Matthew 2

The familiar events directly after Jesus’ birth. Wise men, slaughter of innocents, flight to Egypt, settling in Nazareth. Each event methodically linked to a prophesy it fulfills. Piling up an overwhelming case that Jesus is Messiah.

The interplay of agency and prophesy reminded me of exodus, where Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people go virtually alternates between “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and”Pharaoh hardened his heart”.

The very strange visit of wise men happened in order to fulfill the prophesy, but Herod’s unspeakably cruel slaughter of the innocents was simply prophesied. Herod owns it.

The plot mechanics are very visible, but in this story Deus ex machina is literal. For me the Egypt loop has always been a tipping point. I mentioned yesterday the absence of an exodus pillar in the genealogy. How could I forget! There’s just so much in here. Like a checklist.

But Jesus’ birth is a messy disaster too. On the run, born into oppression and the worst political persecution, refugees, having to live in the boondocks. And kings of the Orient, with expensive gifts.

Like yesterday, where the royal bloodlines were blurred by grace, the promises of the conquering Messiah are undercut with humility and marginalisation.

I’m exhausted, yet stable, as I read this. We’ve had a recovering child on crutches and a big party to stage. I’ve been forgetting to enjoy life, succumbing to stress and unconfidence. Some great things have been happening this year.

God works with mess, just be trusting and obedient. Commit. Wholehearted.

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Ezekiel 13

These chapters are each a “word of the Lord” and end with “then you you know that I am Lord”, a phrase I associate with an almighty thud, like an anvil falling in a Warner brothers cartoon.

Today’s will be the exposure of false prophets, the ones who are selling comfort and peace.

Those are good things, unless they are works of the imagination that mislead people, give them false hope, are motivated by being invested in the power and wealth structures of the status quo, and lead people to act against their own best interests.

Climate change deniers come to mind, in the modern world.

In the church I suppose wishy washy theology comes to mind, people who know more than they let on about the love of Jesus, because of the gospel’s tendency to divide opinion. There are some prices too high for a positive vibe.

And I don’t say that easily, as someone who values it more than many.

A lot of the chapter is taken up with a wall metaphor. Very apt, considering they lived in a walled city under threat of siege.

God talks about the folly of whitewashing over weaknesses to gain false comfort, rather than acknowledging risk and danger, and actually making a strong wall.

As someone who has always lived in old houses in a termite prone area, I know all about walls that are held together just by paint. It’s amazing how plausible they can look, and how easily they crumble.

I got cathartic with my boss at work yesterday at our regular meeting, and it felt like such a good thing. I’m a conflict avoider, and he’s worse! He wasn’t going to raise it. But I jumped in at the end. We’ve been struggling, and the whitewash of smiley patter just hasn’t been cutting it.

I think we strengthened the wall, I hope so.

Ezekiel 12

This is about fearing God I suppose.

Ezekiel acts out the defeat and exile that the rest of Jerusalem will suffer, for the benefit of those already dragged away by Babylon.

They still don’t believe it’s possible. They have a saying that visions never come to pass, which he repudiates.

This vision of the destruction of Jerusalem will happen.

So fear the Lord.

We’ve already been given a spoiler of the people’s response. They don’t accept Ezekiel’s message from God. (sorry later chapters if they do).

It’s still true now that so many people appear to live their lives thinking that the gody stuff doesn’t matter.

I’m so deep in it, my temptation is get blase about what I already accept.

People sometimes persist in ignoring God even as things start to fall apart, like the exiles here… You’d think they might suspect god might keep his judgement promise.

Yes, this is serious, we only get one go at it.

Psalm 4

This is a kingdom psalm. It’s by David.

I don’t know whether it’s translation issues or a deliberate technique of his but David often plays with voice.

When he does, the psalms become messianic… You aren’t sure if he or God is speaking, and whether the servant of God is him or an aspect of God.

There is a bit of that ambiguity here, you have a triangle, God, David, and others… It could be Israelites/believers/mankind.

He’s talking about the comfort and security he gets from his intense intimate relationship with God. That’s why I called it a kingdom psalm. There is no real hierarchy in the kingdom of God, its building blocks are innumerable individual relationships with God. We can all be anointed as children of God.

David wishes others to have what he has. They will all experience prosperity, but his heart will be filled with unique joy, because he won’t be asking where it comes from, he’ll know it is a blessing of God.

In a way it’s self aggrandising. I’d say it’s from the time he’s been anointed king, but still hunted by king Saul. He calls their failure to recognise his kingship a delusion that brings God’s glory to shame.

But how neatly does that situation match our world of dual kingdoms, where Jesus has been anointed king, the battle won, his victory announced, yet the other kingdoms persist.

David believes quietness will fix it. If only people would tremble before God when they are alone in bed, be quiet, and search their hearts.

This belief that God is easily findable in every heart is a great boon to evangelism. It reminds me of my plan to summarise proverbs with the phrase “think for one second”. A reflective life, will often lead to God…

You can’t force God’s kingdom. You don’t own it, not your plan. But you can live it, passionately, and it’s richness will be evident.

Psalm 149

This psalm of praise has a sharp end, calling for the praise to be a double edged sword in their hands, carrying out vengence on other nations, binding their Kings and shackling their nobles, carrying out a sentence that has been pronounced on them.

There’s bits missing here (which nations? what sentence?). These can be filled in by the exile and the prophets.

Probably Babylon is the nation they are most likely thinking of, who sacked Jerusalem and exiled Israel, and the sentence is probably some version of the prophesy that the exile would end after 70 years, as it did, when the Persian Empire defeated Babylon and freed the people.

What’s more, singing the song in its original context: praising while captive, it probably wasn’t a good survival strategy to be more specific. It’s probably deliberately vague.

It’s a salvation psalm. You have the people rejoicing in God, God delighting in them, and them anticipating his salvation.

And I do long for the Kings of the nations to be fettered. To give Kings and princes their due, I suppose someone’s got to do it. But it is more common than not that the power makes them compromised and disappointing figures, even the ones who don’t kill the kids and drive you from your homeland.

I just watched the trailer for Tom Hanks’ movie about Mr Rogers. He was a Presbyterian minister, and his kids show about being a neighbour was squarely based a biblical inspiration for his life mission.

Hollywood aren’t fools, they know how this portrait of a deeply civil and gentle man will play against a national – maybe international – discourse that is descending into crude name calling, simplistic populism and dark forces like racism.

I knew I was being co-opted, but the trailer made me cry, anyway.

May our praise be a double edged sword.

Psalm 137

Oh it’s that psalm. Not merely a hit for Boney M, as if that weren’t distracting enough (…by the rivers of Babylon…) but also the one that ends with the happy thought of violently killing the infants of your enemy.

Is it the lost 3rd verse of the song? In the Boney M recording session the producer said “is it just me or is that bit about smashing baby heads not working?”

Kelly, my wife, quotes this verse to Islamophobes, you know, who say Islam is an inherently violent and bloodthirsty religion. It’s not hard to characterise Christianity that way too if you want to, by digging out verses like this. She studies with a number of Muslim believers and she says in practice their culture of empathy and hospitality puts many a Christian to shame.

The commentators ultimately conclude that this verse is an old testament thing. We’re taught better in the new testament.

But even Jeremiah taught them not to be like this. In chapter 29, his letter to the exiles told them to become functioning citizens of Babylon, to prosper, have children, and wait out the prophesied 70 years praying blessing for the nation they were sent to.

However the memory of what they have lost is still too raw for them here. The images of the Israelite’s own children being dashed on the rocks would have been seared into the memory of the exiles, it was standard procedure for conquering armies, including the Babylonians.

The Israelites weren’t even particularly planning to personally execute this cosmic revenge. They were recalling the prophesy of Isaiah that the Babylonians would suffer that on their day of judgement at the hands of yet another Empire.

So watching their children killed, among other horrors, then dragged off to a foreign land and told to sing a joyous song …they instead allow themselves the joy of imagining the same fate eventually being visited on their captors. It’s still not exactly “love your enemies”, I agree, but I can see the temptation.

The psalm is poignant. The people subjugated and in a foreign country, remembering Zion, weeping, and having their culture laughed at. Reminiscent of Jesus being given a crown of thorns and called king of the jews. Promising not to forget God and Zion, but seeing no tangible hope, bitterly remembering their “frenemies” neighbouring Edom goading Babylon on, enjoying their destruction. Ending with the memory of their children being mercilessly slaughtered.

I suppose it’s the sadness of judgement. The Israelites have suffered it, the Babylonians will suffer it. Death, violent or gentle, sooner or later will come to us all.

And those who are left will struggle with the spirituality of raw emotion as Israel does here.

Wild thoughts will either turn you to God or harden your heart, maybe making a God of revenge.

The Israelites are presently channeling their intense homesickness into promises to never forget Jerusalem, their spiritual home. But I think, over time they will learn to sing their songs to their children in the strange land.

In fact, that’s a strong speculation of how the book of Psalms came to be. That it’s a portable temple of words. Prayers, not stones, so they can love God with hearts not rituals.

The Israelites here appear have the wisdom to allow God to judge the cruelty of Babylon, but not yet the grace to forgive it, not to indulge in judgement as shadenfreud.

There’s a lot to learn about sadness, guilt and rage here. Sanctifying our emotions is complex work. God doesn’t want emotionless robots. Jesus was not a picture of that. The firehose of emotion is to be channeled by wisdom towards deepening our capacity for love, and sharpening our priorities.

Ecclesiastes 11

I was grumpy yesterday about the abrupt change in tone from philosophical to practical but it works better read together with this chapter, which continues but deepens this direction of thinking.

A certain calm has come over the writer, having been in a spiral that descended in restless logic down to the despair of chapters 8 and 9, he now comes to terms with what can be known and what can’t.

He talks about trying lots of different ideas because you don’t know what will succeed.

He uses metaphors of randomness such as the unpredictable patterns of rain and wind, of a hedging against uncertainty by investing in many different things in life and trees falling random times and directions.

He reminds us of how deeply we don’t know the way of God by saying we don’t even know how we are made in the womb. Mysteries of even our origin are veiled from us. Science has come a long way since that was written, but we are still yet to create new life forms in a womb of our making.

Jesus linked wind and birth images to the experience of god’s presence:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit John 3:8

To me the point is that only the now intersects with eternity. The past is fixed, the future is unknown. In the present moment we have choices and opportunities to affect things which will last. In the present, we have a sense of interacting with destiny, like an eternal being.

He returns to the “under the sun” language but with, I thought, a relatively carefree and optimistic twist:

“Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.

To me this is using a single day, even a single moment, walking out doors and seeing the sun, as a metaphor for life. Life is the now, our time in the sun, the interaction with eternity we know and experience. Use it well.

N T Wright, theologian and for a long while bishop of Durham cathedral had an example that comes to mind of stone masons working on Jigsaw pieces of the cathedral. A plant-inspired column top here, or a curved arch section there, but not necessarily having the master plan or visualising how they would sit in the finished cathedral. So, he says, it is with the eternal work we do on earth, that is stored up as treasure in heaven.

The teacher here can come to terms with questions about why and how we came to be, and the insubstantial darkness over god’s future, by clinging to the revealed wisdom of how to live happily and in accordance with god’s wishes while the sun is bright.

He’s gone from finding God’s wisdom annoyingly limited and incomplete to finding it the best we can get, and valuable for what it is.

Starting back at work after a weeks break, feeling quite negative and unprepared to cope with life, worth repeating to myself as I step out this morning into the sun….

Psalm 101

Absolutes in a compromised world.

Breakng the pattern of communal praise of the last 10 or so Psalms, today’s is quite a stern first person song of King David.

It comes from the early days of his reign and he is setting standards for it. He wants to be an obedient king, obedient to the love and justice of God. And he’s inheriting a no doubt corrupt and compromised court from king Saul.

He’ll have no part of anything perverse or vile, won’t listen to slanderers or liars, the proud or haughty. He’s determined to weed out, silence and cut off the blatantly wicked, the evildoers. Every morning! he adds, to give it a practical emphasis.

On the positive side he will seek out the faithful, and live among them, he’ll listen to the blameless.

Of course it didn’t work out quite that way. He eventually had to be confronted with his own deceit and evil. And his court was sometimes a hotbed of betrayal and ruthlessness.

Google started out the same way, with the motto “dont be evil”. They mention it a bit less these days. They are struggling with the ethics of artificial intelligence, which has the potential of an Orwellian future if mishandled.

David wasn’t perfect, but he was the best king they ever had. Standards make a difference, even if they are unsustainable.

David also had a huge heart for forgiveness. He forgave people against the advice of his best counselors, when it made poor political sense.

The Chinese government arent afraid to impose zero tolerance standards on their citizens, using modern technology. If you are trying to buy a train ticket, face recognition prevents you if you are behind on your taxes, that sort of thing. The towns of some Islamic minorites have become virtual surveillance prisons.

But they didn’t start at god’s love and mercy, where David did. His boldness in proposing a zero tolerance society is grounded in his humility before his maker. It includes himself.

Is it my age? Absolutes seem increasingly futile to me. Life teaches otherwise.

But a clear eyed commitment to standards, starting with me, in humility? Never too old for that.

Proverbs 23

13 of the 30 “sayings of the wise”.

The longer form of expression compared to the two line formula of the bulk of the proverbs lets them be more intense. This is a series of fairly sharp prohibitions.

Most start with the words “do not…”

God isn’t mentioned much, but every word drives you to him. A drum beat of the commandment “I am a jealous God, you will have no other gods but me” lies under all of them. It’s a list of other gods.

In worldly terms you can be massively successful or a complete drop kick and be serving other gods.

You can be mixing with the wealthy and influential, devoting your life to hard work to gain wealth for yourself.

You can align with hard, cruel people, you can become a hard ass yourself, you can be driven by your jealousy of what other amoral people obtain, you can enrich yourself at the expense of the vulnerable.

You can live for sex, for food, for substance abuse. A life of reckless over indulgence.

The last extended poem about making wine your God is accurate, funny and knowing:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?”

All of these things lead to a range of life outcomes, from success to failure, but have in common that they replace the true God.

Only in the the true God will your soul find rest:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.

I feel very sad for my family again. Everyone has struggles. I pray for wisdom. This passage has joyous accounts of having wise children. I pray that my children will be wise! May I be wise.

Proverbs 15

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honour.

Humility is a hard lesson, we love honour.

It seems each chapter has one famous proverb at the moment. This one has:

A gentle answer turns away wrath,but a harsh word stirs up anger.

But really there are a gazilion that say similar. In fact, you do get this constant nag about it that fiery people would find quite frustrating.

Sometimes it’s good to be fiery. Jesus called the religious leaders a “nest of vipers”. I suppose the key there is that he wanted to stir up anger. It was calculated.

It’s not necessarily saying don’t do it, more don’t be surprised.

I’ve been thinking about whether proverbs encourages a particular somewhat supercilious attitude that is annoyingly always above the fray. Would the proverbs person be much fun? I don’t think I’ve found one praising fun.

But perhaps the answer is in the oppositional characteristics it pairs with them. Take:

The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

The opposite of soothing is perverse. You could adopt quite a fun tone in the way of being soothing and still be not perverse.

I like the ones that talk about God being aware. This one’s a little scary until you remember God’s love:

Death and Destruction lie open before the Lordhow much more do human hearts!

This book seems as much to be about how deeply God understands our foolishness, as about us being wise.

I simply found these appealing and memorable:

Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.

Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.

I’m so happy at work, the paperwork came through for my permanent status yesterday. Exactly the same job, no promotion.

But that’s ok. Humility comes before honour, and a small serving of vegetables with love is better anyhow.