Archives for December 2018

Psalm 150; 1 Chronicles 2:18–55; Acts 8:26–40

Psalm originally published 12/31/2015. Revised and updated 12/31/2018.

Today is the end of the first year of the two-year cycle for the Moravian Daily texts. Halfway through! And back to Psalm 1 tomorrow…

Psalm 150: This final song of praise is the not only the finale of the six psalms of praise but it is the climax of this entire book as it summarizes our greatest joy: worshipping and praising God. It opens with “Hallelujah!” and closes with “Hallelujah!,” which of course simple means “Praise God!”

These final verses cause us to remember that God is God, reminding us that above all of God’s incomprehensible power from on high:
Praise God in His holy place,
praise Him in the vault of His power.

This is not just potential power, it is power actively used by God as he continues to participate in all creation:
Praise Him for His mighty acts
praise Him as befits his abounding greatness. (2)

Then, as if we are watching the ending credits of a movie, our psalmist gives credit to the musicians and their instruments that have accompanied us through this remarkable book:
Praise Him with the ram-horn’s blast,
praise Him with the lute and the lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance,
praise Him with strings and flute. (3, 4)

This instrumental praise culminates in one final burst of joyous music, the final chord that, as loud as it is and that is repeated on the loudest of all instruments, is simply our pale human imitation of God’s incredible greatness and power:
Praise Him with sounding cymbals,
praise him with crashing cymbals. (5)

And then finally, the greatest instrument of all: our voices as we sing,
Let all that has breath praise the Lord. (6a)

Notice the inclusiveness here with “all that has breath.” It is not just Israel that praises God, it is everyone on earth because God is God of all.  And we could even suggest in the phrase “all that has breath,” that the psalmist has included all living creatures in God’s creation. All of us sing in unison—a sign of the perfect creation that, as John of Patmos has told us in Revelation, awaits us as we sing in unison with the very hosts of heaven:


1 Chronicles 2:18–55: The seemingly endless genealogy continues.

As an indication of how valuable sons were, there’s Sheshan, who “had no sons, only daughters; but Sheshan had an Egyptian slave, whose name was Jarha. So Sheshan gave his daughter in marriage to his slave Jarha; and she bore him Attai.” (34)

All these names remind us that history is full of ordinary people. I don’t know why these names rated being listed in the Bible but thousands of other names are lost to history. But it also reminds us that God knows every one of us by our name. As he has done so down through history.

Acts 8:26–40: Philip is directed by an angel to head south from Jerusalem to Gaza, which Luke reminds us parenthetically is a wilderness road. Also on the road is an Ethiopian court official, who is the CFO for Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Having worshipped in Jerusalem, he is returning home via chariot. It is a very long trip, so he is passing the time reading the book of Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit tells Philip to “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (29) Philip asks the man, (whose name we do not learn) if he understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (31). Luke provides us the scripture that the man is reading and it accurately describes what happened to Jesus:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.” (32, 33)

The Ethiopian asks the fundamental question that arises in this passage: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (34) Philip relates the “good news about Jesus,” and the eunuch asks to be baptized, which Philip does.

Upon completion of the rite, Philip is “snatched away” by the Holy Spirit and finds himself at Azotus. But his disappearance does not disturb the Ethiopian, who “went on his way rejoicing.” (39)

This classic story shows us that the salvific power of Jesus is available to all who seek, whether they be Jew of Gentile. And of course, it is also the first story about the very early church that we hear in detail about how the Holy Spirit operates through men and women—although being “snatched away” happily does not occur these days.


Psalm 149; 1 Chronicles 1:38–2:17; Acts 8:18–25

Originally published 12/30/2016. Revised and updated 12/29/2018.

Psalm 149: One suspects the psalmist is doing a bit of self-advertising as he writes, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” (1) making sure his listeners know that they are hearing something they’ve never heard before.

This penultimate psalm appears to be celebrating some kind of unexpected military victory:
Let Israel rejoice in its maker,
Zion’s sons exult in their king
…For the Lord looks with favor on His people,
He adorns the lowly with victory
. (2, 4)

Whatever the cause of this celebration might be, it is certainly a joyously noisy one full of laughter, music, and dancing:
Let them praise His name in dance,
on the timbrel and lyre let them hymn to Him
. (3)

But then the military imagery becomes downright aggressive:
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand,
to wreak vengeance upon the nations,
punishment on the peoples
to bind their kings in fetters,
and their nobles in iron chains.” (6,7,8)

In fact, God seems to fade into the background amidst the celebration as it appears that it is the Israeli army rather than God is exacting justice:
…to exact from them justice as written—
it is grandeur for all His faithful.

But we shouldn’t quibble on theology. When there’s a great victory I think it’s completely understandable that enthusiasm will trump reverence.

1 Chronicles 1:38–2:17: The introductory chapters of I Chronicles is somewhat akin to reading a phone book (at least for those of us who remember phone books). Among other gems this reading includes a list of the kings of Edom—”before any king reigned over the Israelites.” (1:43)—as well as a handy list of the clans of Edom (1:51-54).

Chapter two opens with the genealogy of Jacob’s twelve sons: “These are the sons of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.” (2:1,2) Unsurprisingly, since our authors, who are probably writing from Babylon, are from the (former) kingdom of Judah, they list Judah’s progeny takes precedence over Jacob’s other sons. He had three sons by the “Canaanite woman Bath-shua,” one of whom, Er, “Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death.” (3) It would be nice to know the backstory on that one.

An important genealogy lurks among the endless list, “Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse. Jesse became the father of Eliab his firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh.” (2:12-15) I had not realized that David was the seventh son and last of Jesse. The other thing to note is that Ruth—the heroine of the eponymous book—who married Boaz is not even mentioned. Only the men get credit when it comes to genealogy.

Acts 8:18–25: Well, I thought Simon the magician had been truly converted, but “when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money,” (18) and rather boldly asking Peter to sell him the “power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (20)

Simon should be thankful that the Holy Spirit did not strike him dead as was the case with Ananias and Sapphira. Instead, Peter demands, “Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (22) Simon gets the message and begs Peter to “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” (24)

This passage is a clear warning to all who might be tempted to believe that wealth and/or our own efforts to “buy one’s way into heaven” is antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yet, we persist in thinking that good works alone will do the trick or that giving vast sums of money to the church will somehow impress Jesus. As always, when we try to be the ones in control or to buy grace, our “faith” is counterfeit.


Psalm 148:7–14; 1 Chronicles 1:1–37; Acts 8:9–17

Originally published 12/29/2016. Revised and updated 12/28/2018.

Psalm 148:7–14: Our psalmist leaves no doubt that every aspect of nature, every creature of God’s creation, including those beneath the surface of the ocean, is here for a single purpose: to worship and praise God:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.

The poet then provides an astounding single sentence catalog of natural phenomena, vegetation, animals, ascending straight up the hierarchy of creation described in Genesis:
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His command,
the mountains and all the hills,
fruit trees and all the cedars,
wild beasts and all the cattle,
crawling things and winged birds, (8,9,10)

He arrives at the pinnacle of God’s creation: humankind itself. Not surprisingly, I suppose, he begins with kings, princes and leaders before mentioning more ordinary folk:
kings of earth and all the nations,
princes and all leaders of earth,
young men and also maidens,
elders together with lads. (11, 12)

All of it—all of us—exist for this one overarching purpose:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for His name alone is exalted.

This verset emphasizes monotheism. Only God—and God alone—is to be worshipped. There are no small-g gods who deserve worship. The reason for this singularity is obvious (at least to our poet): the evidence of God’s creation is all around us—”His grandeur is over earth and heavens.” (13b)

Ever since the rise of the enlightenment there has been the assumption that science will make everything clear and render God superfluous. Yet, as physicists probe deeper into matter things only become more mysterious. As biologists examine the inner workings of life, it only becomes more wondrous. Today, more than ever, God’s grandeur is increasingly evident.

That’s why we can—and must— wholeheartedly praise God in this psalm’s beautiful benediction:
And may He raise up a horn for His people,
praise of all His faithful,
of the Israelites, the people near him.
Hallelujah. (14)

What is especially wonderful here is that God is not just for the Israelites but through Jesus Christ, God is for all of us.

1 Chronicles 1:1–37: The first several chapters of 1 Chronicles is one reason why reading straight through the Bible proves unsuccessful for so many people. It is an eye-glazing genealogy that seems to name every person who ever inhabited Israel, as well as a many more who didn’t. If nothing else it is an excellent demonstration of the importance and power of names.

The first four verses are not even sentences; they are simply a list of names that take us from Adam to Noah and his sons. The descendents of Japeth (5-7); Ham (8-16), Shem (17-27) come next and in more detail.  One verse was fascinating to me: “Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first to be a mighty one on the earth.” (10) I would have appreciated more backstory here. Wikipedia informs us that NImrod may be an amalgamation of several Mesopotamian kings, but I guess I’ll stick with the genealogy here and assume he was a single person.

Our scrupulous authors provide a handy summary of the direct line from Shem to Abram/ Abraham in 24-27. Now we can see where they’re headed as they list Abraham’s progeny, of which the sons of Isaac become the nation of Israel. But no detail is omitted as we also learn who the descendants of Jacob’s other son, Esau, are.

While this may be boring reading, these genealogies provide the essential foundation of the historicity of Israel. This is not myth; these are not Greek or Roman gods; there were real people who once inhabited the earth with the same motivations, creativity, and flaws that each of us possesses these many millennia later.

Acts 8:9–17: The story of Simon the magician, who “practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great,” (9) is the crucial proof that the signs and wonders of the early church were not magic, but the working the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon is the top celebrity in Samaria. The people “listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”…because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” (10, 11)

But then Philip shows up “proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (12) The gospel message is superior to even the most impressive magic. What’s terrific is that Simon himself is wise enough to realize this: “Even Simon himself believed.” (13)

Word of the many conversions and baptisms in Samaria reaches Jerusalem and Peter and John rush up to Samaria and “prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (15) Our author points out that even though many had been baptized, they had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John then lay their hands on the people who had been baptized and the people receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of Peter’s and John’s hands.

This passage is certainly at the foundation of those churches such as Assemblies of God that believe there are two separate baptisms: water and then the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The problem with this bifurcation is that it too easily creates two classes of Christians, with the implication that those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit are somehow “more Christian” than those who have not.

My own belief is that like the many signs and wonders that accompanied the very early church, this separate baptism is a phenomenon that was no longer necessary as the church grew and gained strength.




Psalm 148:1–6; 2 Kings 25; Acts 8:1–8

Originally published 12/28/2016. revised and updated 12/27/2018

Psalm 148:1–6: The structure of this majestic psalm of praise reminds us that we humans are not the only creatures who worship him. Following an initial shout of “Hallelujah“, our psalmist initiates his command to praise God at heaven itself:
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise Him on the heights.” (1)

An excellent description of the ‘heavenly host’ follows as the army of angels worship God:
Praise Him, all His messengers,
praise Him, all His armies.” (2)

Natural creation itself worships God, beginning with the visible universe and moving inexorably downward to earth’s atmosphere:
Praise  Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise Him, utmost heavens,
and the waters above the heavens.” (3,4)

The vastness of creation is under God’s command and everything that is exists is there to do one thing: praise God:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for He commanded, and they were created.

I believe this reality is why we experience feelings of transcendence when we are alone in nature away from civilization’s puny imitations of God’s created order, especially when we see the stars on a dark night and realize that creation could not be a random accident.

Creation and eternity are congruent:
And He made them stand forever, for all time.
He set them a border that cannot be crossed.

Which is what we have come to understand in the mystery of an ever-expanding universe. It does indeed seem to stand for all time. But there are constraints on what we can discover. No matter how hard humans try to become God—whether it’s the Tower of Babel or the latest attempt to understand the origin of the universe—we will never fully grasp the truth of who God is and what he has done for us.  And as his creatures it is God’s everlasting creative power that must be the object of our worship.

2 Kings 25: Our authors, who were writing from Babylon, describe the conquest of Jerusalem in precise, heart-rending detail—doubtless because they themselves had experienced these events. They describe the exact day —the ninth year of [king Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month (1)—that Nebuchadnezzar’s army arrives at Jerusalem and begins a siege that lasts two years resulting in severe famine. The Chaldeans (Babylonians) finally breach Jerusalem’s walls, destroy the remnants of the army of Judah, and take king Zedekiah captive. The victors kill Zedekiah’s sons and blind him. He is led away in chains to Babylon. With the exception of “the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (12) the remaining population of Jerusalem—its middle and upper classes—is carried away to exile.

In the eyes of the authors, an even greater tragedy is the destruction and pillaging of the Solomon’s temple itself, which they describe in excruciating (both senses of the word) detail. They describe the immensity of the place and the richness of its materials in a kind of reverse inventory of what we read in 2 Samuel during its construction, as e.g., “The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a bronze capital; the height of the capital was three cubits; latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were on the capital all around.” (17)

Finally, the administrative apparatus of Judah’s government and the the priests themselves are executed by the captain of the Babylonian guard. The sad fall of Judah is complete.

Nevertheless, a few inhabitants of Judah remain. Shapahn’s grandson, Gedaliah, is appointed governor by the king of Babylon. He wisely instructs his subjects, “Do not be afraid because of the Chaldean officials; live in the land, serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you.” (24). But a group of malcontents could not leave well enough alone and they assassinate Gedaliah and his retainers. Many of those still alive flee to Egypt.

But the Chaldeans are astute and show mercy to the defeated Jews. Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Evil-merodach, releases King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison and “spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon.” (28)  I’m pretty sure this was mostly a wise political calculation that ensured that the Jews living in Babylonian exile would be content with their lot and not foment a rebellion.

Acts 8:1–8: Stephen’s lengthy sermon of excoriation of the Jews was clearly a bridge too far. The temple authorities decide they need to get things under control by exiling everyone who belonged to this fast-growing, potentially dangerous Jesus-cult: “That day [of Stephen’s stoning] a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (1)

Chief among those carrying out the persecution was a certain Saul, who “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (8) Of course this is the grand irony of the New Testament. But at this point things are looking grim for this new church.

On the other hand, it is the very act of sending its members into exile that begins the spread of the early church far and wide: “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” (4) As an example of this early missionary work, we meet Philip. In what has to be an intentional irony, knowing that Jerusalem will not listen, he headed to the capital of the very people the Jews hate the most, the city of Samaria, and preached there. Unlike at Jerusalem, “the crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did.” (6) Luke completes the irony by telling us that unlike in Jerusalem, “there was great joy in that city.” (8).

We recall what Jesus said about missionary work when he sent his disciples out two by two: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:4) Obviously, those words were not lost on Philip and his colleagues. And it’s good advice for the modern church as well. We need to accept that not everyone who hears will respond. Ad as we know, hostility toward the Church and persecution of Christians continues unabated in many places to this very day.


Psalm 147:15–20; 2 Kings 23:21–24:20; Acts 7:44–60

Originally published 12/27/2016. Revised and updated 12/26/2018.

Psalm 147:15–20: Amidst the blessings that God has bestowed on Israel, God’s word is a central element of society:
He sends down His utterance to earth,
quickly His word races.

No one in Israel has an excuse not to know God’s word, which we’ll take here as God’s law.  Unexpectedly, we encounter a beautiful description of winter in Israel, which operates both as description and metaphor and is packed with action verbs:
“He pours forth snow like fleece,
scatters frost like ash.
He flings His ice like bread crumbs.
In the face of His cold who can endure?” (16, 17)

As description, we can feel the fierceness of winter through “pours,” “scatters,” and “flings” since that’s what it feels like as I write this from a Madison winter.

But the metaphor also holds: our hearts can be like ice, rejecting God. But our poet reminds us:
He sends out His word and melts them,
He lets His breath blow—waters flow.

God’s word transforms our hearts from frozen to the warmth that Jesus—God’s word for us—brings via the Holy Spirit.

Our psalmist goes on to observe that God has spoken many times to Israel:
He tells His word to Jacob,
His statutes and laws to Israel.

Moreover, God spoke to Israel exclusively, which is why they were blessed:
He did not thus to all the nations,
and they knew not the laws
.” (20)

Those are the terms of the Old Covenant. But then God sent his living Word to earth and as a result, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is available to every nation and to every person.

2 Kings 23:21–24:20: In the eighteenth year of his reign King Josiah reestablishes Passover as a rite, heretofore a forgotten celebration since “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” (23:22) Josiah has basically resurrected the Jewish religion: “so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the Lord.” (23:24) We can hear the regret as our authors write that “Before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.” (25)

Nevertheless, because of the manifold sinfulness that has preceded Josiah, God still intends to “remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel.” (27) This removal process begins with the slaying of Josiah by the Pharaoh Neco. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz ascends the throne of Judah and reigns just three months before being imprisoned by the Pharaoh.  Unsurprisingly, he fails to follow in his father’s footsteps, but “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done.” (32) Josiah’s other son, Jehoiakim, is installed on the throne by the pharaoh, but he too is corrupt.

Judah is invaded by hordes from every direction and the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, turns Judah into a vassal state. Our authors point out these horrors: “Surely … they came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon.” (24:3,4)

Ultimately, the Babylonian army arrived at Jerusalem’s gates and Nebuchadnezzar not only took the temple treasures, but “carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land.” (14) Only a rump government remains, reigned over by Jehoiachin’s uncle, a certain Zedekiah, who reigns for 11 years.

How low Judah has fallen. Can things get worse? Probably…

Acts 7:44–60: Stephen winds up his lengthy sermon by telling how the temple came into being, built not by David but by Solomon. OK, that’s fine, but then he makes such a radical statement that the temple authorities can take it only as outright blasphemy: Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne,/ and the earth is my footstool.'” (48, 49)

Stephen compounds the outrage off by insulting his audience with the truth: ““You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (51) The final words of his sermon are a clear accusation: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (53) Quite different than the marketing-oriented, feel-good sermons we hear today.

Needless to say, Stephen has enraged the crowd. Stephen’s public announcement of his vision only adds fuel to the fire, “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (56)  The crowd attacks the preacher and carry him out of the city and stone him. This is where we first meet Saul, who will become Paul: “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (58)

In an eerie echo of Jesus’ last words on the cross, Stephen’s dying words are words of forgiveness: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” (60)

The question of course for each of us reading this passage is, would we be willing to die for our faith. Here in comfortable America, even in this time of rising hostility against Christianity, we are unlikely to be put to the test. For which I am grateful.

Psalm 147:7–14; 2 Kings 22:11–23:20; Acts 7:30–43

Originally published 12/26/2016. Revised and updated 12/26/2018.

Psalm 147:7–14: Our psalmist moves from God as creator to God as provider though the gifts of nature. We are to
Call out to the Lord in thanksgiving
…who covers the heavens with clouds,
readies ran for the earth,
makes mountains flourish with grass.” (7,8)

It is the clouds that bring the rain which causes the grass to grow which “gives the beast its food,/ to the raven’s young who call.” (9) Nature flourishes because of God’s action.

This psalm was doubtless written after Israel was restored to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. The psalmist observes how return did not occur through military prowess or physical strength:
Not by the might of the horse He desires,
not by a man’s thighs is He pleased.

Rather, the return occurred because the people made God the center of their lives:
The Lord is pleased by those who fear Him,
those who long for His kindness
. (11)

Worship is the recompense for God’s mighty acts:
Extol, O Jerusalem, the Lord,
praise your God, O Zion.

Whatever protection and blessing they—and we—experience comes directly from God:
For He strengthens the bars of your gates,
blesses you children in your midst
. (13)

As God brought the rain for the raven (verse 9), so too he brings peace and sustenance to the people who love him—including us:
He bestows peace in your land,
He sates you with choice wheat
. (14)

The message is clear: it is God who brings us protection, sustenance, and blessing. Yet we humans persist in thinking whatever we good we have is the result of our own efforts. Worse, we believe that God, even the idea of God, is superfluous. But as the psalmist makes clear, whatever we have, whatever we are comes from God, who seeks only our love and worship in return.

2 Kings 22:11–23:20: While temple renovations continue, the high priest Hilkiah has found the book of the law in a dusty corner. He brings it to Josiah’s secretary, Shaphan, who reads it to the king. Upon hearing it, he tears his clothes, realizing that “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (22:13)

A delegation arrives at the house of the prophetess Hudah, who informs them that God will indeed “bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants…Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.” (16, 17) In short, there is no escaping ultimate doom for the acts that have been committed by Judah and its kings before Josiah’s reign. However, she continues, because Josiah’s “heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord” (19) there will be peace as long as he is on the throne.

Upon hearing this, Josiah gathers all the officials and “made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul.” (23:3) The temple is cleansed as the Baal objects are removed and the Baal priests are “deposed.” The male prostitutes are fired, and all the Baal objects and “high places” are burned to the ground. In the end, Josiah “slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.” (23:20)

So, we could call Josiah an even greater reformer than Martin Luther. Although the business about killing and burning the Baal priests on their own altars is definitely a pretty violent act of reformation. Nevertheless, I think Josiah knew in his heart that this radical cleansing is exactly what God wanted.

Acts 7:30–43: Stephen’s seemingly endless sermon covering the history of Israel continues as he describes just about everything Moses did and said, culminating in the story of the golden calf. But he says one thing that’s crucial: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.’” (37) And we can guess exactly who Stephen is talking about.

He makes the point against that the ancestors rejected Moses: “Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.” (39) Only the thick-headed wouldn’t be able to see the parallels between the ancestors and the crowd he’s speaking to.

Psalm 147:1–6; 2 Kings 21:1–22:10; Acts 7:17–29

Originally published 12/24/2016. Revised and updated 12/24/2018.

Psalm 147:1–6: The editors of Psalms knew exactly what they were doing as they conclude the collection with praise hymns. What better way to end our long journey through every human emotion and every aspect of God’s character than to sing God’s praises in joyful worship. This is the point of the opening verse of this hymn:
For it is good to hymn to our God,
for it is sweet to adorn with praise
. (1)

On this Christmas Eve, these lines remind me of God’s greatest historical intervention of all: the birth of Jesus, who comes to earth fully human, fully God. It is the church established by Jesus Christ of which each Christian is a member that has fulfilled through the centuries—and continues to fulfill—God’s wonderful actions that our psalmist describes here:
Builder of Jerusalem, the Lord,
Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in.
Healer of the broken-hearted,
He binds their painful wounds. (2,3)

It’s worth remembering how Christians have taken this verse and acted on it—that before Christianity there were no orphanages, no hospitals, no universities.

And God has acted on our behalf through Jesus Christ because he is our Creator and
He counts the number of the stars,
to all of them gives names
. (4) I

f God can count and name the infinity of stars, it is through the person of Jesus that we can perceive but a tiny aspect of God’s powerful reality and more importantly, his love for us:
Great is our master, abounding in power,
His wisdom is beyond number.
” (5)

I think this  why Jesus came to earth: so that we could experience the ineffable saving power of God up close and personal:
The Lord [who] sustains the lowly,
[and who] casts the wicked to the ground
. (6) .

The reality of Jesus has given us an even clearer picture of God’s power and grace in human form than our psalmist could even have imagined. 

2 Kings 21:1–22:10: Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, takes over at the age of 12 and reigns 55 years in Jerusalem. Alas, unlike his father he reverts to long-standing pattern: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (21:2) Our authors point out that not only did he rebuild “high places,” including an image of the idol, Asherah in the temple court itself, “He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards.” (21:6) Needless to say, Manasseh kindles God’s anger. Our authors make it clear that it is the failure of leadership that causes the hoi polloi to be led astray. “Manasseh misled [the people] to do more evil than the nations had done that the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” (9) Which is saying something indeed…

Needless to say, the prophets of God predict dire consequences: “therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” (12) In one of the more creative metaphors in this book, the prophets announce that God “will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (13) Nevertheless, Manasseh continues to do evil, and his enduring legacy is that “shed very much innocent blood, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another [and] he caused Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (16)

Manasseh’s son, Amon, succeeds him at age 22 and like father, like son, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done.” (20) However, after reigning a mere two years his servants assassinate him. The assassins are in turn killed by “the people of the land,” (24) which I take to be from among the hoi polloi, who are responding to 57 years of evil leadership. They place eight-year old Josiah on the throne, who reigns for 31 years. At long last, a good king. Josiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (22:2)

Eighteen years into his reign, Josiah directs the high priest, Hilkiah to distribute funds that have been squirreled away in the temple “to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house.” (22:6) The repair project results in discovery of a book, which Hilkiah gives to Josiah’s servant, Shaphan, to bring to the king.

What, we wonder, is in the book? Stay tuned…

Acts 7:17–29: Luke employs Stephen’s lengthy sermon to place Jesus in the historical context of Israel, even though Stephen has not yet uttered Jesus’ name. In these verses Stephen focuses on the Egyptian captivity and Moses, who “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites.” (23) Stephen asserts that Moses’ murder of the Egyptian overseer was justified because “he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian.” (24) However, the Israelites around Moses did not “understand that God through him was rescuing them,” (25) and one of the Israelite slaves accuses Moses, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’” (27, 28)

We can begin to see the parallels here and where Stephen is going. By focusing on this aspect of the Moses story, we can sense Stephen leading to the observation that in the same way, the Israel in which he is preaching has also rejected Jesus—just as their ancestors rejected Moses.


Psalm 146; 2 Kings 19:29–20:21; Acts 6:8–7:3

Psalm originally published 12/23/2015. Revised and updated 12/22/2018.

Psalm 146: This thanksgiving psalm is a celebration of God’s benevolence toward humankind. It includes a verse that should be placed on billboards, broadcast everywhere, posted on Facebook and tweeted frequently during the ever-advancing political season:
Do not trust in princes,
in a human who offers no rescue. (3)

While politicians of every stripe attempt to convince us about how they will solve every problem, our psalmist reminds us that they, too, are mere mortals:
His breath departs, he returns to the dust.
On that day his plans are naught. (4)

Instead of relying on the hollow words and inept plans of those seeking power, the psalmist reminds us that we find our true joy in trusting God:
Happy [is he] whose help is Jacob’s God,
his hope–for the Lord his God. (5)

Our psalmist then lists the marvelous qualities of the God in whom we trust, who is after all, “maker of heaven and earth,/ the sea, and of all that is in them.” (6a) Those are credentials no human–their boasting speeches notwithstanding–can hope to possess. God is:

  • Faithful: “Who keeps faith forever” (6b)
  • Seeks justice: “does justice for the oppressed.” (7a)
  • Feeds the poor: “gives bread to the hungry” (7b)
  • Healer: “Gives sight to the blind,” “makes the bent stand erect.” (8a)
  • Lover: “loves the righteous
  • Provides for immigrants: “guards sojourners” (9a)

And as always, God cares for those without a family to protect them: “orphan and widow he sustains.” (9b)

As we reflect on the life of Jesus we come to realize that he possessed all these qualities while here on earth. Jesus’ command to us is crystalline: we are to emulate these qualities in our relationships with everyone we encounter: our family, our friends, strangers, and above all, the dispossessed.

2 Kings 19:29–20:21: Isaiah’s prophecy continues as he reassures the inhabitants of Jerusalem that some of them will survive Sennacherib’s assault because God is definitely on their side: “The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (19:30, 31)

Moreover, Isaiah continues, “the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it.” (19:32) God intervenes on behalf of Judah and an angel of the Lord “struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians;” (19:35) King Sennacherib returns to Ninevah. While worshipping his god, Nisroch he is assassinated by two of his sons who escape. It’s clear at this point that our authors, writing from Babylonian captivity, attribute this victory to God’s intervention because King Hezekiah, and therefore all of Judah, followed God.

At about the same time Hezekiah becomes deathly ill. Isaiah instructs him to “Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” (20:1) and walks out. In a fascinating detail, Hezekiah turns his face to the wall and begins desperately praying, asking God to remember how he has “walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” (20:3) In an example of how quickly God can answer prayer, Isaiah is still walking out when God tells the prophet, “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah prince of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you.” (20:5) For his faithfulness and obviously, his heartfelt prayer, God rewards Hezekiah with an additional 15 years of life. [Although I’m not sure I’d want to know just how many more years God would have given me.]

Hezekiah asks Isaiah how he will know that God has added years to his life. The sign is some funny business with a sundial.

Now fully recovered, Hezekiah receives an envoy from Babylon and rather stupidly shows the ambassador all of Judah’s riches. Isaiah is clearly unhappy about this and predicts “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.” (20:16) [Of course our authors exiled to Babylon are writing this history so it Isaiah’s prediction is hardly a surprise.] Hezekiah thinks that that’s not really a problem because at least “there will be peace and security in my days.” (20:19) If ever we needed an example of short term gain achieved at a substantial long term cost it is right here. The irritation of our authors at Hezekiah is quite evident.

Hezekiah dies and is succeeded by his son Manasseh.

Acts 6:8–7:3: We meet Stephen who is “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (6:8) Several Jews attempt to counter Stephen’s arguments but “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” (10) Rather, in a replay of what happened to Jesus, they accuse him of blasphemy and arrest him, bring him before the council and “set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law,” (13) Specifically they are angered by Stephen’s prophecy that Jesus will “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” (14) But everyone on the council sees only that Stephen’s face “was like the face of an angel.” (15)

Stephen then gives a magnificent speech to the council, beginning with telling them how Abraham was commanded by God to “‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’” (20:3) The clear implication here is that Abraham completely changed his life at God’s command. Why are the council leaders so resistant to change now?

Psalm 145:17–21; 2 Kings 19:1–28; Acts 5:41–6:7

Psalm originally published 12/21/2015. Revised and updated 12/21/2018.

Psalm 145:17–21: Many psalms of supplication despair that God has disappeared as the desperate psalmist begs him to answer his prayers. As if to prove that the Psalms cover the emotional and theological gamut, this psalm rings with the assurance that God is above all just and faithful:
Just is the Lord in all His ways,
and faithful in all His deeds. (17)

And that faithfulness extends to each of us as we are assured that God is nearby and will always answer:
Close is the Lord to all who call Him,
to all who call Him in truth. (18)

Aha. There’s the requirement: “call in truth.” In other words, we must reciprocate that same faithfulness that defines God. We do not call on God in doubt or disbelief as if we are asking for some kind of heavenly magic trick. We call on God in truth and in the deep faith that he will answer. And answer he does:
The pleasure of those who fear Him he performs,
and their outcry He hears and rescues them. (19)

Rescue occurs because of God’s incredible faithfulness:
The Lord guards all who love Him.
all the wicked He destroys. (20).

Comprehending this reality of God inevitably leads to worship:
The Lord’s praise let my mouth speak,
and all flesh bless His holy name forevermore. (21)

These verses ring with “Blessed Assurance.” Would that I can live day to day with this same confident conviction that God will hear and act. As we look around at the affairs of the world, that assurance can be sorely tested. But then all I have to do is to imagine the evil and darkness of a world where God was not present at all. Jimmy Stewart’s visit to Potterville in “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be a paradise compared to a world where God was absent.

2 Kings 19:1–28: When he  knew of the threat from the Assyrians, king Hezekiah of Judah “tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. ” (1) The king’s servants consult the prophet Isaiah, who tells them that God says, “do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard,…I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’” (6, 7) Upon receiving these words from Isaiah, Hezekiah goes to the temple and prays intently, concluding with the supplication, “So now, O Lord our God, save us, I pray you, from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” (19)

Isaiah communicates God’s reply in poem form, as God speaking to the Assyrian king, basically telling the Assyrian that he has mocked the wrong God and will pay for his effrontery to the One God:
“But I know your rising and your sitting,
your going out and coming in,
and your raging against me.
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.” (27, 28)

There seems little question about who the victor will be here.

Acts 5:41–6:7: Undeterred by the religious officials and protected by the loyalty of the crowds that have come to hear them, the disciples keep teaching at the temple. However, things back at Disciple Central are not going as well: “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” (6:1) Happily, the senior apostles acknowledge the problem and realize they need to delegate what up to now has been providing food to the community or their  primary mission of preaching about Jesus will be adversely impacted: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (6:2) So they appoint “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3)  to perform these tasks. Thus do deacons come into existence.

They play an important and by today’s standards, ordained role in the church. Their significance is underscored by the fact that the apostles “prayed and laid their hands on them.” (6:6)

Deacons—those appointed to serve in non-pastoral duties the church—are found today primarily in evangelical, as well as African American churches. In mainline liturgical churches such as Lutheran and Episcopalian, the diaconal role is diminishingly small. This is really too bad, I think. Church Councils are not a substitute for those men and women who go out and serve in the congregation and community.

Once this organizational issue was resolved by the Disciples, “the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (6:7) The word priests suggests an expansion of those ordained to preach God’s word to the people.

Psalm 145:8-16; 2 Kings 18; Acts 5:17-40

 OT & NT originally published 12/20/2016. Revised and updated 12/20/2018.

Psalm 145:8-16:  Our psalmist continues to celebrate God’s goodness in this well known verse:
Gracious and merciful is the Lord,
slow to anger, great in kindness. (8)

Would that we all did the same in this age of unrelenting outrage against each other, against institutions, against anyone with whom we disagree—all amplified to an unbearable level in the media and what I think is ironically-named “social media.” Notice that there are two qualities here—one is receiving and the other is transmission. Slow to anger: how we react to the words and deeds of others. And great in kindness: how we transmit kind words and good deeds to others. Think how much anger we could tamp down around us if we were slow to anger and great in kindness.

The psalmist goes on to remind us that God is the God of all creation, not just us humans—and all creation worships God in its own form and manner:
Good is the Lord to all,
and His mercy is over all creatures.
All your creatures, Lord, acclaim You
and Your faithful ones bless Y0u. (9, 10)

Our psalmist employs the metaphor of kingship to help us understand that it is creation and creatures around us that bear witness to God’s unimaginable power:
The glory of Your kingship they say,
and of Your might they speak,
to make known to humankind His mighty acts
and the grandeur of his Kingship’s glory. (11, 12)

Unlike we humans, God is eternal, beyond time:
Your kingship is kingship for all time,
and Your dominion for all generations. (13)

But God is not just “out there” being powerful and eternal. God intervenes with mercy in our stumbling, often forlorn lives:
The Lord props up all who fall
and makes all who are bent stand erect. (14)

In the end, it is only God who can bring hope, succor and material blessings, starting with nourishment:
The eyes of all look in hope to You
and You give them food in its season,
opening Your hand
and sating to their pleasure all living things. (15, 16)

Notice, too, that God brings pleasure—and not just to us, but all living things. This psalm is a wonderful reminder that God is Lord over all people and all of creation and that the outcome is not only living in creation, but true pleasure. Not the pleasure of human artifice but the pleasure in that which only God has created. WHich I guess is why I love photographing God’s landscape more than anything else.

2 Kings 18: At last! Righteous king Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” As we know from the previous chapter, there is no higher praise from the historian than that. In fact, there can be no higher praise than this: “He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. (5) And as we would expect, Hezekiah and all of Judah enjoys the fruits of the kings faith–and his example, “The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered.” (7). Faith also brings great courage: “He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him.” (7b).

Compare Hezekiah’s Judah to fallen Israel in the north: “The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria… because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed his covenant” (11)

Nevertheless, the might of Assyria attacks Judah and there are significant losses; Hezekiah strips the Temple to pay ransom, but the army led y the Rabshakeh, arrives at the walls of Jerusalem, who says something that has modern resonance, “Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?” (20). He then speaks in Hebrew so all in the city could understand, saying, “Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The Lord will deliver us.” (32) The Assyrian brags that everyone he has met in battle he has conquered. But Hezekiah had ordered the people not to speak a word in response. And they do not.

Remaining silent is sometimes the very best strategy. Would that were the case in the White House these days.

Acts 5:17-40: The authorities have had enough of the Apostles and their impact on the lives of the hoi polloi and imprison them. But an angel opens the prison doors and says, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” (20) And the apostles respond as we might expect, “When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.”  21)

The religious leaders are now apoplectic. They drag the Apostles before them and Peter–with enormous courage– tells them,“We must obey God rather than any human authority” (30) and announces the Kerygma of Jesus Christ. “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” (33)

But Gamaliel points out these sorts of people have come and gone and their movements died out of their own accord. He wisely advises the leaders to let the Apostles go because “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (38, 39).

The ensuing 2000 years suggests that Gamaliel was a wise man indeed. Luke makes his point to his readers and us as well: this movement begun by Jesus Christ is something that has never been seen before—or since—on earth.