Archives for July 2017

Psalm 89:31–38; Isaiah 51:17–53:12; Colossians 1:15–27

Psalm 89:31–38: Our psalmist is working hard—a bit too hard, IMHO—to  make sure that everyone understands that David and his heirs are God’s permanent choice to be kings of Judah. He now turns his poetic attention to David’s successors, making it clear that their sins will be severely punished. God’s speech continues:
If his sons forsake my teaching
and do not go in my law,
if they profane My statutes
and do not keep My commands,
I will requite their crime with the rod,
and with plagues, their wrongdoing.” (31-33)

Nevertheless, and in spite of whatever sinfulness they may engage in—and as we know from reading the Histories, there was manifold sinfulness on their part—God will remain faithful to the covenant he made with David. And to make sure everyone gets it, the poet has God repeat the point in three successive verses:
Yet My steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him [David],
and I will not betray My faithfulness.
I will not profane my pact
and My mouth’s utterance I will not alter.
One thing I have sworn by My holiness—
that David I will not deceive.” (34-36)

God will make sure that David’s successors continue forever:
His seed shall be forever,
and His throne like the sun before Me,
like the moon, firm-founded forever—
and the witness in the skies is faithful—selah” (37, 38)

What the psalmist had no way of knowing is exactly how God would ultimately fulfill the Davidic Covenant. Where the psalmist envisioned an endless succession of generations, God did something completely different and completely surprising. He brought Jesus, who was of the line of David, into the world some 14 generations after David. And as we know, Jesus reigns forever, thereby permanently fulfilling the promise he made to David so many eons ago.

We can be grateful that despite the rather hyperbolic words of this psalm, we come away assured that God indeed keeps his promises. Only that he keeps them in ways we cannot expect and cannot even imagine.

Isaiah 51:17–53:12: At this point in Isaiah’s prophecy Judah and Jerusalem appear to lack any kind of human leadership. And of course they have abandoned God as well:
There is no one to guide her
    among all the children she has borne;
there is no one to take her by the hand
    among all the children she has brought up.” (51:18)

God’s punishment has been severe, what the prophet calls ‘the cup of wrath:’
These two things have befallen you
    —who will grieve with you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword—
    who will comfort you?” (51:19)

But there is always the promise that God will eventually turn from punishing them to punishing their enemies and there will be rejoicing:
See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
you shall drink no more
    from the bowl of my wrath.
And I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
    who have said to you,
    “Bow down, that we may walk on you” (51:22b, 23a)

In the light of this marvelous promise we come to some of the most beautiful poetry in the book that describes how news of peace comes and how the people rejoice, as this section ends with God’s eternal promise to Israel:
How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.

For you shall not go out in haste,
    and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
    and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” (52:7-9, 12)

The Servant introduced back in chapter 49 and 50 reappears in a dramatic scene that suggests Jesus suffering on the cross:
Just as there were many who were astonished at him 
    —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle  many nations;
    kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” (52:14, 15a)

Now we arrive at the famous chapter that describes the Messiah as the Suffering Servant. It is at this point that the identity of the servant is revealed. For us Christians it can be only one person:
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering  and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces 
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.” (53:4,5)

And in the most famous verses of all it becomes clear on whose behalf the Servant suffered. It is not some ancient race; it is all of us for all time, including we who are standing in the here and now:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.” (53:5,6)

This chapter is packed with prophecies that were fulfilled by Jesus:

  • His trial: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,/ yet he did not open his mouth.” (53:7)
  • The unjust outcome of the trial: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” (53:8)
  • His crucifixion among thieves and burial in a rich man’s grave: “They made his grave with the wicked / and his tomb with the rich.” (53:9a)
  • But above all it was Jesus’ death that was the final sacrifice for all our sins for all time:
    yet he bore the sin of many,
        and made intercession for the transgressors.” (53:12b)

Since we know how the story comes out we can even see the promise of his resurrection:
When you make his life an offering for sin, 
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;” (53:10b)

Of all the prophecies we have read—and wall the ones we have yet to read, for me, this chapter stands out above all the rest. For it contains the greatest prophecy of all: the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Colossians 1:15–27: Speaking of Jesus (which Paul does all the time) we arrive at one of Paul’s finer descriptions of just who Jesus is. Like the opening description of the Word in John 1, Jesus Christ predates creation, a partner with God: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” (15, 16)

Now Jesus is the head of the church: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” (18) As was promised in Isaiah 53, he suffered and died for our sins in order as the final sacrifice: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (10)

Because of this generous act, we come forgiven before God: “you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled  in his fleshly body  through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.” (22) But this reconciliation requires faith on our part: “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” (23)

With this core theology out of the way, Paul establishes his bona fides, which suggests he never personally visited this church: “I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.” (25) His purpose on earth is simple: “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” (26) “Saints’ of course includes Paul himself.

Paul uses the word, ‘mystery, several times in this passage. Of course Christ is the answer to the mystery that has been posed in Isaiah 53: the identity of the Suffering Servant. But I think it also means that the mystery of Christ will never be explained  fully while we are here on earth. Which is why logical argumentation and trying to prove various things about God’s existence all ultimately fail. We can see only through a glass darkly, albeit face to face with God.

It is faith that must bridge bridge the mystery for us. Which is why I like churches that allow the mystery to be present in worship rather than trying to expunge any sense of the unknown in their attempt to attract “Seekers.”  There will always be much we cannot understand, so we should let the church or worship or sermons try to fool us otherwise.

Psalm 89:20–30; Isaiah 49:22–51:16; Colossians 1:1–14

Psalm 89:20–30: After hinting around about how God has chosen the man form the line of David to be king, he gets quite specific about why this should be so. The poet does this by saying he had a vision and continuing to write in God’s voice as God recounts the brilliant choice he made in choosing and anointing David as king:
Then did You speak in a vision
to Your faithful and did say:
“I set a crown upon the warrior,
I raised up one chosen from the people>
I found David my servant,
with my holy oil anointed him,
that My hand hold firm with him,
May arm, too, take him in.” (20-22)

This effusive tone continues as our psalmist describes God’s promises to David, including how God will strike down David’s enemies. Our poet now shifts to writing in the future tense, I take as a thinly veiled warning to those who would presume to put a non-Davidic king on Israel’s throne:
No enemy shall cause him grief
and no vile person afflict him.
And I will grind down his foes before him
and defeat those who hate him
My faithfulness and My kindness are with him,
and in My name his horn shall be lifted.” (23-25)

At this point David begins to take on mythic qualities that suggest to me that in his passionate inspiration, the psalmist was actually writing about the Messiah to come, which for us of course is Jesus Christ. This seems especially apparent in the words that David speaks as he calls out to God and in how God calls  him his ‘firstborn.’ (Or I may simply be over-interpreting here):
And I shall put his hand to the sea
and his right hand to the rivers.
He will call me: ‘My father You are,
my God and the rock of my rescue.’
I, too, shall make him My firstborn,
most high among kings of the earth.” (26-28)

Finally, a clear statement of the covenant God establishes with David—and we presume, David’s generational successors. It’s a contract with no end date, which is especially important to our psalmist:
Forever I shall keep My kindness for him
and My pact will be faithful to him.
And I shall make his seed for all time
and his throne as the days of the heavens.” (29, 30)

Beyond our psalmist’s political message we can clearly feel his passion for this cause and his sincere love for God and for David.

Isaiah 49:22–51:16: Speaking of God’s promises, there are plenty of them here as Isaiah writes of that bright future day when Judah is finally rescued by God himself:
But thus says the Lord:
Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant be rescued;
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children.” (49:25)

Moreover, Isaiah’s God promises a bad end for Judah’s enemies:
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
    and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.” (49:26a)

However, God is making it very clear—as he always does—that Judah’s woes are not something he sent to them, but rather this suffering is what they brought on themselves:
Where is your mother’s bill of divorce
    with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
    to whom I have sold you?
No, because of your sins you were sold,
    and for your transgressions your mother was put away.” (50:1)

Of course its the same for us: God does not create the awful situations in which we find ourselves. Except for natural disasters, our circumstances arise as a consequence of our own actions and sins. Of course in today’s therapeutic era the whole idea of sin and its consequences has been pretty much discarded. Instead, we have become a nation of self-proclaimed victims with all our woes cause by others or circumstances we cannot control. To which I can only reply, ‘Balderdash!’

God appears to be on a quest for righteous people who abandon their egos and place their trust fully in him:
Who among you fears the Lord
    and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
    and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
    and relies upon his God?” (50:10)

The point is simple: we cannot choose to walk in the darkness of our own self-centered pride and expect God to rescue us. We alone are responsible for the choices we make.

As seems to be the unvarying rhythm of this book, its chapters and verses oscillate between the dark consequences of Judah’s sin and the wonderful future rescue that awaits those who follow God. Chapter 51 brims with the latter, For example:
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
    my salvation has gone out
    and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
    and for my arm they hope.” (51:5)

So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (51:11)

This entire chapter is a brilliant poetic essay on the nature and outcomes of God’s salvation. We may talk a lot about salvation, but it’s worth reading this chapter—once again written in God’s voice—that goes down a level of abstraction and describes the almost ecstatic qualities of God’s comfort and his rescue:
I, I am he who comforts you;
    why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die,
    a human being who fades like grass?” (51:12)

The oppressed shall speedily be released;
    they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
    nor shall they lack bread.” (51:14)

This reading has helped me realize that salvation is not just a dry theological concept that once we’ve been saved it’s over and done and we just go on as before clutching a ticket to heaven in our hand. On the contrary, salvation is God’s continuous action in our lives and on our behalf—which is the engine of sanctification. Which of course is exactly what Jesus did for us and the Holy Spirit continues to do for us.

Colossians 1:1–14: As he has about Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi, Paul has received word at Rome about the situation at the church in Colossae. And as always, Paul opens his letter with a prayer: “ In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” (3-5a)

Paul is the master of the psychological sandwich: praising people before calling them out about their problems and then concluding on an upbeat note. The book of Colossians follows this structure. These opening verses brim with optimism and praise for the folks at the church  in Colossae. Based on what he’s heard from a certain Epaphras, things seem to be going pretty well: “Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God…and [Epaphrus]has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” (6,8)

Before he gets down to business, he provides his listeners, readers, and us with one of those Pauline nuggets that crisply summarizes the well-lived Christian life: “We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’ will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (9, 10) Prayer and a growing knowledge of God brings spiritual wisdom. And if we fail to practice those disciplines we should not be surprised when we remain spiritually immature and do not lead a life “worthy of the Lord.”

Paul also includes a profound theological summary of the Good News: “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (13, 14) For me, this verse really resonates with the much longer passage in today’s Isaiah reading about how God comforts and rescues us. Unlike Isaiah, who takes zillions of verses to say pretty much the same thing, Paul summarizes the wonderful truth in just a few well-chosen words.





Psalm 89:10–19; Isaiah 48:7–49:21; Philippians 4:14–23

Psalm 89:10–19: Our psalmist continues his paean to God by focusing on his power over nature in fairly militaristic terms:
You rule over the tide of the sea.
When its waves lift up, it is You who subdue them.
It is You who crushed Rahab like a corpse—
with the arm of Your might You scattered Your enemies.” (10, 11)

Alter informs us that Rahab “is one of several names for the primordial sea beast of Canaanite mythology.” God not only has power of nature, he is its creator:
The World and its fullness, You founded them.
The north and the south, You created them.
Tabor and Hermon sing glad song in Your name.” (12, 13)

Having established God’s power and preeminence over nature, our poet segues back into God’s essential qualities of justice, truth, and faithfulness which arise from that same creative power:
Yours is the arm with the might.
Your hand is strong, Your right hand raised.
Justice and law are the base of Your throne.
Steadfast kindness and truth go before Your presence.
Happy the people who know the horn’s blast.” (15, 16)

Bearing in mind that this psalm is intended to demonstrate that the Davidic heir is the rightful king of Israel, we cannot miss the parallels between God’s qualities and the implicit qualities of the rightful king. In fact, in the verses that follow the psalmist basically conflates Israel’s king with God by describing the qualities of a king:
In Your name they exult all day long,
and through Your bounty they loom high.
For You are their strength’s grandeur,
and through Your pleasure our horn is lifted.
For the Lord is our shield,
And to Israel’s Holy One, our king.” (17-19)

So is “Israel’s Holy One” (note the capitalization) God or the king? Or both? By praising God, our poet is deftly praising the man who in his eyes should be king. For us, of course, these verses are a compelling portrait of God’s power, justice, truth, and faithfulness.

Isaiah 48:7–49:21:  God’s speech continues in the manner of his speech in Job, noting hop humans can never know what God knows. But what is especially intriguing here is how Isaiah’s God did not just create long ago but is still actively creating:
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
    hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
    before today you have never heard of them,
    so that you could not say, “I already knew them.” (48:6,7)

So, God wants Israel to listen up and recognize that God is God over all the earth, not just Israel. Moreover,  he will deal with the Babylonians and the Chaldeans in his own way:
Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called:
I am He; I am the first,
    and I am the last.
The Lord loves him;
    he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
    and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans.” (48:12, 14)

Above all, though, Judah needs to understand one thing (and so do we):
Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you for your own good,
    who leads you in the way you should go.” (48:17)

We need to fully comprehend in both our hearts and minds that God must be the one who leads us through our lives, not our own self-centeredness. The chapter ends on one of the great truths across all time: “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” (48:22)

Chapter 49 opens with the Messiah speaking. But this Messiah is not the kingly messiah but is the Servant. {Servant of what and whom will become clear eventually.) For Christians this chapter is the first of several chapters that describe the ‘Suffering Servant,’ whom we believe to be none other than Jesus Christ himself:
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” 
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away(49:1, 2)

Notice that the Servant is “hidden away” and will appear at a time no one can anticipate. That’s certainly how Jesus came: ‘hidden away’ in the womb of an obscure teenager from an obscure town in an obscure part of Israel. The Servant’s mission is to bring Israel back to God:
And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him.” (49:5)

The rally good news, though, is that the Servant comes not only to rescue Israel but to rescue all humankind:
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49:6b)

This is the great promise that God has fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The remainder of this chapter focuses on the nature of Israel’s rescue by the Servant. Once again we encounter the metaphor of God building a highway that brings every human being back to him:
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.” (49:11, 12)

Some theological skeptics have argued that the New Testament is simply tacked on, independent of what is promised in the Old Testament. Yet again and again we encounter passages like these in the Old Testament where God is being very clear that he will send someone to earth to rescue not just Israel, but all humankind. For me, the New Testament is simply the logical uninterrupted continuation of the story that began here in Isaiah and in the other prophets.

Philippians 4:14–23: In these concluding verses Paul remains over the top in expressing his gratitude for the generosity of the church at Philippi: “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.” (15, 16) And as usual, Paul tries to explain that he did not ask for the money: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (17)

In his gratitude, Paul even identifies the person who brought the funds from Philippi: “ I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (18) Even though Paul seems to go on and on at excessive length (IMHO) about how he did not seek these funds, it’s clear that he has been immensely blessed by the generosity of the Philippians.

As far as Paul is concerned, generosity breeds generosity in his final word to the Philippians: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (19) Unfortunately, this verse has been often exploited by the opportunists who espouse the “prosperity gospel.” Their message is “send me money and you’re receive even more money from God.” But that is not what Paul says. He says “every need” not “every want.” There’s a big difference.

This marvelous little letter so full of gratitude and optimism concludes with one of those Pauline asides that we wish he had elaborated on: “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.” (22) What we wouldn’t give to know just who in the emperor’s household were Christians. Was it just the slaves? Or were other more important persons or even nobility that were also part of the church?



Psalm 89:1–9; Isaiah 46:1–48:6; Philippians 4:2–13

Psalm 89:1–9: In a rather  stark contrast to the preceding psalm, this rather long one opens with a worship celebration of God’s faithfulness and kindness:
Let me sing the Lord’s kindnesses forever.
For all generations I shall make known with my mouth Your faithfulness.
For I said: forever will kindness stand strong,
in the heavens You set Your faithfulness firm.” (2,3)

The juxtaposition of ‘faithfulness’ and ‘kindness’ describes God’s core being—and it’s a reminder to us that if we are faithful to God, we are much more likely to be kind to our neighbors, as well as to ourselves.

With this brief introduction, the psalmist gets down to business. And it’s important business because he writes in God’s voice as a pronouncement straight from heaven:
I have sealed a pact with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant.
Forevermore I shall make your seed stand firm,
and make your throne stand strong for all generations.” (4,5)

OK, God himself is reaffirming the Davidic covenant and that it must endure as long as Israel endures. This suggests this psalm may have been written at a time of crisis, perhaps a battle between rivals over who would ascend the throne. Our psalmist wants to make sure that everyone remembers that the David line of succession has been ordained by God himself and therefore, it’s obvious that the king descended from David must reign.

With this pronouncement from on high, the psalm returns to worship mode but with intriguing additional information about how heaven is organized:
And the heavens will acclaim Your wonder, O Lord,
Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of the holy.
For who in the skies can compare to the Lord,
who can be like the Lord among the sons of the gods?
A God held in awe in the council of the holy,
mighty and fearsome above all His surroundings.” (6, 7)

The ‘assembly of the holy’ and ‘council of the holy’ anticipates the great throne room scene in Revelation 4 when all the angels, cherubim, prophets, etc. gather round and worship the Lamb of God. The ‘sons of the gods’ certainly suggests a hierarchy of heavenly beings. But notice that neither ‘son’ no ‘gods’ is capitalized. Whoever they are, they’re inferior to God—and to the Son of God—but they’re ‘holy,’ so they’re definitely not the idols of the small-g gods that Israel was wont to worship.

I think that in describing the hierarchy of heaven with a fearsome God reigning supreme, the psalmist is drawing a parallel to what is supposed to be occurring in Israel: a king from the line of David must reign—not only because God said so, but because what is on earth must echo what is in heaven.

Of course, this is probably all idol (!) speculation on my part…

Isaiah 46:1–48:6: As usual, Isaiah is speaking in God’s voice, warning Judah about the futility of worshipping idols, even expensive gold ones:
Those who lavish gold from the purse,
    and weigh out silver in the scales—
they hire a goldsmith, who makes it into a god;
    then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
    they set it in its place, and it stands there;
    it cannot move from its place.
If one cries out to it, it does not answer
    or save anyone from trouble.” (46:6,7)

Rather, he advises, they (and we) should reflect on who God really is:
Remember this and consider,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is no one like me.” (46:8,9)

What is it about us humans that we forget and constantly need to be reminded to ‘remember God?’ These words are exactly what we need to be doing today: remembering who God really is as over against the trivialities that mostly occupy our minds. Especially in light of God’s promise that concludes this chapter:
I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off,
    and my salvation will not tarry;
I will put salvation in Zion,
    for Israel my glory.” (46:13)

Of course, we know exactly how God delivered salvation to all of us…Not just in Zion, but throughout all creation through the gift of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 47 is a long disquisition on how Babylon, which was the superpower of the age in which Isaiah wrote, will meet its rather dismal fate:
Sit in silence, and go into darkness,
    daughter Chaldea!
For you shall no more be called
    the mistress of kingdoms.” (47:5)


 in a moment, in one day:
the loss of children and widowhood
    shall come upon you in full measure,
in spite of your many sorceries
    and the great power of your enchantments.” (47:9)

I think this specific prophecy was written as a means of encouragement to a disheartened Judah, who felt threatened by Babylon. Unfortunately, this prophecy notwithstanding, Babylon later came and conquered Judah. But after that Babylon was indeed conquered by the Persians, so Isaiah was right in the long run. It’s just that his timing was a bit off.

With Babylon taken care of, Isaiah returns to the main theme of the book: Judah’s relationship with God. Here in chapter 48 he is reminding Judah that he has already done many great things and fulfilled his every promise down through their history:
The former things I declared long ago,
    they went out from my mouth and I made them known;
    then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.” (48:3)

But unsurprisingly, Judah did not seem to notice and by implication ignored God, preferring to give credit to their idols:
Because I know that you are obstinate,
    and your neck is an iron sinew
    and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from long ago,
    before they came to pass I announced them to you,
so that you would not say, “My idol did them,
    my carved image and my cast image commanded them.” (48:45)

Which of course is a perfect description of us in the here in now: we remain obstinate, convinced that all good things arise by our own efforts, aided by our idols of power and wealth.

Yet, God is eternally persistent and keeps on promising new things for Judah—just as he does for us:
You have heard; now see all this;
    and will you not declare it?
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
    hidden things that you have not known.” (48:6)

Philippians 4:2–13: Paul interrupts his letter to “urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord,” (2) who seem to have lost their enthusiasm for Christ. Perhaps they have become discouraged at work that does not seem to yield results because Paul then gives us one of his most famous verse of encouragement: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” (4, 5)

Then, he gives encouraging advice that is so easy to forget: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (6) Prayer is central to the well-lived Christian life. Prayer is an area where I am basically a complete disciplinary failure. Prayer simply does not come naturally to me. It always seems forced and inauthentic. Yet, as Paul tells us, prayer brings with it a wonderful gift: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (7)

Then to the most beautiful of all of Paul’s lists: “ Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about  these things.” (8) The question is: what percent of my time do I give over to the advice Paul gives here and reflect of the wonderful gifts we have received? Alas, not that much.

In the final paragraph of the reading he thanks the Philippians for their gift, which apparently went to him personally rather than to the church. He seems oddly defensive about it, essentially suggesting that they could have given it or not since he has learned how to live in both plenty and deprivation, which to me seems to dismiss the Philippians’ generous act: “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (11, 12)

But as usual, Paul gives Christ all the credit for this particular skill in this short but powerful verse: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (13) Would that I remember this promise each day.

Psalm 88:14–19; Isaiah 44:24–45:25; Philippians 3:12–4:1

Psalm 88:14–19: The concluding verses of this dark psalm convey the bitter hopelessness of the poet’s feeling of being utterly abandoned by God. He makes one last attempt to get God to hear and respond. The psalmist has used anger, raising his fist at God; he’s used prayer. But alas, nothing avails. Only the existential question remains:
As for me—to You, Lord, I shouted,
and in the morn my prayer would greet You.
Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,
do You hide Your face from me?” (14,15)

In the face of a silent, unresponsive God, our psalmist recapitulates his woeful situation, which seems to be some kind of chronic disease dating back many years. There is on last outburst at God that echoes not only deep anger but an even deeper fear, as he blames God for his dreadful fate—all because God has first punished him and then in a final betrayal, has remained silent:
Lowly am I and near death from my youth
I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful.
Over me Your rage has passed,
Your horrors destroy me.” (16, 17)

In one of the saddest, most hopeless conclusions in the Psalms, our poet has not only been abandoned by God, but also by his human friends and family as well. He is utterly alone and the simile of drowning conveys this dreadful solitude and silence as he feels he is dying alone:
They [God’s horrors] surround me like water all day long,
they encircle me completely.
You distanced lover and neighbor from me.
My friends—utter darkness.” (18, 19)

So when some optimistic Christian tells me that God always answers his or her prayer in a positive manner or that God makes for a happier life, I need only refer them to the final verses of this dark psalm. Sometimes it does not feel that way at all. The dreadful reality is that we can encounter states of being where God, family, and friends have apparently abandoned us to a dark and lonely fate. This psalm gives brilliant testimony to the depth of these overwhelming feelings. But we also need to remember that the psalms reflect every human emotion rather than pure theological principles.

Isaiah 44:24–45:25: In verses reminiscent of God’s final speech in the book of Job, our Isaiah poet reminds us that God is the source of all creative energy:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who by myself spread out the earth;” (44:24)

When Paul writes of the folly of human wisdom in I Corinthians, I’m quite sure he had the next verse in mind:
“[God] who frustrates the omens of liars,
    and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
    and makes their knowledge foolish.” (24:2)

Evidence of this reality is particularly on display in Washington DC.

Our poet appears to be writing at a time when Cyrus the Great of Persia was threatening Judah. He attempts to reassure his listeners that Cyrus is actually God’s agent of both destruction and rebuilding:
[It is God] who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
    and he shall carry out all my purpose”;
and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
    and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (44:28)

In fact, Cyrus pretty much gets an entire chapter devoted to him as God’s special agent of conquest:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
    and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
    and the gates shall not be closed:” (45:1)

Now writing in God’s voice, our poet goes on to promise that every thing that comes to Cyrus, be they treasures or entire nations, are the work of God in order that Cyrus will come to an understanding that it is Israel’s God who truly rules over creation:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” (45:3)

What’s intriguing here, however, is that God makes himself known to those who do not even know who he is. This applies not only to Cyrus, but to every human being:
I call you by your name,
    I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    besides me there is no god.
    I arm you, though you do not know me,” (45:4b, 5)

Others may not know God by name, but they are witness to both his creative handiwork and his actions among the nations:
 I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
    I the Lord do all these things.” (45:6, 7)

These verses seem awfully relevant to our time where many have rejected the idea of God altogether, much less not knowing his name. Even in the midst of a rampant materialist philosophy God remains at work—and we can see evidence of God’s work if we just look hard enough. But this is no easy task, as our poet observes:
Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior.” (45:15)

I’m pretty sure our psalmist above would agree with this verse! Perhaps the greatest evidence of God as creator is the order of the universe itself. As physicists look into the quantum world and astronomers look billions of years into the past in the heavens there is one common reality. Nothing is random; there is magnificent order through all creation form the Higgs boson to the black holes in distant galaxies. Our poet puts this reality into a beautiful (‘beautiful’ being the way physicists describe the order of nature) verse”
I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    “Seek me in chaos.”
I the Lord speak the truth,
    I declare what is right.” (45: 19)

Indeed, God is the God of created order not of chaos, even though chaos (e.g., fractals) is an important element of an ordered universe. Were it not fo God’s order we would not have come into existence.

Philippians 3:12–4:1: In one of his most famous and beloved metaphors, Paul describes his life—and he hopes, our lives as well— as an athletic contest with one clear goal: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (13, 14)

I think it’s too easy to forget that within these verses is the all-important admonition to look ahead, not to rehearse the past: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” We can do nothing about the past, and there’s not too much we can do about the future. But if we are living in the present, then we can “hold fast to what we have attained.” The well-lived Christian life means always pressing on ahead. Sanctification is a spiritual process, not a static state. The well-lived Christian life is dynamic and yes, even though I don’t necessarily like it, it is always changing. But it’s important to make sure it—and we—are changing for the better.

Paul switches metaphors from athleticism to citizenship in the next paragraph as he draws a stark contrast between those who are citizens of their own egos and we who are citizens of heaven: “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  But our citizenship  is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (18-20)

As is always the case for Paul, our spiritual destiny is binary: we are either enemies of the cross of citizens of heaven. I know that I much prefer to live in ambiguous gray, oscillating between following Jesus or following my the dictates of own ego. But Paul is clear. There is really only one choice: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (4:1)

As always, this firm stand, like everything else in the Christian life, arises out of love. In this case, it’s the love of God flowing through Paul and expressing itself as love for the people at the church at Philippi. To paraphrase Paul, without love, it’s all quite pointless.

Psalm 88:1–6; Isaiah 42:10–43:21; Philippians 2:19–30

Psalm 88:1–6: The superscription for this psalm dedicates it to the Korahites, who were choir based, I presume, at the temple in Jerusalem. A certain Heyman the Ezrahite, perhaps the choir director, is also included in the dedication.

However, I’m not sure I’d want these dark and even terrifying verses dedicated to me in this rather desperate psalm of supplication. The psalm opens in the usual anodyne manner of most psalms of supplication, although we sense an underlying fear as the psalmist “cries out:”
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, in Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
incline Your ear to my song.” (2, 3)

The next verse is much darker as our psalmist describes his perilous state that has brought him close to death as we encounter “evil,” “Sheol,” and “the Pit” in just three lines. These lines are almost like a suicide note.
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol.
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit.” (4, 5a)

“Sated” suggests that like a stomach filled with food, his being has been filled by evil thoughts—perhaps some form of depression. While he does not identify the nature of the evil, it has robbed him physically and spiritually of the strength and even perhaps the will to live:
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand.” (5b, 6)

For me, what is most ominous here is the idea that after we die, God forgets about us and we are “cut off.” Most Jews did not believe in an afterlife, so from that perspective these words are  quite logical. However, I’ll take Jesus’ many promises of life after death and the many mansions God has prepared for us.

Isaiah 42:10–43:21: Now I see why the Moravians ended yesterday’ reading where they did. The first 10 verses today are a hymn to God beginning with the famous line, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” (42:10) Like many other OT hymns, all God’s creation joins in the singing:
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,

    let them shout from the tops of the mountains.” (42:10b, 11)

This idea of creation singing reminds us that human’s are not God’s only creative act, but so are all creatures and even nature itself. This should serve as a warning against our arrogant tendency exploit and “subdue” creation at great risk to upsetting God’s good order.

This song is not all sweetness and light. There is God’s promise to destroy enemies and lay waste to nature itself.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools.” (42:15)

Perhaps this was written following some kind of natural disaster. But as usual, people aren’t listening to Isaiah’s warning:
He sees many things, but does  not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear.” (42:20)

The song becomes even darker as it describes Israel’s plight:
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
    all of them are trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
    a spoil with no one to say, “Restore!” (42:22)

Not surprisingly, their current situation has doubtless been brought about by Israel’s intransigent disobedience:
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey?” (24)

Despite their—and our—sins, God is a rescuing God and the next chapter brims with the hope of redemption:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.” (43:1b, 2)

But as always, God loves them—and us—not because of anything they (we) have done:
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you,” (43:4a)

For Israel there is one of God’s great promises that one day the nation will be restored:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth—” (43:5,6)

As we’ve noted before, many Evangelicals and a few Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of this promise. I am less confident about that. What’s important here, I think, is that God’s mercy extends to every person, not just to Israel:
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.” (43:7)

Later, we read how God is the source of all salvation:
I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.

I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
    there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
    I work and who can hinder it?” (43:11, 13)

Of course we Christians see the fulfillment of this promise in the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I think the other great promise in addition to our salvation is that God through the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, continually recreating and restoring:
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.” (43:19)

The question is, am I allowing God to do new things in my life or am I resisting change with my own will preferring to be stuck in the status quo?

Philippians 2:19–30: Right in the middle of his essay on Christology, Paul interjects a couple of personal notes. He is sending Timothy to them, whom he obviously holds in the highest regard: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (20) He makes it clear that others around him “are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (21) Wow. This certainly does not speak well of the majority of Paul’s retinue of hangers-on.

As he has done before, Paul promises to come, although we have no evidence that he did: “I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.” (24)

Paul also “think[s] it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.“(25) Epaphroditus is obviously well known in the church at Philippi and probably came from there originally. He has recovered from a serious illness and “he has been longing for all of you.” (26) It sounds like he is due some serious R&R back home. By sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi, Paul accomplishes two goals: “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.” (28) Paul doesn;t tell us exactly what he’s being anxious about. But since he’s sending Epaphroditus along with Timothy is it because despite his fine words about Timothy that he doesn’t trust him?

We finally discover that Epaphroditus’ illness apparently arose from some duty Paul had him perform—and it sounds as if Paul is feeling a little guilty and feels obligated to send his servant back home: “because he came close to death for the work of Christ,  risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” (30) Again, it would be fantastic to know what duties Epaphroditus undertook that brought him so close to death. But we are left only with Paul’s tantalizing but cryptic statements.

I have to say that I like personal intermezzos like these that give us a respite from Paul’s relentless—and lengthy—theological discourses.

Psalm 87; Isaiah 41:8–42:9; Philippians 2:5–18

Psalm 87: This short celebratory psalm seems to be a recollection by a pilgrim who visited the temple at Jerusalem (Zion) and who enjoyed a literal and figurative ‘mountaintop experience.’ As far as he is concerned, the temple (Zion) is the most profound place in all Israel (Jacob):
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob
Splendid things are spoken of you,
O town of God. Selah.” (2,3)

I presume the “town of God” refers to Jerusalem, the host city of the temple, reflected in the glory of the temple itself.

At first glance, the next verse is rather cryptic:
Let me recall Rahab and Babel to my familiars,
Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,
—this one was born there.” (4)

Alter tells us that ‘Rahab’ is another word for Egypt. With that in mind, the verse appears something like a one-verse summary of Israel stretching all the way back to Babel; the escape from Egypt (Rahab); and its various battles with enemies (Philisitia) and its historical economic (Tyre) and diplomatic relationships (Cush). It appears that the psalmist was born at one of those locations. Of course I could be just making this up…

But what’s definite is that it is at the temple at Jerusalem that true spiritual transformation occurs:
And of Zion it shall be said:
every man s born in it,
and He, the Most High, makes it firm-founded.
The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:
this one was born there. selah.” (5, 6)

To me, it appears that the psalmist views his pilgrimage to Zion as a form of rebirth, ‘born again,’ if you will. He was born physically at one of the locations mentioned in verse 4, but he was reborn spiritually at Zion. With this interpretation in mind we can observe a context for Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being ‘born again.’ Doubtless both men were quite familiar with this psalm.

Isaiah 41:8–42:9: God continues speaking, reminding Israel/ Judah how he has chosen them and assuring them he will never abandon them:
do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (41:10)

In the midst of various trials this poem must have been of great comfort to the author—as it is to us:
For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
    I will help you.” (41:13)

There is a clear promise of a Messiah here called “the Holy One of Israel.” (41:14, 16) and that via the messiah, God will always come to their rescue:
When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them.” (41:17)

Following these wonderful promises, there is a disquisition that compares God with small-g gods in the form of idols. Still speaking, God challenges the idols to perform as he can:
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified.” (41:23)

But as always, there is only silence from the false gods. To worship them is futile:

But when I look there is no one;
    among these there is no counselor
    who, when I ask, gives an answer.
No, they are all a delusion;

    their works are nothing;
    their images are empty wind.” (41:28, 29)

We need to call these verses to mind in our own time and culture, which is chockablock with the idols of wealth, power, sex, and a zillion other false gods. Above all we ned to remember that the promise of the small-g gods is mere delusion.

Chapter 42 is straight-out messianic prophecy of the One who will come to rescue Judah. The Messiah has been chosen and empowered by God:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (42:1)

The Messiah will bring much-needed justice, not just to Judah, but to all nations. Moreover, he comes essentially in secret, but his acts will have profoundly public consequences:
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” (42:2-4)

As Christians, we know exactly to whom the prophet is referring: Jesus Christ. And the Messiah brings justice in a marvelous promise to turn the world upside down:
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (42:6b, 7)

And isn’t this also exactly what Jesus has done for us? We have certainly been sitting in darkness, imprisoned in our own self-centered desires. Jesus Christ has released us from the prison of our own egos.

Today’s reading ends with the famous promise of renewal—again exactly what God does for us through the the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. The old passes way; all things are made new:
See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.” (42:9)

I personally think this verse is as good as anything Paul writes about how our lives are transformed through Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:5–18: Today’s reading includes the famous verses that most scholars believe was an early hymn of the church. The first section describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ:
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.” (6-8)

To me these verses are much like the middle section of the Apostle’s Creed: a tight summary of what Jesus’ sacrifice has accomplished for us. The last stanzas of this hymn describe our human response to this great gift from God:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
     so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father.” (9-11)

Above all, the hymn affirms the fact of Jesus’ divinity, having been sent straight to earth from God. And that our response must be exactly as it has always been: worship suffused in gratitude.

Not surprisingly, Paul uses this hymn as a launching point to describe just how that worship—every knee bowing; every tongue confessing—affects our long-term faith journey. Paul makes it clear that he is not the source of this inspiration but rather it is God himself: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (12, 13)

What does it really mean to “work out our own salvation,” the process which theologians call ‘sanctification?’ Well, Paul has an answer for that, too: “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” (14) 

So the challenging question is, as it always is, am I working out my salvation and remaining blameless like an innocent child? I guess the most honest answer is, ‘Sometimes.’



Psalm 86:11–17; Isaiah 40:6–41:7; Philippians 1:23–2:4

Psalm 86:11–17: After reflecting on God’s greatness and acknowledging that “You alone are God,” our psalmist asks that God would instruct him:
Teach me, O Lord, Your way.
I would walk in Your truth.
Make my heart one to fear Your name.” (11)

We should note that we do not absorb God, nor is relating to God solely based on our feelings—which seems to be the currently popular method of knowing God. No, it is about being taught. It is about the discipline of sitting down and studying. In the super-emotional age in which we live it’s too easy to forget that a relationship with God involves the mind just as much as the heart.

What is the desired outcome of God’s teaching? It’s worship and it’s telling others:
Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart,
and let me honor Your name forever.” (12)

We worship because we know God’s ways, but we also worship because God has rescued us not only from hell but from the depredations of our enemies:
For Your kindness to me is great,
For You saved me from nethermost Sheol.
O God, the arrogant rose against me,
a band of the violent sought my life
and did not set You before them.” (13, 14)

Personally, I have not had a band of “the arrogant” come after me, but I know that God has rescued me from other things such as disease. And in that rescue we must acknowledge with our psalmist who famously says:
You, Master, are a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast kindness.” (15)

Here I disagree somewhat with Alter’s translation. I far prefer the more traditional translations that assert God is “abounding in steadfast love.” God’s love never fails and never abandons us even though like the psalmist, we may think God is absent. But as the old cliche has it about the footsteps in the sand, God may be silent, but he is there carrying us through life’s trials.

As far as I’m concerned, “abounding in steadfast kindness” would have been a good place to end the psalm. Our psalmist goes on to ask God for grace and strength and rescue and even the shaming of his enemies But sometimes we should just be quiet and wait. God will indeed supply our every need without us necessarily verbalizing it.

Isaiah 40:6–41:7: This famous chapter reminds me of God’s speech at the end of the book of Job: God is far greater than we can even imagine. ABy comparison we humans and our actions that we think to be so consequential are as evanescent as springtime grass:
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.” (40:6, 7)

In the end, we meet our mortality while God lives eternally.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:8)

The Isaiah poet (I think someone other than Isaiah son of Amoz has written this) reminds us that while God is unimaginably powerful, he also cares for us. And here we encounter the beautiful metaphor of God—and Jesus—as shepherd:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.” (40:11)

Even though God is our shepherd, we must never forget that God is far greater than we humans and all our works.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” (40:21-23)

God is eternal and we will never fully comprehend his greatness:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.” (40:28)

Even though we will never fully comprehend God (although many have tried!) and even though God could snuff out humanity in an instant, he is unimaginably generous to us, his creatures. And as always, it is the weak and powerless whom God especially favors. The chapter concludes with the beautiful promise that has inspired so many (and so many songs):
He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.” (40:29-31)

In those times when we feel discouraged and abandoned by God, this magnificent promise stands. Whatever may confront us, God will give us the energy and strength to carry on.

I don’t know why the Moravians didn’t end today’s reading on this high note, but they continue to ramble through Isaiah. The opening verses of chapter 41 lack the grandeur of the previous chapter, but the themes remain constant. God is more powerful than all the nations that surround Israel:
He delivers up nations to him,
    and tramples kings under foot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
    like driven stubble with his bow.

I, the Lord, am first,
    and will be with the last.” (41:2, 4)

There is a fascinating note here at the end of the reading—and very consistent with what Paul keeps talking about. It is in a community of people with different skills and gifts whereby great things are accomplished:
Each one helps the other,
    saying to one another, “Take courage!”
The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved.” (41:6,7)

Philippians 1:23–2:4: Paul, having noted that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” (1:23) convinces himself that he needs to stay around because to “remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. ” (1:24) To me, that statement seems a little over the top. But at least he finds a rationale for remaining on earth, “so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” (1:26)

Unlike the other churches to which Paul has written, it appears that there are external rather than internal opponents in Philippi—one suspects the Jews— that are causing pain to these young Christians. Paul is especially encouraging in his confidence that they will withstand these trials: “I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. ” (1:27, 28) Of course the question for us is, would we stand firm in the face of similar adversity? As we enter an increasingly post-Christian age where some Christian beliefs are seen as as “intolerant” and even “hateful” (you know what they are), will I succumb to the world’s beliefs or hew to Christ’s?

Happily we do not have to struggle on our own. As at Philippi, “this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (1:29) What’s especially important here is that we do not avoid suffering, but are given the strength to endure. Far too many Christians have come to Jesus trying to escape from their woes or the consequences of their stupid actions. On the contrary, Paul tells us we will be encouraged and comforted, but we will still suffer. 

Whatever suffering we in the church endure is made easier because of unity of spirit: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1,2) And we can endure only when we support each other. Once again, Paul reminds us to abandon our egos: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) It’s all about generosity of spirit and teamwork: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4) This unity of spirit has been beautifully demonstrated by the Trinity team at Saint Matthew.


Psalm 86:1–10; Isaiah 38:1–40:5; Philippians 1:12–22

Psalm 86:1–10: This “David prayer” has a familiar ring because, as Alter points out, “A reader who has been going through the Book of Psalms in sequence by this point will have encountered almost every line of this poem, with minor variations, elsewhere.” While the psalm may be formulaic, it certainly is a classic example of a prayer of supplication.

It opens in humility and reverence but at the same time is clear about the supplicant’s faithfulness. He does not hesitate to approach God and ask for his help in very direct terms:
Incline Your ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I.
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You, my God.
Grant grace to me, Master,
for to You I call all day long.
Gladden Your servant,
for to You, O Master, I lift up my being.
For You, O Master, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas.” (1-6)

Unlike many other psalms our psalmist is completely confident that God is listening and will respond:
When I am in straits I call You
for You will answer me.” (7)

This confidence is built on worship—an acknowledgement that God is lord of the universe—the true God above all the other small-g gods:
There is none like You among the gods, O Master
and nothing like Your acts.
All the nations You made
will come and bow before You, Master
and will honor Your name.
For You are great and work wonders.
You alone are God.” (8-10)

Our poet can pray with confidence because he has set aside his own ego and all the other things such as power that are easily turned into small-g gods. He knows there is only one source of rescue because only God can act. Above all, he prays confidently, knowing God will indeed come to his rescue. Can we pray with that same confidence? I know I don’t.

Isaiah 38:1–40:5: King Hezekiah is ill and Isaiah delivers the bad news: “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” (38:1) Following the example of the psalmist above, Hezekiah prays fervently, reminding God that “I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” (38:3) Isaiah returns, telling hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and will add 15 years to his life. Moreover, “I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.” (38:6) Just to prove that God has spoken, “the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined.” (3:8) Uh huh. Really?

Hezekiah writes a long poem that describes his journey from bitterness at his impending death to deep gratitude. First he acknowledges his bitterness in his supplication to God:
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
    O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security!
But what can I say? For he has spoken to me,
    and he himself has done it.
All my sleep has fled
    because of the bitterness of my soul.” (38: 14, 15)

But then he realizes that there is a lesson in that bitterness and that it is God who has not only extended his life, but has forgiven his sins, as well:
Surely it was for my welfare
    that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back  my life
    from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
    behind your back.” (38:17)

How often have I thanked God for extending my own life? And for forgiving all my sins through Jesus Christ?

News of Hezekiah’s illness makes it to the king of Babylon, who sends a delegation “with letters and a present to Hezekiah.” (39:1) Hezekiah rather naively shows them “his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.” (39:2)

Upon hearing this, Isaiah rather frantically asks the king, “What did these men say? From where did they come to you?” (39:3) Hezekiah says he showed them everything. Unlike Hezekiah, the more worldly wise Isaiah knows the visit by Babylon has been by spies sent to assess Judah’s strengths. The prophet tells Hezekiah that “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. ” (39:6) adding the grim prophecy that his sons will be captured and castrated. But ever optimistic, Hezekiah thinks this prophecy will not affect him personally and that “There will be peace and security in my days.” (39:8)

There’s a good warning to us here. As Jesus noted, we need to be as gentle as doves but was wise as serpents. Being a follower of Christ does not mean we have to naive about what’s going on the world around us.

Isaiah 40 is justly famous as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, and these words are part of the Advent lectionary. They are also a memorable section of Handel’s Messiah. Rather than deconstructing these magnificent lines, let’s just immerse ourselves the glorious promise and the beautiful poetry:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (40:3-5)

Philippians 1:12–22: We do not have the letter that the church at Philippi wrote to Paul, but it certainly must have expressed their sorrow and sympathy at Paul’s imprisonment. But Paul has not been deterred by his circumstances. Instead he has turned his dire situation to a wonderful advantage: “I want you to know, beloved,  that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard  and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (12, 13)

Moreover, Paul’s own boldness has inspired others around him to be equally bold: “and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word  with greater boldness and without fear.” (14)

The lesson is pretty obvious for us. Regardless of circumstances, we should stand and speak (and act) boldly for Jesus Christ. In all my Christian life, I think this has been my greatest failing. I have not been courageous in proclaiming Christ to others—either by word or deed.

Paul tells us how we can do that. Once again, the foundation is love for others: “These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel.” (16)

However, not every proclamation for Christ has been made out of love: “the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” (17) But this really doesn’t matter to Paul. His point is that regardless of the motivation behind the proclamation, “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (18) I confess I am not where Paul is on that. I will never match his generosity of spirit and his intensity of vision in proclaiming the Good News. Nor am I very good at giving people the benefit of the doubt as Paul was.

There were doubtless friends who questioned Paul’s enthusiasm, probably asking him if he wasn’t careful about what he said he would be executed. To those who cautioned him he famously replied, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (21) Paul has given his life over to Christ and he knows that whatever happens, it is God’s will. Even to the point of death. I know I can’t say the same thing.

Psalm 85:9–14; Isaiah 37:14–38; Philippians 1:1–11

Writing today from Gate 66, SFO and later from seat 21D on UA 2113 to Denver…

Psalm 85:9–14: Realizing that Israel has sinned (again), our rather desperate psalmist hopes that God will not be eternally angry with his wayward people. Having expressed his fears that God would not reply to his entreaties, he tries a softer approach:
Show us, O Lord, Your kindness,
and Your rescue grant to us.”(8)

He then tries out a quid pro quo. If God will speak and relent from directing his wrath to these people, Israel will turn away from its sins:
Let me hear what the Lord God would speak
when He speaks peace to His people and to His faithful,
that they turn not back to folly.” (9)

I’m intrigued by the division of “His people”, which I take to be the nation as a whole and “His faithful,” which would be the much smaller subset of still-observant Jews within the nation. In fact, our poet seems pretty confident that the faithful ones will indeed be rescued:
Yes, His rescue is near for those who fear Him,
that His glory dwell in our land.” (10)

In the midst of these rather routine pleas for God to listen we encounter beautiful verses that describe the relationship between God’s qualities of kindness commingled with truth and justice:
Kindness and truth have met,
justice and peace have kissed.
Truth from the earth will spring up,
as justice from the heavens looks down.” (11, 12)

It’s as if the concepts of kindness and truth have been embodied as allegorical lovers, along with a second loving couple, justice and peace, who even kiss. This striking metaphor describes the ideal time when people have accepted God’s kindness and justice, which results in truth being spoken throughout the earth. And the earth responds as God originally intended creation to be—before it was corrupted by humankind:
The Lord indeed will grant bounty
and our land will grant its yield.” (13)

Would that a wonderful time where God’s true justice is seen as a benefit to all humankind on earth. God’s creation will one day be restored—although I suspect it will only happen at the end of history.

The metaphor of justice as a personage leading God, who has come down from heaven concludes the psalm:
Justice before Him goes,
that He set His footsteps on the way.” (14)

For us Christians, of course, God’s justice in the person of Jesus Christ has become the fulfillment of the wishes expressed so beautifully in this psalm.

Isaiah 37:14–38: Isaiah’s usual high-flying poetry is interrupted here by a historical event. King Hezekiah of Judah receives a letter from Sennacherib (hereafter “Sen”), king of Assyria, that mocks not just Judah, but God himself. Hezekiah’s immediate reaction is to go to God in prayer: “Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God.” (17), Which of course also should be our immediate reaction in times of crisis.

Hezekiah does not hesitate to share the dire threat that Judah faces with God: “Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands,  and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods, but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed.” (18, 19) The king ends his prayer with a desperate plea, but also wisely includes the observation that if God intervenes, the rest of the world “may know that you alone are the Lord.” (20b)

Hezekiah certainly did the right thing. Isaiah sends word to the king that God has indeed replied. Isaiah, writing in God’s voice, observes that Sen has sinned mightily because he has mocked God by virtue of his overweening pride:
Whom have you mocked and reviled?
    Against whom have you raised your voice
and haughtily lifted your eyes?
    Against the Holy One of Israel!” (23)

Sen thinks he has done mighty impressive things like felling the cedars of Lebanon and drying up the waters of Egypt. Even though Sen has conquered many nations, God has been monitoring him closely:
I know your rising up and your sitting down,
    your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.” (28)

That’s doubtless a useful thing to remember when we are consumed by our own pride. God is aware of our efforts to place ourselves at the center of the universe. There will be justice after all as Isaiah prophecies that Sen will be punished:
Because you have raged against me
    and your arrogance has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth;
I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came.” (29)

Doubtless much to Hezekiah’s (and everyone’s) relief, Isaiah prophecies that “He shall not come into this city [Jerualem], shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it.” (33)

As they say, so it came to pass: Sen’s army is decimated by the death of 185,000 troops and Sen returns home to Ninevah, where he is assassinated by his own sons.

The lesson seems clear here: our first action at times of crisis should be to pray. God won’t necessarily strike down our opponents, but it’s clear that even when he doesn’t speak, he’s listening. Of course we don’t usually have an Isaiah around to give us God’s reply—although there are times that sure would be nice!

Philippians 1:1–11: After Paul’s epistles of cajoling and correction, we come to this most upbeat of all Paul’s letters. It’s clear from the outset that he really, really loves the church at Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,” (3, 4) But his gratitude has a firm foundation and it’s not just because the Philippians are nice guys. They have captured Paul’s vision for telling others the good news—and then have acted on that vision: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (5, 6)

Paul also loves them because they love him. Which is understandable. Perhaps most importantly, they have not been led theologically astray by other purveyors of a false gospel. They have remained fiercely loyal to Paul even though he’s been imprisoned: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (7)

Unlike those other churches, there’s no question that in Philippi love is the foundation of their every action. Even though Paul’s greatest essay about love is in his letter to the Corinthians, it is here that we see how Paul envisioned that love to be acted out in the church: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ.” (9, 10a)

Just reflect on that for a moment: knowledge and insight about Jesus Christ cannot possibly occur without it being based in love for Christ—and for each other. Too bad that sort of  love is on such scarce display in the other churches to which Paul wrote—and in most churches today. I personally certainly have not said and acted in very much love within my own church community.

Love. Knowledge. Full insight. These are the crucial elements that help us “determine what is best” (10b). And having discerned what is best, we reap the greatest reward: “having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (11)

We could scarcely hope for a more upbeat and positive introduction to a Pauline letter than this…