Ezekiel 1

The Lord the creator, understands drama and contrast. This is a great bit of stage setting.

Ezekiel, a priest in exile in Babylon, is next to a river among other exiles.

I only read psalm 137 short while ago, probably written in the same settlement, “by the rivers of Babylon.. how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

That is a song of abandonment and despair. Instead of songs of praise, their thoughts run to the prophesy that enemies of Babylon would dish out to their captors the same horrific violence against their children as the Israelites suffered from them.

This is a vision of a fiery glory of four, four-faced creatures in flame, shooting lighting, with thunderous-sounding wings that spread each time they move. Above them a heavenly vault, above that a throne on which sits a half molten metal, half fire figure of a man. Below the creatures are wheels that rise and move over the land … In any direction, that’s very important: they freely go where the Holy Spirit goes.

Into the song of despair comes a vision of the full glory of God. Father son and spirit. Turns out God isn’t stuck in the temple in Jerusalem.

It recalls.. from my time perspective.. Pentecost. The fire that transformed the disciple’s despair into passion and boldness.

And of course, exodus: God in a fiery pillar, his glory on mountains, making Moses’ face shine, the tabernacle, the portable presence of God, going where the spirit goes, transforming slaves into his chosen nation,

What is God doing in Babylon, in exile? The same thing God’s still doing in my heart, this very day: transformation.

Dragged unenthusiasticaly, somewhat kicking and screaming, into Ezekiel (Really? Another huge old testament book?) … I’ll admit I’m enchanted, praise God!

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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.

Psalm 128

A pigeon pair with yesterday’s psalm really, reminding the pilgrims to Jerusalem of God’s promise of blessed households, and then wishing upon them the fulfillment of those promises in their lifetime. One for the hard working patriarchs, wishing them reward: fruitful matriarchs, children, and children of children all prosperous and safe.

Of course it’s just an instance of the larger peace of God, the promise to make everything new, to wipe away all tears, mourning and pain.

And the wish, the hope, the purpose in life to make it so now by sharing these promises and praying them for our fellow humans. To wipe away tears, comfort those who mourn and ease pain.

I’ve been working on gentleness. As a naturally passive aggressive person, my goto way of being annoyed is to withdraw gentleness. I can do all the same things, but do them in a way that is attacking and unsupportive.

I can be doing things they literally want and expect in a way that boxes them into a corner of their own inadequacy, or leaves them out on a limb, gives them the rope, sets them up. Sometimes it’s gentler, if it’s got to that, to push back. To refuse gently rather than do aggressively.

When you are gentle, you see people lighten, you experience trust and intimacy. I know how good it is, but still it’s my most common tool to punish people.

So we have God’s character, his promises, we live those promises, to bring the love of Jesus to the world, through the fruit of the spirit.

Done, life solved.

May it be so. Peace.

Psalm 118

The one least likely.

Maybe it’s me warming to the familiarity of the verse, but I feel like this psalm hangs off the image of the rock that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of the whole structure.

I’ve referred previously to the theory that the book of Psalms was compiled for the exile. They called it a portable temple.

Then you remember, Israel, the chosen nation, was never that much of a country. They were a few slave families when chosen, and the ascent to their period of some influence was amazing.

But they were still never Egypt, Assyria or Babylon. And Solomon was the peak. By the time they were in exile they were well entitled to feel like a rejected building block.

This psalm is most obviously a song for communal singing, it mentions being on a festal procession to the altar. Lots of rhythmic repetition. It’s cheerleader material, a pep rally chant. Victory, triumph!

But in exile, it would have been a cultural memory, a lesson for children who’d never known the holy land, about how it used to be. The altar would have been smashed and desecrated, or a shadow of its former self by the time this playlist was compiled.

So it’s about how no matter how desperate things are, you are loved by God, and how great that is.

I baulked a bit when they rejoiced at how God cut down enemies… Jesus says instead “love your enemies”. But it’s not a triumphant victory brag, is a defeat song. It’s trusting very real and present enemies to God’s plans.

Working at the Salvos, the focus is very much on the rejected building blocks and visualising them as cornerstones in God’s architecture. But it’s not only the usual suspects.

I went to the funeral of a friend from my youth group yesterday, and even outwardly successful people can be rejected blocks. They mentioned his depression, I knew him as a wonderfully funny and eccentric personality, but insecure, decades ago.

Looking at his last year of Facebook posts, his depression issues were quite overwhelming. His faith, his generosity, his empathy, were remarkable and unshakeable despite his mental turmoil.

So we have the Israelites in exile, we have Jesus, the deity bleeding and dying for us, and we have every broken, flawed, person: all of us in our own way, but in the worlds eyes, some more than others. The truth stays true in every instance, despite appearances:

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Psalm 90

Book 4 of psalms starts with a song by Moses. A commentator said there was some argument as to whether it was THE Moses, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. It’s exactly the emotions the wilderness leader would be feeling after a life on the trek from Egypt.

He’s so tired, and aware of the mortality of man compared to God. He’s seen so many Israelites perish before reaching the promised land, and he too will. He sees God’s mountains on the horizon.

He refers to metaphors of our lives’ ephemeral nature: dust, and new morning grass that withers by afternoon.

Letting go of the literal promised land, he’s learned that the Lord is his dwelling place.

It all leads to his request that God will teach him to number his days, making his heart wise.

Being aware of deity, of eternity is the key difference between his life and that of grass. Seeing our life span as a scene from a continuum, a snapshot freeze frame from God’s eternity, gives each day a value and a context.

He finishes by praying that God’s deeds among them, the work they have done in his name, will live on.

And it did. The exodus linked to the Easter story and remains one of the Bible’s most potent examples of God’s salvation.

Last week we were on the sidelines of a decision to end the days of a much loved dog.

Dogs don’t number their days. He got up every day and did doggy things. As the end came, he was not aware of his relatively great age or his cancer. You could see it increasingly interrupt and restrict his ability to do his doggy things till they became just a tiny part of his day, that he limped through.

He was a splendid part of God’s works in his way, but he was not aware of a long life compared to a short, of an eternity or a legacy after his death. He fully lived his doggy days, and the grief his family felt was a human experience that crossed over with his. They connected, and both conceptions of the meaning of life and love were still only a shadow of God’s understanding.

As less and less is unpredictable in my days for a season, as they seem to speed by, may I number them, and gain some wisdom in my heart.

Psalm 89

Truth is so counter cyclical. Indeed, it has no cycle, it just sits there being true.

Life has ups and downs that make the truth sometimes appear ridiculous. Utterly implausible.

Then it will appear to have extraordinary prescience, like prophesy. But the truth never changed, just the circumstances of our time-bound existence did.

This psalm starts on a high, beautifully extolling God’s extraordinary power, greatness and goodness.

It’s by Ethan, one of King David’s best musicians. A tough gig, as David himself was no slouch in that department. He’s probably the Ethan mentioned as David dances the ark into Jerusalem, a day certainly capable of inspiring this eloquence.

The psalm then talks about David’s special place in the plans of God. His throne will last forever, like the moon. God has uniquely blessed him, anointed him, made promises to him and given him extraordinary success that displays God’s might and favour.

Oh and by the way, the last third of the psalm reports, everything has completely gone to shit.

David’s sons have rebelled and blown it, foreign powers are picking us off, David may still technically be king, but he’s is somewhere on the run. Strongholds are in ruins, the crown has been put to shame, trodden in the dirt.

‘How long’, he pleads, like Psalm 40. What does it all mean, why do I have to give my precious years on earth to this futility!

Then slapped onto the end of the psalm with little ado, ‘praise be to God!’. It’s a praise psalm? What is this?

The tragectory is similar to the last, painfully sad Psalm, 88. A bit of light, descending to bleakness.

It’s not your usual narrative arc. You wouldn’t even call them tragedies, because In both there is a strong sense of faith. Here, the misery is wrapped both ends in praise.

They aren’t tragedies because regardless of how bad things seems here in this space and time, the truth of God’s power, his might, his all encompassing love, will stand forever. The truth seemed ridiculous when the psalm was written, but it wasn’t.

And don’t we know it now that Jesus is on the throne of David.

And the western church is on the nose. Sigh.

Amen!

That endeth book 3 of Psalms, a collection with lots of judgement and not many unalloyed joy psalms. I’ve really valued thinking about judgement, time and eternity. Our last with God, the bigness and intimacy of God.

I’m thinking Proverbs next. Will I ever emerge from the old testament! But I really want to finish the wisdom books. And I’m getting to some of the best… Song of songs and Ecclesiastes, what gems!

I’m also thinking in life, read the new testament twice or even three times as often as you read the old testament, because with O.T. being 2x or so longer than new, it’ll mean your life is equally devoted to each. The maths could be more precise, but the principle is strong, I think.

Psalm 88

So bleak, so sad.

This psalm’s only moment of confidence is in the first verse. ‘Lord, you are the God who saves me’.

From then on its sadness, abandonment, sickness, loneliness and complaint that God won’t hear, ending with: ‘you have taken from me friend and neighbour, darkness is my only friend’.

Unlike the hardships in David’s sad Psalms, these aren’t big military or political problems, these are personal. He seems to have a life long chronic illness, he’s alone, quite physically repulsive and near death.

He’s terrified of death, and in the most intense passage he wonders whether God will be there after he dies.

This guy is beat. He has not had as much of God revealed to him as us, he has only questions, not any assurance about the after life.

Yet here he is, telling God all about it. God’s righteousness, faithfulness and marvellous deeds are a given.

So as well as sad, it’s also a psalm of exceptional faith. All the observations about his painful soon-to-end life would, you’d think, lead you to conclude there is no God, but that’s not considered.

He asks where God is? Is he listening? He doesn’t doubt he’s there.

This is the saddest one I’ve read, but in some ways one of the most encouraging, even shaming, in a good way.

Feeling bad this morning because I made my daughter really angry and I’m not sure if it was fair. I pray for her, for wisdom.

Psalm 34

One by David, about one of his most desperate times. He was Israel’s most wanted, king Saul wanted to kill him, plus he was a feared warrior, enemy #1 in every country outside Israel. Nowhere to hide.

He is surviving by wits, trusting few, scrounging bread by the loaf and feigning madness in a desperate scheme to escape a foreign king.

From that this Psalm of praise.

It’s similar to the last two, a sense of God caring and watching, delivering his people from their problems. But the problems are obviously more desperate: being poor, afflicted, brokenhearted, crushed in spirit… They seem to ratchet up as the psalm continues.

So when he promises the Lord will deliver us from all our troubles, it is as much testimony as theology: by the time they were singing about it, they knew that David was in fact saved from this huge heap of problems.

And in dark times when the concreteness of our problems seems to overwhelm the intangible nature of God, is great to think about some real life instances of him at work.

Got news yesterday that the baby daughter of one of our writers at work may shortly die. She’s had brain cancer since before she was one, she’s two and a bit now, blind, pretty much silent and fed intravenously.

None the less, she visited only a week ago, and looked remarkably healthy. She got to share a few months on earth with a new baby brother an answer to prayer in itself.

But she’s taken a turn for the worse. May the Lord deliver her.

When I talk to Nicky her mum, it feels both impossible to be her, and scarily random, and I hope my faith would be as strong as hers. You pretty much can’t stop the prayer at some point ‘thank God I’m not you’, and Nicky seems to have an understanding look behind her eyes that she’d pray that too if she could.

A sober praise Psalm as I head off to a happy birthday weekend with Kelly: ‘I will extol the Lord at all times’

2 Chronicles 30

Reunification done right. This is a moving story.

Through the book there have been several attempts to reunify the nation of Israel since they split after Solomon. But they were all political or military attempts to regain the earthly glory of that time.

Now, with the northern kingdom under siege by Assyria, with people already being carted away into exile, they unify spiritually, based on their shared beliefs.

All of Judah, and a rag tag bunch of people from the north who responded to Hezekiah’s invitation gathered in Jerusalem for Passover.

I loved how they didn’t quite do it right, wrong month, couldn’t do some of the prior cleansing, but they realised God is ultimately interested in the heart.

I visualise those church services in war movies like Mrs Miniver, singing hymns in the bombed out church, faith during threat and adversity.

And it unleashed such a joy in the people, together praising God’s saving grace in a way not seen since Solomon’s time, and praying for the safety of those already taken away, that they spontaneously extended it for another week.

The King delivered huge amounts of food, meat he could probably barely afford.

An abundant feast, a burst of pure celebration of God in the hardest of times.

Gather together in what we share, God’s love. Don’t panic, celebrate.

Jeremiah 40

Jeremiah is freed.

The Babylonian soldier who frees Jeremiah sees God’s hand in it all, reminds me of the soldier at the cross. The contrast with the people’s refusal of God’s warnings of judgement is pretty stark. The soldier gives him a present and supplies and the choice of where he will go, Babylon or stay.

In a move straight from Machiavelli, the Babylonian king gives fields and properties to some of the poorest locals, and Jeremiah stays among them.

Judeans who have been outcasts in local countries, a bit like David was for a time, or Ruth, come to live around the ruins of Jerusalem, and prosper.

Indeed there has been a consistent strain of social justice through Jeremiah – God’s message is to the common folk, the vulnerable, over the heads of the rulers, telling them not to die for the cause. They are the lightest judged.

Its consistent with the vision God had for the holy land in the Torah, Isiah’s picture or the misfits and outcasts returning and Jesus’ ‘first shall be last’ vision of heaven.

The leader Gedaliah has clearly been listening to Jeremiah because he sends a message telling the exiles to live out their time in exile peacefully and to put down roots. The chapter ends suspensefully with a plot to kill him. The book is not all prophesy, it’s quite a history book at the moment.

It reminds me somewhat of the end of WALL-E when humans return to Earth.

The is a consistent beauty and continuity of the blessed land, producing wine and plenty.

The loop is closed, Joshua pushed out the Canaanites, and now the chosen people are pushed out. God was indeed on neither side, but the land remains his sacred and blessed creation.