down brushwood and they set fire the stronghold on fire “so that all the people of the Tower of Shechem also died, about a thousand men and women.” (49) Like his father Gideon, Ab uses fire, not to fool the enemy, but to destroy women and children.

Ab moves on to Thebez and takes the city but not the tower inside the city walls to which the lords of the city fled. Ab fights against them but “a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, and crushed his skull.” (53) Male chauvinist to the end, the dying Ab demands that a servant run him through with a sword, “so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” (54) Ab dies, as the authors note that “God repaid Abimelech for the crime he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers.” (56) And by the way, “God also made all the wickedness of the people of Shechem fall back on their heads” (57) fulfilling Jotham’s curse on them.

Following Abimelech, Tola, “son of Puah son of Dodo, a man of Issachar,”  (10:1) becomes judge and nothing seems to happen for 23 years. He’s followed by “Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years.”  (10:3) The authors insert the humorous description that Jair “had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys; and they had thirty towns.” (10:4)  Which is probably not how Jair wished to be remembered down through history.

As usual, “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, worshiping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines.” (10:6) God’s punishment is that they are oppressed by the Ammonites for 18 long years.

Equally predictably, “the Israelites cried to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and have worshiped the Baals.” (10:10) God chastises them, recounting all the rescues of Israel he has done for them and says in Godly frustration, “therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” (13, 14) 

At this, Israel repents—and God relents because “he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” (10:16) Another battle is in the offing as the Israelites ask themselves, “Who will begin the fight against the Ammonites?” (10:18)

As I read these accounts there are striking parallels between Israel and Palestine today. These battles have been going on for millennia—and it’s doubtless foolhardy to think that this enmity can be negotiated into peaceful harmony.

Luke 20:27–40: The Sadducees, “those who say there is no resurrection” (27) ask Jesus a trick question setting up their strawman: “seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.” Then in their self-righteous cleverness, they ask, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” (33)

Jesus simply answers that “in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage,…they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” (35, 36) thereby rendering the question moot.

He goes on to use the example of Moses to prove the reality of resurrection, naming God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, proving that “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (38)

What’s intriguing here is that to God, being outside of time, death is not an end but merely a transition. I think this is also what NT Wright is getting at when he talks about heaven being very near to us in a dimension that we cannot perceive here on earth (or at least only very rarely via thin spaces.) What looks like resurrection to us is merely a state change—ice to water—to God.


Psalm 104:1–9; Judges 9:1–33; Luke 20:20–26

Psalm 104:1–9: Like the previous psalm, this one celebrates the majesty of God the king: “Lord, my God, You are very great./ Grandeur and glory You don.” (1) This psalm focuses less on God’s justice and more on how he is king over all creation through metaphors and similes evoking nature and in many ways replicating the account of Genesis 1 in poetic form.

Our poet begins with God wearing light as a coat: “Wrapped in light like a cloak,/ stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.” (2) Water is separated from sky in a metaphor of building construction: “Setting beams for His lofts in the waters, /making His chariot the clouds.” (3). Wind evokes God’s and his angels movements within creation: “He goes on wings of the wind./ He makes His messengers the winds,/ His ministers, glowing fire.” (4).

While the heavens are full of movement, the earth has a solid, immovable foundation: “He founded earth on its solid base,/ not to be shaken forevermore.” (5) [Apparently our psalmist never experienced an earthquake…] A fascinating image follows of the mountains originally being covered by water but becoming dry land, evoking the movements associated with volcanic activity and plate tectonics:
With the deep You covered it like a garment—
       over mountains the the waters stood.
       From Your blast they fled,
       from the sound of Your thunder they scattered.” (6,7)

This movement of water affects all the earth, eventually ending up as the landscape the poet knows: “They went up the mountains, went down the valleys,/ to the place You founded for them.” (8) In these same verses we also see an evocation of the flood story and God’s promise not to rearrange the landscape via flood ever again: “A border You fixed so they [the waters] could not cross,/ so the could not come back to cover the earth.” (9)

Because of our scientific knowledge we have lost the impact and deep meaning of these verses that so forcefully depict God as the creative agent of everything we know. I suppose that it’s good that God has given us the brainpower to seek out and understand how the laws of physics lie behind the movement of creation. But it has been at the tradeoff of losing the awe and wonder that these verses so powerfully communicate.

Judges 9:1–33: Gideon, aka Jerubbaal, has died and his son Abimelech decides that Israel really needs a king rather than the judges that have administered rather than ruled over ISrael with mixed success. He inveigles his mother into going to the leaders of Shechem and present the false choice, “‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’” (2) Mom is successful as the lords of Shechem follow Abimelech [hereafter ‘Ab’] “for they said, “He is our brother.” (3) They give Ab 70 pieces of silver which he uses to hire “worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him.” (4). These miscreants kill all but one of Ab’s seventy brothers “but Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, for he hid himself.” (5) The lords of Shechem and Beth-millo crown Ab king.

Side note: One of the fascinating themes of the OT is unending conflict among brothers and how it is the younger brother [Esau/ Jacob; 12 brothers/ Joseph] who comes out ahead of the others

The sole survivor of the massacre, Jotham, warns the lords of Shechem of their folly in anointing Ab as their king with an agricultural  parable spoken as a poem. The parable speaks of trees, representing the people of Shechem, asking an olive tree to reign over them, followed by a fig tree, and a vine. Each of these represents an honorable man who refuses to become king.  Finally, the trees ask bramble—clearly meaning Ab— to reign over them, who agrees to do so: “And the bramble said to the trees,/ ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,/then come and take refuge in my shade;” (15a) But the poem ends as a prediction of battles to come between Ab and those over whom he rules: “but if not, let fire come out of the bramble/ and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’” (15b).

Jotham reminds the lords of Shechem “my father fought for you, and risked his life, and rescued you from the hand of Midian” (17) but they betrayed that heritage and have “risen up against my father’s house this day, and have killed his sons, seventy men on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his slave woman, king over the lords of Shechem, because he is your kinsman.” (18)

Jothem sows seeds of doubt into theminds of the Shechem leaders, teling them that if they acted in good faith, “then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you;” (19) but if not, then Ab and Shechem will annihilate each other in battle. After making these pronouncements, Jotham wisely flees “for fear of his brother Abimelech.” (21)

After three years peace between Ab and Shechem falls apart as “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem.” (23) A guy named Gaal shows up and “the lords of Shechem put confidence in him.” (26). Gaal, sensing he can seize power asks the ever-pliable lords of Shechem, “Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him?” (28) Gaal asserts that he can rout Ab out of his position of power.

Ab’s ally, Zebul hears about this and tells Ab that a coup is being plotted at Shechem. Preparations for battle ensue as Zebul advises Ab, “as soon as the sun rises, get up and rush on the city; and when he and the troops that are with him come out against you, you may deal with them as best you can.” (33)

I think the authors are telling us via the story of Abimelech that leaders must be appointed by God. Plotting and conspiracies arising from man’s sinful nature will always come to a bad end.

Luke 20:20–26: Jesus is now preaching in the belly of the beast at the temple. The conspiracy to entrap Jesus is in full swing, as “they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.” (20)

The clever spies spring what they think will be a clever trap by asking Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (22). Perceiving their scheme, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (25)

Would that the church to come followed Jesus’ advice more diligently.

The church was wholly separate from the state in its early days, which caused it to be viewed suspiciously by the emperors at Rome, often resulting in severe persecution. But the church survived and grew. Then came Constantine who co-opted the church, making it a vassal of the state. And it has behaved politically ever since, eventually becoming the state itself as the Holy Roman Empire. Of course had the church not become the state, western civilization would look a lot different than it does today.

Conflicts between church and state continue to the present day, where many of those in political power seek to displace the church from the public square altogether. Perhaps this is not a completely bad thing. The church in America has certainly diluted Jesus’ message with substantial portions of its evangelical arm seeking political power under the guise of America as being specially blessed by God. The church seems to thrive when it is persecuted, as witness the growth of Christianity in China today.

Psalm 103:6–22; Judges 8; Luke 20:9–19

 Psalm 103:6–18: The psalm turns to celebration of God’s ineffable qualities. The first is what I believe is the underlying theme of the OT: God’s demand for justice for the poor and downtrodden: “The Lord performs righteous acts/ and justice for all the oppressed.” (6) And God is “compassionate and gracious” (8a)

One of the famous verses in the Psalms reminds us that God is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (8b) Even when God is angry at Israel’s inevitable transgressions our psalmist assures us that God “will not dispute forever/ nor nurse His anger for all time.” (9).  In fact, while we deserve severe punishment for our sins, God is always lenient: “Not according to our offenses has He done to us/ nor according to our crimes requited us.” (10)

At the heart of God’s justice lies his kindness: “For as the heavens loom high over the earth,/ His kindness is great over those who fear Him.” (11) God is graceful and forgiving as he knows that we are his beloved and are not defined by our sins: “As the east is far from the west,/ He has distanced us form our transgressions.” (12)

In fact, God is our father and “As a father has compassion for his children,/ the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (13) And of course we are beneficiaries of God’s greatest act of compassion: sending his son Jesus to die for our transgressions.

So why does God show such great compassion in the face of our sinfulness? Our poet seems to answer that it is because we are short-lived creatures who can hide nothing from God, reminding us that God “knows our devisings,/ recalls that we are dust.” (14) We are ephemeral, here on earth only briefly: “Man’s days are like grass,/ like the bloom of the field…/ when the wind passes by him, he is gone.” (15, 16a)

We may be here only temporarily, but by contrast, “the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever/ over those who fear him.” (17) It’s worth remembering that not only is God eternal, but so too are his justice and his kindness. And for us, Jesus is the greatest expression of God’s love and kindness.

The scene shifts to heaven, which as Revelation makes clear, is the place from which God rules over all creation: “The Lord set His throne firm in the heavens/ and His kingdom rules over all.” (19) We are then treated to a little more detail about the what the angels of God: “Bless the Lord, O His messengers,/ valiant in power, performing His word,/ to heed the sound of His words.” (20)

Our poet envisions them as part of God’s armies (note the plural here): “Bless the Lord, all His armies,/ His servants performing His pleasure.” (21) What’s crucial here is that these messengers are obedient to God and like good soldiers, they carry out God’s orders.

The psalm ends on the high note of God’s activity and that he reigns over all the earth: “Bless the Lord, O all His works,/ in all places of His dominion.” (22a) But despite his wide-ranging power and majesty, God still cares for each of us as individuals, just as he cares for our psalmist, who ends these soaring verses on a personal note: “Bless, O my being, the Lord!” (22b)

What a terrific thought to reflect upon: that God, who rules over creation and commands legions of angels, also loves each one of us as individual created beings. And that he cares so much that he sent Jesus to us.

Judges 8: After Gideon winnows his army to a mere 300 men and then triumphs over the Midianites, not everyone is pleased to have been excluded: “Then the Ephraimites said to him, “What have you done to us, not to call us when you went to fight against the Midianites?” And they upbraided him violently.” (1) Gideon calms them by telling them they’ve done great things, but the incident reminds us that people then—and now—will be envious of those who accomplish great things.

But this envy morphs into bitter resentment as Gideon asks the people of Succoth for bread. They refuse, claiming that he has not yet completed the task at hand since he is still pursuing the Midian kings. Gideon promises that when he captures the kings, “I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.” (7). The people of Penuel also refuse to aid Gideon’s men, so Gideon vows that “When I come back victorious, I will break down this tower.” (9). Why these refusals? Was it envy or simply stubbornness because their agenda was not playing out the way they envisioned?

In any event Gideon successfully captures the Midianite kings and carries out his threats on the leaders of Succoth and Penuel. We then encounter a strange scene where Gideon asks his eldest son, Jether, to execute the two kings. “But the boy did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a boy.” (20) So Gideon kills them himself. But the question of why he asked his son to be the executioner hangs in the air. He seems to be testing his son. Gideon, having tested God, apparently believes that everyone should be tested in one way or the other.

Now that the Midianites have been conquered, the people ask Gideon to be their king and establish a dynasty: “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” (22) But he refuses, telling them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” (23) Certainly at this point Gideon’s heart was in the right place.

But unlike the prophets and judges before him, who never swerved from God, Gideon comes to believe his own press releases. He asks to be paid for his work from the Midiaite booty and ends up with 1700 shekels of gold, which he promptly uses to make an idol, “an ephod of it and put it in his town, in Ophrah.” (27) As a result, “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.” (27) Gideon seems to say the right things, but his actions prove otherwise. Some things about leaders and politicians have remained constant down through the ages.

Nevertheless, Gideon is judge for 40 years, and sires 70 sons(!) But as soon as he dies, “the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god.” (33) Once again, they “did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hand of all their enemies on every side.” (34) Nor did the Israelites “exhibit loyalty to the house of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.” (35). Which is something every politician should bear in mind when he starts to believe that his legacy will live on after him.

Luke 20:9–19: Since we know how the story turns out, this parable of the wicked tenants who end up killing the owner’s “beloved son” is completely obvious to us. It’s all about how Jesus was rejected by the Jews. But it was certainly not obvious to most of Jesus’ listeners since they still believe he has come to Jerusalem to carry out a political coup and restore Israel. Jesus concludes his parable with the dire warning, that the owner “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (16) The disciples remain in denial and exclaim, “Heaven forbid!” (16b)

But Jesus is not finished with them and asks, What then does this text mean:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone’?” (17)

He continues relentlessly, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (18) Suddenly the priests realize that “he had told this parable against them” (19) They realize they are the corrupt tenants and that Jesus has proclaimed himself to be the cornerstone upon which they will stumble and fall.

As is usual with Jesus parables, it operates at two levels. There is the first meaning that the priests and scribes pick up: Jesus is talking about the here and now. But then there is the second meaning for Luke’s community and for us: We either accept Jesus for who he said he is, or we stumble on his message. In rejecting Jesus as the cornerstone of the church, there can be only one bad outcome at the end of history.

Psalm 103:1–5; Judges 6; Luke 19:28–44

Psalm 103:1–5: Dedicated to King David, this psalm of thanksgiving opens on a note of unalloyed joy of gratitude to God: “Bless, O my being, the Lord,/ and everything in me, His holy name.” (1) In the second verse the poet reinforces this concept that every part of one’s body, not just the heart and mind participate in thankfulness and worship: “Bless, O my being, the Lord,/ and do not forget his generous acts.” (2) The poet is reminding us that true gratitude to God is not just an abstract thankfulness, but that we are to reflect more specifically on the acts of God for which we are thankful.

The psalmist goes on to list the reasons he is—and we should be—thankful: “Who forgives all your wrongs,/ heals all your illnesses,/ redeems your life from the Pit,” (3,4a) Particularly notable is recovery from illness. When we are sick there is more to true healing than just medical technology. As Jesus points out, if God cares about the sparrow, think how much more he cares about us and our entire being.

God is also responsible for instilling the attributes of righteousness within our very being as he “crowns you with kindness, compassion,/ sates you with good while you live.” (4b, 5a) As we should well realize, any acts of kindness and compassion we perform for others are not self-generated, but are a direct gift from God.

And for those of us well past middle age, there is the marvelous promise, “you renew your youth like the eagle.” (5b) Our bodies may not be restored to the health and vigor of our youth, but God restores our hearts with the joy of simply being alive, and yes, our minds with feeling young again. What a marvelous gift, especially when we have passed through the shadows of a dread disease.

Judges 6: Following the forty years of peace under Judge Deborah, the endless cycle continues. Israel does “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (1a) and then God’s punishes them. This time, “the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.” (1b). Israel is forced to find “hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds.” (2) as “the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east” (3) robbed Israel of its produce and animals and “they wasted the land as they came in.” (5)

Desperate, Israel finally turns to God, who sends an unnamed prophet to them. The prophet delivers the usual reminder that God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and “from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land.” (9) But there was always Israel’s side of the Covenant that God alone was to be worshipped. But, as usual, “you have not given heed to my voice.” (10) and therefore Israel has earned the straits in which it finds itself. There is no indication at this point that God will rescue Israel.

The scene shifts to Gideon who “was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites.” (11) An angel, speaking for God appears, announces to Gideon, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” (12). Gideon responds that the angel must be mixed up because he is the weakest son of the weakest clan in Manasseh. Nevertheless, Gideon invites the angel to lunch and brings meat, bread and soup. The angel tells Gideon to place the meat and bread on a rock and pour the broth over the, The angel touches the rock with his staff and the food bursts into flame. Gideon fears for his life, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” (22) But the angel, as they always do, tells Gideon not to fear.

The angel orders Gideon to tear down the Baal altar and use the wood of the sacred pole to make a burnt offering to God. Gideon and ten servants do this, but under cover of darkness “because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day.” (27) Needless to say, the townspeople are upset. When they find out it was Gideon, they demand his execution. But Gideon’s father, Joash, stands up to them, telling them that if Baal “is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.” (31) Unsurprisingly, Baal does nothing of the sort.

Nevertheless, the “Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east” are p.o.ed at this sacrilege and form an army to finish off Israel. “But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him.” (34) Emboldened by the Holy Spirit, Gideon forms an army that is ready to fight.

Even though Gideon has done all this he still has his doubts and puts God to the test in the famous fleece incident. God passes his test.

So what do we draw from this famous story? First, God tends to choose the most unlikely candidates as leaders. Just as he chose tongue-tied Moses, God chooses the most obscure guy in Israel. Second, it is perfectly natural to resist the call of God. Moses did. Jonah did. And Gideon did. Third, Gideon demonstrates that it’s not unreasonable to put God to the test. But we need to be careful in how we do it. Discerning both what a fleece might be and how God will respond to our fleece requires preparation and prayer.

Luke 19:28–44: We again come to Palm Sunday and the Passion narrative. Master of detail, our gospel writer Jesus’ instruction to his disciples about what to say to the owners of the colt he has asked to be delivered to him: “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” (31) The scenario plays out exactly as Jesus predicted, and the owners ask why the disciples are untying the colt. While Luke doesn’t tell us what the colt owners said in reply, I think it’s safe to assume that once they heard it was Jesus who was asking  they assented because at that point he was the most famous celebrity in Israel.

As Jesus makes the trek down from the Mount of Olives to the Jerusalem gate, “people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.” (36) Luke never mentions anything about palm branches. However, the gospel writer tells us who the crowd is. It’s not the population of Jerusalem, but “the whole multitude of the disciples, [who] began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.“(37) I’m sure Jesus picked up hundreds of followers as he made the journey from Galilee through Jericho and to the gates of Jerusalem. The ever-present religious party-poopers, the Pharisees, demand that Jesus “order your disciples to stop.” (39). But Jesus famously replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (40). I’m sure that upon hearing that, the Pharisees were even angrier.

It’s great to feel triumphant, even if only for a short time. One of the things we never seem to celebrate on Palm Sunday is Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (42) Writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE , Luke’s Jesus predicts its destruction because the inhabitants of Jerusalem “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (44)

Many civilizations have come and gone in the 2000 years since because they have failed to recognize who Jesus truly is. I see no reason to believe that we are not the next civilization to fall because, unlike the psalmist, we have failed to recognize all that God has done for us. The sin of pride is the ever-present precursor to the reality of downfall.

Psalm 102:23–29; Judges 5; Luke 19:11–27

Psalm 102:23–29: After speaking of the entire nation, our poet returns to his personal situation, recalling his illness: “He humbled my strength on the highway,/ he cut short my days.” (24) We presume the “he” here is an enemy of the poet, not God. As well, ‘highway’ is the path or highway of life itself.

Desperate, he returns to the earlier theme of the psalm as he pleads for his very life, “O my God/ Do not take me away in the midst of my days!” (25) Again the sense of his ephemerality as over against God’s eternity that is even more ancient than heaven itself: “Of old You founded the earth,/ and heavens—Your handiwork.” (26)

This contrast between our mortality and God’s eternity is intensified in the final verses: “They will perish and You will yet stand.” (27a) The psalmist deploys the metaphor of clothing first that like garments that wear out, we are just as temporary:”They will all wear away like a garment” (27b)

The metaphor takes on a second meaning in the next verse that like clothes, God changes the old for the new just as humans are born, live a while, and then die: “Like clothing You change them, and they pass away./ But You—Your years never end.” (28)

Despite our brief time as individuals on earth, what God has founded—which given the context of the middle verses of the psalm, I take as Israel—lives on generation after generation: “The sons of Your servants dwell safe,/ their seed in Your presence, unshaken.” (29)

While the subtext of this psalm is about Israel’s longevity compared to that of a single human, it is equally about the Church, which lives on through the centuries as we are born, live and then die.

Judges 5: Our authors interrupt the narrative with the famously beautiful Song of Deborah, which some scholars believe to be the oldest part of the Bible. It begins with Deborah telling Israel,
    “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
      to the Lord I will sing,
       I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (3)

Israel found itself in desperate straits, having drifted far from God—”When new gods were chosen,/ then war was in the gates.” (8a)—the people turn to Deborah crying,
    “Awake, awake, Deborah!
      Awake, awake, utter a song! (12)

Of course Deborah brought far more than a song as she led Barak and his troops into battle.

The song then divides the tribes of Israel into two groups: those that went to battle and those who did not. Benjamin, Zebulun,Naphtali,  Issachar “came with Deborah,/ and Issachar faithful to Barak/  into the valley they rushed out at his heels.” (15a). As well, “Zebulun is a people that scorned death;/ Naphtali too, on the heights of the field.” (18)

But other tribes hesitated: “Among the clans of Reuben/ there were great searchings of heart.” (16) And, “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan;/ and Dan, why did he abide with the ships?” (17)

Deborah’s song becomes onomatopoetic as we can almost hear the battle being fought:
     “The torrent Kishon swept them away,
       the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.
        March on, my soul, with might!” (21)

We suddenly hear an angel of God curing those who did not join in the battle: ”
     “Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord,
            curse bitterly its inhabitants,
        because they did not come to the help of the Lord,
             to the help of the Lord against the mighty.” (23)

I think that when we are called but try to escape the call, God will pursue us relentlessly. But like the price of our rejection is exceedingly high and like Meroz (whoever he was) we ignore God at our peril. While Moses and Jonah and Gideon all initially resisted the call, they all eventually followed God. These tribes did not, and they earned only enmity. Would that we discern God’s call and then we follow the call.

At this point the song turns to Jael and her assassination of the enemy, Sisera. The details are just as gruesome in poetry as in the narrative:
She put her hand to the tent peg
      and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet
      she struck Sisera a blow,

        she crushed his head,
       she shattered and pierced his temple.” (26)

But then, unlike the narrative of Sisera’s story, the song presents another scene describes Sisera’s mother as she anxiously awaits her son’s return: “the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?” (28) She rationalizes that they obviously were triumphant and they are delayed because they are dividing the spoils, some of which she imagines will be hers: “two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil.” (30)  In a brilliant literary move that preserves the tension, the poet turns away from the scene. We are left to imagine the mother’s agony when she hears the bad news. 

That imagining only strengthens the last verse of this song and condenses Israel’s story of its relationship with God into a single couplet:
     “So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
            But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.” (31)

Luke 19:11–27: In the preface to the elaborate and rather frightening parable of the talents (here, “pounds”) Luke informs us that Jesus tells this parable “because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (11) Clearly, he is attempting to reset the disciples’ expectation of immediate political glory.

Most sermons I’ve heard about this parable tend to focus on the three slaves, two of whom made a return on the investments given to them—and the third who hid the money away because he was afraid of the ruler. But it’s crucial not to skip over the significant meaning in the introduction: “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.” (12) This would seem to be self-referential: Jesus, the nobleman, comes from heaven to earth and then will return to heaven.  In a clear reference to Israel, he was an unwelcome visitor: “the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’” (14) We certainly could take this as a reference to the crucifixion.

Nevertheless, in the parable, the nobleman returns—which I take to be a reference to the second coming of Jesus—and as promised in Revelation judgement is rendered as to the effectiveness works that each slave has accomplished. If we accept Jesus and work in the Kingdom we will enjoy a return and be blessed. But if we do nothing and hide our gifts and talents like the third slave, then we end up with nothing. In short, the Kingdom is about what Kingdom work we do.

But perhaps the most ominous aspect of this parable  is its ending: “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’” (27) Is this a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE? Luke, writing, around 90 CE would certainly know of this event. In any event we are forced to recall that working for the Kingdom is a serious business.



Psalm 102:12–22; Judges 4; Luke 19:1–10

Psalm 102:12–22: Our suffering poet compares the brevity of his human existence to God’s eternity:
My days inclined like a shadow,
        and I—like grass I withered.
        And You Lord, forever enthroned
        and Your name for all generations.” (12, 13)

We would do well to reflect more frequently on our mortality rather than behaving as if we’ll always be part of the earthly scene. Cancer certainly did that for me, but even now, eight years later, I have tended to lapse back into that old sense of making plans for the future on the assumption I’ll definitely be around to execute them. This psalm jerks me back to the reality of the ephemerality of life.

At this point the psalmist expands his perspective from his personal straits to those of Israel at large, addressing God in supplication: “You, may You rise, have mercy on Zion,/ for it is the hour to pity her, for the fixed time has come.” (14) It appears the poet is writing after the fall of Jerusalem, where only rubble remains: “Your servants cherish her stones/ and on her dust they take pity.” (15). His argument seems to be that if the remnant of Israel still loves what is left of Jerusalem, so too should God himself.

In reflecting on God’s potential mercy, the psalmist grows optimistic, envisioning a reconstructed Israel where
All nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all kings of the earth, Your glory.
For the Lord has rebuilt Zion,
He is seen in His glory.” (16, 17)

This vision of a rebuilt temple [Zion] rekindles the poet’s optimism. All is not dark and hopeless after all: “He has turned to the prayer of the desolate/ and has not despised their prayer.” (18) God has indeed answered the people’s desperate prayers as “the Lord has gazed down from His holy heights,/ from heaven to earth He has looked…” (20) [This is one of those places where we get the image of heaven being ‘up above’ the earth.] And in gazing down, God has shown great mercy “to hear the groans of the captive,/ to set loose those doomed to die.” (21)

The response of those rescued is, as always, worship: “that the name of the Lord be recounted in Zion/ and His praise in Jerusalem.” (22) This psalm, having descended to the heights of human despair, ascends to the glory of worship. It is indeed a metaphor for our human existence. Without God there can only be suffering and sorrow. But God always remembers us and in that redemption through Jesus we can rejoice.

Judges 4: Following Ehud’s death, Israel again lapses into sin and our authors ascribe what is essentially slavery as God’s punishment. They are ruled cruelly by “King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera.” (2) and finally, after twenty years, “the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.” (3)

Deborah, who is currently judge in Israel, “summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali,” (6) and tells him to take 10,000 troops to battle Sisera. Barak says that Deborah must accompany him into battle, which she agrees to do. However, she warns Barak, “nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (9)

Deborah, Barak, and his 10,000 warriors begin their march. When he learns of this, “Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him.” (13)  Deborah commands Barak to engage in battle: “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand.” (14) Barak handily defeats Sisera’s army but Sisera himself escapes on foot.

On the run, the defeated general arrives at “the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite,‘  (17) believing he is safe because the clan of Heber is at peace with Sisera’s king. The desperate Sisera accepts Jael’s offer to hide him in her tent under a rug. Sisera says he is thirsty; Jael gives him milk(!) rather than water. [An opportunity, if ever there was one, for a “Got milk?” commercial.]

Sisera retires to the the comfort of the bed in the tent and falls fast asleep. “Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground.” (21) Barak shows up and Jael calmly tells him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” (22) and shows him Sisera’s body with the tet peg sticking out of his temple. Deborah’s prophecy that Barak would not kill Sisera but that “the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman is fulfilled.

The author’s point of the story is not only that Israel has once again been rescued. There is a larger lesson here. The roles of Deborah and Jael demonstrate that God works just as effectively through women as through men, even if they be mighty generals and vast armies. How churches that exclude women from any leadership role, can read this story and still discount the courage and leadership of women, who are equal with men as instruments of God’s power, remains a mystery to me. Well, I guess it’s not that much of a mystery because they prefer Paul’s misogyny to the courageous acts of women like Deborah and Esther, who saved Israel.

Luke 19:1–10: Every Sunday School kid loves the story of Zacchaeus the Short. Perhaps it’s the sycamore tree-climbing. Jesus spots him in the tree and tells him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and co,me down; for I must stay at your house today.” (5) Zaccheaus complies and Luke is careful to note, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (7), reminding us that we are terribly quick to judge our neighbors, especially those we see as despicable.

In stark contrast to the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus is willing to give up his wealth: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (8) Notice that Zacchaeus does not give up the entirety of his wealth, but it is his willingness to do so that is the reason Jesus commends him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (9) As he did of Zacchaeus, Jesus is asking for our heart. If we are willing to do that, everything else follows naturally. Unlike the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus responds with his heart rather than his mind.

One wonders why Jesus points out that Zacchaeus is “a son of Abraham,” i.e., Jewish. I’m pretty sure that his neighbors held the tax collector in complete contempt, considering him to have abandoned his jewishness and gone completely over to the other side. But Zacchaeus’ redemption is the proof of Jesus’ mission statement: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (10) No one, no matter how sinful or how despised, is beyond redemption. In fact, these are the very people Jesus—and we—are seeking out. Are we up in the tree trying to get a view of Jesus or are we like the young ruler, more concerned about keeping every jot and tittle of the law, but unwilling to turn our heart over to Jesus.


Psalm 102:1–11; Judges 3; Luke 18:31–43

Psalm 102:1–11: Unlike most psalms of supplication, the opening verse exactly states the purpose of the psalm while also scanning as beautiful poetry: “A prayer for the lowly when he grows faint/ and pours out his plea before the Lord.” (1) Even in the words asking God to hear his prayer we feel his agony: “Lord, O hear my prayer,/ and let my outcry come before You.” (2) Like all who suffer, he begs that God reveal himself and answer not just in the good times, but even more urgently when we are in our darkest hours: “Hide not Your face from me/ on the day when I am in straits.” (3a)

In one of the most dramatic verses in Psalms, the poet beautifully describes life’s ephemerality as well as physical suffering in two short lines: “For my days are consumed in smoke,/ and my bone are scorched like a hearth.” (4) His condition is worsening and in his sickness he cannot or will not eat: “My heart is stricken and withers like grass,/ so I forget to eat my bread.” (5). As a result, his disease has emaciated him: “From my loud sighing,/ my bones cleave to my flesh.” (6)

Then, to further heighten the sense of his being near death, he compares himself to two birds: “I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,/ I become like the owl of the ruins.” (7) He extends the bird metaphor to describe his insomnia: “I lie awake and become/ like a lonely bird on a roof.” (8)

As if his physical weakness is not enough, he is confronted by wicked enemies eager to see him die: “All day long my enemies revile me,/ my taunters invoke me in curse.” (9) In perhaps the greatest metaphor of depression created by disease I have ever encountered, the poet beautifully evokes the sense of having become a dry husk of a man near his end: “For ashes I have eaten as bread, / and my drink I have mingled with tears—” (10) The suffering of Job comes to mind at this point as well as the suffering of so many through history into the present day.

I have been fortunate that in my own journey with cancer I have not endured suffering such as that described here, but I know those who have. And given this state, it is little wonder that our poet lashes out at God and blames him for these woes: “…because of Your wrath and fury,/ for You raised me up and flung me down.” (11) Which I think is exactly what I would do as well.

Judges 3: Inasmuch as our authors are writing history, they ascribe Israel’s failure to completely rid Canaan of all the tribes already occupying the land as “the nations that the Lord left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan,” (1) which I take to be subsequent generations long after Joshua’s death. The authors catalog the tribes that are left dwelling alongside Israel: “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” (5) Unfortunately, the presence of these tribes has a malign influence on Israel, which “took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods.” (6)

Depressingly, “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs.” (7). One wonders: why was it that Israel followed these other small-g gods when they could have undertaken efforts to bring God to these other tribes? All through history to the present day it seems that it is always the small-g gods that are more attractive than God. Certainly their physicality as idols created a sense of a god “being present,” as over against Israel’s monotheistic but almost always invisible God, who too often seems silent and absent.

The authors go on to describe the consequences of Israel abandoning God. But as always, “when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.” (11) Othniel serves as judge and “the land had rest forty years.” (11) But then he dies and once again in neverending rhythm, “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (12) The king of Moab, “in alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel.” (13) which becomes a vassal state for 18 years.

Once again, Israel finally comes to its senses and cries out to God and “the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man.” (15) I love the left-hand detail since left-handedness was seen as a significant defect in those cultures. Once again, God uses the people you’d least expect. Ehud arranges to bring a tribute and a personal weapon, a sword, to King Eglon of Moab, who “was a very fat man.”  (17) (Love these physical descriptions!). Ehud uses a ruse to get Eglon alone and assassinates him with the hidden sword, presumably using his left hand. Our authors seem to relish every gruesome detail: “the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out.” (22) Ehud locks the door to the chamber and escapes.

The king’s servants, thinking he’s taking too long “relieving himself,” break open the door and find their dead king. Without its leader, Moab falls to Israel in a great battle where “they killed about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; no one escaped.” (29) Roles are reversed and Moab is now vassal to Israel. Eighty years of peace ensue. But we can certainly see why Moabites and Israel hated each other even many years later when Ruth came along.

COmpared to the detail about Ehud, our authors give short shrift to “Shamgar son of Anath, who killed six hundred of the Philistines with an oxgoad,” saying only that “He too delivered Israel.” (31) Why no backstory about him?

Luke 18:31–43: Jesus and the 12 disciples are now heading to jerusalem for the final act. Jesus predicts exactly what is going to happen there with specific precision. I have to suspect that Luke, writing long after the crucifixion, has placed these words in Jesus’ mouth. Which doesn’t bother me because I think his real point here is to point out the total improbability of what is about to happen. Luke’s focus is on the disciples, who like us, “understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (34) Even 2000 years later, long after these historical events,  we have trouble grasping what Jesus really meant.

As they pass through Jericho, a blind man asks what the hubbub is about. He is told that “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” (37) He begins shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (39) and is brought to Jesus, who asks “What do you want me to do for you?” (41) The man replies, “Lord, let me see again.” (41b). Jesus heals him, saying, “your faith has saved you.” (42)

For Luke, this event is operating at two levels. First is the incident itself. A blind man has faith that he can be healed and he is. But the more significant level Luke is saying that we are all spiritually blind and crying out, if not aloud, then on the inside. As Luther found out after years of trying, if we have faith in Jesus we will see everything much more clearly. Above all, if we have honest faith, we will see Jesus for who he really is.